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

tmhoposterofficial

 

www.marfapublicradio.org

www.westtexaspublicradio.org

www.wimberleyvalleyradio.org

www.kwvh.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.

Continue Reading

Terry Allen and The Truckload of Art

https://texashighways.com/culture/a-new-book-details-the-life-of-terry-allen-and-his-truckload-of-art/

Terry Allen at Arlyn Studios in Austin in May 2019. Photo by Barbara FG

Maybe you’ve seen Terry Allen’s work.

His sculpture Caw Caw Blues, which contains the ashes of his friend Guy Clark, stands sentinel at the entrance of The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos. Countree Music, a 25-foot bronze cast of an oak tree and a map on the terrazzo floor depicting Houston as the center of the world, accompanied by music, is planted in Terminal A near Gate 17 of Bush International Airport in Houston. Passengers entering security gate D30 in Terminal D at DFW International pass under a 30-foot bronze wishbone titled Wish. A life-size statue of CB Stubblefield of Stubb’s BBQ fame stands on the site of his first restaurant on East Broadway in Lubbock. Nestled in the palmetto palm thicket outside The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria on the banks of Lake Austin is Road Angel, a bronze cast of a 1953 Chevy coupe, the car Allen drove as a teenager, accompanied by more than a hundred audio soundbites (including one of mine), that was permanently installed in 2016.

 

More likely, you’ve heard Allen’s work.

His song “Amarillo Highway,” about a “Panhandlin’ man-handlin’ post-holin’ Dust bowlin’ Daddy” is a much-covered Texas country classic. The churning “New Delhi Freight Train” was first recorded by the rock band Little Feat. At 80, he’s still out there performing with his Panhandle Mystery Band which includes family and friends, among them son Bukka Allen, pedal steel maestro Lloyd Maines, guitarist Charlie Sexton, and fiddler Richard Bowden— often in conjunction with an art opening.

You may have even seen Allen without realizing it. He and his wife Jo Harvey Allen play Oklahoma couple Aunt Annie and Uncle Jim in the Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon.

He’s been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and is in the West Texas Walk of Fame by the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock. Texas Tech is finalizing plans for the Terry and Jo Harvey Allen Center for Creative Studies.

Call him what you want: the patriarch of Lubbock creatives, the greatest living visual artist from Texas, the other Texas music godfather besides Willie, the storyteller of the American West. It’s all pretty much true.

In 2016, Allen created Road Angel which can be seen at The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria. Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons/courtesy of The Contemporary Austin

 

Now comes Truckload of Art, a 500-page biography by Brendan Greaves, to explain it all.

The first Terry Allen art I ever saw made me laugh out loud. The Paradise was a stark diorama of three spaces, the primary space—a parking lot—bathed in red light with the word “Paradise” in pale blue neon script on the back wall as the centerpiece. Directly below is a planter with three measly cacti, two plastic palms, a car tire, and a pair of plastic flamingos. Flanking the planter were doors marked Lounge and Motel in red neon. Beyond the vinyl-covered doors was a motel room with shag carpeting and a honky-tonk bar space with a jukebox. Paradise was part of The Great American Rodeo Show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 1976. Eleven artists were given a year to develop a rodeo-inspired piece. Allen paid homage to the kind of spaces where a real rodeo cowboy would feel at home.

The first Terry Allen music I really paid attention to was the 1979 album Lubbock (on everything), marking the artist-musician’s return to his hometown to collaborate with a new iteration of Lubbock music makers, among them singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who was two classes behind Allen at Monterey High. “I always knew I was destined to write songs,” Gilmore told me recently. “But I thought you had to be really old to be a songwriter. Terry was the first person I saw perform original music. He sang ‘Red Bird’ while playing piano one day at Monterey. That really inspired me.”

Allen and Jo Harvey had been living in Fresno, California, when he came back to make Lubbock (on everything). He instantly became the Don of the Lubbock Mafia of music maker. The Allens eventually moved back—sort of—settling some years later in close-enough Santa Fe.

It’s hard to ignore the tall polymath with stooped shoulders, the piercing eyes of a hawk, and a wide rubbery mouth that can hardly contain his unapologetic flatland twang. Art and music are the same coin, as far as he’s concerned, means to tell stories, which he is very good at doing, in many different ways. He’s so prolific, and so driven to create, he demands to be heard.

Greaves is founder and owner of Paradise of Bachelors Records in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has reissued Allen’s older recordings and released his most recent albums 2013’s Bottom of the World and Just Like Moby Dick in 2020. Greaves, a self-described “lapsed art worker,” met Allen through the gallery where he worked. He’s collaborated on several projects with Allen and received a Grammy nomination for his liner notes, but taking on the monumental task of telling a very dense story while explaining the dual worlds of art and music, working off journals Allen has kept since junior high, was a whole other deal.

Allen’s father, Sled, a former minor baseball player who promoted wrestling and music events in West Texas, including Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, who Terry met on one of the six times he played Lubbock in 1955-56, long before most of the world knew who Elvis was. His mother, Pauline, a onetime professional piano player and full-time alcoholic, was 18 years younger than her husband. The biography shows how both inform Allen’s love of performance, his skill at promotion and showmanship, but most of all, his creative drive, providing the inspiration for his DUGOUT series of works.

Allen got his art education at Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles. One professor brought visiting Dadaists and surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington to lecture. The surrealist Man Ray often stopped by the school to talk to students about the life of an artist. Allen was hooked.

Concurrent with his Chouinard schooling was his pursuit of music. The first song he ever wrote “Red Bird” scored him an appearance on the music television series Shindig! in 1965, generating enthusiasm from Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles.

In 1969, he wrote “Truckload of Art,” a song about a real truckload of art from New York destined for Los Angeles to show the upstart West Coast artists how art was supposed to be done, that crashed on the highway. Two years later, a snippet could be heard coming out of the radio of Warren Oates’ GTO in Two-Lane Blacktop, an arty feature film about street racers on a road trip across the southwest.

After graduating from Chouinard in 1966, he began teaching there and followed by teaching gigs at UC-Berkeley and Cal State Fresno.

Truckload of Art focuses on relationships, beginning with Allen’s partner in crime and marriage, the toothsome Jo Harvey. Theirs has been a tempestuous, sometimes competitive coupling while he chased myriad muses and she pursued her career as an actor, playwright, poet, radio producer, and songwriter—whenever they weren’t working together. He thought she should perform only original pieces she created. She enjoyed working in film.

