With Dad In Montana
Just got back from Montana. It's
always a bit of an emotional ride, going up there.
A deep thrumming always accompanies me as I drive across that state,
and I study its hill and farms and river breaks the way I study no other
A few years ago I took my Dad to Montana with me.
I think the last road trip we'd endured together had been one of
those red-eyed, grim, too-many-people-in-one-car treks that passed for
family vacations back in the olden times.
I was 17 then and still pretty much a dumb kid.
I was 55 this time, and maybe a little smarter.
I think he enjoyed this one.
I know I did.
I played the annual Ag Appreciation Banquet for the Ruby Valley
Chamber of Commerce. The Ruby
Valley is a broad, beautiful stretch of country about an hour and a half
below Bozeman—Black Angus cattle grazing in the hay stubble, fields planted
in winter wheat, venerable old ranch houses and not a junked car or pile of
trash in a hundred miles. Good, hard working folks with dirt under their
nails and families to provide for, people securely attached to their
geography. They were receptive
and polite during my show; it took them a while to decide that I was an okay
guy. They reserve judgment on
you in that country, especially if you’re a guitar picker who just trundled
up from California. And rightly
so. Dad managed the CD table for
me, and laughed and visited and shook hands with everybody.
We talked to an old boy whose family had just celebrated a hundred
years on the home place. Quite a
feat—a century on the same ground.
I envied them that kind of history.
It wasn’t meant to be for us.
We’ve been out of that country for forty years.
The next day we drove four hours east, along the Yellowstone River,
to the tiny town of Shepherd, and the Old Place.
That’s how I think of it, even yet, with capital letters.
The Old Place. It was a
small operation, alfalfa hay and some cattle, and for a short, desperate
time, even hogs. There’s not
much left of it anymore. Homes—ranchettes—have
sprouted up all over, like toadstools in a horse pasture.
The house still stands, but the barn is gone, burned down probably,
in its place a cinderblock milk house from some failed dairy operation; and
where the front pasture was somebody brought in a shiny white mobile home
and built a roping arena. The
hay fields are still there, but when the place was subdivided the water
didn’t go with it, and they’ve filled in the bar ditch.
I told Dad that on an earlier trip through here I’d met the current
owners of the place, and they were nice people.
Quietly, he said, “Aw, let’s not bother them.”
On the drive back to Bozeman and the airport, he talked to me of the
economic lightning strikes that took the place away from us.
A surprise tax debt, plummeting cattle prices, alfalfa fields hailed
into oblivion. The constant
strain and worry. Things he’d
never talked about before, and which I guess I’m glad I didn’t know about at
the time. Now that I do know
them, they bring an entirely new color to what I remember about those days,
a depth that wasn’t there before.
I’m glad he told me.
We covered a lot of country on that trip.
Literally and figuratively.
And he drove the rental car.
I think he liked that, too.
Some Honky Tonk History
In the late seventies, if you wanted to listen to live music, you had
to go to a dark, loud place where neon Pabst Blue Ribbon signs hung in the
windows, and there were round laminate cocktail tables with ashtrays and red
glass candle holders covered in plastic mesh, a place that smelled of
spilled beer and cigarette smoke and Old Spice cologne.
Outside, the Chevy 4X4s and the Pintos and the Gremlins and ten year
old Impalas sat astride the oil stains on the cracked asphalt, while the
name of the establishment flashed or glowed or twinkled across the sign that
towered into the night sky.
There was an oil boom on.
Vitalis still dripped off many a comb, mine included.
A shot and a beer went for three-fifty.
It was the era of rotary phones and leisure suits and four barrel
carburetors, and if you were a guitar picker and wanted to work, you worked
in the bars. Period.
I wanted to be a singer, an entertainer.
I knew there were songs in me, but everything I wrote seemed to be
about cowboys and outlaws and big western vistas, and in that narrow little
world we inhabited, there was absolutely no place to play that stuff. There
were no open mics, no hootenannies, no
venues where a guy could get up with just a guitar and expect to be heard.
