From the here and now, looking back on specific instances that became part of Park City's extended cultural folklore during the quite eccentric 1970s, it appears that many of the fog-shrouded events were shot utilizing sepia tones left over from some artsy Western flick. The entire decade exudes the smudged visual clarity of "Heaven's Gate."
The current case in point came about when I heard Leon Redbone would be in town this weekend for a couple of concerts at the Egyptian Theatre and my somewhat-cluttered memory began rolling film on when I first heard mention of his name. As is often the case, it took place at a bar.
I had met a girl from Austin who was in town acting as the point person for the Park City stop on an early '70s tour that John Prine and Ramblin' Jack Elliott were making through Western ski towns. She accepted my offer to use my car for the drive down to the Salt Lake Airport to pick them up before their show.
So, when the day arrived, we excitedly careened down Parley's Canyon to meet the plane. Grabbing our quarry off the small private jet they were using to thread from one mountain resort to the next, we, at their suggestion, adjourned to the airport bar for a "quick" beverage.
Prine and his manager, Al Bunetta, were all excited about coming into possession of a cassette recording made directly off the soundboard at the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto. The recording featured the entire performance of one Leon Redbone, they said - the same Leon Redbone that Bob Dylan had secretly been stalking and had covertly shown up at the festival to meet.
Talk about instant cachet. Then, as now, when Dylan goes out of his way to catch your shtick, it immediately raises, so to speak, your cultural visibility. When we finally left the airport bar and headed back up the hill for the concert, the recording of Redbone's festival set, suffice to say, owned the vehicle's cassette player.
It wasn't like everyone was listening attentively, however. With Ramblin' Jack at the wheel, Bunetta riding shotgun, and me in the rear between Prine and the Austin chick, the discourse, shall we say, seldom found itself wanting. But one could easily tell that this Leon Redbone cat, with his slouchy baritone vocal style, could perfectly resurrect early 20th-century flapper-pop, ragtime-romp, and jump-jazz with the best of them.
In a Rolling Stone interview some time later, Dylan mentioned that if he ever started his own record label, Redbone would be at the top of his list to record. That was followed by a performance on "Saturday Night Live" that caught the attention of print-media critics and, before long, there seemed to be very few vacancies on the bandwagon. Everyone dug the dude!
Then came his debut album, "On the Track," with songs and arrangements spreading across the spectrum from early New Orleans jazz to hillbilly blues, replete with a cool combo that could handle any instrumental chore he dreamed up. One of these players was the great jazz fiddler Joe Venuti, whom I had caught a bit earlier as a member of the Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars down at Kingsbury Hall.
I figured anybody who could channel such subtle harmonic grooves through the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Jelly Roll Morton, Irving Berlin, and Fats Waller ("Ain't Misbehavin'" might well have been the gem of the LP) was on to something. Especially coming on the heels of the over-the-top musical excesses of the '60s. This guy knew hip from hype.
I became totally smitten and picked up his next two albums, "Double Time" and "Champagne Charlie," as soon as they were released. With KPCW getting on the air in July of 1980, ol' Leon soon homesteaded a niche on my Saturday morning folk music slot. His vinyl also got slapped down and spun around on various jazz, country, and blues shows I would come to program.
Although his early popularity probably never reached much above a large cult, he began showing up on local stages every so often to exuberant crowds that "got" what he was into. That oh-so-familiar cross-legged look with fedora and dark shades hovering above his moustache and goatee drew in the devoted time and time again.
I've been spinnin' some of my scratchy old Leon Redbone vinyl since I heard he would be comin' back to town this weekend and I must say it hasn't lost a bit of its charm. No doubt about it, the man remains a national treasure and is no doubt as quirky as ever. Let's just say Leon is important! He matters! Check him out this Friday and Saturday at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.