Cult of Ray

Ray Benson

(Photo by Scott Newton)

The Cult of Ray

Austin Chronicle
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 18, 2003

Ray Benson steps out from behind the Wheel.

Everybody knows Ray Benson: the big guy with the big hat, booming baritone, and Ernest Tubb disposition. How can you miss him?

He is Asleep at the Wheel, the merry (revolving) band of musicians from both coasts who moved to Austin 30 years ago on the heels of Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, just in time for the birth of the modern Austin music scene. Smitten with an archaic, hip regional sound called Western swing, they had the good fortune of arriving before the crowds did.

Striking a responsive chord with the preslacker longhairs who dug their mentors and cohorts Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, as well as with the two-stepping old-timers who hadn’t heard Bob Wills’ music played like that since Bob Wills, the Wheel has since become a musical institution. The scores of Texas Playboy alumni who have sat in, recorded with, been produced by, or produced the Wheel at one time or another, plus the Grammy Awards lining the shelves of Benson’s office validate that.

Yet while Asleep at the Wheel has evolved into a Texas-sized tradition, the cult of Ray has been quietly building to the point that at 52, Benson has finally gotten around to releasing his first solo album, Beyond Time. It makes sense, since he’s always been more than a frontman. As much a hipster as Willie or Doug, he can hold his own on T-Bone blues and do Basie jump like an alum. He’s always been a deal maker, hustler, a mover, and a shaker.

Benson’s still all that. Like Willie, he’s one of the few bridges between old Austin and new Austin, and far more accessible than the Red Headed Stranger ever was. The consummate glad-hander and back-slapper.

Who do you think made the introduction between Denny Bruce and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, putting in motion the record deal that put Austin blues on the map? Who hooked up Stevie Vaughan with manager Alex Hodges? Who brought together Lance Armstrong’s management and the folks who made the Austin City Limits festival happen?

And he continues to move and shake in music circles from New York to L.A. as easily as he does in South Austin or Spicewood. Yep, that was Benson sitting in with Paul Shaffer and the band on Letterman a few weeks ago.

Squint a little harder through the bifocals, though, and it’s easy to see the changes in el mundo del Ray go beyond his solo debut. And it isn’t the white overtaking the red in his goatee, sideburns, and ponytail or the tour bus with the “For Sale” sign parked outside his office.

Which raises the larger question: Who the heck is this cat under the hat?

State Musician of Texas

Surrounded by guitars and loads of pictures of Benson with the likes of Little Richard, Brenda Lee, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Snow, and Laura Bush, Benson is in his element at Bismeaux Productions, his business and recording studio complex on Manchaca Road.

The geegaws and souvenirs such as golf trophies, a Spade Cooley album cover, Austin Sun music awards, and a “Shalom, Y’all” sticker on his computer, Benson instructs his faithful assistant Bridget Bauer to hold all calls (sorry, Mike Levy). David McGee, who’s doing a phoner for Barnesandnoble.com, and his mom from Philly manage to get through.

Taking stock of his life thus far, Benson first clears the air about recording under his own name. The band, he says, is alive and well. In fact, he’s currently mixing another live album, this one from Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. The bus with the “For Sale” sign is merely being retired. At this pace, the Wheel will roll on forever. Going solo is merely realizing what he set out to do 45 years after writing his first song. It doesn’t hurt that he owns the studio, a tricked-out, tube-amp, old-school environment “and a mixing board Elvis once sang through.”

“I’m just trying to express myself and do what I know how to do,” explains Benson. “Asleep at the Wheel’s concept has narrowed and crystallized over the years to what it is, and I didn’t want to mess with that.”

It hardly ends there.

In 2004 Benson succeeds classical pianist James Dick as the State Musician of Texas. He’s been co-producing a duet of Willie Nelson and reggae legend Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals on Willie’s “Still Is Still Moving,” an occasion that finally resulted in his signing Trigger, Willie’s beat-up Martin guitar. That came on the heels of hosting a pilot for the CMT cable channel at Gerald Mann’s Riverbend Church last October. He won a regional Emmy Award for a PBS documentary he co-produced on the making of Ride With Bob, the Wheel’s most recent album to Wills. There’s also the T-Bone Walker Texas blues all-star tribute album he’s dreaming up …

At the same time, his civic profile has been steadily rising. He tried bringing baseball to Austin before there was a Round Rock Express. He sits on boards including the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and KLRU. He talks to business groups trying to explain where music fits in to Austin’s big picture. He could be mayor if he wanted the gig.

His running buddies are an eclectic albeit well-connected bunch, including writer Bud Shrake, football coach Darrell K. Royal, Clear Channel czar Steve Hicks, former Dell vice-chairman and philanthropist Mort Topfer, and Beavis and Butthead/King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, who happens to play a pretty mean bass. He’s on a first name basis with Republicans and CEOs. He raises money for Wild Basin. He’s a star on the Celebrity Pro-Am golf circuit.

He’s also newly divorced, though he continues to share a West Lake home with his wife of 20 years, Diane Carr. One son, Sam, is learning the music business and improving his golf at Belmont College in Nashville. Aaron is a high school senior. So what exactly is going on inside that Caledonia-sized head of his?

“All I can say is, everyone’s got to find their way,” laughs Benson. “I cherish my family. We went through the initial throes of the divorce and realized, was I going to pay an attorney everything I owned to get … whatever? So we worked it out.

“Yeah I see some other girls. Is it easy? No. Is it smooth? No. We all come with a lot of baggage. I don’t have the answer to the whole thing, but I’m trying to keep my family somewhat intact. Diane raised those kids and did an incredible job. I did as much as I could when I was home, but I was gone a lot.”

This, of course, is well-documented.

“You’re That Guy”

It all started when “three Jews” — Benson, Floyd Domino (ne Jim Haber), and Lucky Oceans (ne Ruben Gosfield) — a Vermont farm boy named Leroy Preston; Virginian Chris O’Connell; and Gene Dobkin, a bass player and fellow classmate of Benson’s from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, joined forces. Another Antioch student named Ed Ward brought Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen to campus, wherein the musicians saw the light. The rest is Austin music history, as Benson tells it.

“We cut our hair to do all this, so it looked right,” laughs Benson. “We wore Nudie suits. We basically said we were going to pass. We were kind of like black people. Over the years it’s been unreal. One time down in Louisiana, we played a Ku Klux Klan hall.

“I became Ray Benson the day before I started the band. I had read the Ray Charles biography, and his name is Ray Charles something or other. Jerry Reed is Jerry Reed Hubbard. I said to myself, those guys are smart; they’ve got stupid last names in terms of show business, I’ll do the same thing. Seifert just wasn’t going to make it, but Benson is great.”

The woodshedding took place in a 200-year-old cabin in Paw Paw, W.Va. They backed Stoney Edwards, one of two black men on Earth with a career as a country singer, and singers Connie Smith and Freddie Hart. They followed Cody and his big band to Berkeley, Calif., where they met Eddie Wilson.

“Eddie Wilson came out to [manager] Joe Kerr’s and just sold us,” recalls Benson. “All he wanted was to book the New Riders [of the Purple Sage] and Cody at the Armadillo. Joe told him about us. Eddie hears us and says, ‘You could be the house band.’

“Greezy Wheels was already the house band, but he was right. We were exactly what he was trying to do. Redneck hippies was his thing. We finally got a record deal, so we came down and played the Armadillo with Cody in ’73. Once we hit town, we went, ‘Whoa!’

“Michael Murphy and Jerry Jeff [Walker] and the songs that they did, to me that was like cool, cosmic-cowboy, electrified folk music. That’s not what [we] were about. We loved the New Riders from a lifestyle point of view but not their music. We loved the Burrito Brothers for doing what they did, but we didn’t like them because they were too slick. They were so L.A.

“Texas had it all. Willie and Doug were the two reasons. Willie had said to us, ‘What are you doing out there? You sound like you’re from here.’ Doug had given me one of his raps, and it made perfect sense. We figured out that we could get more gigs here than in the Bay Area, and it cost less to rent a house. And there’s chicks! And guns!”

A lot has changed since the Wheel found their mecca. Which leads to the inevitable question: Whither Austin?

“We’re mostly pricing ourselves out of the market,” states Benson. “I did one of those 360 summits, when the high tech boom was booming, and they asked me to come speak with Michael Dell and two other people. They asked that question: ‘What’s the difference between Austin then and where we’re at now?’

“I said, ‘Well, in 1973 we used to come to Austin to drop acid. Now, we drop antacid.’ Michael Dell turned three sheets of white.

“Obviously, the baby-boom generation has aged,” laughs Benson.

And so has Benson. Which is why he’s made the move he’s never made before.

“Lots of people come up to me and say, ‘You’re that guy.’ And as much as I enjoy that, I’d like them to know Ray Benson is that guy who does this stuff, because I’ve hidden behind Asleep at the Wheel for many years and behind incredibly talented people: Floyd, Chris O’Connell, Leroy Preston.

“What’s sad is that Chris O’Connell is a veterinarian’s assistant in Winchester, Va., and Leroy Preston is a data processor in Vermont. They don’t play at all. This business burns you out. It chews you up and spits you out. You’ve seen it a hundred times, and I don’t want to be one of those people.

“I want to play guitar — sing and write and make music. I know that. I don’t want to walk on the red carpet. I don’t like limos; I like buses. I don’t want to be a superstar at all.

“I want to ply my craft and make my music and have people love it.”

[The Cult of Ray in the Austin Chronicle]


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Willie Nelson

Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression. Order Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from Amazon here.


Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now

No Depression
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September-October 2004

Willie Nelson
Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now. Photograph by Jim Herrington

Willie Nelson may not live forever, but sometimes it seems that way.

LUCK, Texas, isn’t as easy to find as it used to be. Development has sprawled the entire 25 miles from downtown Austin to this idyllic little spot in the Hill Country near Lake Travis where Willie Nelson created his own universe more than two decades ago. The old corner store that was once a landmark is now a bank. The entrance gate is practically lost among the McMansions and ranchettes that have sprouted up.

This fact of life is not lost on the guy in the Willie Nelson T-shirt driving the mower over the fairway of the Briarcliff Country Club. After providing directions to a wayward tourist, he wisecracks, “Welcome to Oak Hill,” referring to the suburb fifteen miles closer to the city.

Still, there’s enough acreage surrounding Luck that once you stumble onto the dirt main street, you realize Willie Nelson’s home base is safely in a zone of its own. The cowboy town of faux buildings – including a feed store, barn, gunsmith, church, and bathhouse – hasn’t changed much since it was built for the film Red Headed Stranger in the early 1980s. Unchanged, but deteriorated to the point that Luck today looks less like an Old West movie set and more like a real 20th century small town in Texas that is drying up and blowing away. Whatever it is, it is Willie’s World. The rest of us are just visiting.

I had come for my last sit-down with Willie Hugh Nelson. I’d been writing about him since I hit Austin in 1973, a year after he did. I’ve spent the ensuing years listening, watching, and observing him as he played shows on flatbed trucks, in drive-in movie theaters (with Paul Simon sitting in, no less), in amphitheaters, in performing arts halls, and at too many July Fourth Picnics to count. Somewhere along the way, the television appearances, movie roles, and inductions to various halls of fame added up to Willie achieving some kind of sainthood, with just enough speed-crazed hustlers, soulful used-car salesmen, and honest-to-Sam-Houston characters to keep me engaged.

Like Austin, Willie too has changed along the way. He came to the game as a songwriter. Some say that particular skill fell by the wayside decades ago – that he’s sliding by on cruise control, that he hasn’t written a memorable song in years. And yet, in the midst of all his albums of cover songs, tribute songs, collaborative affairs with high-profile buddies, television specials, and films, he’s still continued to write songs – including an antiwar protest number that briefly stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy late last year. Not to mention enough straight-ahead country tunes to justify a full-blown album that may be his best work in ages (It Will Always Be, due October 26 on Lost Highway).

Willie Nelson
Willie and Paul English (background) at Stubb’s in Austin, TX, May 2001.
Photograph by John Carrico.

But even if he hadn’t written a line in a quarter-century and decided to follow the path of Fats Domino – who once reasoned he didn’t need to write another song because he already had more than enough hits to perform in concert -Willie would justify a visit just because he’s Willie. After all, he personifies the outlaw movement that presaged altcountry. He’s the one credited for putting Austin and Texas Music on the map. He’s a pop culture icon, bandanas, pigtails, running shoes and all, the one Texan more popular than George Bush. He’s the gold standard for Texas marijuana: If it’s Willie weed, i.e. pot fit for him, it’s top-of-the-line bud. And he’s just mysterious and mystical enough to keep everyone guessing. You never know what you’ll find when you’re in Luck.

That said, we’re both old enough to be lucky just to be alive.

He’s 71. I’m 53.We’ve both done a pretty fair job taking care of ourselves. While Waylon kept roaring until a few years before his death in 2002 at age 64, Willie quit the powder and the partying back when he was about my age. These days, drinking means water more often than whiskey. His biggest vice remains his appreciation of the sweet smoke.

Change at this stage of the game usually means some kind of diminishment, and in the case of Willie, the black cast on his left arm was a big red flag. Carpal tunnel syndrome, the repetitive motion injury of the computer age, had finally gotten to him. He had scrunched and contorted his fretting hand into chords on his battered guitar, Trigger, one time too many. The surgery that was required to fix the problem knocked him off he road for the first time since… well, forever.

But it wasn’t just him who was hurting and hobbled.

His friend Ray Charles had passed away five days before. Willie’s drummer and lifelong partner in crime and other adventures, Paul English (of “Me And Paul” fame), can’t make it through an entire show anymore. Paul’s son, Billy English, carries the load when it comes to keeping the beat. Another drummer during Willie’s outlaw glory days, Rex Ludwick, passed on earlier in the year, his life cut short from too much drinking. Even the title of Nelson’s new CD, It Will Always Be, especially the track “Tired”, suggests loss and resignation.

So Mr. On the Road Again had been forced to adjust to the sedentary life off the road. Not that his band minded – 220 dates the previous year were a few too many for some of his players, all of whom except Paul are younger than Willie.

I thought I’d done my last interview with him five years ago, when he drove me around Luck in his pickup truck and I caught him off guard when I asked whether there were times when he got tired of being Willie. His response -“Not really, but if I do, I go and hide” – said a lot. He’s very much a public figure who enjoys his station in life. Wouldn’t you enjoy it if everyone around you acts glad to see you and showers you with compliments? But he’s also human enough to enjoy his privacy and the opportunity to chill whenever he can.

Two years ago, I went to the well one more time, speaking to him by phone while he was on his way to play a show in Nebraska for a club owner friend who was down on his luck. That really, really, really was my very last Willie story, I thought. What else was there for me to ask? What else was there for him to say?

That’s what I got for thinking.

Willie Nelson
Willie at the Paramount Theatre, 1999 during "Willie Week". Photograph by John Carrico.

