Fans and folksingers rally to restore Utah’s caboose: Benefit aims to aid Monkton landmark

MONKTON — When Stephen Pilcher and wife Deb Gaynor bought their Monkton home 30-some years ago, they didn’t just buy a house and land, they bought a legend.
From 1973 to 1982, the former dairy barn at 126 Covered Bridge Road was the recording studio and administrative headquarters for Philo Records, renowned in folk circles as a label where musicians could make their own music, their own way, with their own integrity.
Just across the lawn from the barn-turned-recording studio-turned-home stood a distinct part of the Philo legend: Utah’s caboose.
Itinerant singer-songwriter Bruce Duncan “Utah” Phillips recorded at Philo in the 1970s. He bought the old caboose (technically a “flanger car” used to sweep snow and ice off the tracks), had it brought to Philo’s sometime cow pasture and installed on its own 30 feet or so of railroad tracks. For Phillips, who died in 2008, the caboose provided a kind of hobo pied-a-terre while he made his three albums at Philo: “Good Though,” “El Capitan” and “The Telling Takes Me Home.”
“It was kind of a kick at the time,” said Pilcher, on finding a home that had headquartered a pioneering recording label and been at the heart of the nation’s folk scene.
Over the years, as the couple has remodeled the house, Pilcher maintained the caboose: re-siding it, repairing the roof, installing new windows.
“It’s part of the history, part of the landscape,” he said.
But Pilcher felt that the caboose wasn’t getting any younger and needed to be rehomed. Last fall when he put Utah’s caboose up for sale through an online train broker, he got an unlooked-for response. Utah’s son Duncan contacted him with a proposal to relocate Utah’s caboose to the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture in Weed City, Calif., and renovate it as a Utah Phillips library/museum.
Pilcher enlisted himself to help with the project and began spearheading a fundraiser.
Later this month, friends and fans of Utah will gather on the sweeping lawn alongside the caboose for a six-hour mini folk festival and benefit. Proceeds will help to relocate and renovate the caboose.
Noted folk musician Rik Palieri of Hinesburg has joined forces with Pilcher to help organize the event.
Palieri, a regular at Middlebury’s Festival on-the-Green, has lined up an all-star assemblage of Vermont folk musicians that includes Paul Asbell, Jon Gailmor and Phil Henry alongside Addison County’s own Bread & Bones, Rick Ceballos, Lausanne Allen and Pete Sutherland.
   STEPHEN PILCHER, LEFT, and Rik Palieri stand in a caboose where legendary singer-songwriter Utah Phillips lived while he was cutting albums for Philo Records in the 1970s.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Performers have been chosen, said Palieri, with an eye toward honoring Phillips’ life and work. The New Economistas, for example, will bring in the kind of no-holds-barred political commentary that often defined Phillips’ work.
Because the benefit concert is also a celebration of Vermont’s folk heritage and folk tradition, Palieri said it was also important to bring in young musicians — showing that folk traditions are alive and well today. Cornwall teens Romy and Ben Munkres (14 and 13, respectively) will perform as representatives from Young Tradition Vermont, a nonprofit that encourages young people to explore folk music.
Although Palieri has traveled the world as a singer-songwriter, playing everything from guitar to the Polish bagpipes, he vividly remembers how Utah’s music and commanding stage presence first struck him to the heart when he was a kid:
“I was still in high school, and I was teaching myself how to play the banjo. Everybody started telling me I should go to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, so I went.
“And there was this man. I didn’t know who he was. I’d never heard of him before. He was a giant of a man. And he was all dressed in leather. He had leather pants on, he had a leather vest on, he had a leather hat on, and he was singing the most incredible songs and talking about hobos and talking about travel and talking about history.”
Continued Palieri, “From that moment I became a fan.”
To hear Utah sing and watch him perform, said Palieri, was to be inspired.
“He gave you a kind of passion for this old America,” said Palieri. “And that’s why it’s so important that we’re listening to Utah. We’re listening to his conviction, to his passion about the things that he loved.”
Phillips served in the Korean War — an experience that left him hitting the bottle and riding the rails. A chance encounter with the Catholic Worker Movement’s Ammon Hennacy turned his life around. Phillips refocused his energy on social justice and became a lifelong champion of workers’ rights. For eight years, he helped Hennacy run a Salt Lake City home for transients.
Phillips started performing in the 1960s.
He dubbed himself “U. Utah” after his favorite singer “T. Texas Tyler.” He also dubbed himself “The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest.”
Many of Phillips’ songs celebrate the freedom of riding the rails. Many celebrate the hands that built America: carpenters, cowboys, loggers, miners, farmers. Some celebrate bandits and outlaws.
Phillips had a great sense of humor, said Palieri. He loved jokes and didn’t just sing a song, but told stories and performed.
While not a household name to the extent of a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie, Utah Phillips has nevertheless had a pervasive influence. His songs have found their way to such diverse performers as Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Ani DiFranco and Tom Waits.
“Even Debbie Reynolds,” said Palieri.
The picture that emerges from Palieri’s reminiscences is of a man driven to experience life to its fullest, who lived fearlessly. Someone who claimed radical freedom, but wrote feelingly about loneliness. Someone with deep convictions about social justice, who knew what it meant — and sometimes cost — to take a stand.
“He said, ‘You learn about pacifism on the way down to the barroom floor. A guy hits you and you go down to the floor. If you get up and you shake his hand and say “We’re going to talk about this,” then you’re a pacifist. If you come up swinging, you need more work.
“He was that direct action kind of guy. He was a guy who had conviction, who had guts, who had courage.”
A Celebration of Utah Phillips Benefit Concert will take place Saturday, June 17, 2-8 p.m. at 126 Covered Bridge Road, Monkton/North Ferrisburgh. Suggested donation $20/person, $35/family. For more information go to tinyurl.com/ConcertUtah.
Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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