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

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

BY Joe Nick Patoski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the phone imagery mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he getting recognized a lot?

“Everywhere,” he said flatly.

Is it a hassle?

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

Yep, the Cowboy Singer sure did.


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

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Texas’ Swimming Holes Are Drying Up

My story about swimming holes in Texas, drought, and climate change in the 50th Anniversary issue of Texas Monthly magazine.

https://www.texasmonthly.com/travel/ode-to-texas-disappearing-swimming-holes/

swimming holes Blanco State Park
The Blanco River in Blanco State Park in September 2018. Photograph by Nick Simonite
Texas Icons

An Ode to Texas’s Disappearing Swimming Holes

I’ve spent the past half century immersing myself in Texas’s clear, cool waters. But if development and drought have their way, I may be the last of my kind.

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.

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Charley Crockett answers my questions

https://texashighways.com/culture/people/texas-honky-tonker-charley-crocketts-journey-from-the-street-corner-to-the-marquee-lights/

Charley Crockett

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.

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The President’s Ranch Trail Drive – cruisin’ with LBJ

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/for-a-quick-road-trip-the-presidents-ranch-trail-takes-you-all-the-way-with-lbj/

from TexasHighways.com

The exterior of a white house with a green lawn and mature trees

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.

A brown old-timey car parked inside of a building next to a white vintage car

Historic Model T at the LBJ Ranch. Photo by Will van Overbeek.

A brown National Parks Service sign reading "Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park"

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.

LBJ served by BBQ caterer Walter Jetton
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Joe Ely Looks Back on His 50-Year Career before ACL Induction

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/joe-ely-looks-back-on-his-50-year-career-ahead-of-austin-city-limits-hall-of-fame-induction/

A man in a denim jacket and sunglasses sits on conrete steps with a guitar on his lap and book open over the guitar

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.

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a brief history of the rise and rise of Texas skyscrapers

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/a-brief-history-of-the-rise-and-rise-of-texas-skyscrapers/

An artist rendering of the Austin skyline with the Waterline on the right of the photo. Soaring to 1,022 feet, Waterline will become the tallest tower in Texas when it opens in 2026. Source: Atchain

Soaring to 1,022 feet, the Waterline will become the tallest tower in Texas when it opens in 2026. Photo courtesy of Atchain.

The recent announcement that construction will soon begin on Texas’ tallest skyscraper came as a surprise to many. Not necessarily for the structure itself, but where it would be built—in Austin, not Houston or Dallas. It’s a sure sign the capital city has joined the civic competition to erect the tallest building, and therefore claim the title of tallest city in the Lone Star State.

That urge to be tallest has played out among civilizations since the pyramids rose in Egypt and Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize in the Americas.

Cathedrals in Europe and the United States competed to be the tallest for several hundred years until the late 19th century, when structures like the 548-foot-tall Philadelphia City Hall, the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument, and the 984-foot-tall Eiffel Tower vied over who could be the tallest in the world.

A black and white picture of a tall building with carriages out front

The Praetorian Building, from a 1908 postcard.

Texas got into the skyscraper game relatively quick, in 1908, with the opening of the 15-story, 190-foot-tall Praetorian Building in Dallas (which was torn down in 2013). Houston could already brag about the eight-story First National Bank Building (completed in 1905). Designed by Sanguinet and Staats, the architectural firm responsible for many of Texas’ tall buildings in the early 20th century, the structure later became the Lomas and Nettleton Building. (Located at Main Street and Franklin Avenue, it houses residential lofts today.) By 1910, Houston also had the 10-story, 124-foot-tall 711 Main Building and the 23-story, 302-foot-high Carter Building, allowing Houston to claim the title of Texas’ Tallest City.

Two years later, the honorific returned to Dallas with the opening of the 25-story Adolphus Hotel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month with a gala on Oct. 29. In 1925, the Adolphus gave way to the Magnolia Building, as Dallas’ (and Texas’) tallest with the Magnolia Oil Company’s neon flying horse logo atop the 399-foot, 27-floor edifice. (It was recently announced the building will undergo a major renovation, including the addition of three floors.)

