By Team Backbeat
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In an old snapshot taken sometime in the late '70s, Dusty Drapes and the Dusters crowd around a '50s-era car, donning cowboy hats, boots and Western shirts. A sticker on the car's bumper reads "Cowboy Cadillac." In the foreground, bandleader Drapes (also known as Steve Swenson) and a young guitarist who had just begun calling himself Junior Brown appear to be engaged in a friendly dispute: Drapes is holding a wad of cash, and Brown is extending his palm expectantly. From the smile on his face, you can tell that Dusty is pretty happy to be the one holding the loot.
Fans who followed the Dusters' rise within Boulder's music community would probably have pegged Drapes -- not Brown -- as the one who would finally make it as a country artist. Charming and talented, he'd break out. Have a hit record, or at least some songs on the radio. At times it seemed like all of those things were just around the corner. But today it's Junior Brown who's a household name; Swenson, meanwhile, has found a place among the hardworking but largely anonymous rank of artists who pursue fame -- and eventually have to admit that it's eluded them.
This weekend, Dusty Drapes and the Dusters will reunite, nearly three decades after forming the band, for a live show at the Boulder Theater; the concert follows the premiere of Sweet Lunacy, a locally produced documentary that chronicles Boulder's rock history. The Dusters are one of several acts appearing in the film, which was produced by Boulderites Leland Rucker and local television producer Don Chapman; it aims to shed light on some lesser-known elements of the city's musical past. (See Night & Day, page 37, for more about the film.) Brown -- leader of the Highway Patrol and king of the guit-steel -- won't be attending the reunion. In fact, though Swenson says the country star's entire shtick -- right down to his very name and his double-action instrument -- came about during his Duster years, Brown's never advertised his connection to Colorado.
"He wants to keep it a secret," Swenson says. "He's never acknowledged that he's played with the Dusters. He's never acknowledged that he played in Colorado. He wants everyone to think that when he was fourteen years old, he came right off the farm as Junior Brown and became this great picker."
"He wanted to be accepted in the country market," adds Teddy Carr, another ex-Duster. "If you're from Boulder, Colorado, that don't cut it if you're hanging out in Texas. You're just a Yankee."
Brown's place in the Dusters is only one chapter in the band's intriguing history. At a time when most of today's country insurgents didn't know Ernest Tubb from the kitchen sink, Swenson and his pals were creating a stir by harking back to more traditional country and preserving a cool image; the Dusters were, in essence, the region's first alt-country band. While their peers sported long hair and indulged in countrified rock, they wore crewcuts and ten-gallon hats. They embraced fiddle solos and Hank Williams. The group became a huge draw in Boulder and, at one point, seemed to be on the verge of national stardom.
"People loved them in Boulder," says Leland Rucker. "But when they tried to take it to the next level, it was a different story."
In the early '70s, Chuck Morris (now of mammoth promotional house Chuck Morris Presents/Bill Graham Presents) headed Tulagi, then the area's equivalent of the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. He says the Dusters were one of the biggest homegrown acts of the time, one with big national potential. "They were doing really interesting stuff," Morris says. "The reason they didn't happen is because they were about fifteen years ahead of their time."
Yet even though the music made by Dusty Drapes and the Dusters was often inspired, the band's formation had as much to do with commercial concerns as it did with artistic ones. Swenson, a Minnesota native, came to Denver in 1971 when a friend, Danny Holien, landed a record deal with Denver's now-defunct Tumbleweed Records. Swenson played bass on Holien's debut and alongside Joe Walsh and Todd Rundgren on other Tumbleweed recordings for Michael Stanley, Rob Kunkel and Dewey Terry (of Don & Dewey fame). When Tumbleweed folded, Swenson joined a Boulder country-rock act called Sixty Million Buffaloes and started pursuing a record deal. Disgusted with that fruitless pursuit, he came up with a plan for landing steady gigs and income. "I told the guys, 'I've got a great idea. Let's cut our hair, dress like cowboys and play country music in the cowboy bars,'" he says. "I was tired of chasing the carrot. I wanted to have some fun."
In 1972, with the help of Don Debacker, Dan McCorson and others, Dusty Drapes and the Dusters were born. They quickly began drawing large crowds hungry for truck-drivin' anthems and a cornpone stage show. "The college kids really caught on to us," recalls Swenson. "Here was this band that looked like a bunch of straight cowboys, singing Johnny Cash's 'Cocaine Blues' and 'Folsom Prison' and yukking it up all tongue in cheek. We looked straight, but we were doing all these songs about drugs and stuff. The kids were like, 'These guys are hip.'"
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