BETWEEN releasing It Will Always Be, performing relentlessly, recording prolifically, appearing in commercials and TV specials, plotting more film roles, speaking out on behalf of family farmers, Dennis Kucinich and marijuana, and writing one of the first protest songs against the war in Iraq, Willie is living ten lives at once. The most stunning example is the new album, a full-blown, state-of-the-art polished piece of work that rings with clarity and purpose like his recordings of thirty years ago.

Not bad for an old fart who’s supposed to be in his autumn years.

I walked into the saloon that’s the official Luck World Headquarters, but the room was empty and silent save for the hushed audio from CNN on the big screen at the end of the bar.

Willie wasn’t there. But Willie was everywhere.

Every square inch of space on the walls was covered with 40 years’ worth of Willie memorabilia. There were photos of sister Bobbie, Johnny Bush, and Ray Price. Two Roy Rogers kiddie guitars were propped behind the bar. The Old Whiskey River Kentucky Straight neon sign shared space in one corner with bleached cow skulls. Movie posters advertised Red Headed Stranger, Texas Guns and Barbarosa. A photo of Willie on a golf course flanked by Darrell K. Royal, the storied University of Texas football coach, Mack Brown, the current UT coach, and hometown golf star Ben Crenshaw vividly illustrated his exalted role as one of Texas’ living treasures. He is clearly not averse to the idea of being Willie.

Someone once wondered aloud how weird it must be, sitting in the middle of your own personal universe, surrounded by photos, posters, neon, and trinkets all about you. But when “you” is Willie, it doesn’t seem so strange. The building with the creaky wooden floors – recently outfitted with air conditioning – is more like his playhouse. There’s a pool table up front, a chess table over to the side, a Bose radio behind the bar, a CMT director’s chair on the floor. There’s a small room in back where Willie can conduct a guitar pull or record a picking session on a whim. There’s always old friends such as Ben Dorsey, Bill McDavid, David Zettner or Freddy Powers nearby to hang with, or to pick with.

Outside the saloon, I found Rusty and Ed, who were doing busy work around the premises. Ed said Willie was probably on the bus, where he really likes to hang when he wants to lay low. But Willie wasn’t there, either. A crew of four was busily renovating the interior (as if the tricked-out rolling mini-mansion needed an upgrade). “Willie was expecting you,” one renovator said. “But not for another four hours. You might check at the recording studio.”

Rusty led the way to the Pedernales Recording Studio in a battered RV. We hadn’t gotten down the hill and outside the main gate toward Willie’s golf course before Freddy Fletcher, the studio owner who is Bobbie Nelson’s son and Willie Nelson’s nephew, pulled alongside, rolled down the window of a black Mercedes, and said, “Hidy.”

A muddy Chevy pickup pulled behind the Mercedes. It was Freddy’s uncle, grinning from ear to ear. He was dressed for summer in a black straw western hat with a dangling lanyard and a black tank top shirt hanging loosely over his running shorts and running shoes.

We caravanned back to the bus long enough for Willie to determine maybe that wasn’t the best place to sit and visit. So we headed back to Luck.

“How’s it been going?” I asked as we walked into the saloon.

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson in the sanctuary of his tour bus on Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles, Ca, July 2004. Photograph by Jim Herrington

“It’s perfect,” he said, his green-brown eyes twinkling, illuminating the scruffy white beard and long mane of hair flowing out of his hat to below his shoulders. “It couldn’t be any better.”

I got a closeup of the cast on his left arm. Willie was holding it close to his chest like a gimp. The other hand juggled a tall Starbucks cup and a big fat joint.

“Pull up a chair,” he said after we walked inside. He went around to the other side of the bar and pulled up a stool, assuming the role of a bartender ready to dispense whatever wisdom and advice was needed. He fired up the fatty in his good hand.

Perfect? But the hand…

“Oh, it’s getting better. I’ve had to get some assistance, but I’m back to where I can roll,” he allowed, passing the hemp bomber across the bar. “Some of my therapy is rolling and it’s getting pretty good. This is the longest that I haven’t played the guitar. It’s still painful and sore and I’m not really jonesing to get back up there. I’d love to play, but I want it to feel good when I do, and I want to be able to play as good as I played the last time.”

He didn’t really have a choice but to take a break. “The last couple years, it was so painful, I was kind of dreading the next show,” he explained. “It was getting worse and worse, getting numb. I’d wake up and it would go to sleep. I found out there’s hundreds of thousands and millions of people that are going through this same thing, all over the world. I was just talking to a mandolin player awhile ago over on the golf course, a big ole boy. He had this same operation back in the ’80s. He said it takes time, but he was back picking in awhile and he’s still doing it.”

The surgery shut down the show. “I couldn’t see going out with a hand mike,” he said. “I’m not saying I won’t?’ [He did just that at his Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth before going back on hiatus in preparation for a scheduled tour of minor-league baseball parks with Bob Dylan in August.] “If things don’t get well, then I might be hiring out as a vocalist,” he chuckled. “I’ve done that before. It’s easy, you know.” He can sing with the best of them, as he’s demonstrated by pairing up with folks such as Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Julio Iglesias. But Willie watchers know that’s not the whole Willie. Even he acknowledged that.

“Songwriting is the easiest thing for me to do,” he said. “It requires less effort and less thought than what it takes to learn what Django [Reinhardt, the gypsy guitarist] did on that last record. Writing’s first. And I love to perform. I enjoy the interaction between us and them. That’s good for your ego. It keeps you going and going back again. Me and the band, we enjoy being out there and we enjoy working. And we come home and we enjoy this for a little while. But we get ready to go back pretty quick. Everybody who knows us knows that’s the way we are, even our wives and kids.”

Willie Nelson
Razorcut: Willie Nelson, Nashville cat.

Then he startled me by acknowledging he was mortal.

“It’s kind of like you stopped a big train for a minute. It gives everybody a time to stop and think, ‘Whatever this is, is not going to last forever.’ So we might as well enjoy the rest and take it as far as we can.”

I had no reason to doubt him. All I needed to do was look into his eyes.

Those watery, soulful, puppy dog eyes have served him well.

Kevin Connor, who hosted an impromptu Willie radio performance with reggae legend Toots Hibbert on the lawn of Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel during the South By Southwest festival in March, related how after the show, he walked up to Willie to thank him, and was immediately stopped in his tracks by Willie’s eyes. “He didn’t need to say a word. He said all he needed to say with his eyes,” Connor said.

It’s a similar observation to the one Eddie Wilson made 32 years earlier, when Willie and Paul English showed up at the beer garden of the Armadillo World Headquarters to talk about doing a gig at the hippie rock emporium that would become the foundation of Austin music. “Although he was in a house full of strangers, a few enlightened folks recognized him and approached him in awe,” Wilson said. “I then observed a trait that has been consistent throughout his career: He suffers fools gladly, and as long as someone’s talking to him, he does not break eye contact. It’s a quality I’ve seen in only two other people – [former Texas governor] Ann Richards when being talked to by children, and Muhammad Ali when he’s talking to girls.”

Grant Alden told me he regards Willie as Yoda, the all-knowing, ancient and revered Jedi master of the Star Wars trilogy. Somehow that doesn’t quite square with the flashes of a Baptist preacher conducting a tent revival that flare up sometimes when he’s playing a show. I regard him as more of a Zen cowboy, always at peace residing in the moment, but ready to ride and shoot at the drop of a hat. He moves through the world as if bulletproof; even the IRS couldn’t burst the bubble. There’s more than a little Perfect World in the whole danged concept of Luck, Texas, designed for the inner kid hungering to play Cowboys & Indians. “Hey, let’s go shoot ’em up!” “Hey, let’s go rob the bank!” The street’s long enough to re-create High Noon on a whim. And it’s always 4:20 somewhere in Luck.

IN TRUTH, Nelson is a flawed figure. He’s on his third family and his fourth wife, not exactly a surprise given his penchant for staying on the road. His life history is tailor-made for a country song, back when country was called country & western and really sounded like it. He and Sister Bobbie were abandoned by their parents as kids. They were raised by kinfolk. He grew up a hustler, just scraping by. He knocked around Fort Worth, a wannabe salesman attracted to the used car salesmen – real salesmen who could sell you the shirt off your own back – and through them became familiar with the Dixie Mafia. (There are stories about Roger Miller and Willie working as bellhops at the Hotel Texas that indicate he was no stranger to hustling illicit vices.) He learned music from Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, who ably demonstrated time and again how to put on a show and dance (fast song, fast song, slow song). He learned the business of music as a disc jockey, debuting on KBOP in Pleasanton southeast of San Antonio.

Willie Nelson
For the Good Times: Willie and Waylon celebrating willi’s 60th birthday at Antone’s in Austin, Tx 1993. Photograph by John Carrico.

His entry into showbiz was playing in bands such as Paul Buskirk & His Little Men and Larry Butler’s group before joining up as a Cherokee Cowboy behind Ray Price, the honeydripper vocalist who epitomized countrypolitan, the hybrid sound that was too smooth, too swinging and too hip to qualify as straight country. In the early 1960s he came into his own as a songwriter with “Crazy” (Patsy Cline’s signature piece), “Hello Walls” (Faron Young’s signature piece), “Night Life” (a classic for Ray Price and B.B. King), and “Funny How Time Slips Away” (which made the career of rhythm & blues crooner Joe Hinton) – but not before he learned the hard way about publishing, royalties, and composer credits. He sold the rights for “Night Life” and “Family Bible” (a top-10 country hit in 1960 for Claude Gray) for $50 each, figuring he could always write another song.

He was ambitious enough to front his own band, and made a comfortable living recording small hits, covering his own compositions on the road, and dabbling in television. For a spell in the late 1960s, he hosted his own weekly variety television show in Fort Worth, live from Panther Hall. But the system didn’t much care. He was valued for his songwriting skills, not his performing or recording talents. It was telling then that he was a cool daddy by Nashville standards, favoring a razorcut hairdo, golf shirts, tight slacks and Italian loafers – about as outside the mainstream as one could get in Nashville those days.

Somewhere along the way, he got full of the Music City mainstream, the assemblyline production of hits, and the straight life. It didn’t help that his house had burned down. So he came back to Texas, for the gig money, for the familiarity of home turf, and for the belated Lone Star version of San Francisco that was going down in Austin. Long hair and cowboy boots were suddenly cool. Beer and pot were held in equal regard. Recent arrivals including Doug Sahm, Michael Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Freda & the Firedogs were breaking down traditional music barriers. Rock and folk were sounding twangy. Country was morphing into something else. Audiences could perfectly understand Willie’s band breaking into an extended twenty-minute jam on “Whiskey River”; after all, they’d heard the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band.

Whether it was being in the right place at the right time or finally growing into the role of Willie, he proceeded to lead a movement hat signaled a shift in popular music and marked the start of a continuum. He wrote in song cycles, as heard on 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine his last Nashville album), 1973’s Shotgun Willie, 1974’s Phases And Stages, and ultimately 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. Even if the songs weren’t all jewels, he was nothing if not prolific. David Zettner told the story walking into a Nashville motel room and finding him passed out with sheets of paper strewn about. The sheets contained the words to “Shotgun Willie”, written in a single frenzy of inspiration.

By covering a collection of pop standards n 1978 for Stardust, still his best-selling album, he transcended country and left Nelson behind, evolving into a general all-purpose icon with a single name: Willie.

It’s been 26 years of smooth operating over since.

Willie Nelson
© Charlyn Zlotnik
Cult Hero: 1977

His comfort level has allowed him to indulge in the weirder side of life. He’s an avid reader of America’s most documented psychic, Edward Cayce, and can quote from Cayce’s writings. There was a time when a psychic surgeon hung around with the Family, performing healing “operations.” He enjoys listening to paranormal radio host Art Bell as much as his pal Merle Haggard does.

The size of his extended Family is nowhere what it was back in the glory days. Back when, his entourage swelled into the hundreds. These days, the Family has been reduced to the core of his band (Mickey Raphael, Bea Spears, Paul English, Billy English, sister Bobbie); his crew, headed by Poodie Locke (who also runs what amounts to Willie’s own personal beer joint, Poodie’s Hilltop, for those times when he needs to reconnect with what brung him to the big dance); and a chosen few close personal friends.

He doesn’t seem to miss leading a bigger parade. Life is much more manageable at this juncture. He’s flexible and nimble enough to pick and choose his spots. He spends almost as much time on the Hawaiian island of Maui as he does in Luck or on the road, in one of the most beautiful spots on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. That’s where his current brood – wife Annie and his youngest kids – lives these days.

“It’s for my boys who are growing up,” he says of the Maui homestead. “They were born around here. And then we moved over there. They’ve gone to the Montessori school here and now they go to the Montessori school over there. They’re doing great. It’s like another small little town. I have a lot of friends there. Don Nelson, the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, is a good friend of mine and we play golf over there all the time. He’s real good and has a lot of money. So he doesn’t mind losing. I say he doesn’t mind. He can afford to lose. I’m sure he minds. We’re more or less back down toward Hana. Me and Kris [Kristofferson] used to ride a lot over by the Hana Ranch. He was living there at the time. Me and my family would stay there and we’d ride over. Saddle up every day and go out and ride. It had 3,000 acres to ride on there."

WHICH MAKES it all the more unusual that he appears to be willing to put the sweet life on hold and gear up to promote It Will Always Be. Maybe it’s because it’s the first album in awhile to hold its own against his 1970s classics. Or maybe it’s largely because of the sense of finality it conveys. There’s no fairy dust, no Rob Thomas or disco whistles, just a collection of songs – three of them his – done straight away. “Tired”, co-written by Toby Keith and Chuck Cannon, may infer weariness, but the title track (one of the Willie originals) reassures. Several cuts are straight-ahead classic country songs, particularly “I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leaving)” and “Big Boody”. He excels best as the ladies’ man, performing spot-on duets with daughter Paula Nelson (who wrote the song they sing, “Be That As It May”), Norah Jones (bringing out her sultriness and jazz strengths in a way her last recording did not), and Lucinda Williams (getting low, lean and wanting on her song “Over Time”). Lucinda and Norah may be the truest Willie disciples of all, applying outsider thinking to recording and performing.

The irony is that It Will Always Be is a classic Nashville production. The Family Band stayed home for this one, with the exception of harmonica player Mickey Raphael. Willie ran down the list of songs he wanted to do with producer James Stroud, who lined up a state-of-Music City roster of studio musicians (including guitarist Brent Mason, keyboardists Matt Rollings and Steve Nathan, bassists Glenn Worf and Michael Rhodes, drummers Shannon Forrest and Eddie Bayers, and steel guitarist Dan Dugmore) Willie walked in and laid down scratch vocals, then did the serious vocals back at his Pedernales studio.

“That has a lot to do with the songs themselves, and the arrangements, and the band that James Stroud put together,” Willie said. “Those guys are great. They played ‘Big Boody’ and they turned around and played with Norah Jones. Those guys are that good. The tracks were cut in Nashville and brought here. I went in and did my vocals over in the studio. Then they took the tapes back to Nashville and Norah came in and recorded, my daughter went in and sang, so did Lucinda. It sounded great.”

