Country Music Legends Fair – (Kempton, PA)
Halfway through his set at the Country Music Legends Fair, Hank Thompson put aside his guitar and told the audience, “I know a lot of you folks have old records and photos and souvenirs. Feel free to bring ’em up after the set. I’d be happy to meet you and sign whatever you’ve got.” And that’s exactly what he did, shaking hands, chatting with fans, posing for snapshots, autographing albums and mementos from the various stages in his long career. It was the search for this kind of interaction that led some music fans (myself included) away from the impersonal excesses of ’70s rock and to the alternative of punk music — not realizing that the opportunity existed in country music all along.
A sleepy little community located on the fringes of the Appalachian Mountains in southeastern Pennsylvania, Kempton is the home of the WK+S Railroad, a train line that takes daily excursions into the surrounding hills and valleys. With the image of railroads figuring prominently in country music, it seemed appropriate to have the steam locomotives chugging in the background throughout the three-day music festival. Performers this year included Kitty Wells, Charlie Louvin, Wilma Lee Cooper and Kenny Roberts, among others.
Jack Greene started off the Sunday afternoon show, and while he certainly has an impressive musical career, including a membership in Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours (or, as he recalled, “Ernest said he needed a drummer; what he really needed was a mechanic for the tour bus!”), much of his solo material was swallowed up by the syrupy pop sound of 1960s Nashville. He shuffled through a half-hour of near-hits, ending with “There Goes My Everything”. Instead of playing it straight, Greene chose to use the song as a vehicle for his spiritual awakening, changing the second half of the tune to “He Is My Everything”.
With little premise, Stonewall Jackson ended up being one of the highlights of the day, leading his band, the Minutemen (sorry, no D. Boon), through a set of straight-ahead country tunes. From his twangy version of Lobo’s “Me And You And A Dog Named Boo” through “BJ The DJ”, George Jones’ “Life To Go” and “Waterloo”, Jackson graciously shared his music and 40-plus years of Opry experiences with the audience.
Having seen Hank Thompson earlier this year at Austin’s premier dance hall, the Broken Spoke, I was curious to see how he would adapt to the great outdoors. Obviously, the sunshine agreed with Hank, as he bounded onstage, a broad smile on his face, and launched into “Oklahoma Hills”. From the way he belted out hit after hit, you’d never know that the man had celebrated his 72nd birthday a week prior to this appearance.
Despite a long string of drinking-theme hits, Thompson has never fallen victim to the bottle, proudly revealing a musical history that has given him charting records in every decade since the 1940s. His set list read like the song selection on a honky-tonk jukebox: “Breakin’ The Rules”, “Humpty Dumpty Heart”, “The Wild Side Of Life”, “Six Pack To Go”, and on and on. Thompson left the crowd with “Gotta Sell Your Chickens”, a recently released duet with Junior Brown and a song he hopes will give him a charting hit for the sixth decade in a row.
Jean Shepard, who Thompson helped get established in country music half a century ago, followed. Not yet out of high school when she played in her first band, the Melody Ranch Girls, Shepard can arguably be called the original riot grrrl. A long career at Capitol Records allowed her to perform alongside country legends such as Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley. On this day she proved to be as feisty as ever, telling off-color jokes, pulling out classics such as Wayne Raney’s “Why Don’t You Haul Off And Love Me”, yodeling a bit on “Second Fiddle (To An Old Guitar)” and, in a nod to Thompson’s “Wild Side Of Life”, performing her version of the answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”.