Ranchers for Peace play Collage in San Pedro: music well-crafted and meaningful

Ray Duncan, left, in Tennessee, and dad Charles Duncan in L.A. They’re performing at Collage in San Pedro on Sunday evening, Dec. 5. Photo courtesy of Charles Duncan

Ray Duncan, left, in Tennessee, and dad Charles Duncan in L.A. They’re performing at Collage in San Pedro on Sunday evening, Dec. 5. Photo courtesy of Charles Duncan

A musical journey, a long time coming

Ranchers for Peace playing Sunday, Dec. 5 at Collage in San Pedro

by Bondo Wyszpolski

I haven’t purposely put off writing about Charles Duncan for 40 years (and, yes, that’s 4-0), it’s just that the opportunity has never quite presented itself until now. Of course, if I’d written an article about him in 1981 it would be quite different than this one, beginning with the fact that I’d have banged it out on a typewriter. I’m assuming that for most readers Charles Duncan is not a known quantity, but I’ll try and remedy that. Personally, I thought then (in 1980, when I heard “She’s Illegal,” which was performed by his group, The Willys, on the Planet Records LP “Sharp Cuts”), and I think now, that Charles Duncan was and is one of the most impressive singer-songwriters I’ve ever come across. But in the music business Fate is fickle, and sheer luck often beats talent to the draw. Even with some credible people in his camp—Robbie Krieger of The Doors and T Bone Burnett—the success that should have been a given failed to materialize. Here’s some of the backstory, and how it’s evolved in the 40 years since…

First guitar, and first shows in Los Angeles

Duncan, who is now in his late 60s, grew up in Bakersfield. After pleading for a guitar for two years, his folks gave in and, at the age of 10, he had his first one, and this was followed by nine months of lessons “from a great teacher, in a tiny room upstairs from the old ‘Parlier’s’ guitar store in east Bakersfield. Crucially, I was taught to put down the pick and activate the thumb of the right hand in a style called “back picking,” which is foundational to country blues and establishes that hand as the driving force for all that follows—whatever style of music it may be. I remain grateful for this every day.”

His older sister’s record collection, which included The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, and Rick Nelson, was influential. “Then the Beatles happened, Dylan, the Stones, Motown, etc, and I fell asleep for many years with my transistor radio on, its single earpiece wedged between my head and the pillow.”

During the summer of 1978 Duncan began playing solo every Monday on “Hoot Night” at the Troubadour, about a dozen times in a row. Not wanting to repeat himself week after week, he began writing new material and doubled the size of his repertoire. More importantly, he was “establishing for myself that this was indeed something I could do. I was 24. By the time the summer ended, I had an offer of ‘development’ from a major record Company—and had also met the players who would form The Willys.” The money was spent on rehearsal space in the old Culver City Studios, and the group, with Duncan on guitar, Marten Ingle on bass, Kyle C Kyle on drums and Stevo on keyboards, came together over the fall and winter of 1978 and ‘79.

The group played most of the major L.A. and Hollywood clubs, from Madam Wong’s West to the Starwood to The Arena to Blackie’s. With Suzanne, my girlfriend at the time, we caught many of their shows—with an energy and zest I no longer have.

The A&R guys liked The Willys, but Duncan figures that the marketing departments didn’t know how to peg them: “too pop for the punks, too punky for the pops. And they were right, too, judging from the fact that nothing quite like our music ever did emerge from the Los Angeles of that period.” However, he adds, “In my heart, I believed then, and still do, that our stuff would have found an audience if given a chance.” There was a core following, I do know that, but no record company bought in. “Thus the band came and went in a few years without leaving much of a trace.”

The original Willys disbanded by early 1981, and while there were some limited-release 45s and demos, Duncan says it’s unlikely that any of these will later come to light. I once recorded the group off the radio onto a cassette recorder, the quality of that “bootleg” tape rather less than spectacular.

Afterwards, Duncan continues, “I had some interesting short-term projects, usually when record companies expressed fresh interest. They’d give me money to form a band for one show—I called these ‘Emergency Bands’—and a couple of them were rather great. I did a show at the Roxy with one of these groups, in early ’81, I think. Five rehearsals and then… the Roxy—kind of a high-wire act. But my memory of that show is, first, that the best seat in that place is the center of the stage—it feels like you can reach the whole room from there. And second, my guys played great, and we sort of killed it. I didn’t often feel that kind of satisfaction after a performance, but that night, yeah—it was a sort of fulfillment.”

