For Love of Country
Country music has had its power couples over the years -- married musicians who made music on stage and off. Some had great musical success at the expense of their personal lives (George Jones and Tammy Wynette, for example), while others (Johnny Cash and June Carter, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, to name a few) achieved the near-impossible feat of lasting success in the marketplace and at home.
In Denver, there's a husband-and-wife team who are as loyal to each other as they are to traditional country. Since 1956, Dick and Lois Meis have played hand in hand across five decades in a career that makes Faith and Tim seem like rookies. The Meises may not be household names in Nashville (although they enjoyed success there in the '60s). But in the minds of their fans -- from seniors at Moose Lodges and VFW halls to the tattooed and tattered alt-country types who watch them play in seedier bars -- "Dick & Lois" are Colorado's first couple of country.
"Well, I don't know," demurs Lois Meis, sitting close by her husband on the couch of their Denver home. "I guess you could say that." Dick shrugs off the title, too, but a wall of plaques and photographs in the couple's basement makes it clear they deserve the crown. Framed photos show the two on various stages: with their Frontiersmen act in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in the late '50s, and at outdoor venues around the nation in the '60s. One promo shot shows a strapping young Dick Meis with Fender guitar in hand. An old flier announcing one of Lois's shows identifies her as a recording artist for Acuff-Rose, the revered publishing outfit. Beneath two photos are matching faded buttons, each bearing Dick and Lois's names and a familiar inscription, "Grand Ole Opry" -- tokens of their stint in Nashville. One picture shows a glammed Lois in stretch cowboy flares and shirt next to country legend Kitty Wells. ("She didn't care for my clothes," Lois whispers, in reference to her modernized cowgirl garb.)
There are also shots of Lois from various TV and stage appearances, evidence of a 1963 major-label deal in Nashville that landed her on bills with Wells, Pap Wilson, Tex Ritter, Ray Price and Johnny Cash, for starters. Dick Meis did some equally lofty work as a sideman for a host of big names, including Loretta Lynn, Tex Ritter, Webb Pierce and Bobby Bare. Proof of the pair's more recent accomplishments is found in a row of newer awards: twin plaques announcing each of the Meis's inductions into the Colorado Country Music Hall of Fame (in 1999 for Dick, 2000 for Lois) and certificates from various steel-guitar groups honoring Dick's work. (There's also an Employee of the Year award from the Adams County Mental Health Services, where Lois used to work days as a stenographer.)
Not bad for a couple who met in Fort Morgan, Colorado, while playing in a seventh-grade 4-H Club band.
"He didn't pay much attention to me then," Lois says, grinning. A few years later, when the two were in high school, they were playing music together and dating. Lois played guitar, sang and hosted a radio show in Fort Morgan; Dick played electric guitar. After graduating in 1956 they married and moved to Cheyenne, where they pursued their musical dream in that city's hearty country scene.
Later, they moved to Denver, Phoenix and a few other western cities in pursuit of more work. Lois signed with Wizard Records in 1961, but the label didn't have the muscle to push her first singles. However, after gaining the ears and respect of various touring players (particularly the members of Marty Robbins's band), the Meises moved to Nashville with their two baby sons, Greg and Gary, and chased the bigtime. They soon found it. Lois was inked to United Artists (then the home of a young George Jones), which put her in the studio to record four songs. Two of them -- "The Worst of You" and "I Must be Going Out of Your Mind" -- made up Lois's first major-label single, which gained modest chart success in a few domestic markets. It also put her on the stage at the famed Ryman Auditorium, home of the Opry.
"I think I was paid ten dollars," she says. "I remember being so scared. I played a shuffle -- I think it was a Ray Price song." Lois was invited back for a few more Opry appearances and soon landed road gigs across the country that paired her with such stars as Cash and Minnie Pearl.
