National Competition: Day 1

The morning of the competition and the first day of fall. It’s time for the National Finals of the Karaoke World Championships. My throat is scratchy from screaming at the meet and greet last night (it was so loud in there it was hard to have any sort of conversation), so I have Good Earth tea with honey. My friend and I each have a boiled egg and a banana that I brought from home. I shower and notice all my grey – maybe I should have had my hair done. I put on way too much makeup for the day and also the outfit I’ve been planning – an 80s earthy green top with flowing sleeves, black bamboo leggings, and knee-high black boots; I try to look like a rock star. I sort of look like one, but I also look like I’m shopped at Chicos. I care but I don’t care. I’m a little nervous, but not really. My Uber ride arrives and drops me off at the bar we were at last night. I don’t sing until Group B (1-3pm), but sitting in an empty house will drive me crazy and I also want to watch others. I’m here for the whole thing, not just my time.

Others are already standing around outside and I feel the tension and nerves. One guy is pissed off because they won’t let him bring food into the bar, yet they aren’t serving any yet; he storms around, yelling his story to whomever is listening. He shows a badge in his wallet and claims to be a Sergeant and won’t put up with bullshit – I wonder if it’s real; his intensity sure is, but I can also see him being the kind of guy who pulls these sort of jokes/facades if they serve him well (I find out later he is, indeed, a Sergeant along with a former backup singer for Al Green).

Where I will spend the next three days.

Attire ranges from t-shirts and camo shorts to purple sequined jackets to ball gowns. Dresses to jeans. I see Mr. Sparkles and the guy who sang Elton John’s Spanish Harlem from the night before; his pants don’t button quite right and I feel bad for him. All of Team Arkansas is here. They travel as a team, support each other as a team, so they will be here together all day, every day says one member. He’s ex-military and now a nurse, soft but hard — a true solid Provider and rock on his team.

10:30 and they haven’t started yet. 10:37 is a kick off song to test the sound system. I assume it’s good, but I honestly can’t tell the difference between a good one and a not-so-good one. I learned that in Kansas City, where the people I hung out with were beaming about the system, and I felt it was just like any other one in any other state. Now, my palms are actually a bit sweaty; I’ve never had clammy palms before and it makes me very self-conscious as I shake hands with the new people I meet at every turn. My manic excitement shows as I chat with Moses from Chicago, who’s dressed in an elegant black pin-striped suit. I really didn’t prepare for this. We both seem to be talking about nothing, two people meeting and saying things just to get out the nervous energy. 11:07 and we still haven’t started. I see Elton John and his fly is down, his clothes are ill-fitting which stands out even more in this crowd, where everyone is so polished. I want to know his story.

I see the guy who sang Michael Jackson last night dressed like the King of Pop today. I see Elton go by again, and his fly is up so I don’t have to pain myself with my inner debate over whether or not to tell him. However, now I see his shirt is ripped in the back and my heart breaks a little all over again; I’m rooting hard for a guy I don’t even know. Nothing he can do about the shirt tear, though, so I keep quiet about it. I don’t want to spoil his confidence; he looks so happy and excited to be here.

The host finally gets on the stage to give everyone a welcoming pep talk: “Enjoy the stage, enjoy the spotlight.” I think about that for a second. While I do enjoy singing, and I do enjoy the stage, for some reason, I stop at finding the spotlight desirable. The smell of weed comes pouring into the venue. I inhale deeply, slowly, and relax a little. Chicago tells me I should write a critique book of all the places I’ve been. He would buy such a book; I don’t press further, but do wonder at the utility of a book that has one karaoke venue per state in it. What sort of guide is that?

It’s Elton’s, turn and he gets on the stage as the host announces his song choice: Sex Machine by James Brown. Elton sings the first few lines then tears off his outer clothing layer – the one so ill-fitting – to reveal a gold, low-cut unitard. The clothes I fretted about so much were no more than a prop. The crowd goes nuts, and I feel tears of relief and happiness come; it’s the first time I’ve felt joy since getting here.

The man that brings joy (plus the judge who likes tater tots in the foreground).

My time slot approaches and now I’m really nervous. Everyone is fantastic. I see no woman I could beat. I feel better knowing this – like the USA hockey team in the World Cup, you’re out of the tournament, but you still gotta play the games.

Group A is done, and it’s time for a break. People go outside to smoke – how can such serious singers be such serious smokers? A group provokes a homeless man who was photo bombing their pictures. It becomes a bit of a turf war and my nerves kick up again. I go inside to remove myself from the confrontation. I order tater tots because I realize I need something to balance out the gin and tonics. I’m slightly buzzed, enough to take an edge off, and also hungry. I share them with Elton, and some other random guy who I learn is a judge; I pegged him as a singer instead, given his blue shiny jacket – it turns out he’s a Vegas performer. A woman has changed into a gown worthy of the Oscars. I’m so under-prepared I almost feel ashamed. At this point, I just don’t want to embarrass myself. All the singers have pipes, the trick is knowing how to play them. Some are spot on, but some seem to overplay them a little, but who am I to judge?