Charles Duncan, live and onstage

Ranchers for Peace, phase one

And now we come to the original Ranchers for Peace, which was a duo with Kerry McBride.

The vast majority of pop songs are written from the first-person standpoint and have to do with romantic relationships, and Duncan was frankly disenchanted with that trope. And so Ranchers for Peace would delve into themes and subjects that could be “anything and everything else in the big wide world ‘except’ boy/girl problems… It seemed to me that a hell of a lot of territory was open under that rule. Which remains true.”

McBride, Duncan says, “was a terrific partner, charismatic, fiercely brave (which was crucial to our project) and in all ways a stand-up character. She was more of a punk-rocker than me, and had connections in that department of the L.A. scene that were helpful.” These also included stints with The Divine Horsemen, which was formed by Chris D. and Julie Christensen in 1983. Chris D. was the frontman of The Flesheaters, and good pals with X and The Blasters. McBride was also with the Ju Ju Hounds, a trio that included the remarkable Dean Chamberlain, whose band, Code Blue, released an acclaimed album on Warner Bros.

“We had a pretty short and interesting run as a duo—and one memorable show with a full band opening for The Alarm at the old Hollywood Palace. We hit the place hard, and got a great jolt of a response in return from that audience. It was pretty solid validation of the whole concept, and I was grateful and satisfied to have experienced it. Sept. 4, 1983—my 30th birthday—and, again because of an inability to make inroads with the business types, our last performance.”

The folks who owned Mad Dog Studio in Venice gave Duncan free access to their facility, and in that hallowed space he recorded new songs and also learned about the art of recording and production. He had a manager in those days and his tapes were being shopped around, “but by then the companies all thought they had figured me out, and were on to whatever new guy was just stepping off the Hollywood bus. A lot of my best stuff went through that studio in the middle ‘80s—and disappeared out into the world like smoke up the chimney.”

A change of address

After getting married in 1985, Duncan moved to Beachwood Canyon. McCabe’s, the noted performance venue in Santa Monica, called him up about once a year to play solo gigs. But, to make ends meet, “I was literally digging ditches with a gang of construction laborers, or hanging drywall, or tearing apart buildings and hauling them to the dump. I remember opening for somebody I’d never heard of named Shawn Colvin—maybe ’87 or so. I got home from the job that afternoon, exhausted, covered in drywall dust; got in the shower to wash all that off, then had to make the drive—Hollywood to Santa Monica!—between 4 and 5 p.m. to make my sound check. Made it to McCabe’s on time—and she was still on the stage, as a bunch of photographers and guys from her record company were busy squeezing promo material out of her. I never got my sound-check—they kept her up there for another hour or so. I did my set, packed up my guitar, and left without waiting around to hear her—which I still have not found the time to do.”

During the summer of 1989, Duncan was given the opportunity to write the pilot for a full-length TV movie. I’m not sure if the project saw the light of day, but “I made more money in eight weeks than I had made in my entire life up to that point.” This little windfall was a great help for the budding family (Duncan and his wife were expecting their first daughter), but “the guitars stayed quiet for a while.”

The family relocated to San Luis Obispo County in the ‘90s, and that’s where the first and second daughters were raised. “I put together a little studio in my garage, and kept on writing, playing, recording. And yet—the entire decade passed without my once setting foot on a stage, which was a thing I did not intend, and might have thought was impossible. But, yeah—having kids will take up time, like no other endeavor can.”

Duncan’s marriage of 25 years came undone in June of 2011, and he and Ray (his daughter, 15 years old at the time) “suddenly found ourselves roommates in a little place just down the street from the house where she was born. It was a pretty big change for both of us.”

Ray gave signs of her artistic talent from a very early age. “But around 11 or 12 she took a hard left turn into music, playing keyboards, and singing—progressing really quickly and entirely on her own. By the age 12 she was writing and arranging her own songs and making great recordings on a cheesy little device that did not seem capable of producing the excellent sounds she was squeezing out of it.” And for Ray it’s been uphill from there.

“I had shared with her some of my archive of my older stuff—including a cassette with about five of the original Ranchers for Peace songs. She knew this stuff by heart. So, when she and I found ourselves in our new little house, with its empty, echo-y living room, which we immediately named ‘the Boom Room,’ it was sort of natural that we started messing around with singing together, starting with those Ranchers songs.

