If you frequent Lewis County’s theaters, bars, or the many festivals that populate the area on weekends, chances are you’ve seen Chris Guenther. Whether playing solo, performing with his trio the Honky Tonk Drifters, or overseeing a tribute show to legendary country artists, Chris has been a notable presence in our growing community.
A native of Mossyrock, Chris grew up in a musical household. “My mom was a drummer and acoustic guitar player, and she gave me the basics to get started,” he says. “Then it was off to the races from there, going to grange hall jam sessions or any place you could play to cut your teeth.”
Growing up, Chris was influenced by the Bakersfield country sound and its most famous alum. “Merle Haggard is one of my favorites,” he says. “When I bought my first guitar, I wanted a Fender Telecaster so I could be like those Bakersfield artists.” Other musicians that helped shape his musical direction include George Strait, Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, and the Highwaymen.
While in high school, Chris formed the first incarnation of The Honky Tonk Drifters, his backup band that’s been accompanying him for nearly two decades. In addition to local performances, the Drifters hit the road with him whenever there’s an out-of-town show. “If we go over the mountains, economically a four-piece is all you can take with you,” Chris says.
At a recent show at The Chehalis Theater, Chris paid tribute to the outlaw country movement to an enthusiastic audience. In addition to excellent renditions of classic songs, the performance acted as an interactive music documentary, with Chris narrating the history of the outlaw country movement as photos of the artists were displayed behind the band. “It’s easier to tell the story when you can talk with pictures.”
The show was divided into three parts: first, the early influencers such as Hank Williams, George Jones, and Johnny Cash, as well as country-influenced rock and roll artists like Buddy Holly. Act II chronicled the peak outlaw country movement of the ‘70s, where country and western, the burgeoning southern rock movement, and various other musical styles coalesced into a rebellious and authentic new sound by artists who didn’t fit the Nashville mold. The final portion of the show was devoted to newer artists like Chris Stapelton who carry the outlaw torch in this age of outdoor festivals and streaming media.
From the familiar opening chords of the Man In Black’s “Folsom Prison Blues” onward, audience members of all ages left their seats to dance. The crowd’s reaction after each set proves that the honesty of outlaw country music still strikes a chord.
“There’s an authenticity to it,” says Chris. “Kind of like Hank Williams – they lived the life they sang, and that might have not always been the case, but they marketed it well, so it seemed like that was the case. [The songs are] about holding down a good job despite the fact that you can’t find one, or dealing with relationships and domestic struggles, and you just don’t see that maturity in current music anymore.”
In addition to mother Melody on the drums, Chris’s sons Isaac and Elias played keyboards at The Chehalis Theater show. “I call it a music apprenticeship program, because they’ve just started,” Chris says. “We’ll sit there and work out parts at the house. These shows have pushed them to work their chops.”
Another part of Isaac and Elias’s apprenticeship: backing Chris up at his RV park shows this summer. “We started doing those types of venues about five years ago, got in with the regional RV parks like Thousand Trails, and played a few of their parks around the I-5 corridor,” says Chris. “Then the locally-based private camps found out about us.”
At ChehalisFest 2019, Chris performed a solo acoustic set off of Market Street to passers-by and beer garden patrons. Chris’s powerful vocals, resonating over his stripped-down guitar, gave his versions of Eric Church and George Strait songs (among many others) an added emotional level. He also played his interpretations of well-known rock songs that have an underlying country influence, such as Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”
As far as future plans go, Chris is working on an album of non-fiction Western songs. “It’s in the demo process,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to get involved in the cowboy gathering scenes that include Western art and poetry, like the Spirit of the West in Ellensburg.” Always thinking forward, Chris mentions that another theater show based on Western music, history, and culture would have great potential in this area.
Increasingly, Lewis County bars, restaurants and theaters are adding live music to their calendars. Chris is grateful for the support and opportunities given to him by business owners and community organizers, and is optimistic that a distinct music scene will develop in the area.
“That’s something I’d really like to see,” he says. “I think it’s a matter of getting all of the venues in that frame of mind. If you go to Nashville and Austin, every bar there has music all the time. We’re in a spot regionally that should be a music town.”
Chris Guenther and the Honky Tonk Drifters play Friday, August 23 at the Washington State Garlic Festival and Saturday, August 31 at Thousand Trails RV and Camping Resort – non-campers are welcome to attend. For a complete list of Chris’s schedule and links to his music, visit his official site.