Wilderness Road was a rock band founded in 1968 by musicians Warren Leming, Nate Herman, and relatives Andy and Tom Haban. The group, which performed an elaborate stage show, drew on American folklore, and was active in the Anti-War, and Peace Movements of the late Sixties and early Seventies central to Chicago's counterculture movement of the period.
The band's first album was a film scenario disguised as rock album, but could not be labeled a "concept" project for fear that it would not attract an audience.
The group produced two albums: WILDERNESS ROAD (Columbia Record), and SOLD FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE ONLY (Warner Reprise.) The band was managed by Ron Oberman, who had previously worked for Mercury records (he headed their publicity department.) Oberman, following an unsolicited letter to the band, brought them to Columbia, where they were signed by A and R man, Alan Rinde. The band had established a significant audience in Chicago through their performances at The Wise Fools Pub, and were the first rock band to have drawn audiences to Chicago's Lincoln Ave., in Old Town, an area of the city now known for its bars, musical venues, and restaurants.
Sometimes listed as "Formerly with Chicago's Second City"
It has long been my opinion that the best, and most creative music is never heard or played on the radio. Everyone has a favorite song no has heard, an obscure performer that is a well kept secret, or a CD/album that if played just once on the radio, could change the world as we know it today. I am a charter member of this elite club, and during my 18 year career in radio I tended to emphasize the unknown underdog more often than what was on the charts. Today's music consumer seems less likely to take a chance on a new artist. Man, have you missed out on some great songs and artists!
In 1972 I began a journey on the Wilderness Road, buying an album in Virginia I'd never heard of titled SOLD FOR PREVENTION OF DISEASE ONLY by Wilderness Road. The cover was great but unusual. I had no idea what was inside. Upon opening the album, I read the inside and saw a picture of an over-inflated condom. I noticed songs like The Gospel, Long Winter, and Heavily Into Jesus. When I played the album, I had never heard such great music, but it was difficult to classify. At times it rocked, sometimes it was traditional country, it had commercials, and a cast of characters which included a preacher named Reverend E. J. Corvette! Were these guys serious?
The more I played the album, the more I discovered the music. These guys were making social commentary and political statements in a satirical form within a country influenced format. They even had the audacity to lampoon radio and TV preachers who begged for money while saying next to nothing about God. This was a good fifteen years before the scandals of P.T.L., Swaggart, Jim & Tammy, and others. I had to know more about Wilderness Road because I was hooked.
Wilderness Road consisted of Warren Leming, Nate Herman, Tom Haban, and Andy Haban. They were almost too good to be played on the radio. After giving the music considerable thought, I decided my listeners deserved the best and started playing Wilderness Road a lot. The song, Long Winter, should have been released as a single, so I put it in my single rotation. Listeners started requesting it. The other announcers also started playing it on their shows. I remember working one night when President Nixon gave a speech about the energy crisis. Our station aired the speech live. I listened as our President told America that the energy situation would call for every American to sacrifice, because gas was up to sixty cents a gallon. Oh, for the good old days past! He also stated all homes should turn their thermostats back to 68 degrees, and businesses should turn their thermostats down to 65 degrees to conserve energy. I shivered at the thought. The nation had long lines at the gas pumps, and we all feared what was to come next.
As I sat listening to President Nixon's speech I became angry because the sacrifices were being made by the average person, and didn't go all the way to the top. I knew the first song after his speech must make a statement in response to what I heard. So, I played Long Winter, by Wilderness Road which said, ";…come on in, take off your mask. We won't steal your smile. It's gonna be a long winter, why don't you stay a while." I didn't catch any flack for my song choice.
I also began playing some of the religious satire in an effort to expand the minds and knowledge of my listeners. I wanted them to think, even a little bit, between some of the garbage in the top ten from Donnie & Marie, and songs like Billy Don't Be A Hero and Kung Fu Fighting. Certainly a song like Heavily Into Jesus had more merit than what was selling commercially. I didn't expect everybody to like it, but I did believe the listeners should at least be exposed to something different. They could make up their own minds.
