Interview with Dick Stewart for the Lance Monthly

Jim, when and where were you born?

Great Bend, Kansas. In the center of Kansas in the center of America on the late edge of the baby boom. September 6, 1948.

What kind of environment did you grow up in as a child? Was it in the country or a city neighborhood?

I was a farm kid. Big backyard of woods in which to pretend to be a cowboy. I had some real cowboy jobs, like checking fences and bringing in the cattle when the sun went down. It would've been pure poetry if I'd had a horse, I used to think. These days I wish I'd spent more time pretending to be an Indian.

How many brothers and sisters do you have?

I had 3 sisters, two younger and one older. My older sister, Lorraine, flipped for Elvis. I decided to flip for him too.

Did other members in your birth family have an interest in music besides you?

Music was a big deal for the Ratts clan. Harmony singing in church played the biggest part in establishing my early musical roots, until the radio got a strangle hold. My father Loyd, and his sisters Vida and Thelma (who later received her doctorate in vocal music) had a vocal trio when they were teenagers in the '30, and now and then traveled to do performances and radio shows around the area. Dad held a guitar. There was always a piano standing stoically in the living room, and it was often played.

What kind of music did you listen to when you were a youngster?

Sixties rock was built for my demographic, but I got the jump on my '50s grade school friends by going completely nuts for what I heard on the radio-the early sounds of rock. It was the key, the magic carpet, and the portal through which I looked and longed for the days I'd kiss a girl and she'd kiss me back. Of course we'd have a car, and its radio would be playing the soundtrack to our lives, rock & roll. Radio made me a hopeless romantic. At night I'd pull the covers over my head with the speaker next to my ear and hold my breath in anticipation of the next song. "Just one more and I'll go to sleep!" It was Elvis (of course!) and the Everlys and the frighteningly explosive sounds of Jerry Lee and Little Richard and then the Browns singing "The Three Bells" and then "Teen Angel" and "Seven Little Girls" and Fats and Gene Vincent and some early Hank and a mysterious Johnny Cash and who DID write the book of love? and Ricky Nelson turning into a teenage heartthrob before our very eyes and the heartbreak of loving Donna and "You Are My Destiny" and "Party Doll" and there was the queen of the hop Peggy Sue, and finally the guilty pleasures of hillbilly and bluegrass on the country station.

So were you a country fan before rock made it’s presence, being that Kansas has always been a country-music friendly state?

When I first remember making active choices with the radio dial, it was always rock & roll. My seven-year-old mind was made up in 1955. Your Hit Parade kept me in touch with the current trends in pop music, and I've always been a sucker for a great song, no matter what the style. My father kept plenty of country on the radio, though the hillbilly stuff was not his cup of tea. I developed a guilty fascination with that high lonesome sounding southern mountain music, but must have stashed away that passion for later pursuit. I think the Louvin Brothers may have been flying below my radar screen, though in retrospect, they were giants of the scene (Elvis' favorite gospel group), even as they tried in vain to compete with those young crossover upstarts, the Everly Brothers. Though Hank Williams was gone by '52, his presence on the radio was not, and two and a half minutes with Lefty Frizzell or Webb Pierce was time well spent, and still is. However, it was really pop giving way to rock that got my attention. When Rosemary Clooney's "Come Onna My House" faded into "I Wanna Play House With You", and "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window" became "You Ain't Nothin' But A Hound Dog" I felt the world tilt slightly on its axis.
When did you first pick up the guitar and who gave > you your first lessons? Remember what brand the guitar was?

We always had an old guitar around the house, a boyfriend's gift to my grandmother when she was a teenager. A mail order job from the Sears and Robuck catalogue just after the turn of the century, I believe it sold new for $3.95. Dad put it to use with The Ratts Trio in the '30s. My cousin Larry Ben Franklin, 4 years older and wiser in the ways of the world, must have showed me my first chords right around "Tom Dooley" time. He also gets credit for impressing upon me the importance of two profound concepts - the Dylanizing of American music and the Beatleizing of the world.

