That High Desert Sound

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Where sage and bloom and pine trees meet the waterfall. Where the mountains meet the sky. Through the pines and desert flowers we’ll wile away the hours. And we’ll settle down out in Pioneertown. –Out in Pioneertown, Sons of the Pioneers, 1947

Sons of Pioneers (left to right): Tim Spencer, Bob Nolan, Roy Rogers, Ken Carson and Karl Farr (1946). Courtesy of Terry Sevigny Scott Collection. Publicity portrait of Roy Rodgers, circa 1940s. Dell’s “Roy Rodgers” comics, circa early 1950s. The Pioneertown Bowling Alley in 2006. In 1961 Brunswick automatic pinsetters replaced the young boys hired to manually set them. © Kim Stringfellow. The Pioneertown Bowling Alley in 2006. The playfully stylized wall murals were painted by Wallace Roland Stark in the late 1940's. © Kim Stringfellow. Original movie set buildings on Pioneertown’s Mane Street are now private residences and shops. © Kim Stringfellow. Publicity photo of Pappy Allen inscribed to John Huff, a Yucca Valley resident and local historian. Image courtesy John Huff. Collection of newspaper clippings at Pappy & Harriet’s celebrating the establishment's former owners. © Kim Stringfellow. The adobe façade of Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace was another original movie set. © Kim Stringfellow. Pappy & Harriet's famous stage today. © Kim Stringfellow. Linda and Donovan Leitch photographed in Joshua Tree in December 2015. © Kim Stringfellow. Teddy Quinn and his son Sage at home in Joshua Tree, CA. © Kim Stringfellow. The Sibleys (Laura Sibley, Thom Merrick, James Sibley) in Wonder Valley, CA. © Kim Stringfellow.
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The Pioneertown Bowling Alley in 2006. The playfully stylized wall murals were painted by Wallace Roland Stark in the late 1940's. © Kim Stringfellow.
Music in the Morongo Basin’s High Desert is synonymous with Gram Parsons—the groundbreaking originator of “Cosmic American Music” who tragically died at the Joshua Tree Inn from an overdose at age 26 on September 19, 1973. Long before Parsons (the subject of a future dispatch) and his rocker colleagues made their way here, a number of musical legends had already set up camp.

One of the first was the highly influential Sons of the Pioneers—an early Western singing group featuring an unknown cowboy hailing from Ohio named Leonard Slye, along with fellow yodeler/singer Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer. The group called themselves Pioneer Trio but later changed their name to the Sons of the Pioneers after a radio host commented that they were too young to be “real” pioneers. Over time a number of talented musicians would join the lineup with various members appearing in 87 films from 1935 to 1984.

Slye, after being lured out of the band in 1938 by a Hollywood studio, became an instant movie star after he changed his name to Roy Rodgers. Eventually the remaining Sons of the Pioneers members joined back up with Rodgers after their own Columbia Pictures contract had ended, playing supporting roles to Rodgers in numerous films and television productions over the years. Nolan, a Canadian by birth, wrote their most popular composition “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” first recorded in August 1934. The Smithsonian designated the group a “National Treasure” in 1977.

These crooning cowboys drifted to this particular part of the High Desert via Hollywood’s love of the classic western—a popular motion picture genre promoting idealized portrayals of the American “West” that were a staple of movie studios during the mid- to late 20th century. As such, pristine and undeveloped desert locations with visually striking backdrops in reasonable proximity to Los Angeles were sought out to produce these mostly low-budget productions.

In this context Pioneertown Corporation was co-founded in 1946 by actors Russell Hayden and Dick Curtis—who had first “discovered” the area while riding horseback to peruse a small parcel of land that he had purchased sight unseen. Other investor partners included Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry along with members of the Sons of the Pioneers. Hayden stated that the burgeoning town was nearly named “Rogersville” during an interview with John Huff, a Yucca Valley-based screenwriter and local historian. Instead, the group of investors settled for the more impartial “Pioneertown” moniker.[1]

Hayden went on to describe during the interview how he decided to blast a more direct route to the settlement with dynamite he had purchased—after San Bernardino County refused to build the road. After he had done the heavy work the County went ahead and paved it (the same route is still in use today). Besides his flair for engineering roads and playing cowboy, Hayden was also said to effortlessly jump onto the backside of his horse without aid of a springboard.[2] His television show Judge Roy Bean (first aired in 1955) was filmed at a replica of Langtry, Texas on his nearby 35-acre ranch. In all, more than 50 movies were filmed in Pioneertown including the 1949 Cisco Kid movie “Satan’s Cradle,” which features the town prominently.

