We hear a lot today about the U.S. moving toward a “gig economy.” The word “gig” refers to any job that lasts a specified amount of time, but the current use of the word started during the 1920s. Musicians, primarily jazz musicians, embraced slang, and the word “gig” was slang for “engagement.” Yes, there is a small rowdy group of zealots that insist the word “gig” came from a two-wheeled horse carriage, but prevailing wisdom gives the credit to jazz musicians.
For “local” pro musicians, making a living playing music involves sales, marketing, social media prowess, and tenacity to get the first gig somewhere. Then, once you have “booked a gig,” it takes dependability, stage presence, personality, ability to read the room, and most of all musical talent, to keep the gig.
Dale Poune (PO-nay) is the living definition of a successful working musician. Dale will tell you the secret is to be flexible. Here is Dale being flexible.
Two weeks ago, Dale was playing in Nashville, at none other than the historic Grand Old Opry, a gig for which most country music artists would give their right (choose your appendage). That Opry gig was followed by playing to packed houses in other popular clubs in the Nashville area, with country music legend Lacey J. Dalton, with whom he has toured for fifteen years.
Dale likes to tell the story of how he met Lacey. Apparently, Dale’s girlfriend Margaret, who is now his wife, told him Lacey was looking for a guitar player. Dale laughs telling the story, because he did not play country music, nor was he necessarily a fan, and never even heard of Lacey Dalton. He did know how to get a gig, however, and he learned her music, played it at the audition and was hired on the spot.
The week following Nashville and the Grand Old Opry, Dale came back home to Carson City, did a writer’s showcase with his duo partner Greg Sandall at the A to Zen stage, along with gigs in Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, and Genoa. All of this while waiting to get clearance to resume teaching guitar and music composition to Level four inmates (20 years to life sentences) at a Susanville State Prison, which he has done for thirteen years until Covid interrupted. Now that, my friends, is flexible.
Dale Poune is a highly respected guitarist, bass player, mandolin player, and singer. In his sixties, Dale has long gray hair, usually tied back in a ponytail or a “Poune tail,” as I refer to it, pulled away from a slightly weathered face that exudes warmth and kindness. Dale lives in Moundhouse Nevada with his wife Margaret, and his granddaughter Toni.
Growing up in New York and Southern California, Dale spent the majority of his youth in Southern California. He said that he wasn’t disciplined enough to have a teacher or to take lessons, but he did have a good ear and a knack for picking up chords and different guitar licks, so he was successfully self-taught. His first musical influence came from listening to his older sister’s records, like Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley so, those old, worn, vinyl records became his music composition teachers.
I asked Dale about the very first song that he published in his 20s called “Start my Fire” and was not prepared for his response.
Dale spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, from having told the story so often, “Yeah, I wrote that song when my first wife left me. You know, she wanted me to be big in the music business, but apparently, I wasn’t working hard enough at it. She said, “You aren’t trying hard enough to make it big in the music business. So I’m moving in with this other guy, and by the way, you got a bonus, you get to keep your daughter. My daughter was like four at the time. Yeah [pausing] I was Mr. Mom, and boy, that was a shock. I was twenty-four.”
Of course, I asked Dale about playing the Grand Old Opry.
Dale said “When I was at the Opry, I mean I just walked out there and played and the whole place was packed. I was shocked at how big the Opry is. I mean it is huge. It’s so big that up in the top balcony there are folks floating around playing harps. Somehow though, that huge room, rather than making me more nervous, it made me more comfortable because the stage, uh, becomes sort of a place to hide. That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it, hiding on the Grand Old Opry stage?” [Laughing]
Dale continued, “So, Friday night we played with the Sons of the Pioneers and Riders in the Sky and a great singer named Colton Dixon who was a winner on American Idol, and I mean that guy can sing. Saturday Night it was just me and Lacey on stage and the place was packed, it was great. I really appreciated and felt humbled by being part of the historic Grand Ole Opry, especially considering that I did not grow up country like so many others who play there did, so it was very humbling, very special.”
“We just played the two of us, Lacey and me, and our guitars. We didn’t use the house band or anything, just came out and played, 16th Avenue and then the song Everybody Makes Mistakes, and that was what we did. We did a few other gigs in Nashville and several radio interviews in the area, and I got to be Lacey’s plus one at her award ceremony where she won the “Josie” Music Industry award, then came home and played the Bank Saloon [laughing] a little culture shock.”
