by George Ringwald
WHAT'S THE BEST country western band in Humboldt County?
A friend, who's been active in booking and promoting musical groups here answered that without a second's hesitation:
"They're booked about six to eight months in advance," she said. "They're very professional, and musically they're far superior to any other group in the area."
What's more, she added, these guys "are really sexy and exciting on stage."
Amazingly -- in a milieu where bands have risen and fallen with the regularity of the ocean tides -- The Roadmasters have been around for two decades. They'll celebrate their 20th anniversary Oct. 20 with a concert at O-H's Townhouse, with whom they've had a long-lasting relationship.
[This publicity photo was taken in 1990, a year after The
Roadmasters won the True Value Country Showdown state championships.
Left to right are Glenn Vickers, Doug Eastteam, Ross Rowley (seated)
and former drummer Dale Moon.]
Lead guitarist Glenn Vickers, who was a Roadmaster from the get-go, will be on hand for that performance, of course. So will Doug Eastteam, rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist, who joined the band just two years after Vickers.
There can't be many other band musicians here with that kind of claim to longevity.
In one 1995 Roadmaster newsletter (called, of course, The Roadmap), Vickers related that in his pre-Roadmaster days he'd played with a slew of other bands -- "about 40 different versions of The Roadmasters." He also noted that he'd "played in every bar in Humboldt County at least a hundred times."
Before going on stage for a recent performance at the North Coast Inn in Arcata, Vickers told me: "This band has played every weekend for 20 years, except for occasional vacations. This is the most working band in Humboldt County history ... In this band, if you want a vacation, you have to put in (for it) a year in advance."
[Current band members, performing last month at the North
Coast Inn include Vickers and drummer John Palotas.]
Vickers, 51, with a clean-cut look to him, remembers that The Roadmasters' first gig was at the old Bridgeville Dance Club, which would hold maybe 200 people, and folks "came from all over" to dance to their music.
"The biggest thrill we had was when we won the state championship in Bakersfield in 1989," he said. "When we came back, we played here (at the North Coast Inn), and the place was completely sold out. There was a line all the way outside to the lobby. I've never seen anything bigger. ... This place used to be packed to the gills."
They don't get that big a turnout at bars around the county these days, though. On the night I caught their act in Arcata, there were fewer than 100 in the audience. (The next night, however, playing at the Redbud Theater in Willow Creek, they had a crowd of 300-400. At rodeo dance halls, too, or at other dance halls not built around the bar, they'll draw as many.)
Today's public emphasis on Don't Drink and Drive "has slowed things down," said Vickers. He has no quarrel with that. With the drunken-driving penalty being what it is now, he said, "Only a fool would do it."
Which led to another thought: "That's another thing about this band. We never had a problem with drinking or drugs."
[Current band members, Doug Eastteam and Ross Rowley, performing
last month at the North Coast Inn.]
During their first break that night, Ross Rowley, the band's bass/keyboard player and vocalist, came by to talk with me. Rowley is in his fifth year with The Roadmasters, and at 35 is the youngest of the group.
"Youngest," he said in one Roadmap interview, "means the dumbest, and I open my mouth and prove it." No wonder he's known as Mr. Witty. When I noted that all four of the band members were wearing black hats, Ross laughed and said, "There are no good guys in the band."
Not so, of course, because The Roadmasters epitomize what is seen as the goodness of the '90s: They are family. The point is made repeatedly by band members. In 20 years it has had just 24 different members.
"Nobody's left on bad terms," Doug Eastteam said. "They just wanted to go on to other things."
Even those who have left the band and are still in the area remain on friendly terms with The Roadmasters.
Doug's wife, Cheryl, who does the booking for the band, pointed out that the other wives (all four present members are married, with children) are also involved in various aspects of the band's activities, helping out, for instance, with benefits. They frequently come out for the band's concerts.
There are now three generations of Eastteams associated with the band. Doug's father, John, a mill worker like Glenn Vickers, was one of the original Roadmasters, and in the past five years he has appeared on stage twice with Doug and with Doug's and Cheryl's daughter, Jessica. She is in high school, and has been taking guitar lessons from Vickers -- whom she calls "Mr. Golden Fingers."
"That's what's happened," said Rowley, "and that's country music, and that's where the roots are. ... It tends to be a family thing."
