Tony Norris, Cowboy Poet

“Tony’s storytelling is folksy, droll, and comfortable. He has a warm voice and a repertoire packed with unusual, great songs about people of the West. In short, Tony is one of the best folk entertainers Arizona can offer.”

— Warren Miller, Curator of Education, Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott, AZ; author, Cattle, Horses Sky, and Grass


Tony Norris
9475 Doney Park Ln
Flagstaff, AZ 86004

T 928.526.6684

Tony Norris, Old West Entertainer

Tony Norris weaves together story and song to perform for any occasion.

Singer & Storyteller

Monday, February 11th, 2008


My grandpa, Henry Newyears Norris, had to leave Illinois right after the civil war. He was headed to Texas. He began his journey by strapping on his skates and pumping his way down the frozen Illinois River for over 75 miles. His adventures included "borrowing" a horse in Arkansas and a Commanche attack the first night he spent with family who lived in Harmony, near Weatherford. I never knew my grandpa . He would have been 105 the year I was born. But the stories of his exciting exploits fueled my childhood games.
Five years ago on Superbowl Sunday we got the call telling us that our daughter-in-law had gone into labor almost eight weeks prematurely. Every day they could delay delivery would would improve the baby´s chances of survival so the doctors wanted her resting in a hospital bed under their care. But the great inertia of life was in motion. Ben was born that evening at only twenty-eight weeks. He weighed 2.3 pounds. He would spend the next two months in pediatric ICU. The threats to this small life seemed insurmountable. Each day his mom would sit by his incubator and lay him on her bare chest whispering to him to breathe and grow.
I have a photo of Ben´s tiny fist grasping his dad´s finger, his perfect little digits barely covering one knuckle. I was reminded of the stories Glenna Lewis told back in West Virginia about her premature birth.
" I was so little they diapered me with a mans handkerchief. They would safety pin me to the pillowcase so I wouldn´t get lost in the bed."

Little Ben soldiered on and ate and grew and ate and grew…….Last week he stayed with us while mom was taking a cruise with her mother and dad was pulling a four day stint playing music on the Grand Canyon Railway. He taught me how to sing The Bear Went Over The Mountain and asked several thousand questions. He showed off his puzzle solving skills and we went fishing in the pond. He was good company.
As I thought about this brave little feller´s amazing journey I began to hum a tune. Before I knew it I´d written a couple of verses of tongue-in-cheek tribute to Mighty Ben. It goes like this……

Mighty Ben was a little acorn then
Yes he was
Em Am
Mighty Ben was a little acorn
Way back when
C Em
He swam a mighty ocean
Am F/C /?
He crossed the desert in the rain
Mighty Ben was a little acorn then
Yes he was

He skated down a frozen river
On the day that he was born

He caught a fish the size of Texas
He roasted hotdawgs on the sun

He bounced the full moon like a basketball
Sank it in a net of stars

In the darkest hour of morning
He sang his way back home

From the mountains to the desert
He will find his way back home

Monday, February 11th, 2008

The dark side of Santa

Michael Wolcott writes a weekly column NOTES FROM THE EDGE for Flaglive Magazine. This ran during Christmas.

Finding the light

by Michael Wolcott and Tony Norris

Note to readers: Our winter holidays are rooted deep in prehistory, when the return of solstice light was cause for celebration. For many, especially the seasonal depressives among us, it still is. This week I asked local storyteller, musician, and sometime-Santa, Tony Norris, to join me in exploring the season´s long shadows—and its delicate slivers of light. Tony began with a story:

I wake in the blackness of predawn. The quiet air smells of snow. I step into my yard and look hopefully to the east, where a bloody smear of scarlet appears behind the juniper-stippled cinder hills. My hunger for this light is visceral, primitive, an ache in my bones. Surely it was the same for the Sinagua people who once lived here. I see them—wrapped in fox fur and rabbit skin, gathered around fires on the brow of the hill, watching the morning star fade. The old men gaze from the pit house where the sun will soon break over the horizon. They scratch a line in stone where the first ray falls. Yes! Here the sun stands still, and here the tide of darkness turns ...

MW: A lot of us—including you, it seems—just want to hole up in our caves during the "festive season." But you have been playing Santa for awhile now. How did that start?

