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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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Terry Allen and The Truckload of Art

https://texashighways.com/culture/a-new-book-details-the-life-of-terry-allen-and-his-truckload-of-art/

Terry Allen at Arlyn Studios in Austin in May 2019. Photo by Barbara FG

Maybe you’ve seen Terry Allen’s work.

His sculpture Caw Caw Blues, which contains the ashes of his friend Guy Clark, stands sentinel at the entrance of The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos. Countree Music, a 25-foot bronze cast of an oak tree and a map on the terrazzo floor depicting Houston as the center of the world, accompanied by music, is planted in Terminal A near Gate 17 of Bush International Airport in Houston. Passengers entering security gate D30 in Terminal D at DFW International pass under a 30-foot bronze wishbone titled Wish. A life-size statue of CB Stubblefield of Stubb’s BBQ fame stands on the site of his first restaurant on East Broadway in Lubbock. Nestled in the palmetto palm thicket outside The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria on the banks of Lake Austin is Road Angel, a bronze cast of a 1953 Chevy coupe, the car Allen drove as a teenager, accompanied by more than a hundred audio soundbites (including one of mine), that was permanently installed in 2016.

 

More likely, you’ve heard Allen’s work.

His song “Amarillo Highway,” about a “Panhandlin’ man-handlin’ post-holin’ Dust bowlin’ Daddy” is a much-covered Texas country classic. The churning “New Delhi Freight Train” was first recorded by the rock band Little Feat. At 80, he’s still out there performing with his Panhandle Mystery Band which includes family and friends, among them son Bukka Allen, pedal steel maestro Lloyd Maines, guitarist Charlie Sexton, and fiddler Richard Bowden— often in conjunction with an art opening.

You may have even seen Allen without realizing it. He and his wife Jo Harvey Allen play Oklahoma couple Aunt Annie and Uncle Jim in the Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon.

He’s been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and is in the West Texas Walk of Fame by the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock. Texas Tech is finalizing plans for the Terry and Jo Harvey Allen Center for Creative Studies.

Call him what you want: the patriarch of Lubbock creatives, the greatest living visual artist from Texas, the other Texas music godfather besides Willie, the storyteller of the American West. It’s all pretty much true.

In 2016, Allen created Road Angel which can be seen at The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria. Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons/courtesy of The Contemporary Austin

 

Now comes Truckload of Art, a 500-page biography by Brendan Greaves, to explain it all.

The first Terry Allen art I ever saw made me laugh out loud. The Paradise was a stark diorama of three spaces, the primary space—a parking lot—bathed in red light with the word “Paradise” in pale blue neon script on the back wall as the centerpiece. Directly below is a planter with three measly cacti, two plastic palms, a car tire, and a pair of plastic flamingos. Flanking the planter were doors marked Lounge and Motel in red neon. Beyond the vinyl-covered doors was a motel room with shag carpeting and a honky-tonk bar space with a jukebox. Paradise was part of The Great American Rodeo Show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 1976. Eleven artists were given a year to develop a rodeo-inspired piece. Allen paid homage to the kind of spaces where a real rodeo cowboy would feel at home.

The first Terry Allen music I really paid attention to was the 1979 album Lubbock (on everything), marking the artist-musician’s return to his hometown to collaborate with a new iteration of Lubbock music makers, among them singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who was two classes behind Allen at Monterey High. “I always knew I was destined to write songs,” Gilmore told me recently. “But I thought you had to be really old to be a songwriter. Terry was the first person I saw perform original music. He sang ‘Red Bird’ while playing piano one day at Monterey. That really inspired me.”

Allen and Jo Harvey had been living in Fresno, California, when he came back to make Lubbock (on everything). He instantly became the Don of the Lubbock Mafia of music maker. The Allens eventually moved back—sort of—settling some years later in close-enough Santa Fe.

