This story was originally written for “Highway of Legends, On The Road With The Kings And Queens of Country Music” a book by New Zealand author, Dianne Haworth, published by Harper-Collins in 2006. I was asked to write about New Zealand’s country music legends Gray Bartlett, Brendan Dugan, and Jodi Vaughn who became friends with a country music journalist in a small town in Texas.
About Highway of Legends Tour:
Gray Bartlett, his wife Trish, Brendan Dugan and his wife Sandy, are some of my most beloved friends and I treasure every delightful minute I’ve shared with them in the thirty plus years since we met. Living half a world apart has dictated limits as to the amount of time we’ve shared, but it has not lessened the bonds of friendships formed in the 1980s when they traveled many thousands of sky miles between their country and the U.S. where they:
- Experienced one of our coldest winters
- Performed outdoors for 350,000 people during two of our hottest summers
- Performed at the Billy Bob’s Texas, “world’s largest honkytonk,” which has a stage at one end of the dance floor and a rodeo arena with live bull riding at the other
- Performed four hours straight at a beer garden in Texas then drove twelve hours to appear on the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, Tennessee
- Taped dozens of TV and radio shows
- Educated people all across the country about the wonderful island country of New Zealand
I don’t remember ever hearing them complain. Whatever they encountered was treated like an adventure. They were at ease in all surroundings, whether visiting a mansion or a cattle ranch or sitting on the floor in a journalist’s living room balancing a plate of food on their laps while they watched the Superbowl on TV. They embraced every new experience.
Brendan’s rich baritone and Gray’s mastery of the guitar won them the respect of fellow musicians wherever they performed, which was in cities all over the U.S. At some venues they might be transported in a limo with a chauffeur. Other times four people, assorted luggage and two guitar cases would be jammed into a compact car in such a way there was barely any room left over for air. Once, when there were nine in the group, we picked them up at DFW Airport in a motor home. In the middle of Euless’ busiest intersection the engine spluttered and died. They acted like this was no big deal, and everyone, singers, musicians and spouses jumped out and pushed the 28 foot motor to safety.
This sort of can-do, will-do spirit and their pleasure in simple things like driving miniature race cars (where Brendan was always the winner) or learning to eat strange new foods such as fajitas, chicken fried steak and cream gravy, made them enjoyable traveling companions. Once, when Jodi Vaughn was expecting a limo to pick her up for a performance, one of my friends thought he would play a joke by painting “Jodi’s Limo” on the windows of his truck and then parking it in front of her hotel. When she saw the writing on the truck she bent double laughing, then climbed up on the trailer, tapped on the cab and said, “Let’s go.” Jodi won a fan for life that day.
The most amazing thing about Gray, after his talent as a musician and business man, is his optimism. He never lets setbacks defeat him and he always manages to find silver linings in the darkest clouds.
The most amazing thing about Brendan, after his amazing vocal ability, is his keen memory. If you want to know the numbers for concert attendance 30 years ago he can answer off the top of his head. The first time I noticed this, I was driving them back to their hotel after a radio interview when I hesitated at an intersection trying to remember which way to turn. Brendan told me the proper direction.
“How can you come from another country and remember your way home when you’ve only been on that road once?” I asked him.
“I never forget where I’ve been,” he said with a shrug.
I would eventually discover that both Gray and I came to depend on Brendan’s sense of time and place a little too much when he was not with us one day and we had to wonder around a parking garage for awhile before we spotted where we’d parked the car.
I met Gray and Brendan at the International Country and Western Music Association awards (ICWMA) Gala in 1983 in Fort Worth, Texas. The ICWMA was the biggest country music party that city has ever hosted. The most popular performers from nine countries traveled to the U.S. to perform at the five day event. Centered in the Stockyards section of Fort Worth, an area that figured prominently in the days of cowboys and cattle drives, the event drew political dignitaries, music industry executives from Nashville and Los Angeles, artists from all over the world, country music fans, rodeo cowboys and cowgirls and even a few “real” working cowboys.
In the heat of a Texas summer that almost has to be experienced to be believed, the ICWMA opening night press conference was held in a bar (pub) in which the air conditioning was not working. Imagine several hundred people elbow to elbow in an enclosed space, add radio equipment, television cameras and lights, and conditions seem almost perfect…for baking bread. That was the situation greeting me when I arrived to cover this event for Country Hotline News. There did not appear to be room for another Media person but I managed to squeeze in and slowly make my way through the crowd. Sweating and growing grumpier by the second, I literally bumped into two of the ICWMA award winners from New Zealand, Gray Bartlett and Brendan Dugan. As mascara melted into and burned my eyes I introduced my magazine and managed to get their names and country of origin written in my notebook. An interview under these circumstances was not going to work, I decided when Brendan had to spell his name three times before I got it right. To my Texas-trained ear, a New Zealand “a” sounded like an “i” and I could hardly hear above the din anyway. I wrote down their names and numbers where they could be reached and made my way to the nearest exit. I had noticed they did not appear to be sweating at all.
