ON THE NATURAL (BY HOYT AXTON) A Colorado Song

In preparing this series, I have looked at a number of other people’s lists of Colorado Songs. Can you believe that none of them have included “On the Natural,” by Hoyt Axton?  I am putting it on my list to set that travesty to rights.

I previously mentioned this song in passing while discussing Chapter 9 of the Tao Te Ching, and I wrote a few things about Hoyt Axton in commenting on his song, “The Devil.”  To avoid redundancy, I will be brief here.

You probably know that for many years Hoyt battled the “demons of addiction” that came in the form of alcohol and cocaine.  In the late 1960s, when he got his first major record label contract, he was also experimenting with LSD.  That, or Columbia Records’ attempt to make his music relevant, seems to have influenced his 1969 album, My Griffin Is Gone.  Unlike most of his other work, the songs on this album are heavily produced and almost lushly orchestrated, resulting in a folk/country/psychedelic mélange.

That sounds like a strange combination, but the approach worked well on songs like the anti-war “Beelzebub’s Laughter,”  It was not so successful on some of the others.  The album was not a commercial success, and today it is usually referred to as “obscure.”  In his “Consumer Guide,”   Robert Christgau, of Village Voice fame, and the self-proclaimed “dean of American rock critics,” grades the album as a D+ and says, “Hoyt Axton, who can’t sing, has written two good songs, ‘The Pusher’ and ‘On the Natural.’ The latter is on this record, produced by Alex Hassilev, who can’t produce.”  Though I would disagree with the more smug portions of that smug assessment, it shows that My Griffin Is Gone was not well received.

Hoyt Axton was born on March 25, 1938, making him 31 years old when My Griffin Is Gone was released.  He was old enough and smart enough to understand that he needed to overcome his problems with substance abuse, and it was during this period – the late 1960s and early ’70s – that he wrote some of his best anti-drug songs.  Two of them are found on this album, “Snow Blind Friend” and “On the Natural.”  Here, we are looking at “On the Natural.”

Shortly before recording the album, Hoyt lived for a time in Crested Butte, Colorado.  It was a slower paced lifestyle than he was used to on the road or in California.  He seems to have realized that if one just catches his breath and looks around, Nature (especially in the Colorado mountains) is miraculous and a better and more lasting “high” than is possible with chemicals.  He tells us that in “On The Natural.”

In the liner notes to the album, Hoyt wrote,  “Someone once told me in a dream that truth was a great white bird. Here are some feathers I found.”  “On the Natural” is a feather from the Bird of Truth.

Continue reading

COLORADO BLUEBIRD SKY (BY THE STRING CHEESE INCIDENT) A Colorado Song

The String Cheese Incident (“SCI”) is your typical Colorado bluegrass-Afro-Latin-Calypso-electronica fusion jam band.  The group started in 1993 when several musicians from Telluride and Crested Butte got together to do some jamming.  During

A Bluebird Sky
(Photo from Pintrest by @epidote1)

their early days, they played at various Western ski areas for lift tickets.  As their popularity increased, they moved to Boulder in 1996 and began playing for money.  Over the years, they have released several studio albums and some live albums, but they are mostly known for their tremendous performances.

Like other great jam bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish and Widespread Panic, SCI has a very knowledgeable and devoted following.  A quick search will find several websites devoted to the band’s set lists, lyrics, upcoming shows and news.  As the years have passed, SCI has moved from playing small clubs to much larger venues such as multi-day performances at Red Rocks, Austin City Limits and the Bonnaroo Music Festival.  Leading into this coming New Year (2017), SCI will play for three nights at the 7,500 seat 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colorado.

Like the Grateful Dead, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, SCI has tried to develop its music without becoming a slave to the music industry.  Before releasing any albums, the band members formed their own record company, SCI Fidelity, which also records a number of other local groups.  SCI filed a complaint against Ticketmaster with the Federal Trade Commission and sued Ticketmaster when the FTC did not act.  That lawsuit was settled so that SCI now is entitled to additional tickets to be sold without the seemingly exorbitant Ticketmaster charges.  The band has actively worked to give back to the communities it visits by promoting “Green” shows and tours and contributing to various nonprofit organizations.