A few months later, while at a uded record store in Lexington, Kentucky, I found another album by Wilderness Road! It had been released a year before SOLD FOR PREVENTION… and was just called WILDERNESS ROAD. The lineup was the same, and from reading the song titles, seemed to be in the same vein. With song titles like Bounty Man, Revival, Sing Your Song To The Lord, Death Dream, and others, I couldn't wait to get home to give it a listen.
I listened to the album all the way through and was not disappointed. The overall tone of the music was something akin to a Clint Eastwood western. The songs followed this theme while maintaining the element of satire in its various characters, though to a lesser degree. This was real theater, and I now had another musical gem to share with the world. I considered this my mission, and accepted it with honor.
I particularly liked the song Bounty Man, about a bounty hunter on the hunt. Sung from the bounty man's point of view, and with Americans still dying in Vietnam daily, its lyrics were thought provoking; ";I make my living by another man's dying I'm a Bounty Man. I may be forgiven for a little bit of lying I'm a Bounty Man…Don't give a damn I'm a Bounty Man. Shoot you anytime I can."; I put Bounty Man into my single rotation, like Long Winter had been. The ten-minute LP cut, Revival, was another of the Road's religious mini-operas. Its characters included an unnamed preacher, played by guitarist Warren Leming, who sounded exactly like Reverend E. J. Corvette. However, this preacher seemed a bit less concerned with money in his sermon … ";This man's been holding to the Devil's right hand, he's been holding hands with Satan. But now he's here today to testify, and now he can hold his head up high. Oh testify…testify unto the Lord, and the Lord's gonna set you free."; The songs all had good messages, either directly or indirectly. To the unenlightened, Wilderness Road might be mistaken for a gospel group. However, a line near the end of Bounty Man proved this to be untrue.
Wilderness Road was tight musically, and reproduced their sound extremely well live. Their diversity in sound was due, in part, to the fact that every member played multiple instruments and they all sang. Lead vocals were handled by Nate Herman. The band also wrote their own material. Nate appeared to be the dominant writer, with Warren and Andy close behind. Andy wrote some fine songs. Nate's vocals were particularly unique, with a hauntingly beautiful tone full of emotion. They obviously had a firm background in theater and in the old traditional country, mountain, and folk music. Yet, they could kick into a blues number and blast you, full force, into the wall. Just imagine the Carter Family meets the Firesign Theater while on-stage telling Lenny Bruce jokes at a Southern Brush Arbor Church Revival. That is how you could describe Wilderness Road's music.
As the 1970's came to an end, I tried to learn as much about Wilderness Road as possible, but there was no news. Nothing seemed to be available, and no other albums were released. All I had from this great obscure band was about 65 minutes of the most creative and unique music I ever heard. My journey down the Wilderness Road had apparently come to an abrupt end.
Little did I know, the Road I traveled had many curves, and the future would bring me the most exciting part of my Road journey. A few years later, fate would intervene, bringing with it the most unusual, and satisfying, part of my journey.
Don't go out on the Wilderness Road,
They'll take your life, steal your soul.
That's the road to Old Kentuck,
That road will cost you all your luck.
The 1980's began with the freeing of American hostages in Iran and Ronald Reagan becoming President. At the time, I couldn't help recalling John Fogerty's line in Ramble Tamble, ";…actors in the White House";. Our country, social attitudes, institutions, and politics would change radically in this decade. Where the 1960's had been an era of rebellion, and the '70s a reaction to this rebellion marked with scandal, uncertainty, and economic woes; the 1980's saw America become much more conservative in virtually every respect. CNN was born, disco was dead, and heavy metal considered archaic by punks. We rejected new Coke and Ross Perot, lost John Lennon violently to a madman, rap exploded as a new genre, crack cocaine became a menace that was cheap and destroyed even younger lives, and rock bands with big hair sang syrupy ballads. We watched Challenger explode on live TV, played Pac-Man, feared AIDS, wanted our MTV, endured Iran Contra, the Moral Majority, federal deregulation, and valley girls. We learned about personal computers, who shot J.R., and had a Vice President who couldn't spell 'potato'. Wilderness Road was nowhere in sight.
I went to law school and graduated in 1989, so a legal fog blurs my life from 1986 to 1989. If it wasn't in a law book, it didn't exist for me. I did some freelance writing resulting in my two-part Pretty Things article being published a 1989 issue of GOLDMINE. Music was still important, but I was drifting farther from what I heard on the radio. The rebellious rock attitude of youth seemed extinct.
