I chose Henderson over Vegas because I don’t want to deal with the large party city on a Saturday night – the cost, the crowds, the loneliness. I also don’t like the idea of being there with a car. Though casinos do have parking, driving down the strip is anything but enjoyable.

I stay in a casino on the outskirts of everything and everywhere. The receptionist tells me how he is looking to get the hell out of there and move to Eugene; he even has a realtor helping him live out his dream. I was going to gamble and grab a bite to eat before heading out, but the whole scene was too depressing. When you take away the lights and the glitz and the superlatives, the purpose of casinos is all that remains and it makes me uncomfortable.

I get to the bar in Henderson early, as I was hoping to watch some college football and grab a bite to eat before singing. Instead there’s NASCAR on the couple of TVs and there’s no food served (odd for a place that’s open 24/7). I only had a granola bar and piece of cheese for a late lunch, so there won’t be a lot of drinking tonight, which is just as well.  I order a pint of Rolling Rock; it’s flat and the taps haven’t been cleaned in months, if ever. It’s also one of the smokiest places I’ve been – everyone has either a cig in hand or is vaping. It’s clearly a place of locals and regulars, a place where friends meet to shoot pool or the breeze. A place where the bartender says hello as you walk in, and pours your favorite drink as you sit down in your favorite seat. I grab a seat at the bar, purposefully not directly in front of a video crack machine (though I do debate on blowing five bucks in one, I never get around to it); I hope it’s not someone else’s.

A group of three next to me is chatting with the bartender; one of them asks what “suburb” means, and the bartender replies “it’s a fancy rich town with lawns.” I suppose that’s as close to the truth as any. Then the KJ wanders in and lets everyone know he got a new special effects light bulb to make the show more fun and it literally takes four of them to figure out how to screw it in. Once that’s accomplished all the patrons come over for an awe-struck inspection of this new marvelous addition to the place.

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Pretty lights with questionable placement.

The bartender asked a customer what a Bloody Mary is, to which the patron replied, “Vodka and juice;” I guess the specifics aren’t important. Other things I overheard:

  • “I’m tired. I work five days a week and have a yeast infection.”
  • “I was in her pussy when she woke me up.”
  • “What happened to Chris?”
    “He died”
    “At least he didn’t owe me money anymore.”

Then I spoke to a man who truly believes that Paul is dead. He also wants to get out of Henderson and now dreams of singing karaoke across the US just as I have, but first he needs to fix up his motor home and finish suing his dentist for not replacing his teeth.

A woman named Froggy starts off the singing with a country tune. She’s wearing an iron-on t-shirt with a frog on it, and green stripes down the sides of the sleeves (think 70s), coupled with a quilted vest of playing cards. At her table, there’s a pile of crafting supplies so she can make paper flowers. By the end of my evening I have two. When I say goodbye to Froggy and thank her for the flowers, she hugs me and says to come back next week.

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My bouquet on the bar

The basics:

  • Location: The Rustic Lounge, Henderson, NV
  • Miles traveled: 234
  • Songs sung: Hold on Loosely (38 Special), Dreams (Fleetwood Mac)
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A home away from home.
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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.

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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)
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Wyoming is beautiful!
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See?

Symbolic Passage (Singing Oklahoma, #40)

There was nothing special about the bar or the singing in Oklahoma, but my time there brought me two milestones. Though I have eight more states to sing in on this trip, I have now officially sung in the 48 continental states in my lifetime. I have also spent at least one night in 49 of the 50 states since I’ve been an adult (You’re in my sights, Alaska!).

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I sang here.

So, here’s to Oklahoma! A rather unremarkable state in my eyes, but one that brings me to semi-completion of my goals.

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Sexist humor abounds in these parts (this is the sign to the restrooms).

The basics:

  • Location: Nancy’s 57th Street Lighthouse, Oklahoma City, OK
  • Miles traveled: 780!
  • Songs sung: Too Much Time on My Hands (Styx), Please Mister, Please (Olivia Newton-John)

 

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:

It’s all OK (Singing Florida and Alabama, #34 & #35)

I hit a wall: feeling tired. Tired of planning all of this and having it not go right. Afraid that one thing is going to mess up and hold the agenda back for days. I’m trying and it’s weird to see this as hard, but sometimes it is.

When I called a couple weeks ago, the people at Seville Quarter said the karaoke would start at 8. When I called them back the next week, they said 8:30. Then the guy at the door of the venue said 8:30 or 9. Then when we walked into the bar a little before 8 (mostly to avoid the cover charge that would be imposed later), the server said karaoke would start at 10 and I almost lost it. Changing my plan that day in order to fit two states in one night and then it all seemed to go to hell. The karaoke did start at 9, and all was fine. But how was I to know? I still fear the worst instead of believing things will work out. And things always work out.

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The bar was in a crazy complex of bars and nightclubs housed in a building from the 1800s.

When my name is called, I’m so tired and confused I tell the KJ the wrong song – One Things Leads to Another instead of One Way or Another. When he references the Fixx, I change it, though at this point I would have laughed if the wrong song came up. All I need to do is sing and it counts. The entire audience consisted of Dave, some staff, and three bored looking 20-somethings, staring at their phones.