It’s hard to ignore the tall polymath with stooped shoulders, the piercing eyes of a hawk, and a wide rubbery mouth that can hardly contain his unapologetic flatland twang. Art and music are the same coin, as far as he’s concerned, means to tell stories, which he is very good at doing, in many different ways. He’s so prolific, and so driven to create, he demands to be heard.

Greaves is founder and owner of Paradise of Bachelors Records in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has reissued Allen’s older recordings and released his most recent albums 2013’s Bottom of the World and Just Like Moby Dick in 2020. Greaves, a self-described “lapsed art worker,” met Allen through the gallery where he worked. He’s collaborated on several projects with Allen and received a Grammy nomination for his liner notes, but taking on the monumental task of telling a very dense story while explaining the dual worlds of art and music, working off journals Allen has kept since junior high, was a whole other deal.

Allen’s father, Sled, a former minor baseball player who promoted wrestling and music events in West Texas, including Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, who Terry met on one of the six times he played Lubbock in 1955-56, long before most of the world knew who Elvis was. His mother, Pauline, a onetime professional piano player and full-time alcoholic, was 18 years younger than her husband. The biography shows how both inform Allen’s love of performance, his skill at promotion and showmanship, but most of all, his creative drive, providing the inspiration for his DUGOUT series of works.

Allen got his art education at Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles. One professor brought visiting Dadaists and surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington to lecture. The surrealist Man Ray often stopped by the school to talk to students about the life of an artist. Allen was hooked.

Concurrent with his Chouinard schooling was his pursuit of music. The first song he ever wrote “Red Bird” scored him an appearance on the music television series Shindig! in 1965, generating enthusiasm from Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles.

In 1969, he wrote “Truckload of Art,” a song about a real truckload of art from New York destined for Los Angeles to show the upstart West Coast artists how art was supposed to be done, that crashed on the highway. Two years later, a snippet could be heard coming out of the radio of Warren Oates’ GTO in Two-Lane Blacktop, an arty feature film about street racers on a road trip across the southwest.

After graduating from Chouinard in 1966, he began teaching there and followed by teaching gigs at UC-Berkeley and Cal State Fresno.

Truckload of Art focuses on relationships, beginning with Allen’s partner in crime and marriage, the toothsome Jo Harvey. Theirs has been a tempestuous, sometimes competitive coupling while he chased myriad muses and she pursued her career as an actor, playwright, poet, radio producer, and songwriter—whenever they weren’t working together. He thought she should perform only original pieces she created. She enjoyed working in film.

Also documented is Allen’s long friendship with Dave Hickey, the acerbic writer, dealer, curator, and university professor from Fort Worth who opened A Clean, Well-Lighted Place gallery in Austin in 1967, and became the most incisive art critic of his time. Like Allen, Hickey wrote country songs, too.

Allen’s Corporate Head outside the Citicorp Plaza in Los Angeles. Photo by William Nettles

I’m not schooled enough to pass judgement on the art beyond my immediate reaction, and Allen usually makes me laugh. That was the immediate response when I saw Corporate Head, the life-size bronze of a businessman burying his head in the wall of a Los Angeles office building. The publication Atlas Obscura describes the work as “almost whimsical, yet rather grotesque.”

Sometimes the work has an edge too sharp to appreciate. That speaks to Allen’s interest in Antonin Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty, which strived to “shock the audience.” Allen was drawn to Artaud’s 1937 travelogue A Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara about time spent in Mexico among the Tarahumara people experimenting with peyote. His curiosity led to staging his own play about Artaud Ghost Ship Rodez in Lyon, France.

The downs are as interesting as the ups. Juarez, the first of 13 albums he’s recorded, failed to launch as a Broadway musical, despite his collaboration with David Byrne, best-known as the lead singer of the band Talking Heads. The run of the 1994 theatrical play Chippy: The Diary of a West Texas Hooker, co-written with Jo Harvey for the American Music Theater Festival, turned out to be brief, but yielded the song “Fate with a Capital F” cowritten with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, which remains one of my favorite Allen songs.

