All great music starts with a good song….
It’s hard to argue against that. But where do good songs come from? Before I moved to Nashville, I had no idea that professional songwriters get together to write songs in offices on Music Row at appointed times. Eleven in the morning on a Tuesday and two, three, sometimes four or more writers will gather in the same room for a “write.”
I guess that’s one way of doing things. As for myself, I haven’t quite figured out how to schedule inspiration. But perhaps the approach doesn’t matter as long as quality results from the process. Even if it does seem a curious one to punch-in at the writing factory and manufacture a song like you would a Chrysler or a Ford.
That being said, the songs I’ve written were not scheduled. They arose spontaneously out of real flesh and blood living. Out of broken bones and broken hearts…redemption and betrayal…..love and loss…..life and death. In this space I’d like to share some of the stories behind the songs I write. I’ll talk about how they came to be and perhaps what took place in the studio while recording them. Some songs have more background than others, but there’s a story behind each one.
Huckleberry Wine was written during a dark winter I spent living in an isolated off-the-grid cabin not far from the Canadian border. Surrounded by large swaths of Northern Rockies wilderness, in one of the most wild and beautiful valleys in America, the few folks who reside here live in a manner more antiquated than modern. Think Little House on the Prairie meets the twenty-first century.
There’s no electrical grid, trash service or cell phone towers in this part of Montana. In place of such modernity, oil lamps, candles, propane lights, outhouses, wood-burning stoves and old-fashioned water pumps are the norm. Throughout the valley and surrounding mountains roams a thriving population of grizzly bears. Wolf packs range the countryside, filling the dark nights with their mournful howls. The lakes and rivers teem with wild trout. The air is pure. The water is crystal clear. The stars populate the sky with a magnitude found only in places of minimal light disturbance.
This particular winter found me in a voluntary exile of sorts. I’d recently ended a long term relationship and wanted to be as far from it as possible. So I took up residence in this very remote corner of the west, just outside Glacier Park where I worked as a seasonal ranger in the warmer months.
Speaking of warmer months, the previous summer had been an exceptional one for huckleberries. Heavy spring rain followed by a mild summer had produced bright bulbous berries bursting with flavor. One of the locals who’d been raised in the park tipped me off to a very prolific patch, a veritable Garden of Eden, that grew not far from my home. I made several picking excursions that summer, harvesting enough berries for scores of huckleberry pancakes, a couple pies, and a gallon of homemade huckleberry wine.
I remember one productive picking in mid- August, the tail end of berry season for this particular elevation and aspect. There was grizzly sign everywhere, huge piles of bear scat that resembled huckleberry pie filling, purple mush full of partially-digested berries. Knowing I was surrounded by Ursus arctos horribilis, I did what one should always do and made some noise. To wit, I sang the lyrics to Merle Haggard’s “Big City.”
Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I’ve got coming to me
And keep your retirement and your so-called social security
Big City turn me loose and set me free
It was a fitting soundtrack for the afternoon. Like always I ate handfuls of berries while stashing plenty away for myriad huckleberry creations. With the berry patch adjacent to a damp section of forest, mosquitoes were everywhere. I swatted the blood-thirsty bastards on my face and arms, each time smearing my body with the dark berry juice stained on my fingers. Hours later when my monstrously purple face stared back from my truck rear view mirror, I realized I’d never come closer to resembling human bear bait.
A good number of those berries were eventually turned into homemade huckleberry wine. I’d been making country wines for a couple years and this small batch would yield five bottles. When I began the fermentation process towards summer’s end, I envisioned a time when I would imbibe this treasured creation amongst the warmth and cheer of dear friends and loved ones.
Half a year later, nursing a broken heart and living alone in my remote off-the-grid cabin, I was far from any warmth or cheer. The cabin’s small wood-stove was barely enough to keep the cold at bay. During the most bitter Northern Rockies nights, I’d have to wake up once or twice to feed the stove freshly-split lodgepole pine that I’d harvested from nearby Whitefish National Forest with a chainsaw.
During this coldest, darkest, loneliest winter of my life, the majority of my time was spent writing prose and songs by candlelight and oil lamps. Although it was a productive period in that regard, my solitude was at times overwhelming. As the months went by, my sense of isolation was matched only by the suffocating cabin fever that comes when winter has long been over in most parts of the country but you find yourself still enduring a frozen gray monotony.
