Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles about Country Dick Montana, who died onstage during a Beat Farmers performance 20 years ago in the Longhorn Saloon in Whistler, Canada.
I want to be in that band. I want to travel with those guys. I get the feeling looking at those guys, when they are traveling, working across the country, there may be some states they can’t go to. To me, that’s a happening. … if I should have to leave and get a real job, I am going to work with the Beat Farmers. – David Letterman, June 14, 1991
Anyone who saw the Beat Farmers live, David Letterman included, recognized the band’s talent, charisma and swagger. But those traits did not add up to financial success or worldwide acclaim.
While the Beat Farmers’ third album with Curb Records/MCA eventually provided the chance to perform a potential hit single live on national television, it also highlighted the band’s missed opportunity. The album was appropriately titled “Poor and Famous.”
Joey Harris recommended that the band perform a Country Dick Montana song, but instead, the tune that was picked was “Hideway,” a pop-country song that Harris wrote. Letterman’s house band, headed by Paul Shaffer, provided the rhythm section, leaving bassist Rolle Love to play acoustic guitar and Country Dick the accordion. Dick was overdressed in his duster and goggles. No one threw beer onto the stage.
“Of course, I was giddy with excitement to sing my own song,” Harris said. “On the other hand, I was thinking somebody’s going to be falling asleep watching David Letterman and this nice, sort of mid-tempo rock ballad is going to come on. They are going to look up for a second and then they are going to go back asleep. Or it could have been a Country Dick song, and they would have sat up in the bed and said, ‘Who the fuck it that?’ It would have been so great for everyone’s career. Including the record company’s, for Christ’s sake.”
The Beat Farmers’ displeasure with Curb was displayed onstage with signs and during performances. The members dedicated a song to its record label, and then cheerfully pantomimed a scene from “Deliverance” to the “Green Acres” theme song. Cowpunk, indeed.
“Any Beat Farmer record that came out was lost when it came out because Curb Records had a terrible habit of not having the records in the stores when we came through a town,” Harris said. “People would be turned on by the band and go looking for the record and they couldn’t find it.”
But the problem was more than distribution. The Beat Farmers were, as its road manager Tom Ames said, like a “three-headed monster.”
It had three singers, Harris, Jerry Raney and Country Dick Montana, each with a different style.
“Each one of them was an individual who had had success,” Ames said. “Jerry wrote his own music, which was completely different from Joey’s. It was more rock and roll-ish and blues, where Joey was more pop. Dick wasn’t really a writer but he had help from various people like the Farage Brothers (twins Doug and David) and Paul Kamanski, who was a huge part of the band as far as contributing songs we thought were awesome. It was definitely a quandary for the record company to figure out how to market this thing.”
The Beat Farmers first manager, Denny Bruce, compared the group to Buffalo Springfield, which had incredibly talented individuals but no definitive sound.
“It’s not like there is this recognizable music for a program director on less-talk radio,” Bruce said. “They are going to listen to Cut 1, Side 1, and go, ‘I like this, and then there’s nothing else like it on the album.’ It was always a problem. You are not getting a group sound that is recognizable to anybody,” Bruce said.
“I had the game plan for them and got them a very good deal with Curb. I said, ‘We can be right up there, but we all have to play team ball and be on the same page. Now here we are two, three albums into this thing, and I don’t see one co-write. I don’t see Lennon-McCartney. Me, me, me, is what I am seeing.”
Country Dick’s singing on the comedic anthem with a kazoo, “Happy Boy,” gave the Beat Farmers its first taste of national attention, and it also made the group seem to many to be a novelty act. “Happy Boy” and “California Kid” were played on the Dr. Demento radio show, which featured off-the-wall songs.
“We fought with Curb Records almost from the beginning over that,” Harris said. “They wanted to exclude Country Dick’s material from the records completely. But they just hadn’t seen our (live) show, obviously.”
Mojo Nixon, who also has a comedic element to his music, elaborated.
“There was a rift in the Beat Farmers because half the people at the live show were there to see him, if not more than half,” he said. “The Beat Farmers had really good songs, good singers, good songwriters, good guitar players, good production. But anytime you act the fool, people put you in the comedy corner and you don’t get taken seriously.
“I think it upset other people more than it upset Country Dick. This has been true in pop music forever. The Coasters, Jerry Reed, they could act the fool and still make some money. But critics and whatnot, they want you to take things seriously. Country Dick didn’t take shit seriously. The more serious you took it, the more he was going to make fun of it. He was going to fuck with you. The more you cared, the greater the chaos was.
“But take a song a song like ‘Make it Last’ by the Beat Farmers. That could have got on the pop country charts next to Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. But the label didn’t know what to do with them.”
The three studio albums with Curb – “VanGo,” 1986, “Pursuit of Happiness,” 1987, and “Poor and Famous,” 1989 – are solid but fail to capture the magic of the band’s live performances.
“(Marketing-wise), Curb never lived up to anything they told us they were going to do,” road manager Ames said. “After ‘Poor and Famous,’ where they pulled the plug almost immediately on that, we started getting very disillusioned.”
The Beat Farmers still owed Curb two records, so in 1990 it released a double-live album recorded on New Year’s Eve in its hometown San Diego, “Loud and Plowed and … Live!!” This record did convey the spirit of a live performance filled with improvisation and humor from the California Kid, Country Dick Montana.
“We said, ‘OK we’re basically done with you (Curb) now,” Ames said. “We just started to lose momentum that we had built a bit. Now, granted, this was an awesome cult band with a loyal fan base but trying to grab a bigger part of the purse with an audience without your record company … It all started coming apart then.”
Harris said Curb didn’t count “Loud and Plowed and … Live!!” as two albums. That explains the compilation, “Best of the Beat Farmers,” released in 1995.
The Beat Farmers’ final two albums were released by a small indie label, Sector 2. “Viking Lullabys,” and “Manifold” were released in 1994 and ’95, respectively, and, sadly, are nearly impossible to find. Tragically, Country Dick Montana did not live to see 1996.
Before the sessions for “Manifold,” the band had a meeting.
“I said, ‘Look, for years people have been saying that it’s hard to promote you guys,’ ” Harris recalled. “ ‘It’s hard for record stations to figure out how to play Beat Farmers because it’s a Country Dick song, it’s a Jerry Raney song, or it’s a Joey Harris song. Let’s try to do this. Let’s do every song where we’re all singing, kind of like the Traveling Wilburys.’
“Everyone sort of seemed to agree to that but by the time we got to the studio it was even more of a three-headed monster. I recorded my tracks with Country Dick. We recorded all of Jerry’s tracks with the whole band and (Country Dick’s) tracks were usually with an outside drummer playing on them. I think that the band itself felt like any brotherhood was sort of played out.”