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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.