Tucson Salvage: Meet Ned Sutton: Unsung In and Out of Song

The three white ducks, Huey, Dewy and Louie, hang together in a corner like a band, waddle and flop in unison, squawking a specific waterfowl rhythm that soon becomes a kind of dusty, backyard aria, which includes two young clowning grandchildren, an overhead helicopter, a hammock creaking in the breeze, several baby chickens in a coop, and Ned Sutton bitching about the rises in the yard, the hard dirt humps he finds difficult to step on to arrive at his chair. When he plops down, on this cool, March afternoon, he'll be there awhile, his mere presence providing extraordinary information.

In a tired, gray cowboy hat and aviator shades, vintage silver and turquoise jewelry, Ned looks today every bit the aging outlaw-country man as Merle Haggard was at 71. Yes, Ned is old. The Ace bandages to combat swelling in his ankles. The diabetes. The gray trousers wide enough to accommodate an expanded mid-riff, decorated with dried blood stains on a knee. His laughter now a coarse guffaw, and the sweatshirt he wears under his plaid long-sleeve announces "Grandpa. The Man. The Myth. The Bad Influence." The long sweet recall it takes before he'll introduced an anecdote with "here's one!"

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Meet Ned Sutton: Unsung In and Out of Song
Brian Smith
A croon that could sell a prayer to the unbeliever.

He's blessed with a thick gray mane, diabolical self-deprecation and death jokes, and a longtime partner in wife Katherine, who sits near him today. All tempered in sweet farm smells of little vegetable gardens and animals.

One would be hard-pressed to picture Ned as a guy who more or less influenced a generation of Tucson indie kids. Those who went on to international respect, from Rainer Ptacek, Howe Gelb and Giant Sand, to Al Perry, Billy Sedlmayr, and, even more abstractly, Calexico. Country-punk alchemist Perry says Ned was "a personal and musical influence for decades." He is a walking secret history, a sort of missing link between '70s Tucson bluegrass and country milieu of The Dusty Chaps and the Bob Meighan Band and others to the post-punk.

Yet, none of Ned's music is available on streaming services or is even for sale new, save for a few lo-fi live YouTube videos of more recent years, and one treasure, he and soul-handler Rainer (on dobro) playing Chuck Berry's "30 Days" on Jonathan L's KLPX radio show from '85. See, Ned is a master of interpretation, more than he was ever a songwriter. He figured the greats wrote songs better than he ever could. But what influenced others is his command and presentation of song, the singing, the phrasing, the effortless vocal sway and glide between the conversational to the melodic, that gift of note sliding and portamento. Most listeners have no idea how difficult this is, only that it is good.

Katherine heads off into the house and returns with Ned's old Martin acoustic and unpacks it. He lifts it into place and strums, taps a foot, dust rising over the portable firepit, and begins a Porter Waggoner tune. Their 2-year-old granddaughter goes off to nap in a hammock. Ned slackens, stops, clears his throat, finds the vocal key, laughs, "boy, things change!" Then he suddenly switches to an early '70s song "Two-Bit Melody" by George Hawke, a gifted Tucson songwriter, and begins. And finally, that voice: "Her hands are colored yellow from the cigarette she's smoking...."

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Meet Ned Sutton: Unsung In and Out of Song
Brian Smith
Ned Sutton: Grandpa. ‘The Man. The Myth. The Bad Influence.’

There is an ever-slight hiccup of a Missouri yodel and underscore of gospel tones in his singing, borne of the old hills and hollers, the odd Buddy Durham sides and the radio, but with a Kristofferson delivery, only richer, more melodic. In his hands the song earns a delectable sadness, perceptible in the air between his inhales and still-steady guitar strums, where birds chirp and wind blows. A croon that now could sell a prayer to the unbeliever.

He plays others too, a nearly forgotten '60s classic "Rock, Salt and Nails" by old country anarchist Utah Phillips, and more modern Jimmy Staats song "Wires and Wood." He is a human jukebox with a knowledge and love of the traditional country, honky tonk, gospel, bluegrass, and rock 'n' roll. That is part of who he is, his is decades of work and life and family, a commitment to craft, and, years of endless nights in shithole bars, some unjust jail time, and certainly intuitiveness, that born-with X-factor. He has aged into a song wisdom, that needs to be captured before it is gone.

