As The Yawpers played an unofficial South by Southwest set on a riverboat gliding aimlessly through the Colorado River in Austin, Texas, I couldn’t help but feel like Dante Hicks in Clerks. I’m not even supposed to be here today!
Of course, I’m not whining, as Brian O’Halloran as Dante did so convincingly in Kevin Smith’s classic movie. But I almost didn’t make it to Austin, and the journey there was about as entertaining as the festival itself.
It all started at work one morning in early February. I was on Facebook — for what reason I don’t remember, but I assure you (and any future employers reading this) it was work-related — and I see a post from Nate Cook, lead singer from The Yawpers, whom I had interviewed several times before.
“Any of you guys headed to SXSW this year? We’re offering a single bed, and a ride home on the cheap. Hit me up!”
I attended SXSW in 2013, and it was a musical orgy of nationalities and genres. For a music lover, it’s heaven. For a music lover with press credentials, it’s even better. That said, I wasn’t planning on attending this year — money’s tight, and I doubted I could convince the powers-that-be to splurge for the trip. But when I saw Cook’s post, my impulsive, creative right brain bested my left, and I contacted him right away. Is that seat still available? It was.
“Another thing,” Cook wrote. “If you wanted to make a story of it, and save on gas on the way down, you could meet us in HaysKS on the 8th, and follow us down there. We would have you back the night of the 18th. … And it could make for a good in-depth piece! Just a thought.”
I looked at The Yawpers’ tour schedule. A show in Hays, Kan. (Population: 20,993) A show in Manhattan, Kan. (52,821) Then shows in Bartlesville, Okla. (35,750), Guymon, Okla. (11,930), Dallas and then Austin. A road trip through the heartland, with an Americana band, through the empty spaces of the midwest that no one visits? Brilliant. Sign me up.
We talked specifics, and one gnarly detail emerged — meeting up with the band in Hays. I could do it; to do so I would have to catch Greyhound in Denver at some ungodly hour in the morning and meet up and make the 330-mile journey to Hays via bus. So I woke up at 6 a.m. on the morning of March 8 and made my way to Hays. So began my 2014 SXSW odyssey.
Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan. I hadn’t been at the Greyhound station for 15 minutes when I heard an announcement saying my bus had been delayed for almost three hours. Great. I settled down on a black wire bench and called Cook to let the band know I wasn’t going to make it on time. No answer. Could be trouble. I also text my boss to let him know I might have to cancel the trip thanks to a late bus.
Greyhound Lines is a company almost as old as the Model T, and for a century now, the buses provided transport for people who wouldn’t otherwise be served by more traditional forms of transport. For a time in the ’60s, Greyhound offered a ticket for $99 (roughly $700 today) that offered 99 days of unlimited travel to anywhere in the United States, and it was on Greyhound buses that many Americans and Europeans saw remote parts of Americana far removed from the international melting pots of the coasts. In 1939, the company serviced more than 4,700 stops; now, that number is around 3,800.
Since then, Greyhound buses have built up a particular type of reputation. Many people swear off Greyhounds, look at you like you’re the crazy kind of brave for even considering buying a ticket. Greyhound buses offer a slice of Americana most media prefer to ignore. Some who ride Greyhounds often don’t have anywhere in particular to go; they just need to leave wherever they’re at. I talked to a few Greyhound vets before I left, and their advice boiled down to just one thing: I was in for a helluva ride.
I was taking stock of my surroundings at the Greyhound station in Denver. It was a large area, harshly lit with bright fluorescents and covered in maroon, unwelcoming tiles. If there was any place that was designed to make people not want to be there, it was this, I thought. Greyhound had arranged pairs of black wire benches, set back-to-back to each other and placed in rows. I settled in on one of these and began waiting out the delay. I did a quick panoramic scan. Across from me were a young mother and her elementary-age daughter; over my left shoulder was a wild-haired, homelesslooking guy who appeared to be in his late-20s. I meant to just scan the area he occupied, but he was looking at me and as I was doing so, I made the fleetest eye contact. That was all he needed. He told me his name was John.
“Want to take a picture with Wolverine?” he asked me.