Group B begins and my nerves, after a small break, kick up again. I’m not really nervous that I’ll mess up, though. I just have a lot of adrenaline. And I know out of the four categories – voice quality, technique, artistry, and stage presence – I have the first two down at best. I smell the weed again and relax. An old man, here to watch his son, spills his food all over the floor as a young woman from Pennsylvania sings Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me. This song is normally the death of a karaoke night, but not here; she brings her own style to it, and it’s simply beautiful; it’s the first time I’ve ever been sorry that song was over. This seems to be the case for all the songs chosen. The basic rules of karaoke don’t apply.

The Provider sings the same, haunting song that he sang when I first met him and it’s much improved; it was great the first time, but it has much more dimension now. I tell him, and he says he’s been working hard on it.

I’m up third in the queue – they only let the singers know when it’s their turns three to give at a time –and start burping tater tots. Great. I post on my personal and the MelOdyssey Facebook page, letting my friends know it’s almost time to tune into the live stream. I text Dave, who says the feed isn’t working right, which is OK by me —  I am just touched by the support. My name is called and I go up. The host does his best to calm my obvious nerves by having me talk about my trip; I mention that I have indeed sung in all 48 continental states and that it took me 17,700 miles to do it. Then it’s time to sing; I don’t really want to. The monitors scattered everywhere make it easy to look in any direction without losing my place. I do my best, and try to use the stage, connect with people in the audience, face the judges, smile, look like I’m having fun. I’m not sure if I am. I guess it’s fun, but it’s a different kind of fun, less silly, more of a challenge. I really don’t think of karaoke as a challenge. I guess I’m feeling the competition aspect more than I want to.

I go back to my table and Chicago comes up to congratulate me. Now we are both done. He’s drinking a Corona, clearly on the other side of his day. I meet the group from Oregon who came in late and bond with one of the singers; we talk about race relations and stereotypes, about how he was displaced out of Portland where he grew up and now lives in Aloha. I’m more myself, feeling more comfortable talking about tough issues with a stranger than trying to be “all that” on stage. Very few come up to me after I sing the way they do not just to their own team members, but to others as well. Was I that bad, or not bad at all? Or perhaps I’m just not in the “in” crowd. I start to feel bad.

It’s time for Group C and the sparkly dresses come out. No way could I be a judge – everyone seems deserving. A few, maybe, I can see as “no” (including me), but none for sure in the “yes” column – or, more accurately, there are simply too many in my book. A judge claps in the middle of someone’s song – because she was that good, or because he thought the song was over? My self-confidence dwindles. It’s time to leave. I know how good everyone is and I don’t need to stick around for the rest of this group and the next to know I’m cooked. Pot smoke wafts through the air on my peaceful walk to my friend’s house. When I arrive, we hug hello and get down to the business of watching football. Now I’m really where I should be.


Solo (Singing Wyoming, #44)

I wear my jacket to go out to sing; it’s the first time I’ve needed it since I was in the Dakotas. I had looked up the laws in Rock Springs, WY, and it seemed as though smoking was illegal in bars, but one step inside, and I knew that wasn’t the case. Before getting there, I texted a friend to express fear of going out on my own again, of being harassed, of not being physically safe. I went anyway, but took note to honor those feelings should they have any evidence behind them.

I took a seat at the bar, where the owner, a female, was running the show; there were a fair number of people inside, but they were all shooting pool so I had the long bar to myself. I already felt better. Technically, this place calls itself a “nightclub,” with its black velour-backed bar stools and red velvety chairs on wheels by the tables. It’s clearly a pool hall first, though, with all four tables in use. It was too dark outside to get a good picture of the establishment; I should have taken one of the inside but didn’t want to stick out. This was clearly a place full of regulars.

Nightclub in Rock Springs, WY

The karaoke set up here is strange – you can either stand on a huge stage (probably set up more for bands than hack singers) or face a monitor on the dance floor such that your back is to the rest of the bar. Neither seems like a good option since being on the stage would feel awkward to me, especially since no one was paying much attention, instead more focused on their pool games.

While others sing, the bartender and I talk about the hunting season (the reason why the place is relatively empty), cold weather, and the kitchen that’s opening up next week while I sip a gin and tonic. She asked me if I wanted one or two limes, and I opted for two to mask the well liquor taste. One of the aforementioned regulars was singing I Wanna Be Like You from the Jungle Book while simultaneously shooting pool; he ends up doing both ineffectively.

I sing my first song to a quiet audience – they are more concerned with practicing for the big tournament this weekend. When I get back to my seat and drink (bartender said she’d watch the drink, I took my purse up – gotta remember these new habits now that I’m on my own again), two women had taken up residence just next to me. One was making goo-goo noises and rubbing the belly of the other, who was just starting to show the signs of pregnancy. The pregnant lady laughed about being 50 when the kid would be born, then lit a cigarette and ordered a Sprite. A young man walks over and the conversation quickly jumps to a debate over oral sex; the young man claims he prefers dick because pussies smell like fish and look like cottage cheese. The older women let him know that if it does look like cottage cheese down there, then something is seriously wrong. He isn’t buying it. My company leaves for a bit, but their phones and keys remain on the bar. I guess this place is safe after all.

