Canada, Craven, Country Music, and the Dixie Chicks


Signs for a country jamboree.
Signs for a country jamboree.

“Let us go singing as far as we go; the road will be less tedious.”–Virgil

Fans, always fans
I’ve been a fan of the Dixie Chicks since they hit mainstream country music in 1998. Their major label debut album Wide Open Spaces and 1999 album Fly were the soundtracks to my life, neatly tied to being fresh out of college and pondering an “adult” direction. I listened and sang along while establishing my career and stumbling along to find myself, a sense of community, and love. My younger sister had the same CDs and the same passion for the feisty, talented trio. We were excited when their bluegrass-influenced album Home came out in 2002, and we weren’t alone in our love for the band. In a five-year period they had numerous radio hits and staggering sales of more than 28 million albums by March 2003, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). And then there was a little concert in London . . . and the now infamous remarks by Natalie Maines about being “ashamed the President was from Texas.” It was near the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, protests were happening abroad while a high-pitched patriotism was spreading across the U.S. Then came the commotion and backlash and feuds and demonstrations against the Dixie Chicks; most of the events have been spelled-out in numerous articles and blogs and in the documentary Shut Up and Sing (2006).

Their fourth studio album Taking the Long Way in 2006 was another standout, with more of a rock and 70s California influence. It showed a band growing, changing, and evolving with all three Chicks co-writing every song alongside a few established co-writers, none from Nashville’s Music Row. The album, considered the Chicks’ most personal, chronicled the “incident” and the resulting events and fallout, but also included a lullaby to their kids, a song about struggles with infertility, and a tune about a grandparent’s slip into Alzheimer’s. I’m not going to go into politics here, but suffice it to say that I’m still a steadfast fan and happen to agree with them politically. However, there are lots of artists whose music I love and whose politics I don’t share or don’t even know. A shared political affiliation doesn’t necessarily make me a fan of someone’s music. Music, to me, is what I’m a fan of; the personality and politics, come after, if at all. Since they won five Grammys in February 2007, the band mostly has been on hiatus. The Dixie Chicks have performed only a handful of shows during the last six years; and, except for releasing some greatest hits collections and a concert video compilation, there hasn’t been a release of any new music under the Dixie Chicks umbrella. The exception was the trio singing vocals on the track “You” on Steve Martin’s bluegrass album Rare Bird Alert in 2011, an amazing and beautiful and sad song on a lovely, lovely album. Luckily for fans like my sister and me, the two sisters in the group (Martie Maguire and Emily Robison) started a new band Court Yard Hounds and released a self-titled CD in 2010 and a second album, Amelita, this summer. Natalie Maines just released her first solo album Mother in May. I love that they are still making music, but the hope for new music by the Dixie Chicks diminishes with each passing year. I guess it might be like when the Beatles and Eagles broke up and more music came into the world, but it wasn’t as magical as that special chemistry of the band all together.

Last shot for a live concert?
Despite our love for their music, my sister and I had never seen the Dixie Chicks perform live in concert. In January of this year, when I read about the new music releases of the Court Yard Hounds and Maines, I figured we had lost our chance. Strangely, a few days later I happened to catch that the Dixie Chicks were headlining four music festivals in Canada, scheduled for July 2013. We talked about going, but debated the costs of money, time, and travel. Finally, in late February, we plopped down in front of my laptop to pick a festival and buy tickets.

We opted for the Craven Country Jamboree for several reasons. It was the closest, it focused on country music (we’re both mainly country chicks, but with broad musical tastes), and the other headliners for the festival–Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney–were also big draws. The Craven Country Jamboree is the longest running music festival in Canada, according to its website. The Jamboree also appealed to my grassroots side, it’s located near a very small town (Craven, population 274) and it’s one of the few festivals that doesn’t have reserved seating or standing areas. Each concert-goer has the opportunity to stand or sit where they want. The Jamboree even offers a “gopher run” where folks can get to the outside concert area as early as 5 a.m. and plant their lawn chairs for the evening’s shows. One of the big joys of the festival is one stage and a long docket of scheduled performers over the festive four-day weekend. We didn’t have to worry about competing stage sounds or missing one act in favor of another. We opted for the camping choice and forked over a little extra money for a reserved and designated spot in the quiet section, reasoning we didn’t want to drive 873 miles in one direction and then be stuck searching for a tent spot in a sea of RVs.