It takes a second to get the reference, then it clicks. In the right light, Jon looks a little like Hugh Jackman, if Hugh had gotten addicted to meth and traveled Greyhound buses in the midwest in his 20s.
“You know, I asked a guy once if he wanted to take pictures with Wolverine once, and he got excited. He said, ‘No way, Wolverine!’ And he took like 20 pictures of me.”
He keeps talking, as I ruffle through my bag looking for a pen and begin taking notes. Unfortunately, the pen can’t handle the stress of the Greyhound station and stops working. I stand up and go to the ticket counter, where a very nice attendant hands me a blue Bic. John’s still talking as I return to my seat; he is still staring at the point where my eyes originally were. He's telling me about how much cool stuff he has, flashlights and the lik. He asks me if I want a poem written for me, and how he writes poems to girls.
“This one girl, she just got out of jail. .... The day was the 14th of February, and she still has those poems,” he says. “I still meet girls five, 10 years later and they still have my poems.
“This counselor who I had known for five, 10 years told me her name wasn’t Bri, which is what all the other guys called her, it was Brianne. I’m probably the only guy in jail who knows her real name. She told me she had a whole stack of my poems.”
The sweet memory of Brianne’s intimate revelation sends him into song. In an unsteady voice he sings out the first couple verses of “Norwegian Wood,” which he transitions into Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and then into unrecognizable words and melodies. He’s really getting into it now. People around us have increasingly annoyed looks on their faces, but no one wants to make eye contact with John, so he keeps on singing. Then a weathered-looking blond woman marches over and plops down next to him and puts her arm around his neck.
“I love that song!” she exclaims, and she starts singing along.
It’s 9:30, and I still haven’t heard from either The Yawpers nor my boss. What the hell. I can only assume that the band is still sleeping off the previous night’s booze. My boss, on the other hand, I’m not so sure. I wonder if he has been hijacked by Big Oil goons, who brought him into a dark interrogation room, lit only by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, where Gov. John Hickenlooper force-fed him fracking fluid and brainwashed him, Clockwork Orange-style, into a fracking evangelist. Or he could just not have looked at his phone. The latter seems more likely.
Finally, at 10 a.m., I call Cook again and reach him. I inform him of the situation. Service is rough, and Cook sounds like he’s in even rougher shape, confirming my suspicions. He’s mumbling, and his voice cuts in and out, but I make out the words, “We can make that work.” I explain it to him again, thinking he might fall back asleep and think our conversation a dream. “We’ll make it work,” he says.
The bus arrives, and I get in line to board. The guy in front of me folds his confederate flag blanket, emblazoned with the word “Rebel” in blue and white letters. I get on the bus and find a window seat in the second to last row. A group of teenagers come to the back of the bus, and a wafer-thin, sandy blond bro in a grey-and-black flat-brimmed Nike baseball hat takes the seat next to mine. A Jamaican guy with dreadlocks down to his shoulders grabs the seat in the aisle across from us. My seatmate asks him how long he wants to grow them.
“Shit,” he says. “Until my grandkids can jump rope with them. … These dreads tell a story, especially where I’m from.”
Apparently, he came over to the United States with his wife seeking economic opportunity, only to find the American immigration dream wasn’t quite as rosy as it had seemed. As soon as he could, “me and my wife gonna get the fuck out of here.”
He had some interesting ideas about marijuana.
“If everybody had weed plants, the hole in the ozone would shrink,” he says. “It helps to make you think outside the box they put you in, you see.”
All this talk of ganja and mind expansion made my seatmate crave some marijuana. Since I am from Colorado, he asks if I have any. I do not. We continue chatting; I learn he is 19 and from Wyoming, hasn’t talked to his mom in years and that his father didn’t pay him too much attention. We talk a bit about weed; I tell him what it is like living in a state where the drug is legal (it’s boring, at least for me, as a non-user); he tells me he is on his way to visit a girl somewhere in the South.
Things are quiet for awhile until we hear a woman a few rows up complain about her seat.
“I got a bubble butt and it hurts on this seat. I’ve got a black girl’s ass.”
