The Cajuns of the Golden Triangle

https://texashighways.com/culture/people/cajun-culture-flourishes-texas-golden-triangle/

from the. January 2021 issue of Texas Highways magazine

In Texas’ Golden Triangle, Cajun Culture Flourishes

A man plays an accordion in front of a sign reading 'Bon Temps Accordions Jude Moreau'Jude Moreau, a Cajun accordionist from Groves

Text: It's still dark

on a muggy August morning in southeast Texas. But inside the Neches River

Wheelhouse, a waterfront bar and restaurant in Port Neches, husband-and-wife duo Dana and Krissy Melancon are bright and chirpy as they settle in front of the microphones of their remote broadcasting studio. On cue, the airwaves crackle with the sound of a train whistle, followed by a loud accordion pushing a peppy rhythm with fiddle and guitar.

Every Sunday morning, The Cajun Express radio show mixes four hours of swamp pop, zydeco, and most of all, Cajun music with community news, dedications, and requests. Loose and familiar, the broadcast serves as a meeting point for Cajuns from across the Golden Triangle, that geographic zone in Texas’ southeast corner defined by Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange.

“This show is a responsibility,” Dana Melancon says. “I don’t want to let anybody down. The people listening are willing to share stories and make connections for you. It’s not anything I’m doing. I’m just putting the music out there.”

Accordionist Bridget D’Lane Roberts

“I don’t think southeast Texas Cajuns consider themselves separate, although it’s one of these pride things,” Melancon says, nodding toward the dozens of fans on hand for the live remote broadcast. “In southwest Louisiana, you might get, ‘You’re not really Cajun. You weren’t born here, you’re not living here.’ But it’s tongue-in-cheek teasing.”

As The Cajun Express opens its second hour, daylight reveals a waterfront setting by the Neches River where massive barges and oil tankers rumble past, headed upstream to refineries and the Port of Beaumont, or downstream to Sabine Lake and the Gulf of Mexico. The setting, adjacent to Riverfront Park, might not be confused for Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin. But for Golden Triangle Cajuns who show up for the broadcast, it’ll do just fine.

The tale of the Acadians, the French-Canadians who were exiled from Nova Scotia in the 18th century, has been much told, most famously by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie,” published in 1847. The epic poem recounts love lost during Le Grand Dérangement, when the British kicked French immigrants out of the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada during the French and Indian War of 1754-63. Roughly 3,000 refugees found their way to southwestern Louisiana—present-day Acadiana.

The Acadians—or Cajuns, as they became known—were an insular bunch, isolated from the rest of the world by swamps and rivers until Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long’s bridge-building frenzy in the 1930s. Unlike most assimilated American cultures, Cajuns have been able to hold on to their customs, folkways, and, at least in the heart of Cajun country, their French dialect.

The story of the next Cajun diaspora, from southwest Louisiana to southeast Texas, is less celebrated. The first Cajuns began moving across the Sabine River in the early 19th century, among them the Hébert family who established a farm on Taylor Bayou in Jefferson County in 1842. The 1850 U.S. census documented 600 “Franco-Louisianans” in southeast Texas. Cajun relocation to Texas grew in the early 1900s with the expansion of the Southern Pacific railroad and then the rapid growth of petroleum and chemical refineries around Port Arthur. Faced with a choice between scraping by as a sharecropper or making a middle-class income at a refinery, many Cajuns headed west to Texas.

A blue sky over blue water and tall grass in a marsh

A Port Arthur marsh
The inside of a wood-paneled home with rocking chairs and a brick fireplace

La Maison Beausoleil in Port Neches

 

The easiest way to understand and appreciate a culture that isn’t your own is through its food and music. The Cajuns stand out on both fronts.

Cajun cuisine is everywhere and anywhere in southeast Texas, from crawfish farms to destination restaurants and boudin joints. The stalwarts of Cajun cuisine are well known: gumbo, étouffée, blackened redfish, and delicacies like boudin (spicy pork and rice sausage) and cracklins (crunchy fried chunks of pork skin, fat, and meat). At the Pine Tree Lodge in La Belle, just outside Beaumont, you can order alligator from the menu while watching their wild cousins in Taylor Bayou from the outside deck. In the Golden Triangle, you’ll find boudin balls alongside hot dogs at the concession stand of a high school football game—and gumbo on the menu of a Mexican restaurant.

Larry Judice, 71, is a third-generation Texas Cajun whose father and grandfather operated groceries and meat markets in the Golden Triangle. In 1978, he opened Larry’s French Market, a grocery and deli in Groves, just outside of Port Arthur, serving lunch plates to refinery workers.

“By trade I was a butcher, and we sold lots of seafood,” says Judice, now retired. “We were one of the first to sell crawfish live. We started getting rid of shelves and putting more tables in. Then we put in a dance floor. It just boomed after that.”

Larry’s evolved into a full-blown entertainment venue with an all-you-can-eat Cajun seafood buffet and live bands on weekends. In many respects, Larry’s functions like a community center. “There are so many Cajuns that live around here,” Judice says. “We love the music, the food, friendship, family getting together to have a fais do-do—a dance—having a good time.”

Stewart Gordon, manager of Larry’s French Market, insists there’s a method to les bon temps madness: “They eat till they’re stuffed, then they dance it off.”

A man throws a large net over a body of water

Netting bait fish near Groves

Indeed, music is perhaps the strongest cultural bond uniting Cajuns in the Golden Triangle, attracting the community for dances and parties.

“I’ve had this music in my heart since I was a little kid,” says Jude Moreau, a Groves bandleader who spent summers as a kid at the family farm near Opelousas, Louisiana, where he experienced rural Cajun life firsthand. Moreau learned to dance and play accordion after being immersed in Cajun music at the old Rodair Club, an influential but now-defunct Cajun institution on the outskirts of Port Arthur.

“I don’t know how to explain this—we’re huggers. OK?” Moreau says, reflecting on Cajun music’s infectious groove. “We love to be up close and personal. So even when we’re dancing a two-step, we’re close to each other, like we’re hugging; it’s the same way when we dance the waltz. What we play makes you want to dance—it moves you, it draws you in.”

Moreau has played stages in Texas and beyond with Ed Poullard, a Creole accordionist from Beaumont. In a workshop behind his home, Poullard repairs, tunes, and builds Cajun accordions from scratch—a craft he learned from Moreau. Pausing from his work on a single-row button accordion, Poullard unpacks the dynamic between Cajuns and Creoles, i.e. Cajuns with African, Caribbean, and/or American Indian ancestry.

Creoles play zydeco music, accordion-driven dance music infused with rhythm and blues and hip-hop elements, which is very different from contemporary Cajun music. But when Poullard, a Creole, and Moreau, a Cajun, play old-style music together, they’re “married,” Poullard says.

“Cajun and Creole are wedded together,” he says. “You can listen to somebody born in the early 1900s, and be they Creole or Cajun or beast, the sound of the accordion is very similar. As the years progressed, Cajun style became more intricate, more note-y, and the Creole style remained simple and pure. That’s it. That’s the only way to explain it.”

While Moreau and Poullard are in their 60s, younger Cajuns from the Golden Triangle are coninuing the musical
tradition. Donovan Bourque, a gregarious 19-year-old from Beaumont, is among those up-and-comers as the accordionist for the band Cajun Strong.

Bourque works at Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins food truck in Port Arthur, where he sometimes leads multi-hour jams outside the shack. His playing precedes him. “Grown men have texted me asking for accordion tab sheets, if I could write it out for them, or send them a video,” Bourque says with a tinge of incredulity. “I try to help as much as I can because this is something you don’t want to let die.”

Text: We love the music, the food, friendship, family getting toegher to have a fais do-do
A man in a red hat holds a rope of sausage

Joshua Rodrigues of Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins in Port Arthur

A sign reads "No Swimming" next to a dock along brown water and tall trees

Alligators discourage swimming in Taylor Bayou.

With Cajuns residing in southeast Texas for more than a century, their culture is intertwined with the Golden Triangle mainstream, says Tom Neal, director of the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur.

“To us, the Cajun people and their culture is our culture,” Neal says. “It’s a standing joke that I hear from time to time that Port Arthur ought to be part of Louisiana. We’ve blended so much that we don’t hardly think about it.”

The museum explores Cajun heritage with artifacts including a vintage pirogue, the type of dugout canoe Cajuns used to navigate bayous and swamps. It also chronicles the history of the discovery of oil at Spindletop and the ensuing development of the Texaco and Gulf Oil refineries in Port Arthur, both magnets for Cajun workers.

Cajun and Creole musicians are also prominent in the museum’s Music Hall of Fame, among them Choates and Clifton Chenier, “the King of Zydeco,” who moved to Port Arthur in 1946 to work in the Gulf Oil Refinery.

The most visible landmark testifying to the Cajun presence in the Golden Triangle is La Maison Beausoleil in Port Neches’ Riverfront Park. The cypress house harkens to the Cajun settler lifestyle. The Broussard family built the house in Louisiana’s Vermilion Parish in 1810, and it was moved to Port Neches to serve as a museum in 1985, says Karen Mills, president of Les Acadiens du Texas, the group that maintains the home. Each year, on the second Sunday of October, La Maison Beausoleil hosts a Cajun French mass. Sweets, gumbo, and boudin sold at the event help fund the house’s upkeep.

“The Broussard family gave the house to us to open as a museum because of all the Cajuns who had moved from Louisiana when the men came to work in the refineries,” Mills explains.

The Museum of the Gulf Coast and La Maison Beausoleil have been part of tour schedules during Port Arthur’s annual Cajun Heritage Festival in April. Though festival plans have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic, events like the Cajun Heritage Festival and Cajun Night at the Texas Rice Festival in Winnie offer visitors the immersive, full-tilt Cajun experience—down to the dance contests and crawfish races.

Gloria Pate, the promoter of the Cajun Heritage Festival, sees Cajun culture’s wide appeal through her work with the festival and her online radio show, which airs on Cajun Sounds Internet Radio.

“I got a message last week from a guy in Dubai,” she says. “It’s worldwide. They love the music. They become enthralled with the music, the energy, our joie de vivre. We see it time and time again with hurricanes and plant explosions. People think of the music and they think of the food, but it’s so much more. It’s hard to put into words, other than neighbors helping neighbors.”

