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Larry Duckworth’s Last Radio Show
Nothing to Lose in Paisley, Oregon
The saloon door opened. It was dark inside and the sunlit day framed anyone who entered. This dramatic entrance was an old man in wheel chair. He wore a faded robe and pajama bottoms, hospital grip socks, and matching wrist band topped by a stiff creased Resistol cowboy hat. It was lunchtime at the Pioneer Saloon in the little cow town of Paisley, Oregon. My musical partner Greg and I had developed a routine– after a morning writing music, we’d drive the seventeen miles from the Playa Artist Retreat to town for a burger, then take a little swim in a nearby river before heading back for an afternoon of making more music. This day was different.
Silhouetted in the saloon entrance, the old man held up both arms like he’d just made a touchdown. Everyone in the bar stopped eating, looked over, and many gave a wave. Given the mischievous look in his eye, I wondered if he’d busted out of the hospital or been let out legitimately. He scanned everyone but then his eyes locked with Greg’s and he directed his son to push him to our table.
Rolling up, he looked us up and down, Greg, with dreadlocks down his back and me with a big grey beard. He smiled and spoke nonchalantly, “You boys sure are ugly.” That got our attention but what came next cemented the deal. “I guess you know, everybody in this place hates you.” He continued matter-of-factly, “I just gave you some good advice and you don’t get something for nothing. I need you boys to meet me at the high school tomorrow morning at 6 am to carry me up to the radio station so I can do my show.” As an afterthought, he introduced himself: “I’m Lawrence Duckworth. Everybody knows me.” Then he added, “They might hate you, but I love you.”
We finished our lunch, then stopped off at the little general store for a few supplies including a box of cheap cookies that had become our music-composing addiction. Greg asked the clerk about Lawrence. Once she got clear we were talking about Larry, she told us that everyone in Paisley, a town of about 200, loved the guy. We also learned that a few days prior he had suffered a massive heart attack. While he was in the hospital, he learned he was riddled with cancer. He was released to go home and he was not expected to live for more than a few days.
It was barely light when we arrived at the high school the next morning. Nobody was around so we waited, placing bets as to whether Larry would really show up. Finally, we saw a wheelchair roll up the walk, his son Gilman pushing.
Each of us took a wheel and lifted Larry and his chair up two flights of stairs to the student-run radio station, KPAI, 80 watts of power. Most of the time the station serves as a translator for another station in Lakeview, about sixty miles away. However, with the flip of a switch, the control room goes live. The room contained a board, turntable, a couple CD players, and a good library of CDs and LPs, most of which belonged to Larry.
For the past eleven years, Larry had produced an early-morning radio show six days a week. He based his playlist on old-style country, cowboy music, and cowboy poetry except for Sunday, when he played mostly gospel music.
I could tell Larry was a little embarrassed at having to be carried up the stairs, so he took charge immediately as we entered his studio, bossing Gilman and me into action around the cramped space—obviously not meant for a wheelchair—directing us to find the records and CDs he wanted to play. As the first song ended, a new Larry, a stream-of-conscience Larry, took to the air.
“We have some guests with us this morning. We call them guests. I think they are all escapees from down the river. We’re gonna mess with them a little today. None of them look like boogey men ’cept for the first four. I’ve got my son up here to check on me. He’s a master something. I think a masturbator is what he is.”
Gilman hissed, “Dad, Dad.” He knew that last comment was over the line.
Larry continued, “Anyway, we’re safe now and we’re going to play something off the turntable. One of our favorites off the turntable and that’s number five.”
It became obvious that he did not prepare playlists in advance. Larry went where the spirit guided him. Gilman and I worked to hit the right switches, place the mic in Larry’s face, and locate the recordings he wanted to play. Meanwhile, Greg asked him questions about his life and about the radio show. Since his last name was Duckworth, much of the patter revolved around ducks and plumage and he had a heyday with Greg’s dreadlock feathers. He was a jokester whose song introductions were riddles to be deciphered.
Greg asked, “When did you start doing this?” Larry replied, “When I lost my mind. It was when I was fishin’ on the river. Took my dog, sunny day on the river. And I had always been a believer… and I heard a voice. Said, ‘I want you on the radio.’ I laughed. ‘You don’t want me on the radio. I don’t know nothin’.’ A couple days, I started to listen. Then I came up here and said, ‘I’ll interview for your damn radio.’ They showed me a couple buttons and said, ‘You’re on your own.’ Eleven, twelve years ago. Anyway, I’ve been up here that long.”
In a blink, he switched from serious back to radio announcer, grabbing the mic to introduce the next song, which just happened to come from a CD we’d brought for him of our group, 3hattrio. Introducing the song he said, “I had to be gone a few seconds ’cause I had to tie the son up, just ’cause he did not want to hear this next song. It was a battle. We had feathers goin’ everywhere. Talk about feathers, we could start a feather shop without feathers. We got this new song on so before my son breaks the walls down, let’s give it a turn.”