What high school did you attend and give our readers a description of what it was like to be a teen during your high-school days in reference to what was “in” such as apparel, cars, music, “cool” sayings, etc.? Was there the typical popular drive-in restaurant at which the teens hung out? Some of the drive-ins in Albuquerque, in addition to serving burgers and fries, offered Mexican dishes like fajitas, burritos, and tacos. Did you enjoy a similar menu?

I'm always amazed when I think about the pop culture of the '60s and how unified its influence was all over the country. Thanks to a well-built rock & roll superstructure, the youth of America had an identity. Salina High School, deep in a Kansas heartland of the USA, would have been like a thousand other American schools of the time. Girls obsessed with boys, boys obsessed with girls, and teenagers obsessed with cars and the freedom they implied. It was a universal preoccupation. The Sandy's Drive-In hit town and we knew where to go for burgers and fries (not a taco in sight) to show off our V8 powered attitude. My 1958 Plymouth had two factory installed 4 barrel carburetors and a very aggressive potential that mufflers could not disguise. To that subdued rumble, add Phil Spector's latest offering or some good old garage band rock and Salina, Kansas became Anywhere, USA. Each Beach Boys record seemed to devote one side to the distinctly un-Kansas-like activity of surfing and the other to CARS. Those cars had radios and those radios (WLS, WNOE, KLEO, and the Mighty K O M A, far more powerful than its advertised 50,000 watts) were uniting American youngsters like never before. How can you hear the Ventures and not think about wheels with cool hubcaps and 19 cent gas and parking at the lake with your girlfriend as you imagined surfable waves. My Plymouth, like its counterpart Steven King's 'Christine', had a mind of its own. When I shut it down after a drive it refused to start 'til it cooled. "Sorry, Juli," I'd say. "We're gonna have to sit here for a couple of hours watching the stars and listening to the radio."

Did you go on to college?

A bachelors degree of arts and sciences was pursued in Lubbock, on the high plains of West Texas. LCC and Tech kept me in town from 1966 until the tornado of '71. Strange as it may seem, Lubbock was a fantastic place to be a middle of the road hippie. The folk scene was happening and you could see Joe Ely up close in a coffeehouse singin' Dylan tunes. The sounds of McGuinn's Rickenbacker 12-string were omnipresent and psychedelic music went quite well with the higher-education concept of the university environment. The music of the Doors came pouring out of the windows of those cool college-kid alley apartments like mine, and a San Francisco-inspired summer of love ethic permeated the town, subtly and quietly, but undeniably. Thanks mainly to the Beatles, this rock-powered pop culture was going international, with youngsters in London, Paris, and Tokyo listening to a lot of the same music that was on our stereos, high up on the windy Llano Estacado.

What was the name of your first band and what mainstream artists influenced its beginnings?

Colours, named after a song by Donovan, formed in college in 1967, and toured professionally for five years after my graduation in 1971. Early on, we featured acoustic guitars, string bass, banjo, and three-part harmony singing. We couldn't resist the Peter, Paul and Mary material 'cause Gordon Parrish and I were singing with a dead ringer for Mary Travers. The Corpus Christie group Pozo Seco Singers of "Time" fame (featuring a young Don Williams) had the greatest harmony sound imaginable, and we labored to compete with their blend. Any song that sounded good with 3 parts was a contender. The whole 'folk music scare' of the early '60s provided ample material for Colours, from Ian and Sylvia to Tom Paxton and of course Hibbing's own Bobby Zimmerman. Hollies and Beatles tunes were fair game, as were Woody Guthrie, John Sebastian, Eric Anderson, Tom Paxton and Buddy Holly songs. We were unfocused, eclectic and slaves to vocal harmony. We morphed into a progressive county-rock band after our college days, as drums, electric guitars and pedal steel helped us preach the gospel of that Austin-based music scene ruled by Jerry Jeff and Mike Murphey. But that's another story.

What enticed you to pursue your musical career in Austin, Texas and why do you suppose that this magnificent city has, for many years, ardently supported a healthy music scene?

