By Chad Nance
Editor’s note: This is an exerpt from CCD editor-in-chief, Chad Nance’s newest non-fiction book. His follow up to “Hill Billy Highway: The Odyssey of an Ugly American Loose at the Dawn of the 21st Century“, the new book is the story of Winston-Salem from street crime to politics from 2012 to 2014. “Shape I’m in: The Camel City Dispatches” is now available online and in shops around Camel City
“Either be hot or cold. If you are lukewarm, the Lord will spew you forth from His mouth.”
– Jerry Lee Lewis
Poetry lives in the names of the bands. Bloodshot Bill, Dusty Booze and the Baby Haters, Cutthroat Shamrock, Southbound Turnaround, Truckstop Preachers, Superpill, and the Dielectrics. The 2012 Heavy Rebel Weekender was a raw, joyous display of 20th Century Cracker culture. Just cruising Trade Street’s array of chopped hot rods plattered-up the sounds of Link Wray’s Switchblade on my own personal turntable. Their Link played as the background soundtrack to this mad celebration. Pompadours, Aloha shirts, poodle skirts, ruby red lipstick, and fishnets… if you think Rock ‘n Roll is dead, hoss, you ain’t ever been to Winston-Salem’s Heavy Rebel Weekend.
Promoters Mike Martin and Dave Quick created Heavy Rebel Weekend not only as an epic throw-down for the sons & daughters of Jerry Lee Lewis, but also as a reward for the bands, dancers, artist, and backyard hot-rodders who came to Winston-Salem from as far away as Atlanta and New York. The pre-1968 chopped cars, trucks, and micro-buses lined up in the July sun brought to mind the old days in Winston-Salem when a guy could leave a local bar at midnight with a quart jar of moonshine and be on the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk before sun up.
Of all the people I could have gone to an event like this with I chose to go with Ed Hanes. Me- wearing a tattered Johnny Cash t-shirt and cargo shorts with a lit Camel hanging out of my mug. Ed- Wearing a blue and white track suit with white sneakers. He’s a large man with a round, bald noggin’ that makes him easy to spot in a crowd. We decided to go check it out together. He was scouting contacts with the promoters for his magazine, WS Arts and I was looking for a good opportunity to get shit faced and listen to some rock-a-billy.
No admission was charged to saunter down Trade Street to gawk at the vehicles that had been chopped, channeled, and kustomized. Surfboards and a complete “working” whiskey still were among the props used to display over 500 custom vehicles. At the end of the street the blue lights from a police cruiser splashed across the front of the Ice Queen’s ice cream truck. Christine Catania brought her vending truck to HRW from Greensboro. “Winston-Salem is a lot friendlier to vending trucks than other places.” Catania stated while dishing out tasty, frozen treats to a group of young ladies.
“Rebel Weekend is the best! Why else would I drive 7 hours from Atlanta?” said one patron dressed in a lime-green short jumper topped off by a shockingly red Betty Grable hairdo.
Inside the Millennium Center offered shade from the brutality of the July sun and a wide selection of Americana art, five-dollar work shirts, and even candy cigarettes. All around the walls, Pabst Blue Ribbon- one of the festival’s sponsors- provided massive posters of American icons. John Lee Hooker, Buddy Holly, Duke Ellington, Elvis, and Dean Martin seemed to watch over patrons as they milled about in the air-conditioning checking out tattoo art, vinyl records, and vintage candies. The same nostalgia trip that sends Baby Boomers into a frenzy over blue grass music brings out Winston’s Gen-Xers to Heavy Rebel Weekend. Outlaw chic, mohawks, and Chuck Taylors mixed with “Live to Grind” t-shirts, VANS, and trucker’s hats- American culture rises to new lows and big fun was had by all.
The Millennium Center used to be the downtown Post Office in Winston-Salem. The building is a massive slab of granite designed in Greek Revival like every other Federal Government building constructed in the early 20th Century as America was ascending and there seem to be no ceiling on just how spectacular the shit might get. Ed and I walked across the board, polished-marble lobby, through a set of heavy, wooden doors then down the steps toward the basement. There was a stage, a bar, and a Burlesque room built out in the Millennium Center’s basement. The basement was dry, with none of that wet-mold funk you find. The whole place had been cleaned up for the production of a George Clooney movie titled Leatherhads. The production had used the Center’s basement as an interior set for a bar. When they pulled out of Dodge and headed back to L.A., they left the basement with massive, finished, cleaned brick room framed by brick archways.
There festival organizers had set up the Underground Room, the Wiggle Room for burlesque acts (all of the tease with none of the strip), and in the main basement room the Jailhouse. This stage is named for the fact that along the 5th St. wall are small alcoves. Back in the day when Federal District Court was held upstairs in the old Post Office, those alcoves had been holding cells. The kind of people most likely to be brought up on Federal charges in the years before the massive, bunker like Federal Courthouse was built on Main Street, would have been bootleggers. Moonshine running sonsofbitches who made the ride down from Stokes county, Wilkes county… hell even Patrick County where ‘ol R.J. Reynolds was originally from. The moonshiners made the shit up in the mountains then brought it down into Winston-Salem where it would be sold in East Winston shot houses.
A shot house was a place poor black and poor white workers could buy cheap whiskey by the shot. Illegal and unlicensed establishments where all manner of sin and degradation were commonplace and the blood was cleaned up off of the floors with a mop. If they weren’t dropping the booze off at a shot house, they were often getting to Winston-Salem then heading North as far as Petersburg, Virginia.
