It isn’t really Pinto Bennett’s last Saturday night.
But it’s close enough that he can see it coming.
“The Last Saturday Night” is the country singer-songwriter’s newest album, his fourteenth.
The newest and probably the last.
“I figured the one I made before it would be the last one,” he said. “When my producer asked me if I wanted to do another album I said, ‘aren’t there any young people out there who want to record an album?’ He said ‘yeah, but I want to make a Pinto Bennett album.’
“I called it ‘The Last Saturday Night’ because it just felt like it. I can’t do this any more. My health and my brain won’t let me. I love it, but I just can’t hang out and play in the honky tonks any more. I’m in bed by 8 most nights.”
You wouldn’t have known it if you’d attended the 16th annual Famous Motel Cowboys reunion last weekend at Boise’s Visual Arts Collective. It was packed several hours before Bennett, the group’s front man, took the stage at 8:30. Dressed in his trademark white shirt, gray cardigan sweater and matching cowboy hat, he played to a crowd that clearly loved him. Longtime fans danced, cheered, sang along with his lyrics:
Work was all I thought of when we were man and wife.
I was always just one step behind the Jonses’ life.
When the boss man needed me I’d never hesitate.
I would call you up and tell you ‘honey I’ll be late.’
And you were always askin’ me to spend more time at home.
And then one winter midnight I came in to find you gone.
You took the kids and you took the car and you took my last dime,
And you left me with nothin’ but my valuable time.
Among those who came to see the show was Carl Scheider, host of Boise State Public Radio’s “Private Idaho” program.
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“Those guys (the band members) are getting older and some of them aren’t in real great shape, but there’s no doubt that they can still play,” Scheider said. “It was a magical night. … And nobody writes songs like Pinto. He’s an Idaho icon. There’s Gene Harris, Rosalie Sorrels and Pinto Bennett.”
The band’s reunion sets were a mix of country and rock and roll, reminiscent of Bennett’s salad days in the 1970s with a band called Tarwater. Its slogan, once commonly seen on bumper stickers around the valley: “Tarwater — Hard Country Music.”
Then a fiery, hard-drinking party animal with a gift for writing lyrics, Bennett went on to front the Famous Motel Cowboys, have a hit record in England and share stages with Crystal Gayle and Willie Nelson. He spent five years in Nashville, where he befriended Chet Atkins and counted Don Everly and Lyle Lovett among his drinking buddies. The late Sorrels was quoted as saying he “should have been a superstar.”
It never happened. The music business is fickle, luck plays a disproportionate role, and some of Bennett’s lyrics were too rough-edged for the Nashville hit machine. “Old Dog,” from “The Last Saturday Night” album, is a case in point. It’s about his lifelong relationships with alcohol, drugs, women, music.
That ol’ dog inside me is barkin’ at the door.
Knowin’ I’ll take the penalty and pay the freight for sure.
He’s just like flies, he never dies; stuck with me rich or poor.
That ol’ dog inside me keeps howlin’ out for more.
In 2008, by then a devout Christian, Bennett moved to his “retirement package,” a sheep wagon in the desert. A homemade travel trailer pulled by a tractor, it recalled his youthful days working as a shepherd for his grandfather near Elmore County’s Bennett Mountain, which was named for their family.
“It was good for me to be out there,” he said. “It made me more introspective. I wrote two gospel albums out there.”
He lived in the sheep wagon for six years, alone with his guitar, his Bible and his thoughts, before returning to his former home in Boise five years ago.
“The V.A. needed me to move back. They worried about me, and it was just common sense.”
Now 71, he sits when he performs, walks with a cane, wears glasses with a dark lens over his bad eye.
“I’ve got problems from my eyes to my ankles. It’s a miracle the V.A. has kept me alive. They put compression casts on my legs to keep the swelling down. One leg hurts so bad sometimes I wanted them to cut it off, but that’s not elective surgery. … I’m going blind, I have heart problems, I’ve got flaky neurons. I have a neurologist, a pharmacologist, a urologist … I’m ologist-poor.”
I asked him if there was anything he still hoped to accomplish, any goals not met or things left undone. Even with all he’s been through, his answer spoke of a life fully lived.
“No,” he replied. “I’ve done everything. I can sit with my neighbor and have a beer and shoot the breeze and that’s good enough for me. I’m happy. I’m quite happy.”