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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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Behold the Bounty of the Blanco, Texas Highways magazine

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/behold-the-bounty-of-the-blanco/

The July 2021 cover of Texas Highways Magazine, "Hill Country Oasis"

Behold the Bounty of the Blanco

The splendid and fragile beauty

of the Hill Country’s keystone river

 

Rivers in Texas run the gamut from bucolic babbling brooks to churning whitewater, from rocky dry channels to wide and muddy waterways. The Blanco River, which winds 87 miles through the eastern Hill Country, stands out for exhibiting all of those characteristics at one time or another. I should know. The Blanco is my river.

Twenty-eight years ago, our family moved to Wimberley to be near the Blanco. I’d been hooked on swimming at Barton Springs, Austin’s 68-degree spring-fed swimming pool. When it was time to move, we decided to jump ahead of the inevitable suburban sprawl while looking for another spring-fed place to swim.

I was sold on the house my wife had found the minute we drove over the Blanco on Bendigo Crossing, a low-water bridge also known as the Slime Bridge. Upstream, people were splashing around in the clear water, their laughs punctuated by shrieks of pure joy. Marco! Polo! Bright shafts of late afternoon sunlight shot through the branches of tall cypress trees hovering above the riverbank. Never mind what the house looked like.

An overhead view of the wide blue Blanco river with boats in the middle and trees on the side

Kayaking the Blanco near Wimberley
A watercolor illustration showing a map of the Blanco and San Marcos rivers between Austin and San Antonio

The vintage ’70s ranch-style home needed some love and care, but it would do just fine: It was a half-mile from the Blanco and gave us river access through a property owners’ park.

The first time I jumped in the Blanco, I was taken aback. The water tasted clean. The visibility underwater didn’t compare to Barton Springs’ clarity—the suspended limestone sediment in the Blanco clouds the water and gives the river its name, which translates to White River. But it tasted clean. Smelled clean too.

From April through October, I swim in the Blanco. It is one of the greatest pleasures I know. It’s a pleasure I share with growing crowds of both locals and visitors who converge on the river’s cypress-lined banks at places like Blanco State Park in Blanco; Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek, a tributary of the Blanco in Wimberley; and Five Mile Dam Park, a 34-acre Hays County park at the lower end of the river near San Marcos. On summer weekends, the parks routinely fill to capacity.

The crowds have grown as suburban sprawl has infiltrated Hays County. The county’s population grew nearly 50% from 2010 to 2019, making it the nation’s second fastest-growing county, according to the U.S. Census.

“The Blanco has always been a hidden gem with little access, fiercely hoarded and protected,” says Ryan McGillicuddy, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department conservation biologist who advises landowners on land management. “But the Hill Country continues to become carved up, and whether landowners like it or not, more people are coming to the river.”

Over the past year and a half of COVID-19, I’ve gotten to know my particular stretch of the Blanco even better. Swimming in the river almost every warm day has been a saving grace. Fallow season walks have opened my eyes to the subtle shift of the seasons. The bird and bat migrations, I now realize, aren’t a twice-a-year migration, but rather a constant, steady symphony of movement throughout the year.

When the wind kicks up, you can’t see the Blanco’s bottom for the chop. When the flow is high and fast following a flood, there’s enough whitewater to haul out the kayak, and as soon as the muddy current clears up, go paddling. The river is never the same. And no matter how stressed out it might appear to get, it always comes back. The Blanco has never let me down. The question is: Can we hold up our end of the bargain?

A lone kayaker paddles under green trees and blue sky

A young woman in swim goggles stands on a wooden dock on the edge of the blue Blanco river water

Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek in Wimberley

The Blanco—locally pronounced “Blank-o,” rather than the Spanish “Blahn-ko”—is the bellwether river of the Hill Country. It’s notorious for its frequent flash floods, treasured for its semi-pristine water quality and quantity, and fretted over because of threats posed by rapid population growth. While human development encroaches the river now, it wasn’t always this way. Few written accounts exist of early European explorers in Texas visiting the Blanco. The topography was too rugged, and the river valley too defended by Native Americans, particularly Lipan Apache and Comanche, who were hostile to incursions by outsiders.

The Blanco begins as a cluster of springs in Kendall County, running shallow as it enters Blanco County and growing as it courses beyond the town of Blanco into the Wimberley Valley and Hays County. It joins the San Marcos River just downstream of the city of San Marcos. Along the way, the Blanco traverses a landscape of cliffs, steppes, canyons, tributaries, waterfalls, springs, and rapids.

