A few folks popped in and out as the evening progressed, but the only people to watch the entirety of Speedy Gray and Johnny Shoes' set at the Crux last Friday were the man behind the counter and me. You could blame the lack of an audience on the ban on serving alcohol under which the Crux suffers currently. The numerous pedestrians who stopped for a moment to watch through the window and listen may suggest that you'd be right. It'd be nice to see the Crux's business pick up after the ban's lifted. If not sooner.
Anyway, if the Cowboys were upset over the absence of people, they didn't show it. For about two and a half hours, they tossed songs, solos, stories and bad jokes back and forth. Please note, though, that when I use the word "tossed," I do not mean "tossed off." These two gentlemen turned in a solid performance even though there were only two people watching them (and I doubt that it was because I mentioned that I'd be writing about them). I can't say the same about some of the younger musicians that I've seen.
While I've written a fair amount about Speedy Gray's guitar playing and singing, I haven't given much space to his songwriting. I first noticed the cleverness of his songcraft when I heard "Tea Party" at Tom Grainey's. I grinned at the way that he borrowed the chord changes from John Cougar Mellencamp's "Rockin' In the USA" to emphasize the middle finger that he shoots at the titular political group. I suppose that quite a few of Speedy's songs (the ones that I've heard so far, anyway) are like that: they seem simple and off-hand, but listening closely reveals their careful construction. Just as often, though, he'll dispense with subtlety and go right for the knockout: highlights from this night's set included his songs about his mother passing away, a musician preparing to stomp the hell out of the club owner who just ripped him off and a man trapped indefinitely in a Louisiana jail after Hurricane Katrina destroys the paperwork on his arrest.
Speedy's partner, Johnny Shoes, is a man who knows from hard luck. He ran the Old Boise Guitar Company for 26 years before changes in the economy forced him to close it in 2010. He'd played guitar for much of his life, according to a 2009 Boise Weekly article that I came across, but he didn't start writing songs until 2008. I find that awfully surprising, because aside from the Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan and Louvin Brothers songs that he pulled out, I wouldn't have known his wry, warm originals from his wry, warm covers if he hadn't said who wrote what.
Of course, it probably helped having a wealth of experience to draw upon when he turned to writing and performing full-time. During a brief break, he graciously spoke to me about his experiences travelling with renowned folksinger Rosalie Sorrels collecting songs and stories for the 1991 book Way Out In Idaho. He told me that he helped break the ice between Sorrels and the people whom they were trying to interview: some guy getting up and playing mandolin with this legendary performer made it easier for folks to open up. He went on to perform on three of Sorrels' albums and as part of her band at the Vancouver Folk Festival. Listening to him, I suspected that he had truckloads of other stories to tell if he'd had the time.
I wrote that the first Hardluck Cowboys gig "was so great that it felt downright criminal being the only person there to see it." This one was no different. Johnny Shoes delivered stunning guitar solos throughout and sang in a voice that suited his songs perfectly: weathered, resilient, knowing. I don't know if anybody at the Record Exchange's upcoming Bob Dylan's 71st Birthday Bash will be able to top his and Speedy's night-ending cover of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere."
You can find info about Speedy Gray and Johnny Shoes on Facebook and elsewhere online. They gig regularly around Boise and Meridian. I recommend seeing them (together or separately) if you're at all able to.
PS Special thanks to Speedy Gray for the use of his digital camera.