Nine Nights a Week
Red River's remarkably vibrant music scene seldom sleeps in summer.
Story and photos by Tim Keller
The day’s last rays of sunlight slant through a corner window open to the mountain air, casting golden light that makes Mike Addington’s red Gibson Dove guitar glow as it fills the Lost Love Saloon with one swinging song after another. The barroom is packed with fans old and new who’re flushed with the excitement of hearing a Lyle Lovett singing in the corner of a small-town joint. Addington sings “Don’t Be Cruel” and flings a guitar solo under a wall clock of Elvis, whose hips swivel each second. “Bubbles in My Beer” gets a jazzy solo worthy of Willie Nelson. Given the modest scale of the venue, the level of talent may be unexpected, but it’s not at all unusual: Addington does this every evening, all summer (and much of the year around, too, for that matter).
Red River’s surprisingly vibrant music scene drew him from California 10 years ago. He’s settled into the saloon adjoining Texas Red’s Steakhouse, where owner Steve Heglund’s contented smile is just one sign that he’s this small mountain town’s most ardent music lover. As Addington puts a closing tag on his own song, “Horizon and Main,” Heglund marvels, “Mike’s got just one album, but he has 300 songs you’ve never heard.”
Addington is part of a local tradition: For 50 years a steady stream of singer-songwriters have had at least one foot planted in this northern New Mexico resort town. Most of them have come from Lubbock, Dallas, and Austin. As Michael Martin Murphey, one of the most stalwart among them, says, “Once you’ve spent any time here, it’s hard to get it out of your blood.”
Nestled at 8650-feet elevation in the narrow Red River Valley, downtown Red River is one mile long and two blocks wide. Five-hundred residents support an economy built on making visitors happy with its climate, abundant outdoor recreation, and music culture. While Red River Ski Area attracts a winter sports crowd—and for some reason the town goes all out for Mardi Gras—summer is high season for entertainment and festivals (see “Need to Know”). Addington says the town practically sells itself: “All we need is signboards in Amarillo that say ‘Red River: Bring a Sweater.’” Indeed, summer temperatures average 75 degrees in the afternoon, 40 at night.
Summer recreation includes fishing, rafting, camping, and traversing 138 miles of high mountain trails by foot, horse, mountain bike, ATV, or Jeep; everything but feet are readily available for rent from the town’s many outfitters. All that daytime recreation has a governing effect on the nightlife. “It never gets as wild here as in Texas,” Murphey says, “because everybody wants to be up at six in the morning to go fishing.” And yet the musicians and audiences keep coming. Murphey credits local music and hospitality impresario Heglund, owner of Texas Red s, The Lodge at Red River, the Love Lost, and The Motherlode Saloon. “None of us would be here if it wasn’t for Steve.”
Heglund originally came up from Albuquerque to ski. He was 26 in 1973, a music fan who loved Cream, Clapton, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. “None of that was here in Red River,” he says. “Instead, there was Bill and Bonnie Hearne every night at the Alpine Lodge. Tommy Hancock and the Supernatural Family Band played where Bull o’ the Woods is now, and The Outpost was going strong: You’d go into this little room and the music was phenomenal.”
Heglund’s friend Rick Fowler picks up the origin story. “In 1965, I was playing music in Dallas with Ray Wiley Hubbard and Wayne Kidd. We were students at Adamson High School.” Their classmates included singer-songwriters B.W. Stevenson and Larry Groce, now host of NPR’s Mountain Stage; Murphey had recently graduated and the guitar-slinging Vaughan brothers, Jimmie and Stevie Ray, were growing up nearby.
“There was an ad in the Dallas paper for a summer job playing music in Red River. Ray and Wayne and I came up and played as Three Faces West. During the day we drove Jeep tours. When the summer ended, we never left. The next summer we opened The Outpost as our own little venue and fashioned it after The Rubaiyat, a Dallas folk music club and coffee bar. We were still underage ourselves. We had a cover charge to come in and listen to music. People said we were crazy, no alcohol and a cover charge, but we had lines going down Main Street.”
