Every story Sam “Cletis” Reaves tells sounds like a country song.
The native Texan has lived in Eugene for more than a decade. Lately he’s been playing pedal steel in J.D. Miller and Broken Heart Rodeo, an eight-piece classic country and honky-tonk band, and just since last December, Broken Heart Rodeo’s live show has become a breakout hit in Eugene and all over Lane County.
The first time Reaves met Beth Milton, Broken Heart Rodeo’s backup singer, she was bartending at Max’s Tavern.
“I’ve been hanging out at Max’s for years,” Reaves tells me on the back patio at Sam Bond’s Garage. He has a handlebar mustache and he’s wearing a white cowboy hat and a black leather jacket. He certainly looks the part.
“I walked in there and I said, ‘Who are you?’” he remembers, “and she said ‘I’m a singer.’” Reaves asked her to sing something. “She just belted it out,” he says. The bar got quiet.
A native of the south Willamette Valley, J.D. Miller plays guitar, sings and is the primary songwriter in Broken Heart Rodeo. He has a similar true country-music sensibility in his storytelling. Miller has, after all, ridden a horse from Sweet Home to the Bend area on a trail ranchers once used to drive cattle from Central Oregon to the Willamette Valley.
Old friends, Reaves, Miller and the rest of Broken Heart Rodeo play a mix of classic country originals and covers from artist like Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and Tom T. Hall.
Something Miller appreciates in particular about Hall is his economy of language. “He doesn’t waste any words,” he says, mentioning the Hall classic “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Willie Nelson is also one of his favorite songwriters.
And whether it’s at Eugene venues like Sam Bond’s, Wildcraft or Beergarden, or in venues in Springfield and around rural Lane County, the J.D. Miller formula is working — much better than any of the band members expected when, before their first show, they were scrambling to put together a set of music on two weeks’ notice.
“People are thirsty for this,” Reaves says. “Thirsty for honky-tonk music — true country. They love it.”
No matter where Broken Heart Rodeo plays, people dance. “All the sudden you start playing this kind of music and it brings all these couples out,” Reaves continues. “It’s awesome. It drives me when I’m on stage.”
Audiences recognize classic country immediately, even if they’re not normally country music listeners, Reaves says.
“They think, ‘Wow, I forgot that I like this,’” he says, because pop country is pretty far removed from the Texas two-step, honky-tonk and country swing of Broken Heart Rodeo.
Today, country music can be anything, Miller says. “It can be a rap song” as long as it has just a little bit of twang.
I ask what Miller and Reaves see as the common denominator between Eugene and rural Lane County audiences.
“Rednecks and hippies want a lot of the same things,” Miller says. They want their meat and vegetables to come from down the street, and for the most part they want the government off their backs.”
They’re just not talking to each other.
J.D. Miller and Broken Heart Rodeo play with Ian Jones and Young James 9:30 pm Saturday, June 1, at Sam Bond’s; $7, 21-plus.