Dick also did time at the Opry, though he never made it to the stage. At the time, musicians were allowed in the Opry's backstage rehearsal room, where they would pitch their services to the featured performers. It was a game Dick refused to play. "I could have backed up Bill Anderson; he came into that jam room quite a bit," he recalls. "But I couldn't bring myself to beg him for a spot. I was behind the stage, playing with all these good steel players, learning licks." That focus on his instrument paid off, and soon Meis was moonlighting as an instrument repair man while touring as a steel guitarist for Loretta Lynn and others.
But the pursuit of fame was hardly the glamorous experience they'd hoped for. "I worked for some pretty big stars," Dick says, "but just because they've got money doesn't mean you do. They didn't pay much." For Lois, a growing workload had a bigger price. "I was getting better jobs and getting out on the road, and I was about to go to a new label," Lois says. "But I couldn't take all the traveling and being away from my kids. Tex Ritter told me once, 'When you're out on the road, you need to forget about your family back home.' When he told me that, I thought, 'What does he mean? I can't do that.'"
Facing that reality, the Meises walked away from Nashville and returned to Denver in 1966 for a more normal life. Back on Colorado soil, they focused their energies on the regional country scene. They've played thousands gigs in the state over the past 35 years. It's a practice they continue today, playing virtually every weekend (as Lois Lane & Superband) in lodges, halls and bars around the city. Doing so has required an ability to adapt to their surroundings and changes in the local scene. Such flexibility led Lois to take up bass seven years ago so that she and Dick could play as a trio and earn more dough in a market dogged by shrinking pay.
"I have no regrets," Lois says today. "We decided to put our marriage and our family first, and that's what we did. You know, you set goals, and mine was to be on a major label. It's strange, but I achieved that, so I was happy. It wasn't the kind of life I wanted to live. I love to be a homemaker and decorate my house and take care of my family."
Making a living as a country-music outfit involves digging up gigs wherever possible.
Tonight the Superband is booked into the Family Bar in Littleton's downtown "LiDo" neighborhood, a place they play often, in part because its operating hours mean the Meises can finish the job earlier in the evening.
Dick, Lois and drummer Denny Maw are squeezed into a tiny spot behind a small bar. Patrons sit in arm's reach of the group as the trio runs through a set of expertly played vintage country covers.
"I want to hear something with steel guitar," says one patron.
"Me, too," replies Dick, taking his hands from his Stratocaster and reaching for the Mullen pedal steel before him. He leads the band through song after song of steel-driven thrills, peppering each tune with head-spinning runs, sometimes shifting from steel to Strat and back in mid-song. As Dick wows the small but enthusiastic crowd, Lois plays impeccable bass lines dropped squarely between Maw's grooves. She sings each song with consummate control and soul, slipping effortlessly from brittle ballads and twangy raveups to a stunning display of yodeling during a rendition of "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." She smiles politely through each song, making eye contact with the crowd members, some of whom are moving on the dance floor. When their first set ends, the Meises mingle with patrons and chat, lending a family-reunion feel to the evening.
Such customer service, says Family Bar owner Barbara Griffith, is part of what has made the group a staple of her establishment for five years. "Dick and Lois are two of the nicest people I've ever met," she says. "I just love 'em to death. As musicians, they're good, too, and I like them because they're country-and-Western and they do the old country music that my crowd wants." She cites their professionalism as another asset, though it may pale in comparison to the pair's personal appeal. "They'll sit and talk to some aspiring musician and tell them what it's all about. And quite often they'll let somebody sing with them that they probably shouldn't. But they give them a chance to perform."
While the Meises' work in trad-minded establishments has endeared them to an older country crowd, they've gained hipster credibility with the younger set by playing each Monday night behind Denver's outlaw-country legend, Denver Joe, at Cricket on the Hill. The vibe at the Cricket is several cultures removed from the wholesome scene at the Family Bar: Under a blanket of black ceilings and walls and a cloud of smoke, they take the stage with drummer Larry Ragero. While handfuls of country traditionalists and guitar geeks swoon, the three play an opening set before being joined on stage by Joe.
