By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Saturday was a honky-tonk, Wednesday was another honky-tonk, and Friday was a real-estate convention. "Of all the shows I've ever done, this," said Yogi Baird, "is one."
He walked out of the sunshine and into the League City civic center, where the main hall had been partitioned into booths. Some booths offered candy or cookies or popcorn to draw you in. Yogi and his friends were the only musical troupe. They were neither starched nor polished nor hair-sprayed; they wore cowboy hats and boots. They squeezed into the booth of an agency called the Michael Group, behind a sign that read, "Don't fiddle around -- 100 percent commission." None of them knew what that meant, and none cared. Yogi drew his bow across the fiddle, the boys fell in with bass and guitar, and they were off.
Oh me oh my Miss Molly, I'm in love with you
Oh me oh my Miss Molly, won't you say you love me, too...
They played "Rocky Top," "The Cotton-Eyed Joe," "Diggi Diggi Lo." It was unconventional convention music. A salesman, who had begun tapping his toe, abruptly checked his watch and moved on. The business of the day could not wait, and passersby were passing right on by, until Yogi stepped out and stopped them. Candy could not do what Yogi did, nor cookies, nor your average fiddler. Yogi got their attention.
"Oh, Jesus!" said a woman, raising her hands to her face.
"Oh, my God!" said another.
"I wouldn't want to see that man's foreplay."
"Why's he coming over here? Don't come over here!"
But Yogi went over there and showed them what he does with a fiddle.
There may be another contortionist fiddler contorting on some Appalachian back porch at this very moment, but Yogi doubts it. He says he's the one and only, and a newspaper database confirms that all recent sightings of contortionist fiddlers have been of Yogi Baird.
He was seen in Robocop II with his head between his legs, playing "Born to Be Wild." In the same position, he fiddled for Oregon delegates at the Republican National Convention. Yogi's picture once ran in the Weekly World News, and he says he might have made the front page, if he'd been a horse with a human head.
Paris, Madrid, Nashville -- Yogi has played in all of these places.
"'And do you know the MGM Grand in Las Vegas?" he asked. "Well, I played the Conoco across the street for Bill while he worked on my van."
Several days after the real-estate convention, he was found at ease in his home. It lay on a dirt road in the northeastern part of the county. There was a car seat on the front porch for a bench and a toothless old dog named Misty fast asleep. Yogi was squatting like a frog in the open door. He held a cigarette between thumb and half of a forefinger. A horse had eaten the other half.
"I do Texas yoga, man," he says. "I am just as much a yogi as all them people who speak in that Sanskirt language."
He is 48 years old. He tells people, only half-joking, that he got started in yoga because he was on a power trip. He wanted someone to kiss his ass, and unable to find anyone, he learned to do it himself. And now where was he? He's a man who found a niche for himself and literally twisted himself inside. The ultimate self-made man is a man in a knot.
How does it feel, Yogi?
Words failed him. He went into contortions -- first one leg and then the other, "because I, as we all are, am a universe." He could play the fiddle here, he could play it there. He could even play it standing on his head. Finally, Yogi slipped his right leg behind his right arm so that the foot protruded from his left armpit. And then he stood up.
"To do this, which you could," he said, "you would have to pay a dear price."
From a farm near Abilene, Katie Baird said she and her husband tried to do well by their three sons. There was food on the table and a roof over their heads, and every Sunday morning, they all went for religion to the Baptist church. One of the boys grew up to be a welder, another went into the Navy, and then there was Richard, who became a contortionist fiddler.
Were there signs in his youth that he possessed such a talent?
"No, sir, I'm afraid there wasn't," said Mrs. Baird. "He took that on when he left home."
Richard said he has been "ham and cheese" all his life, but contortions were never part of the Baird daily routine. Music was a different matter. He had an uncle who was both fiddler and fiddle maker, and when Richard joined the school orchestra, it was natural that he chose the fiddle.
He was an obsessive sort -- about reading, about music and sports. His mother said he was always training for something. He took his fiddle wherever he went, picking out songs by ear. In high school, fiddling and football became his dueling interests. His small size required him to view football as a game of mind over matter. He jumped rope endlessly and did thousands of sit-ups. To this day, he wonders how his life might have been different if the coach had seen the merits of a 150-pound tight end. He thinks he might have played in the NFL.