"Life ain't nothin' but a funny, funny riddle, thank God I'm a country boy," became more than lyrics from a John Denver song for Ted Vigil. In a way, it has become his theme song.
Vigil grew up with music as a huge part of his life coming from a mom who taught him and his siblings to sing and growing up in Catholic school and church.
"My mother played piano and sang, and that was part of our routine. We'd get in the car, and we would sing songs," he told the Laughlin entertainer. "She would teach us songs, and that was a way for us not to kill each other in the backseat, my siblings and I, he said with a laugh.
"So I learned to sing at a young age and I loved to sing. I sang in school plays, I sang for the folk mass. In fact, one of the songs we sang was 'Follow Me' by John Denver.
"I grew up in a Catholic school and a Catholic church so there was always music happening and singing going on," he added. "There was kind of the hippie movement back then, and I remember they called it the folk mass but it was a bunch of long-haired dudes and people in bell bottoms with their guitars and singing songs about peace and love. So it was kind of a neat time that I grew up in."
He played drums and sang in rock bands in and around Washington state where he still calls home, but all of that had to move to the back burner when Vigil got married and raised a family. But when the kids grew up and moved out, Vigil wanted to get back into his first true love, singing. This is where that "funny, funny riddle," or weird twist of fate comes in. Vigil started competing in singing contests and he won his area contest in Washington. That earned him a trip to Laughlin to compete in the national finals of Talent Quest, one of the biggest contests of its kind in the world.
"I started doing singing contests and meeting other musicians trying to put together a group and I ended up in Laughlin at Talent Quest in 2006," he said. "I went there in the rock and pop category singing "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns & Roses, and "Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin — a long way from Denver. I'd qualified at the Suquamish Casino in Washington state, and they flew me down there for a whole week. They said, 'Okay, Ted, you're here, you can join the country category if you like for another $100. And I said, 'certainly I will, that's great.'
"I sang a Tim McGraw song, I advanced. I sang a Montgomery Gentry song, I advanced. I found myself in the top 20 and after a lot of people telling me how much I looked like John Denver, and saying 'you should really think about doing a John Denver song,' I did.
"I did 'Annie's Song,' and got a standing ovation. So then I'm in the top five and I thought, 'wow, that John Denver song sure did me well, how about I do another one,' so I did 'Rocky Mountain High,' and I ended up getting first place."
So for a guy to take all of that unto himself to create a musical tribute to Denver takes courage, but Ted Vigil is bold like that. He also knows how to take a hint.
Friends suggested that he open for an Elvis tribute guy named Danny Vernon and the die was cast.
"I think I sang three or four songs. I didn't even play a guitar then I just sang to tracks," he said. "It was for this little casino show in Washington state, but people loved it. I had the voice, but I didn't play guitar.
"My wife goes, 'If you're gonna keep doing this you better think about at least having a guitar for a prop. You can't just stand up there and sing. John always had a guitar.'
"So I just started learning the songs, and I had to learn to play the guitar after being a drummer, and I just slowly progressed, I started singing to tracks, me and my guitar. Then I started dropping the tracks one by one and finally I told people who hired me, 'I don't do any tracks.'"
He was doing his own solo gigs when fate stepped in once again.
"I get a call from Steve Weisberg, John Denver's lead guitar player and he says, 'I play with some of these other tribute artists and I see you online here. I'm offering my services because I play lead guitar and dobro.' I was like, 'wow, that would be fantastic.' He flew out and we did the Lincoln Theater in Mount Vernon. That was our first show. So that really helped my career take off, because we toured for four and a half years all over the country. That kind of validated what I was doing working with his lead guitar player. Boy, did I learn a lot."
While Vigil already had the look taken care of, the vocals were a bit more challenging.
"Well, my voice is similar to John's — it's not exactly the same. You can learn the inflections, you can learn the vibrato, the tone and try to capture that same feeling and that's what I've done.'
"Some people say, 'You sound just like him,' some people say, 'Oh, you kind of sound like him,' everybody has their opinion…'John was taller, John was shorter…it's funny, everyone has their own perception. But what I find at my shows is people just go back in time. They get to relive the memories when those songs were coming out and they were young and in love, or whatever was going on in their life.
"It's really a special thing to be involved in a tribute like this, especially with somebody like John Denver who touched so many people's hearts and the music is just very heartwarming. I find that with songs like 'Annie's Song,' people say, 'we got married to that', or 'that's our anniversary song.' 'Sunshine on My Shoulder' means a lot to a lot of people too," he said.
