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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The Wild and Urban Brazos in Texas Highways

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

 

The Brazos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canoeing the John Graves Scenic Riverway

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

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

A map showing major points on the Brazos river

.

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

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

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

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

An overhead view of green fields and gravel roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Bodson, executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History of the Brazos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddle the Brazos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the July 2022 issue
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Texas Music Hour of Power Sat nites 7-9 pm central KRTS Marfa KWVH Wimberley and anytime here

tmhoposterofficial

 

www.marfapublicradio.org

www.westtexaspublicradio.org

www.wimberleyvalleyradio.org

www.kwvh.org

Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.

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Behold the Bounty of the Blanco, Texas Highways magazine

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

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

Behold the Bounty of the Blanco

The splendid and fragile beauty

of the Hill Country’s keystone river

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lone kayaker paddles under green trees and blue sky

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

Blue Hole Regional Park on Cypress Creek in Wimberley

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

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

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

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

The Blanco is that delicate—and that marvelous.

Bright green ferns grow along the banks of the Blanco River

Proper Respects

Responsible River Recreation

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

Above: A fern grotto on the Blanco near Wimberley

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

David Baker at Jacob’s Well

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos

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

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

A man in a collard shirt and

Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dive In

Recreating on the River

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

Blanco

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

Wimberley

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

San Marcos

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

From the July 2021 issue

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The Ballad of Robert Ealey and His Five Careless Lovers: An Oral History

 

This is the story of the band who wised me up to what music is really all about – Robert Ealey and His Five Careless Lovers of Fort Worth, Texas.

This 50 page oral history began in January 2020 with a long conversation with Sumter Bruton III and continued with interviews with Mike Buck, Jackie Newhouse and Freddie Cisneros. Their origin stories together answered many questions I’ve had for almost a half century. That which wasn’t answered retreated behind the veil of mojo and mystery, as tends to happen when you’re dealing with honest blues.

Nancy McMillen Design made all the words look real nice.

The book retails for $20 exclusively at Record Town in Fort Worth and Antone’s Records in Austin.

You can also get a copy by sending a check for $25 (inculding postage) to 706 Deer Run, Wimberley, TX 78676

Contact  joenickp@gmail.com if you want to use a credit card.  And if you’d like the book inscribed, just say so.

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

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

A story I wrote for Texas Highways magazine

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

Rolling with the wheel

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

By Joe Nick Patoski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benson in 2009. Photo by Lisa Pollard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray Benson and Willie Nelson laugh inside of a tour bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray Benson and Jason Roberts perform under stage lights

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 essential Asleep At The Wheel songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray has always been all in.

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

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

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

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

50 Years

of Sleeping

at the

Wheel

1970

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

1969

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

1954

1972

1971

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

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

Asleep at the Wheel relocates to East

Oakland, California.

1978

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

1987

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

1973

The band tours Texas

and moves to Austin.

2020

2009

1975

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

The Wheel and Willie

Nelson release Willie

and the Wheel, which

is nominated for a

Grammy Award.

“The Letter That

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

Photos courtesy Ray Benson

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This might be the prettiest body of water in Texas – from Texas Highways magazine

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/rivers/shhh-this-just-might-be-the-prettiest-body-of-water-in-texas/

Ranch Road 337 offers great views in the Hill Country

Ranch Road 337 leads to Camp Wood

View of the Nueces Canyon

Sweeping vistas of Nueces Canyon abound along RR 337

A young woman looks down into a swimming hole on the Nueces River

A swimming hole south of Camp Wood off Riverview Road.

Last summer, I drove into the Nueces Canyon
from Leakey on Ranch Road 337,

one of the storied Twisted Sisters drives favored by weekend motorcyclists. I was looking for what I suspected was one of the most pristine bodies of water in Texas, a Hill Country river hardly anyone ever talks about.

A map showing the roads and towns around the Nueces River in Texas

Illustration: Alan Kikuchi

I arrived in Camp Wood, population 736, a century-old town originally known as a hub for raising sheep and goats. Most of the storefronts along State Highway 55—the main drag dually known as Nueces Street—were occupied, but this did not feel like the Hill Country most tourists experience. None of the businesses were gussied up, and there wasn’t a winery or distillery for miles. The newest structure was a Family Dollar. The shuttered two-story hotel, the faded sign identifying the mohair business, the empty Lindbergh Park, and the mysterious point of interest with seven flagpoles on SH 55 just north of town serve as testaments to events that transpired here on the western edge of the Hill Country over the past 250 years or so.

These spots exist expressly because of the Nueces River and its adjoining creeks, springs, and tributaries. The river is why people settled in the remote Nueces Canyon and why they remain. It’s also why a growing number of intrepid travelers are passing on popular Hill Country destinations to play in Camp Wood, as well as Barksdale, Montell, and points in between.

I’m a spring-fed freshwater swimming nut. Rivers and creeks are my thing, as long as they’re unspoiled, untamed, and unchlorinated—the clearer, the better. The sweetest water I’ve ever seen was on a ranch near the headwaters of the West Fork of the Nueces, out in the middle of nowhere. The water, fresh and infused with ozone, even smelled amazing, like a crashing wave at the beach, minus the salt. I wanted to know if the main channel of the Nueces River, about 20 miles south of its headwaters, was as clear, clean, and dreamy to swim in as the neighboring Frio and Devils rivers.