In an attempt to maintain equilibrium I was eating Vitamin D pills like candy. Nonetheless the wolves of despair kept howling at my door. So I fortified myself with stronger medicine in the form of black label Evan Williams, a starving artist-friendly bourbon which I kept available at all times.
One week in early April a late season snowstorm unexpectedly blasted down from the arctic. Without a cell phone or internet or TV, I was blindsided by the weather. My only road to civilization was nearly thirty miles long, winding precariously above a cliff-filled section of the Flathead River. With gusting winds and blowing snow blanketing the remote dirt road, driving to town to re-stock my bourbon supply was not an option.
So after draining the last dregs of whiskey, I reached for the prized homemade huckleberry wine I’d bottled just a couple weeks prior. Without any of the anticipated ceremony, far from the glow of companionship or mirth, I uncorked a bottle and had at it. It was a mighty lonesome feeling.
In my song Huckleberry Wine, the setting takes place “between the Sweet Grass Hills and the Northern Highline.” The Northern Highline is a blue highway that runs across the northern reaches of Montana. Several mostly uninhabited ghost towns are scattered along the way, surrounded by endless prairie. Walking down the vacant tumbleweed-strewn streets of these towns, it’s impossible not to feel a powerful sense of depression and isolation. It’s a fitting setting for the old man narrator of Huckleberry Wine, who is “alone and nearly forgotten.”
The Sweet Grass Hills are a compelling Montana land feature with strong cultural significance. In the 1800’s, after the US Army-led slaughter of the great western bison herds, these hills were the last holdout for the few remaining bison left in the Northern Plains region. They allowed the Blackfeet Indians to continue hunting here after the other herds had been extirpated, holding onto a way of life that was disappearing as fast as the bison. For the Blackfeet, the Sweet Grass Hills have always been a sacred place of hunting, herb-gathering and vision quests, as well as playing a significant role in their origin story.
In the first chorus of Huckleberry Wine, the old man is said to drink “a bottle or two just to help pass the time.” As the song unfolds and the story develops, we arrive closer and closer to his true condition. Abject loneliness and a longing for his rosier past are the real motivators behind his drinking, for the second verse tells us:
“He dreamed of old times
And the lady who loved him
The life he lived so long ago”
The final verse of Huckleberry Wine serves as an affirmation of the old man’s right to meet life on his own terms. We’re told that “like the buffalo, the old man he vanished.” And the final chorus has him singing “ain’t gonna have me no more lonesome times.” It’s no Disney ending, but a stark and stoic celebration of human autonomy and independence. A lonesome conclusion to a lonesome tune written during a most lonesome time.
One day after work in Glacier National Park, I was hanging out on a stretch of secluded Lake McDonald shoreline, enjoying some time to myself. It was one of those calm quiet evenings when the snow-capped peaks reflect a mirror image on the pristine waters of the glacial lake. I had my guitar, a tobacco pipe, some beers, and had just finished logging a particularly inspired entry in my journal about how I’d like to find an isolated place to hang my hat during the off-season. Something far from sight of any neighbor where there would be a large measure of freedom and wildness in my life. To quote Thoreau, a place where I could “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
Moments after writing this passage, in a moment of wild synchronicity, a stranger appeared from out of the blue. Although initially annoyed at the disturbance, we began to chat and he seemed like a good fellow. He asked about the fishing in the lake and then we talked about bears and other Montana things. During the course of our conversation he told me of a remote little cabin on the Flathead Indian Reservation, about an hour outside Missoula, where he spent his summers. The rest of the year he traveled for work. He went on and on about the isolation and natural beauty of the place, how peaceful it was and all the wildlife in the area.
I told him I was looking for such a place to live during Glacier’s off-season. He asked if I could handle a very rural life, and I assured him I could. To my surprise he then offered the place as a rental for only $150 a month, in addition to taking care of the chickens. Just like that it fell out of the sky and into my lap. Being the most serendipitous moment of my life, I accepted the offer without hesitation.
For the next two years, when I wasn’t working in Glacier, I lived in one of the most intoxicating places I’ve ever known. The little adobe house bordered a large expanse of designated tribal wilderness, open and undeveloped land as far as the eye could see. From my back door I could walk out to an idyllic scene of sublime grandeur and beauty and see absolutely no one. Not far from the house flowed the beautiful Flathead River, the turquoise-colored body of water that meanders a path below the rugged Mission Mountains that tower in the beyond.
