(For bios, see the Band pages.)
“Old Man River” feature article
from southwest New Mexico’s arts and entertainment monthly, Desert Exposure, May 2013. (Online version here.)
Below is the article with all photos from the print edition, plus a few corrections/additions in brackets.
“Old Man River”
by Donna Clayton Walter
From years on the mighty Missouri River to today’s life on the banks of New Mexico’s Gila River, Silver City musician Greg Renfro just keeps rollin’ along.
For a rich quality of life and a reservoir to keep his musical dreams afloat, Greg Renfro has always counted on the bank — the bank of a river, that is.
Renfro in a pensive moment, performing at an outdoor concert. (Photo: Bruce Bloy)
“All the places I lived for the first 40 years of my life are along the Missouri River,” says the Silver City singer-songwriter. “I was born in Sioux City, Iowa, lived my childhood in Bismarck, North Dakota; Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Louis, Missouri. I spent my early adulthood in Columbia and Lupus, Missouri — right on the river, which actually flooded my home!” he adds with a laugh. “I also built my home and started my farm outside Lupus in the hills a mile from the river in a place called Happy Hollow, where I lived for eight years and began raising my children. That river and its surroundings ran through my whole life in a way,” he says. “For sure, it was a source of a lot of inspiration.” For the past 14 years, Renfro has made his home in Silver City, where the Gila River famously still runs free.
Sitting down to a conversation with the singer-songwriter is kind of like living out the title of one of his CDs — Settle On In. As he makes a pot of tea, thoughtfully and with great care, the kind-faced gent doesn’t seem to know what stress is. Or if he does, it doesn’t seem to matter to him.
With a storyteller’s ease, he weaves together the new and the old — when he picked up his first instrument, whom he’s making music with these days, how he got his start in performing, the success of his latest band and the exciting new path his music has taken after an homage to the late, great Woody Guthrie.
Through it all, winding the curves in the river of his life, he’s taken things as they came — holding fast to dreams and finding ways to make them come true. Renfro recounts a particularly colorful chapter of his life, telling how he found a creative way to keep his finances afloat by opening the River Garden Café — right in his living room!
“That was back in Lupus. In those days, you could ‘make up’ your life,” Renfro says with a wistful smile. Needing a bit of cash influx, and without the burdens of today’s food-handling protocols and regulations, Renfro simply tied on an apron and got busy in the kitchen, starting up his own vegetarian restaurant. “I started calling up my friends, saying, ‘I’m serving dinner from 4 to 7, reservations only!’ One after another, they said, ‘Okay! We’ll be there!’ We could probably only fit 13 people at a time, but that’s what we did and we were busy night after night! “It was a huge hit! And we had a lot of fun doing it,” he recalls with a broad smile.
Taking a long sip from his mug of tea, Renfro reflects on life in Lupus back in the day. With a good-natured laugh, he describes the local population as “newly wed or nearly dead. And those established older folks didn’t take to us young people at first!”His next dream was a charming piece of property with an old farmhouse… and the next round of “creative financing” that got the deal done did little to endear him to those village elders.
“I fell in love with this property about a mile out of town,” Renfro begins. “I wanted so bad to build a house on it, but this guy used the land to pasture his cows. I kept contacting him about it, some years passed and finally he said ‘yes’!”
The 25 acres already had an old two-story house and a barn on it. Price tag: $13,500. Terms: half down and the owner would carry it for six years.
“Now it was decision time,” Renfro continues. “Do I buy the property? I’ve got a good life, no mortgage, the café is thriving. I can do what I want — play my music! But I really wanted to do this next thing….” He trails off. Friends to the rescue, once again. This time, though, it was more than showing up and paying for dinner at Chez Renfro. “A bunch of us moved in and split it,” he says, an arrangement that raised a few eyebrows, for sure.
