Northwest Music History: Country

Nancy Claire

Not surprisingly the bands of the 1950s and 60s that would define The Northwest Sound was mostly a boys game.  There had been women who’d made it in their own right –Bonnie Guitar comes to mind- but even she was closer to country than the newer sounds.  Bea Smith had made her name in rockabilly but  The NorthwestSound relied on a hybrid of R&B and jazz.  In fact most of the successful women performing were either coming out of rockabilly, hillbilly music or singing blues and early R&B among the many black venues surrounding Jackson St.  Of course many of these clubs were avoided by whites, and those teenagers wanting to hear the real deal dare not venture into many of the mostly-black bottle clubs and dens of gambling and prostitution that some rightly were known as.  Police raids were common along Jackson Street and door men were careful not to give entry to the kids that may be cause for even more raids.  The musicians who had come to play R&B were the exception to the rule.  Their fans may have been frightened off by what was collectively known as the (primarily black) Jackson St. Scene. The Birdland, The Ubangi Club, The House of Entertainment and especially The Black and Tan (which was largely integrated by the late 50s) were all clubs that attracted the young white practitioners of teen-dance R&B.

Very few of the early Northwest Sound bands ventured into vocals or women in general.  This wasn’t a purposeful lock-out of women.  It was out of popular demand.  Audiences didn’t mind instrumentals, they simply wanted to dance.  Girl Groups from across the nation were seen as a novelty acts.  Very few bands had fully-fledged female members of their bands.  There were exceptions, but this was mostly the face of the Northwest Sound during the mid-late 1950s. Enter The Fleetwoods.

Artist, label owner and producer Bonnie Guitar and her business partner Bob Reisdorff of Dolphin Records (soon to be re-christened as Dolton Records had taken note of the Olympia trio (Gary Troxel, Gretchen Christopher, and Barbara Ellis).  The band did not fit into the girl group mold, nor was it the kind of rollicking R&B Northwest fans were used to… but Bonnie and Bob’s belief in The Fleetwoods and their signing them paid off in droves.  The first two releases by The Fleetwoods rose … Read more›

Don Rich

Who would have thought that a kid from Olympia WA would become one of the architects of country music’s Bakersfield Sound? Don Eugene Ulrich was born in Washington’s state Capitol on August 15, 1941, and grew up in the  adjacent town, Tumwater WA. He was the adopted son of Bill and Anne Ulrich and went by that name as a youth but later would later shorten his last name to Rich.  Don’s parents encouraged him to play music, going so far as to giving him a home-made violin to play at the tender age of three. Ulrich was a musical child prodigy and learned the fiddle in short order and soon after picked up a guitar, also becoming proficient at the instrument in a short time.   Don’s parents were confident enough of his skill that they entered him in a series of local talent and variety shows.

By the age of 16 Rich had opened for a matinee performance by Elvis Presley (September 1, 1957) at Tacoma’s Lincoln Bowl. Lincoln Bowl was an amphitheater adjacent to Lincoln High School overlooking Puget Sound.  Since Presley’s performance took place next to Lincoln High School the show saw the amphitheater full of screaming teens.

During his last year of High School Don Rich had started playing  his fiddle around the south Puget Sound region as well as forming a rock and roll band called the Blue Comets with drummer Greg Hawkins and pianist Steve Anderson.  But Don’s love was closer to country and folk than rock and roll so he continued playing gigs as a fiddler. One of those gigs was at Tacoma’s Steve’s Gay ‘90s, where he would catch his first break-one that would change his life forever.  . At the time former Bakerfield musician Buck Owens was doing a stint at Tacoma radio station KAYE.  Rich was at Steve’s Gay ‘90s when Buck Owens walked in one night in 1958.  Owens, a fiddler in his own right, had already seen Rich on fiddle, and was taken by Rich’s talent almost immediately.  After their first meeting they soon became great friends and collaborators. Don would join Owen’s band that played around Tacoma and Seattle.  Owens had been a radio personality, so when Rich joined-up with Owen’s he found himself doing a weekly spot on KTNT-TV 11’s BAR-K Jamboree.  The show also has the distinction of introducing Loretta Lynn … Read more›

The Center For Disease Control Boys

The Center for Disease Control Boys was a loose-knit satirical Country, Western and Folk band formed in Seattle in 1986. Their performances included a mixture of original compositions and older songs written by such artists as Bob Wills,  Asleep at the Wheel, and Woody Guthrie. Their stage show used an extensive array of props and costumes such as bales of hay, stuffed roosters, rubber trout, and wads of self printed ‘country currency’. Although the band was only in existence for six months, they are noteworthy for their ever changing lineup of musicians and performers which included Chris Cornell of Soundgarden Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, and Ben McMillan, lead singer for Skin Yard and Gruntruck.