Also documented is Allen’s long friendship with Dave Hickey, the acerbic writer, dealer, curator, and university professor from Fort Worth who opened A Clean, Well-Lighted Place gallery in Austin in 1967, and became the most incisive art critic of his time. Like Allen, Hickey wrote country songs, too.

Allen’s Corporate Head outside the Citicorp Plaza in Los Angeles. Photo by William Nettles

I’m not schooled enough to pass judgement on the art beyond my immediate reaction, and Allen usually makes me laugh. That was the immediate response when I saw Corporate Head, the life-size bronze of a businessman burying his head in the wall of a Los Angeles office building. The publication Atlas Obscura describes the work as “almost whimsical, yet rather grotesque.”

Sometimes the work has an edge too sharp to appreciate. That speaks to Allen’s interest in Antonin Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty, which strived to “shock the audience.” Allen was drawn to Artaud’s 1937 travelogue A Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara about time spent in Mexico among the Tarahumara people experimenting with peyote. His curiosity led to staging his own play about Artaud Ghost Ship Rodez in Lyon, France.

The downs are as interesting as the ups. Juarez, the first of 13 albums he’s recorded, failed to launch as a Broadway musical, despite his collaboration with David Byrne, best-known as the lead singer of the band Talking Heads. The run of the 1994 theatrical play Chippy: The Diary of a West Texas Hooker, co-written with Jo Harvey for the American Music Theater Festival, turned out to be brief, but yielded the song “Fate with a Capital F” cowritten with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, which remains one of my favorite Allen songs.

Some sweet bits pass by too quickly, such as Byrne’s bewilderment participating in a guitar pull with Allen and friends, and Allen’s dust-up with Tommy Lee Jones over verisimilitude. And I would have enjoyed eavesdropping on Hickey and Allen debating art.

It’s the little things that impress. Allen played in a band in high school with David Box, the teen chosen to replace Buddy Holly in the Crickets after Holly’s death in a plane crash in 1959, only for Box to die years later in a plane crash. In 1972, he played the Dripping Springs Reunion, the precursor of Willie Nelson’s Picnics, thanks to a Dave Hickey booking. Even Andy Warhol and the Manson Family make cameos. He’s been everywhere—Cambodia, France, London, Mexico, and India, telling stories every which way. And he took notes.

With Greaves’ help, Allen tells his most compelling story yet, the story of his creative life.

Continue Reading

The Ballad of Charley Crockett – my story in Cowboys & Indians

https://www.cowboysindians.com/2024/03/the-ballad-of-charley-crockett/

BY Joe Nick Patoski

With vocal prowess and unparalleled vintage cowboy style, up-and-coming Texas crooner Charley Crockett is laying down the tracks of a lasting musical legacy.

In previous conversations, Charley talked my ear off, always sounding like a man on a mission trying to jam a whole lot into just a little bit. But here in a spacious, air-conditioned backstage area with all the creature comforts within reach — “Topo? Ranch water?” — and a luxurious touring bus parked outside (“I got it from Florida Coaches with Willie’s recommendation”), he was more relaxed, measured.

Years of playing on the street, years of playing with bands, appeared to be paying off.

“I just got lucky from where I was stepping off of the street and learning how to front bands and play clubs, mostly through informal blues jams around Dallas, Fort Worth, New Orleans, and in Austin,” Crockett said.

“I remember, s–t, walking into Sam’s Town Point [in Austin] for Breck English’s blues jam. I was afraid to get on that damn stage because I was such an itinerant.”

He said he’d been nervous when he first started playing big stages, but wasn’t anymore.

Bobby Cochran met Charley at an events center in Ukiah, California, near the marijuana fields of Mendocino County, back in 2012. “He came up with a buddy of his and asked if he could play during our band’s set break,” Cochran recalled. “A few months later, he came into this coffeehouse I managed and asked if he could play in the corner. A week later he came in and played for the afternoon. Mostly it was us, the employees, and him back in the corner. It wasn’t long after that he was collaborating with Kyle Madrigal, a guy I played with in a band. He recorded his first album at Kyle’s house.”

Madrigal recorded Charley singing and playing guitar, then added his own bass and Cochran’s drums. That was the foundation of A Stolen Jewel, Charley Crockett’s first album.

“I got a good vibe from him,” Cochran said. “He seemed like a solid dude, warm, friendly.

“That was the deal: He’d disappear back to Texas, come back to town, play a handful of gigs, hang out, then disappear again. Then he found his band in Dallas.”

The singer had met guitarist Alexis Sanchez at a Dallas blues jam. Even though Sanchez fronted his own band, Charley talked him into joining forces. Sanchez admired his new collaborator’s hustle, which included leaving giveaway copies of his record in the restrooms of clubs where he was playing. He played fair.

Sanchez: “Whatever he’d make from tips or selling CDs, he’d split it with the band.”

“Those guys would be with him whenever he’d come back to Mendo after that,” said Bobby Cochran. “That was the end of my playing in his band. Once he found what he wanted, he was locked into it.”

Charley dodged jail time again, this time for his involvement in marijuana production. He got a $10,000 fine when he showed the judge the record he had just made. He wasn’t an outlaw. He was legit.

The artist first caught my ears and eyes with the video of his original version of “Trinity River,” where he sports a fedora and wingtips, all vintaged-out like a sideman for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, while playing on a Deep Ellum street corner and inside the studio of KNON, Dallas’ cool community radio station. No one ever sung about the Trinity River. The only song I knew was by Oak Cliff ’s T-Bone Walker whose very first record featured “Trinity River Blues,” and released in 1929, years before Walker became the king of electric blues guitar. T-Bone Walker sang, “That dirty, dirty river sure has done me wrong.” Charley Crockett sang his Trinity was the “dirty little river gonna get me clean.”

Crockett said he was in New York City crashing in a Brooklyn indie band’s rehearsal space when T-Bone Walker made him realize the best, easiest way to explain himself.

“I was flipping through an old blues reel book, seeing all these blues names,” he said. “I remember stopping on T-Bone Walker and looking at him, looking at the song, the little chord chart that was denoting the unique style of kind of jazzy blues chord, the shapes he was holding. It was surprising because I’d been holding chords that way since I was a kid. I just never knew what they were called.

“That was the day I no longer was running away from

Texas. I turned around and realized that it was just who I

was.” He affirmed his Texan-ness in a Q&A for Texas Highways magazine: “I got all these managers calling me saying, ‘Look,

Charley, you know the world is bigger than Texas.’ I know this sounds brash, but this is the policy that I have adopted going forward: The world is not bigger than Texas. There is only Texas, and we take Texas to the world. That’s what I have to do. That’s how Stevie Ray Vaughan did it, that’s how ZZ Top did it, that’s how Willie done it, that’s how Selena did it, that’s how Freddy Fender did it.”

