Dickie Masterson, sitting next to Lance, looked over in disbelief, the lights sparkling off his amber shades, concealing his eyes that were now wide with shock. Dickie looked back to the assembled reporters, fans and music executives, patted Lance on the back and laughed heartily.
"Ace!" Dickie roared. "That's a good one!"
"No, really," Lance looked at Dickie then back to the press. "I hate country music and I only auditioned for Country Idol on a bet. Ladies and gentlemen, Lance Kirby is a fraud."
* * *
It all started in the lab. You'd think a group of polymer chemists would behave better than a bunch of teenagers, but you'd be wrong. The biggest bone of contention was not use of the NMR, not hood space, not even computer mainframe time. It was the lab radio; an AM/FM cassette player that chewed tapes, had aluminum foil on the antenna and was infected with a blue-green chemical fuzz in the battery compartment.
Jan was a news junkie who just had to listen to NPR's Morning Edition. But that was John Boy and Billy Big Show time, according to Steve. Lance preferred the local college station, and Yun didn't much care either way but would have the local pop station on if it were up to her. Hazel, the lab manager, threatened to take away the radio altogether, because "Eenn my countree..." At each attempt at radio silence, however, the chemists protested. They regarded the radio as they would an elderly emeritus professor: more of a nuisance than useful, but untouchable nonetheless.
On one thing nearly all of them agreed: country music sucked. The lone dissenter was Brian. Brian loved country music. A lot. Really, really loved it. Loud. The lab compromise on the radio had been first-come-first-served. Although this system was usually honored, Brian was notorious for changing the station the minute someone left the room. It would get changed back as soon as Brian left, and boy, would he get huffy about it! "Y'all get what you want all the time! I don't think it's too much to listen to my music once in awhile! Whatchya got against country anyway?"
One day, after Brian left the room, Lance and the others started in on Brian and his "boot scootin'."
"Turn it, please!" Lance called from the fume hood.
"How much Toby Keith can they play in one day?" Steve asked from behind his computer screen.
"You mean Toby Teeth?" Lance quipped. "What about Shannia Twang? Or Tim McDrawl? Don't forget Keith Suburban!"
Giggles from across the lab.
"Be nice, you guys," Jan chided from her workbench, but amused nonetheless.
"Ever notice," Steve said, "how every one of Keith Urban's songs could be sung by Shannia and vice versa? Has anyone ever seen both of them in the same room?"
"I'm going to the honky tonk!" Lance sang loudly over the radio, "with my donkey's dong!"
"Donkey's dong?" Yun asked. "What is this? Tell me! I am sheltered Asian girl!" They all laughed. Yun got the joke, of course, and that was the joke. She'd been in the United States for nearly 10 years and in England for three or four years before that. One of her favorite practical jokes was to pretend not to understand innuendoes and then watch the joker squirm when she demanded that he explain the joke. "Sixty-nine? What is this? Tell me! I am sheltered Asian girl!"
"Gonna buy me a Mercury, and junk it when it go no mo," Lance sang again.
"That won't take long," Steve said.
"It's a shame you don't like country, Lance," Jan said. "You actually have a decent singing voice."
"Ah, go on," Lance answered.
"I'm serious!" Jan insisted. "You ought to go to open mic night at Gabe's sometime. You'd be better than any of the pretentious stoner folk poets who go there."
"Oh, sure," Lance said, "I can just see myself up there. Eyup, yup, I'm a cowboy!" he sang, mockingly. "Cain't ride no hos, cain't rope no cow, but doodie damn diggers, I'm a cowboy!"
The others laughed as Lance strutted bow-legged across the lab.
"E-yup e-yew, I'm a-goin' a be a country star!"
The room went silent as Lance's made eye contact with Brian, standing in the doorway.
"Y'all can go to hell," Brian snapped and slammed the door behind him.
* * *
The reporters went bananas.
"Lance! Lance!" the reporters shouted as Dickie's heart sank.
"Was Country Idol fixed?"
"Lance, you mean you were lip syncing?"
"No, no," Lance answered. "Nothing like that. That's all me on the CD and the concerts. I just despise country music and this whole thing started off as a lark."
Dickie chuckled nervously, hoping to get the reporters to see Lance's antics as a joke.
"What he's saying," Dickie butted in, "is that he hates what country music has become. He really misses country's roots. The 'Old Country'."
