Chuck Pyle, a singer/songwriter also known as The Zen Cowboy, has made his way in the world of folk and Western music with strong songwriting skills and a truly unique fingerstyle for playing the guitar.
Playing the Twitchell House Concerts series in Ogden on Saturday, Sept. 15, Pyle is happy to be coming back to Utah -- and to the intimacy afforded him by a house-concert setting.
"I do like to do them," said Pyle of house concerts, calling from a tour stop in Taos, N.M. "It is up close and personal, and that is kind of where I work best. I find it most difficult to play to 5,000 people -- but to play to 50 is really a treat. I did my first house concert in Salt Lake City, with (Utah guitar virtuoso) Larry Pattis. In fact, that has kind of been my career in Utah, mostly. I can't wait to see old friends, coming back there."
Pyle has not only worked steadily as a troubadour since the mid-1970s, he has also had a good deal of success as a writer of Americana songs. His tunes have been recorded by such stars as John Denver and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He is perhaps best-known for his songs "Cadillac Cowboy," done by the late Chris LeDoux, and "Jaded Lover," made famous by Jerry Jeff Walker.
Pyle reckons that "Jaded Lover" was one of the first songs he ever finished.
"That was the song that brought me to the dance. I was really encouraged by that. I've had a good career as a songwriter. At first I had the willies about it, but that ("Jaded Lover") raised the bar way high. I stuck with it, and eventually I was off and running."
Pyle, a self-taught guitarist, said he started perfecting his style right about the time he started to sell his songs, which was shortly after suffering through a divorce. In his solitude, he threw himself into playing, drawing inspiration from the old ragtime pickers as well as such Delta bluesmen as Mississippi John Hurt. Pyle used a tried-and-true method to learn each note, a technique no longer readily available in the digital age. With a multi-speed record player in hand, Pyle searched out 45s and 78s and turned them down to 33 rpm to study the picking and note work.
"And then, I got this idea from listening to a piano player," he recalls. "He was actually kind of a bad piano player in the world of piano players, but he had this great right hand. The reason I think he didn't have a great left is he played in a band all his life. That part was covered by the bass and drums.
"So I thought, if I can do simple things with my thumb, I can expand with my fingers. So, thumb-and-fingers is what I do. I call it Chuck Pyle Fingerstyle, and I teach it in workshops all over. It is fun to do, and I can play even big events like festivals without a bass and drums. I usually have a lot of friends who can come and join me on stage, but I always know I can cover the bass line if I need to, with the way I do things."
Playing for keeps
Pyle said he has been working on an old song of late, an instrumental called "Texas Mosey," originally released in 1993 on his album "Endless Sky."
"It has that pulse thing going, with the fingers and bass-line," he said. "It's just fun to do that kind of stuff, and sort of wow people a bit with it. It does not seem all that 'wow-ee' to me, because I developed it over a long period of time."
Pyle laughed. "In fact, sometimes, when I am showing people and they get all impressed, I'm like, 'Jeez I can't believe I can do this, and you can't.' It comes that naturally to me now."
Not only does Pyle like to pick the tune "Texas Mosey," he is also involved in a bit of a detective story with the song.
"I got a statement from Sound Exchange recently -- that's who does (royalties) collection for Internet radio," he said. "And there were 3,000 plays of this song in one quarter! That is the reason I worked it back up, because someone out there is playing the thing, I don't know, something like 20 times a day. It's pretty weird. I think what would be really funny is if I run it down, and it turns out to be a laundromat in Keokuk, Iowa, playing it over and over."
Whatever the Internet mystery turns out to be, Pyle will keep working hard to make, and travel with, his own brand of solid Americana.
"I am 67 years old now, and I am still feeling this," he said. "I'm at the age where people don't ask me how I'm feeling anymore. They say instead, 'Hey, you look good.' It has been a great ride. I love what I do, and do what I love."
Twitchells enjoy opening home to musicians
Kara and Roger Twitchell have opened their Ogden home to some tremendous acoustic musicians, and their fans.
The Ogden couple hosts house concerts, with support from Ogden Friends of Acoustic Music. The Twitchells have hosted seven concerts since starting their series in 2009.
People have long hosted parties with live entertainment and music, but what are now called house concerts started popping up around the country about 20 years ago. Although a number of Salt Lake City residences have hosted shows over the years, including the long-standing Magpie House Concerts series, no one in the Ogden area was providing a home venue with any regularity before the Twitchells jumped in.
Kara and Roger Twitchell went to see Ogden Friends of Acoustic Music’s first music festival and were so impressed that they wanted to get involved. OFOAM founder Michelle Tanner told them one thing she hoped for in Ogden was for someone to host house concerts in the area. The Twitchells happened to have a back room perfect for a show, a spot they call their party room — an airy space with a few vinyl albums lying about, solid acoustics, and seating for up to 50.
After a bit of discussion, Kara Twitchell emailed one of their favorites to see if he’d be game to play their first show.
“I emailed Bill Staines in January 2009 to see if he would consider a concert at our house,” Kara Twitchell said. “(He) emailed back and told me the date he would be in Ogden for our concert! Our journey began.”
Staines has since played the Twitchell series a second time, and he’s returning for a third show on Oct. 10. Staines’ show follows Chuck Pyle on Saturday, Sept. 15 and comes prior to another show, by the folk musician Ellis, on Nov. 1
How to house
Most people get involved as presenters through their love of music, as did the Twitchells.
“Roger and I choose our concert performers by the music we like and enjoy,” said Twitchell.
Musicians, especially those working at the play-to-survive level — a level even the bigger names find themselves in during these downloadable music times — appreciate the chance at playing “gas gigs” between bigger towns. Many also like having the option of adding additional, intimate venues in the bigger cities.
In most cases, the artist receives all of the money from ticket sales, and can also make a bit of cash selling and signing CDs and swag at intermission and post-show. The Twitchells do take a little from the door in order to pay a professional Salt Lake City sound man’s gasoline bill to get to their gig.
For their trouble, hosts have the pleasure of having a favorite musician play an intimate show for friends and fellow fans in their home, and maybe get a free CD or two as well. The hosts will also sometimes give artists a night’s lodging, which the Twitchells do.
Most house concerts come with a potluck included. This is the case with the Twitchells, who will usually provide a main course and a few side dishes, then count on additional main dishes, sides and desserts coming in with the guests.
“We tried a house concert without a potluck — the concert wasn’t as fun,” said Kara Twitchell. “It brings everyone together before the concert and offers time for a conversation with the performer.”
Challenges of hosting
Of course, houses don’t normally sport marquees, so one of the biggest challenges of presenting such a show is simply getting the word out. Social media has made this aspect easier, with the artists posting the shows on their websites and fans spreading the word through Facebook and other sites. But the Twitchells also still depend on traditional means of spreading the word — newspaper stories, radio support, and newsletters and websites such as those published regularly by OFOAM and IAMA, the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association.
Most hosts and artists hope to have seating for at least 10, preferably closer to 20. The Twitchells are fortunate to be able to offer a room that is big enough for a coffeehouse-sized crowd.
“It is a challenge to fill the seats for each concert, no matter how wonderful the musicians are. We hope for a minimum of 20 people at our concerts (because) a low turnout would be embarrassing for us.”
Kara Twitchell said that one thing she and husband Roger have discovered by offering their house as a place to play is that the musicians who come through are hard-working, normal folks who put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. Each has been gracious and grateful that the Twitchells offer them an affordable option for a good night’s work.
“We sure are happy to help such talented people make their living — and we all have a pretty good time helping them do it, too,” she said.
To learn more about hosting and attending house concerts, go to www.concertsinyourhome.com.