The source of the voice gets up to go to the bathroom. Lo and behold, it’s the woman from the greyhound station who sang a song with my friend John. She’s got thin, wispy blond hair and a wide mouth, wearing a floral-print long-sleeve shirt and faded blue jeans.
My seatmate swings his head around to me. “I bet she’s got weed,” he says with a smile. When the woman leaves the bathroom, he says something flirtatious and inquires if she’s holding.
“I’m not a cougar or anything, but you’re hot,” she says. “You’re a handsome young man.”
“Did you hear that? I’m a handsome young man!” he says, grinning at me.
This, apparently, is an opportunity to enter the conversation. Talking a mile a minute, she asks if she can tell us a story. She just finished a six-month stint at a homeless shelter somewhere, and the shelter rules say that no one can live there for more than six consecutive months. She dated a 29-year-old at the shelter, and she proudly tells a story about how she had a friend watch the door while she and her bf fucked in the shelter bathroom.
“He reminds me of my son and sometimes I remind him of his mother,” she says, love in her eyes.
She expounds on how great her boyfriend is, eventually dropping, “He doesn’t even take Go Fast! He just drinks.”
(Urban Dictionary says Go Fast is “street code for methamphetamine.”)
At this point a kid in front of us turns around — he’s about 19 — and joins in the conversation. The Go Fast lady is doing the splits in the middle of the aisle, showing the back of the bus how flexible she is in her old age (49, she says). Her position puts her head just inches away from my friend’s crotch, and now she begins demonstrating her knowledge of various sexual techniques. Most of it’s unprintable. But try to guess the context for “Down two, up one!” and you’ll get an idea of how I passed most of the time on the bus.
“I’ll ruin you for all other girls,” she says, looking at my seatmate. “When I was 25 I took two guys at the same time. I’ve been chasing that high ever since.”
This goes on for quite some time, and everyone around us is just sort of laughing uncomfortably.
What do you do when a self-admitted crackhead wants to show you how to deepthroat? Or wants you to touch her ass? You either make a scene and make everyone else uncomfortable, or you roll with it. You’re on a Greyhound.
At this point, our Jamaican friend wakes up from a nap. He looks confused.
“I went to bed and woke up in a circus,” he says, shaking his head and going back to sleep.
* * * *
After a stimulating first couple hours, the rest of the bus ride is somewhat uneventful. All of us in the back bond over the sheer unreality of what just happened, and we spend most of the remainder of the trip cracking jokes about the first part. Finally, 12 hours after I got up, the bus finally pulls into Hays. Foolishly, I had figured the bulk of our trip would be in Texas, and I didn’t bring anything heavier than a hoodie. So I’m shivering, standing outside a gas station when a giant white Dodge Sprinter van with an American flag decal on the side pulls up in front of me. Inside are three dudes with untamed rock ’n’ roll hair. They slide open the back door, and I get in. I made it.
* * * *
The roots of The Yawpers lie in a group called Ego Vs Id (EVI), a Boulder rock band that dissolved into a puddle of bad feelings and sour relationships in 2011. Cook and Jesse Parmet, the second guitarist in The Yawpers three-piece lineup, which is rounded out by drummer Noah Shomberg, continued playing together after EVI’s demise, playing open mics and writing delicate songs on acoustic guitar. After a few months, drummer Adam Perry joined the fold, and the trio started playing shows in and around Boulder. As the band gained steam, reputation and an audience, the trio settled into their ways. They didn’t need a bass guitar; their unique lineup made them stand out. The audience responded rapidly. Where Ego Vs Id, in Cook’s words, “spun [its] wheels” for years, The Yawpers had no such problems. Almost immediately, the band had a record deal and was attracting a crowd. The group’s 2011 EP, Savage Blue, was five songs of polite acoustic rock, a taste of the musical direction the band would soon pursue. By 2012, the band was doing mini-tours around the country. Drummer Perry left the group that same year to pursue the simpler life with his family and young daughter, and the Yawpers trudged on without him, releasing a full-length album that year, Capon Crusade, 12 songs of whiskey-drenched Southern rock. James Hale would join as drummer and then leave the band during the latter half of 2013, and Shomberg, previously drummer for Denver band The Foot., stepped in.
