There was nothing simple about Pinto Bennett.
Bennett, who died June 29th of a heart attack at 73, was a paradox. A country singer who cited Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles as influences. A onetime party animal who got religion and talked to God while living a solitary life in a sheep wagon. A charismatic performer who once drew crowds of thousands but spent his last years living in a trailer park, playing for $50 a night or tips.
He wrote songs like no one else, with some of his lyrics bordering on genius. The late Rosalie Sorrels, a gifted songwriter herself, said he “should have been a superstar.”
His career began when he was a teenager playing at a drive-in restaurant in Mountain Home and spanned the better part of six decades. He was famous in Europe, a commercial failure in Nashville, a country music icon in Idaho.
And loved wherever he went.
The day after he died, three of his former bandmates met me over coffee to share their memories of him.
Jake Hoffman played steel guitar with Bennett in Tarwater, regionally known for playing “hard country music” for most of the 1970s. Previously Whitewater, the group renamed itself after a colorful Mountain Home character, Bud Tarwater. Hoffman was living in Salt Lake City when he got a call to play a 1973 New Year’s Eve gig with the group in Pocatello.
“I didn’t know Pinto or anybody else in the band, but he stole my heart and my head,” he recalled. “He was just this larger-than-life guy. He’d written some songs, and he knew every song in the world. He sang from his heart, and he was just so charming. People couldn’t help but love him.”
Rob Matson was one of two guitar players in Bennett’s second notable band, the Famous Motel Cowboys. His first night with them was in the fall of 1980.
“They were calling themselves Pinto Bennett and the Republicans then,” he said. “I didn’t know who it was, but when I got there, I realized it was the Tarwater band. I remember it being a total revelation – fast, loud music, like country playing rock and roll. That was the integrity of what the band did, the high energy. It was what attracted so many good musicians through the years, that driving energy.”
Matson was with the Famous Motel Cowboys during their glory days in England, where they had a hit record and two well received albums, opened for Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle and played for crowds of up to 20,000 people.
“Pinto had this amazing charm that disarmed people and kept him out of trouble,” Matson said. “We were on a plane to go from London to Switzerland when this old English lady got on the plane. She sees this big guy with a cowboy hat and long red hair and a beard. You could see her nervously looking at him.
“She went over to the flight attendant, and we could see her pointing at him and saying she didn’t want to sit next to him. The flight attendant probably told her that he was a nice man because she sat down next to him and the whole trip they were talking and laughing. He completely disarmed her.”
Brad Dewey played mandolin in Trio Pinto, begun in 2005 and continuing for the remainder of Bennett’s life.
“In 2005 we went to England, where he still had a reputation,” Dewey said. “They sent a limo to pick us up – champagne glasses and everything. But we were a little trio, and they were expecting a bigger band like the Famous Motel Cowboys. It was tighten your belt time.”
Bennett never again experienced the arena-sized crowds that the Famous Motel Cowboys played for in England and Europe. When the group returned to the U.S., they were fired from their first gig for not playing any songs by Southern rock group Alabama.
The most famous Motel Cowboy of them all spent five years in Nashville, where he befriended Chet Atkins, Don Everly and other icons, but never got a record deal. Returning to Boise, he played in honky tonk bars, performed for free at myriad benefit shows – and never stopped writing songs. He wrote more than 200 of them, often staying up all night writing lyrics on scraps of paper.
“There’s so much to his lyrics,” Matson said. “You hear a song, and six months later you hear it again and realize you didn’t get it the first time.”
“There’s no ‘Oh, baby’ in any of his songs,” Hoffman added. “How many songwriters write lines like, ‘being disconcerted and lookin’ at my shoes’?”
Or, “Somewhere in time I was a river. Somewhere in time you were, too. Somewhere in time I was a taker and a giver. Somewhere in time so were you.”
Or “I hold the bottle, you hold the wheel.”
The bottle haunted the man who wrote those lyrics. He was, in Hoffman’s words, “on and off the wagon most of his life.”
When I first met him, more than 30 years ago, he told me was “gettin’ a handle on my drinkin,” Words I’d hear again and again.
Some of his words, and deeds, haunted him. By his own admission, he said and did things that offended people. He’d show up drunk for a recording session or make off-color remarks that angered people at performances. His improprieties and his intentions, however, were at odds.
“Sometimes he’d hurt people, but he never meant to,” Hoffman said. “He had his demons. One of them was ‘I never meant to do that.’”
He went out of his way to visit with homeless people on the street. He spent hundreds of hours volunteering at the Idaho Veterans Home and VA hospital. He was known for telling friends and co-workers he loved them, and punctuating the sentiment with a slobbery kiss.
I don’t know how many times he told me – and meant it – that he’d be famous after he was dead, that his songs would reap rewards then that he never knew as an old man, blind in one eye, playing for tips in honky tonk bars.
Grammy Award-winning band Reckless Kelly thought enough of his songs that it recorded an entire CD of them, calling them “powerful and timeless.”
Nashville studio musician Sergio Webb said in 2007 that Bennett was “one of a handful of people you use as the standard. Is this as good as a Pinto song? Is this good enough to show Pinto? He’s that kind of an influence.”
Like works of art whose value increases after the artist dies, his influence may grow now that he’s gone. His prediction just might come true. If anyone deserves to be famous after he’s dead, it’s Pinto Bennett.