The 50 Best Record Stores In America is an essay series where we attempt to find the best record store in every state. These aren’t necessarily the record stores with the best prices or the deepest selection; you can use Yelp for that. Each record store featured has a story that goes beyond what’s on its shelves; these stores have history, foster a sense of community and mean something to the people who frequent them.
When asked about what it was like growing up in Wyoming, I usually lead off with Frontier Days. Known as the “Daddy of ’em all,” Frontier Days is a week-long rodeo competition, carnival, and series of night shows that doubles the size of the state capitol, Cheyenne, for the last full week of July. Folks stream in from across the globe to consume 100,000 pancakes in three enormous and free breakfasts, watch cowboys dominate livestock in a variety of dextrous ways, and crank their necks to catch sight of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds scream across the almost infinite sky.
Of course, Frontier Days isn’t all there is to Wyoming or even Cheyenne, but it’s a convenient touchstone. Your hometown or local region probably has a similar season-based tourist honey pot that brings in much-needed commerce. And as big as Frontier Days is for the city and the state, it’s often not terribly familiar to anyone who isn’t already invested in rodeos or the Mountainous West. Often the only things my current East Coast neighbors can recall about Wyoming are that Jackson Hole is where famous people (like Kanye West) go to ski and party, and the hot springs at Yellowstone Park are supposedly iridescent and lovely. Occasionally I am impressed when a new acquaintance is aware that Wyoming was the first state to where women got the right to vote (hence its nickname as “The Equality State”), and it’s the least populous state in the union (despite being the 10th largest by area). Then again, having such a low population is what required the territory to allow women the right to fill out ballots in the first place, otherwise it would not have had enough votes to become a state, an often-overlooked caveat.
Another tragic irony of the “Equality State” is that it was the home of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man brutally murdered in the same small town that holds the state’s university, and whose death became an inspiration for LGBTQ activism across the country. The state holds the carpeted bags of Dick Cheney and his bloodthirsty clan, with his daughter Liz currently holding her father’s seat at the U.S. House of Representatives. The advertising around Wyoming likes to tout an independent spirit, with a lot of “Wyoming is What America Was” bumper stickers and such, which results in an ossified state of Good Ol’ Boy politics that likes to choke new blood from flooding the halls of power. The entrenched boomers all but gape in wonder why the college graduates and anyone else who can manage it flee in droves, even just across the state line to commute, if they can wrangle it.
This is all to say that if you, like me, grew up in Cheyenne without caring a whit about camping, trucks, or agriculture, all that “freedom” could feel pretty stifling after a time. Wyoming is a beautiful place with its windswept plains and random blizzards, but at a certain point the endless oceanic sky feels like an ominous weight. Which is why Ernie November, a record store and skate shop full of incense, disc golf, DVDs, guitar strings, tapestries, etc., was such a crucial nexus to those of us growing up and holding fast against the grain.
Cheyenne isn’t exactly off the map as far as touring music is concerned. My father was a guitarist and singer who led country bands in the region throughout the ’70s and ’80s, with enough work playing music to earn a couple weeks of vacation and put a down payment on a nice house. In the ’90s, a gaggle of punks got themselves in Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life and brought Less Than Jake and Goldfinger to town, and later Q And Not U, From Ashes Rise, and many other bands large and small to the GI Forum, garages, warehouses, basements, and anywhere else that would rent or lend the space. Fugazi played Laramie twice, pop-punk crooners the Lillingtons and Teenage Bottlerocket call the state home, and a throbbing brood of metalheads live and die by their bulldog circle pit pride.
Frontier Days’ night shows usually bring high-billed country fare, they’ve dabbled in rock and other genres by brining Nickelback and Local H, ZZ Top, Styx, KISS, and in 2019 they’ve booked, uh, Sir Mix-a-Lot. Wyoming is threaded with a need to groove, and for the last two decades and change, Ernie’s has been the most activity focal point of this region’s musical energy — not only by selling records but by bringing bands to the tiny tie-dyed back room to rattle the bricks as well.
Ernie November certainly isn’t the only record store oasis in a tiny town, but it’s a store that serves as a last bastion to the marginal and counter-culturally minded in the region (as part of a small franchise that originated in South Dakota with a couple other stores across the high desert). And for most of that time the store in Cheyenne has been captained by Keith Coombes, a no-nonsense modern viking who has been buying and selling records for the wide variety of weirdos who find sanctuary there.
Though Keith has lived a mostly heavy metal and hardcore life, he can talk jazz, jam bands, chart-toppers, rock ’n’ roll, and trash with any and all who come through with a polite hello. He’s dedicated to finding anything a customer might try and surprise him with and keeping the shelves stocked with classics and potential new favorites. But if you had a bad attitude or dared to try shoplifting even a mere stick of incense or a bleached cassette, Keith wouldn’t hesitate to drop the hammer — even if you were an ex-MTV VJ who dared to return years later claiming you were too high to remember your initial misdemeanor.
A lot of stores try to capitalize on non-conformity while the ship is steered by suits and glad-handers, but Ernie’s was never content to profit from hollow style and empty slogans. Instead, Keith doubled down by bringing bands like Goatwhore and Ringworm for free (and heavily encouraging those with means to drop bills on donations and merch) as well as allowing others to put on legendary (to me) shows from xbxrx, Die Princess Die, and dozens of hungry local bands. Ernie’s isn’t all bite, and though they’ve tangled with the city government for daring to display a Brokeback Mountain poster and blasting Slayer during the Frontier Days parades, the store has also hosted arts events like skate deck decorating contests for the kids.
I was lucky enough to work at Ernie November through college, sending half or more of what I made right back into the store. Ernie’s steadied me during an aimless period where most in the region either root down and start a family or slip away from the limited options and rigid social mores. I am far from the only one who has found solace at Ernie’s, overwhelmed by an enormous and lonely state run by libertarian pirates, and that’s why it’s the best record store in Wyoming — fed by the state’s spirit of independence while feeding the voracious musical and rebellious appetites of locals and passers-through alike.