Chris Gage, noted musician from Austin, Texas, via Pierre, South Dakota, will play a special concert Sept. 7 in Pierre featuring a unique guitar.
It’s a special event organized by South Dakota Public Broadcasting in partnership with the National Music Museum at USD in Vermillion.
In the concert at the Ramkota, Gage, a 1972 graduate of Riggs High School, will play a 1969 Martin D-28 guitar custom built for guitar-picking legend Merle Travis which also has been owned by country music legend Johnny Cash and Cash’s ex-son-in-law and country star Marty Stuart.
Gage, who played on Hee Haw for years and was in Roy Clark’s band, regularly plays on Austin City Limits, owns a recording studio there and tours with Jerry Jeff Walker.
“I’m honored to be asked and excited to be a part of this,” Gage said in a news release from SDPB. “Pierre is still in my blood, I guess.”
He told the Capital Journal this week that he’s intrigued to see the guitar, which he has been told will be carefully transported to Pierre by a Museum curator and watched closely while it’s here.
“I hear it’s going to be under armed guard,” Gage said with a laugh. “I promise I will be careful.”
The concert is part of SDPB’s promotion of the Ken Burns’ new documentary on Country Music that will run for six days in mid-September.
Gage is a well-known in South Dakota music history as a founder member of the Red Willow Band and in the South Dakota Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Merle Travis guitar carries its own interesting history and will be treated as a star at the concert in Pierre.
The Martin guitar was made in 1969 for Travis, who is credited with the thumb-based “Travis” style of fingerpicking that he popularized and Chet Atkins further perfected.
(Many who may not know Travis’ name might remember him from his small but memorable role in the 1953 blockbuster “From Here to Eternity,” picking and singing “Reenlistment Blues.”)
The style is more popular than ever and championed by the Dire Straits’ great Mark Knopfler.
The guitar was passed from Travis to Marty Stuart, who has built his own museum of country music history, including about 100 historic guitars.
Stuart traded the Travis Martin to Johnny Cash for a fancier and more valuable 1939 Martin D-45 which Cash had obtained from Hank Williams, Jr. and played on his vaunted TV music/variety show that ran on ABC from 1969-1971, according to an account Stuart gave in 2014 to Guitar Player magazine.
Cash was such a fan of Merle Travis he was willing to make the trade, Stuart said.
Years later, Johnny Cash gave the 1969 Merle Travis Martin to Merle Travis’ son, Thom Bresh, a respected finger-picking guitarist in his own right who has performed with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and John Prine.
Cash urged Bresh to play with pride the guitar with his father’s name in big letters on the neck.
“You’ll be able to say this guitar was owned by three great musicians and a poet,” Cash told Bresh.
Gage’s concert on Sept. 7 will be the first time the Merle Travis Martin has been played since Bresh played it in South Dakota in 2005 at the opening of the guitar gallery in the National Music Museum on the campus of USD in Vermillion, says Arian Sheets, curator of stringed instruments at the Museum, which is legendary itself.
Gage began his professional musical career in Pierre and last played here on July 30.
Ron Lutz had Gage and his wife and musical partner, Christine Albert, perform in concert in Lutz’ Hitching Horse Inn bed-and-breakfast on North Euclid Avenue on July 30.
“It was packed,” Lutz said. “We had about 36 people.”
Lutz has known Gage since childhood and graduated from Riggs with Gage’s older brother.
“I gave Chris his start,” Lutz said with a chuckle. “I hired him to play in my bar just after he got out of high school, in 1972. In the Whale Inn, down on Sioux Avenue. His band was “The All Night Good Time Band.”
Gage remembers it being a little earlier.
“Ron was one of my first employers,”Gage said. “I was still in high school. After my junior year, we played all summer at the Whale Inn. We played in the basement. It was a 3.2 beer place, so the clientele was 18 (and older). I also played at the 406 Club on Pierre Street when I was in high school. They used to have a night club upstairs, with strippers and a band. So it was pretty fun for a teen ager.”
He went to college for a couple years at the University of Minnesota.
“I decided I didn’t want to be a music teacher. I quit school and started a band. That was in 1974.”
He helped form the now legendary South Dakota group Red Willow Band.
“Ronnie Carpenter was the drummer, the bass player who is still in Pierre, was Lonnie Schumacher. Lonnie was in the All Night Good Time Band, too, so we played together for a long time,” Gage said. Famed fiddler Kenny Putnam joined later.
Gage and the band were inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
They still get together to play, Gage said.
“We played a couple shows this summer, like we have the past three summers. Which is pretty good for a band that broke up 40 years ago.”
Ever since the start of Red Willow Band in 1974, Gage has made his living as a working musician, which is a rare feat.
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” he said by phone from Austin, Texas. Austin rivals Nashville for its music city status.
He appears regularly on Austin City Limits.
“They do a Hall of Fame show every year and I’m in the house band for that.” Which means he’s played on stage with Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, Chris Isaak, Roseanne Cash and Willie Nelson, to name a few.
Besides musical talent — Gage plays keyboards and sings as well as playing guitar — he makes making a living in music sound like a lot of work.
“What it takes is putting on several different hats. I’ve always got a ‘high visibility’ sideman job. Right now, that’s (playing guitar for) Jerry Jeff Walker. And I’ve always got my own band and I’ve always had a recording studio.(Moonhouse Studio) And I play at a big church every Sunday morning. Riverbend Church, one of those big ‘three-screen’ churches. I don’t go there, I just work there. It’s the best band I play in. Everyone in it is a professor of jazz at UT. It’s pretty amazing.”
Gage grew up going to church at First United Methodist in Pierre.
“I sang my first solo there when I was 7 years old.”
Gage doesn’t play the thumb-led Travis style of picking.
“But I can emulate it,” he said. “I use a flat pick and then pick with my other fingers.”
He’s been told the Travis guitar will have minders, including a curator from the National Music Museum who will bring the guitar to the concert and take it back afterward.
Gage has thought about a play list.
“I figure I will do at least one Merle Travis number. One or two Johnny Cash songs, a couple of my own. And I might do a Spanish guitar number.”
The concert is free and will be in Amphitheater #2 in the Ramkota Hotel & Convention Center on Sioux Avenue in Pierre at 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 7.
It will include Gage in a discussion and Q&a as well as performing.
Arian Sheets, the curator of stringed instruments at the Museum will talk about the Merle Travis Martin guitar
Using a grant from the WETA, the Washington (D.C.) Educational Television Association, SDPB is holding the concert in Pierre and two similar concerts of country music to promote the eight-part, 16-hour documentary film by Ken Burns, Country Music, that will run on SDPB Sept. 15-18 and Sept. 22-25. Previews of the new documentary were shown last weekend on SDPB.
The idea is that the history of this storied Martin guitar made for Merle Travis and passed through some legendary country hands, illustrates the history of country music, said Patricia Bornhofen, communications director for the National Music Museum in Vermillion.
It’s also a chance to get some of the Museum’s instruments out for people to see and hear, she said.
The Museum is closed during a $10 million addition and renovation that will add about 15,000 square feet of space and upgraded technology but won’t be completed until 2021, Bornhofen said.
In the meantime, the 15,000 instruments remain carefully packed away in storage, she said.
When re-opened, there will be more room and perhaps more than the 1,200 instruments that have been on display can be seen regularly, Bornhofen said.