HUSTISFORD — The hub of country music is widely considered to be Nashville, Tenn.
But depending on who you ask in this corner of Wisconsin, country music’s home during the 1970s was wherever Allen Van Dyke and his band mates were playing.
A Hustisford native, Allen Van Dyke started his music career in the mid-1960s performing at a variety of bars and dance halls. As his popularity grew, he formed the band that would later be named Allen Van Dyke and The Mountain Express in 1971.
The band played all over the state throughout the decade. They were a fixture at almost every fireman’s picnic in Dodge County, played at several hot spots throughout Milwaukee and performed on the main stages of the Price, Fond du Lac and Iron county fairs. Van Dyke said he and his band played with several famed national acts such as Susan Raye, Marvin Rainwater, Tom T. Hall, Glenn Barber and Leroy Van Dyke.
As the band continued to play packed venues for around 180 nights a year, Van Dyke was still working part-time as a patrolman for the village of Hustisford, a school bus driver and deputy for the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department.
After he was promoted to detective for the sheriff’s department, Van Dyke said he began to realize his popularity as a musician made his job a whole lot easier.
“I’d go to some door and identify myself as Allen Van Dyke with the sheriff’s department and someone’s voice from the inside would say, ‘Are you the one that has the band?’ Then they would let me in and it would take the edge off of the fact that I was there as an enforcement (officer) and invariably they would want to know where we were playing this weekend.”
It was around the time that Van Dyke was working as a detective that his band mates, drummer Jim Owen, lead guitarist Tom Ninnig and bassist Jim Zimmerman, wanted to take the band’s show on the road. So Van Dyke got in contact with a music agent named Bill Clayton who worked for the Detroit-based Paul Wade agency out of Detroit, Mich.
According to Van Dyke, Clayton contacted him with a promise of a show at Thief River Falls, Minn., that weekend. Since Van Dyke was the only band member with a flexible work schedule (the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department allowed him to attend music acts as he desired), the band was unable to accept the offer.
Eager to still evaluate the band, Clayton flew to the area to see the band play at the Tumbleweed in Reeseville.
“We played the first set and the agent went over to the table where our friends and family were sitting, so my drummer’s (Jim Owen) wife looked up and asked ‘what do you think?’” Van Dyke said recounting the show. “The agent (Clayton) said ‘kiss your husband goodbye sweetheart because I can put these guys on the road 50 weeks a year.’”
After Clayton gave the group an offer, some of Van Dyke’s band mates began to second guess the opportunity and whether they were talented enough to go on the road full-time. They ultimately decided to pass on Clayton’s offer.
With his band members not ready to make a commitment, Van Dyke was forced to call Clayton, a short time after first reaching out to him at the request of band.
“He said your sidemen need you. You don’t need them,” Van Dyke said of the conversation.
Clayton told Van Dyke if he came to Detroit, a band would be built around him and an unlimited amount of shows could be provided.
“I thought, these guys have been around me for a long time, I owe them something,” Van Dyke said. “I didn’t go, and if one opportunity knocks, if you don’t open the door and step through, it’s kind of too late.”
Van Dyke said the rapport he had with Jim Owen would have made leaving the band especially difficult. In speaking of his close-knit relationship with Owen, Van Dyke recounted a time where he and Owen were recording a demo session in Waupun for an upcoming event.
“We were set up in this studio and the drummer (Owen) was in a room all by himself because that way the drums don’t bleed into the other microphones. And after we got done the guy that ran the place asked how long we had been working together. He said it was uncanny how we knew what the other was doing without being in the same room.”
Not long after Van Dyke chose to stay with the Mountain Express, the band began to falter due to a bevy of arguments, some even centered around clothing.
“When we would go out and play I insisted everyone would dress nice. I would buy clothes. I had leisure suits that I bought for the band and my mother would do all the wash and all the ironing. It got to the point where the guys thought they should be able to wear whatever they wanted to.”
When Van Dyke returned from a solo show at the Grapevine Opry in Texas, his wife told him the band was playing a show at a local venue without him. After going down to see it for himself, Van Dyke fired two of the members, effectively ending the band. He chose to keep one member, Owen, because of their long-lasting friendship.
After the breakup of the Mountain Express, Van Dyke did have some regret over not accepting the offer from the Detroit agency but believes today that everything ended the way it was supposed to.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Van Dyke said. “There were sometimes when I said, ‘Gee, it would have been really nice to make it big.’ But then our son was born in ‘88 so lots of times I said if that would have happened I wouldn’t have this now. It’s hard to say. Some of the guys I know from Nashville were married for 20 or 30 years to the same woman. Some of the entertainers you see today, well they’re married for two or three months.”
Today, much of the regret Van Dyke once possessed has subsided, and while he isn’t performing as much as he did 40 years ago, he enjoys his opportunities to play now as much as ever.
“When I get up now and play with the guys in the jam sessions, the fellas are good enough that it’s like playing with musicians from Nashville. You don’t get with these guys and practice anything, you just tell them what you want to sing and, wham, bam, they sing it. It’s a rush.”
A recent retiree, Van Dyke now runs an auction service with his wife. He is a member of the Wisconsin Auctioneers Association and has attended auction school in Iowa. Having been in the auction business since 1981, Van Dyke said he was drawn to the trade by Leroy Van Dyke, who performed his hit “The Auctioneer” while playing select shows with Allen Van Dyke.