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Men with local ties named Legends of Dakota

Jimmy Weber, a native of Alexandria, performs on stage during a recent concert. Weber was among 17 inductees into the Legends of Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame last month in Sioux Falls. (Courtesy photo)1 / 3
Jimmy Weber, a native of Alexandria, performs on stage during a recent concert. Weber was among 17 inductees into the Legends of Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame last month in Sioux Falls. (Courtesy photo)2 / 3
Members of The Night Raiders — from left Vance Tuffs (bass), Al Tuffs (guitar, vocals), Royce Tuffs (drums), John Grosz (lead guitar), Ellie Mechels (keys) — play during a recent concert. (Courtesy photo)3 / 3

Two men with local ties were inducted into the Legends of Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame last month in Sioux Falls.

Alexandria native Jimmy Weber and Woonsocket native Royce Tuffs were among 17 inductees at the Sioux Falls American Legion on April 28.

Both men shared the same reaction: "It was a huge honor."

More than 350 people attended the induction ceremony, which concluded with shows by each inductee.

"It was a lot of fun," said Ellie Mechels, who nominated both men and Chuck Case of Tea, who shared an induction show with Weber. "Everybody just really did a great job."

To qualify for induction, nominees must have spent at least 25 years performing country music in and around North and South Dakota. The Legends of Dakota Country Music Hall of Fame was housed in Garretson until recently and is currently on the hunt for a new place to display memorabilia for the last decade's worth of inducted performers.

"South Dakota just has a lot of really great country musicians," Legends of Dakota Director Gary "Maynard" Kadinger said.

Other 2019 inductees included: Allen and Jill Kirkham, "Bandit" Steve Pederson, Chuck Case, Curt Powell, Darlene "Red Elk" Myers, Frank "Buddy" Ree, Harvey Lee, Howard and Sonja Hanson, Melvin Martin, Ralph Lilly, Ruby Dee, Scott Hall, Stephanie Winslow, Tracy Sheehan and T.R. Sheehan

"A lot of the people we induct are already passed on," Kadinger said. "We still honor them, because they made a significant contribution to country music in Dakota Territory."

Fighting for a music career

Mechels said Weber, who now lives in Omaha, Nebraska, had been "overlooked" by Legends of Dakota until this year.

"A lot of times, in this business, it's who you know and who you connect with," she said, and Weber's circle didn't directly intersect with those involved with the organization.

Many didn't know what to expect when Weber and Case took the stage with Ben Dee on bass and Tim Deats on keyboard for their induction show, but they quickly learned that Mechels' recommendation was solid.

"The guy can sing anything, and the people that he works with are very impressive," Mechels, a former inductee herself, said. "He works with some big-name stars. Jimmy is a huge talent representing South Dakota. Back in the olden days, it was Dustin Evans who was our superstar out there representing us, but now it's Jimmy Weber, in my opinion."

Weber's dream of becoming a country music performer began with a secondhand gift from his mother when he was in the sixth grade in Alexandria.

"My mom bought my first guitar at a rummage sale for $40 when I was 12 years old," Jimmy Weber said. "Nobody has ever believed in me more than her."

From the moment he received it, Weber rarely put down the new-to-him guitar, yearning to play with The Break-A-Ways, a band including his aunt, Georgie Weber, and her children, Tom, Danny, Chuck and Suzi.

"I so badly wanted to play with my cousins that I got just a couple of lessons from the high school band director," said Weber, who then took the rest of the work into his own hands. "Within six months, I was playing lead guitar for The Break-A-Ways," Weber said. "It was just like the song 'Summer of '69' — I played until my fingers bled.

"I stood in front of a mirror and envisioned myself playing in front of audiences for hours. I didn't realize what I was doing back then, but I was making the dream come true. When you visualize yourself doing the things you dream about, it's funny how they have a way of coming true."

Weber gigged with The Break-A-Ways throughout high school. In college, he continued to play with them, as well as Mitchell-based rock band Flat Cat. Though Weber went to college envisioning a future as a musical entertainer, friends, family and even his professors cast doubt on that future.

He dropped out of college and auditioned for the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command Band to "have something to fall back on." He was accepted into the 70-piece organization and assigned to Night Wing, a country/rock ensemble stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha. He deployed seven times to entertain troops with Night Wing. For a while, Night Wing was comprised solely of South Dakotans, including family members Suzi and Lori Weber, as well as Chuck Case, the college friend who had encouraged Weber to audition.

The military "afforded me the chance to have a legitimate career and healthcare and all those things, but also to live my passion with music," Weber said, adding that he is "among the lucky few" who are able to pursue such ventures. "I just don't know anybody who got a better deal than me."

During his 24 years with Night Wing, followed by tours with the United Service Organization and various other military-related engagements, Weber has played with such country musicians as Wayne Newton and Craig Morgan. Night Wing performed with John Denver for a crowd of 30,000 people, with more than 250,000 watching live on PBS. They performed on various other national television programs, including Nashville Now, a show similar to The Tonight Show that focused on country musicians. And they made it to the national finals in the Country Showdown with Kenny Rogers and were on the verge of a record deal, but the members of the band declined the offer and scattered across the country to pursue other endeavors.

His combined passion for music and the military continues, and he feels it's a convergence many Americans can relate to.

"I think people have a real hunger to honor our servicemen and women — especially those who paid that ultimate price," he said.

