Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – the Wild Rio Grande Valley

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Explore the wilderness and wildlife of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Creature Comforts

By Joe Nick Patoski

A sunrise view of Laguna Madre from the Plover Point observation deck. Photo by Erich Schlegel; Illustration by Lin Jesse

An illustration of a swimming duck with a bright red head moving through tall grassy reeds

A redhead duck. Illustration by Lin Jesse

Beyond Laguna Madre,

on the ocean side of South Padre Island, a bank of cumulus clouds looms over the Gulf of Mexico. Morning light casts a palette of radiant oranges, yellows, pinks, and blues, minutes before the sun makes its debut above the clouds.

Sunrise in January is prime time at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley. The tropical humidity and heat, the norm from late March until November, abates, and the winter residents move in. From the Plover Point observation deck, the Laguna Madre —one of only four shallow, hypersaline bays in the world—shimmers with sublime views.

Living creatures are everywhere—in the water, on the land, in the sky. Songbirds flit out of the impenetrable thornscrub brush called the monte, while a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers pirouette around a Spanish dagger yucca. A clutch of shockingly pink roseate spoonbills stands out among hundreds of white egrets, herons, and ducks congregating in a shallow pond. On the shore of the laguna, shorebirds gingerly step in the shallows in search of breakfast. Redfish, too, their tails extending above the water surface as they feed on shrimp. A brown pelican spies a tailing redfish and quickly scoops it up. On the road through the thornscrub, rabbits and roadrunners crisscross the path where a brilliantly dark indigo snake has just slithered. Coyotes, whitetail deer, and nilgai antelope roam undisturbed across the open savannah. Butterflies and dragonflies flutter around by the dozens.

A collection of palm trees and grasses with water and cloudy sky in the background

Redhead Ridge on the shore of Laguna Madre. Photo by Larry Ditto

Welcome to the wildest part of the wild Rio Grande Valley, which offers a glimpse into the natural world that flourished across deep South Texas before it was settled, farmed, and developed. Coastal, tropical, jungle, and desert all at once, the Valley is where the two major North American migratory bird flyways converge, and it’s a crucial wintering grounds for waterfowl. Laguna Atascosa is at the center of the action.

The rapidly developing region is also attractive to humans. From 2000 to 2020, the Rio Grande Valley population—including Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties—grew 41% to 1.37 million people. According to the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the number is projected to grow another 15% to 1.58 million by 2050, depending on migration rates. But while habitat loss is the usual story in the booming RGV, Laguna Atascosa is all about rewilding.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the refuge in 1946, carving about 11,000 acres from a World War II gunnery range to protect wintering bird habitat, primarily the redhead duck on Laguna Atascosa. Over the past two decades, assistance from groups including The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, along with settlement funds from the 2010 BP Oil Spill, have allowed the refuge to add over 50,000 acres to expand to more than 120,000 acres across multiple units. The South Padre Island Unit protects land on the northern end of the island, and the Bahia Grande Unit protects wetlands between Laguna Vista and Brownsville. Ongoing purchases are creating a new coastal corridor for wildlife to travel between patches of their fragmented habitat, including via special highway underpasses.

“There’s not a more significant place for wildlife diversity in Texas, and maybe the country, than the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from songbirds to ocelots to waterfowl,” says Jeff Francell, director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy in Texas. “Most of the native brush in the Valley was converted to farmland decades ago, and so to enhance the native wildlife populations, it’s important to take some of that land and restore it for wildlife. For example, one of the pieces of property we were able to acquire was an old shrimp farm, and we were able to buy part of it to provide a corridor for ocelots between Laguna Atascosa and Bahia Grande.”

Laguna Atascosa astounds in its diversity: 417 bird species, 130 butterfly species, 45 mammal species, 44 reptile species, and 450 plant species. And the refuge is far enough from the border to avoid lighting, walls, and other disruptive issues that have negatively impacted some refuges along the Rio Grande. Outside of a visitor center, a couple of roads, and a handful of overlooks, the refuge has very little infrastructure. Wildlife conservation is the priority. This is by far the biggest chunk of wild in the Rio Grande Valley

Two people, one with binoculars and another with a camera, look for birds along a watery shore

Birding on the tidal flats at South Bay by the Brownsville Ship Channel. Photo by Larry Ditto

About 15 minutes before daybreak, I meet the refuge’s visitor services manager, Georgie Garcia, in the visitor center parking lot and jump into his high-clearance pickup. Garcia, a Brownsville native and Iraq War vet, drives the truck across Buena Vista Road and opens the gate at the trailhead to Granjeno Trail, the access to Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. We continue to Plover Point to take in the sunrise before touring the heart of the refuge via roads, trails, and barely visible dirt tracks.