TN: Most full-figured bearded men probably get asked to play Santa sooner or later. When my turn came, the irony was not lost on me: I endure Scrooge-like wintertime depressions that bottom out during the holidays. I have been, at best, a reluctant Santa.

But I am an entertainer at heart, so a few years ago when I was approached on the beach in Mexico and joyously identified as "Papa Noel" by a group of fishermen, I bowed my head and accepted my fate. A seamstress friend built me a glorious suit of crimson velvet and snowy rabbit fur. A local saddle maker stitched a five-inch leather belt and the town´s welder fabricated a one-pound buckle of gleaming brass. I was now ready to ply my trade in the world´s third oldest profession.

MW: So what was it like?

TN: I found that at company parties Santa sometimes plays the role of priest-confessor. Women of all ages would sit on my knee and declare rebelliously, "No I haven't been a good girl." They revealed amazing things I can´t repeat. More than one whispered her deepest holiday wish: "I just want a man. He doesn't have to be good looking ... just kind."

MW: And how did that affect your Santa career?

Who could resist? For years, I played Santa on what I called "The Bi-Polar Express," a local excursion train that cashed in on a blockbuster movie that featured Santa hosting a train trip to the North Pole. The work was grueling. I trotted through drafty vestibules and overheated carriages packed with long-suffering mothers and manic, pajama-clad children high on sugar. I would pass out jingle bells and ask the kids what they wanted for Christmas, then hurry on. Children pressed into my hands offerings of crumbling cookies and endless wish-lists for commercial crap.

MW: Sounds … depressing.

TN: Not always. One night a gray-haired woman caught me in the vestibule and told me her daughter was seated in the next car with her new husband and his family: "She just found out that she's pregnant and hasn't told anyone. Can you say something special?"

I entered the car to screams and the flashing of cameras. The young mother-to-be was so young—almost a child herself. Her smooth features glowed and she seemed preoccupied, lost in conversation with herself. What did she know of the world she would bring her child into? Of light and darkness?

I began as usual: "Here´s a bell for you," I said, "and one for you." Then I leaned close to the girl: "And for you ... a sweet little baby!"

The husband´s eyes went wide. The rest of the family pressed in, laughing. The young woman gave me the barest nod, and a knowing smile that seemed perfectly timeless. The noise receded for a moment. Then the train whistle crooned like the lowing of cattle. I lumbered on to the next swaying car.
Monday, February 11th, 2008


The year was 1933 and Gene Autry and Smiley Burnett were in Chicago working at the WLS Barndance playing cowboy music on the radio. A phone call from California proved to be a request by Ken Maynard to come out to Hollywood and sing some songs in a cowboy movie: In Old Santa Fe. Gene had a brand new Buick and they loaded up and started their trip West. In those days you had to drive old Highway 89 if you wanted to get across Arizona. With Flagstaff in the rearview mirror they headed down the switchbacks into Oak Creek Canyon. Smiley turned to Gene and said
" Would you like to buy a song?"
Smiley was an accomplished musician who had mastered over 50 instruments. He published over 400 songs in his career and he had sold several to Gene. The going price was $5 for a song.
"Well if it´s a good one I´ll buy it, how does it go?"
" I don´t know, I haven´t written it yet!" said Smiley.
Inspired by the beauty of the canyon, Smiley picked up a magazine from the seat and turned it over to where a cigarette add offered some blank space and went to work. Before they got to the red rocks of Sedona he had completed a song. He sang it for Gene who recognized it as a good song and paid him his $5 fee. In later years Smiley would figure he earned $1.65 per mile writing the song.
Here´s the song Smiley Burnett wrote in Oak Creek Canyon in 1932
and now you know----
The West of the story.
Monday, February 11th, 2008


Tell me how did you feel
When you come out the wilderness?
Leaning on the Lord.

