"We play for free," says Tim Williams of The Aspen Ridge Band, "what we charge for is setting up, tearing down and loading the van."

The fee also covers trips on dirt roads to nowhere, abuse from old people who think you're playing too loud, youngsters who think you're playing too soft and the inevitable drunk who thinks you're winking at his girl.And though there are dozens of types of bands in Utah - ranging from rock to polka - country dance bands (also known as "bar bands," "garage bands" and "live music this weekend") dominate the scene. They have the most success, and also the most headaches. For a local country band, performing is easy. What's hard is putting up with all the grief.

"Hassles," says Gary Novak, leader of the Ogden group Cadillac Cowboy. "First, you have logistics - getting things scheduled when some guys in the band have day jobs. There are things you can't see coming, like the time we got snowed in up in Wyoming. But the biggest hassle is trying to get your sound just right. It takes us about 21/2 hours to get the mix the way we like it, and people get pretty tired of hearing us call `check, check' into the microphone hour after hour."

Martha Chavez, a Utah singer who won the national Patsy Cline Sweet Dreams Singing Competition several years ago, has been to "hell and back" trying to keep ahead of the game.

"There's never any money but always the promise of money later," she says. "People are very friendly when they need you, but when they don't, they brush you off. Unless you've got a lot of money to promote and record your own stuff, you just aren't going to get a lot of help in the small markets."

On the national level, of course, folk tales abound about the greenbacks, high-life and Southern Comfort. Acclaimed country singers put five-page "riders" on their contracts that ask for everything from French wines to - in the case of Waylon Jennings - tuna sandwiches made the way his mother made them. Singers in the limelight are stroked, coddled and babied.

But on the regional level, perks are replaced by problems. "Paying your dues" the guys on top call it. "Putting up with all the crud" the guys on the local level say.

On the local level, it's a balancing act. You have to balance your dreams (Nashville stardom!) with your reality (five kids and a mortgage). You balance your material (playing "copy cat" on the big hits, but throwing in enough original stuff to keep your sanity).

You balance your time. (My brother Dave, a country singer, likes to say, "When your wife says she doesn't mind the time, she minds.")

You balance your bookings to make room for holidays and family outings.

You balance your bank account, your budget and your wardrobe.

And the stress of trying to keep on that high wire begins from day one. It's hard enough for five ego-strong souls to stay friends, let alone work and travel together day and night. More than one band has broken up over an argument about what to call the band itself. The whole thing can get to be one achy-breaky heartache.

"People marvel at the fact The Dirt Band has stayed together for 20 years," says John McEuen, former Dirt Band fiddle player. "But what people don't know is we used to break up at least once a week."

For such reasons, keeping track of groups and performers on the local scene is impossible. You may find yourself dancing to the strains of a group called "North Forty" one night, see the same bass player the next night doubling in a group called "Saddle Sores" then, two weeks later, see him in a new group he's formed called "Boot Scooters" - or are the Boot Scooters really just North Forty with a new lead singer borrowed from Saddle Sores?

"It's true," says Kim Hall, afternoon voice of KSOP radio. "Local country bands go through a lot of personnel changes. But then major country bands do that, too. It's hard to get the right chemistry - both in the music and the musicians."

Indeed, probably every member of every band in the state thinks about throwing in the towel once a month.

"You do, you wonder why you do it," says Aspen Ridge's Williams. "One night we were playing in Malta, Idaho, and had a break-down on the way. When we finally got there we couldn't get in. When we finally got things set up and ready to go, nobody in town wanted to hear us play. Times like that you start to wonder about yourself."

Adds Jeff Herbert, the group's drummer, "Some times it's 2 a.m. and everyone's gone home and the owner didn't leave your money and you're loading your stuff in a pouring rain and trying to clean up the mess where some waitress dropped a tray full of drinks onto your monitors and you look up and say, why?"

And "why" is a good question. Do they do it for the volumes of secondhand smoke they have to inhale? For the impossible hours? For money? (Not here - Utah bands make half as much as bands in Elko and Denver).

Pride, maybe?

Bob Leavitt of Cadillac Cowboy points to the "emotional high" of it all.

Bass-player Novak gets more philosophical. "I think it has to do with being able to do what you really love, and actually get paid for it. It's self-expression. Musicians aren't like painters. You can't work by yourself in some room. You have to play for somebody."

There's also the chance you will - in the end - snare the brass ring of stardom. Several members of Saddle Boogie - a local band - are currently touring with Chris LeDoux, for instance.

And if you don't get the brass ring, well, at least you have the memories; like that time Aspen Ridge added a synthesizer and instead of gunshots during "Folsom Prison Blues" accidentally offered the crowd the sound of "baby kittens mewing." Or the night at The Elite Hall in Hyrum when 1,000 fans showed up to listen and line dance to the Aspen Ridge sound.

You do it for those moments of glory; Freeway opening for Dwight Yoakam in Spanish Fork; Blak-Jak opening for Restless Heart; Justin Thyme opening for The Desert Rose Band at the Westerner.

For those Friday nights at Judd's Frontier when Jack Quist, Cliff Tipton and Cow Jazz played the tightest country music the state has ever heard. It's LynnDee Mueller singing on stage to the strains of Chet Atkins.

It's Country Joe mentioning your band on KSOP. It's the Bellamy Brothers or Steve Wariner or Michael Martin Murphy shaking your hand and telling you to keep after it.

And, in the end, most local musicians do keep after it.

"I guess a lot of us keep doing country music because it's so real," says Chavez. "You can stand up there and play and sing your heart out."

At such times, nothing else matters.



The 10 most requested songs - as of last night

(PS: line dances are in):

1. "Boot Scootin' Boogie," by Brooks and Dunn

2. "The Dance," by Garth Brooks

3. "Achy Breaky Heart," by Billy Ray Cyrus.

4. "Pink Cadillac," by Southern Pacific

5. Anything by George Strait.

6. Anything by Randy Travis

7. "Friends in Low Places," Garth Brooks

8. "San Antonio Rose," by Bob Wills

9. Anything by Reba McEntire

10. "Satisfaction," by The Rolling Stones


(Additional story)

10 things every regional country band should know

1. Put a drum solo in the show to keep the drummer happy. Playing drums in a country can be the most monotonous job in western America.

2. Put a bass solo in the show to keep the bass player happy. Playing bass in a country band can be the second most monotonous job in western America.

3. Include the name of the town where you're performing in at least one song. For example, "I'm pround to be an Okie from Montpelier, Idaho..."

4. Save the hard-driving rock 'n' roll numbers for the end of the night when everyone's wound up and ready to "fast dance."

5. If you're having trouble getting people out on the floor, play a couple of slow, romantic ballads. Women like them and will drag their men to the dance floor. Wherever the women go, the men will follow.

6. On big hits, don't be afraid to sound like the original. People expect it. If you do "Proud Mary" for instance, say "boynin" instead of "burning" - just like John Fogarty of Creedence Clearwater.

7. Never let anyone from the dance floor sing with the band. Never let people you don't know "fill time" during your break. Don't let anyone but the drummer touch the drums.

8. Throw in one Latin number, maybe a polka number and at least one country waltz to mix up the dance steps.

9. Never play for the "the take at the door" unless you're playing Madison Square Garden.

10. Don't talk to the people - play for them.