Johnnie High, star and producer of the Country Music Revue, a popular country music show, extended an invitation for them to perform on his show where they received a standing ovation and an open invitation to return anytime. And they did, several more times
Gray Bartlett Band with Brendan Dugan, Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue, Will Rogers Auditorium, Fort Worth, Texas, 1983
I wished these talented New Zealanders a safe journey home as they boarded Johnnie High’s CMR van to go back to their hotel and then home. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of sadness thinking this was the last time I would ever see them.
A few weeks later I was surprised to receive a letter informing me the group would be touring the U.S. for the New Zealand Department of Tourism and their final stop was in Fort Worth.
I was able to arrange some Media interviews for them and everyone they met, whether in or out of the music business, fell in love with them. During the next few years they made many trips to the U.S. sometimes with their band and sometimes just the two of them. Their wives, Trish and Sandy, were able to accompany them most of the time and it soon seemed as if we’d all been friends forever.
Gray and Brendan did dozens of interviews for newspapers, television and radio. Below are some of the venues where they performed in addition to their New Zealand Dept. of Tourism tours. At one of those performances they were invited to open for Barbara Mandrell on tour. Barbara was probably the most popular female artist in the U.S. at that time but Gray and Brendan had been away from their beloved New Zealand a couple of weeks already and they regretfully declined. That is probably the only bad business decision I ever saw the business-savvy Mr. Bartlett make.
Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, Tennessee: The mother church of country music worldwide.
Onstage at the Grand Ole Opry
Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville: Brendan Dugan, Hal Durham, (Opry Manager,) Dorothy Hamm, Gray Bartlett, George Hamilton IV…Photo by: Cathy Martindale
Country Crossroads: Gray and Brendan were guests with Bill Mack, Jerry Clower and Boxcar Willie on this syndicated radio show that was broadcast on 1700 radio stations around the world at that time.
Gray Bartlett, Stan Knowles, producer, Country Crossroads, Brendan Dugan
Looking at the marquee at Billy Bob’s Texas, which is Billed as the world’s largest honkytonk, it accommodates 6,000 people and has a rodeo arena where live bull riding is featured on weekends.
White Elephant Saloon: Situated in the Fort Worth Stockyards, it is the most famous bar in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It has been used as a backdrop in movies and TV shows.
Fort Worth Pioneer Days: This three day outdoor festival attracts an estimated 350,000 people.
Nashville Now: The Nashville Network
Brendan Dugan, Gray Bartlett, Jeannie C Riley, Billy Walker, Ralph Emery, Nashville Now TV show on the Nashville Network
Euless Police and Fire Association Benefit at Trinity Auditorium
L-R: Gray Bartlett, Brendan Dugan, Dorothy Hamm, Roxane Atwood, Carol Stevens, Norma Jean, Cole Brown
The mayor of Fort Worth presented the New Zealanders with a replica of a key one of our astronauts took to the moon, which they presented to the mayor of Auckland on their return. One of their band members, Norrie Keenan, who was a police officer in New Zealand, presented a police chief Johnnie Wilson with a Maori fighting stick. When the chief retired he passed it along to me and it hangs in my living room.
Brendan Dugan, Mayor Bob Bolen of Fort Worth, Gray Bartlett
Both Gray and Brendan concentrated on business interests in New Zealand for the next few years and although we kept in touch through Christmas cards and occasional letters I did not see them again until Brendan called one day. I thought he would tell me when and where he would be touring the U.S. but instead he told me to get a passport. If he couldn’t bring New Zealand to me, he would arrange to bring me to New Zealand. And he did. It was a great experience and I enjoyed getting to know the country as much as I had enjoyed getting to meet some of its citizens.
This is me on a Scottish Highland Bull in Queenstown, new Zealand, 1987
Brendan and his beautiful wife Sandy taking me out to dinner in Rotorua, New Zealand, 1987
Gray, & Trish Bartlett and their son Michael taking me to see the horse races in New Zealand, 1987
Jon Rutherford, Trish and Gray Bartlett in Euless, 2012
Looking back I can’t help but marvel a bit at the serendipitous way in which the paths of people from so away from each other crossed and the many friendships that grew from that moment. A deviation of one minute in either direction and we might never have even said so much as a hello.