Michael Breid of Eureka Springs, Arkansas and The Pine Mountain Jamboree recalls his time with Ken Curtis and ‘The Dodge City Four.’
“In 1974 I was working in Springfield, Missouri in a club called the Mason-Dixon Lounge, with Jeannie Bryant vocalist, and Buddy Jones on bass. I was playing lead guitar.
“One weekend a month I would work as a staff musician on a local TV show called The Slim Wilson Show. Speedy Haworth the guitarist on the show had taken me out a few times to play banjo and rhythm guitar with Rex Allen Sr. and his ‘Men Of The West’. All of us were from Springfield, Missouri (except Rex) and taped the Slim Wilson show or worked in various clubs when not with Rex.
“One night, about seven o'clock, the leader of the ‘Men of The West’, Slim Wilson called me and said, ‘Can you fill in a few days with Festus? His accordion player, Hi Bussy has had a heart attack in Salt Lake, and Ken is needing a replacement’. I told Slim I didn't know if I would work out, and he told me Ken did the same ‘Sons of the Pioneers’ (which Ken used to be a member of) tunes that Rex did.

“He gave me a number in Salt Lake to call Ken. I called and we talked for a while and I asked him when he would need me. He said to meet him in Terre Haute, Indiana at the airport tomorrow at 4 p.m. He said to go to the airport in Springfield at 2:00 pm and a ticket would be waiting for me.

“Well, needless to say, I did some flyin' trying to get my clothes packed and all. I flew to Terre Haute the next day and met Ken at the airport. With him were his band, Jack Lowell on guitar, Paul (Clem) Smith on bass, and female vocalist/guitarist Heidi Nelson.

“We got to the hotel and had a quick rehearsal. Slim hadn't steered me wrong. The songs were the ones I had played with Rex, only in different keys: no problem. I remember I was as nervous as a dog passing peach seeds that night, but I got through it with flying colors.

“It was a fair of some sort in Terre Haute. Ken said we had a day layover until the next show, so tomorrow he would give me the itinerary. I got the itinerary the next day and about flipped. A few days??!! There were thirty-one days with shows we had to do!!! I called my wife and had her send clothes to the hotel in the next town we were going to be in. I can't tell you where all of those dates were, but I remember we crossed from the Midwest to the east coast and back a bunch.

“The five-string banjo and harmonica I played worked fine with the ‘Sons of The Pioneers’ music Ken did.

“The usual set up for a show was we did a couple of vocals. I played a banjo tune, then Ken would come out dancing around on stage while we played a bit of a hoedown song. We would stop, Jack would play a chord and we would break into ‘Cool Water’, and then ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’. Then Ken had a comical monologue he would do. Then a couple of songs more like ‘King of the Road’, or ‘Casey Jones’.

“Then Ken would do this sort of patriotic little monologue he had and how he wanted to thank all of these wonderful folks who watched Gunsmoke all these years. Then he would say [in Festus-ese) ‘And I know I ain't too bright, but I'm smart enough to know this. If'n it weren't fer Gunsmoke, neither one of us would have been here tonight!!!’

“Then Jack would play a chord on the guitar and Ken would sing, "May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You" with all of us joining in on the chorus.

“The shows we did were fairs and rodeos all over the country. We even got to play a couple of high school auditoriums too. Sometimes the local law enforcement agency would have security for us around the bandstand like we were big stars or something. A little unusual for me, but I got used to it.

“Let me digress a little bit. I asked Ken one time where he came up with the Festus idea. He said when he worked with the ‘Sons of The Pioneers’ they would take a break in their show and he would come out in a mailman's uniform, pushing a bicycle and do this funny act as ‘Dink Swink.’ He would read comical letters to the audience and tell jokes. In fact Ken named his company (what the company did I never knew) Dink Swink Inc.

“Now back to the story. I would work with Ken about ten dates a year from 1974-78. In or about 1975 Heidi Nelson left the group and Jeannie Bryant whom I had been working with at the Mason-Dixon Lounge in Springfield came on board.