As the months rolled by, we listened to the Chicks CDs and caught most of McGraw and Chesney’s hits on the radio daily (Try counting up the times those two are played in a 24 hour period on a mainstream country station; it’s a big number, I’m sure of it.). July hit in a heat wave, we met for a family get together, and then very shortly it was time to leave for Canada and the Chicks. We received e-mail updates about the festival, and I will admit that each time I clicked to read one, I was afraid the big news would be a concert cancellation or rescheduling. Canada has had huge amounts of rain this summer and we were surprised to find that the Calgary Stampede, another large Canadian music festival, was forced to cancel four dates of shows due to flooding damage. These cancellations coincided with the Craven dates and also included slots for Tim McGraw and the Dixie Chicks. Four Dixie Chicks shows had been reduced to three, but our show was still a go. While Craven had received lots of precipitation, it wasn’t as hard-hit. Although, they did delay opening up some of the camping areas to let things dry out a bit.

Long road to the Jamboree
Thursday evening, the 11th of July arrived. Kelly worked all day and I filled the living room with our stuff to take for the long drive and camping. With a few errands to run, a gas tank to fill, and a stepmother’s cat to feed across town, we didn’t leave until almost 9 p.m. We had plans to drive the six or seven hours to Belle Fourche, SD where we had a motel room reservation. We zipped up I-25 to Cheyenne and then were blessedly free of the freeway for the next 5 1/2 hours, where we encountered the dark prairie that is Wyoming at night. Belle Fourche came at the right point on the road, just when I was thinking that sand paper might feel good on my eyes. We stumbled into the room, grateful for two beds and happy that rolling wheels weren’t beneath our feet. A bit of a nap and slumber refreshed us enough to get back on the road after on-the-road breakfast gleanings from our back seat treasures of fruit, croissants, and cheese sticks. We drove out of the town of Belle Fourche, still not sure how to pronounce it, since local and regional pronunciations don’t necessarily match up with their foreign language roots. According to the deep-voiced radio announcer on the country station, it sounds like Bell Fooosh. With that, we swooshed on through Belle Fourche, north to North Dakota and on to Canada.

Much of Highway 85 through South Dakota and North Dakota is full of rolling hills, green prairie, clumps of cattle (really, they were all standing very close together in tight groups near the fence by the road), hay fields full of round bales, even the stretches between the road and fences were harvested and rolled, and a few flocks of sheep. At times, we were the only ones on the road as far as the horizon. Then we arrived in the energy alley of North Dakota.

If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you know that there is a big energy boom in North Dakota. If you have not, let’s just say that much of the once-seemingly-empty prairie of North Dakota is now full of drilling rigs for natural gas and oil, trucks loaded with equipment barreling down the two lane highways, pockets of fields scraped for hastily put up trailers to house energy workers, and small towns bursting at the seams with the onslaught of energy and population booms. The Bakken shale is the source of the energy boom and the prairie was dotted with the resulting fiery plumes, natural gas burned off above the wells.

The online maps gave us the estimate of eight and a half hours from Belle Fourche to Craven. However, with a couple of bathroom stops, small town pauses for road trip essentials of bubble gum and sunflower seeds, and a detour into Williston, North Dakota for camping groceries and ice, our trip took about 10 hours. We also had the border stop in Fortuna, North Dakota, just a few miles north of Williston. Much of the road between Williston and Fortuna is completely torn up, making the way for a road-side-shoulder-pipeline to bring those just-pumped underground liquids to cars like ours, making me jumpy and anxious to get to Canada. It’s been 15 years since I drove into Canada, way before the 2009 requirements of passports and a full stop. We stopped at the tiny crossing, which reminded me of a drive-up lane at a bank. The whole station consisted of a truck scale, a clump of trees, a couple of buildings, a trailer (staff housing?), and a 12-foot gate. We rolled down all the windows, popped the trunk, took off our sunglasses, and turned off the radio. The agent of the Canadian Border Services Agency asked where we were going, a fairly predictable question, in his yummy Canadian accent, subtle but with exaggerated vowel sounds. When we answered the Craven Jamboree, he wanted to know who was playing. While it might have been a regular follow-up inquiry, I like to think it’s because he was a country fan, especially when he seemed to brighten at the mention of Tim McGraw, Dixie Chicks, and Kenny Chesney. He sent us on our merry way and Kelly and I both took casual note of a sign that said, “When border is closed, use North Portal.” Those words would haunt us later. We found the Saskatchewan Prairie much like the North Dakota Prairie, vast and green, with drilling rigs for oil and natural gas punctuating the landscape and tiny farm towns sprinkled throughout.