The Teaching Gig
Needless to say, I was fascinated by Dale’s work teaching level 4 prisoners to play guitar, as well as music composition. Level 4 prisoners are the 20 years to life folks.
Having never been in prison before, the whole thing sounded pretty scary to me. Dale talked about what that experience looked and felt like.
Dale works with an organization called the William James Association. https://williamjamesassociation.org/ There are 34 prisons in California and the William James Association has at least one art or music teacher in every single one. When Dale first started, the guitars were supplied but the inmates couldn’t own them or rent them or take them back to their cells to practice. So, Dale came up with the idea of having cardboard guitars with strings and frets drawn in so they could start to learn chords and such and practice them in their cells.
Eventually, they allowed the prisoners access to the guitars on a loaner program. The inmates signed a contract with the yard Lieutenant, and they would sign the guitars in and out.
I asked Dale what his day-to-day routine looked like when teaching at the prison. “After parking in the prison parking lot, you walk up to a 25-foot wall with coils of razor wire on it. In the center of the wall is a big metal gate. Of course, the tower sees you coming, and the gate opens up and, after a couple security doors, I sign out keys, go through one or two more doors, wave at the guard in the tower, they open another door, and eventually I’m in the patio where they have an education center, a law library, and a Chapel… and that’s where I have my classes, in the Chapel.
The Chapel is around 600 square feet with linoleum floors and shiny walls, so it is pretty echoey, which makes for great acoustics with a little reverb going on. In the Chapel is an old piano that is kept mostly in tune.
Once the COs know I’m there, they go and call the inmates in and you just set up for class, whichever sort of class that might be, guitar or music composition. Classes are 15 to 20 guys. They come in and sit down pass out guitars and we proceed from there. After class they clean up, put the chairs back wherever they came from, many thank me, and they leave.”
Of course, I asked Dale the next obvious question, did he feel afraid or nervous and what did that feel like?
“I’m not doing anything they’re going to attack me for. They’re not those sort of people, they’re not psychopaths, they are criminals, they are inmates who broke a law somewhere along the way, and, yes, some of them obviously did things of a violent nature, but I’m the “cool guitar guy” and word spreads fast in prisons and they know that I handle any small issues in house without bringing a CO into it. That might look like a missing guitar tuner or a verbal squabble between prisoners, anything like that I handle it in the room.
“It’s all about respect. I demand respect and I give them respect. If, for instance, a guitar tuner is missing, I would say to the class in general, I can’t seem to find my tuner. If any of you happen to find it could you put it back in my bag? I’d appreciate it. So, at that point, word is out that somebody snagged my tuner, and the class does not like or approve of that, and so whoever took it will try their hardest to replace it without being found out, but it will be replaced.”
Next, I was curious about the gangs and how all of that worked in the prison hierarchy.
“You know I was sort of ready for all that, but I didn’t notice any sort of gang activity that was obvious to me for almost a year. It was about that long before the inmates trusted me enough to talk to me about gangs and such, mostly for my own information, unwritten rules, chain of command and such.
“Two Mexican gangs were prevalent, and they had their own rules, like everybody showers, everybody gets exercise, respect to all, that sort of thing. They police themselves, so to speak. Plus the clerks which are trusted inmates assigned to you by the prison, to help you navigate through the hierarchy. The clerks also get you whatever you need as far as supplies and such. You come to rely on the clerks a lot.
“I once had a clerk tell me to call in sick and don’t come in the following day, but he refused to say why, other than it had nothing to do with me. I stayed home and there was a protest about conditions that got pretty messy, and it would have been during my classes.
“The majority of my inmate contact was with Latinos and, to a lesser degree, black inmates. Having a white inmate in the class was rare. It did happen once in a while, but rarely. The white inmates are the most violent and there is no real neutral ground with them. Other populations can mix, but typically not them.”
Dale continued, “Once I was aware of the gang situation, I would make a point of making sure I paired up members of the same gang when I was partnering them up for any reason. I had made that mistake before when I didn’t understand the gang hierarchy, and I noticed that some of the partners were sitting almost like two chairs away from each other. There was no real disrespect shown, just mostly silence and I never really did understand that, nor did I question it, but now I understand it and that doesn’t happen anymore.”
One day, a few years back, Dale Poune sent me a song that two of his students did on that old piano in the Chapel. Dale recorded it with a handheld Tascam recorder. The name of the song is “Cry” and that is exactly what I did when I heard it. It was raw, it was real, it was powerful in its message, and in its stark, haunting presentation.
