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On stage at the Eagles Lodge in Thornton, Halden Wofford and his mates in the Hi Beams (steel guitarist Bret Billings, multi-instrumentalist Kevin Yost and his wife, bassist Sandy Yost) are laying down a set of classic country music. The band anchors the far end of the lodge's modest, low-ceilinged main room, where overhead fans twirl just inches above Wofford's cowboy hat. Out in the room, a dozen folks are hanging on for the act's fourth and final set of the evening. At a nearby table, a muscled fifty-something man orders a pair of drinks for two younger women he's politely chatting up. On the back of his stretched-tight T-shirt, the words "Ghetto Restaurant & Lounge, Thornton, Colorado" glow in the dim light of the room. One of the two women knocks back half of her drink and strikes up a conversation with a visitor, employing an icebreaker you're not likely to hear in too many Denver dives: "Weren't you a judge at the Stock Show?"
For the next hour, the Hi Beams romp through a homespun set of antique tunes from Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb and many other greats. Throughout the set, the band displays competent, heartfelt chops and serves up some of the sweetest, genuine-article country in town. And despite the lean crowd, the band oozes warmth with every two-stepper, loping shuffler and hillbillied stomper. Sure, this humble gig may not be the kind of engagement most local bands are throwing promo kits after, but it works for the Hi Beams.
"We call it the animal lodge' circuit," says Billings. "We play Elks and Moose lodges, Eagles Lodges -- those are our bread-and-butter gigs.
"You meet the nicest people playing these kinds of places," adds Wofford, "and really interesting people, too. I was talking to a guy this weekend who used to fly planes from Japan to Vietnam during the war; he grew up in a town just thirty miles from where my dad grew up in Iowa. I met a guy at one of the legion halls who told me how he had a country band years ago. He told me, We had a little guy up in Minnesota who wanted to come out and sing for us, but we had to let him go because he was so bad.' The guy he was talking about was Robert Zimmerman. Bob Dylan."
In addition to tall tales and rich characters, Wofford and his mates have found something else while playing to veterans, retirees and neighborhood types: a home, albeit an unlikely one. For the band looking to play country music in the Denver area, there are two paths to take to fill up the gig book. First, there's the circuit of mainstream country clubs sprinkled across the city and the state, where an act content with playing covers can find work and reasonable pay. Second, there's the short list of lower- paying rock venues, where the C&W purists and alt-country outfits who wouldn't dream of watching TNN are eager to revel in morphed and vintage twang. Halden Wofford & the Hi Beams, however, have been carving a niche for their breed of country in a third scene, one far removed from both the y'allternative crowd and the Shania Twain set.
"A lot of these people really know the old music," Wofford says, "and they appreciate what we do. We got fired once from a country' club for being too country. People kept yelling for Garth Brooks, and we didn't do any of that, so they cut us loose. See, when country bars hire you, you're basically a human jukebox, and they want you to play country standards and Boot Scootin' Boogie.'" To make matters worse, Wofford says, dancers in these establishments "just want to hear the tunes they hear on the radio and from their dance instructor's boombox. And line dancing has been a craze for, God, going on ten years now, and it's all done to a four/four rock beat. So if you start playing a country shuffle or a waltz, people don't know what to do."
The Hi Beams got their start two years ago as the Barn Cats, and their members have impressive pedigrees. Wofford, a part-time painter, played for a couple years with the now-defunct Crosstie Walkers. Following an artist-in-residency stretch in Snowmass Village, he satisfied his country addiction in the "honky-tonk room" during weekly jams at Ralph's Top Service, which were run by the now-retired Ralph Haney. The Yosts have done time in a number of bluegrass groups; the last included Billings, who's been playing country professionally in the area since 1977. His resumé includes stints with local groups such as the Desperadoes and Briar Rose, and his steel-guitar research has included lessons from local steel-guitar whiz Dick Meiss (of Denver Joe and Lois Lane & the Superband fame).
During the group's first year or so as the Barn Cats, the bandmembers attempted to gain a following playing country bars. Wofford says they just didn't find success in the conventional bar scene, despite some ambitious efforts. He even spent time studying a country-dance instructional tape from his mother, in the hopes of learning how to better comprehend boot-scooting culture.