Bright Lights, Big City
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.
"I wanted to be able to figure out which songs went with each kind of step, so I could introduce a song and say, This is an electric slide boogie,' or This is a cowboy cha-cha.' But it didn't work. So now we stay more at the legion places where the couples can dance to more stuff."
Earlier this year, the band adopted its current moniker, to gain distance from the Barn Cats' more cover-friendly catalogue and concentrate on a sound closer to the players' hearts. The Hi Beams, who only occasionally work with a drummer, lean to a more acoustic sound, like that practiced by the late Hank Sr. and current torchbearers such as Wayne Hancock. They also began focusing on lodge gigs and other settings more welcoming of Wofford's twanged, straight-from-the-prairie tenor, an instrument that lends his act a charming dose of authenticity.
"People either like it or hate it," he says of his voice. "It has the twang and that high grate to it. My fiancée's father, whenever we get together and sing around the kitchen table, he always asks her, Can't you turn him down?'"
Though not universally loved, Wofford's vocal style does place him alongside many of his favorite songwriters, including Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves and Don Gibson, the legendary crooner who wrote such gems as "Sea of Heartbreak," "Oh, Lonesome Me" and Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams."
"I like the simplicity of those songs," he says, "the way the words fit together and the chords are so simple and straightforward. And the lyrics aren't overwrought or over-thought. You hear them and you think, Man, anybody can do that.' But that's not at all true, because if anybody could do it, everybody would be doing it."
Over the past few months, the Hi Beams have been expanding their repertoire with original songs from Wofford and the Yosts, material they've been able to sneak into their sets on the lodge beat. The band has also begun taking its own songs and self-penned ambitions into area rock bars, to new audiences they hope are hungry for fresh compositions. They've played recent shows at the Lion's Lair and the Skylark Lounge; this weekend they appear at the 15th Street Tavern. Historically, Billings notes, local country-music audiences have been slow to warm up to acts that compose.
"Denver has never had much of an original country-music scene," he says. "It's always been about playing the hits. Club owners certainly haven't supported it, and it didn't draw the crowds for some reason."
So far, however, Denver's new wave of twanged traditionalists have welcomed the Hi Beams' in-house tunes and time-honored style. Following their recent show at the Skylark -- to a crowd weaned on the bar's sharp jukebox selection of vintage country and rockabilly music -- the enthusiastic response had at least a few Hi Beams fans indulging fantasies of Denver as a music mecca. "One of my friends was all excited," Billings recalls. "He was saying, Man this could be the beginning of a real honky-tonk scene in this town. Denver could be the next Austin!'"
Billings admits that's a wonderful idea, and one whose time is overdue. But considering the tight corner roots country has been pushed into these days, he doubts that there will be a Denver City Limits program airing on local public television anytime soon. "A friend of mine and I were talking the other day," Billings says, "and he's a guy that's played a lot of country music around here, too. He said it's almost like real country music is now an ethnic music. It's almost like traditional blues -- it's music that's limited now to almost a cult following. Which is really unfortunate."
Wofford agrees, but he's not fooling himself to think that the status quo here in D-town or anywhere else is in for a change. "I don't have anything against Top 40," he says, "and we're not trying to convert the world to what we do or anything. We just want to play the best country music that we can play and make it as accessible as possible.
"Although," he adds with a grin, "if we did convert a few people, that would be fine with me."
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