Sharing big stages with two of those role models — Willie Nelson and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top — on the 2022 Outlaw Music Festival tour provided more serious schooling.

That was the day I no longer was running away from Texas. I turned around and realized that it was just who I was.

“When I was out with Willie on the Outlaw Tour, one of the coolest things about it, every time I was near Willie it felt like a cultural event,” he said. “His 90th birthday was absolutely a singular cultural event.” Billy Gibbons — whose band ZZ Top blazed their way into rock arenas wearing cowboy hats, sparkly Nudie suits, and boots, selling an idea of Texas — offered direct advice. “We were talking after one of the shows,” Charley said. Gibbons told him, “Man, that minor [chord] s–t you’re doing with your guitar … don’t let anybody talk you out of that. Keep doing all that minor s–t.” Charley beamed.

“I end up eating off the plate of a simple thing like that for the rest of my life,” he said, reaching deep back to when his legend began. “There was a woman on the street in New Orleans when I was much younger. They called her Angel. She said, ‘Baby, you got a beautiful voice, but you need to learn this one thing. You got to start low if you want to get high.’ She was telling me that I needed to develop and use the power of the lower part of my voice for my diaphragm.” His band, the Blue Drifters, became fully formed in 2017 with the addition of Kullen Fox, a multi-instrumentalist who plays trumpet and accordion as well as keyboards. He’s from Austin, where Charley had relocated.

Crockett’s version of “Jamestown Ferry,” an early ’70s country hit for 13-year-old Tanya Tucker, got traction on social media when the track was released on Lil’G.L.’s Honky Tonk Jubilee, an album of old country covers, released in 2017. More country classics — George Jones’ “The Race Is On,” Ernest Tubb’s “Saturday Satan, Sunday Saint,” Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” — appeared on 2018’s Lil G.L.’s Blues Bonanza album of covers, along with Crockett blues favorites “T-Bone Shuffle” and “Travelin’ Blues” by T-Bone Walker, and Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City.”

An extended tour that year, opening for the Turnpike Troubadours, the hugely popular Red Dirt indie country band from Oklahoma, tapped into what would become his core audience.

Mark Neill, who had co-produced The Black Keys’ retro rock, reached out to Crockett after hearing some tapes, luring him to his Georgia studio with the promise of making “a real country record.” Two breakthrough albums came out of the collaboration, Welcome to Hard Times and Music City USA, Charley’s country-est records yet. Just as significantly, Neill stressed to Crockett, it’s important to think of songs cinematically.

Lil G.L. Presents Ten For Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand took the hard country affinity to the extreme, paying tribute to the late James “Slim” Hand, an older Texas honky-tonker who became Charley’s mentor and muse for a spell. Hand became such a presence, he played the lead character in the video for “That’s How I Got To Memphis.” The band took to calling him “the man from Waco,” the inspiration for the title of Crockett’s next album, released in 2022.

The Man From Waco, recorded with the Blue Drifters, was supposed to be a demo produced by Bruce Robison at his studio in Lockhart outside of Austin. The tracks would get the full studio treatment later, most likely with mega-producer Rick Rubin at his Shangri-La Studios. Crockett had signed a publishing deal with Rubin, but Rubin as producer would have to wait. The demo was so good, it had to be an album.

The Man From Waco is a western saga, from the first twangs introducing the title track to the lonely Marty Robbins’ trumpet lines. Places that don’t get mythologized much like Waco and Odessa are enshrined. There is a sweet murder ballad, “July Jackson,” a new version of “Trinity River” that passes for swinging jazz, and a nod to his personal marketing strategy, “Name On A Billboard.”

In September 2023, Live from the Ryman, documenting his first performance at the Mother Church of Country Music in Nashville, was released as an album and video, capturing Crockett’s smoldering, restrained appeal. If bending the knees was good enough for Hank Williams and swiveling the hips defined Elvis, those stage moves were good enough for him.

That same month, he released a track “Killers of The Flower Moon,” produced by T-Bone Burnett, based on his reading of the book about the murders of Osage people in Oklahoma for oil, the basis for director Martin Scorsese’s movie. The single coincided with the film’s release. That was followed a couple of weeks later by the exclusive Amazon release of Crockett’s renderings of Link Wray’s “Fire & Brimstone” and “Jukebox Mama” from an obscure album, timed with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s induction of Wray, the distinctive “Rumble” guitar instrumentalist and the first Native American honored by the institution.

The latest album, $10 Cowboy, was recorded at Arlyn Studios in Austin with the Blue Drifters and several outside players, with longtime collaborator Billy Horton assisting on production. It’s a cohesive collection of songs with a big sound — voice out front, steel guitar floating around ethereally in the background, horns providing a punchy response to vocal calls. Darkness lurks beneath the surface, pushed by Sanchez’s spaghetti western guitar and Fox’s soul organ fills: undelivered promises in “America,” the post-classic decadent imagery of “Crystal Chandeliers,” jackals roaming the valley in “Solitary Road,” the refrain of “Tired Again” … The street took all my money. The street took all my money. The street took All. My. Money!

A $10 cowboy singer, it turns out, is a lot like a $10 cowboy, according to the last lines of the album’s title track: When I was out there on those street corners, standing behind this guitar, ten dollars was a whole lot of money. Cowboys, cowboy singers are both highly hazardous occupations. Look out!

The notion of “Charley Crockett, Cowboy Singer” came into focus in 2019, right after the crooner almost died.

“I had an ablation and then open-heart surgery [to repair fused aortic valves] a week apart,” he said matter-of-factly, acknowledging a congenital condition. After recovering, he returned to Mendo where Bobby Cochran shot a simple video of Charley riding a bicycle around rural Mendocino Country, wearing a cowboy hat, lip-synching to the catchy, accordion-driven tune “River of Sorrow” from the album The Valley.

In early 2020, COVID hit, shows were canceled, and Crockett’s career went on hold. With the album Welcome to Hard Times scheduled for July release, Crockett asked Cochran to drive around the Southwest and make some videos.

Charley, his fiancée, and Cochran hit the road. “The best thing we could do was be out in the middle of nowhere sleeping in the truck, pitching a tent, because it’s the damn pandemic,” Charley said. “You couldn’t stay in a hotel if you tried. We were just camping out and hitting those national parks and all those really beautiful places I’d seen over the years.”

