A Force of Nature

Canyon Lake

Water flows through a gorge created by the force of water raging below Canyon Lake during the record 2002 flood. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

A Force of Nature – Part One

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 4, 2003

Part 1 of the Current ‘s series on the Guadalupe River.

The Guadalupe River is one of Texas’ most important – and endangered – rivers. Thirsty cities want to tap it, speculators want to exploit it, and by doing so, they could destroy the Guadalupe and its nourishing power.

Groves of inexpressible beauty are found in this vicinity. The waters of the Guadalupe are clear, crystal and so abundant that it seemed almost incredible to us that its source arose so near. It makes a delightful grove for recreation.
– Father Isidro Felix Espinosa, 1716

The Guadalupe River springs to life in western Kerr County, where the rugged, rocky Hill Country fades into the Edwards Plateau. Emerging from cracks and fissures in the sun-bleached limestone, the river’s pale blue-green waters run swift and pure as it begins its 230-mile journey across the heart of Texas to the coastal plains, San Antonio Bay, and finally the Gulf of Mexico.

The first mention of the Guadalupe in modern literature came around 1528 when the Spanish explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca tried to establish a colony near present-day Victoria. Held captive by Indians before walking across the state on his way to Mexico, de Vaca described a “river of nuts” in his writings, in recognition of the abundant pecan trees growing on its banks and in the river’s fertile bottoms. The river was formally named Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in honor of the patron saint of Mexico. Referred to today as both the “Gwad-ah-loopy” or the “Gwad-a-loop,” it is neither Texas’ longest or the biggest of the state’s 15 major rivers, but rather the most quintessentially Texan.

Links to the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.

Part 1: A Force of Nature
The Guadalupe River is one of Texas’ most important – and endangered – rivers. Thirsty cities want to tap it, speculators want to exploit it, and by doing so, they could destroy the Guadalupe and its nourishing power.

Part 2: Down The Drain
The demands on Canyon Lake could render it useless, exacting a heavy environmental and economic toll.

Part 3: The Dead Zone
To meet Bexar County’s water demands, the GBRA is looking to Victoria County — at the risk of destroying ecosystems and livelihoods

Part 4: Fresh Water Fight
How 185 endangered whooping cranes are a key to Texas’ water policy

Within the Guadalupe basin are Texas’ most prestigious summer camps for boys and girls, which have shaped and formed nature experiences for several generations of the richest and most powerful people in the state.

The basin also holds the two biggest springs in the Southwest – one of which has been continuously occupied and used by humans for at least 12,000 years, although it is more famous as the former home of Ralph the Diving Pig

The Guadalupe is also Texas’ most heavily used riverfront, drawing millions of visitors to a 25-mile stretch for the simple pleasure of floating downstream in inner tubes and more exciting thrills of rafting and kayaking.

San Antonio’s most popular lake, America’s No. 1 water park, and the Whooping Crane, the tallest bird in North America and the most celebrated endangered species this side of the grizzly bear, all lie inside the watershed.

As the water turns muddier and the flow increases downstream to the point where its riverbanks are as much as a mile wide, the river provides sustenance for a multitude of farm crops, including a substantial pecan industry, for raising livestock in what is considered the Cradle of Texas Cattle Ranching, and for hunting, fishing, and shrimping, worth tens of millions of dollars every year.

The Guadalupe also provides sustenance to millions of Texans who depend on the river for drinking water and related municipal uses.

But for all those attributes and benefits – and in part because of them – the Guadalupe is also Texas’ most troubled river. In 2002, American Rivers, a non-profit conservation group, designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population booms, the river’s ability to sustain is no longer a given.

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

The Guadalupe is an extremely tough river to tame. The one significant reservoir, Canyon Dam, is saddled with the impossible task of holding back floodwaters in a region known as Flashflood Alley, which registers the highest number of deaths due to flash floods in the United States and has recorded two 250-year flood events in the past five years. Even when the engineering works as intended – as did the spillway in July 2002 when lake water flowerd over the passage for the first time since the dam structures were erected in 1962 – more than $85 million in damage was done downstream. Without the dam, it would have been twice as bad. Still, the topography changes so dramatically that, often as not, by holding water behind the dam and regulating its flow, flooding lasts longer farther downstream.

More threatening is the combustible mix of historic laws, traditions, wasteful practices, a statewide and regional mandate for communities to secure sufficient water supplies through 2050, and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand already outstrips the existing supply.

“Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting,” Mark Twain once observed. A century-and-a-half later, water has become the New Oil in Texas, a commodity meant to be moved and sold, always flowing toward money, made possible by a series of state laws passed since 1997 and an antiquated law that won’t go away.

That outmoded law is the Rule of Capture – the building block of Texas water law. Groundwater – water that lies under the ground – belongs to the owner of the property above it. In contrast, surface water, such as rivers, lakes, and bays, belong to the people of the state, a doctrine most Western states apply to both surface and groundwater. Texas is the sole Western state where Rule of Capture is still observed.

After regional infighting and several lawsuits, the Texas Legislature formed the Edwards Aquifer Authority and groundwater districts to monitor pumping as a way to prevent a property owner from draining his neighbor’s water. There are 87 conservation districts statewide, some of which have attempted to restrict water from being moved out of their jurisdiction. This prompted several bills to be filed during the 2003 legislative session that would have given the state the authority to overrule actions of local districts, negating the purpose of a district in the first place.

Beyond the boundaries of the Edwards Aquifer and local groundwater districts, pumping of groundwater has increased to the point where demand outstrips supply. Pumping in unregulated parts of Comal and Hays counties – in the Guadalupe Basin – has already exceeded sustainability, a process accelerated by an explosion of development including more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.

The Region L water district, which includes San Antonio and most of the Guadalupe River basin, has determined that for San Antonio to sustain its growth and prosper through 2050, it needs to secure 200,000 acre feet of water per year (an acre foot of water is 325,850 gallons). The planning group has set a deadline of 2010 to implement numerous strategies to satisfy municipal and industrial demands, including conservation and leasing irrigation water from farmers with Edwards Aquifer permits. That has prompted the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), the Bexar Metropolitan Water District, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA), and private companies to look for more water.

Tully and Virginia Shahan

Second- and third-generation ranchers Tully Shahan and his mother Virginia Webb Shahan stand near a spring-fed stream on the family’s land in Kinney County.
(Photo by Mark Greenberg)

“The Guadalupe is where the rubber meets the road.”
– Bill West, general manager, Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority

When the Edwards Aquifer Authority was being formed in 1991, Zack Davis and Tully Shahan were among the handful of Kinney County officials petitioning the EAA to leave the county out of the authority’s jurisdiction. Only 16 percent of the aquifer lies under the county, amounting to 5,000 acre feet. The EAA obliged.

Thirteen years later, Tully Shahan, now the county attorney, wishes the EAA would have turned down the county officials’ request.

That is because the EAA’s decision to accommodate the request led Davis to seek out partners to help sell his groundwater. Landowners within the EAA’s jurisdiction are limited to selling and moving no more than 50 percent of the water they use; outside the EAA’s jurisdiction, such as in Kinney County, landowners can sell and move as much water as they want.

Shahan and his wife, Darlene, who is the general manager of the recently formed Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, lead the local opposition to exporting water from the county. Without regulation, they contend, the county’s groundwater will be mined and moved to satisfy the thirsts of cities and towns elsewhere. Property owners, including Zach Davis, who are eager to lease or sell their water, will profit at the expense of everyone else, they say.

The Shahans have felt the effects of pumping groundwater. In 1963, a neighbor drilled two wells 300 yards from the Shahan ranch, producing 2,000 gallons of water per minute that irrigated onions and other produce on their neighbor’s property. “That same year, we lost six windmills and the use of 7,200 acres of land,” Tully Shahan recalls. “My dad had to move over and start drilling for more water. He had to drill 200 feet deeper. Those wells still produce water today.”

Kinney County’s water surplus, the decline of the local agricultural economy, and the county’s location beyond the EAA’s regulatory reach has made it an ideal target for groundwater marketers. At least four groups of speculators have acquired water rights in the county to mine, market, and move groundwater somewhere else, most likely to SAWS and Bexar Metropolitan Water District in San Antonio, and the cities of Eagle Pass and Laredo.

These are not just any players. Davis sought out some of the state’s biggest water industry people:

  • One consortium of investor partnerships, the Native Valley Cooperative, has extensive ties to Austin politicians, lobbyists, and real estate developers.
  • The chairman of the WaterTexas Corporation managing the alliance is former State Senator Buster Brown (D-Lake Jackson), who spearheaded the overhaul of Texas water laws that his company is now trying to exploit.
  • Another WaterTexas principal is Dan Pearson, the former executive director of the state’s environmental protection agency. He is now a lobbyist for HillCo Partners LLC, one of Austin’s most powerful lobby firms; another HillCo partner, Bill Miller, represents the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.
  • Craig Pedersen, the ex-executive administrator of the Texas Water Development Board, is a consultant to WaterTexas.

The Edwards Aquifer links Kinney County with the headwaters of the Guadalupe River, some 50 miles northeast, and to Comal Springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos Springs in San Marcos, more than 125 miles east. The aquifer’s sustaining powers are visible driving west from San Antonio on U.S. Highway 90. On both sides of the road, fields of onions, corn, sorghum, oats, wheat, cabbage, spinach, cucumbers, and pickles flourish in the hot sun. They survive the heat thanks to irrigation pivots, mechanical contraptions resembling giant grasshoppers that draw water from several hundred feet below the topsoil. Despite the desiccated landscape, there is an abundance of good groundwater below, so much that in some places, such as Zach Davis’ spring, water requires no encouragement to gush up in an artesian flow.

But the fields where the crops grow need the pumps to move water in the large volumes needed. Without the pumps and the Edwards Aquifer, Kinney County would have virtually no economy and little reason to exist.

Five years ago, the Shahans attended a Rotary Club meeting where the chairman of the Region L Planning Committee, which includes San Antonio, was speaking.

“He said people wanted to sell water outside of the county,” Darlene Shahan says.

“Including our next door neighbor,” Tully Shahan adds. “We worried we’d lose water on our land because our neighbor wanted to sell. We started going to conferences of all kinds, even environmental meetings, trying to learn about what was going on. The more we learned, the more we realized we got a problem here and it’s countywide … One landowner I went to said he was told by Zach Davis not to worry if his springs dried up because he’d be so rich, he could live anywhere.”

Tim Brown, an attorney who represents 12 water districts, reportedly told the Shahans that forming a groundwater conservation district was the only way to protect themselves.

In 1949, the Texas Legislature gave local voters the option to create groundwater conservation districts as a tool to manage groundwater pumping without having to address the Rule of Capture. Groundwater districts continue to be promoted by the Texas Water Development Board as the “preferred means” to manage groundwater locally.

Tully Shahan began organizing to create a groundwater conservation district; State Representative Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) produced a bill for Kinney County. “But when it got to the Senate Natural Resources Committee they roughed us up,” Shahan says. “[State Senator Frank] Madla [D-San Antonio] was getting pressure from Eagle Pass. They already had contracts to mine water in Kinney County.”

Guadalupe River

The Guadalupe River makes its way towards the public boat ramps and an RV park under I-35 in New Braunfels. Communities along the river depend on tourism and water recreation as a sizable part of their local economy. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Gallego informed the Shahans the bill wouldn’t get out of committee until groundwater district proponents met with representatives of the lobbying firm, HillCo Partners. The county judge, two county commissioners, the whole Fort Clark Springs Municipal Utility District board, ranchers and farmers showed up to talk to Dan Pearson and Jay Howard of HillCo Partners. “They told us they wanted us to meet with their local representatives, Zachary Davis [who also sits on the board of the groundwater district] and Jim McDaniel,” Tully Shahan recalls. “McDaniel is a pure farmer. Davis is a veterinarian who owns the hardware store. Both have artesian wells on their land. Zach turns on his well and water flows out of the ground. Zach and Jim both said, ‘We don’t want anything.'”

But during legislative committee meetings, Tully Shahan claims Zach Davis told him, “You’re never going to able to function because we’ll tie you up with lawsuits and in court, and flood you with paperwork.”

Darlene Shahan says the groundwater district lacks the resources to respond. “The board members are volunteers. Our budget is less than $68,000. We’d like to be spending that on research, but because of HillCo and the legislature’s pressure on us, we’re spending most of that on attorneys’ fees fighting the lobbyists.”

Tully Shahan contends more studies are needed to determine if Kinney County can withstand extensive pumping. “No one knows what the impact will be if 200,000 acre feet is being pumped out of the county. It’s all driven by money of course. What’s going to happen when that flow isn’t there?”

Vic Hildebrand, general manager of the neighboring Uvalde Underground Conservation District, the only district in Texas regulating four aquifers, has been watching the fight next door. He thinks the Kinney County district has been unfairly picked on.

“My deal since day one is we can give up a certain amount of water and anyone who wants to participate in the game can make money on it – I’m all for making money – but I want to know what the results of pumping will be and what protections will be in place before I give out a permit. I want San Antonio to get water. But I don’t think they should be stifling my growth at my expense.”

Hildebrand sees two sticking points: One is the pipeline and who wants to run water through it, the other is the private-public arrangement.

“We’re just getting hammered because we’re a little district and we don’t have the resources to defend ourselves. I don’t know if our district is equipped to protect the water.”
– Darlene Shahan

“It’s the water purveyors who want to build it, not SAWS or anyone in San Antonio. The thinking is, when the pipe is built, SAWS will buy the water. That’s not how it’s done. When Disney built the park in Orlando, the first thing they did was buy all the real estate they’d ever need.

Then they announced they were building Disney World. That’s what SAWS is doing in Gonzales with the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. They’re leasing water rights first before they build a pipeline. Second, why would they want to buy water from the purveyors when they can buy or lease the water rights themselves, and control the process from the ground to the faucet?”

Darlene Shahan thought the groundwater district was the right move for Kinney County. Now she’s not so sure. “We’re just getting hammered because we’re a little district and we don’t have the resources to defend ourselves. I don’t know if our district is equipped to protect the water,” she says with an audible sigh. “They’ve got a whole lot more money and a whole lot more influence than this little place will ever have.”

Groundwater districts, she says, are hamstrung by the Texas Legislature. “We’re prevented from treating farmers using irrigation for agriculture any differently from water exporters. If we permit a farmer five acre feet to irrigate, we can’t change the permit if he decides to sell that water to San Antonio.”

About the best the groundwater district can hope for, Darlene Shahan says, is for the Edwards Aquifer Authority to step in. “If there’s abuse, the Edwards Aquifer Authority says they’ll come in and do something about it. For me, having the EAA assist would be a blessing because we’re not financially equipped to fight the biggest water marketers in the state.”

That is unlikely because the Legislature has to approve any changes to the EAA.

Tully Shahan wants to believe landowners who want to sell their water and landowners who don’t want to sell can coexist peacefully in Kinney County. “We’re not opposed to selling water. We never have been. But let’s do it with controls where what’s taken out doesn’t exceed recharge,” he says. “We want to protect people who do want to farm here in the future. We have a rechargeable asset here that’s free. We should scale back to a level that’s rechargeable. That way, we’ll all be making money for years.”

Bob Wickman

“If we allow GBRA to destroy the Guadalupe and Canyon Lake, and all they mean for our economy, we’ll be just another dry, struggling Texas county,” says Bob Wickman, a member of the citizens’ group, Friends of Canyon Lake. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Down the Drain – Part Two

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 11, 2003

Part 2 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
The demands on Canyon Lake could render it useless, exacting a heavy environmental and economic toll
.

When Bob Wickman started to build his dream home, the 62-year-old retired Air Force colonel and his wife, Nancy McDonald, 56, an advertising executive, chose a hillside site overlooking the south shore of Canyon Lake. Thirty miles north of San Antonio, it was “one of the most picturesque places they had ever seen,” Wickman says.

Less than a year after the building project was finally finished, Wickman stood in front of the picture window with the million-dollar lake view, shaking his head with disgust. It wasn’t because the lake was a muddy brown mess following rains that dumped 20 inches in less than a week, submerging docks, blotting out the shoreline, and inundating roads. It was the prospect that in the coming years, there could be no lake at all.

Wickman and four other men gathered around the table – Everett Deschner, Bob Watts, Bob Carter, and Gorman Dorsey – are members of Friends of Canyon Lake, a group claiming a membership of 3,000 that represents homeowners’ interests around the lake. The group is engaged in a Texas death match with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the agency that manages the Guadalupe basin.

The GBRA has successfully applied to the state to take twice as much water from the lake as previously allowed and sell, treat, and deliver it. Potential buyers are municipalities, businesses, and developers including the cities of Bulverde, Fair Oaks Ranch, and Boerne in western Comal County; SAWS, Bexar Met, and SARA in San Antonio – much of it outside the GBRA’s 10-county jurisdiction. Other suitors are subdivisions and golf courses in unincorporated areas of Bexar, Comal, and Kendall counties including the controversial PGA Village resort; and booming Austin suburbs including Blanco, Buda, and Kyle, the latter of which was fined $160,000 last year for overdrawing 60 million gallons beyond their authorized pumping limits from the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

While water from Canyon Lake would satisfy the demands of those growing communities and developments, Wickman and the other men think the GBRA can and will drain the lake for profit, regardless how that impacts people who live and rely on the lake. So they have challenged the GBRA – at hearings, in state court, and now in federal court.

“We’re being asked to sacrifice our future to accommodate the future growth of other communities, many of which are using golf courses to attract more residents and visitors,” Wickman said, the others nodding in agreement. “It’s as ridiculous as draining the San Antonio River Walk so Comal County can grow.”

While the men talked that morning in July 2002, water rushed over the spillway, just south of the dam, for the first time since the lake started to fill in 1964. The hydraulic torrent carved a deep gorge out of the rolling Hill Country landscape, doing 1,500 years’ worth of erosion in a matter of weeks. Horseshoe Falls directly below the dam disappeared. Farther downstream toward Gruene, through New Braunfels, and along Lake McQueeney toward Seguin, more than 400 homes were being flooded, causing more than $87 million in damage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated damage to the Army’s parks, recreational facilities, and infrastructure alone was at least $12 million. Lake and river businesses would lose more than $1 million a day through the end of the season, according to the Water Oriented Recreation District that monitors business activity on the Guadalupe below the dam. Comal County lost $800,000 in sales tax revenues. Both the City of New Braunfels and Comal County were forced to make personnel cuts as a result of lost income.

The five men around Wickman’s table agreed that as bad as the flooding was, the pipeline could have more a long-term negative impact on the 34,000 people who live around the lake and the hundreds of businesses that serve them.

Since Canyon Lake was created, the GBRA has been allowed by permit to take an average of 50,000 acre-feet of water a year from the lake to service municipalities and businesses – about one-sixth of its capacity; although no more than 17,000 acre feet has been diverted in a single year. (An acre foot of water is about 325,850 gallons of water.)

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

The Friends of Canyon Lake formed in response to the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality’s decision in 2001 to amend the GBRA’s permit and increase the allowable amount to an average 90,000 acre-feet annually and as much as 120,000 acre-feet in a given year.

The increase reflects the GBRA’s rising profile as a water purveyor competing with other river authorities, public entities, and private businesses to move water to where there is demand for it. With no budgetary support from the state or other government bodies, the GBRA depends on capturing, distributing, and selling surface water, which is theoretically owned by the people of Texas.

But not everyone is buying in. Although Friends of Canyon Lake have been consistently vocal, even supporters such as the Comal County Commissioners Court howled, as they did in August 2002 when the locations of the three pipeline intakes in the lake were announced. The lowest intake is to be sited at 810 feet above sea level, just 16 feet above the historic riverbed. “No water intakes should be allowed below 850 feet,” County Judge Danny Scheel told the Express-News last year. “It’s ridiculous. Just the thought of them sucking the lake down to the last drop blows my mind.”

Bill West, general manager of GBRA, has stated the water will be above the lowest intake level 97 percent of the time, or about three days a year. GBRA spokesperson Judy Garner said the lowest intake would be used in only a worst-case scenario.

“It is a slap in the face to let the public even think the GBRA would take this down to that low of a level, regardless,” Judge Scheel replied.

Former New Braunfels City Councilwoman Juliet Watson said the intake locations confirmed her initial suspicions: that profiteering is pushing these decisions. “There is going to be no lake if they have their way. It’s all about money and selling as much water as they can, while destroying the ecosystem, destroying the livelihoods of people at the lake and destroying the Guadalupe River.”