He admitted that going back to Nashville broke the typical Willie anti-formula formula. “It was all done kind of different than I normally do things. Usually, we just go over and set up and play. But James Stroud is a good producer. That’s where he shines. I had to put together the songs. He knew the musicians to call. I sent him a scratch vocal of some things, so he knew how it was supposed to go. He played it for the band. Those guys could get the feel of anything.

Willie Nelson
Pedernales Studio, 1996. Photograph by Jim Carrico.

“It’s kind of a ‘the-best-of’ situation because I get to sit here in Austin out in the woods and sing with the great musicians out of Nashville, and I don’t have to fly all the way up there. It almost sounds like cheating to do it that way. But with all the new high-tech things they have, they can do it OK. There’s always a group of guys in Nashville who are the hottest thing going. And if you’re a good producer and really on top of it, you know who they are.”

Since he’s Willie, he was even able to get Sugar Hill Records to agree to hold back the gospel album he recorded with his sister (tentatively titled Farther Along and originally scheduled for summer release, it’s been pushed to an as-yet undetermined date), and to rush Lost Highway’s September 14 release of the DVD of Willie Nelson & Friends: Outlaws And Angels (a superstar concert with Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Bob, Dylan, Kid Rock and others that he taped in Los Angeles last spring for a Memorial Day special on the USA Network).

“Those folks at Lost Highway, they’ve been good,” he said, “so I want to try to give them a good shot.” But Mr. Practicality is hardly wedded to the Nashville assembly-line concept. Given his druthers, he prefers the recording process be kept simple. The attitude reflects the truth that for all the other attributes heaped upon him, Willie is first and foremost a player. And players want to play, not waste time setting up. Emotion trumps technology any day.

“I’m lazy,” he laughed. “So naturally, I like to go right back into the studio there,” he said, nodding to the small spare room, no more than fifteen feet square. “That’s where we did Rainbow Connection and the Ray Price album [last year’s Grammy-nominated Run That By Me One More Time, his first duet album in 23 years with his 77-year-old mentor]. It’s just easy to do. We all gather around like a radio show in there and sing and play around a single microphone.

“I enjoy both ways of making a record. Doing it this way with a guy like James Stroud, Chips Moman, or Fred Foster or someone like that, you turn everything over to him. You get together and say, "These are the songs I want to do and here’s how I want to do them. Next thing you know, you’re doing them in the studio. I enjoy that. On the other hand, I enjoy taking the band or David Zettner and do it simple.”

The big studio down the road, Pedernales – which he lost in 1990 when he was hit with a heavy bill by the IRS, then bought back two years later with a little help from his friends – is busier than ever. “We got Pat Green in there now,” Freddy Fletcher said of the third-generation Texas country outlaw. And Geffen’s mixing down some rap group. Don’t ask me.”

But Willie can walk in whenever he gets a whim?

“It’s getting harder,” Fletcher smiled. “But we manage to move things around to get him in.”

“Having your own studio has its positives and negatives,” Willie said. “The good thing is, you can go do anything you want to, anytime you want to. The bad part is you can’t put them out, you know, because you can only put so many things out.”

Like, say, more than 2,000 finished tracks in the can. Some are with Shelby Lynne (“She can sing. God, she can sing”), some with fiddle maestro Johnny Gimble, several albums’ worth with Merle Haggard, and countless others with his cutting and putting partner David Zettner. “We’re still stumbling across things we have over there,” he says.

Which explained why he’s in no rush to do more. “I don’t want to record right now,” he said. “I don’t want to record until I can play.”

TWO DAYS after our talk, Willie played at Ray Charles’ funeral in Los Angeles, performing Charles’ signature piece, “Georgia On My Mind”, the official state song of Georgia. Willie could hardly get through the performance. His voice intermittently cracked with emotion; he sounded spent and very, very blue. But B.B. King broke up while performing during the service too.

Willie Nelson
It Was A Very Good Year: Willie Nelson and Ray Charles. Photograph courtesy Rhino Home Video.

The bond was cemented long before Willie ever met Brother Ray. “I was playing clubs in Houston back when ‘What’d I Say?’ and ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ were big,” he recalls. “I loved him, all those songs. Jimmy Day could play any Ray Charles song,” he adds, referring to his longtime pal and steel guitar legend who died in 1999. The impact Charles made with the release of Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music in 1962 was not unlike what Willie did to country with Shotgun Willie and Stardust a decade later legitimizing the music to the outside world as a cool sound that had soul.

A close friend said Charles was Willie’s hero. It showed when he talked about him. “We played chess a lot,” Willie said. “He kicked my ass more than once and enjoyed it, I guess, better than anybody. We was playing down here one time, we’d done a show together and he was staying over at a hotel. I went over to visit him and he invited me to play chess. I said, ‘Sure.’ And I kind of thought to myself, ‘OK, I’ll play chess.’ The hallway was nice and bright and everything. We walked into where the table was and sat down. And not a light on anywhere. Then Ray brought out his chess set. All the pieces were the same color. It was a Braille chess set, where he could feel the pieces and play. And he kicked my ass really bad. Of course, in the dark, it’s hard to play. I made him promise me the next time we’d turn on some lights.

“We talked a little bit about music whenever it came time to decide what we wanted to do together. I could be in one country and he could be in another. Whenever they asked him what he wanted to do, he’d say, ‘Whatever Willie wants to do. Have Willie call me.’ So I’d always call him. And whatever I wanted to do, he would do it. But it was mutual.”

At least he’d had time to say his goodbyes. “We did a song together in the studio in April, ‘It Was A Very Good Year’; we had some fun.” The song, about aging and looking back, is included on Genius Loves Company, an album of Charles duets released by Concord August 31.

“[Last year] I was at his birthday party. He and Quincy Jones and two, three of us sat around and talked and had a drink and ate cake. Right after that I went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem for the anniversary of the theater and Ray got a tribute that night. I sang ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’.

“You know, there are a lot of younger people than you and I already gone on,” he told me with a soft sigh. “So it has nothing to do with age. There’s those huge disasters that happen on the planet when 20,000 people get wiped out, and there’s no age preferences there. We’re all headed that way.”

I COULDN’T wait any longer. I blurted out a question: What ever happened to “Whatever Happened To Peace On Earth?”

Last December, on Christmas Day, Willie was moved to write an anti-war protest song. It became a much-talked-about news item for a couple of news cycles, an impressive feat considering the song hadn’t even been recorded when it became news; it was just a lyric sheet. But as quickly as it appeared, it vanished from the public eye. Had he been pressured to back off at the risk of being Dixie Chicked?

The question I had been hesitant to ask got him going.

Willie Nelson
Night Life: Ray Price and Willie Nelson, July 4, 2000. Photograph by John Carrico.

“Well, I decided I didn’t want to make money out of it,” he explains. “I did make it available on the internet,” he said. (Words, lyrics, an MP3 audio of a simple performance, and a video of the song can be found at: www.kucinich.us/nelson_ poe_song.php) “Or you can go to SMN.com and hear me sing ‘The War Prayer’ and ‘Jimmy’s Road’; all those songs are there.

“The Democratic Party called and asked if they could include the song on the CD they’re putting together of anti-war songs, anti-administration songs. The Democrats think that my song should fit in there. And I said, ‘Go ahead. Because I don’t want any money out of it.’ But I still believe everything that’s in there.

“I don’t care about airplay. I knew it wouldn’t get airplay because I know that there’s hundreds of channels out there who are on the other side. They might play it and ridicule it a little bit. That’s why I didn’t send them a copy. I knew there was a couple of lines in there that might piss off a few folks. But if it didn’t do that, I’d failed in what I was trying to do, which was to get the message across that what we’re doing and the direction we’re going is not right.

“In the song, I said a lot of things. You remember a long time ago when we heard all that, ‘Don’t believe anything you read, about half of what you see, and nothing you hear?’ That’s pretty much true. And if it was true back then, it’s damned sure double true today. You can’t believe what you hear. You can’t believe what you see. So there you are.

“You have to start using your intuitions to say, ‘What do I really feel about this? Do I like killing people? Do I like jumping on other people and taking over their oil and just killing whoever I want to kill to get it and justifying it by saying, ‘We’re freeing you folks?’ No, I can’t go along with that.

“When that song was getting all the flack, some guy called me in San Antonio when I was doing one of those call-in radio shows. On the show, I was talking about the line, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ He called up and he said, ‘That really doesn’t mean that. That means under certain conditions, it’s OK.’

“I said, ‘Well, you know, I think way back when, God knew how to spell. So if He says, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ that’s what He meant. He could have said, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless You Have A Very Good Reason.’

“If the churches in the world are set up to bring about peace on earth, where are they at now? I mean, whose side are they on? How can they be for peace on earth and still say, ‘Let’s attack anybody who don’t like us, let’s force them into being Halliburton employees. It’s the best thing for them.’ You can’t drop 150,000 troops down in Oklahoma City and say, ‘OK, guys, here we are. We like that old oil over there.’

“When He said, ‘Peace on earth,’ was he just kidding? Isn’t that really what we’re supposed to be trying to do? I mean, are we going to put peace on earth on the back burner while we go over and take over a few countries? And then it will be peace on earth?”

He’s doing his part by voting with his pocketbook, and his lifestyle. “My wife and I are driving cars that operate on vegetable oil,” he offered. “The exhaust smells like french fries. On Maui there are several hundred cars now that run on vegetable oil. Neil Young’s buses are running on vegetable oil. When I go out again, we’re going to be running on vegetable oil. Because it’s available and it’s no more expensive and it’s not screwing up the environment. There are so many reasons to do it. Fifty years from now there won’t be any oil according to all the geniuses out there.

“There’s a solar well out here that’s running the whole town out here, running the well. I’m putting up a 100-foot windmill to do electric, to run the house and anything else it will run. I’m experimenting with all these things because I know we’re running out of oil and we’re running out of this, that and the other. The wind and the sun are good alternatives.”

THERE’S SOME irony, then, that Willie’s first chart action in too long a time was his duet last year with Toby Keith. “Beer For My Horses” was a change of pace for both Nelson and Keith, who has injected patriotism into his music in the same manner as otherwise undistinguished talents such as Lee Greenwood and Gary Morris. Keith’s 2003 album Shock’n Y’all went quadruple-platinum.

Willie Nelson
Philadelphia Lawyer: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, July 4, 2003. Photograph by John Carrico.

“That’s part of what he does onstage, is he sings these kind of songs,” Willie said of Keith, whom he regards as a friend. “And that’s fine. But it’s not what I’ve ever done. I think I may have sung ‘Jimmy’s Road’ [the antiwar soldier’s song he wrote in the early ’90s for his album Who’ll Buy My Memories? The IRS Tapes] a time or two on the stage. But I don’t really want to get in there and divide the audience. I’d like to try to do everything I can to keep them together.

“Everybody likes ‘Stardust’. Everybody likes ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’. Everybody likes ‘Beer For My Horses’. You can take music and use music to please anybody anywhere, I do believe, regardless of whether you’re a Republican or Democrat?’

That understanding allows him to sympathize with the dilemma President George W. Bush faces. “People think they know that they can blame anything in the world on whoever has took on the job as the president. It’s a stupid move for anybody to make, to run for president. Because what do you do when you win? You got everybody in the world firing at you. Honestly, for eight years he was governor here and I never saw him. He was a great governor. He said a couple of nice things about me one time. So I had no problem. I don’t know how they talked him into running for the president.”

That doesn’t hold him back from championing a very different politician. For most of the past year, he’s been one of the highest-profile celebrity backers of Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, an underdog from the very beginning and an underdog to the end. “He’s a good guy, a good man. He’s standing up for the right things,” Willie said. “He’s not an insider. He does all right in Ohio. They know who he is there. But in order for him to break into that league up there, it’s gonna take a little more time. And maybe he doesn’t want to break into that league.

“The reason he stayed in there and went around talking to people is that he wants the Democratic Party to keep some of its values, some of the things that it’s known for. You got to hand it to him for that. I think Kerry should meet with Dennis and see how a portion of the party feels. I’m not a Democrat; I’m not a Republican. But I am interested.” Even as he backed Kucinich as long as the congressman was a declared candidate, Willie raised money for John Kerry, doing a charity concert in Los Angeles with Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond.

He’s also remained active with Farm Aid, the organization he co-founded with Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985 to champion the family farmer. For all the high-profile publicity brought by Farm Aid concerts, it’s been an uphill battle, he admits.

“We have fewer farmers now. We used to have 8 million. Now we’re less than 2 million. We’re losing 300 to 500 a week,” he noted. “And that’s the plan of the powers that be. That’s the way that it’s set up. Because they think fewer and bigger is better. I know that’s not the truth. I know that when you take a farmer off his land, you also take him out of his home. That’s just not the same deal. When you’re talking about land that we’re feeding our kids on, we need to know that it’s done by somebody who feeds their kids on that land, drinks from the same water. And that’s not the way it’s happening.”

He’s sincere enough about those beliefs to set an example. “We have an organic garden up here that Ed and the guys have been working on all year,” he explained. “We’ve got all kinds of vegetables, tomatoes and peppers over there come right out of that. These peaches here are from Fredricksburg down the road. The more people read the papers and watch the news and see what’s going on in the food industry, they begin to say, ‘I used to couldn’t spell organic but, you know, now I need some.”

In a stroke of good timing, Ed delivered a plate of boiled cabbage, fresh from the garden, to the bar.

While he ate his cabbage, Willie detailed how the same forces that have squeezed the family farmer off the land are squeezing folks like him off the radio. “You know, they’re not playing outlaw music that much anymore. And so they’re not getting outlaw commentary anymore. Most of the stations are owned by large corporations who program their music in Connecticut or somewhere. I remember the days when I could take a handful of records and go into San Antonio, Austin, and walk into the radio station and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be here in ten days, will you play my records?’ ‘Sure, man,’ the disc jockey would say. He’d put it on and play the record. Ten days later I’d get a nice crowd over at the Broken Spoke.

“You can’t do that anymore. One of the problems that I find with radio is that it’s controlled by too few people. There are a few stations around that, you know, are still trying to do it the old way. And that’s fine. And I think eventually it will win out. Because I don’t think you can control music that much.”

But he’s hardly crying in his beer about airplay.

“I’m very fortunate to have all this,” he said, surveying the room. “Honestly, it’s a day-to-day, a moment-to-moment thing. Things will be all right now, but then in a second there will be a lot of unfinished business. So it’s just a day-to-day. There’s too much going on. I’m thinking about doing some things out here.