Living there was an incomparable experience in rural Montana living. Wild nature and wildlife abounded. The area is part of a huge migration route for migratory birds, and bear, coyotes, deer, eagles and hawks were abundant. The fishing was unreal. I’d frequently pull 20+ inch rainbows and browns out of the crystal clear water. Whenever I had visitors, it was Montana surf and turf for dinner; venison backstrap with fresh-caught trout.
Because I wasn’t a tribal member I had to drive off the reservation to hunt big game. However one winter during a prolonged February deep freeze, I stumbled upon a beautiful doe who had come to her final resting place a little ways from my cabin. I was taking one of my regular walks down to the river and I could tell she hadn’t been there long.
I headed back to the house and grabbed a backpack with my Buck 110 hunting knife and some other supplies. A few hours later I was filling my freezer with backstrap steaks and rump roasts. They went a long way towards getting through another fiscally-lean Montana winter. I was working on a novel and writing music, and generating very little income from my outlaw country bar band. Every bit helped. It was a wonderful unexpected gift and I made sure to leave some for the coyotes and birds of prey to help them get through the winter as well.
Most nights living there I’d hear the mad howling, barking and yapping of coyotes from just outside my door. The stars at night would glitter like a sea of diamonds, so raw and luminous that constellations you never knew existed shined with a brilliant presence. Throughout these enchanted years, the raw magic of wild unspoiled nature was a powerful muse that inspired many songs. One of which was the country rock anthem ‘Outlaw’s Refuge.’
During this time, Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger’ was an oft-listened to record. With its tale of brutal violence, lost love, stubborn independence, and revenge, a classic western narrative had been crafted. Outlaw’s Refuge echoes these timeless themes. It tells the story of a reformed drifter, heartbroken and distraught from losing his wife, who seeks consolation in the violent depravity that marked his younger days. In the final verse he finds his refuge, a safe place of rejuvenation and redemption. It’s a hard-won reprieve following his vice-filled ramblings.
“…Reflection on the water, the birds sing harmony
Coyote calls at midnight keep me good company
It’s a refuge for an outlaw, a heaven for a queen…”
‘Outlaw’s Refuge’ was one of the first batch of songs I wrote for my Montana band Whiskey Rebellion. We performed it regularly throughout the band’s duration. When ‘He Rode On’ producer Grant Siemens chose it as one to record, I knew we had a solid country rocker in the bag. The studio version is one of my favorite tracks on the album. It drives harder than a pack of huskies in the final stages of the Iditarod, all the while retaining space and dynamics.
Fiddler Jeremy Penner lights up this track, particularly during the second fiddle solo that comes screaming out of the gate like a rousing charge to battle. His contributions to this tune and the album were invaluable. I knew if I was going to record a country album, it damn well better have fiddle. And Jeremy delivered the goods.
Like every song on ‘He Rode On’, ‘Billy’ was inspired by real life events. It’s an autobiographical tune that looks back at the wildness of two young mountain cowboys, living their lives in a manner as rugged and singular as the Northern Rockies wilderness that surrounded them.
This three chord country anthem celebrates my time running around with an old pal during my early years in Glacier National Park, a fine backcountry ranger who would eventually become a skilled muleskinner in some of the west’s wildest and most remote places. Together we shared a deep love for wildness, roots music, literature and hard core wilderness philosophy.
The two of us went on countless adventures both in uniform and outside of work. From the far corners of the Northern Rocky Mountains to the Rio Grande on the U.S.-Mexico border. Along the way we explored some of the the west’s wildest and most untamed places, as well as patronized all manner of honkytonks and saloons. We delighted in taking things as far as they could go, constantly searching for the elusive “edge” that Hunter S Thompson, one of our favorite authors, wrote about.
In Glacier we would patrol together whenever we could. We took epic trips in the backcountry with horses and mules, exploring some of the deepest pockets of the park. Many nights after work we’d get together with acoustic guitars and a bottle of bourbon and spend the night singing old country songs by Billy Joe Shaver, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Merle Haggard.
Billy would be the first to admit that he can’t carry a tune in a bucket. And his erratic rhythm was an ongoing joke between us. But none of that really mattered. Getting whiskey drunk together and playing Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me, To Live Is To Fly, and medleys of Haggard tunes are some of my favorite memories from those years.
