Several weeks ago, we ran a biography of the early life of Ghost Riders in the Sky author Mike Ward. He’s been on the road selling books, but he finally made the time to write the second half of the story, and this time it’s in the first person. Mike will be a guest on the Fred and Jeff Show this Sunday from 11:00 a.m to noon on 104.1 KQTH in Tucson, or you can listen to the archived show any time after Sunday. Mike writes:
In January, 1977, I started working at Fred Harvey Company’s Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley, where I shared dishwashing duties with a wheezy old Pall Mall smoker named Jerry.
After a couple of weeks, I got kicked downstairs to “bus dog” for waiters in the Oasis Room, a supper club restaurant a floor below the main dining room. The tips were plentiful, but it was not my path to enlightenment. One evening in the Corkscrew Bar, I met Furnace Creek General Store manager Al Haase. I began working for him as a clerk and soon stumbled up to the lofty heights of assistant retail manager for Fred Harvey Company’s Death Valley facilities, a job once described by a Harvey Vice President as “ordering beer for nine months and taking the summers off.”
I soon realized that I could write what the General Manager snidely referred to as “songs about the Company.” I had played guitar since I was a kid but was always shy about singing. By singing songs I had written, I didn’t have the burden of butchering the vocals of “real” songs.
The first song I composed in 1977, “The Fred Harvey Blues,” was inspired by my humble paychecks. “I get my paycheck I hope it’s a lot/ I’m disappointed when I see that it’s not/ It’s OK/ It ain’t no news/ I live daily with those Fred Harvey Blues.” This was an unexpected hit with my fellow Harveyites, followed up by such tunes as “No Swearing at the Pool,” “Back of the House Employees,” and the drinking song “Zabrewskie Point.”
The smart aleck songwriting went on for years, and on Halloween night in 1982, a drummer, bass player, myself, and another guitarist dressed as deceased waitresses and “The Dead Harvey Girls” were born. Naturally, I had to write a song for the occasion. “We’re the Harvey Girls you know what we’re like/We got ugly faces, ghostly white/ We serve our food with poison bread/ So you’ll be like us, real gone dead!”
So, how do we connect the dots from my below-sea-level manager career to Death Valley ranger Stan Jones’s biographer? Well, every second weekend in November, the Death Valley ’49ers Encampment is held at Furnace Creek, and the crackerjack western band the Reinsmen performed Saturday evenings during the 1980s in the dirt parking lot next to the Furnace Creek General Store.
The highlight of their set was “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and every year bandleader Dick Goodman said it was “written by Stan Jones when he was a ranger here in Death Valley.” I didn’t watch television or listen to the radio in Death Valley, so I never knew Stan’s great song until I heard the Reinsmen play it. About twenty years later, the Reinsmen’s inspirational seed germinated, and I started researching Stan’s life to present a paper at the 2008 Death Valley History Conference.
I’d jumped from Fred Harvey to the National Park Service, still in the Valley, in 1990. What a relief to switch from ordering longhorn cheese to monitoring bighorn sheep. Suddenly I was being paid to hike, the activity I had done on my days off for thirteen years. By 1992, my sheep-counting experiences in extreme summer heat then qualified me to wander the desert as a biological technician in the slightly cooler climes of Tucson’s Saguaro National Park.
It’s spooky to realize the parallels between Stan and me. I wrote songs in Death Valley, (sort of), ended up working for the NPS, and then moved to southeastern Arizona, where Stan was born and raised. When I realized that nothing substantial had been written about Stan, I thought about expanding my twenty-page paper into a biography.
Meanwhile, back at the conference, I invited Stan’s talented great-nephew, singer/songwriter Keeter Stuart, to follow my talk with a concert of Stan’s best songs. Keeter and I teamed up after that to present our “Stan Jones Dog & Pony Show” at gatherings from Tucson to Mount Rainier to Santa Fe.
I had fuzzy plans to write Stan’s biography, but I couldn’t manage it while I was getting paid to hike around Saguaro. “When I retire, I’ll do it, I mused half-heartedly.” In 2009, Pat Grediagin rode to the rescue. She had recently retired from an NPS career, and one day she asked, “If you can get an extended furlough from Saguaro and I helped out with the bills would you consider writing the book on Stan?”
So that’s how it happened. I took furloughs each year from 2010 to 2013 to research and write. By the summer of 2013, I had a manuscript. Then I started the daunting task of finding a home for it. First I checked with esteemed Tucson author Bill Broyles to see if it was worth publishing. He gave me reassuring thumbs up with the caveat “plan on cutting at least 20% of the manuscript.” He also casually added, “you might run this by Ross Humphreys over at Rio Nuevo; he likes cowboy stuff.”
I sent a timid email to Rio Nuevo Publishers and heard nothing back, which in retrospect was fine. The manuscript needed a lot of work. I thought I’d go the self-published route, but Ranger Doug of the band “Riders in the Sky” suggested that I send a proposal to the University of Indiana Press. Then a friend of mine told me that renowned photographer Jay Dusard wanted to see what I’d written. I sent him the manuscript and he called me a few days later. Jay, who lived in Douglas, but was staying overnight in Tucson, said, “I’m going to run this by Ross. I bet he’ll like it.”
Bill Broyles’s original hunch was spot on. I received an email from Rio Nuevo in December of 2013 announcing they’d like to publish my book. Wow, that was a moment. I still had tons of work to do to complete the notes, acknowledgements, and polish the manuscript, but with steady and wise editorial guidance by Managing Editor Aaron Downey, we had a book ready to head to the printer by August 2014.
I still feel like some weird cosmic force was at work driving me to tell this story of Stan Jones. Being a published author is somewhat bewildering. But here I am, scheduled for two appearances at the Tucson Festival of Books, which never would have happened had I not planted myself at the computer and started to write.