Talented musicians bring new life to old standards at a St. Peters bar

Jan 26, 2000 at 4:00 am
In a strip mall near the intersection of Highway 94 and Harvester Road in St. Peters, there's a bar called Horstmeier's, where, on the second Saturday of every month, time shudders, stops and spins backward. "My wife says those country songs are just about losing your woman, your house and your dog," Dooley laughs. His voice has the croak of a man who just barely licked throat cancer.

"Well, just play the songs backward, and you get it all back," Alan Culley cracks.

At 44, Culley is 20 years younger than Dooley, just a kid but a fine bass player, the kind who can lock into a Ray Price shuffle, nail a harmony, light a cigarette and tip the waitress 50 cents in one unbroken gesture. Dooley, the drummer and featured vocalist, calls this second-Saturday band Dealer's Choice, but they don't need a name. Along with Little Joe Carpenter, a smooth-as-sable guitar- picker who once toured beside honky-tonk legend Jim Ed Brown, and Don E. Curtis, another youngster and world-class pedal-steel guitarist, the foursome play a set dominated by Ray Price -- "That's one of the finest singers that ever was, ever will be," Culley says -- George Jones and Merle Haggard. For the last three-and-a-half years they've been gathering at Horstmeier's, playing classic country music for the 15 or 20 friends who sit at tables sipping tomato juice and Milwaukee's Best on ice, smoking 100s, laughing at the well-worn jokes and hanging on every swooping pedal-steel run, every jazzy Atkinsesque break, every towering climax from Dooley's deep, time-harrowed voice.

"I started in the '50s," says Dooley (whose given name is Edward Foster), "down at the Music Box at Vandeventer and Olive. I got up and played "Fraulein' and "Release Me,' and they hired me. I got 6 bucks and drinks, so I was making 100 bucks a night." He reels off a litany of clubs in St. Louis' vanished honky-tonk district: the Tic-Toc, the Alarm Clock, the Roxy, the Pink Elephant, the Hucklebee. "The buildings were still there, oh, eight years ago," Dooley recalls. "I was gonna take pictures of the places I played at, but I went back not too long ago, and they'd all caved in."

For years, Dooley was the drummer of choice with legendary St. Louis guitarist Bobby Ward; worked with Roy Queen's Brush Apes; and had a taste of the big time when he sang with Texas crooner Darrell McCall. Mostly he played the country bars as if unable to stop -- "I had a nervous come-apart once," he says, "and I knew if I gave up music, I'd fall apart completely" -- fronting bands like Dooley and the Good Old Boys or the Country Misfits.

"I drove an 18-wheeler five-and-a-half days a week and played music seven nights a week. What kept me in jobs all my life was my shuffle beat. I can do a shuffle beat and a rim shot at the same time, with one hand. It comes from my family -- they had a fantastic rhythm section. My grandpa was one of the fiddlinest fools you ever saw. We'd jam out at his place, and he'd get that foot goin' and all that dust could come up from the floor."

Joe Carpenter played those country bars with Dooley and with singers like Roy Meesey and Chuck Raue, both of whom can still melt a stack of Peavey speakers when they step to the mike at Horstmeier's. But Carpenter is less sanguine about the old days at Olive and Vandeventer. "Those were terrible places," he says. "They supported the music industry back in the '50s, but there were fights every night, drugs and prostitution, all right there on the corner. If you made $6 or $7 a night, you were lucky." Does he miss it at all? "Truthfully? No, I do not. I would not, under any circumstances, do that for a living. Maybe I had that dream when I was young, but that was a long time ago."

Don Curtis had that dream, too. Curtis grew up in Indianapolis and attended Ben Davis High School, where all the aptitude tests ranked him as a musical genius, even though, in his words, he "couldn't play anything." He says, "I graduated the worst drummer in the eighth grade, and so that summer I went through the whole ninth-grade drum book and came back and wiped their asses." But he dreamed of melody, not rhythm.

"A guy gave me a guitar, and for the first time I became aware of Merle Travis," Curtis explains. "Tommy Flint, who was Travis' second cousin and writes all those Chet Atkins songbooks for Mel Bay, he lived in Indianapolis, and he gave me lessons. Only I was limited by my left-hand dexterity; it was sucking because I couldn't do any riffs. But anything that was finger-picked on the right hand I could assimilate. I branched out to Delta blues, John Fahey, weird tunings. It wasn't popular; you couldn't play it in a band. I could sit on a stool and play Merle Travis for four hours, but I couldn't kick off one Johnny B. Goode song."

Curtis built his reputation as a drummer in Indianapolis and eventually met some of the St. Louis musicians who traveled in George Jones' Possum Hollow Band. Jones would come to Indianapolis and play a string of dates at his own club, and eventually Curtis got the drummer's slot. The gig didn't last, but it didn't matter. He'd soon hear Buddy Emmons playing bebop and know the pedal steel was for him. "There's an overwhelming phenomenon with the steel guitar -- anybody who starts to play the pedal steel, no matter what instrument they played before, they won't want to go back."

And if a steel player is going to make it, they go to Nashville. At any rate, that's where a picker goes when he comes home one night and finds his wife has -- finally and for good this time -- cleared out the house and taken the kids. What happens next has filled so many country songs, it's surprising Curtis didn't predict it all beforehand. He lasted 14 months.

"Everybody promises you recording work," Curtis says. "You go over to some big shot's office, they give you a tape, talk about the old days, but they never give you that final call. The only time they'll call is when the union guys are sick or on the road. I'd go every Monday morning to the union to look at the board, look at the book, and you'd see players like Bruce Bowden looking at the board. You think, "How can I compete with this guy?' Sometimes I'd get an interview, and then a second interview. I'd get an audition and then a second audition, but after that I'd never get the gig. I got auditions with Sammy Kershaw, Tracy Lawrence and Jack Greene, but I'd never get the gig. Maybe I didn't have the look or was too fat or something. So you go on the road with some wannabe guy, you play in North Dakota or New Mexico. You ask yourself, "Did I move to Nashville to go play in Minnesota?'"

As it turns out, Curtis made good on his contacts with the St. Louis country musicians he met in Indianapolis. He landed a job writing for the Steel Guitar International Inquirer and came to work for DeWitt Scott, owner of Scotty's steel-guitar shop in St. Louis. In the last 10 years, he's become a master of the steel, published nine instructional books and backed figures as imposing and diverse as Del Reeves and Bill Monroe. You hear the wit and fire and pathos he brings to a tune like "Swingin' Doors" and you might think you're hearing a man playing his dreams. Perhaps, though as many country songs will explain, you live long enough and most dreams have to reckon with the hard facts of life. "All I ever wanted to do was play "Hot Rod Lincoln' on the guitar," Curtis says. "That's all I ever wanted to do, and I can't do it."

Saturday showtime at Horstmeier's is 2 p.m., and Curtis and Carpenter kick things off -- what else? -- with Ray Price's "Crazy Arms," one of the first country songs ever recorded with drums, the definitive country shuffle and, some would say, the definitive modern country song. They coat Dooley's rich vibrato with luminous strokes; then two more Price songs follow: "A Way to Survive" -- "Which year you doing that in?" Culley laughs -- and "For the Good Times," which Dooley sings with such excruciating, sweet authority that you never want to hear anyone else sing it -- save Ray Price in his prime -- and then, come the next set, septuagenarian Chuck Raue sits in and caresses the song's every syllable, and you know you were wrong.

"I'm gonna die on the bandstand," Dooley says. It's a cliché, but he's earned the right to it. Like all the musicians at Horstmeier's, he'll be worth hearing to the end.