All of the band members are involved in writing songs, but this particular song – “Colorado Bluebird Sky” – was written by guitarist Bill “Hershey” Nershi and his wife, Jillian.  Nershi moved to Telluride, Colorado when he was 20 or 21 years old, in 1981 or ’82.  In 1993 he moved to Crested Butte for a short time, and that was where he met the other band members.  That is pretty much the story he tells in this song.

The song title hearkens back to the days when the band members were skiing and playing for lift tickets.  A “bluebird sky” is the clear, blue, cloudless sky that is often seen the morning after a snow storm.  It could be called, simply, a “blue sky,” but it is more than that.  It is a term that incorporates the happiness (“bluebird of …”) felt when the weather clears and a whole mountain of fresh powder awaits.

The YouTube video below is the version of the song on the 2014 album, Song in My Head; and it lasts for about six and a half minutes.  Since this is a jam band, however, you can find other renditions online.  If you would like to hear a version that is more than twice as long, just click here.

And the name of the band?  Where does that come from?  It seems it either relates to a broken mandolin string or a late night food fight or something else.  They have never tried very hard to explain it.

Continue reading

COLORADO GIRL (BY TOWNES VAN ZANDT) A Colorado Song

van-zandt-albumSinger-songwriter Townes Van Zandt (whose full name was John Townes Van Zandt) was an enigmatic, perhaps singularly talented individual.  He never had a hit song, and most people probably don’t even know his name.  Nevertheless, he was quite influential in the music business and his songs – the best known of which are “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You” – have been recorded by numerous artists, including Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Cowboy Junkies, Lyle Lovett and many others.  A documentary film about his life, entitled Be Here To Love Me was released in 2004, and he has been the subject of at least three full length biographies, perhaps the best being A Deeper Blue:  The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt (2008), by Robert Earl Hardy.  I can’t hope to give much insight into his life in this brief post, so let me simply tell you why this is a Colorado Song.

First, of course, the name of the song is “Colorado Girl,” which probably qualifies it for inclusion even though it comes from a quintessential Texas songwriter.

My maternal grandparents settled into Sulphur Springs, Texas, which is between Dallas and Texarkana, in the latter part of the 19th Century.  If you were to travel to the southwest for less than an hour from their house, you would be in Van Zandt County, which is nothing at all like Colorado.  The county was named for Townes’ great-great-grandfather, who had been the official diplomatic representative of the Republic of Texas to the United States, and who had died while he was running for governor.  His great-grandfather was one of the founders of Fort Worth.  His mother’s maiden name was Townes, and she was a direct descendant of John Charles Townes, for whom the main building of the University of Texas at Austin Law School was named.

With that pedigree, he might have spent his life in Texas and become quite influential in matters other than music.  However, his father was an attorney in the oil industry and his business required the family to move frequently.  In 1958, when Townes was 14 years old, they moved to Boulder, Colorado.  He attended school there for a short time, but because of his extremely high IQ he spent his last high school years at the exclusive Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Fairbault, Minnesota, where the son of Senator and soon to be Vice President Hubert Humphrey was one of his classmates.  After graduating from Shattuck in 1962, he returned to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado. Continue reading

COLORADO SONGS The Series

The natural beauty and the interesting people of Colorado have inspired many wonderful songs through the years.  In this series of posts, we look at some of the best of these. The songs considered to date are:

colorado-flag

A Mile High in Denver, by Jimmy Buffett
America the Beautiful
The Ballad of Alferd Packer, by Phil Ochs
Boulder Skies, by Pure Prairie League
Colorado, by Paper Bird
Colorado, by Rick Roberts
Colorado Bluebird Sky, by The String Cheese Incident
Colorado Girl, by Townes Van Zandt
Denver, by Willie Nelson
In My Colorado Home, by Sons of the San Joaquin
On the Natural, by Hoyt Axton (new)
Rocky Mountain Breakdown, by Poco
Rocky Mountain High, by John Denver
Where the Columbines Grow

