Blast from the Pickin’ Past
John Fisher and Steve Jones are mainstays in the Steamboat guitar and banjo-pickin’ scene, playing together as the Yampa Valley boys for decades, entertaining everyone from rodeo crowds to apres revelers at the resort. Aging gracefully and now playing solo acts as time allows, Swillin’ caught up with them for their take on harmonizing and hunkering down in Steamboat.
78 and Still Strumming
Steve Jones (AKA Yampa Valley Steve)
Where’d you grow up and start playing music? Springfield, Missouri. I was in choir from grade school through high school and didn’t begin playing an instrument until taking up guitar in college.
When and how did you end up in Steamboat? I first came to Steamboat to ski over the holidays of the 1987-‘88 season. My wife and I looked at many other areas of Colorado, but once we saw Steamboat, we knew it was where we wanted to be. We came back through town in June of that year, participating in Ride the Rockies, and put a contract on our three acres while on that trip. We built our house in 1991 with the idea that we’d move here in about 10 years. That changed to four years as we moved from St. Louis to Steamboat and arrived for good on July 1, 1995.
How many bands have you played in here? Besides being a solo act, I’ve only played in one—the Yampa Valley Boys. I did play with The Prickly Pair out of Dubois, Wyoming, for three summers in the early 2000s.
When did you first get together as Yampa Valley Boys? John and I formed it in the fall of 2000. We had a run of 17 years, with our last concert coming in late summer 2017.
What made it work? We each had a love of cowboy/western music. John’s banjo and my guitar along with his baritone and my tenor voice created a unique sound. We had somewhat similar backgrounds, or at least had a lot in common.
Think you’ll ever play together again? After 17 years, we mutually agreed to do our separate thing. We did do one show together over the holidays in 2019, but it’s doubtful we’ll do any more formal shows as our lifestyles have changed; we’re each now spending our winters away. I continued as a solo act at the local sleigh ride through 2021. I had one solo CD that I cut in 2012 featuring all Irish songs. Over our last several years together, we did several Irish songs, most of them with a cowboy/western slant.
What are you up to these days? I’ve since cut two other solo CDs, recorded locally by Steve Boynton, who was a studio musician on all of them. Some of the tracks also feature Willie Samuelson on bass, Randy Kelly on guitar and fiddle and Jon Gibbs on guitar. The latest, “The Lump of Coal (Hope’s Diamond),” charted in the top 20 CDs for radio play as reported in The Western Way magazine. It actually made it as high as number 7. I continue to do western music, but I also do some John Denver, Eagles, classic country, Irish and originals. Where I spend my winters now in Casa Grande, Arizona, I’ve played some RV parks, state parks and western music festivals. During the summers here, I’m still a regular at 3Forks Ranch and the Pro Rodeo Series. I also do house parties, county fairs and the like.
From sleigh rides to raging campfires
John Fisher (AKA The Banjo Buckaroo/Cowboy Minstrel Music)
Where’d you grow up and start playing music? I grew up in Minnesota, went to high school in South St. Paul and college at Bemidji State College and the University of Minnesota, getting a degree in Geology. I started playing guitar and banjo in junior high. The first song I played in public was on stage in high school, playing and singing Sixteen Tons (a la Tennessee Ernie Ford) on a Stella guitar. I was involved in the acoustic folk music scene in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. At Bemidji, I performed with a traveling folk music troupe in a four-piece acoustic folk band called the Bunch, playing at colleges throughout northern Minnesota. In graduate school at South Dakota School of Mines, I picked up the mandolin and autoharp, and played at parties and campouts. After a stint in the Navy, I landed in Riverton, Wyoming, as an exploration geologist in the uranium industry. That’s where I picked up the fiddle, and played back-up guitar for fiddle contests including the Wyoming State Fiddle Championships and the District 2 Fiddlers near Cody.
When and how did you end up in Steamboat? I got here in 1986, as a partner in Ability Claim Service. I got to know Bill May, a local rancher and cowboy poet. He, and his son, J May, got me interested in cowboy poetry and true western music. Somewhere in there, I picked up a talent in auctioneering, mostly for charity and fundraisers.
How many bands have you played in here? Shortly after arriving I started playing for sleigh ride dinners as a single hat (solo performer), and with Jed Clampit, at Red Barn Ranch, a sleigh ride tour up Seed House Road. In the early ‘90s I started playing with J May, for sleigh rides out of Vista Verde Ranch, Elk River Guest Ranch and Home Ranch. I also played solo for Patsy Wilhelm’s Sunset Ranch sleigh rides. J and I also became regular performers for Gary and Hattie Yeager’s Bar Lazy L Ranch sleigh rider dinners.
What’s your take on getting together as the Yampa Valley Boys? I ran into Steve at a 9News Health Fair in the high school gym in 1998. I was looking for someone to cover for me at the Bar Lazy L on nights that I was out of town. Back then, people who could perform cowboy and western music were mighty scarce here. Steve was singing cowboy songs to attract folks to one of the booths at the fair. It took me a week, but I finally found out how to contact him. He worked out great and on nights when they had a big sleigh ride, they’d ask us both to entertain. Thus, the Yampa Valley Boys was born. We got serious about playing together in 2000, playing everything from county and state fairs to barbeques, parties, guest ranches, music festivals and more at venues from Montana to Arizona. We also made several trips to Madison, Wisconsin, and played an Outdoor Expo in Augusta, Georgia. Some years we played over 300 shows.
What made it work? Steve has a great voice and did most of the songwriting. We drew on the wealth of cowboy music and poetry, both traditional and new work written by people we met at festivals and cowboy gatherings. He plays a good guitar and I added guitar, mandolin, banjo and dobro to the mix. We cut eight CDs together. We had a certain chemistry and it was great fun to play together.
What are you up to these days? We’re both performing locally in the summer as solo acts, and we both head south in the winter; I head to Texas. I’m definitely slowing down, but I still enjoy the campfire and small group setting to play and recite cowboy poetry. I entertain campers on Lake Grapevine in Texas all winter.
What do you think of Steamboat as a music town? Steamboat has a great live music scene, not to mention North Routt, Oak Creek and Craig. My wife, Marlene, and I are out listening to music from Wednesday thru Sunday on most summer evenings. There are several open mic opportunities in town, including my favorite venue: The Press. I’ve played at that open mic and have had the opportunity to see young talent grow and blossom there. What do you do when you’re not playing music? Marlene and I enjoy kayaking and getting out in our mountains in the summer. For the last four winters we’ve been camp hosts at Meadowmere Park on Grapevine Lake in Texas.