Alamosa’s Don Richmond, plumbing the mystery of music

Photo by Priscilla Waggoner Don Richmond and his band The Rifters performing at the Society Hall Celebration on Saturday.

ALAMOSA — If DNA plays any role in what a person does in life, Don Richmond was destined to be a musician long before he drew his first breath. Born to a father who was an operatic vocal professor at Adams State University and a mother who was a former opera singer, it could be assumed his path was pretty much set.

But the way Richmond speaks of music with something akin to reverence and his sometimes-heartbreaking mastery of a song, whether it’s his own or someone else’s, signifies a connection to music that transcends the tangible, the here and the now.

Sitting on the couch in his studio at Howlin’ Dog Recording, Richmond rests his hands on the knees of his lanky legs and — in a voice the Chicago Tribune described as “warm and full of character” — begins to speak.

The story behind his stories

Of course, it all started when, at the age of 12 or 13, Richmond joined a garage band. By the time he was 15, he “played pretty good” and was asked to join a house band that performed at a bar on Main Street called the Nine Eye. A succession of other house bands followed after that.

“Most people who grow up in a place like Alamosa…leave,” he says. “I traveled some in the early 70s to all the groovy places. But every time I’d come back and over the pass, I’d think…” He briefly smiles, tips his head back and lets out a deep sigh. “I’m home. I’m safe. If that’s not an indication of where home is, what is?”

Staying in the sparsely populated, wide open spaces and untouched vistas of Colorado and New Mexico have had a profound influence on Richmond’s music. Not only does it shape what he thinks and writes about, it forced him to become a “generalist”, giving birth to one of his most stunning talents.

“If I wanted to hear a particular kind of instrument, I had to learn how to play it.” After a number of years and an insatiable love of learning, those “particular kinds of instruments” now include the acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro and pedal steel. He’ll also occasionally grab the trumpet, accordion, pennywhistle, hammered or mountain dulcimer, percussion, and keyboards.

The stringed instruments stand in the far corner of the studio like a Greek chorus as Richmond also “got into recording” along the way.

“I’ve very much made peace (with the decision to stay). This feels like what I’m supposed to be doing and where I’m supposed to be,” he says. 

The infinite journey

Richmond always had an interest in songwriting, but it wasn’t until 1973, when his band Tumbleweed planned to do an album, that he gave it his serious attention.

“Songwriting is an infinite journey,” he muses. “It’s so mysterious. Ideas sort of download and I think of it as going through your day with two butterfly nets in your hand. ‘Oh, there’s one’ that floats by in a conversation,” he says, swatting imaginary nets in the air.

“Or something will pop into your mind, and you’ll think, damn, where did that come from? That’s worth something. Hopefully, you get a line or two or a whole verse. If you can follow that thread, that’s ideal.”

But it’s also fleeting. “If you think, that’s a cool idea, I’ll work on it this evening, good luck. It’s gone. There’s just a little pile of ashes,” he says.  

Throughout Richmond’s music, there is a thread of something that is kind, awestruck, authentic and humble. Those are difficult things to hold on to — to stay true to — in an industry driven by profit and competition.

“Life will do its best to beat it out of you,” he says, quietly. “When someone asks me for advice on how to be a musician and do what I do, I have very little to offer that’s concrete. But I usually tell them the truth.

“Music will break your heart and probably do it repeatedly. But the thing that won’t let you down is the music itself. It will still make you cry and do that thing that it does. Find your way back to that and forget all the rest. Because what that music does to you? That’s real. There’s something real there.”

The juice

When asked what inspires his music more — pain or joy — Richmond answers with a joke. What’s the worst thing that can happen to a folk singer, he asks. They get happy.

“I still love a sad song, but my music is more a celebration of the juice of life,” he says. “It can show up in a lot of things, but it’s the same juice — pain or ecstasy — and you celebrate that where you find it. If you’re going through a hard time, you find that juice in your pain. That’s what sticks up above the landscape and gives you something to write about.”

Such life-affirming words are anything but empty coming from Don Richmond who, in 2007, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer.

“When you come out of something like that, everything is just so damn amazing that you can hardly stand it. Everything is a miracle. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone but I’m also very grateful for that journey. It showed me how…how precious life is. How precious people are and the connection with people.

“I’m the classic introvert and pretty good at being the weird old guy on North Road. But every interaction is precious. I firmly believe that’s true. And the experience that teaches that to you? That’s a good thing. Not something you’d choose to go through but what that experience brings you is a gift. You might as well take it and use it to enrich your life, whether it’s your art or what you do day to day.”

The mystery

Over the past 50 years, Richmond has recorded 25 CDs, recorded and produced or co-produced hundreds of albums for artists here and across the country, written a “self-help” book for musicians and co-taught songwriting workshops with extraordinary singer-songwriters Eliza Gilkyson and John Gorka.

Still, after all those years, all those accomplishments, all those experiences writing and singing and performing and connecting with audiences, he continues to be both captivated and mystified by the power of the song.

“Music…” He stops and then begins again. “Music is like a key and we — all of us humans — are like an instrument case. That case is usually locked, often barricaded, shielded with multiple layers. But if the right music, the right song goes in there and clicks the tumblers in that lock, suddenly it springs open and the instrument that’s inside of us…it resonates.

“I think music does that to people. It springs open that lock and resonates with what’s inside and you think… God…what did that song just do to me?

“Why that happens is truly a mystery. But when that happens, that’s when we’re open to the wonder of life.”

At that point, Richmond pulls his gaze back from where it was to where he is, sitting on the couch in his recording studio, talking. And then he smiles.

“Life is totally inexplicable. Totally amazing. Why does anything exist? Why do we exist? How are we participants in it? All of those deep and huge and never-ending questions. It’s like that’s all attached to music…to me,” he says