Back at the Neches River Wheelhouse, Melancon says he’s noticed a surge of interest in Cajun culture, especially among young musicians like Bourque.

“Back when I was young, it was not cool,” he says. “I’m 61 now, and the Cajun stuff is cool to the younger people. They’re starting bands, getting together to learn Cajun language. It’s riding on their shoulders now. The culture and the feel for the Cajun way of life is as strong as it’s ever been. It’s second nature now, like wanting to learn to cook a gumbo.”

A man in a gray shirt and black hat stands next to an accordion

Accordionist Ed Poullard, in Beaumont

Texas-Cajun Touchpoints

As Cajun people have crossed the border to southeast Texas from Louisiana, they’ve brought their culture and customs along with them.

The Cajun Express radio show broadcasts 6-10 a.m. Sundays on Beaumont radio station 105.3 FM and online at thecajunexpress.com. On the second Sunday of the month, the Melancons broadcast live from the Neches River Wheelhouse in Port Neches.

Neches River Wheelhouse, 720 Lee Ave., Port Neches. 409-853-1249;
nechesriverwheelhouse.com

Larry’s French Market, 3701 Pure Atlantic Road, Groves. 409-962-3381;
larrysfrenchmarket.com

Big Doobie’s Boudin & Cracklins, 6247 W. Port Arthur Road, Port Arthur. 409-548-1335.
facebook.com/doobiescajunmeats

Museum of the Gulf Coast, 700 Procter St., Port Arthur. 409-982-7000;
museumofthegulfcoast.org

La Maison Beausoleil, Riverfront Park, 600 Grigsby Ave., Port Neches. 409-989-9211

The Cajun Heritage Festival is set for April 17 at Port Arthur’s Carl A. Parker Multipurpose Center.
For updates on the event’s schedule and status, visit cajunheritagefest.com.

Cajun Sounds Internet Radio streams music 24-7 at cajunsoundsinternetradio.com.

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The Westside Sound of San Antonio

from the December 2020 issue of Texas Highways magazine

Also known as Chicano soul, the Westside Sound blends rock ‘n’ roll with San Antonio roots

Albums by Mando and the Chili Peppers, Sonny Ace, Rudy and the Reno-Bops, and Doug Sahm exemplify the Westside Sound of San Antonio.

Fans of vinyl and the Westside Sound can get their fix at Janie’s Record Shop in San Antonio.

 

 

Texas music is known for its sense of place, whether it’s Western swing, guitar-powered electric blues, or Dirty South hip-hop. But at least one Texas city, and one specific part of that city, can claim a sound all its own: the Westside Sound of San Antonio.

The Westside Sound refers to a specific place and time, beginning in the 1950s, when Mexican American teenagers in San Antonio first heard rock ’n’ roll. Budding musicians from across the city formed bands playing music that incorporated rhythm and blues, often with a heavy horn section, and influences of swing, conjunto, and country. Sometimes referred to as “Chicano Soul,” the music drew on the early rock ’n’ rollers from New Orleans like Fats Domino and emphasized slow-dance standards known as “bellyrubbers.”

But unlike scenes in other places, the Westside Sound never completely went away. Its popularity persists thanks to veteran San Antonio musicians and fans championing their city’s native sound. You can hear the influence of the Westside Sound in songs like “Hey Baby Kep Pa So,” by enduring San Antonio keyboardist Augie Meyers, and in the music of younger musicians such as Los Texmaniacs, Garrett T. Capps, Mitch Webb and the Swindles, Adrian Quesada, and Jonny Benavidez.

One of the local fans keeping the Westside Sound alive is Chris Varelas, a retired firefighter who operates the NoHitNetwork.com website and KCJV 97.9—a low-power FM radio station based in Leon Valley in northwest San Antonio. Featuring non-charting regional releases from the 1950s through the ’70s—or “The Greatest Sounds You’ve Never Heard Of”—the station plays a whole lot of Westside Sound records.

“The Westside Sound is to San Antonio what Motown is to Detroit,” Varelas says. “The sound is unique and immediately identifiable. It’s really hard to convey the impact of a few local high school teenagers who decided to sing and dream.”

In the 1950s, San Antonio was far enough out of the mainstream, geographically and culturally, to foster a scene from local radio stations playing records by local bands. Only a few of those recordings—notably “Talk to Me” by Sunny and the Sunliners and “She’s About a Mover” by the Sir Douglas Quintet—made it onto the national charts. Still, radio airplay and jukebox spins made regional stars out of groups such as Rudy and the Reno Bops, the Royal Jesters, the Dell Kings, Sonny Ace y Los Twisters, the Dreamliners, the Commands, the Mar-Kays, and Charlie and the Jives.

Arturo “Sauce” Gonzalez was an early member of Sunny and the Sunliners in 1962. He later played Hammond B-3 organ with the late Doug Sahm, and today he leads Sauce Gonzalez and the Westside Sound.

“My band is called the Westside Sound and even I have a hard time explaining it,” he jokes. But, he says, a hallmark of the sound is simplicity.

“We used to play R&B tunes by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Smiley Lewis, B.B. King, Little Willie John, and lots of other Black artists,” he says. “We Chicanos from the Westside would rearrange the music for two tenor saxophones and piano. And it was very important to play the triplets. Playing them by ear rather than reading charts was the Westside Sound, too.”

The “Westside Sound” didn’t really exist as a moniker until 1983, long after the music’s heyday. That’s when Sahm,
a San Antonio-born musical prodigy who made his mark on the sound with the Sir Douglas Quintet, released an album with Meyers titled The ‘West Side’ Sound Rolls Again.

“That’s the first mention,” Jason Longoria says, pointing to the cover of the album in the music room of his San Antonio home. “No one knew what to call it until then.”

Longoria, 42, is another local keeping the Westside Sound alive through collecting records and sharing his research with the world. “The musicians came from all over San Antonio,” he adds. “But the Westside is the heart.”

A mural showing several famous Westside artists in San Antonio

The mural La Música de San Anto on West Commerce Street

San Antonio’s Westside, the oldest urban Mexican American neighborhood in Texas, is the historic hub of the city’s Hispanic culture. After World War II, two record labels, Rio Records and Corona Records, showcased the music of the working-class neighborhood.

Corona recorded traditional Spanish music ensembles. Rio Records issued records by young Mexican Americans playing all kinds of sounds. “Rio Records was to San Antonio what Sun Records was to Memphis,” Longoria says. “All these people had an opportunity to make a record. Rio Records owner Hymie Wolf would record anyone who came in, press up copies, and service jukebox distributors and radio stations with copies. He didn’t dictate what people should sing
or play.”

Longoria collects recordings and ephemera documenting the era. He has also sought out old performers and even gotten a few of them back on stage, including Rudy Tee Gonzalez, the lead singer from Rudy and the Reno-Bops; and Little Sammy Jay (Jaramillo), featured vocalist from the storied Tiffany Lounge club.

Longoria, who works at H-E-B’s corporate headquarters for his day job, developed his obsession through his parents’ love of the Texas Tornados, the 1990s Tex-Mex supergroup consisting of Sahm, Meyers, Freddy Fender, and Flaco Jiménez—all pioneers of the sound.

“When that first album came out, my parents would tell me about Doug Sahm and all the guys coming from around here,” Longoria says. “Doug Sahm stuck with me because he was local, very eclectic, and played a mixed bag of stuff that I related to.”

Longoria’s research traces the origins of the Westside Sound to the merging of two bands, Conjunto San Antonio Alegre and Conjunto Mexico, which joined forces as Mando and the Chili Peppers in 1955. As the players traded their bajo sextos and accordions for electric guitars, their music transitioned from polkas and rancheras to rock ’n’ roll and Louisiana blues. They were also hearing music from local Black blues musicians, a scene with 1940s roots in the Keyhole Club, which advertised itself as “the First Integrated Night Club in the South.”

Mando and the Chili Peppers toured around the country, playing cities like Las Vegas, Denver, New York, and Philadelphia, where they appeared on the popular American Bandstand TV show. Back in San Antonio, the band had its own television show on KCOR, first with Spanish-speaking emcees and then with Scratch Phillips, a Black disc jockey.

On the Road With Rock ’N Roll, the band’s 1957 debut album, improbably fused country, conjunto, R&B, and triplet-powered rock ’n’ roll. The playlist incorporated songs from Ernest Tubb’s “I’m Walkin’ the Floor Over You,” to the popular standard “South of the Border,” to “San Antonio Rose” by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

“San Antonio has got its own version of pretty much all of American music,” Longoria says.

And, it’s got music that no other place can claim.

Finding the Westside Sound

On the radio, DJ Chris Varelas plays Westside Sound bands on his station 97.9 FM in San Antonio and online at nohitnetwork.com. Legendary San Antonio DJ Henry “Pepsi” Peña hosts the San Antonio Oldies show Sundays
6-9 p.m. on Radio Jalapeño, KEDA 1540 AM, 102.3 FM, and saoldies.com.

In the clubs, see live performances by Westside Sound bands including Sauce Gonzalez and the Westside Sound, the Westside Horns, Joe Jama, Frank Rodarte, Al Gomez, Little Henry, Chente Montes, Jack Barber, and Urban Urbano at venues including The Squeezebox, Sanchos, and The Lighthouse Lounge. facebook.com/thesqueezebox; sanchosmx.com; facebook.com/the-lighthouse-lounge-100242124663964

On TV, hear strains of the Westside Sound on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Cleto Escobedo III leads the house band, which includes his father, Cleto Escobedo Jr., a saxophonist and founding member of San Antonio’s Dell-Kings.

In the shops, find Westside Sound recordings at Janie’s Record Shop, 1012 Bandera Road, and Del Bravo Record Shop, 554 Enrique M. Barrera Parkway. facebook.com/janiesrecordshop4; delbravorecordshop.com

On display, in David Blanca’s mural, entitled La Música de la San Anto, 1303 W. Commerce St., and in exhibits at the South Texas Museum of Popular Culture. texpopsa.org

From the December 2020 issue
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The Ballad of Robert Ealey and His Five Careless Lovers: An Oral History

 

This is the story of the band who wised me up to what music is really all about – Robert Ealey and His Five Careless Lovers of Fort Worth, Texas.

