Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of articles about Country Dick Montana, who died onstage during a Beat Farmers performance 20 years ago at the Longhorn Saloon in Whistler, Canada.
Steve Poltz was drinking at a bar in San Diego after a show with his band the Rugburns when a huge man put an arm on his shoulder and in a low, thundering voice offered sage advice: “Remember, it’s a big stage, scumbag. Use it all.”
“It was like Jesus giving the last sermon,” Poltz said. “Country Dick Montana was my mentor, and the Beat Farmers were my heroes.”
Country Dick Montana and the Beat Farmers inspired the San Diego music scene, and artists such as Poltz and Mojo Nixon embraced the humor, improvisation and limitless of it all. During his shows nowadays, Poltz is carried by the audience, a technique mastered by Country Dick.
The first Rugburns’ album was produced by founding Beat Farmer Buddy Blue, and it included contributions from Country Dick, Mojo Nixon, and Nixon’s psychobilly partner, Skid Roper.
“Country Dick was insane and he really loved us,” Poltz said. “It was an early session at 9 a.m. and he pulls up in this old Corvair, barefoot with frayed cutoff Levis. He’d been up all night and he walked in with dirty bare feet and says, “Where’s the beer?” And he gets two of them. Then he says, ‘Lemme hear the song.’ He was a legend.”
But the tough thing about being “Poor and Famous,” the title of a Beat Farmers album, is the part about being poor, and money was the center of discussion the last time Mojo Nixon and Country Dick were together.
In the fall of 1995, the two traveled from San Diego to Hollywood to a play rockabilly show that was booked by young man whom Nixon said was the son of wealthy parents.
“He said he’d pay us $1,000 each,” Nixon said. “Dick had some legal IRS problems. They wanted $17 a month. I remember his saying, ‘If I pay them $17 a month, they won’t get the full amount until I’m 246 years old.’ Country Dick had confused his bookie with his bookkeeper. Some guy told him, ‘If you want me to do your taxes, it’s $200, or you can get the discount rate for $50.’ Country Dick went with the $50 version and that’s what got him in trouble with the IRS.”
After the show, the promoter didn’t have the money to pay them, so he drove Mojo and Country Dick to his parents’ house, where he wrote them each a $1,000 check.
The line between Country Dick’s on- and off-stage persona was thin, and, according to Nixon, the California Kid told the promoter if the checks bounced, he’d come back and kill him.
Country Dick Montana appeared to be in his prime. He’d lost weight, only drank wine or alcohol that was derived from a cactus and, as always, was energetic and enthusiastic about performing. But he also seemed to know the end was near.
“He was told he had cysts on his kidney. He would ride in that damned van bouncing all around and it was very painful for him,” Beat Farmers road manager Tom Ames said. “A doctor said you’ve got to quit this (lifestyle). He actually listened to somebody for once and started to straighten it out.”
Joel Kmak, who had been a friend of Dan “Country Dick” McLain’s since high school, agreed.
“Dan just had a penchant for being able to do more of anything than anybody, including having fun,” Kmak said. “He was always that kind of person, but he took it over the top with the Country Dick. He was definitely burning the candle at both ends. When he was having his health troubles, people would say slow down, and he did. He battled that cancer and he beat it.”
Acutely aware of his pain and acquiescing to requests from friends, Country Dick visited a doctor’s office before the Beat Farmers departed on what became its last tour. However, after a friend dropped him off, he slipped out the back door and was never examined. The prospect of a third cancer surgery may have been too much, even for him.
“I think he just didn’t want to go through any more shit,” Kmak said. “I think, in his heart, he was going, ‘Fuck, I’m done with this.’ At that point, he was smoking again. He had quit smoking for years. Maybe he was thinking he couldn’t go through what he had gone through a few years earlier.”
Country Dick enjoyed entertaining and people relished watching him entertain. That was something he wouldn’t stop doing until his body shut down.
“People just loved him and they would kill for him,” said Joey Harris of the Beat Farmers. “We went to just about every town in America and Canada about once a year and people would come 500 miles to see Country Dick one more time. It was so exhilarating.”
Songwriter Paul Kamanski compares Country Dick to the greatest entertainers.
“If you take Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Country Dick, Hugh Hefner, Walt Disney, which is frightfully weird to put in the mix, they are just geniuses,” Kamanski said. “He could have been elected president and made it mandatory for the Senate to eat mushrooms. He would win because he could stand with a boot on a guy’s chin and the guy would smile at him and buy him a beer. The audacity of him in the first place to think he could get away with it. How do you develop that much swagger?”
Country Dick championed a lifestyle that was undeniable. Once, during a post-show dinner at a table shared by members of the Beat Farmers and the artist John Prine, pitchers of margaritas arrived.
Prine declined. “I think I have a drinking problem,” he said.
County Dick stood up and incredulously exclaimed, “What’s the matter, are you going to run out?”
Kamanski, concerned about his friend’s nonstop existence, wanted his friend to take a break and go fishing in the Lake Tahoe-area town Markleeville. Country Dick declined.
“They have liquor up there, they have bars you can go to,” Kamanski countered.
“His girlfriend says, ‘You don’t understand, he needs to walk into a bar where people recognize him,’ ” Kamanski said. “He had to have that, which is an interesting insight to the psyche of who he was. He loved to go out and meet people.
“Meet and greet – that’s the thing he taught us. After every show your job is to shake hands and talk to as many people as you can. That was the one thing that he would really get upset about is when somebody got done the gig and packed up their gear and went home. He thought that was blasphemy. Then there’d be an after-party at the Travel Lodge or something until 4 or 5 in the morning then you have to get in a van and drive 500 miles to the next gig.”
“I went to the hospital with Dick,” road manager Tom Ames said. “They worked on him at least a half-hour, 45 minutes, and I was still stunned when they came out after trying to revive him after all that time. They come out and told me he was gone. I was in shock.”
It wasn’t cancer or the kidney that killed the 40-year-old Country Dick. He had a blood clot in his leg, which may have been the result of thousands of miles sitting bent-kneed in a van.
The Beat Farmers were finished. Soon afterward, Poltz stopped drinking and Mojo Nixon stopped touring. Twenty years later, people in San Diego and all across the globe continue to grieve, reminisce and smile when asked about the amazing Country Dick Montana.
“A lot of people never knew he had cancer when he was 19 so I think that he viewed everything that he did after that was frosting on the cake,” Country Dick’s friend Dave Alvin said. “So it was live hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory.”