You shouldn’t have worn sandals, the gentleman who has been dancing at the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson, Wyo., longer than I’ve been alive said to me kindly. He, like many of the others floating across the dance floor, was wearing cowboy boots.
I was concentrating too hard on my feet — and on not tripping over my sandals — to explain that I hadn’t intended to dance.
I was visiting Jackson, Wyo., where I used to live, and I’d told several friends that I was going to “church,” as a Sunday night at the Stagecoach Bar is often called. They responded with different versions of “See you there.” Then, in typical Jackson fashion, none of them showed up.
I’m not the outgoing sort, and suddenly I found myself in one of my most dreaded social scenarios — alone at a bar. But it was the Coach, as we call it, and it was a Sunday night. Which meant that the Stagecoach Band was playing, as it has every Sunday night for the past 45 years, and that the crowd was a warm group of ranchers and longtime locals, with a peppering of tourists and seasonal workers. If I had to be alone at a bar, the Coach on a Sunday night wasn’t a bad place to be.
It was the band’s 2,358th Sunday at the bar. I know, because Bill Briggs, one of the band’s original members, announced it at the start of the set, along with a promise of country-Western music. But if you know anything about the Stagecoach Band, you know that anything goes, and that’s why people come.
As soon as the band — which includes Phil Round on acoustic guitar, Derrik Hufsmith on electric guitar, Briggs on banjo and autoharp and Dave Young, who alternates nights with Ed Domer, on drums — started to play, the small dance floor filled with couples spinning and promenading.
Far from the Town Square, the tourist center of Jackson, with its restaurants, bars and T-shirt shops, the Stagecoach Bar, a rust-red one-story building a few miles outside town, and its band are perhaps the most authentic nod to Jackson’s Western heritage.
“This is the last ungentrified place in Jackson Hole,” Round said.
The Coach is one of those places where both men and women wear cowboy hats and big belt buckles not as costumes, but as their Sunday best. Among the boots, crisp dark denim jeans and flowing skirts, though, you can find some flip-flops (not just mine), denim shorts and halter tops.
Local musician Ron Scott started the band on Feb. 16, 1969. Briggs, a local legend who in 1971 would become the first person to ski the 13,777-foot Grand Teton, was regularly skiing Teton Pass when Scott asked him to drop in and play his banjo on a Sunday night. Carl Davidson, who played a one-string gut-bucket bass and sang country songs when not installing cable TV, joined them, and the three began to play acoustic sets regularly on Sundays. There was no stage or dancing then, and there was always a fight, thanks to a rodeo ground behind the bar that drew cowboys who were constantly proving their toughness.
“That was the way things were in those days,” Briggs told me.
John Sidle, an electrical engineer who played bass and guitar, amplified the band a few years later. He wanted to tame the violence and instructed the group to play through the fights. It eventually worked, and the dance scene replaced the fighting.
Briggs is the only original band member still playing, although the current members have been with the band for several decades and also play with other groups, from jazz ensembles to symphonic bands to rock-and-roll groups. They’re all serious musicians, and their other gigs pay more than the Coach, but they always try to make Sundays. Nothing else is quite as fun, they said.
They never practice and they play spontaneously. One of them might shout out “Swing it!” or “Half time!” as a song starts to see what a tempo change will do. It’s a little like jamming, “but this is not a jam session,” Briggs said. “This is a performance.” They never ignore the audience or the dancers, because people come for the music. It’s not just background.
Once, the band members coaxed Bob Dylan, a guest at a wedding where they were performing in the 1980s, to join them onstage. They’ve also shared the stage with Chuck Pyle and John Denver.
About 30 years ago, Bill and Edna Nash tentatively attended a fundraiser at the Coach on a Sunday night. Self-described “good Christians,” they normally avoided bars. To put them at ease, Briggs started calling Sunday nights at the Coach “church,” and the term stuck. The Nashes came for the fundraiser and have returned every Sunday they’re in town ever since, using the time to catch up on the latest news of friends’ vacations and grandchildren.
The scene waxes and wanes throughout the year, Round said. Much of the music in the valley targets the under-35 crowd, but Sundays at the Coach bring out those over 70. Sometimes in the summer there’ll be a sudden influx of young people later in the evening.
This is one of those places where everyone is welcome. So if you find yourself in Jackson on a Sunday night, head to the Stagecoach Bar. If someone asks you to dance, say yes, even if you don’t know how. Just don’t wear sandals.
Dayton is a freelance writer in Missoula, Mont.
The Stagecoach Bar
5755 West Hwy. 22
The Stagecoach Band plays
from 6 to 10 p.m. on Sunday