A Musical About El Camino Real de las Tejas Cranks Out a Colorful History
Former Glass Eye band member Brian Beattie and visual artist Valerie Fowler take their show on the road across Texas
Written by:Joe Nick Patoski
Published: May 17, 2023 at 2:27 pm
Images unroll on the crankie and accompany the music performed by Brian Beattie, creator of ‘El Camino Real de los Tejas Crankie Suite.’ Photo by Joe Nick Patoski.
There are two great stories of Texas, as far as Brian Beattie is concerned. One is the Alamo, about which much has been written, honored, preserved, and mythologized. The other, El Camino Real de las Tejas, not so much.
The historic King’s Highway linking northern Mexico with far East Texas is “our most underappreciated cultural resource,” Beattie says. “I don’t think there’s any single thing that sums up the story of Texas like El Camino. Everyone used this [highway]: the first humans, tribal traders, the animals who carved out a path before them. It wasn’t a battle [like the Alamo]; it was who we are. Everyone had to use it—natives, Spanish, Anglo settlers.”
An avid explorer of historical sites across Texas and a founding member of Glass Eye, an influential art rock group in 1980s Austin, Beattie set out to address El Camino’s lack of recognition by doing something that only a musician could do: He wrote a musical about it.
El Camino Real de los Tejas Crankie Suite, as the title implies, tells the story of Texas’ most historic road through Beattie’s vocals and electric guitar, accompanied occasionally by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood-style plinks on a celesta keyboard. Helping tell the story is Beattie’s wife, visual artist Valerie Fowler, who, at the beginning of the show, pulls back the diminutive red curtains of a stage box about the size of a puppet show. Slowly, she starts turning one of two cranks on the top of the set, and moving images of different scenes she has painted appear in synch with Beattie’s storytelling.
That’s the “crankie” part of the musical’s title.
Used to create a scrolling panorama—or moving picture—the crankie was a means of enhanced storytelling predating cinema. It was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States and England throughout the 1800s. Some crankies were bigger than a movie screen and toured theaters as exhibitions. The concept was revived in the late 20th century, largely by musicians, and thrives as a steampunk retro-futuristic artifact. Now, the device helps bring the Camino Real to audiences.
Beattie’s interest in the Camino Real started about seven years ago, when he attended an event at Lobanillo Swales in Sabine County. Tom Byrd, who was then president of the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service in the protection and development of the Camino Real across Texas and Louisiana, told him someone needs to write a song about the Camino like “Route 66.”
Beattie responded by writing a musical. “I realized at a certain point I wasn’t going to be the rock guy playing clubs, trying to do the thing that most younger people do,” he says. “I craved the narrative in songs, and I was too old to go out and pretend I was a rock dude.”
Visual artist Valerie Fowler created the images used in the crankie. Photo by Joe Nick Patoski.
Instead, Beattie became a history dude. He started reading books about the trail, and of all the resources he tapped into, he found the diaries from the first Spanish expeditions across Texas the most revealing, with descriptions of specific tribes and their movements, alliances, and customs.
But the fire for the project was really lit when Beattie took a long bicycle ride and stumbled upon ruins at a site of a future park southeast of Austin. In his research, he came upon a passage that mentioned a particular entrada, or trail entrance, and a spring and a creek. He realized what he’d seen while cycling had been described by Spanish explorers.
“Everyone agrees with this description,” he says. “They camped around this creek that had no name. Exactly 2.65 miles southwest of McKinney Falls today is Onion Creek Metropolitan Park, 450 acres that are unanalyzed. That’s where I’ve found big beautiful swales and four homestead sites. There’s stuff no one knows about and you can learn about [it] just walking around.”
As for the crankie, this is not the first time Beattie has incorporated one into a show. He used one in his 2014 musical, Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase, an ambitious project that included his former bandmate Kathy McCarty, composer Will Sheff of Okkervil River, singer Grace London, guitarist Bill Callahan, and the late savant Daniel Johnston.
For the Crankie Suite, Fowler spent a year drawing and painting fluid, impressionistic landscapes peppered with historic figures on two 48-foot-by-30-inch rolls of paper. First, she penciled in the images, then applied ink, a lot of watercolor, and colored pencils. “It’s multimedia,” she says, adding it’s also all Brian. “He told me what to draw, which scene, measured it out how it would go with the timing of the songs. And I just drew it.”
At each performance, Beattie introduces the crankie. “It’s kind of like a time machine, but it’s hand-cranked,” he says in a showman’s voice. “It becomes our window into history during our curious journey across Texas. Please do not climb into the crankie box!”
He then explains that the expedition “will go by in a flash,” taking the audience from Mission San Juan Bautista in Guerrero, Coahuila, through what is now Laredo, to Los Adaes, Louisiana [the capital of New Spain]. Along the way, he says, “We will be bouncing through time meeting different people in a manner which may be disorienting…Just remember, although every stop on our tour is a different place at a different time, we’re simply traveling northeast.”
With Beattie’s dramatic singing, fuzzy guitar chunks on his Gretsch, and Fowler’s illustrations, it’s a compelling 45-minute saga. The narrative song artfully explains, in rhyme, how the King of Spain ordered six Spanish missions and a fort established along the route. The goal was preventing the French from encroaching on New Spain. Once Los Adaes was declared capital of the province of Texas, it effectively discouraged French ambitions on points west.
Throughout the musical, rivers are celebrated and the topography is described in detail, down to ancient marker trees and more recent markers, such as a tire shop, along the historic passage. The future is even contemplated. “It’s 2031, Val-e-rie and I, are riding our bikes on, El Camino Real de las Tejas! A hikeable, bikeable trail to link San Antonio and Austin!”
The couple have taken their crankie show on the road to San Antonio, Floresville, Bastrop, and as far away as San Augustine with the aim of playing a string of dates along the Camino Real. Steven Gonzales, the executive director of El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association, is helping them realize that goal.
“The Camino Crankie does a great deal of good to raise awareness about the Camino Real de los Tejas,” he says. “It brings the stories of the trail to life in ways that a history book cannot, and it has the ability to draw in children, students, artists, and others who may not typically be history-loving types. Because of this, it has the power to draw support and understanding to the trail and our association in a way that most other genres of conveyance cannot.” More information about the associations’s work, including volunteer opportunities, can be found at elcaminotrail.org.
The next performances of El Camino Real de las Tejas Crankie Suite take place May 21, with shows at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., at Wessels Hall, Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms in Austin. As Beattie notes, “The performances will be celebrating the 302nd anniversary of the passing of the huge Aguayo Expedition through the Austin area.”
Five decades of KTRU DJs are linked by their love of the music and a unique archive of thousands of music reviews tucked among the stacks.
By Joe Nick Patoski | Photos and video by Gustavo Raskosky
The control room of KTRU Rice Radio has a well-lived-in look. Shelves of compact discs surround the room’s desk and main microphone. All of the walls are plastered with yellow-and-black KTRU bumper stickers, along with graffiti and other ephemera, mostly identifying bands and record labels. Within reach of the on-air disc jockey are two video screens and bays to play CDs, cassettes and digital audio, with two turntables for vinyl records on either side. Additional microphones and chairs for guests are set up opposite the main mic.
This uniquely cluttered space is ground zero for some of the wildest music heard on Houston airwaves and online. And for the DJs — mostly Rice students — it’s where they’re having the most fun while pursuing their studies.
The woman talking animatedly into the main microphone, with headphones covering her curly mane, is Katharine Shilcutt, the director of student media at Rice and also a DJ. She squints close at one of the turntables as she tries to cue up a track from a clear vinyl album. Once the track begins to play, she swings around her chair in search of a 1970s vintage album by The Roches.
Being a DJ is what KTRU is all about; there are 150 of them at the station. “Rice University does not have a radio-television-film department,” Shilcutt says. “This place is most definitely not a springboard to a career in broadcasting. We’re not training these people how to be professionals. This is just where you come when you care about music. It’s the students teaching themselves and finding a spot to express themselves.”
The sounds of KTRU range from the expected eclectic college-station mix of jazz, world, classical, reggae, roots and local bands to the arcane, obscure and underserved. KTRU’s weekly schedule includes “C-Pop,” featuring pop music from China; “Gaytru,” specializing in LGBTQ+ music; “Mutant Hardcore Flower Hour,” showcasing punk rock; “Roots d’Afrique” with music from Africa; “Genetic Memory,” airing the music subgenre known as Noise; and “Löded Diaper,” dedicated to teen angst garage rock.
Keegan Pierce ’24, a physics major with a minor in philosophy, works the 1 p.m. hour at KTRU on Thursdays, playing accordion music from Texas and Louisiana, mixing conjunto with zydeco and Cajun. “I went to a lot of live music with my dad when I was in high school [in Birdville near Fort Worth] and went to Deep Ellum a lot,” he says while a song plays over the air. “My freshman year, I sent him a request for zydeco music.” After segueing from a vinyl recording by Santiago Jiménez Jr. to an album track by Clifton Chenier, he explains that his KTRU experience has prompted him to refine his academic focus to acoustic engineering — working with sound.
Imogen Brown ’25, host of “Babewaves,” which focuses on music by women, femme and noncisgender artists, also testifies about the power of KTRU. Brown, who’s majoring in the study of women, gender and sexuality, joined the station because she loves to create, share and discover music. “Doing radio and being on air is a whole other entity that I’ve learned about along the way,” she says. “It means reaching people whom I don’t know and have never seen, and that’s terrifying and also exciting. It also means my family at home in New York is listening to me. My parents are staying up past their bedtime to tune in.”
Overnights, KTRU goes “robo,” airing music preprogrammed by the station’s chief engineer Ross Cooper and various students to reflect the breadth of what’s heard on live shows. Over the course of one sample hour, the mix ranges from South Asian and Chinese music and experimental jazz to Appalachian music and psychedelic rock.
