Richard Dobson is a Texas singer-songwriter from Tyler and former roughneck who gamboled around Galveston and Houston, then Austin and Nashville, before spending the past 13 years living in Switzerland and playing all over Europe. That’s the shorthand. The long version is this fine piece of contemporary literature, Pleasures of the High Rhine – A Texas Singer in Exile.
I’ve known Richard since the 1970s when he was hanging around Austin and sometimes touring as part of Townes Van Zandt’s band, as told in his previous book Gulf Coast Boys, and have stayed in touch over the years by reading his eloquent observations in his occasional Don Ricardo’s Life and Times newsletter.
He’s enjoyed nominal success, his songs having been covered by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Kelly Willis, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, and the Carter Family, among others. As solid as his tunes are, it’s Dobson’s literary writing that grabs me.
Pleasures of the High Rhine was written at a critical time in Dobson’s life: his friends Townes and the writer Roxy Gordon have died fairly young, leaving him to contemplate their lives and demise. A red-haired Swiss woman has left her family and joined him in Galveston for a year before returning to Switzerland as a couple. A new millennium has begun.
Pleasures of the High Rhine covers songwriting, collaborating, performing and recording with a German band led by Thomm Jutz (now a Nashville cat), the strangeness of playing venues that ostensibly showcase American country music, and observations thereof, a critical skill for any songwriter.
But it’s also about living as an expatriate in a foreign country, redefining what home is, learning to speak German, being welcomed into a new family, living on the Swiss-German border, food, drink, his relationship with Edith, trips back to Houston and Nashville, gardening (including growing his own marijuana in a society that doesn’t much care one way or another) aging, and, water.
The latter is where Dobson really sings. He opens with a passage about fishing in the Gulf off of Galveston, down to describing the second and third sandbars offshore and the joys of “green water” fishing in the fall when the Gulf clarifies briefly into Caribbean-like beauty. Finding beauty in its harsh roughness, he writes the Texas Gulf like no one I’ve read before.
He soon finds himself on the Rhine River and delves into it with similar zeal and a newfound curiosity.
His pursuit of a fishing license – no easy thing in Switzerland, requiring an extensive 140 question test in Deutsch – a steep learning curve how to fish the Rhein, especially for elusive trout, and his summer swims in the river lead to deep history of the river and its inhabitants, including not so pleasant events such as Kristalnacht when synagogues were burned and Jews persecuted, and the historic fouling and restoration of the waterway.
He gets it.
Contemporary global events such as the election of George W. Bush and 9-11 are seen from a distance that lends perspective, written by a kindred spirit.
The finest singer-songwriters possess the gift where their words often transcend the music. In Pleasures of the High Rhine, Richard Dobson’s words simply sing.
Available through mytexasmusic.com
Friend Joe Gracey passed in mid November, just after his 61st birthday, so his friends and family are throwing a big ol’ bash for him on Sunday, December 4 @ 2 pm at Austin City Limits Live in downtown Austin. Even if you never heard of Joe, if you dig Austin, Texas music and all that is cool about this part of the world, you’re invited to send off one of the tastemakers who made it so.
I am honored to have been asked by his family to write his obituary. God bless Kimmie, Jolie, Gabe, Jeremie, brother Bill, and all his friends and relatives.
After a well-spent life defined by a series of reinventions, each more outrageous and ‘way cooler than the previous one, Joe Gracey has left the building – this place we call earth. Born in Fort Worth on November 14, 1950, Joe distinguished himself as a communicator at an early age. He built his own radio studio in the family attic in sixth grade, mowed lawns to get his first guitar, played in teen bands alongside fellow Fort Worth- ers Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and projected gravitas and au- thority as a veteran newsman and familiarity and intimacy as a country music disc jockey for KXOL-AM and FM when the 16 year old wasn’t at- tending classes at Paschal High School. His mother drove him to work at the radio station.
Like many other young Texans of his generation, he gravitated to Aus- tin to attend the University of Texas where he graduated with a degree in American Studies while moonlighting on Austin’s Top 40 radio station, KNOW-AM, and writing the first rock music column for the Austin American-Statesman, immediately over- stepping his assigned category by writing about country and folk music too, focusing on the unique country-rock musical hybrid that was incubating in Austin.