Those were the kind of people that ended up in those cells on Federal charges for violating the Volstead Act and many other laws pertaining to the manufacture and sale of hard liquor. “Those” kind of people were also the kind of people I descended from. Reality in the Land of the Golden Leaf was that life was hard, rugged, and unrewarding for the most part. Running liquor was a viable option to make the ends meet back when the best an ’ol boy from Stokes or Wilkes County might be able to hope for was a life of toil and trouble as you slowly worked yourself to death in order to raise a family. Either that or you had to pull up stakes, leave the country, and head for Camel City where you could get a job in a tobacco factory, hosiery, or furniture plant. There was a damn good chance that you could loose life or limb, but the daily economic realities in the rural counties surrounding Winston-Salem were harsh. If it meant making and running some “corn” in order to keep yourself out of the mud and blood of Winston-Salem it seemed a small price to pay for being able to raise your family in the clean air and green of the foothills.
Ed and I got a couple of beers and two shots of Wild turkey then went to sit down in one of the cells. We were quietly drinking and I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be locked behind bars here waiting for your fate to be adjudicated upstairs when Ed spoke up. “My grandfather was a janitor here.” He said almost out of the blue. Like me Ed has had access to a the kind of educational opportunities and economic security to get out there on thin limbs and test the boundaries in order to see exactly what we might be able to get away with. It was not hard to feel a dilettante’s guilt there in the basement.
Ed’s grandfather had worked above our heads polishing the vast marble floors of the ‘ol Post Office. He’d walked down Trade Street on bitterly cold mornings when wind would rip down between the buildings of downtown Winston-Salem with a fierce cold that no jacket could block. The kind of cold that made your bones ache. Grandpa Hanes would have smelled the thick, loamy warm odor of curing tobacco. The streets would be bustling with people headed to work in the factories and the offices downtown. Winston-Salem was a boom town y’all and nobody is every lonely in a boom town- not in the way we’d recognize. Life moved like a flaming cat with no warning for the next knock or time to revel in the next small victory.
My grandfather was a sharecropper. He raised tobacco and vegetables in the summer. When the air got cold and frost spread out like white-spider webs across the green, Grandaddy and the Mr. Bennett (The man he sharecropped for) would head into the R.J. Reynolds factories. Both men were coopers by trade. They made the wooden hogs heads that tobacco was stored in for shipment laying each oak stave inside of iron hoops by hand.
Ed’s Father had become a basketball star and a respected educator. “Tea Cup” Hanes had been the principal of Paisley Middle School located off of Thurmond St. where he had grown up. “Tea Cup” grew up in “Boston” a neighborhood in North East Winston-Salem named for a small housing development built in order to house hosiery workers. The original houses had been small, white wooden boxes with no real amenities. The streets had been dirt until the late 1950’s. By the time Ed was a kid in the 1980’s the jobs were already heading over seas and the streets were growing rougher in the grips of the crack epidemic. Tea Cup was out, though. He had raised his family to one of East Winston’s suburban neighborhoods, Monticello Park where Ed and his sisters lived in a gorgeous split level mid-century modern that would, in turn, lose 80% of it’s value in the 2013 tax assessments.
My Father dropped out of school in the 9th grade and joined the United States Army. When he got out of the service he had worked a year in the payroll department of R.J. Reynolds before moving on to the construction industry where he and my mother worked hard together to turn themselves into successful entrepreneurs.
Now Ed and I sat yards from where our grandfathers had toiled in humility and grace. Ed was about to be elected as a state representative and I owned a new media company… and neither one of us felt- even for a moment- as economically safe or viable as our fathers had at our age. Instead of sitting there and reflecting how far we had come building off of the labors of our forbearers, we were sitting there not entirely convinced that by the end of our working lives Ed and I could very well be back in the kinds of hard labor positions our grandfather’s were in. We were born in the land of plenty and there just didn’t seem to be much left to go around. Both of us were gambling on the success of Winston-Salem. It is hard for me to escape the dogged feeling that when this town prospers once more me and mine will prosper as well. The feeling that somehow our fate was tied to Camel City by an invisible umbilical. She giveth and she takes away… she blesses and she damns.
We toasted with the whiskey shots. Sure. The fear of failure is palatable in this city… but so is the collective memory of what we once were and can be again.
Out back in the alley there was a stage set up along with an improvised mud wrestling pit. A hard-driving three piece band hammered its way through standards like Link Wray’s Rumble before tearing off into the Batman Theme when a well oiled citizen of our fair city jumped into the mud pit wearing nothing but his Batman Underoos. As Batman went to slippery war with a guy in cutoffs rocking a hard-cut mowhawk- a big, biker looking guy sprayed them both down before turning the water-hose onto the crowd.
The Belle of the Ball watched it all while fanning herself with black lace fan. Her red and black dress clung tight to every curve while bobbed hair and ruby red lips were highlighted by her extensive tattoos . As the biker turned the hose on us she stepped gracefully away from the spray- never missing a beat with the fan.
Winston-Salem’s Heavy Rebel Weekend is part cook-out, part music festival, and part community fair. HRW is all of the old music and all of the old sins on display for those with the grit to stand the heat and a an appetite for greasy Rock ‘n Roll on a blazing summer day. I was standing on the corner of 5th and Trade enjoying the day’s last cigar when a soaked-to-the bone man wearing wet, Batman underoos nodded politely as he casually walked by. Only in Winston-Salem, y’all.