ASPEN - If you're planning on walking even half a block through downtown Aspen with Bobby Mason, you'd better allow for some time. Mason is 67 and bulky, has had a knee and a hip replaced, suffered a heart attack in the past few years and doesn't walk fast.
What slows him down even more than age, size and artificial body parts is Mason's popularity. Everyone, it seems, knows Mason, and as we walk, basically just across Main Street, virtually every person within eyeshot comes over to greet him. Even those who don't know him are attracted; a friend of mine, who didn't know who Mason was, seemed pulled into his orbit. And then there is Mason's nature; he is as interested in talking to other people as they are interested in him. After 10 or so greetings, Mason knocked on the window of Carl's Pharmacy to get the attention of yet another friend.
This is what comes of having played music in the valley for more than 40 years. But Mason thinks there is something else behind the way he is treated and thought of in Aspen. "It's because I really like people," he said. "I wish sometimes I was more into the music for making money or getting ahead. But when someone calls, asks me to do something, play a benefit, I like to say "yes." I like to be there for people."
Mason has a new album, "Find My Way Back Home," and when I ask him what kind of album it is - Mason's past few albums have included a solo acoustic recording and a new-age record - the first thing he tells me is that "it features some of the best musicians in the country." He then ticks off a list of all local players: drummer John Michel; bassist Michael Jude; keyboardist Terry Bannon; J.D. Martin, who co-wrote four of the songs on the album; and Lester Price, who produced the album and played guitar.
Mason has longevity and tenacity on his side. He arrived in Aspen in 1969 for a two-week stand by his Los Angeles-based band the Happy Medium at the old Aspen Inn, where the St. Regis now stands. Mason mentioned to a musical colleague that he didn't know anything about Aspen and was just passing through. The friend asked, "Why?" Mason replied, "Because I live in Hollywood." Again, the friend asked, "Why?" Within a few weeks Mason had moved here, and since then, his working life has pretty much consisted only of writing and playing music. But the reason Mason is considered by locals as Aspen's truest music icon - more than his late buddy, John Denver; much more than Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who have been part-time residents - is the fact that Mason would think of his local collaborators as America's greatest musicians.
"When I think about Bobby Mason, I think of the family of musicians here. And Bobby is the root of that family tree," Dan Sheridan, the longtime Aspen singer-songwriter, said. "We all kind of sprouted from that center that is Bobby. He's where things begin."
Mason's talent is evident. Starwood, the '70s Aspen band he co-led, was signed to Columbia Records and toured nationally. His big voice combines gruff blues tones with softer, sweeter sentiments. His guitar playing is excellent. But the mark he has made isn't measured entirely in songs he has written, sounds he has made and gigs he has played.
"When I hang out with Bobby, afterwards I always think, 'Oh yeah, he's also a musician,'" Sheridan said. "Because first he's a friend and a mentor for life. Being a musician is secondary or tertiary. He's more of a guide, a teacher. That being said, he's a fantastic musician."
Mason exhibits humility when it is suggested that Aspen's reputation as a hotspot for popular music has much to do with him. "I don't feel like a patriarch," he said. "A lot of times, I just hope I'm part of the family."
Finances aside, Mason says, "I would say I've been very successful. I have so many friends, wonderful people, that I get to play music for. And play music with. It would take up a whole page just to mention the people I've played with."
Over the decades, that list would include John Denver, Jimmy Buffett, Bo Diddley, Cher, the Eagles, Dan Fogelberg, Kenny Loggins and probably the majority of the pickers who have called Aspen home since 1969. And as of this week, that list includes me. Borrowing a guitar at the Two Old Hippies shop for a photo shoot, I couldn't resist asking Mason to join me on a tune. I picked the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia," which happened to be in Mason's regular repertoire, and a few minutes later, an item from my bucket list was crossed off.
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For those who don't know Mason, "Find My Way Back Home" might be the ideal way to get acquainted. The songs span Mason's career: "Been a Long Time" is from 1966; several songs, including the title track, co-written with J.D. Martin, is of recent vintage. Mason says that producer Lester Price, who selected the songs, did not know Mason or his music very well. But the album manages to create a portrait of a writer and musician, living his life and reflecting on it.
"It's kind of my life unfolding," Mason said of "Find My Way Home," which is available at Two Old Hippies, Carl's Pharmacy, and Collage in Carbondale. (Mason will have a CD Release Party on Jan. 21 at the Wheeler Opera House.) "That's what Lester wanted - an album that showed my life. Not an album of just what was going on right now, although there is some of that. But an album that looks at my life, that goes, 'Wow, what a great time that was.' And, 'Oooh, how weird.'"
Mason's earliest years - born in Kansas, picking up ukulele at 3 and a half, switching to guitar at 7 when his body got too big for ukulele, moving to Southern California at 7 - are skipped over, but the album does include one very early chapter. "Been a Long Time" is about Mason, with two young kids, choosing to leave, into a musician's life. The song is regretful, but reaches out for recognition that another path was calling Mason: "My life didn't go that way/ I hope that you'll understand," Mason sings in his most affecting voice, with Larry Gottlieb's pedal steel guitar adding the exclamation point of yearning.
The rock-star phase of Mason's life is addressed in a newer song, "Too Much Is Not Enough." It depicts someone who never knows when to say when. "It was that stage of my life. I could look at a Sharper Image catalogue and think I want everything in it," Mason said. "And then I came to the point of thinking, I don't want any of that."
The song is also an oblique reference to Mason's bouts with drugs and booze. Mason has been sober since 1990, and the one-day-at-a-time approach to addiction - uncertainty, hopefulness - seems to come through in the title song. "Don't know where I'm going, but I don't feel lost/ .. It's breath by breath and step by step," Mason sings, with gospel-like vocals behind him.
Many of the songs - "All That I Am," "Light from the Grays" - have a big-picture quality to them. Sometimes it seems you can "get" Mason with just one song. The album closes with one of those, "Love Starts Here," which closes the album.
The song, Mason says, is about being an emotional person, about reacting to difficult situations with warmth. "It's about my feelings," Mason said. "I still have that '60s thing about love, the Beatles thing - and the Bobby Mason thing. I can't get into the grouchy, screw-everything attitude. I just don't want to be that way.
"How am I supposed to change the world? It's by writing songs."
Mostly, "Find My Way Back Home" is about a person in the graying years of life, who has seen a lot, good and not so good, and emerged with his hope intact and his humility prominent.
"I believe in what I do," Mason said. "And I believe in the family, and in what all these other members of the family do. A lot of great music and great stuff came out of this little town. And I was part of it. I was here for the great Aspen thing."