I’m afraid you’re gonna have to be an old-timer to remember along with me on this story. Oops! I guess that makes me an old-timer, doesn’t it? Yep….
This story tells how I took the first step in my journey from being a rock and rollin’ hippie, to becoming a real country picker. Along the way, I’ll introduce you to some good folks: Smokey, Whitey, and a gal called Montana. Smokey was a steel guitar player, Whitey played drums, and Montana was…. Montana!
Having little in common, my slightly older brother Al III and I didn’t hang out much when we reached young adulthood. We hadn’t been close since we were in our single-digit years. That’s just the way it was. For one thing, a younger brother isn’t supposed to tower over his older sibling; but I did. That seemed to stick in Al’s craw. So we pretty much lived separate lives. However, one Sunday evening in 1970/early 1971, Al asked me if I’d like to accompany him to Yakima WA’s famous, or maybe infamous, Stockmen’s Café, where he said I could sit in on the country music jam session they were holding.
Well, I’d never been to Stockmen’s. I was afraid to go there. I ran with a small bunch of long-haired hippies in Yakima, and we didn’t hang out in country taverns. — Especially Stockmen’s. (In later years, thanks to people like Willie Nelson, the long-hairs and the country folks got together. This was before that.) Anyway, it wasn’t just my immediate group who thought of Stockmen’s as a rough place, planted in a rough part of town (North 1st Street). Here’s a quote from James, a fellow member of a Yakima-related Facebook Page: “I hung out at Stockmen’s in the early 60’s. It was full of pimps, whores, junkies, drunks and the usual”.
So yeah: we freaks in Yakima weren’t sure how the Stockmen’s folks would welcome us long-haired people; nor were we in a hurry to find out.
I’d only been playing bars for a little while, and due to the above reasons, Stockmen’s wasn’t on my list of ones I needed to visit. I was still Randy the Rocker. I didn’t play country music. But Al said he knew a lot of good people there; he said he would introduce me around. And he said he’d tell the band leader to let me sit in with the band.
Even though I was a blues-rocker who’d never, ever sat-in with a country band, I had listened to a ton of country music. I had what I considered a good job, in the late ‘60’s: I worked for Gibson’s orchard in West Valley. The foreman, Mr. Bitts, trusted me to work alone eight hours a day. My only companion was the radio in the Scout four-wheel-drive truck I drove, and/or the little portable transistor radio I carried with me in my pocket. And, “Country KUTI” was the only station I could get while toiling among the apple and pear trees I grew so familiar with. I normally listened to Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Stones, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, the Grateful Dead. But in the orchard, for five days a week, I steeped myself in the music of Charlie Pride, Tanya Tucker, Bill Anderson, Porter and Dolly, Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely (whom I later performed with in Seattle), Conway Twitty, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell, and of course, the great Merle Haggard. And I have to admit: I had come to love the music, for its true-to-life stories, and for the musicianship the players displayed.
So I was familiar with what was going on in country music. When Al and I arrived at Stockmen’s, I wasn’t intimidated about getting up on the bandstand and trying something new. I mean, jamming was what it was all about, right? So I was gonna jam with some country pickers. And perhaps, I’d show them a thing or two (or so I thought).
Once inside, and looking around, I noticed I’d never been in such a dive as Stockmen’s. It was loud, rowdy, smelly, super smoke-filled, in need of a very good scrubbing…. But before I had a chance to let that get to me, Al interrupted my train of thought by introducing me to one of the regulars: a woman everyone called Montana. She said, “Howdy! I’m Montana. And I’m so much of a woman, I’m almost a man!” — Well, she definitely wasn’t a “girly-girl”…. She was drinking pretty heavily. She’d have a beer (boy, could she chug ‘em), wipe the foam off her mouth, and bellow again, “I’m so much of a woman, I’m almost a man!”
Al and I sat back at one of the crummy tables, watched people dance, and listened to the band for a spell. The music sounded extremely simple to me, compared to a lot of the rock songs I’d played over the years. (I started playing in 1963, so by now, I’d been doing it for about seven or eight years). We listened as various people in the room got up and jammed with the band. There were singers, guitar players, and bassists, mainly, sitting in.
Well, it was finally time for me to jump up on the bandstand and join in on the jamming. The bandleader announced my name, saying, “We’ve got someone new to introduce you to tonight. He’s played a lot of that rock and roll; but tonight, he’s gonna help us keep it country!” I got up, walked across the wooden dance floor, and put one foot up on the stage. I started to lift my other foot, so I could plant it on the stage. My legs were spread. Right then, Montana ran up behind me and grabbed me right in the…. Right in the…. Uhh…. She grabbed me right there. The whole crowd broke into fits of laughter. And I could distinctly tell that my brother’s voice was the loudest. I turned bright red. I don’t think I had ever been that embarrassed in my life! Here I was, focused on getting on stage with these pickers I didn’t know, before a crowd I didn’t know, hoping I wouldn’t make a spectacle of myself. Well, Montana took care of that for me. She got that out of the way. She roared out, “That’s how ya know I like ya. If I give ya a hard time!”
The incident certainly broke the ice between the crowd and me. — While trying to gather my composure, and my dignity, I walked over to a cowboy-shirted guitar player I didn’t know, who was getting ready to hand me his electric guitar. He was a member of the band, and he was letting everyone borrow his guitar, if they needed one to jam with.
I found myself standing next to a man sitting behind a steel guitar, who introduced himself to me as Smokey Hamm. I looked back, and saw a dude who was an albino, perched behind a beat-up set of drums. He said with a big smile, “Hey, Randy, they call me Whitey”.