This 50 page oral history began in January 2020 with a long conversation with Sumter Bruton III and continued with interviews with Mike Buck, Jackie Newhouse and Freddie Cisneros. Their origin stories together answered many questions I’ve had for almost a half century. That which wasn’t answered retreated behind the veil of mojo and mystery, as tends to happen when you’re dealing with honest blues.

Nancy McMillen Design made all the words look real nice.

The book retails for $20 exclusively at Record Town in Fort Worth and Antone’s Records in Austin.

You can also get a copy by sending a check for $25 (inculding postage) to 706 Deer Run, Wimberley, TX 78676

Contact  joenickp@gmail.com if you want to use a credit card.  And if you’d like the book inscribed, just say so.

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Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel Turn 50 in Texas Highways

https://texashighways.com/culture/art-music/ray-benson-reflects-50-years-seminal-western-swing-band-asleep-at-the-wheel/

A story I wrote for Texas Highways magazine

Ray Benson poses with a guitar near his home outside of Austin Texas

Rolling with the wheel

Western swing disciples Asleep at the Wheel mark 50 years and countless miles of Texas

By Joe Nick Patoski

Ray Benson at his home in Austin earlier this year. Photo by Jeff Wilson

One afternoon this March, the visage of Ray Benson, founder and leader of the band Asleep at the Wheel, flickered before my eyes. Well, on my computer screen, actually, courtesy of FaceTime. It had been a rough two weeks. Plans for a 50th anniversary Asleep at the Wheel reunion show and recording session in the band’s hometown of Austin had been done in by the coronavirus. Without his trademark cowboy hat, Benson looked downright deflated.

He said as much. It wasn’t the thwarted album or the cancellation of his annual birthday party show in March. It was the stage being ripped from his soul. “I haven’t gone this long without playing in front of an audience since I was 18,” Benson moaned.

As it turned out, Benson had plenty reason to be bummed. A few days after our conversation, he was in the news, having tested positive for COVID-19. Thankfully, the 69-year-old recuperated, and a few weeks later, we talked again.

“Well, I’ve got time!” a revitalized Benson boomed through the computer screen. He’d just wrapped up an online board meeting of the nonprofit Texas Cultural Trust, but it wasn’t like he had a gig to rush off to.

In a weird way, it was telling that Benson was among the first high-profile Texans diagnosed with COVID-19. His familiar baritone sounds like Texas—just like the Western swing band he’s led for 50 years sounds like Texas.

If there’s a dance hall in the Lone Star State with a stage and a dance floor that’ll hold enough folks, Asleep at the Wheel has played it. With fiddles and steel, the Wheel has articulated an ensemble sound that links Western swing—the made-in-Texas original sound popularized by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in the 1930s and ’40s—with modern Western sounds.

“Asleep at the Wheel have kept Western swing vital and relevant to country music and gave it a worldwide audience,” said Rich Kienzle, a country music historian.

Asleep at the Wheel’s been playing so well for so long, it’s actually eclipsed Wills’ band in longevity. Along the way, Benson and his crew have graced thousands of stages, released more than 25 albums, won 10 Grammy Awards, and counted nearly 100 musicians among its membership.

“I wanted more Broken Spokes, more ‘Cotton Eye Joes,’ more Western swing music,” Benson said, looking back across a half-century of nurturing Western swing’s flame. “Guess what? It happened. There are a number of Western swing bands around the country now.”

Pretty good for an idea hatched by two boys from the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Ray Benson's arm over a guitar with an "Asleep at the Wheel" tattoo visible

A vintage photo of Benson sporting a band tattoo. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
A vintage photograph of Ray Benson and his sister Sandy Katz slouching in a chair

Benson and sister Sandy Katz as children in about 1955. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
A black and white picture of Ray Benson playing guitar in 2009

If there’s a dance hall in the Lone Star State with a stage and a dance floor that‘ll hold enough folks, Asleep at the Wheel has played it.

Benson in 2009. Photo by Lisa Pollard.

The story begins in the 1950s, when Ray Benson Seifert and Reuben Gosfield (who later adopted the showbiz names Ray Benson and Lucky Oceans) started running together at age 3, going to the same schools and summer camp, buying records, seeing shows, and playing in bands. A Gene Autry show in Philadelphia was a transformative moment for both of them. Oceans’ eyes popped when he saw Autry ride his horse onto the theater stage. After getting deep into Hank Williams, in 1969, Benson made a proposal: “We’re going to be the first hippies to have a real country-western band.”

Leroy Preston met Benson and Oceans in Boston in 1969. He was a Vermont farm kid with a guitar, raised on country music and rock ‘n’ roll. The three decided to start a band, and in the spring of 1970, they took a break from college and moved to a friend’s farm near Paw Paw, West Virginia. Joining them was Danny Levin, a pianist and fiddler from Boston. For months it was “funky cabin living, bonding, and building the musical base for the band,” Preston said.

“We were broke,” Benson recalled. “Lucky’s folks, in their wisdom, gave us a 100-pound sack of flour, a 100-pound sack of oats, and a tub of peanut butter, and said, ‘Don’t starve.’ Friends of ours brought us deer meat. We were very serious that the band was our job.”

One night at a nearby club, Ernest Tubb and His Texas Troubadours left an impression. “They were blowing jazz in the warm-up set, just smoking,” Preston said. “And then Ernest came out, and straight as tick-tock, they were on classic country. It was the aha moment for us: You can do both.”

Benson, Redd Volkaert, and Dale Watson play guitars under stage lights

Benson, Redd Volkaert, and Dale Watson at Benson’s 2004 birthday bash. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Benson, in a black cowboy hat, poses with country singer Carrie Underwood

Benson and Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

On Aug. 25, 1970, Asleep at the Wheel played their first gig, opening for Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper in Washington, D.C. The Wheel played country standards “Cocaine Blues” and “Truck Drivin’ Man”—as straight as a band could be with a long-haired, barefoot guitarist standing 6-foot-7. One young singer, Chris O’Connell, was so enthralled seeing the Wheel open for the country-rock outfit Poco at American University, she followed the band back to Paw Paw and became its female vocalist.

“All of a sudden we had a big band that was really good,” Benson said.

The band took off for East Oakland, California, in 1971 and immediately gained a following, sharing a manager and club dates with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and bills with the Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Soon, a young jazz-trained pianist from Berkeley hired on after a one-song audition. He then changed his name from Jim Haber to Floyd Domino.

Ray Benson and Willie Nelson laugh inside of a tour bus

Benson and Willie Nelson on Nelson’s bus in 2009. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

With an opportunity to back up mainstream country acts, the hippie country outfit got serious, cutting their hair and donning Western suits to play with the likes of Stoney Edwards, a Black honky-tonk singer on Capitol Records. Around that time, the band went to Nashville to record its first album. “We wanted to be a country band,” Preston said. “We didn’t want to be lumped with New Riders of the Purple Sage or the Flying Burrito Brothers.”

Their first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, was produced by Tommy Allsup, the Texan who had played in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and as one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Allsup brought in fiddler Johnny Gimble, another Playboys alumnus. The Wheel’s version of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” became the star of their reinvention of Western swing and got the band touring in Texas.

“The audience in Texas knew our music as roots rather than fad,” Preston said.

Up until then, Wills’ music had been only a small part of the band’s repertoire. But the Wheel added twin fiddlers in California, and in 1973, Benson and the band saw Wills at a Dallas studio during the recording of the Texas Playboys’ album For the Last Time. A formal introduction planned for the next day didn’t happen; Wills had a stroke that night and never recovered.

The Wheel played venues like the Farmer’s Daughter in San Antonio; the Western Place in Dallas, where Willie Nelson showed up to introduce himself and jam with the band on stage; and the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, where they opened for Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. “It was like, ‘Holy moly, this is heaven!’” Benson said of the crowd’s untethered enthusiasm.

The band moved to Austin in February 1973 at the urging of Nelson and Doug Sahm. It was an exciting time, when longhairs in cowboy hats were suddenly a thing. Most of the musicians on the Austin club scene—legends like Steve Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey—played rock, folk, or what was known around town as “progressive country.” The Wheel fit right in. “We were regressive country,” Benson laughed.

Nelson liked the band so much he had the Wheel open shows all over Texas. They were an ensemble of smart players with chops. O’Connell was a featured vocalist, along with Benson and Preston. Domino was the featured boogie-woogie instrumentalist. Upright bassist Tony Garnier and Domino would hold up fingers to represent which classic rhythm section they wanted to emulate during a particular instrumental break. Benson developed a crisp swing-guitar style on his big-bodied Epiphone, which melded seamlessly with fiddles and Oceans’ steel guitar.

Ray Benson and Jason Roberts perform under stage lights

Benson and Jason Roberts in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Ray Benson shakes hands with Porter Wagoner

Benson and Porter Wagoner in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

Benson was the focus. He did most of the talking and worked on taking care of business and building relationships offstage.

In 1975, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” a Benson-O’Connell duet in the tradition of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, reached No. 10 on the country singles chart and kept the Wheel on the road, playing 200 shows a year.

But by the early 1980s, as far as Nashville was concerned, Asleep at the Wheel was a band whose moment had passed. The band had won a Grammy, had a hit record with Texas Gold, and recorded five albums, but now members were having kids and buying houses. “At that point, I would have done anything else, but nobody offered me a job, and the band still had fans,” Benson said. “They’d say, ‘Don’t quit. There’s nobody else doing this.’”

Benson’s persistence paid off with another string of country hits in the late ’80s—“House of Blue Lights,” “Boogie Back to Texas,” and “Way Down Texas Way.” The 1990s were full-on Bob, as Asleep at the Wheel recorded two Wills tribute albums. In 2009, Benson’s career-long friendship with Nelson was cemented with the album Willie and the Wheel. That same year the band was hired to tour behind Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Nelson on their Last of the Breed tour.

10 essential Asleep At The Wheel songs

Over the course of its run, Asleep at the Wheel has earned the reputation as a road musician’s finishing school. If you can play with the Wheel, you can play with the best live bands out there. The band’s alumni list is getting close to 100 names long and counts well-known musicians including Jason Roberts, the fiddler who now heads the modern Texas Playboys; and Cindy Cashdollar, a renowned steel guitar and dobro player.