My guide was Jim Holder, a chirpy, suspenders-wearing board member for the local volunteer group installing exhibits and signage for Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, a public archeological site near the banks of the Nueces. Holder is a retired school teacher and businessman whose kinfolk go back to the 1880s around these parts. He attended elementary school here before moving away and returned as a retiree eight years ago. Holder enjoys life in Camp Wood.

Various people wade and swim into The Quince on the Nueces River

Chilling in The Quince

“The smaller the town, the more people want to visit,” he noted, as we headed north of town to Camp Wood Springs, aka Old Faithful Springs, a couple hundred yards from the river. “Until two years ago, this was the sole source of drinking water for the town,” Holder said of the gin-clear water in the small pond.

Holder guided me to Barksdale, four miles north of Camp Wood, to look at more springs. We took Ray McDonald Ranch Road off SH 55 past a low-water bridge and across a field of white rubble deposited by the October 2018 floods. The actual river was a thin channel maybe 20 feet wide in the rubble, wedged against a low limestone shelf. As the westernmost Hill Country river, constantly rechanneled by big floods that periodically tear through the basin, the Nueces’ riparian landscape is minimalist: white rocks of all sizes, with occasional stands of hackberry, sycamore, oak, and pecan. It reminded me of the Greek islands.

Holder told me this was one of his favorite places on the river to visit. We parked and I had a swim. The water was brisk for a Texas river in August and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. A few small bass and cichlids congregated around rare patches of vegetation.

If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection. While I swam, Holder read Paul Horgan’s book Great River, about the Rio Grande. “I can spend two hours here every day, easy,” he said.

Compared to Hill Country rivers to the east, the Nueces is relatively unpeopled. The dearth of attractions beyond the water is no liability; it’s an asset.

The next stop was the former site of Mission San Lorenzo de La Santa Cruz, just north of the Camp Wood town limits on the west side of SH 55. Situated on a small ridge above the east bank of the Nueces River, the empty but overgrown grounds sandwiched between two rural residences would have been easy to miss if not for seven flagpoles by the highway. “Those are the six flags over Texas,” Holder said. “Plus, the Lipan Apache had their own flag.”

The water was brisk for a Texas river in August, and practically see-through with almost unlimited visibility. If I lived here, I’d swim laps every day I could, I thought, as I chugged down and up the narrow channel. The water was that close to perfection.

Jim Holder stands by the water of the Nueces

Jim Holder knows the ways of the Nueces

The outside of Two Fat Boys BBQ

Two Fat Boys BBQ on State Highway 55

Lush growth near Old Faithful Springs, which feeds the Nueces

Old Faithful Springs feeds the Nueces and nurtures riparian habitat

The site was originally excavated in 1962 by Curtis Tunnell and a Texas Memorial Museum field crew from the University of Texas at Austin. Over the past two summers, it has been reexamined by Tamra Walter of Texas Tech University along with the Texas Archeological Society, which had 300 volunteers camping near the location while doing excavation work. Interpretive signage will be installed, Holder
promised, as a manner of explaining the site’s deep connection to the river.

Young men jump off of a rock cliff into the water of Lake Nueces

Jumping from a cliff into Lake Nueces

Back in Camp Wood, we turned west and followed a dirt road maybe a half-mile to The Quince. This is the town’s sparkling swimming hole, hollowed from a bed of gravel by the sycamore-shaded banks of the Nueces and named for its 15-foot depth. Heading south on SH 55, we hit water crossings for the next 19 miles. On the dirt path of County Road 416 South, the southern extension of Wes Cooksey Park Road, Holder suddenly cautioned, “Slow down, slow down. STOP!”

The road abruptly ended. A 50-foot-long low-water bridge, built five years ago, had both ends washed out by the October 2018 deluge. The route was impassable. The washed-out bridge is now a choice slab for river swimming.

Nine miles south of Camp Wood, we stopped at a clearing on the east side of the highway with four historical markers, three of them faded and tilted. The markers identified the second Spanish mission in Nueces Canyon, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón. Unlike Mission San Lorenzo, Señora de la Candelaria completely disappeared as the adobe eroded into the terrain.
Holder turned around and pointed across the highway. “That’s Montell,” he said.

Back when I conjured my first “Top Ten Swimming Holes in Texas” list, for the June 1985 issue of Texas Monthly, I had one major omission. Liz Rogers, then a hard-charging attorney in El Paso, told me I should have written about her family place on a creek that fed the Nueces in her hometown of Montell. It was the best swimming hole anywhere, she contended. I couldn’t include Montell, I told her, since it was on private property. More than 40 years later, making my way downriver from swimming hole to swimming hole, I appreciated Rogers’ passion for the water.

The heart of the settlement of Montell is a stout, rectangular old stucco building identified as the Montell Country Club. Built as a one-room schoolhouse in the early 1920s, the building was converted into a community center after the school closed. “That country club is the reason I had no idea that country clubs usually connote wealth,” Rogers told me. “The canyon can be insular,” she allowed. “But it was a beautiful place to grow up. We were surrounded by people that pushed us and cared about us.”

Holder and I drove 9 miles south to Nineteen Mile Crossing, where Nueces Canyon flattens. We then looped back to Camp Wood and Leon Klink Street, just west of Nueces Street. Leon Klink Street was named for the pilot and airplane owner who flew with 22-year-old Charles Lindbergh when their Canuck biplane accidentally landed in a field north of Camp Wood in 1924.

