It’s been 25 years now since the first Americanarama Festival in Buffalo. We asked Buck Quigley to tell us how it all happened. — The Editor
During the 1990s, my band the Steam Donkeys spent a number of years bouncing around the country in a series of vans. Initially, we began traveling to distant venues that were open to booking an unsigned act on the strength of a five-song cassette of original material, a one-page press kit and a band photo.
In those days, business was conducted via landline telephone and the United States Postal Service. We had a PO Box at the Grant Street post office, where we would get correspondence. I used to go check it a couple of times a week.
There was an annual publication put out by Musician Magazine called The Musician’s Guide to Touring that many bands and booking agents used in order to get contact info for venues in cities around the country. Clubs would list what kind of music they featured. As I recall, it was generally a broad, one-word genre description. Rock. Alternative. Blues. Punk. Bluegrass. Rap. Grunge.
Back then, “Americana” was not a descriptor used for music. In the dictionary, the term basically referred to tangible artifacts related to the cultural heritage of the United States. Dusty relics of a bygone time. The kind of stuff you used to find in barns and at flea markets.
So I had to use my imagination when I was plotting out those first little tours. How to describe our sound, when it didn’t match with the genres of the day? I would mail our promotional materials and follow up about a week later with a phone call to the person in charge of booking. A lot of money was spent on postage and even more money was spent on phone bills. Incredibly high phone bills by today’s standards.
I learned that the most difficult part of booking a tour was booking the first date. Once you had a first date scheduled somewhere – anywhere — the rest became easier.
I came to realize that it pleased prospective club bookers if you could create the illusion that you were at least slightly in demand. Nobody wants to book a totally unknown act that can’t get a gig anywhere.
So you don’t cold call a club in Atlanta, Ga., unless you already have a gig booked in Chapel Hill, N.C., let’s say. I quickly came to learn that it doesn’t even matter if the gig is confirmed in Chapel Hill. The important thing is to let the person in Atlanta know that you’re simply looking for a “connecting gig” between Chapel Hill and, ummm, New Orleans.
See? This creates the sense that here is a band that’s going places! It didn’t matter that you didn’t have the gig in New Orleans yet because once you got the Atlanta gig you could then call a club in New Orleans and say that you were now looking for a little “connecting gig” between Atlanta and Austin, Texas, or wherever.
Voila! I booked entire tours composed primarily of “connecting gigs.”
By nature, I’m not much of a con man. I tell myself that I never try to mislead people unless it’s in their own best interest. I just knew that if the Steam Donkeys could get on the stage at these venues we would be able to blow the roof off the joints. And we did. We quickly made a lot of friends among club owners, music fans and musicians.
In Atlanta we met regional music legend the late Gregory Dean Smalley. He and Faylynn Owen, the energetic booker for the Star Community Bar in the Little Five Points section of town, were putting together a music festival called BUBBAPALOOZA—which was a funny and sarcastic swipe at the huge Alternative music festival LOLLAPALOOZA. BUBBAPALOOZA was a celebration of the “Redneck Underground,” which was a term coined by another southern regional music hero, the late Deacon Lunchbox.
One of the best descriptions of the times comes courtesy of James Kelly, a journalist for Creative Loafing and a member of Slim Chance and the Convicts:
“The Redneck Underground was the hot music scene in Atlanta — a consortium of Southern-based bands playing twangy country, hopping rockabilly and grungy but grounded roots rock, all wrapped up with a distinct sense of regional pride. It was music that celebrated the good things about Southern culture: music, mama, barbeque, stock cars and cold beer, but without a chip on the shoulder covered by the dark cloak of prejudice, racism, isolationism or “the grudge.” If the Redneck Underground was a shared positive sense of identity, Bubbapalooza was the culmination of that pride, and everybody was welcome to participate.”