In the studio, ‘Billy’ exceeded my expectations. It’s probably my favorite track on the album. A sparse and spacious verse sets up a boot stomping chorus that brings the lyric home with powerful conviction. Grant Siemens’ over-driven Telecaster weaving in and out of Robby Turner’s pedal steel lines is country music perfection to my ears. Like the distant alpine summits, pristine meadows, and colorful glacial moraines that Billy and I so frequently explored, it’s pure and unadulterated country.
He Rode On
The bulk of ‘He Rode On’ was written during a nearly six thousand mile solo road trip I took with Loretta, my road-worn pickup truck held together with duct tape and bailing wire. This particular trip saw me traversing BLM back roads, National Parks, National Forests and National Monuments across Utah, Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.
At the time I was reading a Cormac McCarthy novel called “The Crossing.” In it, the main character travels an epic odyssey facing one hardship after another. Throughout the book, the phrase “he rode on” appears frequently, almost like a mantra. My own journey shared the endless wandering of this tale, minus the stabbings and murder and other serious calamities typical of McCarthy’s work. I was trying to outrun a heartache that had been lingering for some time. But as is often the case, the blues have a way of catching up with you wherever you go.
“He headed for the border hoping that a change of scene
Might keep him from the haunting of his mind
But like a soldier who’d spent too much time away in battle
He had picked up things he’d never leave behind.”
Towards the end of the trip I spent an entire week camping and exploring the mountains and canyons of Big Bend National Park on the US/Mexico border. Many of the lyrics took shape while running the dirt backroads of this sublime and remote 800,000 acre National Park with a cold can of Lonestar beer in my hand.
The colorful mining town of Terlingua, Texas, on the edge of Big Bend’s massive wilderness, is referenced in the song. Terlingua is a funky little community that reminded me of Polebridge, Montana, another wilderness outpost that sits on the edge of Glacier National Park, and where I was living at the time.
‘He Rode On’ was originally performed as an up-tempo psychedelic country rocker by my Montana band Whiskey Rebellion. After the band broke up, my late musical partner Colin McKnight and I kept it in our repertoire, eventually re-working it into a slower space cowboy anthem. Prior to the tracking of the album, I sent Grant Siemens, album producer, both versions of the song. Grant preferred the cosmic cowboy version, which suited me just fine, as this had been it’s final destination anyway.
In the studio, while fleshing out the sonics for this tune, Nashville drummer John McTigue III experimented with several drum beats. When he landed on the one that made the album, I knew that was it right away, and everything else quickly fell into place.
The playing on this track is wonderfully understated. I love that there is no instrumental solo. With its lush textures and droning riffs, the music fully supports the lyrical motif of “he rode on.” Like a desert mirage, the song invokes a subtle dream-like state where hard reality is blurred with the ethereal.
Towards the end of the track, there’s a lyrical tribute to Colin. I like to think of it as a goodbye to his physical presence as he makes the transition from this earthly world. Like a Phoenix rising up from the ashes of a fire, I envision his spirit being freed from his temporal body and ascending into the ether.
For the album cover (designed by Christian Sawicki), I commissioned my good friend Rex Stewart, artist and former Whiskey Rebellion bass player, to subtly transform a naturally-occurring cloud into the shape of a phoenix. If you look closely you’ll see the wispy outline of the mythic bird, symbolizing both rebirth and transformation. It was important to me for Colin to be represented on the cover, for he’s played such a huge role in my life and musical work, and will continue to play a role, albeit in a different form. The phoenix is the perfect representation of my dear friend.
Sometime after Colin passed, I wrote the third and final verse to HRO. At this point the words “he rode on” had developed another dimension of meaning, representing both my own experience as well as that of my dear friend. These myriad meanings give the phrase deep poetic significance for me.
Its easy to get caught up in the dream of an arrival, of one day “getting there.” But in reality no such thing exists. There is no static destination, only an endless journey of ever-changing phenomena. For as soon as you go around one bend in the road, you are in sight of another.
Death is surely a part of this journey, perhaps even a journey unto itself. For all endings are new beginnings, and we have to die to one life before we begin another. It’s an unbroken circle.
The snake eats its own tail.