Turnover is routine for any large ensemble, and Benson never hesitated to demand the best of new members. Practically all living veterans from early iterations of the band made the 40th anniversary reunion in 2010. And they’ve all committed to a 50th reunion show, whenever that’s feasible.

“When we get back together, there’s such a fondness for each other, such a love, that any resentment falls away,” O’Connell said. “It’s all about perseverance, and I have to give all the credit to Ray.”

As far as the old band goes, founding member Oceans moved in 1980 to Australia, where he’s a radio broadcaster and an international pedal-steel legend. Preston returned to Vermont after a stretch as a Nashville songwriter. O’Connell moved back to Northern California, where she still performs. Garnier has been Bob Dylan’s bassist for more than 30 years. Domino remains a fixture in Austin beer joints, solo and leading his All-Star’s Western swing band.

As for Asleep at the Wheel, the band plays about 130 shows a year across Texas, Canada, and Europe. With touring stymied by the pandemic, the band staged a virtual dance online in late July. Benson has mellowed to the point of leaving business details to his son, Sam Seifert, who oversees operations at Benson’s headquarters. Seifert’s job, he said, is for “Ray to be able to play music and play golf.”

The old man has earned it. He sits on the boards of the St. David’s Foundation and Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and speaks to university business classes about life as a small business entrepreneur. He published a book in 2015—Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel—and recently donated his archive to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

“Ray Benson has a ridiculous work ethic, and he has something in him that people love to watch,” said Dave Sanger, the Wheel’s drummer since 1986. The secret sauce, he said, is “one part great musicianship, one part accessible yet challenging music, one part freedom to improvise and excel, and five parts Ray Benson. My mom always tells me how much joy we bring to people. Maybe that’s it.”

A black and white picture of Asleep At The Wheel performing at Armadillo World Headquarters

Asleep at the Wheel at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin in 1980. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Ray Benson, in a cowboy hat and holding a guitar, poses just like a lookalike cake of him

Benson and a look-alike birthday cake in 2015. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

Back on FaceTime, Ray Benson and I were talking about longevity when he brought up something the late singer-songwriter Steve Fromholz told him back in the 1970s: “It’s easier to get out of show business than it is to get back in.”

Ray has always been all in.

“You’re going to perform until nobody wants to come see you,” he said.

The Wheel keeps rolling, with Nelson and Tubb as its GPS. “With them, it’s the same thing: It’s all about getting on stage and doing it.”

“I have a theory,” Benson added, his voice buffering along with his image on the computer screen. “When the technology came where you and I can do what we’re doing now, and music legends are being recreated as holograms, people will pay a premium to see a band live on stage. There’s this thing that happens between people. It’s hard to explain, but when people are in the same room with other people, something happens. It’s not like staring at an avatar.”

When we can do that again, my money’s on people taking the dance floor and Asleep at the Wheel taking the stage

50 Years

of Sleeping

at the

Wheel

1970

Aug. 25, Asleep at the Wheel plays its first gig as the unannounced opener on the Medicine Ball Caravan, the “Woodstock on wheels” headlined by Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm commune gets them the job.

1969

Benson and Oceans, students at Antioch colleges in Ohio and Maryland, respectively, meet Leroy Preston in Boston at the house Leroy shares with Ray’s sister. They all move to a cabin in the woods to start a band, joined by Danny Levin.

1954

1972

1971

Reuben Gosfield and Ray Seifert (the future Lucky Oceans and Ray Benson) meet as children in a Philadelphia suburb.

Asleep at the Wheel records its first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, in Nashville with Tommy Allsup producing and guest fiddler Johnny Gimble opening the door to the world of Bob Wills.

Asleep at the Wheel relocates to East

Oakland, California.

1978

After being nominated for Grammy Awards the previous three years, Asleep at the Wheel wins its first award for “One O’Clock Jump” (Best Country Instrumental Performance).

1987

The Wheel records its first music video for “Way Down Texas Way.”

1973

The band tours Texas

and moves to Austin.

2020

2009

1975

Asleep at the Wheel marks its 50th anniversary. A reunion show and new album with the original band are delayed by the coronavirus until fall 2021.

The Wheel and Willie

Nelson release Willie

and the Wheel, which

is nominated for a

Grammy Award.

“The Letter That

Johnny Walker Read” hits No. 10 on Billboard’s country chart.

Photos courtesy Ray Benson

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This might be the prettiest body of water in Texas – from Texas Highways magazine

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/rivers/shhh-this-just-might-be-the-prettiest-body-of-water-in-texas/

Ranch Road 337 offers great views in the Hill Country

Ranch Road 337 leads to Camp Wood

View of the Nueces Canyon

Sweeping vistas of Nueces Canyon abound along RR 337

A young woman looks down into a swimming hole on the Nueces River

A swimming hole south of Camp Wood off Riverview Road.

Last summer, I drove into the Nueces Canyon
from Leakey on Ranch Road 337,

one of the storied Twisted Sisters drives favored by weekend motorcyclists. I was looking for what I suspected was one of the most pristine bodies of water in Texas, a Hill Country river hardly anyone ever talks about.

A map showing the roads and towns around the Nueces River in Texas

Illustration: Alan Kikuchi

I arrived in Camp Wood, population 736, a century-old town originally known as a hub for raising sheep and goats. Most of the storefronts along State Highway 55—the main drag dually known as Nueces Street—were occupied, but this did not feel like the Hill Country most tourists experience. None of the businesses were gussied up, and there wasn’t a winery or distillery for miles. The newest structure was a Family Dollar. The shuttered two-story hotel, the faded sign identifying the mohair business, the empty Lindbergh Park, and the mysterious point of interest with seven flagpoles on SH 55 just north of town serve as testaments to events that transpired here on the western edge of the Hill Country over the past 250 years or so.

These spots exist expressly because of the Nueces River and its adjoining creeks, springs, and tributaries. The river is why people settled in the remote Nueces Canyon and why they remain. It’s also why a growing number of intrepid travelers are passing on popular Hill Country destinations to play in Camp Wood, as well as Barksdale, Montell, and points in between.

I’m a spring-fed freshwater swimming nut. Rivers and creeks are my thing, as long as they’re unspoiled, untamed, and unchlorinated—the clearer, the better. The sweetest water I’ve ever seen was on a ranch near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Nueces, out in the middle of nowhere. The water, fresh and infused with ozone, even smelled amazing, like a crashing wave at the beach, minus the salt. I wanted to know if the main channel of the Nueces River, about 20 miles south of its headwaters, was as clear, clean, and dreamy to swim in as the neighboring Frio and Devils rivers.

My guide was Jim Holder, a chirpy, suspenders-wearing board member for the local volunteer group installing exhibits and signage for Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, a public archeological site near the banks of the Nueces. Holder is a retired school teacher and businessman whose kinfolk go back to the 1880s around these parts. He attended elementary school here before moving away and returned as a retiree eight years ago. Holder enjoys life in Camp Wood.

Various people wade and swim into The Quince on the Nueces River

Chilling in The Quince

“The smaller the town, the more people want to visit,” he noted, as we headed north of town to Camp Wood Springs, aka Old Faithful Springs, a couple hundred yards from the river. “Until two years ago, this was the sole source of drinking water for the town,” Holder said of the gin-clear water in the small pond.

Holder guided me to Barksdale, four miles north of Camp Wood, to look at more springs. We took Ray McDonald Ranch Road off SH 55 past a low-water bridge and across a field of white rubble deposited by the October 2018 floods. The actual river was a thin channel maybe 20 feet wide in the rubble, wedged against a low limestone shelf. As the westernmost Hill Country river, constantly rechanneled by big floods that periodically tear through the basin, the Nueces’ riparian landscape is minimalist: white rocks of all sizes, with occasional stands of hackberry, sycamore, oak, and pecan. It reminded me of the Greek islands.

Holder told me this was one of his favorite places on the river to visit. We parked and I had a swim. The water was brisk for a Texas river in August and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. A few small bass and cichlids congregated around rare patches of vegetation.

If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection. While I swam, Holder read Paul Horgan’s book Great River, about the Rio Grande. “I can spend two hours here every day, easy,” he said.

Compared to Hill Country rivers to the east, the Nueces is relatively unpeopled. The dearth of attractions beyond the water is no liability; it’s an asset.

The next stop was the former site of Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, just north of the Camp Wood town limits on the west side of SH 55. Situated on a small ridge above the east bank of the Nueces River, the empty but overgrown grounds sandwiched between two rural residences would have been easy to miss if not for seven flagpoles by the highway. “Those are the six flags over Texas,” Holder said. “Plus, the Lipan Apache had their own flag.”

The water was brisk for a Texas river in August, and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection.

Jim Holder stands by the water of the Nueces

Jim Holder knows the ways of the Nueces

The outside of Two Fat Boys BBQ

Two Fat Boys BBQ on State Highway 55

Lush growth near Old Faithful Springs, which feeds the Nueces

Old Faithful Springs feeds the Nueces and nurtures riparian habitat

The site was originally excavated in 1962 by Curtis Tunnell and a Texas Memorial Museum field crew from the University of Texas at Austin. Over the past two summers, it has been reexamined by Tamra Walter of Texas Tech University along with the Texas Archeological Society, which had 300 volunteers camping near the location while doing excavation work. Interpretive signage will be installed, Holder
promised, as a manner of explaining the site’s deep connection to the river.

Young men jump off of a rock cliff into the water of Lake Nueces

Jumping from a cliff into Lake Nueces

Back in Camp Wood, we turned west and followed a dirt road maybe a half-mile to The Quince. This is the town’s sparkling swimming hole, hollowed from a bed of gravel by the sycamore-shaded banks of the Nueces and named for its 15-foot depth. Heading south on SH 55, we hit water crossings for the next 19 miles. On the dirt path of County Road 416 South, the southern extension of Wes Cooksey Park Road, Holder suddenly cautioned, “Slow down, slow down. STOP!”

The road abruptly ended. A 50-foot-long low-water bridge, built five years ago, had both ends washed out by the October 2018 deluge. The route was impassable. The washed-out bridge is now a choice slab for river swimming.