Rosie was about 80 years old. Lean as a locust post with dark chocolate skin the color of oil cured harness leather. A shiny black patch covered one eye. He would lean on his mop and nod. Before the words became audible he would begin to sway to the sweep and rhythm of the swelling song. With eyes turned toward some inner muse he would dip his head and sing into the counterpoint of the machine shop din: spin of drill press, shriek of lathe cutting steel shavings, the pop and sizzle of the arc welder. His voice was incredibly human and fragile as it played out against the clamor of metal on metal.
He was the janitor for the dark machine shop that claimed me each morning. My coworkers were divided evenly between parishioners from a local fundamental charismatic church and convicts paroled from the Kentucky penal system. They were mostly convicted for crimes against property, burglary, grand auto theft and hot check writing. But the quiet kid with the blonde hair and angelic face, who ran the spring machine, had caught his girl with another man and beaten them both to death with a baseball bat.
Rosie would come shuffling by my work station pushing a pile of peacock-colored corkscrew metal shavings before his wide broom. He´d pause for just a moment and croon low "Did you tell anybody when you come out the wilderness?"
I would tease Rosie about giving me singing lessons. I truly admired his facile ability to sing, an effortless rise and fall of sweet clear tones. His voice was warm and liquid, rich with a hint of grits and sorghum syrup. I couldn´t begin to follow his vocal acrobatics but he would shake his head and assure me "You getting´ it!"
If I asked him for a blues song he would tell me firmly "I mostly sings church songs these days." I had no doubt he could sing the blues. He was just a boy when he was riding atop a load of fence posts on a wagon and a low lying branch swept a thorn into his eye. I marveled at the buoyancy of his song as it rose on the rumble and clash of the machine shop. His singing lessons were the brightest part of my day.

Years later I traveled to Ireland. I was delighted to discover that music was omnipresent on the Irish countryside. The very air suffused with melodies that began as sweetly inflected speech and blossomed into an essential part of the national identity. There was none of the American self conscious/false modesty of "Oh, I can't sing!". One night I sat in a pub in Milltown Malbay-- a village of 1800 souls and 17 pubs. Smoking had not yet been outlawed in Ireland and a dense pall of smoke hung from the ceiling halfway to the floor. The tiny place was packed and it roared like a mighty storm with the laughter, rattle of glasses and the constant shuffle of people up to bar to claim pints of Guinness. A frail old gentleman stood up in the rear of the room and began to sing softly, his head tilted back and his eyes closed. The pub went dead silent and all eyes and ears were on the old man who sang unhurriedly of youthful love´s lessons learned. He finished to energetic applause and then the room returned to its previous chaos, as though something extraordinary had not happened.
One speech pathologist recently observed that fifteen years ago he rarely saw people whose only problem was dislike of the sound of their own voices: today they constitute one-third of his clients. It has been determined that we can recognize someone by their voice in only a millisecond. I´m frustrated with those folks who won´t sing because their voices don´t duplicate those of a handful of well known performers. We need those unique voices of Tom Waits, Louis Armstrong, You, …….calling from the wilderness.

Oh I felt like singing
When I come out the wilderness
Leaning on the Lord.

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

End of the Trail

I´m driving East on Highway 60 from Springerville into the sparsely populated outback of New Mexico. Hiway 60 follows a path taken by Mexican sheepherders in the 1850s driving their flocks West to markets in California. Later it was called the Magdalena Trail or the Beefsteak Trail. Ranchers in the White Mountains used it for over six decades to drive their sheep and cattle to the railhead in Magdalena. Across yucca flats and pinon- juniper clad hillsides it made it´s way from well to watering hole across 125 miles of high desert and through the Plains of San Augustin. The last drives were made in the 1950s. The trip was a coming of age experience for young Mormon cowboys and many a worried mother watched her child head out with the family herd, praying he would return safely from the dangers of the trail and the temptations of that rough cowtown called Magdalena. In the 1880s it bragged of two banks, two theaters, six hotels and twelve barrooms.

Chris Issacs, cowboy poet from Eager, told me a story of an old Snowflake cowboy who was persuaded by his wife to forgo the annual trail drive. She watched him stare longingly off toward the East each evening as he imagined the progress of the drive "Tonight they´re camped in White House Canyon". She saw to it that he didn´t miss the drive again.

