The Wild and Urban Brazos in Texas Highways

 https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/the-wild-and-urban-brazos-is-a-river-full-of-contradictions

 

The Brazos

is a river of contradictions. Flowing more than 800 miles on a diagonal course across the breadth of Texas, the Brazos starts as a Western river coming off the High Plains and ends as a Southern river lazily looping its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

An overhead view of Waco, with Baylor stadium on the right and the Brazos river separating two sides of the city

A view of the Brazos running through Waco with Interstate 35 splitting the picture

Over the course of two centuries, engineers have dammed, channeled, diverted, and fragmented the Brazos, partly to control deadly floods. But while the river has been moderated, it has not been tamed. It still runs wild every now and then, thwarting even the mightiest barriers. As recently as 2016, Brazos River flooding damaged 1,400 homes and killed six people in southeast Texas.

Understanding the Brazos is no easy feat, no matter how many miles you’ve paddled, how many hours you’ve sat on its banks, or how many times you’ve jumped into it. In search of a new perspective, I asked my friend George Farris, owner of Above and Beyond Aviation in Austin, to fly me over the river. On a clear day last fall, Farris took me along as he piloted his Cessna 172 to Haskell, north of Abilene, where we began to trace the Brazos River down to the coast.

With its watershed extending into New Mexico, draws and drainages grow into forks until the Brazos finally becomes a river where the Double Mountain and Salt forks converge in northeast Stonewall County, about 18 miles northwest of Haskell. Here the river carves a ribbon through low, lightly vegetated canyons, its rusty color mirroring the iron oxide-rich red clay soil of the surrounding Rolling Plains.

Seventy air miles east of Haskell, near Graham, the Clear Fork joins the main stem, now a river of substance with distinct bands of dark green vegetation covering its banks and occasional bankside clearings identifying sand-mining operations and crop fields. To the east, wrinkles on the horizon signal the Palo Pinto Mountains and Possum Kingdom Lake, the first major impoundment on the Brazos, dammed in 1941. Covering 17,000 acres, the lake is home to a state park and draws boaters, anglers, skiers, and vacationers.

Below Morris Sheppard Dam, the Brazos courses through tall limestone bluffs and steep cedar-covered slopes. This was Comanche territory 150 years ago, later immortalized in author John Graves’ Goodbye to a River. The book details Graves’ canoe trip with his dog in November 1957, motivated by the coming Lake Granbury impoundment.

“Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer, and you have to get out from time to time and wade, leading or dragging your boat through trickling shallows from one pool to the long channel-twisted pool below, hanging up occasionally on shuddering bars of quicksand, making 6 or 8 miles in a day’s lazy work,” Graves wrote, “but if you go to the river at all, you tend not to mind. You are not in a hurry there; you learned long since not to be.”

A man in a long-sleeve white shirt paddles a canoe

Canoeing the John Graves Scenic Riverway

After flying over the upper Brazos, I made plans to see it up-close with a return in late March to kayak a 19-mile section known as the John Graves Scenic Riverway. My paddling friend David Hollingsworth and I took a shuttle from Rochelle’s Canoe Rental in Graford to the put-in at the State Highway 16 bridge, where fishermen were also gearing up to hit the water, some by kayak and some in a shallow-drafting motorboat.

The land still wore its winter coat thanks to a late spring and extended drought. Amid the pools and riffles, I saw some huge carp and a teeny-tiny minnow. Perhaps it was one of two endangered shiner species that live in the Brazos—the sharpnose shiner and smalleye shiner.

A map showing major points on the Brazos river

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Gene Wilde, a biologist who recently retired from Texas Tech University, compares the shiner’s reliance on free-flowing water to salmon of the Northwest. “They need 200 miles of free-flowing river to feed, grow, and spawn, completing their life cycle,” he said. “Dams on the Brazos prevent that.” The minnows were once so abundant that entrepreneurs seine-netted the river to scoop up schools of fish to sell for live bait. Now the little fish are hard to find.

Though the environment is changing, the scenery remains sublime. Long curving bends beneath cuesta slopes provide habitat for countless birds. I spotted over 100 great blue herons flapping their pterodactyl wings, white egrets and hawks by the dozens, and one juvenile golden eagle.

We camped on an island near Chick Bend, between SH 16 and Farm-to-Market Road 4. Hooting owls and howling coyotes serenaded us to sleep. At dawn, three Longhorn cattle awakened us as they lumbered across the island on their way to greener pastures.