Nine miles south of Camp Wood, we stopped at a clearing on the east side of the highway with four historical markers, three of them faded and tilted. The markers identified the second Spanish mission in Nueces Canyon, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón. Unlike Mission San Lorenzo, Señora de la Candelaria completely disappeared as the adobe eroded into the terrain.
Holder turned around and pointed across the highway. “That’s Montell,” he said.

Back when I conjured my first “Top Ten Swimming Holes in Texas” list, for the June 1985 issue of Texas Monthly, I had one major omission. Liz Rogers, then a hard-charging attorney in El Paso, told me I should have written about her family place on a creek that fed the Nueces in her hometown of Montell. It was the best swimming hole anywhere, she contended. I couldn’t include Montell, I told her, since it was on private property. More than 40 years later, making my way downriver from swimming hole to swimming hole, I appreciated Rogers’ passion for the water.

The heart of the settlement of Montell is a stout, rectangular old stucco building identified as the Montell Country Club. Built as a one-room schoolhouse in the early 1920s, the building was converted into a community center after the school closed. “That country club is the reason I had no idea that country clubs usually connote wealth,” Rogers told me. “The canyon can be insular,” she allowed. “But it was a beautiful place to grow up. We were surrounded by people that pushed us and cared about us.”

Holder and I drove 9 miles south to Nineteen Mile Crossing, where Nueces Canyon flattens. We then looped back to Camp Wood and Leon Klink Street, just west of Nueces Street. Leon Klink Street was named for the pilot and airplane owner who flew with 22-year-old Charles Lindbergh when their Canuck biplane accidentally landed in a field north of Camp Wood in 1924.

“This was where the plane landed, crashed, and took off,” Holder explained while slow-cruising Leon Klink Street. He pointed out the vacant site of Warren Puett’s hardware store, which the biplane crashed into while attempting takeoff. Lindbergh and Klink were forced to stick around and wait for a propeller replacement and materials for wing repair. “That was the two-story Fitzgerald Hotel where Klink and Lindbergh stayed,” Holder said, pointing to a one-story, blue-green house behind a white picket fence. Three years after the Camp Wood ordeal, Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.

People lounge in shallow areas along the Nueces River

Lounging in the shallows

A view of the hills upstream from the Camp Wood Hills low-water bridge

Upstream view from the Camp Wood Hills low-water bridge

The Nueces River winds and snakes through the hills

The river as it emerges out of the hills

A young women snorkels in the clear blue water of the Nueces River

Snorkeling in glassy water

The naming of rivers, along with mountains, valleys, and other natural landmarks, is often a perk reserved for their conquerors. That’s why you never hear about the Chotilapacquen, as the Nueces was known to the Coahuiltecan-speaking locals. They were defeated by the Spanish, whose name prevailed.

The Spanish explorer Alonso de León named it “Nueces” for the abundant pecan groves he observed along the river’s banks. Other Spanish explorers mapped the river upstream from Corpus Christi Bay across the Brush Country of South Texas to the westernmost canyon of the Hill Country and its headwaters, 2,400 feet above sea level and 315 miles away. Along the journey upstream, the river disappeared for stretches. Around present-day Uvalde, the water was startlingly clear and surprisingly abundant. Upstream, the river frequently vanished under piles of gravel and rocks, again and again, only to reappear a few hundred yards later.

The early Spanish explorers chose a location 30 miles downstream from the headwaters, just downstream from Camp Wood Springs, which provided a constant source of water. There, in January 1762, Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz was founded by a Spanish commander with the help of a Franciscan missionary. The mission aimed to spread Christianity while offering shelter and protection to the Lipan Apache, who were being harassed by Comanche and other hostile tribes. The establishment of the mission—at least 14 adobe and limestone structures—came four years after Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá near present-day San Saba was destroyed by the Comanche. The Comanche were angered by the alliance the Lipan Apache, their enemy, made with the Spanish.

Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón, a companion mission 10 miles south, was established two weeks after San Lorenzo. Within seven years, both were abandoned. Two smallpox epidemics, Comanche attacks, and the realization that the Lipan Apache weren’t interested in converting to Christianity prompted the retreat. The closings in Nueces Canyon marked the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire’s expansion into Texas from Mexico.

Following the end of the Texas Revolution, in 1836, Mexico regarded the Nueces River as the southern border of the breakaway territory. That is, until the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, formalizing the southern boundary as the Rio Grande. In 1857, the U.S. Army established Camp Wood, near the site of Mission San Lorenzo, as a deterrent to Native American raids. But the camp was abandoned at the start of the Civil War. The town of Camp Wood was eventually founded in 1921 as the railhead for logging cedar.

The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.

A person in a floppy sun hat looks out over the still water at Lake Nueces

Kayaking on Lake Nueces, south of Camp Wood.

I returned to Nueces Canyon a few weeks after visiting with Holder. I wanted to drive from the headwaters down toward Camp Wood, a dramatic drop of 1,000 feet in elevation. I came this time to meet the River Whisperer.

Sky Jones-Lewey, a chestnut-haired 60-something whose steely eyes portray a no-nonsense demeanor, lives on a ranch at the south end of Nueces Canyon. I call her the River Whisperer because she has spent most of her life learning about the Nueces River and all things riparian. She shares that knowledge as resource protection and education director for the Nueces River Authority. Her publication Your Remarkable Riparian: A Field Guide to Riparian Plants Within the Nueces River Basin of Texas is a bible of information about Texas river sedges, grasses, ferns, woody plants, and trees.

The Nueces is Jones-Lewey’s river. She took me to its edge, just downstream from the low-water crossing in the Camp Wood Hills subdivision west of Camp Wood. We parked in a cleared lot she said used to be a dumping ground—“trash, animals, everything”—but is becoming a county park. I was surprised to find such a great spot to take a swim, which I promptly did after she offered her mask and snorkel. As I immersed, I thought back to the detailed explanation of the Nueces’ immaculate state Jones-Lewey emailed me in advance of my trip.

“Nueces basin headwater streams (Nueces, Frio, Sabinal, etc.) are so incredibly clear because they are naturally carrying almost no nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus,” she wrote, “and so far, no nutrient-rich wastewater has been allowed to be added to any of them.” According to Jones-Lewey, the towns and camps across the Nueces headwaters utilize the soil, via land application, for their wastewater disposal, with zero discharge into the river.

The clarity of the Nueces, she continued, has to do with the river’s unique underwater landscape. “The base of the aquatic food web in this desert is a delicate community of periphyton (algae, bacteria, and other microbes) that have found ways to prosper on bare rock. These plant-like organisms are harvested by teams of tiny specialized May and Caddis fly larvae, beetles, and snails that are in turn eaten by the Nueces plateau shiner, Spring salamanders, and other endemic species.”

Between dips in the river, we discussed water, riparian habitat, and humans’ relationship to and impact on the environment. The good news is, while some rivers and waterways in Texas are either polluted, compromised, or threatened, the rivers of the Nueces basin—the Sabinal, Frio, and Nueces—don’t attract near the number of visitors that the Guadalupe and Colorado river basins do, although prime swim spots get crowded on summer weekends.

“This is the last of the pristine rivers in Texas,” Jones-Lewey said during one swimming break. “It’s extremely clean.”

Robert Mace, a hydrologist who is executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos, agrees. “Due to its rural and remote locale, and the perpetual gnawing of water against the limestones of the Edwards Plateau,” he said, “the headwaters of the Nueces are among the most pleasing in the state.”

This is in large part due to the work of Jones-Lewey, who led the Nueces River Authority’s efforts to help persuade the Texas Legislature to ban driving in riverbeds. Sitting on the rocky beach at water’s edge, she illustrated why, scraping away large, dry rocks at our feet to reveal pebbles of wet gravel underneath. “The river’s here, too,” she said. “We just can’t see it with all these rocks in the way.”

The Nueces was all that I thought it would be: some of the best swimming around, with calm and cool waters, free of debris and with clear visibility. Hovering below the surface, rhythmically reaching one arm out after the other, steadily paddling my extended toes, I felt like I was floating in a state of suspended animation. Locals are cautiously optimistic the river will continue to allow a magical experience. Awareness about respecting and protecting it has been raised, slowly but surely.

“The river’s in good shape because there are miles and miles of undisturbed streambed,” Jones-Lewey said. “People have not done anything to it. So far.”

The love for the river is deep and wide, and lives on forever in Nueces Canyon High’s school song:

Down below the plains of Texas, /
where the hills arise, / there’s a land of
sparkling waters, / canyons and blue
skies. / Ring ye Nueces High with music, /
we praise your power and might. / Hail
to thee Nueces Panthers, / hail to Blue
and White. / FIGHT PANTHERS! / FIGHT
PANTHERS! / FIGHT! / FIGHT! / FIGHT!

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Accordion: Texas’ Main Squeeze

https://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/life-arts/texas-main-squeeze

My story about the accordion in Texas Coop Power

Texas’ Main Squeeze
The accordion has been a beloved musical instrument since it got here

 

  • Chris Rybak continues a tradition brought to Texas by European settlers in the 1800s.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Chris Rybak
  • Rybak as an 11-year-old.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Chris Rybak
  • Accordionist and bandleader Emil Schuhmann of Fayette County in the 1890s.
    IMAGE: Winedale Photograph Collection | The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

Of all the musical instruments brought to Texas by German, Czech, Polish and Moravian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the accordion made the most unexpected inroads among Mexican, Cajun and Creole communities who embraced it as their instrument of choice. Generations later, squeezeboxes still move Texans.

Chris Rybak, known as the Accordion Cowboy, who hails from Hallettsville, explains that when he picked up the instrument 30 years ago, at age 11, accordion-playing bandleader Lawrence Welk was a big thing. “But that also made accordion not so cool,” he says, adding that now it’s heard in jazz, rock and a wide variety of other musical genres. “It doesn’t have to be just your grandpa’s oompah anymore.”

Packing the full-bodied sound of an entire band into one instrument, the accordion, invented in Europe in the 1820s, provided entertainment at dances of all kinds as Texas was settled. Without the need for electricity or amplification, its sound carried farther than stringed instruments.

The accordion was a key instrument for western swing bands in the 1930s and ’40s. It remains the most versatile musical instrument going in Texas, straddling regions and borders and injecting its sound into rock, country, blues, jazz and zydeco. It’s the defining instrument of conjunto, the folk music of South Texas, and the faster-paced norteño, a folk music of northern Mexico that is similar to conjunto.

