Bowen ~ Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals
Kevin Engbretsen ~ Steel Guitar
Rob Fraser ~ Drums
Wayne Hunt ~ Guitar, Vocals
Frank Johnson ~ Bass
Allen Kaatz ~ Guitar
Kelly Reid ~ Drums
Marty Vadalabene ~ Drums
The Greasewood City Ramblers and a quarter century of Ellensburg dance music.
by John BennettBack in the 1970's, long before the Gorge at George concert phenomenon rose up out of the vineyards on the cliffs overlooking the Columbia River, Ellensburg was a dancing town and music venues were in abundance. But then the hot spots began going up in flames and getting bulldozed, and the music scene went into decline.
Goofey's, a towering, multi-level structure dominating the corner of Fourth and Pearl, was the first to burn -- it was replaced by a drive-thru bank. Then the Hitching Post out on Cascade Way got razed to make room for a hay barn, the Buckboard on the south end of town gave way to a Chinese restaurant, and Webster's in the heart of downtown closed its doors. But the true death knell for the live music scene in Ellensburg came in the mid-Eighties with the burning of the legendary Ranch Tavern, a structure shaped like and as big as an airplane hanger that had been out on the Vantage Highway east of Knudson's Lumber since pilots were trained at Bowers Field during the Second World War. All the local bands up to that point, as well as names as big as John Lee Hooker, played the Ranch at one time or another.
Perhaps more than any other band, The Greasewood City Ramblers represents the dance energy in Ellensburg back in the toe-tapping, finger-snapping Seventies. The group got off the ground in the late Sixties as a three-piece country/bluegrass band with Wayne Hunt on guitar, Mike Martin on bass, and Scott Hammond on banjo -- the under-age sons of loggers and ranchers whose hair had grown inexplicably long and whose ways had grown a little out of the ordinary. Scott left the group shortly after it started, and Al Kaatz, a high-strung, highly talented young guitarist, took his place -- drummers came and went like the Ellensburg wind. Kevin Engbretsen, a steel guitar player from Yakima via Edwardsville, Ill., got word of Greasewood through the music grapevine, drove north to give a listen, and joined on; he eventually brought in a drummer from back east named Marty Vadalabene. Guitarist and keyboard player Bruce Bowen came over from Seattle and hooked up at one of Greasewood's Sunday afternoon jams at the Ranch, Frank Johnson filled the bass spot vacated by Mike Martin in the early Seventies, and the band gelled and began to really cook, shifting from country/bluegrass to country/rock, heavy on the rock. By the time I showed up on the scene from San Francisco in 1974, Ellensburg was probably the hottest dance spot on the Washington map.
I arrived in Ellensburg on a hot summer night and squeezed the big Hertz rent-a-van into two parking spaces in front of the Horseshoe Tavern; through the plate glass window I could see a live band hard at it and a dance floor full of swaying bodies. I crossed the crowded street, and looking into the Ugly Bear (now the Mint), I beheld yet another band going strong. Two bands on one street in one night -- I might be able to adjust to country living after all. I was thinking food, however, not music, and I cut through an alley teeming with revelers, in search of a restaurant. Obviously Third Avenue was the party street in this small town, the restaurants must be a block over. Wrong. The alley channeled me straight into the open door of the TAV from which more live music pounded out into the night -- I was beginning to feel a little unhinged, like maybe I'd made a wrong turn somewhere back down the road and had stumbled into a musical Shangri-La. I walked down the street past Goofey's, and again -- the sound of live music. I turned at the corner and went south on Pearl. I went into Webster's Cafe and Smoke House (long since gone) and got a hamburger and a cup of coffee. I noticed a dark stage in the next room at the far end of a hard-liquor bar. "No live music tonight?" I asked the waitress with a touch of big-city sarcasm. "Next week," she said, giving me an 'I've got your number buddy' look as she swept up my empty plate. "But there's a good blues band from Chicago at the Ranch tonight," she called over her shoulder as she sauntered off to the kitchen. "If you like that sort of thing."
That's the way it was back then, weekend after weekend. The town was rife with young musicians who coalesced into hard-driving rock groups like Appaloosa, The Nash Band, Larry Van and the Movers, Rose and the Dirt Boys, The Dynamic Logs and Lucky Pierre. I must have danced my way through five pairs of shoes before the Ranch burned, the music died, and the local boys went on to bigger things in bigger places. It was a sad day when the Ranch burned. It was almost as if someone had died.
