Silver City tradition – Celebration of Lonesome Wayne Thomas’ life

By Joe McCarthy

Silver City Guard Lonesome Wayne sendoff, image, The Sierra Nevada Ally, Joe McCarthy

A passel of friends and family, mostly freethinkers, gathered at noon on a sunfilled, springlike Saturday, January 25, 2020, in Silver City near the local graveyard on the east side of town. In a typical semi-secular fashion, friends commemorated Harvey Lonesome Wayne Thomas’ life. Lonesome Wayne passed away quietly a few days earlier after suffering the types of older age maladies, blindness, COPD and two stokes that would have wiped out most anyone else a whole lot faster.

Silver City, in its inherently generous, jubilant way, readied itself immediately to pay tribute to Lonesome Wayne with a ceremonial sendoff lead by the Silver City Guard and a potluck spread to feed all at the historic Silver City Schoolhouse.

Chris Brown, a longtime Silver City resident and good friend of Wayne’s, gave some background. “I first met Wayne in the late 60s. Bonnie, my wife and I came through here visiting some friends. Wayne was living in Virginia City with his firstborn Jesse, who was two years old. Wayne’s first wife and Jesse’s mom was the legendary guitarist Alice Stuart.

“Wayne played in Alice’s band at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City. The band’s name, if I recall right was, The Alice Stewart Fair Deal Treaty Band. Alice was an excellent guitar player and singer. The band played gigs all around the Comstock, but especially the Red Dog.”

Alice Stuart was already a successful musician, having played with and romanced Frank Zappa and in 1964 headlined the Berkeley Folk Festival with the likes of Joan Baez, Doc Watson, and her friend and mentor Mississippi John Hurt.

She arrived in Virginia City in 1965 along with the Charlatans, Dan Hicks and many other San Francisco based musicians to be part of the scene at the iconic Red Dog Saloon. Filmmaker Mary Works Covington, daughter of the Red Dog’s co-founder, Don Works, memorialized Alice and the many other hipster artists in her acclaimed documentary, Rockin at the Red Dog – the Dawn of Psychedelic Rock, originally titled The Life and Times of the Red Dog Saloon.

Alice was widely recognized as one of the folk-blues genre’s most celebrated female guitar players. She was also a bandleader, singer, and songwriter, playing her Martin D18 and later her Fender Stratocaster at gigs throughout the U.S. and Europe. She toured with Van Morrison in the UK. Rolling Stone Magazine listed Alice with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Chet Atkins in its 1975 Guitars of the Stars issue.

Wayne mostly stuck around the Comstock as a working musician, folk artist, and craftsman. He was noted for working in several media including stained glass. As a guitar player, Wayne was a star on the Comstock and a musical fixture at the Red Dog Saloon, local outdoor concerts, and numerous house parties.

image of Lonesome Wayne Thomas provided courtesy of the Silver City Arts Group

There was a particular night, one of the many summer evening parties in the tree-lined courtyard at the Jones Mansion in Gold Hill. Tall, lanky Wayne, barefoot, as usual, played and sang in harmony with another fine troubadour, Mike Riggs. The duo performed song after song, many of which were requests. They never repeated a tune all night. Folks didn’t want to go home. Wayne and Mike played deep into the night while surrounded by the acoustic-friendly hillside, snug against the historic house.

Brown remembers, “You’ve heard of the Nevada Craft Guild. Wayne was instrumental in forming the Nevada Craft Guild, which is now that wooden building at the end of 341, the Bee place. Don Works, the co-founder of the Red Dog Saloon, was also involved. Ralph Stein and Barbara Stein, all artists of some kind or another. Wayne was a blacksmith and a real good blacksmith. I’m a blacksmith. I worked with him a lot. He had a wonderful forge in that building. He and I worked together on and off for a few years, cranking out various ironwork art. I made those gates at the cemetery. Wayne’s gonna pass through my gates to rest.”

Image of Wayne and his son at Wayne’s forge in the Nevada Craft Guild, Wayne Thomas family photo.