Without the accordion, there would be no Mark Halata at Wurstfest, no Brave Combo playing WestFest, no Ennis Czech Boys working the National Polka Festival, no Fritz Hodde and the Fabulous Six performing at an SPJST hall.

The European-style accordion, the traditional large instrument with piano keys on the right-hand side that functions like a glorified organ, is favored by the Bohemians, Czechs, Poles and Germans of South and Central Texas; some Zydeco bands around Houston and southeast Texas; and Fort Worth’s Ginny Mac and Austin’s Debra Peters. It can weigh upward of 30 pounds.

Conjuntos and some zydeco bands favor the smaller, diatonic model of accordion with buttons on both sides that change notes as you push and pull and has considerably faster action. Texas Cajuns play an even smaller, simpler diatonic model with fewer buttons.

Rybak explains that Czech, German, German-Polish, Tejano and Cajun music each embody a distinct style. “On the other hand, when you go to a conjunto place,” he says, “the band will throw in a few Czech songs. And vice versa. The accordion is distinctive, and it can cross boundaries and cultures.”

The universality of the accordion is celebrated at the Accordion Kings and Queens at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston on the first Saturday in June, a production of Texas Folklife. All the bands onstage feature accordions as the lead instrument, but the performers sing in English, Spanish, French, German, Polish and Czech, reflecting each group’s ethnic background. Despite those differences, everyone dances the same on the dance floor, moving in a counterclockwise direction.

These days, Rybak says he mostly uses a digital accordion, which has changed his instrument much the way a digital keyboard changed piano playing. He can create blaring trumpets to open the Johnny Cash standard Ring of Fire.

“I would say for most shows, I play 70 or 80% with a digital accordion,” he says. “And that’s what the new generation really loves, too. They can do anything on it.”

Although Joe Nick Patoski gave up piano accordion for violin at age 7, he owns a button accordion autographed by Flaco Jiménez.

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Conjunto: The Soul Music of South Texas

https://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/life-arts/soul-music-of-south-texas

My story on Conjunto music in Texas Coop Power magazine

Soul Music of South Texas
Conjunto, built upon a polka rhythm, turns accordions and 12-string guitars into a unique sound and subculture

By Joe Nick Patoski
March 2020

 

El Flaco

Esteban “Steve” Jordan began playing accordion at the age of 7.
IMAGE: John Dyer

Flaco Jiménez brought the conjunto accordion to Amsterdam in 1989 and Dwayne Verheyden answered the call and learned to play like Flaco

Eduardo Garza of Mission was one of the big winners at the 2019 Big Squeeze youth accordion competition.
IMAGE: Courtesy Texas Folklife

Joel Guzmán at the Alamo.

IMAGE: John Dyer

Teenage conjunto performer Darren David Prieto with Santiago Jimenez and Luis Almanza, Carnitas Uruapan, San Antonio,  2015.

Santiago Jiménez Jr., who gave accordion lessons to Prieto.
IMAGE: John Dyer

Los Texmaniacs have taken conjunto as far as China.

With her 12-string guitar, Lydia Mendoza became the first female star of Mexican American music.

San Antonio’s Eva Ybarra is known as the Queen of the Accordion.

Narciso Martínez was one of the recording pioneers of conjunto.

 

Darren David Prieto played the accordion in Carnitas Uruapan, a meat market on the west side of San Antonio, one Sunday morning in 2016 while customers lined up for tamales and carnitas. Back then, the market hosted a weekly residency with accordionist Santiago Jiménez Jr., younger brother of accordion legend Flaco Jiménez. The gig was practice for Jiménez, but for Prieto, it was an apprenticeship and a steppingstone to a career performing the soul music of South Texas.

Jiménez introduced the shy teenager from New Braunfels, then 16, as “mi protegido”—his protégé—and, blushing, Prieto nodded toward Jiménez and added, “Mi profesor.” This unlikely venue and early start time was a very big deal for the slight, quiet young man because as part of a new generation of conjunto accordionists, it was his opportunity to learn from a master.

As Jiménez played his diatonic button accordion, accompanied by a sideman strumming chords on a 12-string guitar called a bajo sexto, pounding out a rhythm to propel the sounds from Jiménez’s accordion, the meat market’s owner occasionally walked out from behind the counter to harmonize with Jiménez in vocal duets. “Margarita, Margarita,” they crooned, faces inches from each other. Sit-ins from the neighborhood were part of the weekly routine. Grammy Award winner Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs walked into Carnitas wearing a football jersey and shorts rather than his western stage outfit and sat in with the band, playing bajo sexto.

Conjunto’s bouncy rhythm, typically a polka, is why it is also known as música alegre, happy music. Like blues and country, conjunto—pronounced cohn-hoon-toe—is indigenous, only regionally specific to South Texas, with mostly Spanish lyrics. In South Texas, and anywhere conjunto’s influence extends, the term is applied to both sound and subculture.

Conjunto has two key instruments: the diatonic button accordion, which, like a harmonica, changes notes as air is pushed or pulled past vibrating reeds, and the bajo sexto, which provides the rhythm and backbeat. Most modern conjuntos also include drums, guitar and bass.

At a time when most American roots music’s popularity is on the downswing, conjunto’s roots are spreading. Public school programs in La Joya, Los Fresnos, Brownsville and other towns across the Rio Grande Valley have added conjunto to their curricula, and bajo sexto classes are taught weekly at the Conjunto Heritage Taller and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio. “We get them from 8 to 80,” said Rodolfo Lopez, Conjunto Heritage Taller director. “Conjunto is us, la gente. This is a unique music form.” Kids from the taller (workshop) have dominated the state-wide Big Squeeze youth accordion competition sponsored by Texas Folklife since its inception in 2007.

Conjunto was born in the late 19th century when German immigrants introduced the button accordion to South Texas. In part because of its rural roots, it was known as cantina music. Conjunto made its commercial debut in the 1920s and ’30s, when Columbia and Bluebird joined other labels in the fledgling recording business, setting up studios in rooms at San Antonio’s Gunter and Bluebonnet hotels as well as at local WOAI radio to record musicians solicited by talent scouts. Conjunto accordionists were recruited to San Antonio alongside bluesman Robert Johnson, western swingsters Bill Boyd & His Cowboy Ramblers and the Tex-Czech sounds of Adolph Hofner as well as Texan Mexican singer Lydia Mendoza.

The instrumentals by those conjunto accordionists sounded Mexican with additional Bohemian, Czech and German elements, reflecting the influence of the immigrant communities of South Texas.

Texas conjunto recording pioneers Bruno Villarreal from Santa Rosa, Narciso Martínez of La Paloma and Santiago Jiménez of San Antonio all eavesdropped on Czech, German and Polish dances in South Texas and incorporated what they heard into their own music.

Conjunto follows neither mariachi nor ranchera traditions, nor is it norteño, the accordion style popular in northern Mexico. “It’s a melding of European music and the Mexican bajo sexto,” Rodolfo Lopez explained, noting that Czech redowas, Bohemian schottisches, waltzes and polkas all came from Europe. “We just added our jalapeño chiltepin flavor to it.”

Flaco Jiménez, the older of conjunto pioneer Santiago Jiménez’s two sons, expanded awareness of the genre in 1973, appearing on the album Doug Sahm and Band, featuring the rock musician from San Antonio and an all-star lineup that included Bob Dylan. Sahm sought out and played bajo sexto with Flaco Jiménez in his backyard on San Antonio’s west side. “He could groove,” Jiménez said.

Flaco Jiménez would ultimately take conjunto accordion around the world, recording with Ry Cooder, Peter Rowan, the Rolling Stones, Dwight Yoakum and Emmylou Harris before joining the Tex-Mex supergroup Texas Tornados.

Esteban “Steve” Jordan of Elsa, a dashing figure with an eyepatch known as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion, also worked as a conjunto innovator. One record label described Jordan’s style as acordeón psicodélico. If Jiménez was the standard-bearer, Jordan was the experimentalist—always pushing the envelope until his passing in 2010.

Another notable exporter of conjunto accordion is Joel Guzmán of Buda, who performs with his wife, Sarah Fox, as Aztex; plays and records with country rocker Joe Ely; and joined Paul Simon on his Homeward Bound tour. One of few professional female accordionists, Eva Ybarra earned a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017.

Conjunto is no longer exclusively a Texas thing. Japan has several conjuntos who were inspired by Flaco Jiménez’s appearance in their country with the Texas Tornados. Dwayne Verheyden from the Netherlands mastered Jiménez’s playing style, then mastered Spanish to better communicate with Jiménez and conjunto audiences. After his performance at the Tejano Conjunto Fest in San Antonio in 2014, fans patiently lined up to have their picture taken with him, as if he was the Justin Bieber of conjunto.

Conjunto’s crossover appeal comes to life in the music of Conjunto Los Pinkys, an Austin band led by octogenarian Isidro Samilpa; a middle-aged Polish import from Saginaw, Michigan, named Bradley Jaye Williams; and Mark Weber, an accordionist from San Antonio. Another crossover success is Stevie Ray Vavages of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, who learned the bajo sexto playing the native sound called chicken scratch.

Darren Prieto is part of the next wave.

Typical of most Texas kids, he grew up listening to rock, country, jazz and hip-hop. Not typical of most Texas kids, he chose to play accordion when he was 14. “I was always with my grandfather,” he explained. “Around our house, conjunto music was always on. I listened to all types of conjunto, from Los Pavo Reales to Ruben Naranjo.” The summer before he entered high school, Prieto picked up his grandfather’s accordion, just as his own father once had. By that September, he’d learned some polkas. “I started falling in love,” Prieto said.

Web Extra: Where To See and Hear Conjunto

KEDA-AM (1540) in San Antonio, which streams online.

Rancho Alegre Radio’s sampler playlist.

Texas Folklife presents Big Squeeze competitions in the spring. The Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg hosts the semifinals, and the finals are staged at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. Big Squeeze champions all perform at the Texas Accordion Kings and Queens concert and dance at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston the first Saturday in June.

The Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, sponsored by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, is conjunto’s biggest bash of all, staged at Guadalupe Theater and in Rosedale Park May 13–17.

Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival in May in Austin, plus weekly tardeadas in the spring and fall.

Narciso Martínez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival in Los Fresnos in October.

Two documentaries tell the story of conjunto: 1976’s Chulas Fronteras, by filmmakers Les Blank and Maureen Gosling, and Songs of the Homeland, filmed in 1995 by Hector Galán.

Conjunto Musicians, Their Lives and Their Times is an audio program in the Onda Latina Collection at the University of Texas featuring Esteban Jordan, Flaco Jiménez, Santiago Jiménez Jr. and Tony de la Rosa.

The Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito is one of the cradles of conjunto. It’s open Thursday–Saturday at 210 E. Heywood St. Call (956) 245-1666 for more info.

Janie’s Record Shop is the go-to shop for conjunto 45s, CDs and 12-inch vinyl, with a store jukebox and loads of autographed photos of conjunto stars. It’s at 1012 Bandera Rd. in San Antonio. Call (210) 735-2070 for more info.

Del Bravo Record Shop, run by the family of conjunto composer Salomé Gutierrez, is as much a museum as a record shop. Don’t miss the Lydia Mendoza tribute display, which includes one of her stage dresses. It’s at 554 Old Highway 90 in San Antonio. Call (210) 432-8351 for more info.

Those Sunday morning performances on the small stage at Carnitas Uruapan, where he learned from Santiago Jiménez Jr., stoked Prieto’s creative fire. “He helped me learn to get over stage fright, how to talk to the crowd and even how to be a humble musician,” Prieto said.

The gigs at Carnitas Uruapan stopped in 2018 when the owner retired. But Prieto remains tight with Jiménez. “You can hear a little bit of Santiago Jiménez Jr.’s style in my own playing,” Prieto said. “Playing conjunto music is so fun. It isn’t like any other music. It has that beat that makes you want to dance. It makes you feel alive.”

Web Extra: Joe Nick Patoski’s Conjunto Experience

Writer Joe Nick Patoski, a self-confessed conjunto addict, offers this playlist of some of his favorite conjunto songs and artists. He has been writing about conjunto music since 1975 for Texas Monthly, Oxford American, Rolling Stone, Country Music and other publications. He hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, 7–9 p.m. Saturdays on Marfa Public Radio and Wimberley Valley Radio.

Writer Joe Nick Patoski, a confessed conjunto addict, lives outside Wimberley and is a member of Pedernales EC.

This appeared in the March 2020 issue

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The Many Threads And Generations Of Chicano Soul, All In One Place

My story for National Public Radio Music’s webpage on Adrian Quesada’s Look At My Soul show at Lincoln Center, along with Black Pumas, Grupo Fantasma, Brownout, Brown Sabbath, and Johnny Hernandez and Ruben (El Gato Negro) Ramos

NPR Music’s story

More than half a century after it crept into the DNA of young Mexican-Americans in the southwestern United States — particularly in Southern California and Texas — Chicano Soul endures. Chicano Soul in California has been well-documented, in Ruben Molina’s book Chicano Soul and in several documentaries. The Texas version happened away from media and music limelight as a wonderfully provincial scene unto itself, and persists through events like the Friday Night dances at Pueblo Hall in San Antonio, retro bands like Eddie and the Valiants and the San Antones, and through DJs such as the Austin Boogie Crew, Jason Saldana’s El West Side Sound in San Antonio and the Fistful of Soul collective in Houston — all spinning vintage tracks in clubs across the state.

Three Songs That Define California Chicano Soul

Cannibal and the Headhunters, “Land of 1,000 Dances”
Thee Midnighters, “Jump, Jive and Harmonize”
The Blendells, “La La La La La”

No look back, though, is as far-reaching and ambitious as The Look at My Soul: The Latin Shade of Texas Soul album project, hatched by 42-year-old, Austin-based producer-writer-arranger-guitarist Adrian Quesada. Released late last year on Nacional Records/Amazon Music, the album will be performed live for the first time at Lincoln Center in New York this Saturday (July 27), with a cast that includes first-generation Chicano Soul stars Ruben Ramos, El Gato Negro (The Black Cat) and Johnny Hernandez from Little Joe and the Latinaires.

Three Songs That Define Texas Chicano Soul

Sunny and the Sunliners, “Talk To Me”
Little Joe and the Latinaires, “Ain’t No Big Thing”
Royal Jesters, “Meet Me In Soulsville”

Quesada will also be performing with one of the opening acts, the Black Pumas, his new band with lead vocalist Eric Burton. Black Pumas are standard-bearers of the psych soul sound buzzing around Austin; dominated by mid-tempo ballads, along with tinges of psychedelia, funk and groove – a sound that could easily pass for a new version of Chicano Soul. But in no way is this your parents’ Tejano.

Three Songs That Define Modern Texas Psych Soul, a.k.a. New Chicano Soul

Black Pumas, “Colors”
Grupo Fantasma ft. Tomar Williams, “Let Me Be Me”
Los Coast, “Monsters”

The mothership of this Latin-funk-soul-R&B mashup is Grupo Fantasma, a nine-piece horn band founded by Quesada, Greg Gonzalez and Beto Martinez in 2000. All three had grown up in the border city of Laredo, each smitten with modern music, like any American kid in the ’80s. “[In Laredo] we listened to the radio, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Nirvana,” Gonzalez tells me. “People in Laredo listened to mariachi, rock and roll, heavy metal and funk.” Cumbias, the dance rhythm that dominates Latin music globally, were also an unconscious part of their border town upbringing. Teenagers could party and drink alcohol across the river in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico. “The best live bands [in Mexico] were Colombiana bands with keyboards and guitars and accordion,” Gonzalez says. “It was cumbia played with a full ensemble, almost a Tejano instrumentation with Colombia music.”

Grupo Fantasma.
Sarah Bork Hamilton/Courtesy of the artist

Gonzalez and Martinez became friends in eighth grade in public school as fellow metalheads. Quesada was a year older and attended St. Augustine, the Catholic school. After graduating, they all met in Austin in 1996, where they were chasing the music muse.

“We were playing funk, rock and roll, hip hop, psychedelic, fusion,” Gonzalez tells NPR. With Martinez, he started a band called the Blimp. Quesada had a jazz group called Blue Noise. The two shared bills, then started playing together as a funk band that liked to test limits. The common bond was their new shared obsession with cumbias.

We wanted to be a party that everyone was invited to.

“We rediscovered Colombian cumbias through some compilations some friends had,” Gonzalez said. “There was a Latin music scene in Austin, but it excluded people who weren’t part of that scene,” Martinez recalled. “If you didn’t dress right and go to the salsa club, then you couldn’t appreciate that music. That turned us off. We wanted to be a party that everyone was invited to. You didn’t have to understand any dance moves or know Spanish. We wanted to make a sound that incorporated all our influences and didn’t exclude anybody. ”

Their response was the Night of Cumbias, performed every other week at a small Sixth Street club called the Empanada Parlor. By the third gig, a line outside the door was the norm. Their debut album, Grupo Fantasma from 2002, was followed by relentless roadwork, beginning in the southeastern and northeastern United States, helping put Grupo Fantasma on the map. “These cumbia rock shows in these divey punk rock clubs covered in stickers were rowdy,” Beto Martinez says. “We started pulling people in places like Hattiesburg, Mississippi and Atlanta. When we got to New York, there was this big packed house waiting for us.”

A year later, Grupo Fantasma formed a second band. “Brownout was a respite,” says Gonzalez of the project. “After we had delved into the cumbia, and started expanding our palette of Afro-Latin music all sung in Spanish, Adrian and I wanted a funk band like we had before. We wanted to play that too, minus the cumbias and the Grupo Fantasma style. We were playing so much with Fantasma, it was a much-needed outlet. We came up with a list of our favorite breakbeat and funk 45s and started doing parties. It was freakier, funkier and all instrumental.”

Grupo Fantasma’s cumbia obsession would be followed by further explorations — into salsa, merengue, bomba, and other Afro-Latin ritmos — after Jose Galeano, a Nicaraguan living in Austin, joined three years into the band’s life as singer and timbalero. “He chose a lot of music and opened our eyes to some of those sounds,” Gonzalez said. “He’s the nephew of Jose Chepito Areas, the percussionist for the original Santana who was part of that taking the Latin style and incorporating it into rock and roll and blues genres. He brought to us the concept how you blend those sounds. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, everybody has become a lot more sophisticated.”
Grupo Fantasma Masterfully Adapts Funk On Its Vision Of ‘American Music Vol. VII’
First Listen
Grupo Fantasma Masterfully Adapts Funk On Its Vision Of ‘American Music Vol. VII’

Late in 2006, Grupo Fantasma got a call. From Prince. Well actually, it was Prince’s management, relaying the message that Prince would like to fly the band to Las Vegas to play at his 3121 Club on Thanksgiving night. The band didn’t see Prince that first gig, but he was watching and listening — and subsequently invited Grupo Fantasma to play the club every Thursday. Grupo did the gig for six weeks before meeting its benefactor. One evening in the middle of a set, His Purple Majesty walked onto the stage with his guitar, asking “Is it cool?” before launching into a Hendrix-style jam and enigmatically departing again. “He knew all the lines,” Beto Martinez recalls. “He’d practiced what we were playing.” In a matter of weeks, Grupo Fantasma became Prince’s go-to horn section, flying to Vegas every Thursday, playing with Prince at a Golden Globes party in Los Angeles (with sit-ins from Mary J. Blige, will.i.am and Marc Anthony), at a Super Bowl party in Miami, another party in London, at Coachella — over the course of a year, wherever Prince asked, they were there.

We’re from here. We’re a product of all these influences. Ultimately, it’s American, in the sense that jazz is.

Grupo Fantasma was no longer just a Latin funk band. With the Prince connection, they were the funk. Through it all, the band has resisted labels and being pigeon-holed, evidenced by the title of the latest album, American Music, Volume 7 (Blue Corn), its seventh.

“Everybody wants to put us in this nice category,” says Beto Martinez, fresh off a three-week tour of Russia and Turkey that included stops at the Mongolian border, Siberia, Moscow and Istabul. “That’s what’s behind the title of the record, being lumped into this Latin music category, dismissing all the various influences. We’re from here. We’re a product of all these influences. Ultimately, it’s American, in the sense that jazz is.

