From The Side of the Road… I bet you don’t remember me

I want to describe a scene at a typical bluegrass concert or festival that will probably be familiar to both artist and fan, and it may cause each to shudder just a little:

A fan walks up to a performer while he or she is working the merchandise table, looks the musician straight in the eye, and says these dreaded words: “I’ll bet you don’t remember me.”

If we’re honest, we’ll have to admit that a good 80% of artists, after not feeling even a hint of recognition, will simply lie: “Sure I do! How have you been?” It seems like the polite thing to do, and they hope that the next statement by this stranger will offer some guidance as to what to say next in order to keep this phony conversation from going over a cliff.

Some who are either from a background where bluntness is encouraged (i.e., from the greater New York or San Francisco Bay areas), or who are just having a bad day, will respond less charitably: “You’re right, I don’t. Remind me.” Some, having a really bad day, or who are having this conversation for the third time that day may say something like this: “You’re right; I don’t remember you, and I won’t remember you the next time I see you,” (that’s a quote from somebody, but right now I can’t remember who).

Surely there’s a better way that might permit us to avoid lying or rudeness (as fashionable as both of those things may be these days). I think that better way might start with avoiding this conversation entirely.

The immediate problem with this approach as a conversation starter is that it sets up a challenge to the artist which is always going to be uncomfortable. It’s also inherently negative, reflecting badly on both the artist and fan: the artist is cast as someone who is likely not to remember fans who have possibly fed them a meal, babysat their children, or lent them $10,000. The fan, meanwhile, is set up as someone who isn’t worth remembering (“you probably don’t remember me”). It’s hard for anyone to feel satisfied in this situation.

I’m personally very happy and relieved when someone comes up to me and says, “You may not remember me; I’m Chester Campbell. We met 9 years ago at the Blythe Bluegrass Festival in California.” This immediately removes all tension. He has given his name, plus a reminder of where we had met. This helps me to remember if I’m going to, and if I don’t, at least I can say, “Nice to see you again Chester,” without lying or being dismissive.

Even if a musician has a great memory for faces and experiences that happened over three days ago, the numbers are not working in his or her favor in this situation. A fan, even in our small-market music, is going to encounter far fewer professional bluegrass performers than those performers are going to encounter fans. 

Musicians are also easily disoriented. I could probably just let that statement stand alone, but I’ll elaborate: musicians may play in as many as seven different locations and venues in seven different days, meeting various fans in each place. Sometimes it’s difficult just placing someone in the right context in that sometimes hectic moment.

A fan’s appearance may have also changed a lot, especially if it’s been years and/or decades since the last meeting. The artist has probably changed a lot, too (probably for the worse), but thanks to the name on the marquee, the fan goes into this conversation already knowing who that artist is. 

For this reason, leveling the playing field is at least a polite gesture. There’s also really nothing to be gained by issuing the challenge.

For those performers who do  have to answer this challenge, though, rather than opt for either the dishonest or brutally blunt reply, it might be good to try this middle ground: “I’m afraid you may have to remind me.” This is where you really have to hope the fan’s reply isn’t, “I’m Natasha, the mother of three of your children.”

If you’re going to go the fake-your-way-through-the-conversation route, I would discourage getting cocky and adding unnecessary bogus details: “Of course I remember you! It’s been ages! Do you still have that old car? How’s Susan?” You’re banking on the fact that you didn’t just meet this person a week ago, that he owns a car, and that he knows someone named Susan. Maybe the odds are in your favor, but it’s still a risky strategy.

Finally, for the fan starting this conversation, I don’t think it’s necessary to give a reminder of who you are and how the artist knows you if:

  1. You’re the artist’s mother
  2. You housed the artist and band for over three years
  3. You’re the artist’s booking agent (unless you haven’t booked a gig for over a year, then a reminder wouldn’t hurt)

Finally, turn your name tag the right side around at the IBMA World of Bluegrass, just to be safe.