Country music icon Pinto Bennett likes to say he has never owned a fancy cigar, but he has had several nice puffs. Although he isn’t a household name, his evocative songs and electrifying performances are legendary among fans from London to Nashville to Boise. Bennett has never stopped writing, dreaming and performing. Now he has returned to the studio one final time to make The Last Saturday Night, an album of original hard country sounds mixed with tender ballads and laced with Bennett’s unique humor. We hear songs from his perspective as an elder statesman of classic-country music who has lived the hard tales he sings.
Gently produced by drummer and DJ Jason Beek (Eilen Jewell, The Sacred Shakers), The Last Saturday Night features long-time friends and bandmates Jake Hoffman (pedal steel), Brett Dewey (mandolin, vocals), Dale Wilson (guitar), Bill Parsons (upright bass) and multi-instrumentalist and engineer Steve Fulton. Special guest Jerry “Cold-Blooded” Miller (Eilen Jewell, Bluestime, Billy Lee Riley) unleashes blistering guitar and his trademark atmospheric textures. Americana’s queen of the minor key Eilen Jewell also appears on backing vocals.
After seeing several intimate Pinto Bennett shows at Boise honky-tonk 44 Club (and eventually joining Bennett’s band), Beek approached Bennett about re-recording some of his popular songs with a production approach that reflected his sound today. Pinto’s first response was, “Aren’t there any young people that want to make a record?” Beek said he wanted to make a Pinto Bennett record. Bennett replied, “Hell man, I’ve got drawers full of new songs. I already done recorded those old ones. Let’s do the new ones!”
So began a year-long process of assembling song fragments at Bennett’s kitchen table. Eventually they formed a band and began rehearsing the material. Then a funny thing happened: every week at rehearsal, Bennett would show up with one or two more new songs that were better than anything else the band had previously worked on. He was fired up, and he felt inspiration and a joy for music that had been eluding him for years.
One of these songs, “I Like Singin’ the Blues in a Honky Tonk Song”, exemplifies the spirit of the album. Bennett sings, “If you ever kept the jukebox fed, then this ain’t news to you / Did you never paint that ol’ town red to keep the blues from showin’ through?” Then referencing his early influences of 1960s girl-group the Marvelettes and classic-country artist Hawkshaw Hawkins, Bennett sings, “Ain’t much of a head for numbers, but I remember these / Dialin’ Beachwood 4-5-7-8-9 from Lonesome 7-7-2-0-3 / You can sing about a little monkey / You can sing about old King Kong / But I like singin’ the blues in a honky-tonk song.”
In the sweet ballad, “Costume Jewelry”, a beautiful woman at the bar is spotted by “the old man in the back of the room.” Bennet goes on to explain that, “She looks at me like I’m some kinda ancestral heirloom / Just one more time I dream that I could lay on the charm / And walk outta here with costume jewelry on my arm.” In much of the album, and particularly in this tune, we hear Bennett struggle to reconcile the past with the present.
Later we hear Bennett’s famous humor on full display with the rocker “Old Timer”. Describing a typical afternoon at the Veteran’s Hospital, he sings, “Burnt out brain, a sick sack-a-guts / Sittin’ in a wheelchair checkin’ out butts…. This ain’t no apron man it’s my bib / So before they put my carcass in a crib / How ‘bout a kind word, Wisenheimer / OK! You old tequila and limer / We all know you ain’t no whiner / So have a good night today old timer.”
After nine songs spanning the roots of rock ’n’ roll, classic country and western swing, the album resolves with the sentimental track “Old Dog”. This is a sparse arrangement, with shuffling snare and subdued mandolin and guitars, which lifts Bennett’s weathered vocals to the spotlight. He sings, “That ol’ dog inside me is barkin’ at the door/ Knowin’ I’ll take the penalty and pay the freight for sure / He’s just like flies he never dies, stuck with me rich or poor / That ol’ dog inside me keeps howlin’ out for more.”
The son of a sheepherder from Mountain Home, Idaho, Bennett made his first recordings at age 16 in 1964 with a rock band called The Fates. They enjoyed regional chart success before the band members entered the Navy two years later. While stationed in California, Bennett was exposed to Wynn Stewart and his band’s residency at Los Angeles’s Palomino Club. He was already well versed in 50s rock ’n’ roll from the likes of Elvis, Lloyd Price and Chuck Berry, but Wynn Stewart’s Bakersfield country sounds changed his life forever. Bennett knew that performing real country music was what he had to do.
In the 1970s, Bennett toured as The Pinto Bennett Band and eventually formed the band Tarwater. The bands took the Northwest by storm while exposing a whole new generation to classic-country sounds. A divorce sent Bennett packing to Nashville for the first of several stints as a budding songwriter. He befriended Harland Howard, the Everly Brothers, and Emmylou Harris. He met legendary RCA guitar slinger Chet Atkins, Elvis’s guitarist Scotty Moore, and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, among others. Somehow he could never break through to an audience beyond musicians in Nashville and his devoted Northwest USA following. Perhaps it was fate. Or that his country music was already too dated for the Nashville sound. Or it could have been that he “shook hands with the booze” too often.
Bennett’s luck changed for the better after his first album with The Famous Motel Cowboys, Famous Motel Cowboy Songs (1986 yada yada records), hit the charts in the United Kingdom. Bennett and guitarist Sergio Webb took a leap of faith and flew to London without a place to stay or a dime to their names. However, The Everly Brothers’ road manager, Duane Hooper, secured room and board on the Everly’s tab for the duo and allowed them to develop the European market. Bennett and Webb were a hit, and they soon found their way on the International Festivals of Country Music at London’s Wembley Stadium with the likes of Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Hazy circumstances led Bennett back to Nashville and eventually back to Idaho in the 1990s for good. Soon after, his hard living caught up with him in the form of three heart attacks and a stroke, which stole eyesight from one of his eyes and effected his rhythm guitar playing. Despite these new challenges he continued to perform, and in 2005 formed Trio Pinto and recorded Dig We Must (2005 yada yada records). Returning one final time to Europe, Trio Pinto found many Pinto Bennett fans still thirsty for his music. Back in Idaho, he now occasionally performs a Saturday matinee show at 44 Club and appears at the annual Famous Motel Cowboys Reunion in Boise each May. While he has dialed back his performance schedule substantially, Bennett now enjoys mentoring young country songwriters and volunteering at Boise’s Veteran’s Hospital.
Pinto Bennett is proud to share his last Saturday night with his long-time fans and new generations of music lovers. He is calling this his last album. So let’s raise a glass to Pinto and celebrate his final recording effort.