Ariz. folk musician Travis Edmonson dies at 76
By Cathalena E. Burch
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 05.11.2009
Travis Edmonson's life fits the broader definition of troubadour: strolling minstrel, a bit of a poet and a hopeless romantic.
In an entertainment career that spanned the 1950s to early 1980s, the Nogales, Ariz.-raised folk singer lived hard and fast by rules he made and broke, say his friends and colleagues. He cursed like Lenny Bruce, sang like an angel and loved the ladies like Don Juan.
It was like having an uncle, an older brother. He had been there and done that,” said longtime friend and fellow musician Gerry Glombecki. “He was such a character.”
“He had the true heart of a troubadour,” said Arizona's official balladeer Dolan Ellis, who befriended Edmonson in the late 1950s. “I have never known a person quite like Travis. I've seen them in movies, but I've never known them.”
Edmonson, half of the dynamic 1950s-'60s folk duo Bud & Travis, died Sunday from lung cancer. He had been hospitalized since late last year.
The cancer diagnosis was the latest in a nearly 30-year string of bad health that started when Edmonson suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1982, said family spokesman and longtime friend Mike Bartlett.
Edmonson was born on Sept. 23, 1932, in Long Beach, Calif., where his family had a summer home. He was raised in the family's native Nogales, Ariz., where he attended elementary school and fell in love with mariachi music and Mexican folk songs. In those days, the border between the two Nogaleses was open and folks regularly crossed back and forth.
Edmonson would make his way to where the mariachis performed and where he learned to play his guitar in the huapango tradition.
“He's always had a Mexican soul. He cut his teeth going across that border with his guitar and singing with the mariachis in the `entertainment section' of town,” Ellis recalled Monday. “That's where his soul really got branded with the Mexican music and the Mexican culture.”
Edmonson graduated from Tucson High School and attended the University of Arizona, intending to follow his brothers into anthropology. Nearly from day one, though, music derailed his academic career. It started when he and a childhood buddy, Roger Smith, serenaded hundreds of UA sororities and girls' dormitories, Edmonson wrote in a 1988 article for Folk Era Today magazine.
The pair went on to win the Horace Heidt and Ted Mack talent Shows and a UA contest singing Mexican folk music, which emboldened Edmonson to make music his career.
Edmonson joined the Gateway Singers of San Francisco and toured and recorded with them for several years before teaming up with Oliver “Bud” Dashiell to form the folk duo Bud & Travis.
“Bud & Travis were on a plane with the likes of Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary,” said Tucson musician Frank Ross, who was a fan of Edmonson's music for nearly 40 years before meeting him a few years ago.
With Travis's quick wit and the pair's combined guitar prowess and vocal harmonies, they became best-selling recording artists and toured more than 200 dates a year. They also were the first guests on ABC's groundbreaking TV show “Hootenanny,” where they made regular appearances.
Among their repertoire was a lightening fast acoustic version of “La Bamba,” which has been resurrected by various artists throughout the years.
“Travis spearheaded bringing Mexican music into the folk era of the '60s. It was thanks to him that we heard of . . . the old Mexican songs,” said Ross, who played a folk festival with Edmonson in Phoenix several years ago.
“They were very popular in northern Mexico. They did a lot of TV shows and appearances where they were the only ones who had ever (sang Mexican songs in Spanish),” added Tucson folk singer-songwriter Tim Wiedenkeller.
Dashiell and Edmonson released several albums but had only one hit single, “The Ballad of the Alamo,” in their seven-year partnership from 1958 to 1965. After their tumultuous split, both went on to modest solo careers. Dashiell died of a brain tumor in 1979.
Edmonson, defying common logic that said his music career would thrive better in New York or L.A., returned to Tucson.
“This is where he wanted to be, where he could get out in the desert and spend the night. Where he could make music about Arizona and try and help people to understand a little bit about this great Southwest of ours,” Bartlett said.
Edmonson snagged jobs at local clubs and hotels, and quickly became an example for younger musicians.
“He was the most talented musician in town,” said Glombecki, who was newly arrived from Chicago when he met Edmonson in the early 1970s. “He was by far the most talented musician I ever worked with. He had it all. He was so deep in the Southwestern folk music. It bordered on jazz as far as the mariachi stuff and the chord progressions.”
“He was a powerful performer,” said Ted Ramirez of the Santa Cruz River Band, who first met Edmonson 30 years ago. “Travis had a special way with an audience. He was a very unique and powerful musician. He had a way of connecting with people. . . . He was truly from this place; he knew what it was about. His roots were indigenous in that way. He understood where the balance was with people.”
Edmonson is survived by his longtime partner Rose Marie Heidrick of Mesa; a son, Steven of San Francisco; five daughters, Ellen Murphy and Erin Kissel, both of Tucson; Elizabeth Edmonson of Vegas; Tammy Edmonson of San Francisco; and Linda Schneider of the Midwest.
Services will be private. Bartlett said a public memorial will be scheduled later.
Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4642.