Promoted as a scenic, smog-free, 32,000 acre “all inclusive filming location,” Pioneertown featured a variety of fully-built circa 1870s western movie set buildings along “Mane” Street, including corrals, stables, a sound stage, storage facilities, a Chinese restaurant called the Golden Stallion, a motel, two saloons, plus a 6-lane bowling alley built because Roy Rodgers loved to bowl. Rogers rolled the first ball in 1949 to the cheers of Dale Evans and onlookers. Gene Autry often filmed his popular television show here.

Somehow it is not surprising that investors had high hopes of expanding Pioneertown into a far grander development—3 golf courses, sprawling home sites, additional restaurants and lodging— fortunately the lack of adequate groundwater kept the mega dude ranch at bay.

In 1984, Carole and Ernie Kester purchased the standalone Townhouse Motel—locally known as the Pioneertown Motel—which at the time was mostly occupied by an odd assortment of long-term tenants. One gentleman named Alabama was discovered residing in a single room with a collection of pet goats. Not too soon after Alabama died (most conveniently before his monthly rent was due), he left the couple with a mighty mess to clean up. Carole said it took four years before she felt confident enough to rent the room to guests.

Carole decorated each room in its own unique thematic western décor. Regular clients preferred certain rooms; Room 9 was known as “Club 9” because Gene Autry would set up a bar for fellow actors and crew to unwind after a long day of shooting. John Barrymore Jr. who lived off and on at the motel through the 1980/90s had a regular room here. The couple fondly remembers how Barrymore insisted that Carole use only Doctor Bronner’s soap products and lemons instead of chlorine bleach due to his acute allergies and an obsession with eradicating germs. Later, he paid them to have the carpet ripped out and the room tiled. After John passed in 2004, his 3 children, including Drew Barrymore, spread his ashes in Joshua Tree National Park.

During a recent 2016 interview Ernie shared a hilarious story about Roy Rodgers. Although he never filmed a movie in Pioneertown, Rodgers often brought his prized golden palomino Trigger up here to ride. On more than one occasion a group of stuntmen badgered Rodgers to race Trigger for wager along Mane Street. Rodgers politely refused the offer, claiming his pony was a refined show horse—not racing stock. One day it seems Rodgers changed his mind; he walked into the Red Dog Saloon and threw a “big roll of bills down on the table” calling the bet against the pooled funds of the stuntman.

Ernie recalls from Bill Whitney’s memoir (a director of western movie serials who called the start of the race) that: “It was just like in the movies. As the race began Roy leaned down, patted Trigger’s neck, and whispered something in his ear and that horse took off like a rocket!” “Roy and Trigger were already down at the end of Mane Street at the Golden Stallion, had turned around and were heading back by the time the other mounts had just passed the bowling alley.” Rodgers went back into the bar, raked all the money into his cowboy hat and related with a twinkle in his eye, “Now fellows, anytime you want to do this again you just call on Trigger and I—we’ll be waiting for you.”[3]

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As a showbiz destination Pioneertown understandably drew in a number of interesting characters, such as Dazzlin’ Dallas Morley, a honky-tonk piano player and singer who arrived on a whim on Labor Day in 1949 via Los Angeles. She never left town. Dallas had previously served as head hostess at Pancho Barnes’ infamous Happy Bottom Riding Club, serving Chuck Yeager and other test pilot fly boys on Muroc Dry Lake—which later became Edwards Air Force Base. At the Red Dog Saloon Dallas was known for her bawdy renditions of standards, including a lewdly-revised version of “Mona Lisa made famous by Nat King Cole.

At the saloon—which served as a bar most days but shut down on Sunday mornings for church services—Dallas would change into more conservative attire (still sporting faint traces of red lipstick from the night before) to perform standard hymns, until the residing deacon would proclaim at the end of the service, “Bar is open!” She’d then make a costume change and revert to her former singing persona. Cowboys would regularly ride their horses into the bar, tie up and share a beer with their pony.

It seems that not all town folk were pleased with the establishment’s innovative dual use—a fire swept through the Red Dog on Good Friday of 1964, and a few days later on Easter Sunday the Golden Stallion was completely destroyed by another. Some locals speculated that the mysterious fires had resulted from arson.

Many of the existing original buildings in Pioneertown are today occupied by private tenants, including several retail shops selling hand-crafted ceramics, custom western saddlery and other detailed, hand-tooled leather goods. The Mane Street Stampede Wild West Show stages its funky old west reenactments in downtown Pioneertown most afternoon weekends April through October.

The adobe façade of Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace was another original movie set. A hand painted sign above the door emblazoned “The Cantina” appeared in numerous films during the 1950s. In 1972, Francis Aleba and her husband John purchased the building and opened a raucous bar that served outlaw bikers and locals beer and burritos through most of the 1970s.