The Blanco River bottom is mostly hard limestone and absent natural vegetation. Its water quality remains close to unsullied. On numerous occasions, people have told me the Blanco is the second-cleanest river in Texas. The Devils, the Frio, and the upper Nueces rivers have all been cited as the cleanest, depending on whom you’re talking to. As the self-declared “King of Texas Swimming Holes,” I’ve swum in all of these, and written about them in these pages, including stories about the Frio in 2019 and the Nueces in 2020. I’m not sure which is the cleanest, but they’re all less polluted than other rivers in the state. The Blanco is hardly pristine, though. More than 100 dams and low-water crossings span the river, according to the Nature Conservancy of Texas. Riverbank and riparian habitat are increasingly fragmented as ranches are cut into subdivisions.

I’ve lived by the river long enough to see the Blanco go hog wild on uncontrolled rampages, swallowing trucks and trees, and killing livestock and people—most notably during the destructive and deadly Memorial Day flood of 2015. There’s a reason the Blanco is the heart of what’s known as “Flash Flood Alley.” During extended droughts, and practically almost every August, I’ve watched the river slow to a trickle. My rule of thumb is the earlier in the summer, the better the swimming—as long as the spring and summer rains come. Late in the summer, if it’s been dry and there’s no apparent flow, I’ll skip my swim and go back to the house wondering if I’ll outlive the river, what with all these external pressures it faces, most of them human-related. Is the Blanco a relict, a river at the end of its run? With the local climate trending drier and hotter, is the Blanco destined to be a huge dry wash of bleached rubble, like the thousands of once-upon-a-time drainages threading through the Big Bend and the Chihuahuan Desert farther west?

The Blanco is that delicate—and that marvelous.

Bright green ferns grow along the banks of the Blanco River

Proper Respects

Responsible River Recreation

The Blanco has the reputation of being a fenced-off, no-access river. Even today, trespassers can still have a gun pulled on them if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Respect “No Trespassing” signs and purple paint markers on fences, trees, posts, and walls. (A Texas law passed in 1997 allows landowners to use purple paint in lieu of “No Trespassing” signs, with the same consequences.) Ignoring those warnings can lead to being arrested, jailed, and/or fined, which can pretty much ruin your river experience. Don’t fret. There are numerous parks where the public can access the Blanco River for swimming (see below). Always be mindful of the local environment and practice “leave no trace” principles, such as proper trash disposal, respecting wildlife, and not collecting what you find, including rocks, plants, and arrowheads.

Above: A fern grotto on the Blanco near Wimberley

A man in a gray shirt stands on a rock above bright blue water

David Baker at Jacob’s Well

 

David Baker came to the Wimberley Valley in 1988 and bought property on Mount Sharp Road that included a piece of Jacob’s Well. Here he started the Dancing Waters Inn.

If there is a steward of the Blanco watershed, it’s Baker. If you’ve seen Jacob’s Well, you’ll understand.

Located about 5 miles from Wimberley, the deep, heart-shaped underwater cave is the source of Cypress Creek. The well begins as a crack on the limestone surface before tunneling deep into Trinity Aquifer. The mouth of the cave makes an incredible swimming hole, and the sweet sensation of diving off the rocks into the hole’s cold, clear water is a rare thrill, even among other spring-fed pools.

Baker founded the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association and led the campaign for Hays County to purchase the well and its surroundings, replacing a trailer park and tennis courts with an educational and research center.

“My first impetus was to erect a fence and keep people out,” Baker says. “But thinking long term, if we don’t share these special places with people, they won’t care if they’re destroyed. They won’t know. We’ve got to do better connecting the community to these local resources.”

As the protections increase, so have the external challenges. Baker was involved in the successful four-year fight to stop a private company’s plans to pump and ship groundwater out of the county, which was finally resolved earlier this year. In 2019, working with Hays County and other interested parties, Baker helped stop the City of Blanco’s discharge of 1.6 million gallons daily of treated wastewater into the river. The treated water triggered algae blooms on the Blanco that extended far downstream. The town is now using the wastewater to irrigate alfalfa fields.

“These are some of the few clean rivers left in Texas, and even the most thoroughly treated wastewater contributes to their degradation,” Baker says.

