A couple years ago Sue Boydston decided to tear down her garage. Traffic had decreased since her husband, Bob, died of cancer in December 1999. Bob Boyd, as he was professionally known, was the rhythm guitarist of the popular country-and-western trio the Sundowners, who between 1959 and 1989 played five nights a week at the various incarnations of the Bar R R Ranch in the Loop. When the Sundowners weren’t gigging, they could often be found in Bob’s garage.
The Boydstons moved into the two-story brick house in Willowbrook in 1969. They tore down the old garage and built a new one, big enough for three cars, with a deluxe rec room on the back. Bob outfitted it with a pool table, a couple couches, and a tiny tiki bar he built himself. There were steer horns on the wall and, stored in the garage, several old wagon wheels salvaged from the Sundowners Ranch–a restaurant and lounge the band had opened in an old Franklin Park Ponderosa after the Bar R R gave up the ghost. Bob had covered one wall in square mirror tiles. “There was a sliding glass door, and we used to tease the Sundowners and watch them portray themselves as they were singing to the mirrors,” said Sue. “You know how men are.”
Sue, now 64, wanted to tear the garage down and sell the lot, one of four that came with the house, so she could build a smaller house that was easier to care for. Surveying the rec room’s contents, she realized she was going to need help clearing it out. So she called John Rice.
Rice, a 43-year-old multi-instrumentalist, had been sitting in with the Sundowners since the early 80s. After Don Walls suffered a stroke in 1992 that paralyzed his right arm and leg, Rice had filled in on guitar. As he and Sue went through the rec room, they pulled out of storage about 200 reel-to-reel tapes–some 600 hours of music, including sets at the Bar R R and at Farm Progress trade shows, plus jam sessions and multitrack recording experiments. Nearly all of the material was from before the Joel Daly era, when the TV newsman fronted a nine-piece “family” version of the band at local festivals and fairs.
Rice took home three carloads of reels and meticulously transferred the music into the digital recording program Pro Tools. Many of the tapes disintegrated as they played, but he trimmed up those that survived, cutting out dead air and performances by other bands. Everything that was left–about 28 hours of music–is now housed at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Resource Center.
“The whole thing started as a Christmas gift for Don,” Rice said. “I was burning copies of the stuff just for his enjoyment.” He gave Walls 30 CDs of material and kept copies for himself. But he knew that friends of his and of the band would enjoy the stuff too, so he burned a best-of to give out. Rice picked out 23 tracks, all from the band’s first dozen years, including versions of Merle Haggard’s “Sidewalks of Chicago,” Bobby Darin’s “Things,” and the Hank Snow classic “Miller’s Cave.”
“They were mostly songs I’d never heard before,” he said. “It’s not your run-of-the-mill country cover collection–it’s what they call deep catalog. You gotta kinda be a hard-core fan to recognize any of these songs.” Among the recipients were Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller of Bloodshot Records, who’d been wanting to release a full-length by the Sundowners since they started the label. “They were completely knocked out at how different it was from what they remembered,” Rice said. “We agreed it would be fun to put it out.” He sent the compilation to Phil York of Yorktown Digital Works in Irving, Texas, who restored dropouts, eliminated the hiss of the reels, and otherwise cleaned up and clarified the recordings.
This essential document of Chicago country-music history won’t be out until November at the earliest. But on a recent Sunday, friends and family of the Sundowners gathered at the Hideout for an advance listening party–though truth be told it was more of a talking party. The Hideout, on Wabansia just east of Elston, sounded not unlike the Bar R R: as the Sundowners’ music played in the background, glasses were clinking and colorful tales were tumbling.
Rice gushed about the treasure trove: “The beauty of it was that Bob had gone through all the tapes, graded the performances [with check marks], and listed all the songs. It was almost as if he wanted all this to be done at a later date.
“There were lots of surprises. Bob used to sing much higher. He had his tonsils taken out in 1967 and his voice dropped. They reworked a lot of the trio [parts]. And Curt [Delaney]’s steel guitar work is phenomenal. They played an awful lot of Hawaiian music in the early days. Listening to the tapes was a lot of fun. You could hear what a bar in the Loop sounded like in 1960.”
The Sundowners also stretched out into jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and other popular styles. They reworked George Harrison’s “Something” as a traditional swing number (included on the forthcoming collection), were known to cover the island traditional “Marianne,” and even did a calypso-tinged version of Herman’s Hermits’ “There’s a Kind of Hush.”
Curt Delaney died of complications from a stroke in the spring of 1997. The lone surviving Sundowner is Walls, who made the trip to the Hideout with his wife, Jeannie. Curt’s widow, Joan, brought stacks of old photos and news clippings to the Hideout. She also brought a letter from the American Broadcasting Company dated October 11, 1952. That’s when Curt was hired as a staff musician for Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club. Music director Rex Maupin offered him a salary of $204.41 a week.
