It was standing-room only Saturday night at the Ramkota Hotel in Pierre. With normal seating for about 150 people, the Ramkota amphitheatre was packed as Chris Gage played to about 210 of his friends, old and new, including several who graduated with him in Riggs High’s Class of ‘72.
This event was a promotion by South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) for the upcoming Ken Burns’ series “Country Music” which premieres Sept. 15-18 and Sept. 22-25 at 7-9 p.m. each night. Opening for Gage was a 15-minute trailer that introduced the audience to the series.
A gifted singer who plays several instruments--including the guitar and piano--Gage has built a musical career that’s taken him to Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry, HeeHaw and, for the past three decades, the alternate country music capital of Austin, Texas where he plays every year in the house band for the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
His professional music career began at age 13 in the Capital City Brass. Gage, Lonnie Schumacher--of Pierre--and two other young men formed the legendary South Dakota Red Willow Band 40 years ago. Gage and Schumacher are both in South Dakota’s Music Hall of Fame.
Gage has worked with Roy Clark, Willie Nelson and is Jerry Jeff Walker’s guitarist. He’s tight friends with award-winning progressive/alt country songwriter/singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who is cool enough to have a bit part in “The Big Lebowski.”
Using a grant from a Washington public TV station in partnership with SDPB, the National Music Museum on the campus of the University of South Dakota (USD) in Vermillion provided the guitar for Gage’s concert.
“I love coming to my hometown and playing a fancy guitar,” Gage said, brandishing the half-century-old Martin guitar that shared the spotlight with him Saturday night.
USD has an unparalleled collection of 15,000 instruments, from the oldest known cello in the world to a 1960’s Gibson Explorer electric guitar once owned by John Entwhistle of The Who.
Gage said he was honored to be asked to play the 1969 Martin D-28.
Made by the nation’s oldest guitar maker, the Martin D-28 could be called the standard acoustic guitar brand of country music. Hank Williams, John Prine and Neil Young often used this type of guitar. Its big body and patented bracing gives it a low-end bass resonance to go along with the jangle and dangle of the upper strings.
The guitar Gage played was first owned by legendary country guitarist Merle Travis. Singer, songwriter, guitarist and unofficial country music historian Marty Stuart then acquired the guitar. Stuart eventually traded it to his erstwhile father-in-law Johnny Cash who gave it to Travis’ son, Thom Bresh.
The guitar is not pristine: it’s clearly been used, with wear marks on the spruce wood-top most likely from picks and some slight stray marks. On the back Travis, for some reason, scratched his name, “M. Travis,” in scrawled cursive into the finish of the expensive guitar.
A similar 1969 D-28 without this guitar’s unique heavyweight history would perhaps be worth $10,000 according to online sources.
Saturday was the first time this guitar has been played since Bresh laid his thumb into it playing Travis-style at the opening of the museum’s guitar gallery in 2005 at USD, said Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the museum. Like all of the museum’s 15,000 instruments, the guitar has been in storage as the museum undergoes a three-year $10 million expansion.
Sheets and Museum Director Matt Collinsworth carefully transported the guitar out of storage in Vermillion to Pierre on Saturday in a Toyota pickup truck — in the back seat, not back in the bed — Collinsworth made clear.
As he worked at tuning it on Saturday, Gage said the Travis Martin is a beauty of a guitar if “a little finicky.” He said he was careful to tuck in the snaps on his shirt cuffs to make sure he didn’t mar the guitar’s surface as he played.
Gage played one of Merle Travis’ biggest hits, “Nine Pound Hammer,” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” He showed some guitar chops by playing ERic Clapton’s acoustic hit, “Running on Faith.”
Gage included in his set Paul McCartney’s classic acoustic guitar gem “Blackbird” and the late Texan song meister Guy Clark’s coolly plaintive “Dublin Blues.”
Perhaps in a hometown night the homer favorite was a South Dakota song from his friend and fellow musician Tom Peterson of Sioux Falls, “Black Hills Gold,” which Gage produced as part of an album in his Austin recording studio.
As an encore, Gage performed the flashy “Malaguena” that he said “is a good song to put an acoustic guitar through its paces.”
Gage received a standing ovation and warm words and hugs before and after.
He said he had a good weekend going over good memories with childhood chums in the community.
“I grew up on South Jackson, and by the time I got to high school, we moved to North Jackson,” Gage said with droll good timing, drawing laughs.
Gage gave a shout-out to Ron Lutz who hired Gage and his high school band, including Lonnie Schumacher, to play in Lutz’s downtown Pierre bar.
Seeing a childhood friend walking across the back of the packed amphitheater, Gage called him out: “We got in so much trouble in junior high.”
Gage pointed out classmate and childhood neighbor Vicki Boub Warne with an early teen memory. “I used to get up at night and go down to her place and wake her up.”
Next to her, Warne’s husband interrupted dryly: “I don’t need to hear this,” drawing laughs.
Warne added to the tale, “He would knock on my window and play something and say ‘Listen to this, do you like this?’”
Appreciation of Gage’s long-term Texas residency showed up, too, Saturday night. One fan wore a T-shirt from “Donn’s Depot,” the sprawling Austin bar where Gage has played every Monday night for a quarter-century.
Two similar concerts will be held in the state this week. Guitarist, singer and songwriter Boyd Bristow and Kaija and Brian Bonde of the “Always, Patsy Cline Show” will perform on Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 7 p.m. in SDPB’s Sioux Falls Studio. They will be joined by East of Westreville, an Americana bluegrass group. Bonde will play the National Music Museum’s 1971 Martin D-28 guitar once owned and played by Johnny Cash. Bristow and Kaija Bonde will play a 1967 Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar that was a favorite of June Carter Cash.
At 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13 in SDPB’s Rapid City studio, Jami Lynn, a nationally celebrated singer now living in Spearfish, will play her Americana songs on a 1980 Gibson RB-250 banjo given to Johnny Cash by Earl Scruggs who popularized the three-finger method of picking the five-string banjo (think “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song).
As Chris Gage sang Saturday night,
“I’ve never met an angel in this wicked old world. The closest I get is a Deadwood dance hall girl.
“I’ve never been to heaven but sure I’ve been told all the harps and halos are made of Black Hills gold.”