This weekend, Coloradans will celebrate the legacy of Walt Conley, Denver’s “grandfather of folk music,” at Waltfest, which takes place at Sheabeen Irish Pub, an unassuming Aurora bar that’s been hosting the event for the past thirteen years. But like the venue and Waltfest itself, Conley — and his role in developing the robust Colorado music scene we know today — might be under your radar.
Walt Conley was born in Denver in 1929. He was adopted by Wallace and Ethel Conley from Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where he grew up along the Burlington railroad tracks, in the shadow of Scotts Bluff National Monument. After his father died, Conley and his mother moved back to Denver, where Conley attended Manual High School and received a football scholarship to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling. During the summers, Conley worked at a ranch in San Cristobal, New Mexico, where he met Pete Seeger and other members of popular ’50s folk group the Weavers. According to Joan Holden, Conley’s widow, it was Seeger who assisted Conley in buying his first guitar and convinced him to use his rich baritone to perform as a folksinger.
In December 1950, Conley enlisted in the Navy, serving as a chaplain’s yeoman and an aviation boatswain’s mate during the Korean War. After being discharged, he joined a film crew in Silver City, New Mexico, that was shooting the now-classic 1954 film Salt of the Earth, then enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado. He graduated in 1957 and took a job as a teacher in Weld County. He also happened to play bass in a jazz trio at the time, and his teaching career ended when the school superintendent learned of his moonlighting as a musician in Denver clubs.
Conley’s first professional folksinging gig was at Denver’s Windsor Hotel, where he entertained in three different bars on the same evening. He also played the rathskeller at the Red Ram in Georgetown, Michael’s Pub in Boulder, and the Little Bohemia and Exodus folk clubs in Denver. These venues would form the nexus of Denver’s beatnik and folk scenes, with Conley performing regularly in the midst of it all.
In 1959, Conley and local guitarist Dave Wood recorded “The Colorado Story” and “Colorado, Queen of the West” for the Band Box label in honor of the centennial of the 1859 “Rush to the Rockies.” Band Box also released Conley’s single “Passin’ Through,” a 45 backed with “Worried Man Blues.”
Soon after, Conley began to book entertainment at the Satire Lounge. One of the first acts he booked was the Smothers Brothers, whom he’d met in Aspen. By this time, Conley was a central figure in the scene, known for presiding over a nonstop party and giving struggling or unknown musicians a chance. One such unknown was a young man named Bob Dylan, who passed through Denver in 1960. Conley agreed to let Dylan play short afternoon sets at the Satire and sleep on the floor at his house. According to Dylan: A Biography, by Bob Spitz, the young songwriter lectured Conley on the importance of rediscovering and preserving folk music of the past. Conley is quoted as saying, “Because I was black, [Dylan] expected me to be a young Bill Broonzy or a young Leadbelly…It was obvious to me that Bob thought I had sold out.”
Throughout the 1960s, Conley, along with bassist Clark Burch, traveled the country performing at such places as the Padded Cell in Minneapolis, the Bitter End in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and the Ice House in Pasadena. He also released two albums, Passin’ Through With Walt Conley and Listen What He’s Sayin’, along with the 1963 single “Ballad of the Walking Postman.”
In the early ’70s, Conley decided to fulfill his acting ambitions in Hollywood. He found minor roles in some popular TV shows of the time, including The Six Million Dollar Man and The Rockford Files, as well as in films and doing voiceovers for TV and radio ads.
In 1983, he returned to Denver and co-opened the music venue Conley’s Nostalgia, a nightclub and showroom at 554 South Broadway (now home to Syntax Physic Opera). In an article from the Rocky Mountain News on July 6, 1984, he’s quoted as saying, “I’m doing this club because I can no longer take going to play someplace and having the owner say, ‘Well, we don’t have any lights, but I can turn the chandelier around.’ They left the TV set on while you were playing. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
The place hosted such acts as Bob Gibson, Dave Van Ronk, Casey Anderson and John Fahey, along with local talent like Turner & Crowley and crowd favorite Bill Buckley. Conley’s Nostalgia also served as the venue for open-mic nights run by Swallow Hill Music, an outgrowth of the Denver Folklore Center, which was owned by another local folk icon, Harry Tuft. Conley closed the club in 1987.
Conley released his third album in 1991, and in 1995 he celebrated 35 years in entertainment by holding a fundraiser for the Rocky Mountain Music Association at the Mercury Cafe. The event was also intended to be a retirement party, but instead it turned out to be the jump-start for another musical endeavor: Conley & Company. After some initial lineup changes, Conley & Company, a self-described Irish pub band, began performing at various events in the area, including the Manitou Springs Mountain Music Festival. The group also played regular shows at Sheabeen Irish Pub, releasing the live albums Conley & Company Do the Sheabeen Pub and Black and Tans in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
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Conley died at 74 on November 16, 2003, after suffering a stroke. While his family lost a husband and father, many entertainers around Denver and across the country lost a longtime friend and supporter. Colorado lost a local legend who helped develop its folk and general music scenes for four decades. The appreciation was evident at Conley’s memorial service, which featured heartfelt performances by Sam Arnold of Morrison’s Fort Restaurant, Bill Buckley and Harry Tuft.
After Conley’s death, Conley & Company bassist Bill O’Donnell formed Juice of the Barley, another Irish pub band. Every November, the group celebrates Waltfest to honor Conley’s legacy and raise funds for the American Diabetes Association.
13th Annual Waltfest Diabetes Fundraiser
With Johnny Tarr and Juice of the Barley, 8 p.m. Saturday, November 19, Sheabeen Irish Pub, 2300 Chambers Road, Aurora, 303-696-6131.