Musician Mule Deer reflects on John Denver, ‘healthy comedy’
October 7, 2010
ASPEN – In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when John Denver could have had his pick of musicians to open for him, he called on Gary Mule Deer, who was nobody’s idea of a stellar musician.
Mule Deer himself had a sense of humor about his lack of musical prowess, and part of his act was devoted to making fun of the fact that it took him 10 years to learn how to make a B7 on the guitar (one of the tougher chords, to be sure).
Eventually, Mule Deer realized his real talent was in making people laugh. It was this comedic ability that prompted Denver to have Mule Deer open some 50 shows for him, and other musicians have seen Mule Deer as a similarly good fit for their act. This year has seen Mule Deer tour with country stars the Zac Brown Band, make appearances with Vince Gill, and mark two decades of appearing as part of singer Johnny Mathis’ show.
“I was not a very good musician. I wasn’t dedicated,” the 70-year-old Mule Deer said. “So to compensate, I made people laugh. I became a comedian to compensate for the fact that I couldn’t make a B7 chord.”
Mule Deer brings both sides of his act to the slate of John Denver-related concerts at the Wheeler Opera House. Thursday, he appears at the Doin’ Their Own Thing concert, a 7:30 p.m. performance that has Denver associates Herb Pedersen, Jim Horn and Bill Danoff playing their own material. Mule Deer’s segment will include his song “Tribute to Johnny Cash,” whose lyrics feature the titles of 52 Cash songs.
On Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Mule Deer joins the same bunch of musicians for his 10th appearance in the annual Tribute to John Denver Concerts, which focuses on the Denver songbook. Mule Deer will chip in with humorous stories about Denver – possibly including the one about a rabid fan happily giving Denver and Mule Deer a ride into downtown Cleveland, discovering only at the last moment that the Denver in question was the singer John, and not the actor Bob, of the TV show “Gilligan’s Island.”
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These days, Mule Deer knows his way around a guitar well enough, and can carry a tune sufficiently, that he avoids accusations of impersonating a musician. That wasn’t always the case; in fact, his career began by impersonating a bassist. Hitchhiking out of Denver, in 1965, he got a ride by promising the driver that he was good enough to play bass in his band once they got to Los Angeles. Once in California, where he was expected to fill a role in the Greenwood Country Singers, it became apparent Mule Deer wasn’t the man for the job.
“They were disgusted with me,” Mule Deer said backstage at the Wheeler on Wednesday afternoon. “They told me, ‘Go to the cook; he’s got a place. He might let you stay on his floor.'”
Fortunately, the club Mule Deer would have been playing at, had he been able to play an instrument, was Ledbetter’s. Owned by the folk group the New Christy Minstrels, Ledbetter’s was the center of the West Coast folk scene. Denver hosted the musical performances; Steve Martin was the comedy host.
At the door, checking IDs, was Mule Deer. One day, when Michael Martin Murphey announced he was leaving the New Society, Mule Deer was given the job of signing up the singers auditioning to replace Murphey. Mule Deer signed up a woman and a duo, knowing that the New Society were looking for neither a woman nor a duo, then closed the auditions. The last auditioning slot went to Mule Deer himself, who found himself not only a member of the New Society, but their frontman. Within a week, he was on national TV and on a national tour.
“I made them laugh, so they let me in,” he said.
Mule Deer said he is a proponent of what he calls “healthy comedy,” which makes him a fit in the John Denver sphere. “They used to say laughter is the best medicine – because it made you feel good,” he said. “Now it comes from below the belt. It’s dark, and it makes you feel lousy. I do every act as if my grandmother were in the front row.”