For more than a decade, Mike Gwinn has been at the heart of the Western Slope music scene.
"I've played in some of the strangest, most unlikely places," said Gwinn, whose first public appearance was in 1959. When performing, be it in a small bar or class reunion or at a major festival, he takes a musical journey and invites his audience to come along.
Gwinn has played many, many venues over the years, including in Europe, Hawaii, Mexico, Central America, Canada and across the United States. He's comfortable on any stage, and could live anywhere, but he chooses to live here. "I really found a home here," said Gwinn. "Paonia is like a magnet. There's something here. A collection of energy brings people here ... I've never come across a small community with so much artistic and musical talent."
Despite his thousands of appearances, he takes each show seriously, whether playing to an audience of 20 or 2,500. "I try to bring an entertaining and musical show to everybody that's there," he said.
Gwinn grew up in Laguna Beach near Hollywood in the golden age of television. Dad Bill Gwinn, a trained Irish tenor, was a household name and emcee of the popular show, "What's the Name of that Song?" There was always music at his house, and Hollywood elites would often stop by. He took swim lessons from Johnny Weissmuller and guitar lessons from Laurindo Almeda. "I remember everything," said Gwinn.
His generation was "sandwiched between the beatniks and hippies." Before his first gig he was writing songs, drawing from his own life experiences. "I like to think I write future standards, music that will live beyond me," he said.
In 1959 he made his first stage appearance with Dave Myers and the Surftones. This was before the Beach Boys, said Gwinn. The band was a fixture at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa and the guitarist played surf rock guitar in the style of Dick Dale.
He's been playing professionally ever since. In the 1970s he joined Gabriel Gladstar, a trio "playing folk/rock with a twist. We were school bus hippies," he said. In 1973 they released "A Garden Song" on vinyl. Gwinn wrote and sang five of the album's eight songs. Considered one of the best psych rock albums of all time, it still has a following.
Gwinn has also recorded and collaborated with a list of jazz greats including Richie Cole, Bruce Forman and Bobby McFerrin.
Gwinn eventually started a family. Music didn't pay all the bills, so he worked on the railroad, as a lifeguard, ski instructor, school bus driver and gold miner. In the mid 1970s he left a school district job to live in Telluride and continue his career in music. During that time he played at Cherry Days, the Telluride Jazz Festival, and toured with The Ophir Band.
In the early 1990s, he met his future wife, Patty, on a return trip to Laguna Beach. In 2003, he and Patty saw Colorado in a rented RV. They arrived in Paonia via McClure Pass, stopped at Pepper's (now Subway) and decided right then and there, "This would work."
Being the consummate stage musician, in less than a week he had a gig at Pizza My Heart (now Louie's), which had a tiny stage set up in the front window. "It never takes me long to find a music scene, wherever I go," said Gwinn.
Whether playing solo, with Mike White in the jazz duo Blues Indigo, or with the Free Radicals -- Butler Cox on keyboard, Tony Collucci on drums, guitarist Dave Sheppard, and Hal Brill on bass, he hit all the local venues and short-lived festivals. He also played at the nascent Mountain Harvest Festival in 2003. For the next four years Patty ran the festival and he promoted the music lineup.
In 2005 the Free Radicals evolved into Mike Gwinn & the North Fork Flyers. Drummer Justin Hess, of Thicker Than Thieves, Three in the Morning and The Strolling Scones fame with Rick Stockton and Helen Highwater, has toured with numerous bands and worked with Janis Ian and the late Gato Barbieri; local music teacher John White plays sax, flute and bass. Trombonist Tony Peters toured with Ted Weems, the Glen Miller orchestras, The Lettermen, The O'Jays and others. Woodwind artist Willy Wright was also in the original band.
For more than a decade the band has performed throughout western Colorado -- the Wright Opera House in Ouray, Telluride Jazz Festival, Ride the Rockies, and recorded a CD at the KAFM Radio Room in Grand Junction. Today they play between 50-60 shows a year and regularly collaborate with other local musicians. Their jazz repertoire encompasses a broad history of jazz greats, including Rodgers and Hammerstein and Thelonius Monk.
The band isn't limited to jazz. Other influences include country, pop, reggae, Motown and classic rock. "We offer something for everyone," said Gwinn.
There are a lot of bands out there, said Gwinn, but most don't last very long. What sets the North Fork Flyers apart from the rest is the horn section, which allows them to broaden their repertoire and appeal to a wider audience. Their unique sound has kept them busy in a highly competitive profession.
At 72, Gwinn isn't slowing down. In 2014 he released the appropriately-titled "Still Going 70 in a 55," a CD of all original songs featuring a long list of local musicians and produced and engineered b David Snyder, with whom he's currently collaborating with on new material.
In February the band literally brought the house down at Gwinn's birthday bash at Louie's Pizza. Gwinn said he felt responsible, and help repair the damage he wrote a song and created the Raise the Roof" fundraiser, which was held March 25 at the Blue Sage. About a dozen local musicians played, raising more than $2,500. "At any tone time there was easily 100 people there," said Gwinn.
The band has a full spring and summer schedule that includes The Sherbino theater in Ridgway, The Lark & Sparrow in Montrose, Two Rivers Jazz Among the Grapevines Summer Concert Series, as well as several smaller local shows. He also booked a house concert/recording session in California.
Gwinn will also host a local show in the near future with friend and songwriter Mark Turnbull, whom he knew back in his Newport Beach days and refers to as "the great musical wizard."
He recently picked up three new guitar students. When he's not playing, writing or recording, he and Patty tend to 100 cherry trees on their 2.5-acre property. .
Gwinn said he's just getting started. His dad lived to be 93. "I'm a lot like him," said Gwinn. "I love to celebrate life."
He and Patty also tend 100 cherry trees growing on their 2.5-acre property.