At 3 a.m. on most weekdays, though, KTRU goes live for an hour with Matthew Bitz ’25, a chemistry major who goes from his shift at the station to open a Starbucks nearby at 4:30. “I play mostly jazz to create a calm atmosphere, not super out-there jazz. Houston has a great jazz history, and I like to explore that.”
Bitz has an audience too. “My shift supervisor at Starbucks listens, and we talk about what I played when I get there. I know people listen if they’re studying at Sid Rich, my residential college.”
KTRU fills an important hole for Bitz. “When I was in high school, my entire life was all about music,” he says. “I play violin and piano. I’d get up every morning at 6 to go to band practice and stay after school to do orchestra. When I came to Rice, I wasn’t doing music anymore. It was all chemistry science-y stuff. The opportunity to get back into music in this kind of way has been really enjoyable. I’d like to stay involved with radio in a small way, like the DJs here.”
In addition to the students, regular folks in Houston host shows too. One example is a specialty show called “Afternoon Delight.” Community DJs Nicole Buergers and Ashley Turner, respectively a professional beekeeper and voice-over artist, get together every Tuesday and play two solid hours of 1970s soft rock.
Because, why not?
Back in the early 1980s when I first tuned in, KTRU played music I didn’t hear anywhere else. Tuning in was always a discovery. Forty years later, things sound the same as they ever did — cutting edge, proudly eclectic, wonderfully chaotic and somewhat subversive.
There have been some significant skips along the way, including the Rice administration’s sale of the 91.7 frequency signal in 2011 followed by a long spell as an online-only station. In 2019, KTRU reemerged on air as a low-power FM signal on 96.1 and continues to stream online at ktru.org. The pandemic also took away a critical piece of KTRU’s programming: the live in-studio performance. KTRU returned to presenting live, over-the-air music in October 2022 with a concert by Katherine Wu ’23, a pre-med and neuroscience major who is also training to compete in archery in the Olympics. Wu played the Chinese guzheng, aka the Chinese table harp.
While those issues are behind them, there’s another challenge ahead. In the coming year, the entire student center will be demolished to make room for construction of the new 80,000-square-foot Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity. The current offices on the second floor of the Ley Student Center, KTRU’s home for the past 36 years, will move across campus into a temporary space.
When Shilcutt was appointed student media director in March 2022, a position that includes oversight of the Rice Thresher newspaper and Campanile yearbook, she started taking inventory around KTRU in anticipation of the coming move. A half-century dedicated to all kinds of music has built up the “stacks” at the station to more than 200,000 pieces of music, according to Cooper. That translates into tens of thousands of vinyl albums and compact discs as well as cassettes and tape carts — all of which will need to be moved twice.
In the process of taking inventory of the stacks, however, Shilcutt discovered the secret sauce that separates KTRU from everywhere else: the music reviews.
One of the few rules at KTRU is that each piece of music aired must be accompanied by a review written by a KTRU DJ to provide insight and guidance to other DJs.
Conner Clifton, assistant director of student media, showed me what used to be the newsroom studio to point out several stacks of a hundred CDs each waiting to be reviewed in order to be played.
Every DJ at KTRU is required to write at least one review. “I thought they were so weird, funny and different,” Shilcutt says. “There were these bizarre non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the album: ‘Once I saw Eraserhead twice in two nights and to this day, I don’t know why I did that.’ That’s a review of Julee Cruise, ‘Floating Into the Night.’ Yes, it’s a David Lynch collaboration, but —”
A pleasant mid-tempo number, not a strong opener, but indicates the tonal medium of this album. — Anon, on opening song, “More Than This,” on “Avalon” by Roxy Music, 1982
So what makes a good Surfers album great? (1) Semi-s—ty production that makes everything sound as if drawn through a rusty sieve. — HK, on “piouhgd” by the Butthole Surfers, 1991
Reviews have been part of the KTRU experience since the station appeared on the FM airwaves in May 1971. The station’s debut coincided with the golden era of music criticism. Before then, music reviews were limited to pithy comments about records (“It’s got a beat, and you can dance to it”) made in trade publications. Criticism in newspapers and magazines, if published at all, was restricted to classical music and jazz.
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, college newspapers and consumer music magazines such as Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy started taking popular music seriously and birthed rock criticism. Reviews of music often became as important and entertaining as the music itself. Critics such as Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Ed Ward, Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches became recognized as serious writers, not just rock critics.
KTRU reviews reflect those times and carry the tradition to the present. Taken as a whole, the reviews make up an informal anthology of modern music as told by Rice students and community members who happen to be armed with microphones and access to all the music they can imagine.
Dr. Frank, who wrote all but one of the songs on this album, showcases the benefit of a 1590 SAT score when used properly in the name of pop punk.— Melissa J., on “Love Is Dead” by the Mr. T Experience, 1996
The reviews are generally curt, wordy, intelligent and passionate. Brown, the “Babewaves” host, is an avid reader of reviews. “The reviews are pretty descriptive and creative,” she says. “They make comparisons I sometimes don’t understand, but usually, a review gives me a good idea what vibe the song is before I listen to it and where it will fit in a set. It’s insane I can pull a review off the shelf from 1985 and someone is giving their opinion from that time. It’s a piece of history.”
Writing reviews is hard, Brown adds. “It’s not that I don’t like doing it. It’s hard to critically think about every song. I write music reviews for The Thresher. Those are more ‘sit down and let everything out.’ One sentence has to feed into the next. You have to paint the album as a whole. KTRU [reviews] are conversational.”
Seem to be caught in the same style as “Remain in Light,” but without the esoteric (“Listening Wind”) type songs. Technically proficient. … [The song “Swamp”] sounds like Byrne’s been taking hormones. Beat more prevalent. — MFZAKES, on Talking Heads’ “Speaking in Tongues,” 1983
“The reviews try to be as helpful as possible,” Shilcutt explains. “People want to leave their mark. People want to talk about this stuff. They want to talk about what makes a great Butthole Surfers album. ‘Here’s a list.’ Across time, DJs will argue with each other. They’ll add comments.”
All in all, Band of Susans shows the signs of a well-polished and professional band. However, they lacked a certain oomph to distinguish their music from a squeaky doorknob.— Matt Tenny ’97, on “Here Comes Success” by Band of Susans, 2012
DJ DG did not agree and scribbled below the initial review:
Bulls—. This is good s—.
As Kurt Cobain said, “[Jandek’s] not pretentious … but only pretentious people like his music.” — Corrin Fosmire ’21, on reclusive Houston recording artist Jandek’s album, “Houston Friday,” 2017
Another DJ thought otherwise: I was at this show, it was great.
A third DJ joined in: I actually hate this album.
Hard to believe such a gem comes from Merge. NMH [Neutral Milk Hotel] is mainly Jeff Mangum and is out of Ruston, Louisiana (maybe that’s why it is so good). Truly one of the best, if not the best, albums of ’96 and all of history. — Ajda Snyder, “On Avery Island” by Neutral Milk Hotel, 1996
Another DJ circled Snyder’s first sentence and scribbled underneath: You gotta love the attitude.
The older the review, the more tempting it is to figure out whether the reviewer stood the test of time. Sleater-Kinney, an all-female Pacific Northwest indie band led by future Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein, issued their fifth album “All Hands on the Bad One” in 2000. At the time, their tilt toward the mainstream in the wake of fellow PNW indie Nirvana’s global success hit DJ Holly all wrong. “I fear this is the death knell for SK … the spark is gone.” Holly was pretty much correct. SK made only two more albums before going on hiatus.
Absolute shambolic mess from the former Big Star and Box Tops front man. Tracks have lots of mistakes, random stops and restarts, out-of-tune instruments and voices … and it’s f—ing great. I double dog dare you to play it … you might even end up loving it as much as the rest of its cult following. — Anon, on “Like Flies on Sherbert” by Alex Chilton, 1980
With critics like this, I’m hardly surprised when Clifton opens up another crowded storage room at KTRU and points past mic stands, pieces of a drum set and amps to a shelf of vinyl albums. “That’s the ‘Too Popular’ shelf,” he says. There are familiar artists and titles such as David Bowie, “Bob Dylan at Budokan” (“That review was harsh as hell,” Clifton says), John Lennon (enough already of “Imagine,” evidently), and “every Paul Simon and Simon and Garfunkel we ever had.”
Such opinions run strong. Written on the label of the album “Built for Speed” by the Stray Cats is the command, “Do Not Play #1!” The song title itself is marked out entirely by black marker. But it’s not too difficult to see the reference, which is, of course, “Rock This Town.”
Even King Crimson (!), Kinks, Byrds and Father John Misty have been sidelined due to overexposure. Harry Styles and Taylor Swift never made it in to the stacks in the first place. But, Ray Charles! I shake my head.
“This place is nerdy,” Pierce says. “Everyone takes their obsession to the next level. This is like playing a sport at other schools.”
This “difficult second album” … may very well try the patience of current fans (although judging by the radiant post-coital afterglow among the online pundits, this may not be the case). — HK and Nancy N., on “Ys” by Joanna Newsom, 2007
What is Kraut rock? German proto-electronic minimalist rock, with a heavy focus on driving repetitive rhythm. — Anon, on “2 Originals of Neu!” by Neu!, 1972
At 11 a.m., Shilcutt wraps up her hourlong shift and yields the mic to Kelly Moore, the community DJ who hosts “Chickenskin,” a program focused on American roots music, and then heads downstairs for a meeting of KTRU’s board of directors, who are all student DJs. About 20 student board members graze through a buffet of Indian cuisine before getting down to the main topic: planning the upcoming outdoor show in April. This year’s show will be an all-Texas lineup of five bands. The punk band will close out the day, they agree, before moving on to festival logistics.
“This is just a nice place for students to gather and play music,” Shilcutt says. “The administration encourages them to do so and pretty much leaves them alone. People can play anything.”
Pierce, the accordion music DJ, agrees. “The radio is a creative outlet, something I enjoy. The place is a big part of the appeal. I love music and all of the stacks, all the reviews, the graffiti. I started organizing shows last year. When I get interviewed and asked about leadership, I cite setting up the outdoor live concert, being a stage manager, organizing meetings. I’ve been able to make cool things happen.