It’s a race between conservation awareness and unfettered development in a booming region. In 2000, Jacob’s Well, which provides about 10% to 20% of the Blanco River’s baseflow via Cypress Creek, stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history. In 2008 and 2009, due to drought and groundwater pumping, the well stopped flowing again, and then again in 2011, 2013, and January of this year.

Despite these threats, Baker is an optimist. Last November, 70% of Hays County voters approved a $75 million parks bond for the county to secure land to protect natural resources and increase river access. And Jacob’s Well, he likes to point out, has become an economic engine through tourism. In recent years, overnight lodging has contributed $70 million annually to the economy in Wimberley.

“Last year, 35,000 visitors from 28 different countries came and visited the well. Twice that many visited Blue Hole,” Baker says. “When people see this, they begin to understand how this all fits together.”

Groups of people sit under tents or in the sun along the banks of a blue-green river

Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

I’ve grown to appreciate the Blanco’s nuances. Some mornings the surface is smooth as glass, sunlight painting shadowy ribbons on the rock bottom. Other mornings, wind ripples the surface, the wavelets sparkling like shimmering diamonds.

My thing is jumping in and swimming about a quarter-mile upstream to the big boulder and beyond, following the contours of the riverbed as I work a steady alternating stroke, stretching, kicking, my body and mind getting locked in a rhythmic, meditative zone. The sight of a snapping turtle moving slowly across the bottom may startle, interrupting the repast. I’ve had the same reaction spotting gar and snakes close by underwater.

A man in a collard shirt and

Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell

As a native of San Marcos, Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell has long known about the Blanco’s beauty—and dangers. But still, he says, the growing demands on this local treasure have presented a learning curve for the community. “When we first opened Jacob’s Well as a county park in 2011, we didn’t understand that people from all over the country, and eventually the world, wanted to see it,” he says. “That lesson has been learned.”

Shell has made protection of natural resources a priority. Conserving land around the Blanco improves the river’s water quality and can also mitigate the severity of flooding, he says, by directing development and impervious cover away from the river and encouraging the restoration of riparian habitat that naturally absorbs floodwaters and mitigates erosion.

“There are a lot of people in western Hays County who haven’t been here that long,” he says. “They see the Blanco as a river, but I don’t think they respect or understand the river and its value as much as old-timers. The [2015] flood brought that to the forefront: the importance of managing the resource, conserving it, and potentially reducing the likelihood of flooding.”

Shell is proudest of the Sentinel Peak Preserve, a new 535-acre park. When Shell caught wind of the pending sale of the old El Rancho Cima Boy Scout ranch, he strategized with area officials and the Nature Conservancy to secure some of the land. Located just below the rocky ridge known as Devil’s Backbone, the preserve covers a milelong stretch of the Blanco River, protecting prime habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Officials hope to have the preserve ready to open to the public by late 2022 or early 2023.

“The importance of getting people on the land and seeing the river is immeasurable,” Shell says. “Signal Peak is iconic. It’s the perfect spot for us to do this.”

The new preserve brings hope for McGillicuddy, of Texas Parks and Wildlife. I recently caught up with the biologist as he met with science students from St. Edward’s University. “With a property like Sentinel Peak, there is a rare opportunity to start with a blank slate and shape how the land can be managed for both conservation and recreation,” he says.

Pulling up grasses from the bank, McGillicuddy demonstrated how they help prevent erosion and soil loss during floods. The group discussed the importance of landowner stewardship; the restoration of the Guadalupe bass, the state fish; how the Blanco is connected to Barton Springs and San Marcos Springs; the impact of the 2015 flood; and how to manage for future floods.

Such challenges are enough to turn a river lover like me into a worrywart. But the uncertainty of what’s to come is balanced by experiences like an afternoon this spring. Swimming in the river, I raised my head every now and then to gaze at the line of majestic cypresses looming above the bank and to check for red-eared slider turtles sunbathing on the rocks. At moments like these, I can’t imagine a more splendid place on earth.

Two men relax of the water of the blanco under a green tree

A swimming area by the dam on the Blanco River at Blanco State Park; Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

Dive In

Recreating on the River

While private land borders the majority of the Blanco, there are numerous opportunities to swim and enjoy the river’s natural beauty.

