Dukesfest 2006

DATE: JUNE 3RD & 4TH 2006

For the sake of a certain automobile, Justin Knotts, 21, recently drove nine hours from his home in Campbell, Mo., to arrive at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Eleven years ago, before Mr. Knotts’s feet could reach an accelerator pad, he and his father began restoring a burned-out 1969 Dodge Charger to replicate the General Lee, the curve-straightening, hill-flattening muscle car featured on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Mr. Knotts sold the car in 2004 to raise money for his wedding, but it would be making an appearance here today, and he was determined to reclaim it. “If no price gets brought up,” Mr. Knotts said, “I might still be able to buy it back for what I paid for it.”

But more than that lost car, what lured Mr. Knotts, and 100,000 other loyal fans, to the Music City Motorplex was DukesFest, a two-day celebration of “The Dukes of Hazzard,” the down-home comedy-adventure series that was broadcast on CBS from 1979 to 1985. The annual gathering (held this year on June 3 and 4) is an opportunity for viewers to mingle with the show’s stars, trade memorabilia, dress in kitschy T-shirts or simply watch fireworks or eat pork products named for the show’s corpulent villain, Boss Hogg. But among this crowd there is a smaller, more dedicated group for whom Dukesfest is a kind of mystical calling, a sacred convocation for those who can find transcendence in an event as simple as a car leaping over a ditch.

Their high priest is Ben Jones, the actor who played the character of Cooter Davenport, a garage mechanic. After moving to Rappahannock County, Va., Mr. Jones and his wife, Alma, opened a “Dukes”-theme general store called Cooter’s Place in the summer of 1999, and staged outdoor festivals there, honoring the series. “The show had sort of flown under the radar for a long time,” Mr. Jones said in a telephone interview. “It’s timeless, except for the doofus haircuts. But a lot of people I know have doofus haircuts.”

Then “The Dukes of Hazzard” underwent a resurgence on cable television and DVD. Mr. Jones relocated his store to Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Dukesfest itself to the Bristol Motor Speedway, a racetrack in Bristol, Tennessee. This summer, as he prepared to open a second Cooter’s Place in Nashville, he brought Dukesfest with him, as well as an official sponsorship from the cable channel CMT and all the surviving members of the “Dukes of Hazzard” cast: including John Schneider and Tom Wopat, who as Bo and Luke Duke were the show’s hunky young stars, and Rick Hurst, who played the bumbling deputy Cletus.

At a cast appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on the eve of DukesFest 2006, the mood in the adjoining dressing rooms was a mixture of anticipation and validation. Many of the actors could still recite from memory some of the terrible reviews that “The Dukes of Hazzard” received during its seven seasons, including disparaging remarks made by William S. Paley, then the CBS chairman, at a time when the show was drawing nearly 30 million viewers a week. Mr. Jones claims that support has only grown since then. Not everyone was convinced. “When you’re in California, you’ve got to wonder about the validity of the franchise,” said Mr. Schneider, who now stars on the WB drama “Smallville.” “It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but it’s tragically unhip. So when Ben talks about how popular it is, you want to believe it, but you don’t, really, until you see it.”

Photo’s from Dukesfest 2006

By the following evening, an estimated 75,000 fans had turned out for the first day of DukesFest, clad in bright orange baseball caps bearing the “01” legend that appeared on the doors of the General Lee, toting children who dressed in the too-short cutoff shorts worn by Daisy Duke, and the black Stetson hats favored by Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane.

Though DukesFest lacks a dress code, certain rules are non-negotiable. Attendees must speak reverently when invoking any of the show’s deceased cast members: Sorrell Booke, who played Boss Hogg; Denver Pyle, who played the kindly Uncle Jesse; and the country musician Waylon Jennings, who narrated the show and provided its theme song, “Good Ol’ Boys.”

Standing in line for autographs or ogling the more than 100 original and homemade General Lees that dotted the circumference of the motorplex, many of the fans were eager to talk about their highly personal reasons for making the pilgrimage to Dukesfest. Tom ‘Luke Duke’ Wopat — who since starring on the show has appeared in Broadway productions of “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” — his reason for coming to this, his first-ever DukesFest, was unequivocal. “I was available,” he said.

As he signed autographs in an air-conditioned arts and crafts building, Mr. Wopat seemed genuinely pleased with the turnout that greeted him. “John Schneider and I used to do some singing dates together,” he said, “and we did O.K. at those things. This is insane. This is huge.” But he makes no promises about DukesFest 2007. “It’s great to see the fans again,” he said. “At the same time, if I got something else that doesn’t let me out, that doesn’t make those allowances, I’ve got to weigh those things.” That answer seemed to satisfy the dozens of General Lees parked in the distance, as their horns blared “Dixie” in approval and their engines revved in preparation for the first of several victory laps.


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