Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Sundown On the Range
Danny, Jake and I had met at the local college church group and had bonded instantly. Not only did we stick out because we loved western and old time country music, but we were all blue collar workers and older than the regular college crowd. Instead of getting together to play video games and high five each other, we got together and played Tom T Hall records, or told stories about our wild days. So when Danny invited us up to the ranch, we eagerly joined him. Not that many college students will pass on a free steak dinner, but we just wanted to go to the ranch. It was classic.
When we pulled in to the driveway, it was evident that we were in cattle country. There was an old barn, a corral, and a couple horses standing around looking at us with their big horse eyes. We were greeted by a smiling woman who was hefty enough that we trusted her cooking, but obviously capable of handling horses and taking care of the rest of the livestock. A solid pioneer type. She was joined by a short sort of wiry looking man, who had a contagious grin. In fact they both did. They welcomed us into the ranch house, and we were home.
It was a beautiful place. Every decoration spoke of the west. There were old blankets, carved wooden cowpony's, and prints of Remmington paintings depicting cowboy's and Indians. If not for the smell of home cooking, the laughter we were sharing, and the fact that it was so homey, it could have been a museum. I have always admired the old ways, but it felt good that as a musician I was welcomed as an honored guest for keeping traditions alive. Both Jake and I had always felt out of place in a lot of circles, so to be treated as a part of the rich history of the west seemed unbelievable. Then we sat down to dinner.
After eating until we were full, we moved into the living room where we took turns playing songs. Jacob played from his repertoire of classic country songs, while I played my own. In particular I remember old Gene roaring with laughter during the ending of my song "Diamond in The Rough" which is sort of a theme song of mine. I wrote it while I was living in Jacob's laundry room and feeling like a vagrant. Now we sat by the fire, swapping stories, poems and songs, I felt like my life was coming in to focus. All the years I had worked on playing and writing music were being vindicated by true pioneers. True cowboys and living links to the old west. We parted ways at the end of the night, Cindy and Gene waved to us from the door, the light reflecting on the trophy case in the hall. Finally, my music had found a home. A home on the range.
Over the course of the next year, we went out to the ranch a couple more times. Gene and Cindy would tune in to my radio shows every week. They would sometimes call in to take requests. I remember having my friend Vanessa Small (now singing lead and writing the songs for The Brambles). Cindy told Danny that she sounded like a young Emmy Lou Harris. Of course they sing in a different range, but the compliment was lovely. We were young people on a mission, and we were on the right track. It was what we needed to send us off into the world of music that we cared so much about.
I graduated in March of 2005. Soon after I was on my way to Vietnam, where I worked on a safe drinking water project. After that I went to Japan where I played country music all over the island of Kyushu, with some very good Japanese musicians. It was amazing. I felt like I had the credentials to do this. I was a true musician of the wild west. Not a cowboy, but I had cowboy friends. I got back to the states and went back out to Ellensburg to visit. Danny and Jake and I of course visited Gene and Cindy and I told them about my trip. They were amazed by my stories, plus I had learned "Folsom Prison Blues" in Vietnam, so I had to play that. It was a beautiful June day when we said goodbye. Little did I know that things would be vastly different the next time we saw each other.
Sometime in August I got a call from Danny. He told me that Gene had been diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer. I was unable to come visit for awhile, and by the time I did they had sold the ranch and moved out to a small cottage where they could live out Gene's last days. When Danny took me in to the house they were at it was totally different. They had some of the old decorations up, but it was a square cinder block room, it had none of the cheer that the ranch house had. Gene sat wrapped in a blanket, his body whithered away by the rapidly advancing cancer. He was too sick for music, so I left my guitar at home. He spoke in a whisper, and even though death was at his door, old Gene still had a twinkle in his eye. I told him what I was doing and he smiled. I don't remember any "words of wisdom" it seems to me we had already shared it. But when Danny left the room, Gene perked up.
"Tell Danny. That your going to New York" he whispered. OK I thought. Waiting for the rest of the instructions. "Danny's going to New York. Tell him your going to New York." Now Danny Snider is a jolly little Irishman, and I above all love to give him a hard time. He is such a good old boy that my slick way of talking and wickedly sly humor have a way of tricking him every time. I told Gene I would do it.
Danny came back in and I winked at Gene. "Oh Danny, did I tell you I'm going to New York?" I asked innocently. "No way! I'm going to New York!" He replied like an excited leprechaun who has found an extra pot of gold under his rainbow. "Really? What are you going for?" I asked, like a fox about to steal a dozen eggs. "It's a trip for church. That is so crazy that we're both going to New York. What are you going for?" "I met a girl." At this point Gene and I exchanged a look of satisfied victory. "You met a girl in New York?" "Well actually I met her on the internet and she lives in New York!" By this point it was hard not to laugh, but somehow Danny bought it. It was amazing. I hardly even used email in 2005, and the chances of me meeting a girl online were minuscule. I was from the old school. But that gullible little Irishman believed me. Finally I had to admit that I was joking. Of course Danny was flustered, but Gene was smiling with his eyes, and that's why I did it.
That was the last time I saw old Gene Luck. He passed away a couple weeks later. Now he is riding herd on the big range in the sky. I have a few songs I tried to write for him, I think I will finish them someday soon, but for now, all I can do is try and live my life the way he would have wanted me to. He wasn't so concerned with the things most adults would be concerned with. I think he would rather have me playing my songs and telling my stories than trying to fit into a mold I wasn't cut out for. Old Gene knew what it meant to be happy and to do work you were proud of. I will never forget him.