The Legend of the Traveling Troubadour
Carson City Local Gives Capital City a Special Spark.
BY ERIC CACHINERO
Part entertainer, part weatherman, part welcoming committee, and part local rock-n-roll superstar, Chris Kay can often be seen serenading the streets of downtown Carson City. Some passersby may not know his name, but to many, he is known as The Traveling Troubadour. His battery-powered portable amplifier emits quite a sound, but it’s his electric guitar and microphone that do most of the talking. And if you’ve ever been to the downtown area around lunchtime on a sunny day, you may have even had the pleasure of listening to the man that brings the music.
“When you’re an entertainer, you need a stage,” Chris says, discussing his career as a musician. “And my stage is downtown Carson.”
Chris typically begins his routine at the intersection of Highways 395 and 50, warming up his amp and vocal chords by singing one of his signature covers, which often include songs by America, The Allman Brothers, and The Rolling Stones. As he walks, Chris gives drivers the weather report while strumming his guitar, which is met by friendly waves and honks. Schoolchildren on a fieldtrip smile and listen; Chris even receives a shy smile from a toddler as he sings her a sweet electric-guitar lullaby. He graces the Nevada State Capitol with his rendition of “Home Means Nevada” before continuing down the street for more action.
Chris’s songs evoke memories of a different time, a different era; a time when a small-time band would affect Reno in a big way.
LIKE A ROLLING STONE
Chris planted his musical roots during the 1960s, when a thriving music scene took center stage in Reno. He had always been a good singer, but he honed his guitar skills strumming the strings of a bass in several garage bands.
In 1967, when Chris’ musical skills began to pick up, he—along with a group of other upper-middleclass high school- and college-aged Renoites—decided to form a band, with Chris assuming the roll of lead singer. The Manzanita Jungle was a fitting name, inspired by the deluge of shrubs that grow in the Sierras. The band pulled its inspiration from prolific groups of the period—the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience—and began covering the songs to perfection.
“We just took off,” Chris says. “We came on the scene just at the right time.”
That right time landed The Manzanita Jungle gigs that got larger and more popular. According to Chris, the band was a favorite of every fraternity and sorority at the University of Nevada, Reno; local high schools; and private shows. Success landed them shows in Lake Tahoe, Idaho, Oregon, and many places in between. The road also led to record deals, both successful and not. The band shares a commonality with the Beatles—they were both turned down by the same record label (DECCA). Rejection didn’t slow the momentum, however.
When asked about his favorite gig during that time, Chris says with no hesitation, “Gary Puckett & The Union Gap.” Manzanita Jungle opened for the band in summer 1968 at the Centennial Coliseum in Reno (now the Reno-Sparks Convention Center).
“It was just a magic night where everything we played sounded good, everything we said was funny,” Chris says. “We just knocked ‘em dead; the whole town. After that, we were on a pedestal in Reno.”
The Manzanita Jungle performed vigorously for several more years, though the magic wouldn’t last forever. As the years went on, band members came and went, and gigs transformed and changed, until the group’s last official performance in 1972. Though the group had split, the memory of the music lives on to this day through The Traveling Troubadour’s impact on Carson City.
CASTLES MADE OF SAND
For the past five years, Chris has kept the memory of The Manzanita Jungle alive through the music he shares with the Carson City community. Chris now performs as a solo artist. His latest CD, “Americana Man,” was released in 2009 and is available through cdbaby.com and iTunes. The entire CD is performed, recorded, and produced by Chris.
To hear the magic live, just take a walk down Carson Street around noon. Chris performs Monday-Thursday (weather permitting) typically from April Fools’ Day through Labor Day. Chris’ performances bring pleasure to the people that he encounters. It’s his special spark that gives his music its character, and puts unexpected smiles on people’s faces when they least expect it.
“I have total freedom, it’s fun for me,” Chris says. “This is my way to give back to Carson.”