Pinto Bennett laughs when I ask him if that's his real name.
"Whose mother would name them that?" he answers. I think back to the first time I saw Trio Pinto take the stage just before Christmas last year. Pinto was dressed in a Santa Claus suit, his infamous white beard just scruffy enough for the part, his cowboy hat replaced with a pointy red St. Nick hat. It seemed to me that if anyone could pull off a swearing, whisky-drinking, guitar-picking Santa who, between songs, said things like, "I just love that shit-kicking music," it would be the kind of guy whose birth certificate legally designates him as "Pinto."
But like a lot of things in Bennett's life, there's no simple explanation, even for something as simple as his name. When he tells the story of how he came to be known as Pinto, there's no discernible beginning or end. For a man hovering around 60 years old (he says he thinks he's 59), time isn't something contained by dates or years, and neither are the events he recounts. "I got it at an early age. I had this friend named Bruce Ashley who always called me Pinto as a nickname. We had one of those old crank-up record players and on one of the records, there was this guy named Pinto who did these goofy songs. Bruce and I liked Bob Wills--we had Bob and silly Pinto on 78s and everyone else we had on 45s--and Bruce became Bob and he started calling me Pinto. That's how it started."
Then he tells me his real name, and the story segues into the much more personal reason the nickname stuck.
"I was named after my grandfathers," he says. "And I never felt I had the sand to be as good as either one of them. They were my benchmark and I didn't think I could measure up. So I became a songwriter."
The son of an Iowa farm girl and a World Ward II veteran from Idaho, Bennett was raised on a sheep farm outside Mountain Home. He started playing gigs at age 14 on a guitar his musician father bought him at a pawnshop.
"I thought I'd be the next Elvis. I played those strings until I bled," he says, showing me the calluses on his fingertips. "And my dad knew I was an Elvis freak, so he took me to Jackson Hole to hear 'Homer and Jethro'--they were this comedy duo--and they blew my mind. They made me want to be a better player and want to have a better act."
After a childhood in which he says he learned all the "good stuff worth knowing" from his grandfathers and "all the bad stuff" from his honky-tonk father (who, incidentally was also "a pretty cool dude"), a narrow miss with the law in Mountain Home landed him in the United States Navy, where, Bennett says, he finally grew up. He left the Navy to pursue his career in music. The stories of what followed his return to Idaho tumble forth without much order when he tells them. He's been a sheepherder, a stonemason, a tree trimmer, and when he was still young enough, he says he "built houses and shoveled horse shit." His life is like a meandering stream, and Bennett wanders the switchbacks of his memory from tales about his bar--called Bennett Idaho--to rodeo queens, from stints in Europe and Nashville to the crazy days of being Pinto Bennett and the Famous Motel Cowboys. He used to play the Palomino in Hollywood (Merle Haggard was playing there, he interrupts himself to say) on amateur nights and often won the $50 purse. In Nashville, he took up with Jack Clemens, who produced Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. And in London, where he and Motel Cowboy Sergio Webb went just to "check things out," he ended up hanging out with the Everly Brothers, making music for almost a decade.
"I became a songwriter out of self defense," he says. "I was always the shittiest guitar picker in the band. There was always someone better, so I figured it out--if I write the songs, I'm in charge." But, in truth, Bennett was writing songs long before his band survival instincts kicked in. His first recorded song was "She's My Girl," a song Bennett wrote in high school that was recorded by Freddy Paris and the Motifs in the early '60s. Since then, Bennett says, he's been writing about everything from love to whisky to honky-tonks to sheepherding.
Thirteen years ago, after a second move to Nashville, Bennett returned to Idaho for good. Shortly after resettling in Boise, a heart attack put him in the hospital, and much of his life today is a result of his time spent in recovery.
"I was sitting in bed at the hospital, watching TV, and this old cowboy came on and said, 'If you want to wise up, you gotta come to the Lord.' And I wanted to feel that vibe." Now, though he sometimes simplifies himself by saying he "looks like a honky-tonk asshole and acts like a honky-tonk asshole," the man who's spent his life writing himself into song defines himself first as a Christian, second as a conservative and third as a veteran.
Almost four years ago, Bennett's decades-long run as the ringleader of the Famous Motel Cowboys took a turn into a more subdued direction with the formation of Trio Pinto, the three-man ensemble with Bill Parsons on stand-up bass, Brett Dewey on mandolin and Bennett on guitar. Before the Trio, with many of the Motel Cowboys making regular, if unpredictable, appearances for gigs, Bennett says he never knew who was going show up to play in the band.
"We had to make a change," explains Parsons. "It was too crazy when six or seven people would show up [to play] and it would turn into a big party. It wasn't doing the music or Pinto's health any good. It was just a matter of getting back to basics again and clarifying the music."
Both Parsons and Dewey agree that streamlining the band has not only made the music cleaner, but shifted the focus.
"It's more about Pinto's songs," says Dewey. "He writes about the more personal side of human beings and puts a lot of thought into his songs. They're very well-crafted and there's something that connects with people in his songs."
Since returning from a 10-week tour of Europe last year, the trio has picked up a house gig at Shorty's Country and Western Saloon in Garden City and Bennett has started collaborating with filmmaker Michael Gough on a TV pilot for a show based on the Famous Motel Cowboys. And of course, he's still writing and selling songs.
"Right now, I'm working on songs about wising up," he says. "One is called 'Appeasing His Character Flaws' and the other one doesn't have a name yet, but I think I'm going to call it 'The Insurgency Song.'"
Bennett's latest CD Dig We Must, is a compilation of previously unreleased material from throughout his career. And in 2005, the Trio released Parallax View.
"It's a navigational term I learned in the Navy," Bennett says, explaining the title of the album. "You know how you look at something and it looks one way and then you look at it from another angle and it looks different? That's a parallax. I used it as a metaphor for a different way to look things, like music." Or, perhaps, himself.