Blanco

Blanco State Park: a mile of riverfront, campsites, and cabins. 830-833-4333; texasstateparks.org
Redbud Café: soups, salads, and sandwiches on the square. redbud-cafe.com

Wimberley

Blue Hole Regional Park: Online reservations are required for the swimming hole on Cypress Creek. cityofwimberley.com
Jacob’s Well Natural Area: Advance reservations are required for swimming, but not for the hiking trails. hayscountytx.com
Cypress Falls Swimming Hole: swimming and a hotel. thelodgeatcypressfalls.com
Creekside Cookers BBQ & Bar: great food and outdoor seating. creeksidecookers.com
Rio Bonito Resort: cabins and swimming on the Blanco. riobonito.com
7A Ranch Resort: cabins, a pioneer town, and swimming on the Blanco. 7Aranch.co

San Marcos

Five Mile Dam Park: riverfront with swimming and hiking. hayscountytx.com
Herbert’s Taco Hut: a longtime local Tex-Mex favorite, near the bank of the San Marcos River. 512-392-2993

From the July 2021 issue

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The Prairie Whisperer: Bill Neiman, Native American Seed

From the April 2021 issue of Cowboys & Indians magazine

Put It Back Like It Was

BY Joe Nick Patoski

Bill Neiman’s Native American Seed Farm in the Texas Hill Country is on a mission to help people restore the earth.

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Tony Ramirez: A Healer in the South Texas Brush Country

https://texashighways.com/culture/people/traditional-healer-searches-texas-brush-country-medicinal-plants/

Herbalist Tony Ramirez uses herbal and natural medicine to combat injury and illness.

Herbalist Tony Ramirez uses his knowledge to collect medicinal plants in the Brush Country of the South Texas borderlands near his home in Laredo.

The Brush Country of the South Texas borderland is a harsh place. Part Chihuahuan Desert and part Tamaulipan thorn-scrub, it’s an impenetrable no man’s land where if something doesn’t stick, sting, or bite, it’s probably a rock. It might just be the roughest piece of Texas.

One morning early last March, an inquisitive woman from Laredo named Mari Vargas; my wife, Kris Cummings; and I convened in East Laredo. We gathered near the bamboo thicket outside the residence of Tony Ramirez in the Heights neighborhood, admiring fat grapefruit and brightly colored oranges hanging on trees in the garden. We had signed up for “Medicine in the Wild,” Ramirez’s walk-ing lecture in the brush about the plants within that have medicinal uses.

Tony Ramirez’s “Medicine in the Wild”
956-724-6877; commoncoyote.com

Tours by appointment only, starting at $80 per person.

Ramirez isn’t just a tour guide; he’s considered a médico tradicional, or traditional healer, among the Nahua/Chichimeca people. But unlike Mexican folk saints Don Pedro Jaramillo, El Niño Fidencio, and Teresita Urrea, he focuses strictly on the practical: identifying and collecting useful plants. Consider it the fieldwork for discovering increasingly popular herbal remedies.

We were dressed for our adventure in pants and long-sleeved shirts, and we carried a lot of water. Ramirez had a straw hat with feathers in the band, and a machete and pistol strapped to his side. We peppered him with questions as he drove us in his SUV 20 minutes east before stopping to open a ranch gate. Vargas was rapt.

For the past two years, she has studied alternative medicine, working with medical doctors from Monterrey, Mexico, who venture into the same brush in search of natural medicines. She’d registered for Ramirez’s workshop to learn how to better address her family’s and friends’ ailments. “My parents are from Mexico and lived in a place where medicinal plants were all they had to treat illness,” she said

The vehicle continued down a dirt path and came to a final stop beside a concrete slab with an aluminum roof that serves as a staging area for hunters and anglers dropping lines in a nearby stock tank. The brush beckoned, but before we entered, Ramirez gathered us around a mesquite with a canopy of fresh pale-green spring leaves. This is the signature tree of the Brush Country.

“The mesquite has a lot of uses beyond cooking,” Ramirez explained. “Its beans are a protein source. Its leaves are good in tea for gastrointestinal problems and as an astringent for topical infection prevention. If you have conjunctivitis, rinse and crush the fresh green leaves, mix them with a bit of clean water, and squeeze the antimicrobial liquid into the affected eye as eye drops.”

He knelt down and surveyed the stubby succulents covering the ground below the mesquite. He pointed to halophyte saladilla, a plant whose sap was a source of salt for Native Americans. Then guereque, a member of the melon family whose tuber contains monoglyceride compounds that can treat diabetes. Next, a pencil-thin cactus called sacasil, used to treat insect bites and bone fractures.

“You think this stuff out here is just brush,” Ramirez said with a smile. “Everything here has value.”

