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My delusions of grandeur began weeks after attempting my first castrato soprano holler in the comfort of my own home and days before mounting the rickety steps to the stage at the 42nd National Hollerin’ Contest in Spivey’s Corner.
Maybe, I thought, I could actually win. Maybe my picture and quotes would adorn the front pages of small-town newspapers scattered across eastern North Carolina. Maybe I’d even receive the coveted invite from David Letterman to appear on The Late Show. Or maybe I’d hold out for Conan O’Brien’s new show in the fall. Sure, I was a long shot, but I’d done my homework. I knew that hollerin’ was much more than a battle of vocal decibels. As an ancient form of communication, I knew that hollerin’ was once a vital part of life. Long before e-mail and telephones, hollerin’ was a lifeline to the neighbors and it provided a diversion while working long, hot hours on the farm. And I knew that the people of Spivey’s Corner—a sleepy crossroads, miles from nowhere, where the contest takes place on the third Saturday every June—had little respect for those who disrespect their heritage.
I had mastered the distress holler, a short but loud ambulance-like sound used as a cry for help. I was pretty good at an old time expressive holler, a minute-long song-like series of falsetto hoots and yodel sounds. And I was ready to bring something new to this contest: the N.C. State fight song and a soulful rendition of Jesus Loves Me. If only some of the former hollerin’ champions decided to skip this year’s contest to stay out of the 90-degree heat, maybe I actually had a shot at winning.
The day of the contest arrives, and with less than an hour until game time, the announcement of the judges gives me two promising signs. One of them is an N.C. State graduate. Another is Gregory Jackson, a four-time Hollerin’ Contest champ. That means there is one less former champion competing. But it doesn’t help ease my nerves. I’m confident in my routine, but not my poise on stage. My previous stage experience includes several pre-voice-change youth choir shows and an eighth-grade play in which I successfully portrayed my Southern-drawled, Coca-Cola-addicted math teacher, Ms. Thornton. In the former, I blended in with the crowd. In the latter, I wore a dress, chugged a 3-liter Coke, and produced a 3-second-long burp. Each of these events, however, lacked judging and local media coverage.
As the Conch Shell Blowin’, Whistlin’, Junior Hollerin’, and Teen Hollerin’ Contests come and go, pressure builds in my stomach. I sneak to the parking lot to find some solitude and clear my thoughts. Unfortunately, a fellow competitor, who parked next to us, is also at his car. And he’s in the mood to chat. About everything. Especially the story of his life. My pithy responses are an ineffective means of deterring him.
“Yeah, I gotta’ wear these hot boots because I broke my furnal bone,” he says.
“Interesting,” I say.
“I was supposed to be at a memorial service today for a friend, but I figured I’d come holler, instead.”
“You see that girl walkin’ round here in the green dress? Boyy-ee, she was sumpthin’ else!”
“Must have missed her.”
“Yeah, my ex-wife has cancer. I take care of her. We’re still real close.”
This drags on for at least 10 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, my new friend seems like a great guy. I’m just not in the mood to banter. I decide that it might be a good idea to join the audience again and watch the Women’s Callin’ Contest. I’m pleased to hear that none of them perform any of my hollers. After the Women’s Contest, the emcee asks the men to gather behind the stage. Calling it a stage, by the way, is doing it a favor. It’s actually a hollowed-out tractor-trailer car.
I don’t recognize the first few contestants. But the former champions trickle in.
First, there’s four-time winner Kevin Jasper. The winner of the contest in 2009, Jasper was the first person I contacted for hollerin’ help. Three weeks earlier, he advised me to listen to some of the old time hollers on the album Hollerin’ and to throw a hymn into my routine. Many of the contestants holler Amazing Grace, he told me, so he stays away from it. Instead, he often hollers How Great Thou Art. Best to stay away from that one, too, I thought. He also mentioned that he would probably do an old time holler that he once performed over his father’s grave. I decided not to ask about that holler, assuming that I’d hear it in due time.
Jasper greets me with a welcoming handshake behind the stage. Moments later, I notice Larry Jackson, a seven-time winner, and Tony Peacock, a one-time champion. I recognize them both from news stories and videos I’ve seen online. They introduce themselves and offer me luck. I now realize that I’ll need plenty of it. For I am walking in the footsteps of hollerin’ royalty. So much for my hopes for a weak field.