For close to 50 years, Canyon Dam worked as its builders, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, intended. Whenever flash floods broke out in the Hill Country, as they do more frequently and with more force than anywhere else in the United States, the dam held back excess waters, releasing the floodwater downstream in a kinder, gentler flow.

Built for the same purpose as other lakes in Texas – to hold back floodwaters and store water during dry spells, an almost a permanent condition in Central Texas – Canyon Dam unwittingly started the tourism industry that dominates Comal County. The dam formed Canyon Lake, the largest and most popular lake for recreation near San Antonio, and home to five marinas, seven parks, and two military recreational areas. According to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the lake logs more than 1 million recreational user visits per year.

Dennis Szewczyk

Comal County resident Dennis Szewczyk (center) comments on the issues during a recent town hall meeting near Canyon Lake. About 250 local concerned citizens attended the meeting held by the Friends of Canyon Lake to discuss the future of Canyon Lake and outline thier legal case against GBRA and TCEQ. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The dam also transformed the 25 miles of river below it into the state’s most heavily used riverfront for recreation. Floating the Guadalupe in an inner tube is practically a Texas tradition, drawing as many as 200,000 visitors on summer holiday weekends. More than 4 million visits to the lake and the river below are recorded annually. And because the water comes off the bottom of the dam, it runs swift, clear, and cool enough at a constant 60 degrees to foster Texas’ only year-round trout fishery.

Lake and river users have consistently voiced concerns that the increased amount of withdrawals by the GBRA will also increase the frequency that the lake will dip below the 903 feet level deemed the minimum for recreational activities on the lake and the river below it. Only one time since the lake was impounded 40 years ago has the level dropped below 899 feet. Yet, by the GBRA’s own estimates, with the increased withdrawal, the lake will fall below that minimum level 10 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, recreation doesn’t count in Texas water politics. “Recreation is not an intended purpose of Canyon Reservoir,” Bill West has stated. According to the authority’s official terminology, Canyon Lake isn’t a lake, but a reservoir, its water meant to be sold and used.

Try telling that to the hundreds of businesses on the lake and river that rely on visitors to fuel Comal County’s economy. Or to the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited in the United States, which sued GBRA to guarantee a minimum flow for trout to survive in the river. Or to the Army Corps, for whom the lake generates more income than any Corps-managed park in Texas.

Friends of Canyon Lake have responded to the GBRA plan with a litany of charges:

  • Increasing the withdrawal of water from the lake will compromise water quality. Environmental engineers fear that GBRA will siphon the “sweet” water from more oxygenated level of the lake, Bob Wickman says, leaving lake residents with turbid, dead water.
  • The planned expansion of the Canyon Parks Estate Wastewater Treatment Plant, built and operated by the GBRA to service the Silverleaf “Hill Country Resort” timeshare apartment community which discharges treated sewage directly into the lake isn’t helping.
  • No thorough environmental impact studies were done prior to TCEQ’s approval of doubling the GBRA’s allowable limit from Canyon Lake, although GBRA did conduct a Canyon Reservoir Benefits Study – after the fact.

The approved amount of withdrawal violates the Texas Water Board’s original decision issued in 1958 that limited withdrawal to just 50,000 acre feet a year through 2008. Extra withdrawals could legally empty the reservoir. State courts respectfully disagreed. The local economy will be destroyed. The dollars don’t lie. Whatever amount of money generated by delivering more water to meet growing demand, serious consideration needs to be given to the economic losses suffered by area businesses during periods of low and no water. Bob Wickman uses the July 2002 flood as an analogy. George Cushanick, the Water Oriented Recreation District manager in Sattler, reportedly told Wickman that last summer about $1 million per week in business revenue was lost because flooding closed the lake and river. Wickman estimates the flood’s economic impact would be similar to that of lake/river closure due to low water.

Recreation is now a federally sanctioned activity, even if Canyon is a reservoir and not a lake, as GBRA insists. The National Recreation Lakes Act of 2001 passed by Congress to privatize recreational opportunities on public lands including Corps land on Canyon Lake, encourages industrial-strength recreation. Like power generation, irrigation, and yes, water sales, recreation is a beneficial use.

To gain political support of those same buyers in applying for the increase, GBRA was aggressively seeking water buyers before applying for the amended permit. By making token deals with SAWS and Bexar Met, GBRA was also trying to establish precedent to sell water out of its 10-county jurisdiction. The backroom negotiations may not be against the law, but they do speak volumes how done deals get done.

GBRA already mismanages the lake. It is in charge of allocating and releasing water that is above the 909 feet conservation pool. Below that level, the Army Corps of Engineers calls the shots. Criticism has echoed downstream all the way to the coast about how and when the GBRA releases water above 909 feet.

The GBRA responded with advertisements in local newspapers describing opponents of the deal as self-interested obstructionists.

In turn, the obstructionists presented the TCEQ petitions with 8,000 names. The Friends filed 59 allegations of administrative violations by GBRA and TCEQ. Twice, the TCEQ denied Friends of Canyon Lake a hearing. The Third Court of Appeals rebuffed the Friends’ appeal. Last January, the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear their case.

Water Tower

A water intake tower juts out of Canyon lake Dam. Due to a wet year, the lake level remains normal. Increasing water demands are threatening the lake. Some local residents fear the lake’s future is uncertain. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Now they’re taking it to the next level, hiring Houston water lawyer Jim Blackburn, who in August filed an attorneys’ request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an environmental impact statement. Turned down, Friends of Canyon Lake will take the case to court, and their lawyers are likely to dwell upon the potential collapse of real estate values and the school tax base if the GBRA renders the lake unusable.

Blackburn has a track record for stopping projects including the Dallas Floodway on the Trinity River and the Wallisville Reservoir. He is working farther downstream on the Guadalupe, representing interests opposed to GBRA pipeline project. He says the GBRA’s use of state laws to manipulate its draw is irrelevant since federal courts are hearing the case. “Canyon is a federal lake and subject to federal environmental laws,” Blackburn said. “That’s different than Texas law, and requires that certain procedures be followed. We have been hired to make sure that every step taken by GBRA complies with federal law. If it does not, we intend to sue.”

Attorneys’ fees were already in the hundreds of thousands to work through Texas’ courts and may soon reach $1 million. It is expensive to fight authorities and governmental oversight, but there is no choice, Wickman says. They have a stake in the lake, and the government isn’t going to take it away from them until it pries their cold, dead bodies out of it.

Bob Wickman compares the strategies employed by the GBRA, developers, attorneys, and politicians as straight from the script of the film Chinatown, with San Antonio in the role of Los Angeles, out to steal water and dry up the Guadalupe like LA did to the Owens Valley in the early 20th century. In this contemporary Texas scenario, like in old Southern Calfornia, the dealmakers are willing to do anything to get water, or so goes the implication. “GBRA will not be satisfied until they have obligated for processing and distribution every drop in the lake and river,” he says. “It is all revenue for them.”

For Wickman, it’s just his life.

John and Sue Gibbs

John and Sue Gibbs’ once-fertile ranchland is now under water much of the year, attracting alligators where grass once grew. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The Dead Zone – Part Three

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 18, 2003

Part 3 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
To meet Bexar County’s water demands, the GBRA is looking to Victoria County – at the risk of destroying ecosystems and livelihoods.

John Gibbs stands by the special barge he built last year on his 1,000- acre ranch south of Victoria and grimaces. “I had to build this so I could feed my cattle,” he says in a soft, sullen voice.

With the barge, he explains, he could load four round bales of hay and motor down the temporary bayou to areas of his ranch where cattle were stranded. “I just worked my rear end off and wore out my knees trying to load into that boat.”

Gibbs’ 1,000-acre ranch lies below the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers, about 25 miles from the mouth of San Antonio Bay. Until mid-June 2002, it was dry and lush with thick clumps of grasses, but for the next nine months, much of his land was under water. As Gibbs drove around his land in a pickup this summer, he surveyed the damage. The palmetto palms were thriving. So were Chinese tallow and willow. The oaks, some standing, some fallen, some as tall as 60 feet, weren’t doing so well.

“All this was big oaks,” Gibbs says, waving his arm all around. “They’re dead now. If they’re not dead, they’re dying. See the water marks on the fence post? We knew it’d flood. This is river bottom. But not for nine months.

“Bill West [of the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority] says it’s been this way for millions of years, but these big ol’ trees didn’t grow in the water.”

The Gibbs bought the ranch along the Guadalupe bottoms in 1989. He leased it for 15 years before that from the previous owner and ran cattle – long enough to see a slow degradation in the land. “This used to be farmland. But for the past 15 years it’s got worse and worse. In ’87 we were flooded for two months. In ’90, ’91 it’d been flooded for two months. In ’98 it was six months. This year was nine.”

Gibbs and his wife Sue, have been fighting the GBRA for more than a decade. With their neighbors, they have formed the Guadalupe-San Antonio River Valley Organization, petitioning local, state, and national authorities to hear their plight.

Gibbs remembers how it used to be. “Before dams were built, the main channel feeding Guadalupe Bay and San Antone Bay was what I call an estuary where crabs and shrimp get their start. Guadalupe Bay and Mission Lake was all estuary. Green Lake was the largest tidal lake in Texas, full of trout and redfish.”

A channel cut to divert freshwater to the Union Carbide plant and nearby farmers a half-century ago decimated the area’s ecology. “They stopped the flow so the natural river couldn’t clean itself out,” Gibbs says. “Now it’s depositing so much silt in Green Lake it doesn’t reach the saltwater anymore. It’s lost its productiveness. Very little nutrients and salts are getting into the delta.”

The perils of a pipeline

The GBRA’s solution is not one Gibbs is excited about accepting. “Bill West said, ‘If we can’t solve the problem, we’ll buy the land.’ Trouble is, we don’t want to sell the land. This was the best place in the world until they fouled it up.”

By the time the Guadalupe River reaches Victoria, its green-blue patina has turned a thick, viscous brown from 100 miles of blackland sediment. The river, broader and wider than upstream, is vital to the region, going back to the 19th century when Irish immigrants put down roots and started running cattle around Victoria, Goliad, Refugio and Cuero. O’Connors, Dunns, Fagans, McFaddins, and Welders, five and six generations down the line, still hold considerable sway in Victoria, thanks in no small part to significant deposits of gas and oil under that ranchland.

Water may be their next play.

South of Victoria, State Highway 239 cuts through the Fleming Prairie to link Goliad with Tivoli (or ‘Tie-voh-lah’ as the locals call it) near the lip of San Antonio Bay. Parts of the two-lane blacktop divide O’Connor land from Welder land.

At the center of the families’ disagreement is the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project, the centerpiece of the Region L water plan. The GBRA, with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and the San Antonio River Authority, wants to build a 127-mile pipeline from below the Guadalupe River’s confluence with the San Antonio River southeast of Victoria back to San Antonio and Bexar County. Beginning in 2011, the pipeline will deliver up to 289,000 acre feet of river water and groundwater a year, according to the GBRA, thereby reducing demand on the Edwards Aquifer.

The cost of the project is estimated at $785 million, considerably higher than the $475 million predicted two years ago. While the Guadalupe River would be the primary water source for the pipeline, groundwater would be used during droughts and/or low river flow. By 2050, if GBRA’s projections are accurate, the pipeline will no longer carry river and groundwater, but desalinated water from the Gulf of Mexico. J.F. Welder Heirs Ltd., which oversees the family’s business, has entered into agreements with the GBRA to lease 20,000 acres of land in Refugio County to sell groundwater to the GBRA and store water in reservoirs on their land. The arrangement would earn the family $4.5 million through 2012, according to planning documents.

But the O’Connors don’t want to sell their groundwater. Nor do they want their neighbors, such as the Welders, selling water, although in Texas, without a local groundwater conservation district to regulate pumping, landowners can sell as much as they want to whomever they want.

“What’s going to happen to our water wells?” asks D.M. O’Connor spokesman Bill Jones. “We’ve got hundreds of them. Are we going to have to drill deeper? It doesn’t seem right that a ranching family that means so much to the economy and environment of the region is going to have their water taken from under them.”

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

It isn’t just the D.M. O’Connor interests, Jones says. “We realized this was far bigger than the ranches. It impacts the economy and the ecology. We started hearing from farmers and other ranchers. We’re hearing from all kinds of people.”

One bone of contention is just the amount of water the pipeline intends to take out of the area. When the proposal was first presented to the public, the project was scaled at 94,500 acre feet of water a year, Jones says. “All of a sudden, the permit application is for 289,000 acre feet. It’s very difficult to assess.”

[Bill West of the GBRA explained that the average take of river water would be around 30,000 acre feet a year; groundwater use would range from 14,000 to 40,000 acre feet. The 289,000 figure would be used only during the first year following a drought of record.]

“The GBRA says the pipeline will reduce San Antonio’s dependence on the Edwards Aquifer, and by doing that, Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs will have an increased flow, so there will be more water in the river downstream,” says Bill Jones. “We’ve questioned the rationale of this calculation. What happens in drought years? There’s no margin of error. It scares the hell out of us.”

The Welders’ water resource manager, James Dodson, a biologist at the Coastal Studies Program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, calculates there is plenty of groundwater. Bill Jones understands the Welders’ position. “The Welders feel like they’re looking after the best interests of their family. We’re looking out for interests of our family and the region. If the project doesn’t work, Du Pont, Dow, everyone is in trouble.”

The O’Connors went public with their displeasure last January before the start of the 78th Texas Legislature, rolling out heavy public relations artillery at a press conference in Victoria. Representatives of the Coastal Conservation Association sportfishing group, the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas, the Calhoun County Shrimper’s Association, and Mark Rose, the former executive director of the Lower Colorado River Authority (and Bill West’s boss before West left to run the GBRA) stood around Jones.

At the press conference, Rose said the true intent of GBRA, SAWS, and SARA was “to take as much water from the Victoria area as they can … unless the community unites to oppose this diversion application, this water will be taken away and never seen again in this part of Texas.”

West dismisses the opponents as “a handful of folks down there who want to stand in the way of millions of people who need water.” He chalks up the opposition to the pipeline to a combination of the property rights stigma, distrust of government including local groundwater districts, a dislike of San Antonio, the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Backyard), and a generational split between younger people interested in their water rights and an old crowd that isn’t.

Jones vows to keep the pressure on.

“They’ll start building in four years,” Jones says. “We want them to slow down. It’s not what you can see. It’s what you can’t see. We’ve got some fuzzy math going on down here.”

Art Dohmann

Balancing the impact of exporting groundwater with the expense of desalinization concerns Art Dohmann, head of the Goliad Groundwater District. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Ecology, livelihoods threatened

On April 15, about 100 people, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul, filled the gallery of a federal district courtroom in downtown Victoria to discuss flooding in the Guadalupe delta, where the Guadalupe River meets the San Antonio River below Victoria on its last 50 miles to San Antonio Bay and the Gulf Coast.

The subject of the meeting, largely forgotten in the fuss over the GBRA’s pipeline proposal, was the GBRA’s stewardship of the river. It is an extremely important issue to the owners of more than 25,000 acres in Victoria County that have been flooded for nine straight months, rendering the property worthless. The long stretch of inundation is largely attributed to the record floods in 1998 and 2002, but anecdotal evidence indicates flooding has become more frequent over the past half-century.

Some pointed fingers to diversion dams and historic logjams in the river that have never been dislodged. The dams, initially built in the ’30s and ’40s to irrigate rice fields, are maintained by the GBRA and Texas Parks & Wildlife. Although rice farming is no longer sustainable without heavy federal subsidies, the dams continue to divert river water to a Union Carbide plant. Critics, including the landowners, contend the diversion not only causes more flooding upstream, but reduces freshwater flow into the river delta which functions as a critical aquatic nursery for coastal wildlife, shrimp and fish. The lack of fresh water is killing the bay and ruining livelihoods.

The GBRA’s Bill West observed the delta has been changing course and wandering for centuries, adding “And it will continue to meander for millions of years.”

The critics contended otherwise. If GBRA can’t steward this part of the river, why believe its promises about the pipeline, which sounds more like a pipe dream?

A broad range of water interests were represented among the 70 invitees to a closed session – landowners, seven of the nine GBRA directors, representatives from the Texas Water Development Board, Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, Texas Parks & Wildlife, county judges, shrimpers, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Ken Schustereit, the water activist who led the defeat of a groundwater district for Victoria.

“We realized this was far bigger than the ranches. It impacts the economy and the ecology. We started hearing from farmers and other ranchers. We’re hearing from all kinds of people.”
– Bill Jones

Using graphs and slides, Bill West presented a history of engineering and water flow on the lower part of the river, revealing an ugly truth: What often solves problems upstream exacerbates them downstream. This is a tough river to steward, especially above the delta. “It doesn’t take much of a flood event to have the river go out of its banks at several locations,” West explained.

John and Sue Gibbs were given time to make a presentation too. Sue Gibbs acknowledged the havoc that nature can wreak. “But we’ve reached a point where continuous flooding is no longer a natural occurrence. A nine-month flood is not a natural occurrence.”

The Gibbs’ once fertile cropland now attracts alligators. “Some of you have been told the land we live on is worthless swampland,” Gibbs said. “It’s beautiful land – far from being worthless and worthy of being saved.

“Our land should not line the pockets of those in the water business,” Gibbs added emphatically. “We should be able to use our private property. Those appointed to manage from the lake to the bay, their responsibilities do not stop at the saltwater barrier dam. Trees, some of them hundreds of years old, are dying because they’ve been under water so long.”

Wesley Blevins, representing shrimpers in Calhoun County, also spoke. “Water is going in the wrong direction,” he said. “San Antonio Bay is still fresh, and we don’t have a flood. Salinity on the west side of the bay is increasing. We need those places opened back up and the water getting back into all the right places. Millions of dollars have been destroyed because this is the most productive bay on the Texas coast. This bay is getting so messed up, you can’t hardly fish.”

Out of balance

“I’m the most hated man in Victoria County,” Ken Schustereit says by way of introduction. A big man with a beard dressed in blue work overalls and Coast Guard gimme cap, the 47-year-old Schustereit is leader of the Water Research Group in Victoria, an ad hoc organization that led the opposition against a groundwater district for Victoria in 2001, and has since allied itself with environmentalists and angry landowners against the pipeline project and the GBRA.

Critics, including the landowners, contend the diversion not only causes more flooding upstream, but reduces freshwater flow into the river delta which functions as a critical aquatic nursery for coastal wildlife, shrimp and fish.

He’s directing criticism where it is most needed, he says. “What I’ve tried to get across is the three prime movers in the Region L – San Antonio, GBRA, and SARA- all three have problems with ethics, administrations, and corruption.”

In his perfect world, Schustereit would like the diversion dams on the Guadalupe below Victoria to be removed, the logjams unjammed, and have the GRBA audited and revamped. “Water is power, economic development, so San Antonio can grow beyond the capacity of its natural resource. Downstream it’s no different,” Schustereit says. “Why sell water out of Lavaca County, the number two cattle producing county in the state of Texas and risk killing cattle production to promote the growth of San Antonio? If you dry up Lavaca County, who’s going to feed you?”

If nothing else, his complaints are having an impact. A June meeting of the Water Research Group attracted 375 people including State Senator Ken Armbrister, a Democrat from Victoria. Armbrister told the gathering that the pipeline is not a done deal, and proposed Schustereit be added to a committee studying the pipeline, which has been done.

Despite Armbrister’s overtures, Schustereit remains unmoved. “When you and I were in the second grade, we were taught that occasional flooding of river valleys left nutrients that made the soil more productive. River bottom property in my grandfather’s day made a man rich. River bottom property in this basin today is a curse. Farm and ranch land has been turned into a boggy marsh. Our wetlands are being artificially expanded to drive people off their property. A lot of property owners here are flooded half the year all the way to Victoria. This is the resource that the GBRA and SARA are supposed to be stewarding.”

Ken Schustereit

“I’m the most hated man in Victoria County,” says Ken Schustereit, who has led the opposition against a groundwater district in his area. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The growing demand

The head of the Goliad Groundwater District, part of Region L that spans 21 counties from Calhoun to Uvalde, sits in his home office, fishing neatly arranged folders out of his desk. Art Dohmann, his face still flush from doing chores outdoors, his thinning gray hair matted to his pate, peers through his aviator glasses at a note he pulls out of his western shirt, then refers to a folder. It’s a chart of population projections for Region L, 21 counties in South Central Texas the state has designated for water planning purposes. According to the chart, in 2000, 2 million people are living within Region L. By 2050, that number is expected to double.