For years I´ve thought about writing a song about the old Magdalena driveway and made a few lame starts. In my song a young cowboy on his first visit would fall in love with a good-looking whore. He would ride back to town each night from the camp of the homeward bound trail drive crew, hoofbeats ringing in the moonlight, just to see his beloved. Song writing, like sausage making should probably be done behind closed doors –out of sight from regular folks. I got as far as

She´d make buttermilk tortillas
In her silk underwear
Down in old Magdalena
She´d watch him from her window
Above the Eclipse Café
Down in old Magdalena

Magdalena lying in the sun
Magdalena when the long days work is done
Magdalena Boys I´ve had some fun
In Magdalena

When I shared my efforts with Jim Cooke, historian and all around fine feller from Wickenburg, he told me this family story. His first wife´s mother grew up in Springerville. It was around 1900 when her 15-year-old brother begged the older brothers to let him accompany them on the trail drive to Magdalena. Against their mothers´ better judgment he went. When they got to Magdalena he fell in with a group of wild Texas cowboys driving a herd of longhorn cattle to the Northern plains. He took them up on the offer of a job and just like that he was gone over the horizon. Years went by with no word from little brother. Whenever a strange car would pull into the yard of the home ranch their mother would wonder if it was her wandering boy come home. Was he languishing in a dark prison? Buried in an unmarked grave on the endless prairie? His family never heard from him again.
Jim wrote this poem about the young cowboy. It´s such a good story .I´m going to shelve my song till the Muses come a´ calling. Jim´s brother Dean put a tune to the poem and for a nickel he´ll sing it to you.

This story´s rough and tattered ´cause nobody wrote it down
So I´ll tell it like I heard it when the family gathered round.
How Granny always wondered when a knock came at her door
If it might be her youngest son, who´d rode off years before.

He took the eastward trail folks call the Magdalena Stock Driveway,
Driving cattle to railroad pens at the end of the Santa Fe.
Grant was just fourteen, and he´d been throwed out of school,
So it was hard to tell him no when he begged to join the pool

Of his brothers and their neighbors who´d gathered quite a herd.
The older boys would keep Grant safe--they gave their mom their word.
The Magdalena stock trail headed east from Springerville,
Crossed the New Mexico border, past the wide spot called Red Hill.

They crossed the great divide in the mountains west of Datil.
They made about ten miles a day, nudging grazing cattle.
Thirty thirsty miles they went on the Plains of San Augustin,
The barest and the flattest place young Grant had
Ever seen.

Magdalena savors its legend now, but then the town was young
Cowmen came to ship their steers and stayed to have some fun.
Drovers mixed with miners, to drink and strut and fight.
Steam engines shuffled stock cars, and chuffed into the night.

After they sold their cattle, the Thompsons joined the fun.
Then Hiram and Henry got a surprise from Mama´s youngest son.
He had hired on with a cattleman, heading for Colorado.
Grant was a big, hot-headed kid, out looking for El Dorado.

His brothers could rope him or fight him, but they let him go his way.
They headed home for Springerville, knowing there´d be hell to pay.
And it was the slowest kind of hell, and it lasted many years.
His mother waited the rest of her life, hoping Grant would reappear.

His dad wrote some letters to lawmen in places Grant might have gone.
The trails weren´t made of paper then, and his dad had no telephone.
They´d ask a traveler passing through, did he know Grant Thompson´s name?
There was never a yes, so they played a mournful wondering game.

He might have drawn on the wrong man, and be buried beside some trail.
Maybe a bad horse broke his neck, or he was locked in a distant jail.
Maybe Grant was alive somewhere, holding one job or another.
That didn´t seem very likely—he´d surely write to his mother.

Descendants called her "Granny" and told how she did mourn,
And worry about what happened to the youngest son she´d borne.
The old woman always brightened when a car came down the lane,.
Hoping it would be Grant at last—but her hopes were all in vain.

A hundred years have passed since Grant went seeking pastures greener.
A thousand cowboys followed him down the trail to Magdalena.
The folks who waited for Grant are gone--their grieving is all through.
I thought I´d write their story down before I´m history too.

Copyright 2006 by Jim Cook
read Jim's meanderings at
Thursday, February 8th, 2007