Willie Nelson
Honeysuckle Rose

“Remember those Tales Out Of Luck shows? [Willie and friends, including Merle Haggard, filmed a series of cowboy shoot-’em-up short movies in Luck.] There’s some folks out of England who have a DVD company, they want to distribute some more of those. So we’re going to shoot some more. I thought I would do one around the song Cowboy Blues’ about the old cowboy who’s laying there at night wondering if he still can. I thought that would be a good one. You remember ‘A Horse Called Music’? Just get some songs like that and ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’.

Although the peak of his film career came with the lead role in Honeysuckle Rose in 1980, followed by Red Headed Stranger in 1987 – movies in which he pretty much played himself, albeit coming off a tad more wooden than he does in real life – he’s matured into a very credible character actor through more recent cameos in films such as Wag The Dog, a full episode of the TV detective series Monk, and a string of commercials including a major ad campaign for the Gap. His memorable line “My face is burning!” while sitting in a barber’s chair in the 2003 Super Bowl commercial for H&R Block has been eclipsed by his most recent TV turn for Capital Metro in Austin, which touts alternatives to driving your car. The spot opens with James White of the Broken Spoke, Austin’s historic honky-tonk, standing onstage and announcing Willie before looking around and mumbling to no one in particular, “Y’all seen Willie?” The scene cuts to Willie sitting n the back of his bus stalled in traffic, saying to no one in particular, “Are we there yet?”

“I may not be any better at acting, but I’m more comfortable in it,” he said. “We’re working with New Line to do a movie. I just met with the writer. Years ago I bought a script called Tougher Than Leather from the boxer and actor Tex Cobb and a friend of his in Philadelphia. We were going to do this movie with me and Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Fairchild, and Tex. It evolved from Diamonds In The Rough to Blood Diamonds, then another rewrite and another rewrite. But right now New Line is rewriting it again to do sometime late this year or next year. They’re doing all the work and we just come down and set up.”

I was getting comfortable enough to get personal and ask him how it felt, being in a room surrounded by your own image staring back at you. Was it weird, as my friend insisted it was?

“Well, you know, I look around the room here and think of a lot of good times and a lot of good memories,” he said. “If nothing else, sitting around and looking at these pictures is a good enough reason to be here. It’s nice to come back in here and look around and see where you’ve been.

“You want to go upstairs and see what it looks like?” he asked. “I haven’t been up there in awhile.”

On my previous visits, I assumed the stairs were fake, leading to nowhere, like a movie set. But these were real stairs. Halfway up the staircase, he stopped to show me his hidey hole, a crawl space built into the wall. ‘It’s my escape hatch if I need it,” he smiled. He wasn’t kidding.

The upstairs was hot and empty, lacking air conditioning or much sign of life. The main room was bare, save for a painting of Willie that appeared to be of mid-1970s vintage and a wood-cut portrait of Waylon Jennings, the only Waylon memorabilia I spotted in the saloon.

Another room had gym equipment and boxing gear – two speed bags, a headache bag, and several big bags. This is where he works out when he can, practicing martial arts and living up to the black belt he earned from an Austin instructor named Master Oh three years ago.

I hit the speed bag with one hand for a few reps.

“It’s probably out of air,” Willie said.

He was right. It was almost deflated.

I turned around just in time to witness Willie kicking one of the heavy bags. It wasn’t just a swipe, like mine was. It was a hard, swift kick.

Whap!

Then he did it again. Whap! And again. Whap! Whap! And again. Whap, whap, whap, whap.

Every time the bag swung around after absorbing a blow, he kicked it again, hitting the sweet spot in the middle. Willie Nelson kicked the shit of out of the bag for two minutes straight, hard enough and relentlessly enough for me to quickly conclude I don’t ever want to get in a street fight with him, no matter how old he is.

Which is the point.

The kickboxing demo convinced me he was neither old nor feeble. And he sure ain’t dead. There is a whole lot more to him than I’d given him credit for.

Final visit, my ass. As I left Luck, Willie made that clear.

“See you back here again,” he said.

Joe Nick Patoski’s first article on Willie Nelson appeared in Zoo World magazine. He has written about him for Rolling Stone, Country Music, Picking Up The Tempo, Texas Monthly, The Austin Sun, and other publications.

Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression. Order Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from Amazon here.

Those seeking all things Willie should visit willienelson.com and stillisstillmoving.com.


Continue Reading

Walk Like Cleto

Chingo BlingWalk Like Cleto

Austin Chronicle
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 11, 2004

H-town’s Chingo Bling, hip-hop’s Tamale King.

The oversized football jersey, diamond-studded braces on his teeth, and hubcap-sized medallion around his neck with his name emblazoned in silver are straight outta south side Houston, the H-town underground, hip-hop epicenter of the Dirty South. So are the tracks full of chopped beats, hot DJ mixes, and improvised freestyles about supersized egos, insatiable sexual prowess, nasty ho’s, name-brand labels, and hustling on the street.

By contrast, the black cowboy hat, aviator mirror shades, leather duster jacket, rodeo belt buckle, and full quill ostrich botas are not. These icons belong to the northern Mexico vaquero and the Culiacán narcotraficante, not the gangstas on the bloque. In lieu of Hummers and pit bulls, his status symbols are pickup troques and fighting cocks (Cleto’s the name, fighting’s his game, and he drinks from a bowl with his name spelled out in diamonds). Mainstream MCs rap about slanging crack while doing the hustle, but this vato raps about slanging tamales, like his parents did, to get ahead. Cocaine, pork – it’s all the same.

Chingo Bling is multiculti Texas in full 21st-century glory. The Mexicanismo edge instantly makes him one of the most intriguing, original, and hilarious hip-hop acts ever to blow up out of the Lone Star State. In Chingo Bling’s mundo, shit is chit, shout-outs are chout-outs, DVDs are DBDs, and videos are bideos. Under the clowning and cussing, boasting and toasting, there’s a message that bears contemplation, even if beats aren’t your thing. Even when he’s shilling, urging fans visiting his Web site to call their favorite radio stations to request “Walk Like Cleto,” Chingo Bling’s voicing hard truths:

“Fact: Latinos are the largest minority in the United States.

“Fact: Radio stations target Latinos for their advertising dollars.

“Fact: What you request doesn’t always get played.

“Latinos are being: targeted, overlooked, exploited, undervalued.”

The weathered ranch-style tract house on a busy thoroughfare near Gulfgate in southeast Houston hardly looks like a media empire in the making. Burglar bars cover the windows. A pickup is parked on the front lawn. Vendors push their carts in the streets. A grill at a nearby bus terminal advertises hamburguesas estilo Monterrey – hamburgers made the authentic Nuevo Leon way, just like home.

Inside this unassuming residence it’s all business. Somebody’s laying down tracks with Pro Tools in the small studio. The webmaster (www.chingobling.com) monitors traffic on the fan forum, which is getting 30,000 hits a week. Three guys stuff mailers with CDs, T-shirts (T-churts), posters, and merchandise. Sister Dalila is working the phones, doing her part to make Chingo Bling the biggest Tex-Mex hip-hop star on the planet.

Not that there’s lots of competition. South Park Mexican, the biggest Tejano/Mexicano MC to date, is still cooling his heels in the can after being convicted of having sex with a minor. Kumbia Kings, the Corpus Christi act headed by A.B. Quintanilla III, the brother of the late Tejano superstar Selena, have boy band aspirations, not rap dreams. Cali Latino hip-hoppers Akwid don’t resonate with Texicans.

Plopping down in the captain’s chair in front of the studio mixing board, Chingo Bling removes his shades and reveals Pedro Herrera III, a twentysomething with a degree in business administration from Trinity University in San Antonio, which produced the Butthole Surfers.

“Pedro – that’s my business side,” he explains. “As Chingo, I say what the fuck I want. Pedro’s in charge of the career. Chingo pays the bills. Chingo’s out of hand sometimes.”

The schtick comes honestly. His father and mother emigrated from Valle Hermosa in northern Tamaulipas to Houston. At 13, he was declared a youth at risk and sent on scholarship to a prestigious prep school in New Jersey. At Trinity, he focused on marketing and pulled a shift at the college radio station, KRTU.

“I was just a regular jock, but I’d say, ‘My cousin Chingo’s in town,’ and all the phones would light up.”

He started making mix tapes, rhyming and burning CDs a couple years ago, selling them out of the trunk of his car at flea markets and mom-and-pop record shops.

“I had no expectations, no pressure. It was me in my apartment thinking, ‘I’m going to pay my phone bill with these 12 mix tapes I’m trying to sell.’ You never know.”

Since then, he’s returned to his hood, releasing two CDs and three Mañosas bideos, a Chicano version of Girls Gone Wild. On May 5, ‘Chingo’ de Mayo, he dropped his latest CD, The Tamale Kingpin. He’s also done bideos on making tamales with a tamale queen, and put out The Adventures of Chingo & Bash, a smoke-out road trip in the tradition of Cheech & Chong with his partner in rhyme Baby Bash. If nothing else, he’s representing in a novel way.

“In rap, everybody’s shouting out their name, shouting out their neighborhood, their part of town,” he explains, “but nobody’s representing the town their parents are from. That’s what I did. I’m proud of Valle Hermosa, Tamaulipas. You hear me saying, ‘North Tamaulipas, raise up!’ Kids tell me no one’s done that before. I’m telling our story.”

Since the collapse of Southwest Wholesale, the distributor that nurtured the indie scene in Houston, acts like Chingo Bling have had no choice but to work outside the box. He makes being independent a point of pride, bragging on the cover of an earlier CD that “Bootleggers Avoid Him, Labels Can’t Afford Him, Women All Adore Him.” He tours (Boise, Phoenix, Portland, and Albuquerque), gets ink in publications like Lowrider and Murder Dog, and settles for radio play where he can find it.

“I’m stuck [being played] on Sunday nights. It’s our curse, the Latino curse. Sunday is the day we barbecue, the day we picnic, the day we cruise, the day we get airplay. But don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the play.”

He’s done the math.

“We’re rabbits,” he laughs. “The DNA of America is changing daily. Places where there weren’t many Mexicans, where there weren’t many oranges to pick, are full of Mexicans now. I feel like we’re on the brink of what hip-hop was when it first started. What’s the word I’m looking for? Exponential growth!

“With so many of us here, so many multiplying, and still my cousins coming over, somebody’s got to make movies for us, somebody’s got to make DVDs, somebody’s got to entertain us. I doubt it’s going to be the old fat guy in New York who works for NBC. I think I’m going to beat him to the punch.”

He cites New Orleans cottage industry Master P and Austin’s cinematic big dog Robert Rodriguez as role models.

“I learned the independent route from Master P. His movie I’m Bout It started the whole direct-to-video B-film black-action urban-drama explosion that’s taking up all the shelf space at Blockbuster. They’re cutting checks to whoever will bring them the next cholo movie, Barrio Weekend, Lowrider Summer, or gangster flick with two brothers going across.

“Rodriguez is a player. The studios, which are like record labels, want to own him and get what they can out of him, so he can produce and become part of the machine. But he won’t play by the rules. ‘You guys in Hollywood are too traditional; you overspend. Your movies aren’t profitable. I’m going to set up shop out of my house in Austin and cut out so many middlemen.’ That’s slowly what we’re doing here.

“There’s so much more to being independent than just getting $8 a CD instead of 75 cents. When you’re with a major, they tell you, ‘This is your release date.’ They’re going to walk me down the hallway. ‘This is Susie, she’s going to be doing your artwork. This is Josh, Michael, and William – they’re your marketing team.’ They’re going to misspend money, and I’m going to have to pay for it.”

He prefers working the tamale angle.

“My dad sold tamales at his job for 30 years. He would take my mom’s tamales to work and sell them. I know people who’ve been able to quit their construction jobs and set up shop, selling tamales. That’s the spirit of hip-hop – the hustler. ‘I’m cooking this, wrapping that, selling this.’ That’s a hustler and a half.

“People don’t think selling tamales is an honest living. Why do they look up to drug dealers? Because they’re entrepreneurs and independent and they’re living lives? Hey, if that’s the case, I’ll sell tamales and I ain’t got no permit. I’m on the corner, too. I got my Igloo.”

[Walk Like Cleto in the Austin Chroncicle]


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The Resentments

Sunday Evening Coming Down

The Resentments
The Resentments (left to right) Bruce Hughes, Stepen Bruton, Jon Dee Graham, Jud Newcomb. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

No Depression
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March-April 2004

How the Resentments rose from under-the-radar lark to become a real band with a higher place and purpose.

LIKE NEARLY ALL significant events that contributed to making and defining Austin’s music community, the Resentments were unintended.

The original idea was just a cool deal on Sunday nights a casual little musical get together on the one night nobody was working. The rules were simple: no rehearsals, ever. As long as two players showed up, it was an official gig.

The idea was born five years ago, when Joe Ables, the owner of the semi-legendary South Austin music joint known as the Saxon Pub, was strategizing how to bring in a few warm bodies on the deadest night of the week. Somewhere along the way, Ables consulted Stephen Bruton, the guitarist, singer, composer, producer and Fort Worth cat with the Kristofferson/Raitt/Dylan pedigree, who off lived a couple miles farther south just South Lamar and had adopted the club as a home base.

Bruton had developed something of an affection for the room. It had all the basic necessities – a horseshoe bar, sixteen tables, three booths, a low, postage-stamp-sized stage in the corner where the big-screen TV usually is – and was far enough off the beaten path, yet close enough to home.

“Saxon Pub is the most unhip place to play,” Bruton says. “But the first time I went in, I fell in love with the place when this guy materialized through the haze of cigarette smoke and with this raspy voice, quoted from ‘Too Many Memories’ [a song from Bruton’s 1993 album What It Is], telling me I nailed the third verse.”

An early-evening Sunday show would give him a forum to test new songs, let others try theirs out, and play lots of acoustic guitar, something he hadn’t done with much regularity since his early days with Kris Kristofferson. Since Bruton had inherited the Doug Sahm chair as Local Wise Man Who’s Been There and Done That and didn’t mind sharing his experiences with his youngers, he quickly rounded up a quorum of like- minded old-school writers and players.

The Resentments
Sunday Night Line-Up: The Resentments onstage at the Saxon Pub, December 2003 Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

The initial crew included well-known country singer Hal Ketehum, who also happened to be a frustrated drummer, on drums; Keith Carper, a veteran Austin bassist; David Holt, a gifted and notorious hotshot hired-gun guitarist; and Jon Dee Graham, an equally gifted and notorious guitarist who was becoming better known as a singer-songwriter with a gravel-road growl and a growing list of impressive solo albums.

Bruton picked the name the Resentments. “Geoff Muldaur’s daughter in New York had a band called the Resentments. I thought it was such a great name, what better way to honor it than to steal it?” he reasoned.

Over the course of the next year, everyone except Bruton and Graham dropped out because of work demands, other gigs, or relocating. Their shoes were more than ably filled.