He writes, performs and records music every chance he gets. He currently is working on his third CD, which will include his latest self-written arrangement, "TAPS: God Is Nigh." The song is a tribute to Alexandria native Greg Wagner, who was killed in combat in Iraq on May 8, 2006.

Though he is employed in national defense as a civilian, Weber's performance schedule is busy.

On Saturday, he performed in Omaha at the American Heart Association's largest Heart Walk, where he sang and shared his story of surviving a heart attack in January. Today, he will come together with LoCash and Russell Dickerson at a Nebraska Farm Aid concert to benefit farmers affected by this year's flooding. Later this year, he will make a third country cruise with country music greats Trace Adkins, Ronnie Milsap, Neal McCoy and dozens of others.

As rich as his musical career has been, the highlights of Weber's career are the moments when he can play with and for friends and family back home in South Dakota. Most of his performances these days are solo acts, but he calls upon Case, who nominated Weber for the Legends of Dakota along with Mechels, to pull together a band for larger performances as often as possible.

"He is such an accomplished songwriter, musician, singer and guitarist. He's definitely been worthy, and it's been a long time coming," the former Night Wing drummer, who also was inducted into the Legends of Dakota on April 28, said. "Other than my wife, Jimmy is my best friend in the world. We have been through a lot together, and I can't think of another musician who is more deserving of that award than him. It couldn't have been any better of a night. ... That was so awesome, not only to just be selected, but to go in together. It's something we will both cherish the rest of our lives."

Drumming out a name for himself

Similar to Weber, Royce Tuffs got his start in country music by invitation from family. Tuffs was exposed to country music from the time he was a toddler, when his father, Mel Tuffs, began playing with The Night Raiders, a Mitchell-based band. He picked up his first drum stick in the fourth grade, and by 13, he was putting the trap set together in school at Woonsocket.

"When I was younger, they forced us to play by music, but as I started to learn the trap set, I played by ear," he said, and his uncle, Al Tuffs, took note.

Al Tuffs was the lead male vocalist for The Night Raiders and invited the teen to a jam session at the Mitchell Moose Lodge, and he was hooked.

"I love making music. I love making people happy. I love when people dance. I feed off their energy," he said.

At 15, Tuffs joined The Choteau Creek Band, of Avon, and played weddings, barn dances, firemen's dances and various other events throughout the region with his dad, who was the band's lead singer.

"Their drummer wanted to retire, so I just kind of fell into his place," said Tuffs, who stayed there for almost 20 years and now lives in Sioux Falls. "Those are some of the best years of my life." Tuffs also played off and on with The Night Raiders before hitting the road with Amarillo, a group of southern musicians. Two years later, he returned to South Dakota and started playing regularly with The Night Raiders.

"It worked out that I joined them later on in life, and I think it worked out better that way," he said.

Over the last 30 years, Tuffs has opened for Williams and Ree, jammed with 38 Special, and played with Alabama guitarist Jeff Cook. These days, Tuffs plays with a variety of bands on occasion, but he isn't an official member of any.

"It's hard to keep one band going, so I play with whomever," he said.

Most of his musician friends, including Mechels, who at one time was married to Al Tuffs, are involved in multiple bands to keep busy, partly because DJs have become more popular than bands for events

"The music industry isn't what it used to be. I hate to say we're a dying breed, but it's almost the case, because I don't see a whole lot of young people getting involved, which is a shame," he said. "Anybody can spin a record or CD, but it takes a lot of talent to produce live music."

Another factor in the decline in the local music scene, he said, can be attributed to a crackdown on drunk drivers.

"Back in the day, people used to drive 100 miles to see a band, but they don't do that anymore. I don't want to meet a drunk driver on the road, but the cops' idea of drunk and mine are completely different," he said. "They have just scared people to the point that they just don't want to go and do anything, and with people on their phones and computers ... it's a dying thing."

Organizations like Legends of Dakota are making an effort to keep live music alive in the area, but Tuffs said there aren't many places that welcome live bands routinely any more in the local area, and family life is more important to him than making a name on the music scene.

"The love of music is one thing, but the love of your family and having your weekends is another," he said. "My wife has been really understanding, but she has only known me since I've been playing locally."

Tuffs, who has been married 18 years, has three children and recently opened a trucking company with his brother, and it takes a bit more money to coax him onto the road these days.

Mechels said she hoped Tuffs will return to music more permanently in the future.

"His talent will be there after the kids leave home, and he will be able to go back to drumming if he wants to," she said, adding that his fellow performers miss him. "He's the easiest drummer I've ever worked with, because he will lead you into the verse, he'll lead you to the chorus, and he will lead you right out of the song."

Though he is mostly known for his drumming, Tuffs also has been known to sing backup or lead vocals.

"It's very hard to find singing drummers," Mechels said.

Tuffs shared his induction show with his cousin and 2018 inductee Vance Tuffs, whom he credits with getting him into the music scene.

"Vance was a big inspiration for me. He took me around to gigs before I was really supposed to be in bars," he laughed.

Much of Vance Tuffs' family missed his induction show last year due to a family emergency, so Mechels said it was fitting that he share the stage with his cousin this time. She and Al Tuffs also were onstage as The Night Raiders for the show, but "Al and I didn't sing," Mechels said. "It was about the boys."

The Night Raiders, who originally were based in Mitchell, will return to the Mitchell Moose Lodge for an open performance July 13 in honor of Ron "Pete" Peterson, who was a member of The Longhorn Trio with Al Tuffs.