Some sweet bits pass by too quickly, such as Byrne’s bewilderment participating in a guitar pull with Allen and friends, and Allen’s dust-up with Tommy Lee Jones over verisimilitude. And I would have enjoyed eavesdropping on Hickey and Allen debating art.

It’s the little things that impress. Allen played in a band in high school with David Box, the teen chosen to replace Buddy Holly in the Crickets after Holly’s death in a plane crash in 1959, only for Box to die years later in a plane crash. In 1972, he played the Dripping Springs Reunion, the precursor of Willie Nelson’s Picnics, thanks to a Dave Hickey booking. Even Andy Warhol and the Manson Family make cameos. He’s been everywhere—Cambodia, France, London, Mexico, and India, telling stories every which way. And he took notes.

With Greaves’ help, Allen tells his most compelling story yet, the story of his creative life.

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

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

BY Joe Nick Patoski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the phone imagery mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he getting recognized a lot?

“Everywhere,” he said flatly.

Is it a hassle?

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

Yep, the Cowboy Singer sure did.


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

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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 Westside Sound of San Antonio

from the December 2020 issue of Texas Highways magazine

Also known as Chicano soul, the Westside Sound blends rock ‘n’ roll with San Antonio roots

Albums by Mando and the Chili Peppers, Sonny Ace, Rudy and the Reno-Bops, and Doug Sahm exemplify the Westside Sound of San Antonio.

Fans of vinyl and the Westside Sound can get their fix at Janie’s Record Shop in San Antonio.

 

 

Texas music is known for its sense of place, whether it’s Western swing, guitar-powered electric blues, or Dirty South hip-hop. But at least one Texas city, and one specific part of that city, can claim a sound all its own: the Westside Sound of San Antonio.

The Westside Sound refers to a specific place and time, beginning in the 1950s, when Mexican American teenagers in San Antonio first heard rock ’n’ roll. Budding musicians from across the city formed bands playing music that incorporated rhythm and blues, often with a heavy horn section, and influences of swing, conjunto, and country. Sometimes referred to as “Chicano Soul,” the music drew on the early rock ’n’ rollers from New Orleans like Fats Domino and emphasized slow-dance standards known as “bellyrubbers.”

But unlike scenes in other places, the Westside Sound never completely went away. Its popularity persists thanks to veteran San Antonio musicians and fans championing their city’s native sound. You can hear the influence of the Westside Sound in songs like “Hey Baby Kep Pa So,” by enduring San Antonio keyboardist Augie Meyers, and in the music of younger musicians such as Los Texmaniacs, Garrett T. Capps, Mitch Webb and the Swindles, Adrian Quesada, and Jonny Benavidez.

One of the local fans keeping the Westside Sound alive is Chris Varelas, a retired firefighter who operates the NoHitNetwork.com website and KCJV 97.9—a low-power FM radio station based in Leon Valley in northwest San Antonio. Featuring non-charting regional releases from the 1950s through the ’70s—or “The Greatest Sounds You’ve Never Heard Of”—the station plays a whole lot of Westside Sound records.

“The Westside Sound is to San Antonio what Motown is to Detroit,” Varelas says. “The sound is unique and immediately identifiable. It’s really hard to convey the impact of a few local high school teenagers who decided to sing and dream.”

In the 1950s, San Antonio was far enough out of the mainstream, geographically and culturally, to foster a scene from local radio stations playing records by local bands. Only a few of those recordings—notably “Talk to Me” by Sunny and the Sunliners and “She’s About a Mover” by the Sir Douglas Quintet—made it onto the national charts. Still, radio airplay and jukebox spins made regional stars out of groups such as Rudy and the Reno Bops, the Royal Jesters, the Dell Kings, Sonny Ace y Los Twisters, the Dreamliners, the Commands, the Mar-Kays, and Charlie and the Jives.

Arturo “Sauce” Gonzalez was an early member of Sunny and the Sunliners in 1962. He later played Hammond B-3 organ with the late Doug Sahm, and today he leads Sauce Gonzalez and the Westside Sound.