Though there were many Austin overtones to our music, we didn't actually move there. Two months before my graduation in 1971 Colours was chosen to represent Texas Tech at the National Entertainment Cocnference Showcase in Commerce, Texas. A well respected talent agent from Colorado saw the show and got some big ideas. He suggested we move to Denver and sleep on his floor. We carried a large bag of Texas with us. Michael Murphey would show up in town every few months and sing us a batch of his new tunes. They were always the best. At one time our repertoire included 15 Murphey songs. What was it about Austin that gave birth to such great music? Gary P. Nunn has a song full of answers. I'd say the university environment, the hill country with those perfect rivers and springs, the progressive nature of the town and the dynamic nature of the times. It became a Texas Mecca. No other area has such a well-defined regional music. Pickers of like mind tend to congregate, and the party was happening in Austin. Cotton cowboys who wanted to plug in headed down off the Caprock to join the fun. In 1970 Joe Ely invited me on a trip to Austin for some spontaneous jamming. I had to decline because Colours had a gig. In recent years I've come to realize that the Flatlanders were born on such a trip, during that very time. Austin unites those with a common bond. The town continues to defined the progressive country and folk movements, plus any other kind of music you could wrap a guitar around.

You said you toured for five years with your first group, Colours. What was your touring territory and did the group open for any high-profile artists?

Imagine a commute to work of 165 miles, every day, 7 days a week for 5 years. Colours drove! We played nearly every state in the lower 48 and used Eisenhower's Interstate Highway and Defense System to get there. We did the college circuit, but found some great clubs and bars along the way. The Ruby Gulch in Champaign, The Rubiayt in Dallas, The Bistro and The Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta, The Red Mule in Virginia Beach, Amazing Grace north of Chicago, Detroit's Raven Gallery, the Cafe York in Denver, the Troubadour of southern California, and Nashville's Exit In were fabulous places to play. But the meat and potatoes of our touring was making the college scene. The coffee house and small concert circuit filled our itineraries, but on each tour we'd open larger concerts for acts booked by our agency, Stone County. It was amazing to share the bill with The Earl Scruggs Review, John Hartford, Steve Martin, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kinky Friedman, Randy Newman, Pure Prairie League, Leo Kottke, Dan Fogleberg, Doc Watson, Doug Kershaw and the Dirt Band. We hooked up with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band more often than any other. We did dozens of shows with them, and they'd always draw about 3,000 kids that seemed to understand what Colours was about. Getting to really know and play with John McEuen wasn't in the cards for another decade and a half, but the Dirt Band's Jimmy Ibbotson took an early interest in Colours and tried to get us a record deal with Vanguard. Through the years, it was this Dirt Band connection that proved valuable in so many ways. Those days of touring were as hard as they were exciting, but they were a perfectly timed blessing for a Texas Tech psychology major with no idea of what to do with the real world.

Can you describe for our readers your best venue with Colours and one that wasn’t so hot? In addition, did your group have a manager that gave his all to Colours?

It would be easy for me to say that any of the triple billed Colours-Steve Martin-Dirt Band shows would be at the top of the list, but let's talk about great and odd. One of our performances at New York's Max's Kansas City really stands out. Andy Warhol used to hang out at this place. Colorado country-rock must have sounded like music from another planet to those jaded Big Apple ears, but it's difficult to get too far out for a New York audience. We kinda filled the joint with rarefied Rocky Mountain air and couldn't have paid that woman in the first row enough money to have created a greater theater-of-the-real extravaganza. She might have been high on other things besides us, but we didn't care. There was hope for 'down-home', even in the big city.
A bad gig? Hey, I'm tryin' to forget that stuff, but let's drag out the pain once more. We were two years gone from Lubbock when we were hired back to our alma mater to do a show with Asleep At The Wheel. They offered to open for us 'cause we were the home-school band and all. That night we were the ones that were 'asleep' and Ray and the gang smoked us! I demand a rematch.
A manager? We had a guy who believed in us more than we believed in ourselves. Lance Smith had a dream of Colours success, and in the process of his pursuing that dream he gave me the greatest musical experiences of my life. When we met, the list of acts he was booking (like the Dirt Band and Steve Martin) blew our minds. He said he'd put us on stage with those guys and we'd go shopping for the Big Time. He delivered on all of his promises except fame and fortune, but what he delivered was priceless - a five year odyssey of great gigs and golden opportunities.