Craven, here we come
We rolled through Regina. In Canada it’s pronounced differently than my classmate’s name from elementary school. The g sounds like the j in jelly, the i is long as it sounds in the word line, and we’ll leave it at that. Regina is the capital and second-largest city of a sparsely populated province, and the main drag showed us the older section with beautiful homes and tree laden streets forking off the main road, and some tall churches along with large office and government buildings near trails, parks, and water. The main road also showed us the outskirts of big box sprawl and fast food restaurants prevalent on both sides of the road, typical of other North American cities. Amidst the signs and strip malls, I thoroughly enjoyed not recognizing any of the store or restaurant chains, minus just a couple. We did not understand the gasoline station signs, with five digits for prices. We passed through the end of the city limits and turned into the Qu’Appelle Valley, beautiful rolling green hills that take a different form than any I have ever seen.  Lots of wheat and hay fields surrounded us as we made our way to Craven.  As we neared Craven, finally, signs directed us to the Jamboree, but it was off the highway down a little frontage road when several folks wearing official-looking t-shirts and traffic vests pointed us on our way. A couple of nights before our trip, I had printed out our tickets, camping pass, along with driving directions, and the helpful details in e-mail messages from the Craven Jamboree folks, now crumpled and clipped to a clipboard. I scrambled so we could flash our camping pass and concert tickets. In turn we received concert ribbon bracelets from a Jamboree official, tightened around our wrists, to be worn and shown the entire weekend. In that charmingly cute Canadian accent, she showed us where to turn to get to our camping spot. At eight o’clock in the evening, we were grateful for the latitude and late sunset to give us plenty of light to find our way.

Canadian neighbors
Our spot was staked and marked, putting us in the middle of two RVs and the accompanying pickups. We parked and hurriedly pulled the essentials of camping out of the trunk, the tent and mattresses. Our RVing neighbors on the left introduced themselves and we had a quick chat, grateful for their quiet sweetness. Our intent had been to set up camp and then wander over to the concert area. After checking our watches, though, we abandoned that idea, since we didn’t want to miss a note (or a sighting) of Tim McGraw. We would figure out the tent and mattresses later, after the high of music notes, the adrenaline of more than 20,000 people, and the eye and ear candy of Mr. McGraw.

The Craven Country Jamboree is held each year on land designated for rodeo and fairgrounds. The main arena has a circular field and bleacher seats, but the main stage is brought in and assembled each year, along with large sound equipment and two humongous TV screens to sit on each side of the stage. A t-shaped catwalk allows the artists to prance, dance, and strut to get closer to the audience.

Magic of McGraw
Kelly and I bundled up in coats, it was a July night in Canada after all, and I strapped my camera with zoom lens around my neck. Although it was a fair night, we switched our driving flip-flops to socks and running shoes. We walked along the Qu’Appelle River, near the campgrounds, passed by rows of port-o-lets, and then entered the grounds. We strolled through the food vendors, grabbing quick corn dogs and hot dogs before entering the stands. We followed the throngs through one entrance into the wide open field and there was Tim.

