Torch SingerJul 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
On a summer First Friday, Main Street Wellsboro is alive with the sound of music and the laughing of amblers. You can hear him two blocks away, a crooning baritone that transforms the town into Margaritaboro—though everyone here seems to be thriving rather than wasting away again. In front of Carson Finance, Chris Eckert, who wears sunglasses and cowboy hat in the ninety-degree heat, switches from Jimmy Buffet to the Eagles, telling everyone to “Take It Easy”—advice folks are happy to heed. Then he launches into the George Jones torch song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and it’s obvious why Cat Rush, selling Innerstoic cider two doors down, says, “He’s so versatile!”
I guess that’s one way to describe a man who used to go from fire to fire but now goes from fair to fair. It’s a change he and his wife, Sue, have embraced, along with their switch from living in the Poconos and working in New Jersey to residing in retirement on a hill outside Wellsboro, with a long view from the porch. That is, when they aren’t in their camper at a county fair somewhere. In fact, when Chris packs up his guitar and sound equipment tonight, he’ll go home and pack to leave early for the West End Fireman’s Fair in Gilbert, Pennsylvania, where he has two shows the next day.
Man Not on Fire
Chris grew up in West Milford, New Jersey, and at fourteen became a junior firefighter. At eighteen he was made a full volunteer firefighter and fought fires in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for forty years, serving as a fire chief in both states. Public service is in his blood. His father was a firefighter, too, and mayor of West Milford. “I got in trouble in second grade for handing out campaign materials,” Chris remembers with a grin. Unbeknownst to his parents, one morning he grabbed a bunch of the rain bonnets, pens, and buttons that read Vote for George Eckert and stuffed them in his backpack. “Make sure you tell your parents to vote for my dad,” he told his classmates. His teacher called his mom, who told Chris not to do that again.
But his mom seemed pleased.
After high school, Chris worked as a part-time police officer and in the road department (“I was a signs and lines guy”) while taking college courses. He wound up with a certified public manager degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University. When he was twenty-seven, he took the civil service test and was hired as a firefighter and fatality investigator in New Jersey. Later, he worked with the K-9 unit, using dogs trained to search for all types of things, from cadavers to tobacco. Chris explains that smugglers bring tobacco from the low-tax southern states up to the high-tax northern states. They can make a lot of money; if they get caught, the penalties are less than if they were smuggling drugs.
In the late ’90s he started working with the dogs in fire scene investigations. Their environmental training includes time on a boat, helicopter, fixed-wing plane, and climbing a fire truck ladder. The Coast Guard takes dogs just off Atlantic City and zigzags around while someone on shore puts a drop of gasoline on a penny and buries it four inches down in a sandy area. On land again, the dogs have to instantly go into search mode without being disoriented. Chris says, “The dogs are unbelievable. It’s amazing how little they need.”
The last major case he worked on was a triple homicide. A house was fire-bombed—not the intended house, as it turned out, and a man and his two- and four-year-old daughters died in the fire. “The canines made the case,” says Chris. “We had no idea what was used, and they identified denatured alcohol.” Everclear was used to make Molotov cocktails in Snapple bottles. By going to stores in the area and asking for video footage of anyone who bought a lot of Snapple, the arson investigators found their arsonists. Three people got put away for thirty-to-life.
Fire scenes are a kind of archeological dig and more physically demanding than fighting the fire. Putting a fire out might take an hour while wearing a mask with a self-contained breathing apparatus. But once he became a fire investigator, Chris would be on the job for days sometimes, and those days were six to eight hours of meticulously going through the building. “It’s a love,” he says. “It’s being able to piece together an event that’s so chaotic. You need to find evidence and come to conclusions.” After that, he’d write up technical reports that were twenty pages, single-spaced, to be used in court.
When investigating fires, Chris still wore a mask, but just the N95 ones that we’re all so familiar with now. “They’re okay,” he says, “but on hot days in overalls, sometimes the mask went to the side ’cause you’re panting, and sweat is dripping down your face. You can count on the conditions being awful.” Like, either below freezing or sweltering temperatures.
Every year he’d have a physical. “I started doing poorly on my pulmonary testing. They thought I had asthma.” Chris, who sang in a duo on weekends, had noticed he couldn’t hold notes as long anymore. “That’s when I was diagnosed with mild to moderate COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease].” So, in 2006 he started taking medication and using an inhaler.
