On the frozen plains just across the South Dakota state line, Laramie musician Shawn Hess slowed his Subaru Forester and pulled into the first turnoff he could find.
The engine was making a noise, he told bandmate Jackson Clarendon, though it was a sound only Hess could hear. He stepped out into a gusting northern prairie wind to peer under the hood. The flat landscape surrounding him was still white from a Thanksgiving blizzard.
It was a bright December Saturday and Hess and his band, The Country Skillet, were traveling empty and at times frozen roads in a two-Subaru convoy enroute to a one-night stand in Hill City, South Dakota, in the heart of the Black Hills.
Though the gig would prove to be a good one, the pay, as usual, would barely cover their costs. But the chance to play music, together and for an audience, was more than enough to impel five-man act to get on the road once more.
Sure enough the oil was low, though Hess had changed and filled it the night before. He dumped in most of a quart. As a touring musician, “this is my most valuable resource,” Hess said when he got back in the car. Clarendon told an old joke about musicians loading 5,000 pounds of musical equipment into a $500 car to drive 100 miles for a $50 gig.
Hess is gradually expanding his amateur-mechanic skill set. The practice improves the tricky financial calculus of touring. It also befits a songwriter with a penchant for esoteric habits like restoring record players, hunting for arrowheads and combing thrift shops for vintage western wear.
Those pursuits, however, come second. Hess plays music with The Country Skillet, with another Laramie band called Ten Cent Stranger and in a growing stream of solo performances. The 29-year-old Cheyenne native also helps spark Laramie’s eclectic music scene with a knack for networking, helping outside musicians book acts or letting them play and crash at his home. It all comes back to his passion for old-school country music.
“You just say what you mean in plain language,” Hess said. “It’s like the people’s music.”
The Country Skillet
Laramie to Hill City is just under 300 miles, a route Google Maps estimated would take 4.5 hours. Between slick roads and blowing snow through Sybille Canyon, gas stops, a bar stop in Lusk to drink beer and discuss the night’s show, a bathroom stop a bladder’s length from the bar, the oil check and buying more oil, it took The Country Skillet far longer.
The band formed in early 2019, Hess said. Traveling with him on this trip are his longtime friend Keaton Elassar, also of Cheyenne; Jackson Clarendon, a fiddle and mandolin player from Sheridan; Evan Parker, originally from South Carolina and Hunter Hicks of Cody, a 21-year-old college dropout whose singing and songwriting has caught the attention of other Laramie musicians.
None of them, with the exception of Clarendon, who teaches lessons, makes a full-time living playing music. All of them, however, are musicians, bent on bettering the band’s sound and enjoying the road.
All but one member of the band grew up in Wyoming, and though the already-difficult path of a touring musician might be easier somewhere else, they keep playing in the near-empty state they call home.
“I love trying so much that I don’t really care if it turns out,” Hicks said.
Despite the age difference between them, Hicks and Hess connected over their love of often obscure country singers.
“He really took me under his wing,” Hicks said, “plugged me into his contacts.”
The Country Skillet appears a country band by the grace of frontmen Hess and Hicks. Elassar, the drummer, went to high school and played in an earlier psychedelic funk band with Hess. In that band Elassar was a lead singer with heart-throb vibes. Playing the country drums wasn’t the logical next step, perhaps, but touring and playing with his friends is a no-brainer.
“Hanging out with these guys probably trumps my love for country music,” Elassar said.
Tools of the trade
In 2019, Hess’ album, “World Away,” had 15,500 streams from 838 listeners across 31 countries on Spotify, he said.
Those numbers equated to $62 in revenue for Hess., He’s still paying off what he invested to record and press the album by selling discs at shows and online. But he’s excited to have sold copies to people in different countries. “More people have heard my music than ever before,” he said.
Spreading Hess and The Country Skillet’s sound takes ingenuity, along with drive.
At his house near the University of Wyoming campus, Hess maintains a fleet of three vehicles. In addition to the oil-burning Subaru there’s a 1987 Ford Econoline van that came with wooden flooring, a 600-pound hydraulic wheelchair lift and just 70,000 miles.
The third is a sky-blue 1981 Toyota pickup truck with an oversized white topper. The truck can often be spotted in front of a Laramie coffee shop where Hess earns one paycheck, or a bar where he pulls down another. Hess worked at the bar until 3:30 in the morning the night before driving to Hill City.