We only missed the first song, as we walked in, which we could hear on the giant speakers. I have been to several concerts in my life, but I usually avoid the huge stadium shows, because of the expense and the excess crowds. The Jamboree was my introduction (minus a few minutes of a Van Halen concert the summer I turned 11, another story) to the big show. The sisters from Colorado found a spot amidst the standing and dancing crowd, not too far back from the area where early morning fans had staked off their space. Far behind, some people took their seats in the bleachers, but it felt too far away, even with the big screens showing the band and every move by McGraw. We found it fun to be in the middle of the crowd, absorbing the energy, enjoying the music, thriving on the people watching, and getting a great view of Tim McGraw. I was so happy we got to have an outdoor concert experience.

Before the concert, I was a casual fan of Tim McGraw. I have most of his greatest hits memorized, singing along to the radio when his songs come on and frequently playing a recent greatest hits two-CD set in my collection. Before Canada, I thought he was cute, with his ever-present black straw cowboy hat pulled down low on his head. I admired his turns as an actor in supporting roles in the movies Country Strong, The Blind Side, and Friday Night Lights. After the concert, I am now an avid, and possibly rabid, fan of Tim McGraw. He puts on a great show, singing his well-known hits of new and old along with recent releases from his latest album, including “One of Those Nights”, “Highway Don’t Care”, and “Two Lanes of Freedom,” the last of which is the title track and name of his summer tour. He strutted, he sang, he showed off muscles in a tight t-shirt tucked in just at the front to reveal a gleaming rodeo belt buckle on tight, tight perfectly faded jeans. He sang a love song and sweetly touched the wedding ring on his left hand, a nod to his wife, Faith Hill. McGraw showed why he’s still at the top of his game, 20 years after his major label debut. He has twang and story-telling and charm and presence, somehow able to perform for the folks in the back sitting down in the bleachers. The stars were out and a star was on stage.

After a day-long drive, the concert was the perfect antidote. We reveled among the fans, nodded, swayed, and sang along. There’s a magic that happens in a live show, whether it’s opera or theatre or country music. The set list can be repeated, another band can fill the stage, but the evening can never be completely re-created. It’s in the air, it’s on the lips of the fans as they sing, and it’s in the vibrations felt in the ground. I turned and smiled at Kelly, so glad we had made the trek.

We paused and waited until the crowd began to dissipate, before stumbling into the informal line out into the night.

Night rumblings
Back at our campsite, I planted our tent in the dark on the thick, dense grasses. Kelly took care of setting up and organizing the rest of camp, stowing the ice chests and stadium chairs in a little half circle, keeping the tent between the barriers of the car and chairs. We tried to work in the dark and quiet, a big contrast to the leftover concert notes buzzing in our ears. Our neighbors to the right and left were tucked into camp trailers and our car-and-tent camping neighbors behind us must have already been zipped up in their nylon, because we were the only ones making any noise. A little after eleven, we were still well before the prescribed quiet hour of midnight, so we stumbled some more and then sank into our mattresses. Kelly chose to sleep outside, because the over-inflated twin-size mattress I packed for her didn’t fit in the tent. Great packer, I am, I still had the backpacking mattress and I climbed into my wonderful little tent haven and fell right to sleep. I heard the pitter-patter of little raindrops and rolled over to find my watch and peeked at the digital night-glow time, five a.m. Kelly was outside, so I zipped out and found her pulling on her coat. I told her to get in the tent, but she whispered and pointed to her car. She climbed into the front seat, tilted the seat all the way back, snuggled into her sleeping bag, and closed her eyes. I grabbed my book from the back seat and climbed back into the tent. I fell back asleep and woke up to a pool of drool in my pillow and the sounds of a light rain. It was seven o’clock and after peeking out of the tent, I could see no one was up and outside. I went back to a lazy morning of sleeping and reading, zipping out and in to check in on Kelly and our neighbors every hour or so. Around 10:30, I heard rumblings and felt the heat of the sun. I got dressed and climbed out of my after-concert euphoria and shook my head out of my novel. I tidied the campsite, draining the morning’s rain from the ice chest and chairs. Kelly emerged shortly after and after tent-side grooming, we decided to drive into town for breakfast.