“This was where the plane landed, crashed, and took off,” Holder explained while slow-cruising Leon Klink Street. He pointed out the vacant site of Warren Puett’s hardware store, which the biplane crashed into while attempting takeoff. Lindbergh and Klink were forced to stick around and wait for a propeller replacement and materials for wing repair. “That was the two-story Fitzgerald Hotel where Klink and Lindbergh stayed,” Holder said, pointing to a one-story, blue-green house behind a white picket fence. Three years after the Camp Wood ordeal, Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.

People lounge in shallow areas along the Nueces River

Lounging in the shallows

A view of the hills upstream from the Camp Wood Hills low-water bridge

Upstream view from the Camp Wood Hills low-water bridge

The Nueces River winds and snakes through the hills

The river as it emerges out of the hills

A young women snorkels in the clear blue water of the Nueces River

Snorkeling in glassy water

The naming of rivers, along with mountains, valleys, and other natural landmarks, is often a perk reserved for their conquerors. That’s why you never hear about the Chotilapacquen, as the Nueces was known to the Coahuiltecan-speaking locals. They were defeated by the Spanish, whose name prevailed.

The Spanish explorer Alonso de León named it “Nueces” for the abundant pecan groves he observed along the river’s banks. Other Spanish explorers mapped the river upstream from Corpus Christi Bay across the Brush Country of South Texas to the westernmost canyon of the Hill Country and its headwaters, 2,400 feet above sea level and 315 miles away. Along the journey upstream, the river disappeared for stretches. Around present-day Uvalde, the water was startlingly clear and surprisingly abundant. Upstream, the river frequently vanished under piles of gravel and rocks, again and again, only to reappear a few hundred yards later.

The early Spanish explorers chose a location 30 miles downstream from the headwaters, just downstream from Camp Wood Springs, which provided a constant source of water. There, in January 1762, Mission San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz was founded by a Spanish commander with the help of a Franciscan missionary. The mission aimed to spread Christianity while offering shelter and protection to the Lipan Apache, who were being harassed by Comanche and other hostile tribes. The establishment of the mission—at least 14 adobe and limestone structures—came four years after Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá near present-day San Saba was destroyed by the Comanche. The Comanche were angered by the alliance the Lipan Apache, their enemy, made with the Spanish.

Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria del Cañón, a companion mission 10 miles south, was established two weeks after San Lorenzo. Within seven years, both were abandoned. Two smallpox epidemics, Comanche attacks, and the realization that the Lipan Apache weren’t interested in converting to Christianity prompted the retreat. The closings in Nueces Canyon marked the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire’s expansion into Texas from Mexico.

Following the end of the Texas Revolution, in 1836, Mexico regarded the Nueces River as the southern border of the breakaway territory. That is, until the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, formalizing the southern boundary as the Rio Grande. In 1857, the U.S. Army established Camp Wood, near the site of Mission San Lorenzo, as a deterrent to Native American raids. But the camp was abandoned at the start of the Civil War. The town of Camp Wood was eventually founded in 1921 as the railhead for logging cedar.

The past in Nueces Canyon remains shrouded in a tangle of overgrowth and mystery. But I didn’t spend too much time wondering about it. There was more swimming to do.

A person in a floppy sun hat looks out over the still water at Lake Nueces

Kayaking on Lake Nueces, south of Camp Wood.

I returned to Nueces Canyon a few weeks after visiting with Holder. I wanted to drive from the headwaters down toward Camp Wood, a dramatic drop of 1,000 feet in elevation. I came this time to meet the River Whisperer.

Sky Jones-Lewey, a chestnut-haired 60-something whose steely eyes portray a no-nonsense demeanor, lives on a ranch at the south end of Nueces Canyon. I call her the River Whisperer because she has spent most of her life learning about the Nueces River and all things riparian. She shares that knowledge as resource protection and education director for the Nueces River Authority. Her publication Your Remarkable Riparian: A Field Guide to Riparian Plants Within the Nueces River Basin of Texas is a bible of information about Texas river sedges, grasses, ferns, woody plants, and trees.

The Nueces is Jones-Lewey’s river. She took me to its edge, just downstream from the low-water crossing in the Camp Wood Hills subdivision west of Camp Wood. We parked in a cleared lot she said used to be a dumping ground—“trash, animals, everything”—but is becoming a county park. I was surprised to find such a great spot to take a swim, which I promptly did after she offered her mask and snorkel. As I immersed, I thought back to the detailed explanation of the Nueces’ immaculate state Jones-Lewey emailed me in advance of my trip.

“Nueces basin headwater streams (Nueces, Frio, Sabinal, etc.) are so incredibly clear because they are naturally carrying almost no nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus,” she wrote, “and so far, no nutrient-rich wastewater has been allowed to be added to any of them.” According to Jones-Lewey, the towns and camps across the Nueces headwaters utilize the soil, via land application, for their wastewater disposal, with zero discharge into the river.

The clarity of the Nueces, she continued, has to do with the river’s unique underwater landscape. “The base of the aquatic food web in this desert is a delicate community of periphyton (algae, bacteria, and other microbes) that have found ways to prosper on bare rock. These plant-like organisms are harvested by teams of tiny specialized May and Caddis fly larvae, beetles, and snails that are in turn eaten by the Nueces plateau shiner, Spring salamanders, and other endemic species.”

