By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
A cassette tape of a hastily recorded song left on the doorstep of a stranger in Seattle in 1982 led Michael Tomlinson to a lengthy career as a singer-songwriter.
But that unlikely path to regional fame began in Tomlinson's hometown — Amarillo.
Now, Tomlinson will return to Amarillo for a pair of events — a 7 p.m. Saturday concert in the Fibonacci Space, 3306 S.W. Sixth Ave., and a Gathering of Friends storytelling/singing circle at 1 p.m. Sunday at Wildcat Bluff Nature Center, 2301 N. Soncy Road. Admission is $35 for the concert and is $45 for the gathering; admission is $70 for both.
The performances will be Tomlinson's first in Amarillo since the 1970s, before he moved to Montana then Austin and found an unexpected path into the music business.
"I had an intense love of music since I was very young, but I didn't play an instrument and didn't think I ever would," Tomlinson said in a phone interview last week.
But while palling around with musical friends — Joe Hendrick (still performing here in The Average Joes) and the late Ray Cargo, among them — in the summer of 1972 put Tomlinson on a new path.
"The let me sing since I didn't play an instrument ... and within a few months, I turned to them and said, 'We can write songs'," Tomlinson said. "There was no turning back for me. I had no real reason to think I could do this, but the minute I wrote a song, I knew that this is what I was going to do with my whole life.
"I might not ever be the greatest musician around, someone who studies for his whole life, but there's no reason I can't be as great a songwriter as ever existed. ... I had imagination, and I felt from that perspective, I had no handicap. What young guy doesn't want to think of himself as a successful recording artist?"
Youthful hubris, perhaps, but prophetic in its way.
"I understand, years later looking back, that I had this pipe dream, and for some reason, I stayed with it."
Tomlinson and his buddies, along with bass player Buddy Squyres, formed a band called Desert Rain, named for one of Tomlinson's early songs. They played one gig at Ellwood Park and a few private parties, but that was about it. He also sat in with Amarillo musicians Johnny Rose (of Jennings & Rose, who later became an A&R guy in Nashville) and Butch Davis (of Coyote Bluff with Jackie Anderson) at the old Rhett Butler's restaurant and bar in central Amarillo.
"We were all doing original music," Squyres said. "I know the kids today think they thought this up, but we were doing this a long time ago."
But it wasn't easy: "We always had to put on our own concerts. Bar owners were not interested in guys who wrote their own songs," Squyres recalled. "There were no venues — absolutely no venues — that cared about us doing our own stuff.
"I know it was kind of frustrating to Mike," Squyres said. "I think out of frustration and wanting to do more in music, he left."
Tomlinson moved first to Whitefish, Mont., to work as a bar musician at a ski resort, then — following a short return home — to Austin to see if he could reach the next level.
"I had to go somewhere to find some way into the music business, so I moved to Austin," Tomlinson said. "There was some real irony to how that worked. I didn't necessarily get discovered in Austin, but being there led me to visit Seattle with my girlfriend at the time."
That visit to Seattle in 1982 was crucial. There, as he told the Seattle Times in 1993, he saw a TV news story about Don Benedict, a one-legged climber who scaled Mount Ranier.
"And out of the blue, I started writing a song for this man called 'The Climb'," Tomlinson told me. "I didn't know what I was doing. I was just moved to do it.
"I left town two days later, but I found his address and left him a homemade cassette of it (before Tomlinson) left," Tomlinson said.
And that — or so Tomlinson thought — was the end of it. But Benedict or someone associated with him took the tape to Seattle's KEZX radio station and, eventually, it became the station's most-requested song, Tomlinson said.
"Here I am, trying to get attention in Austin, and they had thouands of requests in Seattle and couldn't find me," Tomlinson said.
But before long, Tomlinson returned to Seattle, this time to stay.
"Even one station in the world playing a song can change everything," Tomlinson said. "Suddenly, thousands of people are hearing you instead of 30 or 40 in a club."
Tomlinson self-produced his debut album, Run This Way Forever, in 1985 and, after an ill-fated attempt to work with a small record label in Los Angeles, has been an independent musician ever since. His most recent album, House of Sky, was released in 2016.
"You don't get extremely successful that way, but it's a good life," Tomlinson said.
He tried once before to perform in his hometown on his first national tour. Venues in San Antonio and Washington, D.C. — where KEZX's sister stations were playing his music — sold out, but he had to cancel his Amarillo show after it sold only three tickets, which the singer blames on lack of radio support.
"Then, six or seven years ago, Facebook helped me build a following in Amarillo — some people who knew me, some who just liked my music," Tomlinson said.
So the idea of trying again to perform in his hometown was reborn.
"There's an emotional aspect of going back to the place that gave me what I needed to live the life I live," Tomlinson said. "I have a lot of gratitude about that.
"There's something about Amarillo that made me very, very creative. It might have been the open emptiness, the big sky," he said. "Whatever it was, it gave me the spark.
"Had it not been for that summer with Joe and Ray, I truly believe I would not have become a songwriter."