First, though, there was that land we’d bought. One hundred sixty acres of it, which still belonged to the original homesteader. That much land—a quarter section, tiny by rancher standards—is about a mile long and ¼ mile wide. A good-sized creek ran down the whole length of it, fed by a few smaller creeks. The trees were mainly lodgepole pine, Doug fir and aspen. Willows made a jungle wherever there was water, though right now their branches were bare and deep purple.
And there was a log cabin, dating back to 1911, which had lost its roof, windows and floor. We parked the bus next to it and with the enthusiasm of Californians started putting up roofing tin. It was so cold we built a fire in the Great Majestic wood stove we’d bought for ten dollars and stood Gavin on the range top in his little white shoes. The next day—Thanksgiving—dawned on 18 inches of fresh snow, so that was that. We fired up the bus and drove straight to Sacramento.
Sacramento?! Well, we had some old friends there, who let us park the bus in their back alley indefinitely. Sure couldn’t do that now. Anyway, I got a job—that job where I was secretary to a newsman in the Capitol building, poor fellow—and we made it through the winter.
Sacramento was where I found out how much I really liked country music. For one thing, it changed my style of dress: starched bouffant hair, micro-dresses, garter belts, and high-heeled shoes with straps, this was the new Ruby Scragg, and she learned she could dance, too, so watch out.
There was a certain club we went to a couple times a week. The house band was called the SNEAD FAMILY—well, maybe it wasn’t, because I just googled it and find that there’s a Sneed Family that doesn’t fit the description. One of the brothers played pedal steel, and although I hadn’t heard a lot of pedal steel in those days, I still could tell that this was an extraordinary player, like SCOTTY STONEMAN (a fabulous fiddler from the STONEMAN FAMILY who drank too much and eventually OD’d on shoe polish or something, so says folk-music scuttlebutt) or CLARENCE WHITE. I’d like to know what happened to that guy.
I didn’t play much but listened to a lot of music in Sacramento. I heard this young MERLE HAGGARD on the radio, so I rushed out and bought his first LP. I also got a record of DOLLY PARTON and PORTER WAGONER. I heard ‘The Day the World Stood Still,’ by CHARLIE PRIDE and found out he’d been living in Montana—that in fact he got his start in a little roadhouse just down the road from our new town. I began to learn some of their songs, and, secretly, to write some of my own.
* * * *
Then, out of the blue we got a call from PETER FELDMANN. He said he’d found an agent and had booked the Scragg Family into some Nevada casinos on the assumption that we would like to play them. Well, of course we would. We had Gene’s 14-year-old son, Bruce, living with us, and going to Nevada seemed like a cool idea to him, too. (I can’t think why he wasn’t in school, but he was certainly getting an education on the general unreliability of adults.) So off we all went in the bus to the MIZPAH HOTEL in a town called TONOPAH. I’d heard that this hotel had since burned down, but thank goodness that was a false rumor.
Opening night: Wow! The hotel had a beauty salon! I could get my hair put up, what a fantastic idea! I had quite a bit of hair, and the updo was intensely challenging to the ladies (two) of the salon. It took them almost three hours, and by the time I came crashing into the showroom, my bandmates were in an awful sweat over the prospect of doing the show without me. Things like this make me feel valuable, appreciated. In fact my lifelong habit of staying away until the last minute can be entirely attributed to my conviction that the show can’t go on without me.
Now, this was the same time that Martin Luther King was shot. I’ll always remember this because we climbed up on the stage, a very high, circular pedastal behind the bar, and I was worrying about whether my hair was all going to stay balanced on my head and whether my dress was too short considering how high up we were, and we started tuning and getting ready to play, and the bartender was surfing the TV, if you can call it surfing when it’s three stations, when some drunk down below hollered up, “What’s on TV, Ed?” and Ed said disgustedly, “Not a damn thing, every way I tune it they’re burying that nigger.”
The culture shock went on. Aside from the drunks at the bar, our audience was a sea of slots with arms working them. We did have one fan (he reappeared every night) who would yell, “Oh, sock it to me,” every time we got done with ‘Little Annie’ or ‘Down the Old Plank Road’ or ‘Brazos River’ or ‘Hold the Woodpile Down,’ as if we were rock stars. But mostly we were ‘the entertainment,’ which was something like being the janitor.
We had two bosses, who wore black pants and white shirts, black ties and black armbands (to hold their sleeves up, not to honor Dr. King) and green eye shades. They were called MR. SMALL and MR. SHORT. One of them was quite tall. They appeared to live behind grilled windows in the basement, a good place for them since they were the least friendly human beings I’d ever met. And they got their money’s worth out of us California wusses. We hadn’t ever played five sets before, and for my part those five sets were in high heels with a D28 hanging off me. By the last song we were so exhausted we had to carry each other up to our rooms where we barely managed to scrape the costumes off our bodies before falling into bed. My fingertips were all bleeding, so were Gene’s toes from the cowboy boots. And no sooner did we close our eyes than the phone rang. Mr. Short, or Mr. Small. “Hey, where the h*%&^ ARE you co**%#ks*#@*rs? You still got another set to play!” Oooooh my God, kids, always read your contract; don’t assume it was drawn up by rational, modern people with hearts. Yes, it did say six 45-minute sets a night, six nights a week, for two weeks, and that’s by God what we did.
On our night off, Gene and I drove into Las Vegas. It was like a dream—we wandered into some casino, not a hard thing to do when they re all free and open to the street, and then we wandered into the showroom, not a hard thing to do when they are free and open to the anteroom, and some babe with nine-inch tits and a tray of drinks is shoving you toward the stage–and there was Merle Haggard, his very self. He had his original band, THE STRANGERS, and one of his original wives, BONNIE OWENS. They were new, relatively unknown. We sent a note up requesting the song ‘Somewhere Between’ for the Scragg Family, and Merle read it out loud, “Folks, we’ve got the SCRAGG FAMILY with us tonight!” An uneasy flutter of applause. Whoa, famous in Vegas.
Time to leave. Bruce spent all his baby-sitting money on toys and presents for Gavin—also a haircut and a western shirt. We bade farewell to this strange little town of gray houses and slightly sinister dust streets to head for JOE MACKIE’S famous STAR BROILER in WINNEMUCCA. Winnemucca is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, as our cowboy audience informed us.
The club was in process of an extensive remodel, which seems to have started at the stage, so we performed on a concrete floor with a background ambience of sawhorses and electric tools. That made for pretty bad sound, though not so bad that Joe Mackie himself had to come over and summarily turn our amp down from 8 to 1—I mean, he didn’t have to. He just did.
Our work-mate was dissatisfied with his gig as well; he was a comedian who never got a laugh even though he was, I thought, exceedingly funny. His most memorable line was, “Excuse me, I didn’t mean to disturb you, I know you have to hurry back to your coffins.” Yet the crowd was a nice one, in its way. Just neither sophisticated nor demonstrative. Our music suited them well. A lot of them came from the surrounding ranches, and The Broiler was their once-a-month big night on the town.
At the end of this gig, we went to a pawn shop in Reno where I bought a black-and-white Fender Strat that would be worth a fortune if I’d hung onto it, and a Standel amp, which ditto. It was time to start a stealthy transition from mountain to country music. Time, too, to get back to Montana and figure out what our new life was going to look like.
I guess I need to mention that the Star Broiler did burn down, though long after we left.
So that was our blast of success. There should be a T-shirt, SCRAGG FAMILY WORLD TOUR ’68. I’d wear it.