Mambo John Treanor came first. His musical roots in Austin were planted deepest, going hack to his gig as freeform percussionist for Beto y los Fairlanes, whose weekly gigs at Liberty Lunch in the late 1970s set the stage for the making of a scene. Treanor was an Austin original, a devotee of the city’s famous Barton Springs swimming hole who fashioned hats out of roadkill, served time for growing pot, and played with just about everyone in town at one time or another (notably the Vanguards, Jazzmanian Devil, Marcia Ball, Abra Moore, Guy Forsyth and 47 Times Its Own Weight).

Next came Scrappy Jud Newcomb, the guitarist, singer-songwriter and producer (Beaver Nelson) who wears his undisputed championship belt as the Most Insatiable Gig Dawg in Austin with pride. Bruton entered Scrappy’s radar as producer of two albums by Loose Diamonds, the band that was Newcomb’s calling-card into the Austin scene.

They hit it off. Scrappy is Bruton twenty years younger, with a spare, muscular picking style and a curiosity for and appreciation of obscure traditional folk and blues as much as mainstream rock ‘n’ roll, plus movie-star good looks.

Last to sign on was Bruce Hughes, the utility bass player who rode into prominence with the stridently eclectic Poi Dog Pondering (who around 1990 were Austin’s best selling recording band), played and recorded with practically everybody, and knew Bruton from Lonelyland, one of two bands Hughes plays in that is fronted by Bob Schneider (who over the past five years has sold more CDs locally than any single Austin artist, including Willie).

Somewhere over the following couple years, between getting comfortable with one another, playing weekly rounds of songwriter show-and-tell, trying on a number of offbeat, oddball covers pulled out of the attic, and trading licks, the three guitarists, one bassist, and multidimensional percussionist gelled into a real band. Treanor’s death from cancer in 2001 sealed the deal, giving the Resentments motivation to continue and take it to the next level. Somewhere along the way, the casual gig has become something else.

YOU COULD DESCRIBE the Resentments as an Austin-scale version of the Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Steve Stills Supersession group hatched in the late ’60s, four decades later – a reason for three guitarists from varying backgrounds to get together, play, and show what they know.

But I sure won’t. To compare them to that diminishes the breadth and scope these guys cover. The bassist brings songs to the table too, and they’re pushed by an exceptional drummer, John Chipman, who used to set up Mambo’s kit and managed to replace the drummer who couldn’t be replaced, the guy who gave this weekly gathering meaning and purpose.

They sure didn’t hype it. Everyone has enough work to sustain their chosen career paths as musicians, thank you, and digs what they do for a living. Still, comparisons to everyone from Crosby, Stills & Nash to the Traveling Wilburys, the Texas Tornados, the official and unofficial versions of the Outlaws, and The Band can be justified. There’s more to this weekly little off-night get-together than meets the eye.

It starts with the genuine, authentic feel of the songs – collectively, this quintet carries more songwriters than any other collaborative venture in town. In this setup, their roles as sidemen are as crucial as their composing skills. Throwing a song into the ring every three or four turns that can stand up to the ones your compatriots are throwing in, and then reverting to backup role, is as hard as, if not harder than, fronting your own band for the night.

Once they get comfy on their stools, they demonstrate an exceptional grasp of the songwriting craft, a deep well of musical knowledge, and a mastery of the tricky ability to ply the tools of their trade in a listening environment and still manage to scorch the paint off any empty stools every now and then. It all wraps up neatly by 10 p.m., usually capped with a nice little fire-power drill by the three-guitar volunteer army, Graham embellishing the demonstration with searing shots of lap steel ricocheting around the room.

“People come up to me all the time and say this reminds them of Austin before there was a scene,” Bruton told me.

I know I can trace the off-night tradition as far back as 1971, when Freda & the Firedogs, the group fronted by Marcia Ball that is regarded as the first bunch of longhairs in Austin who could play authentic country, held forth at the Split Rail, a no-cover joint on South Lamar that would draw spillover crowds on Sunday nights.

It’s endured over the years in others forms and fashions: Blue Mondays with Storm at the One Knite, the Tuesday Night Cobra Club at Soap Creek, Tuesdays at Liberty Lunch with Beto y los Fairlanes, Blue Mondays with the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the Rome Inn, Tex Thomas’ Sunday night services at Hut’s, the Scabs at Antone’s on Tuesdays, Toni Price’s Tuesday early-evening Hippie Hours at the Continental. None, however, started quite so accidentally or blew up into something so substantial that it created a band, a real band.

The Resentments
There he is: Stephen Bruton. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

I was already familiar with a lot of the Resentments’ individual histories. I’ve known Bruton since high school in Fort Worth. I actually worked with Graham when I was band manager of the True Believers, the mid-1980s rock band in which Graham, a border rat from Quemado down by the Rio Grande, played a crucial role. The True Believers’ road manager and sound technician, Mike Stewart, went on to manage and produce Poi Dog Pondering, the studiously eclectic ensemble where master of quirk Bruce Hughes fit right in; his local credentials went back to bands such as Iomega and the Shades from Raul’s Club punk era. The True Believers convinced a band from Ohio called the Highwaymen to move to Austin, where Troy Campbell met an eager local boy named Jud Newcomb and conspired to form Loose Diamonds. Newcomb, known locally simply as Scrappy Jud, also worked with Mambo John Treanor in Toni Price’s band. And you couldn’t claim to be a regular on the club circuit without Mambo having entered your life sooner or later.

But I didn’t understand how or why this informal group had blown up into either a) the best band in Austin, b) the coolest regular party in town, c) the best bar band in America (according to MSNBC.com’s John Schulian), or d) the Texas version of the Buena Vista Social Club.

So I paid them all a visit.

I tracked down Bruton, who at 55 is the elder of the band, to the studio/rehearsal hall/music museum behind his house, where he tried to explain it in terms we both understood. “You’re from Fort Worth,” he told me. “You know what it was like. You could do anything, like go from a fiddle convention with David Ferguson at the Round Up Inn to dirty blues at Mabel’s Eat Shop to going to see King Curtis and Cornell Dupree over in Stop Six and not blink an eye. It was completely natural to me to listen to the Kingston Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Howlin’ Wolf back to back. We didn’t know any better. No one knew any better. It was making music on music’s terms, see what flies.”

Bruton left Fort Worth as the banjo flash of the Brazos Valley Ramblers bluegrass band (at one time, he auditioned for and was offered the banjo chair in the Dillards), and as a white-hot blues player who knew his way around the juke joints. He had (co-produced, with fellow Fort Worthian T Bone Burnett, the splendidly atmospheric Robert Ealey & the Five Careless lovers album Live At The New Bluebird Nite Club (Blue Royal) in 1973, still my favorite live performance recording of all time. And he knew more about music than just about anyone because his dad (a former jazz drummer) and mom ran Record Town, a retail shop known around Fort Worth for having the deepest catalogue of jazz, blues and race music in the city.

“You’d be able to quote from things you didn’t realize you knew, to cite the guitar solo on the second cut of the Seeds’ first album, or that hard sax sound on Ray Charles’ albums,” Bruton says. “You heard 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? That came out of Record Town.”

That sounds about right.

He’d started working Austin clubs in the early ’70s, with his band Little Whisper & the Rumors and with Delbert McClinton, while living in Los Angeles and working as Kristofferson’s guitarist. He moved permanently in 1983 after finishing his supporting role in the film A Star Is Born.

The Resentments
Marching Guitars: Jon Dee Graham (l), and Jud Newcomb, with John Chipman in the shadows. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

“I realized I was making my money on the road,” Bruton recalls. “I wanted to be closer to my mother, my father and my brother in Fort Worth. It was easier getting around, because it was fuckin’ Texas. I loved L.A. and I still do, but I didn’t want to be sitting around thinking about when I was going to be making enough money to get back to Texas.”

He didn’t go back to his hometown, though. “There was more going on in Austin than in Fort Worth. Musicians seemed to have more drive and ambition. It all kinda added up.”

Since settling in, Bruton has built an impressive resume producing albums for Alejandro Escovedo (which earned him full credentials as a Local Hero), Chris Smither and Marcia Ball, while recording several albums of his own.

The Resentments gig was “a natural extension of what I’ve done for so long in sessions, gigs, playing for people big and small.”

I FOUND JON DEE Graham one chilly mid-morning five blocks from his house, sitting at a table under an awning at Jo’s Coffeehouse on South Congress Avenue chain-smoking American Spirits, taking contemplative sips from his latte, his pale blue eyes fixed on the traffic going by. He said he didn’t have a clue why the Resentments were happening. He was somewhat preoccupied since he was on his way to a house on Rebel Road where Charlie Sexton was waiting to finish the mix on his fourth solo album, due out later this year on New West.

But Graham, 44, a hardhead for as long as I’ve known him, let down his armor-plated badass exterior long enough to try and put the Resentments in perspective in a curriculum vitae that includes stretches with Austin’s proto-punk power trio the Skunks, several bad new wave bands, the True Believers, Lou Ann Barton, Kelly Willis, John Doe, Michelle Shocked, Simon Bonney, Ryan Hedgecock, and Calvin Russell, as well as producing Kacy Crowley and Steve Wedemeyer.

“As a musician, I’ve learned never to pass up an opportunity to play onstage, especially a situation where Bruton and I can jab insults back and forth,” he says. “And there’s some nights onstage with him that I realize at least once he is the best guitar player in America – it’s hard for me to say it, but it’s true. So how am I not going to play with these guys?”

It’s still a goof and afterthought, he adds, and for exactly those reasons, it works. “Because of the casual nature, it becomes all about the music and the songs. Mambo and Scrappy, the thing they’ve turned me on to, is that music is sacred. These songs are so good, how am I able to not do it?

“There’s no five-year plan. There’s no record contract at the end of the rainbow …. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know which, it’s generating interest,” Graham continues, citing last year’s tour of Europe as a particular point of growth for the band’s profile. “The Germans are swapping bootlegs. By the end of the tour we were selling out places."

“We’ve built and rebuilt the most patient, willing audience possible. They’re prone to listen to the songs, even though sometimes we spend more time talking than playing. Everybody is so good, we play for each other. In some ways, it’s a serious head-cutting going on. Bruton makes me play outside myself. If Scrappy has a day off, he spends it learning an album like Big Pink. He’s this walking catalogue of songs. Bruce will uncork a funk song that I’ll play on lap steel. Bruton writes songs that have chords with numbers on them.”

EARLY ONE Saturday evening, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, the hardest-working Resentment of them all, and who Graham describes as the “sponge” of the band, was holed up in his South Austin apartment, the seven-days-a-week all-night worker without a gig. He wasn’t complaining. The rare night off allowed him to indulge in his second-most favorite activity, listening to records, which in this case meant analyzing an obscure ballad by Billy Stewart, whose stuttering interpretation of “Summertime” was a top-4O pop hit back in the ’60s.

Tall and strapping, rather than scrawny and scrappy, the 35-year-old tried to point out with some pride that he actually took enough time early in the day to put a coat of paint on one wall of his small kitchen. But the sloppy paint job might not be the best way to demonstrate to others that he has an outside life. In fact, he shouldn’t bother. The evidence around him, from the crates brimming with vinyl, CDs, tapes and books that are piled up around his living room, to the glass bottleneck on the coffee table, to the mandolin he cradled and plinked while conversing, suggest he’s all about music.

He didn’t like talking about his past too much, though he allowed his mother and father’s roots were in Mississippi, that he was mentored by Casper Rawls, Rich Brotherton and Champ Hood, and that he’s played with the Atlantics soul revue, Loose Diamonds, Walter Tragert, Beaver Nelson, Toni Price, and Ian McLagan.

“I’m kind of superstitious that way,” he says. At one point, he couldn’t listen to a National Public Radio program on the radio before a show, reasoning the even, measured voices were the antithesis of what he was trying to achieve when he played. Too much mellow would harsh his buzz.

He said he’s always been drawn to what he describes as trance music – Muddy Waters recordings from the 1950s, the Stones’ classic work in the ’70s around the time of Sticky Fingers, music from Jamaica since it was first made – music that could create “this tense atmosphere that could change the way the room looked.”

The Resentments do that to him, Newcomb says. “A lot of my education is playing every Sunday, having something click and realized by a melodic passage or a chord change. It’s everything I imagined a band could be after I saw The Last Waltz, never mind that I later learned from Levon Helm’s book that the movie wasn’t the way it was. For me, it’s like the Knights of the Round Table with the Resentments.”

BRUCE HUGHES opened the door to his brightly painted wood-frame home on a tree-shaded block of East Second Street,

John Treanor - Mambo
Not Forgotton You: Mambo John Treanor. Photograph by Carlos San Miguel.

a stone’s throw from 1-35 and Austin’s central business district, long enough to hold it open before he headed back into the kitchen, stepping around and over recording equipment scattered about. He was grinding beans for a midday cup of a rare Kona blend coffee from Hawaii. He really didn’t need it because he was already chattering away at the speed of light. He just likes the taste.

As the bassist for Bob Schneider projects Lonelyland and the Scabs (and before that the Ugly Americans), Hughes tends to be absent more frequently than any other Resentment, but never so long to be considered a candidate for replacing. “It’s better to be too busy than not busy enough,” he reasoned.

Slight, curly haired and constantly animated, he was the last piece to the Resentments puzzle, “the fourth corner of the square” as Graham put it. An Austin native music animal if there ever was one, he grew up on the northeast side of the city, started performing at 13, and has never looked back. “I thought every town was like this,” he says. “When I first heard ‘Smoke On The Water’ coming out of a garage, I assumed Deep Purple lived on Corona Street.”

His resume includes “everybody for five minutes” from the punk/new-wave scene, a stretch with the punk-funk band Skank, and time with Arthur Brown and Jimmy Carl Black, Dr. John (for two weeks), Cracker (for nine and a half months), and True Believers, in addition to his aforementioned tenure in Poi Dog Pondering.

“Every bandleader has always given me grief – ‘Why aren’t you committed?’ I am committed,” he says. When Hughes, 42, finally got the “black feather we sent him in the mail,” as Graham describes it, he thought he was ready. “I had Sundays off, but it was daunting. There was

a lot of intensity. The players were high-caliber. But I’m a quick study. Everything about the Resentments was on the fly: no rehearsals, no charts. After a month, I knew all the material. Then I was hooked. It took me a year before I started to bring in songs of my own.”

The payoff is “getting to play with the best players in town who play for the sake of the song. I don’t want to shred. Being able to get that feeling of being in the right place at the right time in the right universe – that’s what I’m in it for. The feeling comes quick and goes quick.”

JOHN CHIPMAN has what would appear to be the toughest role in the band, sitting in Mambo John Treanor’s drum chair.

The Resentments
Outside Your Door: Newcomb, Hughes, Chipman, Bruton and Graham. Photograph by Carlos San Miguel.

“When you heard him playing, he had this unmistakable voice in his playing, “Chipman remembers. “You could literally cut his body in half. One half would be swinging and the other half would be playing straight time. The entire band had to follow his groove.