Did Colours release any material to the public?

We did three records in college. When we hit the road, our manager Lance had a plan. His idea was to hold out for a record deal that included a big advance and a fat promotional budget. We were courted by various major labels during those five years and were close to a deal at times as label executives played the age-old game of musical chairs and odd man out. The big offer came just months after we broke up. A fellow at Capricorn in Macon had just gotten promoted to A&R and was ready to sign Colours. (The deal would have probably fallen through, but I like to tell the story anyway.)

Why did Colours split up or did you just leave the group for new horizons?

Once again, the Dirt Band factored into our final days. Jimmy Ibbotson, my favorite Colorado songwriter, got off the Dirtbus in '76 and refused to get back on. John Cable of Colours was hired to replace him and be the Nitty Gritty bass player. Since Colours had a van, a sound system and gigs, I invited Ibbotson to fill the hole left by Cable. His powerful charismatic stage presence, songwriting talents and Dirt Band vocal sound lifted Colours to a new level. Fans followed us on tour and guys would roadie for us for free (they bought their own gas!). In Nashville we picked up David Carter Jones, Mama Maybelle Carter's grandson, to be our hotshot guitarslinger. As they say, "It was like the big time, only smaller!" However, in a few months Ibby had to honor a previously made promise to former Byrd Chris Hillman to work in his band. Colours had an 8-year run and we ended at the top of our game.
Of all the high-profile artists and bands with which you toured during Colours’ reign, who, in your opinion, were at the top of your list as being all-around cool people, and were there others that put on airs and kept to themselves?
In answering the last part first, I'd like to comment on something I've noticed about celebrities, and the nature of celebrity in general that famous people both love and despise. Each handles their own degree of success in a different way and fame is not always a blessing. Randy Newman and Steve Martin, both in the early stages of extreme fame, were polite but kept to themselves. By no means did they 'put on airs', but I saw them as gifted, complicated, and private (maybe a bit shy?) men who were more comfortable on stage or with close friends. Steve, before and after the craziest of shows, was quiet, elegant and reserved off stage. On the other hand, Pure Prairie League would burst through our dressing room door with beer and other gifts and welcome us as if we had just moved into the neighborhood. They seemed to realize that we would have control of their audience for the first 45 minutes of the show. It was to their advantage to have a happy opening act. Earl Scruggs was always the 'father-figure' gentleman. Our very first professional concert was with Mason Williams of "Classical Gas" fame, and through the years I've not met a kinder or more approachable genius. We enjoyed joining up with the Dirt Band, and they seemed genuinely happy to see us, always inviting us onstage for the encore singing of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken". John Hartford (the writer of "Gentle On My Mind" and another alumnus of the Smothers Brothers TV show along with Mason and Steve Martin) normally traveled alone, and so I believe he appreciated seeing us pull up to the loading dock. He played on our demo of "Jaded Lover", written by our bass player Chuck Pyle, a tune that Jerry Jeff Walker released as a single. We did a bunch of shows with Hartford, and he always jammed with us during the finale of our set. He was a pickin' fool. After-hours gatherings with John were the best. He was yet another brilliant mind with amazingly poetic and insightful perspectives of our strange world.

So what came next after Colours, Runaway Express, or did you go through a burnout period, which seems to be a very common response for an artist after experiencing the breakup of a group that showed great promise?

After Colours I stashed my driving gloves and moved home to get to know my wife Carolyn. We'd been married during much of my touring days and each homecoming was like yet another honeymoon. Day-to-day reality wasn't quite as romantic as the musicman/lady-at-home combination, and divorce gave me some good emotional reasons to write a batch of songs. I found the opportunity to sing them in '79 when I joined forces with Jimmy Ibbotson, who'd recently written the best tunes of his career. He had not yet re-boarded the Dirt Band bus (that happened in '82), and he and I, both wifeless and free, spent two years celebrating songs and camaraderie across Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West. This was the beginning of our career as fellow 'Wild Jimbos' and the high point of my major musical calling - that of being a harmony singer. For me it was a dream come true, and Ibby got a 'brother in music' that he needed. On a good night Jimmy had the artistic grace and intensity of Bruce Springsteen and, standing next to him on stage, I had the best seat in the house.