“How are we going to service this?” Dohmann asks, shaking the paper. “I recognize and support a 50-year plan. Unfortunately, every time we turn around, something comes up that doesn’t square with this population projection.”

Dohmann says that desalinization of Gulf Coast water has been proposed to meet water needs upstream. The technology exists, but desalinization is expensive.

“Groundwater here is more available and it’s relatively cheap. It’s two-thirds the cost of desal water. But the impact of drawing water from here over 50 years – what is the cost of that to the economy of the region, to the tax base, and the economy of the whole state?”

The Texas Water Development Board has rejected the Goliad Groundwater District’s population projections and its desire to reduce the amount of water exported out of the county. Schustereit cites the board’s action as proof that local districts, the state’s touted method of governing groundwater in lieu of addressing the antiquated Rule of Capture, really don’t have final authority in how their water is used.

“It’s been phenomenal what’s happened in the last 10 years and we expect it to continue. The key is, this water allowance. If we’re not careful and this county continues to grow, we’ve got to have the ability to support that economic development. We talk about a 50-year plan, but so many things that happen, we’re looking at today.

“People say, ‘We’ve got plenty of water, why are you trying to restrict what we can sell?’

“Well, we’ve got to make sure we’ll have water to accommodate growth for the next 30 or 40 years,” Dohman says. “We need to be very prudent to take care of today and tomorrow.”

Wesley Blevins

Shrimper, seafood purveyor, and water activist Wesley Blevins holds up a large Gulf white shrimp at his seafood shop, Chucky Monkey’s in Seadrift. Some shrimp on the Gulf Coast are being found with a condition called black gill. While not harmful, the condition is thought to be caused by stress and too little freshwater in the bays. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Fresh Water Fight- Part Four

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 24, 2003

Part 4 of the Current’s series on the Guadalupe River.
How 185 endangered whooping cranes are a key to Texas’ water policy.

“What was it that started limiting pumping of the Edwards Aquifer up by San Antonio?” Tom Stehn asks one morning, pausing briefly while unpacking boxes in his new office in the basement of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

“It was the Endangered Species Act,” Stehn says, answering his own question. “The Hill Country had to realize they couldn’t pump forever. I’m afraid it’s the same down here. In the end, the Endangered Species Act will determine how much is pumped here. You hate to force it with the Endangered Species Act. That’s not the issue. The issue is sharing a limited resource, and limited is the key.”

Stehn knows the issue well. As the United States Fish & Wildlife Service’s Whooping Crane Coordinator, his primary task is setting policy that will get the Whooping Crane off the endangered list. And from where he sits, state water laws are obstructing that goal. If Texas legislators won’t tackle the hard issues, he says with a reluctant sigh, the God Squad, i.e. the Endangered Species Act, will step in.

Of all the water battles being fought in the Guadalupe River basin, the least understood and easiest to explain is the one over freshwater inflow to bays and estuaries. Simply put: No freshwater means no shrimp, no redfish, no seafood, no sport or commercial fishing.

Bays need freshwater to make all that happen.

And of all the competing special interests in these fights, it is 185 part-time residents who winter over in Texas who may be the biggest players of all. Their presence – or disappearance – could crumble the cornerstone of the Region L water plan for South Central Texas, as well as other related projects to move water from the Guadalupe to where it is needed most.

The 185 are the world’s only wild flock of Whooping Cranes, the tallest birds in North America and Texas’ most celebrated endangered species who rank with California condors, Florida manatees, grizzly bears, and peregrine falcons as national symbols of conservation and mankind’s successful efforts to save wildlife from extinction. Having rebounded from a population of 15 in 1941, these snow-white big birds with black wing tips are the most famous residents of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge near Austwell, about 30 miles north of Rockport. As such, they are the most formidable foes water hustlers face.

A lanky 54-year-old with a full beard, Stehn works with a Canadian counterpart to monitor the 185 cranes who fly 2,400 miles every spring to spend their summers in the Northwest Territories, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle before migrating back south to the Coastal Bend every October.

On the Texas coast, the cranes’ meal of choice is blue crab, which thrive in the state’s bays and estuaries. Stehn has observed the link. “When blue crab’s not available, there are other foods to eat, but they’re not as nutritious. The cranes lose energy reserves, making the migration more difficult, their mortality rate increases, and birth rates drop in Canada in the summer. If we’re going to maintain the population we need to do everything to maintain the blue crab population, and blue crab does better when there’s fresh water inflow and sediments. When there’s a drought, the blue crab population crashes. When there are less blue crabs, the species declines towards extinction.”

Although the Whooper population increased 4 percent during the 1990s, the numbers have been dropping since 2000. There are other factors leading to their demise, including collisions with power lines, but blue crabs and are key, Stehn says.

The ball is in Texas’ courts. “They’re trying to get water for the next 50 years, but they don’t realize how limited the supply really is. It’s the old rhetoric of putting a bird ahead of people. I say people want the Whooping Cranes to survive and thrive. I say let’s manage the resource so we can take care of both. I don’t know how else to answer that. Ecotourism should be looked at as another economy. But it’s not. We’ve got $5 million a year coming into Rockport from tourists who want to see Whooping Cranes.”

Three years ago, the San Marcos River Foundation applied for water rights to 1.15 million acre feet for conservation and ecology – the minimum for a healthy San Antonio Bay, according to studies conducted by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department studies. But the GBRA, municipal water companies, and other water industry interests opposed the foundation’s application, which was backed by more than 15 other organizations.

The San Marcos River Foundation is a 200-member organization that formed 18 years ago to advocate for the San Marcos River, which joins the Guadalupe near Gonzales. If the application has been granted, their water right to guarantee instream flow would be placed in the Texas Water Trust to be administered by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas’ 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio’s 1.5 million residents and the region’s determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

At the urging of several municipalities, water industry groups, and authorities including the GBRA, which subsequently applied for all other unappropriated water rights in the Guadalupe basin, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst successfully persuaded the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality to dismiss the application, arguing the state was the proper authority to set freshwater inflow minimums.

Bill West, who is on Dewhurst’s new committe studying the issue, says the minimum inflow determined by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department was arbitrary. “The health and well-being of the bays and estuaries is just as important as the health and well being of Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs,” West says. “From a pure hydrologic standpoint, Comal and San Marcos Springs and the freshwater in-flow to the bays and estuaries is basically one and the same. That’s the importance of this regional plan, to try to see that the Comal/San Marcos Springs continues. The inability to see that spells the destruction of the bays and estuaries. So for those people that say we’re not concerned with bays and estuaries, that is the very inherent target of the whole regional plan.”

Diane Wassenich, the gray-haired former restaurant owner who is president of SMRF, was upbeat despite the setback. “We got farther than we ever dreamed,” she says. If nothing else, the issue was brought into public view.

“The Legislature spent millions over 35 years to study this. Now, no one wants to believe it. We’ve appropriated all our water and even over appropriated our water. We don’t want to face that. We have got to figure out how to make sure our rivers will continue to flow. And there is nothing in place.”

A dollar value of San Antonio Bay has been pegged at $55 million a year by Texas Parks & Wildlife. Robert Costanza, director and founder of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, and cofounder of the International Society for Ecological Economics, calculates the value of an estuary to be $11,000 an acre per year. Using those values, the bay that the Guadalupe flows into is worth $2 billion annually in productivity.

Any reduction of freshwater coming into the bay has considerable economic impact, which refutes the common belief that any water that reaches the bay without being used is wasted.

GBRA, SAWS, and SARA are trying to address those concerns with two studies that they will oversee. GBRA has commissioned R. Douglas Slack of Texas A&M to conduct a five-year, $1.3 million study to determine the relationships between freshwater inflow, blue crabs, and Whooping Cranes, while SARA has commissioned George Ward of the University of Texas a five year, $1.5 million study of San Antonio Bay inflow in order to evaluate the biological productivity of the bays and the estuary to determine the freshwater requirements necessary to support their ecosystems.

Diane Wassenich

Diane Wassenich (center), executive director of the San Marcos River Foundation stands on the bank of the San Marcos River with current and former members of the foundation’s board of directors. From left: Jack Fairchild, Alan Groeger, Ann Allen, Theresa Kosary, Tom Wassenich, and John Tolbert. The 200-member SMRF was formed almost two decades ago to advocate for the San Antonio River. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

That gives Tom Stehn hope the God Squad won’t be called in.

“We’d like to see environmental considerations done at an early stage. One of the problems with the Texas Water Plan is the environment got short shrift. I bet there weren’t a lot of biologists being talked to. Now they’ll have to prove their case that the project won’t impact endangered species.

“Our political system has a tough time dealing with issues 50 years down the road,” Stehn adds. “We’ve never set aside, much less acknowledged environmental flow. If factories were taking oxygen out of the air, we’d regulate them. This is the same. When you look at the cost of water, you need to look at the real cost, what it takes to maintain the ecology. The crane’s role in this scenario is more than just something for birdwatchers to look at.”

A year ago in November, Greg Rothe, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, General Eugene Habiger, the president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System, and Bill West, the general manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, extolled the virtues of the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project in a press release announcing environmental impact studies of a pipeline project from the Gulf Coast to Bexar County.

Habiger praised the studies: “The actions this week signal the start of one of the most significant water resource projects approved for this region,” he said. “We are going to do the right thing with this project. We all recognize that we all need to view future water needs on a regional basis because we are all linked environmentally, economically and socially.”

Public declarations like the above tout regional cooperation and forward-thinking planning so that San Antonio and South Central Texas can grow and prosper over the next 50 years.

This month’s trip down the Guadalupe River showed a very different take on the planning process from the other end of the faucet, voiced by folks not ready to say goodbye to their river.

Somewhere between the two opposing points of view lies reality.

Regardless of the mandates and the responses, a significant number of players have been left out of the process. At the same time, the barn door has been left wide open to make it easy for those who write the laws, carry them out, and lobby the lawmakers for profit.

If Texas legislators won’t tackle the hard issues, the God Squad, i.e. the Endangered Species Act, will step in.

Lawyers and lobbyists have better access to the ears of lawmakers than the average citizen – while fishing, shrimping, recreational interests, and the Whooping Crane have been underrepresented at the bargaining table or eliminated altogether. There’s a distinct sense the planning process will continue to be dominated by people who want to treat water like a commodity.

If the people of Texas want sound statewide water policy, a good place to start would be a more stringent code of ethics for state legislators. Our lawmakers must be held to a higher standard than the current one that allows former State Senator Buster Brown to profit from the laws he wrote.

Local government bodies such as groundwater conservation districts should be given the final say on local matters, not the legislature. And if there’s local consensus that moving water for a profit will benefit a community, let it flow.

Extend the Edwards’ Aquifer Authority’s reach into Kinney County, which only the legislature can do. If water is moved out of the area, the EAA is a conscientious overseer.

While agriculture has historically been the biggest user of groundwater in Kinney County and elsewhere in Texas, farming shouldn’t be abandoned altogether in favor of water mining. Uncommon produce such as ugli fruit, wine grapes, and other specialty crops including lavender and organic versions of conventional vegetables fetch considerably higher prices at the market. A little creativity might preserve the tradition while benefitting local consumers.

If there’s a need to mine water, Kinney County landowners and San Antonio water users would be better served if property owners leased or sold their water rights directly to SAWS or Bexar Met to gain control of the flow from source to faucets. The current legal setup encourages the same kind of exploitation at any cost that occurred when private energy companies such as Enron, Reliant, Duke Energy, and Williams conspired to manipulate prices and gouge California consumers.

If the market system remains the preferred means of conducting water business, quantify lakes and rivers for their recreational value as well as their water storage value before sacrificing them. Put a number on being the primary nursery for fish, shrimp, oysters, crabs, and hundreds of species of marine, shore, and land life residing in the bay and the Gulf.

Tom Stehn

Tom Stehn, Whooping Crane coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, follows a flock of birds with his binoculars while standing in a marsh on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn is concerned about changes to freshwater quality and flow into the coastal bays and its effects on the delicate ecosystems. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Consider restructuring how river authorities operate. Currently, the governor appoints the directors of Texas’ river authorities. Typically, they are people in leadership positions in their respective communities. But appointments are too often made based on political patronage than water expertise, which leads to boards rubber-stamping management.

Electing directors instead of appointing them would improve relations with the electorate. The GBRA could also make it clear when projects are announced that buyers on the other end of the pipe must cut consumption during drought periods just as lake and river users must, golf courses included.

There’s a price for appropriating more water than exists, and it’s already being felt in the Guadalupe basin. “Texas has the best knowledge and understanding of its basins, rivers, bays, and estuaries, better than any state,” says Andrew Sansom, the former executive director of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. “The data is there. The problem is translating the known science into policy, especially in the Texas Legislature, where policy is currently dominated by lobbyists representing special interests. No one speaks up for the Whooping Crane, the small landowner.”

San Antonio and El Paso, two of the state’s most water-short cities, are Texas’ most conservation-oriented cities when it comes to water. The future of the Guadalupe River, Canyon Lake, San Antonio Bay, and how Texas deals with water can be glimpsed on the Chihuahuan Desert where the city of El Paso and the sister city of Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico have formed a metropolis of more than 2 million people in a valley between two dry mountain ranges. El Paso has the strictest water conservation measures in place in Texas. St. Augustine grass is discouraged and outright banned in some instances, city water cops scan curbs for signs of runoff, issuing fines to violators.

“The problem is translating the known science into policy, especially in the Texas Legislature, where policy is currently dominated by lobbyists representing special interests. No one speaks up for the Whooping Crane, the small landowner.”
– Andrew Sansom

In other words, El Paso is even more water short than San Antonio. It too is looking to pipelines and water mining to make ends meet. But El Paso has also already stepped into the future with a $67 million plant that will be the largest inland desalination project in the United States when it goes online in late 2005. Several pilot desalination projects are being planned on the Texas coast, prompted by Governor Rick Perry’s proposal to use tax-free investment bonds to finance local plants. The cost of desal water, $1.75 per thousand gallons, is higher than water piped from the Guadalupe or groundwater well fields, but isn’t saddled with hidden secondary costs such as loss of tax base or residual impacts such as leases, construction cost overruns, and legal expenses that are part of the cost of obtaining river and groundwater.

Similarly, Region L planners would be wise to budget several million dollars to offer real incentives for rural homeowners to get off wells and convert to rainwater catchment systems. The expense of such systems, which are common on water-scarce Caribbean islands, presently runs as high as $20,000-30,000 per home. The upside is homes equipped with catchment systems reduces demand on existing water supplies as well as prompts each household to be more responsible for their water use. In that respect, catchment systems do away with what amounts to water welfare.

A larger philosophical question begs to be addressed as well. Water as the New Oil may sound good in theory, but ignores the fact water is a resource that belongs to every person in Texas. Water is life. Two years ago, a high-ranking state bureaucrat mentioned Enron lobbyists had a significant hand in writing water legislation in the 1997, 1999, and 2001 legislative sessions, back when the now-bankrupt company was eyeing water markets as a lucrative revenue stream.

Water deserves to be treated more honestly, fairly, equitably and ethically than that. A good start would be the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Legislature eliminating rule of capture.

As laudable as the planning process has been, those left out need to be included. “This Region L spent more money on public input and public meetings than any region in the state,” Bill West says. Still, West admits Calhoun County, where shrimping is a major industry, had no representation on the region planning board. Nor did Canyon Lake interests. Deal them in. Aquaculture and recreation count, no matter what anyone says.

Regional planning suggests regional cooperation. Instead, local groups are fighting the state, the river authority, and private water purveyors, and fighting each other. Victoria folks wonder why San Antonio needs their water when Canyon Lake is so much closer and has all that excess capacity that has caused flooding downstream. Friends of Canyon Lake representatives suggest there’s enough groundwater in Kinney County to meet San Antonio’s needs for decades.

Everyone will have to give up a little. Who is going to give up a lot remains to be seen. “The Guadalupe system is the system that’s going to force all these issues to come to a head,” says water attorney Jim Blackwood. “The data is there. If the state chooses to ignore that data, someone will have to get hurt before the public wakes up. That someone is likely to be in the Guadalupe basin. San Antonio’s had a heck of a deal up until now. I understand why its citizens are loathe to pay as much as they’re going to have to pay. They didn’t give the rest of us any rebates when they had all that free water.”

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Cult of Ray

Ray Benson

(Photo by Scott Newton)

The Cult of Ray

Austin Chronicle
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 18, 2003

Ray Benson steps out from behind the Wheel.

Everybody knows Ray Benson: the big guy with the big hat, booming baritone, and Ernest Tubb disposition. How can you miss him?

He is Asleep at the Wheel, the merry (revolving) band of musicians from both coasts who moved to Austin 30 years ago on the heels of Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, just in time for the birth of the modern Austin music scene. Smitten with an archaic, hip regional sound called Western swing, they had the good fortune of arriving before the crowds did.

Striking a responsive chord with the preslacker longhairs who dug their mentors and cohorts Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, as well as with the two-stepping old-timers who hadn’t heard Bob Wills’ music played like that since Bob Wills, the Wheel has since become a musical institution. The scores of Texas Playboy alumni who have sat in, recorded with, been produced by, or produced the Wheel at one time or another, plus the Grammy Awards lining the shelves of Benson’s office validate that.

Yet while Asleep at the Wheel has evolved into a Texas-sized tradition, the cult of Ray has been quietly building to the point that at 52, Benson has finally gotten around to releasing his first solo album, Beyond Time. It makes sense, since he’s always been more than a frontman. As much a hipster as Willie or Doug, he can hold his own on T-Bone blues and do Basie jump like an alum. He’s always been a deal maker, hustler, a mover, and a shaker.

Benson’s still all that. Like Willie, he’s one of the few bridges between old Austin and new Austin, and far more accessible than the Red Headed Stranger ever was. The consummate glad-hander and back-slapper.

Who do you think made the introduction between Denny Bruce and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, putting in motion the record deal that put Austin blues on the map? Who hooked up Stevie Vaughan with manager Alex Hodges? Who brought together Lance Armstrong’s management and the folks who made the Austin City Limits festival happen?

And he continues to move and shake in music circles from New York to L.A. as easily as he does in South Austin or Spicewood. Yep, that was Benson sitting in with Paul Shaffer and the band on Letterman a few weeks ago.

Squint a little harder through the bifocals, though, and it’s easy to see the changes in el mundo del Ray go beyond his solo debut. And it isn’t the white overtaking the red in his goatee, sideburns, and ponytail or the tour bus with the “For Sale” sign parked outside his office.

Which raises the larger question: Who the heck is this cat under the hat?

State Musician of Texas

Surrounded by guitars and loads of pictures of Benson with the likes of Little Richard, Brenda Lee, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Snow, and Laura Bush, Benson is in his element at Bismeaux Productions, his business and recording studio complex on Manchaca Road.

The geegaws and souvenirs such as golf trophies, a Spade Cooley album cover, Austin Sun music awards, and a “Shalom, Y’all” sticker on his computer, Benson instructs his faithful assistant Bridget Bauer to hold all calls (sorry, Mike Levy). David McGee, who’s doing a phoner for Barnesandnoble.com, and his mom from Philly manage to get through.

Taking stock of his life thus far, Benson first clears the air about recording under his own name. The band, he says, is alive and well. In fact, he’s currently mixing another live album, this one from Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. The bus with the “For Sale” sign is merely being retired. At this pace, the Wheel will roll on forever. Going solo is merely realizing what he set out to do 45 years after writing his first song. It doesn’t hurt that he owns the studio, a tricked-out, tube-amp, old-school environment “and a mixing board Elvis once sang through.”

“I’m just trying to express myself and do what I know how to do,” explains Benson. “Asleep at the Wheel’s concept has narrowed and crystallized over the years to what it is, and I didn’t want to mess with that.”

It hardly ends there.

In 2004 Benson succeeds classical pianist James Dick as the State Musician of Texas. He’s been co-producing a duet of Willie Nelson and reggae legend Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals on Willie’s “Still Is Still Moving,” an occasion that finally resulted in his signing Trigger, Willie’s beat-up Martin guitar. That came on the heels of hosting a pilot for the CMT cable channel at Gerald Mann’s Riverbend Church last October. He won a regional Emmy Award for a PBS documentary he co-produced on the making of Ride With Bob, the Wheel’s most recent album to Wills. There’s also the T-Bone Walker Texas blues all-star tribute album he’s dreaming up …

At the same time, his civic profile has been steadily rising. He tried bringing baseball to Austin before there was a Round Rock Express. He sits on boards including the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and KLRU. He talks to business groups trying to explain where music fits in to Austin’s big picture. He could be mayor if he wanted the gig.