“It’s an honor being Mambo’s sub,” Chipman said on the phone from Houston, where he was visiting future in-laws and shopping for an engagement ring at a gem and mineral show. The 35-year-old San Angelo native with a music degree from the University of Oklahoma (specialty: marimba) moved to Austin in 1993 and started playing a number of $25-a-night pickup gigs while working days for Tommy Robertson of Tommy’s Drum Shop. “He taught me enough at his factory that I built my own drum kit,” Chipman says.

He eventually racked up road miles with George DeVore and Marcia Ball before taking stock of what he wanted to do. “After Marcia, I didn’t pick up sticks for four months,” he recalls. “One Saturday night, my phone rang. It was Stephen. I’d gone to Resentments shows over the previous weeks. Mambo used to bring his washboard to George’s gigs, and a couple times toward the end, I came to help set up his drums for him. He was too weak. A month after he died, Stephen asked if I’d come out. He’d tried two or three different guys and it wasn’t working out.

“I asked Stephen when he wanted to get together. He said, ‘Tomorrow night, Saxon Pub. You know the drill, no rehearsal, lots of ridicule. Show up at 7.’ I had nothing to hear. NO CDs to listen to. I was probably tentative. But you play what you play. Stephen said, ‘Don’t worry, if we don’t like what you’re doing, we’ll tell you.’ That was two years ago last December.”

For Chipman, the Resentments are therapy. “Once a week I get to have a three-hour session with these incredible songwriters who are also incredible players. I’m never shocked by what I hear coming off the stage from any one of these guys. We may play the same song a hundred times, but every time, it comes out different.”

He knows he’ll never fill Treanor’s shoes. “It was real tough at first [replacing Mambo]; I was one of his admirers. There will never be another John Treanor. If you sat down and took a tape of him to a professor of percussion pedagogy, they’d say, ‘What’s going on there?’ I had to listen to him for ages and ages to realize that this guy, when he plays time, he’d make certain limbs swing, then do a straight eighth-note pulse with other limbs, perfect timing, but with a pulse that would ebb and flow in synch with the soloist.

“I’ve never heard anyone do that in that fashion. Most of the time, that would sound choppy. With Mambo it’d just sound smooth. It’s insane. I spent hours trying to replicate what he did naturally and finally gave up. The first month or so, I was constantly second-guessing myself: Is this what Mambo would’ve done? I finally realized, they haven’t told me l stunk yet, and I keep coming back.”

TREANOR’S DEATH on August 20, 2001, was the wake-up call. Toward the end, he was tying his arm above the cymbal stand in order to be able to hold it over the drums and play because he was too weak to raise his arm. “I asked him, ‘Mambo, why are you doing that?” Graham recalls. “He said, ‘Because if I don’t do this, I can’t play.’ That is the lesson of the whole fuckin’ thing, right there.”

“He was profound,” Bruton agrees. “And not only his drumming. He personified the Resentments attitude.”

Graham and Newcomb visited him in the hospital the day before he died. “It was a Sunday,” Graham said. “His mom, Lucille, called and said it was pretty bad. Scrappy and I came down later that day. It was obvious Mambo wasn’t going to make it. He was passed out when Scrappy said to me, ‘Maybe we ought to call the Saxon and say it ain’t gonna happen tonight.’ Mambo came to life and said, ‘Nuh-uh. Go play the gig. I’m not scared.’ He made it clear that to not play would be a disservice to him. It’s still his chair. Chances are slim he’s coming back to claim it, but if he does, it’s his gig.”

The Resentments
Saxon Angle: Graham (lap steel), Newcomb (mandolin), Bruton (guitar), Hughes (bass), Chipman (drums). Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

Things have been snowballing ever since.

Last year it began with their discovery by Germans on the last day of South By Southwest. “Someone got word of the Resentments on Sunday night,” Bruton says. “Not only is it not part of South By Southwest, it’s completely under the radar. How obscure can that be? These guys play one gig at one bar on one night of the week. So of course they loved it.”

An invitation to tour in the summer followed. Hughes got the wheels spinning, thinking it’d be great to have a new CD to sell overseas (they’d released a live recording, Sunday Night Line-Up, in 2002). He organized the session and the artwork. They booked engineer-producer Stuart Sullivan’s Wire Studios, and two days later, they had a self-titled album to sell on the tour. It was picked up by Austin indie Freedom Records for regional distribution last fall, followed by Freedom’s nationwide release on February 17.

“We’d be laughing, cutting up like little kids half the time,” Newcomb says. “We didn’t even know what songs we were doing. Every song was one or two takes, max. Nobody in the band had ever been in a recording situation like that.”

The tour took their collaborative efforts to a higher level. Maybe the covers had something to do with it, encompassing Dewey Redman’s racy “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” and the country spiritual “Long Journey” by Doc Watson’s wife, songs that normally would be judged as strange bedfellows. With the Resentments, they were pieces of Americana that went together hand in glove.

Since the band returned stateside, the new disc has developed legs. Hughes’ joyously loopy, self-referential stream-of-consciousness tune “People Ask Me” has been added to the playlist of influential Austin triple-A radio station KGSR – not bad for a song he wrote in fifteen minutes before he started laughing. “Fifteen minutes later, I had seven verses,” Hughes says. “There is no rhyme scheme.” But there sure is a great big sound backing up his words.

Another European tour is set for this summer. Another CD is being talked about. “The beauty of this band is you don’t have to write twenty songs every other year to make an album,” Bruton said. “With these guys, you can bring in three songs and have a new release on our own little humble situation and go to Europe and sell it.”

It has certainly energized Newcomb. “It’s becoming more of a prospect,” he marveled. “I think everyone woke up to what’s right under our noses. This could develop into a really great band, like The Band. If we had to go out all of a sudden for six months, I’d think it’d be the greatest thing that ever happened.”

The Resentments
For The Good Times: Hughes and Bruton share a smile. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

ON A SUNDAY in January when most folks are at home watching pro football playoffs on television, the loyalists drift in until the Saxon is packed by the time 7:30 rolls around.

Bruton hasn’t returned from Delbert McClinton’s Blues Cruise. No Bonnie Raitt, Ray Wylie Hubbard,James McMurtry, Freddy Powers, or Al Anderson are standing by, eager to sit in (all have done so at various past Resentments gigs, most recently Raitt in early January).

While Bruton’s absence is noted with acerbic musings about whether he’s gambling in the Bahamas, laying low in Key West, or was simply driven crazy by playing the same four chords every night, “with a harmonica thrown in every now and then,” as Graham jabbed, it’s no less of a band.

“It leave more room for those who do show to show our stuff,” Hughes says about nights when colleagues are missing. “They’re all mike hogs, you know.” It’s a nice way of saying there is so much competitiveness that a prospective off-night can be just as sharp and edgy. With Graham hauling out a boatload of lap steel pyrotechnics to keep the proceedings interesting, it is.

Somewhere in the middle of Graham’s song “Big Sweet Life”, they manage to get to that special place Hughes talked about the reason they play. The instruments lock into a groove that choogles, then soars, launched by Chipman’s brushes. Five women and one guy respond by jumping up and dancing in the tight empty spaces between the tables in front of the stage, facing the band, urging them on, letting them know it feels all right. The room seems to levitate.

And though their fifth member is somewhere between Florida and Texas, his words ring true surveying the scene: “This is what happens when you let musicians do what they want to do when nobody’s looking.”

[visit No Depression]


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Songwriter helps lead the fight against development

Songwriter helps lead the fight against development

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 12, 2003

EL PASO – Tom Russell can lay claim as the “last” singer-songwriter in Texas. That’s because he lives in a historic 70-year-old adobe home on 3 acres within spitting distance of the New Mexico state line.

The Los Angeles native, whose folk songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Nanci Griffith and K.D. Lang, has lived in many corners of the world – Nigeria in wartime, Austin as it was emerging as a music scene, San Francisco and Brooklyn. But he now lives in the far end of far West Texas by choice.

The rural area is known as the Upper Valley, a swath of green bordering both sides of the Rio Grande for a mile or two as it meanders through the Chihuahuan Desert. The rugged western flank of the Franklin Mountains, the southern end of the Rockies that end in the heart of the city, provides a scenic backdrop.

“This is the last oasis in West Texas,” says Mr. Russell, 55. “It’s a refuge for heron, desert tortoises, egrets, raccoons, skunks, badgers, you name it. I have foxes walking through my yard every day.”

But the days of Mr. Russell’s idyllic retreat may be numbered. Progress in the form of two-story stucco houses built to their lot lines – crammed into subdivisions, five to eight homes per acre – are marching his way at a fast pace, with requests by developers for city zoning variances leading the way.

The first skirmish came last year when Mr. Russell and five of his neighbors managed to reroute massive overhead power lines that were proposed to run directly over their homes.

A controlled access highway completed two years ago to link Interstate 10 with Santa Teresa, N.M., has been a magnet attracting subdivisions, which in turn are attracting commercial developments.

Farming on plots of land less than 100 acres was already in decline in the Upper Valley, as it is everywhere in the United States. The sandy river-bottom soil is certainly productive enough. But the cost of planting, growing and harvesting crops, and increased competition from other countries add up to food and fibers being grown somewhere else.

Factor in what Mr. Russell sees as a city leadership overly supportive of growth and development at the expense of residents, and the Upper Valley becomes vulnerable. It is one of the few green spaces remaining in the metro area.

Yet those who support growth and development say that El Pasoans need housing and that it is being provided under the rules and guidelines set forth.

“Ownership of property is one of our basic rights in America, and it cannot be vulnerable to opposition without good cause,” says Rex Smith, a landowner who purchased Upper Valley property a year ago and immediately sought a zoning variance from the City Planning Commission. “Progress happens, and it cannot be stopped.”

Susan Austin, the City Council member who represents the Upper Valley, pushed for lower-density housing rules after initial protests. But she – along with the majority of the council – also voted to approve Mr. Smith’s application for higher-density housing. That has prompted one of Mr. Russell’s neighbors to mount a recall campaign of Ms. Austin.

Even if she has been the object of much wrath, Ms. Austin calls the activism of Mr. Russell and his neighbors “as passionate as any neighborhood group in my district.”

But she pointedly adds that they should put their money where their mouths are. “A lot of people want to preserve the idea of having a ranch-size homestead without having bought a ranch-size homestead, including Tom Russell, ” Ms. Austin says.

“Some of the people all over me don’t even live in the city. They live in the county” – outside the city limits. “The city can regulate. There are no zoning restrictions at all in the county.”

Seeking inspiration

Mr. Russell came to El Paso seeking the same sort of inspiration that artists such as Tom Lea and Luis Jimenez and writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Benjamin Saenz have mined so well. “He always loved places like this,” says his sister Nan Lazzaretto, a schoolteacher.

Mr. Russell’s home is a hideout of sorts, in the outlaw tradition, tucked behind a wall of trees, high brush and cane that suddenly materializes among the fields of cotton, chili peppers, pecan plantations and pastoral horse farms that define the Upper Valley way of life.

“I love that there is no scene here,” he says as he doffs his cowboy hat to reveal a head of graying, wavy hair. “I don’t have to worry about being seen.”

Unlike Brooklyn, where he lived for almost 20 years before moving here six years ago, “people here are pleasant and neighborly,” he says.

“Downtown El Paso is like a movie set. It’s like things have never changed. I love being close to Mexico. I love the history. The Old Spanish Road up to Santa Fe is right down here. I grew up on Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’ and the tales of gunfighters.” As it happens, Rosa’s Cantina is not too far down the road.

Sometimes friends stop in. Dave Alvin drops by whenever he’s on his way from his home in Los Angeles to gigs in the southern United States. So does Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

A few years back, Mr. Russell hosted a border-town birthday bash for songwriter and visual artist Terry Allen that drew a gaggle of like-minded professional dreamers. Not everyone gets it. The late folk legend Dave Van Ronk, whose last recording was backing up Mr. Russell, likened El Paso’s dry summer heat to being “in a pizza oven.”

Cowboy songs

Mr. Russell started writing, singing and playing originals more than 30 years ago, inspired by hearing his older brother sing cowboy songs and seeing Bob Dylan perform “Desolation Row” at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964.

He taught criminology in Nigeria from 1969-70 during the Biafran war , then followed friends he made in Africa to Vancouver, British Columbia. A band performing Hank Williams songs on Skid Row moved him to think: “That’s the job for me.” He landed in Austin in 1974 during that city’s nascent era as a music scene. Later, he drifted to San Francisco before landing in Brooklyn in the early ’80s.

He shifted his focus to writing (“I’m a frustrated novelist,” he says) and drove cabs to pay the bills. When he sang a song he’d written called “Gallo del Cielo” to one fare – the composer Robert Hunter, who collaborates with the Grateful Dead – he was encouraged to get back on stage.

Life in El Paso has suited him just fine. His adobe hacienda is filled with Mexican pickled-pine furniture and folk art. He just finished an open, Mexican-style patio. He has incorporated the landscape and local history into his work.

The critic John Swenson called Mr. Russell’s ambitious 1999 song cycle The Man From God Knows Where as “close to a Homeric treatment of American history as we’re ever likely to see.” Two years ago, he released Borderland, which includes “When Sinatra Played Juarez,” a song inspired by his ex-girlfriend’s uncle.

The uncle, who found the house Mr. Russell lives in, used to play piano across the border when Juarez was a hotbed for quickie Mexican divorces. The location also satisfies Mr. Russell’s jones for bullfighting and his love of the border, although twice he’s found himself caught in the crossfire of warring drug gangs in Juarez.

Mostly, though, Mr. Russell’s place offers refuge from a steady touring schedule that over the past half-year has taken him to Ireland, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Calgary and Edmonton in western Canada, and across the United States from Oregon to Maine – including an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, backed by Nanci Griffith in support of his latest album, Modern Art.

Small victories

Mr. Russell and five neighbors have won some small victories in their effort to ward off more developments. Last summer, they successfully lobbied the City Planning Commission to reduce zoning density from R3A zoning, which allows up to eight homes per acre, to R2A, meaning lots can accommodate no more than five homes per acre.

That may be the best outcome possible, says Elma Carreto, the chairwoman of the Planning Commission. She says she sympathizes with Mr. Russell and insists the commission’s goal is to make sure planned developments conform to the existing area.

She says existing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, police, firefighters and schools, are not prepared to handle the traffic that 2,500 new homes bearing families will bring. But she can go only so far, she says.

While Mr. Russell’s songs classify him as a folkie, he is not known for political broadsides. His body of work tends to speak to larger philosophical issues, such as aging and loneliness. That makes his anti-development activism all the more unusual. “I don’t have any political bent,” he explains. “I don’t write protest songs.”

Instead, he has written letters, called the local chapter of the Sierra Club (the voice on the other end of the line urged him to play at a weekly meeting), attended planning commission and council meetings, and spoken out. “This is not a left-wing or right-wing argument – it’s right or wrong,” he says.

