To truly appreciate Richard Elloyan’s music, you need to be on Highway 227 between Elko and Lamoille within sight of the Ruby Mountains. But any stretch of open highway with a view of the mountains will do.
Recently, the NPR-affiliated Borders program featured two of his tracks for their segment about Highway 50, the “Loneliest Highway.” It’s no surprise Elloyan’s music is so road-worthy. He estimates that 99 percent of his composing is done while driving with “no distractions, just miles” during his travels throughout Nevada’s back roads as an environmental health specialist.
His fourth CD, Back in Heaven, climbed to seventh place on the western music charts with “Addicted to the Dust” ranked as the number-two song. Although often mentioned in the same breath, Elloyan quickly points out that country and western are two different genres of music. “No divorce in western music,” he explains. Western music reflects cowboys and a passion for the outdoors. Set against a backdrop of granite mountains and acoustic guitar melodies, Back in Heaven tells tales of a variety of Western characters—a patient, Washo basketweaver, arrogant John C. Fremont, dust-driven cowboys and lonely ranch wives. Background vocals, mandolins, fiddles and electric guitars provide depth without obscuring the stories.
Nevada lore is woven throughout Back in Heaven, though some references are easier to spot than others. The title track is clearly an ode to the Silver State, and “The Loneliest Phone” comes from wording on an actual sign beside Highway 50. Inspiration for “The Night Sky” was born one evening on the 17th floor of a hotel in Jackpot, where Elloyan gazed out at the star-filled sky wondering which was the lucky one.
Though he has his degree in range management from UNR and pitched in to help mend fences when his friend became cow boss of the Flying M Ranch in Yerington, Elloyan firmly states he’s “not a cowboy but a good observer.” His love of the land and telling stories is drawn from growing up surrounded by the open landscape and colorful history of Virginia City. From frustration at Meadow Vista subdivisions crowding out the natural meadow in “Paved Over” to wry observations of life in a “One Stop Light Town,” Elloyan’s music encompasses a full landscape of emotions.
Even Back in Heaven‘s cover reflects an almost over-the-top love of the land: Elloyan, wearing a cowboy hat and a smile, is standing up to his neck in icy Lake Tahoe. He assured me that the image was not computer-generated. There was still snow on the ground in May when they arrived at Hidden Beach to catch the right light at 7:30 a.m. By the second take, Elloyan expected he “would be singing in another part of the choir.” To get the right angle, even the photographer had to finally take the plunge. After their fourth foray into the lake, they got the final shot.
Elloyan acknowledges that “progress has necessitated that most of us move beyond our rural roots to conventional work in towns and cities.” However, for many, the need remains to stay connected with the land and our past. Listening to Elloyan’s rich baritone tell stories of cowboys and the open road, we sense we can still gather around the campfire and search the night sky for our lucky star.