Five Rode Up To Phoenix  (Jody Stecher)

I was a member of Perfect Strangers,  a very musical bluegrass band that had a good run of about 7 years, mostly during the first decade of the 21st century.  Forrest Rose was our bass player and MC. He made our set lists, did some of our song arranging, and even named the band by accident as he spoke on the telephone to our fiddler Chris Brashear. 

“You want me to come all the way from Missouri to Arizona to play bass with a bunch of perfect strangers? 

We did want that, and when we played our first 2 shows in Tucson and Phoenix, Forrest was with us.  Five years later, our last 2 shows with Forrest were in those same Arizona towns. 

I left home in San Francisco in an inexplicably apprehensive mood. Upon my arrival in Tucson, a short period of falling and flying began. I witnessed a violin fall off a wall in a music shop and spin to the ground, caused, apparently, by me looking at it too hard. At the same time this was happening, a friend of mine was driving on a narrow mountain road in New Mexico when a 30 pound chunk of ice shaped like Oklahoma (or was it Idaho or West Virginia?) flew off a semi truck and slammed through his windshield at 80 mph. My friend, a drummer (of course?) blacked out, flew 50 yards and woke up with broken ribs in a snowy field. As the drummer, Oklahoma, and the violin were moving in their bizarre trajectories the mother-in-law of one of our band members fell off the toilet and broke her head open. If you’ve been reading the stories of my songs you know I have a vivid imagination, and although I’d like to say I couldn’t have dreamed stuff this strange, I can, and do, but I didn’t. 

When, the next day,  Forrest Rose’s eyeballs starting spinning and rolling back in his head, and strange sounds, similar to what I’ve heard during earthquakes, emanated from his body, I was not surprised. It 

wasn’t just that bizarre unmooring was normal that weekend;  I knew he’d had a brain aneurism in 1987 so I was prepared for this. Somehow I had expected that Forrest would have an aneurism recurrence on the road with Perfect Strangers and that I would be present when it happened. Eventually we found out that his parents and girl friend were also expecting this and were also prepared. 

Perfect Strangers played a concert in Avondale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix.  The night before we had played one of our best concerts ever, and on this evening Forrest played some of the best slap bass solos he¹d ever done and was his usual gracious and humorous self in his MC work. Roger Willcox, a good friend of the band, had invited the whole band to stay with him at his home, a bit north of the concert hall. Roger is a physician specializing in Emergency Room medicine, and an amateur musician. He’s from Columbia, Missouri, Forrest's home town for many years, and his musical history was entwined with Forrest’s. 

We had a particularly pleasant music session at Roger’s place, playing songs and tunes that were not part of our stage repertoire, enjoying each other’s company and appreciating each other’s playing. It was absolutely lovely. We played “Indian Springs” and “Georgiana Moon,” “Wagoner” and Chris’s new song “Today I Saw The Longest Train” (which he later sang so well on his CD,  Heart of The Country.)  It was well past midnight when Forrest laid down the bass and sat down on the sofa. He asked me and Chris to sing some of his favorite  old-time country duets, and he helped us with the words when we forgot. At about half past one in the morning on March 20th, Palm Sunday, 2005, I was singing “Dying time’s coming when the sinner must die” when Forrest went rigid. His head was thrown back, and his eyes went all funny.   Roger, who had seen plenty of strokes and seizures, went into action immediately but it was too late, and by the time the 911 medics arrived Forrest was a goner. 

On the way back to Tucson I was contemplating that five of us had left for Phoenix but only four came back. Later, when I began to spontaneously make a song celebrating the life of Forrest Rose, the memory of that ride inspired the chorus. Some of the structure of the verses was inspired by older traditional songs that celebrate heroes. 

The verse about shouting in Columbia refers to a memorial for Forrest that was held in Columbia, Missouri. I had a gig at home in California and could not go,  but there was an estimated  attendance of about four hundred people, including some of Forrest’s journalism students, now professionals. who flew in from Europe, Asia, and South America to pay homage to the man they called “The Master”. 

Forrest had played a two week stint with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys and some photos had been taken of him in that famous band. The memorial included a slide show and when the first slide appeared on the screen showing Forrest in a suit and Stetson playing bass with Monroe, the crowd went wild. 

A guide to the cast of characters as named in the song: 

Fiddlin’ Doc From Ozark: Chris Brashear was born in Ozark, Missouri. He is a veterinarian as well as a fiddler. 

Banjo Bob: Bob Black lives and breathes things banjo. 

Canyon Dog Boy Guitar Pete: Peter McLaughlin records for his own Dog Boy Records, plays guitar, and is a passionate historian of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. 

Forrest Rose:  Journalist, philosopher, and musician. He played bass with a mighty thump. 

Me: Jody Stecher. I played mandolin in Perfect Strangers. 

Five Rode Up To Phoenix (The Night That Forrest Rose) 

© Jody Stecher, Vegetiboy Music (BMI) 

Five rode up to Phoenix 
Five rode up to play 
Five rode up to Phoenix 
But four rode down next day 

There was Fiddlin’ Doc from Ozark, and Banjo Bob you see 
Canyon Dog Boy Guitar Pete, and Forrest Rose and me 
We stuffed our guts with tacos and loaded up the van 
And headed north to Phoenix,  a motley bluegrass band 

We played our show in Avondale, beside old Phoenix Town 
We were guests of Roger the ER Doc, a physician of great renown 
We did our best to save him, O Lord, how Roger tried 
Resuscitation, defibrillation, was the best in the nation the night that Forrest died 

Five rode up to Phoenix 
Five rode up to play 
Five rode up to Phoenix 
But four rode down next day 

The women loved how he listened, his talk it appealed to the men 
Animals loved him for the way that he smelled and kids ‘cause he played with them 
He loved old Calypso and lonesome old duets 
But a keen rambunctious fiddle tune was what he liked the best 

We didn’t know what killed him or know the reason why 
Was it a stroke or seizure that caused this boy to die? 
I’d put my money on the pizza, you had to hold your nose 
But I was sitting across from him the night that Forrest rose 

Five rode up to Phoenix 
Five rode up to play 
Five rode up to Phoenix 
But four rode down next day 

Five rode up to Phoenix but four rode home again 
We’ve lost our old steam engine,  we lost our good old friend 
When they mourned him back in Columbia four hundred they came out 
And when they showed him with the Blue Grass Boys they all began to shout 

The phoenix is a funny bird, she warbles as she flies 
She sings like Hazel Dickens and she tells us hardly any lies 
She rises from her ashes,  a- fiddlin’ “Uncle Pen” 
Did anyone see when Forrest rose? But he’ll never come down again 

Five rode up to Phoenix 
Five rode up to play 
Five rode up to Phoenix 
But four rode down next day 

Jody Stecher: lead vocal, guitar, mandolin 
Keith Little: tenor vocal, banjo 
Chad Manning: fiddle 
Suzy Thompson: harmony fiddle 
Paul Knight: bass