It didn't start exactly that way. He was drawing as a boy too, comics. But he really wanted to be a nurse.

* * *

Ned was born one of five in Belleville, Illinois, to an Air Force father and a mother who played gospel piano. Dad's career took the Suttons all over the country, but Ned spent his summers growing up in Sedgewickville, Missouri ("pop. 99, said right on the sign") with his grandparents, his gospel-singing fiddler grandpa, Jesse James Loberg, and the bluegrass coming up the stairs as he was getting ready for breakfast. His voice first entertained Methodist church-goers when he was a boy.

The Suttons settled in Tucson in time for Ned to pick up the guitar and graduate from Catalina High in '66. "I had awful little folk country combos with names like The Travelers Three," Ned laughs. Started off to be a nurse, graduated from UA, specialized in EMT so he could go anywhere and work. Got a secondary degree, and began teaching.

Ned wipes his dry fingers on his knees, and grunts, "So the nursing stuff was a lot a fun. But, hey, this playing music is a lot more fun."

In the early '70s Ned began playing at The Cup, a tiny venue located across from the University of Arizona main gate, behind the old Zip's Records, and a ground zero for Tucson folk and bluegrass. It featured a mix of hardcore traditionalists, hippies, Christian folkies and college kids. Ned fit in, would play with folklorist marvel “Big Jim” Griffith, and the experience evolved into Ned playing music fulltime. He met wife Katherine too. Her attraction to Ned at first? “He was always my favorite musician to dance to.”

In those days, Tucson was still dismissed as a dusty musical backwater, 500 miles from L.A., but it was amped on regional musical dialects, a closed-in-by-desert provinciality — which began decades earlier with Tucson-steeped artists like the “Father of Chicano Music” Lalo Guerrero or Dean Armstrong and the Arizona Dance Hands — especially the country-related stuff. People could stumble into a bar and feel they discovered the bands themselves, how they represented a community. Jim Brady a KWFM DJ in those days, now recording studio owner, agrees, says, “the quality of players was astounding for the size of the town.”

Musicians like Ned stayed put and influenced each other. “We had a mandolin player who blew off law school at Vanderbilt to stay and play bluegrass,” Ned laughs. He goes lengths on Tucson honky-tonk heroes The Dusty Chaps, how there was so much more beneath their surface.

Ned ditched nursing to lead Fast Eddie & the Rodeo Kings, his first fulltime pro outfit, featuring his repertoire and stomp. In those days, for a band to play bars it had to do four sets a night, five nights a week. Lots of covers. That is how it was done, how a Tucson musician not named Linda Ronstadt made a living. Ned drew good crowds and lots of drunks. Some nights at a bar like Hooligan’s Bar & Grill it’d be a buck or two to get in, including all the flat pitcher beer you could guzzle. The mostly string band featured mandolin and banjo and was more raw and old-timey than the hugely popular Bob Meighan Band and Dusty Chaps, both of whom landed deals on Capitol Records. Katherine says even the dancing styles were different between bands until one night when they all played a battle of the bands and the styles merged.

Ned played around in other combos, including the popular string band Disco Ramblers. At one point he cooled off from playing those endless nights, even opened a short-lived shop to work on Volkswagens called Foont Brothers. A skill he picked up working on a sister’s VW. “He has that kind of mind,” Katherine says, “just picks things up.” Ned roadied for The Dusty Chaps too, touring every watering hole within driving distance.

Ned’s exile ended with Ned Sutton & The Rabbits, who made a home at the juke-and-cowboy-boot stomp Oxbow Saloon.
click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Meet Ned Sutton: Unsung In and Out of Song
Courtesy Ned Sutton.
Sharp-suited Ned Sutton circa '79.

The frontman’s secret, Ned says, is to surround yourself with “the best players because it just makes you look so great.”

