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Remembering alt.country's big 1996 showcase 

A weekend for forever

Please forgive this recollection, as it comes through the haze formed by many draft beers, a cloud of music-club cigarette smoke and near whiteout snow conditions that swept through North Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 3, 1996, the second day of the first Honky-Tonk-arama.

When I got home from Local 506 that night nearly a dozen years ago, I simply sat for a while "white-knuckle, straitjacket, dumbass blind," to quote Tommy Womack after he saw a life-changing Replacements show. Part of it was the weather. A winter storm rolled in over the course of the second night, and the drive home was one long fishtail up Airport Road to the Hillsborough line.

Then there was the music, of course: The Old 97's—still on Bloodshot and hyper and hungry—played like four guys who'd been set free after being snowed in for a couple of days in the mountains because, well, they were four guys who'd just been set free after being snowed in for a couple of days in the mountains. John Howie Jr. was everywhere both nights: filling in on drums for the Backsliders due to a J.D. Dennis arm injury; joining Ryan Adams to form a one-off rhythm section for Jolene, whose customary rhythm boys were stranded somewhere on Interstate 85; and, oh yeah, fronting his new country outfit the Two Dollar Pistols for maybe the second or third time. Who knew this punk rock drummer Howie was our new Bobby Bare waiting in the wings?

Adams introduced his side project Freightwhaler, featuring a couple of members of Ithica Gin, the most unapologetic, unofficial Uncle Tupelo tribute band ever. Jolene's John Crooke sure could sing, and that Adams kid sure could sing and write. Melissa Swingle and Trailer Bride's indie-country-blues seduced even while it spooked. And nothing closed out a rock 'n' roll 'n' honky-tonk night like Friday headliners the Backsliders with their "Cowboy Boots/ Aloha Steve and Dano" medley. And nothing said goodbye like The Chicken Wire Gang on Saturday, who ended the Honky-Tonk-arama with their backporch-Band take on a true Triangle classic, Rick Rock's "Buddha Buddha."

Mostly, though, sitting at home then and now, it was the sense of community that permeated Local 506 that weekend. I know that sounds corny, but it's true. The snow and ice outside heightened emotions, for sure; the right mix of meteorological event and misfits can turn a bowling alley into Bethlehem, and that night it turned a music club into a congregation. There was food in the back corner by the soundboard, and it felt like a Methodist covered-dish supper with the potential to get ugly. We let the music warm us before we had to go home in the cold. There was magic in the building: A scenester clapped. A Spectator reader hugged an Independent reader. Pine State didn't set anything on fire. But, had owner Dave Robertson installed a fireplace, we might have stayed forever, or at least until the tap of High Life ran dry.

There was another community at work, too, one that went beyond this weather-inspired fellowship. It's safe to say that the group of folks at Local 506 represented pretty much the same crowd of believers that'd been at The Brewery in Raleigh the weekend before for the inaugural S.P.I.T.T.L.E. Fest. Among others, that lineup gathered locals Whiskeytown and 6 String Drag, non-Triangle Carolinians Mercury Dime and the Johnsons, and from way out of town, the ageless Sleepy LaBeef. When the Backsliders launched into "Forever Came Today" at both those fests, there was something sort of special about thinking that maybe 50 people in the state would recognize it as a song from Eric Ambel's Roscoe's Gang record—and that half of them were in the bar. But it wasn't about exclusivity or having an esoterica-fueled power trip. It was more a giddy comfort, maybe even relief, that came with realizing there were other rootsy music geeks up for bonding in and outside of bars.

These communities had other Triangle rallying points. A Brewery show in January 1995 brought together Whiskeytown, 6 String Drag and the Backsliders and served as a coming out party for so-called alt.country in the Triangle. Radio studio performances by those bands and Pine State from earlier in the day were later released by host Ross Grady as Smash Hits Opry. In the summer of that year, Backslider Chip Robinson introduced a handful of diehards to a new song he'd just written titled "Throwin' Rocks at the Moon" during the waning minutes of a party in the wilds of Pittsboro. At a benefit at Cup a Joe a handful of years later, Robinson, 6 String Drag's Kenny Roby and Gerald Duncan, who'd taken his share of arrows while leading the pioneering Accelerators, swapped verses on "The Weight" after Robinson unveiled his new "Abe Lincoln." But that first Honky-Tonk-arama remained as the event against which all the others are measured.

Why these memories now? Saturday night at Local 506, The Backsliders and Two Dollar Pistols—alongside Hick'ry Hawkins, Memphis the Band, Hank Sinatra (with guest Phil Lee) and Richard Bacchus & the Luckiest Girls—return for the Showdown at the Hoedown, a Honky-Tonk-arama show of sorts. The bill is perfectly suited for me and those other 24 "Forever Came Today" fans that were with me in 1996. Pray for snow.

Tickets for Showdown at the Hoedown are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Music starts at 7 p.m. And you can catch the Backsliders the night before, along with Jeffrey Dean Foster & the Birds of Prey and the Nevers, at The Pour House. It's $8-$10 and 10 p.m. for that one. Robinson's The VibeKillers also play Slim's on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 10 p.m. with The Tremors. Cover is $3. Thanks to Michael Pemberton for the songs and the help with the recollections.

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