Garcia, one of seven employees, also maintains the trails with a brush cutter to keep the monte from encroaching, stocks the feeders and water features, conducts educational outreach, and coordinates the seasonal volunteers. The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group runs the bookshop in the visitor center, and volunteers help cover for Garcia whenever he is away from the service counter, which is the source of permits and information. Luckily, the service counter has a picture window that looks over a bird feeding station.

“Every day I bet my paycheck I’ll see a green jay,” Garcia says of the Neotropical bird rarely seen elsewhere in the United States. “There will be 20 on a feeder sometimes.”

The visitor center reopened in May after being closed for two years due to the pandemic. In 2019, the refuge restored its main thoroughfare, Buena Vista Road, from a potholed country road to a two-lane boulevard with bicycle lanes on both sides, along with eight large speed bumps to keep traffic under the 25-mph speed limit. The “Ocelot Crossing” signs are for real.

The park’s other road—Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive—closed to private motor vehicles in 2013 when a car hit and killed a lactating female ocelot. A 60-person tram operated on the loop seasonally in the 2010s until it broke down in 2018 and was declared beyond repair.

These days, hiking and cycling are the only ways to explore Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive and the 55 miles of other trails.

As we drive through two fallow fields lined with tree tubes containing seedlings and saplings of natives such as mesquite and hawthorn, Garcia says the refuge’s revegetation efforts have stepped up as more land has been added. “All that acquired property was ag fields,” he grins confidently. “Give it 10 years; it’ll be South Texas thornscrub.”

An illustration of a bird with dark brown wings, a white tuft, and small head with a beak sitting on a wooden branch

An Aplomado falcon. Illustration by Lin Jesse
A map of coastal Texas showing the Laguna Madre and Laguna Atacosa areas

Map illustration by Lin Jesse
A boat makes a wide white wake as it traverses a green channel

Boating the Stover Cove area on Laguna Madre. Photo by Erich Schlegel

The ocelot—a small, secretive spotted feline, about twice the size of a house cat—has become a symbol of the refuge. Laguna Atascosa is home to 30-35 ocelots, one of two breeding populations in the U.S.

In cooperation with the refuge, the Friends of LANWR group holds an annual Ocelot Conservation Day in March at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville—March 5 this year—with booths and presentations.

“We know the biggest problem is habitat loss,” Garcia says. “This past trapping season, they were able to trap six ocelots and put collars on them. The ocelot is an umbrella species; it’s at the top. If you restore their habitat, it’s going to help a lot of other South Texas species, some of them endangered or threatened.”

While making the rounds, Garcia chases off several cows that wandered in from a neighboring ranch, watches a gator snag an unsuspecting bird, and fetches the remnants of a mylar balloon snagged on a prickly pear.

We drive south to the 26,000-acre Bahia Grande Unit, an addition to the refuge that is west of State Highway 48 and the Brownsville Ship Channel.

An illustration of a large tortoise walking through green grasses and flowers

A Texas tortoise. Illustration by Lin Jesse

“This was a complete dust bowl,” Garcia says, gazing across rough vegetated lowlands spiked with yucca. “Now we’ve restored it to beautiful coastal prairie wetlands, with lomas, how it used to be.” Lomas are low vegetated hills that exist in only three places in the world. “We’re going to bring in some fresh water, which should balance out the salinity.” The Bahia Grande is hunting grounds for Aplomado falcons, which eat insects, lizards, birds, and small mammals.

We inspect a channel between two small inlets in the estuaries and watch a school of redfish forming a V as they move through. We stop near another small shallow lake, almost dry, and Garcia walks toward a sandy shelf, maybe 5 feet high. Beneath the shelf, dozens of perfectly circular beads no more than an eighth of an inch in diameter, each with a hole in the middle, are scattered in the sand around our feet.

“The thinking is this was on a trade route between the coast and the interior,” Garcia says. Once revegetation has taken hold and archeological work is complete in two to four years, Bahia Grande will have public access. For now, it is open to hunters on designated weekends in the winter.

A silhouette of a person riding a bicycle in front of a sunset

Cycling on Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. Photo by Eric Schlegel

Visiting Laguna Atascosa

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge offers a look at why the Rio Grande Valley was slow to be civilized for large-scale human population. What’s great for the creatures and critters translates to rough country for people—it’s hot, humid, windy, and buggy.

Park staff members recommend bringing a wide-brimmed hat, bug repellent, sunblock, long pants, high socks, and sturdy footwear to ward off ticks, chiggers, and snakes—regardless of the time of year.

The refuge doesn’t have food or drink for sale, and fuel is 15 miles away at the intersection of SH 100 and FM 510 west of Port Isabel. The nearest hospital is in Harlingen, 28 miles from the visitor center.

Admission costs $3 per vehicle. An annual pass is $10. The refuge trails are open daily, dawn to dusk. The visitor center opens Wed-Fri 7 a.m.-2 p.m. 22817 Buena Vista Boulevard, Los Fresnos. 956-748-3607; fws.gov/refuge/laguna-atascosa

The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group maintains a calendar of events and activities on its website, flanwr.org.