When did your lovely wife, Salli enter the picture?

Ah, a new love song! In 1980 I was running the only open stage in the Denver-Boulder region (now there are dozens). It was not amateur night, but a monday evening gathering of folkies, pickers and songwriters, both pro and semi who needed a place to play. Salli walked in after I'd already booked the entire evening. It would be an understatement to suggest that I didn't want her to leave my 'Hoot-Night' disappointed. I wanted this one to return next week! I found her a spot on the show and remember exclaiming to a friend as she started her set, "Holy Mackerel!! She can sing, too!!". That was the beginning of our two decade Runaway Express journey, still in progress, as we've assembled a tight group of friends who share our common love of songs. The guys are the best bunch of players you could find anywhere. John McEuen climbed aboard the Runaway Express shortly after he left the Nitty Gritty in 1986, and gave us 2 years of great shows, TV appearances, and experiences that can only be provided by someone who knows the password or has the magic key. Thanks, John. Runaway Express currently claims an honest 2,000 song repertoire. Honestly! And Salli and I claim the amazing feat of remaining happily married after 24 years of performing. Thanks, Sal.

Were you ever an instrumental guitar fan of the > early ‘60s bands, such as The Ventures, Fireballs, String-A-Longs, etc.?

I have to admit that I remember songs better than I remember licks, so I lean on the boys in the band to play the leads. We do "Pipeline", "Wipeout", "Sleepwalk", "Penetration", "Walk, Don't Run", and have recently been going to power-chordland with Link Wray's threatening mood-piece "Rumble", featuring the most menacing guitar chords in the world. (Sometimes I can't ignore the groove and plow into "One Night With You" by Elvis and "The Stroll", but then we go strolling back to Rumbleland.) I've always flipped for a great instrumental, guitar-based or not, with "Raunchy" and Bill Doggett's 1956 hit "Honky Tonk" being the first. "Last Date" and "Wild Weekend" killed me. Johnny and the Hurricanes rocked (the Beatles opened for them in Hamburg) and Seattle's Ventures ruled. Duane Eddy and Sandy Nelson never had to apologize for the lack of vocals. Dick Dale found a sound that matched a lifestyle. Vince Guaraldi's piano piece "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" was one of my favorite records of the '60s, as was the unbelievable Joe Meek-produced "Telstar". I shouldn't even have to mention "Last Night" or "Green Onions". Who needs a singer? Ba Da dada da duh Da - Tequila!

Did you ever meet Norman Petty or record at his studio?

Kenneth Broad, the current owner of the Norman Petty Studio in Clovis, called last night and told me that when Norman Petty really liked something, he'd say "that's neat!". He said that Norman's reaction to our new "Oh, Boy!" Buddy tribute would have been just that. I never met Norman Petty. I've never been to the studio, but Kenneth has been playing selections from our 2000 release "Yeah, Buddy!" through Norman's speakers during his tours. I've gotten emails from the far side of the globe telling me they heard us sing Holly songs in Petty's studio. Back sometime in the '80s I wrote a sentimental reflection called "West Texas Winds" that a mutual friend sent down to Clovis for Norman to hear. Six months later, when he called to see if Petty had heard the song, we learned that Norman had just passed away. Norman Petty was a visionary and the very best of studio engineers. After fifty years of highfalutin' hot-shot technology, digital and all, records still don't sound any better than those made in Clovis.

Jim, your new “Oh Boy” Buddy Holly tribute release is incredible! And aside from the expert instrumental backgrounds, the harmonies are exceptional! I’m also very impressed with the packaging and the 3-D pop-up Stratocaster, which must have cost a pretty penny. Whose idea was that and was each CD individually assembled by hand in China where much of this type of packaging is done?

