When a cowboy dies (and I’m talking about real-deal cowboys, here) it’s customary to paint a romanticized picture of the deceased cowpoke riding slowly off into the sunset astride a cherished pony.
Not Charlie Ryan.
In my mind, he’s sitting behind the wheel of a souped-up, candy-apple red Lincoln-powered Model A. There’s a white Stetson covering his head and a grin on his face. He’s got the pedal to the metal, too, burnin’ rubber all the way to those Pearly Gates.
That’s the way Charlie would have us remember him, too.
The soft-spoken Spokane man who gave the world one of the best car songs ever written – “Hot Rod Lincoln” – passed away peacefully last Saturday after a long struggle with heart problems.
He was 92 years old, and I counted him a good friend.
Writing a hit song is harder than catching lightning in a jug. That the song will then turn into a pop icon is even more unlikely.
Yet “Hot Rod Lincoln” accomplished both. The song passed the 1 million-play mark in the summer of 2000, according to Broadcast Music Inc. As a BMI official told me at the time, airing it over and over nonstop would take 5.7 years to reach the magical million.
Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen scored a hit with the tune in 1972. The song has been a mainstay for the group Asleep at the Wheel. It was featured in the “Beverly Hillbillies” movie. Even MTV’s “Beavis and Butthead” took an animated stab at it.
But this staple of oldies radio began simply in 1950.
Inspired by a record called “Hot Rod Race,” Charlie came up with an infectious rockabilly guitar riff and a tale about a wild chase between the song’s namesake and a Cadillac.
“My Pappy said, ‘Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’, if you don’t quit drivin’ that Hot Rod Lincoln.’ “
Charlie was born Dec. 19, 1915. He grew up riding horses in Lewistown, Mont. At age 15, he began writing songs with his guitar and formed his first band: The Montana Range Riders.
Eventually, like so many kids from his generation, Charlie’s interests shifted from horses to horsepower.
And although “Hot Rod Lincoln’s” twilight race through California was pure fiction, there’s more than a bit of reckless truth behind the famous tune.
Charlie told me he was picking and grinning with his band in a Lewiston joint called the Paradise Club. During one of his nightly commutes back to Spokane, Charlie’s lead foot got the better of him. Driving his 1941 Lincoln, he chased a buddy’s Caddy up the dangerous Lewiston Grade at speeds maniacal enough for lyrical lore:
“The fenders were clickin’ the guard rail posts; the guys beside me were white as ghosts.”
Another line from the song perfectly punctuates the mayhem:
“Now the fellas thought I’d lost all sense; the telephone poles looked like a picket fence.”
The song percolated awhile. Then in 1953 or 1955 (there’s some debate over the year), he booked a session at Spokane’s Sound Recording.
There’s no argument about what happened next. The popularity of his self-produced record landed Charlie Ryan a recording contract.
In 1960, Charlie’s version lingered on Billboard’s Top 40 for four weeks, peaking at No. 33. At the same time, however, singer Johnny Bond’s take did even better. Bond camped out on the Top 40 seven weeks and made it all the way to 26.
Charlie began landing tours with the big name country stars of the day. Over the years, he rubbed elbows with Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Buck Owens.
This was country music’s golden era, back before Willie Nelson wore a tie and had heard of weed.
But if you want to be impressed, here’s the statistic to look at:
Charlie and Ruthie Ryan recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. With her quick wit and generous spirit, Ruthie was the perfect companion for a musical ramblin’ man.
Travel they have. With Charlie singing into his 90s, the two perhaps logged more miles than Hot Rod BMI plays. Ruthie also contributed to the team as a songwriter.
Speaking of hot rods, some years back Charlie created an actual Hot Rod Lincoln by merging a 1930 Model A Ford with a wrecked ‘48 Lincoln. The Ryans hauled that dream machine with them to county fairs, concerts and car shows.
Charlie’s age-defying energy was always a force to behold, says Karl Bingle, a close friend who runs the Web site www.hot-rod-lincoln.com.
Bingle, a drummer, recalls playing one gig with Charlie when the frontman was a mere 87 years old.
“He played five hours straight with no breaks,” marvels Bingle. “He never ran out of songs and was still jumping around” at the end of the night.
I count myself lucky to have played music with this legend. On his 90th birthday, he signed one of my guitars. Every time I take it out I can’t help but think of him.
One of Charlie’s proudest moments came in 2003. A Spokane bookstore held Charlie Ryan Day to honor the singer/songwriter.
Then-Washington Gov. Gary Locke dubbed Charlie a “state treasure.” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell acknowledged “Hot Rod Lincoln” as a true “American classic.”
It’s not often you’ll hear me agreeing with politicians. But these two couldn’t have been more right.
Rest in peace, Charlie.
And watch out for those guardrails.
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