“KTRU, I don’t want to say they operate in a bubble,” Pierce says, “but they are generally unconcerned how other people do things. They want to do things their own way. That’s the Rice way. That’s the KTRU way.”
Can’t get enough of that black and yellow vibe?
Take a peek into KTRU’s studios through this video story. Meet the station managers, music director, business manager and director of student media and learn what motivates them to work — and DJ — at KTRU. Also, hear from former DJ Richard Baraniuk, an esteemed professor of computer and electrical engineering, on how KTRU Rice Radio shaped his listening habits. Finally, listen as these students reflect on the upcoming move of KTRU’s upcoming move to new spaces.
Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.
This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.
I lived through the golden age of Texas swimming holes. Having spent my youth submerged in chlorinated pools in and around Fort Worth, I moved to Austin in 1973 and discovered Hippie Hollow before it was a county park and Barton Creek before a mining executive threatened to build a giant development along its banks.
Swimming in clear artesian spring water was a revelation to me. As a child, I’d seen San Marcos Springs when it was the Aquarena Springs theme park, but I didn’t associate the crystalline waters that Ralph the Swimming Pig frolicked in with something that was accessible to me. And yet, to my delight, I came to learn that they were.
The water in a Texas swimming hole is a pale blue or green or a hue somewhere in between that you can see through, often right to the bottom. Your eyes don’t sting when you open them underwater. There are creatures to observe—minnows, perch, crawfish, carp, catfish, bass, turtles, ducks, and maybe even, God help me, a water moccasin. A spring-fed swimming hole means cool-to-cold temperatures. The bottom is limestone, not squishy mud. Spoiled by such wonders, I quickly developed an aversion to cement ponds, as The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jethro Bodine called conventional swimming pools, and flinched at the scent of chlorine.
My then-girlfriend got me hooked on doing widths at Austin’s famous Barton Springs, and pretty soon I had worked up to swimming a round trip along the pool’s roughly one-eighth-mile length. Then it was a half mile and then a full mile. I was addicted. If I missed a day, I got cranky.
My search for clear, clean water turned into a treasure hunt. Hill Country rivers were prime targets: the Guadalupe, the Comal, the west fork of the Nueces, the Blanco, the San Marcos, the Llano, the Frio, the Medina. Creeks that fed the rivers sheltered hidden delights such as Jacob’s Well, Krause Springs, and several Blue Holes.
But I also found swimmable springs near Houston (swimmable but murky—it’s Houston!), near the Panhandle (Roaring Springs), and in the desert (Independence Creek). I became a regular at Balmorhea State Park, in far West Texas, swimming in the pool every month of the year. There are secret spots that I’ve been sworn never to reveal, at the risk of physical harm, and secret spots I can’t share because I trespassed. Having a gun pulled on you when you’re sopping wet is no fun.
Swimming-hole denizens are my tribe. We quietly exchange information about places worth checking out and share where the crowds aren’t. I’m fortunate to have friends who own ranches with secret holes to swim in and to have been invited to the Narrows, a typically off-limits miniature canyon in the Hill Country smack-dab between Blanco and Wimberley.
My obsession grew so fevered that thirty years ago my family and I left Austin for Wimberley to gain regular access to the Blanco River. I found an ideal swimming hole, and for years it has been part of my daily routine during the warm months.
Along the way, I’ve learned about karst topography and other unique features that make Texas swimming holes so abundant. I’ve also learned about the rule of capture, a Texas law that allows property owners to draw as much underground water as they wish, even at the risk of drying up a neighbor’s wells and springs. In the fifties, it effectively killed Fort Stockton’s Comanche Springs, once the largest in West Texas.
It wasn’t the first swimming hole to disappear, and it’s far from the last. In 2021, for the first time in my many summers in Wimberley, the Blanco ran so low that there wasn’t enough river to swim in. Extended drought, exploding population growth in the watershed, and aggressive groundwater pumping had reduced it to a trickling stream.
My bible, Gunnar Brune’s Springs of Texas, Volume 1, had warned me that this would happen. A technical volume published in 1981, it’s an expanded version of a 1975 report that Brune, a Fort Worth geologist, prepared for the Texas Water Development Board. He noted that the decline of Texas springs, in number and in volume, began with the first Spanish colonists and continued to the time of the book’s publication, largely as a result of agricultural, industrial, and municipal use of water, as well as the reduction in groundwater recharge.
That decline continues, primarily fueled by population growth. By 2005 only 17 of the 31 large springs once known in Texas remained. During the drought of 2022, Blue Hole, in Wimberley, and nearby Jacob’s Well were closed to swimming because of low or no flow. The Frio River at Concan went dry. Las Moras Springs, near Brackettville, stopped running. And this sad trend will likely only accelerate: we’re expecting a hotter, drier Hill Country in the future.
Some years back, I toured the Coal Mine Ranch in the isolated Trans-Pecos borderlands northwest of Candelaria. My host paused at a field of sun-bleached rubble. This was an ancient river delta, he said, leaning down and picking up a large rock to hand to me. Up close, I could make out the fossilized remnant of a very large turtle shell.
Will this be the fate of so many of the springs, creeks, rivers, and swimming holes that I love? Will the iconic image of our times be a minnow trapped in a shrinking puddle as the waters retreat? Or will the springs flow again and my beloved Blanco return when the rains come? So far in my lifetime, the water has always come back. But what about the next time?
Though the signs right now are dire, my faith remains strong enough that I recently ordered a new swimsuit, goggles, and earplugs. Perhaps I’m fooling myself. Perhaps hope is the only thing that springs eternal.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “C’mon in, the Water’s Finite.” Subscribe today.
This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.
When the first issue of this magazine was published, the Dallas Cowboys were at the peak of their First Dynasty. They had two recent Super Bowl appearances and one championship in their back pocket, and three more Super Bowls and another championship a few years in the future. Between 1966 and 1981 they posted a remarkable 171–59–2 record and never came
close to suffering a losing season.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. To be living in Texas, and
especially Dallas, at that time was to feel a certain electricity in the air every September to January. Cowboys fans took no small amount of pride in the fact that a team from Texas—a place viewed by many as an exotic outpost on the far reaches of American civilization—was suddenly regarded as America’s Team. Imagine, today, the next Facebook or Amazon or Google emerging from the frozen tundra of Anchorage, and you’ll have an idea of how transformational the whole thing was.
There were many factors at play. Over at Monday Night Football, the biggest sports show on television, Cowboys alum and East Texas native “Dandy” Don Meredith was throwing down with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. His quick-witted quips and insider observations, delivered in a thick drawl, forced a national audience to deep-six a hundred cornpone stereotypes of Texans.
There was an interesting tension at work on the field that you just couldn’t avert your eyes from. On the one hand, the Cowboys projected a clean, wholesome image. Coach Tom Landry (“God’s Coach”) was an early supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and appeared with evangelist Billy Graham at the opening of Texas Stadium, in Irving. Quarterback Roger Staubach—U.S. Naval Academy grad, devout Catholic, and gutsy field general—earned the nickname “Captain America.” Linebacker D. D. Lewis once declared that the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium had been put there “so God can watch his favorite team.” This was the Texas of Sunday morning church crowds rushing home for kickoff, the Texas whose loyalties were defined by the T-shirt slogan “God, Family, Cowboys.”
And then there were the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, whose girls-next-door image strained to compete with their skimpy tops and hot pants. Along with a good number of the players, who painted the town red on a regular basis, America’s Girls hinted at the other side of the sacred-and-profane Cowboys.
Big D was God and go-go girls, the new Texas contradiction of a church on every corner and newfangled singles apartment buildings with hot tubs and tanning decks just down the block; of housewives with beehive hairdos brushing past Jack Ruby’s topless dancers in the produce aisle at Tom Thumb. Who didn’t want to know a lot more about that?
Above all, the Cowboys won and won and won. Captain America was slinging TDs, the Doomsday Defense was stopping the enemy at the goal line, and the victories kept piling up. For Dallas, still trying to crawl out from under the dark shadow of the Kennedy assassination, the Cowboys represented a long-awaited redemption: This wasn’t the city of hate, where Cora Lacy Frederickson, the wife of an insurance executive and part of Congressman Bruce Alger’s Mink Coat Mob, had once brought a protest sign down on the head of United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Dallas was home to the winningest, cockiest crew of badasses to ever pull on football helmets and the only ones ballsy enough to put a big star on each one. The city, much to the chamber of commerce’s relief, would never be the same.
But then the winning stopped.
All dynasties, of course, run their course. It was perhaps inevitable that the Cowboys would come back to earth, beginning the eighties with three straight NFC conference championship losses. The team’s financially
overextended owner, Clint Murchison Jr., sold the Cowboys for $83 million in 1984 to Dallas business tycoon Bum Bright, who proved too cheap for the franchise’s good. After some success early in Bright’s tenure, the team stumbled through a string of three losing seasons, including a dismal 3–13 record in 1988. Only the cheerleaders seemed to rise above the mess.
Bright, caught up in the national savings and loan collapse and hurting for money, flipped the team, selling the Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million—a profit of almost $60 million. The buyer was Jerry Jones, an Arkansas oil and gas executive who had played football for the University of Arkansas.
On his first day, Jones named his old teammate Jimmy Johnson, the Port Arthur–born coach of the University of Miami Hurricanes, head coach and fired Landry on an Austin-area golf course. The abrupt dismissal of the Only Coach the Cowboys Ever Had heaped a dump truck of well-deserved ill will on the new owner. But all was forgiven and forgotten four years later with the first of two consecutive Super Bowl victories. At the heart of this Second Dynasty were quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin, and running back Emmitt Smith. Irvin was the ringleader at the White House, a rental property near the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters that was the biggest party pad in the NFL, where women and piles of cocaine were frequently on the menu. (Irvin also once attacked a teammate with a pair of scissors but wasn’t charged for any crimes in the incident and declared himself a born-again Christian.)