Salli and I are blessed to have such an assemblage of wonderful and gifted members of the Runaway Express family. Butch Hause, Scott Bennett, Ted Cole, Ernie Martinez, Daniel Jones, Bill Brennan, and Chris Stongle are the best! Aside from all the great players, we have an amazing artist in the clan. He is an 'idea man' of the first order. Greg Carr is on a divine mission to eliminate the ordinary album cover. He, like the rest of us, laments the passing of the 12 inch LP, the perfect format for art display. Our 2000 Holly tribute release featured Buddy glasses with a plastic see-through lens. This year's follow-up had to be in the same league with "Yeah, Buddy!". The complicated assembly of the "Oh, Boy!" package is done here in town with a crew that understands and welcomes the complicated nature of Greg's 'projects'. They're good Americans trying to compete in a global market.

What enticed you to move to Colorado other than it being one of the most beautiful states in the Union (next to New Mexico, of course)?

Hey, Dick, we live in the same state, and it's the finest state in the union. It's called the Great American West. Often too arid, barren or convoluted to plow, these wide open spaces, towering peaks and profoundly entrenched river canyons give hope to the rest of the country that Wendy's and Wal-Mart won't be moving in soon. America breathes better just knowing it's there. I'm a fanatic for wild-lands. When fate plucked me from West Texas and planted me in Colorado it didn't take long to find reasons to stay.

The CD, “Those Fabulous Sixties” that you sent me is quite a production and an exceptional historic summary of the unforgettable music during those times. Boy did it bring back some great memories and made me realize how golden that age was. I can’t help from thinking that the tasteless mainstream music of today could never be remembered in such a manner. Obviously you produced it as a labor of love as it’s not for sale. Nevertheless, I think everyone should have a copy of it. Did you do it by yourself?

For anyone who's had the stamina to make it this far in the interview, I'd like to offer a "Fab '60s" disc for the price of postage. During the last 12 years I've spent over 2,ooo hours in my studio editing together what I feel is the ultimate sixties audio collage. On two 80 minute discs I've spliced, diced and layered nine hundred song bits and bites in thematic and chronological sequence. Original songs by the original artists! The assemblage is mine, but I've stolen shamelessly from any soundsource that could help to propel the project. That's why it could never be merketed, and remains an underground labor of love. I'm sure that somebody could put together "Those Fabulous Eighties", but it ain't me, babe! "Those Fabulous Sixties" is a memory waterfall that's not for sale, but for your loyal Lance Monthly readers Dick, they can get one of these discs for 2 bucks (the postage) as a gift from you and me. All they have to do is e-mail me at ratts@runawayexpress.com and beg politely. Heck-uva-deal! Order today! It's a thank-you for reading this self-indulgent idiot's essays!

What plans do you have for the future, Jim and is there a tour in the horizon?

I believe that as folks cruise through their mid-fifties, they begin to spell the word 'Career' differently. Politicians tend to capitalize all the letters by that time. Musicians are more likely to drop the capital 'c' or stop using the term altogether. Music is so much a part of who we are that it seems trivial to use the word to describe 'what we do'. Runaway Express gave up bars years ago (except for the Little Bear in Evergreen) and touring rarely factors into our playing schedule. Summers are filled with regional outdoor concerts. Private functions and weddings can happen anytime, and we're fools for playing the 'party band' role. We eat theme shows for breakfast and 'Request Time' is our specialty. We'll be doing some work with John McEuen this year and our amplifiers shouldn't get too dusty. The clients in my studio, Raven Recording, keep me constantly busy. I love helping others make their dream record, but I'm working on 3 different projects of my own right now, including a 'songs from the heart' collection and a tribute disc to the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Last August Runaway Express did a 5-hour non-stop Woodstock show and still didn't have time for 14 of the tunes we'd prepared. We need 6 hours this coming summer. We'll keep learning songs 'cause we can't help ourselves. We'll keep playing and singing because that's what we were built to do. Every year these songs take on new meaning. Salli and I will continue to explore the West because that's what it's there for. It's amazing the mileage you can get by just stuffing a few tunes in the gas tank.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with our readers. What are your final thoughts?

I'd just like to tip my hat to those with artistic or musical passion, to those who play passionately and to those who listen with passion. I commend those who labor at monthly internet magazines because of passionate commitment. I celebrate our amazing 60-year musical heritage and feel bonded to those who do the same. I salute and toast a religious passion for life. We're just surrounded by too much cool stuff to ever have an excuse for being bored. Best wishes, Jim