That’s how long it took to sell all 200 tickets for Long Island country rock band SixGun’s November 16 final concert.
The Long Island Country Music Association had planned to sell tickets at its monthly September and October dances at Sons of Italy Hall in Deer Park. But at the September ball, “we had a queue outside the door to buy tickets,” explains Jim Teeple, president of the association. “We really didn’t expect them to sell out instantly.”
Bandleader Joe Spena retires and takes the SixGun name with him.
A battle with throat cancer, two grandchildren and three hernias prompted Spena, 66, of Middle Island, to decide it was time to stop leading a six-piece band with guitarists, a bassist , a violinist, keyboardist and drummer, he said during an interview at the Suffolk Palace Diner at Centereach on a recent afternoon. “I’d much rather hang out with people who say, ‘We love your music. Don’t [retire]”, explains Spena. “I prefer to be remembered like that.”
The band’s disbandment is a loss to the local country western scene, say fans and fellow musicians. “The country music scene today, you miss that country music of yesteryear. A lot of it is mixed with disco, mixed with rap,” says Lindenhurst’s Robert Buffolino, part of country duo UnWined. To get that solid storytelling, old country is just a great feeling, they have a good soul to them, a good country soul.
“A LONG RUN, A GOOD RUN”
Spena, the vocalist and lead guitarist, started the band in 1980, naming it SixGun at an initial meeting because there were six band members. “He’s had the band since I’ve been alive,” says Spena’s only child, Wesley, who is now 39 and a building inspector for the city of Brookhaven. “I remember coming downstairs when the guys were rehearsing in my footie pajamas.”
At first, the band played a lot of Eagles and Alabama. “That southern rock sound was what became country,” says Spena. They also performed original songs, the majority of which were written by Spena.
Some SixGun Highlights: The band won third place at a Battle of the Bands competition in Nashville in the 1980s, competing against approximately 1,600 bands by writing and performing an original song that had to do with Seagrams 7. What was the name of the song? “Oh my God,” Spena takes a minute to remember what then-guitarist Tony Noto wrote. “Forever you are mine.” His refrain: “We go together like 7 and 7, angels and paradise, country music and Tennessee.”
The group opened several times for Charlie Daniels at the Westbury Music Fair; he opened for Alabama at an outdoor concert in Connecticut with 35,000 people. The band performed at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki during an international rodeo that brought world rodeo and country stars to Finland. “It was all a hype,” Spena says. SixGun opened for shows at the Lone Star Café in Manhattan during the venue’s heyday, and the band performed every Friday night for 10 years, from around 2000 to 2010, at the defunct Matty T’s in Deer Park, Spena says. .
The group recorded six albums, although they were never signed to a label. “It’s been a long run, a good run,” said Spena. “The whole thing is bittersweet.”
A HARLEY, A CONDO AND GRANDCHILDREN
Spena made the decision to retire about a year ago, he says. A number of factors contributed to the choice, he says, sparked by his battle with throat cancer in 2015.
“I’ve smoked occasionally all my life. I had throat cancer on the back of the tongue and lymph nodes,” says Spena. He underwent 35 radiation treatments. “I couldn’t swallow. I lost 67 lbs. I had a feeding tube. On the day he was declared cured in December 2015, he added his fifth tattoo to his body as a sign of gratitude. A cross saying “Never Give Up” was added to his left forearm; it joins tattoos of a musical eighth note and a tattoo of SixGun. “Once you have cancer, you see things a little differently. I think I want to have more fun, that’s how I made this whole decision.
He also underwent his third hernia operation in December 2018. “I think I’m pretty much done moving the speakers and amplifiers,” he says. And doing the bookings and the contracts and all the other behind-the-scenes work has become too demanding, he says. “If I started playing again, it would be a solo or a duo instead of a six-piece band. It would be a varied type of music, not just country, because I really enjoy all different types of music.
When Spena started SixGun, he was director of loss prevention. But along the way, after his son graduated from college, Spena became a choir teacher at Selden Middle School in the Middle Country School District, where he has worked for 18 years. “I teach at the school I went to,” he says, leading the sixth and eighth grade choir, the pop choir and the after-school choir. “I took a big paycheck to do it. I consider myself a really lucky guy because I get paid to do what I love to do day and night.
He divorced once and is now legally separated. He owns a condo in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and hopes to eventually spend eight months a year here and four months there. He rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and his son has had two children – Cassie, 3, and James, 11 months – in the past four years. “I think he is opening the next chapter of his life, which will probably be about his grandchildren and time for himself, relaxation and travelling,” says his son Wesley.
THE LAST SONG
The band called it quits this summer, Spena says, doing just a dozen shows in July and August, when they would normally do 18 or 20. “I’m totally, totally overwhelmed,” says Carol Ruggiero, 77 years, from Commack, who has taught dance and has been a fan of the group for more than 25 years. “I will miss them very much. The same will be true for many other people.
Spena specifically planned their last performance to be at the Long Island Country Music Association dance because SixGun played LICMA’s inaugural dance in 1985. “They were really good to us,” Spena says.
The feeling is mutual, according to Teeple. “Bands have been a big part of keeping country music going on Long Island,” he says. SixGun is so great because they play great dance music and vary the pace of their sets to keep it interesting, he says. Others agree. “We’ve always had dancers in front of the stage, on the grass, enjoying their music,” says Kay Manley, music coordinator for the West Islip Country Fair, where SixGun performed for decades. Ironically, Spena says that in all those years he never participated in line dancing. “I never did,” he laughs.
Not all band members are ready for a breakup. “I’m one of the originals with Joe, so obviously I don’t feel great about it,” says Ed Jennings, 64, of Smithtown, the band’s bassist for almost two years when he had to move on. due to job requirements. “I wanted to continue, so I’m not happy at all. For him, he feels it’s time to end it. I do not. I’m probably the saddest. It’s kind of like a shock to me.
Jennings says he plans to look for another established band to join. A few of the other band members say they could organize themselves to form a new band. Members will not continue as SixGun. “Joe is the leader of the group,” says Jenning. “He formed the group, he incorporated the group. SixGun is Joe. He is the original member. It wouldn’t be fair to take the name and do it without it.
SixGun’s next public performance
WHEN | OR 1-5 p.m. Sunday, October 27 at Fall Harvest Fest at Fink’s Farm, 6242 Middle Country Rd. (Route 25), Wading River
ADMISSION $15 ($17 from 3 to 16 years old)
Joe Spena’s Five Favorite Songs For SixGun To Perform
“The Devil Has Come Down to Georgia” door The Charlie Daniels Band
“Women, Amen” by Dierks Bentley
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
“Chicken Fried” by the band Zac Brown
“Beg, Steal or Borrow,” a SixGun original written by Spena (“It’s a story about two people who meet right after World War II. They lose their son in Vietnam, she develops Alzheimer’s disease, but they are still together,” says Spena.)