There are also a few Colorado songs that were discussed in posts before this series began, including:

Get Out of Denver, By Bob Seger
Colorado Christmas, by Steve Goodman

BOULDER SKIES (BY PURE PRAIRIE LEAGUE) A Colorado Song

The fog on a London morning is not the same as the toxic haze of Beijing, and both are different from the the wide open vistas of Montana’s Big Sky Country.

Songs like Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Ole Buttermilk Sky” evoke images of particular and distinct locales.

sunset-skyThe sky that is seen from any place on Earth is determined and shaped by what is below it.  Its breadth may be framed by mountains or extend across an ocean to the horizon.  The color of the sky and the clouds it holds result from the dust and humidity of the land, and the clouds often form around geographic features like lakes or mountains.

The sky above is familiar to those below who have seen its ways.  They can predict the weather based on the color of the sunrise or sunset, and they can use the stars to guide them home.

In a real sense, any place on this planet is defined by the sky which is above it.  Therefore, it would seem that a song like Pure Prairie League’s “Boulder Skies” should tell us something about the City of Boulder.  But it doesn’t.

“Boulder Skies” is a pleasant song performed by talented musicians, and it is definitely a Colorado song; though I can’t say precisely what it is about – other than a brown-eyed “Colorado Canyon Girl.”  But was she real, or just a pie in the sky dream? Continue reading

A MILE HIGH IN DENVER (By Jimmy Buffett) A Colorado Song

I have just returned from a week in Florida where there seems to be a law that tourists are required to listen to Jimmy Buffett’s “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll.”  Down there, nobody even thinks about – and perhaps they don’t even know about – Jimmy’s long-time ties to Colorado, which began no later than 1970 when “A Mile High in Denver” was included on his very first album, Down to Earth (1970).1

Jimmy Buffett was born on Christmas Day, 1946.  He grew up in Alabama and Mississippi, and earned a degree in History from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1969.  However, he really wanted a career in music and soon moved to Nashville where he worked for the regional staff of Billboard magazine and played in local clubs.  He is a talented writer and musician and was quickly discovered and signed to record for Barnaby Records, a label owned by singer Andy Williams.

Sometime before that first record came out, Jimmy vacationed in Colorado.  It being 1970, and Jimmy being Jimmy, the title’s reference to being a “mile high” has been seen as a sly refereimg_0150nce to drugs.  It may very well be that, but the song is mostly about a vacation in Colorado.

That first album is stylistically much different than Jimmy’s later work.  Back in 1970, he seemed to be another folksy singer/songwriter offering social commentary with songs like “The Christian?” and “Ellis Dee (He Ain’t Free)” and clever tunes like “Captain America.”  However, that first album also had an excellent song about Jimmy’s grandfather, a old seafaring man, called “The Captain and the Kid” that gave a hint of his future work.

Jimmy did not remain in Colorado.  After he left Nashville, he spent a couple of years busking in New Orleans and Key West, during which time he developed the “Gulf and Western” style that has defined his career and made him rich and famous.

Still, he must have liked Colorado because when he became rich and famous he moved here and bought a house on Snowmass Road outside of Aspen. Continue reading

COLORADO (BY RICK ROBERTS) A Colorado Song

By special request, this installment of Colorado Songs considers a song that is actually called “Colorado,” written by Rick Roberts.