As the music began Greg asked him about teaching radio to high school students. He said, “I have kids come through here, they’re dead. Put ’em in front of a mic and they can’t speak a word. They’re dead.” Greg probed further. “How do you get them to open so they’ll start to talk?” Larry replied, “I’m not an educator. I don’t know what happens.” But what he said was, “It opens them up in their classes. They get up in their classes and do their reports. They get up in front of their stage and do their little skits and they don’t hesitate. It all comes out and they become real people. It starts with the process here.”
The radio show was a train wreck of dead air space. Though he joked around, the raw emotion brimmed to the surface when Larry got caught up in his own mortality. Every song, every introduction substantiated that this radio show was a spiritual calling. He picked cuts of music to play based on intuition, wanting to give the right message, the right feeling to his listeners, just as it was happening in his heart and mind.
He then put on “The MC Horses,” Ian Tyson’s famous song about the day a legendary local ranch auctioned off its horses. Tears ran down his cheeks and he choked out, “I was there. I cried for the MC. It was a rough time. Still is. Some of us old fools, we don’t forget. I wish we could.”
Ian Tyson is known for writing songs about buckaroo culture, the cowboy subculture of this region. Larry did day work at many of the big ranches in the area, including the MC, but he really didn’t like working for bosses, so he mostly ventured out on his own. He owned a fly-fishing shop, worked as a general handyman, started a restaurant, managed a riding stable, and served as a local EMT. Whatever he did, he always wore his cowboy hat. He might not have always been a working buckaroo, but he was one.
Between songs Larry talked about life, but then when the song ended, he’d pull up to the microphone and leap to another subject, then to a totally different kind of song. He teased us: “We’re gonna have a little cowboy music for a change. They’ve been up in the Portland area pushin’ buttons up there. They see a few things falling south but they don’t know what east or west is. So here’s Ian Tyson.”
“If I could roll back the years, when I was young and limber, loose as ashes in the wind, I had no irons in the fire.”
When it came time to introduce the next song, Larry got serious. “We know we have the world’s finest audience out there. There’s none better between Valley Falls and Pitch Rock Pass. And we’re just gonna keep playing music just like normal.” Then his voice cracked, “We’re gonna try to come as often as we can. Because as you know, things are not guaranteed anymore. But we love you.”
The hour had flown by, but before his final song he had one more thing to say, “We’ve had some kind guests this morning. They’re a little younger version of myself. They do know good music, though they missed one—and you’re going to get him now, Mr. Jim Reeves.”
“I hear the sound of distant drums. Far away. Far away. And if they call for me to come. Then I must go, and you must stay.”
We switched the station back to translator station status and packed Larry and his wheelchair down the stairs.
That evening I dialed Larry’s number to see if he and his son could join us the next day at the Playa, the artist’s retreat center where we, along with other songwriters, were invited for a couple weeks of concentrated musicmaking. We thought Larry would enjoy meeting the songwriters, including one cowboy poet, and we knew our fellow artists would love to meet Larry.
After a few rings Larry’s son answered. After some small talk Gilman told us Larry was in a great mood and asked if he could put his dad on the line. First thing out of his mouth, he exclaimed how much people had enjoyed the show that morning. In fact, some people told him it was his best show ever. He continued, “And you know what the best part is? I got a call from the superintendent, and he fired me on the spot.” Larry seemed proud, “Isn’t it great. I’m about to die and I actually got fired.”
I’ve thought about our day with Larry Duckworth many times over the years. Larry’s last radio show was not just any radio show. It was the manifestation of his calling. Sure, it was a madcap show and going over the line cost him his job. Most importantly, it was a way for Larry to say goodbye to his community and we were blessed to be invited along.
When he told us that the folks at the Pioneer Saloon hated us, I was surprised but I don’t think Greg was. His dreadlocks have not always made him welcome. I’ve spent a lot of time around cowboys and ranch people and rarely feel animosity. I realize I see the world as a friendly place. I always have and I doubt that will change. Tap me on the shoulder if we need to flee or fight.
It was the other thing he said to us that keeps playing back in my head. We were total strangers but he told us that he loved us. And then he asked us to join his world at perhaps the most vulnerable moment of his life.
How did we chance upon this soul who had only a brief time left and yet treated it as though he had nothing to lose? Larry was perhaps the most honest-to-the-moment person I’ve ever met. His example, just knowing him two days, changed my life. I’ve tried to steer in his direction ever since.
Here is one of 3hattrio favorite songs that came out of that music retreat. Every time I sing the words, I think of him. Lawrence Duckworth died at Lake District Hospital, on October 21, 2016. This is a music video produced by Dan Whitaker. Here’s 3hattrio performing “Dust Devil.”
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