“It was insane,” recalled Cochran. “We started in Bishop [California], went to Death Valley, Zion, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, New Mexico. We filmed ‘Fool Somebody Else’ at the Opera House of Amargosa Hotel near Death Valley, It was closed because of COVID so we decided to film outside until this young guy, who turned out to be the caretaker at the hotel, walked over and asked, ‘What are y’all doing?’ We kind of explained and he went, ‘Oh, you’re Charley Crockett! I saw you in Indiana a year ago. Sure, you guys can go in and film. Right on.’ ”

The footage shot by Bobby Cochran completed Crockett’s transformation to Cowboy Singer. The sprawling landscapes fit his songs to a T. Each video is introduced by the shot of a rotary telephone or pay phone out in the middle of nowhere, ringing.

What does the phone imagery mean?

“Okay, I’m going to tell you the truth,” Charley said, drawing closer, speaking conspiratorially. “All right. You see how that cord’s hanging out of the back of that phone unplugged? That’s so all my real friends can get through. It rings all the time.”

He grinned. I would just have to abide by the mystery. His imagery set to music was catching on. The Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth recognized him for his western-themed videos. December and January were spent along the 411 mile route between Austin and the High Plains town of Littlefield, Texas, home of Waylon Jennings and home of Waymore’s Drive-Thru Liquor Store and Museum, run by James Jennings, Waylon’s brother. Charley Crockett was filming his first full-length movie.

When I was playing on the street in New Orleans, the best gig that I could imagine myself getting was the 4 p.m. gig at the Apple Barrel.

The day before our visit, Charley had been in New Orleans at Esplanade Studios recording those Link Wray tracks that turned into his first Amazon exclusive (all rights reverted back to him at the first of the year, he pointed out proudly. )

While in the Big Easy, Charley also dropped by the Apple Barrel on Frenchmen Street. “When I was playing on the street in New Orleans, the best gig that I could imagine myself getting was the 4 p.m. gig at the Apple Barrel,” he said. “I thought that that was the cream of the crop. [New Orleans hoodoo blues guitarist] Coco Robicheaux, he died in that bar.

“He died sitting in the bar stool right about where I was sitting when the bartender was telling me, ‘The last thing [Coco] said was the next round’s on me.’ That bartender made a funny joke.

“He said, ‘That’s the first round that was ever on him.’ ”

Charley was recognized at the Apple Barrel and recognized on the streets of New Orleans, where he’s known as a blues singer. He’s still a NOLA local, just like he’s a Dallas local and an Austin local. But on a global scale, he’s a Cowboy Singer now.

Was he getting recognized a lot?

“Everywhere,” he said flatly.

Is it a hassle?

“It can be,” he admitted in a plaintive voice before catching himself and straightening up. “Hey man, we signed up for this.”

Yep, the Cowboy Singer sure did.


Charley Crockett’s album $10 Cowboy comes out in April. Find out more at charleycrockett.com.
From our April 2024 issue.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy Jackie Lee Young

Continue Reading

Charley Crockett on the Westerns That Influenced Him – Cowboys & Indians magazine

https://www.cowboysindians.com/2024/03/charley-crockett-on-westerns/

BY Joe Nick Patoski

Rising country star Charley Crockett talks Yellowstone, Johnny Cash, and the westerns that influenced him.

Continue Reading

Terry Allen, Truckload of Art by Brendan Greaves

on TexasHighways online https://texashighways.com/culture/a-new-book-details-the-life-of-terry-allen-and-his-truckload-of-art/

Terry Allen at Arlyn Studios in Austin in May 2019. Photo by Barbara FG

Maybe you’ve seen Terry Allen’s work.

His sculpture Caw Caw Blues, which contains the ashes of his friend Guy Clark, stands sentinel at the entrance of The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos. Countree Music, a 25-foot bronze cast of an oak tree and a map on the terrazzo floor depicting Houston as the center of the world, accompanied by music, is planted in Terminal A near Gate 17 of Bush International Airport in Houston. Passengers entering security gate D30 in Terminal D at DFW International pass under a 30-foot bronze wishbone titled Wish. A life-size statue of CB Stubblefield of Stubb’s BBQ fame stands on the site of his first restaurant on East Broadway in Lubbock. Nestled in the palmetto palm thicket outside The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria on the banks of Lake Austin is Road Angel, a bronze cast of a 1953 Chevy coupe, the car Allen drove as a teenager, accompanied by more than a hundred audio soundbites (including one of mine), that was permanently installed in 2016.

 

More likely, you’ve heard Allen’s work.

His song “Amarillo Highway,” about a “Panhandlin’ man-handlin’ post-holin’ Dust bowlin’ Daddy” is a much-covered Texas country classic. The churning “New Delhi Freight Train” was first recorded by the rock band Little Feat. At 80, he’s still out there performing with his Panhandle Mystery Band which includes family and friends, among them son Bukka Allen, pedal steel maestro Lloyd Maines, guitarist Charlie Sexton, and fiddler Richard Bowden— often in conjunction with an art opening.

You may have even seen Allen without realizing it. He and his wife Jo Harvey Allen play Oklahoma couple Aunt Annie and Uncle Jim in the Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon.

He’s been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and is in the West Texas Walk of Fame by the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock. Texas Tech is finalizing plans for the Terry and Jo Harvey Allen Center for Creative Studies.

Call him what you want: the patriarch of Lubbock creatives, the greatest living visual artist from Texas, the other Texas music godfather besides Willie, the storyteller of the American West. It’s all pretty much true.

In 2016, Allen created Road Angel which can be seen at The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria. Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons/courtesy of The Contemporary Austin

 

Now comes Truckload of Art, a 500-page biography by Brendan Greaves, to explain it all.

The first Terry Allen art I ever saw made me laugh out loud. The Paradise was a stark diorama of three spaces, the primary space—a parking lot—bathed in red light with the word “Paradise” in pale blue neon script on the back wall as the centerpiece. Directly below is a planter with three measly cacti, two plastic palms, a car tire, and a pair of plastic flamingos. Flanking the planter were doors marked Lounge and Motel in red neon. Beyond the vinyl-covered doors was a motel room with shag carpeting and a honky-tonk bar space with a jukebox. Paradise was part of The Great American Rodeo Show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 1976. Eleven artists were given a year to develop a rodeo-inspired piece. Allen paid homage to the kind of spaces where a real rodeo cowboy would feel at home.