I get into the surprisingly comfortable tour van and we take off. The destination is Manhattan, Kan., home of Kansas State University, almost a two-and-a-half-hour drive. We all catch up — I’ve met and interviewed Cook several times, shaken hands with Jesse and never met Noah — and I hear about the first two weeks of the month-long tour they’re on. They recently parted ways with The Blind Pets, an Austin band, and I hear stories about breaking shot glasses with a hammer and failed attempts to roll a joint with a blank page from a hotel Bible. However, the band seems worse for the wear after two weeks of hard drinking as we head onto Interstate 70. These guys are all in their late 20s; they can’t drink like the college kids they play for each night.
“Last night was one of those nights I was feeling it,” Cook says, “it” meaning exhaustion. “At the end of the day, that’s part of the gig. There’s always something shitty about a job.”
The Yawpers have spent a lot of time building up an audience in Kansas and Oklahoma, where the band’s accessible Southern rock seems to play naturally. Noah seems impressed with the work Cook and Jesse have put in. He says the Hays show was great, lots of energy from the crowd.
“The Yawpers are the only band I’ve played in where people go crazy,” Noah says. He’s settled in comfortably, piloting the Sprinter with ease, though he’s only been with the band a few months. Since he graduated from Denver University, he's been trying to make it as a musician, and no project of his has yet made it to the next level, the one where you don’t have to work a side job when you’re not on the road. He says in the next two years he’s going to decide if he wants to continue as a musician. For now though, he’s relishing that he gets to do what he loves every night. But reality always threatens to rear its ugly head.
“In the next few weeks, I’m going to have to clock back in at work,” he says.
The highway in Kansas was, well, the road to Kansas. There’s not much interesting going on, other than the occasional billboard proclaiming “JESUS IS REAL.” The van ride is silent for a lot of the way, not even any music to relieve the monotony of the road.
“I play in loud bars all the time,” Noah says. “Sometimes silence is nice.”
Hours pass in the van, and eventually we make it to Manhattan. The Big Apple this is not, but as we pull downtown and drive through the town’s narrow streets, we see a surprisingly happening scene. It’s Fake Patty’s Day, a cherished K-State holiday that happens on March 7 instead of March 17.
Typically, Real Patty’s Day falls during Spring Break, and since no one wants to spend Spring Break in Manhattan and apparently K-State students will be damned if they get robbed of an excuse to day-drink, the town opts to celebrate on March 7 instead of March 17. As we approach the venue, we see dozens of college students decked out in limegreen shirts (there was a store selling official Fake Patty’s Day gear) and green, foam leprechaun hats. Judging by how they’re walking, they appear to have been drinking for hours. Cook drops the following trivia: Apparently, Manhattan’s pint-sized downtown has one of the highest bars per capita in the country, and the town also contains one of the longest operating Pizza Huts. Go figure.
We park behind the venue, a place called Aggie Central Station, and load in. A woman greets the band with hugs — they’ve made friends here. Aggie Central Station is, fitting to the aesthetic I witnessed in Kansas, a barn that has been converted into a bar. As the crowd trickles in, I meet some Yawpers fans, and they continue to show up. After the opening band finishes, there are at least 100 people waiting for the main act. I hear excited whispers in the crowd: “I love this band!” “I once saw him play a song with just two strings on his guitar.”
The show ends, and the band breaks down their equipment and loads up the van. Noah heads to a hotel with a pretty blond girl that stood next to the stage the entire show, and the rest of us head to the booker’s house, a guy named Jimbo Ivy, to crash. His wife, Sarah, makes us an amazing, enormous breakfast of watermelon, bacon, sausage, pancakes and more. We say our goodbyes, Noah rejoins us, and we set out. Next stop: Bartlesville, Okla., home of the Phillips 66 and ConocoPhillips petroleum companies.
* * * *
The next morning, Cook’s voice is worse for wear. He talks minimally, and Jesse and Noah don’t do much to pick up the slack. We head out to Bartlesville, a four-hour drive. Cook’s in the driver’s seat this time, and he turns on the radio. The first three FM stations are playing the Kansas State basketball game.
