Memphis Rockabilly Band (and impresario Chuck Wrenn)
on the HOTH stage in Libby Hill Park for the last time.
Due to the intrusion of an all-day downpour, last year’s edition of High on the Hog, No. 30, was a soggy affair. Two of the bands scheduled couldn’t play under the circumstances. Yet, in spite of the stormy weather, the Bopcats and the Memphis Rockabilly Band performed using a scaled down sound system. Tarps were lashed to the sides and back of the stage to block the wind-driven rain.
A few party stalwarts danced in the mud with umbrellas. The show went on … but perhaps for the last time.
“It was a Nor’easterner that settled over Richmond,” said the longtime director of matters musical, Chuck Wrenn. “We’ll see what the future brings.”
Meanwhile, there certainly will be no High on the Hog 31 this year.
So, the director of matters porcine, Larry Ham, won’t be slathering his Carolina red vinegar basting sauce over slow-cooking pork this Saturday in Libby Hill Park. Moreover, it seems likely that High on the Hog—which for three decades has served a generation as a reliable reunion party—has probably happened for the last time.
The heavy losses sustained from last year’s fizzler meant the handful of friends/neighbors who have staged and financially backed HOTH since its inception took a bath in red ink ... the rainy day fund was wiped out.
Going back to HOTH’s origins, other than Ham, among Wrenn’s chief co-conspirators have been: Bobby Long, Dave O’Kelly, John Cochran, Randy Smith and Steve McKay. For such veterans last year’s weather had to bring to mind another rainy day, 26 years before. 1980 was the year they significantly enlarged the plan for what had originally been a small annual neighborhood party.
Three rousing rock n’ roll bands played on a flatbed trailer in the cobblestone alley behind Wrenn’s 2808 East Franklin Street back yard for what was the then-largest HOTH crowd ever.
Yet, this was a time when one couldn’t get a permit from the proper authorities for such an event. Amplified rock simply wasn’t allowed at outdoor shindigs in Richmond, most especially on public property. So, in a sense HOTH 4 was flying below, or perhaps above, the radar. For whatever reason the cops on the beat chose not to bust it.
When it suddenly began raining in 1980, rather than lose momentum by shutting off the electricity and clearing the stage—to wait out the downpour—Wrenn broke out his staple gun and large rolls of heavy-gauge transparent plastic. With the help of volunteers an awning was hastily improvised to keep the rain off the stage. A portion of the yard closest to it was also protected, somewhat.
Then, with the electric guitars of Don’ Ax Me ... Bitch wailing in defiance of the chilly rainstorm, the sense of common purpose felt by those dancing in the mud was unforgettable. The full potential of live rock n’ roll music to simultaneously express both lamentation and celebration was realized.
In 1983 HOTH had outgrown its alley venue, so it shifted gears and moved into the park across the street. The throwdown even went legit. Subsequently, HOTH’s rollicking success and noteworthy lack of trouble planted the seeds for Jumpin’ in July, Friday Cheers and the outdoor music festivals that have blossomed since.
The HOTH record for beer sales on a Saturday afternoon still stands at 209 kegs; it was some time in the early ‘90s, according to Chuck. At its peak, it took some 350 volunteers to chop the pork, serve the beer, tend the stage, etc. Each year volunteers got a new HOTH T-shirt for their trouble; extras were sold to the public. There have been 25 different models.
What was a beloved local gospel group, The Silver Stars, holds the record for most HOTH appearances with 10 (1987-‘96). The Memphis Rockabilly Band played the gig seven times (1980, ‘81, ‘84-‘87, ‘06).
“The Silver Stars, we got every year we could ... until they died,” Wrenn recalled.
What were locally-based bands with multiple appearances include: The Bopcats, The Good Humor Band, Billy Ray Hatley’s bands, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon and The Wall-O-Matics. Maybe the three most noteworthy national acts were: Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band in ‘83 and ‘85; NRBQ in ‘87; Marcia Ball in ‘01.
Presented with the prospect that HOTH has run it course, a smiling Chuck Wrenn offered familiar advice, “Don’t forget to have a good time.”
Those coveted laminated backstage credentials, which meant free beer to the wearer, will probably be selling on eBay soon. Who knows what T-shirts will eventually be worth?
Appropriately, as it stands now, the last band to perform was the impeccably authentic Memphis Rockabilly Band. Although it was unplanned, they were the perfect act to play an encore for 30 years of smiles ... one last fast dance in the mud.