By JAMES WEAR
Nearly 24 years have passed, but I still remember the evening country music singer Johnny Bush came to Liberty Hill. It was April 28, 1990, and by the time Bush and his band, the Bandeleros, took the stage at the VFW Post Home, I was one tired fellow.
It had been a day of pouring concrete and carrying chairs and benches…but, I’m getting ahead of myself in telling this story.
It was the day the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, then known as the Liberty Hill Community Chamber of Commerce, hosted its first festival. Simply known as Festival ’90, the event not only included arts and crafts, a parade and the usual make up of a small-town festival, but a pro-class bicycle race that was dubbed the “Shin Oak Ridge Road Race.”
All of this led up to the appearance by Bush, who is perhaps best known for penning “Whiskey River,” the song that Willie Nelson has opened his show with for years.
It was also the year that the barbecue cookoff, which would develop into a Liberty Hill tradition, made its debut…perhaps with a less-than-auspicious beginning, as only six teams signed up to participate. The cookoff, as well as the Saturday night dance featuring Bush, was held out on CR 277, where the VFW Post Home was located at the time.
Planning for the festival had begun several months earlier when I suggested to the newly-organized chamber’s board of directors that it might consider hosting a festival as a way to get Liberty Hill on the map.
My suggestion was rewarded with the late Jim Linzy, who served as chairman of the chamber during its first couple of years, appointing me as festival director.
Having never organized a festival before, I quickly began studying other festivals in Texas and learned of a seminar being held on the Texas A&M campus. I approached the festival directors about sending me to this seminar and they agreed. It was during this seminar that the plan to book Bush for a Saturday night dance was hatched.
After a day filled with various presentations on how to plan and host a festival, the seminar concluded that night with a lineup of talent available for festivals at the Texas Music Hall of Fame, a popular dance hall in Bryan. The dance hall was owned by Johnny Lyon, a fellow who I would meet several years later and become not only my employer, but a good friend as well.
The talent that night included Gary P. Nunn, and while I enjoyed Nunn and his band, I wasn’t bowled over by his performance. Bush, with a 12-piece band backing him up, took the stage following Nunn and from his first song, I was hooked. This guy, I thought, would have to be our main draw for the festival. Following his performance, I talked with Bush and his wife, Linda, who also served as his manager. He and his band, the Bandeleros, would come to Liberty Hill for $2,500.
A few days later—without consulting with the chamber board—I signed a contract with Bush.
As the festival approached, some of the chamber directors began to get a bit nervous about the booking. Whether they were concerned with the price or the fact that Bush would be appearing at a venue that served alcohol and there were some liability concerns or a bit of both, I could feel pressure mounting for me to allay their worries.
A few days before the festival began, I got a call from Linzy, asking me to come to a special chamber meeting. Somewhat annoyed (I was in the process of building a stage downtown for the Miss Liberty Hill contest and didn’t really feel I had time to be attending a meeting) I reluctantly went.
The board wanted me to cancel the show. I protested, replying one just doesn’t pull out of a contract. They asked to see the contract, so I drove home to get it. Before returning to the meeting, I quickly glanced through the contract and at the bottom was my signature alone. There was nothing indicating the chamber had any involvement with the show. I looked up at my wife Paula and said, “I’m about to do something crazy…will you back me up on this?” She nodded.
I returned to the meeting and showed the board the contract and said, “You guys don’t have to worry about this…it’s my show.” They were relieved and I was…a bit nervous, which is perhaps an understatement. It wasn’t my first venture into show business, having booked three other country stars a few years earlier, but those bookings had been in larger markets, not in a small country town.
Over the next few days, Paula and my mother-in-law Wanda began selling tickets and sales were brisk. A big story about Bush appearing at the festival appeared in the Williamson County Sun, and that helped lead, as I would learn later, to several out-of-town fans coming to the show. Pete Garner, who at the time was attracting huge crowds to his venue (The Stock Tank out on RR 1869) announced he wouldn’t be open that Saturday so that he could attend the show, thereby freeing up several potential customers to attend our show.
Saturday finally rolled around, and after a hectic day—which included helping the fellow we had tabbed as the parade’s grand marshal finish up a concrete pour so he could actually appear at the parade—I drove out to the VFW to begin getting things in shape for the dance. The folks began arriving and soon we were out of chairs. I convinced a couple of friends to go with me and we drove downtown, taking every chair the fire department had in its building. We grabbed the two benches sitting in front of the downtown café.
It was still not enough chairs to seat everybody showing up. We hooked up a trailer and drove across Hwy. 29 to the cemetery and borrowed every pew in the tabernacle.
After that trip, I decided it was standing room only. Bush, meanwhile, had taken the stage and noted, before singing another tune, that it had been 15 years since he had been to Liberty Hill. His last appearance had been at Willie’s Fourth of July picnic in 1975.
The dance floor remained full all night, and estimates were that some 500 folks were in the building—it was packed. The VFW ran out of beer, which wasn’t my problem, but I was amused that a few good ol’ boys drove down to the beer store, bought a few cases and came back, and began handing out beer to the thirsty dancers.
What was my problem was before Bush took the stage for his final set we counted up the take at the door—and were $200-$300 short in cash to pay the band. The money was there, but several persons had paid for their tickets by check. Linda Bush was polite but firm. She expected cash money. And then it happened. A group of Liberty Hill folks, led by Johnny Bohanan, opened up their wallets and began forking over to Paula and me whatever cash we needed.
It was on that evening we discovered just how good of friends we had.
The chamber continued to host festivals for the next several years, and with each passing year we continued to learn more about what it takes to pull off a successful event. The barbecue cookoff enjoyed tremendous growth in the number of participants and drew larger and larger crowds.
But memories of that first festival — both good and bad — remain firmly in my mind.
Share comments, ideas with James by email: James@LHIndependent.com