Sunday, July 28, 2002

The call came in; my country needed me. Well ok, not MY country, but country�country music. Ok, so it didn't need ME, but it needed someone and I was available.

Topeka radio station 97 Country was hosting the local preliminary for the Colgate Country Showdown, a nationwide country and western music talent contest, at Coyote's in Lawrence. They'd called looking for judges and entertainment editor Jon Niccum was unavailable. The cry went out. "Hey, ya wanna do this? They need someone�sound desperate�you get free beer."

I was in, and immediately I got nervous. They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If that's so, when it comes to country music I'm a lethal weapon. Judge country music? Me? My idea of country music is Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johhny Cash and a lot of other dead guys.

Somehow I knew I wouldn't be hearing a lot of Patsy Cline or Hank Williams impressions. I have just enough exposure to country music to know that most of it is pop music with a southern drawl now. I mean, sure the Dixie Chicks are country, but She-Daisy? Come on. Shania Twain's a pop singer. There I said it.

Most of what I see and hear is a lot of guys in tight t-shirts and big hats. I'm nostalgic for Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakum for crying out loud, and they're not even dead yet. I think we're about three months away from an explosion of boy bands in Justin Ropers, Wranglers and Straw Resistols boot-scootin' in unison, shirts agape. 'N Boots anyone?

My obvious ignorance and attitude problems aside, I was determined to take this seriously and give it my best effort.

As the evening approached I had to face two challenges. As the judges were to be introduced to the audience and contestants, it was necessary to fill out a biographical form and in so doing, write our own introductions. The cover letter I received informed me that I was to "explain my connection to country music�that qualifies me to be a judge." Just great.

I wrote something vague about being a music critic and left it at that.

My second challenge involved wardrobe selection. I'm a rock guy, there's no getting around that. The ponytail, earrings and increasingly long goatee mark me. But I wanted to fit in; I didn't want the fraud of my presence to be so obvious.

I pulled out my black Merle Haggard "Motorcycle Cowboy" t-shirt, some jeans and headed for my closet to find my old, black cowboy boots. I think it was at precisely the moment when I remembered that my long-forsaken boots were somewhere in the basement in a box that I got brave and decided to attend dressed up as me.

On went the baggy, black shorts, loose fitting, green and turquoise batik shirt with the margarita glasses all over it and the low, Harley Davidson riding boots. The best camouflage for self-consciousness is to LOOK like you don't care what anyone thinks.

I arrived at Coyote's the first judge on the scene. It's amazing how little remodeling is required to make an old roller rink look like an old roller rink with a stage, a bar, a pool table and a bunch of neon beer signs.

I met Greg, the smiling man from the radio station and Carla, the smiling woman from the radio station and when I told them I was one of their judges I was surprised to be immediately addressed by name. As it turns out they only could round up three judges and I was the only man. Greg was pleased to inform me that I was in luck because my fellow judges were both "hot."

One by one, Jennifer and Sherriene, two charming reporters from a Topeka television station arrived and Carla brought us drinks and we had some time to get acquainted.

We were all taken aside and we went over the rules. There were to be 14 contestants. Each would perform two songs. Some would be performing original songs and would be awarded an additional 0-3 points for doing so. Some would be accompanied by recorded, meaning Karaoke, music. Some would be backed by the band Dixie Roads, and some by their own guitar or musicians of their own. We were not to let that affect our scoring.

We were to award from one to ten points in each of five categories. They were marketability in country music, vocal/instrumental ability, originality, stage presence/charisma and talent. Obviously there is considerable overlap among these categories.

We were told we could change our scoring as much as we wanted and were given pencils with erasers. Good thinking.

We were led to our little stools inside the soundboard partition and the fun began.

I won't take you through a litany of the performances. Suffice it to say that some of the performers were quite good and others were, shall we say, quite brave. It astounded me to hear Sherriene, a woman that nightly appears in thousands of homes, having not only her work but also her hairstyle, makeup, clothing and eyewear, meticulously dissected, talk about how much nerve she thought the performers had to have. In more than a few cases I'd call it more gall than nerve.

Somewhere near the beginning of my third beer the MC announced that later in the evening there would be a wet t-shirt contest and I began to wonder if I'd volunteered to judge the right event. I think that this was also around the time Sherriene told me that she'd recently helped judge a home made bikini contest at a country bar in Topeka. This judging racket was starting to show promise.

Midway through the list of performers we got a two-song break, courtesy of Dixie Roads and it was appreciated. Before resuming I had the opportunity to rise to my feet and raise my longneck in salute to the crowd as my meager bio form was read aloud by a second, smiling radio station woman who wondered aloud, over the microphone, if I was single. I must have done something right.

Up to a point, the three of us judges made an effort to keep our scoring secret from one another. When the eventual winner, an appealing, exuberant, clean cut cowboy from Ottowa named Travis Marvin performed, and excelled, I turned to my peers and asked directly if the others had him in first place as well. They both did, so it was now a contest to see if any of the three remaining singers could dislodge him from his pedestal.

Marvin was all about excitement and momentum. He was the only singer that didn't perform either a fast song followed by a slow song, or a slow song followed by a fast song. Marvin sang a fast song followed by a faster song and it really won the crowd and us over.

Two of the remaining three performers were among the best of the night and on one score card one of them had surpassed Marvin. We tallied up the total score from all three of our scorecards for each of the contestants. We were told to also name a runner up. And though I was the only one that had the same first and second place finishers as our combined totals indicated, we all agreed we were comfortable with the result and returned to our seats to watch the award presentation.

When the dust settled and I prepared to get out before the white t-shirts and ice-water appeared, two curious things occurred. First, the winner did not come over to thank us judges, thereby bringing my ego back into low earth orbit. After all, he'd already thanked the lord, who did I THINK was responsible for his victory?

Secondly a contestant that scored maybe eighth out of 14 wanted to see our score sheets, which had thankfully been spirited away by Greg by then. It's charming to see that it's not nerve that allows some people to perform in public but rather an entirely inexplicable faith in one's own talents. It just goes to show that some children get too MUCH praise.

I can't say with certainty that this was a life changing experience, nor can I really explained what prompted me to volunteer to judge it again next year. Maybe by then I'll have found those boots.