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"Runnin' With Tater Salad"
I first started doing standup in Arlington, Texas in the fall of 1986. My act consisted of a couple of brilliantly forgettable bits concerning the functions of my lower torso and some references to my hometown of Pampa, Texas, a small town in the panhandle. One Tuesday, after my set on open mic night, I was approached by a heavy set guy with a mustache and a cowboy hat.
"Are you really from Pampa?" he asked, as if being from Pampa, TX, is something someone might fib about in order to impress a bank loan officer or a stripper or something.
"I wasn't born there, but I've lived there for the past 12 years," I replied.
"Well, I'm from Fritch," he said.
Damn, nobody would lie about that. The thriving, prairie dog-ridden metropolis of Fritch, TX, population around 400, lies roughly 40 miles northwest of Pampa.
Wow. I thought I came from BFE. At least I came from downtown BFE. If you pop the name "Fritch, Texas" into a mapquest destination request, it will reply "You poor bastard." A decent size Wal Mart is bigger than Fritch, Texas. He extended his hand and we shook.
"I'm Ron White."
In the years since, Ron and I worked a lot of clubs on the road together and became good friends. Once, after a huge hailstorm mangled every roof within 50 miles of Arlington, he and I shingled his house in the scorching Texas summer heat so he could make a couple of bucks off the insurance settlement. It was hard, sweaty work for two hungover road comics, but we worked all day and partied like-- well, road comics-- every night until we finished that damn roof. Ron was just fun to be around. Even hot, backbreaking work like roofing didn't seem all that bad when you were doing it with Tater. Plus,he paid me better than a week in most clubs. That was back in the early 90's. Let's fast forward to 2005.
Just in case you've spent the last few years in solitary confinement or up in the space shuttle or something, Ron "Tater Salad" White is a bit of a comedy phenom. From his exposure in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movies, his popularity has skyrocketed. His concerts regularly rank in Billboard magazine's top ten for country artists, and when I say country artists, I mean Toby Keith, Shania Twain and the like. Big-time show business. Gone from his act are the cowboy hat, the mustache, the cigarette, the tequila shots.. All have been replaced by sleek Armani suits, Davidoff cigars and 30-year-old McAllen Scotch. What does remain in the act is the body of material built by nearly 20 years of constant touring, and that material brings fans out to his shows in droves. Luckily for me, Ron remains loyal to old friends, and is kind enough to let me open a show for him from time to time.
On a rainy afternoon in late December, I drove down to Ron's house (if you can call an elegant, 12,000 square footer with nine fireplaces, an elevator and a cement pond a "house"), since I was going to ride with him to the show that night. About 3:30, Ron, myself, and Todd, his road manager, hopped into Ron's Lincoln Blackwood truck and took off for the gig. Half an hour later, we pulled into a parking lot and up to a chainlink gate, through which several business jets could be seen parked on the ramp. "Hey, Kid Dave, you ever rode on a Learjet?" Ron asked. I didn't have to think too long about that one. "No, Ron. Don't think I ever have," I replied. "Well then, today's your lucky day." he said. "You're rollin' with Tater."
The gate opened and Todd idled the truck through and parked next to one of the jets. One of the pilots came over and started to carry our bags to the plane. That's right, the pilot. Because when you charter a jet, the pilots have to do whatever you say, instead of the other way around. I'm serious. Instead of them telling you to keep your ass in your seat with the seat belt buckled the whole damn flight, you can tell them to throw you a beer, and they have do it. How cool is that?
Turns out the jet wasn't a Lear, but a brand new Raytheon Hawker 400. Close enough.
It had been flown one time. You think new car smell is cool, try new jet smell.
The jet seats eight passengers, but there was only 3 of us. We climbed aboard, taxied
into position and the pilot firewalled the throttle. The Hawker climbed like a
bottle rocket off the runway and into the instrument conditions above. It seemed
like we were in the soup about a minute before coming out on top of a cottony white
stratus layer of clouds, on our way to a cruising altitude of 34,000 feet. That's
about 34,000 feet higher than the cruising altitude at which I usually travel to
comedy shows. I was on my way to open a show for one of the most popular comedians
of all time, in a chartered business jet, with the pilot tossing me beers. Never
in my wildest open mic dreams did I ever picture anything like this happening to
me, but thanks to the generosity of one Ron White, it was.
