More twists than Highway 1
If I were a movie producer, I would secure the rights to singer-songwriter Pete Olson’s life story, get somebody like George Strait to play the title role and make a zillions dollars. There would be numerous guest stars in the film playing themselves, folks like Joan Baez, Genevieve Bujold, Country Joe McDonald and a host of songwriters, country music stars and even a few more rock stars. Pete is one of the most interesting musicians I have met in many, many years. His life has gone in more crazy directions and twists and turns than Highway 1, and I still don’t know his whole story.
Raised in a small resort, logging and fishing town on the Oregon coast, Pete started playing guitar at age 14. He also started writing songs at that age, inspired by one AM radio station that played everything from Johnny Horton (one of his heroes) to Nat King Cole and some Motown hits, but, as Pete puts it, “it was always the country songs that made him feel that while life was hard sometimes, everything was going to be alright.”
Pete toiled in restaurants, grocery and variety stores and as a laborer on construction sites starting, again, at the age of 14. On high school graduation night he told his folks goodbye and left the next morning for Kodiak, Alaska where he worked on the waterfront unloading crab boats and working in the seafood canneries. Back to Oregon, he did a little over a year stint at Portland State College (now University) and decided to move along and headed for California. “I came down here in a 1949 Plymouth that burned a quart of oil every 100 miles and couldn’t top 35 miles an hour,” remembers Pete.
A freak accident in a lumber mill that injured a co-worker led Pete to consider a career as an emergency paramedic. For the next 20 plus years, Pete worked as a medic for a year in Thailand, then in Los Angeles, San Mateo, Alameda and San Francisco counties. His longest (and hardest) post was for the city and county of San Francisco in the mid to late 80’s where he responded to more than 50,000 times to 911 emergency calls. He also continued playing music whenever and wherever he could along the way.
The interesting twists and turns continued as Pete met the French actress Genevieve Bujold in Malibu who took part in one of Pete’s weddings; Joan Baez on the Thailand-Cambodia border, and again later in Berkeley where they danced to a Cajun band; Jimmy Ibbotson on his way to become a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in Pacific Grove; and Haing Ngor, the Cambodian actor who played Dith Pran in the film “The Killing Fields.”
Another friend in the mix is Joe McDonald, better known as Country Joe McDonald, who took Pete under his wing and had him opening shows, including the grand opening of McDonald’s club in Berkeley. Then there is the long list of country singers and writers and folks like Grand Ole Opry star Marty Stuart who he followed around Northern California, but that’s another story.
After suffering a disabling injury, one of many during his days as a paramedic, and with his disability insurance running out, Pete did what all musicians do when they need to find some dough: he started busking on the streets of Berkeley. While it was a means to an end, it also helped him to build up his playing chops and from the very beginning he felt an overwhelmingly positive response from the listeners and the merchants along Fourth Street. He turned his focus to music and began working clubs in the Bay Area and around the country. “The injury pretty much forced me to get into music on a full time basis. It is the only thing that I can do,” Pete says. “And I’m not complaining because it is what I truly love to do.”
Today, Pete Olson works as a solo acoustic act doing covers and his own songs he fronts Pete Olson and His Honky Tonk Band as well as Pete Olson and Cajun Country. He released a CD a year or so back called “Here I Go” that features all original songs. He hopes to have a second release in the can by the end of the year. It’s all those pesky live dates that get in the way of the recording schedule.
After going up and down the coast for many years, Pete settled in Sonoma four years ago. He hosts a Cajun House Party from time to time at his home and everybody brings something to eat, something to drink and chairs to sit in. He built two dance floors and a stage for the band. If you want to get invited, all you have to do is sign up on his email list. It’s that simple.
Oh, and let’s get George Strait on the phone, I’ve got a movie role for him that could make him a big star!
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