Wednesday, July 13, 2005


This year marks about a dozen years that I've been attending bluegrass festivals. At the beginning, I was a talentless, but enthusiastic fan who avidly lived and breathed the music-forgoing showers, comfort and shelter, day and night, to immerse myself in the rural musical culture. Now, as a full-time working musician, I'm living on the other end of the spectrum- rarely sleeping in the same place more than two nights in a row, living a nomadic existence from one Motel X to the next, expecting (and receiving) golf cart rides to get my instruments through the thickened crowd into the backstage area, and, of course, hobnobbing with the bluegrass royalty etc.. But throughout my varied festival experiences, one thing has remained consistent from day one: the humble Portajohn. From the Adirondacks to the Rockies, from the northern plains to the swampy bottomland of the southern delta, no matter where a bluegrass festival happens to be, the Portajohn is there.

For those who've never had the pleasure of the experience, I'll report that there is an amazing consistency in Portajohn design. Here's the basics: There's a door (with a working lock- hopefully). There is a plastic seat (ideally in the "up" position). There is a roll of toilet paper mounted to the wall. There are air vents sliced throughout the ceiling for much-needed ventilation. And finally, there is the hole- the bottom of which is filled with a strange and nebulous blue liquid. This liquid is provided, mercifully, in an attempt to mask the odor of its soupy contents. It's a no-frills place to be, for sure. If it's hot outside, it's 20 degrees hotter inside the John (which gives a new meaning to "sweating out the poisons"). True, it's not particularly pleasant, but if you've got to go (and you have no other choice), it works. The only discernible difference between one Portajohn and the next, in my opinion, is in the thoughtful extras that some of the nicer models offer its bluegrass citizens. For instance, it's becoming standard to have a hand-sanitizing dispenser mounted to the wall by the door. This allows you to feel a little better if your mom taught you to always wash your hands after using the bathroom. On rare occasions, I've even experienced the "executive washroom unit", which has actual soap, water AND paper towels. Also, many of the newer models now have a built in urinal on the wall. This feature saves a lot of disgusting wiping up if the seat is found in the "down" position. But innovation can sometimes result in confusion. A few years ago, for example, this simple, but effectively designed, elongated half-funnel shaped revolutionary feature was mistaken by a female festival patron who believed it to have a completely different function. The poor, misinformed woman lodged a complaint with the festival management on her way home-reporting that, "SOME rude person has been PEEING in the PURSE HOLDERS!" We about fell off of our plastic seats when we heard that one.

Yes, the lowly Portajohn is the industry standard of the bluegrass cosmos. It's most festival organizer's top pick when facilitating the personal elimination of their ticket-holders. Smaller festivals, like the type we cut our teeth on in Iowa so many years ago, might choose to just scatter a half dozen of these injection molded beauties throughout the camping area. In contrast, the larger festivals we find ourselves playing more recently, tend to herd their Portajohns into a sort of militaristic rectangular latrine common-area where festival attendees can gather, talk, poop and pee with abandon. Clearly, cleaning and service is an important component to consider here. If the festival provides too few cleanings over a busy weekend, you might think twice before prolonging your visit. In my checkered bluegrass festival memory, I know that on many a Sunday afternoon, I chose to save it for home when I opened up a particularly foul smelling door. For my money, the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield Kansas, has the best Portajohn service on the bluegrass planet. These folks have human waste disposal down to a science. The Winfield festival regularly draws somewhere around 18,000 people (give or take 5,000) over 4 days, with many attendees camping for a week before AND AFTER the actual festival. Give a chimpanzee a pencil, and he'd quickly figure out the math of that many people, over that many days, with only so many plastic boxes to do their business in. The monkey's sum is this: a lot of banana peels, a LOT. But in my over 10 years of Winfield festivals, I've rarely walked into a Portajohn that didn't inspire me to hang out for awhile, because it just smelled so fresh and delightful. Here's why: there is an army patrol of suck-trucks combing the campgrounds during the daylight hours, cleaning every dang Portajohn in the place like ants on an abandoned picnic spread. These guys, wearing biceps-high rubber gloves, do some seriously unpleasant work so that you, the festival patron (no doubt filled to the brim with ears of roasted corn and onion burgers), can relax and unwind in minty-cool mountain freshness. It is because of this, that each year at Winfield, I always go out of my way to say thanks to these forgotten heroes of the festival when I spot them working the row of Portajohns closest to my tent.