Because Denver passed in the '90s, do young people know who he is?
"It's funny because I get people coming to my shows that are 9 and 10 years old," he said. "I get kids that they have just fallen in love with John's music and his persona, and that has a lot to do with YouTube. And kids, they'll get hooked on it, and then they'll learn the music.
"They'll come to my shows and I've had parents say, 'Yeah, my 11-year-old son drug me to this show. I really wasn't a big John Denver fan, but now I am.' I think a lot of people weren't big John Denver fans because rock and roll was coming in strong in the '70s. But John had his huge success in '70, '71, '72, '73, probably up to '77 and then rock and roll was coming in hard. He still managed to stay touring and still filling up coliseums, not the 30,000-seaters, but more of the 10,000 during his career."
Vigil's biggest challenge however, wasn't really the vocals.
"I think it's the pressure of going out on a stage and the expectations that people have," he explained. "The hardest part for me -- it's almost like, I become that person, I become John to them. So I'm very concerned about how I look, how I sound. I take a lot of time in my life running, working out, and working on the songs, but the hardest part is the expectation that people have that I need to fulfill.
"As far as the look, I just came this way," he said with a laugh. "I don't even have to put the round glasses on, or dress up. I'll have a beanie hat on, and I'll be in my running suit and be in the grocery store, I haven't even shaved, and I'll get 'hey did anybody ever tell you, you look like John Denver?'
"But the fun thing is, I get to hear people's stories and I see the demand is there," he said. "I know we've sold out 2,000-seat theaters in different parts of the country, so there are still people who remember his music. People might be in their 60s and up now, but I do find that I still have that younger crowd. There's also the 30-somethings who play guitar and they learn John Denver's music and they can't wait to see the show, so it's pretty cool to have such a wide range of people. Of course, grandma and grandpa are bringing their grandkids to the show, so I'm getting them up on stage for 'Grandma's Feather Bed,' and it's a lot of fun."
Then, of course, there are the songs he has to do, no matter what.
"I would have to say, just because of the response, and the fulfillment of singing a song, and having three or four hundred people stand up and sing at the top of their lungs it's 'Take Me Home, Country Roads,'" he said. "That's just an amazing feeling when you have that — it's almost like a religious experience. They drown us out when we're singing and it's a cool experience.
"But as far as challenging one of the other songs I really love to sing is 'Rocky Mountain High' and I open my show with that. It's got a lot of lyrics to it, but it's such a cool guitar riff, it's very poetic, and just the story of it — it's just a really great song. It's one of his best, I think.
"I have a handful of songs I'm adding to my show and one of them is 'I Want to Live,' which is a cool song about how everyone in the universe is basically the same," Vigil explained. "They have the same needs, desires and wants, and I just think it's a great song and very fitting for our day where people are becoming a lot more universally minded. The barriers are coming down, there's not as much prejudice. I mean, it's still in the world, but I know that's one of the things John really worked at, educating people about it and helping people to connect. He had that purity and that honesty. He was very involved internationally with world hunger projects, environmental issues, he definitely had a big heart."
Vigil brings a small ensemble of musicians to town for his show at the Avi Resort & Casino.
"I'm gonna have a world-class fiddle player from the Seattle area and then I have a keyboard player with a dynamite voice," he said. "I started out doing this show with a bigger band, but I have found this is kind of a really nice combination because I have all the elements and you still hear all the lyrics which is really important with John's music. My crowd doesn't want it loud, they want to hear the songs and the melody, they want to feel the emotion, so it's a real great lineup I'm bringing to the Avi and I know people are going to enjoy it. It's very interactive and I'm looking forward to it.
"Going back to Laughlin is going to be cool because that's where it really started for me," he said. "If you would have told me 15 years ago, 'Ted, you're gonna be doing a John Denver tribute and you're gonna be making a living, and travel the world doing this, and you're gonna be playing guitar and singing songs', I would have said, you're crazy! But it was the result of that contest.
"I had this one guy come up to me there," he added. "He was really emotionally moved and he had tears in his eyes. He said, 'I was a friend of John's and I'm a sound engineer,I worked with him for years, and when you walked out on that stage and started singing 'Rocky Mountain High', I just about had a heart attack. It was like I was going back in time.' He was one of the people who said, 'you should really think about doing a tribute show. You have the look, you have the sound and there's a lot of people who really miss John, and I'm one of them.' That's how that came about. It took off like a rocket, I couldn't stop it."