Before I returned to America after a lengthy stay in Europe, I told my producer I was moving to Boise. His eyes widened as he exclaimed, "Pinto Bennett lives there!" John Renbourn, a British folk legend (I do not use this word loosely), had been touring with me for some years when I asked him about Pinto. It was the same excited response, " ... and The Famous Motel Cowboys!" I hadn't been in Boise for more than a day before I made Bennett's's acquaintance.
He is a kind man, quick to laugh, with a sense of wisdom behind his words. You just know from talking to him he has traveled that long honky-tonk road. On both sides of the Rockies, from the north to the south, Bennett has been jumpin' the dragon's tail. He tried Nashville, but couldn't adjust to their prescribed notion of songwriting. Pinto is a proud craftsman, working at his art since he was 16. After decades of honky-tonkin', a turn of events drew him to England. "It was incredible!" he said, when asked about this time in his life and the impressive jump leaving American bars for Wembly Stadium. "I made a record in 1985 called Famous Motel Cowboy Songs and a friend of mine, Richard Dobson, told me I was getting rave reviews in the music magazines in Europe. I got curious and called up some of these trade papers. They were excited by my music, so Sergio, my guitar player, and I saved up some money and flew to England to check it out. The exchange rate made us broke in a couple of days, but luckily we had some friends."
One of those friends turned out to be the road manager for the Everly Brothers, who at the time were doing their Great Reunion Tour, packing places like the Royal Albert Hall. "We just kind of hung out with them and everything just fell into place," Bennett continued. It was Don Everly who talked him into staying in England. So he got an agent and a manager (both were fans), then a record contract and hit the road with all of his own material. Bennett calls it "honky-tonk," because "Those were the kind of places I played," he said. In essence it was "country rock."
Listening to the tight formation of these recordings, I can imagine the Europeans stood still in awe of this authenticity. A big piece of Americana, the love and the loss, smoky honky-tonk nights, those hats and boots ... take out the twang and the music would have another name, but this is the gospel truth. Headlights in the desert night, prairie spirit, deer jumping ravines, mustangs looking for love, the scenario is complete with these compositions. If you didn't know anything about this music, its origin or originators, I would direct you to Pinto Bennett and The Motel Cowboys. It's born of the soil that claims the name "country," and it's purebred Idaho.
So here Bennett was with his band, playing in real country clubs where members paid their dues and saved up to hire their favorite musicians. It was a world removed from dancing drunks-wherever the group played was a concert where people sat and listened. They honed their material and "earned their pint." The more they played, the more the fever grew. Word spread throughout Europe. The Motel Cowboys were talked about, written about and filmed, until finally the small clubs couldn't hold them anymore. It was the same wherever they went. They were a bunch of foreigners, "Cowboys from Idaho," who delivered the goods. And that's just what they did, every summer for four years headlining European festivals with the likes of Willie and Waylon.
Of course, when Bennett returned home, it was business as usual, as if nothing had happened. After "going too fast for too many years," the wear and tear caught up with him. A heart attack sent him to the VA hospital, where he had time to examine his mortality. Since then, he's been patching himself up and performing locally. Things are trimmed and toned down, and now it's "The Trio Pinto." In my eyes, Bennett is a singer-songwriter. He's on the rebound with a new album coming out, Parallax View-all new material with Bill Parsons on stand up bass and "the incredibly talented Brett Dewey" on mandolin. This is a new phase for Bennett and once again word has reached Europe-the trio will be traveling there in June for a 10 week stint. It's not just high energy country rock anymore, it's the talent of the man himself, Pinto Bennett. Here in this little corner of the world, Bennett is still a local talent. But in Europe he is a star, a respected artist.
The group Reckless Kelly is devoting an entire CD to Bennett's songs and Shorty's Saloon hosts what has become an annual event "The Motel Cowboy Reunion," May 20-22. Check out Bennett's Web site at www.pintobennett.com. That's where the good music is at.
Benefit and reunion, Friday, 5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m.
$10, or $20 for all three events, Shorty's Saloon, 5467 Glenwood, 672-9090.