They sold out two shows a night and closed by 10. Word reached Texas and soon The Outpost had name-brand guest artists, including Murphey. Willis Alan Ramsey and Jerry Jeff Walker each stayed a summer. “We kinda brought the Texas music scene up here,” Fowler says. “Everyone was happy to get away from the heat.”
By the time Heglund arrived in ’73, Austin’s “outlaw” music scene was exploding. The Armadillo World Headquarters hosted newly arrived singer-songwriters that included Murphey, Walker, and Willie Nelson. The interface of cowboys and longhaired musicians produced conflicts in both Austin and Red River. When Ray Wiley Hubbard walked across Main Street to buy beer one night at the D-Bar-D in Red River, he was hassled. But he got the last word, penning the classic anthem, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” Today the cowboys and musicians buy each other drinks.
Eventually Hubbard left (though he returns for festivals and special events). “I discovered beer and electricity and moved back to Dallas,” Fowler recalls him saying. But Fowler stayed, living and playing music in Red River for 45 years now. So has Wayne Kidd, who for more than three decades has been a pastor of music at Faith Mountain Fellowship Church, its tall white steeple rising across the street from Texas Red’s. “We started working opposite sides of the street,” Fowler says.
Heglund bought the D-Bar-D in 1975, renamed it The Motherlode Saloon, and booked a steady succession of Texas acts. “One night in 1978, Rusty Wier cancelled at the last minute,” he recalls. “Bill Hearne suggested Michael Martin Murphey as a replacement. I’d never met him, but he’d been big in Austin and then ‘Wildfire’ had made him a national star. He’d just moved to Taos but I reached him at an Albuquerque music store at 7 o’clock. At 10, he carried his guitar onto the Motherlode stage in front of 400 people.” Heglund and Murphey have been friends ever since.
Murphey was no stranger to Red River—he’d been coming since 1950. “My parents brought us up here fishing and camping beginning when I was five years old,” he says.
He kept his house and office in Taos but built a cabin above Red River. “I could’ve flown to Montana for the same thing, escaping to another world, but I could drive here in 40 minutes. This is the best place to have your morning coffee, play your banjo on the porch, and write a song. We have the best mountain mornings, in a place conducive to creativity.” One of his songs became New Mexico’s official state ballad, “The Land of Enchantment.”
Although marriage moved him to a Wisconsin ranch, he’s still spending summers in Red River. An avid student of the American West, Murphey hopes someday to house his 4,000-volume Western library in Red River. “To me, this is the capital of the West,” he says. “Red River’s history is the history of the West. Every important Westerner that you’ve ever read about was here at one time or another—the Apache, trappers, gunfighters, lawmen, ranchers, cowboys. Until they built Fort Union, the early Santa Fe Trail came just west of Red River.”
Trappers arrived in the early 1800s, followed from the 1860s to the 1920s by prospectors mining for gold, silver, and copper. A molybdenum mine has operated for nearly a century.
“Red River became a resort that served the cowboys from the area ranches, including the CS and the UU Bar near Cimarron,” Murphey says. “There were more than a dozen saloons. Gambling was illegal, but Red River was so isolated that no one could catch them.” The transition to vacation retreat began in the 1920s when Texans and Oklahomans started converting abandoned miners’ cabins into summer retreats.
Murphey’s boyhood summers were spent above 10,000 feet at the Lazy H Guest Ranch, built as a mining camp in 1895. He and his Texas musician friends stayed in the cabins in the 1960s and 70s when they performed in Red River. Heglund bought the site two years ago and collaborated with Murphey to develop Murphey’s Rocking 3M Chuckwagon Amphitheater, a beautiful concert venue. Last summer they inaugurated their chuckwagon dinner-and-concert series with a couple of shows each week. Murphey’s in heaven. “I’ll be doing these chuckwagon shows every summer until I die here.” When he convened a fortieth- anniversary gathering of his original Austin band last year, the Cosmic Cowboy Concert was in Red River. For the first time in two decades, he’s released an album of all original material: it’s called Red River Drifter. Breezy bluegrass melodies perfectly express the lyrical joys of a man reveling in love and the country life of the mountains.