Cowboy Boots And A Little Country Dress
Years ago my old Montana band Whiskey Rebellion played the annual “Bucking Horse Sale,” aka Cowboy Mardi Gras, in Miles City, Montana. Over the course of that three day weekend, I befriended an eccentric cowboy poet named John Doran. Whenever we weren’t performing, John and the band and a rotating cast of revelers piled inside one of the large leather booths in the iconic Montana Bar in downtown Miles City. Over endless glasses of whiskey, John regaled us with tales of another great cowboy party in Elko, Nevada at the “National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.”
National Cowboy Poetry Gathering? Who knew such a thing existed. Curiosity was stoked and eventually the pilgrimage was made. My best friend and musical partner Colin McKnight, along with our good friend Christian Sawicki (another Bucking Horse Sale survivor) and myself, headed down to Elko one January in what would prove to be a very fateful trip.
We drove down from Missoula and landed our first night at the Silver Dollar Saloon. Walking through the bar’s swinging doors was like entering a Gunsmoke reunion. It was a surreal scene swarming with silver-tongued buckaroos wearing cowboy hats, cowboy boots, silk scarves, wrangler jeans, and shiny belt buckles. My friends and I saddled up to the bar and ordered a round while we surveyed the herd of inebriated poets.
A few drinks later we spotted Canadian country artist Corb Lund sitting at a corner table. We’d just seen him and his band, The Hurtin’ Albertans, play in Missoula a few weeks prior. Emboldened by the whiskey, Christian approached Corb and asked if he wanted to step outside and smoke a joint. Corb thought about it for a second, declined, but said his guitar player probably would.
Enter Grant Siemens. Clad in dark denim, leather jacket, and sturdy work boots, Grant was definitely not a cowboy poet. He had his own style and a strong presence. Mojo for days. The four of us walked outside into an adjacent alley and huddled together in the single digit temps. Colin produced a perfectly rolled joint from inside his Carharrt jacket and wasted no time lighting it up.
We passed around the smoke and everyone introduced themselves. Little did I know the strange and unforeseen ways in which our fates were crossed. In a matter of months Colin would pass and Grant would come to produce and play guitar on my debut album. But for the time being it was just another adventure with good friends, and we were ready for some fun.
‘Cowboy Boots and A Little Country Dress’ is about a guy who’s out with his friends when he spies a beautiful cowgirl (“…a bucking horse rider, not afraid to be thrown…”) In a flash he’s out chasing her around town, drinking and dancing until the wee hours. It’s exactly what happened our second night in Elko. In fact, nearly every idea from “Cowboy Boots” is pulled directly from my experience that weekend.
In addition to live music and cowboy poetry, the Gathering offers classes on a variety of western skills. Everything from saddle making to roping, swing dancing to yodeling. When my friends and I woke red-eyed at the Thunderbird Motel the next day, there was just enough time to exchange stories before rushing out the door for our rodeo swing dance lesson.
We rolled into class a few minutes late when most people had already paired with a partner. Quick on the draw, Chris and I grabbed the last two girls our age. Still reeling from the night before, Colin ended up with the final un-partnered lass, a sweet woman named Ruth who appeared to be in her late 90s.
For the next hour the instructor covered rodeo swing basics up through more advanced moves like the double dip and triple cuddle fling (“…a one step, two step, rodeo swing…a hip dip, double dip, triple cuddle fling….”) The lesson flew by and was only slightly awkward, much less so because we were still drunk from the night before.
While getting ready to leave I overheard a woman talking about a cowboy poet she’d heard speak earlier. “I wanted to sop him up with a biscuit,” she said. That’s a hell of a line I thought to myself and filed it away in the memory bank. Eventually it became the pre-chorus to ‘Cowboy Boots’ (“…gonna sop that girl right up with a biscuit….”)
Colin and I then headed off to yodeling class. As part of his Christmas present that year, I’d given my friend the gift of yodeling, a necessary skill. Our instructor was a salty old cowpoke who could yodel your face off. At the end of class he required that each person yodel, an undertaking done not without some trepidation. Nevertheless, we invoked the yodeling gods and did our best to yo-de-lay-ee-oo with some measure of authority. We failed miserably but it was a start. Eventually yodeling would feature in the chorus to ‘Cowboy Boots.’