Between dips in the river, we discussed water, riparian habitat, and humans’ relationship to and impact on the environment. The good news is, while some rivers and waterways in Texas are either polluted, compromised, or threatened, the rivers of the Nueces basin—the Sabinal, Frio, and Nueces—don’t attract near the number of visitors that the Guadalupe and Colorado river basins do, although prime swim spots get crowded on summer weekends.

“This is the last of the pristine rivers in Texas,” Jones-Lewey said during one swimming break. “It’s extremely clean.”

Robert Mace, a hydrologist who is executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos, agrees. “Due to its rural and remote locale, and the perpetual gnawing of water against the limestones of the Edwards Plateau,” he said, “the headwaters of the Nueces are among the most pleasing in the state.”

This is in large part due to the work of Jones-Lewey, who led the Nueces River Authority’s efforts to help persuade the Texas Legislature to ban driving in riverbeds. Sitting on the rocky beach at water’s edge, she illustrated why, scraping away large, dry rocks at our feet to reveal pebbles of wet gravel underneath. “The river’s here, too,” she said. “We just can’t see it with all these rocks in the way.”

The Nueces was all that I thought it would be: some of the best swimming around, with calm and cool waters, free of debris and with clear visibility. Hovering below the surface, rhythmically reaching one arm out after the other, steadily paddling my extended toes, I felt like I was floating in a state of suspended animation. Locals are cautiously optimistic the river will continue to allow a magical experience. Awareness about respecting and protecting it has been raised, slowly but surely.

“The river’s in good shape because there are miles and miles of undisturbed streambed,” Jones-Lewey said. “People have not done anything to it. So far.”

The love for the river is deep and wide, and lives on forever in Nueces Canyon High’s school song:

Down below the plains of Texas, /
where the hills arise, / there’s a land of
sparkling waters, / canyons and blue
skies. / Ring ye Nueces High with music, /
we praise your power and might. / Hail
to thee Nueces Panthers, / hail to Blue
and White. / FIGHT PANTHERS! / FIGHT
PANTHERS! / FIGHT! / FIGHT! / FIGHT!

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Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson, founding father of Texas Psychedelic Music, lead singer for the trailblazing 13th Floor Elevator, and the most famous dropout William B. Travis High School in Austin has ever had, departed for a higher plane recently.

Back in 2013, I wrote extensively liner notes for three Roky reissues from back in the 80s for Light In the Attic Records – The Evil One, Gremlins Have Pictures, and Don’t Slander Me. Light in the Attic has graciously allowed me to publish those liners notes here, with the reminder that all three reissues are still available for purchase. Light In The Attic Records

The Evil One

Gremlins Have Pictures

Don’t Slander Me

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National Public Radio Music: How Austin Got Weird

NPR Music link

Music Features
How Austin Got Weird
March 15, 20199:26 AM ET

Joe Nick Patoski

Austin is a lot more than just the annual stampede of South By Southwest currently enveloping it, which the event has done with ever-increasing intensity since 1987. But how did this city, one that has such an ineffable but palpable personality and spirit, become what it is — for better and worse? Joe Nick Patoski’s recent book, Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas, answers the question both empirically and spiritually, tracing the many people and the many places they built along the way towards establishing this weird, idiosyncratic, flat little planet. Patoski’s book covers a lot of dusty ground — too much for a simple excerpt. Instead, we’ve put together a series of smaller pieces from the book that, taken together, help explain what went on, and is going on, down there. — Andrew Flanagan

Land, cattle, oil, and gas built Texas.

The creative mind and a strong sense of place made Austin Austin.

It was always an outsider’s city, contrarian and tolerant by nature, a refuge apart from the state surrounding it.

Physical location had everything to do with it. Austin was about as pleasant as Texas could be in its rugged, semiarid, sun-scorched splendor. A river ran through the heart of the city, several lakes spread out upstream, and the urban grid was laced with still-abundant creeks and springs winding through forested hills pocked with hidden valleys and canyons. Stunning overlooks tantalized the eyes. The natural beauty was obvious.

The landscape in and around Austin could be described as pretty, an adjective not often used to describe the natural surroundings of Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, Midland, Lubbock, Port Arthur, or other Texas cities — even San Antonio.

Austin looked like nowhere else in this particular corner of the world because it was where five distinct eco-regions converged — the Edwards Plateau, South Texas Brush Country, Western Gulf Coastal Plain, Texas Blackland Prairie, and East Texas Woodlands. The Balcones Fault uplift, where the landmass rose abruptly out of the coastal plain, began less than a mile west of the capitol. Oaks flourished in the thin layer of soil that covered the limestone and granite subsurface of the region. The Hill Country’s Swiss-cheese-like karst topography harbored an abundance of caves and underground pools that emerged at the surface in the forms of artesian springs that fed the region’s extensive system of creeks and rivers. Whenever heavy rains fell on the rocky undulating hills west of Austin, the steep terrain transformed in a matter of minutes into Flash-Flood Alley, one of the most dangerous flood-prone areas of the United States.

Overall, the climate was tolerable enough — and the hills, woodlands, creeks, rivers, and lakes of Austin were inviting enough — that locals responded to the environment in a manner that seemingly escaped folks living elsewhere in Texas. People in Dallas and Houston worked harder, Austinites liked to reason, because those places were so butt-ugly; there was nothing worth looking at, much less playing in, so a person might just as well keep their nose to the grindstone. Compared to those places, Austin sometimes felt so downright idyllic that work could be distracting. Why slave and toil in the blazing July heat when you could be immersed in the clear, cool sixty-eight degree artesian waters of Barton Springs, the soul of Austin and its wellspring of cool?

