Turnpike Troubadours with Lucero and Reckless Kelly at the Anthem
In July 1990, I attended a songwriters’ workshop and acoustic show that featured Guy Clark, Joe Ely, John Hiatt, and Mary Chapin Carpenter at Houston’s Tower Theater. The show was part of the Marlboro Music Festival, and the press kit included coupons and a sample pack of cigarettes handed to me by a young woman who was a college classmate, albeit one I didn’t know well.
“I don’t smoke,” she said as we made casual small talk, trying to avoid the question of tobacco companies sponsoring music tours. “I took the job because the music should be good.”
Given the talent involved, I understood why she made the choice. Hiatt, then in the midst of a classic three album run, was the primary draw for me along with Clark, the songwriter’s songwriter, and Ely, at this point the unofficial favorite son of Texas. At the time, I didn’t know much about Carpenter, a relative newcomer then getting press for her second album.
But it was Mary Chapin Carpenter who stole the show with “Opening Act,” a snarky but hysterical true-to-life novelty song that challenged the headliners and the audience, all of whom ate it up. Three months later, she performed the song for a much larger audience at the Country Music Awards and received the same reaction.
I don’t have a hit in the Billboard charts
I don’t have a limousine that stretches three blocks
Ready to take me from door to door
Just like the jackass I’m opening for
He doesn’t know me, I’m his opening act.
Within two years, Carpenter had released the biggest album of her career, the multiplatinum “Come On Come On” and took on a headliner role she’s never relinquished. Except for a low-resolution video of the CMA performance that you can find on YouTube, “Opening Act” has never been released.
Openers — also called “supporting acts” — fit no specific category. In many cases, they are performers like Carpenter was at the time, upcoming artists seeking exposure who — often without trying to do so — sometimes upstage the main act. Rock and roll is littered with these examples (Jimi Hendrix supporting The Monkees, Aerosmith opening for Sha Na Na).
Occasionally, the opener is gaining such momentum that they overtake the headliner, such as when the Go-Gos opened for The Police, only to see their debut album hit number one during the tour. The same happened for The Clash during their supporting role on the first of The Who’s bazillion “final” tours.
Depending on the headliner’s popularity, opening acts also have a chance to reach an audience they couldn’t within traditional channels. And in many cases, headliners who’ve made it to that spot will reach back to their past to give an opportunity to those who influenced them.
That’s what appears to be happening with Zach Bryan, whose “The Quittin’ Time” tour will feature Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Sheryl Crow, and Turnpike Troubadours as supporting acts in various stops. For Isbell, Crow, and Turnpike — all headliners in their own right — the chance to reach Bryan’s massive fanbase is too much of a chance to pass up. For Bryan, it’s an opportunity to play with musicians who have influenced him.
I welcome the opportunity to see opening acts, and make every attempt to get to shows early, hoping I will be surprised as much as I was that night I saw Carpenter. Given that a majority of acts I hear are not in the popular zeitgeist, I will sometimes pick up a ticket for the opener and force myself to stay for the headliner. Either way, every time I go to a show, I find myself thinking about the pressures (and sense of opportunity) that opening acts face.
You’ve got 30 to 45 minutes to an audience that, depending on the venue size and crowd attention span, can range from hostile to ambivalent to supportive. If things go well, you’ll make more money on merch sales than you did for performing. And just when things get rolling, you have to stop playing.
Now for 37 minutes, I sang out my heart
I was so damn nervous, I just wanted to barf
But this is my career and I’m paying my dues
If I ever get rich and famous, I’ll guess I’ll be an asshole too
‘Til then, you don’t know me; I’m the opening act.
I saw all types of opening acts at five of the six concerts I attended in August and September. From the previously unknown (Betty Soo, opening for James McMurtry), to those I’ve heard but not seen before (Dead Rock West supporting Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gillmore), to those I’ve watched in other opportunities (Squirrel Nut Zippers backing X), it’s truly been an enjoyable experience.
In two instances, I wanted to see the openers as much as the headliner. Scott Miller supported Patty Griffin’s band when the group visited The Birchmere in Alexandria a couple of weeks ago, and his sardonic sense of humor captured many in the audience. More than one person told me afterward, “I expected to like her, but I really enjoyed him” — the best response an opener can hope to get.
At the most recent show I attended, the Turnpike Troubadours arrived at The Anthem with not one, but two openers I wanted to see in that 6,000-capacity space. Reckless Kelly, the venerable Texas Red Dirt roadwarriors who are edging toward retirement from regular touring in the next year or so, opened the show and were followed by Lucero, the Memphis-based country/rock/punk/soul band.
It was the first time that either of the two groups had played at The Anthem, and both barnstormed through 40-minute greatest (should have been/should be) hits sets that made the loud and rowdy crowd take notice. Anyone who knows Reckless Kelly’s music would instantly recall all but one of the set’s eight songs — a cover of Bruce Springteen’s “From Small Things (Big Things Come)” dedicated to the Boss on his birthday. Highlights: “Nobody’s Girl,” “Wicked Twisted Road,” a raucous “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (a personal favorite), and the closer “Castanets.”
After a quick set change amid long beer lines, Lucero played a series of “heartbreak songs” that weren’t lost in the crowd. From opener “Baby Don’t You Want Me” to a wild version of the appropriately titled “Raising Hell,” to the “Texas and Tennessee” and closer “Nights Like These,” they captured the audience’s attention.
You could see the influence both acts have had on Turnpike, probably the most popular “Red Dirt” band around these days, at points throughout the Oklahoma band’s 24-song set that lasted longer and was more powerful than anyone could have expected. Kicking off the show with the one-two punch of “Gin, Smoke & Lies” and “Good Lord Lorrie” from their breakthrough album “Goodbye Normal Street,” they also played six tracks from 2010’s “Diamonds and Gasoline,” including outstanding versions of “Whole Damn Town” and “Shreveport” during the encore.
It’s rare to see a band that is as fiercely independent as the Troubadours break through on a national scale. It’s also nice to see them recognize and lift up the groups that influenced them.
As the show —three acts and almost four hours long — came to an end, the Troubadours brought members of Reckless Kelly out to cover “My Hometown” in tribute to the late Charlie Robison, a fellow Red Dirt artist whose music influenced and inspired the two bands. (Robert Earl Keen also performed the song in his show two days earlier.)
The tribute was a fitting and classy end to the night.
As I left The Anthem and walked out into tendrils of the tropical depression that soaked our area last week, I asked various people — in widely varying states of inebriation, exhaustion, and exhilaration — what they thought of the night. All agreed that they had come for Turnpike, but there were a few surprises.
One couple was upset that they missed Reckless Kelly while trying to park. A second man showed me the vinyls from all three bands that he had tucked under his arm. A third said he wished he knew about Reckless Kelly and Lucero sooner.
Whether that will translate further, who knows? But at least the openers made an impression, and that’s a win.
Turnpike Troubadours website: https://www.turnpiketroubadours.com
Reckless Kelly: https://recklesskelly.com