Editor’s Note: CMT’s Lance Smith filed this first-person report after some of his dreams came true this past weekend (June 4-5) at CMT DukesFest 2005 in Bristol, Tenn.
What kid growing up in the ’80s didn’t love The Dukes of Hazzard? There were the lunch boxes (metal, not plastic), the T-shirts, the posters and, of course, the toys, especially the die cast metal General Lee car. I had it all. On any given day in my parents’ living room — with the television volume set to 11 — I was Bo or Luke Duke. However, my mother frowned on the “hood slide” across her glass coffee table. “But Mom,” I’d try to explain. “I’m just a good ol’ boy, never meanin’ no harm.”
Now I’m 7 again because, like the rest of the country, I’ve been energized by the fact that CMT is re-airing The Dukes of Hazzard. And to top that, I was even more jazzed to find out that our latest assignment for Top Twenty Countdown was to shoot the show at CMT DukesFest 2005 at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. The two-day event featured musical guests and appearances by original cast members from the series. The Dukes of Hazzard was arguably one of the greatest pop culture crazes of all time, and I was going to celebrate that fact with Dukes fans from around the globe.
So which vehicle do you take to something called DukesFest? If you’ve been working on your own hemi orange, 1969 Dodge Charger equipped with the Dixie horn and rebel flag top, you take that. But if you’re a CMT VJ, you go in style. I’m sure many of you have seen the promos running on the network. Here at CMT, we have a tin can — a 1988 Ford Festiva with about a million miles on it and no AC. It makes the new Mini Coopers look like monster trucks. But it’s hemi orange, has “01” on the doors and, yes, it has the horn. So with a big “yee-haw!” the crew and I set out for Bristol.
I knew the trip would be interesting when we pulled up to the hotel and the marquee said “Bristol Welcomes DukesFest … Heated Pool … Daisy Duke Contest Tonight.” I love heated pools. It was early, but the parking lot was already home to three General Lee replicas and one deputy’s cruiser. Painted on the windows of a nearby SUV were the words “DukesFest or Bust”. Needless to say, they didn’t bust. Inside the hotel lobby, I felt like I was at a Tennessee Vols home game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville because more than half the people were wearing bright orange T-shirts. However, the ones in Bristol had the “01” emblazoned on the front. A young girl wearing extremely short cutoffs yelled to “mama” in a deep Southern drawl asking if she could have the keys to the car. It was obvious she wasn’t in the Boss Hogg contest. Yes sir, I had arrived.
The next morning, we left for the Bristol Motor Speedway in the beautiful rolling hills of East Tennessee. Once we were through the gates, I saw them: My people … fellow Dukes fans. There were easily over 100 replica vehicles, and I immediately thought to myself, “Let’s see Knight Rider pull that off.”
At first, I was a little timid in pulling up in my makeshift Li’l General, but the purpose behind our downsized, junk version of the legend was clearly written on the Fiesta: “The Dukes of Hazzard. There is no substitute.” And right then, a group of guys standing next to their own perfectly detailed versions of the General, gave me a big “hell, yeah!” and thumbs up. They got it. They understood.
We parked our little motorcade backstage and set out to cover the event. The heat was high at the track. Throughout the day, I would notice the sunburns were beginning to match the “01” shirts. Still, no one cared. Some had come from down the street, while others had come from across the Atlantic. A little sun wasn’t going to keep them from meeting Bo, Daisy, Cletus, Rosco and Cooter.
I grew up going to Fan Fair in Nashville, and I’ve seen Kenny Chesney’s meet and greets. But I’ve never seen autograph lines like the ones at DukesFest. People stood single file, hundreds deep, just to enter a tent where the cast signed memorabilia galore. Loyalty. That’s the only word. Not one complaint from anyone about time or temperature.
Even as I stood inside the meet and greet hotbox, counting down videos in front of the camera, Catherine Bach decided to have a little fun. She left her post, ran up behind me and squeezed me around the waist as I was introducing the No. 7 video. Yes, that’s right, I got goosed by Daisy Duke. Pinch me. I must be dreaming.
The rest of the cast members were just as enthusiastic. So much so, it was an effort to stay focused on the fact that I’m not a kid anymore. However, it’s difficult to do when James Best shows up in full Rosco P. Coltrane character. We always remember the greats like Barney Fife, Mr. T and the Fonz, but when you witness a presence like that firsthand, what do you do? I laughed and graciously shook his hand, mentally marking that up on my “I can’t believe that happened” list. Rick Hurst, otherwise known as Cletus Hogg, was as genuine as anyone could imagine. He never stopped smiling and was just as proud to be wearing his old deputy uniform.
After some time, I caught up with the man responsible for the event — Crazy Cooter himself, Ben Jones. Yet Ben is quick to point out it’s not his hard work but that of his wife, Alma Viator, that pulls the whole thing together. He wasn’t lying. There wasn’t a moment I didn’t see Alma on the phone talking business or directing someone, including her husband who also took the stage with his band, Cooter’s Garage Band.
Cooter wasn’t the only crooning cast member, either. John Schneider belted out some of his hits while the crowd sang along. Others performing at the event were new artists Keni Thomas and Glenn Cummings, as well as Ralph Stanley II and James Otto with the MuzikMafia’s Two Foot Fred. Perhaps the biggest draw was Shooter Jennings, the son of the show’s narrator and balladeer, Waylon Jennings. Backstage and onstage, it was evident that Shooter isn’t trying to fill his daddy’s shoes. He’s breaking in a whole new pair of his own.
Later onstage, I had the pleasure of officially naming Christopher Nelson the new VP of the Dukes of Hazzard Institute. The man gets paid $100,000 to spread the word about the series. He said a few words to the envious crowd before the cast returned to the stage and chimed in on the Dukes‘ theme song.
As that hot sun finally set over the hilltop, the crowd found its way inside the speedway track. My crew and I gathered on the infield with our proud Li’l General. After a few solo laps around the track in a full-size General Lee, John Schneider found his way to our car. He grinned as if knowing the hood slide wasn’t happening on this model. In hindsight, I should’ve dared him.
Schneider’s arrival was the signal for all the General Lees to take to the track. With Bo Duke in front, a hundred orange Dodge Chargers in the middle and me close to the back, this was perhaps the most surreal moment of my life. At that moment, I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed a black Pontiac Trans-Am with the swaying red light in the grill. KITT was right behind me, and Knight Rider was trying to muscle in on Hazzard fame. Still, no one really seemed to mind as everyone revved their engines and blew their Dixie horns — a lot. We started slow and kept the pace to a minimum, but I proudly circled the short track at Bristol in my own improvised version of a pop culture icon.
CMT DukesFest 2005 is in the history books now, but every memory I had as kid of the television program came flooding back last weekend. And if you had told that 7-year-old in the 1980s what he would be doing in his 20s, he would have never believed you. I probably won’t be toting my lunch in a metal Dukes of Hazzard lunch box, and I’ll still use the door to get in my truck. But being a part of something that was such a part of me is what makes good memories great.