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, eatin’ a few pills—amphetamines was plentiful. The days of free love and nickel beer. I was disgusted with the music business. Didn’t even want to play anymore; didn’t give a damn anymore. I wanted off the merry-go-round but couldn’t see where to get off.”
Rick Sikes says he can hardly believe how stupid he was back then. “I was a big ol’ boy, drank and raised hell, playin’ in honky-tonks, screwin’ all these broads. I’m supposed to be the band leader, keeping us working, so they could feed their families. I felt obligated to keep things going. So I had a boyhood friend who was an outlaw. We was playing these little old towns. I’d go into the bank to get some change. I’d see how many tellers there were, how many doors in and out. I’d go back to the motel and sketch out the place and the escape route, how many farm-to-market roads to get back on the interstate. This was valuable to people in that business. Let’s put it that way. I’d get a few bucks out of it.”
“Everybody was afraid of him,” says Jan. Adds Sikes: “I was probably one of the most arrogant bastards in the world. There were a lot of decent people had it in for us, you know what I mean?” One man who had it in for Sikes was one of the county’s leading law enforcement officials. One afternoon, right after Sikes was arrested, the official was standing outside a holding cell that Sikes shared with a seventeen-year-old boy, who had been crying all day. The kid faced five years for drug possession. The lawman began to taunt the kid, Sikes recalls, threatening, “I’m’a getcha five more years when I prove you intended to sell it.”
Sikes went ballistic. “Hey, you son of a bitch, you wanna f— with somebody, why don’t you f— with me?” he yelled. “I’ll f— with you all right, boy,” said the man. “You want me to come in there?” He reached into his vest pocket, according to Sikes, and patted a derringer. “Come in here,” Sikes told him, “and I’ll stick that derringer up yo’ ass sideways.”
Sikes was nailed with 50 years from the State of Texas. The Eastland County district attorney persuaded a jury that Sikes, wearing a disguise, had pulled a gun while robbing the First State Bank of Rising Star. In a separate trial for another bank robbery, the Feds sentenced him to 25 years.
Off federal parole, Sikes remains on state parole until the sentence is up, in 2021. “I doubt I’m gonna make it,” he says. He got out of prison early, in 1985, and since then he has become a model for prisoner rehabilitation. Leavenworth is considered the second-toughest maximum-security prison in America. It’s for career criminals and killers—not first-timers or country musicians. In his book The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, Pete Earley quotes former Leavenworth prison warden Jerry O’Brien as saying, “The only real thing that rehabilitates a convict in Leavenworth is old age. When they get so old they can’t run out of a bank, they retire.” Nevertheless, in Sikes’s case, “I got it all out of my system,” he says. “People don’t know what bottoming out is until you really don’t have nothin’, not even the freedom of what you eat, what you wear. There’s no way that I would do anything to go back in there.”
While in prison Sikes got his GED, studied graphic arts, and wrote hundreds of songs, which are now stored away in unopened boxes. (In one 1980 clipping on Sikes’s music wall, Boxcar Willie credits a song he was planning to record, called “The Hobo King,” as having been written by inmate No. 87047-132—that’s Sikes—at Leavenworth.) He invented devices like the prototype “bead-o-matic,” which simplifies Native American beading. He remodeled guitars; he strums a brilliant chord on one of them, a resonator Dobro-like instrument. The resonators were made out of little aluminum tins that once held pecan pies from Leavenworth’s commissary. He named another instrument, a silver battle-ax with a Fender neck and a banjo body, the gitjo. “You had to have permits to keep each one in the cell,” he says. Other convicts kept their distance from Sikes, and no one dared mess with his guitars.
Sikes was so industrious in his solo endeavors that he was taken to the prison psychiatrist for being “anti-social.” The shrink, who had a Viennese accent and has become one of Sikes’ stock character routines, wore his wristwatch on his ankle, fearing a convict would steal it from his wrist. “He’d be walking down the hallway,” Sikes says, “some guard would ask the time, and he’d stop to pull up his pants leg. ‘Mr. Sikes,’ he said, ‘I unnerstandt you don’t associate wit anyone; you haf no friends.’ I said, ‘Do you realize that over 90 percent of the people in here are felons? Killers, thugs, drug pushers? What kinda people you want me to hang out with, man? We’re not allowed to patronize the officers.’ He told me to go.”
