Merwyn “Mer” Nilson greeted us at the door of the Stampede Saloon and wanted to know if we’d brought our dancing shoes. We had. That’s why we’re here, to check out a place we’ve heard plays good live classic country music, which surprisingly is hard to find in Wyoming.
Already, we liked what we saw on the outside. A bone-colored, one-story stucco building with a long wooden porch and twinkly lights off a historic main street with hulking buttes in the distance. It looked like it had been plopped down out of a Western movie, complete with a covered wagon parked at the far end of the porch.
Mer, too, fit right in with the Western décor in his pearl snap cowboy shirt and cinched bolo tie.
The big open room was cluttered, in a good way, with old posters and other old West relics, including a well-worn piano pushed against one wall.
Mer led us to a table in the back next to the kitchen and beneath a full-length mural depicted a dozen or so cowboys and Indians shooting it out on a dusty, smoke-filled prairie.
Around us, families were hunched over plates at their tables while a little girl in a sparkly dress twirled on the edge of the dance floor where the band was busy tuning instruments. The room was full of cowboy hats and a steady hum of conversation and laughter.
This is what I thought all bars would look like in Wyoming, but as I’ve learned they’re rarities. And though I love dancing and live music, I rarely go out to hear it because I’ve outgrown the crowds of drunk dudes (and women) who slobber over your shoulder as they bump into people and pick fights — a description which unfortunately fits a lot of bars.
The Stampede was a refreshing blast to the past that was both welcoming and fun, not to mention properly lit, which in my experience is pretty hard for lots of bars to pull off.
Already, I liked the place and especially liked Mer, who took a moment to sit down with us and give us the low-down.
We’re in luck tonight, he said, because the best country music band in the world – Dakota Country – was playing. Admittedly, he might be a bit biased – though not inaccurate – given that his son Lance and daughter-in-law Lilly used to be in the band before giving up life on the road to buy the Stampede Saloon in Lilly’s hometown of Chugwater about three years ago.
Mer and his wife Margie, both in their 80s, sold their place in South Dakota to move to Wyoming to help the couple run the restaurant and bar.
Lance and Lilly’s music connections explained why the saloon in this off-the-beaten-path town of just over 200 had just about that many cars parked out front. Prior to this, Lance and Lilly had spent 37 years on the road playing music with some pretty heavy hitters, including playing backup for Johnny Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jim Ed Brown and others as well as opening for country music legends like Charlie Pride, Sawyer Brown, Mel Tillis, Gene Watson, the Bellamy Brothers and more.
Today, Dakota Country still draws a huge crowd when they come to play in Chugwater, especially when Lance and Lilly join them on stage between washing dishes and slinging drinks in the bar.
Lance and Lilly have used their music connections to bring other big acts to Chugwater while also encouraging a whole new generation of musicians with monthly open mic nights, regular karaoke contests and an annual songwriting contest.
We’re in luck yet again, Mer said, because tonight happens to be the songwriting contest finals and we’ll be among the judges in the crowd.
For his part, Mer, a former salesman and marketing rep, not only survived a couple of plane crashes during this days on the road but also is apparently single-handedly keeping country music and bluegrass alive with the largest album collection of anyone I’ve ever met. In short, he’s an interesting guy, but he’s got work to do tonight and can’t stay long.
Because we’ve arrived late, we’ve missed the buffet that is open some weekends but we’re able to order a plate of onion rings (our favorite) from the bar along with pretty stiff drinks, which you will never hear me complaining about.
You will also never hear me complaining about judging a songwriting contest because those four songwriters rocked, right down to the woman who warned “not to mess around with a fat old woman with white hair” who cut off her philandering cowboy’s pant legs with one warbly little tear.
She won my vote, as did the band. After a night of dancing and well-won hangover, I can safely say that the trip to the Stampede Saloon was well worth the nearly four-hour drive from Gillette and the overnight hotel stay at the Buffalo Lodge. As Lance said, it’s a great place to kick up your heels, have a bite to eat and make memories.
After all, isn’t that what life’s about?