Red Willow Band revisited
Can you imagine returning to the music of your youth? For us in our 60s, coming from the '60s, we have some fond memories of live music and heavy partying. I had the chance to recapture those times from long ago (at least the live music part) the other weekend at the Sioux River Folk Festival at Newton Hills State Park near Canton, South Dakota.
Of course, the first thing I noticed about the band was, unlike me, they all still had their hair. It was much shorter these days, but just as thick. The wrinkles on the faces and the pounds around the waistlines had only made the slightest of advances in the 40 years since the Red Willow Band had regularly played together. A touch of gray was much more evident amongst the throng of fans that showed up at the 35th annual Sioux River Folk Festival than it was on the band members, for they portrayed an excellent caricature of themselves as the premier country-swing band in the Midwest during the 1970s. If the rockin' weekend was any indication, music has kept these guys filled with a youthful exuberance that has served them quite well.
The musicians originally came from all parts of South Dakota - the Black Hills, Pierre, Watertown and Milbank. In early 1974, Wally Saukerson from Chamberlain, South Dakota, along with Chris Gage from Pierre, gathered some of the guys who were living in Vermillion to form the Red Willow Band. Wally was the heart and soul and the band's manager during those early years, sometimes sitting in on mandolin and performing his one song, "Mama Tried."
The band performed at USD's student union and local venues such as Whimp's in beautiful downtown Burbank, South Dakota. I owned the party house in Burbank at the time and my neighbor was Bruce Preheim, artist, singer and songwriter who goes by the label "The King of South Dakota." He went on to write the famous "Trash Can Boogie," the tune that brought the house down when the Red Willow Band played the South Dakota Sanitation Workers Convention in Rapid City. The evening revelry was nearing a close when the "King of South Dakota'" came up on stage to belt out "Five trash cans were lined against the wall." Earlier in the day, "Frankie and Johnnie" performed by Red Willow's former soundman Johnny Palomino, whipped the crowd into an absolute frenzy.
Bandleader Chris Gage brought his beautiful singer-songwriter wife, Christine Albert, on stage to perform a couple of tunes and on Sunday they closed the festival with a crowd-pleasing duet that featured Christine singing in French while Chris accompanied her on the accordion.
"I bet I am the only accordion player in Texas with an autographed photo of Myron Floren," Chris quipped.
The only song that could properly close out this night to remember was dedicated to the old barn at Weathertop Farm, the onetime official home of the band, and the scene of many a barn dance as the crowd sang along with the band "For now there'll be no more barn dancing." The song was written as a tribute, not only to the barn at Weathertop that has since burned to the ground, but also to a time and an era that can never be duplicated, although the Red Willow Band came close.
Band leader Chris Gage is the "2011 Texas Musician of the Year" and is current band leader for Jerry Jeff Walker. He also fronted Jimmy Dale Gilmore's band and has often played with Butch Hancock from The Flatlander's. Along with fiddler Kenny Putnam, Chris went on to play with Roy Clark on the TV show "Hee Haw" for several years. Only Chris and Hank Harris still make a living playing music. Chris and his wife, Christine, the chairperson for the Grammy Awards, form Albert and Gage, undoubtedly the hottest musical duo in their hometown of Austin, Texas. Hank is living in the Black Hills, still writing and performing. Kenny, Marley and Carp have day jobs like the rest of us but still keep their music alive by periodically playing, especially at Red Willow reunions.
We talked about 10 years down the road, when the reunion concert would likely feature an ambulance parked outside to treat us for heart attacks, strokes and fractured hips as the band takes us for a ride with their encore number "It's a long, long way to Hollywood." I can hardly wait.