Those glory days would be short-lived. Johnson resigned as coach after the 1994 Super Bowl, following a pissing match with Jones over who deserved what degree of credit for the Cowboys’ greatness. Replacement coach Barry Switzer oversaw the Cowboys’ 1996 Super Bowl win—the third since Jones bought the team—mostly with Johnson’s players and playbook.
And the 27 years since then? Long-suffering Cowboys fans know the stats all too well: four playoff wins, zero Super Bowl appearances, no championships.
In another era, that would have spelled the end of a team’s cultural dominance. But fortunately for Jones, the National Football League today operates by different metrics than it did fifty years ago. Victories are great, but money is the name of the game, and Jerry Jones has proved as brilliant at the balance sheet as he is hapless on the gridiron. The game’s best-known owner has found revenue streams that no one had ever thought of: Pepsi became the official soft drink of Texas Stadium and the Cowboys, for hefty fees. Prices were jacked up for parking, tailgating, merchandise, and luxury-box rentals. Jones negotiated Texas Stadium sponsorships with Nike and American Express when no other team had such deals, blowing off the idea of league revenue-sharing. He led the NFL owners in renegotiating television contracts.
And the franchise continues innovating. Cowboys Stadium, in Arlington, now dubbed AT&T Stadium, is the prototype for all modern football arenas, with the world’s largest single-span roof, the world’s largest HDTV screen (when the facility opened; it has since been surpassed), the world’s largest retractable glass doors, the biggest walk-in beer cooler in Texas, augmented reality to enhance the pregame and postgame experience, world-class art on display, and the flexibility to host rodeos, concerts, conventions, and Texas high school football championships. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, meanwhile, remain the only pro football dance squad that matters.
Amazingly, despite their relative weakness on the field, no team attracts television viewers like the Cowboys do. They lead the league in NFL-licensed merchandise sales, and their fan base is the biggest in all of football. In 2016 the Cowboys were valued at $4 billion, making them the most valuable franchise not just in the NFL but in all of global professional sports.
Jerry Jones’s business acumen notwithstanding, how can that be? How can a team that hasn’t made it to the big game—much less won it—in more than a quarter of a century still elicit that sort of loyalty from hometown fans and draw the fascination of everyone else? How, after all these years, are the Cowboys still America’s Team?
One reason fans stay glued to the TV screen all the way through December is because the Cowboys are usually competitive enough that there’s a chance that this year will be the year. The Cowboys still feel like a championship team, even if they aren’t really. (Longhorn and Aggie fans might find this description familiar.)
But it’s also true that no franchise does drama better. In today’s NFL, it’s the story lines and entertainment—“popcorn”—that keep people coming back for more. And no organization comes close to the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to selling that product. Consider: The signing and three-year stint of Terrell Owens, described as the most misunderstood player in the league, over the objection of then-coach Bill Parcells, who would publicly refer to Owens only as “the player.” Dez Bryant’s getting kicked out of NorthPark mall because someone in his group—possibly Bryant— was wearing his pants too low. The streaky heartbreak of Tony Romo, beginning with his last-second fumbled field goal snap in the playoffs against Seattle. The multiple arrests of former Cowboys Quincy Carter and Rolando McClain. Lineman Randy Gregory’s addiction issues. The intoxicated manslaughter charges filed against defensive lineman Josh Brent after the car he was driving rolled over, killing teammate Jerry Brown. The running question of how much rope Jones would give then-coach Jason Garrett. Jones’s refusal to hire a general manager because he thought he could do the job himself. Jones’s paternity lawsuits.
Pop, pop, pop.
Here’s the thing about popcorn, though: it may be irresistible, but it never quite satisfies. Every January, those same rabid fans, still trying to stay high on three-decade-old fumes, still humming Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” to themselves, are forced to wake up to reality. And if the team’s fortunes on the gridiron don’t turn around anytime soon, you might imagine that at some point, those loyal fans might start wondering just what it is they’re so loyal to. A name? A gloried history? Jones’s bank account? They might start wondering whether that loyalty has been repaid in kind.
For now, the season ticket holders and skybox owners and devoted television viewers seem to be holding steady. When the Cowboys are playing,
Dallasites—and plenty of other Texans, along with more than a few people in the rest of the world—still pause, all eyes turned in the team’s direction. The sweet smell of success from many seasons ago faintly lingers.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “America’s Team, Still.” Subscribe today.
After 63 years, The Triumphs are finally hanging it up. This time they mean it. Sure, there have been “last shows” before, but this time, after a few more live dates between New Year’s Eve and February, that’s going to be it.
“We’re retiring. For real,” says Don Drachenberg, one of the band’s vocalists who also plays saxophone. At 82, he is one of two members, along with Gary Koeppen, remaining from the band’s glory days in the early to mid-1960s. (A third original member, Tim Griffith, sadly passed away earlier this month.)
During its heyday, the band packed dance halls between Houston and San Antonio, engaged in storied battle of the bands with Roy Head’s band The Traits, and scored a hit record with a cover of the mournful Hank Williams ballad “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” sung by the group’s then lead vocalist, B.J. Thomas.
Formed in Rosenberg by Lamar Consolidated High School students, the band, named after the motorcycle, expanded over the years to include as many as seven to nine members. They first hung it up in 1980, but unable to quit the music, the group reformed in 1992. They called it quits a second time in 2020, with COVID-19 to blame.
“Our last performances were at East Bernard and Swiss Alp in January through February 2020, right before the pandemic hit,” Drachenberg says. “By the time May rolled around, all of our performing dates had been cancelled. By the middle of summer, we started yakking among ourselves. Live music and live dance halls may not be coming back for a few years. It looks like we’re done.”
That retirement lasted a year. A different tune was sung by the summer of 2021, when pandemic restrictions began to be lifted. “Three guys in the band started talking: we had a little gas left in the tank,” Drachenberg says. “A couple guys didn’t want to do it, seven of us did. We got back together in July to rehearse. In September, we started performing again.”
A year of gigs later and The Triumphs have reconsidered once again.
“We came to the conclusion we’re too old to be doing this. It’s too tiring, it’s too rough,” Drachenberg says, laughing. “You remember the good times, but you forget all the hours, lifting heavy equipment, all that. It was too much work and not enough fun.”
If ever there was a group who knew fun, it was The Triumphs. They built a following playing Top 40 and rock music in Texas dance halls between Houston and San Antonio. “East Bernard, Tate, Hilje, Hallettsville, Schulenberg, Moulton, LaGrange, El Campo KC Hall, Angleton Fairgrounds—we worked a circuit,” Drachenberg recalls. “We played those halls once a month, and worked in a party or a festival or reunion.”
Their repertoire included the popular songs of the day, from Motown and Jimmy Reed tunes to party songs like “Louie, Louie” and “(I’m A) Soul Man.” Very few original tunes were part of the setlist.
“My Girl,” made popular by the Temptations, remains one of the most requested songs at a Triumphs’ show. “Color My World” by Chicago became a band standard during the 1970s, as did “Midnight Hour,” “Red, Red Wine,” and “Cotton Eye Joe.” And, acknowledging the musical heritages of the dance halls where they played, the band performed polkas, including a medley of “Julida,” “Beer Barrel” (aka “Roll Out the Barrel”), “A Ja Sam,” and “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”
Two of their songs remain part of every Triumphs show today: their biggest hit, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Garner State Park,” which still is the last song played at Saturday night dances on the patio of the pavilion at Garner State Park north of Uvalde.
During the early 1960s, the Triumphs tried their hand at recording and realized some success, thanks to Houston Top 40 radio stations. Their first two 45 rpm singles, “I Know It’s Wrong” and “Lazy Man,” received airplay in 1962 on both KILT and KNUZ, with “Lazy Man” reaching No. 7 on KILT’s chart. Other hits included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Billy and Sue” (reached No. 1 on KILT in 1964), and “Garner State Park.”
Then in December 1965, the band’s remake of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” broke out of Houston and went No. 1 nationally. Acknowledging the lead singer’s distinctive tenor voice, the band was promoted as B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs.
Things took a turn in March 1966 when the group was offered a slot on a national tour. Thomas eagerly signed on, but the rest of The Triumphs stayed behind. “Most of us were in college,” Drachenberg says. “We didn’t want to go. B.J. did. None of us had the aspirations he had.”
It’s a familiar showbiz story, only in this version the band that stayed behind never quit. “We’ve always been a local band,” Drachenberg explains. “We just wanted to enjoy what we do, and have our friends around us…We have so many fans that come out to see us. If we put something out on Facebook that we’re going to do something, we know several hundred people are going to turn out at that event. We recognize the faces, recognize the couples, even as they’ve gotten older. We have a hellacious fan base.”
Over the years, the band’s popularity could be seen at venues like Riverside Hall in East Bernard, which drew fans from Columbus, Eagle Lake, Bay City, Houston. The group was so popular there, Drachenberg says, “[w]hen it burned down in the late 1980s, they immediately built another hall.”
Playing Swiss Alp, a storied Texas dance hall between Schulenberg and LaGrange, is like going to a family reunion. “My wife’s family comes from Hallettsville,” he says. “Her grandparents danced at Swiss Alp, her parents danced at Swiss Alp, my wife and I danced there, my daughter in Schulenberg dances there. And now my granddaughter who lives in Houston dances at Swiss Alp.”
In 2010, 44 years after he left for biggest stages, Thomas performed with the Triumphs again. “Both of us were kicking ourselves for not having got back together earlier,” Drachenberg says. They continued doing special performances together until Thomas’ death in 2021.
Drachenberg admits he’s going to miss doing what he’s done his entire adult life. “Performing on the stage, you get a great feeling,” he says. “Having somebody applaud or go ‘Whoop!’ after you’ve done a song, that gives me chill bumps.”
