For a few weeks in the summer of ’96, a club out on Route 4 called Dallas was the center of the known universe, because Bill Newsome, the owner, bought a mechanical bull and set it up on the dance floor, and suddenly everyone from all around the county–white, black, rich, poor, whatever–came out to dance (sort of), eat (the wings were good), drink (as long as they only wanted beer or water), and especially ride the mechanical bull, which was free to ride after your second drink. In the low-ceiling building, really more of a hollowed-out cement slab, an incongruously magical space was made, built on novelty and boredom, that ended suddenly when the bull died and Bill Newsome decided he wasn’t going to replace it.
Kaukonen County was and still is mostly rural, but it was never country country. Most of the county’s space is given over to farms, but we weren’t farmers–those big farms were all taken care of by machines and migrants. We were mechanics, cashiers, or truckers. We weren’t country, we were industrial fringe, and our music was Springsteen and Mellencamp and ZZ Top. But somewhere along the way, for reasons that no-one could quite put their finger on, we all started talking slower, buying boots, collecting guns, and when our Toyota Corollas and VW Rabbits finally needed replacing we all replaced them with Chevy Silverados and Ford F-150s. Where when I was a kid we all looked down river to the city as our cultural reference point, now we all started to act and talk like we grew up on a ranch in Texas and didn’t know what a coffee latte even was.
Nobody really understood or even noticed this change until Bill bought what used to be the Sugar Shack–a club that played MTV hits through the eighties until the last of its original patrons finally got married and had kids–and turned it into Dallas, a country-and-western themed bar. And then suddenly we were all like, “Yeah. That makes sense.”
Dallas was only open Friday and Saturday night. Bill wanted live music so he hired a few bands to take the stage on a rotating basis. I played three times a month. The other nights I was there anyway, because there wasn’t fuck-all to do in the county on a Saturday night except watch TV or go to church, and both of those options felt like a sin against life.
Word of the mechanical bull spread and within a few weeks Dallas was attracting a crowd much bigger than the cowboy-wannabe regulars. Some couples from the country clubs came, and some of the rockers with their black-dyed hair and odd piercings, and even a bunch of black people.
Now, the same way that white people all kind of decided one day that we were all from Texas, I think that black people all decided one day that they were from the ghetto. Kaukonen County doesn’t really have a black section–these towns are so small and spread out that there isn’t a concentration of anything anywhere. According to statistics the county was about twenty or twenty-five percent black, but they were spread all over like everyone else, and lived in the same trailers and prefabs that the rest of us lived in. Rural poverty looks like rural poverty no matter what your color; if any of it was ghetto then all of it was ghetto. But just like we all became cowboys overnight, it felt to me like one day all of the black people traded in overalls and baseball caps for puffy coats and suede boots.
And here they were, at Dallas, looking like they just stepped out of a music video, politely sipping beer and waiting their turn to ride the mechanical bull. On Monday at work it was all anybody wanted to talk about, though of course as soon as we opened our mouths we felt stupid. “Did you know black people like to have fun, too?” So we found other ways to talk about it. “A bunch of rap guys listening to Travis Tritt so they could ride the bull.” Like the surprise was that rappers liked having fun. Whatever, it allowed us to note it as something special and then move on to what really mattered, which is how much damn fun that bull was for everyone.
I’m not saying that it was some American utopia, but for that summer, if twenty percent of the county was black, then about twenty percent of the people in Dallas were black, too, and everyone pretty much got along, isolated incidents and some personal preferences notwithstanding. Not that the tables were typically mixed, but everyone had what looked liked the same amount of fun waiting their turn for the bull, and if every now and then a white guy would stare too long at someone, or a black guy would get too defensive, well, there were plenty of other good things going on to more than balance things out.
Like, the champion rider was Tomika Gyles. Her name sat on the leaderboard for seven weeks. Whenever it was her turn everyone got up to watch. She became a bona fide local celebrity.
Or when line dancing started then you’d get these white ladies teaching the black guys how to do it right.
And sometimes, at the bar, people would, you know, talk.
I know I did. Between sets, or on the nights I wasn’t playing. I talked to everyone, literally everyone, and after a couple of times it wasn’t novel anymore, it was just what I did.
I can’t say for sure how many kids came out from that mechanical bull, but a few years later I took my daughter to the playground, and she wasn’t the only cocoa-colored little kid there. There weren’t too many who were older than her, but from her age and down there was a notable uptick in half-this-half-thats. I give the credit to Dallas and the bull.
And then the bull died. A big white lady got on it and after two heaves the mechanical arm underneath groaned and she fell off and the bull never moved again. By then Bill was in talks to open a restaurant closer to the city, and so he sold Dallas and it continued as the cheesy country-themed bar it had been before until it closed a few months later and became an unaffiliated evangelical church for weirdos.
The bull died early in the evening and the house was already packed. Disappointment spread over everyone like oil on water and I could see that a lot of people planned on finishing their drinks and then going home. I didn’t want them to. For one thing, there was a girl who would leave if her friends left, and I needed to stop that. For another, though, I knew that this–whatever this was–was never going to happen again, and I didn’t want it to, and I know I wasn’t the only one.
Before my band was a country band we’d played all kinds of music, rock and blues and pop for whoever paid. Seeing the mixed crowd all summer had inspired me to do something for them, and we’d worked on a few numbers but we weren’t quite ready. Well, it was now or never.
I got up and sang in my twangiest country twang: “Oh baby I like it raw…” A little bit of rap-country, I’m pretty sure I beat Kid Rock to it by a country mile.
That night was I think the best night Dallas had. Just a little bit of hillbilly Wu and the party got going more than ever before. Everybody laughed and danced and drank. It was the finest night of my life. I was a straight-up hero. I talked to girl afterwards, learned her name was Pam, got her number, and a year and half later we had a daughter. Tiffany, because white and black relatives could both agree on it, because it was a pretty name but still a little bit trashy.
But the night the bull died was the end of everything else, basically. The next weekend the crowd was all-white and all country. Tomika’s fame faded, and she eventually moved away. Bill moved into the city and opened a restaurant too fancy for Kaukonen. Pam and I never figured out how to make it work–I didn’t like going to dinner with her family, she didn’t feel comfortable going to my parties either. And things in the county all around little by little went sour. Long before everything actually fell apart, the groundwork for that collapse was laid down in places like Kaukonen, where someone realized that you can win by scaring some people a lot easier than you can by trying to please all people. Things turned sour and a little scary. Pam eventually moved closer to the city, and after an incident at the school I gave my blessing for Tiffany to follow her. Their new suburb was mostly white but a different kid of white. Here the odd man out wasn’t the guy with the dark skin but the guy with the pickup truck.
I drive past what used to be Dallas on most days; it’s still on my way to work. My band broke up a long time ago, and now I’m just like everyone else in town. When I remember that summer, though, and then look around at the Confederate flag bumper stickers and anti-what-have-you signs everywhere, I feel nothing but despair. I thought we we had won. It turns out I didn’t even understand who “we” were.
Last weekend I went into the city to visit Tiffany. She’s in college now, and shares an apartment in Montrose with a bunch of other girls. I took the lot of them out for dinner. I don’t know how representative they are of what’s going on in the world, but if Kaukonen has gotten whiter, then the cities–at least the cities near me–are more determinedly not. These six young ladies included white and black and Asian and African-from-Africa. They don’t always hum along in perfect harmony, and sometimes when they’re mad at each other they say nasty things or find solace in prejudice, but generally they get along. It’s not much, but I know that it somehow is much.
Maybe if the bull had lived a little longer. If I’d had more than three songs to play for a mixed crowd. If we’d all tried a little harder.