In the 1980s and '90s, the Denver band Ironwood Rain “turned some heads,” according to former frontman Scotte Burns. He talks about his years of making music without remorse, shedding no tears when describing the fact that music is no longer a part of his life. For Scotte, navigating downtown has become as difficult as maneuvering the current local music scene. Around the time when parking spots began to dwindle, so did the music industry's hallmark products, like recorded CDs. He and his wife, Toni Burns, have found ways of adapting their passions to suit the changing times, although adapting hasn't meant accepting new music business models like streaming services.
Scotte’s main objection with today’s music business lies largely in the change from what he calls “clubs” to what the kids now call “venues.” “The top clubs in town when we were playing the A circuit were Oil Can Harry’s, Sam’s Lookout Mountain, Mr. Lucky’s — most of them are gone now,” Scotte says. “Whiskey Bill's was torn down and turned into a bank.”
In place of these once-bustling clubs are venues with an entirely different understanding of the business. Scotte describes standard procedure in the ’80s and ’90s being that club owners paid performers a going rate of about $1,400 for four nights on stage. “If you kept butts in seats, you got a $200 raise every year that you maintained the stage,” Scotte says. It wasn’t unheard of that a number of local bands then — whom Scotte refers to as “the guys” — were able to make performing into a full-time job.
After taking a break from music from 1996 to 2004, Scotte returned to a changed business model. “All of a sudden I would go into a club where I thought I knew the ropes, and the first question I was asked was ‘Well, how many people can you bring?’” Many venues now paid performers based on a strict percentage of door sales, a booking mentality that many new bands accept as common, but one that’s a far cry from Scotte’s view of a performer's job of entertaining the clientele that the club provides.
Toni was there throughout Ironwood Rain's head-turning era, acting as the band’s manager. A self-proclaimed “bulldog,” Toni has a laugh that can stop a barista mid-pour. When she speaks, one hand is in constant motion — moving from a storytelling flourish to her husband’s knee and back up again. Scotte, tanned, tattooed arms folded neatly in front of him, speaks more calmly, while Toni charismatically fills in the gaps of the pair’s years in the Denver music scene and their current projects.
When Scotte talks about his and Toni’s inability to adapt their music to the era of downloads and Spotify, he does so recognizing the comedy in the situation. They’re old and technologically impaired; let the old-folks jokes begin. For Scotte and Toni, adjusting to the changing world didn’t mean adapting to technology — it meant finding another passion that spoke to them and letting it consume their lives as much as music had. In this search, they found their own relationship to be the core of inspiration for their latest project: a video series made during their Harley tours across the U.S., titled Lovin' America.
“We would always get asked how we make a 33-year marriage work, but we would look at each other and say, ‘We have no idea,'” Scotte says. As the question kept arising, the couple realized that they had something that other people found completely fascinating.
It’s not difficult to see the magnetism of the couple's relationship. More than three decades in, they sit side by side in a crowded coffee shop, telling story after story of their years traveling with a comical connection.
“The Jamaican body guard?” Toni will ask when Scotte hits a blank spot in his story.
“No, South Dakota,” he’ll reply.
She tightens her grip on his knee when he tells a particularly romantic story and says, “Oh this one’s my faaaavorite!” and he laughs at all of her jokes and often gives a reply that confuses everyone at the table but her.
“We started comparing notes and saying, ‘How do we make what we love to do [into] our career, because music isn’t happening?'” Scotte says. What they loved was taking Harley tours around the country together and the adventures they found: becoming a part of the sea of people at Sturgis, sleeping on the ground and eating Philly cheesesteaks in Philadelphia on their 33rd wedding anniversary. One year the two simply packed up for a routine biker trip, but this time they brought a camera, a microphone and a set of simple questions to ask people along the way.
It turned out that “Bulldog” Toni has a knack for jumping out of the car at a stoplight to ask couples about their ideas on “happily ever after.” They questioned strangers with inquiries like, “How did you know this was ‘it’?” and “What are the ways you express your love without actually saying ‘I love you’?” Then they compiled the answers into a video accompanied by soft guitar music and published them on their website.
It’s easy to view the project as simplistic, with videos titled “A Love Made of Laughter” and “A Tale of Redemption.” When asked about their affinity for throwing around phrases like “happily ever after” and “love at first sight,” the couple insists that their intent was much more nuanced than it might seem.
“We’re not Pollyanna,” Toni says. “It’s not like we think that everyone is going to find their perfect mate and we’re all gonna live happily ever after. Some people find their perfect mate on the second or third try, or not at all. Our point is not that bad love stories don’t exist, because they do, but you can see those anywhere. What we’re trying to do is say, 'Here’s the other side to marriage that you don’t see so much anymore.'”
Many of the couples they interviewed during their travels fall under this nuanced category of happiness: couples who met during long years of drug addiction and stayed together through the even longer years of recovery, couples who left heterosexual partnerships for more fulfilling homosexual ones, and couples who lasted through domestic abuse and divorce. “'Happily ever after' isn’t a state of being,” Toni admits. “It’s a constant state of motion.”
The Burnses' own happiness can certainly be considered as being in a constant state of motion. They openly address their days of skipping rent payments to feed their kids, as well as their current struggle with the nine-to-five lifestyle that enables them to continue with the Lovin' America project. But they accept these less than happily-ever-after-esque moments — and the end of their deep involvement in the Denver music scene — as a part of the ongoing journey.
Scotte’s stories about those times — about meeting notorious rock promoter Barry Fey at the Oriental Theater, or about his debt to musician Chris Daniels — are mesmerizing, but tearless. As their constantly moving lives show, things are different now, and Scotte and Toni have since moved on.
Having just returned from their latest Lovin' America venture — a six-week, 5,000-mile trip across the Pacific coast and Pacific Northwest — the two have a whole new slew of stories to tell. “We collected dozens more man-in-the-street interviews on love in, and with, America, as well as hundreds of photos and dozens of couples interviews,” Scotte says. “We also have the writing completed for our second eBook, compiled from the experiences and people of this journey.”
When the desire to wince at phrases like “eternal love” is stifled, Scotte and Toni’s collection of stories is meditatively charming. As Toni points out, they absolutely represent a side of love that isn’t indulged in much lately.
And it’s, well, sweet.
Blog posts detailing the last six weeks of travel can be found at www.lovinamerica.us.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.