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Jan. 22, 2020

Ep.13 – The Devil Knows Three Chords - Country Fried Horror

Ep.13 – The Devil Knows Three Chords - Country Fried Horror

What makes success? The Devil's in the details...

Episode Notes

Two great bluegrass musicians come to a fork in the road; and at that crossroads stands the devil.

The Devil Knows Three Chords by John Oak Dalton

Music by Ray Mattis

Produced by Daniel Wilder

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Chester Killbuck and Bobby Lee Starr were one of the hottest bluegrass duos of the 50s and early 60s, but it all ended in a dumpster behind the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco in 1968. Like a lot of bluegrass musicians at that time, they started in The Bluegrass Boys in the late 40s, and then joined The Foggy Mountain Boys in the early 50s before setting off on their own as Killbuck and Starr. Chester and Bobby Lee couldn’t have been more different, and thus made an unlikely team. Chester was married three or four times and had several kids that hated him, and several more he wouldn’t admit to having and who didn’t know he was their daddy. Bobby Lee was still married to his first wife Marian and they had a son, Johnny, who was born blind in 1946 and who Bobby Lee lived and died for. Chester followed the old ways and the old music but Bobby Lee saw things differently when his son started playing folk music with a couple of other guys. Bobby Lee wanted to add some more Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons to their song list. But Chester said that would never get them on the Porter Wagoner show. And they would get booed out of The Grand Old Opry. Bobby Lee got through a lot of his disagreements with Chester by bringing Johnny on the road with him when he was old enough, and Johnny became a great mandolin player in his own right. So in the same way that they wanted to leave Bill Monroe and then leave Flat and Scruggs, Johnny wanted to forge out on his own. It was the way of things, and Bobby Lee could not deny his son. But his son still needed him. So when Johnny Starr made a deal for his own band with the Avalon Ballroom, which was the premiere venue in San Francisco at the center of everything happening in 1968, he might have mentioned his dad would come and play too. The Avalon promised Killbuck and Starr top billing, and Johnny’s band Lemon Dirty Fingernails second, ahead of the Stone Poneys and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Chester was very angry with the deal, but went along with it. And as it happened Killbuck and Starr killed it in front of all these young people, who were turning on to the Bakersfield sound and The Byrds and Dylan, and suddenly Bobby Lee could see a future for the duo. A future beyond the long county fair tours. A future beyond waiting for someone to tap their shoulder for the Opry. Bobby Lee waited backstage for his son, who was still out talking to friends, and it was good that he was late because he found out quickly Chester was still fuming. Bobby Lee found, at the little rickety table in the dressing room, his son had left a water bottle with a note that said “Drink Me” and a plate of food with a note that said “Eat Me.” It was punched out in Braille with the little stylus and slate both father and son had learned to use.

Bobby Lee was drinking down the water when Chester banged the door open. Bobby Lee looked at him with a smile and a squint. “I thought you slipped off with that little gal in the front row in those short-shorts,” Bobby Lee said. Chester’s frown deepened. “Hell, that gal had more armpit hair than I do. You couldn’t tell who was the girls and who was the boys with all that long hair out there.” “They loved us, Chester,” Bobby Lee said. “They should love their got-damn country. You’re son’s a cripple and has an excuse but the rest of them boys should be over in Viet Nam fighting Communism,” Chester proclaimed. That killed off Bobby Lee’s good feeling. “It’s be nice if you could be happy with one thing in this world,” Bobby Lee muttered. But Chester wasn’t listening, as usual. “That one hairy SOB that plays with Johnny has a dog he calls Roy Acuff,” Chester added. “He means that with respect, Chester,” Bobby Lee said. “You don’t name a hound dog after Roy Acuff,” Chester shot back. Bobby Lee shrugged. “These young folks, they got their own thing going on out here,” Bobby Lee said. Chester looked at him with narrowed eyes and lit a Lucky Strike. “They ain’t our people, Bobby Lee. Our people are in Oklahoma and Iowa and every little town between here and Nashville. This whole state could fall off into the ocean and good riddance to ‘em all.” Bobby Lee looked his partner full in the face. “Johnny is my son. And he’s living out here.” “And he’s got a band he calls Lemon Dirty Fingernails, and that ain’t a band name, although one word is accurate.” Bobby Lee swallowed hard, and began to sweat. Bobby Lee wasn’t sure, but it looked like the walls were sweating, too. “I didn’t do what I did to end up playing to a room full of draft dodgers and drug addicts,” Chester said. Bobby Lee frowned. “What did you do, Chester?” Bobby Lee thought the flowered wallpaper behind Chester was starting to bloom. Chester looked at him. “You think Robert Johnson was the only man ever met the devil at the crossroads? Blues music is in the roots of the soil, but so is country music. Those roots are even deeper. You don’t think a bluegrass man could find his way to those crossroads?”

