Selling Your Soul for 10 days: The Stampede Cover Band Experience

It was the last day of Stampede and we looked like we had been on a forty-day cattle drive through the badlands. We were emotionally bankrupt, our fingers were scabbed and bloody, and I hadn’t shaved in ten days. You could carry your groceries with the bags under my eyes. 

I had been rotating between three, pearl buttoned cowboy shirts; paired with uncomfortable Wranglers and the Australian equivalent of a Stetson. I tied it all together with a vintage vest and a bandana tied loosely around my neck. My wardrobe was covered in stains of overpriced Budweiser and sweaty regret. 

Dylan looked no better. With a red shirt tucked into his jeans, a carelessly fastened bolo tie around his neck, his face sunburnt from playing hatless. His reddened skin was blotched by excess sodium intake and dehydration — both hazards of the countless hours spent standing on asphalt parking lots performing in the peak of the afternoon for careless corporate audiences. True grit indeed. 

I had gotten home from the previous nights gig after the bars closed. I picked up Dylan at 8 A.M. and we were now setting up for our morning Stampede gig. 

The days had all blurred together. Where was the gig? How much did it pay? How long did we have to play for? Are we background noise or a party band? We didn’t know the answers. 

On this particular day, they had us playing underneath a tent to block the sun. Unfortunately, it also blocked the breeze and it was 32 degrees C according to my phone. We would be playing from 10 A.M to 2 P.M. for the Salvation Army’s Stampede breakfast. During that four-hour period we would be bombarded with stupid requests, delusional staff members and well-intentioned but dimwitted attendees, who would try to engage in conversation while we were in the middle of a song, THE MIDDLE OF A SONG. 

Unbeknownst to me, the Salvation Army has a mascot, a Raggedy Ann-looking-redhead. We witnessed a lady suit-up in the costume and skip around the park in the blazing heat. Another lady approached the mascot and the two held hands and skipped together for the remainder of the afternoon. They looked blissfully content and we suspected this was most likely a closet homosexual relationship being publicly displayed for the first time under the guise of a costume. The Salvation Army was a notoriously brutal Christian organization and this may have been one of the few times to get away with such a stunt. We admired their courage in our state of dehydration and minor hallucination. 

We were approached by an older lady with an oxygen tank, who explained that every hour, on the hour, she would be leading a group through line-dance lessons and that she would need us to play an appropriate song. 

Bizarre requests like this didn’t even phase us anymore. We were used to this kind of disorganization. At 11’o clock, the oxygen-tank-lady came up and instructed us to stop playing. She then used her own microphone to announce, “Anyone who would like to learn to line-dance should come to the stage now.” 

Her microphone interfered with ours causing ear-piercing feedback and distortion — the type of sounds that musician nightmares are made of. She ignored this and continued to lead a group of people through an instructional dance lesson. 

Not being particularly mobile herself, most of her instruction seemed to come from memory, and her memory didn’t seem to be serving her that well. Twenty minutes went by and no one in the group was closer to learning how to line-dance. Finally, we were instructed to continue playing. 

I always pray for anonymity at these type of gigs. I hope that no friends or musician peers would ever see me. It felt like everyone I knew happened to be walking by on the street that day and recognized me. Some friends stayed and watched and some friends playfully mocked me via text. 

1:30 P.M. rolled around and we were out of songs. We couldn’t possibly think of anything else we could play. We had half an hour left to fulfill our contract and we needed to make something happen. 

By this point I couldn’t stomach any more Johnny Cash or Hank Williams or Luke Bryan or Blake Shelton. No more Shania Twain or Dolly Parton. We were in too low of a place for “Friends in Low Places” and “Dust on the Bottle” had been drank and smashed. We were sick of anything close to country. There was one song we were sick of more than any other….and it is the infamous Wagon Wheel, the most requested song of all-time. 

We sat in the between-song silence that seemed to last for an eternity. Between-song silence is something a good band never shows you. It is an amateur move. It is the awkwardness and poor planning of a group that doesn’t know what they are going to play next. I stood, spaced-out and possibly dealing with mild heatstroke as Bruce Springsteen’s pop masterpiece, “I’m on Fire” played in my head. It was pure and accessible. It was patient and understated...the opposite of bad country music. 