I walk to the corner of the stage to peek at the crowd. As the first contestant performs, I pretend that it’s me. And then I hear it. The point of no return.
“My friends, help me welcome to the stage, from Raaaaa-leigh, North Carolina, contestant six zero two, Mr. Jon Page!”
Somehow, my legs confidently carry me on stage. Behind a tinted pair of aviator sunglasses, I find Carie and my dad, the only two familiar faces I know in this audience of strangers scattered across the lawn on folding chairs. While I’ve practiced my hollers for hours, I never wrote a script of what I was going to say between them. I figured it might be best to wing it. I take a deep breath and start talking before I even reach the microphone.
“Hello Spivey’s Corner! I’ll tell you what, it’s a pleasure to be here. This is my first Hollerin’ Contest and I thought I would be nervous, but you people are far too beautiful for anybody to be scared of. Now if I had been in trouble, I could have done a distress holler that goes like this: wuppp, WHEWWWW-EWWWWWWWW…”
I’m off without a hitch.
I transition from my distress holler to my old time expressive holler. Considering that I only started perfecting it 5 days before the contest, it goes incredibly well.
Next, I inform the crowd that my own expressive holler will be the N.C. State fight song. I don’t get much of a reaction from the announcement. I start to worry that there might be more University of North Carolina fans in this audience than State fans, but I start, nonetheless. Halfway through, I make eye contact with a woman in the crowd who is clearly displeased. It’s probably because of my hollerin’, but I chalk it up to an upset stomach from too much barbecue. Either that, or she’s a Tar Heel. I finish the fight song to a smattering of cheers. In an unplanned move, I raise my arms and make the Wolfpack wolf-chomping symbol with my hands. “Yeah, Wolfpack,” I say. “You know what I’m talking about.” I feel like an idiot for saying, “You know what I’m talking about.”
Finally, I close with what I call something we can “hopefully all agree on,” and I belt out a soprano rendition of Jesus Loves Me that would make Justin Timberlake jealous.
Two more contestants give it their best, and then it’s Jackson’s turn, and he’s clearly a seven-time national champ for a reason. At one point in his routine, he performs a holler in which he is hollerin’ as he breathes IN and OUT.
Jasper is next, and he’s incredible. I’m enjoying the artistry of his hollerin’ too much to notice that my dreams of placing in the contest are evaporating. Also, I start to feel like a jerk.
“The last holler I’d like to do, and I’ll do two of them, is a holler that I did over my father’s grave last summer with my mother,” Jasper says. “She asked me to do it because I’d done it the year that he passed, after his funeral. And I’m going to do a part of Mr. Floyd Lee’s Old Timey Holler.”
Wait a second, I think, Floyd Lee? I know that name. Why do I know that name? Oh no! I know that name because he’s the guy whose holler I mimicked for my expressive holler! This is the holler Jasper did over his father’s grave? Seriously? Why didn’t I just ask him that in the first place?
My embarrassment is magnified when Jasper starts hollerin’. There’s no way to properly quantify how much better his version is than mine, but I’d start by guessing that it’s 50 times better. At least.
Finally, Peacock impresses the audience with a variety of hollers, including his own personal creation. I realize it will take a miracle to win. Jasper confirms this when he approaches me behind the stage.
“Jon, congratulations. You did a great job,” he says. “I really hope you come back again next year because you really have potential. Now, you might not place today. There are three national champions here, after all.”
Yeah, tell me about it, I think. But, wait… what did he just say? Did he just say I did a great job? And he’s telling me I should come back next year? Before I can say anything else, the emcee invites all the contestants on stage and announces the winners.
Jackson is the second runner-up. Jasper is the runner-up. Peacock is the champion. And I’m going home empty-handed.
Or am I?
Behind the stage, Jackson echoes Jasper’s sentiments. So does Peacock. The newly crowned champion of the National Hollerin’ Contest is congratulating me—and he’s the one holding the trophy!
I start to think these guys are simply messing with me, that this is nothing more than some sick, twisted form of hollerin’ hazin’. I’m chatting with my friend from the parking lot when I see Gregory Jackson, the aforementioned four-time champion judge. He locks eye contact with me from 20 yards away. His face is void of expression as he plots a direct path towards me. Perhaps he is preparing to do what Jasper was too nice to do: tell me that I’m an inconsiderate jerk for stealing Jasper’s old timey holler. I feel like a weak prey being stalked by a great hunter.