B. B. King often played Kansas City, which is thirty miles from Leavenworth, and he performed at the prison free. But the guards would shake down B. B.’s band, Sikes says, tearing up the amps looking for contraband drugs: “B. B.’s band was black, so I assume the guards figured they were smuggling dope in. Last time B. B. came, I carried his guitar in, and he said, ‘Boys, we like to play for y’all, but it’s just gotten to be too much of a hassle.'”
The warden was mightily impressed with a song Sikes wrote called “From the Bottle to the Needle.” Sikes didn’t sing his way out of prison, like Leadbelly, but he did persuade the warden to let him build a recording studio at Leavenworth. It was the first one ever in a federal pen, he says, and it was a Nashville pipeline that enabled prison songwriters to submit demos. Before the studio, convict musicians had to send in their demos on sheet music. An incarcerated trumpet player, who was paid off in cigarettes from the commissary, had been transcribing everybody’s music charts.
Sikes painted music notes across the recording studio’s walls to make it appear less institutional. Given an old, broken two-track recorder for starters, he built a homemade console using old radio parts. He glued egg crates on the walls for sound baffling. Then Steam Train Maury, the real “King of the Hobos,” befriended Sikes during a Leavenworth visit. Tight with the Peavey company in Mississippi, Maury arranged for it to donate some amps, a P. A., mikes, and a Peavey soundboard.
“Rick’s greatest talent is taking pieces of nothing and making something out of them,” says Jan Sikes, leading a tour of the main house. All the cabinets, furniture, and Native American-style crafts were built by her husband. He constructed a bunkhouse for their kids, now refitted with a hot tub. A 130-year-old trunk from Jan’s grandmother has been refurbished to look like a museum piece. “He still repairs most things with nail clippers and a razor blade—the only things that were allowed in his cell,” she adds. The master bedroom’s king-size bed is decked out in red satin sheets. The landscaped grounds, which stretch out to the Davis Feed Mill, nearby, could easily be mistaken for some sort of West Texas resort. A rebuilt nineteenth-century woodstove outside can smoke eight briskets at a time.
Five years ago a cardiologist gave Sikes a death sentence. The doctor told him that if he ate nothing but rice, beans, and pasta, he might last six months. “But I’ll die when I get goddamned good and ready,” he says, digging into a steak delivered from his next-door neighbor’s restaurant, Caroline’s Coldwater Cattle Company. Jan spent “thousands of hours” learning about low-fat diets to reverse heart disease, he says. “She straightened me out more than anybody in the world. She’s to blame for keeping me alive, man.”
Other members of Sikes’s former band haven’t fared as well. Rick’s brother, Bobby, who played keyboards, died of kidney failure a few years back. Tommy “Red Hoss” Jenkins, the tall, skinny bass player, was Sikes’s cell partner at Leavenworth. “One morning guards came in and took him,” Sikes recalls. “He had a bad eye, and they said they were taking him over to Kansas City to take the bad eye out and put in a glass one. I never seen him since.” Gary Marquis, the lead guitarist, died of a heart attack in the late eighties. Though Sikes had once helped out Preecher Williams, the drummer, when he went AWOL from the Army—”I had some friends in Nashville,” Sikes says; “I sent him down there to hide the poor little bastard out”—Williams repaid the favor by turning state’s evidence, saying that Sikes had forced him to steal and rob banks. Sikes doesn’t know his whereabouts either, and “he never done a day in jail.”
Sikes, who is of Native American ancestry, developed a close friendship with the late Native American poet Roxy Gordon when Gordon returned home from Dallas to the Coleman area in his dying days. Gordon had been encouraging him to get back onstage. So for the first time in thirty years, Rick Sikes performed, at Gordon’s memorial last May at the Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas. He liked it, the audience liked him, and he aims to do some more.
Finally, one wonders whether Sikes keeps a bank account these days. “My best supporter since I’ve been home has been the First Coleman National Bank,” he says. “They loaned me money for the antique shop, the sign works shop. They back me all the way.”
Dallas-based blues guitarist Josh Alan Friedman is the editor of the upcoming Terry Southern anthology, Now Dig This (Atlantic/Grove).