Houston regained the tallest title in 1927 with the completion of the 410-foot, 31-story, Italian Renaissance-styled Niels-Esperson Building, followed two years later by the 37-story, 428-foot art deco Gulf Building. Houston managed to hold on until 1943, when the Mercantile National Bank Building, a 31-story, 523-foot-tower with a distinctive clock spire opened in Dallas.

The back-and-forth rivalry between Dallas and Houston continued for another 40 years:

Dallas – Republic National Bank (1954; 36 stories, 602 feet)
Houston – Humble Building (1963; 44 stories, 606 feet)
Dallas – First National Bank Tower (1965; 52 stories, 628 feet)
Houston – One Shell Plaza (1970; 50 stories, 714 feet)

One Shell was still a tad taller than Dallas’ new tallest, the 56-story, 710-foot-tall First International Building, built in 1974. But by the time the 74-story, 921-foot Bank of America Plaza was completed in 1985—the tallest skyscraper in Dallas—Houston had one-upped its main competitor again with the 1,002-foot, 75-floor Texas Commerce Building, now named the JP Morgan Chase Tower, which has held the Texas’ Tallest title since it was built in 1982. Whew!

That honorary is about to change, and this time neither Dallas nor Houston is in the race. Enter Austin.

The capital city came late to the tall skyscraper game. Until 1974, the Texas State Capitol (standing at 302.64 feet “from the south front ground level to the tip of the star of the Goddess of Liberty”) reigned as Austin’s tallest building, mainly because the city enacted an ordinance to keep it the predominant building in the city’s skyline. It was complemented by the 29-story, 307-foot-tall University of Texas Main Building (aka The Tower), followed in 1972 by the Dobie Center, also on the UT campus and 307 feet. By the mid ’80s, Austin had more than a dozen skyscrapers, with 600 Congress leading the pack for tallest for 20 years before the 515-foot Frost Bank Tower arrived in 2004.

Meanwhile, construction pretty much came to a halt in Dallas and Houston. Big D stopped aspiring for higher heights, settling for new towers in the 30- to 40-story range until the 42-story Museum Tower broke through in 2013. And, after reaching its zenith in the 1980s, Houston experienced fallout from the Savings and Loan economic meltdown, followed by the Federal Aviation Authority’s mandate prohibiting construction of buildings taller than 75 floors in the central business district because it is in the takeoff and landing flight patterns for Hobby Airport. Outside of downtown, no significant towers have been built since the 64-story, 901-foot Transco Tower near the Galleria opened in 1982.

Fast-forward to Austin around 2010, when residential and tech started dominating the local skyscraper boom. More than 20 steel-and-glass towers have been built, topped by the current city champ, the Independent (aka the “Jenga tower“), at 58 floors and 690 feet, and the 56-floor, 683-foot Austonion, with its distinctive crescent top.

Why the sudden high-rise boom? “I would suggest the reason why they are taller in Austin is because it is so physically small and so dense,” says Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News who teaches architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington and is a Loeb Fellow of architecture at Harvard. “That means the land is incredibly valuable, and that makes it financially desirable to build extremely tall.”

Also, skyscrapers in Houston and Dallas tend to focus more on style than height. “There isn’t an emphasis on being the ‘tallest’ because buildings are now developed by investment groups rather than individuals or companies, for whom the ‘tallest’ moniker might be appealing,” he says.

A black and glass building surrounded by other buildings in downtown Houston

Pennzoil Place. Photo by Agsftw, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lamster cites Pennzoil Place in Houston, still one of the state’s most revered skyscrapers, as an example of style over stature. “[Then Pennzoil CEO] Hugh Liedtke, who commissioned the building specifically, did not go for ‘tallest’ because he knew that there would always be some other building to eclipse it,” he says. “So Pennzoil Place focused on quality and distinction [rather than height]. That worked.”

So, in Austin, the rise to the top goes on. Both of the city’s tallest buildings will be eclipsed next year by a residential and office tower being built at Sixth and Guadalupe streets and listed at 66 floors and 875 feet high. The building will have a primary tenant, the tech company Meta, parent of Facebook and Instagram. That’s plenty tall, but in a few years it will still not be Texas’ tallest.