Headwinds and low flow—water release from Sheppard Dam was a tepid 100 cubic feet per second—made it a difficult trip, one best saved for better conditions in the spring or fall. But the opportunity to see the same river embraced by Graves and Comanche chief Quanah Parker was worth the effort.

An overhead view of green fields and gravel roads

A reconstruction of Fort Velasco at the site where the Brazos met the coastline before the river was channelized

Back in Farris’ Cessna, we followed the Brazos as it wound through low hills before widening into its second major impoundment, Lake Granbury, and about 50 miles later, Lake Whitney. Below Whitney Dam, the Brazos takes on an orderly appearance with houses clustered close to its banks. On the outskirts of Waco, the Bosque River joins the Brazos at the top of the 416-acre Cameron Park, the crown jewel of Waco with its 100-foot limestone cliffs and outdoor recreational opportunities.

Waco is known for its bridges, most of all the Waco Suspension Bridge, the granddaddy of Texas bridges. Constructed with cables made by John Roebling Co., the same contractor who would later build the Brooklyn Bridge, it was the longest single-span bridge west of the Mississippi when it opened in 1870 as a toll bridge. In later decades, the cable system was replaced and the bridge reinforced with steel. The city closed the bridge to vehicles and converted it into a pedestrian bridge in 1971. The 1902 Washington Avenue Bridge, just upstream from the pedestrian bridge, connects downtown to Waco’s east side, a historically Black neighborhood.

Below Interstate 35, the Brazos serves as a scenic backdrop for Baylor University’s football stadium and baseball park, the Mayborn Museum Complex, and the boathouse for the school’s rowing team.

Waco built a new low-water dam in 2007 to mitigate flooding and stabilize Lake Brazos in the downtown area. Todd Nafe, outdoors writer for the Waco Tribune-Herald, said the river has since blossomed as a recreational destination. “The riverfront has become a significant economic resource, with restaurants, parks, food trucks, art festivals, triathlons, fishing tournaments, and fundraising events bringing folks back to the banks,” he said.

A man in a white hat and wearing a PFD holds a large paddle on the banks of the Brazos

Bruce Bodson, executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch

Two people stand holding fishing rods on the rocky banks of the Brazos river

Nicole Nation and John Valyan, of Bryan, fish the lower Brazos near Somerville.

A dark bluish black sky with bright stars peeks through vents in the roof of a tent

A starry night as seen from a sandbank campsite on the upper Brazos River

Below Waco, the Brazos River runs through the cotton plantation country that seeded the Republic of Texas in the 1800s. As we flew south to refuel in College Station, we watched the Brazos cut through lush woodlands and wide-open prairies. Settlers who were part of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred—the first colonists the empresario brought to Texas—developed farms in the Brazos bottomlands, some of them reliant on slave labor before the Civil War.

Robertson County towns like Hearne and Calvert remain primarily African American. Calvert was the hometown of Hall of Fame baseball player Rube Foster, who helped found and operate the National Negro League until his death in 1930. Another notable Foster, singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster—no relation to Rube—grew up in nearby Gause.

“Me and my cousins loved walking or riding in my Papa’s truck down to the river bank all summer long, with our fishing gear in tow,” recalled Foster, who now lives in Austin. “We smaller cousins always made too much noise for the older cousins to catch anything, but it was fun to just hang out, run around with our shoes off, and practice our fishing pole casting.”

To get a closer look at this section of the Brazos, I met six paddlers including Bruce Bodson, executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch, on a September morning for a 16-mile kayak trip starting at the SH 21 bridge, southwest of Bryan.

“I call this the free Brazos,” said Bodson, who founded the nonprofit Riverwatch in 2018 to protect the environment of the river’s 425 miles from Waco to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the least appreciated and most industrialized section of the river. “No dams exist below Waco,” he continued. “It is very much a Southern river—slow moving, looping and bending, with a gradient of less than 1%. The water quality is good, just silt-laden. There’s more variability than people realize.”

The river ran wide and muddy along our route, its sandy banks rising 10 to 20 feet high. Black willow, cottonwoods, and sycamores grew along the shorelines, where kingfishers alighted and skimmed the water. We saw three wild hogs swim across the river and a cottonmouth snake futilely chase a large frog out of the water and onto a beach. Along the way, we stopped to examine petrified wood and look for fossilized shark’s teeth and mussel shells.