But, life goes on, and with a little effort, music sans local flavor can still be found. The Brick in Roslyn has an out-of-town band almost every weekend, and you can take your chances in Yakima or at one of the pricey clubs in Seattle. And there are the weekend concerts at the Gorge, powerhouse big-name bands from across the popular music spectrum, steep ticket prices, numbered rows to sit in, a heft security force and under-cover narcotics agents. You have to scratch a little deeper to realize that local music hasn't died -- it's been gagged by a paucity of venues. The kids are out there, learning their ax and forming tentative alliances that shimmer like apparitions and then melt like wax in the heat of venue indifference, musicians and singers such as Jed Lygre, Jake Reichert, Sean Maupin, Bill Peeper, Karen For U, Lee-Lee Layton, Chris Tomulty, Omar Schambacher, Natasha Holiday, T-4 Turner, Justin Davis, Joe Urban, Roy Rob and Jamie Pitts, playing in groups ranging from reggae to rap to rock with names like Puptulla, World of Color, Free to Wander, Roy Rob and the Robots, Sexual Chocolate, Sun King, Beamus, Log Hog, Two-headed Chang, One Sun Poppers and Sir Velveteen, all short on gigs.
To say there is no audience for live music, that canned music is all anyone wants, is to reveal a lack of understanding of something primal in the human heart and to ignore a smidgen of hard evidence to the contrary. Sean Maupin orchestrates a weekly Thursday-night jam session in the close confines of Starbucks, of all places, and the Mint Tavern often hosts struggling local musicians on Monday nights with good turnouts. And before Austin's Eats changed hands, Austin would turn over his stage to hometown bands on weekends and pack the house, groups like Satus Creek and The Dank City Ramblers playing music so high-spirited, intricate and danceable that by midnight someone looking in from outside might think that a meeting of the Holy Rollers was taking place or that an Epiphany of a high order was going down. And at this year's Jazz in the Valley music festival, prone to attract more listeners than dancers, the extraordinary Nick Vigarino and his Meantown Blues Band brought an entire audience to its dancing feet and kept them there almost an hour past the official closing time on (oh, poetic justice and message from on high!) the blacktop of the drive-thru bank where Goofey's once stood.
I hadn't realized when I started writing that I had a point to make, but it appears I do. So, let me hammer in the last nail and bring things full circle. A week before Jazz in the Valley, and a quarter of a century after they stopped knocking out tunes on the local scene, The Greasewood City Ramblers had a reunion at the Ellensburg Best Western. Kevin Engbretsen, a school teacher now, came all the way from Johnson City, Tex., for the gig. Bruce Bowen, an engineer, came in from Bozeman, Mont. Al Kaatz, a feldenkrais practitioner and still actively playing, drove over from Seattle, as did Marty Vadalabene who is a shipping clerk and still drumming. Wayne Hunt never stopped playing, became a surveyor, and still lives in Ellensburg, as does Frank Johnson who is a house painter and has been in more bands than you can count since his Greasewood days.
They were all there on the summer night of July 22, the year 2000, and they packed a large banquet room with people who had come from as far away as West Virginia, people who had to squint hard to recognize each other, people with heart transplants and kidney transplants and graying hair, people who'd become doctors and teachers and lawyers, people who'd done jail time and hard time and lost loved ones, all of them with the music still stirring inside at that primal place disco can't touch. They laughed over reminiscences until they had tears in their eyes, and they danced until the sweat glistened. Veteran musicians like Cordell Covert from Lucky Pierre, Ron Bailey from Rose and the Dirt Boys and Chris Sandvig who has been drumming in Ellensburg bands since he was 16 came out of the audience to sit in, and as the night wore on, it seemed to me that the stage receded and the ceiling arched and the dance floor expanded until we were at the Ranch again, back in the days when live music ruled and the night streets of Ellensburg were a friendlier place.
I rest my case, whatever it may be. It has something to do with community, something to do with the human spirit, and something to do with the way music and dance make the heart sing -- a point, I hope, that's well taken.
605 E. 5th Ave.
Ellensburg, WA 98926
The Ranch Tavern in Ellensburg on old Highway 10 was a big old roadhouse that was THE main party spot in Central Washington in the 1960s and early 70s. Everybody played there; local groups such as The Bards, Greasewood City Ramblers, etc. and many regional bands from Seattle, and occasionally national acts such as Elvin Bishop, etc.
Allen Kaatz, 30 May 2003