Often, it is difficult to determine what may have motivated or inspired the composer of a song.  That is not the case here because Rick Roberts wrote a book called Song Stories and Other Left-Handed Recollections in 2014 which explains many of his songs, including this one.

flying_burrito_brothers_albumIt seems that after high school he decided to travel from Florida to California to become a rock star.  On the way, he passed through Boulder, Colorado and stayed for a few months.  When he finally hitchhiked to Los Angeles, he found that becoming a star was not quite as easy as he had envisioned, and started thinking that maybe he had made a mistake leaving the beauty and culture of late-1960s Boulder.  Then, he writes, “[t]hat was when this song came tumbling out. … It was one of the first songs I ever wrote that was not just an imitation of somebody else’s work.”  The parts about the girl he left behind were made up for the sake of the song.

Roberts’ luck did change for the better.  In 1970, Ed Tickner, the manager of the Flying Burrito Brothers, heard Rick playing at a small club.  He was impressed with the young man at just the time Gram Parsons had left the Burritos and the group was looking for a replacement.  Tickner and Chris Hillman invited Rick to join their group and his songwriting talents began to blossom.  Within a few months, the Flying Burrito Brothers released their eponymous third album which included “Colorado” and six other songs written by Roberts..

The Flying Burrito Brothers essentially broke up shortly thereafter, though they continued with differing lineups as a country music group for many more years.  Roberts, meanwhile, began a solo career and moved back to Colorado in the mid-1970s (answering the question at the end of this song:  “Colorado, … won’t you let me come home?”). Continue reading

ROCKY MOUNTAIN BREAKDOWN (BY POCO) A Colorado Song

In the mid-1960s, the most popular rock band in Colorado was the Boenzee Cryque (pronounced BEN-ZEE CRICK), which was formed in 1964 by Sam Bush, who later started the new Grass Revival, and several of his friends.  The personnel changed from time to time as members were drafted, married, moved and pursued other interests.  Still, they remained a working band, playing clubs, high school dances, fraternity parties – maybe a bar mitzvah or two, though I can’t say for sure.  For awhile, they had a #1 single in the regional market.

Their greatest popularity was between 1966 and 1968 when their lineup included a pedal steel guitarist named Rusty Young.  Young had played in country bands since he was in elementary school, and his work with Boenzee Cryque was an important step in the development of country rock.

Autumn in Nederland

Autumn in Nederland

Boenzee Cryque disbanded in 1968 as a direct result of the breakup of a much more famous group, the Buffalo Springfield, whose most famous members – Steven Stills and Neil Young – had decided to strike out on their own during the recording of their final album, Last Time Around.  Other musicians came and went during those months, but by the time they were ready to record the last song, “Kind Woman,” the group was essentially just Richie Furay and Jim Messina.  For that last track, Furay invited Rusty Young, whom he had known in Colorado, to come to California to play pedal steel.  The result was one of the best songs ever done by Buffalo Springfield, and Young stayed in California to form a new group with Furay and Messina.

That new group was Poco, which included Young, Furay and Messina, as well as George Grantham, who was the Boenzee Cryque’s drummer, and Randy Meisner, who was a vocalist/bass player for a band called the Poor, which was made up of former members of another Denver band, the Soul Survivors.  Continue reading

DENVER (BY WILLIE NELSON) A Colorado Song

In this “Colorado Song” installment, we will look at “Denver,” from Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album.  The song lasts less than a minute, but it is quite pleasant and worth listening to.

red-headed-strangerRed Headed Stranger  is a concept album that was released in 1975.  It was the first album Willie recorded for Columbia Records under a contract that gave him complete creative control over his recordings.  The concept was based on a song that had been written for Perry Como in 1954 – though Como never recorded it.  At that time, Willie was the host of a radio show called “The Western Express” on station KCNC in Fort Worth, Texas.  For three hours (and later, four hours), he would sing and play guitar, play records and take calls from listeners.  He began playing the version of “Red Headed Stranger” released by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, and sometimes singing it, himself.  Willie used it as a “cradle song” to get children in the audience to take their naps at 1:00 p.m., and he sang it at bedtime for his own daughter – though it certainly is not a children’s song.

