The Legacy of Country Dick Montana, 20 Years After His Death

Music Features

They were honky-tonk anarchists. The best bar band in the world. But you had to be there. If you weren’t there, you’d never understand the visceral allure of Country Dick Montana, a charismatic giant in a cowboy hat and beer-soaked duster, dominating the audience through sheer force of personality.

For 12 years, as the sometimes frontman, sometimes drummer, sometimes guitarist, and co-founder of the Beat Farmers, he raised hell like nobody else raised hell. An inexhaustible road dog, he played wherever he could, whenever he could, often in the band’s hometown of San Diego. But 20 years ago, 1500 miles away from where he started, at the Longhorn Saloon in the British Columbia town of Whistler, Country Dick Montana died on stage.

It’s easy to understate his importance to the band. On record, The Beat Farmers sound like roots-rockers with punk tendencies, a member in good standing of Southern California’s ‘80s cowpunk scene. They fit right alongside bands like The Blasters, Lone Justice and X, historically aware rockers who weren’t pretending 1977 was year zero. And they could write one hell of a heartland anthem, like 1987’s “Hollywood Hills.”

But every once in a while, Country Dick Montana takes the microphone to sing a song that’s completely at odds with the others. The heartland rock is replaced with what sounds like a hedonistic carnie doing a Waylon Jennings impression, all drunken low-end. Imagine a Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album stopping dead in its tracks to let Foghorn Leghorn sing a dirty version of “Camptown Races,” and you’re about halfway there.

So on record they were two bands. Sometimes they were the novelty band that achieved prominence through Dr. Demento—the band that recorded “Happy Boy,” featuring both a kazoo and a beer-gargling solo.

And other times they were the heartland rock band that recorded “Hideaway,” which David Letterman loved so much that his bookers spent months tracking down the band when they weren’t even signed to a label.

The cognitive dissonance is jarring, and it doesn’t tell the whole story. You couldn’t bottle Country Dick Montana on record. His studio contributions weren’t those of a punk rocker making fun of Waylon Jennings. They were souvenirs of a live show we’ll never see again, the work of a performer who left a trail of carnage everywhere he played. On stage, he made the band impossible to ignore.

“He was a rattlesnake. He was always coiled. You didn’t know what was gonna happen. Sometimes coiled rattlesnakes don’t bite and sometimes they do. And you didn’t know whether he was coming for you or whether he was gonna fuck with other people,” says singer/songwriter Dave Alvin, who played guitar in Country Dick’s self-styled Vegas revue The Pleasure Barons, alongside Mojo Nixon.

“There are certainly some good Beat Farmers records, but it’s hard to capture a larger-than- life personality like him. [They were certainly] a serious rock and roll band. And Dick was one funky ass drummer in his way. But once you unleashed him, that became the reason a lot of people went to their shows, to see the rattlesnake.”

“The first time I saw the Beat Farmers was at the Palomino Club [in North Hollywood],” Alvin says. “And it was a pretty uptight place. There were tables and chairs all the way up to the stage. There was no dancing, there was no nothing. And the security guards were these big-ass dudes who didn’t allow anyone to fuck with anything. You sat in your chair and drank your beer and that was it. But when Country Dick got up to sing, he went right off the stage, walked right onto all the tables, kicking drinks over right and left, just breaking all the rules of the Palomino, and the security and everybody loved it. If anyone else had done that, they’d have got their ass kicked. But the way he did it was so funny, so good, and in a way sweethearted.”

Crowd involvement, entertaining drunken audiences at any cost, was the priority. Singing was almost incidental to his act. Says Beat Farmers guitarist Joey Harris, “He often did a somersault roll across the stage, springing to his feet like a cross between Jackie Chan and Fred Astaire. Of course, he was famous for juggling long-neck beer bottles. This led to a tradition of crowds dousing him with beer when he got off his drums to lead the band. Our roadies prepped every stage with plastic garbage bags stretched over the monitors to avoid spillage.”