Our final morning in Elko we stumbled into a little greasy spoon to nurse our hangovers with eggs and black coffee. Sitting in a booth across from us was none other than legendary folk singer Ramblin Jack Elliott. We’d heard rumors of his presence that weekend and had hoped to connect with him.
As we were leaving the restaurant, I held the door open for none other than Ramblin’ Jack. I asked if he might be willing to sign my guitar, which was in the trunk of our car parked a few feet away. He smiled and said sure.
Ramblin Jack is more than an American treasure. He’s an earthly treasure and his humanness is conveyed in everything he does. Any time spent with him is good time, and I’m convinced it won’t be taken from the sum of your life.
“Music is a tough business,” he said with a merry twinkle in his eye.
“I know Jack. It definitely is,” I replied as I handed him my guitar and a black sharpie.
He took the dreadnaught and signed the spruce top with his old weathered hand, wrinkled deeply with time. Then he drew a large arrow pointing to the well-worn spot that bears the brunt of my picking attack. Where the wood has nearly worn through from thousands of hours of hard strumming.
I smiled at his inventiveness, happy for more than a signature.
“Do you write your own songs?” he asked.
“I do,” I told him.
“That helps a lot,” he smiled “Everything starts with a good song.”
Light Of The Moon
Sonically and perhaps otherwise, ‘Light Of The Moon’ is the most intense song on the album. Underneath these volcanic sonics is essentially an Appalachian murder ballad. Inspired by the real life events of legendary moonshiner “Popcorn” Sutton, it tells the tale of what could have happened had this folk hero chosen a different ending to the final chapter of his life.
Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton was an Appalachian moonshiner and bootlegger who lived in the rural areas of Maggie Valley, North Carolina. At the time of his passing, I was on one of several cross-country road trips I regularly took to escape the seemingly never-ending Western Montana winters. When I heard the news about the old moonshiner, I just so happened to be visiting my folk’s place, tucked in the woods of East Tennessee about an hour from Popcorn.
To summarize Popcorn’s story: This master craftsman came from a long line of moonshiners and produced some of the finest corn whiskey in the Appalachian region. A fixture of his community, you could purchase a jar of shine at his antique store if you knew the right thing to say. Although cantankerous at times, he was fairly harmless and the local authorities left him alone. At the end of the day, he was simply selling his own whiskey that he made on his own land. But all this changed when the federal government got involved.
In March of 2008, ATF agents led by Jim Cavanaugh of Waco siege infamy, raided Popcorn’s land. They seized 800 gallons of moonshine, three stills with 1,000-gallon capacities and hundreds of gallons of mash. Less than a year later he was ordered to serve time in a federal penitentiary. But Popcorn wasn’t having it. In a startling move of raw individualism, he elected to take his own life as opposed to serving time in prison. Although tragic, I found something brave and stoic, respectable even, in this decision to live life on his own terms.
In the days following his passing I crafted the lyrics and music of ‘Light Of The Moon.’ My goal was to combine Appalachian natural history with a moonshiner character study that exemplified the uncompromising individualism personified by Popcorn and his ilk. My folks found it a little odd that I was locked inside their guest bedroom for much of my visit. But The Muse is elusive and fleeting and I was possessed by the desire to capture the song and honor Popcorn with some kind of tribute.
As mentioned prior, the song has a different storyline than what truly transpired. Although there is death in my tale, it comes at the hands of the old moonshiner and his trusty double-barreled shotgun. “Have another drink on me,” the old man cries as he opens up on the federal agents trespassing on his land.
Musically, Grant Siemens’ impassioned guitar solo is surely one of the album’s highlights. As the heavy organ solo nears its end, we hear the menacing moans of feedback howling in the mix, like a wild animal snarling from it’s cage just prior to release. What follows is a singular performance that captures all the violence and glory of the old moonshiner’s murderous act.
On the album version of the song, as the final feedback-drenched tones pan back and forth in stereo, the hypnotic guitar riff of title track “He Rode On” rises up from the ashes of ‘Light Of The Moon’, into the soaring eight minute tone poem that concludes the album.
Bad Honky Tonker
‘Bad Honky Tonker’ was written while I was working at Glacier National Park as a National Park Service backcountry ranger. My home was a nearly hundred-year-old one room log cabin, located deep inside the park. This Spartan abode had running water and electricity but you had to walk outside to access the bathroom, which was contained in a separate out-building.
