Requiem for a Country Lady

Sandy Lovejoy, New Times' "Phantom Honky-Tonker," succumbs to cancer

Sandy Lovejoy met Tim Cole through a newspaper love-match ad. A few weeks later, they were married. About eight months after the wedding, on February 1, she was dead, a victim of cancer.

In between the two events lived dreams of sailing off into faraway sunsets, of growing old together on Tim's 33-foot oceangoing vessel, Magic. "I've never sailed before," she said just before Christmas. "But can it be as hard as interviewing Hank Williams Jr.?"

Since the mid-'70s, Lovejoy had been the Valley's preeminent country music writer, a career that began when she took on the role as the infamous "Phantom Honky-Tonker" for New Times and ended as a well-respected Music City journalist. She had spent the better part of the past two decades working for country-radio powerhouse KNIX, a tenure that ended when Buck Owens and his sons, Michael and Buddy, sold the station late last year. A diminutive, dark-haired woman with cool blue eyes, Lovejoy wrote prolifically for and edited the station's popular magazine and provided regular music-oriented news spots on the air.

A Pennsylvania native, the 18-year-old Lovejoy had grown tired of working as a stitcher at a book-binding outfit when she hitched a ride with a friend to the West Coast. "I always wanted to go there," she said. As they drove through a rough-and-tumble area of Los Angeles, Lovejoy noticed a "Room for Rent" sign on an old building.

"You can just drop me off here," she told her friend, whom she never saw again. Lovejoy knocked on the building superintendent's door, but no one answered. She moved to the next door, and a large, swarthy man answered. "He was a Cuban exile," Lovejoy said. "Less than a year later, I married him."

The union lasted five rocky years, into the early '70s. The divorce depressed Lovejoy considerably, and she even considered a move back east. Then came a revelation.

"I was saved," she said, "when I discovered Kris Kristofferson."

The singer-songwriter's music buoyed Lovejoy, and instead of returning to the book bindery, she followed a new love to Phoenix. "He was a reprobate," Lovejoy said with a short laugh. "And that's what I called him. But, then again, I've always liked men with a little ornery to them, a bit of bad guy. That's probably why I was attracted to Kristofferson and how I ended up doing so well in the business -- there's more than a few of that ilk."

She would spend the next few years living and working in a small business with the Reprobate. Her affection for country music continued to grow, but the slick '70s nature of the genre didn't quite jibe with her offbeat sensibilities.

"What really got me going in a new direction was Bob Boze Bell's 'Honky Tonk Sue' illustrations," she recalled, referring to Bell's popular comic strip. "I wrote a letter to [New Timesco-founder Michael] Lacey, and proposed a column -- I'd visit a bar undercover and write about it. He said to submit a sample column, and I did. And it worked."

At the time, the "urban cowboy" craze was going full-bore, and Lovejoy estimated that there were some 40 or 50 country dance clubs in the Valley.

"The Reprobate and I would visit these places and dance all night, and I would write about them," she said. "We were 'The Phantom Honky-Tonkers,' and I would tell it like it was. I looked for the seedy things."

The column proved to be very popular, and bars receiving less-than-glowing reviews from "The Phantom Honky-Tonkers" were known to put up wanted posters offering rewards for their unmasking.

When the urban-cowboy phenomenon waned, the column ended, as did the relationship with the Reprobate. Lovejoy, who also worked in accounting during the period, was approached by KNIX program director Larry Daniels, who proposed a "format news" spot. Twice a day, Lovejoy would spend 30 seconds dishing out information about goings-on behind the Pine Curtain.

"What a risk!" I'd never been near a microphone before, and suddenly I was doing daily reports. That stuff just doesn't happen," said Lovejoy of her unlikely entree into the world of broadcasting.

But the spots were a huge success, and Lovejoy found herself branching out at KNIX, writing promotional literature and profiles. By the end of the '80s, she was editing KNIX Magazine and making regular forays to Nashville. Known as a tenacious interviewer with an in-your-face style, she also dispensed advice to up-and-coming artists. Some, including superstars Brooks and Dunn and the Judds, became personal friends.

Lovejoy rode the crest of the massive "new country" boom into the mid-'90s. But in August 1996, everything changed.

"That's when I was diagnosed with breast cancer," she said. "At first, of course, I was devastated. Then I just said, 'Let's go get it.'"

Following a year of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, all vestiges of the disease seemed to have disappeared. After the Owens family sold KNIX, Lovejoy decided to address the nearly two-decade void in her personal life. She answered an ad on July 11, 1999, from the Arizona Republic's singles page:

"DEPENDABLE, ENTHUSIASTIC BOOMER Empty nest, thinking travel. Passions: NPR, Borders Books & Music, ocean sailing, cold beer, good times, brown/blue, mustache and muscles, 5'10", 180 lbs."

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