Drummer Ralph Gilmore well remembers playing with Ned, beyond the weed, iced coffees with bourbon at rehearsals. Gilmore, a rock-fusion drummer and singer with a mad record collection who later played with everyone from Street Pajama, Rainer’s Das Combo and the Guess Who, met Ned not long after landing in Tucson in ’76. His few years with the Rabbits in the early ’80s were, he says, a blast.

“The Rabbits had so many incarnations too,” Gilmore adds. “That’s how it was in those days.”

Ned scammed his way into at least one lucrative gig—making up a phony setlist filled with radio songs he didn’t know to get hired—and it worked at the old Hilton on Tucson’s Miracle Mile. Gilmore recalls the Hilton nights, and the group developing a large following in Phoenix, but mostly Ned's motivations: “It was never about stardom with Ned. It was always about the music.”

Ned sums up the glories of the day this way: “It was all seat of the pants, little rascals putting on a show." He laughs of the joyful punishments too. “Yep, it was a lot of brain damage in those days. Matter of fact, I’m paying for a lot of it now. By the time I parked and got my instrument ready, and got in the door, I was already stoned, in like 50 feet. Someone would say, ‘here man, over here, man.’”

Ned recorded his lone album in 1981, the long out-of-print, German release Drugstore Cowboy, a star-popping singsong fest filled of heart-surging twang and melancholy country. The Dusty Chaps' George Hawke wrote and produced the album, recorded at the old Lee Furs recording studio. Sonically it was up-to-the-moment, and Hawke’s songs fit Ned like an embroidered cowboy shirt.

“Hawke wrote the best stuff I’d ever heard,” Ned says. “And Hawke always appreciated where I was coming from.”

Though the record sank commercially, it changed things. Howe Gelb offers perspective. “Think of his Drugstore Cowboy album, which only came out in Germany. It should have been big everywhere. So really, he was the first indie rocker from here, back in ’81, when Europe was still a mystery to the rest of us.”
click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Meet Ned Sutton: Unsung In and Out of Song
Ned's 1981 album led the way for Tucson indie kids.

Ned’s one European tour supporting Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was cancelled at the last minute. Too expensive to take the band over. That stung Ned.

* * *

Hatred swirled around the early days of Tucson punk. Many bar-bands and their crowds loathed the “punks” at most local clubs, especially the Night Train. Bloody fights ensued and gunshots sometimes rang out down 4th Avenue on Night Train “Punk Nights.” That animosity didn’t really exist with the country and bluegrass folks, and a kind of country/post-punk alchemy ensued. “The stoner cowboys were friendly as fuck,” Gelb says, “there was something seamless with the country folk.”

In 1981, Gelb, awed by Ned at his barrel-down live shows, worked up the guts to ask Ned to sing on a song he was recording called “Curtis Jon and Sue.”

“It was all these post-punkers on the recording,” Gelb says, “Ned on vocals, Rainer on dobro, Barry Smith on violin, I played piano …” The tune appeared a few years later on a local country-punk cassette compilation (and will soon be reissued on a three-album Tucson compilation). The recording, he says, “bridged the camps of post punkers and the stone-y cowboy swing bands. Rainer and I would hang with Ned, we gravitated to him, he was funny and fascinating. The older guys [on the rootsy side] like George Hawke, Juke Joint Johnny, and Randy Lopez thought we were cute; I mean those guys could really play.” Gelb laughs, “Most of us came out of punk, ya know.”

The former punk-supporting KWFM DJ (and onetime Giant Sandworms manager) Dave La Russa remembers Ned’s influence on the new music. “Ned’s local rep was everyone knew who he was; his voice was angelic. People responded to that. Whenever he was around in those days he carried a musical campfire, a song to sing, a story to tell. With Rainer [who died in 1997] there was a mutual respect. Ned’s deep knowledge and relationship to country music, the way he plays it, is astounding.”

One day a few years later, Ned called Gelb when he was living with Giant Sandworms in Manhattan. Ned had booked a summer-long series of dates in South Dakota and Wyoming and would Howe like to join him on piano?

