One woman's tale of the most wholesome afternoon she's ever spent drunk. I wasn't a Kenny Chesney fan before HullabaLOU, but the next time he's in Louisville I'm buying tickets just so I can hang out with the tailgaters.
You see, I honestly hadn't expected any tailgating at HullabaLOU.
Maybe I was biased by not having seen any tailgaters at the Forecastle Festival downtown a few weeks earlier. Mind you, Forecastle had valet bicycle parking. Instead of tailgating outside, people took the party onto the great lawn.
Churchill Downs clearly didn't expect any tailgaters, either. Friday night, they didn't supply a single porta-potty to anyone outside the gates. That was fine, since Bon Jovi's fans drove down straight after work and went right on in to experience everything they could in the brief time before the headliner.
The next day I heard a buzz that the best party at HullabaLOU was outside the gates. As an intrepid journalist it was my duty to investigate. Okay, let's be honest - I expected to spend five minutes gathering mockable material. Two hours later, despite the broiling heat, it was a real struggle to force myself back inside to get back to work.
"Who has a jello shot for the green haired lady! Somebody get her a lime one!" As I walked up to the nearest 9 foot tall inflated palm tree, a beer was placed in my hand before I could introduce myself.
"I'm here with Louisville.com. A shot before we get started? Oh, sure. It's 2 in the afternoon. Let me just tuck this beer into my cleavage first. Man, that feels good in the heat. Now..." I took a quick gulp, "What inspired you to tailgate instead of going inside?"
There was a momentary look of confusion before everyone started laughing. Then a guy from six cars down showed up with jello shots to share.
"It's all about making new friends!" said Laura.
One amazingly generous gentleman set up an entire tiki hut off the back of his pickup truck. He brought along six cases of beer, multiple coolers to keep it ice cold, and gave out a dozen free straw cowboy hats, hula skirts, and more shots than I could count. Before I wandered deeper into the village of tailgaters, I had to get leid. Yes, he found me one with green flowers.
Anyone who thinks tailgating is about saving money by not buying expensive beers inside hasn't met Kenny Chesney fans. People brought palm trees, sand, inflatable pools, beer bongs, grills and edibles galore, and every possible booze concoction you could imagine.
The cleverest, most generous woman there heard about the complete lack of porta-potties and set up her own makeshift one. Yes, really. She found a one person tent and installed a bucket, toilet paper, wet wipes, and even some deodorizer to keep it livable.
"When I leave, I'm donating the bucket to Churchill Downs." That set off a chorus of snickers. One nameless man who showed up around 10 am confessed to peeing on the ground behind his truck. Everyone else was full of endless praise for their savior.
The porta-potty problem was a major topic of conversation. Once nestled into your $25 parking space, you couldn't leave and re-enter. Once you crossed the gates into Churchill Downs, you couldn't duck back out to your car, either. That meant they couldn't duck down the street to a gas station or go inside to relieve themselves without giving up on the tailgating experience.
"Churchill Downs doesn't want us here," said Joan. "But Kenny does. I don't think he'll come out, not at something like this, but for his own concerts? Yeah. He'll come out and party with the tailgaters! He's like that."
Over and again I heard fans say there were two reasons they were willing to brave hours in triple digit heat with no toilets. First, they really did meet new people. I saw folks friending one another on facebook via their iPhones, and several said they kept in regular touch with people they met at concerts. Second, this was the way Kenny wanted it. He told them to kick back, have a party, and treat everyone like family.
They took him at his word. Heck, I literally couldn't say hi without sparking a new round of shots for everyone in shouting distance. Just in case they were showing off for the oh so illustrious online press, I camped out a few rows over to observe. It wasn't just me - anyone friendly enough to say hi on their long trek from distant parking to the gates of Churchill Downs was greeted with their choice of a cold beer or bottle of water.
"Do you know any of these people?" I was three shots in by now, which meant my questions were vaguely delivered to whoever stood nearest.
"Nope. That's why I tailgate. Go inside and it's hard to meet people," said John. He was wearing a John Deere t-shirt. I didn't tell him his tractor was sexy. However, when I turned down his offer of a hot dog due to my pesky habit of keeping kosher, he jogged up the isle asking if anyone brought any Hebrew Nationals. It turns out they were on sale at Kroger and thus on a grill a few cars down.
By four in the afternoon, I was well fed, liquored up, and leid. It was the best time I'd have all weekend long. As someone who's never been much of a tailgater, it really changed my perception of the habit. Sure, these guys missed out on some great acts like Ben Folds, the Ville Billies, and everything on the Bluegrass Stage (honestly, it was the unappreciated powerhouse of the weekend), but the sheer relaxed joy of sharing with strangers more than made up for it.
In a fit of optimism I decided to venture out the next day and see if anyone was tailgating for Dave Matthews.
In retrospect, I really wish I hadn't. I love Dave Matthews whereas I'd never heard Kenny Chesney before HullabaLOU. Imagine my disappointment when the happy village disappeared. A few people sat in the back of SUV's, glaring at me suspiciously. When I said I was doing a story on tailgating at HullabaLOU, not one single person was willing to tell me their name. Several literally turned away and pretended I didn't exist when I tried to talk to them. The only person willing to answer a question said simply. "I'm not wasting six bucks on a beer when I can drink out here for free." They didn't talk to me, they didn't talk to one another, and honestly, they didn't look like they were having any fun. It was just a grim death march to consuming as much alcohol as possible before heading inside.
I've heard people say Kenny Chesney is the next Jimmy Buffet. I didn't get it at first. After all, their music doesn't sound anything alike. However, I've met amazingly generous, friendly, personable Buffet fans at other concerts. Kenny, I tip my straw cowboy hat to you, sir. You've built an admirable community. I hope you're as proud of them as they are of you.
Photos and video credit Chris-Rachael Oseland.