By this time, he and Sue were living in the Poconos, where he was serving as Chestnuthill Township supervisor, still singing in a duo (taking a puff on his nebulizer before each performance), and performing solo gigs. In 2010, he and Sue booked a campsite at Twin Streams campground in Morris. They bought an RV and came back every summer after that. In 2015, at the age of fifty-five, he retired, and he and Sue talked about moving to Tioga County someday.
From Crime Scenes to Behind-the-Scenes
One day in 2015, a director of the West End Fair in the Poconos asked Chris if he’d emcee the fair all week in addition to playing his two shows. “The emcee they’d had charged too much, and someone had seen me emcee our fireman’s carnival,” he says, adding, “I got a very good education about the fair business.” He saw how it was a year-round thing. As a town emergency management coordinator, Chris was familiar with the meetings held before big events like fairs where “what if” plans are made. But now he got to meet all the acts, work more with the sound guy, and learn the ins and outs of the fair scene.
If you want to hear Chris dish some dirt on the big-name acts that come through, it won’t happen. Not because he’s tight-lipped, but because he says, “I have not met anybody who has not been over-the-top nice. I had a two-hour conversation with Mel Tillis, Jr., and he invited me down to his farm. He gave me his address.” He shakes his head, remembering. “Sometimes medium acts have an attitude, but the big names are all wonderful.”
Chris recounts, “Dion Pride—Charley Pride’s son—played a first set to a standing room only crowd. Poor guy, during the break it poured. He played his second set to five people huddled under umbrellas. He said, ‘You stayed for me, I’ll stay for you.’” This is the kind of performer who impresses Chris, whose own personal code on stage is: don’t swear (though he says he has a mouth like a sailor at home), always play a full show whether there is one person or a thousand, be professional, and always put on the best show you can.
Chris enjoyed meeting all the other acts. When it was time for him to perform, the sound guy, Tom Petrusky, would introduce him. Life went on like this, with his township responsibilities and gigs. But the area they lived in was changing. “It was becoming the sixth ward of New York City,” Chris says. There were ten-mile traffic jams. Gang activity was picking up. “Sue said, ‘If we’re going to move to Tioga County, let’s not wait,’” so they put their house on the market and bought property outside of Wellsboro—right when covid shut everything down.
Two weeks after moving, he went to get a building permit (they lived their first four months in their RV) and the woman asked if he wanted to be on the planning commission. He said maybe. He went to the next meeting, and when they mentioned the opening, that woman stood up and pointed at Chris: “Ask him. He’ll do it.” And soon he was chair of the Delmar Township Planning Commission.
When things started opening up again, Chris was faced with reinventing himself as a solo act in a place where no one knew him. He made business cards, pounded the pavement, and played First Fridays in Wellsboro for tips. He was still playing for the West End Fair, and in 2022 Tom told him he should go to the Pennsylvania State Association of County Fairs annual convention in Hershey. “I asked Sue if I should do this and she said, ‘Why not? You’re retired.’”
So, Chris joined the PSACF and planned to have a booth at the January convention. But the real exposure comes if you get a showcase spot to play live for everyone looking to hire talent. Only seventeen out of hundreds get chosen. Turns out, Tom talked to some folks who helped move Chris’s application through the process.
There were 4,000 people in the Chocolate Ballroom the first night of the 2023 convention. Acts alternate playing on two ends of a large stage. Solo acts play while on the other side the next band sets up, and vice versa. Video screens project the performers. People hold up cue cards counting down a performer’s time. “If you go over,” Chris explains, “the sound guy will cut you off.” He started with Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” and then “Houston” by the Gatlin Brothers. Chris likes old country and calls new country “pop with a twang.” As he segued into “The Fireman” by George Strait, Chris called to the crowd, “Where are all the firemen out there?” Some performers don’t engage with the audience, but that’s Chris’s favorite part. And he knew there’d be lots of firemen out there. His last song of the showcase—and of every classic country show he does—was “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. “Everyone stood, and I was thinking ‘there’s no way they’re gonna cut me off,’” he laughs. But, always the professional, he ended with about ten seconds to spare.
The trade show lasted three days. In addition to musicians, there were people selling food trucks, rides, bingo supplies, ribbons, plaques, and fair queen tiaras, sashes, and scepters. It was a whole economy.
“The vendors are so helpful to each other,” he says. “They share info and advice. If I hadn’t had that informal education, I probably wouldn’t have done as well when I joined the state association as I have.” When he and Sue headed home, Chris had a few fairs and events lined up, but he’d been told most wouldn’t make decisions there. They’d take their recommendations back to their committees and you’d have to wait for them to call.