We say goodbye to the super-nice staff and Dave drives the 45 minutes to get to Foley, Alabama a little after 10. Two guys wearing confederate flag caps are singing a country duet. One of the guys is also wearing a confederate flag leather vest a confederate flag chain wallet pokes out of his back pocket. A woman flicks her cigarette ash onto the carpet. A sign on the wall says that a drink consists of 1 ¼ oz of “liqour” unless otherwise specified.

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This way to Alabama karaoke!

Everyone here is very friendly; it’s just not the kind of place for a deep conversation. This is how I imagined a lot of my karaoke experience to be – sitting side by side with many whose politics and life views are completely different from mine, but still managing to have a good time.

As we get ready to go, we chat with the KJ about my journey and he is excited we chose Foley as our Alabama stop. He says he also has a bucket list to sing in all 50 states, but is only up to 9 right now. A drunk woman wanders over and tells us to “call the Google” to make sure the roads we want to take to Louisiana aren’t closed due to the flooding. I take her advice and am glad I did. Most of the southern route is shut down, so we cut up north the next day.

The basics:

  • Locations: The Seville Quarter, Pensacola, FL; Scuttlebutt Pub, Foley AL.
  • Miles traveled: 335 to Florida, 28 to Alabama
  • Songs sung: One Way or Another (Blondie, in Florida), Queen of Hearts (Juice Newton, in Alabama).

Smoking Sacrifices

The karaoke at Rusty’s Sports Bar in Hayden, Idaho started at 8, but we had just sat down for dinner in Spokane then, so didn’t arrive until after 9. There were only two singers in the rotation. We had picked this place because there was no smoking in the bar. We wondered if that was the reason for the low attendance. No matter, after a woman with blue hair and a cardigan decorated with skulls rocked some Pat Benetar, I sang Hall & Oates. No one clapped for either of us. America’s Ninja Warrior played on the televisions.

By 10pm, a good-sized crowd had come into the bar, but still the singers were few and far between. Here, karaoke is clearly an afterthought. The set up was super weird. The singing took place on one side of the spacious bar that also included a couple of pool tables and a free-throw machine (those were used quite a bit). One tiny monitor faced the KJs, forcing the singer – unless they knew the words perfectly – to serenade the hosts. At least Madam Karma Karaoke wiped the mics down with sanitizer between each round. She also played several “dance songs” such as “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Baby Got Back” in between to stretch out the evening. No one danced. The 20-somethings more interested in flirting and posturing around the tables on the bar-side of the place than getting their groove on.

It wasn’t a bad place if you took the karaoke out of it. Clean, well lit, and a super-friendly staff. “Definitely awkward” my friend said after it was her turn to sing. She’s totally right. At 10:28 the KJs left to go outside to smoke and we took our cue and left as well. There was a pick-up truck with a confederate flag in the parking lot.

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The “definitely awkward” setup at Rusty’s

Instead of checking Idaho off the list, we went to Coeur d’Alene to sing at The Silver Fox Saloon. This was more like it, except everyone had a cig dangling out of their mouth or resting in an ashtray. A skinny white guy was singing Chef’s “Chocolate Salty Balls;” he was followed by an African-American man who did a great rendition of “New York, New York” while working the crowd. The KJ poured himself a drink from a full pitcher of beer; I wondered if it was his first, and decided no.

I ordered a pint of Bayern’s Dragon’s Breath out of Missoula; it came in a frosted glass and only ran me $3.75. We sat down at a table made from a slice of large tree. The walls were decorated with random artifacts of questionable taste, and advertisements for sweet drinks such as a house-made “Whipped Margarita” and Straw-ber-rita’s.

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The lovely decor at The Silver Fox Saloon

The crowd loves my friend’s “Sister Christian” and were equally appreciative of my “Summer of ’69.” Air guitars accompaniment came from a table of bikers who gave me enthusiastic thumbs-up. As I walked back to my table I received some high-fives, which always make me feel good. A woman playing pool stopped me and asked if I would sing some Pat Benatar or Stevie Nicks next. I oblige by putting in “Edge of 17” next.

Except for the fact that this KJ also disinfected the mic after every singer, there were no similarities between the two places.

By the time I sang that song, there were only a few left in the bar. I had to shower when we got home because the smoke soaked into my hair. This morning, as I type this, I feel the effects of a nicotine hangover, my lungs are tight, and my throat’s a bit scratchy. At least there’s a cat on my lap to keep me company.

The basics:

Bar #1:

  • Rusty’s Sports Bar in Hayden, ID
  • Miles traveled: 37
  • Songs sung: You Make My Dreams (Hall & Oates); Just What I Needed (The Cars)

Bar #2:

  • The Silver Fox Saloon in Coeur d’Alene, ID
  • Miles traveled: 7 (from Hayden); 34 to get back to Spokane.
  • Songs sung: Summer of ’69 (Bryan Adams); Edge of 17 (Stevie Nicks)