It’s Labor Day Weekend 2008 and the Hawks are playing their first ever county fair gig. We’re excited and apprehensive. We believe in America. We love fairs. Corn Dogs, the Demolition Derby, Funnel Cakes and Ferris wheels. But will they love us? Will the fair goers embrace us as we long to embrace them?
August 30 is clear, dry, and hot as we hit the 5 north and roll onto the mysterious exit to 99. There’s a lot of corn growing, and grapevines and almond trees, newcomers to these parts, where cotton and alfalfa are the deposed kings. It’s 104 at the Fresno County line. Paul L texts his brother Anthony, lyricist of Hecker Pass: “its 104 at the Fresno county line.” Anthony texts back: “desolate there?” We hit a Fresno Starbucks, refresh ourselves in an artificial climate as reliable as a McDonalds shake, hit the highway, through Merced, and up to Mariposa via the Plainsburg cutoff. Into the foothills forested by native and 2nd growth evergreen, into Mariposa town. It is indeed Labor Day Weekend, the last blowout under summer sky. Lots of bikers prowl the short Mariposa main drag. RW almost hits one by accident right off the bat. That pisses the dude off of course and words are exchanged. But it’s cool. Most bikers live their lives to be annoying assholes. Why else jack the exhaust up to deafening levels? (note of dissension from Paul L: hey, man, I rode a Triumph 650 for a few years, and I’m here to say that there’s nothing like pulling out of town in a rumbling pack of big machines. You’re with your people, you’re living the life, and the civilians that have to show up to the computer on Monday morning can feel the noise a little. It’s not going to hurt them)
We follow the cars down the winding road to the Mariposa County Fair grounds, sneak past the line of pickups and SUVs into the lot. With a little help from the Rotary Club volunteers we find the Amigo Dance Slab, an indeed wide stretch of plain concrete at the edge of the dusty fair grounds, and start to unload. It’s pretty alienating to be here at first. There’s a big bald guy with a laptop playing aggressive techo drum beats and calling square dancing on top of it. What the hell is this? An elder cadre of square dancers decked out in colorful dresses and bolo ties dutifully march to this futuristic disembodied beat. There’s a real disconnection here. The music and the dancing make no sense together and yet there it is happening right in front of us. Next they’re square dancing to hip hop and urban grooves. And then the line dancers come out. They’ll all got black pants, white tops, and black hats. Uniformed uniform dancing. Wow.It all makes sense if you’re from these parts. Country life is pragmatic, not romantic, and not yearning for times past, unlike urban folkies like ourselves. When fiddles were state of the art, that’s what you danced to. If you can get a guy with a laptop to play kickass beats, who cares if the fiddles are banished to the folk clubs? If you have to plow 160 acres, are you going to pick the quaint old tractor or the air conditioned gleaming monster combine? A swamp cooler or full AC in your new suburban monster house? And satellite TV is sweet. Kill the old ways. Kill them dead.
We hang in the fair office hospitality room to escape the disturbing scene at the dance slab. We’ve got to adjust our minds. There’s fried chicken and huge straight from the garden tomato salads, cold cuts and hot pots of chili. We eat chips and drink lemonade. Finally the big bald dj/caller packs up his gear and splits and we can take the stage. Relief begins to creep in as we set up our gear and then fully takes hold as we start things off with “Raised By Hippies.” Everything starts to feel better. The sound is good. Shawn’s got a big riser and he can stretch out and hit them hard. Shawn Nourse is a big stage mo-fo. Dude was born to play the drums in a stadium-like atmosphere.
All kinds of dancers begin to cautiously emerge from the distant dusty fair hoopla. Elderly couples, teenage lovers, preteen groups of girls dancing for each other, crippled hippies, cowboy ranchers and their enthusiastic dates, green haired weirdos of ages past. Beyond the dancers, families on picnic blankets and old friends from high school reminiscing. It’s the local scene and a yearly reunion for the mountain kids and the farm boys and their sun baked fathers and grandmothers. It’s a new challenge to the Hawks. Can we get this crowd up and dancing and having fun without obvious cover tune pandering? Yes we can! Some songs feel right on the money. All the two steps, Carbon Dated Love and Ramblin Fever (God bless Hag, this is a giant, giant song), and the shuffles, Drinking For Two and California Country, work big. The cowboys and the old folks and the skinny young girls dancing for each other do their thing, their dance they always do, and it’s kind of intense. These are tough, hard working people. They drive rusting beasts, discers and rakes, through the summer dust, leveling fields, raising livestock. Or drive earthmovers, scraping cropland for America’s last crop, the commuter suburb, where country folk merge with the heavy metal kids. Yes, satellite TV is sweet.
There’s a midway too, a dusty lane climbing the hill, tilta whirl, games of skill, carnies, flashing small neon signs. We take a break and take it all in. Shawn and Paul L stroll through the livestock exhibits in a big metal barn, a stone’s throw from the Destruction Derby arena. Passing the massive hogs luxuriating in their pens, the two Hawks turn to each other and say in unison: “I’m such a city boy!” Midway and off-Midway. Bright lights and lots of dark shadows wherein lurk young men, muscular and tightly wound up in levis and farmer caps, gathered in clusters and checking each other out, and the girls. Brave young pregnant girls stroll past. The older guys are tough, too. These people are physically tough. But it’s civil as only the rural can be, tense but peaceful. Mountain people are here too, some from generations back, and several waves of escape from the city. Hippies tested by the elements, who’ve taken their stand. And of course there’s our friends the Trespassers and their crew. It’s great to see them and bask in their mellow mountain vibe.
And they dance, and then they don’t dance, and we’re constantly trying to read this. What do they desire? What is right and just to play? We play a long second set and then come down to hang by the merchandise table. A Dutch man with a stern and scholarly demeanor buys a CD without using language. We take a walk and wander again the dusty grounds.
Our last set feels like the night is ours. People are dancing, and a wider crowd hangs in the shadows of the dimming fair. The air is nice. This is nice. We close out with Good and Foolish Times, and our music has made contact with the people whose roots we share a bit further back in time. May we intertwine. We hope to return to the fair.