"No, that's not what I'm saying. I hate country music. Period. I was only going to sing country music until my career as a polymer chemist took off."
* * *
Lance suspected nothing. The trip to the mall. The lunch at the mall's pseudo brew pub. The two beers Steve and Yun bought him. Walking up to the Country Idol try-out stage "just to watch the train wreck."
"Lance Kirby," called the organizer.
"What?" Lance yelled back, feeling good.
"You're next up."
"You wanna do this or not? We got a lot of people waiting who'd like your spot if you don't want it."
Steve and Yun couldn't contain themselves any longer.
"We signed you up!" Steve guffawed.
"Go get 'em, cowboy!" Yun laughed, pushing Lance up out of his chair.
"Ha! I'll show you," Lance said. "Jerk offs."
The try-outs were little more than karaoke. It would be several more weeks before the real competition started: the contestants would perform before the judges: Merle Haggard, Martina McBride and, strangely enough, former quarterback John Elway. Lance selected his song and took the stage.
"Ha ha, very funny," the DJ said when he saw Lance's selection. "What song do you really want to sing?"
"That one," Lance pointed to the selection card.
"Are you sure you want to sing this song?"
"Yes, why not?" Lance answered back.
"Well, it's a rather, um, unconventional choice. Look, if you're just playing around with us --"
"Then whatcha gonna do?" Lance said, his two beers coating him with courage. "I'm singing that one."
The DJ shrugged and cued up Lance's selection. "Your funeral, Bud."
Deana Carter: "Did I shave my legs for this?"
Lance was an instant hit.
* * *
"Lance! So your success on Country Idol and your resulting album was all a joke?"
"It started out that way. I don't know why the judges liked it so much. At first, it was all a put-on, but I wanted to see how far it would go. Now I know."
Dickie hunched his shoulders and sighed, wishing this was all a bad dream. "Lance, this isn't funny, stop it," he said below the range of the microphones.
"Look, people," Lance continued, "there has been no deception, and I misspoke when I said I was a fraud. I advanced in, and won, Country Idol fair and square, and the record deal was legit. I'm just not a country singer. That's all."
* * *
Excited nervous tension was the prevailing mood backstage just minutes before the first episode of the new season.
"Hey Bobby Ray!" called Tuscaloosa Tom Barrett, an Old South type to whom Lance had taken a liking with his Robert E. Lee beard and stoic dignity. "The Space Shuttle called. Your belt buckle is interfering with their sensors."
"Very funny, Gringo," Bobby Ray Jimenez, a Houston-born guitarist and songwriter of Mexican parents and who could belt out the tunes equally well in Spanish and English, replied with a laugh. Tom was the only one Bobby Ray referred to as "Gringo," and the three of them, Tom, Lance and Bobby Ray, were forming a fast friendship. "Be nice or I'll have my brothers ruin your landscaping."
"Do your worst!" Tom laughed.
"Your grass is ass!" Bobby Ray quipped, to the laughter of all.
The contestants lined up backstage for the "Contestant Stampede," a bold parade before the cameras giving America its first look at the group of rodeo Romeos and southland Sirens from which the next country music star would be chosen.
"Ladies and gentleman," announced Sarah Borges, the emcee of the show, "let's meet this year's contestants!"
Ass-tight blue jeans with no back pockets sashayed across the stage amid a clippity-clop cacophony of cowboy boots and rippling waves of Stetson hats to the cheers and whistles of the crowd. Lance, walking between Bobby Ray and Tom and alone in his choice of khaki slacks, button-down shirt and tie, stifled a sarcastic laugh at an industry that was unaware that it had become a parody of itself.
Tom performed early in the two-hour season premier, singing a gentle, moving tune he had written himself about the comforts of home on a lonely evening after "she" had gone home to mother, having nothing to comfort him but his hound dog, his bottle of hooch and his hopes for a better day tomorrow.
"Well, this will be over quickly," Lance thought when it came his turn to perform. Lance had chosen a more conventional song than he had at the mall audition, "Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods," a song he actually liked, knowing full well that you simply don't pick a guitar tune if you are not a guitarist. He had secretly vowed to sing it tongue in cheek and twang all the way through in front of millions of viewers just to infuriate the judges and the entire country music industry.
