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Thursday, September 15, 2011


    KEN GRAYDON influenced so many people that both the L.A. Times and the L.A. Daily News ran front-page tributes to note his passing.
    On Sunday, September 4, musicians whose home bases span the nation gathered to lead a cross section of the many communities, in and out of the arts, touched by the late performing songwriter Ken Graydon. The man was a true American original, and the old expression, “his like will not pass this way again,” could have been written for Ken Graydon.
    The music was amazing, performed by top award-winning western artists, and most of it was Ken's originals. The poetry and poetic prose was marvelous and memorable.
    Everyone knew him as a splendid human being with a richly resonant baritone voice who played a big twelve string and was the best history-based songwriter anywhere. One listen and you knew his songs were not limited to the events they illustrated. They illuminated the humanity inherent in times and places, past or present.
    PHEE SHERLINE, Ken's widow and producer of the Fallbrook Acoustic Concert Series until the recent onset of the cancer that would take Ken's life, recruited a cast of performers and others who delivered a most fitting Vaya con Dios to her late husband. Phee, a renowned visual artist, had painted the portrait of Ken that adorns the cover of his final CD, “ONE LAST TRAIL: KEN GRAYDON IN CONCERT WITH KEN WILCOX AND BRUCE HUNTINGTON, MAY 21, 2011.” She was a hammer dulcimer virtuoso and guitarist until a peculiar hearing loss robbed her of the ability to differentiate tones. Despite so much loss, Phee was focused on how fortunate she had been to share many years of her life with Ken.
    Indeed, many brought a similar message about their interactions with the friendly “Ol' Grizzly Bear” of a man, and shared them with the capacity crowd at the spacious Fallbrook Theatre in the picturesque North San Diego County town where Ken and Phee had made their home the past decade.
    Phee's middle son Reid began the tribute, reminiscing about the man who had been his beloved stepfather, growing up in the San Fernando Valley. “I was a small boy when Ken came into my life. Ken would carry me to bed after I pretended to fall asleep under the piano at the monthly Songmaker Hoots held at our house,” he said. That vignette was characteristic of much more. Reid read a letter that his brother Walt had written to Ken. Recalling childhood memories, it was titled, “The hero: You, Ken.” As Reid read the letter, you knew: if you didn't have someone in your own childhood who lovingly imparted the lessons of character that Ken so evidently provided them, you fervently wished you had.
    Next came Doug Graydon, “Ken's little brother” who shared the same October 30th birthday, two years apart. Doug recalled their shared Central Valley farm childhood, where “Every birthday consisted of carving Jack-O-Lanterns.” Doug spoke of Ken's physical strength, with a story of Ken lifting a plow and pulling a tractor with opposite hands after Doug and their father couldn't connect the two, working as a team. Ken was bilingual, his mastery of Spanish dating to working alongside Mexican farmworkers in his youth.
    We learned of Ken's football “career” at Delano High School, where he was never put in a game. Yet his devotion was so undiminished that one of the team's All-American players would often say, without hesitation, that Ken was the toughest player he ever faced, if only on the practice field. It would become characteristic of so much of Ken Graydon's life.
    When Ken wanted to attend junior college, he had neither a car nor the means to buy one. He got a job as the rural school bus driver, which gave him the middle of the day to attend college classes while his public school passengers were at their schools.
    His shade-tree mechanic knowledge of farm equipment maintenance and repair would enable him to rescue his own school bus and its riders as needed, and built into a skill set that held him in good stead as a lifelong avocation. Ken would gain a reputation as the best hot rod mechanic anywhere, and until a few months ago, could always resuscitate his own motor home / concert tour bus.
    The young Ken earned his way to the University of Arizona. Once there, Ken and his buddies ran a cow for Homecoming Queen, yet Doug says that Ken was quite shy, if determined to achieve whatever he set his mind to accomplish.
    Life in L.A. followed college. Doug describes Ken as having “a lot of odd jobs – pool boy, accident schematics field guy, and practitioner of oddball auto repair that began with the acquisition of strange automobiles.” Doug got quite a laugh from the theater when he said, “With one exception, Ken never owned an automobile that had all its own parts, and he put them all together himself.”
    Doug told us, “Ken never had a social life until he discovered the folklore / folk music community. There, he met Phee. It took Ken a while to find himself, but when he did, he fashioned a life that enriched us all.” He was the first of many to note that it was never really important to Ken if he had any money, because other things were what he found important.
    Next, musician KEN WILCOX belatedly introduced himself as the emcee for the day, saying his part would be “less talk, more music.” Speaking for the western music community, he offered, “We remember Ken as a cowboy poet and singer, but he wrote about all aspects of life, even as he knew he faced cancer.”
