Comstock and barrel
David John and the Comstock Cowboys
“What would a young boy growing up in New England know about Cowboys and the Old West?” writes David John Liska, frontman of David John and the Comstock Cowboys, in the insert to one of the group’s CDs. Liska, originally from a small town in Connecticut, was always interested in music. Music was passed down in his family, and he started playing the guitar when he was about 10 years old.
After living in New York for several years, Liska moved to Nashville, where he made a living as a songwriter. Yet, he felt that he didn’t fit in. His music wasn’t really country and “didn’t fit the mold of the Nashville Artist.” In 1990, Liska moved from Tennessee and found his home in the West.
“I like the desert and wide open spaces,” he says of Nevada. He formed The Comstock Cowboys in 1996, and the group has been playing music ever since.
The band, based in Virginia City, is definitively Western. Western music is different from country music. “It’s music that doesn’t lend itself to the Appalachian sounds, which is more about bars and cheatin'. Western is about open spaces and prairie and gun fights, it tends to be more historical,” explains Liska. This is certainly true for the music of The Comstock Cowboys. In one song, Liska sings about a horse that was a lone survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. The song, titled “Comanche (of the 7th Cavalry),” is based on a true story of a horse named Comanche that was found at the battle site.
“He had bullet wounds and arrows in his flanks,” says Liska. “He became a sort of mascot—he walked in parades with only a saddle and boots representing the missing soldier and was never ridden again.”
For songs like this one and others, Liska does research and often tries to tell a story through the eyes of a cowboy.
The experience of seeing them play a live show is authentic, to say the least. During the winter months, when they aren’t traveling on their 40-foot bus to other Western states to perform, you can find David John and the Comstock Cowboys at the Bucket of Blood in Virginia City. The setting there is perfect for their style—the preserved mining town that still feels much like it might have in the 1800s lends itself to their kind of music. The band looks as though they just walked off the set of Deadwood—dressed as cattle drovers in drop-sleeve shirts, high top boots with spurs, and even their “shooting irons,” as Liska calls the six-shooter he wears strapped around his waist. “We don’t dress like the country people in Nashville,” he adds. The Cowboys are playful on stage, interacting with the crowd and altering lyrics.
There are six members in all: Rick Hammel on bass; Robert “Doc” Quam on fiddle; Mike Ansoteque drumming and playing washboard; Dale Poune playing lead guitar; Rich Liska, David John’s brother, who plays steel guitar, keyboard, and harmonica; and David John, who plays rhythm guitar and sings lead vocals. The band has a total of 10 recorded albums. Their music includes a mix of traditional songs and original compositions, which are all written by Liska. It ranges from cowboy ballads that often include spoken parts to bluegrass and hoedown-style, foot-tapping Western.
Liska writes, “Growing up listening to Gene [Autry], Hank [Williams] Sr., and Marty [Robbins] was what had inspired me in the first place, and where my heart has always been.” This is obvious in the music of the Comstock Cowboys, which comes across as genuine.
“It’s a passion,” says Liska.