Finding rhythm on the Charlie Russell Chew Choo

By: 
CHARLIE DENISON
Reporter

Writer Charlie Denison performs on the Charlie Russell Chew Choo earlier this month, dodging wait staff and serenading passengers. 

Photo courtesy of Marko Fangsrud

 

 

 

“Hey, guitar guy, why don’t you come sing us a song?” asked a young woman in a tight dress wearing a Derby hat. She was with a group of similarly dressed friends, turning the Charlie Russell Chew Choo – Lewistown Chamber of Commerce’s dinner train – into a bachelorette party.

I was between cars, tuning up and waiting for the outlaws to finish robbing the train. They take their time, stopping and taking photos with their captive crowd. Saloon girls join them on this mission, seeking out bald men to pick on by kissing their heads. 

“What do you want to hear?” I ask, greeting the ladies and surveying the people in the car -- mostly middle-aged couples, a few children and two rowdy crowds. There was  one in the front (the bachelorette party) and one in the back (a Colstrip family reunion). 

My job on the train is twofold: besides singing, I am also responsible for narrating the ride to Denton, sharing historical information while announcing birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations. This gives me a chance to find out where passengers are from, and who’s celebrating a special day.

The job of train entertainer is not always easy. Asking what a group wants to hear can be a dangerous question. Many on board want to hear country. I can do Johnny Cash, some Willie Nelson and some Merle Haggard, but if they ask for George Strait or Chris LeDoux, I’m in trouble.

“Play some George Strait,” one of the girls shouted.

This is where improvisation comes in handy. Own it. Have fun. Go with it and trust your instincts.

I couldn’t remember all the words, but I was able to crank out the chorus for “The Fireman,” -- especially appropriate considering this year’s fire season. The girls enjoyed it, and from there I led them into Haggard’s “Big City.”

“Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana.”

Of all the songs I play on the train, this is the one people sing along to the most, and why not? It’s perfect. We’re all smack dab in the middle of the Treasure State, and we’re all celebrating the glory of getting away from it all.

Well, most of us.

Although it’s a good time playing on the train, it’s also a lot of work. I have to keep my wits about me. If I don’t, I could accidentally crash into the wait staff.

It’s hard enough to bounce around from car to car with my acoustic guitar and play without losing my balance during a jerk or a jolt; it’s another thing altogether to make sure I am not in anyone’s way (this includes passengers making their way back from the bathroom or gift shop). It can be tricky. You have to act fast, and sometimes – if I am really into a song or am talking with somebody – someone might end up waiting for me to move. 

“To your left.”

“Behind you.”

“Excuse me.”

“Hey.”

Honestly, I don’t know how the servers do it. I can play and sing and joke around with the passengers, but I wouldn’t want to carry a tray full of prime rib while we cruise over a trestle. The servers do this gracefully and without mishap.

I try to live up to that expectation, as well, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s not always graceful. When I get a request for a song I don’t know, it’s easy to briefly stumble, but I always try to find common ground. Hank Williams is a good failsafe after the awkward, “Oh, that song? Well, let’s see…”

When not responding to requests, I try my best to play train-themed songs. Some of my favorites include Johnny Cash’s standard “Folsom Prison Blues,” Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone.”

People get into Folsom Prison. There is at least one group singing along in every car. Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” also gets them singing (even dancing). Sometimes I throw some originals into the mix, as well, especially those that reference trains.

From car to car, I don’t really know what I’m going to play. I usually start things off with “Folsom Prison” or “Big City” and then ask if there are any birthdays, anniversaries or other celebrations. 

For anniversaries, my go-to song is Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” but sometimes I get frisky and do Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

As for birthdays, I like to go all out and embarrass the person by playing Tex Atchinson and Eddie Hazlewood’s tongue-in-cheek, “Sick, Sober and Sorry.”

“Of all of them gals, their sweethearts and pals, me and (insert name) are the sickest of all.”

This threw off a 90-year-old birthday girl on the last ride.

“The song is about drinking!” she exclaimed to friends and family who surrounded her, looking as red-faced as the bald men covered in lipstick.

So it goes on the Charlie Russell Chew Choo: people young and old come to life through unforgettable moments created by improvisation and hilarity. Women sometimes shove dollars into my back pocket or put their arm around me and sing along. People get wild. One time a guy took it upon himself to imitate the trumpet intro while I played “Ring of Fire.” Another time, while playing “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” some children in cowboy hats pretended to shoot me with their fingers, chasing me down the aisle. 

It’s quite a ride, and we’re all in it together. I’m glad to play a part as “guitar guy.”

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