Honky Tonk History

 

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.

Central California.  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.  Drums.  Bass.  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 about survival.

            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 listened. 

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.  Drinking.  Paying 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!”    

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doc’s Grave

 

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... 

Encampment, Wyoming.  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

More 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.

 

 

 
 

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