Saturday morning meal and music
We chose Lumsden (approximate population 1,581) over neighboring Craven (approximate population 274) and picked the local greasy spoon downtown. While not inspiring, the warm meal sufficed and the facilities were clean and not shared with 20,000 other concert goers. We didn’t spot any other Craven wristbands in the restaurant. We drove around the town to check out the local flavor before heading to the grocery store for a couple of things. Quickly, we got back to camp, and judging from some of the just-emerging campers, some people must have partied all night.

It was Saturday and the Dixie Chicks turn to headline for the day. The McGraw concert had been a good warm-up for logistics; we wanted to get there early to hear the other acts and to save ourselves a good standing spot. If we hadn’t been in a fog in the early morning, we could have tried for the “gopher run” to save a spot in the area close to the stage, but we were cloudy and fuzzy and not that organized. The day was cloudy and grey and cool. After checking the schedule, we headed to the largest tent on “Main Street” for the songwriter’s circle. Three emerging Canadian country crooners shared the small stage, taking turns introducing a song, sharing how it was written, or a quick anecdote about its inspiration, and then performing the song solo, just voice and guitar. While I didn’t recognize any of the songs, it was great to hear the story behind the song, and to hear how some of the songs were actually performed by more well-known artists. I love hearing about a job or craft I know nothing about and getting insight into the country music world that I love. Country appeals to me for the songwriting, the storytelling, and the multigenerational history and fandom. While pop music seems to be dominated by the tween, teen, and early twenties sets, country fans span a wide age range and we could see it with the Craven concert-goers. Lots of folks in their early twenties, but plenty of folks in their thirties and older were there, too. At the end of the very lovely songwriter’s set, one of the day’s many downpours began. We hung out in the tent for a while longer, before emerging into the pools to head to the arena. Note, rubber boots were more numerous than cowboy boots, and it was obvious that it wasn’t the first Jamboree for many of the Craven country music lovers. It was funny to see, in the middle of the drench,many twenty-something girls looked like they were trying out for country music videos in bikini tops, cut off shorts, and cowboy boots. Kelly and I were fully clothed and covered in ratty old jeans and waterproof rain coats, ready to settle in for a day of music, rain be damned.

Boys will be Oakridge Boys
Around 3:30, we got ready for a spot in the rain for the 4 p.m. main stage show. Originally Randy Travis was slated for the concert slot, but there have been troubles of late. Early July had him in the headlines with sickness and surgery, but it’s been a slide in the last few years including arrests for public drunkenness and other debacles. At a near-last minute, the Oakridge Boys stepped in for the Travis concert. While we were disappointed, like many others, to miss the deep-voiced country-gospel traditionalist, a show by the long-running group was a rare treat. Kelly and I stood, rain dripping from our hoods, swaying (as much as Kelly will publicly dance) and mouthing words to songs we haven’t heard since childhood. I have vivid memories of watching Hee Haw and dancing with toddler Kelly to the Oakridge Boys. I remembered their facial hair (almost as notorious for beards and moustaches as ZZ Top) almost as much as the deep voices, catchy tunes, and harmonies. While off the radio charts, the Boys (now in their 60s and 70s, I imagine) have continued to tour over the years, and they are seasoned professionals. They offered their greatest hits, trading off lead vocals, seemingly thrilled to death to be performing for such a huge crowd in the glistening drops of Craven. I became a recently-renewed fan immediately.

Doc Walker, say it fast
With more music and rain to come, Kelly and I were afraid to lose our good spots on fairly dry wood chips. We took turns making trips to walk and move around, getting vittles or coffee from the food vendors, or delighting in newly discovered clean, dry, and warm (!) facilities. The Canadian country band Doc Walker was a pleasant surprise and discovery, another advantage of multiple artists and shows. Dubbed the “hardest working country band in Canada” they tour widely and most of the Jamboree-ers seemed to know their songs. I trust our neighbors-to-the-north with their taste in country; it was a great show. I’m definitely adding some of their albums to my CD collection when I next expand it.

Fans, under umbrellas, ready for the rain.
Fans, under umbrellas, ready for the rain.