And, I've got to say it, I love how the Portajohn experience is so democratic. Because regardless of what you might think folks, when your favorite bluegrass star hears the call of the number one or two, nine times out of ten, they will take care of nature at the festival the same way you do- in a hot and smelly plastic box, the only difference being that it's located behind the stage with a sign on the door that says, "for artists only".

This fact came home to me last September at Winfield. We were tuning up just minutes before our evening performance on the main stage, and I thought it prudent to empty my bladder before we went on. I walked over to the backstage Portajohn and, in the low light, did not see that it was occupied. I yanked on the door, found it locked, and stepped off a few paces to wait my turn. After a few minutes, the door swung open and out walked the female lead singer of a pretty danged famous band who had played onstage earlier. Professional courtesy prevents me from revealing her identity but she was clearly embarrassed when she saw me standing there, and we exchanged insincere pleasantries as she quickly moved past. I opened the door and was horrified by the stench that lay in wait for me. I thought to myself, "have they not cleaned this thing all weekend?" As I pointed out earlier, when deep-fried festival food is consumed, processed and eliminated over several days, the receiving Portajohn can really take on a life of it's own. But still, this seemed to be more of a localized and specific odor. In fact, I had used the same John earlier that day, and it had been as clean and fresh as an alpine meadow. This particular putridness undoubtedly belonged to my famous, and thus justifiably mortified predecessor. Holding my breath for a few minutes, I did my business as quickly as possible and then got the heck out of there. As I grabbed up my instruments and headed up on to the stage, I couldn't stop laughing.

The next time I encounter this "secret stinker" at a festival, I'll undoubtedly smile, exchange the usual pleasantries and be courteous. But deep in my brain's nasal memory tissues, I'll recall, with uncomfortable accuracy, the awful stench of that night, connect it once again with her face, and undoubtedly burst into laughter.

We shared something that night, just the two of us- something indescribable. And the humble Portajohn was there to frame the event in my molded plastic memory for all time.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Here we go again

In an effort to keep the numbers of comments per blog under 60, I herby submit a new place for y'all to post on.

I've not really been keeping up very well, have I? At least brotherphil is making good in his efforts to keep the updates coming. Let me see if I can provide a few updates, some of which are asked for in the last blog...

July 3 was indeed rained out. I was heading down there with some friends about 7:30 and saw they were directing traffic out of the park, none in. We got up to the rain-slickered police officer -- I rolled down my window, informed him I was a performer (that was probably obvious, due to my being all dressed up snazzy in black, including my new black slinky rayon cowgirl shirt, resplete with rhinestoney details) -- he said sorry, they called it off due to the big storm coming, couldn't I tell that from the lightning every 5 seconds, the enormous dark clouds and ominous wind? Oh, I might have made up that last part. Anyway, sorry if any of you were out there and had to hightail it home. I was looking forward to the live televised part! Oh well.

August 4 will indeed feature us in Westport. I just updated our schedule page tonight. We're on at 9 pm at the Beaumont Club. I think you pay $5 and can go to all the showcases that night. Our friends The Afterparty were also nominated (Best New Act) and are also playing at the Beaumont later that night. Cool. And here's what's cool for us -- while we've been nominated for like the last 5 years for Best Country/Bluegrass Act, this year we found ourselves in a new category -- Best Live Act! Don't cha think that's cool? The best part of all is that YOU can vote! Check out my political activism!


I just did! You probably have to "complete the verification process" for your vote to count, so please follow through if'n you're willing to vote at all, ok? Now, let's have a winning ticket, folks!

Caught up as I was just now in my celebration of this country's rights (left over from Independence Day), I now forget whatever else I intended to update from your various posts. It's always an adventure hearing all your stories, and glad you all are still with us, escaping horrors daily. May they be much fewer and farther between for all...