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The whistle knows my name
Posted: Tue Oct 13, 2020 5:44 pm Reply with quote
Thousandaire Joined: 21 Apr 2008 Posts: 1124
In Hartland Hootenanny episode 14, Ketch tells the story of the band gigging at Tweetsie Railroad, and getting the call from Sally Williams to play the Opry Plaza shows that led to them moving to Nashville.

Story below; here's a video of the animatronic band that the Old Crow had to play with as well.

Hartland Hootenanny - Episode 14 (Chely Wright)

Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The year 2000. It’s the dawn of the new millennium, and the Old Crows have recently signed on as the newest staff members at Tweetsie Railroad Wild Western Theme Park, an often-overlooked amusement park in western Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, featuring the area’s once-famous Tweetsie Line, a narrow-gauged steam train that once served travelers and industry across the iron mines and timberlands of northwestern-most North Carolina and northeastern-most Tennessee.

The band had been on the fence about taking the job, but when we learned it paid two hundred dollars a week per man, plus free snow cones, there was really no question. We had earned the coveted spot as a band in residence after winning an audition held in the local high school auditorium. The judges comprised Tammy, our future supervisor, and Steve, a hillbilly thespian who billed himself as The Rainmaker. Together, the decision to hire Old Crow was unanimous. They immediately outfitted us in appropriate attire using Tweetsie’s long-standing expense account at the Watsonatta Western World store on King Street in nearby downtown Boone. For the five 19-year-olds stepping out onto the street looking straight out of a daguerreotype, the look was decidedly nineteenth century. Suspenders, bowlers, rustic vests, brogans, and billowing cavalry bib shirts replaced the thrift-store look that we were accustomed to.

The immediate effect of our band’s becoming theme park-quality performers was most significantly felt at the Beech Creek Grocerette, the little store we lived by where the old-timers gathered around the old potbelly stove to scratch and spit and gossip about who had done good and who had done wrong and who was dead. For us, the popular local string band who had played all manner of area parties, cakewalks and nursing homes, as well as twice running at the annual-northwesternmost North Carolina Christmas Tree Association holiday bazaar and banquet in Banner Elk, for Old Crow being already regionally beloved and then being hired at the area’s most famous entertainment destination, Tweetsie Railroad, put us in the estimation of the old men at the Beech Creek Grocerette, somewhere between saints and almighty God. Bruce Guy, an area tobacco grower and occasional bear-hunter - “bar” he pronounced it - stopped me while walking home on the side of the road one afternoon. “Heard youns got hired up to Tweetsie. It just don’t get no bigger than that.”

See, this is the duality and the dilemma of the young American roots musician. I want to go where the music came from and earn a living at my trade, but these rural locations where the music came from decided sometime after that first season of Beverly Hillbillies that they needed a new trade and decided that the trade would be something of a trade-off, for instead of sharing their true selves in song and story, these isolated communities of Appalachia chose instead to make their commodity in the belittled retelling of the mountaineer experience, a fabrication of folklore, for amusement, novelty and profit. For the idealistic-minded musician of course, the alternative is to play the VFW hall or a bar if you can find one or more likely a church, but none of them can pay theme park money. And here comes the rub: in order to make a living on the mountain playing old timey music, you have to dress up like some hillbilly rube and clown around for tourists from way off the mountain, like Charlotte and Atlanta and probably Florida. For Old Crow Medicine Show, the Tweetsie Railroad trade-off was a pretty simple decision, though, because when you’re used to playing in dark dingy dives for lousy pay and beer, a real proper theme park with its state-of-the-art sound system and lighting, is a little bit like paradise, especially if your idea of paradise includes a shooting gallery, all-you-can-drink soda and footlong hot dogs, and little triangles of deep-fried mac-n-cheese.

But if your dream of paradise is a five-piece string band performing twice every hour on the hour, from 10 to 4, in a western movie set-style cabaret hall with a group of prissy Tapeta-wearing can-can coeds, then you’re definitely dreaming in the snow cone colors of Tweetsie Railroad and Wild Western Theme Park. Old Crow’s dream became even more surreal when after the 4pm show, the tenth of the day, we walked down to the Tweetsie jamboree stage to open up for the animatronic robot band. The Tweetsie Mountain Gang, as they were known, included a gorilla who sang the low part on “Elvira” – “"giddy up ba-oom papa oom papa mow mow" - and a scantily clad banjo-playing mouse wearing a wireless headset over her blonde beehive, who sang a shrill and increasingly irritating “I Will Always Love You.”

Only two weeks had passed before our supervisors Tammy and Steve, watching us croon from the stage in our western wear, began to wonder if we were really a fit. We weren’t. After the glory of the free clothes and the laud and honor from the old-timers by the potbelly stove at the Beech Creek Grocerette, the theme park scene just wasn’t very Old Crow. The biggest problem was that it was just so easy to play the same show day after day and remember the corny lines we had to say in the cabaret, that what became even easier was to perform our duties as a big-time theme park band with a big-time theme park all-day drinking habit. We were getting a little too tweaky for Tweetsie, and it was just a matter of time before we got tossed.

But the joke was on them, when we got the trophy call, from a theme park with an even bigger rack.

Back in 1974, Roy Acuff was a man on a mission. The Ryman auditorium had fallen into disrepair. Downtown music city was full of peep shows. So what does the king of country music do? He cooks up a newfangled idea. “Let’s build us a theme park.” Does anyone remember the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster? Or the Flume Zoom? I bet Shelly does. How about the Country Bumpkin bumper cars? Or the Wabash Cannonball? Or how about the Grizzly River Rampage? Or the Screamin’ Delta Demon? Well, you may not, but 2.5 million visitors every year for nearly three decades means that Opryland was beloved, and became one of the most successful of all time and Nashville’s premier amusement park destination. Sadly by the time I started coming to play on the street corners of Nashville as a late teenager, demolition was already underway at the Opryland park. But even with the Log Flume rides and the Hangman roller coaster long since sold, the Grand Ole Opry of the new millennium had still retained much of its theme park character, and so it was fitting that the bellringer to toll the end of Old Crow’s time at Tweetsie would be an Opry employee.

It happened between the 11am and the 12:15 show at the cabaret. The telephone in our dressing room had only ever rung so that Tammy could mouth off to us about dishonoring Tweetsie’s conduct code, citing infractions such as “spitting tobacco juice out the windows of the train cars during a holdup” and “public displays of affection with numerous can-can girls”. Suddenly, the phone began to ring and with one hand on my suspenders I answered it “Hello?” I said scratching underneath my bowler hat. “Hi, this is Sally Williams, I’m calling from Nashville and we’re looking for a band to play out in front of the Grand Ole Opry this summer”. Dumbfounded. Still am. I don’t even remember hanging up the phone and sometimes I wonder if it’s still sitting there off the cradle in the little green room where we slept in between shows. And with that, we were gone! Gone like the wind over Blowing Rock. Gone like the last notes ringing out from the metal hinges of an animatronic robot mouse’s mouth as she sings “And I will always love you”

It’s true. And I will always love you, Tweetsie Railroad and Wild Western Theme Park. I’ll never forget you or your picturesque grounds of amusement and novelty. And also, I won’t soon forget the lessons I learned in the time we spent together, especially this one: When it comes to tourist traps, it’s always best to trade up.

"That's the whole principle of the Medicine Show ... you put your trust in the medicine, and you don't get beat up."
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