In 1990, I met with Phil May and Dick Taylor, of the Pretty Things, in Chicago to watch them record a CD of blues classics. Also in the lineup was Jim McCarty, drummer for the Yardbirds; and Richard Hite, brother to the late Bob Hite of Canned Heat. The sessions were done at Sea Grape Recording Studio, owned by Tom Haben, drummer for Wilderness Road! For years I had searched for any information on Wilderness Road, and now I would spend the next five days watching Tom record the Pretty Things. Life's Road is so unpredictable.
I told Tom I was a big fan and had two copies of both albums. ";So you're the one who bought them,";he smiled . An exaggeration, but his humor was obviously intact. We talked a lot about Wilderness Road, music, and the world in general. After the release of SOLD FOR PREVENTION OF DISEASE ONLY, Tom said there were plans for a third album, but it never materialized. The band simply ended. Each member went their separate ways:Nate to New York, Warren to London, and the Habans into a new group of their own. I was most curious about Nate Herman, and asked if it would be possible to meet him. Tom said Nate would be there the next day.
I arrived at the studio at the crack of noon the next day, and Nate was sitting in the kitchen. Nate's writing had always fascinated me and his talent as a singer/ musician was remarkable. During my radio career, I had interviewed many artists, and though most were friendly, a few were rude conceited idiots. Nate was the person I thought, and had hoped, he would be. Writers have always been my focus, and I found Nate to be an amazing person. He is highly intelligent, his wit and humor sharp, and his creativity unique. He is truly a genius at his craft.
Nate was actively writing, having been a writer on Saturday Night Live (SNL) for two or three years after Wilderness Road. This was during the Eddie Murphy era. In 1975, SNL received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program for show #378. Nate was one of the writers of that program, along with James Belushi, Joe Piscopo, Eddie Murphy, and Tim Kazurinsky. Usually, a writer does not appear on camera, but he told me of an incident where something went wrong and no one was ready to go on stage after the commercial break. The program resumed, and there was Nate, slowly walking onto an empty stage. Alone, and looking into the camera with a look of sheer terror was on his face. The silence was deafening, and it must have been hilarious. I'm still looking for the DVD.
Nate's writing, and satirical performances, are done with talent and insight yet to peak, or to be completely appreciated by the public at-large. He and Warren continued writing over the years, producing some excellent social and political satire. Their show: Hermand and Leming was regularly featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered program.In 1978 they wrote and performed Newsquake, a hilarious video lampooning TV newscasts. A year later came TV Magic Ballots, a spoof of political commercials featuring Warren and Nate touting the remarkable qualities of these ";magic"; election ballots suitable for either political party, ";…so easy an alderman could use them…"; These can be seen on the Image Union website. Nate had also written for Second City and National Lampoon during the same time. While with National Lampoon, he wrote and performed House Rules, a funny bit that is a diner's nightmare; You Put Me Through Hell, a parody of Joni Mitchell with Nate singing better than Joni at times; and, What Do You Recommend >From The Menu, a skit featuring Nate and John Belushi.
Warren and Nate had also written a musical: A Christmas Commerical.. which had run successfully at the St. Nicholas Theater in Chicago.
The remainder of the 1990's were silent and dark regarding Wilderness Road. The world continued to change, and not necessarily for the better. There was the seemingly growing economy, the rise of Wall Street to the stratosphere accompanied with by a rise of corporate greed; resulting in a corresponding downturn and virtual disappearance of the American middle class. There was the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, the Columbine shootings, plus David Corresh and Waco. We experienced Desert Storm, the internet, Monica Lewinsky, sheep cloning, OJ's murder trial fiasco, impeachment proceedings, Vanilla Ice and/or the Spice Girls. We drank Starbucks coffee, watched Frazier on TV, went to see Titanic, cheered Michael Jordon, and stayed awake for Lettermand and Leno. Somehow, we survived the 1990's roller coaster, and looked for better times as we entered the year 2000. It didn't happen!
