Life Is Short, but It's Wide: Musicians Remember Chuck Pyle the Zen Cowboy
Singer-songwriter Chuck Pyle, who has been covered by John Denver, Suzy Bogguss and more, died November 6.
If anyone could embody the nickname “Zen Cowboy,” it was country-folk singer-songwriter and master fingerstyle guitarist Chuck Pyle, whose songs have been covered by John Denver, Chris LeDoux, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Suzy Bogguss. Pyle died on November 6, at the age of seventy, in Palmer Lake.
“Chuck was a brilliant man who wrote songs of great simplicity and beauty,” says Jim Ratts, a longtime friend who played with Pyle in the band Colours in the early ’70s. “The complexity of his thinking and the fact that he did meditate and that he had that kind of other-world perspective to his life, you got it from him, no matter what.”
It’s still unclear how Pyle, an Iowa native who moved to Boulder in 1965, earned the designation. Gordon Burt, a fiddle player who began performing with Pyle in 1988, says he adopted the nickname in the early ’90s. Ratts, however, suggests that the name might have its roots in the “cosmic cowboy” progressive-country scene in Austin in the early ’70s. That scene included a number of acts, most notably Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker, who would later record some of Pyle’s songs.
“I’m not saying that Chuck borrowed from that,” Ratts says. “I’m saying Chuck was a part of that whole scene.”
Ratts says that Murphey described the milieu best on his Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir album, in the liner notes about the song “Cosmic
Cowboy, Part 1”: “This song is for several friends of mine who can ride, rope and keep a little metaphysics going all in the same corral.”
“The guys in Texas were taking that whole progressive kind of music, but they were bringing it down to the fundamentals of country and folk music. [At the] same time, they were reaching from very lofty perspectives because they were brilliant,” Ratts recalls. “So Chuck’s ‘Zen Cowboy’ thing has that same contrast to it. You think of the cowboy on the range — he hasn’t got a care in the world except for how to stay dry and warm at night — but Chuck was thinking much more lofty thoughts.”
Ratts saw Pyle as a philosopher of sorts — a Mark Twain with sayings that encapsulated certain truisms. Ratts often thought the phrasing so funny and interesting that he wanted to write it down. One of the most famous sayings attributed to Pyle is “Life is short, but it’s wide.”
“It’s because he had these deep thoughts, and he knew how to express them with a more, like, cowboy sensitivity,” Ratts says. “It’s that contrast: the upper roof of the brain and...the fundamental kind of folk-music, everyday quality. And he danced between those two places.”
Chris Daniels, a member of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame who first met Pyle in the ’80s, notes that although Pyle had a deep understanding of cowboys, his work spoke to a universal audience.
“There are performers like that,” Daniels says. “Keb’ Mo’ is like that. It goes beyond just the genre.... When you think of Keb’ Mo’, you think of blues, but, God, he’s writing things that break the genre, and Chuck did that, too. He didn’t just write cowboy songs; he was writing songs that all of us could laugh at ourselves with.”
Guitarist Sam Broussard, who toured with Pyle in the early ’70s, agrees that the songwriter had a great sense of humor, adding that while his playful wit was quiet in conversation, Pyle would use it to build a performance. In addition to Pyle’s often funny on-stage banter, humor worked its way into his songwriting. Broussard recalls the line “...air so clear you can see your wife leaving you from here.”
But Pyle was serious about the craft of songwriting. Ratts recalls the 150,000 miles they traveled on the road together in 1973 and 1974 with Colours; he was amazed at Pyle’s attention to writing.
“He was a consummate writer,” Ratts says. “He was writing all the time. It wasn’t just songs. It was poems. It was notes. It was letters. It was journals. It was anything that he could do to put words together. I just think he was crafting his art. During that time, those songs that he brought to the table were crafted, and he didn’t change them. But I have seen him rework and rewrite songs over the years — like a song that was completed fifteen years ago, and he’d take a new perspective on it and rewrite it. He could write something presentable quickly, but he really did labor over crafting every line to say what he was looking to say.”
Broussard remembers Pyle continually rewriting lyrics: “He was a very good and very careful lyricist, and every preposition was important to him.”
Over the past four decades, a number of country and folk artists have recorded Pyle’s songs, but it was Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1975 recording of “Jaded Lover” that exposed him to a much wider fan base. According to Daniels, that was a song that made a lot of people suddenly say, “Holy cow, here’s somebody who can write in a way that we haven’t heard, whose guitar style — it’s a lot like James Taylor in a way, but it’s completely different.”
“He had the ability to create a guitar style and a vocal style that was completely unique,” Daniels continues. “‘Jaded Lover’ was the song that let the world know how amazing this guy was.”
The song, explains Burt, was about Pyle’s heartbreak over a soap-opera star while living in Amsterdam in 1972.
“He said it was one of those one-sided relationships where we both loved her a lot and neither one of us liked me very much,” Burt says.
“And we all related to that, because we’d been through heartbreak. So he dated her, and he was her noble savage, and she’d send a limo to pick him up. Sometimes the star would never show up; he’d just go out with the limo driver. He wasn’t very important to her. She wrote a poem to Chuck, and after a while, the limo driver says, ‘Well, she wrote that for the boyfriend before you.’”
Walker remembers that when he first heard him play “Jaded Lover” backstage in Boulder, just after it was written, Pyle felt disillusioned about the whole thing. Walker told him, “You ought to sing it more upbeat, because it’s a good thing you got rid of her.” Pyle laughed and said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
The song went on to become a hit for Walker and something of a bar-room standard. And as more people discovered Pyle’s songwriting talent, they also took notice of his virtuosic fingerpicking style, which he dubbed “Rocky Mountain slam picking.”
“It’s a blend of folk, flamenco [and] a little knuckle tap that he does and makes his one guitar and him singing sound pretty darn full,” Burt explains. “It gives it a backbeat. And he wanted to imitate his grandfather’s stride piano, so he would have the bass going, and he’d use the thumb and then he’d use the fingers. And besides playing melodic notes on top, he’d do this little back slap on two and four. Not every song has that, but a slew of them do.”
Broussard saw Pyle’s fingerpicking style as a relaxed form of Travis picking that incorporated a banjo frail. “It was a mountain-range version of country blues, peculiar to him,” he says.
Pyle told John McVey, who produced four of his albums, that he had tried to figure out what Paul McCartney was doing on the Beatles song “Blackbird.”
“But where he took it from there was way beyond that,” McVey points out. “It was not your typical fingerpicking thing, and that’s because he was very musically astute. He was always trying to figure out deeper chord melodies. And so where he went with it was like, ‘Oh, my God!’”
McVey also remembers that Pyle “had one of those voices that just had such vibe and such expressive qualities, and it was just resonant.”
And it was that winning combination of being a superb songwriter, guitarist and singer that made helped make Pyle, at least as far as Daniels is concerned, Colorado’s best musical ambassador. Not only was his song “Colorado” used in the PBS series Spirit of Colorado, but according to Daniels, it communicated more about Colorado than John Denver’s famous “Rocky Mountain High.”
“Chuck captured what Denver didn’t,” Daniels says. “John wrote ‘Rocky Mountain High,’ which we all sing, but Chuck wrote the great lyric ‘the sun shines through the rain.’ I think ‘Colorado’ is the best song ever written using name of the state in the title. Chuck’s was a love song to this state and to the beauty of this state in a way that nobody else captured. I think that’s why he’s such a great ambassador for this state. Chuck Pyle was probably one of the most gifted songwriters that this state has produced.”
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