I'm Just a Guy with a Guitar
An article from the November 2008 issue of Spirit of Saratoga
By Michael Korb
"I'm polite. I have manners and resqect my audiences," Bolton says. " I respect the other people I'm playing with, and I'm forever grateful – grateful to still be playing and to the people who come out and listen."
It's a concept that doesn't get a lot of attention in the world of music, with its Amy Winehouses and Eminems. Then again, Bolton, 57, realizes he isn't living in the same world as they are.His music world can be mapped out within a five-block radius of downtown Saratoga Springs from Gaffney's to The Parting Glass to The Olde Bryan Inn or a blocked-off Caroline Street during the Hats Off celebration that kicks off the thoroughbred racing season.
While that may not have been the dream back in 1962 when, like so many young musicians, he watched The Beatles take over the world with a performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the journey to this weekly block party has been more satisfying than he could ever imagined.
"I remember my mother saying, 'that is just a fad, it won't last'," he smiles. "I saw girls were going crazy, and I said, 'OK, I'll get myself a guitar.'" At the time, he was playing tuba in his school band in the hamlet of Hague on Lake George.
"You start playinng popular songs – from the Rolling Stones, Little Richard and Chuck Berry and you work your way backward. You build a base, stuff that you like, mimicking your idols ... and for me, I just enjoyed playing so much I never really thought about a hit song or something commercial. I thought, if it happens, it'll be nice, but I'm just gonna keep playing. It doesn't make any difference to me."
What made a difference was that the journey was a constant adventure, a term with varying definitons throughout Bolton's career. At first, he and his friends traveled to gigs by boat on Lake George.
"We weren't even a garage band; we were a boathouse band," he says.
"Then I got the roavin' itch and went cross-country," he says. "Man, I played every honky tonk out West that you can imagine – Gilly's in Texas, Wyoming then Utah and then got really lucky and hooked up with Marty Robbins for a short stint. Talk about adventure, there's nothing like playing behind chicken wire. But I was getting banged around on the road."
So back to Hague he went.
"In '78 a buddy of mine was coming down here and said, 'I've got a really great place to gig; you should come,'" Bolton says. "That was 17 Maple (now Mare). Then I played Jacksland (now Starbucks) and loved Lena's. I loved the camaraderie back then. As you can imagine, in '78, Saratoga was very different. It was actually pretty weird. You could send a bowling ball down Caroline Street and not hit anybody. The Tin 'n Lint was the hot spot at the time."
He stayed in Saratoga for three years, working with a popular band called the Adirondack Late Night Flyers, before he chased a girlfriend to Maine.
"That's how I ended up in the Combat Zone in Boston," he says. "A known prostitution area. Seeing a guy on the floor with a pistol to his head, now that's adventure."
Soon thereafter, he was diagnosed with diabetes, and his priorities shifted.
"I came back here in '87. It forced me off the road and looking for different sources of income," Bolton says. "I had to think seriously, health insurance, eating, a roof over my head – there is a lot of cost to diabetes. I picked up a day job – like a state job."
He's a cabinet maker for Warren County.
That's about the time he met his wife, Sharon Dwyer. She owned a popular spot called The Hub on Church Street and was the self-professed queen of open mikes. Bolton ran into her all the time. "One night we got pie-eyed and have been together ever since," he says, smiling. "Your emphasis changes; your priorities change. I inherited three kids in the deal. You have to take care of your family first – before the music – then yourself somewhere along the line. With a wife and family, you've got to have health insurance. God bless those people who starve. I did that for 10 years. But in the last 11 years, I've been working more that I ever imagined.
This past August, Bolton performed 31 gigs.
"When I was younger, the adventure was going out and playing behind chicken wire or in a strip joint – not knowing what was going to happen," he says. "That was the adventure. Now the adventure is the music itself, screwing around with your friends and that musical bonding, singing "Sharon's Song" or "Halleluia Nights". "I'm not an up-and-comer or trying to get any of my songs in a publisher's hand or looking to drive cross-country or talk about this date or that date. I'm just a guy with a guitar. Christ, there are 1,800 of us out here. I'm a tavern singer. Better yet, I'm a Saratoga tavern singer.
"It's funny the way it changes, "he says. "It's nice to go home at night, have a home-cooked meal and climb into your own bed, I'm one of those guys I used to diss and laugh at when I was in my 20's."
It's hard to picture Bolton dissing or laughing at anyone. He's just so damned polite.•