When Country Wasn't Cool

Dusty Drapes and the Dusters uncover Boulder's country-music past.

"The band was always kind of a spectacle because of our appearance," says Carr, "and there was a huge scene that followed it around. The band was stocked with well-educated jazz players that played a lot of hot arrangements. There was humor to it, too, and it appealed to a lot of people from different walks of life."

In addition to popularity, the members of the Dusters enjoyed opportunities that they hadn't had as rock musicians -- including an offer for a recording contract.

"We started our band to get away from trying to get a record deal," Swenson recalls. "By doing that, the record companies came and knocked on our door." The group signed with Columbia Records and cut a disc in Denver. But when it came time for the record's release, Columbia got cold feet, in part because the label didn't seem know what to do with it. Carr says Columbia's decision to enlist producer Ken Mansfield, who had engineered discs for Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, was one of the problems. "He wanted us to have that boomp-boomp-boomp thing going on all the time," Carr says, "and we were a swing band." Swenson says Columbia was also daunted by a similar West Coast outfit -- Asleep at the Wheel -- that was about to release its debut. "It must have done okay," Swenson says, "because it led to quite a few others."

Steve Swenson, aka Dusty Drapes, with the Dusters in the late '70s.
Steve Swenson, aka Dusty Drapes, with the Dusters in the late '70s.
Dusty Drapes today.
Dusty Drapes today.

When the disc was canned, it crushed the group's spirits and led to personnel shifts during the years that followed. But the Dusters held on to their local base and played around the West, often opening for acts like Minnie Pearl, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and others. Brown joined the fray after an encounter that seems almost pulled from a rock-and-roll fantasy movie: The Dusters picked him up as a hitchhiker along a New Mexico highway; Carr, who had played bars in the state, recognized him as Jamison "JB" Brown, a rock musician. Brown rode with the boys all the way to Boulder and expressed an interest in filling the vacant guitarist slot. Swenson offered him the position, with a caveat. "I told him, 'You're gonna have to cut your hair, shave your beard and cowboy up.'" (According to Swenson, the clean-cut image served a dual purpose: "We could travel around the country and not get hassled.")

Brown agreed and soon morphed into a country player -- as many other rock players seemed willing to do in order to join the group. "A lot of guys wanted to be in that band," Carr says. "You'd see 'em cut their hair to come out for auditions. Then they wouldn't get hired and they'd have to go back out in public like that."

Brown fit in nicely, staying with the group for about four years. A sample of his stint in the Dusters is chronicled on a live compilation of local artists that was recorded at the Alferd Packer Grill on the University of Colorado campus in 1979. (The school produced a small number of the records that are now coveted local collectibles.) But for Swenson and Carr, the recording of Brown's impressive baritone voice and steely guitar playing serves as a bittersweet reminder of the past. Swenson says his main beef with Brown is that he's concocted an image that's more myth than fact. "The point I want to make is that he got his whole image from the Dusters," Swenson says. Carr says he was Brown's C&W mentor, turning the young player on to the sounds of Tubb, Ray Price and others while schooling him on the country-gent image.

Swenson also takes credit for Brown's famous moniker. On a trip to Texas soon after Brown had joined the group, Swenson says Brown spent the majority of the trip complaining. "Finally," Swenson recalls, "I said to him, 'I've got a good name for you. Let's call you Junior Brown.' He said, 'I don't know, I don't like that.' But I told him, 'Yeah, it's cool. It's country, you know, like Junior Samples.' [But] it wasn't because it was a cool country name. It was because he was a big baby."

(Brown was unavailable to discuss the Dusters' claims. His wife and manager, Tanya Rae Brown, acknowledged to a publicist that he had played in Boulder years ago but would not elaborate.)

Brown left the Dusters in 1979, and the group continued for a few more years, cutting a self-produced record in 1981. But its demise came about shortly after. Swenson's health had declined; at one pint, he was near death. In 1984, after a chronic case of laryngitis, Swenson looked in the mirror, "and I noticed I had two Adam's apples." Doctors diagnosed him with thyroid cancer and removed an encapsulated, malignant tumor from his throat. "It was a wake-up call for me," he says, "I hadn't been living the cleanest life. I spent years in the candy store of Boulder. You'd finish a gig, and there was always somebody offering you something. One day you wake up and you're an addict. I looked around, and all my friends were dealers."

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