Not a creature was stirring… (Singing Tennessee, #39)

It’s pretty darn smoky in the double-wide trailer that serves as a bar off the beaten path of Nashville. Cans and bottles of beer are the only drinking options, and the food menu is a few microwavable items scrawled on a piece of paper stapled to the wall. Cash only. Karaoke started an hour ago, but the only patron here is a trucker with a beautiful, deep voice singing country music ballads. It’s unclear how long he’s been there, but his presence seems natural as if he’s been there for a while. He sits next to the stringy KJ with long hair, and the two of them lean over the computer monitor, debating on what song to choose next. The trucker sings a couple more as we’re getting our beers and settling in, and asks if it’s OK to do one more before he has to hit the road again; he’s got 15 more minutes on his break and “singing is a good way to keep this trucker happy and sane.” Unlike him, we have all the time in the world, so he entertains us with some Waylon Jennings. Then the bartender sings something from a lesser-known country artist and the trucker asks him about the artist. They discuss him and other good country options to try in the future.

It’s clear the trucker isn’t in a hurry to hit the road again, and so he goes back to the stage and asks us if we knew Wildfire; two of us do. He lets us know somewhat apologetically that he’s never sung it before, and it shows a little, but he chose it because the song “makes me weep like a baby when I’m alone in my cab.” As I listen along, I realize the tune is also more unfamiliar to me as I would have thought.

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The lonely trailer

I decide I’m ready to sing, and the trucker sticks around to listen, then shakes our hands, and leaves. His hand is at least twice as big as mine, but his grip still gentle. The only ones left are the three of us and the people who work there. I mention to the KJ that he should sing more, but he said that last night was slow as well, and he had to sing a lot, so tonight he’ll be taking it easy. This leaves me and the bartender as the only ones singing. I put in another song, and follow up with another while I’m up there – songs that aren’t a usual part of my rotation. I fumble through parts of them out of unfamiliarity but it doesn’t matter at all. Slow nights lend themselves to slow songs and experimentation.

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Keeping up with the theme of the place.

An hour later and still no one else is here. A group of three women did come in while I was singing and exchanged words with the bartender – no idea what it was about, but Dave heard him say “That’ll be a thirty-five hundred dollar fine if you do that,” as they walked out the door.

I promised a friend I would sing Barry Manilow while I was on this trip, and tonight seemed like the only time I would actually live up to my word. I sat on the stool, and then apologized into the mic for what I was about to do. I sang, and laughed as both Dave and Steve filmed me for proof and probably later blackmailing purposes. A couple of others walked in during that song, of course. While it wasn’t pretty, it was good fun, and I always feel better when I follow through on what I say, no matter how small or silly. As we get up to leave a bit later, one of the patrons is standing out on the balcony. He waves goodbye and compliments my “bold song choice” for the evening without knowing the back story. I thought about explaining myself; instead I thanked him as we drove away.

The basics:

  • Location: Santa’s Pub, Nashville, TN
  • Miles traveled: 424
  • Songs sung: Desperado (The Eagles), The Theme From Mahogany (Diana Ross), The Name of the Game (ABBA), Weekend in New England (Barry Manilow).
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Why we sing (Singing Arkansas, #38)

Before starting this trip, I knew there were karaoke contests because I’ve seen signs advertising them on bar marquees: “Karaoke Competition Tonight: Win $50!” or “Sing and win $100 every month. See inside for details.” But I didn’t know that there were serious competitions – such as the Karaoke World Championship – yet here I was, in Arkansas, meeting the Champion from 2014, Anthony Montius Magee.

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Coach Scott and Anthony, sporting his WKC medal.

We had been in touch online for a couple of months, and the flow of conversation always seemed natural. Then, when we finally met face to face, Anthony’s hug was warm and genuine, like one from a long-lost friend. The night at Little Rock was another time that someone has gone out of their way to set up a party for me – a huge act of kindness that I simply wasn’t expecting when I started this journey.

