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Strange Rivers
Monday, March 15, 2010 - by Bob Carson

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Editor's Note: The USTA Web site is pleased to present freelance writer Bob Carson and his popular "Outside the Box" features. This monthly series is a menu of outlandish proposals presented with a wink -- but the purpose behind them is serious. The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

Bob Carson

Included among the many riches that came from California are a roster of great race horses and a musician named John Stewart. Remarkably, these two very different worlds intersect. Since you are reading these words, it is not necessary to explain the history and joys of harness racing in the Golden State. Allow me to introduce John Stewart.

Stewart was a singer/songwriter with a cult-like following. The lanky troubadour was born in 1939, possibly with a guitar in his hand and surely with a song in his soul. He began turning out great music a few years later and did not stop until his death last year. John Stewart is not a household name but he is a hidden treasure. He left behind a massive portfolio and a legion of fanatical fans. John Denver, Stevie Nicks, Nancy Griffith and Lindsey Buckingham are among the long list of musical stars that performed with him, learned from him and admired him.

The “Lonesome Picker” or “Johnny Flamingo” or “Johnny Dreams” -- just a few of the nicknames his loyal band of fans called him -- used his weathered baritone to croon top-five rock and roll songs like “Gold.”

Early in his career, John Stewart performed for a decade with the hugely popular Kingston Trio. He wrote big hits like “July, You’re a Woman” (Pat Boone), “Daydream Believer” (The Monkees), and “Runaway Train” (Roseanne Cash). John Stewart did it all. He stayed on the road, true to his music, for over 40 years. He recorded over 30 albums. I have them all.

Stewart rode down many musical paths; hard rock, soft rock, folk, folk rock, large backup band, small band, solo, large venue, small venue, politics, religion, playful, deep, jazz, instrumental -- pick an adjective, there is a Stewart song somewhere to fit the bill. John resisted easy classification and followed his muse, creating unique material that left his audience amazed by his talent.

About ten years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with John Stewart backstage after a show. For some reason I mentioned, “Several of your songs have horses as a theme, is there a reason?”

John became animated, bounced on his toes, and was suddenly a six-foot-four teenager. He ran a hand through his long hair as he spoke, “My dad was a harness horse trainer, you know, harness racing, with the carts?” He made a motion like he was driving a sulky.

I smiled and nodded yes.

He said, “I grew up on the California racetracks. I wrote some of my early songs by resting my head against the hub rail and using the pounding of the hoofs for drums. Every year we would make a circuit around California racetracks. I cleaned tack and walked my father’s horses. I loved the characters on the backstretch; they were a hardscrabble bunch who sort of adopted me. What amazing times, they never leave you.”

He clapped his hands together and continued, “Horse racing is fantastic; the characters, the dreams, the history -- so much to grab onto.”

His experiences on the backstretch can be heard in his music. At any John Stewart performance, one of the most requested songs from his huge repertoire was “Mother Country.” The ballad tells of an elderly horseman at the end of his trail, a life well lived, out for one last ride in the cart around the oval. The guitar accompaniment gives the feel of a horse trotting. Click on this link. Watch and listen carefully to one of John’s final performances.

In the days of Secretariat, Stewart penned a song,”Let the Big Horse Run” that is often played when television does a feature on the great horse. “Run Molly Run” is another among the songs in the Stewart saddlebag that lean heavily on the horserace theme.

One of his final albums was titled Tanforan, named after one of the California racetracks where he grew up. For the cover of Tanforan, John Stewart used a 1949 photograph that shows him being pulled in one of his father’s sulkies, a testament that his racing days never left him. John Stewart was the real deal. He was an unbelievable talent. His earthly run stopped last year, but his amazing body of work will last forever.

Obviously, this is not typical harness racing content. Some may have harrumphed and clicked off after the first sentence; that’s okay. Others may listen to the music that is linked. Maybe, just maybe, one of you will become a fan of John Stewart.

This road runs both directions. Fans of John Stewart, people who know little to nothing about harness racing may visit the United States Trotting Association site to read this story. I know that two of his fans write columns for national publications, a few coach national sports teams and hundreds, maybe thousands, of John Stewart fans, including his still active Web site, will get wind of this story and find it now that it is on the web. Maybe, just maybe, among these visitors, a few people will discover what John told me -- harness racing is great.

There are Strange Rivers (a very popular John Stewart song) that wind through the Internet. Crossover content like this article, slightly far afield, can bring potential new fans to our tent. A tent that was not available until the internet. It is difficult to predict what port browsers will find as they scroll and search their iPhones or laptops. Potential harness racing fans lurk in odd places.

The USTA has an excellent, vibrant Web site, a wonderful clearinghouse for information that harness fans crave; results, entries, colic treatments, wagering, trends and a hundred other items. But these will not bring new eyes. It is critical to have some content that will push NEW viewers toward the homepage. An article slightly off the beaten track (pardon the pun) with cross-over appeal holds promise to lure the non-harness fan. Be it business, entertainment, fiction, or humor, a story that appears on this site might be passed around and around and will have a footprint that will last indefinitely. The wider we cast our nets into the ocean of the Internet, the more new fans we can hope to pull into our boat.

Author's Note: This is the latest artice in my "Pay It Forward" series.

Hopefully you will find the unusual articles mildly interesting, but they will be aimed at diverse groups such as unsuspecting business people, internet gamers, retirees, crossword puzzle solvers, Bolivians, casino players, etc. These articles will attempt to nudge these groups to take a look at harness racing -- but they cannot nudge if they are not read.

When these unorthodox pieces appear on the USTA Web site, your task is to send them on their way to any possible person who does not know about our wonderful sport.

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