His running buddies are an eclectic albeit well-connected bunch, including writer Bud Shrake, football coach Darrell K. Royal, Clear Channel czar Steve Hicks, former Dell vice-chairman and philanthropist Mort Topfer, and Beavis and Butthead/King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, who happens to play a pretty mean bass. He’s on a first name basis with Republicans and CEOs. He raises money for Wild Basin. He’s a star on the Celebrity Pro-Am golf circuit.

He’s also newly divorced, though he continues to share a West Lake home with his wife of 20 years, Diane Carr. One son, Sam, is learning the music business and improving his golf at Belmont College in Nashville. Aaron is a high school senior. So what exactly is going on inside that Caledonia-sized head of his?

“All I can say is, everyone’s got to find their way,” laughs Benson. “I cherish my family. We went through the initial throes of the divorce and realized, was I going to pay an attorney everything I owned to get … whatever? So we worked it out.

“Yeah I see some other girls. Is it easy? No. Is it smooth? No. We all come with a lot of baggage. I don’t have the answer to the whole thing, but I’m trying to keep my family somewhat intact. Diane raised those kids and did an incredible job. I did as much as I could when I was home, but I was gone a lot.”

This, of course, is well-documented.

“You’re That Guy”

It all started when “three Jews” — Benson, Floyd Domino (ne Jim Haber), and Lucky Oceans (ne Ruben Gosfield) — a Vermont farm boy named Leroy Preston; Virginian Chris O’Connell; and Gene Dobkin, a bass player and fellow classmate of Benson’s from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, joined forces. Another Antioch student named Ed Ward brought Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen to campus, wherein the musicians saw the light. The rest is Austin music history, as Benson tells it.

“We cut our hair to do all this, so it looked right,” laughs Benson. “We wore Nudie suits. We basically said we were going to pass. We were kind of like black people. Over the years it’s been unreal. One time down in Louisiana, we played a Ku Klux Klan hall.

“I became Ray Benson the day before I started the band. I had read the Ray Charles biography, and his name is Ray Charles something or other. Jerry Reed is Jerry Reed Hubbard. I said to myself, those guys are smart; they’ve got stupid last names in terms of show business, I’ll do the same thing. Seifert just wasn’t going to make it, but Benson is great.”

The woodshedding took place in a 200-year-old cabin in Paw Paw, W.Va. They backed Stoney Edwards, one of two black men on Earth with a career as a country singer, and singers Connie Smith and Freddie Hart. They followed Cody and his big band to Berkeley, Calif., where they met Eddie Wilson.

“Eddie Wilson came out to [manager] Joe Kerr’s and just sold us,” recalls Benson. “All he wanted was to book the New Riders [of the Purple Sage] and Cody at the Armadillo. Joe told him about us. Eddie hears us and says, ‘You could be the house band.’

“Greezy Wheels was already the house band, but he was right. We were exactly what he was trying to do. Redneck hippies was his thing. We finally got a record deal, so we came down and played the Armadillo with Cody in ’73. Once we hit town, we went, ‘Whoa!’

“Michael Murphy and Jerry Jeff [Walker] and the songs that they did, to me that was like cool, cosmic-cowboy, electrified folk music. That’s not what [we] were about. We loved the New Riders from a lifestyle point of view but not their music. We loved the Burrito Brothers for doing what they did, but we didn’t like them because they were too slick. They were so L.A.

“Texas had it all. Willie and Doug were the two reasons. Willie had said to us, ‘What are you doing out there? You sound like you’re from here.’ Doug had given me one of his raps, and it made perfect sense. We figured out that we could get more gigs here than in the Bay Area, and it cost less to rent a house. And there’s chicks! And guns!”

A lot has changed since the Wheel found their mecca. Which leads to the inevitable question: Whither Austin?

“We’re mostly pricing ourselves out of the market,” states Benson. “I did one of those 360 summits, when the high tech boom was booming, and they asked me to come speak with Michael Dell and two other people. They asked that question: ‘What’s the difference between Austin then and where we’re at now?’

“I said, ‘Well, in 1973 we used to come to Austin to drop acid. Now, we drop antacid.’ Michael Dell turned three sheets of white.

“Obviously, the baby-boom generation has aged,” laughs Benson.

And so has Benson. Which is why he’s made the move he’s never made before.

“Lots of people come up to me and say, ‘You’re that guy.’ And as much as I enjoy that, I’d like them to know Ray Benson is that guy who does this stuff, because I’ve hidden behind Asleep at the Wheel for many years and behind incredibly talented people: Floyd, Chris O’Connell, Leroy Preston.

“What’s sad is that Chris O’Connell is a veterinarian’s assistant in Winchester, Va., and Leroy Preston is a data processor in Vermont. They don’t play at all. This business burns you out. It chews you up and spits you out. You’ve seen it a hundred times, and I don’t want to be one of those people.

“I want to play guitar — sing and write and make music. I know that. I don’t want to walk on the red carpet. I don’t like limos; I like buses. I don’t want to be a superstar at all.

“I want to ply my craft and make my music and have people love it.”

[The Cult of Ray in the Austin Chronicle]


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Cool, clear water

Krause Springs

Teenagers enjoy the rope swing action at Krause Springs in Spicewood, west of Austin. The springs feature 1,000-year-old cypresses, cool waters, fern-choked waterfalls and rocks for sunning. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Cool, clear water

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Photography by Randy Eli Grothe
August 31, 2003

The sweetest pleasure of a Texas summer is the swimming hole.
You can have your Colorado mountains, your slices of watermelon and your gallons of iced tea.

You may prefer passing as many of your waking hours in climates far away from here or in climate-controlled comfort 24/7, courtesy of 50,000 BTUs of refrigerated air and driving with the windows up and the MAX A/C control cranked to high.

You can whine all you want about how hot it is.

I immerse. With a swimming hole, anyone can fade the heat.

Which is why I can say with a straight face that my favorite time of year is right now, when these endless strings of broiling days and sweltering nights that wear down the human spirit and sap the want-to and can-do in even the hardiest of souls plod onward to the middle of September.

I will survive. In the hole.

Barton Springs

Austin’s popular Barton Springs is fed daily by 26 million gallons of cool, clear spring water. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Oh, I’ll tolerate a swimming pool in a pinch. But whenever I do, I’m reminded why Jed Clampett and family called pools “cement ponds”: It ain’t natural. The chemical scent and sting of chlorine negate any sensations of being cradled in the bosom of Mother Nature. Doing laps in a pool is like getting stuck in rush hour traffic on Stemmons: All I can do is stay in my lane and hope I don’t lose count of the number of laps I have to do before I’m done.

Charting my own course across a swimming hole is more like a meandering Sunday drive on a remote Farm to Market Road. With songbirds, the splish and splash of water, laughs, giggles and the occasional shout of “Marco Polo” providing the soundtrack, you can leave the modern world behind for a little while.

Swimming holes have worked as an effective antidote to Texas’ excessive heat for several millennia. Archeological evidence indicates San Marcos Springs in San Marcos – Aquarena – has been continuously occupied for at least 12,000 years, The area near Del Rio where the Rio Grande, and the Pecos and Devil’s rivers converge is pocked with caves overlooking springs, creeks and rivers containing more examples of Indian rock art than anywhere in North America.

Swimming holes are just as inspirational now, and Norman Rockwell and Thomas Eakins and Austin artists Jimmy Jalapeeno and Malou Flato aren’t the only ones who’ve seen the eternal beauty in them. A good swimming hole is church. Splashing in water that is clean and clear and surrounded by tall, stately shade trees with at least one big rock to lay out on and jump off of, and a rope swing hanging from a limb is compelling evidence there’s a higher power.

Especially in Texas.

Frio River

Neal’s Lodge, on the Frio River in Concan, has several spots deep enough for diving. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

The lazy streak

Great holes stretch from the Piney Woods near Texarkana to the Chihuahuan Desert of Far West Texas, some wild and natural, others tamed and civilized. All of them promise a place in which one can cool off, cool down and cultivate the lazy streak that resides within us all. The Hill Country is exceptionally blessed. The state’s greatest concentration of swimming holes on creeks and rivers fed by artesian springs are found within a couple hours of San Antonio and Austin, most with hard limestone bottoms that eliminate the “goosh” factor on your feet and towering bald cypresses at waters edge.

Eddie Chiles, the late oilman who used to rant and rave on the radio about being mad all the time, was owner of the Western Company, an oil producer whose advertising slogan was “If you don’t own an oil well, get one.”

I must have had water in my ears because I swore Mad Eddie and his pitchwomen were talking about swimming holes, not oil wells.

So I got one.

It took two years of coaxing from my wife and adjusting to the chilly waters of Barton Springs in Austin to get hooked on swimming-hole swimming. After writing about swimming holes on numerous occasions, discovering new holes almost everywhere I looked and futilely fighting the good fight to preserve Barton Springs against a tide of development upstream, I finally moved to the Hill Country specifically to have a swimming hole I could call my own.

Hamilton Pool

The picturesque Hamilton Pool features a sandy beach and boulders to perch on beneath a waterfall. The swimming hole, fed by Hamilton Creek, is in a canyon west of Austin. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Some people live where they live to be close to work, for the schools, for the neighborhoods. I live where I live for the swimming hole. It’s like I told the mother of a playmate of my son’s, when she asked if I’d moved for the schools or the kids – I moved for me.

A happy dad can influence an entire family, I reasoned. My wife has certainly seen a difference.

“For one thing, it makes you sane,” she has observed. “It improves your disposition. It keeps you from going crazy after spending all day in the heat.”

My younger son learned to swim in the swimming hole. Now 13, he’s been honing his stone-skipping skill at the swimming hole lately, designating one exposed boulder as the “skipping rock” and an adjacent boulder as the “waiting rock,” proving there’s still plenty of kid in his growing teenage body.

My sister tells me the secret swimming hole I took her to not too long ago was the highlight of a weekend that also included a chichi party at The Mansion on Turtle Creek and a movie premiere in Austin. My brother-in-law reports the experience made him feel “giddy” and reminded him of his Arkansas boyhood.

My swimming hole isn’t really mine. I just bought legal access. And to be honest, it’s no rival to Balmorhea Springs in West Texas. But it’s clean enough to attract squadrons of dragonflies and to test better than my well water, and clear enough for visitors to be able to see minnows, perch, bass, catfish, carp and turtles in their element through the goggles, which is enough to make me feel proprietary. Lord knows, I pick up enough trash around it that some litterbugs think I act as if I own it.

Close to nirvana

Medina River

Trevor Barrientes rides along the rapids of the Medina River at a low water crossing between Medina and Bandera. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

During warm weather months, my calendar revolves around my swimming hole. From early spring until late fall, I swim laps in my swimming hole almost every day. During the heat of the summer, two-a-days and sometimes three-a-days are not unusual. Morning swims are a better wake-up jolt than two cups of coffee.

There have been evening swims at dusk while surrounded by fireflies twinkling under the cypresses and bats fluttering overhead accompanied by the croaking chorus of frogs that have brought me as close to nirvana as I think I’ll get on this earth.

Moonlight swims can be both romantic and spooky.

The end-of-swimming-season swims are tests of endurance, requiring a swim cap and considerable intestinal fortitude. Swimming after floods is not a good idea due to dirty runoff and the fact that snakes can’t see you any better than you can see snakes in murky water. A New Year’s Day plunge has become a small ritual, but nuts nonetheless.

Last month, I went back to Burger’s Lake on the far west side of Fort Worth, site of my first natural swimming experience. Not quite 50 years later, I was pleased to see nothing much had changed. The petrified wood cottage and the little rock building under the pecans and sycamores at the entrance still beckon like an elf’s sentry at the gates to an enchanted forest. The high diving boards at one end and the diving platform near the jet fountain in the middle of the lake were still crowded with kids. The line to the trapeze swing was just as long as I remembered.

Obviously, I wasn’t the only kid who liked the cheap thrill of swinging out, then into the water. Lifeguards patrolled the lake in rowboats same as ever. I didn’t recall the chlorine in the water, but times have changed, I guess. What has not changed is that hundreds of people are willing to pay for the sweet relief of cooling off in the water.

I couldn’t help but wonder if at least one of those visitors I saw at the lake will someday want a swimming hole of his or her own, too.

Balmorhea State Park

Crystal Oden, 15, snorkels in the Caribbean-clear waters at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas. The oasis teems with aquatic life, including two endangered fish species, frogs, crawfish and turtles. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

The Blue Hole

Laurie Carlton enjoys the peace and quiet of the waters of the Blue Hole, in Wimberley. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Rio Vista Dam

A swimmer enjoys the rush of the San Marcos River as he clings to the Rio Vista Dam in San Marcos. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Comal River

The 2.5-mile-long Comal River begins and ends within the city limits of New Braunfels. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)


Swimming Holes Across Texas
A small sampling of Joe Nick Patoski’s favorite swimming holes across the state.

Swimming holes map DMN staff graphic

San Solomon Springs Pool, Balmorhea State Park, Balmorhea. A literal oasis in the West Texas desert that was walled in during the early ’30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Balmorhea is the bomb of Texas swimming holes with 76-degree spring water so Caribbean-clear that New Mexico and West Texas scuba diving clubs practice here. 915-375-2370

Barton Springs, Zilker Park, Austin. The best urban swimming hole on Earth. Period. 512-867-3080

Krause Springs, Spicewood. This magical hole – 34 miles west of Austin, actually on Cypress Creek – is fed by a waterfall tumbling from an exquisitely manicured bluff chock-full of maidenhair fern. It’s the best-looking natural swimming environment in the entire state. 830-693-4181

Hamilton Pool, Westcave Preserve, Bee Caves, west of Austin. A placid grotto below a surreal limestone overhang that spews a 75-foot waterfall during wet periods, Hamilton Pool is the stuff that picture postcards are made of. 512-264-2740

San Marcos River, Sewell Park, Lions Club Tube Rental in City Park, and Rio Vista Park, San Marcos. Contiguous parkland lines the banks of the San Marcos River as it winds its way through the town of the same name, its transparent waters making for the finest tubing and underwater viewing in the state. Tube rentals and shuttle information,
512-396-5466. 512-353-3435 or 888-200-5620

Landa Park, New Braunfels. The 1.5 million-gallon spring-fed pool at the Landa Park Aquatic Complex on the Comal River, a few hundred yards from Texas’ biggest spring, is a compact version of Barton Springs without the crowds. Wilder thrills are less than a mile downstream at the Prince Solms Tube Chute. 830-608-2163, 830-608-2165

Blue Hole, Wimberley. This private campground along a narrow stretch of Cypress Creek features cool, blue water and several rope swings dangling from the trees for easy entry. Scenes for the upcoming movie The Alamo were shot there earlier this summer. 512-847-9127

Medina River, between Bandera and Medina. Pick your spot along one of the low-water crossings along State Highway 16 between these two Hill Country towns or jump in at Bandera’s city park where the river runs through it. 800-364-3833

Burger's Lake

Burger’s Lake. (Photo by Randy Eli Grothe)

Neal’s Lodges, Concan. A bucolic, old-fashioned family retreat established in 1926, Neal’s is perched above one of the nicest stretches of the Frio River, with several holes deep enough for diving and swimming laps and on-premises tube rentals and float shuttles. 830-232-6118

Burger’s Lake, Fort Worth. The one-ace lake that started my swimming hole obsession has held up well over the years, functioning like a low-key water park in a natural setting. 817-737-3414

 

[visit The Dallas Morning News]


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Surf City Texas

Catching a Break: Surf City Texas

Galveston Bay
A group of Galveston surfers has been surfing the wakes of ships in the Houston Ship Channel for six years. Photography by Erich Schlegel.

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
April 4, 2004

TEXAS CITY, Texas — It’s too flat to surf the beach and not quite warm enough to chase oil tankers in the bay, but James Fulbright is still obsessing over the perfect wave.

The 46-year-old Galveston surf shop owner has the classic sun-bleached look and uniform of a surfaholic, down to the scruffy beard, baggy shorts and flip-flops. And he’s got that hard-headed ‘tude common to Texas surfers, a pitiable cult for whom lousy natural waves are a semi-permanent way of life.

When the weather’s nice and Gulf is flat, as is usually the case, Mr. Fulbright and three friends are surfing some of the most perfectly formed swells in the world by riding the wakes of supertankers plying Galveston Bay. This mastery has earned them fame in surfing circles worldwide.

But when it’s too windy or too cold to surf behind oil tankers, as it has been pretty much for the past five months, Mr. Fulbright takes his passion inside a metal building in a salt-rusted industrialpark near Interstate 45.

There, he obsesses about a surfing technology he’s so serious about, he’s almost exhausted his personal savings, he explains as he bids adieu to two similarly attired gentlemen – also in T-shirts and shorts – leaving the oversized shed.

"They’re engineers who heard about it and flew over from France," he says.

"It" is a modified 35-square-foot kiddie pool assembled from a mess of black vinyl, plywood islands, hoses, pipes, pumps, pressure gauges, blue paint and wood to resemble a 1/12th scale model of a beach waterfront.

His wife used pipe cleaners to fashion little palm trees, with sand sprinkled around for effect.

This is the prototype of a surfing wave machine that he hopes will revolutionize the sport of surfing by taking it off the beach and into water parks around the world.

"Want to see it work?" he asks excitedly, moving to jigger some buttons and levels before getting a response.

At the far side of the kiddie pool, a burst of pressure fires out of a compressor, creating a small wave that is split into two parts by a wooden divider.

"See how they both peel down the line?" he says, grinning. "It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?"

Mr. Fulbright’s zealotry and imagination are informed by the realities facing every surfer in Texas, condemned by the eternal frustration of realizing that no matter how much one wills it, the Gulf Coast is a lousy place to surf, unless a hurricane or tropical storm is brewing.

"Gulf Coast surfers are an extremely devoted bunch. We’re the most devoted group of surfers on the planet. We take what we can get, and drop everything we’re doing on a moment’s notice to ride a wave."

Hard-headedness

But out of such frustration comes determination and creativity. In late February, Mr. Fulbright concluded 18 months of testing and dismantled the scale model in the water tank to focus on building a full-scale prototype. (The project is featured in Tom Banks’ documentary Wave Maker, which will be screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston on April 9th as part of Houston’s FotoFest film festival.)

"I’ve finally got it going but I’ve spent all my savings. So we’re desperately seeking funding."

Mr. Fulbright started surfing at the age of 12. He has been looking for a better way to surf ever since.

"As you get older, you get more particular," he says. He has done the traveling bit, going to California, Mexico and Costa Rica. "Half the time, it’d be flat there like in Texas, but you’d blow all that money getting there."

Chase Boat
John Benson passes the time between ships surfing the wake of the chase boat. Surf bored. Photography by Erich Schlegel.

While a student at Texas A&M University, he and his landlocked pals would surf behind boats on Lake Somerville. When they weighted the towing boat with extra people, they could generate waves large enough to ride without a tow rope.

Mr. Fulbright and some buddies took that idea a step further six years ago, after watching oil tankers pass through the bay between the coast and the Houston Ship Channel.

Then the light bulb in his head went on while he was working at a surfboard fin factory.

"One day, I overheard two sailors who sailed from Clear Lake to Kemah talk about how their 35-foot boat almost got swamped by a rogue wave generated by an oil tanker. I thought to myself, ‘Hmmmmm.’ I asked them if it was surfable. They didn’t surf but said it might be.

"I bought a 17-foot Boston Whaler," Mr. Fulbright says. "I studied the waves. I studied the tides, the currents, and the depths of the bay. I hung out in a bar in LaPorte where all the pilot boat captains drink. I started buying drinks. I’d asked where they found waves that they avoided, what channel markers.

"They thought we were crazier than hell asking where to go surfing in the bay," he says. "It took me about six months of reconnaissance but I finally found some constant spots. Lo and behold, I caught the wave of my dreams."

Secret surfing

The supertankers left wakes of perfectly shaped swells so good that the unusual surfing exploits of Mr. Fulbright and his buddies were captured in the 2003 documentary Step Into Liquid which profiles 50 surfers from around the world and their secret surfing spots.

The group members have to not divulge to others where they go.

"This morning I ran into a guy on the beach who said he had information I could use if I gave him information," Mr. Fulbright says. "I said, ‘No way.’"

Still, they’re loyal to their sense of place. Mr. Fulbright and his friends also have another rule that when surf is up on the coast, oil-tanker surfing is not an option.

Ship-wake surfing is not for everyone, Mr. Fulbright cautions. It requires more planning, patience and precautions than beach surfing does.