Ned recalls, “I heard him play enough stuff and knew he had an appreciation for the music, and that was it. And the two girls in their early 20s from Howe’s [scene], Christy Anderson and Andrea Curtis, as the rhythm section, would bring a lot of spark.”

Gelb agreed to go. “We get to South Dakota and Ned’s thing was biker bars, and we played Rapid City, Spearfish and other towns, four and five sets a night. I never learned any of those songs, he would turn around and say, this one is in 'G.' These biker types were into coke, and they gave us a band house to stay in."

"I was in grad school in Massachusetts," Katherine says. "I got some very interesting calls from South Dakota."

"Ned's repertoire was classic," Gelb continues, "just killer. Ned was so gregarious on the mic. But in Casper, they fired us, they wanted 38 Special or whatever. We came back to Tucson."

In 1990 Ned sang several songs on Gelb's Giant Sand side-gig, The Band of Blacky Ranchette album Sage Advice. That's Ned's belt buckle on the cover of the band's Heartland album.

The song "Blind Justice" on the debut self-titled Blacky Ranchette album is about Ned catching a drug case and going to jail.

* * *

Cocaine flooded Tucson in the early '80s, the clubs and bars, and Ned got popped for selling it. Ned didn't deal the shit but knew where to get it and did a favor for a "friend," a set-up by a weasel-y DJ looking to lessen his own sentence. "I knew where to get it, so I did, like a fool."

He walked down to a 7-Eleven for the meet, absurdly delayed because his own Neighborhood Watch meeting ran late.

"The next thing I know there were five or six cops with guns pointed at me. I said, 'Aw, put those away.' People wrote letters on my behalf, had work-release lined up but I still got five years. The hanging judge was ready for me." Local papers called it an injustice.

Ned was devastated, as was Kathy, but Ned got out in two years. He used the time to spin straw into near-gold. Inside Fort Grant jail he picked up graphic arts, played in a little band, and he made the all-star jail softball team.

By then Ned had perfected his cartooning skills and landed an ongoing strip in the Tucson Weekly. His work also appeared in City Magazine, Phoenix New Times and other places. He kept the "crazy poems" coming while locked up. (His book, Grey Matter, released in 1981, is a hilarious admixture of music satire and barely hidden self-deprecation.)

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Meet Ned Sutton: Unsung In and Out of Song
Courtesy Ned Sutton.
Ned Sutton comic from his book Gray Matter.

Jail essentially ended Ned's playing music for a living. He learned to adore all the things he had in a life suddenly valid with or without music.

"We shifted gears, did the family thing," Katherine says. "He worked the print shop, doing graphics. He was so good at everything that when things would fall through with the music, it was OK. He took classes to learn computer but he really sat there and drew racy cartons," she laughs. "He picked up computers from reading books."

With long gray hair, deep blue eyes, high cheekbones and a fierce intelligence, there is a late-'60s Laurel Canyon thing about Katherine, a woman known for hiking in the desert barefoot. A matriarch, and devout caretaker, she is at once conscientious today of her two grandchildren (she daycares them most weekdays), and of Ned. There is a deep familial optimism and patience in her labor, which never seems desperate. It easy to see Ned the beneficiary of a woman long marked for great love. He says as much, always has.

"She's a magician on that stuff," Ned says. "Yeah. A magician alright."

"I married him for money," she laughs. "It was the only way to get in-state tuition." The couple married in Reno in secret in '72 as students, married again for family four years later. Katherine earned her master's degree in expressive therapy at Leslie University in Massachusetts after they married, later interned in a San Francisco school for autistic children. Earned certifications and made her living working with children with severe developmental issues, worked 12 years with children on the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation, for example. She continues her work to an extent, even helps out the "Kids Create" program for children at the UA Poetry Center.

Ned reasons he's been protected by Katherine's heart.

"My karma can beat your dogma anytime!" she laughs.

Old Ned guffaws.

"We're the only ones who can tolerate each other," she says.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: Meet Ned Sutton: Unsung In and Out of Song
Brian Smith
Katherine and Ned Sutton in their backyard.

"I needed someone to take of care of me!"