“My band is called the Westside Sound and even I have a hard time explaining it,” he jokes. But, he says, a hallmark of the sound is simplicity.

“We used to play R&B tunes by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Smiley Lewis, B.B. King, Little Willie John, and lots of other Black artists,” he says. “We Chicanos from the Westside would rearrange the music for two tenor saxophones and piano. And it was very important to play the triplets. Playing them by ear rather than reading charts was the Westside Sound, too.”

The “Westside Sound” didn’t really exist as a moniker until 1983, long after the music’s heyday. That’s when Sahm,
a San Antonio-born musical prodigy who made his mark on the sound with the Sir Douglas Quintet, released an album with Meyers titled The ‘West Side’ Sound Rolls Again.

“That’s the first mention,” Jason Longoria says, pointing to the cover of the album in the music room of his San Antonio home. “No one knew what to call it until then.”

Longoria, 42, is another local keeping the Westside Sound alive through collecting records and sharing his research with the world. “The musicians came from all over San Antonio,” he adds. “But the Westside is the heart.”

A mural showing several famous Westside artists in San Antonio

The mural La Música de San Anto on West Commerce Street

San Antonio’s Westside, the oldest urban Mexican American neighborhood in Texas, is the historic hub of the city’s Hispanic culture. After World War II, two record labels, Rio Records and Corona Records, showcased the music of the working-class neighborhood.

Corona recorded traditional Spanish music ensembles. Rio Records issued records by young Mexican Americans playing all kinds of sounds. “Rio Records was to San Antonio what Sun Records was to Memphis,” Longoria says. “All these people had an opportunity to make a record. Rio Records owner Hymie Wolf would record anyone who came in, press up copies, and service jukebox distributors and radio stations with copies. He didn’t dictate what people should sing
or play.”

Longoria collects recordings and ephemera documenting the era. He has also sought out old performers and even gotten a few of them back on stage, including Rudy Tee Gonzalez, the lead singer from Rudy and the Reno-Bops; and Little Sammy Jay (Jaramillo), featured vocalist from the storied Tiffany Lounge club.

Longoria, who works at H-E-B’s corporate headquarters for his day job, developed his obsession through his parents’ love of the Texas Tornados, the 1990s Tex-Mex supergroup consisting of Sahm, Meyers, Freddy Fender, and Flaco Jiménez—all pioneers of the sound.

“When that first album came out, my parents would tell me about Doug Sahm and all the guys coming from around here,” Longoria says. “Doug Sahm stuck with me because he was local, very eclectic, and played a mixed bag of stuff that I related to.”

Longoria’s research traces the origins of the Westside Sound to the merging of two bands, Conjunto San Antonio Alegre and Conjunto Mexico, which joined forces as Mando and the Chili Peppers in 1955. As the players traded their bajo sextos and accordions for electric guitars, their music transitioned from polkas and rancheras to rock ’n’ roll and Louisiana blues. They were also hearing music from local Black blues musicians, a scene with 1940s roots in the Keyhole Club, which advertised itself as “the First Integrated Night Club in the South.”

Mando and the Chili Peppers toured around the country, playing cities like Las Vegas, Denver, New York, and Philadelphia, where they appeared on the popular American Bandstand TV show. Back in San Antonio, the band had its own television show on KCOR, first with Spanish-speaking emcees and then with Scratch Phillips, a Black disc jockey.

On the Road With Rock ’N Roll, the band’s 1957 debut album, improbably fused country, conjunto, R&B, and triplet-powered rock ’n’ roll. The playlist incorporated songs from Ernest Tubb’s “I’m Walkin’ the Floor Over You,” to the popular standard “South of the Border,” to “San Antonio Rose” by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.

“San Antonio has got its own version of pretty much all of American music,” Longoria says.

And, it’s got music that no other place can claim.