Invariably, the Denver Joe/Dick-and-Lois show involves plenty of back-and-forth banter between Joe and Dick, with the latter serving as straight man to Joe's raw-boned irreverence. The Meises' stellar playing recently helped Denver Joe land a surprise win in the country category of this year's Westword Music Showcase, even though his schedule consists almost exclusively of the Monday-night Cricket gigs. The honor is evidence of the cool factor that the Meises add to Joe's status (although, Joe notes, the award "nearly ruined me").
"Uncle Dick is the best musician and friend I've ever had in my whole dirty, rotten, stinking life," Joe says. "Aunt Lois? I would've run off with her years ago if it weren't for Uncle Dick." As for why they're playing with him here at the Cricket, his answer is simple: "I think God's punishing them for something they did somewhere along the line."
Meis has been playing with Denver Joe for nearly ten years; Lois joined the group about five years ago. When Dick asked her to join, she balked because of Joe's penchant for drink and his use of the more coarse term for fornication. With encouragement from her husband, she joined and soon won Joe over with her bass lines, vocals and deep knowledge of country. At her first gig, she notes, "I jumped every time he used that word. I've heard it before, obviously. But I'd never heard anyone use it, so, um, often." These days, when Joe takes expletive-laden jabs at an adoring crowd, Lois simply smiles politely at the floor.
"The people at the Cricket are just great. They treat us really well," Dick says. "They like that old country music, and they really respect us and treat us great. So does Joe."
Respect, say the Meises, has been one of the factors in their long-lasting marriage to country and each other. Musical issues are resolved after the gig, and each of them defers to the other's musical strengths when it comes to decisions. Lois leaves Dick to his devices on guitar and steel, and he doesn't question Lois's yodeling or bass playing, which she downplays as nothing special.
"She plays just what the song requires," Dick says. "Besides," he adds with a grin, "she's a really good singer. And I practice a lot to make sure she never gets better than me."
The couple's work ethic applies at home, too.
"You've got to work at being married," Lois says. "You've got to make yourself be in love, and not let it disappear. We still hold hands to this day, and I just don't see people do that anymore." One thing that keeps Dick focused on his family, he says, is a comment from Lois's father back when he asked her to marry him. "'He's not a farmer, he's a guitar player,'" Dick recalls her father saying. "He'll never be able to make a living."
But Dick and Lois, secure in their place in Denver's country culture, proved him wrong. According to Lee Sims, president of the Colorado Country Music Hall of Fame, "Dick has been an icon of country music since the late '60s, in Colorado and the United States." Lois has an equally lofty rep in Colorado, he says, and the two "are true musicians, down-to-earth, likable people who play the kind of music our people want to hear. They're definitely the ambassadors for good country music in this state."
Dick Meis is increasing his efforts as local ambassador of the steel guitar. He recently opened a steel-guitar shop (Uncle Dick's Steel Guitar Shop, at 6487 Federal Boulevard, in Denver), from which he sells instruments and teaches courses. The shop's been open for a few months and has become a haven for the area's growing number of steel-guitar devotees; his list of students includes aspiring players from as far away as Chicago. Ronnie Miller, a longtime Meis student, is now the steel player for Charlie Pride. Meis keeps his own playing profile up by performing at events around the country, including the upcoming International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis. He's been hosting similar events locally for the past two years, steel jams that give the area's steeling sidemen a chance to take center stage. (For details on these jams and the Superband's schedule, visit www.pedalsteels.com and www.dickmeis.com.)
Lois has begun planning an upcoming CD she hopes to record in the next few months and has been assisting aspiring local singers by letting them perform with the Superband. "People have been very good to us," Lois says, "so we're trying to give a little something back to the community."
Meanwhile, the Meises are continuing along with their joint pursuits, shooting holes in the theory that one should never fall in love with a bandmate. "Back when we got married, a commitment was a commitment," Dick Meis says. "If you're going to get married, why not stick together?" Besides, he notes, "I couldn't play my hot licks without her bass playing." For Lois, "the fact that we have similar interests in country music and steel guitar has helped keep us together. I think it's great that we're able to share what we love and still be doing it at this age and time in our lives. It's pretty neat."
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