The Gunfighter walks alone, staying close to the side of the street. His clothes are black and faintly luminous. His hat is tied insolently under his chin. His six-gun is tied challengingly against his lower thigh. For him, the thoroughfare is empty.
He pays no heed to the crowds around the 12in hot dog stall, the stall that sells sheriff badges and saddles, and the single, free-standing telephone-kiosk. He passes the dais where Jim Reeves's widow is signing autographs behind a hedge of entreating hands. In the 12 years since Jim's death, only she, and a business corporation, have kept the memory alive. Grief and valour are perma-pressed into the widow's face; her deep mourning is relieved by an embroidery of silver studs.
This is the eighth annual British Festival of Country and Western music. George Bertie Clark has been at most of them, travelling with his wife Doris up to Wembley each day from Ipswich, where he works on the railway station. He saves all year, works through all other holidays, in preparation for the outing. Doris likes Slim Whitman, but George Bertie likes them all. He likes Dolly Parton and Vernon Oxford and Jim and Jessie and, especially, Marty Robbins, the singer of El Paso and Devil Woman. Doris and he are complementary, like figures in a weather-house, with long raincoats and small Stetson hats and bootlace ties and badges, and extensive hand-luggage to sustain them through the hours before the concerts begin. In the busy concourse that encircles the Empire Pool, they are by no means the most conspicuous figures.
On the first of the three days, Tammy Wynette makes a personal appearance. Her songs Stand By Your Man, D.I.V.O.R.C.E and Jesus Put the Yodel In My Soul have placed her in the forefront of the Queens of Country. Her appearance on the CBS Records stand is the occasion of a minor riot. The cardboard Stetsons converge like a crowd in an old photograph inspecting an aviation disaster. A block of three men lift up a fourth, and his camera-bag, on to their shoulders. He wears a leather slouch hat, pulled down over his eyes, and shoots and shoots in frenzy with an Instamatic, crying, "Up, Up!" A public address vainly pleads with the crowd to stand back. The stand is beginning, palpably, to tremble. Those who have secured their autographs batter their way to the rear. A man from Darlington shakes hands emotionally with a perfect stranger whose hair and moustachios appear to be coated with fine, grey dust. "We formed a scrum, didn't we? Thanks, mate. See you again, I hope."
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Even in its eighth year, the festival remains the object of some disbelief. How can the sentimental songs, the mawkish native instruments of rural America draw so deep a response from the recesses of urban England? It is less surprising to the country music industry, which long ago appreciated that in America, too, the music has its strongest appeal among city-dwellers. It is as conservative, as self-sufficient a myth as the Wild West, legitimising costumes and mannerisms that once were the subject of private yearnings in cinema darkness. Nashville, with its reconstructed Grand Old Opry theatre and its prowling tourist buses, is the country and western capital only in a strict commercial sense. Wembley at Easter, with cherry-blossom and ticket-touts in bloom, can claim, at least, equal kinship.
The hunger in Europe might have remained unassuaged but for one man of the entrepreneurial class. His name is Mervyn H Conn. There is strong evidence to suggest that he selected the surname himself. He is a small, dapper man of East End parentage who hides his comparative youth behind a close-fitting, rather truculent beard.
It was Mervyn Conn, in the late 1960s, who realised that no one outside America was promoting country music, and who assiduously set himself to repair this omission. The Wembley festival, bigger and longer than ever before, with a satellite festival in Sweden, testifies to his extraordinary prescience. Last night, there was a banquet for the chief artists: three courses and Confederate flags beneath the harsh chandeliers of the Hyde Park Hotel, that banjo-pickers' home-from-home. Mervyn Conn, in a black and gold shirt and a white bow tie, welcomed his stars with a heartfelt testimonial to the virtues of free enterprise. Today, he is at the Festival in person, inspecting the contents of his cash register. He has the air of a man blissfully employed at his vocation.
The perils in promoting a major Country and Western festival are less than attend the smallest celebration of Rock or Soul music. There are 30,000 people at Wembley, easily contained by the small, miraculously civil staff of uniformed porters. Country is mothers' and fathers' music, it consummates marriages and commemorates anniversaries; it gives a special joy and freedom to the handicapped. One of its lesser heroes is Tex Withers, a man who, although physically deprived, has created for himself a widely envied life as a cowboy in Sussex, singing, compering or cooking out underneath the stars. His voice is overlaid – almost – by a deep Montanan drawl; sheer style elevates him among the tallest and broadest of men.
"I got me a little house now, down in Sussex. Me and the wife, we saw up logs and bring 'em in for the fire. The name of the house is only called 28 Eastdale Road. I'm thinkin' of changin' it to something like 'The Wikeup'."
The gunfighters represent a small, radical minority. Roy – "think of Roy Rogers" – Hawks, a security training officer from Slough, maintains he would feel naked without his replica Navy Colt revolver at his hip. His friend, Tony Girle, cannot yet afford a gun-belt, so Roy is going to try to have one made up for him in Majorca next holiday. But to Country purists, the gun replicas are both unnecessary and undesirable. At some clubs, one is required to check one's replica at the door.
Tammy Wynette (pronounced Wine-ette), who has sung so many songs dear to the heart of Country music, is a woman admitting to 30, with pale blue trousers and obligatory heaped golden curls, and a certain thinness and wanness. Long ago, her private life and her public existence as a Country queen became indivisible. Her divorce from George Jones, which prevented her appearance at last year's festival; the "major surgery" which she underwent in November; her leisure pursuits of "bowlin', cookin', fishin'" – all are as public as an album-sleeve, intoned with the familiarity of a school lesson. As she speaks, she constantly refers to a large plastic bound almanac of her own engagements, for months to come. Wembley, to her, is merely a further stop between Jacksonville and Tulsa, scarcely noticed in the endless road, the bleak unchanging luxury.