Finding the Westside Sound

On the radio, DJ Chris Varelas plays Westside Sound bands on his station 97.9 FM in San Antonio and online at nohitnetwork.com. Legendary San Antonio DJ Henry “Pepsi” Peña hosts the San Antonio Oldies show Sundays
6-9 p.m. on Radio Jalapeño, KEDA 1540 AM, 102.3 FM, and saoldies.com.

In the clubs, see live performances by Westside Sound bands including Sauce Gonzalez and the Westside Sound, the Westside Horns, Joe Jama, Frank Rodarte, Al Gomez, Little Henry, Chente Montes, Jack Barber, and Urban Urbano at venues including The Squeezebox, Sanchos, and The Lighthouse Lounge. facebook.com/thesqueezebox; sanchosmx.com; facebook.com/the-lighthouse-lounge-100242124663964

On TV, hear strains of the Westside Sound on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Cleto Escobedo III leads the house band, which includes his father, Cleto Escobedo Jr., a saxophonist and founding member of San Antonio’s Dell-Kings.

In the shops, find Westside Sound recordings at Janie’s Record Shop, 1012 Bandera Road, and Del Bravo Record Shop, 554 Enrique M. Barrera Parkway. facebook.com/janiesrecordshop4; delbravorecordshop.com

On display, in David Blanca’s mural, entitled La Música de la San Anto, 1303 W. Commerce St., and in exhibits at the South Texas Museum of Popular Culture. texpopsa.org

From the December 2020 issue
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Accordion: Texas’ Main Squeeze

https://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/life-arts/texas-main-squeeze

My story about the accordion in Texas Coop Power

Texas’ Main Squeeze
The accordion has been a beloved musical instrument since it got here

 

  • Chris Rybak continues a tradition brought to Texas by European settlers in the 1800s.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Chris Rybak
  • Rybak as an 11-year-old.
    IMAGE: Courtesy Chris Rybak
  • Accordionist and bandleader Emil Schuhmann of Fayette County in the 1890s.
    IMAGE: Winedale Photograph Collection | The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin

Of all the musical instruments brought to Texas by German, Czech, Polish and Moravian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the accordion made the most unexpected inroads among Mexican, Cajun and Creole communities who embraced it as their instrument of choice. Generations later, squeezeboxes still move Texans.

Chris Rybak, known as the Accordion Cowboy, who hails from Hallettsville, explains that when he picked up the instrument 30 years ago, at age 11, accordion-playing bandleader Lawrence Welk was a big thing. “But that also made accordion not so cool,” he says, adding that now it’s heard in jazz, rock and a wide variety of other musical genres. “It doesn’t have to be just your grandpa’s oompah anymore.”

Packing the full-bodied sound of an entire band into one instrument, the accordion, invented in Europe in the 1820s, provided entertainment at dances of all kinds as Texas was settled. Without the need for electricity or amplification, its sound carried farther than stringed instruments.

The accordion was a key instrument for western swing bands in the 1930s and ’40s. It remains the most versatile musical instrument going in Texas, straddling regions and borders and injecting its sound into rock, country, blues, jazz and zydeco. It’s the defining instrument of conjunto, the folk music of South Texas, and the faster-paced norteño, a folk music of northern Mexico that is similar to conjunto.

Without the accordion, there would be no Mark Halata at Wurstfest, no Brave Combo playing WestFest, no Ennis Czech Boys working the National Polka Festival, no Fritz Hodde and the Fabulous Six performing at an SPJST hall.

The European-style accordion, the traditional large instrument with piano keys on the right-hand side that functions like a glorified organ, is favored by the Bohemians, Czechs, Poles and Germans of South and Central Texas; some Zydeco bands around Houston and southeast Texas; and Fort Worth’s Ginny Mac and Austin’s Debra Peters. It can weigh upward of 30 pounds.

Conjuntos and some zydeco bands favor the smaller, diatonic model of accordion with buttons on both sides that change notes as you push and pull and has considerably faster action. Texas Cajuns play an even smaller, simpler diatonic model with fewer buttons.

