Dalton Howard: Everyman in a million

The Lonesome Hobos at The Replay Lounge, featuring Chubby Smith, left, Ross Black, Cotter Mitchell, Dalton Howard, Dan Fleming and Susan Ashline.

A memorial service for Dalton Howard will be held between noon and 5 p.m. Sunday at Liberty Hall, 644 Mass.

Dalton Howard was an Everyman in a million.

Dalton’s life serves as a reminder that beyond the spotlight’s glare and commercial success on a grander scale there are diamonds of artistry and humanity right here among us. Such common heroes are rare, rare indeed; their presence among us inspires gratitude, and their loss brings grief.

I played in a band called Thumbs back in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Dalton’s band the Go-Cats played many of the same joints and dives. My friend Mark Roseberry, who plays with Ricky Dean Sinatra, recalls that period as one dominated by reggae bands, country swing bands, everything but rock ‘n’roll bands. A rock ‘n’roll devotee Mark took succor from Thumbs and the Go-Cats. As different as our bands were, I remember that the Go-Cats and Thumbs both brought the rock and gave inspiration to guys like Mark and maybe helped ignite the scene in Lawrence. The Go-Cats were always a rockin’ good time. Not the mind-numb party animal version of rock brought to you by television commercial and crappy movies, but a spirited, conscious good time.

Every time I think of Dalton I’m struck by a resemblance to John Prine. I don’t think the resemblance stopped with the obvious or superficial. Prine writes songs that spin gold from the dust of everyday life. As Dalton matured as a songwriter during his years with the Lonesome Hobos, he wrote songs that emphasized the universal in our experience. There are too many examples of his wonderful songs to go on about here, but let me provide one: Ever hear Dalton’s song “White Birds White Snow”? It’s about the death of his father, and it’s as touching a song about that universal rite of suffering as you will ever hear. Sometimes Dalton’s exterior was a little gruff, but down deep you knew that he was a guy who would, in the words of another of his songs, “Shoot(in)’ the Works on Love.”

Like his heroes Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, Dalton Howard wrote and performed music that spoke from a wry, heartfelt, deeply American place. His work grew from the music he loved as a young man. I can remember the Go-Cats tossing off covers from Buddy Holly to the Surfaris, whereas the Hobos leaned more toward vintage country music and Dalton and Billy Hunsinger’s original tunes. Sue Ashline recalls an especially fine set a few years ago that featured a beautifully Dalton-ized version of Fats Domino’s “My Blue Heaven.” In rehearsal and on stage Dalton was always generous with other performers – family (his wife Janet and sister Brenda), friends (drummer Cotter Mitchell’s daughter Chesney), and pretty much anyone with a song in their heart were welcome on stage with Dalton.

Dalton was a lot more than a musician. He was a fine artist. He loved the cartoon art of George Herrimann and Chester Gould, as well as the underground styles of peers like R. Crumb. Those influences cropped up in his distinctive work, which graced many periodicals. Been to Liberty Hall? Dalton worked on the murals when that venerable venue was rehabilitated in 1986. As a participant in the River City Reunion I remember being struck by the beauty of the fresh new art work. It was perfect for the building. To pay the bills he worked security for the Spencer Museum of Art at Kansas University. Art was in good hand with Dalton in more ways than one. So, when he played his music for an artsy crowd he was right at home; those were his people. But as the Go-Kats drummer Dave Stuckey recalls, Dalton was no less at home playing for the good ol’ boys at the 24-40 club in Tonganoxie. Those were his people, too.

I guess that’s the essence of being an Everyman in a million. Painter, poets, pipe fitters, Vietnam vets (yup, Dalton was one) — it didn’t matter. Dalton Howard had a Zen appreciation for the humanity that unites us. It showed in his music. It showed in his life.

There are friends, family and fellow musicians with Dalton stories, many of them from a more profound place than mine. My job is simply to pay my fond respects. If my memories evoke yours than I guess I’ve done my job. Dalton was indeed an Everyman in a million. We’re going to miss him. We are right to celebrate his days on this planet. He would want you to celebrate yours.