"You can’t just jump into it. It took me years to get it down. We respect distance from the ships, distance from other boats. We’re very particular when we go."

But there’s a payoff.

Last fall, he says, "I caught a wave that I rode for three miles in ten minutes. Nowhere in the world can you ride a two- to three-mile wave. When it’s been flat on Galveston for a week, we’re surfing till our legs cramp up."

Lining up a wave takes a while to master, he says.

"It takes a boat. It takes skilled maneuvering. That water is littered with sunken boats, pipelines, shallow shoals. You have to burn a whole day to do it. You can’t just do it a little while. Someone has to drive the boat, and nobody wants to drive. I usually have to because it’s my boat. But dude, let me tell you this," Mr. Fulbright says, his eyes lighting up. "It’s worth it."

So is going broke and having to hustle for investments for his wave machine and a park built around it, which he calls Surf City Texas.

Getting a fix

Oil-tanker surfers and his invention go hand in hand, Mr. Fulbright contends. Both are answers to the endless quest to satisy his surfing addiction.

"I’ve wanted to have a wave pool since I first started surfing," he says. "The ones that exist are really bad. My focus was to make a great wave that is really challenging and as natural a surfing experience as possible."

"As Gulf Coast surfers, we’re damned and determined to surf when we want to," he says. "We’re so desperate we’re chasing around oil tankers. That’s how desperate we are. But who would have imagined the best waves, better than any waves in the world, are in our own backyard?"

Or in his own metal building?

He has already commissioned a logo of a steer’s skull – similar to an icon on the Eagles’ album covers – surrounded by water. And he’s set up a Web site, SurfCityTexas.com.

Surfer magazine ran a feature in its July issue, identifying Mr. Fulbright as a "Texas tanker-wave hustler" and calling his idea "the latest, and possibly greatest, advancement in wave-pool technology."

Now all he needs is dough. "It’s not sophisticated technology," he says. "It’s a bunch of pipes and a pond." That happen to generate some awesome waves.

Almost as good as an oil tanker does.

[visit The Dallas Morning News]


Continue Reading

Willie Nelson

Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression. Order Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from Amazon here.


Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now

No Depression
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September-October 2004

Willie Nelson
Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now. Photograph by Jim Herrington

Willie Nelson may not live forever, but sometimes it seems that way.

LUCK, Texas, isn’t as easy to find as it used to be. Development has sprawled the entire 25 miles from downtown Austin to this idyllic little spot in the Hill Country near Lake Travis where Willie Nelson created his own universe more than two decades ago. The old corner store that was once a landmark is now a bank. The entrance gate is practically lost among the McMansions and ranchettes that have sprouted up.

This fact of life is not lost on the guy in the Willie Nelson T-shirt driving the mower over the fairway of the Briarcliff Country Club. After providing directions to a wayward tourist, he wisecracks, “Welcome to Oak Hill,” referring to the suburb fifteen miles closer to the city.

Still, there’s enough acreage surrounding Luck that once you stumble onto the dirt main street, you realize Willie Nelson’s home base is safely in a zone of its own. The cowboy town of faux buildings – including a feed store, barn, gunsmith, church, and bathhouse – hasn’t changed much since it was built for the film Red Headed Stranger in the early 1980s. Unchanged, but deteriorated to the point that Luck today looks less like an Old West movie set and more like a real 20th century small town in Texas that is drying up and blowing away. Whatever it is, it is Willie’s World. The rest of us are just visiting.

I had come for my last sit-down with Willie Hugh Nelson. I’d been writing about him since I hit Austin in 1973, a year after he did. I’ve spent the ensuing years listening, watching, and observing him as he played shows on flatbed trucks, in drive-in movie theaters (with Paul Simon sitting in, no less), in amphitheaters, in performing arts halls, and at too many July Fourth Picnics to count. Somewhere along the way, the television appearances, movie roles, and inductions to various halls of fame added up to Willie achieving some kind of sainthood, with just enough speed-crazed hustlers, soulful used-car salesmen, and honest-to-Sam-Houston characters to keep me engaged.

Like Austin, Willie too has changed along the way. He came to the game as a songwriter. Some say that particular skill fell by the wayside decades ago – that he’s sliding by on cruise control, that he hasn’t written a memorable song in years. And yet, in the midst of all his albums of cover songs, tribute songs, collaborative affairs with high-profile buddies, television specials, and films, he’s still continued to write songs – including an antiwar protest number that briefly stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy late last year. Not to mention enough straight-ahead country tunes to justify a full-blown album that may be his best work in ages (It Will Always Be, due October 26 on Lost Highway).

Willie Nelson
Willie and Paul English (background) at Stubb’s in Austin, TX, May 2001.
Photograph by John Carrico.

But even if he hadn’t written a line in a quarter-century and decided to follow the path of Fats Domino – who once reasoned he didn’t need to write another song because he already had more than enough hits to perform in concert -Willie would justify a visit just because he’s Willie. After all, he personifies the outlaw movement that presaged altcountry. He’s the one credited for putting Austin and Texas Music on the map. He’s a pop culture icon, bandanas, pigtails, running shoes and all, the one Texan more popular than George Bush. He’s the gold standard for Texas marijuana: If it’s Willie weed, i.e. pot fit for him, it’s top-of-the-line bud. And he’s just mysterious and mystical enough to keep everyone guessing. You never know what you’ll find when you’re in Luck.

That said, we’re both old enough to be lucky just to be alive.

He’s 71. I’m 53.We’ve both done a pretty fair job taking care of ourselves. While Waylon kept roaring until a few years before his death in 2002 at age 64, Willie quit the powder and the partying back when he was about my age. These days, drinking means water more often than whiskey. His biggest vice remains his appreciation of the sweet smoke.

Change at this stage of the game usually means some kind of diminishment, and in the case of Willie, the black cast on his left arm was a big red flag. Carpal tunnel syndrome, the repetitive motion injury of the computer age, had finally gotten to him. He had scrunched and contorted his fretting hand into chords on his battered guitar, Trigger, one time too many. The surgery that was required to fix the problem knocked him off he road for the first time since… well, forever.

But it wasn’t just him who was hurting and hobbled.

His friend Ray Charles had passed away five days before. Willie’s drummer and lifelong partner in crime and other adventures, Paul English (of “Me And Paul” fame), can’t make it through an entire show anymore. Paul’s son, Billy English, carries the load when it comes to keeping the beat. Another drummer during Willie’s outlaw glory days, Rex Ludwick, passed on earlier in the year, his life cut short from too much drinking. Even the title of Nelson’s new CD, It Will Always Be, especially the track “Tired”, suggests loss and resignation.

So Mr. On the Road Again had been forced to adjust to the sedentary life off the road. Not that his band minded – 220 dates the previous year were a few too many for some of his players, all of whom except Paul are younger than Willie.

I thought I’d done my last interview with him five years ago, when he drove me around Luck in his pickup truck and I caught him off guard when I asked whether there were times when he got tired of being Willie. His response -“Not really, but if I do, I go and hide” – said a lot. He’s very much a public figure who enjoys his station in life. Wouldn’t you enjoy it if everyone around you acts glad to see you and showers you with compliments? But he’s also human enough to enjoy his privacy and the opportunity to chill whenever he can.

Two years ago, I went to the well one more time, speaking to him by phone while he was on his way to play a show in Nebraska for a club owner friend who was down on his luck. That really, really, really was my very last Willie story, I thought. What else was there for me to ask? What else was there for him to say?

That’s what I got for thinking.

Willie Nelson
Willie at the Paramount Theatre, 1999 during "Willie Week". Photograph by John Carrico.

BETWEEN releasing It Will Always Be, performing relentlessly, recording prolifically, appearing in commercials and TV specials, plotting more film roles, speaking out on behalf of family farmers, Dennis Kucinich and marijuana, and writing one of the first protest songs against the war in Iraq, Willie is living ten lives at once. The most stunning example is the new album, a full-blown, state-of-the-art polished piece of work that rings with clarity and purpose like his recordings of thirty years ago.

Not bad for an old fart who’s supposed to be in his autumn years.

I walked into the saloon that’s the official Luck World Headquarters, but the room was empty and silent save for the hushed audio from CNN on the big screen at the end of the bar.

Willie wasn’t there. But Willie was everywhere.

Every square inch of space on the walls was covered with 40 years’ worth of Willie memorabilia. There were photos of sister Bobbie, Johnny Bush, and Ray Price. Two Roy Rogers kiddie guitars were propped behind the bar. The Old Whiskey River Kentucky Straight neon sign shared space in one corner with bleached cow skulls. Movie posters advertised Red Headed Stranger, Texas Guns and Barbarosa. A photo of Willie on a golf course flanked by Darrell K. Royal, the storied University of Texas football coach, Mack Brown, the current UT coach, and hometown golf star Ben Crenshaw vividly illustrated his exalted role as one of Texas’ living treasures. He is clearly not averse to the idea of being Willie.

Someone once wondered aloud how weird it must be, sitting in the middle of your own personal universe, surrounded by photos, posters, neon, and trinkets all about you. But when “you” is Willie, it doesn’t seem so strange. The building with the creaky wooden floors – recently outfitted with air conditioning – is more like his playhouse. There’s a pool table up front, a chess table over to the side, a Bose radio behind the bar, a CMT director’s chair on the floor. There’s a small room in back where Willie can conduct a guitar pull or record a picking session on a whim. There’s always old friends such as Ben Dorsey, Bill McDavid, David Zettner or Freddy Powers nearby to hang with, or to pick with.

Outside the saloon, I found Rusty and Ed, who were doing busy work around the premises. Ed said Willie was probably on the bus, where he really likes to hang when he wants to lay low. But Willie wasn’t there, either. A crew of four was busily renovating the interior (as if the tricked-out rolling mini-mansion needed an upgrade). “Willie was expecting you,” one renovator said. “But not for another four hours. You might check at the recording studio.”

Rusty led the way to the Pedernales Recording Studio in a battered RV. We hadn’t gotten down the hill and outside the main gate toward Willie’s golf course before Freddy Fletcher, the studio owner who is Bobbie Nelson’s son and Willie Nelson’s nephew, pulled alongside, rolled down the window of a black Mercedes, and said, “Hidy.”

A muddy Chevy pickup pulled behind the Mercedes. It was Freddy’s uncle, grinning from ear to ear. He was dressed for summer in a black straw western hat with a dangling lanyard and a black tank top shirt hanging loosely over his running shorts and running shoes.

We caravanned back to the bus long enough for Willie to determine maybe that wasn’t the best place to sit and visit. So we headed back to Luck.

“How’s it been going?” I asked as we walked into the saloon.

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson in the sanctuary of his tour bus on Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles, Ca, July 2004. Photograph by Jim Herrington

“It’s perfect,” he said, his green-brown eyes twinkling, illuminating the scruffy white beard and long mane of hair flowing out of his hat to below his shoulders. “It couldn’t be any better.”

I got a closeup of the cast on his left arm. Willie was holding it close to his chest like a gimp. The other hand juggled a tall Starbucks cup and a big fat joint.

“Pull up a chair,” he said after we walked inside. He went around to the other side of the bar and pulled up a stool, assuming the role of a bartender ready to dispense whatever wisdom and advice was needed. He fired up the fatty in his good hand.

Perfect? But the hand…

“Oh, it’s getting better. I’ve had to get some assistance, but I’m back to where I can roll,” he allowed, passing the hemp bomber across the bar. “Some of my therapy is rolling and it’s getting pretty good. This is the longest that I haven’t played the guitar. It’s still painful and sore and I’m not really jonesing to get back up there. I’d love to play, but I want it to feel good when I do, and I want to be able to play as good as I played the last time.”

He didn’t really have a choice but to take a break. “The last couple years, it was so painful, I was kind of dreading the next show,” he explained. “It was getting worse and worse, getting numb. I’d wake up and it would go to sleep. I found out there’s hundreds of thousands and millions of people that are going through this same thing, all over the world. I was just talking to a mandolin player awhile ago over on the golf course, a big ole boy. He had this same operation back in the ’80s. He said it takes time, but he was back picking in awhile and he’s still doing it.”

The surgery shut down the show. “I couldn’t see going out with a hand mike,” he said. “I’m not saying I won’t?’ [He did just that at his Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth before going back on hiatus in preparation for a scheduled tour of minor-league baseball parks with Bob Dylan in August.] “If things don’t get well, then I might be hiring out as a vocalist,” he chuckled. “I’ve done that before. It’s easy, you know.” He can sing with the best of them, as he’s demonstrated by pairing up with folks such as Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Julio Iglesias. But Willie watchers know that’s not the whole Willie. Even he acknowledged that.

“Songwriting is the easiest thing for me to do,” he said. “It requires less effort and less thought than what it takes to learn what Django [Reinhardt, the gypsy guitarist] did on that last record. Writing’s first. And I love to perform. I enjoy the interaction between us and them. That’s good for your ego. It keeps you going and going back again. Me and the band, we enjoy being out there and we enjoy working. And we come home and we enjoy this for a little while. But we get ready to go back pretty quick. Everybody who knows us knows that’s the way we are, even our wives and kids.”

Willie Nelson
Razorcut: Willie Nelson, Nashville cat.

Then he startled me by acknowledging he was mortal.

“It’s kind of like you stopped a big train for a minute. It gives everybody a time to stop and think, ‘Whatever this is, is not going to last forever.’ So we might as well enjoy the rest and take it as far as we can.”

I had no reason to doubt him. All I needed to do was look into his eyes.

Those watery, soulful, puppy dog eyes have served him well.

Kevin Connor, who hosted an impromptu Willie radio performance with reggae legend Toots Hibbert on the lawn of Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel during the South By Southwest festival in March, related how after the show, he walked up to Willie to thank him, and was immediately stopped in his tracks by Willie’s eyes. “He didn’t need to say a word. He said all he needed to say with his eyes,” Connor said.

It’s a similar observation to the one Eddie Wilson made 32 years earlier, when Willie and Paul English showed up at the beer garden of the Armadillo World Headquarters to talk about doing a gig at the hippie rock emporium that would become the foundation of Austin music. “Although he was in a house full of strangers, a few enlightened folks recognized him and approached him in awe,” Wilson said. “I then observed a trait that has been consistent throughout his career: He suffers fools gladly, and as long as someone’s talking to him, he does not break eye contact. It’s a quality I’ve seen in only two other people – [former Texas governor] Ann Richards when being talked to by children, and Muhammad Ali when he’s talking to girls.”

Grant Alden told me he regards Willie as Yoda, the all-knowing, ancient and revered Jedi master of the Star Wars trilogy. Somehow that doesn’t quite square with the flashes of a Baptist preacher conducting a tent revival that flare up sometimes when he’s playing a show. I regard him as more of a Zen cowboy, always at peace residing in the moment, but ready to ride and shoot at the drop of a hat. He moves through the world as if bulletproof; even the IRS couldn’t burst the bubble. There’s more than a little Perfect World in the whole danged concept of Luck, Texas, designed for the inner kid hungering to play Cowboys & Indians. “Hey, let’s go shoot ’em up!” “Hey, let’s go rob the bank!” The street’s long enough to re-create High Noon on a whim. And it’s always 4:20 somewhere in Luck.

IN TRUTH, Nelson is a flawed figure. He’s on his third family and his fourth wife, not exactly a surprise given his penchant for staying on the road. His life history is tailor-made for a country song, back when country was called country & western and really sounded like it. He and Sister Bobbie were abandoned by their parents as kids. They were raised by kinfolk. He grew up a hustler, just scraping by. He knocked around Fort Worth, a wannabe salesman attracted to the used car salesmen – real salesmen who could sell you the shirt off your own back – and through them became familiar with the Dixie Mafia. (There are stories about Roger Miller and Willie working as bellhops at the Hotel Texas that indicate he was no stranger to hustling illicit vices.) He learned music from Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, who ably demonstrated time and again how to put on a show and dance (fast song, fast song, slow song). He learned the business of music as a disc jockey, debuting on KBOP in Pleasanton southeast of San Antonio.

Willie Nelson
For the Good Times: Willie and Waylon celebrating willi’s 60th birthday at Antone’s in Austin, Tx 1993. Photograph by John Carrico.

His entry into showbiz was playing in bands such as Paul Buskirk & His Little Men and Larry Butler’s group before joining up as a Cherokee Cowboy behind Ray Price, the honeydripper vocalist who epitomized countrypolitan, the hybrid sound that was too smooth, too swinging and too hip to qualify as straight country. In the early 1960s he came into his own as a songwriter with “Crazy” (Patsy Cline’s signature piece), “Hello Walls” (Faron Young’s signature piece), “Night Life” (a classic for Ray Price and B.B. King), and “Funny How Time Slips Away” (which made the career of rhythm & blues crooner Joe Hinton) – but not before he learned the hard way about publishing, royalties, and composer credits. He sold the rights for “Night Life” and “Family Bible” (a top-10 country hit in 1960 for Claude Gray) for $50 each, figuring he could always write another song.

He was ambitious enough to front his own band, and made a comfortable living recording small hits, covering his own compositions on the road, and dabbling in television. For a spell in the late 1960s, he hosted his own weekly variety television show in Fort Worth, live from Panther Hall. But the system didn’t much care. He was valued for his songwriting skills, not his performing or recording talents. It was telling then that he was a cool daddy by Nashville standards, favoring a razorcut hairdo, golf shirts, tight slacks and Italian loafers – about as outside the mainstream as one could get in Nashville those days.

Somewhere along the way, he got full of the Music City mainstream, the assemblyline production of hits, and the straight life. It didn’t help that his house had burned down. So he came back to Texas, for the gig money, for the familiarity of home turf, and for the belated Lone Star version of San Francisco that was going down in Austin. Long hair and cowboy boots were suddenly cool. Beer and pot were held in equal regard. Recent arrivals including Doug Sahm, Michael Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Freda & the Firedogs were breaking down traditional music barriers. Rock and folk were sounding twangy. Country was morphing into something else. Audiences could perfectly understand Willie’s band breaking into an extended twenty-minute jam on “Whiskey River”; after all, they’d heard the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band.

Whether it was being in the right place at the right time or finally growing into the role of Willie, he proceeded to lead a movement hat signaled a shift in popular music and marked the start of a continuum. He wrote in song cycles, as heard on 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine his last Nashville album), 1973’s Shotgun Willie, 1974’s Phases And Stages, and ultimately 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. Even if the songs weren’t all jewels, he was nothing if not prolific. David Zettner told the story walking into a Nashville motel room and finding him passed out with sheets of paper strewn about. The sheets contained the words to “Shotgun Willie”, written in a single frenzy of inspiration.

By covering a collection of pop standards n 1978 for Stardust, still his best-selling album, he transcended country and left Nelson behind, evolving into a general all-purpose icon with a single name: Willie.

It’s been 26 years of smooth operating over since.

Willie Nelson
© Charlyn Zlotnik
Cult Hero: 1977

His comfort level has allowed him to indulge in the weirder side of life. He’s an avid reader of America’s most documented psychic, Edward Cayce, and can quote from Cayce’s writings. There was a time when a psychic surgeon hung around with the Family, performing healing “operations.” He enjoys listening to paranormal radio host Art Bell as much as his pal Merle Haggard does.

The size of his extended Family is nowhere what it was back in the glory days. Back when, his entourage swelled into the hundreds. These days, the Family has been reduced to the core of his band (Mickey Raphael, Bea Spears, Paul English, Billy English, sister Bobbie); his crew, headed by Poodie Locke (who also runs what amounts to Willie’s own personal beer joint, Poodie’s Hilltop, for those times when he needs to reconnect with what brung him to the big dance); and a chosen few close personal friends.

He doesn’t seem to miss leading a bigger parade. Life is much more manageable at this juncture. He’s flexible and nimble enough to pick and choose his spots. He spends almost as much time on the Hawaiian island of Maui as he does in Luck or on the road, in one of the most beautiful spots on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. That’s where his current brood – wife Annie and his youngest kids – lives these days.

“It’s for my boys who are growing up,” he says of the Maui homestead. “They were born around here. And then we moved over there. They’ve gone to the Montessori school here and now they go to the Montessori school over there. They’re doing great. It’s like another small little town. I have a lot of friends there. Don Nelson, the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, is a good friend of mine and we play golf over there all the time. He’s real good and has a lot of money. So he doesn’t mind losing. I say he doesn’t mind. He can afford to lose. I’m sure he minds. We’re more or less back down toward Hana. Me and Kris [Kristofferson] used to ride a lot over by the Hana Ranch. He was living there at the time. Me and my family would stay there and we’d ride over. Saddle up every day and go out and ride. It had 3,000 acres to ride on there."