It's one of those loves for the ages, the deep trust, how they enumerate the ways they love each other in little bursts of practical, jokey commentary.

Like any couple who finishes the other's memory, the deeper stuff takes on an air of silent timelessness, after 48 years of marriage. "The secret is we allowed each other the freedom to do the things we loved," Katherine says. "If I left him half of my memories would be gone because he remembers different things. Besides, he cooks. And, we keep different hours."

There were no life plans, ever, things sort of evolved. "Pretty much our philosophy on everything," Katherine says. "Let's have a baby after 14 years of marriage! Or let's have a house!"

Ned coached little league, went to the school band meetings, PTA meetings, worked the snack bar, all of it while doing freelance graphic work. "He was really the stay-at-home dad," Katherine says. Their children Thelma-Jean and Cisco are in their early 30s now, and successful.

In 2001 Ned suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

"Talk about fun things," he says, the guitar still on his lap. "I get in the emergency and this the guy in scrubs said, 'holy cow, you're having a heart attack!' I told every joke I ever knew to nurses and orderlies. It's like they never met anyone who had that perspective on life who had just had a heart attack."

He pauses, "I don't do anything anymore except too many donuts."

* * *

He laid in the hospital bed, his mind preoccupied with what seemed of little concern to anyone else. A sudden shift, a time "to shit or get off the pot." He thought to himself: You owe it to the cosmos, having this little gift.

After the heart attack and convalescence, he formed Ned Sutton & Last Dance with John Jensen, Dan Sorenson and Ric Volante, started gigging a bit. "Hell, I had a comeback a few years ago," he laughs. "I got out of music and then got back into it sober."

You could hear a chair squeak when Sutton played a stunning, hushed rendition of Ricky Nelson's "Lonesome Town" at Rainer's 2017 memorial at EXO in Tucson. He chokes up in recall and wipes wet from his face. "The audience was so intimate and close, listening to everything I was doing, gasping when they were supposed to.

"It made me cry. I only did three songs for Rainer, but I could hardly walk out of there I was so high on it."

Ned knows such rare moments are addictive as hell for a singer and "
once you play it, it is gone into the wind." A moment hangs, the 6-year-old grandson with his mohawked hair rumbles politely about, and Ned adds, "my problem now is I get so emotional when I play songs."

Ned steps gently into the warm and cozy Sutton house and his movements suggest physical discomfort, which he tamps down with host-like formality. He talks of the Irish and Scottish music he's been listening to, some in Gaelic, and fiddler Aly Bane, the old gospel records, and the inspiration there. And the raising of two children here, where it is filled with rich sentiments and dusty memories, a beautiful roll-top desk of heavy dark wood Ned handcrafted, a kitchen cabinet that once belonged to gangster Joe "Bananas" Bonanno procured from a yard sale. A small office crammed of albums and CDs, live Sutton shots and family photos.

It's like he sees life in a world where chunks of gold are hidden in song, or in the lives of his children and wife, picked out as easily as some George Hawke number. Allows him freedom from regrets, or maybe he never had any, a life eternally in-the-present.

He plans to record a double album soon, is excited to get back to playing after this pandemic. "Country can make you start drinking again and see the bottom of the bottle. But I'm going to die sober. That's what I got now, terminal sobriety.

"I've got a nice list of stuff I want to record, like 60 or 70 tunes," Ned continues. "Early George Jones, Merle Haggard, John Prine, maybe some newer stuff. I got everybody who can tune an instrument lined up for this thing, a real who's-who. I want to record music I love. At least people I know will love hearing it again."

Ned moves out to the frontyard, a well-tended concern of desert succulents and plant life in a mid-century subdivision. These sweet efforts toward decorum now thickening in spring, highlighted by the immense pine tree that dates from their daughter's first Christmas. Ned's low-rumble voice lifts. "I'm pretty proud of my background, and the friends I've made over the years. I've been lucky to take a leak in some pretty tall grass."

Brian Smith's collection of essays and stories, Tucson Salvage: Tales and Recollections of La Frontera, based on this column, is available now on Eyewear Press UK. Buy the collection in Tucson at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave.

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