City Paper is not for tourists
It’s high noon for Arlington’s Grandsons of the Pioneers. After eight years of performing bright and happy cowbilly music under that witty moniker, the band’s inspiration, the Depression-era vocal group Sons of the Pioneers, have let it be known that this town ain’t big enough for that many sons, grand or otherwise. Their hired gun, Ira Selkowitz Esq., has called them out, serving the Grandsons with a cease-and-desist letter, making it clear that such whimsical liberties with the Sons’ good name amounts to fighting words.
Though the band was well aware of the Sons’ existence when they chose the name, the letter came as a surprise. Says senior Grandson Alan MacEwen: “We didn’t know that there were any Sons of the Pioneers still performing….I figured it was ancient history by the time we came along and decided to call ourselves “Grandsons of the Pioneers.’ ” MacEwen credits his youthful exuberance—“eight years less of musical knowledge”—for the decision to recklessly tamper with a proud musical tradition.
The band’s latest flier neatly explains the sorry situation: “As I’m sure you can understand, we are beside ourselves with righteous indignation. After consulting numerous experts, we have decided—well, to cave in quicker than a mineshaft on a fault line. Unless we somehow manage to resolve this, we are hereby hacking off the offending portion of our name to become “The Grandsons.’ ”
The unelective name-ectomy has set the artists formerly known as the Grandsons of the Pioneers to flights of feverish paranoia. “Did somebody betray us?” wonders MacEwen. “Who is this Judas that turned us in?” In fact, the truth involves a more prosaic coincidence. It turns out that Colorado- based lawyer Selkowitz is originally a Wheaton boy. On a trip home, he noticed an ad for a Grandsons gig at Tornado Alley.
In an attempt to stave off legal unpleasantness, MacEwen sent a copy of the Grandsons’ CD to Selkowitz, hoping that such jaunty tunes as “It Works for Me” “might be able to persuade [the Sons] to endorse us.” Such a turnaround is not unthinkable, but in a phone conversation, Selkowitz would not comment directly on the matter other than to acknowledge that “an incident has arisen.”
The “incident” revolves around “anti-dilution” statutes. That is, the right of trademark or copyright holders to protect themselves from competition that is similar enough to cause confusion in the marketplace. In other words, by carrying on a musical tradition, the Grandsons might be guilty of diluting that same tradition.
MacEwen contends that the Grandsons’ existence is a benefit to the Sons. “We’re helping spread the word to some younger potential fans. When people ask us what our name means, a lot of times they’ve never heard of the Sons of the Pioneers,” he says. “A lot of the venues where we play are rock clubs where the age is in the 18-to-30 range.” The Sons, on the other hand, perform half the year in Tucson and half the year in the country-music theme town of Branson, Mo. MacEwen maintains that his band’s performances have “educated a lot of people about who the Sons of the Pioneers were who otherwise would never have heard of them.”
So, as Butch said to Sundance, “Who are those guys?”
The Sons of the Pioneers were formed as the Pioneer Trio in 1933 by Bob Nolan, Tim Spencer, and Roy Rogers—yes, the Hamburger King. With the addition of Hugh and Karl Farr, two real cowboys, the Pioneer Trio became the Sons of, and—thanks to the gifted songwriting of Nolan and Spencer—released such cowpoke classics as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Cool Water.”
As MacEwen points out, no original members of the Sons of the Pioneers remain. With the exception of Rogers, who left in 1938 to become a singing cowboy in Hollywood movies, all the founding Sons are long deceased. Nolan and Spencer exited the band in 1950. Like the Platters and the Beach Boys, the group seems to have a life of its own, regardless of who wears the spurs.
Just as the Grandsons’ cleverness has come back to haunt them, so too has their success proven a liability. When the cease-and-desist letter arrived, the band sought pro bonoassistance from the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts (WALA). “It just so happened that this year, for the first time, we’re slightly too successful,” says MacEwen. “We’ve reached the point where we just clear the minimum income level to get free help. From the standpoint of WALA, we’re no longer impoverished artists.”
On the other hand, MacEwen concedes that “it would pretty much break us to try and defend ourselves.”
This episode has caused a reconsideration of their image. “When the band started, we were doing mostly rockabilly,” explains MacEwen. “Grandsons was supposed to be a rockabilly band, and that name made real good sense for a rockabilly band. But now we’re doing a lot more different things, like a lot of New Orleans type R&B, or pop stuff, and getting into a little bit of Latin and Caribbean stuff.” Now there is talk that “maybe it’s time to move on from the name.”
Certainly in band-years the Grandsons practically qualify for Medicare. “The rock ‘n’ roll business is such a tenuous thing,” says MacEwen. “Every day we’re on the hairy edge of everything falling apart. The fact that we’ve gone eight years, we should count ourselves very fortunate.”