Thief foiled by Coors beer by my son Jake Norris

The following is absoloutly true, i swear it
on a case of single malt scotch.
I work as a distiller in a small batch whiskey
distillery located in downtown Denver. The area is a
newly revitalized mix of business and urban
residential. The distillery is located on the edge of
the swank part of downtown called LODO The money has
only worked its way so far so there are usually
sketchy types walking down the street on the way to
the missions and whatnot. I am working late, it is
about 8pm on Tuesday July 27th. My friend Katie comes
to visit and brought me some food. Katie, being the
overly trusting soul that she is, leaves her new
mountain bike on the front steps. We have our
sandwiches and a beer and we are chilling out. I get
up to check one of the gages on the still with my
flashlight. I glance outside and see this guy walk up
to her bike on the stairs. I yell at him and he grabs
it and starts running down the street. I am wearing
my waterproof rubber clogs that I wear at work, great
for distilling bad for chasing. So I am running as
fast as i can down the street after him. I am in
these shitty clogs and he is getting away. He is
still running along side the bike, and he starts to
try to do the running mount. I know if he gets on
there the bike is a memory, so I throw the flashlight
I am holding as hard as I can. I miss him, he is
almost mounted. All of a sudden something pelts him in
the side of the head and he tumbles and drops the
bike. He rolls back onto his feet and goes for the
bike again. At this point I am gaining on him. I
yell "you better run , if I catch you I am
gonna kill you". That did the trick, he changes his
mind and runs for safety instead. He is running all
dazed and stumbly. About that time I realize that
something I didn't throw hit him in the head and
stunned him. I look down and it is a can of COORS
ORIGINAL beer. I yell "where did that come
from?" and look around. A voice comes out of nowhere,
"up here". It takes me a few seconds to locate
where it was coming from. It was a guy on the 4th
floor of the loft building across the street. He was
on his patio drinking a beer and saw it all go down.
He had just opened a beer and instinctively threw it
at the thief. He nailed him in the side of the head
from the 4th story with a can of Coors. Had it been a
tall boy he might have killed him. I pick the bike up
and invite the beer sniper down for a beer to replace
the one he sacrificed for the cause. Needless to say
there was a lesson learned that day; Katie will lock
her bike up and I will always keep a 6-pack of ice
cold Coors on hand for thwarting crime.
Thursday, February 8th, 2007


It´s been colder than a well digger´s ass in Flagstaff. Snow and treacherous roads persuaded me to spend time on a much needed chore: bringing order to the chaos of my studio. I was sorting stacks of papers layered with magazines and boxes of books and Cds. In the bottom of a box I found a cassette my brother had sent me years ago. It was a recording he had made of a visit with our dad in about 1970. I popped it in the player and entered the past.
The steady ticking of the old mantle clock was the first thing to emerge from the background of tape hiss. Its measured beat had marked countless hours for me in the stone schoolhouse. I remembered Daddy´s weekly routine of taking the key from the top of the clock and winding the noisy spring till it was tight. I heard the scratch and flare of a kitchen match then the noisy sucking as he lit his pipe. I could smell the oak logs in the fireplace and the molasses scent of pipe tobacco and I could see the smoke looping lazily toward the high ceiling.
"I was running the garage out on White Settlement Road on the South side of Ft Worth during the war."

There was that voice -- part growl, part tobacco-cured croon – launching into another story. How many winter nights did I sit by the fireplace, the only warm place in the old schoolhouse, and listen to Daddy´s matter of fact recounting of people and places past? Some of the stories I heard repeated many times and I could tell them today. The foxhunt that ended with a treed bobcat and a dying hound, the truck hauling nitroglycerine across the prairie that hit a pothole and left its own thirty foot deep crater behind. All told in that evocative voice that´s been silent now for twenty-five years.
It set me thinking about how unique each person´s voice is, not unlike a fingerprint. Fetuses experience a five beat-per-minute increase in heart rate when exposed to their mother´s voice and a four beat-per-minute decrease in heart rate when exposed to the voice of a female stranger. Within two hours of birth a child can recognize its mother´s voice and turn its head toward her. It has been determined that we can recognize someone by their voice in only a millisecond. Research shows that the voice carries more information than just the words. A recent study found that, from just forty seconds of surgeon-patient consultations from which the words had been filtered out, leaving tone of voice alone, listeners could tell which doctors had been sued for mal-practice.