And after the band gave so many people a good time with music, the fans are returning the favor. “People have been calling me, thanking me for giving their family so much fun and pleasure over the years,” Drachenberg says. “That feels really good.”
The Triumphs’ final public shows take place New Year’s Eve at the Silos in Giddings, Jan. 28 at the band’s historic home base Riverside Hall in East Bernard, and Feb. 18 at Swiss Alp Hall. For more information, check the calendar on The Triumphs’ website.
Explore the wilderness and wildlife of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
By Joe Nick Patoski
A sunrise view of Laguna Madre from the Plover Point observation deck. Photo by Erich Schlegel; Illustration by Lin Jesse
A redhead duck. Illustration by Lin Jesse
Beyond Laguna Madre,
on the ocean side of South Padre Island, a bank of cumulus clouds looms over the Gulf of Mexico. Morning light casts a palette of radiant oranges, yellows, pinks, and blues, minutes before the sun makes its debut above the clouds.
Sunrise in January is prime time at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley. The tropical humidity and heat, the norm from late March until November, abates, and the winter residents move in. From the Plover Point observation deck, the Laguna Madre —one of only four shallow, hypersaline bays in the world—shimmers with sublime views.
Living creatures are everywhere—in the water, on the land, in the sky. Songbirds flit out of the impenetrable thornscrub brush called the monte, while a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers pirouette around a Spanish dagger yucca. A clutch of shockingly pink roseate spoonbills stands out among hundreds of white egrets, herons, and ducks congregating in a shallow pond. On the shore of the laguna, shorebirds gingerly step in the shallows in search of breakfast. Redfish, too, their tails extending above the water surface as they feed on shrimp. A brown pelican spies a tailing redfish and quickly scoops it up. On the road through the thornscrub, rabbits and roadrunners crisscross the path where a brilliantly dark indigo snake has just slithered. Coyotes, whitetail deer, and nilgai antelope roam undisturbed across the open savannah. Butterflies and dragonflies flutter around by the dozens.
Redhead Ridge on the shore of Laguna Madre. Photo by Larry Ditto
Welcome to the wildest part of the wild Rio Grande Valley, which offers a glimpse into the natural world that flourished across deep South Texas before it was settled, farmed, and developed. Coastal, tropical, jungle, and desert all at once, the Valley is where the two major North American migratory bird flyways converge, and it’s a crucial wintering grounds for waterfowl. Laguna Atascosa is at the center of the action.
The rapidly developing region is also attractive to humans. From 2000 to 2020, the Rio Grande Valley population—including Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties—grew 41% to 1.37 million people. According to the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the number is projected to grow another 15% to 1.58 million by 2050, depending on migration rates. But while habitat loss is the usual story in the booming RGV, Laguna Atascosa is all about rewilding.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the refuge in 1946, carving about 11,000 acres from a World War II gunnery range to protect wintering bird habitat, primarily the redhead duck on Laguna Atascosa. Over the past two decades, assistance from groups including The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, along with settlement funds from the 2010 BP Oil Spill, have allowed the refuge to add over 50,000 acres to expand to more than 120,000 acres across multiple units. The South Padre Island Unit protects land on the northern end of the island, and the Bahia Grande Unit protects wetlands between Laguna Vista and Brownsville. Ongoing purchases are creating a new coastal corridor for wildlife to travel between patches of their fragmented habitat, including via special highway underpasses.
“There’s not a more significant place for wildlife diversity in Texas, and maybe the country, than the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from songbirds to ocelots to waterfowl,” says Jeff Francell, director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy in Texas. “Most of the native brush in the Valley was converted to farmland decades ago, and so to enhance the native wildlife populations, it’s important to take some of that land and restore it for wildlife. For example, one of the pieces of property we were able to acquire was an old shrimp farm, and we were able to buy part of it to provide a corridor for ocelots between Laguna Atascosa and Bahia Grande.”
Laguna Atascosa astounds in its diversity: 417 bird species, 130 butterfly species, 45 mammal species, 44 reptile species, and 450 plant species. And the refuge is far enough from the border to avoid lighting, walls, and other disruptive issues that have negatively impacted some refuges along the Rio Grande. Outside of a visitor center, a couple of roads, and a handful of overlooks, the refuge has very little infrastructure. Wildlife conservation is the priority. This is by far the biggest chunk of wild in the Rio Grande Valley
Birding on the tidal flats at South Bay by the Brownsville Ship Channel. Photo by Larry Ditto
About 15 minutes before daybreak, I meet the refuge’s visitor services manager, Georgie Garcia, in the visitor center parking lot and jump into his high-clearance pickup. Garcia, a Brownsville native and Iraq War vet, drives the truck across Buena Vista Road and opens the gate at the trailhead to Granjeno Trail, the access to Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. We continue to Plover Point to take in the sunrise before touring the heart of the refuge via roads, trails, and barely visible dirt tracks.
Garcia, one of seven employees, also maintains the trails with a brush cutter to keep the monte from encroaching, stocks the feeders and water features, conducts educational outreach, and coordinates the seasonal volunteers. The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group runs the bookshop in the visitor center, and volunteers help cover for Garcia whenever he is away from the service counter, which is the source of permits and information. Luckily, the service counter has a picture window that looks over a bird feeding station.
“Every day I bet my paycheck I’ll see a green jay,” Garcia says of the Neotropical bird rarely seen elsewhere in the United States. “There will be 20 on a feeder sometimes.”
The visitor center reopened in May after being closed for two years due to the pandemic. In 2019, the refuge restored its main thoroughfare, Buena Vista Road, from a potholed country road to a two-lane boulevard with bicycle lanes on both sides, along with eight large speed bumps to keep traffic under the 25-mph speed limit. The “Ocelot Crossing” signs are for real.
The park’s other road—Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive—closed to private motor vehicles in 2013 when a car hit and killed a lactating female ocelot. A 60-person tram operated on the loop seasonally in the 2010s until it broke down in 2018 and was declared beyond repair.
These days, hiking and cycling are the only ways to explore Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive and the 55 miles of other trails.
As we drive through two fallow fields lined with tree tubes containing seedlings and saplings of natives such as mesquite and hawthorn, Garcia says the refuge’s revegetation efforts have stepped up as more land has been added. “All that acquired property was ag fields,” he grins confidently. “Give it 10 years; it’ll be South Texas thornscrub.”
An Aplomado falcon. Illustration by Lin Jesse
Map illustration by Lin Jesse
Boating the Stover Cove area on Laguna Madre. Photo by Erich Schlegel
The ocelot—a small, secretive spotted feline, about twice the size of a house cat—has become a symbol of the refuge. Laguna Atascosa is home to 30-35 ocelots, one of two breeding populations in the U.S.
In cooperation with the refuge, the Friends of LANWR group holds an annual Ocelot Conservation Day in March at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville—March 5 this year—with booths and presentations.
“We know the biggest problem is habitat loss,” Garcia says. “This past trapping season, they were able to trap six ocelots and put collars on them. The ocelot is an umbrella species; it’s at the top. If you restore their habitat, it’s going to help a lot of other South Texas species, some of them endangered or threatened.”
While making the rounds, Garcia chases off several cows that wandered in from a neighboring ranch, watches a gator snag an unsuspecting bird, and fetches the remnants of a mylar balloon snagged on a prickly pear.
We drive south to the 26,000-acre Bahia Grande Unit, an addition to the refuge that is west of State Highway 48 and the Brownsville Ship Channel.
A Texas tortoise. Illustration by Lin Jesse
“This was a complete dust bowl,” Garcia says, gazing across rough vegetated lowlands spiked with yucca. “Now we’ve restored it to beautiful coastal prairie wetlands, with lomas, how it used to be.” Lomas are low vegetated hills that exist in only three places in the world. “We’re going to bring in some fresh water, which should balance out the salinity.” The Bahia Grande is hunting grounds for Aplomado falcons, which eat insects, lizards, birds, and small mammals.
We inspect a channel between two small inlets in the estuaries and watch a school of redfish forming a V as they move through. We stop near another small shallow lake, almost dry, and Garcia walks toward a sandy shelf, maybe 5 feet high. Beneath the shelf, dozens of perfectly circular beads no more than an eighth of an inch in diameter, each with a hole in the middle, are scattered in the sand around our feet.
“The thinking is this was on a trade route between the coast and the interior,” Garcia says. Once revegetation has taken hold and archeological work is complete in two to four years, Bahia Grande will have public access. For now, it is open to hunters on designated weekends in the winter.
Cycling on Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. Photo by Eric Schlegel
Visiting Laguna Atascosa
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge offers a look at why the Rio Grande Valley was slow to be civilized for large-scale human population. What’s great for the creatures and critters translates to rough country for people—it’s hot, humid, windy, and buggy.
Park staff members recommend bringing a wide-brimmed hat, bug repellent, sunblock, long pants, high socks, and sturdy footwear to ward off ticks, chiggers, and snakes—regardless of the time of year.
The refuge doesn’t have food or drink for sale, and fuel is 15 miles away at the intersection of SH 100 and FM 510 west of Port Isabel. The nearest hospital is in Harlingen, 28 miles from the visitor center.
Admission costs $3 per vehicle. An annual pass is $10. The refuge trails are open daily, dawn to dusk. The visitor center opens Wed-Fri 7 a.m.-2 p.m. 22817 Buena Vista Boulevard, Los Fresnos. 956-748-3607; fws.gov/refuge/laguna-atascosa
The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group maintains a calendar of events and activities on its website, flanwr.org.
We don’t see a soul on our five-hour tour, except for a lone cyclist cruising along the back side of Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. He is clearly in the zone, steadily pedaling, lost in the rhythm and unaware of our truck inching up behind him. Garcia patiently keeps his distance for a few minutes, then gently taps his horn. The cyclist startles. He pulls over and grins as we pass.