One by one, the festival stars are brought down to the press room, an airless subterranean chamber, to be quizzed by journalists from the specialist music press. Tammy Wynette yields place at the baize table to Carl Perkins who, as the original singer of Blue Suede Shoes and Honey Don't, not to mention Glad All Over and Matchbox, embodies some musical history. A large, dark, patient man, wearing middle-aged denims and a Masonic watch, he inclines his massive profile obligingly towards each inquisitor, from Victory Radio (Portsmouth) or Radio Sunderland; he delivers the same reply, time after time, into the cassette-recorders thrust under his nose. He doesn't mind. "If I wasn't sittin' here, I'd be sittin' somewhere else."
Last in the queue is a small, wild-headed youth in a green and wordy T-shirt.
"Carl – er, sorry there isn't time for an interview. Can you just read the words on this card?"
All the country stars, in addition to giving interviews for local radio, are pressed to read out promotional "flashes" for this or that station so that some disc-jockey, be he ever so vile, may bask in second-hand glory. An excusable response would be to break the tape-recorder over the child's importunate head.
"Sure." Carl takes the scrap of card and reads: "Hi, this is Carl Perkins. Wherever you are, a Merry Christmas and New Year."
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The ice-rink is hidden under a vast counterpane of hard little red seats, binding it into the walls of hard seating that ascend to the roof of the silo. Johnny Gimble, the fiddler, is using the stage for rehearsal, his musicians enclosed by a necklace of television apparatus and bright blue, critical pilot lights. The solo is passed from Johnny Gimble to Lloyd Green, the pedal steel guitarist, a clean-shaven, shorthaired man, clerkly for all his multi-coloured shirt. Whatever Lloyd Green does is watched by the other pedal steel-players with almost physical hunger. The music swoops and slides through for the benefit of the camera only, and a little block of Wembley porters. It says much for the law-abiding nature of the fans that none would dream of crossing the flimsy barriers which divide them from their dreams.
Into the rehearsal area, a single intruder has been admitted. He wears a stetson and two guns, and even spurs, which snag on the ground behind him. His name is Frederick. He works as a cleaner at Heathrow airport. Three horseshoes, embroidered in silver on his back, glimmer eerily in the semi-darkness.
Dolly Parton awaits him in her dressing room. She is possibly greater in status among country queens than Tammy Wynette. The badge stall, on the very first day, had sold out of Dolly Parton badges. Her bosom is as high and prominent as a set of waterwings; her thighs, barely contained by pink trousers, have some of the same inflated magnificence. Her mouth is red, and very talkative. Her silver wig is as lofty and as pendulous as the wig of Louis XIV.
"Hi," she says to the gunfighter. "What's yo' name?"
"It's Butch," he replies modestly.
"Okay, Bootch, let's see yo' body."
He removes his suede bolero and his blue silk shirt. His Stetson remains on his head. He pulls up his trousers to cover the elastic of his underpants. His back, from scapulae down, is covered by a tattoo of Dolly Parton. It is executed in several colours, copied from the sleeve of one of her record albums. He has requested her to sign it. The autograph, in its turn, will then be tattooed.
"Wow!" she says, perhaps a little faintly. "That's sure … somethin' different."
"Fourteen hours, it took," he tells her proudly.
"What's that on your chest?"
"No girls?" she inquires jovially.
"On my leg." He pulls up a trouser cuff and turns down the edge of his cowboy boot. There is a Geisha girl tattooed on his leg.
"That's real pretty."
"Not as pretty as you," he says.
Uncle Mick is in charge of the hospitality marquee and the VIP enclosure, immediately adjacent to the stage. The seats in the hospitality marquee cost nothing: at the bar, one has to pay. All functions under the weighty custodianship of Mervyn Conn's Uncle Mick. He has two other celebrated nephews, Mike and Bernie Winters. He is the scion of a boxing family, formerly licensee at the old Bodega in Brighton, a stout, suspicious man in gold-rimmed glasses, smoking a thick cigar. To watch Uncle Mick greeting the VIPs is to understand the quality which makes our British pubs what they are today.
"Up along the back row, please."
"Can't we sit at the front?"
"It's reserved for Mr Conn's private party."
"What about the second now?"
"That's reserved for Mr Conn's private party. Now I've offered you a seat. Take it while it's going."
Tonight is the festival's climax. True, there remains one further day, but that is for "contemporary" music: the gun-fighters and cowgirls will disperse before the more sardonic eyes of rock fans. Tonight, there is Skeeter Davis; there is Marty Robbins; there is Dolly Parton, garrulous in her colossal Versailles wig. There is the fiddle, played by crouching, grinning men, and the pedal steel played as it ought to be, remorsefully; and Jolene and El Paso and The End of the World; and children and dogs and simulated Rebel yells; all the "old virtues".
In the foreground, the silhouette of Uncle Mick watches his nephew's interests, indenting for any hospitalities on a looseleaf notepad. Behind Uncle Mick rolls the applause. From the lighted faces in the front rows to dark multitudes on high among the Exit signs, all are under the same hypnosis of delight.
Gene Autry was scheduled to be here to present Country music awards. Better that the ancient cowboy is indisposed, and could not come. For a new star is born tonight. Out into the crowded stage, among the women in gowns and clean-shaven men, steps an official of the state of Tennessee. In one hand he bears a framed certificate. In the other he flourishes a five-string dulcimer. He brings a message to Wembley from the governor of Tennessee himself. From henceforward, he announces, among the people of that state, April 18 will be known as Mervyn H Conn Day.