That accolade will pass to the Waterline, a 73-story, 1,022-foot-tall residential-hotel-office tower at 98 Red River. Its scheduled completion date is mid-2026. I know the location well. The site was formerly occupied by a funky two-story white clapboard boarding house where I rented a cheap office for $80 a month back in the 1980s. That was Old Austin. The future occupant is New Texas all the way—shiny, bright, and rising to the skies.

Will this be the apex for Texas skyscrapers? Given its history, odds are taller towers are coming. And the short answer as to why is “money,” Lamster says. “Or, as Carol Willis, the historian and founder of the Skyscraper Museum puts it, ‘form follows finance.’”

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Texas Music producer of all time Lloyd Maines makes his own album

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/texas-producer-lloyd-maines-steps-out-on-his-own/

Known for his work with the Chicks, Joe Ely, and others, the 71-year-old releases his first solo album, ‘Eagle Number 65’

The call came at the exact minute he said it would. “When you’ve been working in the studio for 50 years, you learn that,” the booming voice on the other end of the line said. Lloyd Maines was talking about the value in watching the clock as a music producer.

He should know. He has likely produced more Texas music than any single person ever, involved in an estimated 5,000 projects over the past 50 years. He is also one of the finest pedal steel guitar players alive, an in-demand music director, and the answer to the trivia question: “Who has made the most appearances on the Austin City Limits television series?”

“I lost count when the [Austin City Limits] Hall of Fame thing started,” he admitted on the phone. “They hired me to be the music director for those annual shows, which started in 2014. Before that, I think my count was 25 times on the show. Plus, I did a Robert Earl [Keen] taping back in April, and Terry Allen earlier this year.”

To casual music fans, Maines is best known for his work producing a young female band called the Chicks (formally known as the Dixie Chicks). In the early years, he played pedal steel on two of the group’s first albums. When singer Laura Lynch left, Maines introduced the Erwin sisters, Emily and Martie, to his daughter Natalie, who proceeded to elevate the group to superstar status.

But Maines’ sideman credits are deep, going back almost 50 years. He’s played with the Chicks, Jerry Jeff Walker, Terry Allen, and the original Joe Ely Band, formed in Maines’ hometown of Lubbock in 1973.

Despite those impressive achievements, there was a whole other reason Maines was calling me: the release of his very first album at age 71, Eagle Number 65.

Two of his best musical friends had been encouraging him to make his own record for quite some time. “Terri Hendrix [with whom he has collaborated for 25 years] always was saying, ‘You got to put out an album. You have to have a record of your own,’” Maines said. “Terry Allen has been beating me over the head for years to do one.”

COVID-19 provided the prompt. “Starting in March 2020 because of the pandemic, I stopped doing face-to-face studio sessions,” Maines said. “I didn’t want to be inside a room with a bunch of musicians. I started doing all my recording at home—and I’ve got a lame setup. People started sending me stuff from all over the world. I did 10 songs for a guy in Australia. It was madness, but I enjoyed working at home. While I was doing that, I thought I could put together some songs for my four grandkids. The deeper I got into it, the more thematic it became.”

The album turned into a true family affair with his three grandsons and granddaughter contributing their talents. Beckett Pasdar, Natalie’s younger son from her marriage to actor Adrian Pasdar, plays drums on the original “Hank Hill’s Nightmare.” Older brother Slade Pasdar wrote and played on the guitar and steel composition “Homer’s Odd Is He.” Declan Maguire, son of photographer Kim Maguire, Natalie’s older sister, plays piano on the track named for him, “Declan’s Cookie.”

The Chicks’ song ‘Lullaby’ appears on the album. “I was there for that [original] recording and when they played the demo, I got choked up,” Maines said. “The lyrics are so strong and important. I didn’t know how it would translate, so I had [granddaughter] Amelia Maguire sing lead.”

Maines got the idea to work with his immediate family from Allen. After co-producing Allen’s epic double album Lubbock (on Everything) in 1979, Maines produced his song “Bloodlines” in 1983. For it, Allen gathered as many family and friends into the studio to sing along with him. For his own album, Maines got his own brothers and sisters, and their kids and grandkids to sing along—via telephone, email, and digital prints. “Fifty-two voices,” Maines beamed.