Lower Brazos Riverwatch reports exposed pipelines and abandoned wells to state authorities, and their stewardship is getting results. “We’ve got legislative committees and landowners paying attention to the river as a potential asset now,” Bodson said.

We finished at the SH 60 bridge, 3 miles southwest of College Station, surrounded by rows of white cotton in every direction. “It’s wilderness down there,” Bodson said. “You get on that river, and there is nobody down there. You are absolutely alone.”

History of the Brazos

By the time 18th-century Spanish explorers gave it the name Los Brazos de Dios (The Arms of God), the Brazos River had been home to creatures and humans for tens of thousands of years. Learn more about this natural and cultural history at museums along the river’s course.

Waco Mammoth National Monument, Waco: About 15,000 years ago, the Brazos was prime habitat for the extinct Columbian mammoth. At this archeological site near the confluence of the Bosque and Brazos rivers, see the fossils of a nursery herd of Ice Age Columbian mammoths, along with fossils of a camel and juvenile saber-toothed cat. nps.gov/waco

Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History, Bryan: This museum features exhibits covering the Brazos Valley’s history back to the Ice Age, including exhibits on Native American artifacts, great Brazos floods, and cotton farming. brazosvalleymuseum.org

San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site, San Felipe: Founded in 1824 on a Brazos River bluff, San Felipe served as Empresario Stephen F. Austin’s colonial capital until it was burned in 1836 during the Runaway Scrape. The historic site includes a museum and replicas of some of the town’s original buildings. thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/san-felipe-de-austin-state-historic-site

Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, Washington: Along with a living history farm and a museum covering the Texas Republic, this complex contains a replica of Independence Hall—where delegates signed the Texas Declaration of Independence—a riverside exhibit about the historic Robinson Ferry crossing, and exhibits mentioning various 19th-century efforts to navigate the Brazos in steamboats. thc.texas.gov/historic-sites/washington-brazos-state-historic-site

Brazos Bend State Park, Needville: Located 45 miles southwest of Houston, this park has 37 miles of trails to explore wetland lakes and sloughs in the Brazos River bottomlands. The park is known for its alligators and waterfowl. tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/brazos-bend

A man in a long-sleeved white shirt paddles between two rock outcroppings on a river

Canoeing through bluffs on a stretch of the upper Brazos known as the John Graves Scenic Riverway.

From my bird’s-eye view at 5,000 feet, I watched the landscape flatten as the Brazos cruised under US 290 and I-10 and through the Katy Prairie. This landscape looked similar to the Llano Estacado of the Panhandle, except everything was coated a verdant green. About 10 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the Brazos’ graceful curves and loops straighten into a channel as the river enters Freeport, an industrial maze thick with refineries and tanker ships.

Unlike most Texas rivers, the Brazos empties directly into the Gulf, rather than filtering through bays or estuaries. But it doesn’t meet the ocean where it originally did at Surfside. In 1929, the Army Corps of Engineers diverted the Brazos just upstream by dredging a new channel that empties into the Gulf about 5 miles down the beach.

There, the Brazos ends undramatically. I later drove along the levee road that traces the channel for almost 4 miles, where locals fished for red drum, black drum, trout, and channel cat. After passing a cluster of storage tanks and buildings, I reached a gate with a “No Trespassing” sign. The waves of the Gulf were barely visible in the distance, but I couldn’t go any further.

A mile high up in the air offered a different perspective. Every man-made object I could see—from Possum Kingdom Lake to cotton fields, sand mines, historic bridges, the Houston skyline, and tankers in the Gulf—was tied to that green-brown ribbon I’d been following. As Farris banked his airplane west, I could see the mighty Brazos was really the most Texas river of them all.

Paddle the Brazos

There’s no better way to experience the natural qualities of the Brazos River than from the seat of a kayak or canoe. Outfitters operate at numerous locations on the Brazos, a river that offers a variety of paddling experiences throughout its course.