They called, all right. Chris is booked solid through October.
Playing in a Field Near You
Chris and Sue listen to Pandora radio at home in Delmar Township. Each morning she’ll ask him, “What do you want to listen to today?” And his answers vary from country to ’40s big band to classical. “I love all genres. Sometimes we listen to Andrea Bocelli.” Chris sings with the Wellsboro Men’s Chorus and was the lead last September in the local community theater’s production of My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra. He’s versatile, remember? For oldies gigs, he wears a sparkly red dinner jacket. For the country, patriotic, and gospel shows he wears his cowboy hat. Check out chriseckertmusic.com to see his repertoire of over 600 songs.
Chris plays the guitar, thanks to the nun who taught him in fourth grade. But his full sound comes from backtracks. It’s a lot cheaper for fairs to hire one performer to provide “live vocal entertainment performed with fully orchestrated arrangements” that will be familiar to listeners and “provide the dynamic sound of a band without all the fuss.” It’s less fuss for him, too. His days as part of a wedding band were full of aggravation, because those events usually involved alcohol...which usually resulted in a band member or maybe mother of the bride throwing back too many.
When he’s not performing, practicing, or working for the township, Chris is in RV mode. His one concern when he went to the convention back in January was that he didn’t want to leave Sue—or their mutt, Yogi—home alone when he was gone for days. So, he writes into every contract that he gets a free camping space with full hook-up. Spending vacations at fairs isn’t a new thing for them. He, Sue, and their three kids used to vacation every summer at Lake Wallenpaupack during the Wayne County Fair, the same place Chris’s folks took him when he was a kid. This year, families will be coming to fairs to see him.
Fairs highlight our agricultural heritage. Then there’s the fair food—Chris’s favorite is strawberry shortcake—and rides—he used to love the Twister. His favorite cotton candy flavor is blue raspberry—but he was surprised to learn that in Tioga County we also have maple flavor. An economic impact study by Shepstone Management Company reports: “Fairs are Pennsylvania’s original tourist attractions, providing food, entertainment and other tourism services throughout the Commonwealth” for more than 250 years. In a state with sixty-seven counties, there are 109 county fairs that are members of PSACF.
The West End Fireman’s Fair in early June kicked off Chris’s first full fair season. He’ll be playing at the Mansfield Fourth of July Celebration from 3 to 5 p.m. On July 14, Chris will perform at 6 p.m. as part of the Deane Center Outdoor Concert series in Wellsboro. Two days later he’ll be at the Plainfield Farmer Fair in Pen Argyl, then he’ll be playing the Blue Ridge Winery in Saylorsburg. He closes out the month with a show at the Potter County Fair.
In August he plays at the Tioga County Fair on Monday, has Tuesday off, then hightails it to Crossfork to play three days at the Kettle Creek Music Festival, where he’ll also emcee and manage the stage. He’s off for a week before playing and emceeing for his long-running gig at the West End Fair. And so on. Sometimes he plays as many as three shows a day for six days in a row. He will prepare six different sets, then alternate three one day and the other three the next. A set is one hour and consists of about fifteen songs. Some songs are in every set—“Folsom Prison Blues,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “God Bless the USA.” He ends with that one “so I always get a standing ovation,” he jokes. September is just as busy, and interspersed among all these public events are private ones.
He’s keeping his First Friday shows in Wellsboro as often as he can. Performing on a sidewalk is a lot like performing in a bar. People aren’t there just to see you. They often walk by and don’t make eye contact. Sometimes parents try to walk by, but their kids stop to bob up and down to Chris singing Johnny Cash, about how he shot a man in Reno. An older couple sits in their truck at the curb, windows rolled down. A man who parked his e-bike there drops cash in the tip jar and waves before zipping off. Why does Chris do gigs for only tips when he’s so busy?
“It’s about giving back. This town has been so welcoming to us.” Maybe this is why it’s called playing—it’s fun. He plays three hours in a row, on his feet, in ninety-degree heat. And without taking a bathroom break. He’d like to play fairs in other areas of the state next year, mostly so he can visit places he’s never been. But home is good too, now that it’s in the slow lane in Tioga County.
As the song finishes, a mom with a stroller, who’d stopped so her daughters could dance, starts to move on. The blonde girl looks up at her mom and says, “That was awesome.”