Rowley has another example of the family thing. When he joined The Roadmasters in 1991, it was as a "temporary" replacement for bass player Scott Messer, who was taking a six-month leave of absence -- "to have a baby with his wife," as the Times-Standard put it, "and to concentrate on his construction business."
Messer did come back, but Rowley was kept on to play the keyboard. Even though he didn't have one of his own at the time, the band purchased one for him.
"That happens a lot," Rowley said. "All the band equipment, except for our personal guitars and things, is purchased by the band ... and it's yours as long as you stay in the band."
That Messer had taken the leave, knowing that he could come back, is also part of the family element. (Messer finally had to leave the band when his Semco Construction business did take off.)
As Rowley observed: "You get to take a sabbatical when you have kids. ... I've never been in a band like that before. It's built around that, because it started as a family band."
Don Latner, the singer and guitarist who started The Roadmasters in 1976, is perhaps better known today as the proprietor of a busy auto glass and upholstery shop in Eureka that bears his name.
Now just shy of 60, Latner had earlier started up another country western band, the Nor-Cal Playboys, and when it split, he started this new group.
There'd been some legal hassle over the Nor-Cal name, he remembered, so he didn't want to get into that trouble with the new group.
"I thought about 'The Arizona Rangers,'" he said, "but that was kind of funky. And then because we played here, there and somewhere else, I thought about it -- 'Well, The Roadmasters.'"
The band was popular from the beginning, he recalled. "I never solicited for bookings. They called me."
But three years later he had to leave. "I was partners with my father-in-law in a cattle ranch in Washington, and when he died I went up to run it."
He came back a year later and started up his auto shop. His place in the band had been taken by Doug Eastteam, and the band in those days, as Latner remembers it, was playing "as high as four-five nights a week."
He said, "I didn't need the money, and I didn't want to burn the candle at both ends."
Still, he has done several guest spots with Country Fever during the intervening years, and he still jams with friends at home -- even after undergoing heart surgery in May 1995. "I got my garage cleaned out," he said, "so we can jam in there now."
The Roadmasters today rarely take on anything more than their usual weekend performances. They are all working stiffs and that also helps explain their durability.
"It's not a living for us," Doug Eastteam explained during a break in their North Coast Inn gig. "It's fun for us. ... We didn't have to do this; we wanted to."
Eastteam works for the Eureka Rubber Stamp Co., Rowley produces commercials for Cox Cable, Vickers is in his 33rd year working for Louisiana-Pacific Corp., and drummer John Palotas, who joined The Roadmasters just three years ago, is consumer products manager in the Eureka Mall office of Six Rivers National Bank.
Palotas, a 40-year-old native Eurekan, one of the group's two grandfathers (along with Vickers), has worked in bands since he got out of high school.
It occurred to me that some banker types might not look with favor on an employee spending his weekend as the "tub pounder" (as Palotas has referred to himself) in a band that plays for foot-stomping, whistling and hooting country western dance fans.
Palotas, however, assured me that "it's worked well all these years." After all, he noted, it is "very respectable ... a family band." He said, "It's not like I dress up like a woman ... or rip heads off birds."
Palotas believes that the drum chair job in The Roadmasters is the best in the county. "I know there are drummers who'd give their eyeteeth for that chair."
As one who did earlier hitches in what he described as "pop new-wave type music groups," Palotas offered his own explanation of the high turnover in other bands around Humboldt County: "Probably the incompatibility amongst members. You've got guys who are responsible and others who are just flakes."
Ross Rowley had similar words on that subject: "Bands fold a lot of the time for personnel reasons. Personalities clash, egos clash. ... That happens, and it's a transient type of thing. ... But I think by maintaining the family element is how this band has stuck together."
Music has been in the families of members, too. Ross, for example, had two grandfathers who were musicians. John Palotas' father was a big-band singer in Pennsylvania, who went by the name of Johnny King, and was a popular big-band singer on the North Coast during the '50s and '60s.
He operated a hearing-aid shop locally. He couldn't have picked a more promising business. In my exposure to country western music at The Roadmasters' concert in Arcata I had to conclude that it is ... well, in a word, deafening.
At one point when I was chatting with Glenn Vickers, he leaned forward to catch my words -- and this was before the band was even playing -- and explained: "I'm getting kind of hard of hearing after 30 years in this business."