Don Hyde traded mescaline for the last of the high-quality batch of White Lightning LSD that had been made for the Human Be-In in 1967, one of several events where crowds converged to hear live music and trip on hallucinatory acid. He decided to try to replicate what he saw going on in San Francisco by opening the Vulcan Gas Company in a former dry goods store at 316 Congress Avenue, the low-rent part of the grand avenue, in the fall of 1967. The Vulcan featured live music and psychedelic light shows with the unspoken understanding that the music and the lights were a whole lot more fun under the influence of LSD, which Hyde had plenty of — particularly the Clearlight, or Windowpane, variety. Joining Hyde in running the Vulcan were Houston White, Gary Maxwell-Scanlon, and Sandy Lockett. Doug Brown and George Majewski helped set up concessions.

The Vulcan became home to a wide array of bands, including the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the first psychedelic band anywhere, led by a Travis High School dropout named Roky Erickson and Tommy Hall, a UT philosophy major who played electric jug. Their slash-and-burn single “You’re Gonna Miss Me” actually snuck onto the Top 40 pop music chart, and they sold out the club three nights in a row before the band fell apart.

Touring bands such as Steve Miller and the Velvet Underground, and bands that rarely toured, like the Fugs, an obscenity-slinging New York street band led by poet Ed Sanders (who were barely known outside Greenwich Village), played the Vulcan in front of full houses. Hyde brought in blues players Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Big Joe Williams, and John Lee Hooker— who requested Mexican food when Hyde picked him up at the bus station. The Texas blues institutions Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb appeared so frequently they were regarded as family.

The Vulcan functioned as more than a music venue to the regulars who frequented the place. It was a touchstone of all the things they heard were going on in California and in a few other hip pockets of the country, a cool place to hang among like-minded people, maybe score some drugs, and have a good time. Authorities in Austin viewed the Vulcan as some kind of den of iniquity crawling with dirty hippies zonked out on dope. They were half right.

Willie Nelson planted roots in Austin after his house outside of Nashville had burned down. People were still leaving for various reasons, but just as many were filtering in. Only these weren’t the traditional instate malcontents for whom Austin was the only place in Texas tolerable enough to live in, but increasingly, interesting people from outside of Texas.

The rest of Texas would derisively refer to the People’s Republic of Austin, a label that locals wore as proudly as the Keep Austin Weird bumper sticker they later embraced. Those same detractors streamed into Austin to party whenever the occasion called for it, because even rednecks, peckerwoods, bulletheads, and reactionaries recognized that Austin people knew how to have a good time.
The Follow-Up
The Record
The Follow-Up

They were all cut from the same cloth: Jacob Harrell, Mirabeau Lamar, Angelina Eberly, Elizabet Ney, O. Henry, the Lomaxes; the academics and philosophers Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb; the yodeler Kenneth Threadgill; Hattie Valdes, whorehouse madam and friend of state legislators; Chano Cadena, Cowboy Donley, Lonnie Guerrero, and Johnny Degollado, the fathers of Austin mexicano music; Hemann Sweatt, the first black man to attend the university; professional football’s first black defensive star Dick “Night Train” Lane; Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the Houston orator and legislator who chose to spend her post-politics life in an Austin bungalow; the Negro Baseball League Hall of Famer Willie Wells; the blacklisted storyteller and humorist John Henry Faulk; the cartoonist Roy Crane; the jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham; bootmaker Charlie Dunn and saddlemaker Buck Steiner; the photographer Russell Lee; the sculptor Charles Umlauf; and B. L. Joyce, the L. C. Anderson High School marching band director and future arranger and writer for Motown Records. They were outsiders, even if they grew up in Austin, so set in their own peculiar ways that this was the only place where they could work out their ideas and put them into action. They were all part of the prequel of what was to come.

Music was considered a hobby. Musicians had day jobs. A cover charge higher than two dollars was considered excessive. Writing was a pursuit for the well-educated, highly refined, and sufficiently bankrolled. The mid-century-modern thousand-seat Americana Theater with a seventy-millimeter screen was the coolest thing going in film. H-E-B supermarkets did not sell beer or wine, and closed on Sundays. The Made-in-Austin IBM self-correcting Selectric typewriter was the latest technological innovation. The wave of change that swept through San Francisco in the late sixties didn’t reach Austin full on until the early seventies. In the tradition of the African-American celebration of Juneteenth, when news of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves reached Texas two-and-a-half years after the fact, at the end of the Civil War, change often came a little bit slower in Texas. But once that wave finally did crash ashore, it did so with dramatic flourish, spawning new, not-necessarily-obvious institutions, starting with the Armadillo World Headquarters that eventually reimagined Austin into the all-purpose Alternative City.

