Arcata Eye Scene

A-town art, music, theatre. Mostly music. Updated Wednesdays.

Ross Rowley: A tribute to Bert Tolley

This column ran in the August 12, 2008 issue of the Eye.

Bert Tolley, lifelong country musician from Arcata, passed away this past week. It is my belief, he never gained the praise from his peers that he deserved. For 30 years, Bert played all over Northern California with the band, Country Fever. In the band’s prime, they were one of the premier working country bands. They’d get off work, grab a bite to eat, load up the gear, drive to the gig and start setting up.

They’d repeat this routine weekend after weekend after weekend. I’d often see Bert pulling the band trailer headed south to the Angelina Inn in Fernbridge as I headed north to play at the North Coast Inn. The next week, we’d both be headed in the opposite direction. When he led the Country Fever, the band contained some pf the best country pickers in the county. He always gave them their due. Letting various gifted lead guitar players and female lead singers take the limelight while he anchored the band.

When Bert did step up to the microphone, he never faltered. Coming from the old school country singer styles, he had the stage confidence and swagger of Hank Williams Jr. or Johnny Paycheck as opposed to the limp personas of the pretty boy country singers of today. Over the years, I have had the chance to share the stage with Bert Tolley during multiple band charity benefits and the GMC/True Value Country Showdown at the Fortuna rodeo. It was some of the few times I spoke with him, as we were both bass players in competing bands and always on opposite sides of the county playing gigs.

On those nights we played together, he was very professional and always cordial to me and my band mates. As a country musician, he was a formidable competitor. I don’t really like to see music as competition, but from time to time, it just is. Sometimes, his band would have the crowd and sometimes, we would have it. Bert’s stage presence loomed large as he performed classic country songs and the popular country tunes of the day.

When Country Fever had the crowd, as in their years at the Angelina Inn, no band was better. With the passing of Bert Tolley and probably the passing on of the legacy of Country Fever, we are seeing the demise of a once popular music style that commanded a presence in and around Arcata, Blue Lake and the rest of the county. There once was a day when country music could be heard every weekend, everywhere from Garberville to Smith River. I know, I know…styles, like the people who represent them, change. But, I prefer to remain an old curmudgeon on this one.

Yes, there are still a number of local bands performing country music, today. You can find country music performed somewhere each month, mostly at the casinos, but you have to hunt for it. There are folk festivals, there are reggae festivals, there are blues festivals and there are Dixieland festivals held every year in Humboldt County. I doubt we’ll ever see a country music festival here. (I can hear a majority of you saying, “Thank, God!” I’ll remember that when Willie Nelson sells out in Southern Humboldt) I have to give credit where credit is due.

When a player goes out weekend after weekend, spending seven to eight hours out on a gig between load-in and load-out, they deserve something more than the nightly pay they receive. And, when that player pours his or her heart and soul into it for the 30- plus years, they deserve something. There is no gold watch for working musicians. There is a trophy of sorts, that can be achieved. Except for a cut on a benefit album titled, “Humboldt County Country” for the United Way back in the early 1980s, I don’t believe Bert Tolley ever cut an album.

It sure would be nice for the musicians that were close to him to band together, collect up the few recordings that exist of the Country Fever band and release a posthumous CD of that collection. Live recordings, demos, garage recordings, it doesn’t matter. If not for the family, then perhaps document it for yourselves. This leads me to the discussion of long-time local musicians and the lack of recordings of their music. Forget about trying to “make it.”

Forget about worrying that the material may not be good enough for release. Just do it. An album is a scrapbook of your musical performance for your family, friends and fans to hold onto. Most importantly, it’s a document of your musical history and the history of Humboldt County.

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3 Comments»

  Robert Meyer wrote @

Ross
Great article, you have the ability to put into words which most of were thinking about Bert, I played on and off with Bert for the 30 years of Country Fever and I can’t thank you enough for the tribute that you wrote about Bert, he was my musical mentor and closest friend, I miss him every day and will for a long time to come. We are planning a memorial jam and party at the Eureka Moos lodge4328 Campton Road, Eureka on September 28th from 2pm to we get tired and hope to have many local musicians and performers come and join in, Please if you can, come and help us celebrate Bert’s life and join in the musical fun. If you can please mention this to everyone you knoe who knew Bert, I hope this party will make him proud.
Thanks
Robert Meyer

  Ross Rowley wrote @

Thanks for the letter, Robert.
And yes, I will see you at Bert’s memorial at the Moose.

  Austin Alley wrote @

Nice job Ross.
Bert was an icon in the Humboldt County music scene and I’m proud to have known him and been a member of Country Fever for a time. What you said about finding “lost tapes” so to speak of his music is a great idea and I think I have some as I did some live recording while with the band in the 90’s. I pray I still have them. I’ll check after I write this but I think I do. I know I have a pretty good studio demo of the band that I recorded a while back.
Bert was a “man’s man” in that he was well liked and respected by men of all stripes and social class’s. And he was of course quite a “ladies man”.
Bert was to fill in on bass for me for a gig with The Rustlers at PJ’s in Willow Creek on August 22 because my regular guy Norm was going to be out of town. I called him 2 or 3 weeks before the gig to set up some practice. I wondered why he hadn’t called back but then recieved the news.
Bert liked to go sit in his car whene he was on break at a gig. If I had issues to talk to some one about he was always there for me and yes, willing to share a shot of schnaps to ease the abrasions of life.
His speaking and singing voice was strong and straight forward yet touched with humor and compassion as was his entire demeanor.
I miss him and I would say to everyone who knew him that we should all take a little bit of that kindness, humor, compassion and funlovingness and share it with the world. It will be a better place for it.
Rest in Peace Bert, Your Friend. Austin Alley.


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