Concert-Going In Small Town America

This all started when my friend and editor Janet Davis sent me a list of the concerts she’d attended over the last few decades: Elton John, U2, The Police, Julian Lennon, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr. Most took place in skyscraper cities and in massive venues such as Shea Stadium, Madison Square Garden, and Central Park. It was a concertgoer’s nirvana. (Although, sadly, she didn’t see them.)

When Janet asked if I’d e-mail her my concert list, I sat down to think back, jot notes, and compile.

My teen years were spent in a beautiful town that my mother dubbed “a little jewel.” Natchitoches, Louisiana is “the oldest city in the Louisiana Purchase,” and it is filled with historic homes, lovely old iron grillwork, and brick streets. But as the home of Northwestern State University, it isn’t “aged,” and it isn’t dull. The concert scene there (as our junior high school coach used to say) is “Wildfire!” There is more to see, hear, and experience in Natchitoches per square inch than in most towns ten times its size.

However, the nature of the concerts is inherently different. The venues are more intimate and stars are more willing to talk, give interviews, and open up. There is an informal camaraderie that makes for interesting stories years later.

My first concert, for example, featured The Platters followed by headliners Jay and the Americans. It was magic. I sang “Cara Mia” along with the band — bellowed it, really. After the show, one of the girls I was with suggested we go backstage and meet the band. I thought this a brilliant idea. Two hours later, I finally located the pay phone to summon my dad for a ride.

“Why did the concert run so late on a school night?” he groused as we drove each of the girls home. “It’s almost midnight!”

“Oh,” we all piped up innocently, “the show ended around 10…but we hung around to meet the band.”

What???!!!!!” my father shouted, swerving and almost wrecking his white Buick Special.

“Yeah,” I said again proudly. “We went backstage and met everyone!”

That, I think, was the last thing I said before the ensuing lecture and the very unanticipated grounding. Needless to say, I never ever went backstage again. But the memory of that one adventure in 1965 was well worth two weeks of removing weeds from my mom’s Confederate Jasmine bed.

In small-town America, people pull together, and concert glitches are handled locally. About a year and a half later, one of my favorite groups, The Lovin’ Spoonful, was booked in Prather Coliseum on the Northwestern campus. I saved my money and bought orange-and-yellow-checkered hip hugger bell bottoms and an orange knit turtleneck top. I was even permitted to wear a smidge of “Fire and Ice” lipstick by Avon. This was an occasion — until it almost wasn’t.

When The Spoonful arrived at the “big airport” in Shreveport, their equipment didn’t. No drums, no guitars, nada. But according to Rodney Harrington – a legendary figure in Louisiana music as the leader of Johnny Earthquake & the Moondogs,* Louisiana’s official “Best Showband” – the concert promoters didn’t let that hitch bother them at all. They “got on the horn” and contacted several of Natchitoches’ many rock bands – to borrow equipment.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the hunt for appropriate folk-rock guitars was solved quickly…in fact, the quest took a while. The audience waited and waited and waited…and most of the crowd began to slip away. By the time The Lovin’ Spoonful finally took the stage, I was one of about twenty (fifty???) people left. I had moved into the front row, right in front of John Sebastian. And I swear he sang right to me.

For years, I have cherished the drumsticks given to me that night by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s drummer. This week, I bragged to Rodney Harrington that I had carefully saved that souvenir all these years, and he barked out laughter, saying, “Yeah, those sticks were borrowed from my buddy Sammy Nix!!!” I sighed. For fifty years, I’d cherished drumsticks that had lived most of their lives in the Natchitoches Youth Center. Who knew?

Small-town America in the Sixties didn’t “do pot.” Hey, we took our health and drug abuse classes seriously and patently shunned “that hard rock music and the killer weed.” But, lest you think us dull, there was “a whole lotta drinkin’ going on,” especially during the annual Christmas Festival (featured in the play/film by local hero Robert Harling, Steel Magnolias.) The festival was an all-day affair with elegant brunches, two parades, scattered receptions, a party with live music on the banks of Cane River, and magnificent fireworks just before the evening concert. By showtime (around 10 p.m.), most people had been celebrating since noon.

But Neil Diamond wasn’t ready to revel. In fact, he found the “whoops” and shouted requests annoying. He frowned. He glared. He warned us. And then, he left the stage until security could “get things under control.” Well, honestly, that didn’t help much. There were some comments, more than a few “boos,” and an overall feeling of ill will. Eventually, Diamond returned to the boards, but he was never on great terms with the audience. Small towns stick together, and we were not impressed.

Natchitoches was impressed, however, with Jim Croce’s performance several years later on the tail end of his World Tour. Crooning “Operator” and “Time in a Bottle,” and rockin’ out “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” Croce held the 20 September 1973 crowd mesmerized. I say that. I wouldn’t really know, of course…because I had a massive British History exam the following day and couldn’t attend.