The cyclist is Irv Downing, a 68-year-old former endurance racer who moved from South Padre to be closer to the refuge, which he cycles about “every other day.” Downing calls Laguna Atascosa his Serengeti. “The scenery, the setting, the laguna, it’s just spectacular,” he says. “My son was visiting from Seattle last week, and on our ride photographed 20 nilgai antelope.”
After talking to Downing, I figure I could bicycle this route too—if it wasn’t too windy, too hot, or too cold. “This is a difficult trail because of the distance and wind factor,” Garcia acknowledges. “The way to do this is on an electric bike.”
My ears perk up.
I couldn’t locate any e-bike rentals near the refuge, so I find one to borrow near my home in Wimberley and load it into my SUV. Back at the refuge, I meet photographer Erich Schlegel at the visitor center parking lot just before sunrise.
The narrow, paved route along Steve Thompson Scenic Drive is downright bucolic, especially with the rising sun casting a soft golden glow over the whole scene, straight out of a Van Gogh landscape. I pedal conventionally most of the way, twisting the accelerator handgrip whenever I lag behind Schlegel and whenever headwinds slow
We cycle through the monte, up and down a loma, past prairies and estuaries, and along the shores of shallow lakes, bogs, mudholes, and wetlands. Wildlife stirs all along the way. Because we’re on bikes, the wildlife is more active, less oblivious to our presence, than when we were driving the route in a truck. We see several white-tailed deer scamper up from a creek bottom, followed by a herd of nilgai antelope cows who stroll across a grass prairie to meet up with a herd of nilgai bulls.
We cycle 13 miles in two hours including stops at Plover Point and Renee’s Overlook along the shore of the Laguna Madre. It’s a good workout, even with electric assistance. But it is nothing like the exhilaration I feel being there, passing the morning in that part of the Rio Grande Valley where the wild things are.
There is one caveat. No ocelot sighting. I reach out to Hilary Swarts, one of the refuge’s two wildlife biologists. Swarts is an ocelot specialist who has trapped and collared the cats on the refuge; she also documented the first ocelot kitten discovered on the refuge in about two decades.
Swarts, who has worked at the refuge for nine years, has spotted ocelots in the wild twice, one in July 2020 and one this past June, both near the visitor center. “Whenever I feel pessimistic, I remind myself they’re all over this refuge,” she says. “They’ve seen me more often than I’ve seen them. They could be staring at us right now.”
That’s the spirit of Laguna Atascosa.
“It’s that wild, that alive,” Swarts says. “And you don’t have to hike or bike to appreciatethat. Just plant yourself somewhere and watch.”
Birders are as hip to Laguna Atascosa as the birds are. The late Roger Tory Peterson, a pioneer of modern American bird-watching from New York, made six trips to the refuge in the 20th century in search of uncommon sightings. More than 400 bird species have been spotted at the refuge, including South Texas specialties such as green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas.
Popular bird-watching sites include the visitor center, which is home to blinds, feeders, and water features; Kiskadee Trail, a paved, wheelchair-accessible path; and the Mesquite Trail loop and the Prairie Island viewing area.
Osprey Overlook, a covered platform with a sweeping vista of the 3,500-acre Laguna Atascosa, is a magnet for pelicans, herons, egrets, and, during winter, 85% of the redhead ducks in North America.
Endangered Aplomado falcons were introduced on the refuge in 1993 after being eradicated in most of the Southwest. Twenty-six pairs presently reside on the refuge, most around the Bahia Grande Unit.
Near Osprey Overlook is the trailhead to Alligator Pond, where alligators wallow in their element. And while you won’t likely see them, wild cats are out there too—bobcats, cougars, and ocelots.
Hunts, which take place on designated days between November and February, are managed to cull invasive hogs and nilgai antelope.
Texas Honky-Tonker Charley Crockett’s Journey from the Street Corner to the Marquee Lights
Born in San Benito and raised in Dallas, Crockett has honed a ‘Gulf & Western’ sound that captures audiences across the globe
Written by:Joe Nick Patoski
The latest ‘Gulf & Western’ rambler Charley Crockett’s journey from the street corner to the marquee lights from Charley Crockett, photographed here in the Big Bend, is “The Man From Waco,” a collection of story songs that tell the tale of an Old West murder saga. Photo by Bobby Cochran
Charley Crockett was born in San Benito, the South Texas hometown of Freddy Fender. He came of age in Dallas, raised by a single mother struggling to get by. Crockett started performing on the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter as a teenager while spending summers with an uncle who was a gambler and hustler. Later, he set out on his own, hoboing across the country and busking on street corners from New Orleans to New York to Paris.
Crockett draws on his gritty formative years in his music—a rootsy yet wholly contemporary country and western sound underpinned by the blues. A singer, songwriter, and bandleader, Crockett has recorded and released an improbable 10 albums in the past five years. The Americana Music Association took notice in 2021, honoring Crockett with its Emerging Act of the Year award. And last summer, he toured the nation as part of Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival caravan.
Crockett, 38, lives with his partner, Taylor Grace, just outside of Austin, though he’s on the road most of the time. His latest release, The Man From Waco, is a concept album of Western story-songs in a similar vein as Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. Since the album’s release in the fall, Crockett has toured the U.S. and Europe with his Blue Drifters band, working their self-styled “Gulf & Western” sound that includes accordion, trumpet, and pedal steel along with guitars, bass, and drums. Crockett fronts the six-piece outfit with a retro-Western stage look topped by the coolest cowboy hats this side of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.
Find Charley Crockett’s tour dates and records on his website.
Crockett is the real deal. He’s even related to Alamo hero Davy Crockett, according to a relative who traced the family tree. Sit down with him for a few minutes, and Crockett makes it clear he’s just getting started.
TH: What are your memories of being a child in the Rio Grande Valley?
CC: I have always seen myself as a barefoot kid standing in the caliche underneath mesquite trees—that’s the kid I remember. I always kept that with me. I imagine somebody moving to Chicago from the Mississippi Delta. I don’t think you’d ever get the Delta out of them. I believe the Valley has that same kind of effect on anybody who’s born there. The Valley is like the Delta or Appalachia, but no one gives it any credit.
TH: What was your upbringing like?
CC: My momma was a single woman trying to raise a kid in a man’s corporate world in Dallas without an education. It wasn’t easy. She wasn’t around much because she was working all the time—working all the time to give me a chance to change my situation.
TH: How did Dallas rub off on you?
CC: It’s the unsung, third great blues city. That roots music triangle to me is New Orleans, Memphis, and Dallas. I lived a thankless, backdoor, single momma, blue-collar life in Dallas, and it was hard. That’s why I had no problem going to New Orleans every summer with my uncle. New Orleans is a hard place, but it cradles you in a way that Dallas does not. Dallas is fast. Dallas is where Benny Binion ran the tables. Dallas is where they couldn’t foil the plot to kill Kennedy, you know? That’s a hard town. I was trying to get out of there. And the kind of blues music, the kind of Dallas sound that rubbed off on me, I really believe came from how hard a town it is. It’s like Memphis, but a lot bigger, and they don’t acknowledge their cultural history. But it’s in every backroom.
TH: You’ve cited blues jams around Dallas as a big influence.
CC: The blues jam was an open format that was beyond open mic. That’s how I learned to lead bands for real and communicate with people who were plugged in on stages in front of a microphone where money was on the line for the establishment. I learned that through the blues jam more than anywhere else. Because I would get thrown off those stages when it didn’t work out. You either quit and go do something else, or you adapt. And that’s when I started learning. You gotta play a 1-4-5 and give the band something they can follow easily. Then maybe you can start veering off into some of your other material.
TH: How did you take an interest in old roots music?
CC: Performing on the street in New Orleans and Dallas and New York City and San Francisco, you start absorbing. There’s a different sound in the street. You’re going to hear a lot of pretty good music if you’re on the subway in New York, better than you would maybe hear on the radio. I was hearing the great jazz, freestyle jazz players in New York. In New Orleans, I was hearing nothing but old school New Orleans jazz. They were playing nothing but old time.
TH: What did you learn from busking and hoboing around the country?
CC: It’s everything. The way I run my business today is the exact same way I did when it was just me playing out of the guitar case. I learned how to lead bands. I learned how to handle money. I learned how to deal with the promoter. It’s the same game. What I’m doing now is just more political and amplified.
TH: You’ve mentioned before that you don’t read music.
CC: A lot of the early Carter Family stuff that I learned were these beautiful, simple stories. I know a lot of other old folk songs too like “Short Life of Trouble,” “Darlin,’” “Six Months Ain’t Long,” “Lonesome Homesick Blues”—the Carter family one—“March Winds Gonna Blow All My Blues Away,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “They Call That Religion,” all those Mississippi Sheiks songs. I learned that music because I could remember it. I never have written anything down, even the songs for this new record. I just memorize ’em. I think that’s how a lot of people used to do it. I have a hard time seeing George Jones writing anything down, don’t you?
TH: You had to step away from the road for a few months in 2019 for surgery to repair a faulty heart valve. How have you been?
CC: When you have a heart defect, you start thinking, “Man, did the Creator make me flawed? Why did the Creator intend for me to leave so early?” You ask these questions and then you wonder, “Should I even be asking that question?” But it happens because you’re aware of it, knowing you got a long line on your chest. I wasn’t smart enough to realize what was going on; I just got lucky. I almost died in the back of the bus. I’ve got multiple issues that are related, and it causes these bigger problems, you know. I just honestly feel like the Creator let me stay a little longer because for all my shortcomings, I kept just putting the music first. I feel like it’s my purpose. And I do think you get rewarded in some little way by following your heart.
TH: How have you held onto your Texan-ness as your career has grown?
CC: I got all these managers calling me saying, “Look, Charley, you know the world is bigger than Texas.” I know this sounds brash, but this is the policy that I have adopted going forward: The world is not bigger than Texas. There is only Texas, and we take Texas to the world. That’s what I have to do. That’s how Stevie Ray Vaughan did it, that’s how ZZ Top did it, that’s how Willie done it, that’s how Selena did it, that’s how Freddy Fender did it.
