When The Grand Ole Opry Came To Yakima. But Wait! There’s More!
My Daddy, Cowboy Pinkeye, made it his mission to take my brother, Al III, and me to as many music performances as he could. His goal was to expose us to every possible style of music. He wanted to raise a couple of well-rounded young men, who would keep their minds open to new things. He’d already introduced us to the Country & Western records he played during his Cowboy Pinkeye appearances; plus, he spun Top 40 pop tunes on KLOQ Radio, while Al and I played on the floor of the broadcast room. He’d taken us to hear the great gospel singer, Stuart Hamlin, singer of “It Is No Secret” and “This Old House”, at a big tent revival just outside of town. And, since Yakima was apparently, not a large enough market to attract actual touring opera or ballet companies, he took us to the Capital Theatre to watch *films* of operas and ballets, which I loathed. But, I did it for Dad!
Where was Mom all this time? Home, enjoying a little time away from two active, energetic boys, and a husband who was passionate about *everything* — Y. A. Tittle, Sandy Koufax, Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs, Mahalia Jackson; basically whatever was in front of him. Dad kind-a got “into” things, and my brother and I *literally* got into things. Mom needed a break!
I remember several very special events Dad took us to. Here is the story of one:
Right around 1958, while touring some of the smaller cities in the Pacific Northwest, Nashville, Tennessee’s famed Grand Ole Opry came to Yakima, to Eisenhower High School’s Gymnasium. I was only eight or nine years old, and I attended in the company of Daddy and Al III. Although I was young, I still remember the excitement I felt during that show. Hearing such skilled players on fiddles, banjos, guitars, dobros, steels, and dog-house bass was such a treat for a young music lover.
I distinctly remember two vocal acts who performed for us that evening: one was Little Jimmie Dickens, who, while short in stature, had a personality and voice as big as all outdoors. If my recollection proves true, he performed, with gusto, “Out Behind The Barn”, “A-Sleepin’ At The Foot Of The Bed”, “Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait)” and “No Tears In Heaven”. Then, the great country duo, Johnny and Jack, (Johnny Wright and Jack Anglin) performed. Though I was just a boy, I sensed how much they enjoyed performing together. Known for their beautiful country duets, featuring that special “brother-in-law” harmony, they sang some heart-touching songs, including “Poison Love”, “Stop The World And Let Me Off”, and “Kiss-Crazy Baby”. Brothers-in-law in real life, they were so entertaining.
The stars were backed by a crack crew of “Nashville cats”, who may have been The Tennessee Mountain Boys, Johnny and Jack’s band. The pickers were led by a flashy fiddle player who loved to show off. If a performer did a particularly good job on a song, or played an extra-dazzling solo, that fiddle player would wave his bow in the air, and somehow, we all knew we were supposed to applaud like crazy. It worked all night long. — I remember sitting there on my bleacher seat, wondering what it would be like for *me* to play in the one and only Grand Ole Opry….
All three Bowles men loved that show. We talked about it for weeks. — Looking back, I see we were so fortunate to be able to enjoy not only that show, but many types of music and entertainment. Our lives were just that much fuller.
A few years later, in 1963, we were shocked to hear that Jack Anglin, the Jack of Johnny and Jack, tragically lost his life in a car wreck while on another tour. You know, for a spell, there seemed to be a rash of these accidents, where some of Nashville’s brightest lights lost their lives in travelling from show to show.
Now, this sounds like a good time to end my story, but it’s not the end: In 1975, I was living in Seattle, playing on the street at the incredible Pike Place Market, for passerby’s tips. Street performing had been legal in Seattle for just one year. A lot of folks yelled insults at us “buskers”, not seeing young, aspiring artists, but instead, seeing beggars and tramps, with no ambition. Actually, I’d had plenty of success playing in Yakima, but I needed to move to a bigger market. I couldn’t play The Mayfair Tavern or The Caravan Inn for the rest of my life. And that is why I moved to Seattle. But, I found it very hard to break into Seattle’s country music scene, which was pretty much run by KAYO Radio, Seattle’s dominant country station. I “busked” in order to make ends meet, knowing in my heart, that if I just stuck it out, I’d find a way to gain a toehold in the local scene.