“So I started building my stone house, and my friends lived in the old house that was already built. I wanted it to be solar and a friend of mine in construction taught me a lot.” So much so that he did solar-energy consultations and evaluations for a couple of years, helping to earn his living and get that mortgage paid.
All the while, Renfro was enjoying life, starting to raise a family and, of course, singing. His preferences had grown up from his high-school days of playing Simon and Garfunkel to classic Americana. As an adult he began writing his own, his first attempt being to set a poem called “Indian Dream” to music that he wrote. In love with the Missouri River, he drew inspiration from it. His one and only protest song, he says, also is connected to the river.
“In ’76, the power company out of St. Louis said it was going to build a nuclear power plant,” he says. Renfro pauses and his eyes take on a different intensity, his easy-going expression suddenly transformed into something much more serious. “‘Nuclear power plant’ in Missouri was fightin’ words,” he says. He took part in demonstrations and public education about the issue, playing an active role in the group Missourians for Safe Energy.
Some of the singer Jackson Browne’s people took notice, Renfro says, and sold anti-nuke T-shirts at the then-rising star’s concerts, giving the proceeds to the activist group. Renfro also wrote that protest song around the same time, a song he has performed but that never has been recorded. With a small smile and singular, committed nod of his head, he adds, “Someday it will be.”
Fast forward some years down the road — or paddle a few more miles down the river, if you will — and Renfro found himself happily in Silver City. Again, he says, a river and the beautiful landscape around it were what drew him. The mountains, the Gila, the friendly honest people he met found their way into his songs.
In addition to performing covers that praised the Land of Enchantment — songs like Michael Hearne’s “New Mexico Rain” — he wrote a few new ones of his own. “Best Kept Secret” talks of the special beauty of southwest New Mexico. “That one brought me a lot of satisfaction,” Renfro says.
“I love to write about the places that I’ve lived.” Moving to Silver City also brought him a new stream of musical friends and collaborators. “I started out having music at my house on Tuesday evenings,” he says. That’s how he met Wally Lawder, a long-time Silver City musician who now lives in Tucson (and who is this writer’s ex-husband). Renfro played for a few years in one of Lawder’s bands, The Flying Coyotes.
Renfro also befriended Daniel Pacheco, then-owner of Old World Bakery, which stood in those days at the corner of Broadway and Bullard. The two honed a nice sound and developed a loyal following. Their rendition of “Pancho and Lefty” (written by country singer and songwriter Townes Van Zandt) was a favorite when the duo played on the patio at Vicki’s Eatery, then just a small breakfast and lunch place on the corner of Yankie and Texas Streets. It often was the case that every table on the charming patio was packed with Renfro-Pacheco fans, with an admiring “audience” hanging around outside the open gateway, applauding from the sidewalk.
“Those were great days. We played for tips and a meal!” Renfro says with a smile. “Then this guy named Charlie (Alfero) would show up with his mandolin and he was absolutely amazing!” It wasn’t long before Renfro and Alfero were playing together regularly, Alfero joining Renfro’s band, The Gypsy Feet. Local musicians Ed Teja (now living in Cambodia), Mitchell Barsch, Shems Nickle and Keith Fisher also were in that band, which changed over the years as bands are wont to do. Renfro and Alfero currently have a regular gig at Silver City’s Diane’s Parlor, their easy, folksy sound a pleasant accompaniment to a casual dinner-and-drinks crowd, and the two have recorded an album, Settle On In, together. Recorded in the local Barefoot Studios, the CD features songs written primarily by the duo and exclusively featuring their vocals and instrumentation.
The Silver City playing scene also included gigs at the Watering Hole. Performances there with Teja, Renfro says, took on a more rock-and-roll feel. The more folksy face of Gypsy Feet played well in other places, like the Buckhorn Saloon in Pinos Altos. But the changing face of the band — particularly when it grew in size — brought a new problem. “One night at the Buckhorn, there were eight of us up there!” Renfro says with a laugh. “Karen (the manager) just said, ‘Okay, that’s too many — you guys are only getting four meals!'”
