By Andrew Ellis, Editor
Gregory “Tiger” Ries had just finished his New Years gig at the Guilty Goose in Zumbrota. He turned his phone back to phone mode from sound mixer mode, and it lit up immediately. Dan Otis, his brother in music and many more aspects of life, had gotten in a terrible accident.
“He was out cold and I was told to just come in in the morning,” Ries says.
A Fateful Jam
Otis was his best friend and bandmate for over 30 years. They had started playing together at a jam session in the 90s, and soon after started a band called Plain White Toast with Mike Saunders. Playing solely for the love of performing, and by playing to their strengths, their calendars filled up solely off of referrals for 25 years.
“Dan’s stereo Marshall tone and his ability to play any style and have it sound appropriate,” he says. “Our country sounded country because we both had that in our growing up. Our 50s and 60s stuff sounded spot on. Our rock was rocking. And we were smart enough to stay away from styles that didn’t fit us. We just jelled.”
Over time the three formed a brotherhood, leading to many ups and downs and even a breakup of the band. Ries found replacements, but it just wasn’t the same. So he called on Otis and Saunders to return.
“We got back together and made a pact that we would be together until one of us died,” he says. “We built a stage in my basement so when no one cared anymore we would have a place to play.”
Otis wasn’t the same when he returned to the band, though. He had suffered a brain injury in a previous motorcycle accident, but replacing him was out of the question. So Ries just adapted to the situation.
“I had to redo how we started songs because, even with meds, he couldn’t put the song name to a tune in his brain,” he says. “So I just adapted by starting every song on bass. It became a part of our show, and the crowds never knew a thing.”
It went further than that. Ries had to give him directions to and from gigs on the phone, and he even had to remind him to bring simple items such as a guitar strap.
“I would not replace him,” he says. “We, all three, were a team.”
Finding Comfort in Music
This time around, however, was different. Otis was out cold and the doctors told everyone he had severe brain seer with no hope of waking up. But his loved ones would not give up.
“We waited, prayed, played, and cried,” he says. “And tried to block out the doctor and his damage assessments.”
He sat by Otis’ side and played song after song. He played all their favorites that they had jammed to over the years. Anything he could do to help give his music brother’s soul a little spark. Then he played hymns to get himself through.
“But I always finished with ‘Hallelujah,’” he says. “I would tell him, ‘You aren’t dead yet! I just like this song!’”
It didn’t give him any closure, but he found peace in the the fact that he knew his music was helping those hurting. And it allowed the hospital staff a window into the kind of human Otis was.
“This is not just a guy with a head injury,” he says. “This is a talented man loved by many.”
One Man, Lots of Loss
His passing took a toll on Ries for another reason, too. It was the ninth loss he had suffered in less than a year and a half. He had lost his mom, oldest brother, brother in law, and more.
“I am two things,” he says. “I am the rock everyone leans on and the funny guy who makes people laugh when they want to cry. I am the care giver who does his breaking to pieces privately.”
Then reality set it. They were told in years he would have minimal brain activity, and he’d require life support the rest of his life.
“It hit hard,” he says. “Now all the sudden I go from singing for him to being on the deciding-whether-to-pull-the-plug team.”
Memorializing and Celebrating a Brother
The plug was pulled the following night. He played at his funeral and organized a special memorial as well.
“I wanted a special send off for a special guy,” he says. “So I decided to have everyone coming to the funeral who played guitar and line them up in front of the church. They were lined up four deep.”
They sang “I’ll Fly Away” and afterwards they all gathered at a celebration of life over at Artisan Plaza in Cannon Falls, MN. They played into the early hours of the morning.
“Dan was the kindest soul to walk the planet,” he says of Otis, who also found a soulmate in Ries’ cousin Mary for the last 12 years of his life. “He was the most honest man ever.”
As an artist he was in it solely for the joy of performing. Money wasn’t an issue. Ries says he also had no ego when it came to playing.
“He would hand the best stuff to whomever would sit in and play with us,” he says. “And play his second guitar and smile.”
For The Love of The Music And Stage
Since Otis’ passing he’s continued with his solo work as Tiger Ries, and even has an album in the works. He dedicates a song to Danny every set. He picked up his bass for the first time since his passing for this year’s Midwest CMA Mix Up, something he didn’t think would happen so soon.
“I never thought I would again,” he says. “Or at least for some time.”
Another band may be in his future. But for now it’s just him and his guitar. He’ll play for the pure enjoyment of playing music for people.
“I’m old enough to realize I am never going to be famous,” he says. “I just sing and play. I am okay with that.”