“Are you kidding me?” he mutters, and changes to a station featuring a flustered sounding woman saying, “I just don’t know how anyone can get through the pain of a divorce, or the death of a loved one, without accepting the Lord Jesus into their heart.” Cook stops on it, amused. It’s a commercial for some sort of mail-in clergy service, and when regular programming resumes, it turns out it’s a radio station dedicated to playing the top Christian radio singles. We listen to as much as we can stand before someone insists Cook change the station, and the group eventually settles on a station dedicated to “country classics.”
Cook is a devout atheist. Yet his lyrics often deal with the divine, a result, perhaps of his religious upbringing in Texas. He has lyrics asking, “won’t you carry me to heaven / upon your angel wings” and song, “Jesus Car,” about the lord and savior being reincarnated as Cook’s father’s ’67 Ford Nova. It’s part of a tongue-in-cheek irony that underscores The Yawpers’ entire aesthetic. They’re a heavy-drinking, hard-hitting rock band that name-drops David Foster Wallace in lyrics and writes songs with titles like “Bartleby the Womanizer.” The group has a song called “American Man” with the refrain, “Living my life, with my head in the sand / Praise the lord, I’m an American man.” If there was any irony in the song’s lyrics, it was lost upon the red-state fans, who joyously sang along to the song’s catchy chorus.
* * * *
The highway from Manhattan to Bartlesville is rife with economic depression. We pass through entire towns filled with abandoned shops, “closed permanently” signs and boarded-up windows. We stopped at a Subway along the way for lunch and were the only ones in the store. All the food bins behind the counter still had plastic wrap over them.
We get to Bartlesville and eat a great dinner at Frank & Lola’s, which is packed on Saturday night. The restaurant converts into a bar late at night, and a crowd mixed with oil and gas transplants and locals enjoyed the show. It was the last show in a series a good ones for The Yawpers, but the band doesn’t know what to think about the next day’s show, in Guymon, Okla. No one has ever played there, and we’ll soon find out The Yawpers were the first out-of-town band to come through Guymon in years. But for now, the focus is on housing. The situation is up in the air, and the band decides to plow on through to the next destination. We grab dinner at a diner and begin the overnight drive to the western end of the panhandle.
One hour-and-half of roadside sleep and several shifts of overnight driving later, and the band arrives in Guymon, a town best known as home of one of the largest pork slaughterhouses in the country. The best way to describe entering Guymon from the east is that it looks like a truck stop that stretches for miles. Gas stations, weigh stations, diners and low-rise motels as far as the eye can see. We check into our hotel, and crash for many hours. I spend the day writing and collecting my notes, and before I know it I get a text from Nate. Apparently, the opening band has started, and I need to grab my notebook and make my way to the venue.
The venue is called the Pickle Creek Center, a nondescript metal warehouse behind a Day’s Inn. For some reason, I’m reminded of Patrick Swayze’s bar in Road House, but when I enter, the scene is far more subdued. At the far end of the warehouse, maybe 300 feet away, there is a stage, with a respectable lighting rig, and scattered throughout the space are circular tables surrounded by folding metal chairs. The opening band is playing a cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and the singer is so out of tune I begin to forget how the melody of the song actually goes and begin to wonder if the singer actually has it right. There are 20 or 30 people in the crowd.
The band ends and The Yawpers begin to set up. I start chatting with Josh Setzer, the guy responsible for bringing The Yawpers to town. He said he wants to turn Guymon into a destination for music.
“The owner [of the Pickle Creek Center] pretty much said ‘Here are the keys to the building. Bring music to Guymon,’” Setzer tells me. The Yawpers were the first act he booked.
The space may be empty, but the Yawpers do their best to put on an energetic show. It’s a bring-your-ownbeer type of night, and the crowd is sipping on Budweisers and Coors Lights.
After a couple songs, Cook addresses the crowd, which has remained seated at their tables, which are maybe 40 or 50 feet from the stage.
“You know, you guys can dance if you want to,” Cook says.
“Can we two-step in here?” someone shouts from the back.
Cook presses on, announcing that the next song was a drinking song.
“Is it ‘Red Solo Cup’?” a girl standing next to me asks, referring to the Toby Keith song.