The first Terry Allen music I really paid attention to was the 1979 album Lubbock (on everything), marking the artist-musician’s return to his hometown to collaborate with a new iteration of Lubbock music makers, among them singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who was two classes behind Allen at Monterey High. “I always knew I was destined to write songs,” Gilmore told me recently. “But I thought you had to be really old to be a songwriter. Terry was the first person I saw perform original music. He sang ‘Red Bird’ while playing piano one day at Monterey. That really inspired me.”

Allen and Jo Harvey had been living in Fresno, California, when he came back to make Lubbock (on everything). He instantly became the Don of the Lubbock Mafia of music maker. The Allens eventually moved back—sort of—settling some years later in close-enough Santa Fe.

It’s hard to ignore the tall polymath with stooped shoulders, the piercing eyes of a hawk, and a wide rubbery mouth that can hardly contain his unapologetic flatland twang. Art and music are the same coin, as far as he’s concerned, means to tell stories, which he is very good at doing, in many different ways. He’s so prolific, and so driven to create, he demands to be heard.

Greaves is founder and owner of Paradise of Bachelors Records in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has reissued Allen’s older recordings and released his most recent albums 2013’s Bottom of the World and Just Like Moby Dick in 2020. Greaves, a self-described “lapsed art worker,” met Allen through the gallery where he worked. He’s collaborated on several projects with Allen and received a Grammy nomination for his liner notes, but taking on the monumental task of telling a very dense story while explaining the dual worlds of art and music, working off journals Allen has kept since junior high, was a whole other deal.

Allen’s father, Sled, a former minor baseball player who promoted wrestling and music events in West Texas, including Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, who Terry met on one of the six times he played Lubbock in 1955-56, long before most of the world knew who Elvis was. His mother, Pauline, a onetime professional piano player and full-time alcoholic, was 18 years younger than her husband. The biography shows how both inform Allen’s love of performance, his skill at promotion and showmanship, but most of all, his creative drive, providing the inspiration for his DUGOUT series of works.

Allen got his art education at Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles. One professor brought visiting Dadaists and surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington to lecture. The surrealist Man Ray often stopped by the school to talk to students about the life of an artist. Allen was hooked.

Concurrent with his Chouinard schooling was his pursuit of music. The first song he ever wrote “Red Bird” scored him an appearance on the music television series Shindig! in 1965, generating enthusiasm from Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles.

In 1969, he wrote “Truckload of Art,” a song about a real truckload of art from New York destined for Los Angeles to show the upstart West Coast artists how art was supposed to be done, that crashed on the highway. Two years later, a snippet could be heard coming out of the radio of Warren Oates’ GTO in Two-Lane Blacktop, an arty feature film about street racers on a road trip across the southwest.

After graduating from Chouinard in 1966, he began teaching there and followed by teaching gigs at UC-Berkeley and Cal State Fresno.

Truckload of Art focuses on relationships, beginning with Allen’s partner in crime and marriage, the toothsome Jo Harvey. Theirs has been a tempestuous, sometimes competitive coupling while he chased myriad muses and she pursued her career as an actor, playwright, poet, radio producer, and songwriter—whenever they weren’t working together. He thought she should perform only original pieces she created. She enjoyed working in film.

Also documented is Allen’s long friendship with Dave Hickey, the acerbic writer, dealer, curator, and university professor from Fort Worth who opened A Clean, Well-Lighted Place gallery in Austin in 1967, and became the most incisive art critic of his time. Like Allen, Hickey wrote country songs, too.

Allen’s Corporate Head outside the Citicorp Plaza in Los Angeles. Photo by William Nettles

I’m not schooled enough to pass judgement on the art beyond my immediate reaction, and Allen usually makes me laugh. That was the immediate response when I saw Corporate Head, the life-size bronze of a businessman burying his head in the wall of a Los Angeles office building. The publication Atlas Obscura describes the work as “almost whimsical, yet rather grotesque.”

Sometimes the work has an edge too sharp to appreciate. That speaks to Allen’s interest in Antonin Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty, which strived to “shock the audience.” Allen was drawn to Artaud’s 1937 travelogue A Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara about time spent in Mexico among the Tarahumara people experimenting with peyote. His curiosity led to staging his own play about Artaud Ghost Ship Rodez in Lyon, France.

The downs are as interesting as the ups. Juarez, the first of 13 albums he’s recorded, failed to launch as a Broadway musical, despite his collaboration with David Byrne, best-known as the lead singer of the band Talking Heads. The run of the 1994 theatrical play Chippy: The Diary of a West Texas Hooker, co-written with Jo Harvey for the American Music Theater Festival, turned out to be brief, but yielded the song “Fate with a Capital F” cowritten with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, which remains one of my favorite Allen songs.

Some sweet bits pass by too quickly, such as Byrne’s bewilderment participating in a guitar pull with Allen and friends, and Allen’s dust-up with Tommy Lee Jones over verisimilitude. And I would have enjoyed eavesdropping on Hickey and Allen debating art.

It’s the little things that impress. Allen played in a band in high school with David Box, the teen chosen to replace Buddy Holly in the Crickets after Holly’s death in a plane crash in 1959, only for Box to die years later in a plane crash. In 1972, he played the Dripping Springs Reunion, the precursor of Willie Nelson’s Picnics, thanks to a Dave Hickey booking. Even Andy Warhol and the Manson Family make cameos. He’s been everywhere—Cambodia, France, London, Mexico, and India, telling stories every which way. And he took notes.

With Greaves’ help, Allen tells his most compelling story yet, the story of his creative life.

Continue Reading

Fort Worth’s Caravan Of Dreams

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/remembering-fort-worths-caravan-of-dreams/

 

Performers for “Kabuki Blues,” an original drama created at Caravan of Dreams. Photo by Courtney Carroll

Forty years ago, a most unusual performance and arts space opened its doors in downtown Fort Worth. A two-story brick building on Houston Street built in the 1880s was repurposed into a music venue featuring jazz and blues, a record label and production company, a theater with its own touring ensemble, dance studio, art gallery, and a restaurant, topped by a rooftop cactus garden, grotto bar, and a geodesic dome.

The Caravan of Dreams was avant-garde, experimental, quirky, exotic, or the work of a cult, depending who you asked, and quite the anomaly—as if Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership had landed in the heart of Cowtown.