Chester’s normally red face, flushed with anger and drink, became even redder. “What do you think is at them crossroads?” Behind him, the flowers bloomed black. “Do you think what career we have come from my good looks and your sweet nature?” Bobby Lee watched a cold smile come across Chester’s face, full of yellow teeth, and then as Bobby Lee watched, a pair of horns began to grow out of his forehead. Chester’s voice came in a hard rasp. “Let me ask you another question. You knew me back when we both lived in the Cumberland Homesteads, up in those mountains. When you’d know my family ever have money for a fiddle? When did you ever see me practice on one when I wasn’t already good?” In answer, Bobby Lee picked up the bottle again and smashed it into Chester’s face. Chester fell with a growl, and Bobby Lee was on him in a flash, choking him, and after a few moments Chester’s eyes bulged, and the horns receded, and Bobby Lee quit his work. The walls quit sweating and blooming, and Chester looked like a normal person again, and Bobby Lee realized this was going to be hard to explain. So Bobby Lee dragged Chester out of the back door into an alley and heaved him up into a dumpster, and hoped that was going to be enough. Chester was heavy, and it was slow going, as the ground beneath Bobby Lee seemed to buck and heave. Bobby Lee was grateful there wasn’t anyone lounging at the mouth of the alley during his work. The crowd had dispersed, and with them the good vibes, and suddenly the Avalon was just a crumbling old building. He got back into the tiny dressing room just ahead of his son, who came in beaming. “Pops, it was quite a night,” Johnny said. Bobby Lee steadied his voice. “It was. I’m proud you,” Bobby Lee said. “Where’s Uncle Chester?” Bobby Lee wiped at his brow. “Oh, he found some trouble to get into, I reckon.” Johnny nodded, then reached out a hand. “Pops, you’re sweating, and you sound funny. You drink that water I left for you?” “Sure, why?” Johnny nodded more seriously, and slowly.

“I’m sorry, I wanted to be back here sooner. I wanted to go on that trip with you.” “What trip?” “I dosed that water, pops. I thought we could tune in together tonight. To celebrate. It looks like you started without me, but I can walk you through the rest of the way. Just remember, everybody here is a friend. This place is full of love tonight.” Bobby Lee sat down hard. “You didn’t eat the brownies? Cool. You eat one and I’ll eat one and we’ll be on this trip together. I can see things when I trip, pops, if you can dig that.” Dig was a funny word to Bobby Lee. He had dumped, not dug, a place for Chester to rest. Bobby Lee started laughing. “Pops?” Bobby Lee couldn’t stop laughing all night. They got on the Opry after all when they did a tribute show for Chester Killbuck. Bobby Lee took Johnny to Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors in Hollywood and got matching rhinestone suits for the gig. Earl Scruggs showed up and played with them. Mother Maybelle Carter was there and so was Doc Watson. Doc Watson brought his son Merle, and Scruggs brought his sons Randy and Gary, and that made it more special for Bobby Lee. Roy Acuff was the MC, and it was just as well nobody in Johnny’s band mentioned they had a dog named after him. The Summer of Love didn’t seem to last a summer even. Johnny’s band got broken up by the draft after all and then broken up for good by the Viet Cong in Dien Bien Phu. Some people said the Summer of Love ended with the violence at Altamont Speedway, with the Rolling Stones and the Hell’s Angels and everything that went down. Some people pointed to the murder of Martin Luther King Junior and some the killing of Bobby Kennedy. Some even said it ended when a hippie girl tricked Chester Killbuck into going into an alley with her, where a bunch of her friends cornered him and beat him to death for his take at the Avalon Ballroom that night. The Avalon closed just a few months later and got converted into a movie theatre. The first movie they showed was “The Love Bug” with Dean Jones. Bobby Lee took his son on the road for a short while, but Emmylou Harris called for him to record and tour with her, and once more Bobby Lee could not deny his son. Chester was three-quarters outlaw, but he was the one with the business sense, and Bobby Lee was the one that always got lost in the music. That is why Bobby Lee felt that if Chester made a deal, he should keep it.

So Bobby Lee kept doing the circuit, the fairs and the VFWs and the high school gyms, and if he was doing a show in a nice small town on a Sunday somebody would always invite him back to the house for fried chicken. As the years went on Bobby Lee began to understand more of what might have happened that night at the Avalon Ballroom. But he was never really quite sure. Because if you sing the old songs the people wanted to hear, the gospel and the hymns, you had to believe it. You had to believe it, or the audiences would know. When you sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” you had to feel that there was a better home a-waiting, bye and bye. So if you believed in one place, it only made sense you believed in the opposite place. There had to be an opposite, just like Killbuck was the opposite of Starr, but they only worked their best together. So if Chester Killbuck had really stood at the crossroads, and made a promise…it was better to keep that promise, than cross your fingers and hope that none of it was real.

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