It was rumored there were folk clubs in New York and Boston and
Virginia where you could do such things, but that was half a world away.
Maybe they had a few in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but they might
as well have been in Peru or Saskatchewan, for all the good they did.
I had a pickup that with any luck might make it to San Luis Obispo
and back, a sixty mile round trip.
I had to find work where I was.
You had to have a band, you had to have drums, you had
to be loud.
Commercial radio limited our perception of the world.
There was a country station and a rock station.
That was it. Country
music was changing, but the old guard still meant something, distinctive
voices you recognized the first note of any given song.
George Jones, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens—these last two
especially important out here in California.
They were still playing Hank, Sr., and now and again Lefty Frizzell
or Claude King. This was the
limit of what we knew. In this
hard-drinking, steel-toed universe, somebody like John Prine or Steve
Goodman, Jack Elliott or Woody Guthrie never stood a chance.
They didn’t even exist.
I put together a four-piece band.
Greg Timmons on lead Stratocaster guitar.
I played a thin-bodied Ovation acoustic-electric, played it with all
the finesse of an apprentice horse-shoer---bang, bang, banging it, trying to
make myself heard over the din of everything else.
Later we added the great Gary Jones on pedal steel and things took a
leap; the world became more musically interesting.
Slowly, night by night, we developed a sound we thought was unique,
but was probably just the echo of every other garage band that ever escaped
into the real world. Hard
driving, strident, a little shrill.
In your face. We did the
classics with energy and our own style.
When that didn’t work we could always fall back and play “Wipeout,”
or some Elvis song to get them dancing.
Sometimes we’d slip in an Eagles tune, or something by Marshall
Tucker. To go from “Your Cheatin’
Heart” to “Can’t You See,” was a pretty bold move.
Sometimes we got away with it and sometimes we didn’t.
One night a thick-necked critic in a feed store cap approached the
bandstand and crooked a finger at me to lean forward for a private word.
He bellowed into my ear that he didn’t appreciate that kind of music,
and we’d better not play anything like it again.
He was easily two hundred fifty pounds, with a Neanderthal brow ridge
and very large hands. I weighed
maybe a hundred and forty soaking wet.
I was a scrapper, but not that much of a scrapper.
We dialed it back to Haggard and Jones, because sometimes it was
The Muddy Springs Saloon, Rick’s Rancho, Happy Jack’s, The Beacon
Outpost, Camozzi’s Saloon, The Sundowner Club.
Sometimes there was a bandstand and sometimes you set up your
equipment on the floor in the corner behind the pool table.
One place actually had chicken wire in front of the stage.
I have felt beer bottles and ashtrays go whizzing past my ear.
The learning curve was steep and fast.
Keep them dancing. Keep
them drinking. If a fight breaks
out, keep playing.
Even now the names of those gin mills and beer joints
conjure up vivid images of cowboys and oilfield workers gyrating around the
dance floor with big-haired girls in tight jeans and shiny belt buckles and
bare midriffs as we played “Proud Mary” for the nine thousandth time, or the
way they grappled and wrestled with each other, doing a sort of grinding,
death-throe of a slow dance while I did my best to scream out “House of the
Rising Sun” or “Please Release Me.”
Four sets a night, nine PM until one-thirty in the morning.
One fifteen was “Last call for alchohol!”
When we started, a picker could make $37.50 for a
night’s work. By the time it was
over I think we commanded the staggering figure of fifty bucks each.
Sometimes, if a guy ran a tab, he could wind up owing the bar money
at the end of the night. I saw
it happen. A lot.
Then it was time to tear down the stuff and pack it into the truck
and drive the hour and a half to two hours back home.
This was the blue collar end of the music business, the
lower end, where all the men had scuffed boots and dirty fingernails, and
all the women’s fashion came right off the rack at K-Mart. No agents or
managers ever came in to listen to our stuff.
