I began to show an interest in music early on and my dad, himself a guitar player, taught me some chords. And for my 4th birthday, I was given a small, plastic, "Gene Autry" brand guitar. It was a beginner's model with four plastic "cat gut" strings. Would you believe that I still have the guitar?
The RimShots (1965)
The first music group I was ever in was called The Rimshots. I was 14 at the time but had already made up my mind that I wanted to become a professional musician. The Rimshots consisted of John Johnston (drums); Randy Kelly (lead vocals and guitar); Ron Libengood (bass guitar) and myself (lead guitar). The group lasted a little over a year and broke up when John Johnston got drafted into the army. John went to Vietnam and, while on patrol, was wounded by an "anti-personnel" mine. He currently lives in our hometown of Blairsville, PA. Unfortunately, Randy passed away a few years ago. Ron Libengood and I got back in touch recently and it was great to speak with him again.
The Sons of Time (1966-1969)
Members included Butch Ankney (Lead Vocals); Corky Horrell (guitar, bass guitar); Jerry Hlad (drums) and Bo (lead guitar). This was one of my favorite bands from my teen years. We played splash parties, high school dances; receptions and had a lot of laughs to boot. Every one of these guys was a character, especially Butch, who kept us in stitches. Corky, who started out on guitar, eventually moved to bass guitar. That led to an additional group member (seated with glasses in 2nd photo) who is none other than our very own Ozzie DiBiase. A couple years later, we added Walt Yandora into the mix.
Seneca Trail (1) 1970-1973
There were three versions of Seneca Trail which I will label as 1,2 and 3. Seneca Trail 1 (originally called "The Legends" and later "Lyric") was formed by Jim Fleming and Lisle Kunkle of Blairsville PA. Unlike most bands of that era who were playing music by groups like the Beatles and Beach Boys; the Legends gravitated towards country rock and and played songs by Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young. I joined the group in 1970 and again in 1972 after my discharge from the Army.
The Army (1971-1972)
In 1971, I got drafted into the US Army and took basic training at Fort Dix, NJ. After basic, I spent 3 months at Ft. Gordon in Augusta, GA training to be a "Teletype Operator". In the fall of 1971, I was sent to Vietnam and spent my first four months stationed in Da Nang. I was a pretty lucky guy in that I never had to go into the "bush" on patrol. Also, three days before I arrived at Camp Eagle, the place got hit by rocket fire. While I was there, things stayed pretty quiet. But shortly after I was transferred to Saigon, Da Nang again came under heavy fire during the '72 offensive by the Viet Cong.
Seneca Trail (1) continued
After leaving the Army, I rejoined Seneca Trail 1. Fox Studios, a recording studio located in Pittsburgh, offered us a management contract including access to their state of the art recording studio. There was only one catch. Fox management only wanted to sign Lisle and myself and not the rest of the band. It was an "either/or" proposition. After some soul searching, Lisle and I reluctantly agreed and signed the contract. The decision was made to use studio musicians to help us record the songs. That was how the single Maple Shade came into being.
In 1973, Seneca Trail signed a recording contract with Mercury Records and the single Maple Shade was released nationally.
Jim Fleming was away at college and no longer with the group when Maple Shade was recorded. Although he did not receive any writers credit, Jim was a major contributor to Maple Shade. In fact, he wrote the entire bridge section of the song; the part that begins with "People told me 'bout the city...."
Seneca Trail (2)
Once we got the Mercury Record deal, it was decided a new Seneca Trail band would be formed. Some of the top musicians from the Pittsburgh area were selected. Photo (left to right): Lisle Kunkle, Norm Nardini (lead guitar); Larry Siefers (keyboards); Bill Chippich (bass guitar) and Robbie Johns (drums). Although these were great musicians, they did not have the country roots that we needed for the band and this lead to a lot of creative friction. This version of the band lasted a little less than a year but created some great recordings.
