The Lively Arts
Old Man River
From years on the mighty Missouri River to today's life on the banks of New Mexico's Gila River, Silver City musician Greg Renfro just keeps rollin' along.
by Donna Clayton Walter
For a rich quality of life and a reservoir to keep his musical dreams afloat, Greg Renfro has always counted on the bank — the bank of a river, that is.
"All the places I lived for the first 40 years of my life are along the Missouri River," says the Silver City singer-songwriter. "I was born in Sioux City, Iowa, lived my childhood in Bismarck, North Dakota; Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Louis, Missouri. I spent my early adulthood in Columbia and Lupus, Missouri — right on the river, which actually flooded my home!" he adds with a laugh.
"I also built my home and started my farm outside Lupus in the hills a mile from the river in a place called Happy Hollow, where I lived for eight years and began raising my children. That river and its surroundings ran through my whole life in a way," he says. "For sure, it was a source of a lot of inspiration."
For the past 14 years, Renfro has made his home in Silver City, where the Gila River famously still runs free.
Sitting down to a conversation with the singer-songwriter is kind of like living out the title of one of his CDs — Settle On In. As he makes a pot of tea, thoughtfully and with great care, the kind-faced gent doesn't seem to know what stress is. Or if he does, it doesn't seem to matter to him.
With a storyteller's ease, he weaves together the new and the old — when he picked up his first instrument, whom he's making music with these days, how he got his start in performing, the success of his latest band and the exciting new path his music has taken after an homage to the late, great Woody Guthrie.
Through it all, winding the curves in the river of his life, he's taken things as they came — holding fast to dreams and finding ways to make them come true.
Renfro recounts a particularly colorful chapter of his life, telling how he found a creative way to keep his finances afloat by opening the River Garden Café — right in his living room!
"That was back in Lupus. In those days, you could ‘make up' your life," Renfro says with a wistful smile. Needing a bit of cash influx, and without the burdens of today's food-handling protocols and regulations, Renfro simply tied on an apron and got busy in the kitchen, starting up his own vegetarian restaurant.
"I started calling up my friends, saying, ‘I'm serving dinner from 4 to 7, reservations only!' One after another, they said, ‘Okay! We'll be there!' We could probably only fit 13 people at a time, but that's what we did and we were busy night after night!
"It was a huge hit! And we had a lot of fun doing it," he recalls with a broad smile.
Taking a long sip from his mug of tea, Renfro reflects on life in Lupus back in the day. With a good-natured laugh, he describes the local population as "newly wed or nearly dead. And those established older folks didn't take to us young people at first!"
His next dream was a charming piece of property with an old farmhouse… and the next round of "creative financing" that got the deal done did little to endear him to those village elders.
"I fell in love with this property about a mile out of town," Renfro begins. "I wanted so bad to build a house on it, but this guy used the land to pasture his cows. I kept contacting him about it, some years passed and finally he said ‘yes'!"
The 25 acres already had an old two-story house and a barn on it. Price tag: $13,500. Terms: half down and the owner would carry it for six years.
"Now it was decision time," Renfro continues. "Do I buy the property? I've got a good life, no mortgage, the café is thriving. I can do what I want — play my music! But I really wanted to do this next thing…." He trails off.
Friends to the rescue, once again. This time, though, it was more than showing up and paying for dinner at Chez Renfro.
"A bunch of us moved in and split it," he says, an arrangement that raised a few eyebrows, for sure. "So I started building my stone house, and my friends lived in the old house that was already built. I wanted it to be solar and a friend of mine in construction taught me a lot."
So much so that he did solar-energy consultations and evaluations for a couple of years, helping to earn his living and get that mortgage paid.
All the while, Renfro was enjoying life, starting to raise a family and, of course, singing. His preferences had grown up from his high-school days of playing Simon and Garfunkel to classic Americana. As an adult he began writing his own, his first attempt being to set a poem called "Indian Dream" to music that he wrote.
In love with the Missouri River, he drew inspiration from it. His one and only protest song, he says, also is connected to the river.
"In '76, the power company out of St. Louis said it was going to build a nuclear power plant," he says. Renfro pauses and his eyes take on a different intensity, his easy-going expression suddenly transformed into something much more serious. "‘Nuclear power plant' in Missouri was fightin' words," he says. He took part in demonstrations and public education about the issue, playing an active role in the group Missourians for Safe Energy.
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