NPR Morning Edition asked its listeners, “What about America are you most thankful for?” in order to inspire its poetry segment. In response, I wrote the following on my morning commute (don’t worry, kids, I take the bus. No dangerous driving here)!
I did it. I have officially sung karaoke in the 48 continental states. Being a researcher, of course, I feel the need to provide you with some data about my trip. Well, here it is:
Miles traveled: 17,774
States visited: 48
Provinces visited: 2 (Ontario and Quebec; I only sang in the former)
Number of days on the road: 99
Number of nights alone in a hotel: 17
Number of friends who let me crash at their place: 17
Number of karaoke venues: 53 (the 48 states, plus an extra in ID, LA and IL, plus Toronto and DC).
Number of times I sang: 129
Most common artist: Blondie (11 times, 5 different songs), followed by Fleetwood Mac (8 times, 4 different songs)
Most common song: Dreams (Fleetwood Mac) and Heart of Glass (Blondie) each done 4 times.
Number of different songs sung: 104
I sang in dive bars, strip mall bars, college bars, dedicated karaoke bars (but never in a private room, gay bars, an Eagle’s Lodge, an American Legion, and outdoors twice. I sang to a live band (Utah) and a church organ (Georgia). I sang in cities, rural areas, tourist towns, and suburbs.
As time goes on, I’m going to gather my thoughts about my experiences singing, driving across the country, and life in general. Since I spent most of the journey avoiding interstates, and spent most of my time in local hangouts, drinking local beer where possible, I feel like I’ve gained a larger understanding of this country. It’s by no means complete, nor could it ever be. But this trip has taught me a lot about a lot. I look forward to processing it and sharing it with you.
If you have any questions about the trip or want to hear about anything, leave me a comment or message me! Thanks for sharing my journey with me so far.
I had planned two days to get to Flagstaff, but for some reason I kept on going. I spontaneously got on the freeway for a bit, to decrease travel time. something I’m usually hesitant to do because freeway driving sucks my soul. As I reached the halfway mark, I got out of the car to assess my options. With each stop consideration, I wasn’t feeling it. My gut said to move on, even though I was tired. I did take timeout, though, to walk out to Horseshoe Bend at the suggestion of the old cowboy running the tourist center in Kanab, WY. The walk was only 1.5 miles round trip, but it was exhausting – up and down a sandy hill in direct Arizona sun. Signs at the entrance warned of extreme heat, and to not leave without water. I looked around me and saw everyone applying sunscreen, so went back to my car and did the same. I also brought my umbrella. There were tons of tourists; most didn’t speak English. I felt comforted by the foreign tongues.
I got to the site, and was almost too tired to appreciate what I was seeing, though it was beautiful. Then, I thought about my beer heating up in the car and the two-hour drive still ahead of me. I headed back up the hill; going back was the more difficult of the two halves. Despite my precautions, I felt my skin burn. I made it to my car and cranked the AC. After I cooled down, I found the workout gave me the energy I needed to push forward on my journey. It looked like I was going to get to Flagstaff just at dusk. Perfect timing.
I pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot and stole their internet to look up the bar, and see if they had karaoke tonight as well as tomorrow. When I called, I found out they only had karaoke tonight, not tomorrow as was advertised on their website; I realize this was one of the only places I never confirmed and felt a rush of relief that I was here on the right night. After finding a hotel room and resting for an hour (thank goddess for the time change!), I made it to the venue as a very young crowd starts to pour in. I’d card the lot of them, but I know they’re legal; I’m just that old. I get a Coors Light and a song book, and write out a slip; I had thought about a couple of song choices in the hotel, not wanting to be stymied by my tired brain. My submission was quickly snatched up by someone and brought to the front.
I introduce myself to the KJ and let him know my quest; he thinks it’s neat, but is more interested in hearing my opinion of the show tonight as it was “karaoke reunion” night where he invited a bunch of former regulars to come sing. It’s then I realize that karaoke this night was a one-off; there are no more regular shows here. I totally fell into this, and I’m extremely grateful. I also learn that the woman had snatched my slip up and put me into the growing queue because she thought she recognized me from before, but of course that wasn’t the case.
I wait almost an hour before it’s my turn, because the place is that popular. I sing Eye of the Tiger, though I don’t have a lot of energy behind it – too wiped out for that. People sing along and clap loudly when I’m done, as they have been for everyone. It’s a fun group, but I see the large pile of slips representing more hopeful singers at the KJ’s station and know I’m done for the evening. I’m OK with that. I finish my beer, and continue enjoying the show for a little while longer before heading to sleep.
I thought it was my general stubbornness and stupidity getting in the way of a smart journey, but it turns out that wasn’t the case after all –some other forces were helping me sing Arizona that night.
