It was 1978 and Peter “Chanman” Chandler was fresh out of high school when he decided to pack his belongings and drive to Jackson Hole from the coast of Maine.
“The community has accepted me for the most part,” Chandler said.
As a teenager the self-described ski bum was in search of steep terrain and deep powder. He found what he was looking for and moved into a friend of a friend’s tipi south of town, soon finding himself embedded in Jackson Hole’s music and ski scenes.
“I played one weekend a month, and that paid my rent,” Chandler said.
You’ve most likely seen him perform. Chandler spearheaded Tram Jam, the band that entertains you while you wait in lift lines at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
“We’re hired by lift operations,” Chandler said. “Part of the deal is to be lift line entertainment.”
Chandler, who plays for a ski pass, performs at the mountain every Saturday.
“I’ve been married to the resort for a long time,” Chandler said. “We’ve been doing Tram Jam for 23 years.”
In all those years, he’s barely missed a beat.
“I personally haven’t missed one [season], except for when my parents were going through some hard times I think I missed one or two,” he said.
The band plays through negative temperatures and sideways snow without a tent or heat.
“We’ve gotten used to it. It’s become easier over the years,” Chandler said. “Some days when it was just me it was hard when it gets that cold.”
The cold doesn’t stop the musicians, but sometimes the instruments resist, he said.
Tram Jam’s trumpet player, Powell Miller, keeps a hair dryer within reach to thaw his valves. The trombone player, John Kidwell, uses hand warmers on his slide.
Tram Jam’s set list is designed around the mountain, Chandler said.
“We play original ski tunes,” he said.
The band also plays bluegrass, rock, blues and reggae. And they take requests.
“We get a lot of requests for ‘3 Feet Deep,’” Chandler said.
Chandler lets his hair down, literally, when he plays at the mountain. He has dreadlocks he hasn’t cut for 25 years.
But music isn’t Chandler’s only talent.
He’s a champion footbagger — he won some Hacky Sack championships in the 1980s.
“Footbag is good for skiers and climbers because it works the same type of muscle groups,” he said “I figured for a long time, playing Hacky Sack and walking a rope was part of being a ski bum.”
Chandler competed for about six years, bringing home a few hundred bucks each time and a trophy or two.
But there’s a lot more to the championship “hacky-sacking” man who jams under the tram.
Chandler, whose moniker has been Chanman since his early skiing days, has battled a lifelong stutter.
“To have a severe stutter as a little kid, people treat you like you’re mentally disabled,” Chandler said. “As a stutterer, every time you do something, you fail at something everyone else does really naturally.”
The singer-songwriter hasn’t let his stutter affect his career as a performer. After many speech classes, he hides it well.
“Over the years, you learn to control it,” he said.
He doesn’t stutter when he sings but the disability puts a damper on his humor sometimes, he said.
“You can’t tell jokes because you always stutter on the punch line,” he said.
The only break Chandler has taken from Teton County was in the early 1990s when he had back-to-back skiing injuries. He decided it was time to give his body a break and get a college degree.
“I went to Marlboro College in southern Vermont and got a degree in religion,” Chandler said. “I guess I felt I found a spiritual connection through skiing and living in the mountains. Also, getting injured so much I turned to prayer.”
Chandler then got a Master of Divinity from Harvard.
“Divinity is associated with a university as opposed to a particular religion,” he said.
His work as a minister revolved around social activism, he said. Chandler returned to Jackson and worked as a spiritual advisor at Red Top Meadows for nine years.
“A lot of times I would go every Sunday and basically give a sermon on a religious topic and play music,” he said.
Many years later, he found himself having to choose between the two.
“People don’t want to see their minister playing in the bar until 2 a.m.,” he said.
Chandler chose music.
“That’s who I was more,” he said. “At every minister gathering, I was always the black sheep.”
Chandler has made a living playing gigs in Teton County, performing in several bands.
“I really enjoy living here and playing music here,” he said.
The artist has adopted more than one persona so he can appeal to different venues and audiences, he said.
“For years I just sang about skiing and breakups,” Chandler said. “Sometimes they went together.”
When he leads Tram Jam, he can let loose and be himself. If he books a jazz gig at a nice restaurant, he tucks his dreads under a nice hat, puts on a suit jacket and performs as Papa Chan.
“I’m working on becoming a better musician,” he said. “For years all I wanted to do was ski the mountain and everything else was icing on the cake. Now I find I’m getting more satisfaction out of becoming a better musician.”
Chandler still skis, as does his wife, Kathie.
“We met during Halloween a long time ago,” he said. “I was playing at Tony’s Pizza in Driggs. We’ve never looked back.”
The couple, who has two grown daughters, has lived in Wilson for 20 years.
“I’m grateful to my wife for letting me live this life and supporting me,” Chandler said.
Whether he’s performing as Chanman or Papa Chan, the 57-year-old is happy he drove across the country all those years ago in search of fresh pow.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “If you told me a long time ago that I’d still be skiing the mountain and playing music and living the life at 57, I’d be psyched.”
You can listen to Chandler’s music or book one of his bands online at ChanmanMusic.com.