March 15, 2015

The Triple-A of Rock and Roll

by Jim Newsom

“I’ve brushed with fame so many times, I’ve rubbed off whatever polish I’ve got.”

Chuck Larson was laughing on the other end of the line.

“There may be a raw spot!”

Larson, who’ll perform at the Meyera Oberndorf Library in Virginia Beach on Saturday, April 4th for the Tidewater Friends of Acoustic Music, may be laughing but he’s not joking. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he was lead singer and primary songwriter for the band Snuff, a locally popular country-rock band that got signed to a major record label. Local fans were sure they were on their way.

“It started out as Coyote, Robbie and Mike,” the man best known as “Coyote” explained. “Then we became Pearl; Pearl became Snuff and I was out doing solo stuff. Then I was with another group called Sasparilla, sort of long haired hippie freaks. Then I came back into Snuff around 1978. Mike [Jones] and Robbie [House] had left Snuff to form Street Talk with Jimmy Ray Dunn and Mike’s little brother. At that point, people figured Snuff was gonna go belly up.

“Since they were already playing my songs—even when I left, my songs stayed—so it was a natural. We got Norman Harrell singing Robbie’s high parts and we went into the studio and recorded a song called ‘These Heartaches.’ Six months later we were on Elektra! That was what got us in the door. They saw that we could write. That’s what they were looking for—Mike Curb, Curb Records. Elektra/Curb, then Warner/Curb, then MCA/Curb. Long story. We were like the Triple-A of rock and roll. We were never in the major leagues. I guess we were on the farm team, at least as far as promotion.

“Sometimes they absorb people to tie up writers and stuff like that. We sold 44,000 albums in this state and in Carolina but we didn’t get any promotion to speak of from the label. But they wanted us to keep pumpin’ out them songs. We were doing 250 nights a year, tour bus and all that stuff. It was high overhead. We had some good businessmen in the group; I wasn’t one of them. It finally got to the point where I just couldn’t afford it any more.

“Then I left but I was under contract with eight consecutive one-year options on me. So I couldn’t really record for anybody else. And I knew that they weren’t gonna do anything with me. So I went to sea!

“I went to sea for twenty three years. That’s why you didn’t hear from me for a while. I retired as a boatswain in the Merchant Marines two years ago. But I kept writing and I built a recording studio down here on the Outer Banks. We’ve recorded some notable people: Tim Reynolds from Dave Matthews recorded his new album here; we’ve had people like Stanley Jordan in. It’s an invitation-only studio because we’re really just interested in stuff that can get airplay. I’ve got a record label called Blind Weasel Records.”

Larson was a fixture on the local music scene for many years, but he was originally from “the flatlands of Oklahoma.” In fact, the leadoff track on Snuff’s self-titled 1982 album was “Boys in Oklahoma.” Like many local transplants, he got here courtesy of the U. S. Navy. That’s where he got his moniker.

“It was the winter of 1966-67,” he recalled. “I was in the Sixth Fleet Amphib Force. We were crossing the Atlantic going to the Med and it was a really rotten night, bad storm. I’m leaning into the wind at my little station out there on the port wing, leaning into the gyro repeater. Wet. I was skinny as a rail, looked like a drowned rat. The Ensign came out on the bridge, standing behind a plexiglass shield about three feet away from me drinking a nice warm cup of coffee, all warm and dry in his trench coat. He says, ‘You look just like that coyote in Coyote and the Road Runner.’

“So the guys on the bridge were cracking up. From that moment on, I was the Coyote. Everybody thinks it’s a hippie name but I got that in the military. Before I was a long-haired dude, I was a short-haired dude!”

This long-haired dude still sounds great, writing songs filled with the wisdom and experiences of a life lived on its own terms. He is upbeat, full of laughter, but he’s learned much from the school of hard knocks and broken promises.

“After about 1975,” he reflected, “the music business changed. At one time, you had what they called California country rock, which is what Snuff really wanted to be and was when left to our own devices. Basically that music came from Laurel Canyon. It was Buffalo Springfield, J. D. Souther, Joni Mitchell, Eagles, Poco, Crosby Stills & Nash.

“But the record didn’t sound like that, against my best efforts. I had many a discussion with our producer about that but I had to go along with the team. Until I couldn’t afford it any more. Please don’t say anything disparaging about my boys! That was all management; it was not the musicians. We were sucked up into the belly of the beast. And you can quote me on that one!”

Chuck Larson
Saturday, April 4 – 7:00 pm
Meyera E. Oberndorf Central Library
Virginia Beach
Tickets: $15.00 – 20.00

copyright © 2015 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.