Moose and bears, both black and grizzly, mountain lions and elk were all frequent guests to the cabin and its surrounding environs. Less than a hundred feet from the front door was the quiet north shore of glacial-fed Lake McDonald. The cascading white noise of Stanton Creek was a constant background as it rushed down the slopes of neighboring Mount Stanton, less than a mile away. The place was nothing if not idyllic and tranquil, surrounded by some of America’s most pristine wilderness.
Most days I woke early and walked outside with coffee in hand as the sun was rising on another majestic Northern Rockies morning. Clad in cowboy boots, cowboy hat and NPS apparel, I’d walk a few hundred yards through the cedar and hemlock forest to the rustic corral where my work horses were kept.
Pancho would greet me with a morning snicker as he and Snuffy trotted up to the gate eager for oats. I’d catch my trusty steeds and saddle them up, throwing the well-oiled leather riding saddle on Pancho, my quarter horse, and the Decker pack saddle on Snuffy, my Morgan pack horse. Then I’d trailer them to one of the park’s many trailheads, or simply ride straight from the barn into the vast expanse of Glacier’s backcountry.
Later that day, or sometimes several days later, we’d return from our foray into the wilderness. Back at my little cabin I’d kick off my dusty cowboy boots and hang my hat on a nail in the wall. Then I’d throw on some jeans, a snap button shirt and some moccasin slippers, and prepare dinner to the hard-driving sounds of 1970’s Ralph Stanley or some other country favorite. After supper I’d pick up the guitar or fiddle and play some songs I was working on, filling the cabin with acoustic music until sleep overtook me and I woke the next morning to do it all over again.
Without cell service or television or much social life, it was clean country living with minimal distraction. I loved that free and simple life, but after some time my mind would turn to the bright neon lights of Missoula or Whitefish. As a healthy balance to the seclusion and near-monastic solitude of my life in the woods, I occasionally required a night on the town where the bourbon flowed like a mountain stream.
‘Bad Honky Tonker’ is an exaggerated expression of the anticipation that would precede these nights. It’s a caricature of what things might look like when a lonesome mountain cowboy is ready to stop working and go enjoy himself. Perhaps making a few bad decisions along the way.
During this time I was listening to a lot of early Dwight Yoakam, as well as the Stones’ Exile On Main Street. Deep inside my mind the sultry sounds of Keith Richards over-driven blues guitar blended with Yoakam’s honky tonk aesthetic. What percolated to the forefront was ‘Bad Honky Tonker’.
The title comes from a line in a Stevie Ray Vaughan song about a bunch of “bad honky tonkers really laying it down.” I could have written it from the title alone, ‘Bad Honky Tonker’, for it evokes countless ideas and imagery. But I also drew from the swaggering spirit of Jimmy Roger’s “Blue Yodel No. 1” (I can get more women than a passenger train can haul…) and Gary Stewart’s (The King of Honky Tonk Music) anthem “Little Junior.”
In “Little Junior” Stewart follows the old writer’s adage of show don’t tell to paint a colorful portrait of his hard-drinking hero:
“My daddy wore a Stetson and a hundred dollar suit
Developed a craving for the black man’s blues”
“Like my daddy I’ve been around too
As far as cravings I’ve got quite a few
Tall naked women, diamonds and cars
Old age whiskey and all night bars”
Boom! Stewart isn’t pulling any punches here. My goal with ‘Bad Honky Tonker’ was to take things even further, to an almost comic level of hyperbole, and what resulted was the veritable antithesis to the “boyfriend country” trend of today’s commercial country music. It’s over-the-top lyrics paint the picture of a hard-drinking, hard-living, honky-tonk nighttime man who gives zero fucks. Sitting inside my cozy log cabin, nestled deep inside the Lake McDonald forest, I had a hell of a time writing the lyrics. Who knows what bears or lions were within earshot as I penned those outrageous lines, laughing like a mad hyena underneath a sea of stars on those cool Northern Rockies summer nights.
Musically, BHT kicks like a mean kangaroo in the throes of mating season. The heavy drum and bass groove lays a solid cushion for the sawing honky-tonk fiddle and over-driven guitar that completes the sturdy foundation. Grant Siemens’ baritone guitar solo is perhaps my favorite moment of the album. When I hear this tough-as-nails sound coming from my speakers, it makes me feel like heading straight to town…..