In the mid-seventies I was traveling across South Dakota with my father-in-law on a stormy winter day. My father-in-law had been a natural athlete when a young man. A bout of scarlet fever left him with the voice of an old man—like gravel in a bucket and rough as a cheese grater. He became a journalist and a radio sports announcer with a truly distinctive vocal style. Later he was the owner of the Sioux Falls Canaries, a farm team for the Chicago Cubs. He broadcast all the games and was the sought after announcer of the state high school basketball finals. In South Dakota the state "B" tournaments are still a big deal and average folks know the names of high school players three hundred miles away. The blizzard drove us off the interstate at Chamberlain and we went to a crowded truck stop to wait for improved road conditions. The overheated café was a bedlam of rattling dishes and conversation. As my father-in-law began to give his order in his rough rumbling voice I saw a middle aged man look up from his table. He came over to our table and said
"I know that voice! You´re Ken Guenthner. You broadcast the state finals in 1958. I was playing for Winter against Watertown."
Ken leaned forward and an excitement entered his voice as he said,
"I remember that game. Watertown was ahead by three points and there was thirty seconds left on the clock when Winter threw the ball from mid-court and won the game!"
The man said "That was me. I made that shot."

Flagstaff enjoyed a bountiful fruit harvest this fall. Apple and plum trees hit the rare jackpot of coordinated moisture, temperature and spring frosts and all across town trees were weighted to the ground with fruit. Also in evidence were trees laden with peach, cherry and even pear. The baby crop seems to be in a bumper state too. Congrats Nicci and John T, Shanti and Corey, Ruth and Kurt [my 8th grandchild] and Jessica and Pat. I´ve been thinking of all those new mothers humming to their little ones and I´ve started working on an album of lullabies. Do you have a favorite one you think I should include? Drop me a note with any suggestions.
Thursday, May 18th, 2006



Get you a copper kettle
Get you a copper coil
Fill it with new made corn mash
And never more you´ll toil

You´ll just lay there by the juniper
While the moon is bright
And watch those jugs a´ filling
In the pale moonlight.
Copper Kettle

I suppose the seeds were planted when Henry Baker and Almon Lewis were partnering on a moonshine still on the ridge above Midkiff, West Virginia in the early 50´s. They were raided and Henry headed through the brush toward the river with the boiler, and Almon dropped down into Furnatts Creek with the coil and crock thumper jug which he hid in a laurel thicket (I found it right where he told me it would be, twenty five years later.) Henry got caught and spent two years at the state prison. Almon wasn´t caught. They never spoke to each other again. Old-timers spoke reverently of Almon´s skill at making corn whisky. They said he made it the old fashioned way. Soaking the whole kernel corn in wet leaves till it sprouted. No white sugar added. Just corn, water, yeast and ancient wisdom.
When Almon´s wife´s health deteriorated, he had to move closer to the "hard road" and town and became my neighbor on Little Laurel Creek. He talked often to me of the beautiful farm he had back on Furnatts Creek and about making the best tasting whisky of his life at a little hidden spring there. His wife Glenna said the water from the spring was so pure she could pour it over cut-up rhubarb in the jar and tighten down the lid and it wouldn´t spoil. But Glenna also told me when she was born she was so small they diapered her with a man´s handkerchief and she slept in a nickel matchbox. He offered his farm to us rent free, and Sue and I spent two years farming it with horses. We had an acre and a half in bloody butcher corn, whip-poor-will peas, velvet beans and fat, red mortgage lifter tomatoes.
One frosty September morning, we harvested sleds full of winter squash and pumpkins and tucked them into the base of the shocks we´d formed of the cornstalks. In the afternoon we drove to an abandoned apple orchard fifteen miles away and collected a winters worth of red and golden delicious apples and a half dozen varieties I couldn´t name. Sue went into labor on the way home and that night Jacob Almon Norris was born.
When Jacob was just two weeks old I carried him horseback around the eighty acres to show him his new home. At the head of the holler, we stopped at a spring that ran from the base of a giant black walnut. The numerous shards of broken fruit jars scattered about confirmed this as Almon´s favored still site. I filled my mouth with the cool sweet water and dribbled a little into Jacobs open mouth.

Looking back, I guess that was a baptism of sorts. Growing up, Jake always seemed drawn to the lore of brewing, combing old Mother Earth News magazines for plans to make fuel alcohol, experimenting as a teen with drinking, but never wrecking the family car or pissing on the mayor´s lawn. While completing a degree in music business and production at Colorado Institute of Art, he worked as a micro- brewer. Upon graduation, he went right to work as a bartender in Denver and pursued his private studies of malted mysteries and designed stills. His fervor at pumping Murphys Stout was rewarded with a trip along Scotland´s Whiskey Trail where he visited with the old master distillers.
On his thirtieth birthday, he was approached at the bar by a man who heard Jake was knowledgeable about liquor. He said he was looking for a distiller for his micro-distillery. Jake helped set up Stranahans Colorado Whiskey down on Blake Street and began filling fifty gallon charred American oak casks with a whiskey double distilled from mountain water, malted barley and yeast.
Last Thursday, I helped him celebrate the tapping of two year old Keg # 1 with a whole bunch of happy people. I watched him knock the cork from the bung hole and the glowing liquor pour forth. The whiskey is smooth as a baby´s butt with warm butterscotch tones and a bright chestnut color. In his broad grin I could see Almon Lewis´ pleasure at a job well done. Just to think, he might have become a lawyer or a realtor!