“Ken was pleased as a new papa when she joined the group. She is the only girl singer I have ever worked with that knocks me out when she sings. I told Ken about Jeannie and he said, ‘Bring her up for an audition.’
“She sang about three notes at rehearsal and Ken said, ‘I wish I had known you earlier. You're just what I've been lookin’ fer’.

“One night in 1978 while singing the high yodel on the song ‘Way Out There’ my voice went weak. Luckily, it was the last performance of the week. I returned home and had a throat specialist check me out. He found polyps on my vocal cords and said they needed to come out. The next week I was supposed to play with Ken in Napa, Idaho. Unfortunately, that was when the doctor scheduled me for surgery. He said the more I tried to sing with those polyps on my vocal cords the more damage I would do. He said it was now or never, so I had to cancel my part of the rodeo in Napa, Idaho.

“After the surgery was over Ken had a show in Vernon, Texas. Each year he had worked less and less, and said he was thinking about retiring. Before I left for Vernon to play the show, a Branson show called me to work for them. It was a steady gig that paid year 'round. I told them I had one more job with Ken in Texas, but then I could start rehearsing with them right after that.

“I played the show in Vernon and asked Ken when his next show was. He said he had one the next year he thought, but wasn't sure. I told him I had a secure offer from a well established show in Branson to join their group. He said, ‘For Lord's sake take it. I ain't gonna be working that much, and steady jobs pickin' are few and fer between’.

“After the show we said our goodbyes, and Ken, Clem and Jack, two of the Dodge City Four, flew to L.A. and Jeannie and I flew back to Springfield.

“About fifteen years ago there was a big store in Springfield called Venture Stores. They had Ken there as some sort of promotional thing. I was living in Eureka Springs (Got divorced and left Springfield and moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas to work with the Pine Mountain Jamboree, and got married again.) so my wife and I went up to see him.

“I stood in line like all the rest and then got to have my turn. Ken was really glad to see me, and said he was working about one or two shows every year or so. He was basically retired. We didn't get to visit very long because the "Venture biggies" wanted Ken for pictures and all the "freebees" they could get. We said so long, and that was the last time I saw Ken.
“I called and talked to his wife Torrie a few times, but Ken was always gone doing something. Then, one day a friend of mine sent me a newspaper clipping saying, ‘Rugged old codger of Gunsmoke dies’. It was about three inches of copy that said Ken had passed away in his sleep. I sent a sympathy card to his wife Torrie, but never heard anything more until a friend of theirs told me via email that Torrie had passed away a few years ago with pancreatic cancer.

“To digress again I'll tell you how we got our name. The name of the Dodge City Four came about out of necessity. Hi Busse named the group "The Frontiersmen". He was with Ken a long time when his health became so bad that he no longer could play with the group he said the name "The Frontiersmen" was his and Ken and his new group could not use it. Well, so much for friends.

“We were in Danville, Illinois [just by the way, hometown of Donald O’Connor, Dick Van Dyke and Gene Hackman] I think, when Ken told us we had to change the name of the group because Hi was throwing a real hissy fit and threatened to sue and I don't know what all. So ‘The Dodge City Four’ we became. I think the guitarist Jack Lowell (real name Jack Lowell Oglesby) thought up the name. It's been about twenty years since I've heard from Jack.

“I last saw him as a member of the band in the wedding scene of the new "Beverly Hillbillies" movie with Jim Varney. Don't know if he is still alive and kickin' or not. Or Paul (Clem) Smith for that matter. Well, that about wraps it up. It was pretty much a cut and dried thing. I showed up, I played the show or shows, and I flew back home. Not very exciting huh?

“I got to see a big chunk of this country in that four years and will never regret my job with Ken. He was a great guy. Like Slim Wilson used to say, "I never made it to the big time star status, but I got to rub shoulders with them.”