The new millennium was ushered in with Y2K, hanging chads, 911, global warming, the Iraq War, i-pods, ";N Sync, American Idol, Patriot Acts I & II, idol Americans, the ostracizing of the Dixie Chicks, the Rolling Stones touring yet again, a bald Britney Spears, Hurricane Katrina followed by Rita, a totally inept political croney leading an competent FEMA response amid tragedy in New Orleans, free speech zones, and mass murder at Virginia Tech. Remember when students went to school and college to actually learn or get a degree! Since 2001 our country, and the world, have changed considerably. Does anyone in Washington know about the Constitution? Have our leaders ever read it??? Our Attorney General advocates torture, can't find e-mails and documents pertaining to his job and vital to our Department of Justice; and the Vice President is deadly with a shotgun on hunting trips and so secretive that it will take months, or even years, to flush out corruption and potential crimes in our government the last few years. Yes, too many lawyers can really spoil a country.
We now have a global economy, families are split and more isolated from each other, many American students and graduates cannot write a complete sentence or find Iraq, or even the United States for that matter, on a world map. Where was Wilderness Road when their theatric messages and eye opening satire was really needed?
While surfing the net in 2005, I did a search on Wilderness Road and found their official website at www.wildernessroad.net. The site had a lot of new information, and pictures, updating recent activities. I learned that John Mueller was responsible for the website with Warren Leming and the site invited e-mails. I sent one immediately, and over the next few months we corresponded. We had a lot in common outside of Wilderness Road. That summer I invited Warren to come to Pikeville for a visit. My wife, Debbi, shares my interest in writing and agreed that we had plenty of room to put Warren up at our house so he and I could get better acquainted. He was working on a documentary on the idea of the Road (beginning with Kerouac's book), at the time. The film would incorporate musical influences, and the history, and culture of the mountains which influenced the Road so much. Our music in Eastern Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee had particularly driven Warren and Nate.
Warren was also extremely interested in, and knowledgeable about, the American Civil War and had recorded two CDs on the subject. A Rich Man's War, A Poor Man's Fight, released in 1999, consists of music and stories written by Warren the way they would have sounded in 1865. Originally a one act play, the CD details the writings of Ambrose Bierce, war, and the social upheaval of Reconstruction. It is different, in sound and concept, from anything recorded by Wilderness Road. The other CD, Ambrose Bierce and American Destiny, released in 2000 was initially a one-man show Warren had written based on the writings of Ambrose Bierce. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with Bierce at the time, but learned he was a prolific and outspoken writer of political satire in the post-Civil War era who considered no subject, person, or institution off limits.
Warren is an accomplished playwright with many accomplishments to his credit. His works include tyhe book: Cold Chicago - A Haymarket Fable (Charles Kerr Publishing) (2002) a historical piece on a Chicago tragedy. Studs Terkel stated, ";Warren Lemming's play on the Haymarket affair is the best antidote we have for the national Alzheimer's, our forgetfulness of yesterday."; Axis of Evil (2004), is a DVD featuring interviews with various artists and activists discussing the quagmire which has become the Iraq War. Warren has also written many humorous satirical articles. These include The Rock State: You're Not on the Guest List, which details the deteriorating state of rock journalism and contemporary music; Viacom to Purchase English Literature reveals capitalism at its worst, and its agenda to dumb down America; Matt Damon Talks & Talks & Talks…. the ultimate ego run amok with Matt being the center of the universe, also known as the 'me me me me generation'. To read these articles, and more, go to dummydown.com
Warren is a close friend, and visits often. He says coming to the mountains is like returning to Mecca (for a banjo picker.) Recently, he added several Wilderness Road videos to Youtube.com plus some of his theatrical work. I highly recommend that you check them out and pass the word to others. Also, check for a complete list of Warren's work. I really knew Warren years before we met and told him on his first visit, ";…it's like we're meeting again, for the first time.";
The Road we travel is a long, full of surprises and rewards. We must have the courage to see ourselves honestly and to laugh again. So, come on in! We must be brave enough to take off our mask. To take a chance. No one will steal our smile. But the music we hear, and discover, along life's Road will make us smile honestly, from deep within; the warmth of its melody will fill our soul; and the truth in its lyrics will feed our spirit. ";Thank you Warren, Nate, Tom, and Andy for leading the way long ago."; Ah, but I was so much older then….I'm younger than that now.
DARREL H. MULLINS
April 19, 2007
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