“Country Dick Montana is dead.”
When I heard the news, I went to a mirror to look at the bruise on my forehead where he’d kicked me five days earlier. I was grief-stricken and didn’t know what else to do.
The first time I experienced a Beat Farmers show was in the late 1980s on the campus of Humboldt State University. All I knew was that the San Diego band was popular with college students, and an Arcata radio station had been playing one of its songs that began with a harmonica solo, “Hollywood Hills.”
The Van Duzer Theatre is renowned for its great sound and I was blown away from the start at the aggressive, hard-rocking Beat Farmers. When it played the Kinks’ “20th Century Man,” I wondered if even the Kinks could have played it better. I’d recently discovered Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” and when the Beat Farmers played “Reason to Believe,” it became personal. The band was playing to me.
Then the giant drummer with a long coat and cowboy hat walked to the front of the stage with a bottle of beer and sang a hilarious rendition of the Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille.” When the song was over, Country Dick Montana, who had laid on his back and poured beer from the bottle between his boots, was drenched in beer the audience had sprayed. He was the most charismatic and funniest entertainer I’d ever seen.
After that, I bought each Beat Farmers record I could find and I went to the shows every time the band was nearby, arriving early, of course, because of the chance to talk to Country Dick, who mingled with everybody. The “camping” excursions were a highlight. Our hero would sit cross-legged on the floor with the crowd and tell stories and sing songs. Country Dick’s quick wit and improvisation made each show unique and memorable.
In November 1995, I was working at the Bay Area newspaper the Contra Costa Times when the band played at Slim’s in San Francisco along with the Blasters, the favorite band of my sister’s husband.
My brother-in-law, TV weatherman Bill Martin, seemed miffed that the Blasters were the opening band.
“When you see the Beat Farmers, you will know why they are the headliners,” I said as we fueled up for the show.
A sign posted at Slim’s, with the same handwriting that is on the “Beat Farmers Almanac,” requested that fans not throw beer at the Beat Farmers, who are “tired of getting arrested after shows.”
But, as usual, the beer flew during the concert. Country Dick appeared healthy and at his best. Toward the end of the show, the ringleader wanted tequila and screamed, “To the bar, boys!” I tried to get out of the way. However, when he jumped into the crowd, Country Dick accidentally kicked me in the head with a beer-soaked boot. I later learned he wore size 14, and it sure felt like it as I staggered away. But like Country Dick being thumped by a ceiling fan, I stayed on my feet, albeit sustaining a helluva bruise.
After my sister called with the news, I felt the bruise and looked in the mirror.
Twenty years later, I figured out what I should do.
During an interview with Dave Alvin for Blues Music Magazine, I went off topic and asked about his friendship with Country Dick. A few months later, singer-songwriter Steve Poltz shared more stories about my favorite entertainer, and that’s when I realized it was the 20th anniversary of his death. I decided to write a story, and after reaching Mojo Nixon on the phone, I knew I had a good one. Mojo connected me with Joey Harris, who gave me the inside dope on the band whose bumper sticker, or pieces of it, still adorns my car.
“There are people that are mad that Jerry (Raney) and I haven’t stayed together,” Harris said. “Not mad, but saying you guys should have stayed together. We loved the Beat Farmers. But it was all Country Dick, as far as I was concerned. We were just a great rock and roll band, but we were a great rock and roll band with Country Dick Montana. He was the reason people would come, I think. He is the reason I would go.
“The fans just have wonderful memories, especially at this point. We’re all heading into our 60s, so if you’re still alive 20 years later, it’s fun to go see Joey Harris play and reminisce, and I love hanging out with the fans who do show up and come and say hi, and all we do is talk about Country Dick.”