“It sounded really good,” Duncan says, “so we kept on working with it. Pretty soon, I started wondering if it might be possible for me to write ‘new’ stuff for that act—and, by August, I had written a couple of strong new ones, and there was my answer. With the original five, and the new ones, and a few well-chosen covers (like Guthrie’s “Deportee” and an old labor union song called “Banks of Marble”), pretty soon we had a set. We got out onto a few local stages, and people dug what we were doing; so, we kept at it. Played about 100 shows in those first two years, but didn’t get any farther south than Venice, at a place no longer there called ‘The Talking Stick.’” Soon afterwards the momentum faded.

Ray Duncan, with her own career ahead of her

But it picked back up

“In case this story is starting to seem a little too sad,” Duncan explains, “let me interject: the through-line for me is my relationship to the Muse—the refinement of my work as a ‘listener’ for songs, a sort of ‘bring ‘em back alive’ practitioner, whose job it is to camp out quietly, alone, out there on the Edge of Everything, and wait patiently by the campfire for the little Entities, unseen beyond the circle of the firelight, to slowly come closer and reveal themselves. I have gotten better at this over the years—more at ease with these skittish little Beings, and they more at ease with me. And nothing in my professional life compares to the deep joy that these encounters have brought me over the years. It’s always appreciated, and never taken for granted. And it’s unpredictable, too: I’ve written ten new songs so far in 2021—while busy doing ‘official’ business related to launching my own new record and production company, preparing to pitch it to investors, build a new studio, and launch this first ‘Ranchers on Vinyl’ project: our Holiday single.”

A little needs to be said about that, and particularly the “A” side, “The Light Of Christmas Day.” It was, Duncan says, “originally written to solve a problem for my friend, producer T Bone Burnett, who had taken a job as music coordinator for the 2015 holiday movie, ‘Love, The Coopers.’” Burnett was tasked with finding or otherwise coming up with the film’s closing number to play over the end-credits. “He was naturally ‘not’ looking forward to sifting through who knows how many new ‘Christmas’ songs to find the right one, and very much preferred that somebody just ‘hand’ him one—as he explained to me at a breakfast meeting in May of that year. I listened, I thought about it—and had an idea that was about half-way done by the time I got home.”

The song made it into the movie. “The fact that T Bone was able to persuade Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to reunite for it—their first collaboration since their big hit record “Raising Sand” in 2007—was very pleasant icing on a rather welcome cake, and the best day’s work, financially, that I had ever enjoyed in the music biz—by a wide margin.

“Their version, though, slowed down the tempo such that the song, in its full form, would run too long—and so a bridge, which I really liked, was cut, along with an extra verse—and the song, from the songwriter’s point of view, went out into the world in fine style but in a less-than ‘complete’ condition.

“Every year since,” Duncan continues, “I’ve thought about gathering the Ranchers together to create the ‘full’ version, which I began to picture as a festive, happy, old-school 45 rpm ‘single,’ on red vinyl.” The “B” side was written in or around 2017. Although COVID stepped in to disrupt our lives, earlier this year Duncan thought to himself, It’s now or never. “And, ‘never’ being sort of unacceptably ‘final,’ we chose ‘now.’ Thanks to some timely support from family and friends, the project got done in time to share with the world this year.”

Two years ago, Ray moved to Nashville to further her own musical ambitions (she released a solo EP this fall). Duncan remarried in 2019 and lives in the Ojai Valley. Father and daughter reunite periodically and play a few dates, most of them it seems in the San Luis Obispo area.

They’ve got a handful of gigs lined up, and Sunday’s is the only one anywhere near the South Bay. It’s a special occasion in many ways, one of them being that father and daughter haven’t seen one another in person since March of 2019.

“Therefore,” Duncan says, “this is going to be a joyous occasion for these performers, and likely to have a similar effect (we hope!) on our audience. We’ll be ‘opening for ourselves,’ a few songs from me, solo, then a few from Ray, also on her own. And then: the rambunctious return of Ranchers for Peace. To say we’re looking forward to it would be true, but also quite an understatement.”

Ranchers for Peace, with Charles Duncan on vocals and guitar and Ray Duncan on vocals and melodica, perform at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5, at Collage: A Place for Art and Culture, 731 S. Pacific Ave, San Pedro. Tickets, $15, available through Eventbrite. To learn more and to find out about upcoming shows, call (424) 450-8239 or email info@collageartculture.com. Tickets: eventbrite.com/e/folk-rock-concert-ranchers-for-peace-tickets-209463309397. ER/PEN

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