Mr. Chris's Blog:
down to earth
The Mormons and the YMCA
March 14, 2016
I have been on stage since I was 12 years old and while I don’t have an exact record, I would estimate that I have performed nearly 1,300 times in my life, most of those with my Dad in some fashion. Most people would never be able to tell, but my Dad and I have always been highly programmatic on stage. The song selection and order is pre-determined, the flow of singing versus talking is designed, the comedy and audience interaction are planned, detailed attention goes into setting the sound before the show, stage outfits are decided upon in advance, and the overall program is well-rehearsed. While we allow for a show to go where it needs to, especially when there are key audience moments or impromptu comedy opportunities, we don’t like surprises. We are always testing out new material, but we never go on stage without a plan and always go out there with content we know will work. However, even with all of our planning, sometimes surprises do happen and sometimes they are crazy funny. For example:
• Dad and I were playing a dinner banquet and in the middle of singing a love ballad, Dad tripped over his microphone cord and fell sharply to his knees. He tried to play it off like he was really getting into the song, but the audience was already way ahead of him in laughter.
• I had a contract with a regional library system that required that I perform at all 8 of their libraries. Most all were great venues, but one was a small, rural location that hosted my show in a back spare room that was the size of guest bedroom in any standard house. To add to the surprise, only 3 people showed up; specifically, 1 Mom and her 2 kids. The librarian introduced me in a style that would have been appropriate for the John Paul Jones arena, but not the storage closet. Fortunately, the Mom laughed as much as I did at the scenario and let me off the hook after a few songs.
• The Coachmen were booked to play a convention at a nice hotel. It was a first rate event and we were excited to dress up in our brand new suits. It wasn’t until we were on stage that we recalled that the audience wouldn’t actually be able to see us. Why? Because the booking was for a blind convention. Yes, pretty much everyone in the audience was blind. They laughed hysterically when we explained how excited we were for them to see our new suits.
• When I was with Grandstaff, we were booked to play a festival and the festival was to provide the sound for us. We showed up and they directed us to the stage, which was the bed of an old truck. The sound was a bull horn welded onto the roof of the truck cab. The owner of truck said he could turn the volume up or down from the driver’s seat if we would just give him the signal during the show. We got through it, but laughed privately for hours after the event.
• One night during a Coachmen Christmas show at an old movie theater, the electricity completely went out mid-song; the lights, the sound, everything. We sat in pitch dark with the audience for 5 minutes, unable to do anything. You would think an audience would panic, but they made it so funny. The real-time commentary we heard was hilarious – “I think the Coachmen are trying to keep us in the dark here” and “Does this mean we get free popcorn now?” and “If this show wasn’t hell enough already, I think we are here now.” Fortunately, the power came back on and we went right back into “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” as if nothing happened. The entire scenario was ridiculous.
There have been so many “funnies” through the years; these are just a few that I could readily recall. However, sometimes the surprises are not so funny and are instead down-right awkward. For example:
• Throughout a show that I was doing for kids, I kept dialoging with an 8-year old boy on the front row. The child had a lot of personality and seemed to like the attention in front of the audience. Toward the end of the show, the father yelled out to me in an annoyed tone, “SHE-SHE-SHE” Who knows how many masculine references I must have made in my dialogue with the child, assuming the child was a boy. There’s no way to come back easily from a mistake like that.
• Dad and I were playing a Ruritan club banquet that was running behind schedule and half-way through our show the club president stood up at his table, gave us the “cut” sign (hand across throat), and yelled “wrap it up.” It was evidently time for the banquet to end. So we stopped mid-song, and the banquet ended. People were left in shock.
• After the first 3 songs of a Coachmen show, my Dad and Uncle Bob will often have the last person to arrive to stand up, and Dad and Bob will proceed to ask them a lot of questions, centering on why they were late. People love to laugh at other people getting embarrassed, and this is an age-old Coachmen comedy trick. It always works, well almost always. One Sunday morning at a church, Dad and Bob starting asking this older lady the standard list of questions about why she was late and what she had to do that was more important than getting to church on time. People weren’t laughing, and come to find out, the lady’s husband had just died and the funeral service had just been held at the church the day prior. That’s another one you can’t easily rebound from.
• Once during a Coachmen Christmas tour, we included a Disney song for kids and had Uncle Bob wear a bunch of funny masks during the song – Donald, Mickey, Goofy, etc. It was a little over the top, but a really funny bit. After doing 2 shows on a Saturday night, we travelled 3 hours to the next town. The next morning we performed at a conservative Baptist church. This was our only Sunday morning Christmas concert that year and given our fatigue, we forgot to adjust the program format and set list, which normally involves “removing the entertainment” and “keeping it reverent.” It was all going fine until we were in the middle of the Disney song and Uncle Bob was putting on and taking off the masks in the middle of the worship hour. I will never forget the cold stares from that audience. We were never invited back.
In summary, some stage surprises are crazy funny and some are down-right awkward; rarely are they both. However, there is one moment in my show memory where I can honestly say a surprise was both funny and awkward simultaneously.
Dad and I were booked to play a Valentines dinner at a Mormon church when I was a teenager. Our wholesome, family-oriented show had broad appeal so it took us to a lot of different places. Therefore, performing at a Mormon Church to celebrate Valentines wasn’t that out of the ordinary.
We were wrapping up our program when someone made a request for the “YMCA.” Now first of all, Dad and I have never played 70’s disco music as we don’t know how to, but more importantly, we couldn’t understand why in the world the Mormons wanted to hear us do the YMCA. We quickly found out. The Mormons just wanted to dance and I mean more than just a few people; others chimed in as well “YMCA, YMCA, YMCA!” It got to the point that we couldn’t effectively side-step the request, so we did what we had to do; Dad and I tried to pull off a version of the YMCA. That was a bad mistake. It was like Willie Nelson trying to pull off a version of “Staying Alive.” It was terrible. I knew some of the chords and melody, but not enough for the song to be recognizable. To make it worse, Dad was strumming his Ovation acoustic-electric so fast that I thought the neck was going to fly off. It sounded like he was playing “Rocky Top” instead of “YMCA.” I am not sure how we brought it to a close, but it was a total train wreck. We were not at all depicting a YMCA that anyone would ever want to stay at! The Mormons danced but it seemed more like a flat-footing contest than a disco club. They were as confused as we were, and it was terribly awkward, but soooooo very funny. Everyone laughed, including us. Good memories are made of moments like this.
So what lessons do I have to pass along from this random memory dump?
First, when you are on stage, surprises will happen. Sometimes surprises are funny and sometimes they are just awkward, but you have to go with the flow. It is part of the game.
Second, if you see some young clean-cut boys in suits strolling through your neighborhood passing out pamphlets, just put out a sign in the yard that says “VILLAGE PEOPLE LIVE NEXT DOOR” and the boys won’t bother you.
Third, if you are a white, hairy-legged country boy from Augusta County who spent countless hours in the basement as a kid learning the guitar lick to “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” chances are that it’s probably not “in you” to ever play the YMCA. If the YMCA were meant for bluegrass, Ralph Stanley would have already released a cover of it. To my knowledge Ralph hasn’t gone there, and I am glad. However, if he ever does, my guess is the B-side will be “Macho Man on the Mountain.”
Until next week,
© Chris Campbell. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.