“There’s no real plan for this area. They just want to develop here while the interior of the city begs to be redeveloped. The leaders don’t see the big picture. They just want to develop, develop and develop until there isn’t anywhere left. We don’t need another 7-Eleven. There’s a Circle K a quarter-mile down the road. Lowe’s and McDonald’s will be next. The prognosis is pretty sad.

“You don’t do this to farmland. You don’t do this to your children. It’s corrupt thinking.”

His heels are dug in deep. “I’ll take my stand here,” he says. “Maybe import some donkeys and ducks and pigs, and no one will want to live next to me. I’m talking with some folks about buying up some land to keep it in farming. Other than that, I’m planting a lot of trees.”

The dilemma has moved him to also do what he does best. “I’m thinking about writing a song about all this,” he says. “Only it’s going to be from the point of view of a fox.”

[See Tom Russell’s website]


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And the Hot Tub Goes to

MTV Real World Cast
The cast of "The Real World: Austin," the 16th season of the MTV reality show, which will have its premiere on Tuesday night. Photograph by Michael Muller/MTV.

And the Hot Tub Goes to . . . Austin

The New York Times
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 19, 2005

WHEN Mayor Will Wynn of Austin announced last December that MTV’s “Real World” would be filming its 16th season in his city, he did so with the enthusiasm of a civic leader who had just persuaded a Fortune 500 company to move to his neighborhood. “MTV has discovered what we all know, that Austin is a great place to live, work and play,” Mayor Wynn declared. “We have a spectacular quality of life, particularly if you’re young, energetic, educated, driven and have a passion for the outdoors and live music.” The announcement was front-page news in the local paper, and it was deemed sufficiently important to be covered by news organizations around the world: “Real World” Discovers Another Cool City.

While the idea of playing host to seven hard-partying, hot-tubbing strangers ages 18 to 24, along with cameras and production crews for several months, may induce rolled eyeballs among the genuinely cool, a growing group of officials, civic leaders and economic advisers in a number of cities understand the value of being chosen to be host to “The Real World.”

Jonathan Murray, chairman and president of Bunim-Murray Productions, which produces the series, is the man who makes the final decision about where “The Real World” films.

“It has to be someplace where young people want to go, or a place they should want to go,” Mr. Murray explained. “When someone says” – and then he paused where the name of a city would be – “you go, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ Beyond that, the city has to be supportive of the idea of allowing us to take our cameras everywhere and not putting up walls. We’ve gotten everybody from the New York City subway to the Paris subway to the Austin airport to let us bring our cameras into places that major films can’t get into.”

Mayor Will Wynn

Will Wynn, mayor of Austin, in the house where it all takes place. Photograph by Bunim-Murray Productions.

The greater achievement is that cities are willing to cooperate despite incidents like the raid on “The Real World: San Diego” house in 2003 after a date-rape allegation had been made and an assault last year on a police officer hired to guard “The Real World: Philadelphia” house. He was attacked by several angry men, including two off-duty officers wanting to gain access to a party.

In exchange for the all-access pass, the occasional street closing and an inevitable brush or two with the law, the host city reaps 22 weeks’ worth of free advertising, plus additional exposure in reruns and on DVD’s.

“This is a postcard,” Mr. Murray said of the series. “The images we paint aren’t just pictures; the storyline and everything else reflect the vibrancy of the city we’re in.”

The consecutive choices of San Diego, Philadelphia and now Austin might suggest that Mr. Murray is straining for coolness, but ratings indicate otherwise. “The Real World: San Diego” was the top-rated series on basic cable among viewers 12 to 34 in 2004, seen by about 3.7 million viewers per episode, according to Nielsen Media Research. “The Real World: Philadelphia” has been the most-watched series on basic cable among viewers 12 to 34 so far in 2005, averaging three million viewers per episode.

Austin, the smallest city to be host to “The Real World” (the show has its premiere on Tuesday night on MTV), had been waiting for the call for years. Officially known as the Live Music Capital of the World, it is the hometown of the South by Southwest music, film and interactive conferences and the “Austin City Limits” television series and music festival.

“Austin, I’m told, is the largest city without a major-league sports franchise,” Mayor Wynn said in an interview. “People occasionally ask when Austin will get a team. I say: ‘You know what? I hope Austin doesn’t get a major sports franchise.’ I want music to be our major franchise, where a family every few weeks or months spends a couple hundred bucks on live music. How perfectly does MTV play into that?”

So if cities like Austin compete for the opportunity to win a season of “The Real World,” why doesn’t Bunim-Murray make like an aggrieved owner of a National Football League franchise and demand tax breaks, freebies or incentives? “We’re not quite that arrogant,” Mr. Murray explained over a soda in the lobby bar of the Four Seasons in Austin, two blocks from the cast house where the wrap party would be held the following day.

Mr. Murray cites the Palms Casino Hotel in Las Vegas, where the cast of “The Real World: Las Vegas” lived during Season 12, as the best example of how hosts benefit from the show.

“George Malouf really stepped up,” he said of the hotel’s owner. “Most of the hotels in Vegas are owned by three or four companies, and all of them wanted to work with us. But when we went to see George, his hotel wasn’t done. He was still building. He walked us in and basically said, ‘I can make this anything you want it to be.’ We made it into a high-roller’s suite, which he effectively uses and markets to this day. I don’t think there’s a better example of someone taking the ‘Real World’ cool factor and commercializing it to great success.”

Last season’s choice, Philadelphia, was Mr. Murray’s most unexpected selection. “Philadelphia, more than any city I know, recognized they really need ‘The Real World,’ ” he said.

He had first visited Philadelphia when he was a college student and had observed a rebirth of its poorer areas. “More kids go to college in the Philadelphia area than Boston, but the majority leave when they graduate, and they need to change the image of that city,” he said. “They’ve been working on that, and as part of that, the mayor and the folks there recognized that if they could get ‘The Real World,’ that would go a long way toward changing the image among young people.” When a labor protest prompted Bunim-Murray to pull out, Mayor John F. Street and Gov. Edward G. Rendell intervened.

The upside for that city was an improved perception among an audience that the city had already singled out. Having two gay characters instead of the usual one for “The Real World: Philadelphia” dovetailed neatly with a gay-themed tourism campaign that had already begun, said Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office.

Mr. Murray is mum about where “The Real World” goes next but dropped a few hints. “There aren’t a lot of overseas places that are on my idea list, but Sydney has been a place I want to go to,” he said.

Canada was mentioned. Meaning Vancouver or Toronto? “Or Montreal,” he said with a poker face.

“I’m tracking 10 to 15 cities to see what they’re doing, what’s going on,” Mr. Murray said. “I probably have a list of six or seven cities in my head. There are cities like Philadelphia I wouldn’t have considered 10 years ago. Just because you’re not on my list today, that doesn’t mean you won’t be in a year or so.”

And if you are, Mr. Murray is confident that the feeling will be mutual. “When we’re through with a city,” he said, “they love us.”

[visit The New York Times]

Correction: July 10, 2005, Sunday:
An article on June 19 about the value derived by a city that plays host to the MTV series “The Real World” misspelled the surname of an owner of the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, where the cast of the show’s 12th season lived. He is George Maloof, not Malouf.


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Keeping Up With Jones

Keeping Up With Jones

AARP The Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July & August 2006

Fluffy, hot biscuits, fresh out of the oven and smothered with redeye gravy, with a thick slab of smoked ham on the side, are a great start to any day. But the biscuits and gravy I am eyeing are hardly standard fare. They are the signature menu item at the Loveless Cafe in Nashville, the ultimate comfort food in my ultimate comfort city. After 30 years of visiting Nashville, I have finally arrived at the home of the gods–a white clapboard cafe attached to what once was a motel way out on the edge of town by the Natchez Trace. I am on the verge of understanding just why an ideal day in Music City USA begins here.

Yet as pleasing to the eye and mouthwatering as the biscuits and redeye gravy may be, I am not able to clean my plate. I seem to have developed a mild case of the nerves. Chalk up my condition to the anticipation of meeting my tour guide. If you’re going to see Nashville right, there is no better way to experience it than with George Jones, the King of Country Music, leading the way.

George Jones has spent most of his adult life in recording studios around Nashville singing classic cheatin’ songs in a powerful wail, from between clenched teeth, that would give Pavarotti pause. His record–or records–speaks volumes: 166 hit singles, from “White Lightning,” “Golden Ring,” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “(We’re Not) The Jet Set,” “High Tech Redneck,” and “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.” Enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he is one of a select few country stars to receive the National Medal of Arts.

As soon as I spy him driving into the Loveless parking lot behind the wheel of a Ford van with his wife, Nancy, riding shotgun and his two most trusted backup singers and longtime pals, Sheri Copeland and Barry Smith, in back, I apologize to the waitress for the half-finished plate. “George Jones just ruined my appetite,” I tell her, smiling sweetly.

The NO SHOW personalized license plate on the van is a joking reference to his proclivity for missing gigs back when he was just as famous for his wild ways as he was for his music. He’s able to laugh at that reputation now. Newfound sobriety and a renewed work ethic following a near-fatal car accident–while driving drunk and talking on a cell phone in 1999–have energized him. These days he doesn’t just show up; he plays for half an hour longer.

At 74, The Possum, as he is known, could easily be resting on his laurels and letting his catalog, including his latest album, George Jones: Hits I Missed…And One I Didn’t, do the talking. Instead, he’s on the road every weekend (nearly 100 shows last year) and spends much of his downtime as he did the previous day, laying down tracks in the studio with young gun Blake Shelton and old-school honky-tonker John Anderson, as well as working on a collaborative venture with his fellow living legend Merle Haggard. And he still manages to squeeze in time to show off the real-deal version of his hometown to a visitor who thinks he’s seen it all. Within minutes of shaking hands, George has me confessing to a limited familiarity with Nashville.

Rise and Shine
“I don’t know all the history of this place,” George says, smiling shyly, as he surveys the Loveless lobby within arm’s reach of the autographed glossy photo of George and Nancy on the wall of country music stars behind the register. That’s understandable, because the Loveless opened its doors in 1951, four years before George hit town as a wet-behind-the-ears kid from the Big Thicket of southeast Texas by way of Beaumont. But he does know the Loveless is his kind of place. “We used to come out here all the time with different people back in the ’60s, for the biscuits, the ham, for a little bit of everything,” he says, patting his ample belly–food is one of the renewed pleasures following his renouncement of vices. “It’s just a good homey atmosphere, real country.”

Many of his fellow diners at the Loveless happen to be huge George Jones fans.

So it shouldn’t be too surprising that many of his fellow diners happen to be huge George Jones fans. Before he and Nancy can finish their breakfast, fans are lined up with pen and paper in hand for an autograph. George obliges each and every one. One older man wearing a gimme cap wants to talk literature when he recognizes the familiar face.

“Hey there!” he shouts, grinning excitedly. “You don’t know me, but I just read your book "I Lived to Tell It All". You were the wildest, man!”

George manages a sheepish chuckle. “I ain’t supposed to be here, I tell you that.”

“I related to a lot of that,” the fan tells him. “I’m a survivor, too.” Gimme Cap bought the autobiography because he wanted to get to know George before he saw him for the first time at a recent concert at the Ryman Auditorium. The fan couldn’t have picked a better place. No one knows that better than George. The Mother Church of Country Music just so happens to be the next stop on his Nashville tour itinerary.

Tapping Toes and Tapping Roots
The Ryman opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle and hosted the Grand Ole Opry during its glory years, from 1943 until 1974, when the Opry moved to the suburbs. The venerable red-brick structure fell into disuse for almost 20 years before it was revived as Nashville’s finest all-purpose concert venue, even hosting the Grand Ole Opry again every now and then. “The Ryman is second only to the Mormon Tabernacle in natural acoustics,” Nancy Jones points out.

Her husband is beaming at the building when we pull into the parking lot. “It’s my favorite place to play,” George says. He’s considerably more relaxed now than he was way back when he was riding his first hit, “Why Baby Why,” and he was very, very scared.

“George Morgan and Little Jimmy Dickens were standing off to the side, talking to me,” he explains, walking into the sacred space after signing an autograph for a little girl in a wheelchair at the entrance. He remembers becoming especially nervous when the stagehands informed him he couldn’t play guitar because he wasn’t a member of the local musicians’ union. “Hell, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my hands,” he recalls. “I was already shaking. When they told me that, I like to had a heart attack. Ernest Tubb was on stage singing, and right when he finished his song, they called me, and I said, ‘I just can’t go out there. I don’t have anything to do with my hands.’ As bad as I wanted to be on the Opry for the first time, I didn’t want to if I had to go out there like that. Dickens or Morgan–one of ’em, I can’t remember which–throwed their guitar over my shoulder and said, ‘We’ll take responsibility. You go ahead.’ So I did. It worked out.”

It sure did.

Deep in the Heart of Nashville
In a blink, George ducks out a side door of the Ryman, walks down a set of stairs, and crosses the alley into the rear entrance of an establishment identified as Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. It is a route he’s taken many times, along with a number of country stars, back in the days when the Opry was in residence at the Ryman.

“We used to slide through the back door, have a beer or something,” George mentions as he walks briskly through the darkened bar, prompting heads to turn and cries of “George!” to erupt. This time, though, he’s just passing through, heading straight for the front door and Broadway, Nashville’s main drag. He’s not much on honky-tonks these days, and if he’s going to drink, it will be George Jones’s White Lightning bottled water, thank you very much.

On Broadway he surveys the streetscape like a proprietor. Tootsie’s is only one of several honky-tonks on the block, along with Robert’s Western World, the Bluegrass Inn, Second Fiddle, and Nashville Crossroads. These bars with stages are the most reliable venues for visitors to hear real live country music in its element. The storied Ernest Tubb Record Shop and some bar-bars are also on the street. Hatch Show Print, whose vintage posters are my favorite Nashville souvenirs, is one block down. The Nashville Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame are one block up. It takes less than a minute for a crowd to materialize once George hits the pavement, smiling a smile that telegraphs he made his peace with celebrity long ago.

Pickin’ ‘n’ Grinnin’
George beelines down the block, ducking into a storefront on the corner. The sign above the entrance reads Gruhn Guitars. “Gruhn is the place in Nashville for guitars,” George says as he gazes around twelve thousand square feet of vintage guitars like a kid in a candy shop. Within seconds, he plops on a stool, picks up an instrument, and commences to make sweet harmonies with his backup singers, Sheri Copeland and Barry Smith, running through “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and “I’ll Fly Away,” his voice hitting the notes as no one else can. Each pause between songs is met by a rousing round of applause from the growing audience that has followed him into the store. He is clearly in his element. When he stumbles on the lyrics of one of his own songs, “We’re Gonna Hold On,” he jokes to the gathering, “I didn’t write the song by myself. The other guy knows the rest of it.”

George wraps up the miniconcert after glancing at his watch. It’s time to go. There’s more to see.

Stars Crossed Paths
“Shooter!”