Rybak explains that Czech, German, German-Polish, Tejano and Cajun music each embody a distinct style. “On the other hand, when you go to a conjunto place,” he says, “the band will throw in a few Czech songs. And vice versa. The accordion is distinctive, and it can cross boundaries and cultures.”

The universality of the accordion is celebrated at the Accordion Kings and Queens at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston on the first Saturday in June, a production of Texas Folklife. All the bands onstage feature accordions as the lead instrument, but the performers sing in English, Spanish, French, German, Polish and Czech, reflecting each group’s ethnic background. Despite those differences, everyone dances the same on the dance floor, moving in a counterclockwise direction.

These days, Rybak says he mostly uses a digital accordion, which has changed his instrument much the way a digital keyboard changed piano playing. He can create blaring trumpets to open the Johnny Cash standard Ring of Fire.

“I would say for most shows, I play 70 or 80% with a digital accordion,” he says. “And that’s what the new generation really loves, too. They can do anything on it.”

Although Joe Nick Patoski gave up piano accordion for violin at age 7, he owns a button accordion autographed by Flaco Jiménez.

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Conjunto: The Soul Music of South Texas

https://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/life-arts/soul-music-of-south-texas

My story on Conjunto music in Texas Coop Power magazine

Soul Music of South Texas
Conjunto, built upon a polka rhythm, turns accordions and 12-string guitars into a unique sound and subculture

By Joe Nick Patoski
March 2020

 

El Flaco

Esteban “Steve” Jordan began playing accordion at the age of 7.
IMAGE: John Dyer

Flaco Jiménez brought the conjunto accordion to Amsterdam in 1989 and Dwayne Verheyden answered the call and learned to play like Flaco

Eduardo Garza of Mission was one of the big winners at the 2019 Big Squeeze youth accordion competition.
IMAGE: Courtesy Texas Folklife

Joel Guzmán at the Alamo.

IMAGE: John Dyer

Teenage conjunto performer Darren David Prieto with Santiago Jimenez and Luis Almanza, Carnitas Uruapan, San Antonio,  2015.

Santiago Jiménez Jr., who gave accordion lessons to Prieto.
IMAGE: John Dyer

Los Texmaniacs have taken conjunto as far as China.

With her 12-string guitar, Lydia Mendoza became the first female star of Mexican American music.

San Antonio’s Eva Ybarra is known as the Queen of the Accordion.

Narciso Martínez was one of the recording pioneers of conjunto.

 

Darren David Prieto played the accordion in Carnitas Uruapan, a meat market on the west side of San Antonio, one Sunday morning in 2016 while customers lined up for tamales and carnitas. Back then, the market hosted a weekly residency with accordionist Santiago Jiménez Jr., younger brother of accordion legend Flaco Jiménez. The gig was practice for Jiménez, but for Prieto, it was an apprenticeship and a steppingstone to a career performing the soul music of South Texas.

Jiménez introduced the shy teenager from New Braunfels, then 16, as “mi protegido”—his protégé—and, blushing, Prieto nodded toward Jiménez and added, “Mi profesor.” This unlikely venue and early start time was a very big deal for the slight, quiet young man because as part of a new generation of conjunto accordionists, it was his opportunity to learn from a master.

As Jiménez played his diatonic button accordion, accompanied by a sideman strumming chords on a 12-string guitar called a bajo sexto, pounding out a rhythm to propel the sounds from Jiménez’s accordion, the meat market’s owner occasionally walked out from behind the counter to harmonize with Jiménez in vocal duets. “Margarita, Margarita,” they crooned, faces inches from each other. Sit-ins from the neighborhood were part of the weekly routine. Grammy Award winner Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs walked into Carnitas wearing a football jersey and shorts rather than his western stage outfit and sat in with the band, playing bajo sexto.

Conjunto’s bouncy rhythm, typically a polka, is why it is also known as música alegre, happy music. Like blues and country, conjunto—pronounced cohn-hoon-toe—is indigenous, only regionally specific to South Texas, with mostly Spanish lyrics. In South Texas, and anywhere conjunto’s influence extends, the term is applied to both sound and subculture.