As for his own vocal contribution? “I never intended to sing on my record,” he said. “I had to make myself do it because of the subject matter. It’s so family-oriented. It was hard to get through it. I had to stop and start numerous times.”

Playing with family has always been a part of Maines’ life. He dove into music at age 14 when he and his brothers started the popular Lubbock country dance band the Maines Brothers. His picked up the steel guitar as a teenager, becoming “enamored” watching Frank Carter, who played the instrument in Lloyd’s father’s and uncle’s version of the Maines Brothers. One day, Maines said, he found a steel guitar made by Carter for him sitting in the living room.

The brothers would play at the historic Cotton Club in Lubbock every Sunday for two years while he was in high school. Whenever Willie Nelson was booked at the club, Maines would be sure to watch his steel player, the late Jimmy Day. “Man, I would watch every move he made, every nuance,” he said. “I don’t think he ever once looked in my direction, but I didn’t care. I was soaking it in, his chords, his voicing. I’d try to remember all that and implement the next time I played.”

Also, while in Lubbock, he learned about recording music, doing a lot of on-the-job training running sessions at Don Caldwell Recording Studio. “I did tons of steel,” he said. “In Lubbock, all the area farmers get into their 50s, start thinking about how much they’ve sinned, so they all want to do a gospel album. It’s the way I paid my bills. When I wasn’t touring with Ely, I was in the studio.”

After the brothers grew up and went their separate ways, Maines joined forces with Joe Ely to start a band in 1973. It was during this period that Maines entered my ears. In 1977, when the Joe Ely Band released their first album on MCA Records, the supercharged group showcased Maines’ pedal steel guitar, which didn’t sound like a pedal steel at all, but rather like ZZ Top.

Along the way, Maines fine-tuned his steel guitar into a rocked-up instrument that could go toe-to-toe with lead guitarist Jesse Taylor. Their unique mix of rock ‘n’ roll infused with country elements led to a national and international following for the Joe Ely Band.

Success prompted Ely and band to depart Lubbock one by one for the greener pastures of Austin during the 1980s. Maines stayed behind. He left the band for family and work at Don Caldwell’s studio. “Ely had nine weeks of touring coming up, and I had two kids and didn’t want to burden Tina [his wife of 52 years].” Maines said. Ely wouldn’t fire him, and has kept a space open for Maines whenever he wants, which includes the last Joe Ely Band gig at Gruene Hall in February 2020.

Maines finally moved to Austin in 1998. “I started doing so much work in Austin, producing so many acts, on my 1997 tax returns, I realized I had been in Austin 207 days,“ he said.

If there is a quality that sets Maines apart from other great steel guitar players it may be his versatility. He can play straight country as good as any session player—years ago, producer Chip Young guaranteed Maines plenty of work if he moved to Nashville. (Maines stayed put in Texas.) He also takes his instrument to places it’s never been before, working it like a lead guitar. “That was all Joe,” Lloyd said, blaming his first bandleader. “Even though he wore a cowboy hat and could play country, he would also rock stuff out.”

Lloyd brought his own special sauce: a 9-volt battery distortion unit called a Boss Tone he got from Sneaky Pete Kleinow, the old-school pedal steel guitarist with country-rock pioneers the Flying Burrito Brothers. He could make it sound like Jimi Hendrix or the Allman Brothers. “People were shocked that a pedal steel guitar could sound like that,” he said.

It’s a style that harkens back a whole century to Bob Dunn, who played the lap steel hot, like a sax, with the trailblazing Western swing ensemble Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies in Fort Worth.

Back in the here and now, Maines was pressed for time. He had to drive to San Antonio to play the last dates of Robert Earl Keen’s farewell tour, the final three happening in early September at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes. “I produced five albums for Robert Earl,” Maines said. “One was No. 2 Live Dinner, which was recorded at Floore’s.” There were gigs coming up with the Flatlanders, the Chicks, Ely, and Terri Hendrix. So, with no time to spare, I asked for his trade secrets.