Like everyone else I spoke with for this story, Harris had fascinating tales and insight into the life of Dan McLain, aka Country Dick Montana. I did not intend to make this a multi-part series, but there was too much good stuff that needed to be shared. For example, I have 8,000 words of transcribed interviews with Paul Kamanski, and I’ve highlighted every significant, interesting and humorous thing he told me. All 8,000 words are highlighted. It’s no wonder he is such a superb songwriter.
Almost everyone I interviewed qualified what they said with: This is how I remember it, but it happened a long time ago and we were drinking. Mojo said, “It’s like a memory of a dream of an echo.”
But the accounts were relived with candor, articulacy, humor and very salty language.
Bernard R. “Buddy Blue” Seigal, one of the founding Beat Farmers, not only was a musician but fellow newspaperman. He was a music writer for many papers, including the San Diego Union-tribune, which once issued a directive to its staff saying Buddy had published stories that included the unsuitable words “crapola,” “old fart” and “pooh-butts.” Thankfully, as an ex-newspaper guy who once received a similar memo, I now have a website, Tahoe Onstage, where I can quote everyone word for word.
The surviving Beat Farmers will join more than a dozen bands for “Gabfest” on Dec. 29 in San Juan Capistrano, a benefit for Gabby Gaborno, the lead singer of the Cadillac Tramps.
Blue, Raney and Rolle Love did, in fact, put the band back together for a short while, but Blue died of a heart attack in 2006 at the age of 48.
The Farmers continue today with Raney, bassist Chris Sullivan, who played with Country Dick with the Penetrators, drummer Joel Kmak, Country Dick’s friend since childhood, and singer Corvin Turner.
The Farmers will be the house band on March 12 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solano Beach for the annual concert celebration of the lives of Country Dick and Buddy Blue. The show will feature special guest Billy Zoom, the cancer survivor and guitarist/sax player from the pioneering punk band X.
The surviving Beat Farmers – Harris, Raney and Love – will perform a set with Joel Kmak on drums.
Love’s current band is called Bird Rock, named for the area where he lives south of La Jolla. Kamanski said Love remains a passionate performer.
“Rolle is just a super fun, lovable guy and plays the shit out of the bass,” Kamanski said. “He’s a heart player, a soul player. Anytime you get onstage with Rolle, it’s ‘Let’s rock and roll. Let’s rip this mother a new asshole.’ He’s just all happy and gamey and funky and beautiful and never has a negative vibe. Being onstage with Rolle is like surfing. It’s fucking amazing.”
Joey Harris and the Mentals also will perform at the March 12 Country Dick celebration. The band includes bassist Jefrey Kmak, another childhood friend who was in the same high school class with Country Dick, Richard “T-Bone” Larson on drums and Mojo Nixon on guitar.
Harris still plays that beat up 1964 Stratocaster he bought in 1975. “It’s still the only electric guitar I play and the poor old thing is starting to fall apart,” he said.
Harris plays solo and in several other San Diego projects, including a trio with Paul Kamanski and Caren Campbell-Kamanski. He also has a seven-piece, horn-driven rock-and-soul band, the Tighten Ups, and a bluegrass band with Jef Kmak and Larson, Shawn Rohlf and the Buskers.
I want to thank everyone who spent time speaking with me for this story, including Dan Perloff, the Rhino Records representative who “discovered” the Beat Farmers at the Spring Valley Inn. Perloff mailed me photos, Beat Farmer Almanacs, the reissue CD of “Tales of the New West” and Jamie Dawson’s outstanding DVD documentary, which I highly recommend, “Pay Up, Cheaters! The Story of The Beat Farmers.”
While this story became larger than I’d envisioned, there is much left untold, and that’s not just the stuff about an inflatable sheep. There also are many people who I have not yet interviewed. I hope to meet some of them on March 12 at the Belly Up.
Dane Conover, who co-wrote the Beat Farmers classic song “Happy Boy,” said he understands how the story of Country Dick Montana continued to grow.
