A somewhat recent and quickly-arranged road trip from Hebertown up through the Snake River Valley to Boise with longtime local bar-band luminary Buffalo Joe Jeffs had a way of connecting, for me anyway, some Park City roots-music dots that had their beginnings at Main Street’s legendary Handlebar back during the early ’70s.
There are a couple of caveats here, especially to those who weren’t part of Park City’s street scene back then. Firstly, the patterns generated by these dots are quite convoluted to say the least. And secondly, as it is a Park City tale, there will be name-dropping and digressions aplenty.
The first name out of the chute just has to be that of the self proclaimed "self employed and self indulgent" Curtis Oberhansly, attorney, activist, author, restaurateur, and, more to the point, founder and president of the Professional Freestyle Associates (PFA) ski tour, which, along with its competitor, IFSA, made rock-stars-of-the-day out of Wayne Wong, Suzie Chaffee, and Park City’s own Karen Huntoon-Miller.
If that wasn’t enough, he also procured front-and-center tickets to Bob Dylan’s early-June 1976 Rolling Thunder Review stop at the Salt Palace for an entourage that included then local pinball virtuoso and leather artisan Doug Pugh. Did I mention there would be some name dropping?
During the timeframe in question, Curtis had journeyed to Sun Valley for a ski vacation. After one particular day on the slopes, while diligently researching Ketchum’s après-ski scene, the renaissance-man-in-question stumbled upon a bluegrass-music group by the name of Whitewater that he thought would dazzle the then-pretty-much-culturally-deprived denizens of Park City.
Once Oberhansly brought the band down to The Handlebar, the die was pretty much cast. As fellow mountain folks, they immediately won over the crowd and, before the footlights had dimmed on fiddler Teddy Jones, mandolin player Paul Smith, and 5-string banjo picker Michael Wendling, we were believers.
Whitewater returned a few more times to massage our acoustic sensibilities but it wasn’t too long before word began filtering down from Idaho that they had disbanded and that Teddy had joined up with others to form an electric honky-tonk outfit called Tarwater, a self-proclaimed "hard country" band that featured Jake Hoffman on steel guitar and Lyle Evans on bass.
Soon thereafter, their first album, "Tarnation," came out and we started traipsing up their way to catch them at the Idaho Bar in Pocatello and the Cowboy Bar in Jackson, among other haunts. Salt Lake venues also became part of their circuit and they began flying pretty high, especially once a singer-songwriter legend-in-the-making named Pinto Bennett and a top-shelf country crooner named John Bateman joined their posse.
At about the same time, Salt Lake spawned a similarly styled ensemble that would go on to regional fame carrying the brand CowJazz. Out of this wonderfully improvisational outfit came drummer K.W. Turnbow, steel guitarist Brook Langton, and the aforementioned John Bateman (whom they acquired from Tarwater for two draft picks and a dobro player to be named later).
CowJazz would go on to define the Utah hard-country-rock sound in much the same way that Tarwater would interpret the cowpoke sensibility of Idaho. Each and every Western mountain state seemed to have its own iconic country-blues-rock band that provided the soundtrack to their mostly irreverent lives in those days and these two outfits were outlaws way before it was cool.
Many of these iconic pickers and grinners would morph into other musical identities without ever losing their edge. K.W. Turnbow would become a longtime member of the late Chris LeDoux’s band, not to mention an early building block of the Famous Motel Cowboys, the highly-articulate ensemble put together by Pinto Bennett back in the day and seemingly the most celebrated band of all.
And that’s why, once the opportunity availed itself, Buffalo Joe and I hit the road the weekend before last for the 9th Annual Famous Motel Cowboy Reunion in Boise, not only to hang out with and pay tribute to many of these legendary musicians previously mentioned but also to bear witness to the performance art they created. Not to mention the chance to hook up with Ben Brault, a later-generation musician with a very old soul.
Much of the enthusiasm for this year’s edition of the reunion played against a backdrop of health worries concerning the much-beloved Pinto Bennett and how many more opportunities there will be to not only hear and see him and the FMC perform from his extraordinary body of work, but also to just spend time within the man’s powerful aura.
I must say, the entire affair bordered on the spiritual.
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.
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