WHICH MAKES it all the more unusual that he appears to be willing to put the sweet life on hold and gear up to promote It Will Always Be. Maybe it’s because it’s the first album in awhile to hold its own against his 1970s classics. Or maybe it’s largely because of the sense of finality it conveys. There’s no fairy dust, no Rob Thomas or disco whistles, just a collection of songs – three of them his – done straight away. “Tired”, co-written by Toby Keith and Chuck Cannon, may infer weariness, but the title track (one of the Willie originals) reassures. Several cuts are straight-ahead classic country songs, particularly “I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leaving)” and “Big Boody”. He excels best as the ladies’ man, performing spot-on duets with daughter Paula Nelson (who wrote the song they sing, “Be That As It May”), Norah Jones (bringing out her sultriness and jazz strengths in a way her last recording did not), and Lucinda Williams (getting low, lean and wanting on her song “Over Time”). Lucinda and Norah may be the truest Willie disciples of all, applying outsider thinking to recording and performing.

The irony is that It Will Always Be is a classic Nashville production. The Family Band stayed home for this one, with the exception of harmonica player Mickey Raphael. Willie ran down the list of songs he wanted to do with producer James Stroud, who lined up a state-of-Music City roster of studio musicians (including guitarist Brent Mason, keyboardists Matt Rollings and Steve Nathan, bassists Glenn Worf and Michael Rhodes, drummers Shannon Forrest and Eddie Bayers, and steel guitarist Dan Dugmore) Willie walked in and laid down scratch vocals, then did the serious vocals back at his Pedernales studio.

“That has a lot to do with the songs themselves, and the arrangements, and the band that James Stroud put together,” Willie said. “Those guys are great. They played ‘Big Boody’ and they turned around and played with Norah Jones. Those guys are that good. The tracks were cut in Nashville and brought here. I went in and did my vocals over in the studio. Then they took the tapes back to Nashville and Norah came in and recorded, my daughter went in and sang, so did Lucinda. It sounded great.”

He admitted that going back to Nashville broke the typical Willie anti-formula formula. “It was all done kind of different than I normally do things. Usually, we just go over and set up and play. But James Stroud is a good producer. That’s where he shines. I had to put together the songs. He knew the musicians to call. I sent him a scratch vocal of some things, so he knew how it was supposed to go. He played it for the band. Those guys could get the feel of anything.

Willie Nelson
Pedernales Studio, 1996. Photograph by Jim Carrico.

“It’s kind of a ‘the-best-of’ situation because I get to sit here in Austin out in the woods and sing with the great musicians out of Nashville, and I don’t have to fly all the way up there. It almost sounds like cheating to do it that way. But with all the new high-tech things they have, they can do it OK. There’s always a group of guys in Nashville who are the hottest thing going. And if you’re a good producer and really on top of it, you know who they are.”

Since he’s Willie, he was even able to get Sugar Hill Records to agree to hold back the gospel album he recorded with his sister (tentatively titled Farther Along and originally scheduled for summer release, it’s been pushed to an as-yet undetermined date), and to rush Lost Highway’s September 14 release of the DVD of Willie Nelson & Friends: Outlaws And Angels (a superstar concert with Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Bob, Dylan, Kid Rock and others that he taped in Los Angeles last spring for a Memorial Day special on the USA Network).

“Those folks at Lost Highway, they’ve been good,” he said, “so I want to try to give them a good shot.” But Mr. Practicality is hardly wedded to the Nashville assembly-line concept. Given his druthers, he prefers the recording process be kept simple. The attitude reflects the truth that for all the other attributes heaped upon him, Willie is first and foremost a player. And players want to play, not waste time setting up. Emotion trumps technology any day.

“I’m lazy,” he laughed. “So naturally, I like to go right back into the studio there,” he said, nodding to the small spare room, no more than fifteen feet square. “That’s where we did Rainbow Connection and the Ray Price album [last year’s Grammy-nominated Run That By Me One More Time, his first duet album in 23 years with his 77-year-old mentor]. It’s just easy to do. We all gather around like a radio show in there and sing and play around a single microphone.

“I enjoy both ways of making a record. Doing it this way with a guy like James Stroud, Chips Moman, or Fred Foster or someone like that, you turn everything over to him. You get together and say, "These are the songs I want to do and here’s how I want to do them. Next thing you know, you’re doing them in the studio. I enjoy that. On the other hand, I enjoy taking the band or David Zettner and do it simple.”

The big studio down the road, Pedernales – which he lost in 1990 when he was hit with a heavy bill by the IRS, then bought back two years later with a little help from his friends – is busier than ever. “We got Pat Green in there now,” Freddy Fletcher said of the third-generation Texas country outlaw. And Geffen’s mixing down some rap group. Don’t ask me.”

But Willie can walk in whenever he gets a whim?

“It’s getting harder,” Fletcher smiled. “But we manage to move things around to get him in.”

“Having your own studio has its positives and negatives,” Willie said. “The good thing is, you can go do anything you want to, anytime you want to. The bad part is you can’t put them out, you know, because you can only put so many things out.”

Like, say, more than 2,000 finished tracks in the can. Some are with Shelby Lynne (“She can sing. God, she can sing”), some with fiddle maestro Johnny Gimble, several albums’ worth with Merle Haggard, and countless others with his cutting and putting partner David Zettner. “We’re still stumbling across things we have over there,” he says.

Which explained why he’s in no rush to do more. “I don’t want to record right now,” he said. “I don’t want to record until I can play.”

TWO DAYS after our talk, Willie played at Ray Charles’ funeral in Los Angeles, performing Charles’ signature piece, “Georgia On My Mind”, the official state song of Georgia. Willie could hardly get through the performance. His voice intermittently cracked with emotion; he sounded spent and very, very blue. But B.B. King broke up while performing during the service too.

Willie Nelson
It Was A Very Good Year: Willie Nelson and Ray Charles. Photograph courtesy Rhino Home Video.

The bond was cemented long before Willie ever met Brother Ray. “I was playing clubs in Houston back when ‘What’d I Say?’ and ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ were big,” he recalls. “I loved him, all those songs. Jimmy Day could play any Ray Charles song,” he adds, referring to his longtime pal and steel guitar legend who died in 1999. The impact Charles made with the release of Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music in 1962 was not unlike what Willie did to country with Shotgun Willie and Stardust a decade later legitimizing the music to the outside world as a cool sound that had soul.

A close friend said Charles was Willie’s hero. It showed when he talked about him. “We played chess a lot,” Willie said. “He kicked my ass more than once and enjoyed it, I guess, better than anybody. We was playing down here one time, we’d done a show together and he was staying over at a hotel. I went over to visit him and he invited me to play chess. I said, ‘Sure.’ And I kind of thought to myself, ‘OK, I’ll play chess.’ The hallway was nice and bright and everything. We walked into where the table was and sat down. And not a light on anywhere. Then Ray brought out his chess set. All the pieces were the same color. It was a Braille chess set, where he could feel the pieces and play. And he kicked my ass really bad. Of course, in the dark, it’s hard to play. I made him promise me the next time we’d turn on some lights.

“We talked a little bit about music whenever it came time to decide what we wanted to do together. I could be in one country and he could be in another. Whenever they asked him what he wanted to do, he’d say, ‘Whatever Willie wants to do. Have Willie call me.’ So I’d always call him. And whatever I wanted to do, he would do it. But it was mutual.”

At least he’d had time to say his goodbyes. “We did a song together in the studio in April, ‘It Was A Very Good Year’; we had some fun.” The song, about aging and looking back, is included on Genius Loves Company, an album of Charles duets released by Concord August 31.

“[Last year] I was at his birthday party. He and Quincy Jones and two, three of us sat around and talked and had a drink and ate cake. Right after that I went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem for the anniversary of the theater and Ray got a tribute that night. I sang ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’.

“You know, there are a lot of younger people than you and I already gone on,” he told me with a soft sigh. “So it has nothing to do with age. There’s those huge disasters that happen on the planet when 20,000 people get wiped out, and there’s no age preferences there. We’re all headed that way.”

I COULDN’T wait any longer. I blurted out a question: What ever happened to “Whatever Happened To Peace On Earth?”

Last December, on Christmas Day, Willie was moved to write an anti-war protest song. It became a much-talked-about news item for a couple of news cycles, an impressive feat considering the song hadn’t even been recorded when it became news; it was just a lyric sheet. But as quickly as it appeared, it vanished from the public eye. Had he been pressured to back off at the risk of being Dixie Chicked?

The question I had been hesitant to ask got him going.

Willie Nelson
Night Life: Ray Price and Willie Nelson, July 4, 2000. Photograph by John Carrico.

“Well, I decided I didn’t want to make money out of it,” he explains. “I did make it available on the internet,” he said. (Words, lyrics, an MP3 audio of a simple performance, and a video of the song can be found at: www.kucinich.us/nelson_ poe_song.php) “Or you can go to SMN.com and hear me sing ‘The War Prayer’ and ‘Jimmy’s Road’; all those songs are there.

“The Democratic Party called and asked if they could include the song on the CD they’re putting together of anti-war songs, anti-administration songs. The Democrats think that my song should fit in there. And I said, ‘Go ahead. Because I don’t want any money out of it.’ But I still believe everything that’s in there.

“I don’t care about airplay. I knew it wouldn’t get airplay because I know that there’s hundreds of channels out there who are on the other side. They might play it and ridicule it a little bit. That’s why I didn’t send them a copy. I knew there was a couple of lines in there that might piss off a few folks. But if it didn’t do that, I’d failed in what I was trying to do, which was to get the message across that what we’re doing and the direction we’re going is not right.

“In the song, I said a lot of things. You remember a long time ago when we heard all that, ‘Don’t believe anything you read, about half of what you see, and nothing you hear?’ That’s pretty much true. And if it was true back then, it’s damned sure double true today. You can’t believe what you hear. You can’t believe what you see. So there you are.

“You have to start using your intuitions to say, ‘What do I really feel about this? Do I like killing people? Do I like jumping on other people and taking over their oil and just killing whoever I want to kill to get it and justifying it by saying, ‘We’re freeing you folks?’ No, I can’t go along with that.

“When that song was getting all the flack, some guy called me in San Antonio when I was doing one of those call-in radio shows. On the show, I was talking about the line, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ He called up and he said, ‘That really doesn’t mean that. That means under certain conditions, it’s OK.’

“I said, ‘Well, you know, I think way back when, God knew how to spell. So if He says, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ that’s what He meant. He could have said, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless You Have A Very Good Reason.’

“If the churches in the world are set up to bring about peace on earth, where are they at now? I mean, whose side are they on? How can they be for peace on earth and still say, ‘Let’s attack anybody who don’t like us, let’s force them into being Halliburton employees. It’s the best thing for them.’ You can’t drop 150,000 troops down in Oklahoma City and say, ‘OK, guys, here we are. We like that old oil over there.’

“When He said, ‘Peace on earth,’ was he just kidding? Isn’t that really what we’re supposed to be trying to do? I mean, are we going to put peace on earth on the back burner while we go over and take over a few countries? And then it will be peace on earth?”

He’s doing his part by voting with his pocketbook, and his lifestyle. “My wife and I are driving cars that operate on vegetable oil,” he offered. “The exhaust smells like french fries. On Maui there are several hundred cars now that run on vegetable oil. Neil Young’s buses are running on vegetable oil. When I go out again, we’re going to be running on vegetable oil. Because it’s available and it’s no more expensive and it’s not screwing up the environment. There are so many reasons to do it. Fifty years from now there won’t be any oil according to all the geniuses out there.

“There’s a solar well out here that’s running the whole town out here, running the well. I’m putting up a 100-foot windmill to do electric, to run the house and anything else it will run. I’m experimenting with all these things because I know we’re running out of oil and we’re running out of this, that and the other. The wind and the sun are good alternatives.”

THERE’S SOME irony, then, that Willie’s first chart action in too long a time was his duet last year with Toby Keith. “Beer For My Horses” was a change of pace for both Nelson and Keith, who has injected patriotism into his music in the same manner as otherwise undistinguished talents such as Lee Greenwood and Gary Morris. Keith’s 2003 album Shock’n Y’all went quadruple-platinum.

Willie Nelson
Philadelphia Lawyer: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, July 4, 2003. Photograph by John Carrico.

“That’s part of what he does onstage, is he sings these kind of songs,” Willie said of Keith, whom he regards as a friend. “And that’s fine. But it’s not what I’ve ever done. I think I may have sung ‘Jimmy’s Road’ [the antiwar soldier’s song he wrote in the early ’90s for his album Who’ll Buy My Memories? The IRS Tapes] a time or two on the stage. But I don’t really want to get in there and divide the audience. I’d like to try to do everything I can to keep them together.

“Everybody likes ‘Stardust’. Everybody likes ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’. Everybody likes ‘Beer For My Horses’. You can take music and use music to please anybody anywhere, I do believe, regardless of whether you’re a Republican or Democrat?’

That understanding allows him to sympathize with the dilemma President George W. Bush faces. “People think they know that they can blame anything in the world on whoever has took on the job as the president. It’s a stupid move for anybody to make, to run for president. Because what do you do when you win? You got everybody in the world firing at you. Honestly, for eight years he was governor here and I never saw him. He was a great governor. He said a couple of nice things about me one time. So I had no problem. I don’t know how they talked him into running for the president.”

That doesn’t hold him back from championing a very different politician. For most of the past year, he’s been one of the highest-profile celebrity backers of Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, an underdog from the very beginning and an underdog to the end. “He’s a good guy, a good man. He’s standing up for the right things,” Willie said. “He’s not an insider. He does all right in Ohio. They know who he is there. But in order for him to break into that league up there, it’s gonna take a little more time. And maybe he doesn’t want to break into that league.

“The reason he stayed in there and went around talking to people is that he wants the Democratic Party to keep some of its values, some of the things that it’s known for. You got to hand it to him for that. I think Kerry should meet with Dennis and see how a portion of the party feels. I’m not a Democrat; I’m not a Republican. But I am interested.” Even as he backed Kucinich as long as the congressman was a declared candidate, Willie raised money for John Kerry, doing a charity concert in Los Angeles with Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond.

He’s also remained active with Farm Aid, the organization he co-founded with Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985 to champion the family farmer. For all the high-profile publicity brought by Farm Aid concerts, it’s been an uphill battle, he admits.

“We have fewer farmers now. We used to have 8 million. Now we’re less than 2 million. We’re losing 300 to 500 a week,” he noted. “And that’s the plan of the powers that be. That’s the way that it’s set up. Because they think fewer and bigger is better. I know that’s not the truth. I know that when you take a farmer off his land, you also take him out of his home. That’s just not the same deal. When you’re talking about land that we’re feeding our kids on, we need to know that it’s done by somebody who feeds their kids on that land, drinks from the same water. And that’s not the way it’s happening.”

He’s sincere enough about those beliefs to set an example. “We have an organic garden up here that Ed and the guys have been working on all year,” he explained. “We’ve got all kinds of vegetables, tomatoes and peppers over there come right out of that. These peaches here are from Fredricksburg down the road. The more people read the papers and watch the news and see what’s going on in the food industry, they begin to say, ‘I used to couldn’t spell organic but, you know, now I need some.”

In a stroke of good timing, Ed delivered a plate of boiled cabbage, fresh from the garden, to the bar.

While he ate his cabbage, Willie detailed how the same forces that have squeezed the family farmer off the land are squeezing folks like him off the radio. “You know, they’re not playing outlaw music that much anymore. And so they’re not getting outlaw commentary anymore. Most of the stations are owned by large corporations who program their music in Connecticut or somewhere. I remember the days when I could take a handful of records and go into San Antonio, Austin, and walk into the radio station and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be here in ten days, will you play my records?’ ‘Sure, man,’ the disc jockey would say. He’d put it on and play the record. Ten days later I’d get a nice crowd over at the Broken Spoke.

“You can’t do that anymore. One of the problems that I find with radio is that it’s controlled by too few people. There are a few stations around that, you know, are still trying to do it the old way. And that’s fine. And I think eventually it will win out. Because I don’t think you can control music that much.”

But he’s hardly crying in his beer about airplay.

“I’m very fortunate to have all this,” he said, surveying the room. “Honestly, it’s a day-to-day, a moment-to-moment thing. Things will be all right now, but then in a second there will be a lot of unfinished business. So it’s just a day-to-day. There’s too much going on. I’m thinking about doing some things out here.

Willie Nelson
Honeysuckle Rose

“Remember those Tales Out Of Luck shows? [Willie and friends, including Merle Haggard, filmed a series of cowboy shoot-’em-up short movies in Luck.] There’s some folks out of England who have a DVD company, they want to distribute some more of those. So we’re going to shoot some more. I thought I would do one around the song Cowboy Blues’ about the old cowboy who’s laying there at night wondering if he still can. I thought that would be a good one. You remember ‘A Horse Called Music’? Just get some songs like that and ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’.

Although the peak of his film career came with the lead role in Honeysuckle Rose in 1980, followed by Red Headed Stranger in 1987 – movies in which he pretty much played himself, albeit coming off a tad more wooden than he does in real life – he’s matured into a very credible character actor through more recent cameos in films such as Wag The Dog, a full episode of the TV detective series Monk, and a string of commercials including a major ad campaign for the Gap. His memorable line “My face is burning!” while sitting in a barber’s chair in the 2003 Super Bowl commercial for H&R Block has been eclipsed by his most recent TV turn for Capital Metro in Austin, which touts alternatives to driving your car. The spot opens with James White of the Broken Spoke, Austin’s historic honky-tonk, standing onstage and announcing Willie before looking around and mumbling to no one in particular, “Y’all seen Willie?” The scene cuts to Willie sitting n the back of his bus stalled in traffic, saying to no one in particular, “Are we there yet?”

“I may not be any better at acting, but I’m more comfortable in it,” he said. “We’re working with New Line to do a movie. I just met with the writer. Years ago I bought a script called Tougher Than Leather from the boxer and actor Tex Cobb and a friend of his in Philadelphia. We were going to do this movie with me and Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Fairchild, and Tex. It evolved from Diamonds In The Rough to Blood Diamonds, then another rewrite and another rewrite. But right now New Line is rewriting it again to do sometime late this year or next year. They’re doing all the work and we just come down and set up.”

I was getting comfortable enough to get personal and ask him how it felt, being in a room surrounded by your own image staring back at you. Was it weird, as my friend insisted it was?

“Well, you know, I look around the room here and think of a lot of good times and a lot of good memories,” he said. “If nothing else, sitting around and looking at these pictures is a good enough reason to be here. It’s nice to come back in here and look around and see where you’ve been.

“You want to go upstairs and see what it looks like?” he asked. “I haven’t been up there in awhile.”

On my previous visits, I assumed the stairs were fake, leading to nowhere, like a movie set. But these were real stairs. Halfway up the staircase, he stopped to show me his hidey hole, a crawl space built into the wall. ‘It’s my escape hatch if I need it,” he smiled. He wasn’t kidding.

The upstairs was hot and empty, lacking air conditioning or much sign of life. The main room was bare, save for a painting of Willie that appeared to be of mid-1970s vintage and a wood-cut portrait of Waylon Jennings, the only Waylon memorabilia I spotted in the saloon.

Another room had gym equipment and boxing gear – two speed bags, a headache bag, and several big bags. This is where he works out when he can, practicing martial arts and living up to the black belt he earned from an Austin instructor named Master Oh three years ago.

I hit the speed bag with one hand for a few reps.

“It’s probably out of air,” Willie said.

He was right. It was almost deflated.

I turned around just in time to witness Willie kicking one of the heavy bags. It wasn’t just a swipe, like mine was. It was a hard, swift kick.

Whap!

Then he did it again. Whap! And again. Whap! Whap! And again. Whap, whap, whap, whap.

Every time the bag swung around after absorbing a blow, he kicked it again, hitting the sweet spot in the middle. Willie Nelson kicked the shit of out of the bag for two minutes straight, hard enough and relentlessly enough for me to quickly conclude I don’t ever want to get in a street fight with him, no matter how old he is.

Which is the point.

The kickboxing demo convinced me he was neither old nor feeble. And he sure ain’t dead. There is a whole lot more to him than I’d given him credit for.

Final visit, my ass. As I left Luck, Willie made that clear.

“See you back here again,” he said.

Joe Nick Patoski’s first article on Willie Nelson appeared in Zoo World magazine. He has written about him for Rolling Stone, Country Music, Picking Up The Tempo, Texas Monthly, The Austin Sun, and other publications.

Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression. Order Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from Amazon here.