Seneca Trail (3)
In 1974, the decision was made again to change the makeup of the Seneca Trail band. This time, musicians were scouted that had a background in country rock and although this was a great group of musicians; at the time Maple Shade had not turned out to be the hit we had wanted and it was clear that Mercury Records was losing interest in promoting us. Within a short while, Lisle and Mike had left the band to pursue other interests; while the rest of us continued to play on in the Pittsburgh nightclub circuit for a few months. It was clear though, that the writing was on the wall and Seneca Trail broke up for good at the end of 1974.
While Seneca Trail 3 was still together, we were hired to back pop artist Lou Christie for a brief tour of Canada. Christie had five hit records in the 1960's including "Lightning Strikes", "The Gypsy Cried", "Two Faces Have I"; "Rhapsody In The Rain" and "Baby, I'm gonna Make you Mine". Lou and I became friends during the tour and ended up writing a couple of songs together including "The Puzzle". In fact, if you listen closely to the background vocals on the chorus, you will hear Lou's distinctive high harmony vocal. Lou flew me to New York City a couple of times to sing background vocals on some of his recordings. As a singer, he had one of the widest vocal ranges of anyone I have ever met; from that famous falsetto down to a low baritone. I have always had the deepest respect for Lou Christie as an artist and a person.
McConnell - Sloan
After Seneca Trail broke up, I got a call from Mike McConnell asking me if I would like to join him playing out as an acoustic duo. What started out as a "for fun" part time job, turned into a full blown act that took us to various colleges and clubs all over the area.
It was Mike who suggested that we take our original songs to Nashville and see if anyone would be interested in them. Turns out they were. Within two days, we had signed a songwriting contract with one of the largest song publishers in Nashville. This lead directly to my being hired into Ronnie McDowell's band and my move to "Music City".
Blue Spruce (1977)
After a couple years of playing acoustic together, Mike and I decided to form a band. We added Bob Hansel (bass guitar) and Joey Rhodes (drums). The band played a lot of jobs, especially at the Deep Creek, Maryland resort. The group had only been playing together a few months when I got the offer to join Ronnie McDowell's band in Nashville.
Bo Sloan “25” album
In 1976, I decided to record a solo album. I spent nearly a year arranging and recording the album and called it "25" after my age at the time . The album was recorded at Jeree's studio in New Brighton, PA. The studio's two owners, Jerry Reed (not THE Jerry Reed) and Don Garvin were great people and encouraged me to be as creative as possible. My goal was to record an album per year, every year, for the rest of my life. What I didn't factor in was how expensive that plan would be. The "25" album cost $8,000 to make. Two years later, I released a second album called "27" and that album cost $4,000. After spending $12,000 of my own money in only two years, I decided that recording an album a year might not be the best financial move for me.
Ronnie McDowell Band (1977-1981)
In the fall of 1977, I was offered a terrific opportunity to join country artist Ronnie McDowell's backup band as his keyboardist and band leader. A couple months earlier, Ronnie scored a major hit with "The King is Gone", a song about the recent death of Elvis Presley. Since Ronnie was just starting out, he didn't own a bus; so it was up to the band to drive ourselves to the gigs in a van pulling a U-haul. We did this for the first six months and it was brutal. Some of the shows were 500 miles apart. At the same time, I consider this to be one of the most fun and rewarding times of my life. Ronnie was (and still is) a great guy. He had an easy going style and taught me a lot about being a showman on stage. Ronnie also loved to play practical jokes. It was not unusual to have a pitcher of ice water dumped on you while you were in the shower or, from the back of the bus, hear a bloody scream as one of the guys discovered a rubber snake in his bunk. Ronnie sure kept things interesting. Highlights: Appearing on the "Grand Ole Opry" and "Hee Haw".
Failure # 1 (Alabama - 1980)
As they say, in life you have to take the good with the bad so I guess I should fess up to some of my failures. In the fall 1979, while I was playing with country artist Ronnie McDowell, we did a show with an upcoming band named “Alabama”. I really liked these guys; the show they put on and their energy level. The next morning, I saw Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry having breakfast at the hotel. I walked over to them and told them that if they ever decided to add a keyboard player, to keep me in mind. They said they would.