Dixie Chicks, Dixie Chicks, Dixie Chicks
Throughout the rain of the day, I was worried, somehow, that the act we had been waiting months, no years, for would somehow get cancelled. Around 8:45, the rain stopped and beautiful bits of sun came through the clouds. The surrounding green of the valley and hills and the striking clouds from above were the perfect curtain opening for the Dixie Chicks. They came on stage; I glanced at Kel, and burst into tears as the Dixie Chicks ripped into “Goodbye Earl.” Despite the tears, I sang along, danced, and pinched myself, enjoying the cliché of making sure I wasn’t in a dream. Natalie was in the middle, Emily on our left, Martie on our right. I saw gleams of smiles from Martie, the huge TV showed Emily close her eyes while singing and playing, and surprisingly Natalie danced a silly little jig. She reminded me more of the performer from the early millennium, instead of the politics-performance-worn Natalie of late. Her big voice was luminous as it pierced the night and notes of their best-loved songs.

The misty magic of a rainy night with more than 20,000 other fans sharing in the rarity of a Dixie Chicks concert was wonderful. I expected the concert fans to be mostly women, but I saw many men dancing and singing along, lots without women in their arms. Natalie greeted the crowd with, “I love what you’re wearing,” acknowledging the crowd’s determined wait for the Dixie Chicks. She didn’t talk much; instead the evening was heavy with music, my favorite type of concert.

It’s not that I don’t love anecdotes, stories, jokes, introductions to songs, and off-the-cuff remarks, but my favorite part of a concert is to see familiar or new songs take on their own lives in the air of the evening. It’s like a flashing firefly or a disintegrating firework, the magic of a moment. It’s sharing with strangers, community among country music lovers, performance not politics.

The crowd was supportive and excited, even a bit rowdy. We sang along to the greatest hits and the crowd seemed to respond most to “Wide Open Spaces”, the ode to freedom and new horizons, and “Not Ready to Make Nice”, the charged ballad about the band’s journey after the ”incident.” The Dixie Chicks were frozen in time in those songs, the beginning of the ascent into best-selling music history and standing together after an event that grew larger than even themselves onstage. At the same time, there was an old familiarity in the playing, and a looseness that speaks to little need for rehearsal, opening up moments for spontaneity.

Despite the crowd, the concert felt intimate. Despite the distance, we felt close to the stage. Despite their history, there was no political backlash at least on this night in Craven, Saskatchewan, Canada. Despite the rain, the clouds parted. Despite the parted clouds, the rains came again and again. Despite the cold, the crowd huddled and warmed each other. Despite barriers, the young mom with ear-plugged baby sleeping in her chest-carrier danced and swayed while the older man with a t-shirt proclaiming his predilection for beer and women spun around in his cowboy boots in obvious glee.

It wouldn’t have taken much for me to savor the night, but there wasn’t anything about the night I didn’t love. The highlights of the evening included watching Kelly dancing while visibly and audibly singing. We bumped elbows and turned to each other, sideways so we could see each other through the rain and our hoods. It was the look of sisterhood, the look of a shared love of music, the look of a shared love of a band, the look of a night and experience we’ll look back on for years.

Chilly night

After the concert, we were still high on the music, not really eager to go back to the tent for slumber. We chose fries and fry bread for the evening’s dessert, eating under the eaves of the bleachers before heading back to the campsite. Packing for a country music camping trip was a little different than planning for a back-country expedition and it even contrasted with packing for a deliberate car camping experience. While the tent was dry, even after a day of rain, the night wasn’t really a night for the tent. Kelly and I took turns changing in the car and rescuing our sleeping bags (still dry!) from the tent. We wanted to talk and replay the evening, so we chose a slumber party in the Subaru. We tilted the bucket seats back, each tucked into her own sleeping bag, and talked like the girls we were during the summers of our childhood. We recounted the song choices, the bands from the day, the crowd and movements, and all things Chicks. We slipped into sleep, our breaths taking over the words.

