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Buried deep in the frozen heart of a cold Colorado winter long ago, is a warm moment that will always occupy a treasured place in my memory.

Steve Fromholz
Steve Fromholz

I have been thinking of the life and times of Steve Fromholz since the day I heard the news, and last night, lying awake listening to the snowplows go up and down Roxborough Drive removing the falling early spring snow, I decided to tell this story of another winter long ago in order to officially say goodbye.

1970. At least that is the year that John Cable and I think it was. It’ll do. It’s close enough. I drove up to Gold Hill high above Boulder to spend a few days with Steve and Janey at their cabin there, arriving sometime before a storm came through from the west. We were going to do what we always did then: play music, swap songs, get a little crazy. They lived in a tiny, grey clapboard, three-room cabin, probably not originally built for winters but for summers in the mountains, judging by the construction. It was charming nonetheless. The cabin consisted of a main room with an alcove for a guest bed, a kitchen, and a bedroom off the back of the kitchen. And an outhouse. An outhouse. There was a pot belly stove that dominated the main room, and a wood burning stove that filled the kitchen, with a breakfast table wedged in next to it under a window. If the two stoves were kept burning, it was a cozy spot to weather a storm, and in the middle of that first night, I awoke to see that black pot belly iron glowing angry red, doing its best to keep the room toasty.

He was probably 25 then, and everything about him was big. He had a big mustache, a big hat, big voice, big hands, big personality, and a big guitar. And he was right at the beginning of a big life to come. He played a sunburst Gibson J-200, about the biggest acoustic guitar available then and now. I imagine that it was like meeting Sam Houston or Davy Crockett. Bigger than life, soon to be the legendary favorite son of Bosque County. We were fairly new friends, but had spent more than a little time together at clubs like the Cafe York in Denver (Frummox, the duo of Dan McCrimmon and Steve, was the musical event not to be missed), the All-American Bar in Breckenridge, and the Checquered Flag in Austin, Texas, among others, not to mention various all nighters where the object was to play and participate in the craziness of the times. He had an earnest, deep, sonorous voice that reminded me of Tennessee Ernie Ford singing Sixteen Tons. He sang songs that were all about the American West–trains and big rigs and cowboys and adventure. His delivery was forthright, straight on folk singing with no blues edge, no pinched Dylan, no pop.

The next day, two more guests arrived, having driven down from Steamboat Springs through the storm. Two musicians that I did not know, but who would later come to play an important part in my life. Chuck Pyle, who would become a fine songwriter and solo artist (Other Side of the Hill and Jaded Lover, recorded by J.J. Walker), and John Cable, who would in a few short years pack his bags to be in the first American band to tour the Soviet Union as a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, showed up with their guitars to weather the storm. I don’t know how Janey felt about suddenly having a cabin full of guests, but she did a fine job of taking care of everything that needed taking care of.

That kitchen stove was the focal point around which we gathered. A wood stove takes some time to reach temperature, so it is important to keep it there, once it arrives at full operating burn. Janey kept that stove going from morning coffee, through breakfast and into lunchtime, all the way to evening. And we four didn’t move from that table from the time we sat down in the morning, until time for bed, for two days. It was blowing and snowing, and we were playing song after song after song. And definitely not thinking about going to the outhouse. We were all somewhere in the first decade of our musical journey. None of us were instrumentalists. Nobody could take a solo then. So we happily strummed along with whoever was leading, adding harmonies if we could, unaware at the time that it was simple magic that we were experiencing.

The musical muses bestowed on us a memorable 72 hours. The snow storm passed. I recall that I went out in that frigid weather to use that outhouse only once in three days. Chuck Pyle is out there on the road somewhere, still playing shows. I am going to see John Cable in Atlanta in a few weeks to have him and Allison Adams sing on some tracks for my latest CD. Steve went on to write some fabulous songs, record some albums, bring joy to innumerable audiences, move to Texas, and become the Poet Laureate of that state. He is physically gone, but his songs are still circulating throughout the vastness of space. He is still being big. In the obituaries I’ve seen, Steve’s song Man in the Big Hat is often quoted and entirely appropriate, but I was always quite fond of his Song for Stephen Stills, also known as High Country Caravan. The alliteration, the poetry. It was one of his best.

Adios, mi amigo.  March 5, 2014

The crystal gaze softness unbroken by sunlight,
And rainbows have died for the day.
A pine needle pillow of dreamed-upon memories,
Walked over winds blown away.

Time doesn’t enter my singular solitude,
Mysteries of night thoughts come begging to me,
Where lonely well-meaning is only allowable,
Thoughts of my past bring my present to me.

I laugh at my lyrics while singing to nightbirds,
The words only mess up the tune.
And count all the stars ’til I run out of numbers,
And find that I’m sleeping too soon.

Night is for laughing or walking a quiet path,
Lying in clover on top of a hill.
I lay here dreaming of sailing on silver wings
Morning comes dancing
and I’m dreaming still.

And I’m off on a high country caravan, gone again,
Following the ones who went before;
Don’t think that I’m going back again,
I couldn’t stand the games of man,
I just won’t play at all no more.

I sit in the sunrise and search for the morningstar,
Fighting the sun to be seen.
Standing in springtime and watching the trees working,
Changing the dead leaves to green.

Daylight it decorates all that it falls upon,
Everything ’round me it feels like my own.
Walking a straight path from here over yonder way.
Me feeling happy, for once all alone.

And I’m off on a high country caravan,
Where I’ve been is all a sin I’d just as soon forget;
Can’t see no reason to look behind,
I might find some of
the kind I’ve seen before,
We’ve already met.

Out across the valley on through the creek bed.
My footprints are seen by the dove.
And he flies on by me and calls his love mate,
The smile fits my face like a glove.

Down in the gulleys the going get rougher now,
Turn loose my footsteps I go where they will.
If you pass this way you might possibly find me here,
Staring at God from the top of a hill.