That was the only show we played with them and the matter was forgotten. In December of 1980, I got a call from their manager Harold Shed. He told me that Alabama decided to add a keyboard player to their show and asked if I was still interested in playing for them. I said yes.
Because I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma for the entire month of December, I did a phone interview with the members of the Alabama band and it was decided that I was hired and would start with them in January of 1981.
At the same time, my first wife was having trouble adjusting to life in Nashville and decided that she was going to move back to Pittsburgh, PA. I was torn between my career and, being raised a Catholic, couldn’t stomach the idea of being divorced. So I decided to give up the job with Alabama and moved back to Pittsburgh with my wife.
That’s the problem with trying to do the “right thing”. Sometimes it isn’t.
The marriage didn’t last much longer, and in a few months, Alabama broke out and shot to major fame. For years, I beat myself up over it. Even though there was talk at the time of becoming a full member of Alabama, I expect that I would have ended up as just a backup musician for them. But can you imagine what a ride that would have been?
And don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame my “ex” one bit for what happened. She never once asked me to give up my life on the road for her. It was my decision all the way.
Bo Sloan Band (1981-1985)
After four years with Ronnie McDowell, I decided to return to Pittsburgh and form my own band. The Bo Sloan Band was one of the most successful groups I have ever been part of. We started out with only a few playing jobs and, in hopes of gaining some recognition, competed in the Y-104 Battle of the Bands. There were 72 other groups entered in the contest and we didn't expect to win it, but guess what? We did win! Then the calls for work really started to come in. Some months we played 27 one night stands out of 30 days. We released an album High Livin' and a single No Toll that got some airplay in the Pittsburgh area. As with all bands, change is inevitable. Jay Kaspar departed and was replaced by Dave Flodine. Dave had a great voice and was a fantastic guitarist. A year later, drummer Kevin Ward left the band and was replaced, very solidly, by Mark Ashley. The band played on until December 31st, 1984 when we worked our last gig.
H & S Express Print (1983-1986)
Around 1983, Bob Hansel and I realized that the economy in Pittsburgh was going downhill fast and we could see a day in the near future when the band wouldn't be able to make enough money to support us. Bob was a natural book keeper and had a solid record of the band's income for the past two years. Armed with only that (and no collateral) we talked a bank into loaning us $15,000 to start our own quick print business. Talk about sticking our necks out. We bought some used equipment, took about 60 hours of press instruction and opened the doors. It was rough going at first and we didn't take a dime out of the shop for the first two years.
H & S eventually turned into a healthy business. After the band broke up, I worked with Bob in the shop for another year but there was one slight problem: I am not mechanically inclined and was not a very good printer. Bob on the other hand, had "ink in his veins" and became a top notch press operator. I moved over to sales for awhile but by the end of 1985, I felt like I might still have something left to prove as a musician. I decided to give the "Music City" one more try and in February of 1986, I moved back to the Nashville area.
I found a job playing keyboard for a country band in Bowling Green, KY. Between 1986 and 1989, I played music; worked as a night desk clerk; a night watchman and spent a year mastering tapes in a cassette factory. I finally got my next break, musically, when I was offered the chance to play keyboards for country artist Conway Twitty.
Conway Twitty Band (1989-1993)
In 1989, I had the opportunity to play for country artist Conway Twitty. For the first six months I played keyboards. This was because Conway's regular keyboardist (Mike Schrimpf) was seriously injured in an auto accident and unable to perform. When Mike came back to work, I switched over to acoustic guitar and sang backup harmonies.
Conway's passing (June 5th, 1993)
On June 4th, 1993, we had just finished up an afternoon show in Branson Missouri; our last before heading home to Nashville. I walked backstage to find Conway standing alone behind the curtain. I was surprised to find him alone because he almost always was accompanied by his wife, his road manager or one of the bus drivers.
Recently I had started opening Conway’s show with a couple of songs and it was still a work in progress. We were discussing this when he remarked “Man, I feel so much better today than I felt yesterday”. He went onto say how his stomach had been bothering him the day before. I told him that I was glad he was feeling better and the conversation moved on from there.
Less than two hours later, at a Springfield, Missouri truck stop; Conway collapsed on the floor of the bus. An ambulance was called and he was taken to Springfield Hospital. At first the doctors thought he had suffered an attack of kidney stones, but X-rays revealed something much more serious; an aortic aneurysm. Conway was immediately put into emergency surgery.
In one of the strangest coincidences, Loretta Lynn happened to be at the same hospital that night caring for her husband “Moonie”. She walked down to our waiting room and did a wonderful job of cheering us up. Conway was in the operating room for four hours before they finally got him stabilized.
He hung on through the rest of the night but, sadly, he slipped away from us the next morning.
Shortly after Conway's death, I got an offer to join Clay Walker's band. Clay was an emerging star and was in the process of forming his backup group. Before he made it big, Clay had seen us perform with Conway in Texas. He must have liked what he heard because the word came down that he would welcome any former "Twitty Bird" who wanted to join his band. I had heard rumors that he was going to work about 100 dates per year. That sounded like a walk in the park compared to the 200 plus travel days per year that we did with Twitty. So I went down to where Clay was auditioning the band members and talked with him. He told me, no, he was not going to work only 100 dates, he was shooting for at least 250 and more if possible! Ask anyone who has ever traveled on the road and they will tell you that it's a tough job. After four years of steady travel, I was ready for a break. So I politely turned down Clay's offer, as did all the Twitty Birds except one.
Sloan Douglas (1994-1995)
My next project was a personal one. I decided to give stardom one more shot and paired up with a talented singer and songwriter from Louisiana named Josh Douglas. We formed a duo called Sloan-Douglas and with the help of manager (Ron "Sleepy" Jeanett), gathered enough financial backing to record some songs in a top Nashville studio. Sleepy shopped our songs to six of the larger record labels. Although some of them showed an interest, we were not able to convince them to "pull the trigger" and sign us to an artist contract.
Failure #2 (Randy Travis - 1995)
In 1995, I got word from Randy Travis’ road manager that he was looking for a “utility” player. A utility player is a person who is like a jack of all trades; able to play multiple instruments for whatever fits the bill. In this case, they wanted someone who could finger pick on a number of different guitars, play banjo and harmonica. Unfortunately, finger picking has never been one of my strengths. I had some experience playing banjo and minimal experience playing harmonica.
But I wanted this job badly because I was a true fan of Randy’s music and the idea of getting to work with him would be a real rush for me. So I went with the old axiom “Say yes and worry about the consequences later”.
Because Randy’s road manager knew of my reputation with Conway, I was hired without an audition.
I had about 10 days to get ready for the first four shows and rushed around asking my musician friends to show me certain styles of fingerpicking that were required for the shows songs. I boned up on my banjo playing and got Mike Schrimpf, my old friend from Conway’s band, to show me the harmonica part. It was hard work but after a week, I had the parts down and thought I was ready to go. The rehearsal with Randy’s band took place on the road without Randy and I thought things went pretty well.
However, as most road musicians realize, it’s not just knowing your parts but being able to execute them with confidence when you’re in front of 20,000 people. When the actual shows came, I struggled and it was obvious to me and to Randy and the band that I had bitten off more than I could chew. On a side note, during that week, I shared a room with an up and coming singer that Randy was producing and promoting named Daryl Singletary.
I lasted the four shows and then got a call from the same road manager telling me that my services were no longer needed. LoL. I didn’t regret giving it a try. It was just unfortunate that the acoustic player/backup singer job was not vacant at the time.
Loretta Lynn Band (1995-1998)
In 1995, lightning struck again and I was offered a job as a backing vocalist for Loretta Lynn. One time when I was backing Conway and Loretta together, I sang a high harmony part with them on their duet song "Feelings". The first time Loretta heard me do that, she turned around and motioned to me like "was that you?". I nodded and she gave me the OK sign with her hand. I was in heaven!
I performed as part of Loretta's vocal group for three years; playing shows such as the Grand Ole Opry.