The CDC Boys was a design and musical collaboration between Dean Warrti and George Hackett. Warrti was manager and booking agent for the Ditto Tavern, which filled a void in the local music scene by providing a venue for folk, punk, art rock, and emerging grunge bands from the Northwest. Hackett was an accomplished guitarist who worked at Boeing and shared Wartti’s interest in cultural satire, diverse musical tastes, and leftist politics. Warrti had a background in theatrical performance and design. As they wrote the songs and assembled the props and graphics, the two realized that a diverse cast of band members could be found within the roster of Ditto performers. Rehearsals were held at the artists collective SCUD (Subterranean Co-operative of Urban Dreams).  The building had previously been the very neglected Sound View Apartments, and before that an SRO hotelSCUD became an incorporated collective and leased the building in Belltown where a plethora of bohemian artists that included Ashleigh Talbot, Art Chantry, Cam Garret,  Arthur Aubrey,Steven Fisk and Willum Hopfrog Pugmire. All had at one time or another been residents.  It’s been reported that Jack Kerouac stayed at The Sound View Hotel a short time during his stop in Seattle in September of 1956.  He had spent the earlier summer at a fire watch look-out in the North Cascades.  He later wrote about the underbelly of Seattle and it’s downtrodden waterfront in a short story called Alone On A Mountaintop.
The building was at one time referred to Seattle residents as The Jello Building since the entire north side of the building was decorated with a multitude of Jello molds.  It was a natural place for the … Read more›

Bonnie Guitar

On March 25, 1923 Bonnie Buckingham was born in Seattle WA.  As a youn child she was raised in Redondo Beach,  a small community about 30 miles south of Seattle.  Her family were farmers who were able to weather the depression, unlike many of those in the Midwest who’s crops had been decimated by dustbowl storms and drought.  It was a bit later that the Buckingham family moved a short distance to Auburn WA and continued farming.  Growing up Bonnie had a fascination with the family guitar, and took every chance she could to take it from it’s hiding place to practice when her parents were away.  Her mother had told her that “guitars were for boys”.  But Bonnie persisted learning what she could. She recalls regularly climbing trees and pretending they were broadcast towers and she was sending out signals of her miusic  to the entire world.

Apparently her parent’s disapproval of girl’s playing guitars did not last long. By the age of 13 she had inherited her two older brothers’ flat top guitar and was appearing at talent shows throughout the Puget Sound region while gaining wider reception. During this period she took on her first stage name-Bonnie Lane.  She also began tutoring by local musicians.  At the age 16 she was allowed to tour the NW with a country revue and for the next several years she developed her skill at the guitar as well as finding her voice.

Eventually she began travelling to Seattle to be tutored by some of the best players in the city, including Paul Tutmarc. Not only did Bonnie receive lessons, she began to make recordings with Tutmarc in his primitive studio on Pine Street.  Tutmarc was 27 years older than Bonnie, but their work had brought them close together.  In 1943 Tutmarc divorced his first wife and married Bonnie the following year.  They juggled their married and professional lives, along with caring for their daughter Paula (born in 1950) for the next few years, doing Seattle gigs as a duo and finally joining a well-known NW country outfit called the K-6 Wranglers as with a local country outfit called but the couple divorced in 1955, before Bonnie’s wider success.

Around this time Bonnie took on the name she would always be known as- Bonnie Guitar. Bonnie recalls that one day a songwriter approached her with a few songs he wanted her … Read more›

Gary Heffern

Gary Heffern began his career the late 70’s singing with San Diego punk band The Penetrators alongside Country Dick Montana. Heffern’s done poetry readings with everyone from John Doe, to Nina Hagen, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Henry Rollins. His first two solo albums ‘Bald Tires in the Rain’ and ‘Painful Days’ have featured some of the incredible cadre of his admirers. John Doe, Mojo Nixon, Country Dick Montana, The Walkabouts, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney.

Heffern spent a good part of his career as part of the Seattle music scene, but his muse has taken him to Finland, living near the Arctic Circle where an incredible video of his song ‘La La Land’ was shot in 2008. It’s an epic, sad, beautiful, and reflective observation of the fading away of a parent…It’s touching without ever slipping into the sentimentality one would expect.

His album “Consolation” featured a who’s who of American roots music; Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Peter Case, Mark Lanegan, Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows/R.E.M.) Chris and Carla of The Walkabouts, Jim Roth from ‘Built to Spill‘, and on and on. The depth and breadth of Heffern’s friends and admirers who join him on Consolation and currently as “Gary Heffern And The Beautiful People” and is a continuing testament to his position as an important songwriter whose work rises to the top of the heap.

Seattle rock critic and well-known author Charles R. Cross writes:”In Heffern’s own songs there is a constant struggle between darkness and light, between failed dreams and reckless prayer, between a world where all hope is lost and one where a consoling friend offers a sliver of deliverance. Even on a song as haunting as “(I Am Your) Destroyer” from the album “Consulation” sounds like Iggy Pop could have written it. There is still a core of sweetness among the ruins. “That’s the Beauty (Of the Little Things in Life)” truly rings with a ghost: It was written in Seattle’s Comet Tavern on the very night that Gits’ singer Mia Zapata went missing (and later turned up murdered). Not only a remarkable timepiece, “That’s the Beauty” demonstrates Heffern’s skill at creating a story arc that celebrates the fragility of life at the same time it bemoans it. It’s the kind of re-framing that is uniquely Gary Heffern”.
Aside from his songwriting, albums. online music and … Read more›