Local musician brings home NM Music Award


One day in 1993, Sage Gentlewing was driving through California on Highway 46 between Highway 101 to Highway 5 and stopped at Jack’s Ranch Café.

A tree with a monument sculpture, surrounded by bronze plaques, drew his attention. This, it turned out, was the place where James Dean died. So Gentlewing sat down and wrote the beginnings of a song, “James Dean’s Crash Site.” The next year, he made an effort to go back to that spot and finish the song.

Now, 30 years and several versions of that song later, he has taken home the best Americana song award from the New Mexico Awards, held May 19.

“They announced it as best production encompassing best performance of an original song and best production in terms of the sonic value,” he said.

Two years ago, Gentlewing decided he was going to put out a new extended play album with six songs including “James Dean’s Crash Site,” having rewritten the arrangement. He heard the pitch from the New Mexico Music Awards and sent it in.

“I’ve always been the kind of musician who, on one hand, takes all those things with a grain of salt,” he said. “But you have to know your worth. I know that I am good and I have earned it and worked at it. There is no best. Everybody is great.”

Gentlewing has been playing music professionally since he was 15, when he started as a drummer in San Francisco.

“We opened for Janis Joplin, we opened for Buffalo Springfield,” He said. It was 1966.

But his budding career was cut short in 1967 when he was busted for possessing cannabis and sent to a juvenile county farm in 1967.

“The irony is I don’t even smoke anymore; and haven’t for 30 years,” he said.

He missed the Monterey Pop Festival Summer of Love because he was in jail and the music scene changed. When he got out, he switched to guitar and has been playing it ever since.

“It took about 12 years to get my footing as a guitar player – to get where I was at as a drummer. By the time I got my act together the times were well into bebop and jazz and the scene was long gone,” he said. “You have to strike when the iron is hot, because the moment will pass. You have to keep reinventing yourself.”

So most of Gentlewing’s life as a musician was spent working as a guitar player in other people’s bands. He provided backup in more than 40 working bands over his lifetime.

With the Circus Vargus Band alone, he played 80 cities in 22 states in 11 months.

“I just loved it,” he said. “Honestly, the fabric of my personality is that I am a working musician and I relish the work.”

At 72, he admits “you do have to pace yourself as you get older.” Today he still is a working musician but a bit more settled down.

“I’m happily married,” he said. “Settled but still a working musician. You have to create a different type of environment for yourself to continue to perform in, because performance is the lifeblood of your craft.”

Gentlewing did take a 10-year “backseat” from being a musician between 1986 and 1996, when he found himself following a muse to become a sacred dancer. He toured the country performing Tibetan and East Indian classical dance as a protégée to a couple he met while living in Sedona, Ariz.

“I ended up being on the cover of magazines as a dancer and I got Rockefeller grants to study and perform,” he said. “I did 72 one-man shows across the country. I was doing that when I wrote ‘James Dean’s Crash Site.”

Today, he still makes his living playing his music and still enjoys the game.

“It’s been a rough-and-tumble life,” he said. "You have got to pick and choose your battles. I would still crawl across the desert on glass in 120-degree heat if it meant a gig. And what I figured out – I can make a pretty good living playing solo.”

To hear “James Dean’s Crash Site” and other pieces of Gentlewing’s music, visit sagegentlewing.com or just watch our local music venues for times and dates.

Sage Gentlewing, best Americana song award, New Mexico Awards