For a Quick Road Trip, the President’s Ranch Trail Takes You All the Way With LBJ
See how the first president from Texas was influenced by the land and communities of the Hill Country
Written by:Joe Nick Patoski
Published: November 22, 2022 at 4:38 pm
Way back in 1967, local boosters in Gillespie, Blanco, and Hays counties got together and devised the President’s Ranch Trail, a 100-mile drive from Stonewall to San Marcos, tracing the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was in the last years of his term as president of the United States.
There were ceremonies and a map, but the trail never gained traction until after Johnson left office, when most of the significant sites went under the oversight of the National Park Service and Texas State Parks. Significant infrastructure to accommodate tourists has since been added. And it’s all free.
I was intrigued by Johnson, the 36th president of the United States and the first president from Texas. That lofty position assured a legacy, much of which is enshrined at the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum in Austin.
But to fully appreciate the person, you need to visit the place where he came from, where the land and water and structures vividly tell the story of Johnson’s life. More than any single person, LBJ transformed his beloved Hill Country, bringing electricity and dependable water to people who had neither, then putting the region on the map as president, spending so much time at his Stonewall ranch, it became known as the Texas White House.
Studying the original map and factoring in modern road conditions and population growth, I devise an amended President’s Ranch Trail, focusing on Stonewall and Johnson City, and leaving out the 38-mile leg from Blanco to San Marcos through Wimberley. The trail can be covered in a single day or broken up into a two-day adventure.
I start in Johnson City, just west of the junction of US 281 and US 290. At the corner of East Ladybird Lane and South Avenue G is the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Site Visitor Center, within eyesight of the family home Johnson lived in while growing up, and, nearby, the Johnson settlement, the root source of the LBJ saga.
At the visitor center, I watch the 15-minute introductory film LBJ The President, learn more about his legacy reading the exhibit panels, check out the Model T given to LBJ by the Henry Ford Museum, and visit with Joe Owens, the friendly host behind the counter.
“I was a social studies teacher and love history,” Owens tells me. “I get to meet people from all over the country, all over the world.”
The annual visitor count coming off pandemic closures is about 140,000, and would be higher, Owens says, if the Texas White House wasn’t closed for repairs. (After Ladybird Johnson died in 2007, the family home was given to the National Park Service and opened to visitors. Since 2018, however, structural and foundational issues plus needed improvements have forced its closure.)
When other folks drift into the visitor center, Owens pulls out three matching maps of the ranch district and the Johnson City district and goes into detail about what there is to see and do. I choose to begin at LBJ’s boyhood home—a white clapboard structure with green trim and high ceilings—the next block over.
A map of all the spots to visit on the President’s Ranch Trail.
The family moved into this house in 1913 and lived there until Lyndon left for college in San Marcos in 1927. The simple frame house on Elm Street is deceiving: The Johnsons were already well-connected, with cousin James Polk Johnson founding the town of Johnson City, and Lyndon’s father, Sam Ealy Johnson, serving five terms as a state legislator. Ten years after he left for college, Johnson stood on the home’s front porch to announce his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Across the street from the visitor center, at Elm and Avenue F, is the headquarters of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which puts up Christmas lights that are as spectacular as those around the Blanco County courthouse four blocks north. The co-op, created through Johnson’s persistent lobbying as a congressman, brought electricity to the Hill Country.
Following Owens’ directions, I head to the Johnson settlement, two blocks by foot, or easily accessed from the Johnson Settlement Event Center parking lot, four blocks west on US 290, just across from a gas station.
A half-mile gravel loop leads to the settlement’s event center, and a collection of 19th-century cabins, a barn, and corrals with longhorns over the fence line. Lyndon’s grandfather, Sam Ealy Johnson Sr., and his great-uncle Tom Johnson based their cattle operation here from 1867 to 1872. Sending cattle to market up the Chisholm Trail, theirs was the biggest trail-driving outfit in Blanco and six adjoining counties.
From the settlement on the western edge of Johnson City, I continue west 10 miles on US 290 to the settlement in Hye, passing manicured estates of wineries, distilleries, meaderies, and cideries—the new ranches of the Hill Country. On the left, at the turnoff to Hye-Albert Road, is the storied Hye General Store and Post Office, where 4-year-old Lyndon mailed his first letter, according to the historical marker at the entrance. The storefront, built in 1904, was gussied up in a red, white, and blue motif for LBJ’s 1965 swearing-in of new U.S. postmaster general Lawrence O’Brien on the front steps. Today, the post office shares space with Farm Ale Brewing, which is opening a new tasting room soon.
Continue west 3 miles on US 290 to the visitor center for the LBJ State Park and Historical Site. Pick up a pass to drive the LBJ Ranch (no charge). The visitor center also features tchotchkes at the gift shop, a life-size Lyndon to pose next to for photos, and a theater showing films about LBJ.
Next stop is a few hundred feet east of the visitor center on Park Road 52: the living history homestead of Sauer-Beckmann Farm.
“We do everything as if it’s 1918,” says Mark Itz, a fifth-generation Fredericksburger dressed in buckskin who works at the farm as a state park ranger. He and volunteers guide visitors through the vegetable garden, canning room, blacksmith shop, and sewing room where Kathy Catlin shows off her seamstress skills. You can also watch demonstrations of how to feed the domestic stock, gather eggs, chop wood by hand, and keep the wagon wheels turning,
“We just cooked our lunch on the wood stove,” Itz says. “Ground meat, rice, onions, squash, sweet potato. We make our own blood sausage, liver sausage, and head cheese.”
Itz then answers a question about what he misses the most living in 1918. “Electricity would be the biggest thing,” he says. “We didn’t get that here until 1945.” He then explains how Congressman Johnson secured the largest loan for rural electrification ever to establish the Pedernales Electric Coop in 1942.
“And vehicles,” Itz adds to his answer, “although folks around here continued using wagons to haul stuff because the beds of early pickup trucks were so small.”
From the living history farm, it’s across the Pedernales River, the lifeline that nourishes this part of the Hill Country, to the LBJ Ranch, a 2,000-acre spread that Johnson purchased from his aunt in 1951 when he was a United States senator. LBJ’s message “All the world is welcome here” greets visitors beginning the loop around the ranch.
I glimpse inside the Junction School, the classic one-room school where little Lyndon first attended class, and where President Johnson initiated the Head Start education program for underprivileged children. This is followed by the small house marking LBJ’s birthplace (reconstructed in 1964), his grandparents’ house nearby, and the family cemetery.
Heading north, west, and south on the paved one-lane ranch loop (also popular with cyclists), you pass fallow fields, manicured grazing pastures, herds of whitetail deer, a massive irrigation pivot, the show barn with its pens and corrals where LBJ’s prized rust-colored Hereford cattle are housed (ranch hands will answer your questions), the airstrip, and other points of interest.
The drive leads to “Air Force One-Half,” as the small Lockheed jet was called by LBJ. Situated in the adjacent hangar is the National Historical Park Visitor Center for the Texas While House, the Johnson’s home away from Washington, D.C. An exhibit panel highlights the movie nights hosted at the Texas White House in this hangar, a Resistol hat and pair of Lucchese boots—signature presidential wear—a view of the storage room filled with gifts that LBJ bestowed on guests, and a Ladybird-centric room.
Historic Model T at the LBJ Ranch. Photo by Will van Overbeek.
LBJ Ranch and Texas White House. Photo by Randall Maxwell
The star attraction, though, is the family home, which is currently off-limits. Lack of funds stalled repairs, but it is now on track to reopen within the next five years.
While that may have kept the visitor count down, according to Joe Owens, it’s still fun to check out the grounds where LBJ staged barbecues and walk past the small cottage identified as the United States Secret Service Command Post.
Trinity Lutheran Church across the Pedernales River from LBJ Ranch Trinity Lutheran Church, Stonewall. Photo by Will van Overbeek.
Side Trip: LBJ Museum of San Marcos
While the big LBJ Presidential Library in Austin is a destination unto itself, the little LBJ museum on the square in downtown San Marcos complements Johnson’s Hill Country. According to director Debby Butler, the small three-room museum is dedicated to Johnson’s time as a student seeking a history teacher’s certificate at Southwest Texas State Teachers College, now Texas State University, and the two years he spent teaching at the Welhausen School for Mexican children in the South Texas community of Cotulla.
The museum also functions as a small-scale version of the national and state park visitor centers’ exhibits, with the addition of text in Spanish as well as English. Listen to audio of LBJ speaking (and telling some pretty good jokes) while viewing panels that chronicle his initiatives including the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, and the Wilderness Act, and the Space Race. You can also see Lyndon at leisure, including a photograph of the president dancing with his favorite actress, Carol Channing. Among the displays is an exhibit case featuring a colorful array of Johnson campaign buttons and a yellowed original front page of the San Marcos Record announcing Johnson’s death.
The San Marcos Museum informs visitors that Johnson wasn’t just class president, but he was also on the debate team and president of the college’s press club. A black-and-white photo series from 1957 shows him physically cajoling another senator, speaking volumes of LBJ’s persuasive powers. Upstairs is a re-creation of Ladybird’s whistle-stop campaigns by train, along with exhibit panels about her life. Three panels feature her powerful conservation speeches at the Padre Island National Seashore, Big Bend National Park, and Fort Davis National Historical Site. I appreciated reading the reprint of a homesick letter he wrote to his mother, also a school teacher, when he was teaching in Cotulla, in which he writes “Babtist” for Baptist—written like a true Texan.
After a pause by Trinity Lutheran Church (where Lyndon and Ladybird attended Sunday services when they were on the ranch), I turn onto Lower Albert Road, crossing US 290 and continuing south 3 miles down a road past real farms that once dominated the area. Albert, a quick left on FM 1623, consists of a historic dance hall and adjacent icehouse/bar, surrounded by a spacious open picnic area with the Cowboy Cantina food truck.
