A scraggly teenage boy ambles up to the 65-year-old proprietor of a roadside antiques shop in Coleman.
“Mister, are you Rick Sikes?”
“Can I talk to you a minute?”
“How do you rob a bank?”
Reputations die hard, and Rick Sikes’ story has been untold—until now. It has been fifteen years since the once-fearsome country band leader cum bank robber was released from Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas. He’s raised two stepdaughters and owns a sign shop in addition to the antiques store. He and his wife of fifteen years, Jan, live in a charming compound behind dusty, unpaved streets. He is one of Coleman’s most revered citizens. But his past has taken on a life of its own.
“Boy, I danced a million miles to y’all’s music,” says one starry-eyed local old-timer, reminiscing at the shop. In the sixties Rick Sikes and the Rhythm Rebels scored a handful of regional hits that made the little girls squeal, including the rockabilly ballad “Give Me a Little” in 1965 and “Den of Sin” a year later (“I’m not cryin’ because my baby left me / I’m cryin’ ‘cause she’s comin’ home to stay”). Sikes had his own half-hour live-music program on TV station KPAR, then Abilene’s CBS affiliate. His theme song was “Standing Room Only When I Die.” The band was the first to attract an audience of cowpokes, rednecks, and hippies—before Willie, Waylon, and the boys.
But then in 1971, two members of the band were convicted of robbing two banks. A bank teller recognized Sikes’s hands as those of a guitarist she had seen—“My fingers are too big on the tips,” he says. Rick Sikes and the Rhythm Rebels’ longest booking became Leavenworth. From behind bars, Sikes resigned himself to watching the outlaw country movement take off without him. “I didn’t blame those guys, but it still pisses me off,” he says. “We were the real outlaws in country music. We had numbers to prove it.”
It’s rumored that when Sikes got busted, he called Jan. She had been planning to do some gardening, and Sikes, suspecting that the FBI was going to dig up their yard in search of buried loot, told her to hold off. Sure enough, the FBI came and dug up the whole yard. The next day Sikes called home, saying, “Okay, honey, go ahead and do your planting.”
He and Jan stroll into Rijan Records, a railcar-size building on their property. Resembling a Nashville booking agency forty years ago, this is the music world Sikes left behind for prison. A bachelor-pad bar is stocked with Jim Beam, quaint ashtrays, and beer coasters. A hundred framed publicity photos document a generation of country musicians whose careers crossed paths with Sikes’s. There’s Sikes with Bob Wills and onstage with Red Foley, and there’s “Grand Old Opry and Television Star” Little Jimmy Dickens. A Cash Box magazine clipping shows Sikes presenting Dewey Groom, the proprietor of Dallas’ Longhorn Ballroom, with a set of horns. Sikes points to a plaque below the horns in memory of Curtis Leach, who wrote “Golden Guitar.” “He would have become the next Hank Williams,” he says. There are photos of other Coleman luminaries, like his songwriting collaborator Dean Beard (one of the Champs of “Tequila” fame). There’s honky-tonk queen Wanda Jackson, and Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”). An old photo of Willie Nelson playing lead guitar with “one of his ex-old ladies.” Time here is frozen in the early sixties, when Rick Sikes and the Rhythm Rebels headlined the Mayan Dude Ranch in Bandera, when draft beer was 10 cents a mug and you could watch the girl in the gilded cage, Diamond Lil, and her Famous Can-Can Girls.
“There was a song I did they loved in Round Rock,” Sikes recalls. “ ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,’ an old Fred Rose song that nobody had sung since Roy Acuff. When I went to prison, Willie had burned out in Nashville, so he come back to Austin and started playin’ at Big G’s out in Round Rock. I never talked to Willie about it. But I’m sure all those people kept requesting that song.”
The Rhythm Rebels’ 1968 publicity photo was used as evidence against them. It depicted the band mocking their secret avocation, posing as bandits on train tracks with guns and knives. They even told the wary photographer that they intended to rob a train. Then a little switch engine came by, and the two guys on board threw up their hands in jest. But the photographer started to quiver behind the camera, worrying that the musicians weren’t necessarily joking, Sikes remembers.
“I can’t say I wasn’t guilty,” Sikes admits of his two robbery convictions. “That’d be a lie. But I can swear that I never in my life held up a bank with a gun.” He says he merely “cased out banks for associates to rob. Let’s just leave it at that.”
In San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, the band was drawing the same size crowds as George Jones and Charley Pride. They would play “The Pusher,” “Stardust,” and “San Antonio Rose” all in the same set. “We were mixing the music before anyone,” Sikes says. “We were pulling the college kids out of Georgetown and the cowboys out of Austin, over at Big G’s in Round Rock. We were sorta cowboy hippies. We’d play a matinee at Fort Hood wearing Nehru shirts for a rock gig, then haul ass to Austin or San Angelo, put on our Western shirts and cowboy hats and Levi’s, and play shit-kicker music at night.”
Jan Sikes was a go-go dancer in Abilene when she and Rick met. “I was the first country musician to ever hire go-go girls,” he claims. It was 1970, the year before he was incarcerated, and she kept in touch with him throughout the fourteen years he was behind bars. By the late sixties, Rick had been through some bad marriages and bad record deals; his career was going to hell. “I was thirty-five, drinking too much,