But I was sitting on my tiny dorm bed and studying when I heard the explosion…and saw the fire. Something horrid had happened. Across Chaplain’s Lake, flames roared. Panic filled the dorm halls, but no one knew what was going on. Slowly, gradually, the story began to unfold, and within a half hour, everyone in our town was touched by the tragedy. Croce’s plane had clipped a mammoth pecan tree upon takeoff; the pilot had lost control and crashed. Everyone…everyone in Croce’s Beechcraft was lost.

There had been many happy concerts in our city: Simon & Garfunkel, The Association, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, John Fred and the Playboys, Johnny Mathis, Pearl Bailey, The Grass Roots, John Denver, Up with People, Bill Withers, and Al Hirt. And in the years ahead, there would be many more: KC & the Sunshine Band, Toby Keith, The Commodores, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Sawyer Brown. But the memory of Jim Croce always lingered, and his untimely death has been a reminder to the people of Natchitoches that life is precious and (as Robert Merrick suggested), we need to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

As an adult – and I’ve moved 32 times across the country – I’ve attended “big concerts in big venues.” I saw Billy Joel in St. Louis in 2019. I saw McCartney in Raleigh-Durham for his “Flowers in the Dirt Tour” and then again in Bossier City in 2017. I saw Ringo (and the Roundheads, featuring Mark Hudson) from the front row (!!!) of his 2005 “Good Morning America” New York City/Bryant Park concert. And I saw the unbeatable Matchbox Twenty in Trenton, New Jersey, in 2001, and again, in Dallas a few weeks ago. Not unlike The Beach Boys, I get around.

But those precious memories of Prather Coliseum concerts in Natchitoches, Louisiana changed my life. I remember meeting Ray Charles. I remember sitting in pale blue light and hearing Karen Carpenter pour out her heart. And I’ll never forget looking right into the eyes of John Sebastian. Being able to interact closely with so many stars gave me a confidence that I carried into my seven visits to Liverpool when I dared to approach The Beatles’ first manager Allan Williams for an interview. I never felt nervous about talking with John Lennon’s dear friend (and author) Bill Harry, and it was easy to make friends with John’s lovely college mate, artist and fashion designer Helen Anderson, John’s sister Julia, as well as Pete Best and his brother, Roag. Comfortable in the presence of those whom others considered “larger than life,” small-town concerts had gifted me the courage to be myself and see “celebrities” as people.

You see, concert-going in small-town America is not as much “a performance” as it is a very large party to which everyone is invited. The guests are as much a part of the venue as the hosts and the band. And no one is excluded. In the town where I encountered rock’n’roll, we all had “a ticket to ride.” No one had to be anything other than who they really were.

-Jude Southerland Kessler

Photo: courtesy of the author

*For more information on Louisiana’s Best Showband, Johnny Earthquake & the Moondogs, go to:


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5 comments on “Concert-Going In Small Town America

  1. Richard Short

    What a really great article! So well written I felt like I was there with you. I actually felt young again for the time it took to read your article. I’ll archive this one. Thank you Jude Kessler!

  2. Henry Smith

    Love those memories, and that writing, Jude! It evoked many concert memories for me, especially those truly miraculous ones during my four years at tiny Frostburg State College, where we saw (sometimes within a few feet and never in a room bigger than our small gym or small theater), these and other great musical acts (and a similar array of other artists and speakers): Linda Ronstadt (played frisbee with her and her band in the Quad!), Badfinger, the James Gang, Grin, Roy Buchanan, Joy of Cooking, Mason Proffit, Maynard Ferguson, and Monty Alexander. (Sort of related: we just returned from a Liverpool visit and the tour guide on the Beatles tour bus was the nephew of the person who bought 251 Menlove from Aunt Mimi — and the nephew still has the number plate to the house that his uncle gave him!)

  3. This is a wonderful piece, Jude.

    Your reliving of Croce’s plane crash stops one. I can not even imagine the moment.

    I was crushed enough as a kid hearing the breaking news from a neighbor friend one state over in suburban Houston, Texas.

  4. Cathy Seymout

    Great read, and more importantly, many of the same memories. I wrote the article for the Current Sauce about the Croce concert and subsequent crash. That was the only sad situation of dozens of Big Name Entertainment concerts we all enjoyed in high school and college. Thanks for the memories!

  5. Rick Barnickel

    We were at NSU the same time…when I LOOK BACK AT THE CALIBER OF ARTISTS THAT WERE BOOKED IN.,,,,nothing short of amazing…ZZ Top was one of my favs..when they hit those first notes the dust in the Fine Arts bldg.(built in 38) shook loose..we thought it was confetti! Great read about Natchitoches and how music can be perceived.

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