Bartley was playing just his second gig behind country rock pioneer Gram Parsons in his backing band, the Fallen Angels. It also included singer/guitarist Emmylou Harris. That’s when they were joined by two musical luminaries, fresh off their own Houston show earlier that evening at the much larger Sam Houston Coliseum.
“Then they invited us all to go back to their swanky Houston hotel, and we stayed up all night playing and singing and taking massive quantities of everything. If there was a guitar around, Gram would pick it up and play 20 or 30 country songs. But to hear Emmylou and Linda sitting next to him and blending their voices together, it was magical. And wonderful.” Ronstadt and Harris would become lifelong friends, musical collaborators, and – with Dolly Parton – later record as the Trio.
But just five days before that Liberty Hall show, Bartley was holding not a guitar in his hand, but a brush. He was laying down fresh coats of paint at his apartment building in exchange for his rent.
“I wasn’t a country picker, but I was better than the last guy in Gram’s band, I guess. He was nervous and had gotten drunk and the show was awful,” Bartley continues. “They called me up and the next morning, and I was on the road to play Austin at the Armadillo World Headquarters. The next gig was in Houston.”
Bartley’s stint in the Fallen Angels wouldn’t last much longer, but there were bigger things on the horizon. He – along with Rick Roberts and Larry Burnett (vocals/guitars), Mark Andes (bass), and Michael Clarke (drums) formed the country rock group Firefall in 1974. They added David Muse (keyboards/flute/sax) shortly thereafter.
Firefall scored three big radio hits on their first trio of albums with “You Are the Woman,” “Just Remember I Love You,” and “Strange Way.” Fans also enjoyed deeper cuts like “Livin’ Ain’t Livin’,” “Cinderella,” “Mexico,” and “Headed for a Fall.” The group went through breakups, reunions, and many lineup changes, but the current band (Bartley, Andes, Muse, singer/guitarist Gary Jones, and drummer Sandy Ficca,) are releasing “Comet” (Sunset Blvd. Records) on December 11. It's the band's first new studio album in nearly two decades.
The ten tracks are penned by both band members and outside writers. Jones handles most of the lead vocals, with contributions from Bartley and one by band friend Mark Trippensee. But the whole project started when they recorded a cover of Spirit’s “Nature’s Way” with a lead vocal by Andes, a former member of that group.
“Firefall’s been doing a log of package shows, and we’ve been playing the same 45-minute set for 20 years. So for me, it was nice to include ‘Nature’s Way’ in the set as a doff of our hats to Spirit and Randy California,” Bartley says.
“A lot of classic rock bands won’t put out albums because it won’t get on radio and will just be sold at the gigs. We have new stuff to play and to say. And we’re excited that it’s out.”
Leadoff track “Way Back When” has Bartley reminiscing about some of the great performers of the ‘60s, weaving in song titles in the lyrics in which each chorus is dedicated to a different year. “I wrote the first verse about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Byrds in 1965. Then, I Googled the top 100 hits of 1967 and I saw Aretha Franklin and the Rascals and all the songs,” he says. “Then I did the same on the next verse for 1969 with Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Led Zeppelin.”
“The new record is our way of staying in touch with our audience without being able to tour,” Andes says via video on the same Zoom call. “We’re gonna have to test the waters with [concerts], but doing it in a responsible way. Like being careful and hopefully getting vaccinated. It’s just so complicated.”
The original Firefall was already in existence in the mid-‘70s when Bartley, Andes, and Roberts were moonlighting in former Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers bassist Chris Hillman’s band.
A tour was ending with a three-date run at New York’s The Other End when Hillman fell ill after the first gig. The trio convinced the club owner to let them fly out Burnett and Clarke to finish the shows as Firefall. Hillman also produced the band’s demo that helped get them a deal with Atlantic Records, whose reps had seen the band play at the club.
The band took its name from a longstanding tradition at Yosemite National Park, where organizers would light a large wooden bonfire, then push it over the edge of a cliff as thousands watched it fall. After the practice was discontinued due to safety and image reasons, visitors can now see a "natural" firefall during mid- to late February. That's when the setting sun makes the Horsetail Fall near El Capitan appear to be "on fire," with an optical illusion river of flames cascading down the cliff.
Asked as to how his and the band’s base in Boulder, Colorado affected their music, Bartley says it’s partially because Firefall was smack dab in the middle of the burgeoning scene that mixed county and rock, but with a different perspective than their California cousins.
“I grew up in Boulder, and in 1972 or so Stephen Stills, Chris Hillman, Richie Furay, Dan Fogelberg, Carl Wilson from the Beach Boys, and the great Mark Andes all moved there,” Bartley says. “When Rick and I were first getting together and Mark came and sat in with us, it felt like we could be a band. The California sound that started with the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and Poco moved to Colorado, and Firefall was an outgrowth of that.”
“That western kind of music has a depth and feel that is more expanded than typical [rock],” Andes adds. “The songs sounded like they filled the void of desertscape.”
With the success of the Roberts-penned “You Are the Woman” – the third single off the band’s 1976 self-titled debut record and the band’s biggest hit – casual listeners pegged them in the soft rock/ballad category. That had its pros and cons.
“In later years, Rick didn’t want to even play it anymore! And I said ‘Rick that’s our biggest hit! People are buying tickets to hear that song!’ Thousands of people have told me over the years they got married to that song!” Bartley says.
“When Rick presented it, it was a late addition to the album. But we all figured it could be a hit. I’ve been working 25 years because of that song!” he continues. “But the downside is that after it was huge, and so was ‘Just Remember I Love You,’ people who listened to AM radio thought we were just a ballad band. But a lot of our other music was more rock and roll.”
In its commercial heyday, Firefall opened for many contemporaries including Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Doobie Brothers, and even the Band on the last dates before their breakup—the last being Bartley’s personal favorite.
But their most memorable run may have been with Fleetwood Mac on the massive Rumours tour. “It was unbelievable. We opened for them during the previous album in ’76 and they liked us,” Bartley says. “To walk onstage in front of 80,000 or 100,000 people a couple of nights a week, it was amazing. Those were some of the best shows we ever played.”
For now of course, Firefall can’t tour to promote “Comet.” They do have a Houston-area date booked at the Dosey Doe Big Barn—though not until October 22 of next year. And while the five band members live in five different states, Andes will have the shortest distance to travel for that show, as he lives in nearby Magnolia.
“I had lived in Austin, but I reconnected with woman I knew in ‘80s, and she has a horse ranch out here,” Andes laughs. “So I guess I’ve been kind of put out to pasture!”