Sunday, funday
I woke up on Sunday in the opposite conditions from the night before, dry and hot from the sun streaming through the windshield. I escaped my sleeping cocoon, slipping out of the car to get dressed in the tent. Despite the late morning, I felt like I was the only one up. Kelly slept a bit longer, while I took care of tidying up and drying out camp duties, spreading the tent fly on the hood of the car and the tarp on the car roof. I did quick camp grooming, relishing clean, dry socks and fresh water for brushing teeth and washing face, hands, and feet. Kelly got up and got ready. We spread the tarp and tent fly out to dry in the midday rays. We took another trip into town for breakfast at the cuter-than-cute Red Brick Bistro. We ordered delicious, yummy breakfast and lingered over coffee and crumbs. We then planned for the remainder of the day. We had a looming18-20 hour drive, a motel reservation in Williston for a Sunday night-Monday morning break, and we needed to be back in Colorado in time for Kelly to work on Tuesday morning. After a little chat, we decided we wanted it all, Kenny Chesney and Colorado by Tuesday. We had just enough time to get back to Craven to change shoes and head to the bleachers for an early afternoon concert.

Legendary Bill Anderson
I read liner notes from albums and the number of times Anderson’s name has popped up as a songwriter is almost infinite. He’s had hits as a songwriter from the 1960s into the 2000s and 2010s. He’s in the Grand Ole Opry and in the Country Music Hall of Fame. His concert was like a trip into a history-filled country jukebox. He introduced his hits and talked about the ones he sang and the ones others sang. He talked about his country-music life, think multiple wives, drowning sorrow in alcohol, and a lonely heart. His whispery voice is quiet and lilts with a life full of adventure and lyrics. I felt lucky we got to see to see him for the full musical hour.

A beard
As Anderson and his band left the stage, the bleachers and muddy field began to fill, as if it were time for the evening’s headliner. Instead, the afternoon’s headliner was coming to the stage. The camouflage t-shirts and facial hair were a clue and the introduction to a Duck Dynasty dude, which is a cultural phenomenon that I didn’t know about. It’s a reality show about a southern family and their somewhat rags-to-riches story of turning a small duck call business into a multimillion dollar empire. Willie Robertson has a southern drawl stoked with a wry sense of humor and more facial hair than what’s left on the Oakridge Boys. Willie worked the crowd, telling jokes and answering questions that had been posed via social media. A young guy, probably in his late teens, seated on the bottom bleacher a few rows below us, was a big fan and his aunt, sitting next to him, turned around to share that Willie had answered her nephew’s question. He was blushing and his ears turned red, but there was a big grin on his face, all while he didn’t say a word. It’s amazing when we are near the people who turn us into fans.

Afternoon in the sun
The sunny day was perfect back at our campsite, because we were part of the only grounds not buried under footsteps of mud. We packed up the tent and all our stuff and settled into camp chairs for a lazy chat over sunflower seeds and almonds. Our tent camping neighbors behind us, who knew all about our Dixie Chicks love, came to join us for a rehashing of the Chicks concert and the general get-to-know-you chatter that happens among people who are genial, friendly, and have a bit in common. That’s the fun of a big country music festival with 24,167 other strangers, you become friends, united for a love of country music outside under the stars.

Chesney’s showmanship
Kenny Chesney has hits on the radio and he’s one of the few acts (in all genres of music) to consistently fill stadiums on year-after-year concert tours. Before Craven, I would have called myself a reluctant fan of Chesney, but after his concert, I get it. It’s big, it’s lots of songs about relaxing and good times and being barefoot. But there’s been a turn to more personal songs, along with the story songs that have filled his career. He’s a showman, but also a humble guy bringing us along for the ride. Chesney seems to make it his night’s mission to give us all a good time, an evening’s escape, a moment away from the mundane. He succeeds and there’s a broad love among his fans. The “bro” contingent of the crowd seemed more present and rowdier than at Saturday night’s Chicks concert, more mud was splattered and we were bumped more frequently, but it was fun nonetheless. Surprisingly, I knew the words to a lot of the songs he sang and it was fun to join in the group sing-along. It was a great last night and the euphoria and adrenaline from the concert was worth at least two cups of coffee, getting on the road at 10:30 pm.