There were other rituals, like Country Dick’s Campfire, where he would wade into the audience and personally coerce people into singing along with him. And crowdsurfing was part of every show. “But Dick couldn’t just leave it at flying over the crowd’s heads,” Harris continues. “He figured he could get [somebody] standing at the front of the stage to give him a proper ride to the bar. Most of the time they’d go down, disappearing into the crowd. You’d hear a bunch of cursing and Dick would pop up at the bar.”

Dick Montana wasn’t his real name, of course. That was a character played by Dan McLain, a lifelong performer who knew how to dominate a stage and work a crowd. “A lot of it was theater,” Alvin says. “It wasn’t him. [Dan] was a music nerd. He knew a lot about country and blues and he loved Tom Jones and Dean Martin, but he was also president of the Kinks fanclub when he was a teenager. He was kind of a dork, like the rest of us. And he constructed this larger-than-life image.”

“Dan only ever wanted to be a performer, and that’s what drove every decision of his life. He was an artist who embraced life as art. He played a character free from care,” says Harris.

But there was no clear line between his on-stage and off-stage personality, as Alvin explains. “It was the first Pleasure Barons tour. I was basically broke, and I was gonna make three grand on this tour.” So he agreed to hit the road. And after their last gig, in Las Vegas at a place called Calamity Jane’s, Alvin flew home. A couple days later, he gave Country Dick a call.

“Where’s the money? I really need that money.”
“Uh, Dave, I got some bad news.”
“What’s the bad news, Dick?”
“Uh, there isn’t any money.”
“What do you mean, there isn’t any money?”
“Well, uh, everybody was taking advances on their salary, and, uh, then maybe someone lost it all gambling.”

“We didn’t speak for a long time after that,” Alvin says. “I needed money so bad and then he fucked it all up. But you take the good with the bad.

“Here’s my favorite Country Dick story. This is after I finally got paid and decided I’d be his friend again. I called him up as a joke at like 10 in the morning, and I disguised my voice [affects L.A. cokehead voice]. ‘Hey, Dick! It’s me, Carl, man, you remember me?’ ‘Uh. No.’
‘Oh, come on, man. Back in ‘86, we partied. My parents had that house in Del Mar overlooking the beach, and we had blow and we had those chicks over—you remember those crazy chicks?’ ‘Uh. Maybe.’ ‘Yeah, man, well, hey, my parents moved out and I got the house, man, so I’m having a party! I’m gonna have those chicks over here, and I got a bunch of booze, and a bunch of blow!’ ‘Oh, Carl! How you doing, man?!’

“Then I dropped the voice. ‘Fuck you, man, it’s me.’ ‘Fuck you, Alvin, you fucking bastard.’ And that was Country Dick in a nutshell. That wasn’t Dan McLain, but that was Country Dick.”

Dan McLain had created an absurd character, all broad strokes, a walking endorsement of casual debauchery, who kicked the audience around and expected to be kicked back; half Waylon, half Johnny Rotten. But he didn’t turn the character on at showtime and turn it off in the hotel. So his death at 40 wasn’t altogether surprising. He lived hard. And he was aware of his mortality after a bout with throat cancer.

“You couldn’t imagine visiting Country Dick at a nursing care facility. That was never gonna happen,” Alvin says. “The last couple years of his life were pretty intense. I won’t use the phrase death wish, but that was kinda what was going on. He was burning the candle at both ends. His cancer had come back. I think he wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. And he did.”

“When I was down on my luck, there were very few people I could trust who had faith in me. Dick was one of them. He was always supportive, and genuinely sweet. That’s the thing I miss most about the guy.”

“I know we all dream about him,” Harris says. “I had a recurring dream for years, where I drive out to the edge of a desert town, Yuma maybe. There’s a little roadhouse bar at the end of the road. It’s night, and there’s a string of lights all around the front porch. I know I am going inside to meet Country Dick. He’s not dead at all. He faked his death and he’s hiding out, running this little cantina. But the dream ends before I go inside.”

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