As a kid growing up without television in Guam, I learned to appreciate life’s simple entertainments. By day we’d outrun the daily tropical rain showers while playing tag in Davy Crockett ‘coon skin caps. And at night the thunder of coconuts rolling down the corrugated metal roof of our quonset hut served as a lullaby.
But the best times to be had were at the parties in my mama’s floral chintz living room. If I was lucky, the grown-ups would stand me on their shoes and waltz to tunes of Eddie Arnold or Tennessee Ford. And I could steal olives and maraschino cherries from the beverage table while some tall guy strummed a fast two-step on his immense guitar.
Some of those simple pleasures (sans the coconuts) will be offered up this weekend at the Ventura Harbor Village. Festival of the Old West will kick off an outdoor summer concert series of music ranging from rhythm and blues to rock. It’s all free and country music will be featured one weekend a month.
From 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sibling Rivalry, a brother-sister duo featuring Leti Morgan and Pino Sanchez, will entertain. Thunder Country radio deejay, Bob Allen, will meet and greet from noon to 3 p.m. Rick Henderson will teach and the Country Lovers dance demo team will perform line dances from 2 to 3 p.m. And there will be pony rides and rodeo clowns for the kids.
But the highlight of this weekend is Sunday’s double bill of old and new country: The Rhythm Rangers and the legendary country-Western band, Buck Page with his Original Riders of the Purple Sage.
The latter group, named after a novel by Zane Grey, helped to make cowboy music popular in the 1940s and ‘50s with hits including “Tumbling Tumble Weed,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Don’t Fence Me In.”
“I’m the only one alive out of the first lineup of the original Riders--the ones who went on the road,” said Page, now 71. “Today the group is only Joe (Boemecke), Mike (Ley) and I.”
The original lineup consisted of Bob Parker on guitar, Ken Cooper on accordion, Hal McCoy on string bass and Page on guitar, banjo and fiddle.
“Most of the cowboy bands until we came along were fiddles, guitars and banjos. But it sounded kind of empty behind the vocals,” he said. “So there was a good accordion player in town and I got him into the group. It really filled up the sound.”
That was in 1936. Page was 14 years old when the Riders got their start on the NBC radio station in Pittsburgh. A stint playing music and performing novelty sharpshooting tricks with the circus came next.
“When we went with the circus, they just didn’t want us to sing. And all we could really do was sing and play,” Page recalled. “But one of our guys was a sharpshooter. So Bob Parker shot live bullets, Necco wafers and cigarettes out of our mouths.”
Happily, the music--and the musicians--survived that tour to produce a string of hits.
Page has never stopped playing music, but earlier in his career did manage to get in some acting as well, appearing in more than 200 motion pictures, including “The Glenn Miller Story” and “A Star is Born,” with Judy Garland.
And true to his country-Western music roots, he did ranch for most of his life. He and his wife have lived in Oxnard since 1973.
And he’s had an impact on subsequent musical generations. In the late 1970s, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead bought a pedal steel guitar to play country music as a side band. Garcia acknowledged his admiration for the Original Riders of the Purple Sage by calling his group the New Riders of the Purple Sage.
More recently, Page’s band inspired the formation of Riders in the Sky, a modern trio that has gained national popularity as a nostalgia group. Duded up like Roy Rogers, they perform the tight vocal harmonies associated with Page or Sons of the Pioneers.
But we have the original, genuine article. And he’s back in the saddle--and studio--recording and touring.
The Original Riders of the Purple Sage have just recorded 21 of their well-known hits and some original tunes to be available by Sunday. Three of Page’s songs are out in a collection of campfire songs by Centerstream publishing. And his group will appear with the New Riders of the Purple Sage and Waylon Jennings June 23-26 at the Mountain Country Art and Music Festival in Missoula, Mont.
“The country music as we know it is long gone,” said Page. “All we have now is rock ‘n’ roll music and singers wearing cowboy hats. Country music today is ‘She done me wrong and she’s sitting down at the local bar right now with six guys. And I’m walkin’ the floor over her.’ ”
“But Western music is singing to the cattle, around the campfire, herding, riding your horse along the trail and being lonesome for your family.”
Page told me he was “happier than heck” about the nostalgia or renewed interest in country-Western music.
“I always said for 40 years that this would come around full circle and it has.”
* WHAT: Buck Page and the Original Riders of the Purple Sage; the Rhythm Rangers
* WHERE: In front of Carousel Marketplace at Ventura Harbor Village, 1559 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura
* WHEN: Buck Page, noon to 3 p.m.; Rhythm Rangers, 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday
* COST: No charge
* FYI: Call 644-0169