Rochelle’s Canoe Rental, Graford: provides rentals and shuttles for trips on the upper Brazos’ John Graves Scenic Riverway. rochellescanoeandkayakrental.com

Brazos Outdoor Center, Rainbow: the nearest wild river experience to DFW, includes campsites, equipment rentals, and shuttles. brazosoutdoorcenter.com

Dick’s Canoes, Aquilla: provides rentals and shuttles for trips on the Brazos below Whitney Dam. dickscanoe.com

Pura Vida Paddle, Waco: find kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, as well as classes, across the Brazos from Cameron Park and on Lake Waco. puravidapaddle.com

Waco Paddle Company, Waco: canoe, kayak, and stand-up paddleboard rentals in downtown Waco on the bank of the Brazos. wacopaddlecompany.com

Hidalgo Falls, Navasota: The closest whitewater to Houston, this private paddlers park is owned by the Texas Rivers Protection Association. txrivers.org/discover-texas-rivers/brazos-river

From the July 2022 issue
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John Lomax 3 and the Family Tradition

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/with-new-performances-john-lomax-iii-fuels-the-lomax-family-legacy-of-preserving-american-folk-songs/

John Lomax III photo by Amanda Lomax.

John Lomax III has been part of my music life for half a century. We were both budding music journalists for Country Music magazine back in the 1970s, and he’s one of those displaced Texans I’d see whenever I visited Nashville over the decades. Every time, it seemed, he was into something new and cool: seguing from writing to managing artists like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, David Olney, The Cactus Brothers, Kasey Chambers, and dulcimer player David Schnaufer (“He reinvented the instrument much as Earl Scruggs did for banjo,” John III says); hanging out with terrific Texas singer-songwriters like Guy Clark and Nanci Griffith; doing licensing deals; overseeing reissues; running an export record enterprise; teaching at Middle Tennessee State University.

Over all that time, I’ve never asked much about his family legacy, thinking John would probably be tired of the subject, since he was the grandson, son, nephew, and father in the first family of American music folklore. It was a surprise, then, to hear John Lomax III tell me in his thick, distinctive drawl that he made his debut performing in front of a live audience at the age of 77, singing songs and telling stories about the Lomaxes at a house concert near Nashville last month.

“Can’t sing for beans, but it’s not about the singer,” he admits from the start. “It’s about the songs and the heritage of our shared culture.” That translated into 19 songs and numerous stories over 85 minutes, performed in front of 20 people. “Seventeen of them strangers,” Lomax points out.

Now, with an Aug. 18 booking at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, as opening act for Michael Martin Murphey, and two October dates confirmed for Houston, the “Lomax On Lomax Show” appears to have legs. John III is learning more songs that were documented by elder Lomaxes and polishing stories about his family, who emigrated to Texas from Mississippi by covered wagon in 1869 and settled on a small farm in the Bosque River valley near Meridian that backed up to the Chisholm Trail during the era of cattle drives. Proximity to cowboys and a good ear were all the first John Lomax needed.

“Grandfather would hear the cowboys singing at night to keep the cattle calm,” John III recounts. “He started sliding out of the house to hear the songs better, somehow worked out a way to remember the melodies without musical training or books, and wrote down the words.” Putting to paper what he heard was the birth of the academic disciplines of ethnomusicology and folklore.

“My grandfather chased cowboy songs, riding on horseback with a tape machine tied to the front and back,” John III says. “He collected a lot along the Brazos. Grandfather’s father was a tanner. He described them as ’the upper crust of poor white trash’ in Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, John Avery’s 1947 autobiography, reissued in 2017 by University of Texas Press. A Black farmhand taught John Avery a whole lot about Black music.

“From there, the story goes to Alan, Bess, my dad, my brother, Joe (who published For the Sake of the Song: The Townes Van Zandt Song book), and me; and now a fourth-generation Lomax, John Nova, with his work at the Houston Press, Texas Monthly, and Texas Highways, where he is a writer-at-large.”

The 17,000-plus field recordings John III’s grandfather and his uncle Alan made for the Library of Congress are the gold standards of American music, capturing the diversity of songs and music makers across the United States before recording became commonplace. John Sr. discovered the musician Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, and helped secure his release from Angola prison in Louisiana to launch his performing career, becoming one of the first artist managers some 90 years ago. Alan is credited with championing blues artists Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell among others and was the first to record Muddy Waters. He befriended folk singers Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Burl Ives as well.

John III’s father, John A. Lomax Jr., sang folk songs, co-founded the Houston Folklore & Music Society, and managed blues giant Lightnin’ Hopkins, among other achievements. John III left Houston in 1973 for Nashville and a gig as publicist for storied producer and wildman Jack “Cowboy” Clement. Forty-nine years later, he has returned to Houston for an extended stay.