What’s the key to being a producer? “Three answers: in tune, on time, and under budget. I also try not to go in with a preconceived notion how it should be, until I hear the songs. All I want is it should be pleasing to the ear, and convey the lyrics. I have to honor the lyrics. That’s what it’s all about.”

What’s the key to being a sideman? “I just try to play the songs. Generally, I have good luck with that. That other key is when you do fills in the verse and the choruses, never step on the vocals. Don’t crowd the vocals and you’ll always make the singer happy.”

Finally, I asked what it’s like to be a front man for the first time at age 71. “When I produce an album for someone, I treat it as if it’s mine, all the way through the mastering process and everyone signing off on it. Then I move on to the next project,” he said. “Producing my own album was a little easier, because I only had myself to answer to. I almost fired myself a couple of times, but I realized nobody else would work as cheap as me. Then after I signed off on it, I could just move on. I had to say, ‘Now what?’”

Eagle Number 65 is available for purchase here. Lloyd Maines’ upcoming shows include the Flatlanders in Luckenbach on Sept. 24, the Chicks at Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 7 and 14, and leading the house band as musical director when Joe Ely and Sheryl Crow are inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame Oct. 27. More dates can be found at lloydmaines.com.

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John Lomax 3 and the Family Tradition

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

John Lomax III photo by Amanda Lomax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Behold the Bounty of the Blanco, Texas Highways magazine

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

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

Behold the Bounty of the Blanco

The splendid and fragile beauty

of the Hill Country’s keystone river

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lone kayaker paddles under green trees and blue sky

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

Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek in Wimberley

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

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

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

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

The Blanco is that delicate—and that marvelous.

Bright green ferns grow along the banks of the Blanco River

Proper Respects

Responsible River Recreation

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

Above: A fern grotto on the Blanco near Wimberley

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

David Baker at Jacob’s Well

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

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

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

A man in a collard shirt and

Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dive In

Recreating on the River

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

Blanco

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

Wimberley

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

San Marcos

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

From the July 2021 issue

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Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel Turn 50 in Texas Highways

https://texashighways.com/culture/art-music/ray-benson-reflects-50-years-seminal-western-swing-band-asleep-at-the-wheel/

A story I wrote for Texas Highways magazine

Ray Benson poses with a guitar near his home outside of Austin Texas

Rolling with the wheel

Western swing disciples Asleep at the Wheel mark 50 years and countless miles of Texas

By Joe Nick Patoski

Ray Benson at his home in Austin earlier this year. Photo by Jeff Wilson

One afternoon this March, the visage of Ray Benson, founder and leader of the band Asleep at the Wheel, flickered before my eyes. Well, on my computer screen, actually, courtesy of FaceTime. It had been a rough two weeks. Plans for a 50th anniversary Asleep at the Wheel reunion show and recording session in the band’s hometown of Austin had been done in by the coronavirus. Without his trademark cowboy hat, Benson looked downright deflated.

He said as much. It wasn’t the thwarted album or the cancellation of his annual birthday party show in March. It was the stage being ripped from his soul. “I haven’t gone this long without playing in front of an audience since I was 18,” Benson moaned.

As it turned out, Benson had plenty reason to be bummed. A few days after our conversation, he was in the news, having tested positive for COVID-19. Thankfully, the 69-year-old recuperated, and a few weeks later, we talked again.

“Well, I’ve got time!” a revitalized Benson boomed through the computer screen. He’d just wrapped up an online board meeting of the nonprofit Texas Cultural Trust, but it wasn’t like he had a gig to rush off to.

In a weird way, it was telling that Benson was among the first high-profile Texans diagnosed with COVID-19. His familiar baritone sounds like Texas—just like the Western swing band he’s led for 50 years sounds like Texas.

If there’s a dance hall in the Lone Star State with a stage and a dance floor that’ll hold enough folks, Asleep at the Wheel has played it. With fiddles and steel, the Wheel has articulated an ensemble sound that links Western swing—the made-in-Texas original sound popularized by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys in the 1930s and ’40s—with modern Western sounds.

