It takes enormous talent and skill to be good enough to be on the stage at all—stars are well and good, but without the musicians outside the spotlight, you don’t have much. Gary Vogensen has been one of those guys for nearly fifty years, and as you’ll hear in Shot of Hope, there were excellent reasons why he’s been up on all those stages.
“Music was always there,” he recalls of his childhood in San Rafael, CA. He grew up singing in choirs—his mother said that he sang in tune before he could talk. Then he heard James Burton, whose riffs propelled Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Marylou” and “Traveling Man” to the top. Mom kindly bought Gary a guitar when he was 17, and he never put it down. Vocally, he lists influences ranging from George Jones to The Mills Brothers, the Beach Boys and Ray Charles…and about a million other Country, Soul, Gospel, and R&B singers.
At the local College of Marin, he was in the Purple Fox blues band, which was memorable because everyone else in the band was Black, and their families were not only welcoming but tolerant; “They taught me how to eat, how to laugh, and how to love, and they let us get high in the yard before playing.” When he headed off to Chico, there was a soul band, The Fabulous Dynamics, and of course a jam band.
His commitment to music became absolute on the memorable night of November 1st, 1968, at the Avalon Ballroom. Genesis was the opening act, which interested Gary not at all because they didn’t have a guitarist. The closers were the Byrds, with Clarence White playing his Telecaster. But the middle act was Taj Mahal backed by Jesse Ed Davis, and it was Jesse Ed who got under his skin and heart and left him saying, “I just have to do that.”
He was a normal Marin guy in the ‘70s, used to seeing Garcia drive out of the Dead’s office at 5th and Lincoln, knowing that the Dead were a part of the community, even though he’d not met any of them formally….yet.” In 1972 he was hanging out at Marin Recorders, sitting in what was supposed to be a control room, smoking fatties and watching people rehearse. One night during the recording of Barry Melton’s record Melton, Levy and the Dey Brothers, the band was jamming with their producer, Mike Bloomfield. Gary’s friends more or less put his guitar in his hands and shoved him into the jam. “Could I sit in?” And Bloomfield said sure…In fact, he was so generous that he followed it up by looking at Melton and saying he should take Gary into the band and on tour as the rhythm guitarist.
“Square as a pool table and twice as green,” Gary said of himself, but those first shows changed his life. That band was followed by lots more—Top 40 bands, blues bands, you-name-it bands. A little more seasoned, in 1976 he ran into Bloomfield again, and through him came more high-level bands. He backed Mike, then Norton Buffalo (and got to know John McFee in that band). Maria Muldaur, for a tour. Almost Frank Zappa’s band, but it didn’t work out. Then Elvin Bishop, which led to a special moment. They were opening for Etta James at Lake Tahoe, and her guitarist sprained his wrist. Gary was drafted to substitute, and as he played, he had the thought that while Etta was something of a tortured soul, she was the real deal, the genuine article and what he was striving to be.
In the 1980s he was part of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, and in the ‘90s he worked with John “Marmaduke” Dawson and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Later, he would be part of the band on guitar and harmonica for Blues Broads, which features Angela Strehli, Tracy Nelson, Annie Sampson, and Dorothy Morrison. Over the years and in between things, he worked with Boz Skaggs, Steve Miller, Rick Danko, Kinky Friedman, and Lloyd Price. So many stages, so many roads.
And now he works at maintaining the Gary Vogensen School of Guitar, which is not only enjoyable, but where he continues to “Learn, learn, learn.” “I’ve settled down now and this recording project reflects my vision of what music is all about. It’s an auditory portrait of who I am as a singer, a musician, an artist, and a producer. It’s heartfelt, it’s pure, a bit of pleasure, a bit of pain, a bit of gravity, a bit of levity, and…you can dance to it!”
As a long-time veteran of New Riders of the Purple Sage music, Gary’s solo work is, as you’d expect, pretty much in the country-rock vein, with a particular emphasis on his very fine voice. Expect some heavy-hitting rockers as well, though…Gary’s made a living meeting the demands of many bandleaders in many styles and this project shows it. There are some originals, some covers, and even a traditional tune that’s a nod to his past. Gary plays all the guitars, some dobro and mandolin, and harmonia, and handles most of the backing vocals under the nom de voice “Marin Slim.” Here’s a very partial listing:
“Barbaric Splendor,” written by Joe New (who’s written songs for a crowd of people including Levon Helm, Nancy Sinatra, Jerry Reed, Nick Lowe, and Del McCoury), emphasizes Gary’s voice.
“Friend of the Devil” is authentic country, complete with pedal steel and banjo. Gary performs duets on both “Friend” and “Ripple” with his long-time NRPS partner, singer and multi-instrumentalist Russ Gauthier.
Gary adds: “Musicians can spend a lifetime and never find a singing partner the likes of Russ Gauthier. For me, he’s a gift from heaven…”
“Doing Time in Bakersfield” was written by Jim Lauderdale, who many will know from his extensive collaborations (several albums’ worth) with Robert Hunter.
“Peace Love and Understanding.” Nick Lowe’s timeless anthem, somewhat countrified with a terrific dobro solo.
You have to be about as old as I am or a real student to know about “Lies,” by the Knickerbockers. It’s such a perfect Beatles tribute that everyone was convinced it was really them. Superb version – Gary remembers.
The album finishes with perhaps the two strongest cuts, a country-flavored “Do Right Woman,” and as Gary puts it, a nod to Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis with a rocking version of the traditional tune, “The Cuckoo.” Just terrific.
Shot of Hope is from the Little Village Foundation, a nonprofit record company.