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 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 twentieth 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 Curtis 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 “Rodgersville” 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—after San Bernardino County refused to build the road. When the heavy work was complete the county went ahead and paved the thoroughfare (the same route is still in use today). Besides his flair for engineering roads and playing cowboy, Hayden could effortlessly jump onto the backside of his horse without aid of a springboard. 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 six-lane bowling alley allegedly built because Roy Rodgers loved to bowl. Rodgers would roll its first ball in 1949 to the cheers of Dale Evans and onlookers. The beloved singing cowboy Gene Autry often filmed his popular television show in and around Pioneertown.

It is not surprising that these actor investors had high hopes of expanding Pioneertown into a far grander development—three golf courses, a subdivision of sprawling home sites, additional restaurants and lodging were planned—but fortunately the lack of an adequate groundwater source kept this 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 his herd of pet goats. Not soon after Alabama died—most conveniently before his monthly rent was due—leaving the couple with a malodorous 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 with its own unique thematic western décor. Regular clients preferred certain rooms; Room 9 became known as “Club 9” for Gene Autry’s after hours bar where fellow actors and crew could 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 in place 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 three children, including Drew Barrymore, spread their father’s ashes in Joshua Tree National Park.

During a 2016 interview Ernie shared a hilarious story about Roy Rodgers. Although he actually 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. However, one day 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 was said to have 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 the horse’s ear that made him take off like a rocket! Roy and Trigger were at the end of Mane Street and already heading back by the time the other mounts had just passed the bowling alley.” Rodgers went 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.”[2]

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As a popular showbiz destination, Pioneertown understandably drew in a number of interesting characters including Dazzlin’ Dallas Morley, a honky-tonk piano player and singer who arrived here on a whim on Labor Day 1949 and eventually became a town legend. Dallas had previously worked as head hostess at Pancho Barnes’ infamous Happy Bottom Riding Club, serving Chuck Yeager and other fly boys out on Muroc Dry Lake—later to be renamed Edwards Air Force Base. As a colorful fixture at the Red Dog Saloon, Dallas was known for her bawdy renditions of popular musical standards, including a lewdly-revised version of “Mona Lisa” made famous by Nat King Cole.

The Red Dog operated as a bar throughout the week 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 church hymns until the residing deacon had proclaimed at the close of the service, “Bar is open!” She’d then make a quick 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 two-fold 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.

Pioneertown’s original buildings still in existence are are owned or occupied by private tenants, including several retail shops selling hand-crafted ceramics, custom western saddlery and hand-tooled leather goods. The Mane Street Stampede Wild West Show staged its old west weekend reenactments for years in downtown Pioneertown but now performs bi-monthly at a private property nearby.

The adobe façade of the much-lauded Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace was built originally as a 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 beer and burritos to outlaw bikers and locals through most of the 1970s.

Ten years later, Francis’ daughter Harriet and her husband Claude “Pappy” Allen would gain ownership. The couple continued to serve hearty Tex-Mex meals not only to bikers but also to a diverse mix of locals, off-duty Marines, cowboys and anyone who happened to make their way up the winding five-mile stretch of Hayden’s dynamited road. After attending to her culinary duties in the kitchen, Harriet would take the stage to 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.

While visiting the area for the first time (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. Along with his wife Szu, Wakeman began an 18-year restoration project of the properties’ rustic 1940s cabins that would serve as a family retreat and recording studio. 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 accidentally “made a left turn” and stumbled into Pioneertown during the late 1980s, describes the early nineties 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, 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 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 with credit cards. Over time, along with a lot of sweat equity, the women transformed the place into the outrageously popular international destination for indie music, tasty mesquite barbecue and libation that it is known for today.

To kick things off under their new management, Celia and Krantz asked the illustrious Lucinda Williams to perform for their inaugural gig. She agreed, playing outside in the freezing cold on November 15, 2003. Other notable performers to have graced Pappy & Harriet’s stage include Eagles of Death Metal, Gram Rabbit, Sean Lennon, Aimee Mann, Paul McCartney, 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. In February 2006, Jesika was among other local performers from Pappy & Harriet’s Sunday House Band who shared the stage with Robert Plant after he dropped into the joint for a 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 with Los Angeles area hipsters it somehow continues to feel down-to-earth. The bar’s Monday evening open mic event, originally hosted by Teddy Quinn, has always been a favorite local’s night out. 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 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 to the area with his girlfriend and Rancho de La Luna recording studio founder Fred Drake. He is unarguably Joshua Tree’s cultural mayor—although local artist Bobby Furst of Furstworld runs a close second. Quinn is known for his selfless mentorship of the areas talented musicians who have in the past performed at his Reality Show or the Tuesday open mic event he hosted for several years at the Joshua Tree Saloon.

Numerous bands and performers have gravitated to the High Desert to record at under-the-radar studios located throughout the area. Notably, Joshua Tree-born Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age fame began the celebrated Desert Sessions in 1997, featuring a varied roster of rock musicians and vocalists recorded mostly at Rancho de La Luna. The studio, sited in an old desert bungalow near downtown Joshua Tree, has been run by Eagles/earthlings? guitarist and producer Dave Catching for 15 years now. Catching took over operations in 2004 after Fred Drake passed in 2002. Other acts recorded and produced at the Rancho include Vic Chestnutt, Foo Fighters, P.J. Harvey, Kyuss, Mark Lanegan, Daniel Lanois, Iggy Pop and many others.

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 tin North Africa for millennia.

Because of 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 in this area 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, Son of the Velvet Rat and Robbi Robb who jams regularly with a group of local musicians at Furstworld, a mind-blowing art assemblage/theater in the Joshua Tree’s Monument Manor. 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 upcoming events 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. Read more about the Rancho de La Luna recording studio in this KCET Artbound dispatch by the author.

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

[1] See: John Huff, A View From Pioneertown, http://www.deluxxe.com/pioneertown/view/historichayden.html, for a series of historical articles by John Huff on the Pioneertown area.

[2] As retold by Ernie Kester during an interview with the author at his home in Pipes Canyon on January 16, 2016. Kester states that film footage exists with Roy and Trigger racing in Pioneertown during the 1940s and suggests that this was a choreographed promotional stunt.