It's an early January evening at the Red Lion Hotel, and several dozen board members and buyers associated with the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo are auditioning local talent hoping to perform during the 1994 edition of the event. The audience members--mostly aging, rough-edged types wearing their best cowboy hats and belts with buckles big enough to double as bulletproof vests--are looking for old-fashioned entertainment, and that's what they get. One typical act is the Calhoun Family, a country combo made up of a married couple, their thirteen-year-old keyboard-playing daughter and twelve-year-old drum-pounding son. They wear matching red outfits, pepper their set with comedy routines seemingly swiped from a particularly weak episode of Hee Haw (during a cover of the Sons of the Pioneers' "Cool Water," for instance, the youngest Calhoun stumbles around the stage acting as if he's dying of thirst) and perform just one original composition: a musical tribute to fair buyers. The crowd goes wild.

Denver-based vocalist Celeste Krenz watches this reaction while wearing an expression that seems to say, "What the hell am I doing here?" She and her group, the Goodbye Band, play country music, all right, but country of a more contemporary stripe--country that blends elements derived from the C&W tradition with dollops of jazz and blues topped off with Krenz's intelligent lyrics and pure, delicate voice. Clearly, this is not the sort of material that's compatible with, say, a special guest appearance by Minnie Pearl. "We saw one group showcase that had a girl who was wearing a giant bone through her head, and they had a clown who fell off the stage," Krenz says. "There's a place for that kind of thing, I guess, but there's also a place for us."

Krenz has been looking for such a place ever since she came to the realization that her hometown, the tiny burg of Williston, North Dakota, wasn't it. Little wonder, given the fact that her father is currently using one of the two ranches where she grew up as what she calls "a nontoxic, nonhazardous waste disposal site. Companies dump asbestos, ash, drilling waste from oil activity there."

Upon graduating from high school, Krenz moved to Grand Forks and enrolled at the University of North Dakota. But after two years there she formed a musical group called High Heels and toured the southern portion of the U.S. playing country cover tunes. That wore thin rather quickly, but after time spent in Minneapolis and Grand Forks, where she completed a bachelor's degree in advertising and marketing, she felt the desire to devote herself to music full-time.

Although Krenz didn't know a soul in Denver when she arrived here in 1990, she felt that "there were a lot of writers here, and a scene that I wanted to get more involved in." She promptly found employment as a secretary and, later, as a booking agent for a local artist management firm, and started attending and promoting open stages at area clubs. This brought her into contact with producer Bob Tyler ("Fit to Be Tyler," January 26), who became both her significant other and the man behind the boards of her debut CD, Edge of the Storm. Among the best independently released local country discs of 1993, it features first-rate musicianship courtesy of guest stars Tim O'Brien, Spencer Bohren, and the Subdudes' John Magnie and Tommy Malone, plus Krenz originals such as "Baby Goodbye," "Katie and Eddie" and "Don't Say Goodnight" that make repeated listenings a pleasure rather than a chore.

Pushing Edge of the Storm is now Krenz's primary focus, and while sales have only now topped the 1,000 mark, she's encouraged by airplay the disc is starting to garner in a number of western states. She plans to tour these areas in the next several months before recording another CD that she hopes will grab the attention of Nashville talent scouts. "In the meantime," she notes, "we want them to learn that we're here, and keep playing and getting better."

Part of the learning process is facing listeners like those at the Red Lion--listeners who already look as if they're up past their bedtimes by 10:15, when Krenz and company take the stage. The Goodbye Band is sabotaged by an awful sound mix, but the players still manage credible versions of Krenz's material, as well as a cover version of Dolly Parton's "Jolene." The audience isn't bowled over by the performance--after all, no clowns toppled off the stage during it--but the response is generally favorable. Some helpful observers suggest that the next time Krenz auditions for the fair buyers she add some novelty material to her repertoire. Krenz, however, will have none of that. "Our music is not a novelty," she says. "We do what we do, and if it doesn't work out, we'll move on.


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