The Laredo native grew up in a family that practiced herbal medicine. His abuelo, proprietor of the Glorioso Medicine Company in Laredo, formulated liniments and poultices, which he sold town to town, ranch to ranch. And his abuela was a healer who cleansed people with medicine from her garden. “Growing up, whenever I’d get sick, I was taken to my grandmother,” Ramirez said. “If I didn’t get better taking whatever tea or herb she gave me, I’d go to a doctor.”

This old school method of dealing with illness or injury is still practiced in communities and rural parts of the Texas-Mexico borderland. It serves as inspiration for the increased usage of herbal and natural medicine among a population seeking alternatives to prescription drugs. But the inexperienced user should exercise extreme caution.

“It is hugely important, [for those teaching about] native plants in any capacity that might encourage someone to ingest anything, to use the botanical names,” said Lynn Marshall, research coordinator for Useful Wild Plants, an Austin-based organization devoted to Texas’ botanical domain. “Common names can be applied to multiple species, and a mistake has the potential to be fatal.”

“You think this stuff out here is just brush. Everything here has value.”

After a career with Texas Instruments and IBM, Ramirez returned to Laredo in the 1970s to study ethnobotany and folk medicine through college classes, books, and talking to elders. He authored numerous papers and learned the ways of heal-ers from Chichimeca, Huastec, Huichol, and Nahua natives in Central Mexico. Following a stint with the Texas Department of Agriculture, he has led students at the UT Health Science Center Regional Campus at Laredo into the brush since ’96.

He was also a columnist for LareDOS, a newspaper turned online news journal, in the late ’90s and early ’00s. “His writing bore the careful note of credibility that came from experience and research,” said Meg Guerra, LareDOS publisher and editor. “Each column was a gift of information, such that many consulted Tony for the herb and tree-bark remedies we once heard our grandmothers discuss.”

As we put on our backpacks to enter the brush, Ramirez produced a small bundle of dried native tobacco tied together for a limpia. “We do a cleansing before we enter the brush,” he said. Vargas went first, standing with her arms extended. Ramirez waved the bundle in all seven directions: east, south, west, north, above, middle, and below. After my cleansing, Ramirez let me cleanse him.

Off we went, following an animal path into the brush. “Be careful,” Ramirez said. “This area has a lot of jumping cactus. They’re really well-camouflaged.” Early on, he spotted fresh scat on the sandy path—mountain lion. He holstered his pistol and suggested we stay vigilant.

We stopped every 20 or so paces to investigate plants. Ramirez identified each and pointed out their uses. When the thicket grew impassable, he pulled out his machete and whacked out a path. Though our pace slowed, Ramirez’s talk continued apace as he pointed in every direction, settling on a junco plant. “It’s used for stomachaches and dizziness,” he said.

Eventually, we stopped at a tree in a small clearing, with colored twine wrapped around a few branches. At 8 feet high, it was tall enough to provide shade if we squatted down and didn’t perch in the nest of thorns thriving in the understory.

Mother Nature’s Natural Remedies

A sampling of healing plants from Tony Ramirez’s Brush Country tour. Consult a medical professional before using.

Bitter Goat Brush

“This plant can save your life. It will kill amoebas.”

Blackbrush Acacia

“It can be used as a topical antibacterial to treat sores that aren’t responding to medication.”

Gobernadora (Creosote)

“It’s a really versatile plant: antifungal, antibacterial, antibiotic, and antiviral.”

Palo Santo (Guayacán)

“This is where Mucinex comes from. It’s an expectorant and COX-2 inhibitor that fights inflammation.”

Pita (Yucca or Spanish Dagger)

“It’s flavorful, an anti-inflammatory, and a phytosteroid.”

“This is the medicine tree,” Ramirez explained, reaching into a small bag to fetch more colored twine. “Each color represents something: black for fear, white for compassion, green for healing, yellow for vision, red for strength and power, blue for protection.” He encouraged us to tie some twine to a branch, which we did.

After resting, we ventured back toward the day shelter. We’d been in the brush close to two hours, but we hadn’t walked much more than a mile. Ramirez checked his phone and said the high inside the brush had reached 108 degrees. Back at his place, Ramirez handed out certificates for completing his workshop. “These plants aren’t going to replace medicine,” he admitted. “What you learned is this is another tool for your toolbox.”

Driving back to Austin on Interstate 35, the Brush Country looked as harsh and forbidding as ever. This time, though, I knew that deep inside there was a whole other story.

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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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