Music historian William Williams, who has been documenting music in North Texas for decades, still can’t get over the Caravan and its 18-year run as the coolest performing arts center in Texas. He decided to try and explain it all in Caravan from Dreamland: When Cowtown Conjured a New Frontier, a three-volume history, complete with hundreds of images, told through accounts of participants, staff, patrons, and fans, along with advertisements and news accounts.

“It’s a poignant story,” he said. “They did some amazing things, then it started to fade. And here I am sifting through the ashes.”

 

The idea for the performing arts space was hatched by Fort Worth’s Ed Bass—one of the four billionaire Bass brothers and nephew to Texas oil billionaire Sid W. Richardson. He created the group with ecologist John P. Allen and artist Kathelin Hoffman of the Synergia Ranch, an “ecovillage” commune of academics, artists, and scientists in New Mexico who were involved in ecological projects around the world.

Bass fell in with the Synergia Ranch folks in 1973 through a construction project in New Mexico and ended up joining The Theater of All Possibilities performing troupe. He funded Synergia projects around the globe, including an art gallery in London, a cattle ranch in Australia, and a hotel with a library and cultural center in Kathmandu. The collaboration helped fulfill Synergia’s mission to fuse together arts, sciences, and enterprise. “They were one of the more successful communes to come out of New Mexico, where there was a huge concentration of New Age communities,” Williams said.

After years of traveling with Synergia and the Theater of All Possibilities throughout the 1970s, Bass returned home, ready to breathe life into Fort Worth’s nonexistent nightlife. He opened the Caravan’s doors on Sept. 29, 1983. Fort Worth had never seen anything like it before, and nothing like it has come along since.

The Caravan of Dreams in downtown Fort Worth. Photo by Juan Trahan

The venue’s name was inspired by a couplet written by Bahaudin, the Sufi mystic: “Here we are, all of us: in a dream-caravan. A caravan, but a dream—a dream, but a caravan. And we know which are the dreams.”

The opening featured experimental jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, a native son returned to the hometown he long ago left behind, to debut his original composition Skies of America with the Fort Worth Symphony. After the performance, Coleman’s group Prime Time played the club over the opening weekend.

“Are they cultural pioneers, or rich folks or crazy people?” Diane Werts of the Dallas Morning News mused in an article about the opening. “Actually—delightfully—a little bit of all three.”

For the next eight years, a dream lineup of jazz and blues greats graced the Caravan’s music stage, among them Eartha Kitt, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Wynton Marsalis, Sun Ra, Hugh Masekela, and Herbie Hancock. The venue also hosted hometown acts the Juke Jumpers, Johnny Reno, Robert Ealey, and T-Bone Burnett, and a hot new guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“People of all cultures and backgrounds showed up and had a good time,” wrote Fort Worth journalist Bob Ray Sanders. “It was a mecca for creative exchange that was broader than music, because there was poetry and film and theater. It was a cultural thing that was going on here.” Fans even drove over from Dallas, locals marveled, including professional athletes from the Dallas Cowboys and the Dallas Mavericks.

Born in Waco, the late American jazz musician and composer Roy Hargrove won two Grammy Awards. Photo by Juan Trahan

Psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, Beat Generation writer William Burroughs, anthropologist Jane Goodall, poet Yevengy Yevtushenko and John Allen/Dolphin delivered lectures and spoken word performances at the Caravan. Dance companies graced the theater stage. The Jubilee Theater’s performance of “Negroes in Space” drew record crowds, a big deal in the once-segregated city.

Eight years in, the variety of talent presented in the performing space broadened. Lyle Lovett, a Texas singer-songwriter-bandleader whose music was neither jazz nor blues, sold out five consecutive shows. Jerry Thompson, a principle in the Dallas Alley bar mall concept who had been hired as Caravan’s president, launched a six-month remodel that expanded capacity of the music room, while presenting rock bands like Little Feat and Los Lobos and singer-songwriters such as Lucinda Williams, in addition to featuring jazz, soul, and blues artists

Thompson’s eye was on the bottom line, a novel concept at the Caravan. Operations became more efficient. “Some of the Synergists on the waitstaff weren’t specifically trained or experienced in those positions,” Williams allowed. But the Synergia people had moved on.

In 2001, the Caravan closed for good with a final performance by the nuclear polka band from Denton, Brave Combo. The Synergia folks were moving on to a bigger project, Biosphere II in Arizona, an experimental three-acre closed ecological system in which eight people would live that Bass helped underwrite. Bass shifted his Fort Worth focus to the Will Rogers complex on the west side, overseeing new facilities for national cutting horse competitions and the construction of the Dickies Arena, as well as riding in the city’s annual rodeo parade. A new tenant, the Reata Steakhouse, was moving in to the Caravan space.

As much as Bass and Synergia play major roles in the Caravan, it’s the other stories that make this history come alive. Marjorie Crenshaw, president of the FW Jazz Society, and the superfan Marie Holliday, are profiled in Williams’ work.  So is artist and mask maker Leticia Eldridge, who speaks as a Caravan insider who wasn’t part of the Synergia group. The creations of the rooftop cactus garden, and the jazz and dance murals in the building are detailed.

The section recognizing I.M. Terrell High School band director G.A. Baxter and the future jazz greats he educated at the segregated school including Ornette Coleman, King Curtis, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Prince Lasha, Dewey Redman, and Cornell Dupree is enlightening, important scholarship. Several of these same players reunited to perform at the Caravan together.

Fort Worth native and performer Letitia Eldridge acts on stage with a masked singer. Photo courtesy William Williams

The Caravan of Dreams has been gone longer than its run lasted. Ed and Sasha Bass operate the Caravan of Dreams gallery downtown, using the original logo of the performing arts center. Downtown is a little quieter after dark. The action that once swirled around Sundance Square has moved to the Stockyards district.

Williams’ Caravan project stands as a reminder of what once was. “Everything under the sun has a time-stamped expiration date on it, even a performing arts center,” he says. “The decline and end is as important as the ascendent energy. You have to see it in its totality.“

Caravan from Dreamland: When Cowtown Conjured a New Frontier is available to download for free at Williams’ nonprofit Metro Music Project website.

Continue Reading

That Mexican OT and Johnny Dang

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/nothing-beat-the-heat-like-that-mexican-ots-johnny-dang/ 

It may not be Spotify’s most-streamed song of the summer (that would be Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night”), but “Johnny Dang” by That Mexican OT wins my vote for the Texas Song of the Summer 2023.