The peace and love experiment that started in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in 1966 didn’t turn out all that well, considering the violence that broke out at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont and insipid, indulgent rock bands such as Journey and Huey Lewis that came along after the Summer of Love. What began with the Cosmic Cowboy in Austin in 1970 was still playing out well into the twenty-first century in the forms of Americana and roots music, with an eternal constant named Willie Nelson. In Austin, everyone was either in a band or knew someone in one.
The Struggles Of Austin’s Music Scene Mirror A Widened World
The Record
The Struggles Of Austin’s Music Scene Mirror A Widened World

Music, not politics, defined Austin’s counterculture. After the hippies and pickers came the slackers, overeducated deadbeats who approached film and life in general with the same enthusiasm that music clubbers had for rock shows at 2:00 a.m. The geeks who arrived next overwhelmed and outnumbered them all, shapeshifting the culture, the economy, and the city. All these outsiders built their own alternative communities and institutions.

Their cumulative vision of Austin represented the Other Texas that was progressive, forward-thinking, innovative, and environmentally aware, with an abundant population of smart, creative minds, built upon a tradition of tolerance and openness to new ideas and new people, and a strong attachment to place.

The people and institutions here made an impact in spite of Texas, and in spite of the business and political establishment. Artists, creators, and entrepreneurs were by nature outsiders. The hippies, pickers, slackers, and geeks who made Austin Austin fit right in because they didn’t fit in anywhere else. Politicians, dealmakers, insiders, and bigwigs were beside the point; those were folks who largely resisted creative change, rather than fostered it. But they served a purpose by giving the creators something to rebel against, providing motivation and permission to paint outside the lines.

Music mecca, film industry hangout, source point of the retail organic food movement, high-tech hub and game development hotbed, noncorporate tourist destination, and, for at least a fortnight every March, the Coolest Place in the World.

A bird’s-eye view of Austin, the new capital of Texas, circa 1840.
Historical/Corbis via Getty Images

Andy Langer arrived in 1990, during what he described as that brief window where old Austin and new Austin intertwined before high tech, money, and hubris overwhelmed everything.

“There was this three-year lull before the clubs in the Warehouse District started catering to the tech money,” said Langer, a native of New York’s Long Island, during a break in his KGSR radio program. In fact, there were no clubs in the Warehouse District south of Fourth Street and west of Congress Avenue at the time, except for Liberty Lunch. The blocks between Liberty Lunch on Second Street and Ruta Maya Coffee on Fifth Street were either dark or parking lots.

The fast money that accompanied high tech explained all the bars that had sprung up west of Congress and south of Sixth. Oilcan Harry’s, Waterloo Brewing Company, Lavaca Street Bar, and the Bitter End catered to this new high-tech crowd, followed by the openings of Fado, Speakeasy, Ringside at Sullivan’s, the B-Side, and Qua, with its translucent dance floor built on top of a shark tank. They were all chasing “the first wave of young people coming to Austin who didn’t give a sh** about music,” Andy Langer said. “These guys were working twenty hours a day and had four hours to party. They didn’t like music. Music got in the way. They just wanted to get laid.”

Spoon, Austin’s most popular band of the late nineties and early aughts, came out of the tech world. Lead singer, guitarist, and main composer Britt Daniel had been a sound designer and composer for Richard Garriott’s Origin Systems, creating sound effects and music for computer games. Daniel was BOI — Born on Galveston Island — and grew up in Temple, about an hour north of Austin. The son of a neurologist, Daniel came to Austin in 1989 as a freshman at the University of Texas. He worked as a DJ on the student radio station and played in bands. Lean, lanky, and laconic in a studiously detached, indie rock kind of way, Daniel packed an emotive, gritty voice that sometimes slipped into a falsetto that could effortlessly wrap itself around intelligent, kicky lyrics like a comfortable slipper.

Daniel met drummer Jim Eno, his principal collaborator, in a band called the Alien Beats. Eno had worked in microchip design for Compaq in Houston before hiring on with Motorola in Austin. Daniel and Eno started recording together as Spoon in 1992. They built a buzz that extended far beyond Austin with an EP and then with a full album Telefono, released in 1996 on Matador, a beloved New York–London rock indie label whose principal owner, Gerard Cosloy, would relocate to Austin in 2004. Nothing about Spoon adhered to Austin or Texas stereotypes (especially after Daniel moved to Portland, Oregon). No one wore cowboy hats or bothered to invoke Willie. Spoon preferred performing in suits.

The openings of Emo’s in 1992 at the corner of Red River and Sixth, with three separate stages among a warren of rooms, and Stubb’s, two blocks north, an outdoor concert facility with an inside music room and barbecue restaurant in the former location of the One Knite, fostered a vibrant scene of alternative bands, punk rockers, and a hodgepodge of fringe music, occasionally interspersed with touring acts, which usually played the big stage at Stubb’s. Within fifteen years, Stubb’s and other clubs would be shadowed by residential high-rises occupied by tenants including a few who did not enjoy hearing loud music at night, much less care about living in the Live Music Capital of the World.

The city embraced music as part of its civic image and made it a prime selling point by voting for a new official motto for Austin in 1991: The Live Music Capital of the World. Now the same City of Austin was kicking out one of Austin’s most popular music venues from city-owned property deemed too expensive for a music club.
Margaret Moser, Queen Of Austin, Is Dancing In The Light
The Record
Margaret Moser, Queen Of Austin, Is Dancing In The Light

The marginal economics of operating a club poorly reflected music’s impact on the city and its culture. Frequently cited as being one of the best places for jobs in the nation during the early twenty-first century, and as an urban environment with a high quality of life, Austin’s unlikely stature circled back to music. The first thing arrivals saw stepping off their flight at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport was a sign identifying that official motto: “The Live Music Capital of the World.”