Those seeking all things Willie should visit willienelson.com and stillisstillmoving.com.


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Walk Like Cleto

Chingo BlingWalk Like Cleto

Austin Chronicle
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 11, 2004

H-town’s Chingo Bling, hip-hop’s Tamale King.

The oversized football jersey, diamond-studded braces on his teeth, and hubcap-sized medallion around his neck with his name emblazoned in silver are straight outta south side Houston, the H-town underground, hip-hop epicenter of the Dirty South. So are the tracks full of chopped beats, hot DJ mixes, and improvised freestyles about supersized egos, insatiable sexual prowess, nasty ho’s, name-brand labels, and hustling on the street.

By contrast, the black cowboy hat, aviator mirror shades, leather duster jacket, rodeo belt buckle, and full quill ostrich botas are not. These icons belong to the northern Mexico vaquero and the Culiacán narcotraficante, not the gangstas on the bloque. In lieu of Hummers and pit bulls, his status symbols are pickup troques and fighting cocks (Cleto’s the name, fighting’s his game, and he drinks from a bowl with his name spelled out in diamonds). Mainstream MCs rap about slanging crack while doing the hustle, but this vato raps about slanging tamales, like his parents did, to get ahead. Cocaine, pork – it’s all the same.

Chingo Bling is multiculti Texas in full 21st-century glory. The Mexicanismo edge instantly makes him one of the most intriguing, original, and hilarious hip-hop acts ever to blow up out of the Lone Star State. In Chingo Bling’s mundo, shit is chit, shout-outs are chout-outs, DVDs are DBDs, and videos are bideos. Under the clowning and cussing, boasting and toasting, there’s a message that bears contemplation, even if beats aren’t your thing. Even when he’s shilling, urging fans visiting his Web site to call their favorite radio stations to request “Walk Like Cleto,” Chingo Bling’s voicing hard truths:

“Fact: Latinos are the largest minority in the United States.

“Fact: Radio stations target Latinos for their advertising dollars.

“Fact: What you request doesn’t always get played.

“Latinos are being: targeted, overlooked, exploited, undervalued.”

The weathered ranch-style tract house on a busy thoroughfare near Gulfgate in southeast Houston hardly looks like a media empire in the making. Burglar bars cover the windows. A pickup is parked on the front lawn. Vendors push their carts in the streets. A grill at a nearby bus terminal advertises hamburguesas estilo Monterrey – hamburgers made the authentic Nuevo Leon way, just like home.

Inside this unassuming residence it’s all business. Somebody’s laying down tracks with Pro Tools in the small studio. The webmaster (www.chingobling.com) monitors traffic on the fan forum, which is getting 30,000 hits a week. Three guys stuff mailers with CDs, T-shirts (T-churts), posters, and merchandise. Sister Dalila is working the phones, doing her part to make Chingo Bling the biggest Tex-Mex hip-hop star on the planet.

Not that there’s lots of competition. South Park Mexican, the biggest Tejano/Mexicano MC to date, is still cooling his heels in the can after being convicted of having sex with a minor. Kumbia Kings, the Corpus Christi act headed by A.B. Quintanilla III, the brother of the late Tejano superstar Selena, have boy band aspirations, not rap dreams. Cali Latino hip-hoppers Akwid don’t resonate with Texicans.

Plopping down in the captain’s chair in front of the studio mixing board, Chingo Bling removes his shades and reveals Pedro Herrera III, a twentysomething with a degree in business administration from Trinity University in San Antonio, which produced the Butthole Surfers.

“Pedro – that’s my business side,” he explains. “As Chingo, I say what the fuck I want. Pedro’s in charge of the career. Chingo pays the bills. Chingo’s out of hand sometimes.”

The schtick comes honestly. His father and mother emigrated from Valle Hermosa in northern Tamaulipas to Houston. At 13, he was declared a youth at risk and sent on scholarship to a prestigious prep school in New Jersey. At Trinity, he focused on marketing and pulled a shift at the college radio station, KRTU.

“I was just a regular jock, but I’d say, ‘My cousin Chingo’s in town,’ and all the phones would light up.”

He started making mix tapes, rhyming and burning CDs a couple years ago, selling them out of the trunk of his car at flea markets and mom-and-pop record shops.

“I had no expectations, no pressure. It was me in my apartment thinking, ‘I’m going to pay my phone bill with these 12 mix tapes I’m trying to sell.’ You never know.”

Since then, he’s returned to his hood, releasing two CDs and three Mañosas bideos, a Chicano version of Girls Gone Wild. On May 5, ‘Chingo’ de Mayo, he dropped his latest CD, The Tamale Kingpin. He’s also done bideos on making tamales with a tamale queen, and put out The Adventures of Chingo & Bash, a smoke-out road trip in the tradition of Cheech & Chong with his partner in rhyme Baby Bash. If nothing else, he’s representing in a novel way.

“In rap, everybody’s shouting out their name, shouting out their neighborhood, their part of town,” he explains, “but nobody’s representing the town their parents are from. That’s what I did. I’m proud of Valle Hermosa, Tamaulipas. You hear me saying, ‘North Tamaulipas, raise up!’ Kids tell me no one’s done that before. I’m telling our story.”

Since the collapse of Southwest Wholesale, the distributor that nurtured the indie scene in Houston, acts like Chingo Bling have had no choice but to work outside the box. He makes being independent a point of pride, bragging on the cover of an earlier CD that “Bootleggers Avoid Him, Labels Can’t Afford Him, Women All Adore Him.” He tours (Boise, Phoenix, Portland, and Albuquerque), gets ink in publications like Lowrider and Murder Dog, and settles for radio play where he can find it.

“I’m stuck [being played] on Sunday nights. It’s our curse, the Latino curse. Sunday is the day we barbecue, the day we picnic, the day we cruise, the day we get airplay. But don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the play.”

He’s done the math.

“We’re rabbits,” he laughs. “The DNA of America is changing daily. Places where there weren’t many Mexicans, where there weren’t many oranges to pick, are full of Mexicans now. I feel like we’re on the brink of what hip-hop was when it first started. What’s the word I’m looking for? Exponential growth!

“With so many of us here, so many multiplying, and still my cousins coming over, somebody’s got to make movies for us, somebody’s got to make DVDs, somebody’s got to entertain us. I doubt it’s going to be the old fat guy in New York who works for NBC. I think I’m going to beat him to the punch.”

He cites New Orleans cottage industry Master P and Austin’s cinematic big dog Robert Rodriguez as role models.

“I learned the independent route from Master P. His movie I’m Bout It started the whole direct-to-video B-film black-action urban-drama explosion that’s taking up all the shelf space at Blockbuster. They’re cutting checks to whoever will bring them the next cholo movie, Barrio Weekend, Lowrider Summer, or gangster flick with two brothers going across.

“Rodriguez is a player. The studios, which are like record labels, want to own him and get what they can out of him, so he can produce and become part of the machine. But he won’t play by the rules. ‘You guys in Hollywood are too traditional; you overspend. Your movies aren’t profitable. I’m going to set up shop out of my house in Austin and cut out so many middlemen.’ That’s slowly what we’re doing here.

“There’s so much more to being independent than just getting $8 a CD instead of 75 cents. When you’re with a major, they tell you, ‘This is your release date.’ They’re going to walk me down the hallway. ‘This is Susie, she’s going to be doing your artwork. This is Josh, Michael, and William – they’re your marketing team.’ They’re going to misspend money, and I’m going to have to pay for it.”

He prefers working the tamale angle.

“My dad sold tamales at his job for 30 years. He would take my mom’s tamales to work and sell them. I know people who’ve been able to quit their construction jobs and set up shop, selling tamales. That’s the spirit of hip-hop – the hustler. ‘I’m cooking this, wrapping that, selling this.’ That’s a hustler and a half.

“People don’t think selling tamales is an honest living. Why do they look up to drug dealers? Because they’re entrepreneurs and independent and they’re living lives? Hey, if that’s the case, I’ll sell tamales and I ain’t got no permit. I’m on the corner, too. I got my Igloo.”

[Walk Like Cleto in the Austin Chroncicle]


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Up Close and Texan

Los Angeles TimesUp Close and Texan

The Los Angeles Times
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 30, 2004

Visitors for the big ‘fooba’ game have their own ways. So listen up, all y’all.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the sudden appearance of 40,000 or so strange-looking tourists in Pasadena and nearby environs – the ones in burnt-orange golf outfits with big hats and big hair that block your views of the San Gabriels.

If you’ve leaned in close trying to decipher the language they’re speaking, you might have overheard phrases like “fooba” or “purtier’n Tyler.” And if you’ve followed them, you’ve noticed how they get excited about the prospect of horses clopping down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day and go gaga about the Gap in Old Town Pasadena because it’s nothing like the Gap back home.

These visitors are called Texans, a breed apart from the usual out-of-towners from the Midwest who typically materialize around this time of year. But this particular group is hardly composed of your run-of-the-mill, boot-scooting, Wrangler-wearing, pickup-driving, yee-hawing Texans. Rather, they are devotees of the Longhorns of the University of Texas (a.k.a. “The University”) in a state where the only two sports that matter are football and spring football.

We Texans are by nature an exuberant, friendly and sometimes obnoxious lot. But this bunch is really over the top. Forgive them their arrogance (at least that which is not inherent), because they’ve never been to the Rose Bowl before and it’s been a long, long time since they’ve been to any big bowl game.

Like all Texans, they speak with a pronounced accent that is sometimes hard to understand, a point driven home a few weeks ago at a bookstore in Michigan where I was searching for a copy of Life magazine.

“Laugh magazine?” the clerk said, shooting a funny look. “Never heard of it.”

You might think you’re hearing “techsuhsfaht” repeatedly, but that’s really “Texas fight” with a severe drawl.

You will also notice their tendency to blurt out “Hook ’em!” and make odd little waving gestures whenever they encounter a fellow tourist.This arthritic expression of raised index and little fingers, with the middle and ring fingers held down with the thumb, is not a gang sign nor a heavy-metal rock-on signal. This is an affectionate shadow-puppet version of a Longhorn, the UT mascot, summoned to demonstrate faith that UT will gore the University of Michigan’s Wolverines on Saturday.

If they suddenly turn somber, as if they’re having a patriotic moment, it is advisable to give them plenty of space. The school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” is a celebration of paranoia. Of course, you’d be paranoid too if you went around singing, “Do not think you can escape them/ Rise up so early in the morn/ The Eyes of Texas are upon you/ Till Gabriel blows his horn.”

Although more than a few of these UT boosters are in the oil and gas “bidness,” which plays to the old Texas stereotype, many of the really serious fat cats reflect modern Texas’ diversity. Their numbers include a character who is really named Jim Bob, who owns the world’s biggest gold mine; the Dallas takeover artist who made George W. Bush a millionaire by paying him too much for his baseball team; a car dealer whose real name is Billy Joe but prefers to be called Red, who also happens to own an NFL team on the side; and the Houston lawyer who beat Pennzoil out of more than $1 billion in a lawsuit and has since spent so much of that loot on his alma mater that university officials have erected not one, but two statues in his likeness on campus. If you run into any of the above, there may be some benefit in placating them, like a really big tip.

To avoid offending the visitors, it’s best to avoid addressing them as “you guys.” Always refer to them as “y’all” except when referring to a group of them, when the proper reference is “all y’all.” When in doubt, just give a knowing wink and smile and say, “yewbet.”

Under no circumstances try to pander by suggesting the visitors sample the local Mexican food or barbecue – the California versions just don’t cut it with this crowd and never will, no matter how much sour cream and avocado you pile on. As far as Texas fans are concerned, California is all bean sprouts and tofu anyway. Better to offer a really big steak. A side of beef is hard to mess up.

And don’t talk politics or energy price gouging. If you must bring up a famous W. from Texas, better to discuss Willie (as in Nelson) than the president. The latter is embraced as a native son (even though he is in fact an Eastern blueblood born in Connecticut) mainly because he says “noo-cul-lar.”

Which is another great thing about Texans. Anyone can be one. Declaring yourself a Texan is all the roots you’ll ever need. It’s like the popular bumper sticker says: “I Wasn’t Born in Texas but I Got Here as Fast as I Could.”

And if Texcess seems a tad overbearing, remember, it could be Texas A&M playing in the Rose Bowl instead. The University of Texas is in Austin, a blue island in a red-state sea that is frequently described by the rest of Texas as the People’s Republic of Austin.

Aggies, by comparison, are the Lone Star bund, partial to military uniforms, knee-high leather boots and severe buzz cuts. Their “traditions” include spending the whole football game standing up with their hands on their knees, as if straining at stool. Fortunately, for UT fans and Californians alike, the Longhorns regularly whip the Aggies in football.

So all y’all make the best of this weekend. It could be worse. Honest.

[The Los Angeles Times]


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Stay All Night

Stay All Night – Buddy Holly’s Country Roots

Stay All NightWest Texas Roots
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2004

Buddy Holly took the world by storm when he broke out of Lubbock, Texas in 1957. His singing and playing was the freshest version of rock and roll to come down the line. It was as if his music had come out of a vacuum from somewhere in the middle of the proverbial nowhere. But locals knew better. Before there was Buddy Holly, the all-American rock and roll hero, there was Buddy Holly, the good ol’ boy from the Hub City of the south plains know for his style of Western Bop. That was a nice way of saying that the hormone-addled nitro-fueled teenager played western, honky tonk, and western swing music with way too much energy and enthusiasm to pigeonhole him as plain old country. Countless hours of picking and singing went into polishing, honing, and embellishing his sound that would later become an international sensation.

Stay All Night – Buddy Holly’s Country Roots is the first historical accounting of how Holly got where he did, performed by those who knew Holly best: Buddy’s bandmates; Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch, and Larry Welborn, and Buddy’s earliest professional collaborator Jack Neal. They are joined by the Texas Playboys, that swinging big band led by Bob Wills from down the road in Turkey, Texas. Adding to the account are Buddy’s brothers and mentors, Larry and Travis Holley, and his contemporaries Al Perkins and Billy Grammer. Featured also are a new generation of stars from Lubbock – the Flatlanders; Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock; and some Holly disciples from far beyond Lubbock including Robert Reynolds from the Mavericks, and blues masters Judy Luis-Watson and Paul Watson. Together these players weave the cultural heritage of West Texas through the thread of this music. Each and every song is an old familiar tune for those who grew up in Buddy Holly’s place and time. Some are jukebox standards, others dancehall favorites. A few drifted in on static airwaves from faraway radio stations in Shreveport and Nashville. Two are previously unreleased tracks by Buddy Holly and Jack Neal as performed for their radio show on Lubbock station KDAV. Each and every track tells a piece of the story about how the torch was passed to the kid with horn-rimmed glasses, and how that torch has been passed on to others.

Stay All Night is more than the name of a song. It’s more than an album title for a collection of soulful, heartfelt songs that could have been made nowhere but Texas.

Stay All Night is a celebration of a talent like no one before or since, the talent that nourished Buddy, and the talent he’s inspired since, from Lubbock, Texas to the entire planet.

[More About West Texas Roots]


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The Ride – Los Lobos

The Ride – Los Lobos

Los Lobos - The RideHarp Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September/October 2004

When it comes to defining American music over the past quarter century, no band comes close to Los Lobos. It would be understandable, given their long track record, if they slacked off now and then, as The Ride’s lengthy lineup of guest artists including Cafe Tacuba, Bobby Womack, Ruben Blades, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Mavis Staples and Garth Hudson seems to suggest. (What? Rob Thomas wasn’t available?). But fears of sliding into complacency are alleviated from the first throaty honk of Steve Berlin’s bari sax on "La Venganza de Los Pelados," the opening track on which Los Lobos flash their Mexicanismo credentials all the way through the last note of "Chains of Love." Sure the guests gussy up the proceedings, particularly Elvis’ turn on "Matter of Time" and Mavis Staples’ soaring vocals on "Someday." But it’s tracks like "Rita"√Ďall atmosphere, introspection, with no outside help whatsoever-that make this more than just another album from just another band from East L.A.. With Los Lobos in charge, music doesn’t get any better than this in these United States.

[Los Lobos] [Hollywood Records] [Harp Magazine]


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The Resentments

Sunday Evening Coming Down

The Resentments
The Resentments (left to right) Bruce Hughes, Stepen Bruton, Jon Dee Graham, Jud Newcomb. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

No Depression
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March-April 2004

How the Resentments rose from under-the-radar lark to become a real band with a higher place and purpose.

LIKE NEARLY ALL significant events that contributed to making and defining Austin’s music community, the Resentments were unintended.

The original idea was just a cool deal on Sunday nights a casual little musical get together on the one night nobody was working. The rules were simple: no rehearsals, ever. As long as two players showed up, it was an official gig.

The idea was born five years ago, when Joe Ables, the owner of the semi-legendary South Austin music joint known as the Saxon Pub, was strategizing how to bring in a few warm bodies on the deadest night of the week. Somewhere along the way, Ables consulted Stephen Bruton, the guitarist, singer, composer, producer and Fort Worth cat with the Kristofferson/Raitt/Dylan pedigree, who off lived a couple miles farther south just South Lamar and had adopted the club as a home base.

Bruton had developed something of an affection for the room. It had all the basic necessities – a horseshoe bar, sixteen tables, three booths, a low, postage-stamp-sized stage in the corner where the big-screen TV usually is – and was far enough off the beaten path, yet close enough to home.

“Saxon Pub is the most unhip place to play,” Bruton says. “But the first time I went in, I fell in love with the place when this guy materialized through the haze of cigarette smoke and with this raspy voice, quoted from ‘Too Many Memories’ [a song from Bruton’s 1993 album What It Is], telling me I nailed the third verse.”

An early-evening Sunday show would give him a forum to test new songs, let others try theirs out, and play lots of acoustic guitar, something he hadn’t done with much regularity since his early days with Kris Kristofferson. Since Bruton had inherited the Doug Sahm chair as Local Wise Man Who’s Been There and Done That and didn’t mind sharing his experiences with his youngers, he quickly rounded up a quorum of like- minded old-school writers and players.

The Resentments
Sunday Night Line-Up: The Resentments onstage at the Saxon Pub, December 2003 Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

The initial crew included well-known country singer Hal Ketehum, who also happened to be a frustrated drummer, on drums; Keith Carper, a veteran Austin bassist; David Holt, a gifted and notorious hotshot hired-gun guitarist; and Jon Dee Graham, an equally gifted and notorious guitarist who was becoming better known as a singer-songwriter with a gravel-road growl and a growing list of impressive solo albums.

Bruton picked the name the Resentments. “Geoff Muldaur’s daughter in New York had a band called the Resentments. I thought it was such a great name, what better way to honor it than to steal it?” he reasoned.

Over the course of the next year, everyone except Bruton and Graham dropped out because of work demands, other gigs, or relocating. Their shoes were more than ably filled.

Mambo John Treanor came first. His musical roots in Austin were planted deepest, going hack to his gig as freeform percussionist for Beto y los Fairlanes, whose weekly gigs at Liberty Lunch in the late 1970s set the stage for the making of a scene. Treanor was an Austin original, a devotee of the city’s famous Barton Springs swimming hole who fashioned hats out of roadkill, served time for growing pot, and played with just about everyone in town at one time or another (notably the Vanguards, Jazzmanian Devil, Marcia Ball, Abra Moore, Guy Forsyth and 47 Times Its Own Weight).

Next came Scrappy Jud Newcomb, the guitarist, singer-songwriter and producer (Beaver Nelson) who wears his undisputed championship belt as the Most Insatiable Gig Dawg in Austin with pride. Bruton entered Scrappy’s radar as producer of two albums by Loose Diamonds, the band that was Newcomb’s calling-card into the Austin scene.

They hit it off. Scrappy is Bruton twenty years younger, with a spare, muscular picking style and a curiosity for and appreciation of obscure traditional folk and blues as much as mainstream rock ‘n’ roll, plus movie-star good looks.

Last to sign on was Bruce Hughes, the utility bass player who rode into prominence with the stridently eclectic Poi Dog Pondering (who around 1990 were Austin’s best selling recording band), played and recorded with practically everybody, and knew Bruton from Lonelyland, one of two bands Hughes plays in that is fronted by Bob Schneider (who over the past five years has sold more CDs locally than any single Austin artist, including Willie).

Somewhere over the following couple years, between getting comfortable with one another, playing weekly rounds of songwriter show-and-tell, trying on a number of offbeat, oddball covers pulled out of the attic, and trading licks, the three guitarists, one bassist, and multidimensional percussionist gelled into a real band. Treanor’s death from cancer in 2001 sealed the deal, giving the Resentments motivation to continue and take it to the next level. Somewhere along the way, the casual gig has become something else.