“Asleep at the Wheel have kept Western swing vital and relevant to country music and gave it a worldwide audience,” said Rich Kienzle, a country music historian.

Asleep at the Wheel’s been playing so well for so long, it’s actually eclipsed Wills’ band in longevity. Along the way, Benson and his crew have graced thousands of stages, released more than 25 albums, won 10 Grammy Awards, and counted nearly 100 musicians among its membership.

“I wanted more Broken Spokes, more ‘Cotton Eye Joes,’ more Western swing music,” Benson said, looking back across a half-century of nurturing Western swing’s flame. “Guess what? It happened. There are a number of Western swing bands around the country now.”

Pretty good for an idea hatched by two boys from the suburbs of Philadelphia.

Ray Benson's arm over a guitar with an "Asleep at the Wheel" tattoo visible

A vintage photo of Benson sporting a band tattoo. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
A vintage photograph of Ray Benson and his sister Sandy Katz slouching in a chair

Benson and sister Sandy Katz as children in about 1955. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
A black and white picture of Ray Benson playing guitar in 2009

If there’s a dance hall in the Lone Star State with a stage and a dance floor that‘ll hold enough folks, Asleep at the Wheel has played it.

Benson in 2009. Photo by Lisa Pollard.

The story begins in the 1950s, when Ray Benson Seifert and Reuben Gosfield (who later adopted the showbiz names Ray Benson and Lucky Oceans) started running together at age 3, going to the same schools and summer camp, buying records, seeing shows, and playing in bands. A Gene Autry show in Philadelphia was a transformative moment for both of them. Oceans’ eyes popped when he saw Autry ride his horse onto the theater stage. After getting deep into Hank Williams, in 1969, Benson made a proposal: “We’re going to be the first hippies to have a real country-western band.”

Leroy Preston met Benson and Oceans in Boston in 1969. He was a Vermont farm kid with a guitar, raised on country music and rock ‘n’ roll. The three decided to start a band, and in the spring of 1970, they took a break from college and moved to a friend’s farm near Paw Paw, West Virginia. Joining them was Danny Levin, a pianist and fiddler from Boston. For months it was “funky cabin living, bonding, and building the musical base for the band,” Preston said.

“We were broke,” Benson recalled. “Lucky’s folks, in their wisdom, gave us a 100-pound sack of flour, a 100-pound sack of oats, and a tub of peanut butter, and said, ‘Don’t starve.’ Friends of ours brought us deer meat. We were very serious that the band was our job.”

One night at a nearby club, Ernest Tubb and His Texas Troubadours left an impression. “They were blowing jazz in the warm-up set, just smoking,” Preston said. “And then Ernest came out, and straight as tick-tock, they were on classic country. It was the aha moment for us: You can do both.”

Benson, Redd Volkaert, and Dale Watson play guitars under stage lights

Benson, Redd Volkaert, and Dale Watson at Benson’s 2004 birthday bash. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Benson, in a black cowboy hat, poses with country singer Carrie Underwood

Benson and Carrie Underwood at the Grammy Awards in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

On Aug. 25, 1970, Asleep at the Wheel played their first gig, opening for Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper in Washington, D.C. The Wheel played country standards “Cocaine Blues” and “Truck Drivin’ Man”—as straight as a band could be with a long-haired, barefoot guitarist standing 6-foot-7. One young singer, Chris O’Connell, was so enthralled seeing the Wheel open for the country-rock outfit Poco at American University, she followed the band back to Paw Paw and became its female vocalist.

“All of a sudden we had a big band that was really good,” Benson said.

The band took off for East Oakland, California, in 1971 and immediately gained a following, sharing a manager and club dates with Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and bills with the Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, and Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. Soon, a young jazz-trained pianist from Berkeley hired on after a one-song audition. He then changed his name from Jim Haber to Floyd Domino.

Ray Benson and Willie Nelson laugh inside of a tour bus

Benson and Willie Nelson on Nelson’s bus in 2009. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

With an opportunity to back up mainstream country acts, the hippie country outfit got serious, cutting their hair and donning Western suits to play with the likes of Stoney Edwards, a Black honky-tonk singer on Capitol Records. Around that time, the band went to Nashville to record its first album. “We wanted to be a country band,” Preston said. “We didn’t want to be lumped with New Riders of the Purple Sage or the Flying Burrito Brothers.”

