HAMMETT — At a Main Street bar in downtown Boise this week, Pinto Bennett will perform the songs that made him an Idaho musical icon. Fans eager to hear their favorites might want to take advantage of the opportunity because, as he himself might put it, God knows when or if it will happen again.
The occasion is the annual reunion of the Famous Motel Cowboys, the group Bennett fronted and that shared stages with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and other country stars while enjoying fleeting star status itself in England in the 1980s. Band members will be coming from as far away as Nashville to play at Hannah’s Friday through Sunday.
I’m not a huge fan of country music, but to me Bennett is a musical treasure. His best songs, especially the lyrics, are as good as just about anyone’s.
Until 2007 he was a regular on Boise stages, playing, drinking and charming his way into the hearts of admirers. Now, for the most part, he’s a man of solitude.
His home these days is a sheep wagon parked on a horse ranch near Hammett, in Elmore County. The prevailing sounds are the music of birds and the song of the desert wind. A small sign with “God Bless” burned into its weathered wood hangs above a corral gate. Decorative rocks dot the sheep wagon’s porch. On one is a painted message: “My help comes from God.”
When he built the sheep wagon and pulled it to a lonely patch of desert, many of his fans and friends thought it would be a passing phase: there was no way the onetime Navy bosun’s mate and hard-living country singer — a man who had partied with celebrities from the Everly Brothers to Bonnie Raitt — would remain a born-again desert solitary.
For five years, he’s been proving them wrong.
“People keep telling me I should do another honky-tonk album,” he said during a recent sheep-wagon interview. “I probably have enough of that material for three or four albums, but what I like to do now is take Bible stories and twist them. It’s still Pinto Bennett, but it’s Christian.”
Beside him on his bunk was his constant companion Daisy, a border collie-mix. A crucifix hung from a nearby wall. Absent from the decor were photos, posters, bumper stickers and other trappings from his years with groups from Tarwater to Trio Pinto.
“A lot of the honky tonk seems redundant to me now. It feels like the same stuff over and over. It just doesn’t move me like it used to.”
What does move him is his faith, which he found late in life but embraces the way he once did groupies and Jack Daniels.
“It’s been an evolution,” he said. “I’ve gone from being a shepherd to a fleet sailor to a road musician to a Christian, and it’s all seemed natural. I don’t see myself ever going back to my old lifestyle. I’ve come home.”
His home on the range recalls his early years as Fred Bennett, Elmore County sheep-camp denizen. His rancher grandfather saw to it that young Fred learned to handle a horse, tend a camp and herd sheep, but the rock and roll bug bit early. He served a term in the Navy and considered making it a career, but what he really wanted was to be the next Elvis.
Instead, he became Pinto Bennett, playing “hard country music” in Tarwater and other groups. He spent five years in Nashville, where his friends included Chet Atkins, Don Everly, Lyle Lovett and other stars, but remained an outsider with the Nashville establishment. Returning to Idaho, he became a fixture of the Boise music scene, continuing to write and record until a heart attack and a television commercial changed his life.
The commercial, for a Boise church, was the beginning of a conversion. He quit drugs, cut back on alcohol, became a churchgoer. His talents as a songwriter remained undiminished, but the songs changed from country to gospel. The move to the desert, far from bars and boozing buddies, completed the transformation.
Visitors to the sheep wagon assume that a “Back Soon” sign beside a window is to let people know when he’s out, but it’s also the name of his newest gospel CD, now in record stores, and a profession of faith.
“The title means that Jesus will be back soon,” he said. “I really believe that.”
He’s lost count, but in the last five years Bennett has had at least four heart attacks and two strokes.
“My heart sounds like tennis shoes goin’ around in a dryer.”
A 2010 operation in Portland to correct his heart’s rhythm almost killed him, and a stroke two years ago impaired the use of his left arm and hand.
“I can’t hold a pick or get my arm around my big acoustic guitar and strum like I used to,” he said. “I had an epiphany that I’d be playing an electric guitar the same color as my sweaters. (The gray cardigans he wears onstage.) My next stop was Old Boise Guitar.”
As if from his epiphany, a thin-bodied electric with silver metal-flake paint was waiting. Sliding a strap emblazoned with a crucifix over his head, Daisy watching intently from the bed, he finger-picks it as if he’s done it for years.
“I can still play,” he said. “It’s just different than the way I’ve played most of my life.”
Now 65, he spends his days tending horses and irrigating for a local rancher, playing and writing gospel songs and reading from the Bible, a dictionary and Bowditch’s American Practical Navigator, the sailor’s bible.
“You can get an education from those three books.”
He still plays an occasional honky-tonk gig, proving to fans and himself that the magic isn’t gone.
“I played on at the Egyptian last winter with Reckless Kelly,” he said. “Four generations of women were coming up to touch me so I guess I haven’t lost it entirely. I was like an ancient Elvis.”
It was a departure from what has become his usual, low-key routine.
“I used to play every night. Now it’s a gig every other month or so, usually at a church. I played one not too long ago at the Prairie Store.”
No one is saying that this week’s Famous Motel Cowboys reunion could be one of his last public performances. But his health is a concern, and to borrow one of his favorite lines, “nobody has a guarantee in their hip pocket that they’ll be here tomorrow.”
“I worry about my time being short,” he said. “I worry about it every day. That’s why I keep looking up. I won’t say I have a feeling of impending doom. But I do have a feeling of impending glory.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the Idaho Statesman’s Life section and is posted the following Mondays on http://www.woodwardblog.com. Next: The Great Train Ride, Part I.