The catchy rap tune gained traction in May when a snippet went viral on TikTok, due in no small part to the charismatic artist doing his rap while nonchalantly cradling a rooster in one arm. (Hey, if Tyler the Creator can cradle a cockroach, why not a chicken?) With that social media boost, the single charted seven weeks in a row on the Billboard Hot 100; meanwhile, the video has racked up more than 21 million views on YouTube, with 25 million global on-demand streams per week via Luminate. Plus, “Johnny Dang” has inspired over 65,000 video creations to the song on TikTok.

 

 

What’s the appeal? You can start with the real-life person behind the song’s title. Johnny Dang is a Vietnamese-born, Houston-based jeweler who’s known as the King of Bling for his gem-encrusted grillz that range in price from $250 for a single gold vampire fang to $20,000 for deluxe Carre-cut diamond teeth sets. He creates these and other custom-designed pieces for high-rolling rappers and hip-hop artists, sports figures, and other celebrities.

 

 

As for the song’s creator, That Mexican OT (the OT meaning “Outta Texas”) is the stage name of 24-year-old Virgil Rene Gazca. Raised in Bay City, he brings a distinctive Tex-Mex flavor to the rap game with his effortless rolling-“r” trills and cool vaquero style (think straw cowboy hat, boots, and a big, bedazzled belt buckle).

Rapping since age 4, Gazca displays his talent with a masterful flow and dexterity. The bouncy cadence of his wordplay is complemented by a similar light and bouncy musical bed.

On “Johnny Dang,” he’s joined by two guest rappers, his buddy DRODi from Freeport and veteran Houston rapper Paul Wall, whose scattershot punctuated flow provides a distinctive counterpart to Gazca’s style. Wall, who suggested Johnny Dang appear in the song’s video, began collaborating on grillz designs with Dang back in the late 1990s, and that relationship extends to an annual backpack giveaway for school kids at Johnny Dang & Co. every August.

In the video, Dang appears as himself, showing off his own grillz and enormous diamond-encrusted chain while pouring himself a glass from a bottle of brandy. It’s been a fast ride for the Vietnam immigrant, who arrived in Houston in 1996 at the age of 23 and found work doing jewelry in a flea market with his already-settled cousin.

As for the lyrics, do a search online and you’ll find the song described by fans as everything from a “trap anthem about living life to the fullest” to “a celebration of the lavish lifestyle that comes with wealth, status, and reputation.” It contains the usual motifs you’d find in a gangsta rap song (drugs, violence, Louis Vuitton), with some Texas thrown in (“Pop trunk on a hater while we waving goodbye / I’m from Lonestar sipping lean with pecan pie”). The whole South Texas-Mexicano aesthetic is something new and completely different in rap—and as refreshing as a cold bottle of the National Beer of Texas on a hot summer day.

It’s a puro H-Town multicultural setup, too: a song featuring a very successful immigrant from Vietnam performed in the Black vernacular of rap by a Tejano from the boonies (no slight on Bay City; Gazca himself refers to his hometown Bay City as “Dirty Bay,” a place so country that the nearest mall was in Lake Jackson, where Selena Quintanilla grew up).

Gazca is modest about his breakthrough hit. “It was literally another song out of my head, nothing special,” he says, adding, “It’s become Johnny Dang’s theme song. He went to Florida to see [boxer Floyd] Mayweather and they were playing it. He’ll go to smoke shops in Vegas and they’re playing it. He loves it.”

Embracing the cholo vaquero street vibe throughout his new album, Lone Star Luchador, which came out in July and includes “Johnny Dang,” Gazca appears on the illustrated cover as a lucha libre wrestler, masked up and ready to battle in the wrestling ring. He carries the theme over into videos as well. But he’s no one-trick pony when it comes to his music. “I come at you with rock, I come at you with country, I come at you with jazz,” he says. “Mariachis are part of the game plan. My people, they love it…They been waiting for me, cuz.”

At this pace, That Mexican OT can add his name to a growing list of great rappers—Megan the Stallion, Travis Scott, Bun B, etc.—from the Lone Star State. And fans can expect more great summer songs.

Continue Reading

Mack McCormack, song hunter

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/on-the-hunt-for-mack-mccormick-a-houstonian-and-folklorist-who-loved-texas-blues/

Mack McCormick (right) photographed with drummer Spider Kilpatrick. Photo courtesy National Museum of History Archives Center, Robert Mack McCormick Collection, 1485, Box 10, Folder Photographs of Mack McCormick, modern, 1960-1998, undated

The first time I saw Mack McCormick’s name, it was attached to the liner notes on the back of the first albums issued by Arhoolie Records, the storied American folk music label founded by Chris Strachwitz. At the time, I didn’t know McCormick had led the Polish-born music enthusiast, who passed away earlier this year, to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Clifton Chenier—Arhoolie’s core artists—before falling out with him. The break was a familiar pattern for Mack McCormick, as I came to learn.

Eight years after his death in 2015 at the age of 85, the self-taught music folklorist and field researcher from Houston is finally having his moment. The Smithsonian Institution has recognized Robert “Mack” McCormick with a book, an exhibit, and, coming Aug. 4, a box set of 66 field recordings he made that are nothing less than the most comprehensive collection of Texas blues music ever assembled.

McCormick was a high school dropout who held a series of odd jobs to underwrite his passion—collecting, recording, and writing about music from what he called “Greater Texas,” East Texas and surrounding states extending back to Mississippi. He was particularly fond of African American blues. From the 1950s through the 1970s, he traveled throughout Texas and the South searching the places where early recording artists and their music originated and seeking out the music makers and people who knew them. For McCormick, it was all about the hunt for music and information, which he rarely shared, even while he dealt with personal issues including anger and isolation and clinically diagnosed manic depression.

As a field researcher chasing music, McCormick was directly influenced by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, the trailblazing song hunters and music folklorists who were also from Texas. Lomax’s eldest son, John Avery Lomax Jr., and McCormick were both involved with the Houston Folklore & Music Society, founded in 1951, which nurtured the careers of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, and Guy Clark.

Unlike the Lomaxes, who were tied to academia and the Library of Congress, McCormick was an amateur obsessive. To support his habit, he drove taxis and worked for the U.S. Census Bureau in Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1960, just so he could learn more about barrelhouse pianists in the neighborhood. In addition, he did contract work for the Smithsonian in the late 1960s and early ’70s, scouting the South for talented musicians to perform at the institution’s summer music festival.