    Wilcox recited Ken Graydon's poem “Medicine Talk,” a darkly comic and witty piece about dealing with a plethora of drugs intended to save you, but which largely seem to poison you and make you sick. (We republished it in its entirety in a reprint of ROSS ALTMAN's tribute in FolkWorks. That article, by itself, is at  
    Wilcox, recognizing Ken's contribution's to so many people and causes and genres, then noted that the program would be divided into sections to cover things important to Ken.
    Noting that “Ken was one of our greatest experts on railroads,” and his fondness for meticulously researching his “train songs,” Wilcox introduced PATTY QUINTANA to sing Ken's original “Tonopah and Tidewater,” about one of Nevada's legendary and now abandoned railroads and the colorful times and characters it served.
    Returning to Ken's reputation as the “grassroots mechanic,” Wilcox remarked, “It was hard to know which Ken loved best, music or working on cars.” That led to remarks by KEN SCHNEIDER, who owns an auto wrecking yard.
    Speaking of Ken in the present tense, Schneider began, “I've know Ken for twenty years.” Then adjusting, “He was always important to my company, though he never worked for me. People don't go in my [wrecking] yard. I don't get along that well with people. I don't let anyone in there. Ken just said, 'I'm going in your yard.' He ran it like it was his own. He specialized in steering columns. He was the only one I've ever known who did. Not only was he part of my family, my colleague, most of all he was my friend.”
    Ken wrote only one song about cars - “Low Rider.” It was performed by a trio with PATTY QUINTANA singing accompanied by DAN LEVITT on banjo and STAN CADRANEL on guitar. The way Ken wrote it, it transcends whatever preconceptions you have about anyone who drives a low rider. It's universal to anyone who has ever loved their car, especially if they've customized it.
    Cadranel spoke of Songmakers, the group Ken helped found. “He brought a lot of innovation. He made the first Songmakers album. None of us had known we could do that. Kenny really found himself with Songmakers and we found Kenny.”
    The organization generally gets together on weekends, and that led to Ken writing his song, “Weekend Musician.” Sung by PATTY QUINTANA, the audience easily related to the lyrics about the music, our heritage, steam trains, and mandolins and banjos and autoharps and dulcimers in living rooms.
    Next came a spokeswoman for “Save Our Forests,” a group Ken had supported. She opined, “Ken didn't find an engineering field he liked. But in a sense he mastered them all. Ken could do almost anything and fix almost anything.”
    She revealed that his much beloved song, “Windmill” came from his restoration of a windmill that had crashed and wrecked itself. After the wreck's donation to the land conservancy, Ken's restoration included a bombproof support: a buried tank filled with concrete. “That sucker's never gonna move,” he proclaimed. It hasn't, to this day. His “Windmill” song, though, rich with subtle symbols, continues to move everyone who hears it.
    We learned, too, of an expression of Ken's devilish humor. Once, while volunteering for the same organization, digging holes and clearing trash from a field, he discovered an ancient sign along Highway 395. It advertised land for sale at a now unbelievable low price. Ken raised the sign back to its original place, hid in the bushes, and howled with laughter as drivers careened to a stop to copy information they thought would make them rich land barons.
    JON MESSENGER, cowboy singer-songwriter from Arizona, spoke of knowing Ken and Phee since 1993. “My father always taught me the most valuable coin was the one you used to pay attention. Ken always paid attention and always had time for you. When something attracted Ken's attention, he gave it real attention.”
    Jon sang, a capella, Ken's remarkable song “The Brothers,” about the destruction of a grove of ancient oak trees. He concluded his stage time with his own new original, “The Gate,” which he says “Fell out on paper” after he learned of Ken's passing.
    Wilcox returned to relate a tale of Ken in an old songwriter's party game, wherein each person draws a slip of paper with a phrase that becomes the theme of the song he or she must write. Ken drew “Three-Quarter Time,” and it brought his much-recorded song of the same name. SOUTH COAST, the duo of JEAN PICKARD & DON TRUBY, are among those who have put it on a CD, and they performed it here. Don played a mandolin that belonged to Ken's grandfather “who was in a mandolin band” over a hundred years ago, with Jean on guitar, joined by fiddler GLENN SCRIBNER.
    Next came JIM GRAVES, president of the Death Valley 49ers, an organization that Ken and Phee belonged to for 40 years, and which Ken served as a director. Graves told of Ken's first contact with the group. “He was hired to sing a couple of songs. He became very involved.” When the two worked together on the Prospector's Race at Stovepipe Wells, Graves learned that Ken was a member of the Clampers – E Clampus Vitus, the avant garde California historical society with roots in the Gold Rush.
    Ken often combined all of it in his songwriting. Don and Jean returned to sing Ken's “Coyote Special” about the 1906 record-breaking train ride from Los Angeles to Chicago, a joint publicity stunt by the Santa Fe Railway and Death Valley Scotty, the “bit of a flim-flam man” of Scotty's Castle fame.