Their first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, was produced by Tommy Allsup, the Texan who had played in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and as one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets. Allsup brought in fiddler Johnny Gimble, another Playboys alumnus. The Wheel’s version of “Take Me Back to Tulsa” became the star of their reinvention of Western swing and got the band touring in Texas.

“The audience in Texas knew our music as roots rather than fad,” Preston said.

Up until then, Wills’ music had been only a small part of the band’s repertoire. But the Wheel added twin fiddlers in California, and in 1973, Benson and the band saw Wills at a Dallas studio during the recording of the Texas Playboys’ album For the Last Time. A formal introduction planned for the next day didn’t happen; Wills had a stroke that night and never recovered.

The Wheel played venues like the Farmer’s Daughter in San Antonio; the Western Place in Dallas, where Willie Nelson showed up to introduce himself and jam with the band on stage; and the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, where they opened for Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. “It was like, ‘Holy moly, this is heaven!’” Benson said of the crowd’s untethered enthusiasm.

The band moved to Austin in February 1973 at the urging of Nelson and Doug Sahm. It was an exciting time, when longhairs in cowboy hats were suddenly a thing. Most of the musicians on the Austin club scene—legends like Steve Fromholz, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willis Alan Ramsey—played rock, folk, or what was known around town as “progressive country.” The Wheel fit right in. “We were regressive country,” Benson laughed.

Nelson liked the band so much he had the Wheel open shows all over Texas. They were an ensemble of smart players with chops. O’Connell was a featured vocalist, along with Benson and Preston. Domino was the featured boogie-woogie instrumentalist. Upright bassist Tony Garnier and Domino would hold up fingers to represent which classic rhythm section they wanted to emulate during a particular instrumental break. Benson developed a crisp swing-guitar style on his big-bodied Epiphone, which melded seamlessly with fiddles and Oceans’ steel guitar.

Ray Benson and Jason Roberts perform under stage lights

Benson and Jason Roberts in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Ray Benson shakes hands with Porter Wagoner

Benson and Porter Wagoner in 2007. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

Benson was the focus. He did most of the talking and worked on taking care of business and building relationships offstage.

In 1975, “The Letter That Johnny Walker Read,” a Benson-O’Connell duet in the tradition of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, reached No. 10 on the country singles chart and kept the Wheel on the road, playing 200 shows a year.

But by the early 1980s, as far as Nashville was concerned, Asleep at the Wheel was a band whose moment had passed. The band had won a Grammy, had a hit record with Texas Gold, and recorded five albums, but now members were having kids and buying houses. “At that point, I would have done anything else, but nobody offered me a job, and the band still had fans,” Benson said. “They’d say, ‘Don’t quit. There’s nobody else doing this.’”

Benson’s persistence paid off with another string of country hits in the late ’80s—“House of Blue Lights,” “Boogie Back to Texas,” and “Way Down Texas Way.” The 1990s were full-on Bob, as Asleep at the Wheel recorded two Wills tribute albums. In 2009, Benson’s career-long friendship with Nelson was cemented with the album Willie and the Wheel. That same year the band was hired to tour behind Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Nelson on their Last of the Breed tour.

10 essential Asleep At The Wheel songs

Over the course of its run, Asleep at the Wheel has earned the reputation as a road musician’s finishing school. If you can play with the Wheel, you can play with the best live bands out there. The band’s alumni list is getting close to 100 names long and counts well-known musicians including Jason Roberts, the fiddler who now heads the modern Texas Playboys; and Cindy Cashdollar, a renowned steel guitar and dobro player.

Turnover is routine for any large ensemble, and Benson never hesitated to demand the best of new members. Practically all living veterans from early iterations of the band made the 40th anniversary reunion in 2010. And they’ve all committed to a 50th reunion show, whenever that’s feasible.

“When we get back together, there’s such a fondness for each other, such a love, that any resentment falls away,” O’Connell said. “It’s all about perseverance, and I have to give all the credit to Ray.”