Conjunto has two key instruments: the diatonic button accordion, which, like a harmonica, changes notes as air is pushed or pulled past vibrating reeds, and the bajo sexto, which provides the rhythm and backbeat. Most modern conjuntos also include drums, guitar and bass.

At a time when most American roots music’s popularity is on the downswing, conjunto’s roots are spreading. Public school programs in La Joya, Los Fresnos, Brownsville and other towns across the Rio Grande Valley have added conjunto to their curricula, and bajo sexto classes are taught weekly at the Conjunto Heritage Taller and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio. “We get them from 8 to 80,” said Rodolfo Lopez, Conjunto Heritage Taller director. “Conjunto is us, la gente. This is a unique music form.” Kids from the taller (workshop) have dominated the state-wide Big Squeeze youth accordion competition sponsored by Texas Folklife since its inception in 2007.

Conjunto was born in the late 19th century when German immigrants introduced the button accordion to South Texas. In part because of its rural roots, it was known as cantina music. Conjunto made its commercial debut in the 1920s and ’30s, when Columbia and Bluebird joined other labels in the fledgling recording business, setting up studios in rooms at San Antonio’s Gunter and Bluebonnet hotels as well as at local WOAI radio to record musicians solicited by talent scouts. Conjunto accordionists were recruited to San Antonio alongside bluesman Robert Johnson, western swingsters Bill Boyd & His Cowboy Ramblers and the Tex-Czech sounds of Adolph Hofner as well as Texan Mexican singer Lydia Mendoza.

The instrumentals by those conjunto accordionists sounded Mexican with additional Bohemian, Czech and German elements, reflecting the influence of the immigrant communities of South Texas.

Texas conjunto recording pioneers Bruno Villarreal from Santa Rosa, Narciso Martínez of La Paloma and Santiago Jiménez of San Antonio all eavesdropped on Czech, German and Polish dances in South Texas and incorporated what they heard into their own music.

Conjunto follows neither mariachi nor ranchera traditions, nor is it norteño, the accordion style popular in northern Mexico. “It’s a melding of European music and the Mexican bajo sexto,” Rodolfo Lopez explained, noting that Czech redowas, Bohemian schottisches, waltzes and polkas all came from Europe. “We just added our jalapeño chiltepin flavor to it.”

Flaco Jiménez, the older of conjunto pioneer Santiago Jiménez’s two sons, expanded awareness of the genre in 1973, appearing on the album Doug Sahm and Band, featuring the rock musician from San Antonio and an all-star lineup that included Bob Dylan. Sahm sought out and played bajo sexto with Flaco Jiménez in his backyard on San Antonio’s west side. “He could groove,” Jiménez said.

Flaco Jiménez would ultimately take conjunto accordion around the world, recording with Ry Cooder, Peter Rowan, the Rolling Stones, Dwight Yoakum and Emmylou Harris before joining the Tex-Mex supergroup Texas Tornados.

Esteban “Steve” Jordan of Elsa, a dashing figure with an eyepatch known as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion, also worked as a conjunto innovator. One record label described Jordan’s style as acordeón psicodélico. If Jiménez was the standard-bearer, Jordan was the experimentalist—always pushing the envelope until his passing in 2010.

Another notable exporter of conjunto accordion is Joel Guzmán of Buda, who performs with his wife, Sarah Fox, as Aztex; plays and records with country rocker Joe Ely; and joined Paul Simon on his Homeward Bound tour. One of few professional female accordionists, Eva Ybarra earned a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017.

Conjunto is no longer exclusively a Texas thing. Japan has several conjuntos who were inspired by Flaco Jiménez’s appearance in their country with the Texas Tornados. Dwayne Verheyden from the Netherlands mastered Jiménez’s playing style, then mastered Spanish to better communicate with Jiménez and conjunto audiences. After his performance at the Tejano Conjunto Fest in San Antonio in 2014, fans patiently lined up to have their picture taken with him, as if he was the Justin Bieber of conjunto.

