Vid Weatherwax was unresponsive and near death when the keyboardist’s friends from the tight-knit Roaring Fork Valley music community literally picked him up and helped get him well. Then they chipped in for his medical bills the best way they knew how: with guitars, keys, brass, and voices wailing to a packed house.
Weatherwax, 64, is a relatively recent addition to the cadre of area players, some of whom—like Aspen’s “Mayor of Music” Bobby Mason—have been plying their trade here since the late 1960s. Weatherwax arrived in 2010 after a lifelong music career in Detroit and quickly distinguished himself among the established entertainers in local hotels and bars with his R&B keys and laconic rasp of a voice. He also began collaborating often with the cream of the local crop—singer-songwriters like Mason, Roberta Lewis, Suzanne Paris, J.D. Martin, and Hap Harriman and saxophonist Chris Bank. Ingratiating himself was fairly easy, he notes, given that he wasn’t “gig-grabby” and didn’t try to undercut other musicians on performance fees.
Still, like most full-time musicians here, Weatherwax lives gig to gig (he says he generally pulls in $22,000 to $25,000 annually). So he continued playing last winter despite a worsening cough, chills, and fever. Diabetic but uninsured, he figured it was the flu and didn’t seek medical attention. In late January, when he was beset by pneumonia, Lewis and friends dragged him to seek help.
“They basically broke into my apartment, dressed me, and took me to the hospital,” Weatherwax recalls.
He took antibiotics, felt a little better, and returned to his regular gig at the St. Regis Aspen Resort on Super Bowl Sunday. After the show, he collapsed. “That’s when I almost died,” he says. “And that’s when I learned my lesson and lay in bed.”
Unable to play, he was without an income. But Weatherwax’s musical family rallied around him, putting together a crowd-funding campaign through GoFundMe and organizing a benefit concert.
In late February, a who’s-who of 20-plus local musicians played the concert for him at Heather’s, the Basalt tapas bar that’s improbably become the epicenter for locally based musicians in recent years. The campaign raised more than $10,000 and allowed Weatherwax to take the time to recuperate without becoming destitute. (He got back on stage at Heather’s in mid-May and returned to his standing Regis performances this summer.)
Weatherwax was initially embarrassed about the fundraising, but Mason stressed that it was his turn to be a beneficiary. “I called Vid and said, ‘This’ll be good for you. You give a lot. Now you need to learn to receive,’” recalls Mason, who late this spring had a medical emergency of his own; this summer, fellow musicians launched a $50,000 crowd-funding campaign to assist with a series of surgeries Mason needs to replace an infected prosthetic knee.
Weatherwax’s situation embodies that of many local players, who make a living on fees and tips but can easily slip into a financial crisis when faced with a medical emergency. In fact, it can be hard to believe that the hustle is worth it. “If I play someplace and make $125, I need to get ready, pack it in and out, play for two or three hours, and drive home another hour,” says Mason. “And that might be once a week. But 99 percent of the musicians in this valley are making ends meet. We do it for the love.”
Musicians in the valley are certainly rich in talent. The bar bands at the Hotel Jerome or the Viceroy Snowmass, the Limelight or the Regis on any given night might include Mason, whose band Starwood made records on the Columbia label in the ’70s and who played The Merv Griffin Show; bassist Michael Jude and drummer John Michel, who play in John Oates’s band; or guitarist Jimmy Dykann, who has toured with the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker.
“This is not a small mining town in the Rockies—a lot of these people are studio musicians from Nashville, L.A., Chicago,” says Mason. “It’s some of the best musicians in the world.”
Whether these creative transplants were drawn here by the abundance of resort-town gigs, by the musical community made famous in decades past by John Denver and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, or by the promise of a respite from city living, they’ve ultimately stuck around—like most Aspenites—for the mountain lifestyle.
Says Weatherwax, “It’s a tradeoff so that you can ski, you can get on the rivers, you can walk in the mountains and bike in God’s country.” With more than a little help from his friends, he’s back to reaping those other benefits once again, as well as contributing his R&B chops and distinctive voice to the chorus of local musicians making it work in the valley.