Despite the fact that neither of us had ever played this song before, I started to fumble my way through it, guessing at the chords and connecting the verses in the wrong order. We were both committed to the sonic bliss that is Bruce Springsteen. We started to jam and lose ourselves in the song. We found ourselves, lost ourselves, found god, lost god, found love and lost love. There were drum solos in the song, even though we didn’t even have a drummer. 

We ended up playing the song for 17 minutes, bringing us 12 minutes away from the end of our contract. We figured it was close enough and made an executive decision to walk away. We had another gig to get to at 3:30 and we still had to tear down all our gear and field a bunch of silly questions from the Salvation Army cult weirdos. 

We must have impressed someone because we were asked to perform again the following year. 

Being a Stampede cover band is much harder work having a real job. It’s exhausting, unpredictable and fuelled by alcohol. You could play one show as background noise for a corporate crowd and the next to drunken savages, hungry for sex and overpriced Coors Light. 

I had lost track of how many shows we had played during this year’s Stampede. I knew it was a new record for us. Corporate Stampede parties can begin the week prior to the 10-day affair. For a band like us, it can turn into a 17-day endeavour. We had played at least one show per-day, every day. Each typically consisted of three 45-minute sets. Some days we played three shows, totalling up to 405 minutes of music. 

Musicians migrate from everywhere and anywhere to perform during “The Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth”. Most Albertan musicians I know participate in the Stampede one-way-or-another. It’s almost hard not to. Every company seems to have a Stampede party and every bar in the inner city seems to be on a constant hunt for live entertainment to complete the ambiance. 

Most gigs fall into two categories: Corporate background noise or barroom party band. 

Being financial opportunists, we have come to realize that the corporate gigs require less finesse and preparation as a band. As long as you look the part, show up on time, and DON’T PLAY TOO LOUD (This is the most important detail of any band playing a corporate gig) then you’ll do well. 

Any corporate gig involves four or five people who believe they are in charge. Remember all their names and address them individually as if they are the only person you are taking direction from (think Office Space and the TPS Reports). 

Four years ago, I had left a great job to pursue my lofty and delusional goals of becoming an independent singer-songwriter. Somehow, it kind of worked and I haven’t had a straight job since. I rely on a heavy touring schedule, endless grant applications, and the financial support of aging Folkies who grew up on acoustic Bob Dylan but became doctors and lawyers when he went electric. Another way I subsidize my art, is by selling my soul and playing in a country cover band during Stampede. 

Stampede has become an important moneymaker for me and my bandmates — something we simultaneously despise and enjoy. When we ambivalently agreed to explore life as a ten-day country cover band, we collectively agreed on a mission statement: Don’t work too hard and don’t take ourselves too seriously. We are just in it for the cash. 

We prioritize classic-country like Hank Williams over pop-country like Luke Bryan, because we can’t stomach the later, and because the classics are usually only three chords. We almost never practice and have determined a 65 per cent effort is the minimum requirement to keep our customers happy (Why shoot for perfection when you don’t have to?). We are all experienced performers and can often make it appear like we know what we are doing. Truth is, we don’t. 

When searching for a band name, we decided upon the tackiest one we could think of (I won’t divulge this information to protect our future employment opportunities but I will tell you that if you Google our name, you will find that we are the second search result, losing to a seniors walking club in Edmonton). 

Our band photo was purposely designed to look like the vinyl cover of a 70s AM country group. On our website, we claim to be four brothers from Nashville, TN, despite the fact that we look nothing alike. Apparently, this was good enough and we have been gainfully employed since 2013. 

Dylan and I quickly realized that we could get away with playing many of the corporate gigs as a duo, which significantly improved our net profits. We advertised as a band but never stated how many members. The White Stripes were a duo, why couldn’t we be from time-to-time? 

We made $1000 for this particular gig. $500 each, or, $125 per hour. Not bad money for any occupation. 

Dylan summed up this Calgary Stampede experience with sage advice, “The real animals aren’t at the rodeo grounds, they’re on the streets and in the bars.”