August 30th. My dear friend Roman died 21 years ago today. One friend posts Dead Flowers by the Stones on his Facebook wall in memory, and I give it a listen as I sit in my hotel room in Mineral Wells, Texas. Twenty-one years ago, we buried the CD that bears the tune at the base of a young olive tree at Stanford as a tribute to our lost friend. A friend reports that it’s now bearing fruit. When I saw it five years ago, I was surprised it was not only still alive, but thriving as it stands in anonymity; I’m not sure if we intentionally left the tree unmarked since we never asked permission to plant it on campus, or a plaque was simply an oversight on our part. Dave and I throw our stuff into the car, and make our way to see others who loved Roman, which seems only fitting, though entirely coincidental. Their uncle died unexpectedly the day before, so they warn it will be “chaos.”
We have dinner together, but previous obligations and the late night prevent them from going out to sing. We make it to another friend’s place through the horrible Austin construction traffic; an accident is slowing things down further, and I see a bloodied man being propped up by an emergency crew, a stretcher on its way. Arriving safe and sound, we cut through the wet grass of his apartment complex to get to the bar. On our way, Dave gets a text that says his mother in the hospital. I get a little panicky about what the hell is going on.
Canary Roost is large, divey, friendly, and cool; it’s great to be back where there’s no smoking inside. I’ve been tired all day, fighting allergies and/or a cold and the fresh air on the walk and the clean AC inside feel good. The KJ is flocked by regulars who hug her as they walk in as she’s setting up; she kicks off the show by announcing the drink specials, then launches into Major Tom. Throughout the night, she wanders around from table to table during songs, doing bright green shots and socializing with the patrons. People sit next to her at the controls to find a song, even giving some a pre-listen before committing to a choice. I bet I’m the only unknown person here, but that doesn’t seem to matter all that much. I’m called when it’s my turn, and kept in the rotation even when I didn’t put in a song in advance.
It only seems fitting that I sing the song I haven’t been able to even listen to yet without crying — I still miss Molly too much. It’s not a good song, but that’s not the point. It’s not really a grieving song either, but its young melodramatics allow me to belt it out with fear. This song was her song to sing when she still could, and now it’s my turn. I smile as others sing along from their tables; apparently it’s not such a bad choice for the general public after all. When I’m done, people clap as they have been for everyone, but tells me I “Nailed it” and I overhear another say it was “Haunting.” I may or may not add it to my occasional rotation. I choke up as I sit back down, but feel a bit more cleansed and whole after my emotional release. Dave’s mom texts him to say she’s OK.
I thought I was going to be able to stick around for a karaoke game where you put your name into a jar and pull out someone else’s. Then, for that person, you choose a song by a “K” artist and give it to the KJ and it will be a surprise to them until they get up on stage. However, the third round of singers grew long and I was too sleepy and drained to continue. At quarter to one, I went up to the KJ and apologized for not being able to make it for the final rotation of the night; she apologized back for all the new singers. I told her about my quest and that her show marked off state #41, and she said she was “honored” I chose her bar. A few other KJs have said something like this before; I wonder if they think I end up in a location for reasons other than convenience. As I wave goodbye, she lets me know that I would have sung Celebration by Kool and the Gang.
Location: Canary Roost, Austin, TX
Miles traveled: 456
Songs sung: Spinning Wheel (Blood, Sweat, and Tears), Wrecking Ball (Miley Cyrus), Heart of Glass (Blondie)
My time in Vermont happened because of two kind strangers named Steve. Steve runs a website, Karaoke Across America, where he lists shows around the USA. He does this for free, during his spare time, juggling a full-time job and family. Steve introduced me to Steve – Cowboy Steve – a man retired from the military, who now spends his days living on the road, singing in different states as it pleases him. Cowboy Steve just happened to be back in his home state of Vermont, helping his mother run the local Bluegrass Festival, and said he would help me as well – it’s hard to find karaoke in Vermont. We messaged back and forth about dates, times, and towns. He messaged venues and friends to create an event. Then, it was show time.
We sang in an American Legion Hall, in a large back room with tables and a dance floor. Outside was a tank and sign that advertised Bingo on Thursdays and dinner on Fridays. Cowboy Steve brought his own equipment and friends – some from as far as 40 miles from the north, and 20 from the south. The group was small, but everyone came to sing. So we did – mostly country (modern and old-time), but also Jimmy Buffet, 80s love songs, and even a rendition of “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” complete with interpretive moves. During slower songs, a couple would take the dance floor and hold each other. I tried my best to find country songs that I could make my way through and offer my sincere apologies to Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline.
I have no idea what my Vermont experience would have been like without the Steves. There still would have been amazing scenery, delicious beer, and maple-syrup tasting. There would have been karaoke, probably somewhere in one of the larger towns, as opposed to one where the population is under 4,000 and singers need to be imported to make an evening. And the evening would have lacked the community and friendship I felt and still feel. The Steves made Vermont more than about singing; they made it about people going the extra mile for a stranger. Given the general tenor of the US right now, that means a lot.
Location: American Legion Post #55, Brandon, VT
Miles traveled: 420 (over two days, and indirectly from Stockton Springs, ME)
Songs sung: Have a Heart (Bonnie Raitt), Jolene (Dolly Parton), BAck on the Chain Gang (The Pretenders), Walking After Midnight (Patsy Cline), Leather & Lace (Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty).