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Grass is big in Jim Koweek’s world. He plants it, studies it and writes about it. He even sings and plays some of it – the bluegrass variety, that is – as long as it feels and sounds like the traditional country music he faithfully delivers from the heart every Thursday at The Café in Sonoita.
But Koweek’s repertoire goes way beyond bluegrass. If he’s calling the covers, you’re as likely to hear echoes of Bob Wills or Hank Williams as of Bill Monroe. But whether it’s grass, western swing, folk or old-time hillbilly, Koweek is likely serve it up wrapped in the traditional country style he has favored since his days in upstate New York when his guitar-playing hippie girlfriend got him hooked on that instrument.
Seeking nothing more than fun after high school, Koweek put girlfriend, guitar and gas in his white Ford van and headed for Tucson where he eventually got serious enough to earn a degree in speech communications and went straight to work “digging ditches.” That landscaping job evolved into career of working with plants, which he still does as the owner of Arizona Revegetation and Monitoring Company based out of his Lyle Canyon home.
Koweek has balanced making a living with making music and sharing it with appreciative listeners since the early 1980s when he joined up with three talented friends to form his first band, Riders of the Lost Desert. They quickly dropped the “lost” part of their name, became simply The Desert Riders and rode that name to success for several years on the live music circuit in Tucson, playing more than 100 gigs a year before disbanding in 1987.
“We were lucky if we cleared twenty bucks a piece in those early days,” Koweek recalls, “but we loved it.” He mostly played bass back then, leaving the vocals to other band members. “They wouldn’t let me sing,” he shares with a hint of humor (or is it pique), then adds, “The band had some strong singers.”
After the Riders each went their own way – “It was like being married to three people at the same time,” Koweek said – he began a long association with Andy Hersey’s Busted Cowboys Band. He played bass and profited from the guidance of band member Rocky Harper, an eastern Virginia sharecropper’s son who had gained fame as a country music pioneer. Koweek credits his maturity as a musician and entertainer to Harper. “Being around him for the last 35 years is all the musical education a player of real country music could ask for,” Koweek says. “And, in the tradition of this music, I hopefully have handed some of it down to my son and a few others of his generation to carry on.”
Nowadays, Koweek sticks mostly to playing the mandolin, which he took up around age 40 when playing bass ceased to be fun. At the Café, he usually appears with some of his favorite musicians including his guitarist son Clay and vocalist Rana Tucker who frequently join him in a trio known as the Grassland Band.
Rocky Harper’s influence is likely in play as Koweek’s light-hearted, sometimes self-deprecating humor and obvious love for the music, engage and entertain his audience. And unlike in his “Riders” days, he now handles vocals with ease.
If you appreciate authentic traditional country music, catch one of Koweek’s shows. You’re sure to leave uplifted and with a sense of gratitude that he’s keeping this music alive.