"Ooh Ooh, seem like, seem like seem li-ike...," the sound verb rated off the high wood roof of the old barn echoing like the voice of a soloist in a cathedral. About a hundred or so people stood or sat on lawn chairs, metal folding chairs and discarded church pews lined up against the wall, mesmerized by the skinny white man in the middle of the room.
A string of white Christmas lights twinkled overhead, the man dress head to toe in blue, sported a turquoise bolo tie. He pulled out a harmonica and began to play, tapping his feet against the dusty wood floor.
"I'm just an old truck driver," he told the crowd. "Watermelon Slim" was at his best, his voice; a finely tuned instrument provided the haunting sounds that seemed to touch the souls of those who had traveled across the state and across town to hear him.
We didn't know what to expect when we decided on a lark to take a side road and follow the signs to the Chautauqua Hills Blues Festival on our way to visit family in southeast Kansas. But we followed the signs that led us first to a big field surrounded by the die-hard blues fans who had found prime camping spots close enough to the stage to hear the music without leaving the shade the campers provided. The stage was nothing more than a flatbed truck with lights stuck precariously around the stage. The main concert was Sunday.
A sweaty guy who smelled like he had spent more than one day in his old Ford Fairlane came up and greeted us. We asked about the evening's event. He pointed back down the gravel road.
"It's at the Three Barns," he said. "Go back through town."
We worked our way back down the road, driving slowly to avoid the ruts and the dust. Occasionally, we would giggle nervously and ask, "Are we nuts? What are we getting into," both secretly hoping everyone else at the event didn't smell like the friendly Fairlane guy.
It didn't take more than five minutes and we were at the end of "town." Sedan, Kansas has a population of 1,342. On the short trip across the town, we learned its most famous son was Emmett Kelley, and it was known for having the "longest yellow brick road." That evidently called for a festival because we saw faded signs heralding the annual event.
We stopped at the last -- the only -- convenience store we saw and asked for directions.
"Have you heard of the three barns?" I asked, hoping I wouldn't be met with a blank stare.
"Sure, keep on going down this road, you'll get to a Y in the road, and you go left," the woman behind the counter talked as much with her hands as she did her voice. "That's right isn't it Sue, they turn left? Yep. Left. You'll get to a sharp hill, then turn right as soon as you top the hill. It's a gravel road."
We were committed at this point, and we took off in search of the three barns. It was surprisingly easy, as we started down from the hill, we saw a sign directing us to the "Three Barns."
A group of folks greeted us, charged us $10 and told us where to park. We followed the crowd up to what appeared to be the main barn. There was a dinner being served and we were handed plates and pushed into the line.
We spotted "Slim," a familiar face from the city. He was surprised to see us, but had to prepare for the show, so quickly excused himself. We walked with our plates to upstairs to what was the main venue. The barn still showed the signs of a renovation, new lumber, aged to appear old. We started to move to one of the empty church pews against the wall, when a man stopped us.
"Sit here," he motioned to chairs at his table. We soon met his son, fellow campers and learned about why they had come to the blues fest.
"You just get drawn into the blues," said our new friend, Curtis.
The crowd, most with coolers under their feet or beside them filled with beer and wine coolers, sat politely through the first two acts -- a duo who looked more like fraternity boys looking for a good time and a long-haired blond guy from Boulder, Colorado singing the blues without the conviction of someone who's seen a hard time.
Then it was Slim's turn. The talking stopped, the restless crowd grew quiet. "He's one of us, a truck driver," said Curtis, clapping and whistling in appreciation after a song was done.
The evening was over way too soon, and we drove silently for a while, the gravel crunching under the tires of our car.
Our eyes met and we starting laughing. "Do you think they would feel the same way if they knew he had a degree in journalism and a master's in philosophy or history?"
"Probably. He was a truck driver."
And, he can sure sing the blues.
Next year, we'll probably purposely go to Sedan, Kansas to the Chautauqua Hills Blues Festival.
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