April North has been visiting the Stagecoach Bar since the days she roped her horse to the bar’s deck. She celebrated her 40th birthday party there, accompanied by its namesake band, which also played her off at her going-away party before she moved to Michigan.
Now 51, North always plans her trips back to Jackson Hole to fall over a weekend so she can stop in for “Sunday Church.”
While scheduling her upcoming June trip, North’s friend Nanci Turner Steveson alerted her to an unsettling development: It looked like the band might not be back on stage this summer.
Steveson had found a Facebook post by the band’s drummer, Ed Domer, with the simple caption “RIP Stage Coach Band 5/20/21.” As Domer explained in the comments, the partnership wasn’t making the bar enough money, and patrons and profits were sparse in the off-season. North was heartbroken.
“The Stagecoach Band is ingrained in my DNA, and I can’t imagine Jackson without it,” she commented on the post.
Then she started a group text with her Wyoming friends and dance partners, all commiserating in disbelief.
“It was just such an institution and a beautiful gathering of like-minded people every Sunday night,” she said in a phone call with the News&Guide.
“If we go to the ’Coach this summer, what are we going to do? Are we just going to look at that empty stage?”
Luckily for fans like North, the stage will not be empty this summer, at least not on Sundays. After negotiations between the bar’s owners, the manager, and Stagecoach Band frontman Bill Briggs, the gig is back on, and set to kick off on May 30 for what is sure to be a triumphant return after more than a year of pandemic silence.
But as fear over the band’s cancellation revealed, the half-century-long tradition is still on shaky ground.
As both band members and bar leadership attest, it’s been the same crew of loyal fans for years, and they aren’t getting any younger. Even though he’ll look out at a full parking lot in the summer, co-owner Rod Everett said a lot of those folks come to dance and drink water, not rack up a bar tab.
“We’ve always been proud to be able to host the Stagecoach Band,” Everett said, “But we also understand, and everybody else needs to understand, for many years the band would play and we would pay them and we were not even making [that] amount of money at the bar.”
On the band’s side the tip jar has gotten increasingly lean over the years. Domer said there are nights when the five bandmates are splitting a single $5 bill.
Complicating matters is the fact that the band has been paid a consistent flat rate for the past 20 years. That sum, all parties agree, is pitifully low, especially considering the spike in Teton County’s cost of living.
“They deserve more money,” Everett said. “Doggone it, they do. Giving them the same amount of money for 20 years is BS.”
But the bar’s sales have also been declining for those two decades, making a raise unfeasible. This year, when Briggs asked the bar to raise its compensation, the owners said they couldn’t afford to pay it. They gave bar manager Wayne Johnson — who was handling negotiations with Briggs — a counteroffer, but somewhere along the way it came across as an ultimatum: Either take the slight increase in pay, or don’t play.
In that interlude Briggs considered his options. One was to start looking at other venues that would pay more. But as the banjo-picker put it, “I’m used to the Stagecoach, I know what to expect. I’d prefer to keep on playing there.” And besides that, he likes it there. Even after 50 years, each show is somewhat different and surprising.
“Boy, it’s something else,” he said of his band. “They’re playing for nothing, nowhere near what they should be getting. But on that Sunday night at the Stagecoach it’s just so much fun. And everybody loves it. The whole thing has been a wonderful experience.”
Now that it appears the band will continue to play, owners say they’re grateful an agreement was reached. Everett is planning to come out to the season opener this Sunday, where he hopes the financial support for the band, and the bar, will be a bit more forthcoming.
Co-owner Field said he’s certainly seen over the past weekend that the community cares about the band. After the first story broke in the Saturday edition of the Jackson Hole Daily, “‘Church’ at the ’Coach appears likely to end,” Johnson received a firestorm of complaints, though the decision wasn’t his to make.
Then, when the story was updated to clarify that it was the owners’ call, Field and Everett received a wave of backlash.
“[We] knew that there would be a hue and cry across the valley,” Everett said. “But again, it’s economics. You know, we want to pay Wayne his salary, we want to keep giving raises and keep the staff that we’ve got.”
He and Johnson have toyed with a number of alternative solutions to pay for the band. A few years back they tried to implement a cover charge but said the locals were quickly up in arms, furious for being held at the door they’d passed through for decades.
Both guys also mentioned the changing demographics in the valley, with the band’s fan base getting older and buying fewer drinks. They also conjecture that strict DUI enforcement has made folks think twice about drinking before the 7-mile drive from Wilson back to town.
Another proposed revenue stream for the band is private philanthropy. With the “church,” nickname and the sacred status of the ’Coach tradition, surely someone would come forward to save it, Johnson thought. Perhaps one of the local billionaires who come down to the bar for a drink. Those conversations are still in the works.
For now it sounds as if everyone involved can catch their breath.
After hearing about the reversal, Steveson texted her friend North: “Don’t give up hope, there’s gonna be more dancing still.”
The threat of losing the band has served as a “wake-up call,” North said, that “this is not just something we enjoy, you know, how could we be more supportive?”
She added that her friends, who were about ready to throw their dancing boots out the window, are glad for the chance to sport them once again.
As for the band’s 88-year-old frontman, there’s no place Briggs would rather be opening than on the “precious” Stagecoach stage.
“I’m so glad we’re back.” he said. “It looks like a positive situation for everybody, and I’m really happy about it.”
This Sunday will be the band’s 2,657th show, and the first since COVID-19 shut them down in March of 2020.
“They deserve more money. Doggone it, they do. Giving them the same amount of money for 20 years is BS.” — Rod Everett stagecoach bar co-owner