In 1974, he joined KOKE-FM in Austin, the first progressive country radio station in the world. Blessed with a warm, full-bodied voice with enough of a lingering drawl to leave no doubt where he came from, Gracey be- came an intimate friend to strangers who discovered they could learn a few things about music by listening to the radio; unlike his broadcasting peers, Gracey was fixated on what he said as much as how he said it.
Smart and a smartass both, he was a pillar of a burgeoning music community on the verge of being discov- ered nationally and internationally. He welcomed music fans to some of the most exciting and eclectic music be- ing created as one of the voices who did radio commercials for the storied Armadillo World Headquarters. It was Ol’ Blue Eyes, as he called himself, who coolly and casually opened his microphone so Willie Nelson and his friend Kris Kristofferson could perform an impromptu concert for listeners at home.
Gracey not only played Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours, he took the time to explain ET’s signifi- cance and line out Tubb’s hip bona fides for a generation that had previously ignored their parents’ and grandparents’ music. He turned on music lovers to exotic sounds in their own backyard such as Tex-Mex con- junto music as articulated by his friends Doug Sahm, Ry Cooder, and Flaco Jimenez; and western swing, the almost-forgotten Made In Texas country-jazz hybrid popularized in the 1930s, kickstarting its revival by put- ting Asleep at the Wheel and Alvin Crow into heavy rotation. Gracey played a critical role defining Super Roper Radio, as KOKE was known, demonstrating how the Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons were related to George Jones and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. In that respect, he was as influential as Willie Nelson, Austin’s musical godfather, in bringing the hippies and the rednecks together through the common love of music.
With Gracey as program director, Billboard magazine crowned KOKE-FM as “Trendsetter of the Year.”
Gracey’s trendspotting abilities earned him the role as talent coordinator for the new “Austin City Limits,” now the longest-running music series on American television, when the series started in 1976. Through Gracey, the remaining Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Flaco Jimenez y Su Conjunto, and Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Zydeco Band performed for national television audiences for the first time. His byline continued ap- pearing in the Austin Sun and the literary country music journal Picking Up the Tempo.
In the summer of 1977, inspired by his mentor Cowboy Jack Clement, he left KOKE-FM a few weeks before the station’s format switched, and headed downstairs to the basement of the KOKE building where he fash- ioned a four track TEAC recorder and two windowless offices into the funky, duct-taped recording studio known as Electric Graceyland. The studio was the site of some of the first recordings of future blues legends Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miss Lou Ann Barton; The Skunks, Austin’s first punk band; and Tex-Mex rockers Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns. Gracey also recorded the demo that scored the Fabulous Thunderbirds their first record contract and worked the dials for Lubbock songster Butch Hancock and his Dixie’s Bar and Bus Stop cable television music series. He recorded Stevie Vaughan and Barton and the band Double Trouble at Clement’s Nashville studio.
He used Electric Graceyland to collaborate musically with his partner in crime, Bobby Earl Smith, as the Jackalope Brothers. Gracey and Smith also did radio promotion for Alvin Crow & The Pleasant Valley Boys while Gracey often opened shows for Crow with his brother Bill as The Amazing Graceys.
It was during this flurry of recording and promoting that Gracey was dealt the lousy hand of a cancer diagno- sis that eventually robbed him of his gifted voice.
Only 27, Gracey fought the hard fight medically while simultaneously adapting. A Magic Slate kids’ erasable writing tablet tucked under his arm became a Gracey accessory so he could scribble a quick response to any questions and allow him to engage in conversations, followed by the soft, barely-audible rip as he cleared the pad to erase the message once his words were understood.
In 1979, his friend TJ McFarland introduced him to the love of his life, Kimmie Rhodes, a singer-songwriter from Lubbock, as well as a playwright, painter, writer, and all-around creative force.
They married in 1984 and settled in Briarcliff where he helped raise Kimmie’s sons from a previous marriage, Gabe and Jeremie Rhodes, and their daughter, Jolie Morgan Goodnight Gracey. A family band emerged with Gracey playing bass and Gabe, a talented producer in his own right, who absorbed all the nuances of the elec- tronic recording art from Joe, playing guitar.
Kimmie and their neighbor Joe Sears started writing plays together and Gracey joined the fun as an actor, playing the part of the skeleton barkeeper in the play “Windblown,” and the role of the clown in “Small Town Girl,” in addition to other performances.
He also worked the audio console at nearby Pedernales Studios for a number of years and in 1996 was at the controls for Nelson’s groundbreaking album, Spirit, which inspired Nelson to redefine his live sound. Gracey and David Zettner built the small, simple recording studio in the back of Willie’s Luck World Headquarters saloon where Willie liked to hold court and make music at the spur of the moment, which yielded the albums, Picture in a Frame, Willie’s 2003 album of duets with Kimmie, and the Grammy-nominated collaboration be- tween Willie and Ray Price, Run That By Me One More Time.
Rhodes and Gracey’s shared love of food and fine wine (he learned how to keep boudin warm on his Cadillac’s engine returning from a trip to visit Clifton Chenier in Lafayette, Louisiana), along with numerous European tours by Rhodes launched another career for Gracey – food writer – as championed by their friend Colman Andrews, the editor of Saveur magazine, for whom Gracey did several pieces. Joe and Kimmie also taught cooking classes together. Their food adventures and Kimmie’s continued popularity in Europe eventu- ally led to the couple’s renovation of a small 1,000 year old stable-farmhouse in the Languedoc province of France.
Gracey never stopped creating, and he started a blog, Letters from Graceyland (Graceyland.blogspot.com) to share his latest adventures with readers.
Cancer-free for 30 years, the beast reentered his life in 2009. The bad news was accompanied by good news though. Doctors at M.D. Anderson Hospital would embark on experimental surgery that led to a partial resto- ration of his voice. But the new cancer was joined by other cancer, leading to several months of treatments in Houston. Afterwards, Joe and Kimmie were able to spend some weeks together in their French place again with friends and family before returning to Texas one last time.
Sickness never defined Joe’s life. It was an irritant and obstacle to be overcome so he could pursue his many interests. He defined it; it didn’t define him. And although so much of his professional career revolved around music, his life was much more than that too, as his extensive network of family and friends that spanned the globe would attest to.
They all knew that Gracey’s presence could never be ignored. He was not the kind of person to let that hap- pen. Which is why despite his unplanned departure, he wanted his friends, family, and all the strangers he never met to hold close to their hearts the advice he dispensed whenever he signed off from another shift on the radio:
“Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can.”
Joe is survived by his wife Kimmie Rhodes Gracey, daughter Jolie Gracey Musick and husband Jason; sons Jeremie Rhodes, Gabriel Rhodes and wife Carmen; grandchildren Louis and Ruby Rhodes, Isaac and Isabella Bryson; brother Bill Gracey and wife Cathy; nieces Christy and Kate Gracey; and, Louis’ mother, Jamie Rhodes.
The family is grateful for the loving care and attention provided by M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Nobelity Project (www.nobelity.org) or M.D. Anderson Can- cer Center (www.mdanderson.org).
A public celebration of Joe’s life will be held on December 4, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. at the Austin City Limits Moody Theater, 210 W. Willie Nelson Boulevard, in downtown Austin, Texas 78701. Y’all come.
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The band I managed back in the 1980s, Stiff Records artists Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns (Joe King, Kris Cummings, Brad Kizer, Miguel Navarro) have reformed 30 years after the fact for a Texas Tourette.
Dates are Friday, June 17 @ the Continental Club Houston
Saturday, June 18 @ the Back Porch, Port Aransas
Friday, June 24 @ Poor David’s, Dallas
Saturday, June 25 @ Antone’s, Austin
Sunday, June 26 @ Sam’s Burger Joint, San Antonio.
Here’s the story:
In the late summer 1979, Joe “King” Carrasco formed a stripped-down four-piece combo to replace his Chicano big band, El Molino. Dubbed the Crowns, organist/accordionist Kris Cummings, bassist Brad Kizer, and drummer Miguel Navarro backed up Carrasco at Raul’s, the famed punk club, and the Hole-in-the-Wall, and other University of Texas-area venues in Austin, quickly gaining a following around their revved-up Tex-Mex brand of punk rock, harkening back to the classic Vox and Farfisa organ-driven sound first popularized by the 1960s Texas bands Sir Douglas Quintet (“She’s About A Mover”), Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs (“Wooly Bully”), and ? And the Mysterians (“96 Tears”).
In November 1979, Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns made their first trip to New York City where Joe “King” almost gave the Lone Star Café’s owner, Mort Cooperman, a heart attack when he jumped off the club’s balcony onto the stage. The band was such a sensation, they were invited to play the storied Mudd Club downtown, and returned to Austin with critical praise from New York’s music press including Lester Bangs and John Rockwell of the New York TImes.
Armed with a 45 rpm single “Party Weekend” b/w “Houston El Mover” that was financed by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, the band returned to New York in the spring of 1980 to record a demo album for Warner Brothers Records, which was eventually released on ROIR records as “Tales From the Crypt,” and platy two weeks worth of dates at CBGB’s, Hurrah, TR3, which would lead to more bookings at the Danceteria, the Peppermint Lounge, and the Bottom Line, as well as appearances in Washington, DC, Boston, Toronto, Providence, and other cities in the northeast.
By the end of the summer, Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns signed a recording contract with Stiff Records in England and embarked on the Son of Stiff Tour with Tenpole Tudor, Dirty Looks, the Equators, and Any Trouble, an extended three-month tour of the United Kingdom, Europe, and the northeastern United States, promoting their debut album and the single “Buena,” a Top Ten hit in France and Sweden that charted in the Top 40 on the BBC.
While overseas, the band filmed a video of “Buena” in London, and taped television appearances in Spain, France, and on Musicladen in Germany, which was broadcast across the Continent.
In January, 1981, the band issued their first US album on the Hannibal label for music empresario Joe Boyd and appeared on the television series “Saturday Night Live” and was a featured act on a new cable television channel called MTV. Later that year, JKC and the Crowns made their West Coast debut at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go behind their Hannibal EP “Party Safari” and played a date in the basement of Hollywood’s Cathay de Grande where they shared the bill with Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs and Los Lobos, making their West LA debut.
Joe “King” Carrasco & The Crowns played a critical role in exporting the Austin sound and Texas music around the world, while establishing the band as one of the most popular music-makers in the Lone Star state in clubs, at Spring Break in South Padre Island, and in arenas and outdoor venues such as Red Rocks, the Frank Erwin Center, the Summit, the Ritz, and Southpark Meadows where they shared the bill with the Talking Heads, the Police, REMm UB 40, the English Beat, the Go-Gos, George Thorogood, and Culture Club.
Thirty years later, the band that exported Tex-Mex Rock-Roll around the globe has reunited for a limited number of Texas dates, demonstrating to fans that what they had heard all those years ago was no mirage: Joe “King” Carrasco & the Crowns rock like no one else before or since.
|Photos courtesy of Miller Outdoor Theatre Advisory Board|
Accordion Kings & Queens Festival
Miller Outdoor Theatre
June 4, 2011
Timing can be everything. And it only took about ten seconds standing in the wings 20 feet from Clifton Chenier’s former guitarist Lil Buck Sinegal and the rest of Corey Ledet’s zydeco band as they kicked off their portion of Saturday’s Accordion Kings & Queens festival to realize that these guys had just opened a can of Deep South Louisiana badass, and that something very special was about to go down.
It was also immediately apparent that Clifton Chenier’s Houston-born baby, zydeco, had met New Orleans’ Congo Square head on in a massive groove collision somewhere near Breaux Bridge and that all was right with the world.
People always bring up guitar technical whiz Sonny Landreth when they talk about Chenier’s classic zydeco band, but Sinegal (right) was the man behind the sound for many, many years, and Saturday night he was the coolest of the cool cats as he locked in with the backline of bassist Tony Delafose and drummer Rusty Metoyer.
Sinegal was doubling Delafose’s bass line note for note, cutting the groove deeper and deeper and turning the orchestra pit at Miller into a dancehall. There isn’t much live music more joyous than listening to and watching a locked-in Louisiana rhythm section laying down the voodoo hoodoo.
While many of Houston’s music lovers battled the heat and crowds of Saturday’s opening day of Summer Fest, another 4,000 or so took advantage of an unusually breezy cool evening for early June on the hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre to catch the finals of Texas Folklife Resourcess 22nd annual Big Squeeze contest, followed by the Accordion Kings & Queens extravaganza.
Fifteen-year-old Ignacio “Nachito” Morales of Dallas was this year’s Big Squeeze champion, beating out Pasadena’s own 12-year-old child accordion prodigy Isaiah Tellez, as well as La Joya’s Omar Garza and Joseph Garcia of Victoria. Morales received $1,000, a new Hohner accordion and recording time at Corpus Christi’s Hacienda Records for his victory.
Accordion Kings & Queens, emceed once again by Willie Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski, also serves as a showcase for the stylistic diversity of Texas’ national instrument. The large, festive, family-oriented crowd cheered mightily for conjunto veterans Mickey y sus Carnales, who fired up the proceedings and brought back fond memories of Houston’s Tejano heyday with their old-school Tejano/conjunto set.
And just to add a taste of spice and a feeling of kismet to the proceedings, the festival organizers brought in Denton’s nuclear polka band Brave Combo as the evening’s headliner. One of the truly unique bands in Texas for over 20 years, the Combo moves in rarified air, floating effortlessly from klezmer to conjunto to “Chopsticks” without a change of expression.
The band is, in a word, musical virtuosity personified, but with a very Texan stamp. And if the true test of music is joy and dancing, you should have been at Miller Outdoor Theatre to see the smiles on the faces of the children who were present. That said it all.
Bid to honor Western swing music hits sour note in Texas Legislature Does Western swing icon Bob Wills’ work represent Texas music better than Van Cliburn’s? Or Roy Orbison’s? Or Brave Combo’s? Or Johnny Winter’s? Or…?
By KAREN BROOKS Austin Bureau firstname.lastname@example.org
AUSTIN — An effort to make Western swing the official music of Texas could see miles and miles of opposition, as one Hill Country music lover finds herself in the opening stanzas of a debate over what defines “Texas music.” “When we’re talking about a symbol, we’re talking about culture and heritage and history, and something that has been long lasting,” said Paula Jungmann, a Boerne housewife who is pushing for the legislative declaration. “When I look at Western swing, that is what I see.” But while she counts no time in politics, Jungmann is discovering that elected officials and creative artist types are pages torn from the same songbook in two big ways: You never know what they’re going to do, and you’ll never get them all to agree on anything. Some musicians — and the “Beer-drinkers and Hell-raisers” who love them (thank you, ZZ Top) — are wondering whether lawmakers should be trying to define and symbolize Texas music in terms of one genre. Particularly if it leaves out Hank Williams’ pain songs, Newbury’s train songs and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” “The official sound of Texas should be Texas music in all its glorious facets,” said Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski. “No official proclamation is necessary when everybody knows we make music better than anybody else.”
Natalie Maines and Lloyd Maines. (Photo by Danny Turner)
Ya’ll in the Family
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
What Natalie Maines Learned From Her Father. What Lloyd Maines Learns From His Daughter. A Tale Of Kinship And Country Music.
“Stand straight. Keep your chin down. Relax. Quit worrying you’ll look like you’re a goober.”
For most of Natalie Maines’s life, her father, Lloyd, the potential goober, was her major influence. He was the one with the music career the revered producer of records by everyone from Jerry Jeff Walker to Wayne Hancock, and a wicked-good steel guitar player to boot and she obviously learned from him well, though his teachings were so low-key and subtle that she realizes today she learned most everything by osmosis. And it was he who facilitated the deal that landed her in the Dixie Chicks, her ticket to the big time. But in this East Austin photographer’s studio, before lights and cameras that are completely foreign to a behind-the-scenes player like Lloyd, she’s the one who calls the shots. She has even loaned him the makeup artist she had flown in from Nashville (standard operating procedure when you’re a chart-topping country star) and taken the time to give him a few tips on applying foundation. Natalie’s on a much-deserved break from the road right now, she has told me, turning down all requests for interviews and media ops. But since her dad is involved, she has made an exception. She’d do anything for him.
And he for her. Reflecting his laid-back approach to life, 48-year-old Lloyd patiently waits for his daughter to strike a pose before he straightens up and places his hands on her shoulders. His idea of mischief is to make devil’s horns with his fingers behind her head. For her part, 25-year-old Natalie whose public image is that of a bubbly spitfire hardly able to contain her energy and always looking as if she’s about to burst into song handles the session like a seasoned pro, cool, calm, and quiet, until she turns on the perky charisma and flashes a radiant smile in anticipation of the whirs and clicks.
Posing is business as usual for her. She’s used to having all eyes on her in this case, makeup artists, publicists, photographers, and photographer’s assistants, who do what they do so she can do what she’s supposed to do. But with her mother, Tina, looking on, the superstar seems abnormally normal. For a few moments, she’s the sweet gal from Lubbock all over again, joshing with her daddy. He’s hugging her. She’s hugging a guitar. They’re the unsung first family of Texas music, playing themselves.LLOYD HAS NEVER BEEN ANYTHING BUT normal. An exceptionally decent fellow, particularly for someone in his line of work, he’s as earthy today as he was 25 years ago, when he made his name as a member of the Joe Ely Band, a crack ensemble way too raucous for Nashville tastes but with too much High Plains red dirt in their boots to pass as rockers. His steel guitar was their secret weapon. He played it like it was a nitro-fueled dragster, which certainly went against the grain of how steels were supposed to sound in those days: all weepy and morose, as a counterpoint to the melody. It was while he was working with Ely that Lloyd developed a side interest in producing. His first project, Terry Allen’s Lubbock (On Everything), was a rather auspicious debut. Recorded at Don Caldwell’s studio in 1977, the album still holds up as the most succinct commentary on the West Texas condition ever captured on audiotape. The session cemented Lloyd’s reputation as something of an efficiency expert too. The band he put together featuring his brother Kenny on bass and a drummer named Curtis McBride jumped in behind Allen and his leather briefcase full of songs to complete 22 tracks in two days. Lubbock (On Everything) also put on view Lloyd’s particular knack for bringing out the best in people. “Terry had recorded before for Capitol, and when he did, the producer gave him grief for stomping his foot as he sang,” he says. “Instead of trying to hide that, we kept it in. His foot became the kick drum.”
The work that followed was mostly of a more mundane variety, meaning whoever and whatever walked in the doors of Caldwell’s studio. There were aspiring country stars, of course, and rock and rollers, along with Christian contemporary and gospel groups, heavy metal bands, conjuntos and other Tex-Mexers, and local commercial clients that needed audio for radio and TV spots. He also took the lead in producing the eight albums recorded by the Maines Brothers Band, the country and country-pop combine that dominated the South Plains live music circuit after Ely moved to Austin in 1981.
Ely had wanted him to come along, but Lloyd decided to stay in Lubbock so that he and Tina could raise their two daughters, Kim and Natalie, where they themselves had come of age. He got off the road altogether following an extended international tour on which the Ely band opened for the English punk band the Clash. “My kids were old enough for me to realize that they needed a dad at home,” he says. “And I liked the idea of producing, of recording something that’s going to be around a long time for people to criticize and analyze, as opposed to playing live, which was for the moment. It didn’t matter what I produced. I just enjoyed the process, and it allowed me to pay the bills.”
Neither he nor Tina had made a big deal of what he did for a living. He had made flying all over the world with Ely and rubbing elbows with Linda Ronstadt seem like another day at the office. But it sure rubbed off. “I remember Terry and Joe and the Tornado Jams and Stubb’s,” Natalie says. “But I didn’t grasp how great they were. The person I really remember is Jo Harvey [Allen, Terry’s wife, an accomplished playwright and actress]. I adored her. I always wanted to hang out with her. I was sort of a little brat. And her term of endearment for me was ‘little shit,’ as in, ‘You know, you’re a real little shit.’ I loved it.”
No one remembers exactly when Natalie’s destiny became obvious. She hadn’t taken a single singing lesson, but she had quite a voice and an attitude to back it up. It might have been when the precocious three-year-old continued banging on the piano, willfully ignoring her dad’s demands that she stop even though she knew she was making him mad. Or a year later, when she tap-danced to Cecil Caldwell’s music and sang “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” backed by the Maines Brothers Band at the West Texas Opry.
“Dad was putting me onstage whenever I wanted,” she says. “I’d go to rehearsal and work up a song for the show with the band. He was just so proud.” Tina thinks it might have been the time Natalie’s second-grade teacher called her at home after Natalie refused to answer a particular math question “because I’m going to be a star.” Standing in line one day at the Baskin-Robbins, Tina became certain that her daughter was headed for some kind of career: “All of a sudden I heard ‘Greased Lightnin” being belted out behind me and I cringed. She knew every lyric and every line of dialogue from both Grease and West Side Story and could recite them in several different dialects. She had Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’ down cold.”
Lloyd was pragmatic about accommodating his little girl, but he wasn’t pushy. If he needed someone to sing backing vocals for a commercial, he knew Natalie would be only too happy to help. “One time he needed a vampire’s laugh for a spook house, and he let me do it,” she recalls. “The guy designing the spook house said I was excellent.” And whenever Natalie asked, Lloyd passed on the sort of deep knowledge that isn’t taught in school, like the value of doing your own songs and keeping your publishing rights, or how if someone called you “baby” in L.A., it was the same as someone in Nashville calling you “hoss.”
After graduating from Lubbock High School a year early, Natalie spent a semester at Canyon’s West Texas A&M University before transferring to South Plains College in Levelland, which was closer to home. There, her musical inclinations became her studies, and she began performing on her own more. With Lloyd backing her up on acoustic guitar and manning the console, she made a demo tape and earned a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Again, one semester far from home was enough. She moved back to Lubbock in 1995 and had enrolled at Texas Tech University when she got the call that changed her life.
Daddy had already given his blessing in advance. His production credits on albums by Jimmie Dale Gilmore (his self-titled second recording for the HighTone label), Butch Hancock (The Wind’s Dominion and Diamond Hill), and Jerry Jeff Walker (Navajo Rug) had raised his profile enough that he had great word-of-mouth within the community of Texas country players. It was this reputation that led to, among other things, a stint playing on two albums by a fringe-wearing girl group talented enough to play their own banjos, guitars, and fiddles. They called themselves the Dixie Chicks.
After Robin Lynn Macy and then Laura Lynch had left the Chicks, founding sisters Emily Erwin and Martie Seidel sought Lloyd’s advice for a replacement. He gave them a copy of the demo tape Natalie had made for Berklee. Could his daughter have the right stuff for them? He was apprehensive: She was only twenty his baby girl. He knew the road was treacherous. But he also knew she was a go-getter who absorbed things fast.
Natalie accepted an invitation to try out with one caveat. “I won’t wear those cowgirl clothes,” she told Emily and Martie. A week later, she was performing onstage as the third Chick. The band’s sound and look changed dramatically. So did its financial outlook.
Especially after Lloyd brought a certain tune to the Chicks. He’d gotten a call from a woman in Amarillo named Susan Gibson, who asked if he’d be interested in producing a record by the band she played in, the Groobees. He sat down to listen to their audition tape and was floored by the first song, about a child leaving home. He played it nine times. “The dad even says, ‘Check your oil,'” Lloyd marvels. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that.” After producing the Groobees, he persuaded the Chicks to cover the song, “Wide Open Spaces.” He says that when he sits in with the Chicks on the road, “you think you’re at a Beatles concert. These girls and these guys have tears in their eyes. It’s like an anthem.”
Having her father play with her band has made Natalie aware of how much they are in sync with each other. “We actually hear things the same way what to hear, how a song is structured,” she says. “Some of it’s telepathic. He’ll just stop the tape and I’ll know what he’s going to say.” Sometimes she even knows what he’s supposed to say. “When we played ‘Cowboy Take Me Away’ on The Tonight Show, we all told him during rehearsal that he was doing one little lick different from what was on the record, and he’s the one playing on the recording. We had to teach him the lick again.”
The best trick that Lloyd picked up in the studio and passed on to Natalie has been how to use and not use reverb, the echo effect that was cultivated by Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico, and became Buddy Holly’s signature. “Norman had the most calming effect in the studio,” Lloyd says. “One thing he taught me was that when you’re overdubbing, it’s best not to let yourself hear reverb, because you’ll sound better than you really are. He said, ‘I like to hear a voice as dry as possible.'”
Natalie shares that opinion: “No reverb in the studio, on tape, in the headphones. Why use it if you don’t need it?”
What else did Dad teach her? Stick to your guns, a lesson all the Chicks have taken to heart. “Emily played banjo when she first went to Nashville,” Lloyd remembers, “and she was told she shouldn’t play banjo. She said, ‘Yes, I can, because that’s what I do.’ Guess what’s the hot studio instrument of the moment in Nashville?” Lloyd smiles wickedly. “Those three girls are nice and they’re sweet,” he continues, “but the people around them know they have to get the job done, because if someone on the team hasn’t been doing so, they’ll tell them, ‘You’re outta here’ in a heartbeat.”
Despite his daughter’s rapid rise to platinum-selling status, Lloyd has been resolute about staying in the trenches, focusing on producing up-and-comers like the Robison brothers, Pat Green, and his latest protegee, Terri Hendrix, who’s taking the do-it-yourself route, starting her own label and racking up sales of 10,000 units on her second album, Wilory Farm, and 6,000 on her follow-up, Terri Hendrix Live. He’s also taking the opportunity to work with old-timers he admires, most recently Johnny Bush and Hank Thompson. And he still sits in with Joe, Jerry Jeff, and Robert Earl Keen, but only as his time and interest allow. Robert Earl regularly sends him his touring schedule just in case.
The biggest change in his life hasn’t been nurturing a Dixie Chick; it was finally leaving Lubbock. He spent so much time recording bands in Austin 219 days in one year by his calculation that he and Tina relocated there in 1998, reasoning that the kids were out of the house and the work was where the work was. They miss their friends and family, Tina says, but they don’t miss other things. “I heard that it rained mud the other day,” she says. “That I don’t miss.”
Lloyd’s style of working remains the same. “I like to keep it moving,” he says. “I don’t like to waste time. Once you’ve got the machine rolling, it’s best to keep it there until you hit a wall, then you take a break. The reason I crank out so many records is that most of them are low-budget; we can’t spend a lot of days making it. An act might come in with $10,000 to do the whole master. That’s what major labels spend on catering!”
Natalie thinks he undersells himself. “I just did a session in Los Angeles with the Pretenders and Stevie Nicks,” she reports, “and they didn’t know who he is! And they should! He’s almost too fair. Not only does he tell you when it’s sharp or flat, he arranges songs. He ought to get a songwriting credit on every track he produces. He has never gotten credit for being as creative as he is.” Spoken like a doting, fiercely protective daughter.
“I’ve been a little scared of this business in some ways, just because it’s so volatile,” Lloyd explains. “Being self-employed, you wake up hoping the phone will ring. She dove right into it, head-on. I’ve observed her fearless approach. Maybe some of that has rubbed off on me.”
Just as his take on Texas music that it’s okay to be imperfect as long as you put your soul into it has rubbed off on the young pro at the top of her game. “Follow your heart, do what you want to do, and don’t do anything you don’t want to do; that’s what he taught me,” Natalie says. “There’s always give and take, but stick to your guns. We’re a band. Our passion is not to be stars, but to play music and reach our audience. “I didn’t realize until recently how naturally it all came to me,” she says, packing her bags when the shoot is over. She’ll spend the night at her parents’ house before hitting the road. “We both recognize we’ve got a good thing going on,” she says emphatically, leaving no room for more questions. “We know it.”