    Graves ended his part with the aside, “One thing you never wanted to do was go on a road trip with Ken because he'd spend a lot of time under his rig.”
    From the desert to the sea, Ken Graydon had as much a grasp of things as he did on the wrenches he took under that motor home. A spokesman for the San Diego Maritime Museum told of Ken's key role in the annual Sea Chantey Festival, held aboard the museum's tall ship, “Star of India.” The festival has a 20 year history, and Ken was there for all but the last one, this summer.
    The mariner spoke of “That incredibly awesome voice” and “those fabulous originals.” Not only was Ken “always so popular” on board the vessel, but “he could stop the crowd down on the Embarcadero when he was on stage.”
    JOHN McFEDDEN came on stage to sing Ken's original, “Seafaring Men.” Appropriately, he accompanied himself on a 12-string, as Ken had played it. It''s a song rich in tribute, history, snapping sails and salt spray.
    Wilcox returned to reveal, “Ken was also known to wear his dad's kilt at Scottish events. That's a sight I would like to have seen.” he continued, “My wife and I had the pleasure of touring through the British Isles with Ken and Phee last August. That man could speak authentic Scottish!”
    JOHN & EVA McCUDGEON then performed one of Ken's Scottish originals, “The Wee Tappet Hen.” It refers to the cast image of a hen atop a drinking vessel. John added, “Calling the tappet 'wee' is like calling the Queen Mary a 'wee boat,'” though the song's irony was fully intentional.
    Finally came the genre where Ken Graydon was best known. Wilcox explained, “For Ken, the cowboy and the west rated number one.”
    DAVE STAMEY, who has won more awards than any western performer, performed “Somewhere West of Laramie,” a song in which he shares co-write credits with RICHARD ELLOYAN, and for which Ken gets principal credit.
    Cowboy poet GARY ROBERTSON recited one of Ken's poems, but first, he shared background of the song Stamey performed. “Ken carried that song around in his head for years. It came from a sign for an automobile dealership.”
    Robertson recited Ken's poem, “Ism,” which takes to task every kind of prejudice and bigotry.
    Wilcox returned to observe the story was not complete without Phee. One of her friends read a letter Phee had written about her life with Ken, from their first meeting. It revealed her exemplary skill as a writer and the quiet joy of the relationship they shared for so many years.
    At one point, soon after they met, Phee realized, “In a conversation that turned political, he was the only one that actually remembered the facts.” Among her reminiscences, she wrote, “He had no interest in profit. Mainly he was an artist.” “He dreamed a poem once and got up at 3 AM to write it down.” “He had a reputation for recording in one take.” “Supremely intelligent... and creative.” “Our lives were filled with love and music. Thank you, Ken, for all of it.”
    A trio came out to sing one of Ken's songs that included the lyrics, “Times won't get any harder than the ones we've already been through.”
    RICHARD ELLOYAN sang the next song, one of his own originals that Ken named as an all-time favorite. “The Aspen Trees” had a real connection. Elloyan had asked Ken to record it with him and Ken readily agreed. Elloyan cautioned, “I do all my recording in Las Vegas.” Ken made the drive and wouldn't take any compensation. “I got [his part in] the song for a dinner,” said Elloyan.
    Two of Ken's songs closed the program. DAN LEVITT came on stage to play Ken's “Windmill” as an instrumental on his banjo. He told of Ken helping him to save yet another windmill, this one a relic from 1935. Then the entire audience took part in a singalong of the song, with everyone who had performed gathered together on stage.
    The final, as yet unaddressed dimension of Ken's work and consciousness as an artist then received its homage. Unlike many in western music whose politics are conservative, Ken Graydon was a lifelong progressive and humanist. Still, his songs focused on human potential rather than overt protest. After the era of anti-Vietnam war protest songs, and the apparent collapse of the dream of a generation that wanted a peaceful and better, more cooperative world, Ken sensed the greed and selfishness of the era that followed. He responded with his original, “It's Time to Start Singing Again.” (Its lyrics are included in their entirety in ROSS ALTMAN's piece, available by itself at at  
    That song, sung together by all in attendance, underlined the hopeful tone he had so often brought to music circles and stage performances. It was the kind of hopeful togetherness Ken would have liked, even if he would have wondered, “Why all the fuss?” over his passing.
    The packed theater adjourned across the street for more music on an outdoor stage, an abundant barbecue, and the kind of appreciation of each others' company that happens too rarely. Ken's cowboy hat, well worn boots and big twelve-string were left on the stage. But they remain part of someone whose presence went with all of us.
This feature is part of the Acoustic Americana Music Guide's weekly news edition of September 15, 2011. The News is just one section of The Guide. You can find the other sections, and read the entire edition of the News, at  

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