Jackson puts one hand on my right shoulder. He shakes my hand with the other. Circulation is temporarily halted in my fingers.
“I just wanted to tell you personally what a fine job you did,” Jackson says. “You showed us a lot today. Keep practicing and please come back next year.” My new friend from the parking lot is still standing next to me, but Jackson has yet to acknowledge him. “Seriously, Jon. You’ve got it, and I think you have great potential.” Finally, Jackson looks at my friend. “And you … too. Come on back.”
Minutes later, a teary-eyed spectator thanks me for hollerin’ Jesus Loves Me.
It hits me. I really wasn’t as terrible as I thought. Sure, I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t bad. And these hollerin’ champs weren’t hazin’ me, after all. So what if I wasn’t going home with a trophy? I was taking something more valuable: some hard-earned respect from the kings of hollerin’.
And maybe my dreams of hollerin’ fame weren’t so crazy. Maybe they were just a year early.
Contestants 606 and 602: four-time Hollerin’ Contest champion Kevin Jasper and rookie hollerer Jon Page.
Contestants 602 and 607: rookie hollerer Jon Page and National Hollerin’ Contest Champion Tony Peacock.
Special thanks to Kevin Jasper, Tony Peacock, Larry Jackson, Gregory Jackson, and all the other competitors at the Hollerin’ Contest. They are truly talented, genuinely great people. I hope to holler at you guys next year.
Now that I’ve competed in my first National Hollerin’ Contest, I feel adequately qualified to pen a first timer’s guide to hollerin’. As I see it, there are 10 basic steps to go from hollerin’ mess to hollerin’ success.
1. Respect your hollerin’ elders. When I first told people I was competing, many of them assumed that the hollerin’ contest is a shouting match. Far from it. Hollerin’ is possibly one of the oldest forms of communication in the world. Before telephones, hollerin’ was the only way to let your neighbors know that you were OK, or that you needed help, or to let your girlfriend know that you were half a mile from her house. Otherwise, she might not clean up for your arrival, and she’d stink of tobacco. So each holler is as different as the message it carries. Some hollers are as intricate as opera songs, so don’t show up simply expecting to scream, like some folks have in the past.
2. Buy the album Hollerin’. It’s going to be your hollerin’ bible. Without it’s nuggets of wisdom, you don’t stand a chance.
3. Listen to the album, lots. Listen to it in your car, at home, at work, wherever you can.
4. Practice, lots. Practice in your car, at home, at work, wherever you can. Learning some of the more complicated hollers takes time. And energy. And the patience of your spouse. Or roommate. Or neighbor. Or dog. You’re probably going to be really bad, at first. Hell, you might be really bad by the end of it, too, but you’re going to be really bad at first. Even if you’re a decent singer, learning some of the hollers is like learning a new language. To make it easier on myself, I broke one 45-second holler into seven smaller parts using an audio editor. Then I listed to one section at a time, over and over and over until each individual track sounded like static. In time, however, it all started to make sense.
5. Practice more.
6. Develop your routine. Once you’ve got a few weeks of practice under your belt, it’s time to start piecing together your routine. In the National Hollerin’ Contest, you’ve got 4 minutes. If you go longer, you’re disqualified. There seems to be no official standard that the judges are looking for, but you’ll be safe if you talk about the history of hollerin’ and throw in a hymn.
7. Practice your routine in front of a few trusted family members or friends. Performing for actual people is a lot different than performing in the car or the shower. Plus, your friends might be able to give you some helpful advice.
8. Congratulations! You’re nearly ready to compete in the National Hollerin’ Contest. But make sure you’ve got the following before leaving for the contest: giant sun umbrella, sunglasses, hat, chairs, cooler full of water, sunscreen. Summers in North Carolina are hot. And there’s no shade at the Hollerin’ Contest, so you should be prepared to battle the sun.
9. Keep practicing. Just because you’re already at the contest doesn’t mean you can’t practice a little more.
10. Have fun. If you’ve followed steps 1-9, then you’ve got a decent chance of making a respectable showing at the Hollerin’ Contest. Just don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re probably not going to win your first competition, so you might as well enjoy yourself. At least, as much as you can in 90-degree heat.