Coinciding with his performing dates at Rice University on Oct. 6, and for the Houston Folklore & Music Society on Oct. 8, John III is aiming to release a second, limited-edition vinyl-only album. The album will feature recordings his father made from recently discovered Peter Gardner tape reels of Houston Folklore programs and other events from the mid-’60s.

“Peter would have people come over to his house and sit around and sing, and it would go out over the air on the radio,” John III says. “It’s impressive how many people got their start at Houston Folklore: Guy Clark, Nanci, and Townes, Lucinda [Williams], Steve Earle, Richard Dobson, and KT Oslin. Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb were regular Folklore Society performers.”

While John III’s father and late brother Joe were both recognized folk singers, John III comes late to the game—but he’s fully aware of his role. After his export record enterprise “got eaten by streaming,” he started looking for something else to do. “I’m the last male left from that generation to get out there and do this—keep the songs alive, keep the legend alive, embellish the brand,” he says. “I got to trying to sing, putting on headphones, listening to my dad, singing along with him to get the timing.”

Like his father and grandfather, he sings a cappella. He first performed publicly five years ago when he put out FOLK, an album of 16 of his dad’s home recordings. “I did a few things to flog it and got on Michael Johnathon’s WoodSongs Old Time Radio Hour on their anniversary show—me and Roger McGuinn,” he says. “I knew one song, ‘Buffalo Skinners.’”

His song list has grown considerably. “It’s come really easy,” he says. “I’ve heard these songs all my life. It’s all about the song. It’s about the stories of this one family, how we started, how we’re still at it 100 and some odd years later.”

For the format of the “Lomax on Lomax Show,” John III keeps it simple, starting off with cowboy songs. “‘Home on the Range’ was first published in a book by my grandfather in 1910,” he says. “I sing that but skip the verse everyone knows and do two or three verses that are rarely heard. They’re just as nice and pretty as the standard old ‘deer and the antelope play.’”

He then segues into Leadbelly, which leads to his uncle Alan. “[He] was the first to record ‘Sloop John B’ in 1935 in Nassau [Bahamas],” John III says about the song that became best known for the Beach Boys version. “Then I sing some songs my dad used to sing, then a Townes song, ‘Two Girls,’ because there’s a funny Doug Sahm story to it, and ‘My Old Friend The Blues,’ one of Steve Earle’s underappreciated gems. I close with this incredible song Ed McCurdy wrote in 1950 that’s on the second album of my dad’s recordings from 1965, ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.’”

In between he summons up obscurities such as “The Frozen Logger,” which was recorded by Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and Leadbelly’s “Roosters Crows at Midnight.” He’s also working out “Chisholm Trail.” “It’s not very obscure, but, really, the whole thing is obscure to the general public,” he says. “People in the business know some of these songs. The ‘Ballad of the Boll Weevil’ and ‘Sloop John B’ are the only two songs I do that were big hits, but that was nearly 60 years ago. … I want to keep these songs alive, because they’re so cool. This is America. Come on, let’s keep this thing going, folks.”

Songs uncovered by the Lomaxes continue to resonate in modern music, often through sampling. For instance, “Rosie,” which Alan Lomax recorded at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchman Farm prison) in 1947 and released on the album Prison Songs: Historical Recordings from Parchman Farm 1947-48 Vol. 1: Murderous Home, was sampled on the 2015 song “Hey Mama,” a massive hit by David Guetta that featured Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha, and Afrojack.

“That has actually generated more income than any song in the whole Lomax canon, more than Leadbelly’s ‘Midnight Special’ or ‘Goodnight Irene,’” John III says. “It was a hit in 18 countries.”

And on her 2016 song “Freedom,” with Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce sampled “Stewball,” sung by Prisoner 22 and recorded by Alan Lomax and his father at Parchman Farm in 1947. The phrase the song draws its title from can be found in “Collection Speech/Unidentified Lining Hymn,” performed by Reverend R.C. Crenshaw and recorded by Alan Lomax in 1959.

The more John III talks about the family legacy, the more the pride comes through. “You’ve got this one family now in its fourth generation steadily helping to preserve, promote, publicize, and otherwise draw attention to these wonderful songs, the people who created them, the people who sang them,” he says. “It’s something no one is really doing.”

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

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www.marfapublicradio.org

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www.wimberleyvalleyradio.org

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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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