No record company executives dropped by to see what we were doing.
Nobody came. Nobody
I still remember the night it all ended for me.
A Friday night dance at an Elks Lodge.
We were on a break between sets.
In the men’s room, a drunk, balding man in a flowered shirt and baggy
slacks pinned me next to the urinal and proceeded to tell me just what was
wrong with my song choice and my
style of delivery. He wasn’t any
different than the ten or twelve other guys who had offered me constructive
criticism in the last year, but apparently the effect was cumulative.
That was it. I finished
out the gig, turned around, and walked away.
I wandered off to write novels.
It was almost a decade before I picked up a guitar seriously again.
I don’t regret those honky tonk years, and I don’t
think they were a waste. It’s
because of those experiences that my skin is as thick as it is.
They’ve given me a perspective on everything that’s happened since.
Recently, a cattlemen’s association hired me to play a
fundraiser at a prominent California nightclub.
It was a nice stage, a state of the art sound system, I received a
very enthusiastic introduction--and thirty seconds into the first song I
could tell what the evening held in store.
People were talking, laughing, visiting.
attention to everything but the music.
They all sat around little cocktail tables.
The ashtrays were gone, but there, in the center of each table, was a
red glass candle holder covered in black plastic mesh.
I smiled. I
felt like phoning home and shouting to the folks, “Guess what?
I’m right back where I started from!”
Between Grand Junction and Vail, Colorado, right on US Highway 70 is the
little town of Glenwood Springs.
People used to come here for the waters, to bathe in the hot springs.
They thought it was healthful.
Still do. There are spas and nice hotels, and it is a destination
spot for vacationers.
It was here that John Henry Holliday came in 1887.
He was in the advanced stages of tuberculosis, and believed that the
sulphurous vapors from the springs would soothe his tortured lungs.
He was destitute, and alone.
He fell into a coma and died in the Hotel Glenwood in early November
of 1887. He was 36 years old.
They buried him in the Linwood Cemetery, off of Bennett Street.
You can’t drive there; you have to park your car and hike a half a
mile to get to where the headstones are. It’s a fairly strenuous hike and
you have to stop a couple of times to catch your breath.
At least I did. You can
look down the hill and see the Roaring Fork River in the distance.
I kept imagining them hauling the plain wood casket up here in the
undertaker’s wagon, jouncing over the rocks in the little road on that cold,
late fall day. The creaking of
the wheels, the wagon rattling, the sound of the mule shoes in the dirt.
Kid Curry’s buried up here, too, in potter’s field.
He killed himself near here, when cornered by a posse after one of
the last great train robberies in the United States in 1904.
I took a picture of his headstone as well.
Holliday’s monument is in the middle of the cemetery, surrounded by
one of those traditional wrought iron fences.
Sagebrush and the roots of cedar trees poke up through the ground.
It’s not a headstone, but one of those ornate upright obelisk things,
and looks very authentic. The
problem is it probably dates only to the 1960’s.
Somewhere along the line all the cemetery records were lost or
destroyed, and the exact location of Holliday’s grave is unknown.
Dying broke the way he did, odds are he was buried in potter’s field,
near where Kid Curry ended up.
But in the 1950s the city fathers of Glenwood Springs thought that Doc
Holliday’s Grave might make a pretty nifty tourist attraction, so they
erected the marker here, where it was easily found.
This is the second monument.
The first one was nondescript, sort of cheesy-looking, 1950’s modern.
There are pictures showing little kids climbing on it, wearing cowboy
hats and toy six-shooters.
Later, someone replaced it with this obelisk.
An improvement. The
obelisk is much classier.
Holliday has his champions and detractors.
I wasn’t here to judge him.
When you’re rolling close by that kind of history, it’s almost a
requirement to swing by and tip your hat.
The whole experience took maybe forty minutes.
I recommend it.
The Endless Tour...