Well, it just so happened that that very same KAYO Radio had been named the Puget Sound area sponsor for the Grand Ole Opry’s Fiftieth Anniversary Talent Search. I saw my chance to change my situation! I mailed a homemade demo tape to KAYO, which contained two songs I wrote, and which featured only my voice and guitar. Immediately, KAYO notified me that I was one of ten Puget Sound finalists. I soon found myself at Seattle Center, on stage with some of Seattle’s finest pickers playing behind me. And, I aced it. I gave the performance of my life. After they named me the winner, I just walked over to a pay phone, called Dad and Mom, and said, well, I won.
KAYO Radio financed my trip to beautiful San Diego, California, where I competed in the West Coast finals, against nine other talented finalists, whose hometowns ranged from British Columbia to Southern Cal. I was backed by (yes!) a crack band made up of the Opry’s finest cats! — Just as I had imagined, all those years ago. Ralph Emery, host of TNN’s “Nashville Now”, was Master Of Ceremonies. When he brought me to the stage, he said, “And now, from Yakima, WA, here’s Randy Bowles! And folks, I gave it my very best. As did every act. Well, I was named West Coast First-Runner-up. The fellow who won sang two John Denver songs, while I performed my original songs. I figured I’d win or lose with my own material. I was very glad to finish as high as I did.
Coming home to Seattle, I found that suddenly, I had steady work in clubs all over Puget Sound, and that continued, for years to come. A highlight: Willie Nelson sat in with my band, Stampede Pass, at the West Veranda, a huge country music club on Lake Union, in 1977. After gifting us with at least a dozen of his fabulous songs, he signed autographs for everyone in the building!
Now: let’s fast forward to 2003-2004. I was happily employed at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, where I shared my love of music with about a million people over the course of four years. (Not a bad job for a guy like me, who loves people and loves music.) Well, vintage country stars Kitty Wells and her husband Johnny Wright (yes, Johnny Wright of Johnny and Jack!) came to town, as they were booked to play the Puyallup fair. Someone suggested they enjoy a tour of EMP. Being of advanced age, they took the tour while riding in wheel chairs, with two EMPeeps supplying the “power”, while giving them the grand tour of the fantastic music museum. One of those EMPeeps was my good pal and fellow country singer, Biff Moss. He shared with Kitty and Johnny that I had been bandleader for the legendary country/early rockabilly star, Rose Maddox, whenever she appeared in Eastern Washington. My band of Yakima pickers and I backed her, half-a-dozen times at Goldendale’s Oasis. (Say, that trip over Satus Pass could be rough in winter.) Well, hearing of my connection to Rose Maddox, Kitty and Johnny asked to meet me. Biff tracked me down, made the introductions, and we commenced to have a fine chat. (Please note that Kitty Wells had the very first number-one Billboard Magazine country hit in 1952, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angles”, for a female performer. She told me she was especially close to Rose Maddox, and missed her dearly. (Rose had passed on….) We talked about how much fun, and how spirited, Rose had been.
I was so happy to visit with the other half of this great team, Johnny Wright, whom I found to be a soft-spoken, humble man, for a country star who was married to an even bigger country star. I was bowled over; my brain was completely occupied with the excitement of spending time with my boyhood idols. So occupied, that I actually forgot to tell Johnny that right around 1958, as a nine-year-old boy, I cheered for the great Johnny and Jack in Yakima’s Eisenhower Gymnasium, every time that fiddler waved his bow!
At the end of my shift, my co-worker Biff found me, and handed me a color photo of Kitty and Johnny, personally autographed to me, plus copies of their latest CD’s. And the next night, when they took the stage at the Puyallup Fair, they stood proudly in their gorgeous Nashville-style suits, singing country duets that featured husband-wife harmonies, spreading the love to an adoring crowd of Washingtonians, with no wheelchairs in sight! — They now reside in Hillbilly Heaven, with their pals, Jack and Rose, Little Jimmy Dickens, and scores of other once-bright lights of Nashville. Willie Nelson is 81; I’m 65; and we have no plans of stopping anytime soon. It’s our calling.
Little Jimmy Dickens singing “Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBi_CyJe604
Johnny and Jack singing “I’m Gonna Love You One More Time” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2HDmF4AAPg
Kitty Wells singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKleTa94dC8
Rose Maddox singing “He Found My Little Footprints In The Snow” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJKDgGWRNdY