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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A Night at the Opry

Justin Lightfoot
Justin Lightfoot warms up backstage before his turn to perform at the Celeste Opry. The folksy, family-oriented country music revue is staged once a month in the small town north of Greenville, Texas. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.

A Night at the Opry

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 18, 2003

The Celeste Opry features old-fashioned jamborees with country-fried fun for the whole family.

Pull off the road on the second Saturday of every month, and cars and pickups fill almost every diagonal parking space in downtown Celeste.

Outside a building on the north side of U.S. Highway 69, a younger man opens a door for three silver-haired ladies shuffling along the pavement. Older men with cowboy hats and gimme caps sit on two benches on either side of the door, shooting the breeze. A hand-painted cloth banner out front explains the hubbub:
Kountry Music
Tonight 7:30pm

Another smaller, hand-scrawled sign delivers the details: Tonight’s Guest Greg Mealer, Julie Beard Lightfoot, Anna Taylor, Justin Lighfoot, Susie Taylor THE OPRY HOUSE COUNTRYMUSIC SHOW

Over the course of an hour, close to100 people file inside the weathered building between a custom leather store and another saddle shop.

The Celeste Opry is about to begin.

The pilgrims come from Leonard, Greenville, Wylie and other nearby communities. They are a predominantly senior citizen audience. Some are family, fans or friends of one of the featured guests. Most are connected to the Opry House band, led by Tim Gilliam, 53, a stocky gentleman in navy blue T-shirt and jeans. He sings, plays guitar, directs, produces, helps sell popcorn and more or less makes the Celeste Opry happen.

People

Family-style entertainment in a lean, wholesome atmosphere is the meat-and-potatoes of any opry, and he Celeste Opry is no different.

Some bigger oprys – such as the Grapevine Opry, the Texarkana Opry, and Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue in Arlington – are weekly events and feature a mix of established professional entertainers and polished, up-and-coming talent. Most, though, are similar to Celeste’s – small-town affairs run on a shoestring to showcase local talent with a song in their heart and a musical itch to scratch.

Susie Taylor
Susie Taylor belts out a song at the Celeste Opry, accompanied by background vocalist Billie Gilliam (right). Susie is a regular on the Texas opry house circuit. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.

The opry tradition harkens back to vaudeville shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Oprys were a country music variation on the theme and grew in prominence thanks to several that were broadcast on radio. The most famous, the Grand Ole Opry, can still be heard Saturday nights over WSM-AM (630), a 50,000-watt clear channel station in Nashville that reaches most of the East and Midwest.

But even without radio, the opry concept has persisted and, over the past 20 years, enjoyed something of a renaissance. More than 60 oprys are staged across Texas on a weekly or monthly basis.

A family affair

The Celeste Opry’s roots go back to 82-year-old R.C. Gilliam.

“Pop liked to play guitar, but he quit when he went into the service during World War II,” says his son, Tim Gilliam, who lives in Greenville and works at Procter & Gamble Co. in Sherman. “He was intimidated by how well the city boys played. But after he met and married my mother, who’s a singer, he picked it up again.”

The elder Mr. Gilliam and his wife raised their children on the country music pillars of Johnny Cash, Connie Smith and Buck Owens, which led to the Gilliams’ involvement with oprys.

"When I got old enough to perform, I didn’t want to play clubs or bars,” Tim says. “It’s like work, playing those places. If some drunk wants you to play "Your Cheatin’ Heart" 12 times, you’ve got to do it. I wanted to play in a family atmosphere.

“Daddy, me and my brother, we were in a four-piece band,” he says. After performing at different oprys in east and north-central Texas, the Gilliam family decided to put on a country-oriented talent show in the community center in nearby Kingston.

Billed as the Kingston Kountry Music Revue, the monthly variety show debuted in 1983. Father, mother, two sons and a girlfriend destined to marry into the family all pitched in.

Celeste Map
DMN graphic.

“I mowed the yard,” recalls Tim’s wife, Missy. Three years later, Tim moved the show to Celeste, where he says he “made an opry” out of a vacant building that once housed a drugstore and had most recently been a retail outlet for a towel and linen factory. The landlady has kept rent affordable because she’s glad to see the building used.

The format is straightforward. A revolving cast of singers, including several guest vocalists, does one or two songs each over the course of each set, before and after intermission, backed by the Opry House band. Mr. Gilliam describes it as “a set-down-and-listen show, no dancing,” before making a larger point. “It’s an opportunity for everybody to do something on a Saturday night.”

R.C. Gilliam takes tickets in the booth up front. Tim’s brother, Ryon, 37, a banker who lives in Cash, also plays guitar and sings in the house band. So does Tim’s son, Joe Ben, 17, who’s been coming to the Opry “since before he was born,” say his father and mother. Tim’s mother, Billie Gilliam, 75, sings backup vocals as well as taking a few turns as lead vocalist every opry. Missy Gilliam, 43, Tim’s wife and Joe Ben’s mom, runs the “world famous” concession stand behind the stage.

Making an opry

The venue has been a work in progress since it opened. Black curtains have just been added to cover the music stands on the raised stage. A patchwork of colored carpet remnants is affixed to the walls to muffle the sound.

Strings of red, white and blue runner lights enhance the backdrop. A small balcony provides a second vantage point for watching the show. A simple colored disco ball hangs in front of the sound booth to add effects now and then.

The band, whose pay is all the hot dogs they can eat after the show, supports three to five guest vocalists per show, often rehearsing with them before show time.

“We’ve never turned away anyone for being bad,” Tim Gilliam says. “The only reservation I have is if you’ve never sung in front of a live band, you need to come in for an audition. Singing with a band is not like singing along to the radio or singing with karaoke.”

Success is relative. One wall in the backstage concession area is covered with 8-by-10 black and white glossy photos of young female singers, including Stephanie Starr, Misty Sereff, Meagan Counts, many of them poured from the same blond, toothy and precious mold of beauty pageant contestants.

The images testify to the career arc of a chunky, perky North Texas preteen named LeAnn Rimes, who launched her career 13 years ago at Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue, blazing a trail others have chased ever since.

“Debbie Money, she’s in Nashville,” Tim says, pointing to the likeness of one of the Celeste Opry’s bigger favorites. “She started out here 12, 15 years ago.”

As much as Tim accentuates the positive, somewhere along the way he can’t help but roll his eyes and mutter something about “stage moms” under his breath. If every job has a necessary evil, it is the mothers of acts such as those who hang on the wall who give Tim his biggest headaches.

outside Celeste Opry
Intermission at the Celeste Opry finds patrons mingling outside, visiting and taking smoke breaks. Photograph by Randy Eli Grothe.

Ryon Gilliam namedrops Chisai Childs, founder of the Grapevine Opry, where Ryon received a crisp $50 bill – his first professional pay, for a performance almost 30 years ago. “Last I heard she was opening for Shoji Tabuchi in Branson.”

On some nights, Tim Gilliam also does comedy bits, donning a wig to become a character named Meatball, adopting a thick drawl and a stiff swagger to do Johnny Cash, or putting on a mustache and slipping into Spanglish to mimic Freddy Fender. “Once, when the mustache started falling off, the audience went crazy. They really loved that.”

It’s hard not to love an opry, even if you don’t know who Freddy Fender is or don’t like country music.

“You can bring your 6-year-old and there won’t be someone blowing smoke in your face and drunks falling over you,” says Bill Seace, 60, of Irving, testifying while his wife, Pat, sitting next to him, nods. ‘We’ve been to Mount Pleasant, Farmersville, Texarkana, Point. We’ve been coming out here for six, seven years now.”

The Seaces are sitting in the only row of real theater seats in the house, two rows in front of the combo sound and ticket booth, where their son, Kirk Seace, is helping out. Kirk’s wife is the singer Susie Taylor, whom the Seaces follow on the Texas opry house circuit.

Showtime

The opry runs like clockwork. Joe Ben Gilliam opens with “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On” – a song made popular by Mel McDaniel – before Ryon Gilliam covers Tracy Lawrence.

Brian Sudderth, the house band drummer, sings the George Strait and Alan Jackson collaboration, “Designated Drinker.” Susie Taylor nails Loretta Lynn’s “Blue Kentucky Girl” with sassy aplomb. Dwayne Farrow, a DISD music teacher who also plays guitar in the band, croons the Jack Greene classic “Statue of a Fool,” a dreamy triplet with an Orbison streak of bedroom romanticism that moves Tim to comment, “If I hit that note, I’d have had to go to the doctor.”

“If you hit that note, you’d have lost your bridge,” Ryon Gilliam interjects.

Billie Gilliam, the family matron, pays tribute to Patsy Cline, singing “Back in Baby’s Arms.” The familiar songs are all greeted with aound of applause after the first few chords, confirming the audience’s familiarity and approval of song selection.

“Other oprys are political,” says Greg Mealer, the strapping blondhaired singer who is one of the evening’s special guests. The sweet-natured Mr. Mealer, who trains pit bulls for a living, is a realist. “Out here, they’ll give anyone a chance. There’s no one who’s going to get on a bus next month and be opening for Alan Jackson, but there’s some good music going on.”

“This is the only opry we sign up to come to once a month,” Kirk Seace says as the place clears out, closing another Saturday night at the opry. “Some of the bigger ones, you have to be perfect. Here, not being perfect is part of the fun.”

[Visit the Celeste Opry: P.O. Box 478, Celeste, TX 75423-0478, (903) 454-2926]

[visit The Dallas Morning News]


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My Obsession

illustration by Nathan Jensen

My Obsession

Satellite radio
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 19, 2003

All I wanted for Christmas was satellite radio, but I couldn’t wait.

In October, I broke down, got one, had it installed, paid $156 for a year’s subscription, tuned in and turned on. Now all I want for Christmas is a satellite radio in every car and in the house and a lifetime subscription.

See, I’m a radio nut. As a kid, I walked a mile every Wednesday to KFJZ 1270 in Fort Worth to get the Top 40 survey hot off the presses. I’ve remained involved with the medium ever since. (For starters, I’m a regular Monday guest on the Kevin & Kevin show on KGSR-FM). So when I say satellite radio has changed my life, you need to understand what kind of life it is.

Until satellite, my fixation with radio meant knowing way too much about Rush, Sean, and all the frothing right-wing shouters who dominate the AM band and being too intimate with the tics of Brad Messer, Jim Bohannan, Carl Wiglesworth, Jim Rome, Tony Bruno, and La Ranchera de Monterrey. (Disclosure No. 2: I am not a Libertarian). Now, with 100 channels to choose from, those characters have vanished from my life. So have bad infomercials for miracle joint medication.

Instead, I channel-hop from three jazz stations, an all-jam channel, channels dedicated to nothing but the blues, folk 24-seven, bluegrass, and global hip-hop to various shades of contemporary and alternative rock, country, reggae, and world music, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, Bloomberg, and the BBC. Not long after I got satellite, I drove from Austin to Houston to Fort Worth in the same day. I could’ve just as well gone on to Amarillo.

In one 15-minute stretch, I heard Doug Sahm lamenting about not going back to Austin anymore, John Coltrane blowing “My Favorite Things,” OutKast doing their version of the same song, “Jet Song” from West Side Story, and the latest news from Radio New Zealand. I even finally “got” French chanteuse Edith Piaf as she warbled her way through “Accordeoniste.”

My obsession began in 1999 when I cornered Mark Cuban, then one of two founders of Broadcast.com, a collection of radio stations on the Internet, after he gave the keynote address at South by Southwest Interactive.

“I love hearing all these different radio stations from all over the world online,” I told him. “How can I do that in my car?”

Cuban related how the Federal Communications Commission had licensed two companies to establish satellite radio networks, which would broadcast from outer space to the whole nation and give listeners a far broader selection of choices than existed on the AM and FM bands. Theoretically, it was the radio equivalent of subscription satellite television.

Cuban and his partner Todd Wagner subsequently sold their business to Yahoo! and became billionaires. I followed up Cuban’s tip, invested heavily in the two licensed companies, Sirius and XM, and lost my ass when the high tech bubble burst.

Since then, both XM and Sirius managed to stay solvent, launch satellites, develop receivers for consumers, and in the past couple of years become real radio networks. XM has the lion’s share of the market — 1 million subscribers to Sirius’ 150,000 — largely because it had a one-year jump getting product into stores and has stayed ahead with innovations such as a device that allows listeners with Sirius radios to dial up XM, too. The FCC has ordered both companies to develop radios compatible with either service.

Still, tech glitches, the considerable expense of buying and installing a satellite radio, and my bad financial bet kept me away until I was offered a next-to-nothing deal for a Sirius Plug & Play radio this fall. Three hundred dollars later, it’s a brand-new bag.

Although it has considerably fewer subscribers and costs more ($12.95 compared to XM’s $9.95 monthly tab), Sirius’ 60 music channels are commercial-free; XM’s music channels run two minutes of advertising per hour, still considerably less than over-air stations. Sirius’ talk stations include two NPR streams, a PRI stream, “liberal” talk streams, and the only gay-lesbian radio channel in the nation.

Plus, since I vote with my pocketbook, the considerable investment by Clear Channel, the San Antonio-based company that has choked creativity in radio, in XM and the involvement of Lee Abrams, the radio programmer credited with turning free-form progressive rock radio into a highly structured, highly profitable format known as AOR (“album-oriented rock”) 30 years ago, sealed the Sirius deal.

Sirius has two Plug & Play models you can insert into “docking stations” at home and in other cars, but the signal from the Audiovox I purchased first was getting “stepped on” by all four of the available frequencies one tuned in to in order to pick up the satellite signal. When I complained to Sirius, I was offered the Kenwood Here2Anywhere Plug & Play. The signal conflict is resolved because the Kenwood has a direct FM modulator, though the smaller screen makes it more difficult to read what’s playing, which is one of the biggest plusses of both satellite services.

Eventually receivers on the market will be cheaper and pick up both Sirius and XM signals, which the FCC has mandated. It’s going to take several years’ worth of new cars with factory-installed satellite radio for the concept to be fully embraced.

As much as I have come to enjoy Talk of the Nation, The Splendid Table, The Savvy Traveler, Whad’ya Know, and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! — all fare from NPR and PRI not heard on local affiliate KUT-FM — the music channels are the big difference. The six hip-hop stations have exposed me to nuances of the street that have previously escaped me with solid jocks stringing the mixes together. The five dance channels, particularly the rave channel, are guaranteed uppers whenever I need an audio pep pill. The three classical channels and the jazz, swing, show tunes, and bluegrass channels are my top choices for sonic wallpaper as I cruise.

Sirius has turned me on to Jet, a hard-banging band from Australia; Krishna Das’ grooving chant “Kashi Vishwanath Gange” on the Horizons world beat channel; cool dance remixes of Nina Simone; and Iggy Pop redux now that he’s in heavy rotation with Sum 41 on several channels. I’ve heard more Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Clash in the past month than I have in the last decade. Then there’s Lou Reed’s live, barn-burning version of “Rock N Roll,” Lucinda, Chris Duarte, Omar, Lou Ann, Wayne the Train, and Marcia Ball more than once.

It’s not perfect. I’m already burned out on “Take Five” on Pure Jazz, and anything by the Pet Shop Boys. Although the Radio Mexicana channel and Planet Hip-Hop do a good job covering contemporary Latin sounds, there ought to be room for a Tejano channel like there is on XM. The talk channels could use some fine-tuning. The audio feeds from Fox, CNN, CNBC, and the Weather Channel don’t translate well, and as engaging as the BBC is, the UK POV isn’t always my cuppa tea.

Satellite radio won’t kill terrestrial radio. Even though I’ve found several variations of what I’d describe as KGSR’s adult-alternative format on Sirius, including Organic Rock, the Trend, the Bridge, Folk Town, and the Border, none has a Kevin & Kevin, Jody Denberg, a Sam & Bob, a Dudley & Bob, or a Buck on sports. Truth is, traffic reports, news, weather, and local flavor just can’t be done effectively from national headquarters in New York or Washington, D.C., where XM broadcasts from.

Similarly, as much as I enjoy NPR and PRI programming (caveat: Morning Edition and All Things Considered are not part of NPR’s Sirius package), I still prefer Aielli, Ray, Monroe, Trachtenberg, Ferguson, the departed Dan Foster, and the rest of the KUT music gang programming my sounds. They’re shining examples of why Austin radio doesn’t sound cookie-cutter if you know where and when to listen.

Local will always trump national with me. I do hope satellite puts pressure on Clear Channel, which owns one of every 10 commercial terrestial stations in the nation, including KVET-FM, KVET-AM, KHFI, and Z102, to ditch their cookie-cutter programming mentality that envisions a KISS-FM in every city with the same jock as host instead of emphasizing programming that reflects the city they’re broadcasting in.

But if they don’t, that’s not my problem anymore. I like what I’m hearing when I’m driving. You don’t have to take my word. Log on to www.sirius.com and www.xmradio.com and check it out. Just remember, the first listen is free. The subscriptions aren’t.

[My Obsession in the Austin Chroncicle]


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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.


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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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Stay All Night

Stay All Night – Buddy Holly’s Country Roots

Stay All NightWest Texas Roots
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2004

Buddy Holly took the world by storm when he broke out of Lubbock, Texas in 1957. His singing and playing was the freshest version of rock and roll to come down the line. It was as if his music had come out of a vacuum from somewhere in the middle of the proverbial nowhere. But locals knew better. Before there was Buddy Holly, the all-American rock and roll hero, there was Buddy Holly, the good ol’ boy from the Hub City of the south plains know for his style of Western Bop. That was a nice way of saying that the hormone-addled nitro-fueled teenager played western, honky tonk, and western swing music with way too much energy and enthusiasm to pigeonhole him as plain old country. Countless hours of picking and singing went into polishing, honing, and embellishing his sound that would later become an international sensation.

Stay All Night – Buddy Holly’s Country Roots is the first historical accounting of how Holly got where he did, performed by those who knew Holly best: Buddy’s bandmates; Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch, and Larry Welborn, and Buddy’s earliest professional collaborator Jack Neal. They are joined by the Texas Playboys, that swinging big band led by Bob Wills from down the road in Turkey, Texas. Adding to the account are Buddy’s brothers and mentors, Larry and Travis Holley, and his contemporaries Al Perkins and Billy Grammer. Featured also are a new generation of stars from Lubbock – the Flatlanders; Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock; and some Holly disciples from far beyond Lubbock including Robert Reynolds from the Mavericks, and blues masters Judy Luis-Watson and Paul Watson. Together these players weave the cultural heritage of West Texas through the thread of this music. Each and every song is an old familiar tune for those who grew up in Buddy Holly’s place and time. Some are jukebox standards, others dancehall favorites. A few drifted in on static airwaves from faraway radio stations in Shreveport and Nashville. Two are previously unreleased tracks by Buddy Holly and Jack Neal as performed for their radio show on Lubbock station KDAV. Each and every track tells a piece of the story about how the torch was passed to the kid with horn-rimmed glasses, and how that torch has been passed on to others.

Stay All Night is more than the name of a song. It’s more than an album title for a collection of soulful, heartfelt songs that could have been made nowhere but Texas.

Stay All Night is a celebration of a talent like no one before or since, the talent that nourished Buddy, and the talent he’s inspired since, from Lubbock, Texas to the entire planet.

[More About West Texas Roots]


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The Ride – Los Lobos

The Ride – Los Lobos

Los Lobos - The RideHarp Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September/October 2004

When it comes to defining American music over the past quarter century, no band comes close to Los Lobos. It would be understandable, given their long track record, if they slacked off now and then, as The Ride’s lengthy lineup of guest artists including Cafe Tacuba, Bobby Womack, Ruben Blades, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Mavis Staples and Garth Hudson seems to suggest. (What? Rob Thomas wasn’t available?). But fears of sliding into complacency are alleviated from the first throaty honk of Steve Berlin’s bari sax on "La Venganza de Los Pelados," the opening track on which Los Lobos flash their Mexicanismo credentials all the way through the last note of "Chains of Love." Sure the guests gussy up the proceedings, particularly Elvis’ turn on "Matter of Time" and Mavis Staples’ soaring vocals on "Someday." But it’s tracks like "Rita"√Ďall atmosphere, introspection, with no outside help whatsoever-that make this more than just another album from just another band from East L.A.. With Los Lobos in charge, music doesn’t get any better than this in these United States.

[Los Lobos] [Hollywood Records] [Harp Magazine]


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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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