No city in the United States had so much music in its DNA. Local music played on the airport’s sound system, and bands played live at Ray Benson’s Roadhouse in the terminal. Musicians gigged at the H-E-B Central Markets, Whole Foods Markets, and city council meetings. While hardly anyone was making a full-time living from their craft, on any given day or night, hundreds of people were standing by, ready to break out instruments and play for the fun of it.

You could say Austin was primed for the arrival of the sandy-haired kid from Plano in 1989, as much as the kid was primed for Austin. At the suburban high school he attended north of Dallas, football was everything. A student competing in triathlons and bicycle races was considered, well, exotic, if not a freak. So he didn’t mind spending part of his senior year training in Colorado with the US Olympic development cycling team, preparing for the Sprint Triathlon National Championships, which he would win later that fall for his first national title, while planning his exit from Plano. “The day after I graduated, I had a U-Haul loaded up, and headed south,” [Lance] Armstrong said.

In 2015 Live Nation, the biggest concert promoters in the world, paid $125 million dollars to acquire a 51 percent share of C3 Presents, the promoters seeded by Lance Armstrong to create ACL Fest. The three Charlies would never have to work again, if they didn’t want to work.

Festivals were the thing now, not clubs, more evidence of Austin’s scaling up. ACL Fest expanded to two weekends in 2012. Residents living near the park complained of festival fatigue and demanded the city return the space to its original intended use as a park. But the crowds kept coming. A whole lot of them had seen Austin City Limits. Now they wanted to see for themselves.

The first South by Southwest Music and Media Conference almost didn’t happen. The registration system set up for the event failed, causing lines to back up. Instead of the anticipated 150 registrants showing up, 700 queued up to pay for credentials admitting them to 15 panel discussions, the clubs where bands were playing, a backyard day party at the residence of punk rocker Jean Caffeine, and the keynote address by Huey P. Meaux.

After Meaux spoke, a young man approached him in the hotel lobby to ask, “Is it true that payola is dead?” Meaux shot him a puzzled look. “Dead?” he said. “I didn’t even know it was sick, little bruddah.”

That night, the Tailgators, Doctors Mob, LeRoi Brothers, Wagoneers, Dino Lee, Lou Ann Barton, Walter Hyatt, Two Nice Girls, Leroy Parnell, Ray Campi, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Bobby Bridger, Vince Bell, and Angela Strehli, and half of the 177 acts booked for the festival performed in 13 clubs in and around downtown. The audience was a mix of locals familiar with the club scene, joined by music lovers from around the state and around the country, many of whom paid ten dollars for wristbands that would admit them into SXSW-sponsored clubs. Even the odd A&R record company person, has-been record producer, hustling publicist, and wan- nabe music industry executive could be spotted in the crowds. The music industry had come to Austin.
YouTube

All in all, the response was positive, considering it was spring break week, when the University of Texas usually emptied out and thousands of students headed to the Texas coast or to the mountains. Student-oriented businesses in Austin typically shuttered during spring break. Antone’s, the Continental Club, Liberty Lunch, Texas Tavern, and Steamboat would have otherwise cut back their schedules or closed for the week. Instead, almost every one of the sanctioned clubs was crowded, some at capacity.

Like just about everything else in alternative Austin, it started with music.

For several years, Roland Swenson attended the New Music Seminar, which started in 1980 in New York as a means of connecting indie bands with the music industry. He was part of an official delegation from Austin attending the New Music Seminar in the summer of 1986 that led to the announcement that a regional version of the NMS would be held in Austin in the spring of 1987. It would be called the New Music Seminar Southwest.

But the New Music Seminar organizers dropped the idea, citing internal organizational challenges, including, according to their critics, way too much partying. Roland Swenson, the Austin Chronicle, and the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau picked up the ball and ran with it. Screw New York. They’d do their own music conference.

The Chronicle would sponsor the regional seminar. Publisher Nick Barbaro got on board when Swenson suggested ending the gathering on Sunday afternoon with a barbecue and softball game, two of Barbaro’s favorite activities. Black, a hardcore cinephile, came up with the name South by Southwest, a riff on the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest. The Austin CVB kicked in funding to make the conference happen.

By the fifth year, when 2,833 registered for the music conference, South by Southwest hit its first ceiling. The Austin Fire Marshall strictly enforced capacity limits in clubs. Wristband holders, theoretically guaranteed admission to all participating music venues, couldn’t get in venues because capacity had been reached, and music conference registrants with their platinum badges were getting priority access.

Some bands got angry about where and when they were booked. One club, Abratto’s, charitably described as a “disco meat market” by writer Michael Corcoran and not a live music venue to begin with, withdrew from SXSW after its first night of showcasing bands. Abratto’s had been designated as the site for hardcore punk bands from Houston, per SXSW schedulers. The music and venue did not mix well. Acts scheduled to play Abratto’s on the following nights, including a hot female country ensemble known as the Dixie Chicks, ended up performing in hotel conference rooms instead. Somebody somewhere got so pissed off by something SXSW did that they set fire to a stack of copies of the Austin Chronicle at the entrance of South by Southwest offices on Fortieth Street, causing extensive smoke and water damage.

Backlash had been part and parcel of SXSW from the very beginning, per the SXSWsux and South by So What? epithets bandied about by the whiners.