We don’t see a soul on our five-hour tour, except for a lone cyclist cruising along the back side of Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. He is clearly in the zone, steadily pedaling, lost in the rhythm and unaware of our truck inching up behind him. Garcia patiently keeps his distance for a few minutes, then gently taps his horn. The cyclist startles. He pulls over and grins as we pass.

The cyclist is Irv Downing, a 68-year-old former endurance racer who moved from South Padre to be closer to the refuge, which he cycles about “every other day.” Downing calls Laguna Atascosa his Serengeti. “The scenery, the setting, the laguna, it’s just spectacular,” he says. “My son was visiting from Seattle last week, and on our ride photographed 20 nilgai antelope.”

After talking to Downing, I figure I could bicycle this route too—if it wasn’t too windy, too hot, or too cold. “This is a difficult trail because of the distance and wind factor,” Garcia acknowledges. “The way to do this is on an electric bike.”

My ears perk up.

I couldn’t locate any e-bike rentals near the refuge, so I find one to borrow near my home in Wimberley and load it into my SUV. Back at the refuge, I meet photographer Erich Schlegel at the visitor center parking lot just before sunrise.

The narrow, paved route along Steve Thompson Scenic Drive is downright bucolic, especially with the rising sun casting a soft golden glow over the whole scene, straight out of a Van Gogh landscape. I pedal conventionally most of the way, twisting the accelerator handgrip whenever I lag behind Schlegel and whenever headwinds slow
my pace.

We cycle through the monte, up and down a loma, past prairies and estuaries, and along the shores of shallow lakes, bogs, mudholes, and wetlands. Wildlife stirs all along the way. Because we’re on bikes, the wildlife is more active, less oblivious to our presence, than when we were driving the route in a truck. We see several white-tailed deer scamper up from a creek bottom, followed by a herd of nilgai antelope cows who stroll across a grass prairie to meet up with a herd of nilgai bulls.

We cycle 13 miles in two hours including stops at Plover Point and Renee’s Overlook along the shore of the Laguna Madre. It’s a good workout, even with electric assistance. But it is nothing like the exhilaration I feel being there, passing the morning in that part of the Rio Grande Valley where the wild things are.

There is one caveat. No ocelot sighting. I reach out to Hilary Swarts, one of the refuge’s two wildlife biologists. Swarts is an ocelot specialist who has trapped and collared the cats on the refuge; she also documented the first ocelot kitten discovered on the refuge in about two decades.

Swarts, who has worked at the refuge for nine years, has spotted ocelots in the wild twice, one in July 2020 and one this past June, both near the visitor center. “Whenever I feel pessimistic, I remind myself they’re all over this refuge,” she says. “They’ve seen me more often than I’ve seen them. They could be staring at us right now.”

That’s the spirit of Laguna Atascosa.

“It’s that wild, that alive,” Swarts says. “And you don’t have to hike or bike to appreciatethat. Just plant yourself somewhere and watch.”

Laguna
Atascosa Wildlife

Birders are as hip to Laguna Atascosa as the birds are. The late Roger Tory Peterson, a pioneer of modern American bird-watching from New York, made six trips to the refuge in the 20th century in search of uncommon sightings. More than 400 bird species have been spotted at the refuge, including South Texas specialties such as green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas.

Popular bird-watching sites include the visitor center, which is home to blinds, feeders, and water features; Kiskadee Trail, a paved, wheelchair-accessible path; and the Mesquite Trail loop and the Prairie Island viewing area.

Osprey Overlook, a covered platform with a sweeping vista of the 3,500-acre Laguna Atascosa, is a magnet for pelicans, herons, egrets, and, during winter, 85% of the redhead ducks in North America.

Endangered Aplomado falcons were introduced on the refuge in 1993 after being eradicated in most of the Southwest. Twenty-six pairs presently reside on the refuge, most around the Bahia Grande Unit.

Near Osprey Overlook is the trailhead to Alligator Pond, where alligators wallow in their element. And while you won’t likely see them, wild cats are out there too—bobcats, cougars, and ocelots.

Hunts, which take place on designated days between November and February, are managed to cull invasive hogs and nilgai antelope.

From the January 2023 issue
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Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.

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a brief history of the rise and rise of Texas skyscrapers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Praetorian Building, from a 1908 postcard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Lomax 3 and the Family Tradition

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

John Lomax III photo by Amanda Lomax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Wild and Urban Brazos River

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

 

The Brazos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canoeing the John Graves Scenic Riverway

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

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

A map showing major points on the Brazos river

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

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

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

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

An overhead view of green fields and gravel roads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Bodson, executive director of Lower Brazos Riverwatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History of the Brazos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paddle the Brazos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the July 2022 issue
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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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