Mance Lipscomb with his family, photographed by Mack McCormick. National Museum of History Archives Center, Robert Mack McCormick Collection, 1485, Box 20, Folder 17, Outsize photos, Texas Blues, undated

Of all the musicians McCormick studied, none captured his attention more than Robert Johnson. In May, the Smithsonian published McCormick’s much-anticipated Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey about the influential Mississippi Delta blues guitarist and singer who once recorded 42 songs at sessions at the Gunther Hotel in San Antonio in 1936 and the Warner Brothers/Vitagraph building in Dallas in 1937 before dying in 1938, allegedly under shady circumstances. He would become a major influence on Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and other British rock guitarists of the 1960s, and one of most mysterious figures in blues music.

Twenty years after Johnson’s death, McCormick started chasing Johnson’s ghost. Studying phone books and maps and making cold calls, he drove all over Mississippi following leads, visiting neighborhoods, asking around. McCormick’s manuscript about his quest was first finished in the early 1970s, but he continued making revisions without ever publishing it. After McCormick’s death, John W. Troutman, curator of music and musical instruments at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, edited the manuscript and wrote the book’s detailed preface and afterword.

Here’s my suggestion to truly appreciate Biography of a Phantom: Skip Troutman’s commentary until later, forget you’ve ever heard anything about McCormick, and dive in.

It’s a fun ride, part detective mystery, part anthropological travelogue. McCormick’s research methodology may seem quaint and dated, but it led to opportunities for direct contact: He speaks with relatives and friends who knew Johnson very well—and under another name. As the hunt progresses, McCormick’s appreciation of the secondary characters as real people changes, and he understands the artist more in the context of the community he lived in, culminating in a vivid scene in 1970 in a Mississippi Delta shotgun shack, where the music so familiar to his friends and family is played back to them on recordings.

John A. Lomax’s Adventure of a Ballad Hunter is the template for all books about collecting music. Other books, such as Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches and Do Not Sell at Any Price by Amanda Petrusch, do deeper dives into that obsessive world, but Biography of a Phantom hits the sweetest spot. It shines the light on the music chase at a time when scores of collectors were fanning out to the countryside trying to find out about a blues song’s origins or a recording artist’s roots.

McCormick’s friend Roger Wood, author of the books Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues and Texas Zydeco, says the published manuscript reminded him of John Graves’s Goodbye To A River. “[I]t takes the reader on a very personal trip with the narrator, who intertwines history and immediate experience, prior knowledge, and discovery, to communicate how a place, a culture, has changed over time (and will change more in the future),” he tells me in an email exchange. “I see/appreciate this book as great writing, the most fully articulated presentation of Mack’s narrative voice and capacity for engaging his audience.”

Wood adds, however, that McCormick would have hated it. “Mack would likely be furious about myriad details and developments with this [or any] publication beyond his control and the process that led to it,” Wood says. “He would likely threaten lawsuits, claim victimhood, add several new names to his enemies list, etc. Even if he had consented to whatever transpired, he would likely be furious, if not immediately, eventually—after he had taken time to sprout and nurture grievances. That was Mack.”

With fury and resentment no longer impediments, the story that finally has come out stands on its own merits. It’s a quest that anyone who has loved a particular song or artist can relate to. For blues researchers and scholars, this is as deep as the hunt for music ever gets.

When doing his field research a half century ago, McCormick knew he would draw scrutiny of white law enforcement and Black community leaders, but he jumped the color line nonetheless, a brazen act at the time. A Black researcher chasing white music could not have done the same. This reality is addressed in Treasures and Trouble: Looking Inside a Legendary Blues Archive, the exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of History opened in June in Washington D.C.

For Texans unable to travel to the nation’s capital, the exhibition showcases artifacts from “The Monster,” McCormick’s nickname for his massive collection of work, along with a reexamination of the process of gathering and preserving music. There is a focus on the patriarchal dynamic of a white man documenting a Black man’s history in the Jim Crow segregated South, and a frank assessment of McCormick’s myriad issues, which included grifting and hoarding.

McCormick persuaded Johnson’s siblings and heirs to share photographs and stories and sign agreements to share in profits from his estate, but he did not return materials to the relatives, as letters in the exhibit document. A Memphis producer named Steve LaVere subsequently secured an agreement from Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson that effectively undercut McCormick. He wasn’t the only music hound chasing Johnson’s ghost, and the realization that he might not be able to capitalize on his quest might have contributed to McCormick’s fragile mental state.

McCormick preserved critically important music and information about African American musicians in the early and midcentury, and how he went about it is rightfully called into question. Certainly, what he did then is not what someone could do today. Then again, what they were chasing no longer exists.

Finally, there’s the music. On Aug. 4, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings releases Playing For the Man At Door, a 66-song box set of field recordings made by McCormick between the 1950s and ’70s, along with 128-page liner notes that include essays from producers Jeff Place and John W. Troutman on McCormick’s life, the musician’s daughter Susannah Nix on growing up with the massive collection, and musicians and scholars Mark Puryear and Dom Flemons on the marginalized communities to which McCormick devoted his life’s work.

Any controversy about McCormick vanishes when listening to these songs. The field recordings are McCormick at his obsessive best—on the street, being so bold as to request someone perform for his recorder (a request usually fulfilled), taking notes, occasionally interjecting a question, trying to capture the moment, in living rooms, porches, backyards, bars, and even prisons.

There are some familiar names. The storytelling preceding songs like Mance Lipscomb’s version of “Tall Angel at the Bar,” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ duet with Long Gone Miles, “Natural Born Lover,” is priceless. But most of the performers of these recordings were neither famous nor notorious outside their communities. I got to know some of the lesser-known characters, including barrelhouse pianist Robert Shaw, the ethereal Gray Ghost, and drummer-rapper Bongo Joe Coleman (what may be his first recordings). Performing live in person, each comes off as an original.

Revelations abound. “Quills” by Joe Patterson features one of the last players in Texas skilled in blowing handmade quills, or pan pipes made of cane, a talent famously articulated by Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas from Big Sandy in the 1920s, who McCormick also extensively studied. “St. James Infirmary” by Dudley Alexander and Washboard Band, sung in English and French, is a stellar example of Creole music that predates zydeco.

Mack McCormick leaves behind a dilemma. He was a terribly flawed individual. He obsessively guarded what he knew. He became paranoid his research would be stolen. In other words, McCormick consigned himself to death before the rest of the world could learn what he knew.

The world that McCormick dove into so zealously is gone.

What is left is all that McCormick learned about Texas blues and roots musicians, particularly African Americans. That work was both critical and monumental. Now that that knowledge is accessible, recognition of what he did is something to celebrate, nevermind the baggage of the tortured life that came with it.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 29