At Texas Red's, Addington explains that there’s more to the Red River scene than a Texas takeover; it’s a dialogue. “There is a northern New Mexico sound,” he says. “Michael Hearne, South by Southwest, and Bill Hearne are good examples. It’s songwriter-focused and there’s more bluegrass in it than honky tonk.” He cites The Rifters and Don Richmond, who’s produced many northern New Mexico albums, including Addington’s Horizon and Main. “Chuck Pyle’s songs are part of it, too,” Addington says of the Coloradan. “Everyone up here does his songs, especially ‘The Other Side of the Hill.’”
As Addington’s wrapping things up in the corner of the Lost Love, I ask Heglund about his businesses. “Texas Red s is the main focus,” he says. What about the Lost Love, The Lodge upstairs, and The Motherlode next door? Almost bashfully, he allows, “We house a lot of musicians.” Austin-based musician Jana Pochop, who grew up in New Mexico, says, “Steve is the patron saint of traveling musicians. He’ll give you a gig, a bed, and food—and you don’t have to leave the building.”
Indeed, Heglund’s enterprises appear to exist more for love than profit. “For me, it’s all about the music,” he says. “It moves my soul. It makes me feel good.”
“In 40 years of playing, I’ve never worked for a better club owner than Steve,” Addington tells me later. “He loves music, and he brings in great bands.”
All summer, Addington plays the Love Lost Saloon seven nights a week. Then, when there’s not a touring band playing the larger Motherlode Saloon Friday or Saturday night, Addington walks next door to front his dance band, Two Dollar Horse. “Seven nights at the Love Lost and two at the Motherlode,” he says. “That’s nine nights a week.”
Once a touring songwriter himself, Tim Keller played Texas Reds January 27 & 28, 1989. He keeps his music, writing, and photography up to date at TimKellerArts.com.
NEED TO KNOW | RED RIVER SUMMER SOUNDS
RedRiver.org is a thorough reference for entertainment, events, recreation, lodging, dining, and more.
Bull o’ the Woods Saloon hosts great local acts like Hwy. 38 Houndogs and Ry Taylor, plus touring artists like Robert Earl Keen. 401 E. Main St.; (575) 754-2593
Cowboy Evening atop Bobcat Pass, a 22-year tradition combining a Dutch-oven ribeye dinner with cowboy poetry and western music every summer Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday through Labor Day weekend; performers have included Michael Martin Murphey, Syd Masters, and host Henry Lewis. (575) 754-2769; bobcatpass.com
Larry Joe Taylor’s Hot Chili Days, Cool Mountain Nights The 18th annual festival takes place Aug. 14-16 and features music at venues all around town, plus three Saturday cook-offs. (254) 968-8505; larryjoetaylor.com/red_river.htm
Michael Martin Murphey’s Rocking 3M Chuckwagon Stage Shows, twice weekly through August 30. Red River Drifter is available through michaelmartinmurphey.com. 178 Bitter Creek Rd.; (800) 915-6343 or (575) 754-6280; michaelmartinmurphey.com
Mike Addington plays all summer at the Love Lost Saloon and the Motherlode Saloon. His Horizon and Main album is available through MikeAddington.com. Watch for a second album this fall.
2nd Annual Red River Dulcimer Festival, workshops and concerts, mountain and hammer dulcimers, Sacred Harp singing. Aug. 1-3, Red River Community House. 116 E. Main St.; (575) 754-3364; redrivercommunityhouse.org
2nd Annual Red River Bluegrass Days Top bluegrass and old-timey bands in concerts and jams, Sept. 11-14, Red River Community House. 116 E. Main St.; (575) 754-2349; redrivercommunityhouse.org
Texas Reds/The Lodge at Red River/The Motherlode Saloon/The Love Lost Saloon Steve Heglund’s entertainment and hospitality compound is at the heart of town. 400 E. Main St.; (575) 754-2922; texasredssteakhouse.com
All content ©2014 Tim Keller