“Dan had an outsized life where everybody has a story; that’s part of the joy of a creative life,” he said. “It’s a story everybody can relate to. It keeps expanding and it’s a human story with all the different angles. As time passes, they turn into myths. I am sure you’ll hear many versions.”
Entertainers’ time in the spotlight is fleeting. The Beatles were together for just a decade, and Jimi Hendrix only played guitar for 12 years, the same amount of time the Beat Farmers were together. Dan “Country Dick Montana” McLain died too young but he lived a very full 40 years, and everyone who knew or saw him will never forget.
Where they are today
Nino Del Pesco
Nino Del Pesco, who played bass in Country Dick and the Snuggle Bunnies, hopes an album the band recorded in 1982 will someday be released.
“Right now it’s sitting on a hard-drive somewhere rotting and nobody knows about it and nobody’s willing to put the money together to put it out, and it’s a shame,” he said. “If I had the money, I’d do it.”
The songs were taped at Hit Single Recording Services in El Cajon. At least two of them were later recorded by the Beat Farmers, “Revenooer Man” and “Texas.” It also includes covers by Woody Guthrie and George Jones and the band’s signature song, “Bunny Call,” a revised tune by Marty Robbins and sung by Country Dick.
“The tracks have been digitized and it’s ready to go,” Del Pesco said. “It’s this long-lost treasure, in my opinion. It captures the energy of the band perfectly.”
Del Pesco also played in the bands the Puppies, Lonesome Strangers and Snake Farm. He became a screenwriter in 2005.
Paul Kamanski and Caren Campbell-Kamanski
Paul Kamanski and Caren Campbell-Kamanski, who both were part of the Pleasure Barons’ first tour, are still living in San Diego. The couple’s home includes Country Dick’s piano. Someday they hope to have a house in fishing town of Markleeville, which is in the nation’s tiniest county, Alpine, and is 30 miles south of Lake Tahoe. Paul Kamanski continues to be a prolific songwriter. He’s made five albums since 2013, and here’s a link to his music: www.paulkamanskimusic.bandcamp.com.
Tom Ames, who began working Jerry Raney and the Shames in 1979, was the tour manager during the entire Beat Farmers run, including the four trips to Britain and the two Pleasure Baron tours. He has filled the same role with the ska band Reel Big Fish for more than 16 years.
On the 20th anniversary of the death of Country Dick Montana, Ames lit a candle for him in a famed church in Cologne, Germany.
If there can be any solace about Country Dick’s death, it was that it was happened quickly.
“The coroner told me he had cystic kidney disease and it eventually was going to get him and it was going to be very painful and it wasn’t something they could really do anything about,” Ames said.
Dane Conover, who said he and Jeff Becker wrote “Happy Boy” as a joke in five minutes, is still writing and recording songs. He is remodeling his house in Santa Cruz and is in the process of converting his entire library of recordings to digital.
Conover was a member of the Puppies, which had a record deal with StiffAmerica. During recording sessions with his new wave project Trees, he met his future wife. Dane and Marisa Conover’s musical collaborations have the band name Popgems.
He said there will be no Puppies reunion: “Like Paul McCartney said, “You can’t reheat a soufflé. If the Puppies got together, it would be the Old Dogs and I don’t want to be like a Viagra commercial.”
The death of Country Dick Montana and some other musicians convinced Mojo Nixon to pursue a new career.
“My business is bullshit, and business is good,” said Nixon, who is a disc jockey with Sirius XM Satellite Radio’s “Outlaw Country,” a NASCAR talk show and a political program called “Lyin’ Cocksuckers.”
“I can’t believe Country Dick being dead 20 years,” he said. “I can’t believe one, he lived that long, and two, I’m still alive. One of the reasons I’m still alive is because I’ve stopped touring. I didn’t know how to do touring except the wrong way. I don’t think anybody wanted to see the sober, exercising, tofu-eating Mojo. People came to the show for the chaos, for the anarchy, for the unexpected. And I think the same thing is true for Country Dick.