The side hustles don’t stop at dive bars and coffeeshops. For several years, the house where Hess and Hicks live has served as an informal venue for bands coming through town. Laramie is a convenient stopover between shows in cities along the Front Range of Colorado and points west or east. The housemates pass a jar around to collect gas money for the visiting band. Shows take place in a thickly-carpeted living room, the musicians playing late into the night to an often cramped crowd. Band members then find a space to sleep in the cavernous house.
In the loosely organized world of touring musicians, the house is a powerful networking tool.
“Shawn has been booking out-of-town people for years,” Hicks said. “So now when it’s time for us to tour, he knows people all over. It’s crazy to go down to Texas and walk into a bar and see people I know.”
Good luck in Hill City
The Country Skillet arrived at the Miner Brewing Company in Hill City, as light dimmed over the Black Hills, and marveled at their good fortune. There was free craft beer and food for the players, a house owned by the venue to stay in and a sound engineer (who also made a long trek there, from Ten Sleep) they knew to be talented.
One never knows what’s waiting at the end of the drive, Clarendon said. “This beats the hell out of a lot of places I’ve played in the last few years,” he said.
But Hill City got lucky too. At 7:30, Hicks stepped up to the microphone and without any introduction The Country Skillet began to play. The crowd of around 50 people grew attentive, as they would remain for the entire set.
Hicks’ voice arced above the instruments. His lyrics imply more than 21 years of age.
“When I was a boy, I thought of the devil
And I thought he thought of me too,” Hicks sang in one song.
“But I’m older now,
And I wish that somehow
I could still believe that was true
Wouldn’t that be nice, wouldn’t that be swell,
If at the end of the day, you had someone to blame
And he was already burning in hell.”
Hicks was born in Michigan, where he said he grew up in a trailer. His parents brought him to Cody. He briefly attended Northwest College in Powell, dropping out after one semester to pursue music. “I didn’t want to try for that,” he said — “that” being a college degree, a steady job.
“I can work for nothing just about anywhere,” he croons in another song, called “Something to Lose.”
Around Laramie, Hicks is someone to watch. “Especially for his age he is writing well-crafted, structurally sound songs,” John Wilhelm, a longtime Laramie musician, said. “They have a voice that is singular to him. I think that’s what cool about Hunter.”
At the brewery, the band played a few songs with Hicks. Then Hicks played a few alone as the rest of The Country Skillet stepped outside for a smoke. “They’re really listening,” Parker said of the crowd.
Hess played next, alone and then with the band.
“Shawn has kind of taken a whole tradition of the last 40 years of AM radio country music and distilled that down to what he tries to do,” Wilhelm said. “He is an obsessive music fan so he makes music for an obsessive music fan.”
Hess didn’t set out to play country. He went through a spot of heartbreak and started writing country songs. The style stuck.
“It took a while to embrace the simplicity of [writing country],” Hess said. “You can still be creative but it’s not technicolor daydreams.”
On the cover of his album, Hess sits on a red couch. He’s wearing a yellow pearl-snap shirt inlaid with rhinestones and elaborate swirling designs, and matching pants.
Hess is a thrift-store hunter. (“A connoisseur of vintage Western wear,” he said.) He spotted the suit, the connoisseur’s holy grail, hanging in a window in Fort Collins, Colorado.
It is a Nudie Cohn original. The designer pioneered the bedazzling, swirling rhinestone suits of American music lore. Cohn custom-made stage outfits for Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and many other iconic singers. Elvis Presley once wore a $10,000 gold lame Cohn suit.
Hess purchased his for $175. He knows a few things about it — the style matches Cohn’s 1960s-era work, he said, because the pants have stirrups that slip into his cowboy boots.
“It was made for someone,” Hess said. It fits him.
He left the Cohn suit at home this trip, but wore a white cowboy hat for the crowd in Hill City.
“This song is called Tear Drops on the Floor,” Hess tells them toward the end of the show. “It’s another nugget of happiness so enjoy.”
After packing up instruments and equipment, the band retreated to the loaned house in Hill City. Adrenaline from a good show lingered. They stayed up well past midnight, playing music and talking about music. Elassar, Parker and Hicks hit the road early in the morning to make day-job shifts.
For Hess and Clarendon, the drive home afforded time to stop again at the bar in Lusk. Hess looked comfortable in the local dive, drinking a cheap beer and smoking a cigarette. One day, he said, he would like to line up shows in bars like this around the state and bring his music to the Wyoming places Wyoming musicians don’t often play. But today he has to get back to Laramie, work a shift behind the bar until well past midnight.