Marshall Allen Bailey: Master of Many Trades
by Lynne Hewes
We've all heard the expression, "Jack of all trades; master of none," but what happens when, with a lot of hard work and a bit of good luck, you find yourself "master of many"? That seems to be the case with Allen Bailey, historian, musician, artist, radio personality, and spokesman for Dodge City.
A Western Kansas native, Bailey, who admits to being mostly "self-taught" in many of his pursuits, can reel off fascinating and accurate accounts of stories of Kansas history, has written and recorded songs, has become an accomplished painter of wildlife and Western scenes, is the long-time host of "Western Swing and Other Things" on High Plains Public Radio, and, in his spare time, serves as honorary marshal of Dodge City.
How can one man accomplish so much in one lifetime?
"I've been blessed in a lot of ways," Bailey says. "For everything I've come across, I couldn't let it go without learning as much about it as I could. Lots of folks have been admiring of my talents, but the way I look at it is that talent is really just 'applied repetition.' You're bound to get good at something if you give it enough practice."
Bailey's love of history was fostered at an early age.
"My first job when I was a kid growing up in Cimarron was pulling weeds for Pearl Luther," he says. "She would always call me in for afternoon tea, and she would tell wonderful stories. Back in those days, everything on TV was a Western, and here was a gal who had known Bat Masterson. She didn't like him. After I was old enough to do some research, I learned that what she said about him was right. Lots of people didn't like him."
Luther's stories encouraged Bailey to learn more about Western Kansas history, often digging until he found little-known facts about people and buildings and Kansas happenings in the l800s. That knowledge led Bailey to give presentations and write articles about such topics as the Gray County Seat fight, which led to his helping revitalize the at the time almost-defunct Gray County Historical Society, a group for which he served as president for a few years.
Today, mention almost any topic of Western Kansas history, and he'll begin a story. He's especially interested in the history of ghost towns in the area.
Recently, he's been learning about an almost-empty town called Raymond, southeast of Ellinwood.
"I once read a book about Raymond, something a community had put together years ago," Bailey says. "Turns out that Raymond used to have a population of 1,000 people—a big population for the time. It was a rootin', tootin' cowtown, the biggest town in Rice County. Now there's only a few people living there and a school building used as a community center."
Bailey says he's fascinated with the thought that a place might have been at one time hustling and bustling, but now there's hardly anything to show for it.
"I want to understand the process that leads to that," he says. "This whole area is full of stories like that. I want to tell people about those things. If you set a kid down and start to tell some of those old stories, you'll see his eyes light up. And if that kid remembers, he'll tell someone, pass the story on."
So there's the historian. How about the musician?
"I was about 11 years old when I saw a book at Tuggle's Drug Store [now Clark Pharmacy]. It was called You Too Can Play Guitar," Bailey says. "My mom gave me the fifty cents to buy it, but she made me promise to learn to play. I guess she didn't count on my singing too. I tell people that she spent her whole life trying to get her money back."
By the age of 12, Bailey was using his new-found music skill to play for dances.
"I was fortunate to be around some good musicians who tolerated me," he says. "We played some pretty rough places. My folks were naïve. They thought those guys were watching over me. I learned a lot of things, some of which had to do with music. I was pretty good for a kid. I sang and played lead guitar, going from one band to another. I played a lot of dances over the years. I played with Patsy Montana, the first woman to sell a million records with 'I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart.'"
Since those days, Bailey has expanded his musical talents, even writing and recording some of his own songs.
Currently, he's putting together a new 15-song CD with his wife Janey.
"We're thinking it will come out in the spring," he says. "It will be called Night Rider. There are some original songs I've written, and Janey will sing some too. We'll probably just sell it off the bandstand, or on Amazon or on our website. We really don't have lots of high aspirations."
Another talent Bailey has worked to master over the years is art.
"I just sort of messed around when I was a kid," he says. "I was always drawing instead of listening to the teacher. I'm self-taught. It's something that came pretty easy for me. Back in the '70s and early '80s, I did some freelance work for magazines and catalogues, some line drawings in pen and ink. I sold some things to Equestrian Magazine and Western Horseman. Lately, I've been doing acrylics, and we've had some prints made by a company in Pittsburg, Kansas. I think I've finally found my niche."
People who don't know Allen Bailey, historian, musician, or artist, probably do know Allen Bailey, host of the Saturday morning High Plains Public Radio show called "Western Swing and Other Things." That aspect of his career began as a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
"Back in 1988, the station was doing a fund drive, and they were willing to take anything that would take up air space—for free," he says. "They let me and a group I was with play some things on air. The program manager noticed that I had a gift for gab the minute that red light came on. She offered to let me do a show with Celtic music. I didn't know anything about Celtic music, so I told her, 'I know everything about Western Swing. Let me do Western Swing.' I told her I had a whole refrigerator full of Western Swing music at home."
As he had done with his other trades, Bailey put a lot of hard work and practice into making the radio show work.
"Back then I thought that people shouldn't be able to hear any of my breaths over the air," he says. "It was reel to reel back then, and I would take a razor blade and cut out any audible breaths from the tape. It would take me six hours to edit a one-hour show, and I'd end up with pieces of tape all over the floor."
Things have changed quite a bit since those early days. His wife, known to fans as Cowgirl Janey, helps host the show.
"Nowadays, we just do whatever comes naturally. We have a lot of fun. It's not scripted," he says. "If we make a mistake, so what? It's part of our show. It makes it more interesting. It took me several years for that to dawn on me."
One of the best parts of hosting "Western Swing" is the listeners who call in, letting Bailey know how important the three-hour show is to their lives.
"When people get involved, that's good radio," he says. "One day I got a call from a woman in Texas. She said her father had been a long-time listener of 'Western Swing,' and they were holding his funeral on that Saturday morning while I was doing the show. She asked if I would play a song in his memory. Later she called back to tell me that when the song came on the radio, her mother wouldn't get out of the car at the cemetery until the song was over.
"You know, at first I didn't think the show would last six weeks, but we just celebrated 25 years on the air."
From historian, artist, and entertainer to radio show host, Bailey expanded to a new calling. On February 21, 2000, he was appointed as Official Dodge City Marshal by that city's mayor and city council. Part of his job is promoting the City of Dodge City. Of all the things he's done which bring him pride, being a Dodge City marshal may be his favorite.
"It's the biggest honor I've ever had," he says, "and I don't take it lightly. I guard it. I'm careful to do my best not to do anything wrong. It's something I can put on my tombstone."