Canada shuts us in and a detour
We zoomed down the highway to Regina, eager to find an open-late-at-night gas station to refill enough to return to North Dakota. We found a station and then got back on the road for Fortuna and a crossing into the U.S. Remember the sign, “Use the North Portal” I spotted when entering Canada? Well, somehow in the back of my mind, I took that to mean an all-night lane, maybe a bell we would ring in the middle of the night. We got to Fortuna and we couldn’t get into the U.S. It was closed, but there’s no sign on the highway in Canadian kilometers to warn one. None of the AAA maps, AAA guidebook, or the atlas (all printed after 2009) mentioned that the stations might be closed. Somehow, I figured the vacuous borders shared by Canada and the U.S. would somehow be open, even in the midst of the dark prairie night. Tired and frustrated at our lack of planning and understanding, we pulled over to look at the map. We drove east to the next closest entry point, also closed. All the surrounding border entries are tiny dots, designating tiny little towns, probably closed like Fortuna’s station of entry. Finally, in delirium, we spotted two words and the sign back in Fortuna finally made sense. “North Portal” was the entry point that was open and it was miles and kilometers and time added to the journey.

As we detoured and drove, though, I noticed an eerie green light in the dark skies, a spot blessedly clear from the bright methane flames of natural gas wells and oil drilling. I remembered Kelly had never seen the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, while it was a much-loved and oft-sighted part of my college years in northern Wisconsin. We got out in the cold amidst the waving, whistling wheat and stood, not surrounded by country music lovers in rubber boots, on the empty prairie. We were alone with the Northern Lights. After we got back into the car, the Northern Lights were with us a bit longer, turning and spinning across the sky. If we hadn’t been locked out of the U.S., we never would have seen the night sky’s magic.

Delirium, desperation, and sand paper eyes
I have never been so excited to see a U.S. Border Patrol Agent as the one that greeted us at three that morning. He was quick and cursory and we were on our way. Kilometers turned to miles and one-house towns crawled by as the sun’s light broke through the dark. Finally, at 6:30 (or 7:30, because of some bizarre time-zone-jump that we couldn’t see on the map in our exhaustion) in the morning, we made it to the bright lights of our chain motel reservation. The night auditor greeted us and gave us two extra hours after checkout; we must have looked like muddy victims of the night of the living dead.

Again, two motel beds made the room seem like a suite for royalty. We closed the door, drew the curtains (not Amelia Bedelia style), and each flopped onto her mattress, determined to sleep for a hundred years, or at least six hours. We slept like logs, waking up with just enough time to shower and get out with 15 minutes to spare before the delayed checkout, at 1 p.m.

The center
Cruising through town, then North Dakota, then South Dakota, Kelly and I noticed a little red dot for the “Geographic Center of the U.S. Marker” in the atlast. As it got closer, we took another detour, this time deliberate and on a dirt road to find a rock cairn and a chipped and fading sign. The center of the contiguous U.S. is in Lebanon, Kansas, the former center of the U.S., until Alaska and Hawaii joined the union in 1959. The center mark moved north and a bit west to the open field in South Dakota. While the more populous town of Belle Fourche (remember, Fooosh) contains a park designating the center, we honored the true spot on a remote dirt road with wide open space all around it. We stopped, took some pictures, and drove on. We entered Black Hills country, stopping to get a bite before Kelly drove us through the beautiful and scenic Spearfish Canyon, the sun just setting behind the hills.

Center of the universe, or something.
Center of the universe, or something.

Each quiet, little Wyoming town was greeted in the dark, our goodbyes whispered out our rearview mirror. The bustle and buzz of seemingly metropolitan Cheyenne provided a jolt, after silent prairie towns all day, the cars and lights and semi-trucks a bit shocking. Cheyenne meant the Interstate and another turn to the south, to Colorado. We finally made it home on Monday morning at two, almost 1900 miles later. Music, memories, miles. Craven, country, Chicks. We each spilled into our own bedrooms, camping gear and suitcases and ice chests littering the living room.

I struggled to sleep. My dreams were filled with the ghosts of fiddle, dobro, and a distinct voice, all three melding into the music of the Dixie Chicks. A dream of a concert, a dream of a trip, a long road.

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2 comments

    • It was very fun to see them live! They haven’t lost their magic or chemistry together. The audience was thrilled and it was so wonderful to sing along live after all these years! 🙂

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