“Nobody’s clamoring (for a comeback). Nobody’s saying, ‘Hey Mojo, here’s $10,000. Go play.’ I’m playing with Joey. It’s his show. I’m just playing guitar and singing and maybe throw in a couple of songs. There’s no pressure. I just get to get out of the house and have a couple of drinks.
“My bass player is working on a Mojo documentary. If he ever finishes this thing and it doesn’t suck, we’ll have to go on a little tour and that will end my career. It’s called ‘The Mojo Manifesto.’ Hopefully, it will gets picked up by Netflix, 10 people see it and we’re gonna go do 10 or 20 shows and Show 3 is when I’m gonna die in a motel room in Chapel Hill, or B.C. or Seattle. I’ll be in a motel and say, ‘Honey, I don’t feel so well,’ and drop dead. That will help sales for the movie.”
Unlike Country Dick, whom he called his mentor, Steve Poltz survived an onstage health incident. The one-man performer suffered a stroke in October 2014 at the World Café Live in Wilmington, Delaware. He repeated a song verse five times, and many in the audience thought he was joking and they laughed.
Poltz, who started the San Diego band the Rugburns in the 1980s, contemplated retiring from the music business, but he returned to work after only a four-month break. He’s fully recovered. Poltz has been sober more than a decade, and he attributes the stroke to overwork.
“I’m the type of person who always says yes,” Poltz said. “Now I say no more often than I used to.”
When the Internet came along, Ken Drew became the Beat Farmers electronic publicist. Drew’s career as a Beat Farmers fan started when he was a student at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. He’d just split with his girlfriend and Country Dick’s rendition of “Lucille” resonated. With approval of Dan McLain’s sister, Connie, Drew is the webmaster of sites for the Beat Farmers and Country Dick Montana. He also has a Country Dick Montana Facebook page that makes posts in the spirit of Country Dick, such as “Have a good day, maggots.” Drew provided some of the photos in this series of articles. He is an organic chemist who lives near Boston.
Country Dick Montana’s and Mojo Nixon’s partner in the Pleasure Barons, Dave Alvin has been recording and performing with his brother, Phil, for the first time in 30 years since they had the band the Blasters. They reunited after Phil survived a serious health issue in 2012.
“Over the last few years both of us have lost family members and very close friends,” Dave Alvin said. “It just seemed like time (to reunite).”
Alvin often plays at the annual Country Dick Montana celebrations and he likes to talk about his old friend, imitating his baritone voice.
“A lot of people never knew he had cancer when he was 19,” Alvin said. “So I think that he viewed everything that he did after he was 19 as frosting on the cake. So it was live hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory.”
Saying goodbye to Country Dick Montana
Editor’s note: Country Dick Montana died in British Columbia, one of the Beat Farmers main hubs. The band outgrew Buffalo Bill’s Bar in Whistler, played the Commodore Ballroom and the Town Pump Bar, where Country Dick first started protecting his eyes from beer spray by wearing ski goggles. He died in midperformance Nov. 8, 1995, in Whistler’s Longhorn Saloon, where his framed image is displayed above the bar.
Karen “Sparky” Roberts, who became a close friend of the band’s, said she once tried to revisit the bar, but it was too difficult. Genuine friends, the Beat Farmers once used their tour van to help Roberts move, and she was close enough to Country Dick that he insisted she call him by his real name, Dan, who called her Spunky or Spunks.
When the Beat Farmers played in Whistler and Vancouver, the musicians would do a sound check before going to dinner. When they returned to the club, Dan McLain transformed into Country Dick Montana.
“He puffed up, shoulders back, throat cleared, hat tipped, boots ready,” Roberts said. “Before all shows, he just wanted to see the people. It was just breathtaking to see that.”
We asked Roberts what had been left out of this story that she might want to add.