“I remember the time,” said Brown, “When Wayne and my family traveled up to Oregon to see if we could get a job acting in a movie. Word was that they were hiring extras and anybody with long hair and had whiskers was going to get hired in the movie Paint Your Wagon. Yeah, we were up there for many weeks that summer and got many days of extra work on the movie set.”

“I was never seen in the final cut,” said Brown. “Early on, one of the old hands, being an extra Hollywood hand said, ‘Don’t let the director see your face. Otherwise, he’ll send you out. If you’re seen too often, it just doesn’t match his scenes anymore.’ So we all made a point of keeping our heads down.”

Brown continued, “After the movie, we camped together quite a bit with musicians from Portland. They would hang out and play. Wayne had this song that Bonnie really loves. She’s a musician too. She loved Lighthouse Blues. Whenever Wayne was playing and he saw Bonnie in the audience, he’d say, I’m going to play Lighthouse Blues for Bonnie Brown.”

“We then kind of separated, went different ways for a while,” said Brown. “But I still saw him at social events sometimes. He was a great guitar picker.”

The Silver City Guard

The mustering of the Silver City Guard was central to Wayne’s celebration. Pierce Powell, an original member of The Guard, led the assembled contingent of men and women, several dressed in varying stages of tattered militia-type costumes. They carried little-used rifles both rusty and ready to fire off a round or two into the air beyond the cemetery. Bob Elston, Sr. marched the group in military fashion to the edge of the graveyard, beyond the handcrafted gate. Elston called The Guard to attention and faced them away from the onlookers. “Fire,” commanded Elston. Gunsmoke filled the air.

Most folks were familiar with the custom. Once the air cleared, they walked back to the historic Schoolhouse to celebrate Lonesome Wayne with a potluck lunch. Friends quaffed a large variety of libations and reminisced over memorabilia and memories of Wayne.

Pierce Powell is keeping the waning tradition alive. “We revived the Guard in the 70s. We started the Guard to honor Armistice Day, World War One, marching in the Nevada Day Parade. We’re mostly a funeral society right now.”

Pierce Powell, an early volunteer and eventually permanent 2nd Lt. of the Silver City Guard, at the Lonesome Wayne sendoff. (Grahame Ross, Don Works, and David Toll founded the Silver City Guard). Image, The Sierra Nevada Ally, Joe McCarthy

“I first moved here in ’75,” said Chris Brown. “The guard was already existing. And since I’m a veteran of the army, other members of the guard who were neighbors invited me to join and I said, Yeah, sure. And we would muster for various different reasons, depending on who was in charge at the time. Pierce was running it for a long time.”

Brown said, “We turned out sometimes to march in the Nevada Day Parade. We were called an armed rebellion in Carson City because of our individual appearances and the weaponry. This is a pretty apt description.”

Wayne is to be buried in Silver’s graveyard. Henry, Wayne’s son, and a host of local neighbors who helped organize the memorial are now digging his grave. No easy task in the Comstock’s hard, rocky ground.

Wayne’s son, Jesse Stuart Thomas, was a special attendee at the memorial. Jesse was raised for the most part in Olympia Washington and still lives there, near his mom, who still plays gigs around the area. Jesse is a high-end custom cabinet maker and woodworker, born with his Dad’s craftsman skills. Over the years, he has remained friends with several in Silver City.

image of Jesse and his son, family photo.

Brown said, “We are really gonna miss ole Lonesome Harvey Wayne Thomas from Muskogee, Oklahoma. They don’t grow them like him anymore.“

Evangeline Elston regularly brings live music to the Silver City Schoolhouse. Lonesome Wayne was always a special guest. His presence at future shows will be a notable absence for the community.

A few of Wayne’s quotes:

“Being an adult gives a person another chance to fix the ideas you had when you were young.”

“Nevada is like a combination of Alaska and Mexico.”


Joe McCarthy: I am NCN’s freelance education reporter, and an occasional arts and culture corespondent.