As far as the old band goes, founding member Oceans moved in 1980 to Australia, where he’s a radio broadcaster and an international pedal-steel legend. Preston returned to Vermont after a stretch as a Nashville songwriter. O’Connell moved back to Northern California, where she still performs. Garnier has been Bob Dylan’s bassist for more than 30 years. Domino remains a fixture in Austin beer joints, solo and leading his All-Star’s Western swing band.

As for Asleep at the Wheel, the band plays about 130 shows a year across Texas, Canada, and Europe. With touring stymied by the pandemic, the band staged a virtual dance online in late July. Benson has mellowed to the point of leaving business details to his son, Sam Seifert, who oversees operations at Benson’s headquarters. Seifert’s job, he said, is for “Ray to be able to play music and play golf.”

The old man has earned it. He sits on the boards of the St. David’s Foundation and Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and speaks to university business classes about life as a small business entrepreneur. He published a book in 2015—Comin’ Right at Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel—and recently donated his archive to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.

“Ray Benson has a ridiculous work ethic, and he has something in him that people love to watch,” said Dave Sanger, the Wheel’s drummer since 1986. The secret sauce, he said, is “one part great musicianship, one part accessible yet challenging music, one part freedom to improvise and excel, and five parts Ray Benson. My mom always tells me how much joy we bring to people. Maybe that’s it.”

A black and white picture of Asleep At The Wheel performing at Armadillo World Headquarters

Asleep at the Wheel at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin in 1980. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.
Ray Benson, in a cowboy hat and holding a guitar, poses just like a lookalike cake of him

Benson and a look-alike birthday cake in 2015. Photo courtesy Ray Benson.

Back on FaceTime, Ray Benson and I were talking about longevity when he brought up something the late singer-songwriter Steve Fromholz told him back in the 1970s: “It’s easier to get out of show business than it is to get back in.”

Ray has always been all in.

“You’re going to perform until nobody wants to come see you,” he said.

The Wheel keeps rolling, with Nelson and Tubb as its GPS. “With them, it’s the same thing: It’s all about getting on stage and doing it.”

“I have a theory,” Benson added, his voice buffering along with his image on the computer screen. “When the technology came where you and I can do what we’re doing now, and music legends are being recreated as holograms, people will pay a premium to see a band live on stage. There’s this thing that happens between people. It’s hard to explain, but when people are in the same room with other people, something happens. It’s not like staring at an avatar.”

When we can do that again, my money’s on people taking the dance floor and Asleep at the Wheel taking the stage

50 Years

of Sleeping

at the

Wheel

1970

Aug. 25, Asleep at the Wheel plays its first gig as the unannounced opener on the Medicine Ball Caravan, the “Woodstock on wheels” headlined by Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm commune gets them the job.

1969

Benson and Oceans, students at Antioch colleges in Ohio and Maryland, respectively, meet Leroy Preston in Boston at the house Leroy shares with Ray’s sister. They all move to a cabin in the woods to start a band, joined by Danny Levin.

1954

1972

1971

Reuben Gosfield and Ray Seifert (the future Lucky Oceans and Ray Benson) meet as children in a Philadelphia suburb.

Asleep at the Wheel records its first album, Comin’ Right at Ya, in Nashville with Tommy Allsup producing and guest fiddler Johnny Gimble opening the door to the world of Bob Wills.

Asleep at the Wheel relocates to East

Oakland, California.

1978

After being nominated for Grammy Awards the previous three years, Asleep at the Wheel wins its first award for “One O’Clock Jump” (Best Country Instrumental Performance).

1987

The Wheel records its first music video for “Way Down Texas Way.”

1973

The band tours Texas

and moves to Austin.

2020

2009

1975

Asleep at the Wheel marks its 50th anniversary. A reunion show and new album with the original band are delayed by the coronavirus until fall 2021.

The Wheel and Willie

Nelson release Willie

and the Wheel, which

is nominated for a

Grammy Award.

“The Letter That

Johnny Walker Read” hits No. 10 on Billboard’s country chart.

Photos courtesy Ray Benson

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