I met the rest of Team Arkansas as they came in – these were the rest of the folks that were going to be in Seattle next month for the World Finals. One of the members came in second last year.  It’s clear that Anthony is proud of this group; they are his family.

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Team Arkansas!

Conversations that night are primarily about karaoke competitions, and how the judging works. I learn about the four criteria upon which contestants are judged –voice (being on key), technique (breathing, etc), stage presence (connecting to the audience and making it a performance), and artistry (making a song your own). I’m more than a bit curious about this because most of the contests I’ve heard about base their winners on crowd noise – clearly not a criterion for something as organized as this. As they discuss the different merits a karaoke singer needs to excel, I’m aware I do OK in the first two (the actual singing stuff), but know I lack stage presence. As far as artistry goes…I’m not sure. I think I sing to the song itself, try to conform to the original. The idea of making a song my own takes karaoke to a level I really don’t consider.

But the most important thing to consider when choosing a song for competition, Anthony says, is to choose a song you care about. Don’t try to choose based on what you think the judges would like: that is a mistake. If you choose a song for anyone other than yourself, then the song “won’t have passion, won’t have your stamp on it.” I break this rule so often (including my first song choice of the night), but it’s something I’m beginning to realize myself over this trip – karaoke is about singing what you want. I still think that mantra still needs to be within reason, however. No sense bringing a crowd down or totally changing styles. But maybe that’s part of why I choose what I do: because I want to please the crowd (I realize this is a sort of warped way of saying I choose songs for others, but I’m leaving it this way for now).

Anthony next asks what I like to sing best, and I’m somewhat hesitant to answer. People ask me that question all the time, and I still struggle with how to respond. I think it’s coming down to Stevie Nicks and Olivia Newton-John, though Donna Summer is still a hell of a lot of fun, and so is Billy Joel.  I mention those to him, leaving off the one-offs of What’s Up and It’s Raining Men; I still don’t think my Somebody to Love will ever be polished enough. Anthony wants to hear Magic, Roberto, another judge, prefers Xanadu (something I sing often) – I “practice” each for a couple of seconds in the bathroom to figure which one I want to sing. I think about “getting a chance” to sing Magic which is back to the point: sing what you want when you want. I go up to the KJ and commit to the slower song I rarely do but enjoy instead of one that I consider one of my standards (though I do remember singing it poorly once at Scott’s goodbye party. At least it didn’t feel right that night). I’ve sung Magic one other time, at Amy’s bachelorette party at her request. So, in a way, this song I love I’ve never sung for me. Some other time and place, this may happen.

For now, though, I will continue to thrive in karaoke community as opposed to performance. Team Arkansas clearly has both, but if I were to chose one over the other, I will stick with the former.

The basics:

The Big Easy (Singing Louisiana, #36)

The Cats Meow (no apostrophe) is on Bourbon Street. I thought there was no way we were going to get me in there, but it happened. I guess showing up before 8 and in New Orleans’ off-season helps. So does the fact that there was a Saints game on. That’s why our first karaoke choice, Kajun Club, wasn’t having its usual early show. Still, the place was packed with tourists and wedding parties and smelled of vomit and bleach.

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Inside the Cats Meow

Three people ran the show. A young woman in ripped jean shorts and metal cat ears managed the list, writing the names of singers and those on deck on a glow-in-the-dark board. An older man in a Superman T-shirt and bandanna entertained the crowd, getting people to dance on stage to videos between singers (he would sometimes sing to the videos as well). Then there was a mystery person, in a booth up above, choosing the tracks and keeping the music going.

We made it 10 minutes before the happy hour ended, which advertised “3 for 1” drinks, which we assumed meant we would get three drinks for the price of one. Ha. It meant you would get three (watered down) shots in your drink. Such is Bourbon Street.

There is a very limited song list, but in a way that’s not why you come here. You come here because of the location, whether intentionally or not. You come here for a crowd. You come here because they live stream your performance. You come here because it’s karaoke on Bourbon Street on a Saturday night.