As the evening goes on, the KJ calls out the names of patrons and asks if they are ready to sing. Some ask for more time, and others wander over and choose a tune, interrupting their games. Everyone chooses a slow song. Not what I would have expected here – was thinking upbeat modern country, one of the first times I wasn’t able to peg the song style to the crowd. The guy who likes dick (who turns out to be the pregnant lady’s step son), takes a turn and sings Stand By Me – not bad, but nothing inspiring — unless you’re his step-mom: “He has a beautiful voice. He’s just not competent (sic instead of “confident;” I thought I misheard her at first, but she repeated the mistake often enough that I’m sure that’s what she said). Such a lovely tone; I wish he’d sing louder. Dammit all to hell shit.” Step-mom is clearly an avid supporter, and refers to his “beautiful tone” about twenty times during our conversations; I try to avoid the smoke she blows in my face.

After she’s heard both me and her step-son sing, it becomes her mission to figure out a duet for the us to perform. He says he can harmonize “real good,” but we can’t find a song we both know, even though he only sings oldies. I threw out a few ideas and so did step-mom from the earlier eras to no avail; he kept going to the modern stuff where I’m useless. One of his suggestions was Concrete Blonde by “Martin McBride” (instead of “Martina”), sounding out the words slowly off his phone. I gave up finding a song for us after a while, so no duet; step-mom was clearly disappointed, but he didn’t seem to care much.

Later, her husband came up and asked “Why does Wyoming have wind? Because Utah blows and Nebraska sucks.” He also referred to Wyoming as “God’s perfect square” then a “shit hole” soon after. The bartender asks him how his granddaughter is doing, as she’s in a cast after a mishap on the jungle gym. He would rather talk about how he dislocated his ankle several years ago and, after he had it in a cast for eight weeks, had to scrape the dead skin off his heel with a butter knife. His wife wailed Lita Ford in the background.

I said goodbye to the bartender, and tipped her a buck for the club soda she gave me on the house; I don’t say anything to the strange family next to me and they don’t seem to notice me leave. A police car pulled over some folks across the street and arrests were being made as I headed back to the hotel.

The next morning, my jacket still smells like smoke, but I put it on anyway. There’s a Starbucks across the street; I think about treating myself to a pumpkin latte and accept the fact that fall has come.

The basics:

  • Location: Killpepper’s Nightclub, Rock Springs, WY
  • Miles traveled: 476 ( I took the scenic route; see below for amazing evidence)
  • Songs sung: Free Fallin’ (Tom Petty), Faithfully (Journey)
Wyoming is beautiful!

Do it now or forever wish you had (Singing Wisconsin, #7)

Eau Claire put on its best show. The weather was perfect at dusk. Streets were lined with art and jazz music was piping in through corner speakers making the whole town feel like a living room. I romanticized the idea of bundling up and heading out to a bar to watch a Packers game in the middle of winter. I could have walked the street all night and part of me wanted to instead of sing that night. I was afraid to go into Scooters, the local gay bar. I was afraid because I wasn’t sure if I belonged, if it was right for me to enter a sacred space so close in time to the Orlando shooting.

Street art in Eau Claire

I’m nervous as I enter the bar, but this journey is a time for risks. Pat, a grizzled older woman is bartending. She’s the kind of woman who seems damn tough and probably is, but underneath, there’s a softness that draws you to her. She pours me a Spotted Cow, a local lager and I sit at the bar alone. Then Jake, the KJ, introduces himself by warmly shaking my hand. They ask what brings me to their place and I tell them about my journey. As Pat’s shift was ending (she works days, and is thankful for it), she placed her hand on my shoulder and wished me good luck.

“Do It Now Or Forever Wish You Had.”

There are peanuts on the bar and a show starring David Duchovny on both televisions. Game 6 – possibly the final Game of the NBA season – is nowhere to be found. A group of men occupy one corner of the bar. Around 9 the place begins to fill;  A large group of women come in, order drinks, and adjourn to the patio. A couple pulls up stools next to me, engaged in focused conversation. I’m hurting even though no one else around me seems to be. There’s an air of comfort, not fear or sadness. It’s OK to be here. People strike up conversations with me about allergies, the weather, and recent breakups.

The singing begins and everyone but me seems to be a regular. I’m uncharacteristically nervous as I get up to sing my first song, but the negative emotions wash away as soon as I begin. I feel at ease. Later, a man so drunk he stumbles up to the mic (stumbles all over the bar, really), tries to sing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Jake wanders over to where I sit to let me know he does this every week. Throughout the night, people get up to do their thing, but no one claps afterwards except for me. This seems out of place with such a friendly environment. My dollar bill is the only one I see in the tip jar. Everyone just doing their own thing I guess. Some here for the singing, others for the company, maybe others for the stiff pours. I have no idea if there are thoughts of Orlando; I don’t hear any, and everyone seems happy to be there, among family.

The basics:

  • Location: Scooters Bar, Eau Claire, WI
  • Miles traveled: 330
  • Songs sung: Heart of Glass (Blondie), Long Way Home (Supertramp)