“He had a massive heart,” Roberts said. “He loved people. He loved the people that were close to him, and fortunately I was and he would have done anything for me, but I think he would have done anything for anybody. He was beautiful inside.
“When he was in his performance mode, he was untouchable. He was a god. That was the difference (between Country Dick Montana and Dan McLain). But then if he stopped and looked at you, that was Dan. He had that smile and glint in his eye like he was going to cause a little trouble, but had time for anybody and everybody.”
A close friend remembers Dan McLain, aka Country Dick
By Karen Roberts
I am sharing a story — my story — that I had kept to myself, for now 20 years (wow). It all came out on this anniversary.
I am proud to say I was a special friend to each and every one of the Beat Farmers for many years. One tour trip they even got up early on a Saturday after their Friday night show and helped me move into my new apartment. Spectacular friends!
By the time of that Whistler show we had all spent a lot of great times there. My dad was the Whistler dentist so it was home for me.
The night Dan passed I received so many calls. It was the first Whistler show I had ever missed.
I couldn’t make it because of work and we had an early snowfall. The roads weren’t safe. I talked to the guys and apologized for not being able to get there. They were all cool with it as we were going to see each other for a full weekend the next day.
Country Dick, in his wonderfully deep voice, got on the phone and said “It’s OK Spunky, you are just going to have take my boots off again. Haaaaa!” That is another story. : ).
My best friends, Katie, and Frank, who before this week were the only ones who know this story, kept telling me it was best I wasn’t there that night. I go back and forth on that still today.
The band left Whistler early the next morning. Got in the van and drove straight back to San Diego.
They called. I knew they had to leave. All of them were in shock.
I received a call later that next afternoon from Jerry, and Joey reminded me yesterday, from Tom Ames as well.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “Anything … Of course.”
Dan’s parents were in shock. Someone needed to identify the body and because he left us in Canada and needed to get back to the United States, across a border. Someone had to sign important papers.
I was authorized to do that. And I did on Nov. 11, Memorial Day in Canada, Veterans Day in the U.S. Pretty much a busy day.
This is hard. … Dan’s family wanted him creamated. So he was transferred from Whistler to a lovely town called Squamish, between Vancouver and Whistler.
There I went. The pastor was given my information and clearance to sign the documents to send him over the border. Nov. 11 at 1 p.m.
I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but Joey asked me to.
Of course that weekend The Beat Farmers were supposed to play at The Town Pump, downtown Vancouver. My friend Katie made me go. It was a celebration. One Beat Farmers friend had made black arm bands with Country Dick’s picture in them and was giving them out to everyone. I walked into the bar and saw my friend Frank.
I remember saying to him “I’m going to Squamish ” tomorrow. Good night.
I left, walked home… On my walk I passed a flower seller on Granville Street. I bought two Red Roses. One for each of those cowboy boots I had pulled off sooooo many times: ).
Big day ahead. I planned to leave at 11 a.m. An hour drive to Squamish, leaving me a bit of thought time.
At 11 my doorbell rang. My friend Frank, a Beat Farmers fan, of course, says he is coming.
We got in my car, and all of the streets were closed for parades and celebrations. How do I get outta town?
We finally got on the road and arrived at The Squamish Funeral Home.
The pastor was waiting at the door for us and was so lovely. Frank waited in the lobby and I went into the office with him.
I identified Dan’s personal belongings. I had written a note thanking his parents and had my two red roses. The pastor allowed me to place a red rose in each boot and the letter was placed in the right boot ( the first boot he always wanted off first!).
I signed for his personal belongings to go over the border.
But we weren’t done yet. Geez.
The “oven” wasn’t done yet. More paperwork had to be done.
He asked us to wait in the chapel. Frank and I sat in the first row, the pastor closed the door. There we were in a chapel, waiting.
Frank gives me an elbow nudge and pulls out 40 scratch lottery tickets, and says, “Country Dick Montana is loving that we are gambling in a chapel!”
Amen and God bless.