Read about Stranahans Colorado Whiskey at
Tuesday, April 18th, 2006

A Letter from Home

Three more nights at The Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix and my obligations will be met. The moon drifts across the web of paloverde branches and I'm surrounded by the warm manilla glow of the luminarias and the twinkle of countless gigawatts of tiny lights creeping up the cactus and trees. The mariachi band's sweet harmonies drift over the wall and I'm greatful they've replaced the steel drum band of past years. I set up my PA and mark the cool night rolling in.Three more nights of telling my stories and singing my way through the dusty corners of my memory searching for tunes to keep me interested. The audience of two thousand a night will trickle through in groups of ten to fifty for a set that lasts only fifteen minutes and they won't be bored but I'm stuck with me for the full four hours. Fortunately I've had the pleasure of some wonderful guests during my twenty night run. Fred Coon, high-powered CEO headhunter brought his goldplated fivestring banjo and tales of teaching in the West Virginia coal camps and we sang high and lonesome that night. Bashful Brother Byron Ripley showed up with his shiny steel Dobro and we rattled the saguaros with tunes like STEEL GUITAR RAG and HUBBIN' IT. Like ravens to a Rolex left on a rock the crowd gathered round his flashing guitar. The lovely Sue Harris showed up with her Rainbird guitar , the waterproof instrument that is sometimes displayed with a small waterfall trickling from it's soundhole. She charmed the kids with Dean Cooke critter songs and me, with versions of songs I helped write but don't know well enuff to perform. Mr Cooke himself, the dean of Arizona songwriting joined me one night with his wry songs on gated communities and the sacred Kokopelli. The holiday crowd comes and goes and I am infinitely blessed and entertained by my talented friends. Three more nights and I look forward to playing with Warren Miller of Sharlot Hall Museum fame, Mucho Slim Rost of Tucson's Way Out West Trio, Lon Austin who's songs are not of this world and yet grounded in the sweat and dreams of everyday folks and Wild Kate Watters and her band of rabid botanists who will be holed up in a hotel finishing up a book on the plants of The Grand Canyon but will break away long enough to grace my stage.

Some of the audience come back year after year to the garden and request favorite songs and stories: " It's not Christmas till we've heard about the frozen turkey". They sing along to JINGLE BELLS and LEAVE OLD TEXAS . A man asks me after my set why I named my pet snake Roscoe. "That was his father's name............." "Would you sing the song about Grandma canning, it reminds me of my aunt?"
I couldn't sleep this morning and got up pre-dawn to sip my coffee and turn on the TV. I caught half of the wonderful Alice's Restaurant. It seems unlikely that any of you would be unfamiliar with the story of Arlo Guthrie, the folksinger son of Woody, and his epic song of wit, wisdom and protest. He was arrested for illegal dumping of garbage.At age 10 my son Aaron could sing the whole song. They made a fine movie from the song with many of the characters playing themselves. I was struck by the scenes at the church/commune where everyone joined in to make simple music together and I was taken back through the years to all the scenes of group music making I've participated in. Large crowds of brightly clad hippies seated on the grass of the lower meadow at the commune at Heathcote Maryland singing old black gospel songs to dulcimers and mandolins. Dark cabins lit by kerosene hurricane lamps where I learned the language of the mountains from fiddles and skin bound banjos as babies crawled on the floor and the West Virginia rain soaked the night. Cinderblock church basements where I taught the ex-biker and the preacher's son to play bluegrass gospel tunes like ANGEL BAND between the hypnotic worship choruses. Always a community of song.