For about the first six years of The Roadmasters history, Vickers recalled, they worked without a soundman -- "and everybody played as loud as he could."
("That was about the size of it," Don Latner agreed with a laugh when I relayed the story. He added a laudatory note about Vickers: "Glenn is the finest musician I ever played with.")
Will Bushnell, a 1983 graduate of Arcata High School, is the group's current sound and light man. He has been quoted as saying: "When I tell one of them that they're too loud, they have to discuss it -- and then do nothing about it anyway."
One of the things I puzzled over in listening to the band is why they have vocalists, when I couldn't understand a word they were singing. Well, I take that back. I did catch one brief refrain that went, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!" Also the main line of one song: "I'm in a hurry and I don't know why."
When I voiced that lament to Rowley, he said, "A lot of it is acoustics and the volume. We have an acoustic problem everywhere we play inside." He admitted, though, that they "get accustomed to the volume level," and it can be driven even higher by an enthusiastic audience.
Ross expounded on that in a talk we had later in his office at Cox Cable.
"I know my hearing loss is there," he said. "It's one of the hazards of the business. Why it has to be so loud, I don't know. ... It must be like a football game. I mean, a football game in a big stadium -- it's deafening, with all those people.
"Our music is dance music, and you have to get people up and moving ... throwing them into a frenzy, getting them out there on the floor."
At any rate, it suited John Eastteam when he was running his hearing aid shop. As Ross related: "He would go to hear us play -- and he still comes out (now in his late 60s), he and his wife -- and the rock bands that John (Palotas) and I were in were LOUD, and he would just say to us, 'Keep playing that loud music, because I need the business.'"
Country western music has had its ups and downs through the years, said Rowley, who is knowledgeable and articulate on the subject.
"A lot of times," he said, "we see it in society with the presidential campaign.... When Jimmy Carter got into office, between '76 and '80, there was a big boom for country music.... and also with Ronald Reagan up through '84, and then it declined a little bit.
"And then (with) George Bush, who is a country music fan, it picked up again ... It goes like that in popularity. And right now, country music is the peak music format in society today ... selling more records and having bigger concert attendance (than rock 'n' roll)."
It's especially become "a big product" with Garth Brooks, who (Ross informed this musically challenged interviewer) is "a major, major, major country star ... from Oklahoma."
Ross went on: "Three years ago he sold more records than any other artist combined, in any other field." Ross remembered reading an article in which Brooks, after taking off a year, was asked: "Why don't you go on the road?"
His response: "Well, I don't need the money. I have enough money for my grandchildren's grandchildren."
Ross burst into laughter, and said, "Well, that didn't happen in the '30s and '40s in country music."
Commenting on changes in country music lyrics that he's observed, Ross said, "The women's voice has come out a lot more. It's no longer, 'I'll stand by my man.' Now, it's 'Get out of my house!'"
Which prompted my next question: How come The Roadmasters don't have a female vocalist?
"That's a hard question to answer," he said. "I'm gonna sound like a sexist pig, but for this bunch of guys, it's Boys' Night Out. We don't play poker, don't go bowling, don't go cruising at high speed ..."
For me, I confess, it was hard to tell much difference between the music this country western band was playing and rock 'n' roll.
(Don Latner was quick to agree. "It's leaned too far to the rock," he said. "It doesn't really have the true country flavor, with the steel guitar and fiddle.")
Ross nodded. "Right," he said. "Over time -- since '88 -- young people with different influences coming in have driven it that way.
"We mention it all the time, that it sounds all the same, and we play it because it's popular. (Country music) has a rock 'n' roll element now because society has driven it that way ...
"It's interesting, in this band we play what they call old country or hard-core country or straight country, whatever you want to call it. And we'll play it at a wedding, say, and we do not play nearly as much of the rock 'n' roll element. ... You have to adapt. To be popular, you have to adapt to the situation."
To have been around 20 years, The Roadmasters have obviously adapted. Perhaps nothing says it so well as what Ross Rowley said that he's observed in his five years with the band:
"We've played everything from on a flatbed truck for the grand opening of the Freshwater Store -- which closed the next week -- to the Ingomar Club for their Cattlemen's Night. That, to me, is why we're the hardest working band in Humboldt County."
George Ringwald was a reporter for the Riverside Press Enterprise from 1948-69 and Tokyo bureau chief for Business Week magazine until 1984.