SXSW 1995 marked the first year the event was acknowledged as the biggest alternative music gathering going. Its inspiration, the New Music Seminar in New York, folded. Still, for all the hype focused on Austin, its vibrant music scene, and the outsider spirit permeating South by Southwest, no significant acts had been discovered and signed to a big record contract at SXSW, which supposedly was what the conference was all about.

The appearance of Willie Nelson, Austin’s music icon, performing for Microsoft’s sponsored closing party spoke volumes of the merging sensibilities. Willie wasn’t interested in playing SXSW for $250 or six wristbands. But he was willing to play for Microsoft in exchange for a substantial five-figure fee.

SXSW directors made a conscious decision to allow corporate sponsors and record labels to present music showcases of their own choosing. That brought in bigger, established name acts, but it came at the expense of unknown music acts trying to get their foot in the door and stand out among the noise. SXSW critics pounced, accusing the indie music festival of selling out. Maybe so, but the move helped widen SXSW’s appeal. Foreign music delegations, sponsored by their countries, became draws unto themselves. Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Japan, and Australia all had their own showcase nights, as well as their own day parties.

South by Southwest Interactive, the stepchild afterthought to music and film when it had been rolled out in 1994, turned into SXSW’s driving force. Registration numbers blew past music and film. Like music and film, SXSW Interactive was the alternative to mainstream technology conventions and meet-ups such as the COMDEX Show in Las Vegas that big tech companies dominated. At SXSWi, an independent developer or a startup had a chance to network, be heard, learn something from a panel discussion, make an impact, and maybe even cut a deal. From an Austin perspective, high tech was the new punk rock: it bothered and sometimes upset people who didn’t understand it. Those who did understand dove in full-on without hesitation, like a stage-diving, mosh-pit tumblerocker.

Louis Black pinpointed 2008 as the year South by Southwest reached critical mass. Registration reached 12,651. Among them was Jeff Bezos, founder of online retail giant Amazon, who bought a walkup registration badge and grazed SXSW minus an entourage. Standstill traffic, over owing sidewalks, and venues filled to capacity were the new normal. The crowd counts were up everywhere, with even more events, more venues, more parties, and more everything, from TV food personality Rachael Ray’s day party to Airbnb’s launch with two customers — one being Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.

… a thin, well-tattooed German and a hulking Englishman with a shaved head and multiple piercings stood toe to toe. They both clutched cups of beer as they studied a small booklet while talking animatedly. They seemed to be having a good time, heads nodding in unison, a smile now and then, until the German suddenly stood back, shaking his head and waving his hands while muttering “No, no, no,” in thickly-accented English. The two weren’t arguing about music, their competing meet-ups and agendas, their countries, or which bands to see that night. They were arguing about the best breakfast tacos in Austin.

Back at the convention center, a passel of geeky kids kept their eyes on their smartphones, trying the new app that let them know where all the free food and booze parties were that afternoon, and which parties had good bands playing. Several raised their heads from staring at the devices in their hand long enough to nod in agreement over another’s comment about how a talk she’d just heard was life-changing, before eyes returned to phones and thumbs typed out a shorthand tweet.

Pop-up stores sponsored by Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, AT&T, Levi’s, and CNN appeared on vacant lots, in empty storefronts, and in leased restaurants. The global brands showcased their newest products to their target audience’s tastemakers, who had conveniently appeared from all over the world specifically to sample the latest in music, media, film, technology, and culture.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama in Austin during South by Southwest conference.
Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

The event had come a long way. The keynote speaker at the first South by Southwest in 1987 was the independent record producer/hustler Huey P. Meaux, a twice-convicted felon.

The keynote speaker for the thirtieth edition of South by Southwest in 2016 was the President of the United States Barack Obama, who addressed the Interactive conference. The First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama delivered the keynote for the music conference.

“How do you top that?” a friend asked Roland Swenson at the softball tournament that closed out every South by Southwest.

Swenson, who appeared less tired than he did at this juncture in previous years, smiled inscrutably.

“We were working on the Pope.”
Austin to Atx
Austin to Atx

The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers, & Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas

by Joe Nick Patoski

Hardcover, 367 pages

Agents of creative change in Austin were neither obvious nor conspicuous. They weren’t attached to an institution, and their influence and impact could be dismissed as minimal. But those little things and those unsung people added up to cumulatively define and distinguish alternative Austin, which had become a tourist attraction unto itself.

For a half-century, creative minds altered and reshaped a bucolic, semi-sleepy, laid-back state capital city in the middle of America into a dynamic city-state of global importance and appeal.

Accompanying Austin’s ascendance was a significant spike in population, traffic, rents, and housing prices — the usual stuff that comes with economic growth. More and more newcomers didn’t care where they happened to be. Austin’s unique qualities, amenities, and attractions had nothing to do with them being where they were. They just wanted work. The city that had the lowest cost of living of the one hundred largest cities in the United States in 1970 happened to be the hottest jobs market in the United States during the aughts and teens.

Could a creative ethos continue driving the culture in a boomtown where money was held in higher regard than ideas? Wasn’t Austin becoming just like everywhere else?

The 2016 departure of Alejandro Escovedo, a hometown music hero since his arrival in 1983, was neither unusual nor much noticed. Escovedo simply found a more welcoming housing situation in Dallas. Half a year in, he said North Oak Cliff, a historically blue-collar part of Dallas where he resided, seemed more interesting and diverse than Austin. The time had come to move on.

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