I asked Dale how this short, effective song came to be. Dale replied, “One day in the prison Chapel during a class, two guys, K-Loo and Chubbs, asked if they could play something. Chubbs played the piano and K-Loo sang.”
I asked Dale what kind of music he was working on with the Latino inmate population.
He said they have diverse interests like any other race, but culturally, some of the Mexican inmates write and sing Corridos.
“The corrido (Spanish pronunciation: [koˈrið̞o]) is a popular narrative metrical tale and poetry that forms a ballad. The songs are often about oppression, history, daily life for criminals, the vaquero lifestyle, and other socially relevant topics. it was also a part of the development of Tejano music and New Mexico music, which later influenced Western music. It is still a popular genre today in Mexico.”
Two of Dales Mexican students, Miguel and Salvador, performed a corrido for Dale to record with his hand-held Tascam. After listening to the song, I said to Dale, “Wow so it’s an old Mexican folk song essentially, right?” Dale laughed and said, “Do not make the mistake of calling it a Mexican folk song around a Mexican. I made that mistake, and they respectfully corrected me saying it is NOT a Mexican folk song.” Here is a short clip of a Corrido that they wrote. They learned guitar in prison from Dale.
I knew some of Dale’s students were doing rap in his music composition class and I asked him about that.
Dale said when he first assembled the class that was going to be about rap composition, he said he would absolutely encourage the rappers who specialized in “gangster rap” to write what they wanted to write, and he would happily record that for them. “But first,” he said, “I want you to do something for me, and that is to clean up the lyrics so I can help you get heard and I’d like you to tell me a story about you.” Dale was expecting some resistance or at least groans, but the inmates took it on as a challenge and understood that over-the-top foul language would dramatically reduce the audience that Dale could expose their music to.
Dale recalls the moment. “It was kind of funny because of their response. I felt like they were all inspired by this and apparently they were, because this guy whose name in prison was Folgers, or maybe that was his last name I’m not sure, but he stands up and says OK I wanna record something. So we sat down, and he did a rap tune completely acoustically he was just using his fist for the bass drum and snapping his fingers for the snare. When he did that song everybody in the room was absolutely silent.”
Another student in that class, inspired by Folger’s performance took Dale up on that challenge and wrote a rap tune called I Punched A Wall but Could Not Break Through.
In my opinion, if a producer took this under a wing it would get some serious legs.
Dale agrees and says that is a big part of his frustration in that there is so much talent behind those walls and Dale just shakes his head, knowing things could have been different.
Dale wrapped up by saying, “Look, essentially, they know I’m there by choice, and not because I have to be there. I’m there as a benefit for them and that, combined with me just being respectful, humble, firm, and handling the small stuff in-house, makes it really quite safe. The way the hierarchy works, real world, I’m not protected as much by the guards as I am by the inmates. Things happen fast. The guards can’t protect me. The inmates can.
Dale continued. “I don’t live there so I don’t have to worry about getting involved in the politics. I can’t be threatened or blackmailed, because I simply won’t come back and they know that, but it’s not even about that, it’s about respect which is a universal language with the gangs in prison.”
Personally, I think part of Dale’s success has to do with his personality, solid, stable, humble, warm, and friendly, which is just his nature. That, combined with a quiet strength and a wonderful musical talent, is who Dale Poune is.
If you ask Dale about his eclectic “gig” life, he will simply say “I’m just a regular guy trying to make a living playing music.”
Sure Dale, just a regular guy playing at the Grand Ole Opry this week, Wally’s next week, and the Susanville prison the week after that.
Here’s a little more of Dale’s fine work:
Here is how you can listen to, and buy some more of Dale’s music.
In Northern Nevada, Dale performs regularly at The Nashville Social Cub, A to Zen, The Bank Saloon, and Shoe Tree Brewing Company, all in Carson City, as well as venues in Virginia City, Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Wally’s Hot Springs in Genoa.
You can contact Dale through his Facebook Page.
Marshall (Marsh) Brodeur is a professional musician, composer, vocalist, vocal coach, and music supervisor for film and television. Brodeur is also a vocal/choral director for musical theater productions. He’s received numerous music/film/television industry awards such as the Telly Award For “A Glimpse of Heaven, a Taste of Hell;” a documentary for PBS – Composing and Scoring for Film and Television, a Telly Award For “Off Hand;” 2017-2018 Forte Award for Top Male Vocalist; and the Platinum Remi Award Houston International Film Festival – Music for “Choices” with Brian Cranston. Marsh and his wife live in Carson City Nevada.
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