Ten years later Francis’ daughter Harriet and her husband Claude “Pappy” Allen would gain ownership. They continued to serve hearty Tex-Mex meals not only to bikers but also a diverse mix of locals, off-duty Marines, cowboys and anyone who happened to make their way up the winding 5-mile stretch of Hayden’s dynamited road from Yucca Valley. After taking care of business in the kitchen, Harriet would take the stage and serenade the crowd with a melding of country, rock and blues standards. Harriet’s talented granddaughter, Kristina Quigley, began performing on stage at age 15, often alongside her grandmother.

During his first visit to the area (under the influence of a considerable amount of tequila) well-respected roots music producer and engineer Dusty Wakeman bought nearby Rimrock Ranch in the late 1980s and restored the rustic 1940s cabins over 18 years with his wife Szu. Dusty recalls how: “Pappy’s was a lot looser in those days—Harriet would come out of the kitchen with her apron on and get up and sing ‘Black Velvet’ and Pappy would materialize out of the ether to sing his legendary version of ‘Welcome to My World.’  Szu and my son J.D had built a beautiful fire pit up at Rimrock where many magical nights were spent making music with friends, such as Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale and the Sin City All Stars (my Outlaw Country Band).”

Olivier Hermitant, a French guitar player and documentary filmmaker who accidently “made a left turn” and stumbled into Pioneertown in the late 1980s, describes the early 1990s Pappy & Harriet’s scene as having “an intimate community/family ambience” that nurtured its wealth of talented local musicians. Performers felt like they could get up on stage, and play their hearts out without being judged by the diverse but mostly local audience of “Pie-town” residents and desert dwellers. Indeed, it was not unusual for Donovan Leitch and his wife Linda or Eric Burdon to show up and casually perform here—both musicians and their families had already lived in the High Desert area for years.

Pappy, a robust, much-loved singer/musician, served as mentor for the area’s burgeoning musical community, including Louisiana native songbird Victoria Williams who arrived in Joshua Tree via Los Angeles in the mid-1990s shortly after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Williams dedicated her playful, quirky memorial, “Happy to Know Pappy” after attending his 1994 wake, which drew hundreds of friends and family from around the world.

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Cracker recorded its platinum Kerosene Hat release in 1992 at the old Pie-town sound stage, owned by the Allens at the time of the sessions. The band made use of both Pappy & Harriet’s and the motel as base camp, with Harriet and Kristina contributing to the recording. Founding members Dave Lowery and Johnny Hickman host the annual Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Campout here in late summer. Other annual fall music festivals staged at Pappy & Harriet’s include Desert Stars and Jim Lauderdale’s Jimfest.

By the early 2000s—after two failed attempts by new owners to continue the legacy that the Allens had begun—New Yorkers Robyn Celia and Linda Krantz bought the establishment in 2003 on credit cards. Over time, along with a lot of sweat equity, the women transformed the place into the outrageously popular and international destination for indie music, tasty mesquite barbecue and drink that it is known for today.

To kick things off under the new management Lucinda Williams was asked to open their first show. She agreed, playing outside in the freezing cold on November 15, 2003. Other notable performers include Eagles of Death Metal, Gram Rabbit, Sean Lennon, Will Oldham, Beth Orton, Peaches, Chris Robinson, Leon Russell, Spindrift, Spiritualized, Tinariwen, Rufus Wainwright and Queens of the Stone Age.

Gram Rabbit’s magnetic melding of “desert space rocktronica” resulted when uber sexy Jesika von Rabbit and Todd Rutherford connected in the High Desert during the early 2000s. The group performs regularly at Pappy & Harriet’s and hosts the annual Grim Rabbit extravaganza on Halloween. Jesika was among other local performers from the house Sunday Band in February 2006 who shared the stage with Robert Plant after he dropped in during a well-discussed surprise visit and jam session.

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The crowd at Pappy & Harriet’s remains varied with an inspiring mix of folks from all walks of life. Even when the place is packed it somehow continues to feel genuinely hospitable and down-to-earth. Teddy Quinn’s Monday evening Reality Show has always been a local gathering night at the bar. One never knows who may show up—Leslie Feist quietly asked Ted to sing one night—before he actually knew who she was. Pop music newcomer Elle King performed at Quinn’s open mic at the Saloon in 2012, then at the Joshua Tree Music Festival in 2014 and was recently nominated for a Grammy™ in 2016.

Quinn, a truly benevolent presence in the Morongo Basin since he arrived here in the early 1990s, drifted out with his girlfriend and Rancho de La Luna recording studio founder Fred Drake. He is unarguably Joshua Tree’s cultural mayor—although artist Bobby Furst runs a close second. Quinn is known for his unselfish mentorship of talented musicians who perform at his Reality Show, or the Tuesday open mic event at the Joshua Tree Saloon. Additionally, Teddy is the owner/founder of Radio Free Joshua Tree.