Renfro also has played the range of local festivals. Between 2005 to 2007, he performed at the popular and humorously named GlenWoodStock Festival in Glenwood, “a couple of times with Wally (Lawder) and a couple of times with Ed Teja as Gypsy Feet, [and a couple times with Charlie Alfero],” Renfro says. He’s played at the Mimbres Region Arts Council’s annual Blues Fest (see box) a couple of times, with Ed Teja and with local luthier and performer Scott van Linge (see “Strings Attached,” July 2006).
Renfro also plays with van Linge as part of the Loose Blues Band. And he played at the arts council’s Pickamania its first year, performing as part of The Gypsy Feet. Renfro admits “it’s a kick” when someone in the audience requests a song of his by name. “Ode to Billy,” a whimsical song he wrote about the area’s famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, is popular. And the song “Hello, My Friend,” also the title of an album, is a particular favorite of Renfro’s. So much so that he re-released it [the 2003 album on which he’d performed all the vocals and instruments himself] with a new cover….
He plays 6- and 12-string guitars, bass and harmonica. The song is sort of a signature piece of Renfro’s songwriting. “It’s like this,” he explains. “You go down to the river, you throw in a fishing line. You don’t catch anything but you talk with each other. It’s about that. That experience, that feeling. That’s what it’s about, you know?” He smiles a satisfied smile.
The river comes to the forefront again when Renfro speaks of a recent project called the Rising River String Band, originally consisting of Renfro, his life partner Jean Eisenhower, and another musical friend, Tom Naples. A folk-music researcher, Naples is credited as being “the inspiration for the Rising River String Band,” and he contributed historical narration to introduce the 10 songs in the group’s The Panic Is On performance, as well as playing banjo and guitar and contributing vocals.
Renfro grows excited talking about the trio’s recent success with a tribute they did in honor of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. “We worked up enough of Woody’s songs for two sets, and performed last July in honor of his hundredth birthday,” Renfro says. “The first day, we performed in the courtyard at the hospital (Gila Regional Medical Center), and a second show at the Silver City Museum. There were over a hundred people at the museum. It was a great turnout!”
The next month, the group did another show at the museum, and that led to researching and doing more music by others, Renfro explains. (Currently, the Rising River String Band consists of Renfro and Eisenhower, with Alfero occasionally joining in.) [The band is currently in hiatus.] “Not Woody Guthrie but just great stuff about those times, the Dust Bowl, the Depression. We knew we had hit a vein,” Renfro says.
This journey into classic Americana and American history led to another album, Woody Guthrie’s 100th Birthday Celebration and a DVD, The Panic Is On: Songs & Stories of the Great Depression. (The title is taken from a song by Hezekiah Jenkins. The DVD of Rising River’s performance is available.) Renfro and company took the show on the road, performing in Hillsboro, NM, and Sunsites, Ariz., to enthusiastic audiences. “It was very well received,” Renfro says. “The shows were financially successful and it was just great to perform for people who appreciated the chance to hear some live music on a Sunday afternoon.”
Renfro describes the general theme of his music as “living, loving and learning.” He adds with a laugh, “I hope I’ve done all three!” Like a winding river with branches, his musical life has taken delightful twists and turns. Along with research into great historical music by others, he also is writing more of his own stuff, hoping to clothe feelings and messages with words and tunes. It’s how he expresses the things that are the most important to him, he says. “It’s in my blood — the music, that interaction with the audience, that sharing. For me, it’s always been my meditation,” he says. “I consider it my religion.”
For info, CDs and booking, contact Greg Renfro at: firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.gregrenfro.com, or call (575) 654-3047. [5 music CD’s are] available by emailing email@example.com.
Freelance writer Donna Clayton Walter enjoyed the Silver City music scene for 10 years and now listens to Greg Renfro on CD in her home in Santa Fe.