The flight up, other than the fact it was being done in a chartered jet flying at over 500 knots, was uneventful. We stopped at Ohio State University's airport to pick up a friend of Ron's, comedian Keith Collins. While we were there, we took on a little fuel and the pilots checked the weather at our destination, which was the Soaring Eagle Casino in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, located in the central part of the mitten state.
"Bad news, Mr. White," said one of the pilots. "Conditions at the field there are below minimums," which means, even with instrument navigation, it would be unsafe-- as well as illegal-- to try to land there. Grand Rapids was the next closest place we could safely get into, roughly 60 miles away from Mount Pleasant.
"Todd," Ron said, "Call the promoter and have him send a car to Grand Rapids. If he leaves right now, he'll get there about the same time we do." If the car was in Grand Rapids when we got there and hauled even a little ass on the way back to Mount Pleasant, we'd still be there to start the show on time.
We all piled back into the jet and the Hawker screamed off into the rainy Ohio sky. Too bad Buddy Holly didn't have one of these bad boys. Shortly into the flight, the pilot reported that conditions had improved at Mount Pleasant, and we could fly directly there if we wanted to. Sweet! Before long, we descended through the clouds and could see the lights of the casino, which was less than a mile from airport.
The pilots landed the jet and taxied us out of the rain and into the hanger, where a limousine was waiting. Five minutes later, we were backstage at the Soaring Eagle, with a half hour to spare. We ordered some dinner, and Ron cracked open the bottle he'd be taking on stage with him that night-- Thirty-year-old McAllen scotch. $400 a bottle. No, I'm not kidding.
"Pour yourself a drink, Kid Dave," Ron said. "Help yourself to as much as ya want."
So, I did. My God, those McAllen boys do good work. Throw in a couple of ice cubes and you've got heaven in a glass. I thought back to the days when we felt lucky to get a shot of Cuervo 1800 before the show. Things have certainly changed for Ron White.
At showtime, Todd did my intro from a backstage microphone and I went out and did my moderately amusing 20 minutes. Ron draws a great crowd, and when there are thousands of people in that kind of audience, you really feel like you are somebody. The first big show I did with Ron was at The University of Illinois basketball arena, and there must have been 6,000 people there. Flanking the stage were giant, 15-foot tall TV screens so people in the back of the place could see the comic onstage.
The showroom at the Soaring Eagle was nowhere near that size, but it still easily
held several thousand. I had a pretty good set, and vacated the stage to a nice
round of applause.
After a few moments of dramatic silence, Ron's theme music, a Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar riff, started to play, and Ron took the stage to thunderous applause. Thunderous. I watched the show from a monitor backstage. I could see Tater was out there having a great time. Drinkin' and smokin' and making people laugh. Pretty much what the guy was born to do. He murdered out there for an hour, said goodnight, came off the stage and we were out the back door, into the limo and on the way back to the airport. After he signed a few autographs for some of the airport folk, we climbed back into the jet and taxied out to the runway. Somebody up front who hadn't been drinking hit the throttle, and we were airborne. The pilot turned the Hawker south, back towards Tater Salad World Headquarters.
The trip home seemed awful fast. Good scotch, good company and a jet that flies 550 miles an hour will do that. We touched down around 12:30 AM. We'd travelled 900 miles to the venue, had dinner, done the show, and travelled 900 miles home all in about 9 hours. That's one hell of a one nighter, my friends. Todd drove us all from the airport back to Ron's house. He had to-- no one else was sober. I had a one last drink, and went upstairs and crashed, in one of the zillion bedrooms in Lord Tater's castle, around 2 AM.
7:00 AM came awful early, good thing I carry that cheap alarm clock with me. The big house was quiet as I slipped out the front door and into my little Nissan truck. Reality check time, Cinderella. I was back to my real life now, with a long, rainy drive to do New Year's week at a new club in West Virginia. I'd be headlining there, but it would be kinda anticlimactic, to say the least, given the events of the day before.
I have been to the comedy mountaintop, people. Not under my own power, but on the
back of a guy who makes the trip regularly. For that I'm grateful. Ron White is
a great guy and I'm happy for him. He's generous to his friends. He takes care
of his family. He's donated the proceeds from a bunch of his shows to Hurricane
Katrina relief. The guy is just a class act. I'd ride in his chartered jet and
drink his thirty-year-old scotch any day. Thanks, Ron!
See ya on the road,
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