Conjunto’s crossover appeal comes to life in the music of Conjunto Los Pinkys, an Austin band led by octogenarian Isidro Samilpa; a middle-aged Polish import from Saginaw, Michigan, named Bradley Jaye Williams; and Mark Weber, an accordionist from San Antonio. Another crossover success is Stevie Ray Vavages of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, who learned the bajo sexto playing the native sound called chicken scratch.

Darren Prieto is part of the next wave.

Typical of most Texas kids, he grew up listening to rock, country, jazz and hip-hop. Not typical of most Texas kids, he chose to play accordion when he was 14. “I was always with my grandfather,” he explained. “Around our house, conjunto music was always on. I listened to all types of conjunto, from Los Pavo Reales to Ruben Naranjo.” The summer before he entered high school, Prieto picked up his grandfather’s accordion, just as his own father once had. By that September, he’d learned some polkas. “I started falling in love,” Prieto said.

Web Extra: Where To See and Hear Conjunto

KEDA-AM (1540) in San Antonio, which streams online.

Rancho Alegre Radio’s sampler playlist.

Texas Folklife presents Big Squeeze competitions in the spring. The Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg hosts the semifinals, and the finals are staged at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. Big Squeeze champions all perform at the Texas Accordion Kings and Queens concert and dance at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston the first Saturday in June.

The Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, sponsored by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, is conjunto’s biggest bash of all, staged at Guadalupe Theater and in Rosedale Park May 13–17.

Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival in May in Austin, plus weekly tardeadas in the spring and fall.

Narciso Martínez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival in Los Fresnos in October.

Two documentaries tell the story of conjunto: 1976’s Chulas Fronteras, by filmmakers Les Blank and Maureen Gosling, and Songs of the Homeland, filmed in 1995 by Hector Galán.

Conjunto Musicians, Their Lives and Their Times is an audio program in the Onda Latina Collection at the University of Texas featuring Esteban Jordan, Flaco Jiménez, Santiago Jiménez Jr. and Tony de la Rosa.

The Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito is one of the cradles of conjunto. It’s open Thursday–Saturday at 210 E. Heywood St. Call (956) 245-1666 for more info.

Janie’s Record Shop is the go-to shop for conjunto 45s, CDs and 12-inch vinyl, with a store jukebox and loads of autographed photos of conjunto stars. It’s at 1012 Bandera Rd. in San Antonio. Call (210) 735-2070 for more info.

Del Bravo Record Shop, run by the family of conjunto composer Salomé Gutierrez, is as much a museum as a record shop. Don’t miss the Lydia Mendoza tribute display, which includes one of her stage dresses. It’s at 554 Old Highway 90 in San Antonio. Call (210) 432-8351 for more info.

Those Sunday morning performances on the small stage at Carnitas Uruapan, where he learned from Santiago Jiménez Jr., stoked Prieto’s creative fire. “He helped me learn to get over stage fright, how to talk to the crowd and even how to be a humble musician,” Prieto said.

The gigs at Carnitas Uruapan stopped in 2018 when the owner retired. But Prieto remains tight with Jiménez. “You can hear a little bit of Santiago Jiménez Jr.’s style in my own playing,” Prieto said. “Playing conjunto music is so fun. It isn’t like any other music. It has that beat that makes you want to dance. It makes you feel alive.”

Web Extra: Joe Nick Patoski’s Conjunto Experience

Writer Joe Nick Patoski, a self-confessed conjunto addict, offers this playlist of some of his favorite conjunto songs and artists. He has been writing about conjunto music since 1975 for Texas Monthly, Oxford American, Rolling Stone, Country Music and other publications. He hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, 7–9 p.m. Saturdays on Marfa Public Radio and Wimberley Valley Radio.

Writer Joe Nick Patoski, a confessed conjunto addict, lives outside Wimberley and is a member of Pedernales EC.

This appeared in the March 2020 issue

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