At his pre-induction physical the army didn't want Arlo for a soldier 'cause he had a conviction for " littering" on his record . He wasn't "good enough to kill women and children". Their loss was our gain. I'd like to invite you all to come down to the Second Annual San Felipe Folk Festival in Baja Mexico. It takes place during spring break, March 18 -26 with a big evening concert on Friday March 24th. You can camp on the beach or stay in a motel. The concert raises money for the local highschool and last year it was well attended. Lots of jamming and eating of good food . Check with Bill Vernieu or The Falks for a report on last year. Contact me for more information at or 928-526-6684.

Three more nights and then I'll sleep in my own bed.
Tuesday, April 18th, 2006

A Letter from Home - The Rhythms of Old Mexico

The dark boil of smoke from the burning of fields to the South announces the nearness of the border. No one looks up as we roll across that arbitrary line in the dust and we are surrounded by brightly colored layered signs hanging from the fronts of all buildings. Dentists, boticas, insurance and tacos de cabeza. We are on our way to San Felipe and the Second San Felipe Cowboy Poetry and Folk Music Festival. My traveling companions are my wife Sue Ellen, Kay Kennedy an old friend from commune days and my granddaughter Nizhoni. Over the next few days we´ll be joined at my sea-side cabin by most of my children and all of the grandkids and several of Flag´s favored musicians. The festival is the excuse for the trip, but we all know the real draw is the warming waters of The Sea of Cortez and the opportunity to play music through the lazy afternoons and eat shrimp with our fingers and drink refreshing beverages.

A brief History of the festival:

Steve Lord is a retired naval man who washed up on the Baja´s beaches some twenty odd years ago and took root in the deep sand. He met his wife Carol as they both acted in productions of The San Felipe Players. I met Steve about five years ago when Paul Karlsberger and I were playing music in Jacque´s Bistro in downtown San Felipe and Steve showed up with his guitar and joined us. He had dreamed for years of having a small folk-fest for the local community of ex-pats. In the finest tradition of Mickey Rooney, last March I invited Big Bill Vernieu and Mike and Darcy Falk to join us in "putting on a show". We performed in the almost-finished high school auditorium [the beneficiary of our concert profits] for a very appreciative audience and graciously agreed to come back and do it again.

We spent the week before in preparation. Rising early, we drank excellent brewed coffee massaged with Baileys and raw brown sugar, and watched the pelicanos glide effortlessly inches above the water while the local fisherman ran his nets in a tiny yellow boat. The sea lapping the sand, the constantly shifting color of the water, the barking chorus of gulls and the drift of the jet black frigate birds, cartoonish in their silhouette, were a living, repeating, evolving aria. We played guitar, mandolin and banjo and sang in counterpoint.

EVANGILINA, MOUTH OF THE TOBIQUE, SOMEDAY SOON. We tried different keys and harmonies and watched the tide pulse in and out and four year old Noah go down to the ocean and piss in its unknowableness.

When low tide brought the fisherman back we bought ten pound black sea bass for our dinner that had to have heads and tails removed to fit on the grill. Every meal was graced by warm soft tortillas, limes and perfect avocados. Fresh squeezed orange juice was an incalculable richness. "Somewhere overindulgence…" The tequila is bell-clear like the stars above, the beer leaves its own tide-froth on the lip, and smoke rises to Our Lady of Manana. Around the driftwood campfire Tarcicio, a local, sang for me my favorite Mexican song EL CORRIDO DEL CABALLO BLANCO, the story of a famous horse race from Caborca to Mexicalli. He promises to sing a song about Pancho Villa´s horse, Siete Leguas.

The house is full! Double last year´s attendance. Nearly exclusively made up of retired gringos, they´ve been dropping by backstage to express their excitement and request Big Bill´s rendition of THE BRA. It´s the dream audience that gets all your jokes and some you didn´t even know were jokes. My son Aaron is on stage and I get to back him up on USED CAR, his tune of mobility and loss that was recently featured on Car Talk. Darcy is debuting her vocal skills tonight and I´m proud of her, standing elegant and confident in the lights and crooning the jazzy THIS TOWN CAN´T GET OVER YOU. Mike is performing dizzying calculations on the mandolin, performing without a multi-net! Steve charms his hometown audience with ME AND MY UNCLE and Big Bill enthralls them with a forty-five minute recitation of LASCA.

" Will we come back?" ask the San Felipe Players.

You darn tootin´ and I hope you will too.

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