YOU COULD DESCRIBE the Resentments as an Austin-scale version of the Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Steve Stills Supersession group hatched in the late ’60s, four decades later – a reason for three guitarists from varying backgrounds to get together, play, and show what they know.

But I sure won’t. To compare them to that diminishes the breadth and scope these guys cover. The bassist brings songs to the table too, and they’re pushed by an exceptional drummer, John Chipman, who used to set up Mambo’s kit and managed to replace the drummer who couldn’t be replaced, the guy who gave this weekly gathering meaning and purpose.

They sure didn’t hype it. Everyone has enough work to sustain their chosen career paths as musicians, thank you, and digs what they do for a living. Still, comparisons to everyone from Crosby, Stills & Nash to the Traveling Wilburys, the Texas Tornados, the official and unofficial versions of the Outlaws, and The Band can be justified. There’s more to this weekly little off-night get-together than meets the eye.

It starts with the genuine, authentic feel of the songs – collectively, this quintet carries more songwriters than any other collaborative venture in town. In this setup, their roles as sidemen are as crucial as their composing skills. Throwing a song into the ring every three or four turns that can stand up to the ones your compatriots are throwing in, and then reverting to backup role, is as hard as, if not harder than, fronting your own band for the night.

Once they get comfy on their stools, they demonstrate an exceptional grasp of the songwriting craft, a deep well of musical knowledge, and a mastery of the tricky ability to ply the tools of their trade in a listening environment and still manage to scorch the paint off any empty stools every now and then. It all wraps up neatly by 10 p.m., usually capped with a nice little fire-power drill by the three-guitar volunteer army, Graham embellishing the demonstration with searing shots of lap steel ricocheting around the room.

“People come up to me all the time and say this reminds them of Austin before there was a scene,” Bruton told me.

I know I can trace the off-night tradition as far back as 1971, when Freda & the Firedogs, the group fronted by Marcia Ball that is regarded as the first bunch of longhairs in Austin who could play authentic country, held forth at the Split Rail, a no-cover joint on South Lamar that would draw spillover crowds on Sunday nights.

It’s endured over the years in others forms and fashions: Blue Mondays with Storm at the One Knite, the Tuesday Night Cobra Club at Soap Creek, Tuesdays at Liberty Lunch with Beto y los Fairlanes, Blue Mondays with the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the Rome Inn, Tex Thomas’ Sunday night services at Hut’s, the Scabs at Antone’s on Tuesdays, Toni Price’s Tuesday early-evening Hippie Hours at the Continental. None, however, started quite so accidentally or blew up into something so substantial that it created a band, a real band.

The Resentments
There he is: Stephen Bruton. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

I was already familiar with a lot of the Resentments’ individual histories. I’ve known Bruton since high school in Fort Worth. I actually worked with Graham when I was band manager of the True Believers, the mid-1980s rock band in which Graham, a border rat from Quemado down by the Rio Grande, played a crucial role. The True Believers’ road manager and sound technician, Mike Stewart, went on to manage and produce Poi Dog Pondering, the studiously eclectic ensemble where master of quirk Bruce Hughes fit right in; his local credentials went back to bands such as Iomega and the Shades from Raul’s Club punk era. The True Believers convinced a band from Ohio called the Highwaymen to move to Austin, where Troy Campbell met an eager local boy named Jud Newcomb and conspired to form Loose Diamonds. Newcomb, known locally simply as Scrappy Jud, also worked with Mambo John Treanor in Toni Price’s band. And you couldn’t claim to be a regular on the club circuit without Mambo having entered your life sooner or later.

But I didn’t understand how or why this informal group had blown up into either a) the best band in Austin, b) the coolest regular party in town, c) the best bar band in America (according to MSNBC.com’s John Schulian), or d) the Texas version of the Buena Vista Social Club.

So I paid them all a visit.

I tracked down Bruton, who at 55 is the elder of the band, to the studio/rehearsal hall/music museum behind his house, where he tried to explain it in terms we both understood. “You’re from Fort Worth,” he told me. “You know what it was like. You could do anything, like go from a fiddle convention with David Ferguson at the Round Up Inn to dirty blues at Mabel’s Eat Shop to going to see King Curtis and Cornell Dupree over in Stop Six and not blink an eye. It was completely natural to me to listen to the Kingston Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Howlin’ Wolf back to back. We didn’t know any better. No one knew any better. It was making music on music’s terms, see what flies.”

Bruton left Fort Worth as the banjo flash of the Brazos Valley Ramblers bluegrass band (at one time, he auditioned for and was offered the banjo chair in the Dillards), and as a white-hot blues player who knew his way around the juke joints. He had (co-produced, with fellow Fort Worthian T Bone Burnett, the splendidly atmospheric Robert Ealey & the Five Careless lovers album Live At The New Bluebird Nite Club (Blue Royal) in 1973, still my favorite live performance recording of all time. And he knew more about music than just about anyone because his dad (a former jazz drummer) and mom ran Record Town, a retail shop known around Fort Worth for having the deepest catalogue of jazz, blues and race music in the city.

“You’d be able to quote from things you didn’t realize you knew, to cite the guitar solo on the second cut of the Seeds’ first album, or that hard sax sound on Ray Charles’ albums,” Bruton says. “You heard 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? That came out of Record Town.”

That sounds about right.

He’d started working Austin clubs in the early ’70s, with his band Little Whisper & the Rumors and with Delbert McClinton, while living in Los Angeles and working as Kristofferson’s guitarist. He moved permanently in 1983 after finishing his supporting role in the film A Star Is Born.

The Resentments
Marching Guitars: Jon Dee Graham (l), and Jud Newcomb, with John Chipman in the shadows. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

“I realized I was making my money on the road,” Bruton recalls. “I wanted to be closer to my mother, my father and my brother in Fort Worth. It was easier getting around, because it was fuckin’ Texas. I loved L.A. and I still do, but I didn’t want to be sitting around thinking about when I was going to be making enough money to get back to Texas.”

He didn’t go back to his hometown, though. “There was more going on in Austin than in Fort Worth. Musicians seemed to have more drive and ambition. It all kinda added up.”

Since settling in, Bruton has built an impressive resume producing albums for Alejandro Escovedo (which earned him full credentials as a Local Hero), Chris Smither and Marcia Ball, while recording several albums of his own.

The Resentments gig was “a natural extension of what I’ve done for so long in sessions, gigs, playing for people big and small.”

I FOUND JON DEE Graham one chilly mid-morning five blocks from his house, sitting at a table under an awning at Jo’s Coffeehouse on South Congress Avenue chain-smoking American Spirits, taking contemplative sips from his latte, his pale blue eyes fixed on the traffic going by. He said he didn’t have a clue why the Resentments were happening. He was somewhat preoccupied since he was on his way to a house on Rebel Road where Charlie Sexton was waiting to finish the mix on his fourth solo album, due out later this year on New West.

But Graham, 44, a hardhead for as long as I’ve known him, let down his armor-plated badass exterior long enough to try and put the Resentments in perspective in a curriculum vitae that includes stretches with Austin’s proto-punk power trio the Skunks, several bad new wave bands, the True Believers, Lou Ann Barton, Kelly Willis, John Doe, Michelle Shocked, Simon Bonney, Ryan Hedgecock, and Calvin Russell, as well as producing Kacy Crowley and Steve Wedemeyer.

“As a musician, I’ve learned never to pass up an opportunity to play onstage, especially a situation where Bruton and I can jab insults back and forth,” he says. “And there’s some nights onstage with him that I realize at least once he is the best guitar player in America – it’s hard for me to say it, but it’s true. So how am I not going to play with these guys?”

It’s still a goof and afterthought, he adds, and for exactly those reasons, it works. “Because of the casual nature, it becomes all about the music and the songs. Mambo and Scrappy, the thing they’ve turned me on to, is that music is sacred. These songs are so good, how am I able to not do it?

“There’s no five-year plan. There’s no record contract at the end of the rainbow …. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know which, it’s generating interest,” Graham continues, citing last year’s tour of Europe as a particular point of growth for the band’s profile. “The Germans are swapping bootlegs. By the end of the tour we were selling out places."

“We’ve built and rebuilt the most patient, willing audience possible. They’re prone to listen to the songs, even though sometimes we spend more time talking than playing. Everybody is so good, we play for each other. In some ways, it’s a serious head-cutting going on. Bruton makes me play outside myself. If Scrappy has a day off, he spends it learning an album like Big Pink. He’s this walking catalogue of songs. Bruce will uncork a funk song that I’ll play on lap steel. Bruton writes songs that have chords with numbers on them.”

EARLY ONE Saturday evening, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, the hardest-working Resentment of them all, and who Graham describes as the “sponge” of the band, was holed up in his South Austin apartment, the seven-days-a-week all-night worker without a gig. He wasn’t complaining. The rare night off allowed him to indulge in his second-most favorite activity, listening to records, which in this case meant analyzing an obscure ballad by Billy Stewart, whose stuttering interpretation of “Summertime” was a top-4O pop hit back in the ’60s.

Tall and strapping, rather than scrawny and scrappy, the 35-year-old tried to point out with some pride that he actually took enough time early in the day to put a coat of paint on one wall of his small kitchen. But the sloppy paint job might not be the best way to demonstrate to others that he has an outside life. In fact, he shouldn’t bother. The evidence around him, from the crates brimming with vinyl, CDs, tapes and books that are piled up around his living room, to the glass bottleneck on the coffee table, to the mandolin he cradled and plinked while conversing, suggest he’s all about music.

He didn’t like talking about his past too much, though he allowed his mother and father’s roots were in Mississippi, that he was mentored by Casper Rawls, Rich Brotherton and Champ Hood, and that he’s played with the Atlantics soul revue, Loose Diamonds, Walter Tragert, Beaver Nelson, Toni Price, and Ian McLagan.

“I’m kind of superstitious that way,” he says. At one point, he couldn’t listen to a National Public Radio program on the radio before a show, reasoning the even, measured voices were the antithesis of what he was trying to achieve when he played. Too much mellow would harsh his buzz.

He said he’s always been drawn to what he describes as trance music – Muddy Waters recordings from the 1950s, the Stones’ classic work in the ’70s around the time of Sticky Fingers, music from Jamaica since it was first made – music that could create “this tense atmosphere that could change the way the room looked.”

The Resentments do that to him, Newcomb says. “A lot of my education is playing every Sunday, having something click and realized by a melodic passage or a chord change. It’s everything I imagined a band could be after I saw The Last Waltz, never mind that I later learned from Levon Helm’s book that the movie wasn’t the way it was. For me, it’s like the Knights of the Round Table with the Resentments.”

BRUCE HUGHES opened the door to his brightly painted wood-frame home on a tree-shaded block of East Second Street,

John Treanor - Mambo
Not Forgotton You: Mambo John Treanor. Photograph by Carlos San Miguel.

a stone’s throw from 1-35 and Austin’s central business district, long enough to hold it open before he headed back into the kitchen, stepping around and over recording equipment scattered about. He was grinding beans for a midday cup of a rare Kona blend coffee from Hawaii. He really didn’t need it because he was already chattering away at the speed of light. He just likes the taste.

As the bassist for Bob Schneider projects Lonelyland and the Scabs (and before that the Ugly Americans), Hughes tends to be absent more frequently than any other Resentment, but never so long to be considered a candidate for replacing. “It’s better to be too busy than not busy enough,” he reasoned.

Slight, curly haired and constantly animated, he was the last piece to the Resentments puzzle, “the fourth corner of the square” as Graham put it. An Austin native music animal if there ever was one, he grew up on the northeast side of the city, started performing at 13, and has never looked back. “I thought every town was like this,” he says. “When I first heard ‘Smoke On The Water’ coming out of a garage, I assumed Deep Purple lived on Corona Street.”

His resume includes “everybody for five minutes” from the punk/new-wave scene, a stretch with the punk-funk band Skank, and time with Arthur Brown and Jimmy Carl Black, Dr. John (for two weeks), Cracker (for nine and a half months), and True Believers, in addition to his aforementioned tenure in Poi Dog Pondering.

“Every bandleader has always given me grief – ‘Why aren’t you committed?’ I am committed,” he says. When Hughes, 42, finally got the “black feather we sent him in the mail,” as Graham describes it, he thought he was ready. “I had Sundays off, but it was daunting. There was

a lot of intensity. The players were high-caliber. But I’m a quick study. Everything about the Resentments was on the fly: no rehearsals, no charts. After a month, I knew all the material. Then I was hooked. It took me a year before I started to bring in songs of my own.”

The payoff is “getting to play with the best players in town who play for the sake of the song. I don’t want to shred. Being able to get that feeling of being in the right place at the right time in the right universe – that’s what I’m in it for. The feeling comes quick and goes quick.”

JOHN CHIPMAN has what would appear to be the toughest role in the band, sitting in Mambo John Treanor’s drum chair.

The Resentments
Outside Your Door: Newcomb, Hughes, Chipman, Bruton and Graham. Photograph by Carlos San Miguel.

“When you heard him playing, he had this unmistakable voice in his playing, “Chipman remembers. “You could literally cut his body in half. One half would be swinging and the other half would be playing straight time. The entire band had to follow his groove.

“It’s an honor being Mambo’s sub,” Chipman said on the phone from Houston, where he was visiting future in-laws and shopping for an engagement ring at a gem and mineral show. The 35-year-old San Angelo native with a music degree from the University of Oklahoma (specialty: marimba) moved to Austin in 1993 and started playing a number of $25-a-night pickup gigs while working days for Tommy Robertson of Tommy’s Drum Shop. “He taught me enough at his factory that I built my own drum kit,” Chipman says.

He eventually racked up road miles with George DeVore and Marcia Ball before taking stock of what he wanted to do. “After Marcia, I didn’t pick up sticks for four months,” he recalls. “One Saturday night, my phone rang. It was Stephen. I’d gone to Resentments shows over the previous weeks. Mambo used to bring his washboard to George’s gigs, and a couple times toward the end, I came to help set up his drums for him. He was too weak. A month after he died, Stephen asked if I’d come out. He’d tried two or three different guys and it wasn’t working out.

“I asked Stephen when he wanted to get together. He said, ‘Tomorrow night, Saxon Pub. You know the drill, no rehearsal, lots of ridicule. Show up at 7.’ I had nothing to hear. NO CDs to listen to. I was probably tentative. But you play what you play. Stephen said, ‘Don’t worry, if we don’t like what you’re doing, we’ll tell you.’ That was two years ago last December.”

For Chipman, the Resentments are therapy. “Once a week I get to have a three-hour session with these incredible songwriters who are also incredible players. I’m never shocked by what I hear coming off the stage from any one of these guys. We may play the same song a hundred times, but every time, it comes out different.”

He knows he’ll never fill Treanor’s shoes. “It was real tough at first [replacing Mambo]; I was one of his admirers. There will never be another John Treanor. If you sat down and took a tape of him to a professor of percussion pedagogy, they’d say, ‘What’s going on there?’ I had to listen to him for ages and ages to realize that this guy, when he plays time, he’d make certain limbs swing, then do a straight eighth-note pulse with other limbs, perfect timing, but with a pulse that would ebb and flow in synch with the soloist.

“I’ve never heard anyone do that in that fashion. Most of the time, that would sound choppy. With Mambo it’d just sound smooth. It’s insane. I spent hours trying to replicate what he did naturally and finally gave up. The first month or so, I was constantly second-guessing myself: Is this what Mambo would’ve done? I finally realized, they haven’t told me l stunk yet, and I keep coming back.”

TREANOR’S DEATH on August 20, 2001, was the wake-up call. Toward the end, he was tying his arm above the cymbal stand in order to be able to hold it over the drums and play because he was too weak to raise his arm. “I asked him, ‘Mambo, why are you doing that?” Graham recalls. “He said, ‘Because if I don’t do this, I can’t play.’ That is the lesson of the whole fuckin’ thing, right there.”

“He was profound,” Bruton agrees. “And not only his drumming. He personified the Resentments attitude.”

Graham and Newcomb visited him in the hospital the day before he died. “It was a Sunday,” Graham said. “His mom, Lucille, called and said it was pretty bad. Scrappy and I came down later that day. It was obvious Mambo wasn’t going to make it. He was passed out when Scrappy said to me, ‘Maybe we ought to call the Saxon and say it ain’t gonna happen tonight.’ Mambo came to life and said, ‘Nuh-uh. Go play the gig. I’m not scared.’ He made it clear that to not play would be a disservice to him. It’s still his chair. Chances are slim he’s coming back to claim it, but if he does, it’s his gig.”

The Resentments
Saxon Angle: Graham (lap steel), Newcomb (mandolin), Bruton (guitar), Hughes (bass), Chipman (drums). Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

Things have been snowballing ever since.

Last year it began with their discovery by Germans on the last day of South By Southwest. “Someone got word of the Resentments on Sunday night,” Bruton says. “Not only is it not part of South By Southwest, it’s completely under the radar. How obscure can that be? These guys play one gig at one bar on one night of the week. So of course they loved it.”

An invitation to tour in the summer followed. Hughes got the wheels spinning, thinking it’d be great to have a new CD to sell overseas (they’d released a live recording, Sunday Night Line-Up, in 2002). He organized the session and the artwork. They booked engineer-producer Stuart Sullivan’s Wire Studios, and two days later, they had a self-titled album to sell on the tour. It was picked up by Austin indie Freedom Records for regional distribution last fall, followed by Freedom’s nationwide release on February 17.

“We’d be laughing, cutting up like little kids half the time,” Newcomb says. “We didn’t even know what songs we were doing. Every song was one or two takes, max. Nobody in the band had ever been in a recording situation like that.”

The tour took their collaborative efforts to a higher level. Maybe the covers had something to do with it, encompassing Dewey Redman’s racy “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” and the country spiritual “Long Journey” by Doc Watson’s wife, songs that normally would be judged as strange bedfellows. With the Resentments, they were pieces of Americana that went together hand in glove.

Since the band returned stateside, the new disc has developed legs. Hughes’ joyously loopy, self-referential stream-of-consciousness tune “People Ask Me” has been added to the playlist of influential Austin triple-A radio station KGSR – not bad for a song he wrote in fifteen minutes before he started laughing. “Fifteen minutes later, I had seven verses,” Hughes says. “There is no rhyme scheme.” But there sure is a great big sound backing up his words.

Another European tour is set for this summer. Another CD is being talked about. “The beauty of this band is you don’t have to write twenty songs every other year to make an album,” Bruton said. “With these guys, you can bring in three songs and have a new release on our own little humble situation and go to Europe and sell it.”

It has certainly energized Newcomb. “It’s becoming more of a prospect,” he marveled. “I think everyone woke up to what’s right under our noses. This could develop into a really great band, like The Band. If we had to go out all of a sudden for six months, I’d think it’d be the greatest thing that ever happened.”

The Resentments
For The Good Times: Hughes and Bruton share a smile. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

ON A SUNDAY in January when most folks are at home watching pro football playoffs on television, the loyalists drift in until the Saxon is packed by the time 7:30 rolls around.

Bruton hasn’t returned from Delbert McClinton’s Blues Cruise. No Bonnie Raitt, Ray Wylie Hubbard,James McMurtry, Freddy Powers, or Al Anderson are standing by, eager to sit in (all have done so at various past Resentments gigs, most recently Raitt in early January).

While Bruton’s absence is noted with acerbic musings about whether he’s gambling in the Bahamas, laying low in Key West, or was simply driven crazy by playing the same four chords every night, “with a harmonica thrown in every now and then,” as Graham jabbed, it’s no less of a band.

“It leave more room for those who do show to show our stuff,” Hughes says about nights when colleagues are missing. “They’re all mike hogs, you know.” It’s a nice way of saying there is so much competitiveness that a prospective off-night can be just as sharp and edgy. With Graham hauling out a boatload of lap steel pyrotechnics to keep the proceedings interesting, it is.

Somewhere in the middle of Graham’s song “Big Sweet Life”, they manage to get to that special place Hughes talked about the reason they play. The instruments lock into a groove that choogles, then soars, launched by Chipman’s brushes. Five women and one guy respond by jumping up and dancing in the tight empty spaces between the tables in front of the stage, facing the band, urging them on, letting them know it feels all right. The room seems to levitate.

And though their fifth member is somewhere between Florida and Texas, his words ring true surveying the scene: “This is what happens when you let musicians do what they want to do when nobody’s looking.”

[visit No Depression]


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