Just beyond the dance hall is the turnoff to a gate and a sign identifying the building on the other side as the Williams Creek School House. This is where LBJ attended school for a year when he was 4 (clearly, a watershed year for the young fellow). The school is now the Albert Community Club and open for club events only.
Less than a half-mile farther east on Farm-to-Market Road 1623, take County Road 206 (Hye-Albert Road) 5 miles back to Hye, then go 5 miles back to 290. Johnson City, your starting point, is 10 miles east. Altogether the route is about 50 miles and can be done in a full day, or two-days if you prefer a more leisurely visit. There are plenty of quaint places in the area for an overnight stay.
The land, you will discover, shaped the man. And this particular man had enough prominence and clout to preserve and honor the places and people who made it that way. Everything’s OK on the LBJ.
The Lubbock-raised musician, who just released ‘Flatland Lullaby,’ will be inducted along with Sheryl Crow
by Joe NIck Patoski
Published: October 21, 2022 at 5:17 pm
Still cool at age 75, Joe Ely continues to perform and make music. Photo by BarbaraFG, courtesy LC Media.
It has been quite a month for Joe Ely. The Flatlanders, the Lubbock trio he first played and recorded with in 1972, headlined the Back to the Basics Music Festival at Luckenbach in late September. It was their first performance in three and a half years, and many thought it would be their final gig. Flatland Lullaby, a musical Christmas gift back in 1985 to his then 3-year-old daughter, Maria Elena, was released on CD for the first time in early October. And on Oct. 27, he will be inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame, along with singer Sheryl Crow.
Is all this part of a long goodbye? I wondered. So I rang him up to ask.
Nah, it’s more like the grand reawakening, explained the 75-year-old Ely, who still keeps musician’s hours, rising “about 10, 10:30.”
“I’ve been taking a breather, healing from an operation I had a couple years ago, getting my strength back,” he said. “Luckenbach was the first one of a new run, if we do anything else. I’m just going to leave it open.”
As for juggling three things at once, that’s been his life, he said matter-of-factly. “This wasn’t planned out. They just happened to collide. So we just grabbed it by the horns.”
It’s a life worthy of hall of famer status in a number of institutions. The discography is impressive, 21 albums and counting. And when it comes to live performance, Joe Ely is without peer, as I discovered when I first saw him back in 1977 at a club in Lubbock called Fat Dawg’s.
MCA Records had just released his debut album, Joe Ely. At that time, the music scene in Austin had blown up to the point where anything coming out of the city was stirring up interest nationally, thanks to folks like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey. But the country-rock hybrid being played around Austin had become tired and stereotypical.
Ely’s album was rock and country, too, but it came out of the city famous for producing ’50s rock ‘n’ roll icon Buddy Holly, and it sounded like it. His ensemble featured guitar, pedal steel, and accordion—instruments then not known for their compatibility—and packed a sonic wallop behind Ely’s singing that was simultaneously rockin’ and boot-scootin’ and so fresh and original, you couldn’t stick a label on it. The interplay between guitarist Jesse Taylor and steel guitarist Lloyd Maines was as powerful and unique to my ears as Duane Allman’s and Dickie Betts’ dueling guitar leads in the original Allman Brothers.
On that same visit to the Hub City, Joe took me to Buddy Holly’s grave at the city of Lubbock Cemetery to pay our respects, and we careened around the wide streets late into the night, ostensibly searching for a Black dwarf blues singer named Little Pete. We finally found Little Pete about 2 a.m., playing pool in TV’s, an after-hours joint located at the end of a cotton field east of town.
“TV was king of East Lubbock,” Ely said when I brought up the vivid memory. “He knew all the cool cats and ran a respectable bar that didn’t open ’til 1 or 2 in the morning. He got along well with the law because they knew the bad guys would be at TV’s; they’d all be in one spot. TV kept the herd on the dangerous side of Lubbock.”
Before that trip to Lubbock, I didn’t know much about Ely’s previous music adventure, The Flatlanders folk trio with Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They had recorded an album and made a run at Nashville as country troubadours, without success. They fell apart in 1973. Hancock moved to Austin to open Lubbock Or Leave It, a downtown store that featured his photography. Gilmore followed his spiritual advisor to Colorado. Ely joined the Ringling Brothers circus for a short spell taking care of llamas and the World’s Smallest Horse (really), then settled in Lubbock where he put together a band and built up a local following, making original music that prompted MCA Records to offer a deal.
I thought I’d made a discovery. My instincts were validated a year after I saw Ely in Lubbock by The Clash, the punk rockers from Great Britain. That band caught Ely and company at the Venue Club in London, and a mutual admiration society was immediately established.
“[After that first gig, we] hit the clubs in the East End, staying up all night and having a good time,” Ely told Margaret Moser of the Austin Chronicle back in 2000. “It was like the West Texas hellraisers meet the London hellraisers. We were from different worlds, but it was like, ‘All right! Let’s hang out some more!’ We were playing three nights in a row at the Venue and hung out the whole time.
“They told me they were coming to America and I asked where they wanted to play. ‘Laredo, El Paso’—they were naming off all these gunfighter ballad towns from Marty Robbins’ songs. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ I said, ‘but we could play Lubbock together.’ And they were like, ‘Lubbock! All right!’ We played Houston, San Antonio, Laredo, Lubbock, and Juarez. It was a great Europe-meets-Texas meeting.”
Ely told me The Clash’s fantasy vision of the American West didn’t quite square with reality. “The first thing they said when they got to Lubbock was ‘Where are all the cars? Where are all the people?’ It was a normal day in Lubbock, maybe four cars on the street. But to the Clash it was ‘Where is everybody?’ ’Why did Buddy Holly come from here?’ ‘Why did Elvis play the Fair Park Coliseum eight times?’
“We saw a lot in each other. Imaginations were on fire and bands were extreme. Breaking the rules was the rule.”
A year after bonding with The Clash, Ely became stage sweethearts with Linda Ronstadt, the Queen of L.A. Rock. The Joe Ely Band opened a string of tour dates for Ronstadt, and she returned the favor playing the Tornado Jam in Lubbock in 1982.
Ely and the band split after five years of hardcore touring domestically and internationally. One by one, band members relocated to Austin. Guitarist Jesse Taylor and accordionist Ponty Bone started fronting their own bands, and pedal steel player Lloyd Maines established himself as the most prolific producer in Texas music history after developing his skills in Lubbock.
It was around this time that Ely began embracing technology, meeting and becoming friends with Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer. He experimented with recording using an Apple II computer and the original recordings for B484, which Wozniak did the liner notes for, may be the first album ever recorded on an Apple. He followed that album up with Hi-Res, also recorded on an Apple II.
A few years later, Ely hired guitar-slinger David Grissom and welcomed fellow West Texan Bobby Keys, the saxophone player for the Rolling Stones, to join his new backing band whenever he could. Out of this came Lord of the Highway.
In 1993, Ely struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen, who saw him play in Dublin, Ireland, and became a fan, recording “All Just To Get To You” with Ely and performing together 17 times. Ely never shied away from taking risks. For a stretch, Ely added Dutch flamenco guitarist Teye who played on the 1995 album Letter to Laredo.
By the turn of the century, he had steered into solo and acoustic work, doing several songwriter tours with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Guy Clark sitting in a semi-circle doing a guitar pull. He won a Grammy as part of the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven. The Flatlanders reunited when Robert Redford asked them to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the film The Horse Whisperer in 1998. Butch, Jimmie, and Joe proved far more popular this time around, recording a full album, Now Again, in 2002. The trio released Treasure of Love, their first new recording in 12 years, last year.
No matter what Joe Ely was doing, he always made time to put together a band for epic live shows at Gruene Hall, where he last performed on Feb. 19, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
As a writer, there have been plays (Chippy), books (Reverb: An Odyssey, Bonfire of Roadmaps), and induction into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2017. There’s also art (including sketches of beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti; prints and box sets are available on Ely’s website), and lifetime achievement awards and recognitions out the wazoo.
So between the pandemic pause and post-op rehab, it would be easy to conclude Ely has run his race. Rocking out isn’t effortless when you’re 75. But he begs to differ.
There’s the release of his “labor of love” to his daughter, Flatland Lullaby. “I was glad I didn’t let it slip away like so many other recordings that I’ve done over the years,” he said. “I hadn’t finished them and they just kinda go away if you don’t put them out. There are so many partial stories that lead to other stories, now it’s like a puzzle, piecing it all together. That’s the feeling I had with this Lullaby album.”
And that Flatlanders gig at Luckenbach? “That was the one and only Flatlanders gig in three and a half years. We’re talking about doing the New Orleans Jazz Festival [in April 2023] and talking about doing northern California at Rancho Nicasio [a storied club in rural Marin County, run by former fellow Lubbock native Angela Strehli]. I’ve played there many times. We just don’t have dates inked in.”
But no more three-week runs for the self-declared “Lord of the Highway.” “We not talking about making this a touring band,” he said, laughing. “We just want to have fun, and not get caught up in what it takes to keep a road band going with 10 people on the payroll.”
In other words, the road doesn’t go on forever, like Robert Earl Keen wrote, and Joe Ely doesn’t live on the road anymore. “No, I don’t,” he said, again laughing. “Thank goodness. I’ve done my time.”
He admitted feeling apprehensive about getting back onstage again with the Flatlanders. “It was scary thinking about it,” he said. “But once we got onstage and started playing together, it was like somebody had opened the door and we were back home.”
The next gig, his ACL induction, should feel more like comfortable shoes. Maines is leading the band, which includes David Grissom on guitar and Ely’s longtime rhythm section, drummer Davis McLarty and bassist Jimmy Pettit. Butch and Jimmie Dale will be on hand, along with Marcia Ball and Rodney Crowell.
As for the formal induction, Ely claimed he’ll be winging it. “I don’t know exactly what to do,” he said blithely. “I don’t know what to wear. I don’t know what drawer to look in to find the missing parts of my life.” By showtime, I’m betting he’ll have figured it out.