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Comedian Gary Mule Deer's journey from the Las Vegas strip's notorious early-'80s era to his recent induction to the Grand Ole Opry involves outlaw country stars and overnight gambling and cocaine binges, not to mention Johnny Carson, "Hee Haw," David Letterman, Steve Martin — and a rubber chicken.
This barely scratches the surface of the man born Gary Miller in Deadwood, South Dakota, and his harrowing yet adventurous 85 years on Earth.
Yes, that's the same Deadwood, South Dakota, where the graves of storied 19th-century gunslingers Wild Bill Hickock and Martha Jane "Calamity Jane" Cannary lie.
"Show Business Is My Life, But I Can't Prove It" is a new documentary released about Mule Deer's life. Unlike many tall tales ascribed to Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, the retrospective is entirely true.
His 65 years in the entertainment industry have allowed him to intersect with the Doobie, Everly and Smothers brothers, brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys, plus Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Roger Miller. But he never got to work with the artist who influenced him most as a performer: Johnny Cash.
"I was once 4-feet away from him at (the Country Music Association's then annual) Fan Fair," Mule Deer told the The Tennessean.
He once wrote a tribute song to the "Walk the Line" singer, which Cash's daughter Roseanne and wife, June, had received.
"Johnny had a bad show that day, so June advised me to wait for another day to speak with him," he recalled.
Then, June Carter Cash paused and grabbed Mule Deer by the cheeks.
"Now that I take a look at you, you remind me so much of Johnny when he was younger," she remarked.
An audacious career start settles into reflecting the outlaw ideal
And like Cash, whose first career hit was 1957's "I Walk the Line," Mule Deer's career was birthed in the same year by the twin commercial booms of country music and rock 'n' roll.
He took his peculiar stage name from frequent sightings of mule deer along Wyoming's Route 85 and Interstates 15 and 90 as he pursued early folk and rock acclaim while traveling to Denver and Los Angeles.
Mule Deer's initial success came in the same college folk circuit traveled by artists like John Denver in the late 1960s.
That led to his development — alongside his friend Dennis "Moondog" Flannigan — of the Muledeer and Moondog Medicine Show traveling revue.
He recalls finishing a performance at a Playboy club location and having his comic hero, Jack Benny, approach.
The film, radio and television entertainment icon had watched his performance and offered him a brief note of praise: "You have the potential of my timing."
A career that continues to play within but without the mainstream's perpetual spotlight has offered him a peculiarly bizarre yet fulfilling life.
Music and comedy's freewheeling '70s and '80s rise
The era that followed his work with Flannigan saw him befriend (and live as a roommate with) other musicians turned comedians, including Steve Martin, who, like Mule Deer, was a banjo-strumming aspiring folk artist. Martin's early career involved opening for acts including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Carpenters and Toto at rock clubs like the Troubadour.
Mule Deer recalls his time in Los Angeles living with Martin as crucial to keeping his material sharp.
Concise jokes driven as much by charismatic, nuanced, physical motions and the involvement of props (including the previously mentioned rubber chicken) as they were by language became a hallmark of both comics' work.
"The first time you see Gary onstage, you have no idea (how he arrived)," jokes comedian and talk show personality Conan O'Brien in the documentary. "It's as if he dropped out of the sky, the crate cracked open and he arrived onstage, fully formed."
He arrived in Vegas alongside acts he soon befriended, including the late Roger Miller.
The late '70s saw the confluence of country's "countrypolitan" era blend with the surge of the genre's "outlaw" musicians. For Miller, who won 11 Grammy Awards in two years (1964-1965), renewed interest in the genre keyed a touring resurgence in his work.
Mule Deer was frequently Miller's opener.
At the height of Mule Deer's addiction, he missed a performance before the "King of the Road" vocalist.
"Once he realized I wasn't coming, he quickly put on my hat, went onstage and did my entire set from memory — then played his own set, too," Mule Deer recalls.
Miller was "a true professional and is one of the most intelligent people I've ever known," he says.
Mule Deer's Sin City legacy — regardless of his mental or physical condition at the time — is that of a consummate entertainer and ideal opening act.
If you were booking say, Willie Nelson and Frank Sinatra at the Golden Nugget Casino in 1984, Mule Deer's droll humor, prop-based entertainment and ability to pick up his ever-present Gibson J-200 acoustic guitar and break into note-perfect versions of songs lampooning the American songbook or timeless Western standards served as the perfect sonic appetizer.
Mule Deer was a fixture up and down the Vegas strip, and performed in Lake Tahoe and Reno. He performed alongside '70s- and '80s-era comic standouts Jay Leno and Jimmie Walker at vital Los Angeles comedy culture hubs like the Comedy Store. He appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and "Late Night with David Letterman." The two decades defined his success but also imperiled his health.
"For 20 years, I only went to bed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday — so I'm even lucky to be able to call myself a survivor," said Mule Deer, whose cocaine addiction plagued him for much of the era.
Three decades at the Opry
Mule Deer relocated to Nashville in the early 1990s and, for the last 30 years, has appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage. He did so at the urging of longtime Opry host Roy Acuff, though his debut came a year after Acuff's 1992 passing.
"I'm overjoyed to perform there as much as I do — and now to be a member," Mule Deer states. "That stage is exactly where I should be at this point of my career."
He cites how his comedy has evolved from being cutting-edge to family-appropriate, making him an ideal fit for an audience watching an hourlong presentation that ideally appeals to all demographics.
"Jokes I had from 50 years ago and jokes I came up with yesterday work better than they ever have (when I play the Opry)," Mule Deer continues. "I start singing Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire,' and when I say 'I fell in' I drop my guitar pick into the guitar — Mom and Dad are laughing and the kids barely know why. I tell another joke and the kids start laughing — Mom and Dad are confused. It never fails."
Currently, Mule Deer resides in Spearfish, South Dakota, while working numerous dates yearly. He recently celebrated a quarter century of marriage to his manager and wife, Nita. Plus, he's long since exchanged addictions and is a frequent player on the celebrity golf circuit alongside names like Alice Cooper.
Regarding his impressive longevity, Mule Deer — as expected — keeps his reasoning entertaining.
"I've always been at the right place at the right time, and when I was there, the only time I ever said anything was if it was funny," he said.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Gary Mule Deer reflects on comedy, country music and surviving his legendary career