I had been the star, or front man of just about every band I had ever been part of; I was always the one playing the melody on the guitar. In rock music, you’d often hear lead guitar going on at the same time as the singing. In a lot of my bands, we all just sort of played at once. Therefore, while this guy who also got up to jam took the microphone, and was singing a country song I didn’t know, but was faking my way through, I played a rather loud, lead guitar solo the whole time. Well, Smokey, sitting at his steel guitar, got my attention, and motioned me to lean down, so he could say something in my ear. He said, “Randy, in country music, you let the singer have the spotlight when he’s singing. Don’t play right on top of him. Later, you’ll get a solo”. – So just like that, Smokey imparted his little gem of wisdom I call “The Secret Of Playing Country Guitar”. A light went on in my brain. I never forgot what Smokey told me; and I never played on top of a vocalist again.
When the vocalist had sung a couple of verses, he nodded at Smokey, who then played the most beautiful lead on his shining steel guitar. He slid his bar, or steel, as they’re called, all over the twenty or so strings; and he worked his volume pedal, so that he got a sort of crying sound out of the instrument. It was heavenly. It felt good to be right in the middle of everything! — Right when he put the finishing touches on his solo, Smokey looked at me and said, “Go for it, Randy”. So, I proceeded to play my first country guitar solo, with a real country band. I think it sounded like crap, after what Smokey had offered up to the crowd; but I did my best.
I don’t remember if I sang anything with the band on that magical night, or if I just played guitar. — The only country song I knew was Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”. (I remember practicing it in my bedroom one day in 1969, having found the lyrics in a Hit Parader Magazine. I remember saying to myself, “Hmmm, I wonder what Mom and Dad are thinking, hearing me play a country song?”) – So, I may have sung it. I’m not sure. It’s been at least 46 years…. I do know that I played a few more tunes with the guys. And I made damn sure that I waited my turn before playing my guitar solo!
When I left the bandstand, I got a lot of compliments and hand-shakes from the Stockmen’s crowd. I told everyone that I was just learning; and I promised to get better. So I went home and started practicing my country picking every day. I soon realized that country music was not so simple. It was a very pure style that took one back to the roots of American music.
I worked very hard at learning the ropes. And within a year, I was fronting (doing vocals and lead guitar) a trio at the Mayfair Tavern on Yakima Avenue. – Which I have written about. — But this came first. This had to come first. I had to meet a seasoned musician in a dive frequented by “pimps, whores, junkies, drunks and the usual”, who would know what changes I needed to make, and who wouldn’t be afraid to tell me, in a kind way. Thanks, Smokey. Thanks, Stockmen’s Cafe. Thanks, Yakima.
That was the one and only time I visited Stockmen’s. I guess once was all I needed.
I soon found myself hosting my own Sunday jam session at the Mayfair, for our club owner, Ted. Whitey the drummer came and sat in on a few occasions. I always gave him an extra-warm welcome, because he had put up with me when I was on his bandstand, when I was as green as they come. And not only that, but he always had something good to say about my singing and playing. Coming from him, it meant a lot. Because, as I said: Whitey knew me when….
I don’t recall seeing Smokey Hamm again; I don’t know how things wound up for him. I think I bumped into Montana a few times. But even if I’d only seen her the one time, I will never forget her. Because, come on: how could I?
Before I go, let me sketch pictures of Whitey, Montana and Smokey for you:
Whitey was the epitome of “laid back”; he had poor eyesight, as people with albinism often do, and (I think I can say this without being contradicted) he liked to drink. I think wine…. He wasn’t any sort of a flashy drummer; but he kept steady time, and yeah, he was easy-going. He was a person one would always be glad to see.
Montana, as she was known to all, was a fairly young, definitely rough and tough gal. Not mean; but masculine, funny, and uninhibited. I’d say she was about twenty-eight. She indeed excelled at chugging beers, at least on the particular evening I hung out with her. As I mentioned, I’m thinking I may have seen her a few more times, where she busied herself being so much of a woman that she was almost a man!
Smokey Hamm was probably into his upper-middle-aged years when I met him that night. I could see the wisdom written on his face — the confidence; and above all, the love he had for the music. He knew he was good, he was a natural at it; he didn’t need to be a show-off. Hey, it takes a computer brain to play the steel guitar. — I can’t do it. But a few gifted people figure it out, and make beautiful music on it. — People like Smokey. I still remember that confident, happy way he had. And I remember he had the kindness to show a young hippie boy the ropes, something that has benefited me to this day. — You could take what Smokey said, and apply it to daily life: don’t play over other people when they’re in the spotlight. And when your turn comes, go for it!
I left Yakima in 1974, having played all of the country places that would have me. — And some wouldn’t. Some club owners would book only touring bands. They didn’t think it looked good to hire locals, even though Yakima had some of the best pickers this side of Bakersfield. — People such as bassist Dean Dutton (once, a young upstart bandleader who thought he was the hottest thing going in Yakima, needed a bass player. So he talked to Dean about it. He asked him, “Well, do you know any songs?” And Dean replied, “Only about four hundred”). Then there was the amazing guitar slinger Johnny St. Martin (RIP), whose cousin, Nokie Edwards, helped start the Ventures. There were singers Bobby Holt (who also taught me some lessons about keeping it country), Cole Shelton (whose signature song was one he wrote called Tina Marie), and Bob Holman (who is still going strong at 80-something). And of course there was my pal Stan Ruehlow, a man whose drumming could make any musician working with him sound better.
Anyway, I left. The ramblin’ fever hit me hard when I turned twenty-four, and Seattle called from across the mountains. I took what lessons I’d learned in Yakima, and applied them as well as I could, in Seattle. And those big city folks looked at me like I was a real country musician. — Well, that’s because Yakima made me one.
Have a song!