Pinto Bennett, icon of Idaho – 1948-2021 | Community columns
Pinto Bennett wasn’t easy.
Bennett, who died on June 29 of a heart attack at age 73, was a paradox. A country singer who cited Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles as influences. A former reveler who acquired religion and spoke to God while leading a lonely life in a sheep wagon. A charismatic artist who once drew thousands of people but spent his later years living in a trailer park, playing for $ 50 a night or tips.
He wrote songs like no one else, with some of his lyrics bordering on genius. The late Rosalie Sorrels, a talented songwriter herself, said he “should have been a superstar”.
His career began as a teenager playing at a drive-in restaurant in Mountain Home and spanned nearly six decades. He was famous in Europe, a business failure in Nashville, a country music icon in Idaho.
And loved everywhere he went.
The day after his death, three of his former bandmates met me over coffee to share their memories of him.
Jake Hoffman played steel guitar with Bennett in Tarwater, known locally for playing “hard country music” for most of the 1970s. Previously Whitewater, the band rebranded themselves after a colorful character. from Mountain Home, Bud Tarwater. Hoffman was living in Salt Lake City when he got a call to play a 1973 New Years concert with the band in Pocatello.
“I didn’t know Pinto or anyone else in the group, but he stole my heart and my head,” he recalls. “He was just this larger than life guy. He had written a few songs, and he knew all the songs in the world. He sang with his heart, and he was so charming. People couldn’t help but love him.
Rob Matson was one of two guitarists in Bennett’s second notable group, the Famous Motel Cowboys. Her first night with them was in the fall of 1980.
“They were then called Pinto Bennett and the Republicans,” he said. “I didn’t know who it was, but when I got there I realized it was the Tarwater group. I remember it was a total eye-opener – fast, loud music, like country playing rock and roll. It was the integrity of what the group was doing, the high energy. That’s what has attracted so many good musicians over the years, this driving energy. “
Matson was with the Famous Motel Cowboys during their glory days in England, where they had one hit record and two well-received albums, opened for Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle and performed for crowds of up to 20,000.
“Pinto had this incredible charm that disarmed people and kept him from getting in trouble,” Matson said. “We were on a plane from London to Switzerland when this old English lady got on the plane. She sees this tall guy with a cowboy hat, long red hair and a beard. You could see her staring at him nervously.
“She went to the flight attendant and we got to see her point her finger at him and say she didn’t want to sit next to him. The flight attendant probably told him he was a nice man because she had sat next to him and the whole trip they were talking and laughing. He completely disarmed her.
Brad Dewey played the mandolin in Trio Pinto, started in 2005 and continued until the end of Bennett’s life.
“In 2005 we went to England, where he still had a reputation,” Dewey said. “They sent a limo to pick us up – glasses of champagne and everything. But we were a small trio, and they expected a bigger group like the Famous Motel Cowboys. It was time to tighten your belt.
Bennett never again experienced the arena-sized crowds the famous Motel Cowboys performed for in England and Europe. When the group returned to the United States, they were fired from their first gig for not playing any songs by the southern rock band Alabama.
The most famous Cowboy Motel of all spent five years in Nashville, where he befriended Chet Atkins, Don Everly and other icons, but never got a recording deal. Back in Boise, he performed in honky tonk bars, performed for free in a myriad of benefit shows – and never stopped writing songs. He wrote over 200 of them, often staying awake all night writing lyrics on scraps of paper.
“There is so much to his lyrics,” Matson said. “You hear a song, and six months later you hear it again and realize you didn’t understand it the first time. “
“There’s no ‘Oh, baby’ in any of his songs,” Hoffman added. “How many songwriters write phrases like ‘be confused and look at my shoes?’ “”
Or, “Somewhere in time I was a river. Somewhere in time, you too. Somewhere in time I was a taker and a giver. Somewhere in time, you too.
Or “I hold the bottle, you hold the wheel”.
The bottle haunted the man who wrote these lyrics. He was, in Hoffman’s words, “on and off the wagon most of his life.”
When I first met him, over 30 years ago, he told me he was “taking care of my drinking,” words I heard over and over again.
Some of his words and actions haunted him. By his own admission, he said and did things that offended people. He would show up drunk for a recording session or make indecent remarks that made people angry at performances. His irregularities and his intentions, however, were at odds.
“Sometimes he hurt people, but he never intended to,” Hoffman said. “He had his demons. One of them was “I never intended to do this”.
He went out of his way to visit the homeless on the streets. He has spent hundreds of hours volunteering at the Idaho Veterans Home and the VA Hospital. He was known for telling his friends and colleagues that he loved them and for punctuating the feeling with a slobbery kiss.
I don’t know how many times he told me – and thought so – that he would be famous after his death, that his songs would reap fruit when he had never known as an old man, blind to one eye, tipping in honky tonk bars.
Grammy-winning group Reckless Kelly thought enough of their songs to record an entire CD, calling them “powerful and timeless.”
Nashville studio musician Sergio Webb said in 2007 that Bennett was “one of the few people you use as a switchboard. Is it as good as a Pinto song? Is that enough to show Pinto? He’s that kind of influence.
Like works of art whose value increases after the artist’s death, his influence may grow now that he is gone. His prediction may well come true. If anyone deserves to be famous after their death, it’s Pinto Bennett.