Richard Dobson is a Texas singer-songwriter from Tyler and former roughneck who gamboled around Galveston and Houston, then Austin and Nashville, before spending the past 13 years living in Switzerland and playing all over Europe. That’s the shorthand. The long version is this fine piece of contemporary literature, Pleasures of the High Rhine – A Texas Singer in Exile.
I’ve known Richard since the 1970s when he was hanging around Austin and sometimes touring as part of Townes Van Zandt’s band, as told in his previous book Gulf Coast Boys, and have stayed in touch over the years by reading his eloquent observations in his occasional Don Ricardo’s Life and Times newsletter.
He’s enjoyed nominal success, his songs having been covered by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Kelly Willis, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, and the Carter Family, among others. As solid as his tunes are, it’s Dobson’s literary writing that grabs me.
Pleasures of the High Rhine was written at a critical time in Dobson’s life: his friends Townes and the writer Roxy Gordon have died fairly young, leaving him to contemplate their lives and demise. A red-haired Swiss woman has left her family and joined him in Galveston for a year before returning to Switzerland as a couple. A new millennium has begun.
Pleasures of the High Rhine covers songwriting, collaborating, performing and recording with a German band led by Thomm Jutz (now a Nashville cat), the strangeness of playing venues that ostensibly showcase American country music, and observations thereof, a critical skill for any songwriter.
But it’s also about living as an expatriate in a foreign country, redefining what home is, learning to speak German, being welcomed into a new family, living on the Swiss-German border, food, drink, his relationship with Edith, trips back to Houston and Nashville, gardening (including growing his own marijuana in a society that doesn’t much care one way or another) aging, and, water.
The latter is where Dobson really sings. He opens with a passage about fishing in the Gulf off of Galveston, down to describing the second and third sandbars offshore and the joys of “green water” fishing in the fall when the Gulf clarifies briefly into Caribbean-like beauty. Finding beauty in its harsh roughness, he writes the Texas Gulf like no one I’ve read before.
He soon finds himself on the Rhine River and delves into it with similar zeal and a newfound curiosity.
His pursuit of a fishing license – no easy thing in Switzerland, requiring an extensive 140 question test in Deutsch – a steep learning curve how to fish the Rhein, especially for elusive trout, and his summer swims in the river lead to deep history of the river and its inhabitants, including not so pleasant events such as Kristalnacht when synagogues were burned and Jews persecuted, and the historic fouling and restoration of the waterway.
He gets it.
Contemporary global events such as the election of George W. Bush and 9-11 are seen from a distance that lends perspective, written by a kindred spirit.
The finest singer-songwriters possess the gift where their words often transcend the music. In Pleasures of the High Rhine, Richard Dobson’s words simply sing.
Available through mytexasmusic.com