After the Cats Meow, we explored the area, took a lot of pictures, and ordered drinks at a walk-up window. We paused to see if a clown and drunk guy were going to come to blows, and I bought a souvenir.  Music poured out from the bars – jazz, blues, rock , mariachi. Then, it was time for bar #2, or the first one we tried, depending on how you want to look at it.

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Walk up drink window, next to some great jazz.

Kajun’s was off the main drag, but the area was still packed thanks to assortment of bars and an art show; we park on the median. A poster of Orlando’s victims is displayed in the front window. The KJ here also has cat ears, though hers are fuzzy green. The game that drove us away a few hours ago was ending as we got there (the home team lost), so the group of old men sitting at a table in front of the big screen got up, bringing their bags of chips and salsa with them. Within minutes, the place fills up with singers. I signed up for my song using a kiosk by the KJ booth, managing to be second on the list.

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Kajuns, showing off Louisiana architecture.

As I’m singing, the bar fills and many stand in line at the kiosk. We hang around to hear a few more songs, but our night has been full enough. We leave for our long drive back over the Causeway – but not before a quick stop to grab some Cajun egg rolls for the ride back.

The next day, I got this cool print in the Garden District, because my friend Larissa has some by this artist, too (Hi Larissa!).

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My new artwork.

 

The Basics:

  • Locations: Cats Meow, Kajuns Pub (New Orleans, LA)
  • Miles traveled: 237
  • Songs sung: Heartache Tonight (The Eagles), Hungry Like the Wolf (Duran Duran)

Beyond the song (Singing Virginia, #29)

We walked over to the karaoke place less than a mile away from where we ate – a Vietnamese restaurant. It was the first time in a while where I’ve been singing in a place where I would trust the ethnic food. The walk was nice after filling my belly with Bún chả; bugs louder than I’ve heard in a long time, the weather perfect. The cobblestones that make up the sidewalk in Alexandria are uneven and I wonder how many women stumble and sprain their ankles thanks to a combination of high heels and cocktails. Even in my sensible sandals, I had a hard time keeping a steady path.

We get to the bar a bit ahead of Stefanie, a friend I hadn’t seen since high school, and bit ahead of the music. The Olympics are on TV; I think about how Molly and I used to watch them together and feel a pang of sadness. Summer or Winter, there was always an open invitation to sit on her couch every night and I often took her up on it. Sometimes there were snacks, sometimes wine, sometimes both, and occasionally neither. But there was always her company and the Olympics. Always the joy of seeing winners light up, and the support of other athletes around them. During the Olympics, everyone seems to support each other. Later that night, I would have my first dream of Molly, us talking about everything and nothing all at once.

Stefanie arrives and we hug. It’s really nice to see her and I love feeling instantly relaxed around those I haven’t seen in decades; one of the benefits of this road trip is the reconnections I’ve experienced and I’m grateful for each one. The bar is large, so it looks empty but by the time the karaoke starts at 9:30, there’s a list of people ready to sing. The song choices focus on classic rock and adult contemporary. For the first time since I’ve started this journey, the singers are racially diverse, which is reflective of where we are – outside our nation’s capital, in one of the larger cities in the US.

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Diversity lives here

I go up to the station to put in a song and introduce myself to Jerry, the KJ, and tell him about my journey: “You’re living the dream,” he says, and then gives me advice on where else to sing including a bar in Hollywood, CA he just came back from (Brass Monkey). He’s right, and not the first person to say this, but I’m never sure what to say when that happens. I feel guilty and embarrassed at the luxury I have to be able to do this.

I sing Walk Like and Egyptian because Dave likes that song and I think I can do it. I lose my place a couple of times during the fast-paced lyrics, but overall not too shabby – I will try again for sure and add it to my repertoire. I get high-fives as I leave the stage; one guy sort of holds my hand a little too long, though, and I need to tug free as I pass by. Stef says people at the bar were clapping along.