“After the Breakfast Club he went to the Melody Ranch hour, which was done in the Wrigley Building with Gene Autry,” Joan said. “The main reason they wanted him is that you’d swear you were listening to Autry if you heard Curt’s cut of ‘Back in the Saddle Again.’ Autry had an unfortunate habit of drinking a little too much when he came to Chicago. They didn’t know if he’d make the show all the time. They needed someone who could play steel guitar and sing like Gene if he had to.”
The Sundowners formed toward the end of that decade. They were among the many country musicians who’d flocked to Chicago due to the popularity of WLS radio’s National Barn Dance, which aired from 1924 to 1960. Don had come from Logan, West Virginia, Bob from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and both were playing with the Circle C Boys, led by singer and bassist Curly Coldiron. Part of Coldiron’s shtick was to arrive onstage firing blanks from a six-shooter; he retired in ’59 to become a real-life sheriff in Arkansas. When Curt (originally from Albany, Georgia) replaced him, he offered to give up his beloved steel guitar for the bass.
Bob told me in 1997 how the new band chose its name. “One night we were going to work and the Robert Mitchum movie The Sundowners was playing at the Clark Theater, which was next door,” he said. “It was on the marquee. The movie was about Australian sheepherders. In Australia a sundowner is a guy who gets a job on a sheep farm. They feed him and give him his bunk and everything. When morning comes and it’s time to work, he’s gone.”
“They were inseparable,” Joan said at the Hideout. “They played golf together. On their days off they would all go to Bob’s house and hang out together. They’d screw around in that garage. There was no ego, no jealousy.”
“They had microphones, all their recording stuff was there,” Sue Boydston said. “They put a board on our pool table and that’s where they’d place all their songbooks. I’d bring them doughnuts and coffee.”
Around the Bar R R, Curt was known for Yogi Berra-esque one-liners like, “I’m glad to see that everybody here could make it tonight.” At the Hideout Joan began dealing Curt’s favorite jokes around the table like cards, including this Spike Jones bastardization: “Don’t hit your grandmother in the head with a shovel–you may dent her mind.”
“Curt wanted to be a comedian,” Joan said. “That was his secret wish. I don’t know if Don or Bob ever knew this, but when Homer of Homer & Jethro died [in 1971], Jethro came to Curt. We were at the Old Town School. He said, ‘Curtis, I need a new string man. I’d like you to give it a try.’ But Curt would not leave Don and Bob.”
Rice is an alumnus of another local roots institution, the Special Consensus bluegrass band, and has played with everybody who’s anybody in Chicago country and roots rock–from the Insiders and the Jump ‘n the Saddle Band to Freakwater and the Waco Brothers. Recently he’s backed Nashville singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin and soul legend Mavis Staples. He says the Sundowners have taught him an important lesson: “If you’re going to enjoy working, you better be working with real good friends. If you look at the photos from the early period, you can see they’re the tightest of buddies. [On the tapes] there wasn’t one cussword or any moment when any of those guys were talking down to each other at all.”
He met the band in 1979, when fellow stringed-instrument whiz Roger Bellow asked him to play on a record; Curt was playing on it too. “There was a release party at the Ranch, and that was the first time I heard them,” Rice said. He started jamming with them not long after. “Roger brought out a very important point. When the Sundowners stopped playing, that marked the end of bands in Chicago that had repertoires. This is a band that had well over 15,000 songs. On the tapes, almost none of the songs are repeated. It was the end of an era of bands that could go for weeks at a time without repeating songs. It was also the end of a training ground . . . because the Sundowners let everybody sit in.”
That long list includes Nashville stalwarts Webb Pierce and Faron Young, jazz fiddler Johnny Frigo, and actor Robert Duvall as well as Jon Langford and the rest of the Mekons and alt-country iconoclast Robbie Fulks.
As Rice talked outside the Hideout, Fulks was holding court with Walls in the bar. The Sundowners’ cover of Fulks’s “Cigarette State,” recorded in the rec room in 1988, will appear as a bonus track on the compilation. Despite the stroke that immobilized his right hand, Walls was still smoking with his left.
“I saw them for the first time in 1983,” Fulks said. “I was a paralegal in the Loop. Me and a couple paralegals stopped in the Bar R R one night. I was blown away with this great music in a little hideaway.”
Fulks nodded toward a speaker through which Bob was singing the folk classic “Tom Dooley” over a country-western shuffle. “You can hear it now,” he said. “You can’t put it on. Nobody can pretend to do this. It is beautiful. The first song I heard them play was ‘The Gambler’ by Kenny Rogers. Even the stupid songs grabbed me.”
The legacy of the Sundowners is a half-full-or-half-empty proposition, Fulks said. “You can see it as a depressing story, in a way, of a band singing in one place and doing something that is unappreciated. Or you can see it as craftsmen sticking with what they do, rolling over different waves of music and weathering different fashions. That’s how I see it. People remaining true to what they are.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Perez.