The Steam Donkeys became known as the only band from north of the Mason-Dixon line to be welcomed on that scene and we played BUBBAPALOOZA for several years, every Memorial Day weekend. I have a few old posters from back in the day and they do bring back fond memories of all the acts.
You may even recognize some bands like the Drive-By Truckers and Whiskeytown—the band fronted by a young Ryan Adams. We became very good friends with the Star Room Boys out of Athens, Ga. We played with them at the 40 Watt several times. The Drive-By Truckers and the Star Room Boys played their first Buffalo shows with us on the bill at the Mohawk Place.
In Raleigh, N.C., we got on the bill for a similar event called S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest, which was short for “Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash Leisure and Entertainment Festival.” It was there I first met Eric Royer. Royer was an incredible one-man bluegrass band from Boston, Mass., whose inventive contraption featured homespun touches like a dancing marionette that hopped around as he played.
In Atlanta and Raleigh we’d seen how there was this style of music that was taking shape outside the mainstream and being embraced by people in their 20s and 30s but not being exploited by major record companies or radio stations yet.
Meanwhile, it didn’t matter where we drove in the van. If we turned on a Hot Country radio station we’d hear all kinds of line dancing hits. Brooks & Dunn, Garth Brooks, and the ubiquitous “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus. Once, while surfing the dial we discovered a version of this song tailored lyrically to fit on Christian radio:
Let Jesus fill your heart
Your Achy Breaky Heart
He’s the only one who understands
So while there was this huge audience eating up a lot of the stuff that was coming out of Nashville, we knew there was this whole undercurrent of music fans who were hungering for something a bit more stripped down, without so much cheesy glitz.
In the way that “grunge” bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were breaking through on MTV and rock radio, there was this concurrent thing going on with country music, spearheaded by hipsters sporting ironic trucker hats and adopting Pabst Blue Ribbon as their preferred beverage. An online, and later a print, journal called No Depression covered a lot of what was going on back then. It’s still going strong.
During this time, a few members of the Steam Donkeys were working for Indigo Productions in Buffalo when we weren’t on the road. I spent a couple of years building and setting up stages at events large and small — from small corporate events to the Erie County Fair. It was hard work with long hours without great pay, but it also provided an understanding of what went into constructing a professional stage.
Now, for those of you who don’t know the chronology of things, it is helpful to know that the Steam Donkeys’ first full-length release was recorded by Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac with cover artwork by Philip Burke. By this time, Burke’s signature portraits of rock stars were gracing the table of contents page of Rolling Stone magazine among many other publications.
We called the record “Cosmic Americana,” which was a nod to Gram Parsons, who described the sound he was going for as “Cosmic American Music.” It was a pretty impressive package for an unsigned band to pull together.
So, as this new “scene” was evolving, there were a lot of names applied to it. Cow Punk was an early one. Progressive Country. Alt.country. Free Range Country. Finally, the term Americana was adopted by a bunch of smaller radio stations who began playing these kind of fringe artists who worked outside the universe of the huge hitmakers in Nashville.
I remember our record promoter, Al Moss, explaining this new format to me and saying that one of the radio jocks mentioned that they might want us to change the name of our record. He joked back that he’d better hope we don’t sue HIM.
(I would like to point out that there is now, in fact, a musical sub-genre called “Cosmic Americana,” and that everything in that category sounds nothing like the Steam Donkeys did back then nor the way we sound today.)
In any case, it was the culmination of all these things that led us to decide to host our own music festival here in our hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. We modeled it after BUBBAPALOOZA because we wanted to showcase bands whose sound fit with what we were hearing down south. In Buffalo, a lot of original bands had been influenced by NYC Punk, English New Wave and Canadian Alternative Rock for a couple of decades and we wanted to share what we’d been hearing with folks from our hometown.
We slapped the suffix “rama” — meaning “spectacular display” — onto the term Americana, and just like that Americanarama was born.