“In Russia, people asked us, ‘Where you from,’ ” Martinez continues. “We’d say, ‘We’re from Texas.’ ‘But where in Texas, like what’s your ethnicity?’ I’d say, ‘Mexican-American’ and have to explain that. Then it would be, ‘Texas is full of cowboys, it’s the capital of country music. How does it feel to be a strange band in Texas?’ We had to talk about how Texas is huge and very diverse, how Texas shares a giant border with Mexico. We’re a good representation of that diversity — a few of us are from the border, a couple guys are from California, our drummer John [Speice] is from Oklahoma and wears a cowboy hat.”

“We’re more well-received outside the United States,” says Greg Gonzales. In America, “we’re a Latin band that sings in Spanish. There [in Russia and Turkey], Spanish and English are both foreign languages. They’re just hearing the music. They’re not thinking, ‘This is Latin. I have to dance salsa.’ It’s more like, ‘Wow, this is awesome music.’ They see us as an American band. A lot of people thought it was jazz. We’ve got a horn section. We’re American. The music borrows heavily from African music, funk, soul, rock and roll that all essentially came from jazz. Seventy-five percent of our songs are in Spanish.”

In 2013, as Grupo Fantasma changed management and its record label Nat Geo Music folded, Adrian Quesada left the band, burned out from the road and wanting to pursue studio projects and produce. It was time for an extended break. During the downtime, Brownout, which had gained a vocalist, did a residency at Frank in downtown Austin, playing a different theme each night. The final night’s theme was Black Sabbath, an idea that took hold, then took off, as Brownout morphed into Brown Sabbath, playing Black Sabbath songs with a Latin groove — and finding their biggest audience yet, practically eclipsing the whole Grupo Fantasma juggernaut.

Last year, Brownout applied the Brown Sabbath concept to one of their favorite groups growing up, Public Enemy, for the album Fear of a Brown Planet.

The Money Chicha project followed Brownout and Brown Sabbath. “We discovered this style called chicha from Peru from the ’60s and ’70s,” Gonzalez says. “Peruvians wanted to play a blend of their indigenous music from the mountains with the song form rhythms of Latin America, cumbias, salsas, stuff like that, along with fuzz guitar and psychedelic effects, lots of reverb. It was all guitars, no horns. We got so obsessed with chicha that we started another band. The joke was, lets book some gigs, because that’s how we normally force ourselves to learn something like this. We booked these gigs and needed a name. Our other bands had nine people, this had only five, so we’ll finally make some money.”

Even though Quesada had left Grupo Fantasma, he continued playing with Brownout and Money Chicha until a couple years ago, when his plate was full. He was looking back with one project, the Look At My Soul album, and looking forward with another, the Black Pumas.

Eric Burton had arrived in Austin in October 2015, after busking on the street in Santa Monica. After six months of playing farmers’ markets, open mics and solo shows, he met Quesada. They instantly clicked. “He had a few instrumentals he was working on that he wanted to see if I could sing on,” Burton says. “I was expecting that if it was a success it would turn into some publishing deal for both of us. I didn’t realize he had 17 instrumentals he was sitting on after our first session. We kept at it until we filled most of those instrumentals he had. The songs almost write themselves.”

Black Pumas brought stability into the 28-year-old singer-songwriter’s life. “When you’re busking, or playing music in general, you have to have thick skin,” Burton says. “You’re always moving, shifting, trying to get by on the power of the song and the generosity of the people. Austin has given me a home where I can develop as a singer-songwriter and be rooted.”

Quesada had been looking for a voice for music he’d composed that didn’t fit into the Look at My Soul concept he was working on. “I went off on a tangent,” he says. “Those were the Black Pumas songs. I’d met Eric. He was originally writing and singing on my songs, and then he started bringing in his songs. That’s what really kicked it into high gear – my production and his songwriting.”

The two recorded together for several months. “The intentions were pure,” Quesada says. “I didn’t show anybody any of this music for half a year. I didn’t even know Eric was an incredible front man.”

Look at My Soul had been on Quesada’s radar ever since Grupo Fantasma did a taping with Ruben Ramos for the Austin Latino Music Association, 16 years ago. “That’s when Adrian and I started talking about what we’re doing right now,” the 79-year-old Ramos says.

“I heard Ruben talking about growing up, listening to rock and roll and soul music, Little Richard and Jimmy Reed and blues,” says Quesada. “In my head, I imagined somebody like Ruben Ramos grows up singing mariachi music and regional Mexican music all their life. I saw the parallels. For us, back in the Grupo Fantasma days, we grew up listening to hip-hop, rock and roll, heavy metal. We didn’t really embrace [Latin sounds] until we were older.

“I realized all these guys – Ruben, Little Joe – opened doors for us. Our story was similar to theirs. We discovered who we were a little bit later, musically. That planted the seed way back when. I thought it would be interesting to make that connection.”

Quesada collected classic recordings by Ramos, Little Joe and the Latinaires, Sunny and the Sunliners, the Numero Group’s reissue of the Royal Jesters, and the Texas Funk compilation featuring Latin Breed, and studied them. “You can hear the progression, where the music turns into Tejano music, but early on, these bands always had a soul song or funk song, right after a cumbia. It would be common to hear the Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut’ after a mariachi or ranchera. I was fascinated by the history, learning my own roots, what came before my friends and me started doing this music. I had enough information to connect my generation with theirs.”

In this time, in this era, where there’s more and more division happening, especially in Texas and along the border, even though Chicano Soul sounds like people would be excluded from it, it’s actually an inclusive scene.

Listening to Little Joe and the Latinaires records, he realized Little Joe’s brother Johnny Hernandez sang the soul numbers. Hernandez came to Austin to add his vocals, singing lead on “Ain’t No Big Thing,” which he’d sung with the Latinaires. “I hadn’t recorded live in the studio like we did in the old days for decades,” he says. “It was a thrill getting into the studio [with Quesada, Charlie Sexton and Michael Ramos]. It took me back to my roots. When the horns came in on the introduction, I was right back there in 1965.” Saturday’s gig at Lincoln Center will be the first time Hernandez has performed in New York.

Look at My Soul is just the start. “I need five volumes to tell the story I want to,” Quesada said. “I feel like this is episode one of a Ken Burns miniseries. Originally, my idea was to revisit the old songs and re-record them, but I spent a summer writing a bunch of songs inspired by the styles I was listening to. This is now a lifelong journey to explore. In this time, in this era, where there’s more and more division happening, especially in Texas and along the border, even though Chicano Soul sounds like people would be excluded from it, it’s actually an inclusive scene.”

Black Pumas, on the other hand, are not a Chicano Soul band, at least as far as Eric Burton is concerned. “I don’t feel like it’s Chicano music at all. It’s black music.”

Then again, Burton wrote the title track for Look at My Soul, and sings lead on the title song.

These old and new strands, along with the Grupo Fantasma legacy, will converge on Saturday — Greg Gonzalez joins the Look at My Soul band on the heels of a Money Chicha gig in Austin; on August 2, a week after Lincoln Center, Gonzalez joins Martinez, fresh off some European dates with Golden Dawn Arkestra; then a reconvening with the rest of the Grupo Fantasma/Brownout aggregation in Johnstown, Pa. for a Brown Sabbath show at the Flood City Music Festival.

“We’re kind of schizophrenic,” laughs Gonzalez.

Black Pumas will be on tour through the end of the year. “I’ve been doing this long enough not to get too excited,” says Adrian Quesada. “As much as I like to multitask and stay busy, I feel like I’m too old to jump from one thing to another. But it’s worked out. Black Pumas were on the Billboard charts the week the album came out. That’s a first for me. I’ve been looking out at the crowds and people have been singing along with the songs.”

And he knows when the Black Pumas tour wraps, those four unfinished volumes of Chicano Soul will be waiting.

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Review: Austin to ATX

Chris Riemenschneider of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune weighed in with a review of Austin to ATX that’s been picked up by several newspapers/
Star-Tribune link

Reviews: ‘Austin to ATX,’ by Joe Nick Patoski, and ‘I Know Who You Are,’ by Alice Feeney

“Austin to ATX” by Joe Nick Patoski
ustin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers and Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas

By Joe Nick Patoski. (Texas A&M University Press, 376 pages, $32.)

Old Austinites and fans of the lively Texas capital will undoubtedly miss the bygone eras revisited in this overdue chronicle of the city’s liberal cultural scene. Even more, they might also feel like they missed the boat on many occasions.

A Texas Monthly alum who has written definitive biographies on Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Dallas Cowboys, author Joe Nick Patoski doesn’t just lovingly chronicle the musicians, filmmakers, foodies and other creative entrepreneurs who famously made Austin “weird” (a favorite T-shirt slogan for tourists nowadays), but he also shrewdly details how these things made Austin rich.

There’s the little music festival started simply to help fill bars when all the UT students left for spring break, which became the $300 million annual revenue-generating South by Southwest brand (SXSW). There’s the little hippie grocery store bought up for $13 billion by Amazon two years ago, Whole Foods, and the three-man concert company behind the Austin City Limits Festival, in which Live Nation bought a 51% share at $125 million in 2014. And of course there’s the little hippie cowboy who tried but couldn’t sell out to Nashville, about whom Patoski offers even more great color over what’s in his Martin-guitar-thick book “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life.”
“I Know Who You Are” by Alice Feeney

Oddball filmmakers Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Mike Judge, barbecue maker Franklin’s and other musicians who made it big (at least in influence) are also covered in this not-too-tediously informative, dryly witty, tastefully snarky book. Unlike most old-school Austinites, Patoski doesn’t seem to begrudge all the new money and newly transplanted residents overrunning the booming city these days. He just wants to give them a history lesson on all the blood (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” anyone?), sweat and marijuana roaches buried beneath their sleek new condo and office towers.

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER

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Texas Music Hour of Power Sat nites 7-9 pm central KRTS Marfa & KWVH Wimberley and anytime here

tmhoposterofficial

www.marfapublicradio.org

www.kxwt.org

www.wimberleyvalleyradio.org

www.kwvh.org

www.keos.org

Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.

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