I shake my head, no. It’s strange for a rock band to sing about David Foster Wallace in Guymon, Okla., but The Yawpers do their best. After the show the band retreats to the side kitchen and munches on white rice with olive oil and spices, served in Styrofoam cups. It’s delicious. We talk with some of the Guymon residents, and, surprisingly, it’s the most diverse crowd we’ve met so far. There are Nigerians, Mexicans, Nepalese people, all converted fans of The Yawpers. After a couple whiskey shots and beers, it’s time to go.
Nate liked that show, he says. “But about three-quarters of the way through the show, the vibe changed,” he says, but he can’t put his finger on why.
Neither can I. So we head back to the hotel and crash. The next night we’re headed to Dallas.
* * * *
Say what you want about the Texas state government, but once we cross into the Lone Star state, the roads instantly improve.
Somewhere along the road to Dallas, the guys mention that the South by Southwest showcases are going to be very important. At one of the showcases, a representative from a major label the band asked me not to name will be in the audience. I asked them if they were nervous.
“No,” Cook says. “No, it’s not something to be worried about,” Parmet adds.
There are so many things outside of their control, it’s not worth fussing about, they say. But still, there’s an air of tense anticipation as we approach Dallas. The venue is called Three Links, and it’s a punk venue, and the three other bands on the bill are unambiguously punk rock. The headlining act is a band called Get Shot, a punk band famous for shooting a porno on the lawn of the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s also the only band supplementing its income running a porn website.
“I love women,” the singer tells me. “And sex is fucking great! Fuck condoms and fuck misogyny!”
Soon, it’s time for The Yawpers. “We’re gonna play some stupid fucking rock ’n’ roll for you guys,” Cook says, and the band kicks off the set.
Attitude-wise, you could say The Yawpers have a bit of punk rock in them. But musically, it’s not even close. The Yawpers, though, are about the only acoustic guitar cover band with a kickass cover of “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead up their sleeves, and by the time they play it, the crowd starts dancing and moving.
That night the four of us crash in a double hotel room, and the next day take off for Austin. The Holy Grail of the trip. The moment everyone’s been waiting for. But as we hit the enormous line of cars backed up on the way into Austin, everyone in the van is feeling a bit under the weather, to various degrees. It’s Tuesday, and the band doesn’t play any shows until Wednesday, but everyone, Cook especially, is feeling a bit ill. Cook shakes his head, muttering, “I can’t go out tonight,” annoyed by not being able to experience SXSW. But as we pass Sixth Street, the throbbing heart of the festival, and witness the mayhem happening there, Cook changes his mind, to the dismay of his bandmates. Shomberg and Parmet really wish he would stay in.
The band is splitting up for the night. Cook is going to meet his wife and parents at a hotel, Parmet has a room with his girlfriend somewhere, and Shomberg is crashing at a house in East Austin. Shomberg and I go out to catch some music, and we learn that Cook has checked into the hospital with a 102-degree fever. Cook cancels some of the showcases on Wednesday, to the chagrin of Parmet and Cook.
However, on Thursday I walk up to the 512 Club, where The Yawpers are playing as part of the Colorado Music Party showcase, and Cook’s in good spirits. It’s about 2:15 p.m., and Cook is shirtless, wearing aviators and holding a beer in his hand. He sees me and grins, puts his arm around me.
“Hey buddy!” he says. I ask how he’s doing. He said he feels much better. All he needed was a day, and now he felt fine.
A 102-degree fever would waylay most people, but chalk Cook’s miraculous recovery up to the power of rock ’n’ roll, or at least the power of SXSW. Watching The Yawpers play on the 512 rooftop, surrounded by friends and family from Colorado, I couldn’t help but think how similar they were to the people I met on the Greyhound. We are all traveling somewhere, hoping to someday arrive at the place of our dreams.
But since we all know the destination might not match up with our expectations, the least we can do is make the journey worthwhile. Not all treks end up at a festival surrounded by music, booze and people you love. But along the way, a crackhead might show you how to do the splits and a homeless guy might write you a poem. And sometimes, that makes it all worthwhile.