“This is pretty wild, right?”
Local musician Corty Byron had his usual grin on his face, and compared with the backdrop of stone-faced TSA and Secret Service agents, it stood out like a sore thumb. This is to say nothing of the almost 3,000 ecstatic people in attendance to see Senator Bernie Sanders speak amongst the basketball hoops of Millersville University’s Pucillo Gym. Byron, 30, was there not only to see his pick for the presidency, but also to open for him, along with fellow Lancastrians Vinegar Creek Constituency. I talked to Byron the next day to find out how this improbable event all went down.
Kevin Stairiker: Let’s start at the beginning. You got the call maybe two days before this went down?
Corty Byron: I found out really late Wednesday night. I got a very tired-sounding phone call from J.P. Fox, who runs the Lancaster offices for Bernie on Orange Street. He has a group called “Have a Heart For Persons in the Criminal Justice System,” he’s the one that helped us hook up the two shows we played in the prison, as well as a refugee concert we did. Our name was in there. I think all he said was “Do you think you and Vinegar Creek could help us welcome the senator?” [laughs].
KS: I assume there was a couple seconds of cognizance and then a firm yes?
CB: I thought he was just going to get us in, which I was excited enough about.
KS: Like literally help us welcome him.
CB: Yeah [laughs]
KS: So in that initial phone call, was he throwing details about songs or time limits or anything at you?
CB: No, nobody knew anything. I think when he called me, he had probably just found out that Bernie was going to be there maybe an hour before because it was so last minute routing him out of Gettysburg. And then it was kind of dropped on me, I had to call Leo and the Vinegar Creek guys. I know some of the audio guys at Millersville just from doing other gigs, so I found out when he was going to be on. And then the time changed, it went from 5 to 5:30. then to 6 and 6:30 and then finally I think it was quarter to 7 and then that ended up changing, so we were just kind of holding on. We thought we had time…and then that went from an hour to forty minutes to fifteen minutes.
— Fly (@FlyMagazine) April 23, 2016
KS: And I think you guys did four or five songs, right?
CB: No, we only did three! [laughs] KS: Really? It seemed like so much more. [laughs] It was “Little Red Corvette,” “For What It’s Worth”…
CB: And then “This Land Is Your Land,” but we did all the verses [laughs]. All of them.
KS: In the days leading up to this, what were the discussions you were having with the Vinegar Creek guys?
CB: Just surreal. We would be figuring it out and then one of us would stop and say “this is just crazy. This is out of control.” Because this is our guy, you know? We were so excited…and you know, if we were asked to do a thing for Hillary, we wouldn’t have known what to do. We’re all pretty opinionated, I don’t know. You want to do it and really care about it.
KS: I was going to ask you, hypothetically, if any candidate, let’s say Ted Cruz called and was like “We need Corty Byron for our event!”…
CB: No amount of money whatsoever. I remember with [my old band] The Green Onions, we played some sort of Young Republicans event, I don’t know how they did it. We just made a whole setlist of every anti-war song. I think we opened with “Ohio.” It went way over their heads. But that was maybe ten years ago, at Appalachian Brewing Company. After that, we were all like “never again.” Because it was just weird.
KS: Did they like it?
CB: They didn’t care! They just wanted a band, and not surprisingly, they had a ton of money to blow on it. [laughs]. But no, I would play for Bernie for free at every rally if he wanted us to. One of the guys from Bernie’s camp afterwards told us we did a great set, and I’m like, “Well, remember us for the inauguration, man!”
KS: That was one of the nervous men in suits running around, right?
CB: Yeah, he was the sort of the Dan Egan [from HBO’s “Veep”] of the event.
KS: As far as crowds go, was that one of the bigger ones you’ve played for?
CB: The difference is like, we’ve played for thousands of people outside and inside, maybe 1,500 to 2,000 in a theater-type room, but 3,000 people in a gymnasium, that was the first time I’d ever heard what that sounded like.
KS: Plus the fact that you were all playing acoustically huddling around a few mics.
CS: Yeah, it was definitely an experience.
KS: Obviously, we ran into each other before you played, but after you broke off and went backstage, what was the scene like? I assume a lot of nervous people running around.
CS: Everything was put together so methodically, it was just so intense. So we had to be there by 1 or 2 p.m to drop off our equipment. Then that Dan Egan-type dude came in and said, “Ok, everyone needs to leave the building for two hours so we can do perimeter checks.” So we all leave our cases in that area. Then when we got back, I needed to get to my guitar case for my phone charger. So I go up and a Secret Service dude, the same guy that was there when I loaded in, says “You’re going to have to get one of the Bernie guys to escort you over here.” So then I find Egan. Then when it was time for us all to go back in together, we tried to go in again and the guy says “No, I can’t let you in until we have everybody here for a head count.” Only then could we all go in [laughs]. And once we had all of that together, again, one of us would walk towards the back area and someone would yell “Stop stop stop! No no no!” and then we had to keep everyone together again. We try to walk to another room, and its getting ridiculous at this point. I mean, I’ve been involved with some ****, but never like that. Finally, an official comes up and tells us that there are two speakers before us each giving two minute speeches and then he’ll give us a signal when we have four minutes left, just constantly looking at his watch. It was intense.
KS: But then that changed too!
CB: Yeah, it changed again.
KS: Was it just a last-minute decision of someone looking around and going “Ok, you know what, you guys go out now instead?”
CB: Yeah, pretty much, they flipped it. That was supposed to go on before us and they flipped it. But it ended up working out better anyway. Total craziness.
KS: Did you have to clear the songs with people beforehand?
CB: Yeah, but it was funny, because we were already there and they asked us to just e-mail them the three tunes, but I figured they’d be cool with what we played.
KS: Maybe “Little Red Corvette” might have been dicey, but they ended up playing Prince on the speakers beforehand, anyway. And you had to leave for another show midway through Sen. Sander’s speech, right?
CB: Yeah, I pushed it. I kept looking at my phone and pushed it a half-hour past when I was supposed to leave until I realized I really had to go.
KS: And it’s right to assume you didn’t see [Sanders] at all backstage or anything?
CB: No, dude, they kept him secret somewhere.
— Fly (@FlyMagazine) April 23, 2016
Catch The Corty Byron Band next at 9:30 p.m. April 30 at McCleary’s Pub in Marietta.