Numerous bands and performers have gravitated to the High Desert to record at low-key studios hidden throughout the desert landscape. Notably, Josh Homme (who was born in Joshua Tree) of Queens/Eagles fame began the collaborative Desert Sessions in 1997. Recorded at the Rancho—currently headed by Eagles/earthlings? guitarist and producer Dave Catching—the ongoing series features a varied roster of musicians—now celebrating its tenth volume. Other acts the Rancho has recorded include Vic Chestnutt, Foo Fighters, P.J. Harvey, Kyuss, Mark Lanegan, Daniel Lanois and many others. More recently, Homme partnered with Iggy Pop to record Pop’s new 2016 offering Post Pop Depression, well under-the-radar at the Rancho.

Nearby New Moon Records, run by the multi-musician Lester family, releases a diverse stable of local acts including Kristina Quigley, Tim Easton (now based in Nashville) and their own Shadow Mountain Band.

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The Grammy™ Award-winning Tinariwen (translated as “deserts” in Tamasheq—the band’s native Tuareg language) arrived in Joshua Tree in 2013 to record their latest release Emmaar. This musical collective from northern Mali formed in 1979 in the Saharan desert region of Algeria after fleeing political discord. They play a form of contemporary electrified rhythm & blues that is influenced by the hypnotic music of the Tuareg who are descended from “nomadic people who have wandered the dunes for millennia.”

With continuous strife and hardship from clashes with religious Islamist extremists who outlaw any form of music—the group of musicians found themselves exiled from their homeland after members had been targeted for creating “Satan’s music.” Electing to record in safer environs, Tinariwen chose Joshua Tree, not only for its deep-rooted musical legacy, but also for the nuanced landscape of the Mojave which recalls their own starkly beautiful Saharan Desert.

Of course, there are just too many gifted musicians and bands based here to cover in this dispatch, including Gene Evaro Jr (plus various projects of his talented siblings), The Sibleys, Solid Ray Woods, Bingo RicheyChris UnckAdobe Collective, Robbi Robb who jams regularly with a group of local musicians at Bobby Furst’s Furst World, a mind-blowing art assemblage/theater in the Joshua Tree Monument Manor neighborhood. The perfect way to experience some of these acts is to attend one of the Joshua Tree Musical Festivals, which features local acts among an amazing roster of visiting global musicians. Tickets for the upcoming spring event are available at: joshuatreemusicfestival.com.

A HIGH DESERT PLAYLIST:

3rd Ear Experience: Peacock Black

The Adobe Collective: Long Road

Eric Burdon: Gotta Serve Somebody

Cracker: Forever

Fred Drake: House of the Moon

Donovan: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

earthlings?: Saving Up For My Spaceship/Illuminate

Tim Easton: Highway 62 Love Song

Gene Evaro Jr: Joshua Tree Sound

Giant Sand (featuring Pappy Allen): Nowhere | Wonder

Gram Rabbit: Candy Flip

The Kittens: Whispering Horses

Johnette Napolitano and Buzz Gamble: Cheap Tequila 

Gram Parsons: A Song for You

Robert Plant: 29 Palms

Queens of the Stone Age: I Wanna Make It Wit Chu

Kristina Quigley: Pioneer Swing

Ted Quinn: 29 Palms

Shadow Mountain Band: Listen

The Sibleys: Waiting for the End of the World

Spindrift: The Legend of God’s Gun

Son of the Velvet Rat: Blood Red Shoes

Sons of Pioneers: Out in Pioneertown

Thrift Store All Stars: The Waters Fine

Tinariwen: Arhegh Danagh

Chris Unck & The Black Roses: Southern Lights & Shadows

Dusty Wakeman: Rimrock Hideway

Lucinda Williams: West

Victoria Williams: Happy To Have Known Pappy

Solid Ray Woods: Cover Me

The author graciously thanks Anthony Foutz, Olivier Hermitant, John Huff, Ernie and Carole Kester, Donovan and Linda Leitch, Teddy Quinn, Jesika von Rabbit, Todd Rutherford, Dusty Wakeman, Victoria Williams, Judy Wishart and others for contributing stories, photos, video and ephemera for this dispatch.

This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

[1] http://www.deluxxe.com/pioneertown/view/historichayden.html. Here you will find a series of historical articles on the Pioneertown area by John Huff.
[2] Ibid.
[3] As retold by Ernie Kester during an interview with the author at his home in Pipes Canyon on 16 Jan 2016. It appears that there is an AMC short feature with Roy and Trigger racing in Pioneertown, filmed during the 1940s. The film is occasionally aired with a similar storyline, but a few differing details suggest that it was a promotional stunt.

Read more about Ted Quinn and Fred Drake’s partnership plus other stories in a haunting series of articles from Rubén Martínez’s 2012 book Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West at KCET Artbound.

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