Probably one of the biggest obstacles to staging a festival is arranging for the stage itself. But here we were working for a company with plenty of deck, mixing boards, speakers and lights to put on a show anywhere. We also had enthusiastic coworkers like Johnny Mohawk, who made sure to set aside all the gear we would need for our event, year after year.
We always put Indigo Productions on the Americanarama poster as one of our sponsors. Frankly, without the free stage, we never could have afforded to put on any of the shows.
The first three years were one-day-only affairs held in the outdoor space next to the Pierce Arrow Bar & Grill on Elmwood Avenue. That first day the Steam Donkeys were joined by the Cowslingers (Cleveland, Ohio),the Pine Dogs, Nimrod Wildfire Band, the Irving Klaws, Flying Saucers (Columbus, Ohio), and the Polish Hillbillies (Pittsburgh, Pa.).
By the fourth year, we’d thoroughly outgrown the Pierce Arrow. Pete Perrone, owner of the Mohawk Place, stepped in and made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. He suggested moving the event to his club and letting it stretch on for an entire weekend. And, he enthused, it was very feasible to get a permit to shut down East Mohawk Street Saturday and Sunday.
Great, right? But how do you fill such a bill when you aren’t really a booking agent and you don’t have a budget to offer any performers a guarantee?
That’s where Marty Boratin stepped in. He’d been booking all sorts of underground acts at various venues in town since the 1980s. Now he was booking the Mohawk Place and he was well aware of the fringe artists working the outskirts of mainstream country and roots rock.
Another thing that made Americanarama special fun right from the outset was our wholehearted embrace of silly American activities like a hot dog eating contest and a spontaneous beauty pageant with contestants entering at random from the audience.
These were events within themselves which were given the spotlight on the main stage. The heroics on display as people crammed hot dogs into their mouths was as inspiring as any Olympic event. And the improvised speeches from the Miss Americanarama Mama Pageant contestants often brought the audience to tears. Of laughter. And shouts of approval.
These little touches encouraged audience participation and made the event that much more lovable.
We also had some mind-blowing food, courtesy of Barbecue Bob, who we’d originally met as a club owner in Wilmington, North Carolina. Bob had things smoking on his custom rig towed by his classic Ford pickup long before the barbecue craze had taken root in Buffalo.
Cliff Hanger — harmonica player for the Sky Cabin Boys and the Jacklords — acted as the emcee. He worked the crowd like an inspired cross between P.T. Barnum and an American-flag-clad Abbie Hoffman in a jovial mood.
We took the American flag thing all the way. There was always red, white, and blue “Bugs Bunny” bunting on the front of the stage, just like at the county fair. Of course, the scene always maintained enough of a slacker vibe so that no one mistook the proceedings as toxic patriotism. Even when we decided to start scheduling the event on the weekend closest to Flag Day, June 14.
A Buffalo school teacher named Sara Hinson had played a role in making Flag Day a national holiday. Over time, this became a useful factoid to mention to local media when seeking publicity for Americanarama. At its height, the festival was featured on local TV stations and landed on the cover of the Gusto entertainment section in The Buffalo News. And the eye-catching posters were hung everywhere in the city. All of that became an awful lot of work.
As I look back at old Americanarama posters, I marvel at the number of out-of-town artists who showed up to take part for next to nothing. Of course, I realize that for many of them Americanarama was just a “connecting gig” to another show further down the road. Here’s a link to some of the great Mark Wisz posters for the later Americanaramas.
Looking back from the perspective of time I can also see the names of defunct bands and the smiling faces of friends and acquaintances who are no longer with us. When I heard of Sadies frontman Dallas Good’s untimely passing this past February, I immediately pictured him and his brother Travis standing tall and lanky on that Mohawk Street stage 20 years earlier.
Ultimately, AMERICANARAMA ran its course. It was never conducted as a money-making event, thank God. Like most labors of love, it was done with a sense of earnestness, enthusiasm and purpose. And that purpose was for everyone to hang out, listen to a bunch of cool original bands, eat some good food and have fun.