The story that is told begins with a cowboy coming home and finding his wife has left him.  Throughout the first side of the album, another short song written by Willie, “Time of the Preacher,” is repeated several times, with slight differences.  At the end of the first version, before the cowboy learns of his wife’s infidelity, we are told “now the preachin’ is over and the lesson’s begun.” The next version comes after he finds his wife gone, and this one ends:  “Now the lesson is over and the killin’s begun.”  It is followed by another short piece, a medley of a Willie Nelson composition called “Blue Rock, Montana” and a few lines from “Red Headed Stranger,” which tell of the cowboy finding his wife and her lover “in a quiet little out of the way place.”  They are not a sympathetic couple, for “they smiled at each other as he walked through the door/and they died with their smiles on their faces,/yes, they died with their smiles on their face.”

After he has killed the unfortunate couple, the cowboy realizes what he has done, and his lament is described in “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which became Willie’s signature song.  That is followed by “Red Headed Stranger,” telling how the cowboy rides away, “wild in his sorrow,” taking his deceased wife’s horse with him.  In another town, he meets a blonde woman who tries to play upon his affections and steal his wife’s horse; but as soon as she reaches for the horse, he shoots and kills her, also.  We are told:

“The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset;
The stranger went free, of course,
For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman
Who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.”

As you can see, it’s not really a children’s song

“Time of the Preacher” is then reprised, this time ending, “when you think it’s all over, it’s only begun.”

The cowboy heads south, and the second side of the album begins with the song featured here, “Denver.” Continue reading

THE BALLAD OF ALFERD PACKER A Colorado Song

Colorado is noted for the majestic beauty of its mountains and the nobility of its people, and those qualities have inspired many wonderful songs.  Like anywhere else, though, there is also a bit of weirdness around these parts; and that, too, has been the subject of a song or two.  “The Ballad of Alferd Packer,” by Phil Ochs, is of the latter category.

Alfred G. "Alferd" Packer

Alfred G. “Alferd” Packer

Alfred Griner “Alferd” Packer was born in 1842 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  When the American Civil War broke out, he twice enlisted in the Union Army, but each time he was soon discharged because of epilepsy.  Legend has it that during his second enlistment, Packer had his name tattooed on his arm, but the tattoo artist misspelled it as “Alferd.”  For some reason, he liked that name better than Alfred, so he began using it.

After his second short enlistment, Packer seems to have headed West and spent the next decade prospecting and working at various jobs in mining camps.  In the winter of 1873, he was in Utah, and joined a party with 20 other prospectors to travel to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.  It was a hard winter that year, and in January of 1874, when the party reached the camp of Ute Chief Ouray, they were advised to delay their expedition until spring.  Most of the miners heeded that advice, but five of them decided to push on through the mountains, and they hired Packer to guide them.

Ten weeks later, in early April, Packer turned up alone at the Los Piños Indian Agency located between the towns of Saguache and Gunnison.  He said that he had been injured and fallen behind his companions.  However, it was reported that he had several wallets in his possession, with rolls of money in each – and none of the other miners had been seen.

About a month later, he began to admit that the others had died or been killed, and that he had eaten parts of their flesh in order to survive.  The details of his story changed considerably over time, so it is not known exactly what happened.  Packer was arrested, but he escaped from the jail and remained free for nine years until he was found in Wyoming and re-arrested.  After a trial, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death.  According to the local newspaper, the presiding judge, one M. B. Gerry, pronounced the sentence as follows:

Stand up yah voracious man-eatin’ sonofabitch and receive yir sintince. When yah came to Hinsdale County, there was siven Dimmycrats. But you, yah et five of ’em, goddam yah. I sintince yah t’ be hanged by th’ neck ontil yer dead, dead, dead, as a warnin’ ag’in reducin’ th’ Dimmycratic populayshun of this county. Packer, you Republican cannibal, I would sintince ya ta hell but the statutes forbid it.  Continue reading