Only one paved street in the whole town, two
bar-restaurants next door to each other across the river at Riverside, one
little market. A cowboy
gathering—but a special one. I’ve
played a few of these, the kind of cowboy celebration located in a ranching
community where every ranch family from fifty miles around comes to town to
support it, to see friends and enjoy the show.
There’s a horse show at the fairgrounds on Saturday afternoon,
and when the doors open at the auditorium for the show that night—usually in the
gym at the High School—there are 8 and 9 year old girls and boys in their boots
and spurs and flat-brimmed buckaroo hats strutting around, full of importance
and self-confidence; and they shake your hand and look you in the eye and call
you sir or ma’am. Always on the bill
are local folks, cowhands and ranch wives who know the life, and write and sing
from the heart. These are the
communities where it really counts that they listen and respond to our music;
and when they come up to us and ask for a particular song because it means
something to them, I feel very honored, and justified, and very, very humble,
and know that I am very lucky to do what I do for a living, and to be allowed to
be a part of such communities.
These are not bitter and angry people clinging to religion and
guns. These are the hard-working
folks who make up the fabric of the nation, and they have been over-looked by
the politicians and the media, because working hard and raising your family and
trying to do the best you can by your neighbors isn’t what makes headlines.
But I think maybe it should be.
Just a little, every once in a while.
FROM "AMERICAN COWBOY MAGAZINE":
Review: Dave Stamey's "Twelve Mile Road"
Dave Stamey sings tribute to the trials and joys of ranch life.
by Charley Engel
than any of his nine prior albums, Dave Stamey’s latest is his most personal.
“It’s the best thing I’ve done,” says the acclaimed Western musician. “It’s more
about my experiences in the ranching world and my history.”
He paints a vivid portrait of his rancher father, Bruce Stamey, in the title
track. The struggles and hopes of working the old home place in Montana are
deeply felt: “There’s an old gravel road, following’ the section line, out where
lives are held together, with sweat and baling twine/ Where you rattle your
bones on a tractor, over 30 years old, and there’s a mortgage and kids to be
fed, out on Twelve Mile Road.”
This, the album’s emotional centerpiece, came late in the recording process and
almost didn’t make the final cut.
“I finished that song in the middle of recording, brought it into the studio,
and taught it to the musicians,” says Stamey. “We got it on the third take,
which is a testament to the quality of the pickers that I had.” He credits lead
guitar player Dorain Michael for assembling a crack team of musicians. Annie
Lyons also gets major kudos for her pitch-perfect harmony singing.
The rest of the album’s 12 tracks seldom stray from the land and its hardy
Westerners (and critters). “Song for Jake” commemorates one of Stamey’s mentors,
Jake Copass, who died in 2006 at age 86. “Never Gonna Rain” bemoans the
heartbreak of drought, “Blackjack Was a Mule” imagines the life of an ore-cart
mule in the mines of Bodie, Calif. Though “Wild Sierra” was written more than 30
years ago, it’s dear to Stamey’s heart for being the first song he ever felt
satisfied with to keep as a songwriter.
But in an album filled with highlights, “Sweetgrass County Line” stands out as
the favorite. Stamey wrote it at a friend’s Montana ranch during a particularly
green year and says the sentiment is a metaphor for how he feels about the
nation. He sings: “This country is a friend of mine/ Its voice is a voice that I
hear/ And when time leaves me behind/ I won’t mind if it leaves me right here.”
Stamey dedicated the CD to his father, “for trying so hard out there on Twelve
Mile Road.” In fact, father and son returned to the old homestead a few years
ago. Their 100-acre ranch had been divided and sold in small parcels, and the
gravel lane had been paved over and signed sometime in the intervening 40 years.
Usually a stoic man, the elder Stamey became emotional as he surveyed the land
he’d once put so much muscle and sweat into.
“It got to him, and he was upset,” says Stamey. “He said, ‘Look what they did to
my ranch!’” It’s a sentiment heard all too often in the modern West. Hats off to
artists like Stamey who help keep the traditional cowboy lifestyle alive.