There are a lot of strong singers here; one of the best singers I’ve ever heard sang this night, belting out an incredible I Never Loved a Man. The woman on the stage was Aretha; you didn’t even need to close your eyes to believe it. When she was done, I went up to her and told her how amazing her voice was, and she thanked me warmly. I realized it was the first time I’ve ever gone up to someone to compliment their performance; it feels weird to do, but of course it’s appreciated. It happens to me quite often, yet somehow I’m still too shy to do it myself. Something I would like to change.

My final song is Sister Christian and I sing it while the men’s 400 meter freestyle relay is going on. I’m just as interested in the race as the rest of the bar, occasionally stumbling over the lyrics as I watch the wrong television screen as opposed to the monitor. Michael Phelps wins his nineteenth gold medal and people cheer for USA during my song. I smile, finish, and watch the replay, wishing I were on Molly’s couch.

The basics:

  • Location: Rock it Grill, Alexandria, VA
  • Miles traveled: 55
  • Songs sung: Walk Like an Egyptian (the Bangles), Summer of ’69 (Bryan Adams), Sister Christian (Night Ranger)
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Alexandria smells of money, but not for everyone.

Empty orchestra, empty establishments (Singing Connecticut, #19)

It was a long day for both of us, but especially Dave. He was the one who just got off a plane after a 24-hour-ordeal, starting off on the other side of the world. We drove back to the hotel I stayed in the night before, taking the long way down the south coast of Connecticut. I had reached the other side of the country, and rolled 6,000 solo miles. Now it’s time to make this journey with my partner. For our first leg together, we talked about our respective journeys apart – his in China, and the flight through India, mine across the northern part of the US. Together, we wound our way through rich areas: so many expensive car dealerships, showing off their large inventories out front. When we arrived, Dave settled in for his six-hour nap and I went off to sing.

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I made it to the other coast!

I find the address of the bar, after navigating my way around downtown New Haven, which seemed brand new and without any character. The street was partially closed, but the neighborhood was safe enough to walk around, so parking a bit of a distance away felt OK. I did an excellent job of parallel parking. I saw a few young women dressed for clubbing stumbling around on the sterile streets.

I walk down a newly-constructed alleyway in the middle of the block and enter the bar, chat with the bartender, and order a local IPA. There are a few people here, and a large stage. It doesn’t look like anyone is considering a performance – that’s because no one is. I’m in the wrong place. I laugh about it with the bartender/owner and the one remaining person there, who also works there as a social and event manager I presume from their discussions. We talk about Facebook and its restrictions on event planning. I finish my beer and go further down the alley to where I was supposed to be.

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The alleyway that leads to a few bars — some better than others.

The look of Karaoke Heroes was completely different from the first bar. Here, it was light, airy, and made to look like a private room more reminiscent of an Asian establishment. Comic strip images decorated the walls, and I took a seat in an orange plastic chair at a white plastic table. Silver pleather couches lined the walls.

Everyone here was hammered. A group of women sat up where the couches were, behind a table full of empty Corona bottles and tall cocktail glasses. A few men weaved around the bar, and another couple sat at their table with a tray full of beer cans. The women dominated the singing that night, performing classic 80s tunes. During Time of My Life, they attempted the Dirty Dancing leap to no avail (this was probably fortunate).

To put in a song, you needed to go up to the bartender (who often wasn’t there, or even in the room) and ask for a slip of paper. Then, you wrote your song down and put it by the unmanned computer. Eventually, the bartender would program your choice in and it would show up on the screen – just the song title, no name. No KJ announcing when a song was over and who was up next. Just a list of songs on a little screen that you needed to follow to see when it was time to go up again.

Too bad the first bar wasn’t the right place after all.

The basics:

  • Location: Karaoke Heroes, New Haven, CT
  • Miles traveled: 174  miles (plus another 202 to and from JFK to get Dave)
  • Songs sung: Torn (Natalie Imbruglia), Hit Me with Your Best Shot (Pat Benatar)