As George sneaks out the back entrance of Gruhn Guitars to his waiting van (he knows all the hidey-holes in Nashville), he is surprised by Shooter Jennings and a camera crew making a pilot for a reality show starring Jennings for the CMT network. George has known the son of the late Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter since Shooter was a baby (“He was raised pretty good by his mama, I tell you”) and delivered a resounding endorsement at the beginning of Jennings’s debut album.

The two musicians hug, smile, and catch up while another crowd gathers, joined by a Gray Line tour bus that screeches to a halt when the driver notices the sidewalk rendezvous. George and Shooter revert to a dialect familiar to those in the “bidness.”

“How long you gonna be in town?”

“We play the Gaylord Friday.”

“Friday? I have to go to work myself Thursday. I’ll be back in Sunday; maybe you can come see us. I’d love to take y’all out. Give me a call. You got my number?”

“Yeah, I got your number. I was nervous to call because everyone else is [calling].”

“What are you nervous about? You got you a hit going. Well, we’ll catch you later. See you Sunday, I hope.”

As Shooter and entourage depart, more fans move in for autographs, including a bearded fan with a dog.

“Hey, Buddy, say hi to George Jones!” the fan with the canine says.

Judging from how its tail is wagging, the shepherd’s a huge George Jones fan, too.

“Now I know what ol’ Hank Williams went through,” George murmurs as he struggles up the stairs into the side entrance of the Ryman and heads back to the dressing room to gather his gear. He’s peopled out and clearly looking forward to our last stop–his buddy, Manuel the tailor, whose shop near Music Row is one destination few out-of-towners are aware of.

If they only knew.

Dressed to Thrill
Manuel Cuevas is hardly just any tailor. He’s the Picasso of Nashville clothiers, whose flamboyant, sparkly stage creations have adorned the figures of Dwight Yoakam, Trisha Yearwood, Johnny Cash, the Rolling Stones, Linda Ronstadt, and Bob Dylan, among others. Two of Elvis’s white rhinestone jumpsuits were Manuel originals.

Manuel Cuevas is the Picasso of Nashville clothiers. Two of Elvis’s white rhinestone jumpsuits were Manuel originals.

Manuel and George have known each other since before either was a Nashville fixture, back when Manuel was working in Los Angeles for his father-in-law, Nudie Cohn. Cohn was creator of the Nudie suit (think Liberace decked in western wear), once a staple of every country star’s wardrobe. When he moved to Nashville in 1989, Manuel became the new Nudie, the gaudy rhinestone-and-spangle standard for every aspiring country music star.

“Manuel’s the only one to get it right the way we like it. He knows my taste. I’ll give him an idea–usually it’s just a little embroidery or something, or a rope on the sleeve–and he runs with it. It doesn’t take but a week or ten days to get Manuel to make me something,” George says as he emerges from the dressing room clad in a stylish denim outfit.

“Looks good,” he opines while Manuel fusses with the waist.

“I never fit him, ever. Nothing ever fits. I haven’t made him a good suit in 45 years,” the cherubic Manuel gripes, elbowing George as he measures him. Theirs is a relationship so familiar that every conversation is peppered with insults. “He has me make five pair of jeans every week. You know what that is? That’s a nightmare!”

George gives as good as he gets. “You know me, I’ll never put no pressure on you. This jacket don’t fit right. Nothing fits right. How come you never get anything right?”

“Everything is the wrong thing, every day is the wrong day,” mocks Manuel. “When you start complaining, that’s a sign it’s good.”

While they’re joshing, Nancy and Sheri and Barry are working the racks, and before you know it, they’re looking like stars, too, as they emerge from the dressing room, decked out in jackets that start at around $2,500.

Taking Stock
In the midst of the couture chaos, George pauses and reflects upon the observation that he seems to be enjoying himself. “Well, I am,” he says. “I’ve had another chance on life. When I quit smoking, I started gaining weight, and it’s all in my belly,” he explains, patting it. “I can hit high notes now I couldn’t hit when I was 20.”

Then, no more drinking, no more doping?

“Nooo. I wouldn’t give you a dime for a toddy or a beer,” he says with a sense of finality. “And I quit on my own, with the help of the Good Lord and my wife. I drank for over 50 years. I did it all. But I had her there helping me. She didn’t give up on me. She stayed by my side when I was really needing her. It paid off for both of us.”

After one final pose–in which he strikes an “It’s Not Unusual” profile after Manuel says “Tom Jones” –George Jones calls it a day and heads for the van one last time, walking out arm in arm with Nancy. He needs the downtime because there’s more music to be made tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, until he can’t. That’s George Jones’s idea of being a senior. Slowing down is okay. Retirement is out of the question. And from all appearances, he’s liking it just fine.

[AARP The Magazine]


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The Boys with the Bands

The Boys with the Bands

The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March 10, 2006

For the past 19 winters, Roland Swenson, Nick Barbaro, and Louis Black have spent their Friday afternoons plotting and planning South By Southwest, a cool idea they came up with based on getting a bunch of bands and music people together. That cool idea has grown into the biggest music convention in the world, a film festival, and an interactive conference. For two weeks every March, Austin becomes the center of the Alternative universe, with 10,000 registered participants and another 10,000 with similar bents hanging around. In observance of SXSW’s 20th year, the three founders talked about what it looks like from the inside looking out after all these years. Excerpts follow:

Texas Observer: Do people ever come up and ask What is South by Southwest?

Nick Barbaro: I can’t remember the last time that happened.

Swenson: When I was in Sydney [Australia] we went to the Aquarium and the girl who did one of those green screen things where they put you on a photo–we were on a boat with a shark attacking us–she saw my jacket and she knew what SXSW was. She went on at length about how excited she was.

Black: I’ll be at dinner with my sister in California and I’m talking about it and the waitress will come over and start talking about her South By experience.

Swenson: And then they bring their CD.

Barbaro: I can’t really remember the last time that happened to me. What I would tell them is, it’s a music festival and something like 1,400 bands play in clubs all around Austin and music business people come and talk music business.

Black: …and a film festival and interactive conference.

Barbaro: There’s that, too.

TO: Why did you start this?

Swenson: There was already some momentum to do something like this. The New Music Seminar guys [in New York, agreed to put on a satellite festival in Austin before backing out] At that point, I went and told Nick and Louis, this could be big.

TO: Why do it now?

Black: It’s the most fun I have all year.

Barbaro: How could we stop? I’m not sure how that would work.

Swenson: I still have a kid to put through college.

TO: How has it changed?

Black: There were 200 bands the first year, and 1,400 registrants. There will be 1,400 bands this year, and 10,000 registrants. No movies were screened the first year because there wasn’t a film festival. This year there are 90 movies. No bloggers attended the first year. We’ll probably have 1,000 this year.

Barbaro: There wasn’t even an Internet the first year.

Swenson: We didn’t have a fax machine or desktop publishing or cellphones. Reagan was president…

TO: Is there a secret to growing a business like this?

Black: Tenacity. We all really believe in this. It’s the perfect model for the post-record company world of music where the biggest labels are only interested in a very limited number of acts, so it really works for musicians.

Swenson: I think it has more to do with Austin and the fact that when people traveled here from New York or Los Angeles, suddenly they didn’t have their secretaries with them and suddenly they could talk to people, and they liked it.

Black: At Sundance, they’re not on the streets that much. They’re at private parties and private houses. You come to Austin during SXSW and those people are on the street. Two years ago, I saw five of the top film distributors walking out of the convention center to go eat barbecue. These guys had come up together, but that was probably the first time they relaxed and enjoyed each other in a long time. They certainly didn’t do it at Sundance. It’s Austin, Austin, Austin.

Swenson: This was designed for people who don’t live in New York, LA or Nashville. That’s who we initially targeted. Because it worked, people from those cities started coming too.

TO: Now the town is full of people from New York, LA, and Nashville.

Swenson: And London and Tokyo and Sydney…

Barbaro: And Houston and Kansas City and weird places. I first thought this was going to be a success when we heard a group of bookers and managers from Houston had gotten together for the first time here. They had never met each other in Houston.

TO: Any particular memories about that first year?

Black: The first morning Roland called me at home. He woke me up and said, “It’s gonna happen today.” I said, “What?” He said, “It’s today, Louis.” I said, “Yes, it is,” and I went back to sleep.

Swenson: I was very, very afraid.

Barbaro: Stubbs [the late barbecue maestro CB Stubblefield] turned up at the softball game with a trailer load of barbecue meat and no serving utensils. So he served meals to everyone at the tournament with his hands-beans, everything. He had big hands.

TO: What was the worst part of the first year?

Swenson: For me, it was this fear that okay, we’ve convinced all these people to travel here for this thing and what if they get here and they’re like, “Is this all? You got me here for this?” So, when they all got here and seemed to be having a good time, that was a tremendous relief. I had been having dreams where I’d be at the event and people would be going, “There he is! He’s the one! Get him!”

Barbaro: We really did go into it not knowing whether people would show up and whether they would have interests here when they did. So, when both of those things happened, it was all good.

Black: It was a period of time when I was psychotically depressed anyway, so it was the third or fourth year when I suddenly realized people loved this event, and they loved coming here.

TO: What was the best part about last year?

Swenson: You know, we don’t get to go to SXSW.

Black: I love watching the people who come. That’s mostly what we get to do. I just watch the faces of the people-the Scandinavians who look like they’ve died and gone to heaven, or the Japanese who are just trying to figure it out.

TO: Who are your favorite foreigners?

Black: The Uzbeks.

Swenson: We’re more famous in England than we are in the States.

TO: What are the biggest customer complaints?

Black: It’s really a drag when you’re dealing with a lot of people who want to get into something and you can’t let ’em all in it. I get fascist about it which makes it worse, but it really is a drag. You want to get everybody in. That’s why you’re doing this. The idea is not exclusion. We are not New York doormen. They wrote negative criticism about me one year on a forum about how I shouldn’t be allowed to work doors.

Swenson: There were always times when you couldn’t get in somewhere. It’s the nature of the beast. If we’re gonna do shows in these relatively small clubs and we’re gonna put out acts people want to see, then they’re gonna fill up, we can’t get around that. So what we try to do is just keep having lots and lots of shows so there’s always some place you can get in. The people who have the most fun are the ones who, if they go somewhere and can’t get in, go somewhere else. It’s the ones who stand in line for an hour and a half that get really mad [as JNP and family did last year waiting to see the Kaiser Chiefs and getting in too late]. We’ve gotten better anticipating and managing it, matching up the artist with the right size venue when we can. Frequently, it’s the artists that demand to play a place that’s too small because they want a line down the street, they want a sea out front.

Black: Sometimes they want to play a small room just because they figure it’s South By Southwest and they feel like playing a small room, and they love the line down the street. That’s part of what you’re here for, to get that buzz going.

Black: The thing most misunderstood about SXSW is that the emphasis is always on the event working as well as it can for as many people as it can. It’s never on making money. I don’t expect anybody to believe it, but it’s one of the things that makes it a pleasure.

Barbaro: I’ve got this down to where I don’t really do much during the event. I have hours where I have to sit around and wait for things to go wrong, but they don’t. Nothing ever goes wrong.

Black: You’re saying that chain mail vest you made is nothing?

Barbaro: I did have time to make a chain mail vest two years ago during the event. I go to see at least a couple movies each year and music. If the period leading up to the event were more restful then I’d feel more, more rested for going to events during it, but the lead up period is actually more work and more stressful than during the event.

TO: What do we have to look forward to this year?

Black: All the people who love music are coming back again; it’s no longer the Internet millionaires. One of the weird things that we’ve come to realize is that SXSW Interactive is a hot event. It’s the only one where I go online to read about what’s going on. I know a lot of bloggers come, a lot of next generation media people who aren’t interested in money, but in ideas.

Swenson: We’re beyond podcasting now into I don’t know what. One of the reasons we added the film and the interactive events was that entertainment is coming from those sources. The new music business is less about companies and more about artists. It’s one of the reasons we’ve grown. We’ve always had a broad base of participation. It wasn’t just about major labels or just about indie labels or just about artists or bookers or whatever. Now, artists have so many more options than they did when we first started.

Black: The evolution of technology is allowing new and different kinds of films to be made. You can make films cheaper. So people making films are younger. We always felt that docs and narratives are equal. I don’t think that we were even conscious about how different that was. I think that it was our organic training, treating docs as seriously as we did narratives. One of the real pleasures of this has been that most of the things we did because we thought they were the right things to do have turned out to be good for business.

TO: You still like each other?

Swenson: We fought a lot back in our early days. But it was over stuff that we thought was important. It was never about our personalities. Well, maybe, I don’t know.

Black: It’s been the dynamic of a marriage but there’s no sex. It took us a while.

Barbaro: It took 10 years for print media to win the softball tournament.

TO: Are you surprised how it’s turned out?

Swenson: People always say I bet you never thought it would be this big, but I did. I guess that doesn’t sound very modest. I always knew the idea was good. And it’s not even my idea. But once we got the first one under our belt, we said, okay, we got this down. We know now that we just can’t take anything for granted. I don’t take it for granted that there will be SXSW after this year. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen.

Black: I never dreamed that it could become what it is. I don’t think Nick did. But Roland did. He got what it was and how it was going to work. He always kept seeing ahead. We [Nick and I] were catching up. Roland was always the one who knew where we needed to go next.

TO: That’s the tricky part with growing a concept. You don’t usually find the same people in place this far down the line, especially considering how it has grown.

Swenson: We all complement each other. I had been involved in a lot of stuff that was good or cool, but that didn’t work out. Nick and Louis taught me how to be a businessman in the creative world, which is not easy. They had done it. They launched the Chronicle. They knew what you had to do to make that work, how to balance the integrity with making it financially feasible, which you have to do in any kind of creative endeavor.

Black: We all learn from each other. Sometimes we did it gracefully and sometimes not gracefully. But the bottom line is, we did it, even when were pissed at each other. Nick was the inspiration, the leader, I think we’re more equal now, but for the longest time and in many ways, he’s been the most anonymous of all. Nick taught Roland and I about money and the right way to do things, which was Nick’s way.

Swenson: It still is.

Barbaro: It’s unusual to see the same management in place after something has been going for 20 years. The tendency is to sell out to a conglomerate. But we can’t think of anything we’d rather be doing. There’s nowhere else to go, why sell out?

TO: When do you start work on ’07?

Black: We started two years ago.

Swenson: It takes about six weeks to mop up afterwards, pay all the bills, settle the lawsuits, then we spend a lot of time talking about what happened and what we want to do different or new. In June we start putting together the first brochures and then we start taking bands and films in August.

TO: This all sounds very interesting, but what I really want to know is, Is it too late to get a CD to you?

Joe Nick Patoski used to discuss the music business with Roland Swenson in the parking lot of Raul’s Club when both managed new wave bands in the late 1970s. He later shared office space with Nick Barbaro and Louis Black and the Austin Chronicle. He has attended every year of South By Southwest and does the play-by-play with Kevin Connor of the championship game of the softball tournament.

 

[The Texas Observer]


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