While I was with Loretta Lynn, her husband "Moonie" became very ill. That required her to spend a lot of time off of the road caring for him. Because of that, Loretta didn't work a lot of shows during my three years with her. Moonie passed away in 1998 and I think we only worked six shows that year. It was time to move on. Coming fresh off of my Sloan-Douglas effort I realized that after 30 years, it might be time to stop pursuing my goal of "being a star". So I "retired" as a road musician but stayed in the Nashville area where I had lived nearly 20 years.
In the years after retiring as a road musician, I got a few playing job offers, but my heart just wasn't in it anymore. Worse than that was that I developed some calluses on my vocal chords which limits my range and control. Today I can still sing in the studio fine, but whenever I try to sing "live" on two or more songs back to back; I begin to feel pain and some constriction in my throat. At one time I considered having surgery to correct this problem; but other musicians that I had known who had that particular surgery were never totally satisfied with their voices afterwards. Since I was no longer making a living with my voice, I decided to pass on the operation. Musically, I tried to keep busy by running a small home studio on the side. But inside, I felt like an old clock winding down. The joy had gone out of it for me. It just wasn't fun anymore. So in 2004 I shut down the home studio and donated my equipment to a church. For the next two years, I did absolutely nothing musically.
During my retirement from music, I thought a lot about my career; the good times and the bad. I remembered that in the old days I was always happiest when I was writing songs. It had been a lot of years since I had even attempted to finish an original song. In 2006, Dan Baker and I went to visit our old friend, Ozzie DiBiase, who lived "out in the sticks" near Hershey, PA. Even though Oz was a year older than me, he never lost that fire in his belly for playing music. Watching him work in his home studio and seeing his unbridled enthusiasm inspired me. I woke up the next morning thinking "I wonder if I can get some of my old music gear back?" The church was gracious and I did get a lot of my original equipment back. From that day on, I decided to concentrate on writing and recording original songs.
When I started writing songs again, I asked my good friend Dan Baker to help out. Dan and I had collaborated through the years on several (I think) great songs such as "Beautiful Lady" and "Fool for You" (both on the Bo Sloan Band's "High Livin" album).
Our first effort was a song called "The Masterpiece". Although it sounds egotistical, it actually is about finding that "work of art" that everyone has inside of them, whether other people think it's good or not.
In April of 2008, Debbie's sister, Karen asked if it would be possible for me to write some music for some original song lyrics that her son, Keith Cochran, had written. Keith, a 32 year old father of two, had been going through treatments for cancer for the past three years and the outcome was not looking good. Karen hoped to lift his spirits by having me finish his song as a recorded demo. Years before, he had written the lyrics for his then future wife, Sara.
Although Keith was not a professional songwriter, his lyrics were quite good and I had to change very little to adapt them to my original music. I believe the song, which is called "That Look", came together and sounded fine. I had the opportunity to play the demo for Keith before he passed away. Keith died on June 9th, 2008. I also recorded a softer, acoustic version of the song that was played at his funeral.
Dan Baker and I continued to write songs and, in 2011, I decided that I would like to record a new solo album. I invited Dan to be my co-producer and we discussed how we wanted to get it done. I could have recorded the whole album myself but Dan and I thought it would be a better album if we included other musicians and singers on it. We decided to "mine" some of the talent from our home town area (Blairsville PA), as there are a lot of really good musicians and singers there. So that was pretty much how we did it. The one exception was bringing in the sax player from the house band at BB King's in Nashville to play the sax solo on "Debbie's Smile". Dan had an identical hard disk recorder to the one I owned and, trading the band tracks back and forth, we got the album done. I am very proud of the effort. It took more than a year of planning and sweating the details and hopefully it will show in the quality of the music. I am especially grateful to Dan Baker for all the hard work that he put into the project.
It took a long time to get to the end of this self portrait, but it was 50 plus years in the making. I write songs at a "snails pace" (always have) but couldn't be happier these days. Several years ago I "made peace" with the music business and purged all that self doubt and fear that most artists feel inside. Now it's smooth sailing for me. Like the words from The Masterpiece: "It doesn't have to be good; it only has to be". Sounds like a plan to me.