The Rose Tattoo: Biographies of the buskers |

The Rose Tattoo: Biographies of the buskers

Nevada City Musical Events presents “Trains, Tramps and Traditions ’08,” a tribute concert to the late Bruce “Utah” Phillips.

It features The Rose Tattoo, a near-mythological fraternity of tramps, nomads, hoboes, and ne’er-do-wells celebrating the music of the busker ” tramps who would sing and play their guitars for tips and meals.

Doors open at 7 p.m. Saturday and music starts at 8 p.m. It’s at the Odd Fellows Hall, 212 Spring St., Nevada City. Cost is $15 in advance at Gold Rush Records, BriarPatch, Record Connection and in Auburn at Cherry Records; $20 at the door.

For more information about the concert, contact or 470-9615 or

“The railroad is a long, steel thread that stitches together much of the American experience,” said Phillips, considered the grand master of The Rose Tattoo.

Hovering on the edge of reality, The Rose Tattoo brings together a widely dispersed band of nomads, 20 in all, who hold in common their experience of travel by freight train, an ability to carry a tune and the tattoo of a rose somewhere on their persons.

Their motto is “mors ante servitium,” which means “death before employment.”

Phillips, whose hobo moniker was “Bow Tie,” had planned to hook up with his fellow Knights of the Road for their annual reunion. He died May 23 in Nevada City of congestive heart failure.

The rare concert series to follow was planned to feature six “tattoos,” of which Phillips was the first. Their combined experience on stage and train exceeds the tenure of the last 40 presidents. Each show will consist of an informal round-robin song and story swap between the participants.

Those sharing the stage in honor of Phillips are all finely honed singers, musicians and yarn-spinners.

These concerts offer a window on a vanishing way of life where a busker (tramp entertainer) could sing his way from coast to coast with only a guitar, a bundle, and an overpowering desire to be somewhere else.

Rose Tattoo members include: Kuddie, “The Feather River Kid;” Mark “Smokestack” Ross; Bruce “Haywire Brack” Brackney; Bob and Diana Suckiel, known as “Boomer Bob and Mama Pipes;” Larry “Cream City Slim” Penn and other special guests to be announced.

Kuddie trods the boards and sometimes also butchers them for a living.

A former telegrapher for the Illinois Central, now he’s a handy-man hijacker of all trades, festival organizer, Fighting Instrument of Karma and perpetual temporary resident wherever his is.

A downhome upright rustic, Kuddie lives lightly upon the land and by lamplight in a place known as “The Middle of Knowhere” up on the San Juan Ridge.

Quintessential hobo, consummate musician and truly artful dodger, Mark Ross is the only “tattoo” who has lived through a train wreck. Beginning in the basket houses in Greenwich Village, he has spent 33 years in the trade, and plays about a dozen instruments.

A Minimalist of the First Water, in his continuing quest to get by on next door to nothing, Ross has spent the last 20 years in western Montana.

The expatriate lives alongside the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway on Vancouver Island.

Raised in Minnesota, Brack later held placer mining claims in Trinity County, California, before emigrating to Canada in 1983.

A good friend of old songs and vice versa, Brackney is the model of a tramp intellectual, with a mind like a steel catch-and-release trap.

In the old parlance, Bob Suckiel is now a “Hoghead.”

After 30 years, at least four different railroads, from gandy-dancer to switchman to brakeman, he now warrants the more modern honorific “C & E” as a conductor and engineer on the main line of the Union Pacific.

Suckiel’s music is rooted in the blues, though inflected with hometown Kansas City Jazz.

Diana Suckiel is a downright do-right woman whose sobriquet is derived from her soulful singing voice and her trade: “Mama Pipes” is also a journeyman plumber.

The Patriarch, who, at 71 continues to craft the finest railroad songs heard today is a toy maker, poet and retired Teamster. Running over the road for 35 years out of Milwaukee, Penn sings songs and tells stories of working people, trains, trucks, life on the road, love, nonsense and pink flamingos.

Elegant in their simplicity, sometimes shiftily witty, always melodically infectious, Penn’s songs grow on you, like blossoms from the True Vine.

Learn more about Utah Phillips and The Rose Tattoo at these links:


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