A Music Man's Stories From The Road

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Fred Rutledge is a one-man-band.

He has even been known to dance. Just ask him about the time a praying mantis crawled into the mouthpiece of his trombone.

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Brass started Fred Rutledge's career. While he was still in high school, from 1977 to1979, he toured the country with the All American McDonald's Band.

His stories of 20-plus years on the road and on cruise ships would fill a book.

Fresh out of high school, Rutledge played first trombone in 1979 with the Florida West Coast Symphony.

Arthur Fiedler was a guest conductor for a time.

"Mr. Fiedler was a character," Rutledge said.

"There was a child piano prodigy. She could not have been more than seven or eight. She played Mozart perfectly. Fiedler looked at the woman everyone considered "prima donna" in the orchestra and said: ‘Now that is how Mozart is supposed to be played.'"

Rutledge's next gig gave him his "chops" on the trombone. He toured with a circus band.

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The "Rainbow Connection" duo of Kermit the Frog and Fred Rutledge is a crowd pleaser with children and adults visiting Kohl's Ranch. Rutledge's impersonation of the green Muppet is right-on and he plays the piano with his right hand while they sing.

"During that time I realized I didn't want to be a trombone player, because sleeping in the trailer in my clothes was not comfortable and I didn't make much money," he said.

He left the circus in the Great Smokey Mountains to play with a German band at a ski lodge.

Rutledge, inspired by the nearness of western hillbilly music, picked up the guitar.

When his brother, a petroleum engineer in Alaska called to say there was money to be made working on the pipeline, Rutledge went.

By the time he arrived in Anchorage, the jobs had long waiting lists, so Rutledge found a bar where he could play his trombone. He taught himself to play the piano on an old fashioned upright with "tacks" on the keys.

One night Burt Kragen, a club owner in Fairbanks, heard Fred play.

"He told me after the show he was too drunk to drive and needed a ride to the airport. I took him and, just before he disappeared into the airport, he handed me $200, told me to give notice and he'd see me next week," Rutledge said.

The crowd at the Circle M turned out to be a rough one, but he met a drummer, Bob Hinkley. They formed a duo they called "The Committee."

Opportunity rode into Rutledge's life in the Spring of 1981, with the Arizona Outlaws.

When Rutledge jammed with the founder at the O.K. Corral in Alaska he earned himself a gig that would last eight years.

One of the highlights of his time with the Outlaws was opening for Barbara Mandrell and getting to play a duet he wrote, "Time Will Never Change Us."

There were also stressful moments.

At house black one night, before the curtain, Rutledge was part of the trombone/bass fiddle combo that was to open the show with a song penned by Charlie Daniels and Rutledge's favorite, "The South's Gonna Do It Again."

"I was too nervous to sleep the night before. I looked at Tom, the bass player, with 32 bars left to play in the intro and asked, what are the words? Tom couldn't think of them either, he thought it was something about a train," Rutledge said.

With one bar left, Rutledge remembered and came in right on cue with the lyrics, "Well the train to Grinderswitch is runnin' right on time."

When Rutledge left the Outlaws, he toured with a friend as the Partners Duo for a couple of years.

Then, in December of 1991, he boarded a Prestige Cruise liner and for the six years, performed a variety of music, including an Elvis impersonation, on a number of different cruise lines.

By the time of his first cruise, Rutledge had added the fiddle, saxophone, clarinet, and harmonica to his repertoire of instruments.

He was amazed at the caliber of musicians on the ship.

"They were graduate musicians. I could hand them my charts (sheet music) and, within 15 minutes they could play it perfectly. It was such a compliment to be a front man with them and, get standing ovations," Rutledge said.

A two-month layover in Yorkshire, England gave Rutledge playing time in "working men's pubs."

He came back to the States in 2000 after a divorce and a bout with cancer.

Saxophone and trombone in hand, but, feeling too low to even play the blues, Rutledge went to work at America West Airlines in Phoenix as a ramper or luggage loader.

One fateful night, he was singing karaoke in a bar. It was there he met his wife, Joanne.

"I think she felt sorry for me. She'd never heard sheet metal tear quite that way," he joked.

Joanne encouraged him to start playing gigs again. Pretty soon, his weekends were full of music.

His set at the Zane Grey Saloon one Saturday evening included: a version of "Unchained Melody" with a touch of country styling, "Roll Over Beethoven," "Lukenbach, Texas," Desperado," "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You," and "Hey Bartender."

The set also included his original, catchy, up-tempo country fiddle tune, "Whiskey and Cigarettes" and about how bad they bring a man down, but not as bad as when his girl leaves town.

Kohl's Ranch guests enjoyed the show. Among their comments after the program:

"He has some of the most well-rounded music in the area," Victoria Garcia said.

"He is very talented and plays a good variety," Matt Doherty said.

"He is animated and entertaining," Rebel Ewbank said.

Just like his favorite song says, Rutledge will play it again next weekend.

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