Lance bantered with the judges before his performance. Elway was a surprisingly funny man and kept Lance and the audience in stitches, McBride was as beautiful and as down-to-earth in person as she was on stage, and the larger-than-life Haggard at in iconic magnificence just a few feet away from where Lance was standing.
As the music started, Lance thought about Tom playing on lonely stages to empty houses for over thirty years, making only enough money to keep up his interest in performing but not enough money to keep up his marriage, weeping into his beer and sleeping in his car when the weeping and the beer got too much to bear. Lance also thought about Bobby Ray, on stage next, working mandatory overtime in the beef plant and then driving two hours to a show only to be booed by drunk bigots saying that he was nothing but a "spic with a pick," and then driving home with nothing but a beer bottle bruise on his forehead to show for it. Both musicians had struggled in the middle of the night over verses that they just had to get out of their guts but that just wouldn't fit, despairing at losing the words forever. Lance understood nothing about any of this.
Lance took a tense breath. When he let it out he would be singing the very first words by which he would be forever judged by the American public, approaching the Styx either to enter Hades as a scoundrel or to enter Elysium as a hero; it was his choice. With only two more notes to go, he just couldn't make a mockery of his friends. He couldn't do that to Tom and Bobby Ray. He couldn't even do that to Brian, sitting at home on the edge of his couch, in rapt attention not only because he knew one of the contestants but because he truly cared about country music; the course of this competition over the next few months would be the subject of Brian's social interactions at home, at work, at church and in his free time. Lance had to sing it straight. He just had to, and he did. To his surprise, he was asked back to perform on the next episode.
At the end of the fifth episode, Lance and Bobby Ray were among those asked back to the sixth episode; Tom was not. Bobby Ray was not asked to return with only four episodes to go before the season finale and the crowning of the new champion. Lance was invited back until there were no other contestants but him to invite back. Suddenly, Lance had a recording contract, he had a manager named Dickie Masterson, and he had won; he was the new Country Idol.
* * *
"Lance, why throw away your career now? At the height of your fame? Don't you realize how famous you could be?"
"Famous? Famous is nothing more than chance. Had I been on the season before or the season after, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere. There are tons of people who have been doing this for longer and better than I have who never see the light of day. You should be talking to Bobby Ray Jimenez. You should be talking to Tuscaloosa Tom Barrett. They are the ones who have earned the right to be in front of the lights; not me."
* * *
The Dickie famous-maker machine took over from there. Lance's image was alternately polished and tarnished, his clothes were alternately countrified and electrified and his life history was both manufactured and publicized. His female companions were chosen by Dickie from a willing pool of mud bogging Marys and the resulting gossip was engineered for front-cover copy. His press statements were handed to him and all Lance had to do was show up, look hot, sing hot, and lean against a classic car with his legs crossed just so for the ladies. The CD was recorded in the course of ten days, the instrument tracks already laid down by musicians Lance never met, Lance singing lyrics written by a songwriter Lance never saw. Special lost tracks were recorded for the purpose of later rediscovery for the bonus reissue, and the CD shot up the charts through the weight of the Dickie Masterson name. Lance had become a wholly owned subsidiary of Dickie Enterprises, LLC.
Lance lacked the means to break away from Dickie on his own terms. A musician, a true musician, a Tuscaloosa Tom or a Bobby Ray, could threaten to take his talent elsewhere and make something of himself in this business. A Lance Kirby did not have such leverage. Unless Dickie suddenly needed some polymers synthesized pronto, nothing that Lance had other than his voice and his face was of any use to Dickie. Lance knew that there would have to be no bargaining, no negotiations, no regrets and no going back.
* * *
With that, amid the excited shouts of reporters and the flashing of cameras, Lance unclipped his lapel microphone (the big ones on the table were fake), stood up and walked out of the lights forever.
It was strangely quiet as Lance, floating and dreamy, walked through the deserted painted concrete halls and through a random exit door, not really sure or caring where he was going.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Dickie came running down the stairwell after Lance, his face flushed and fist shaking. "It's too late for you, Bud! You're finished!"
Lance laughed. "You know I'm not finished, Dickie. You're worried that you're finished."
"You don't know who the hell I am!" Dickie spat. "You'll never work in country music again!"
"Somehow, Dickie, I think I just might survive that."
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