A pioneer of the Austin music community, Doug Sahm was the master of so many authentically “Texas” sounds — western, Tex-Mex, rock ‘n’ roll — that live on in the music of the Texas Tornados and the Sir Douglas Quintet.
Though he passed away in 1999, Sahm’s influence is weaved into Austin music culture. Next week, KUT (along with a few choice friends) hopes to preserve that influence for generations to come.
“His story is the story of Texas music — no individual could play Texas’s indigenous sounds so skillfully and authentically,” says Joe Nick Patoski
On Monday, November 18, the Cactus Cafe will host a special edition of Views and Brews titled “Doug Sahm: All About the Groove.” Hosted by Jody Denberg, the celebration of Sahm will include local music royalty Marcia Ball, Speedy Sparks (Sahm’s guitar player) and Ernie Durawa (drummer for the Texas Tornados), as well as noted Texas writer and historian Joe Nick Patoski.
The event takes place on the 14th anniversary of Sahm’s death and will explore Austin music in the early 1970s, as well as Sahm’s influence on the local scene’s becoming nationally — and internationally — recognized. Panelists hope to celebrate a true Austin stalwart, opening the eyes — and ears — of younger generations to a soulful sound that still plays an important part in our modern culture.
(If you want proof, just wander down the block to Hole in the Wall, where Sir Doug’s music is immortalized in the jukebox.)
“For me, Doug is one of the touchstones of Texas music and one of the early founders of Austin’s vibrant music community. He’s a major reason I moved here in the early ’70s,” says Joe Nick Patoski.
“It’s time to let folks who have no idea who this Sahm character was/is appreciate one of the most beautiful cats to have graced a stage in Austin.”
“His story is the story of Texas music — no individual could play Texas’ indigenous sounds (country-western, western swing, rhythm and blues, jump blues, conjunto and rock ‘n’ roll) so skillfully and authentically. At the same time, he represented my generation of Texans, who thought differently and outside the box [and] who had to come to Austin to find our place.”
During the event, Patoski will premiere the sizzle reel of a proposed documentary about Sahm. “Jan Reid wrote a fine biography of Doug. The world doesn’t need another Doug book,” he says. “Printed words are great, but for those of us who knew Doug, there’s really no better way to tell his story than with his music, his voice and the voices of others who worked and played with him. In other words, on film.”
If the reel does its part, Patoski plans to secure funding and have a full documentary finished in time for SXSW 2015. “[Fourteen] years after his passing,” says Patoski, “it’s time to let folks who have no idea who this Sahm character was/is appreciate one of the most beautiful cats to have graced a stage in Austin.”
Views and Brews takes place at the Cactus Cafe on Monday, November 18. Doors open at 6:30 pm, and the event runs 7 pm – 8:30 pm. Entry is free, but donations are accepted.
Come on out to the Cactus Cafe on the University of Texas campus on Monday evening, November 18 for a Views and Brews discussion about Doug Sahm, the original Austin groover moderated by Jody Denberg of KUTX and featuring Marcia Ball, Ernie Durawa, and Speedy Sparks in a panel discussion, along with a screening of a four minute sizzler reel of a proposed film documentary directed by Joe Nick Patoski. Doors 6:30, show at 7
Doors 6:30 showtime 7 pm
The full, rich life of Chet Flippo, who passed away at the age of seventy in late June, was celebrated October 14 at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, where he had spent his last years as editorial director of CMT.com and writing the Nashville Skyline column.
Chet was something of a mentor and role model. He was eight years older, having grown up on the eastside of Fort Worth. He showed up on my radar as the Texas correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine, the music-oriented publication based in San Francisco that fostered a new kind of cultural journalism and launched the careers of many writers including Ed Ward, John Morthland, John Swenson, Cameron Crowe, Joe Klein, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joe Ezterhas.
His first byline in Rolling Stone was a story on a Fort Worth band called Bloodrock, semi-famous for their teen car crash saga, “DOA.” Chet also took the photos accompanying the article.
Chet was a key figure in putting Austin and its music scene on the map. If producer Jerry Wexler hadn’t enlisted Chet to find Doug Sahm, Willie Nelson might not have happened. Chet was living in Austin with new wife, Martha Hume, attending graduate school at the University of Texas (his dissertation at UT was about the rise of rock journalism) while filing stories for Rolling Stone about people and sounds that the good people in San Francisco weren’t aware of. His byline was attached to the first national story about the Armadillo World Headquarters, his first feature on Doug Sahm returning to San Antonio from San Francisco made the cover. Without Chet there would have been no coverage of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings or Fourth of July Picnics, where rock and country sensibilities converged.
I was running the record department at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis in the snowy spring of 1973 when I read a story Chet had written about Doug Sahm at the Soap Creek Saloon that made me so homesick, my girlfriend and I moved back to Texas that summer. Only we didn’t go to Fort Worth; we went to Austin. The first night we went out, we went to hear Sir Doug at Soap Creek. The whole scene at the old roadhouse out in the cedar brakes west of Austin was everything Chet had written about: a cool hippie scene with a distinct cosmic cowboy flavor with the one musician who could play every indigenous musical style found in Texas holding forth on stage.
Within a year or so, Chet left Austin to open up the New York bureau of Rolling Stone. The magazine’s entire operations would eventually follow him there. We’d only met a few times, but I guess he’d seen my writing because when there was a shooting incident at a nightclub where a stray bullet almost nicked Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who was in a video truck outside the club, Chet suggested to an editor that they contact me. I got my first Rolling Stone byline thanks to Chet, and thanks to Tim O’Connor, the shooter, who was working with Willie Nelson and later became Austin’s biggest concert promoter . (Tim later told me he had to leave the state for a year because he’d had a prior arrest).
I continued to file stories as a stringer for Rolling Stone, which prompted me to drop out of college, in spite of Rolling Stone’s meager pay. That led to lots of freelance, a pop music column in Texas Monthly, and ultimately a writer’s life. Martha Hume, Chet’s wife, assigned me several stories for Country Music magazine, where she worked, including a piece on Jimmie Rodgers’ home in Kerrville, where the Blue Yodeler and the first country music star spent his last years. I even got to share a byline with Chet on a story about a benefit-gone-wrong for imprisoned boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter featuring Bob Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Review. (Through that story and some unusual circumstances, I sold Bob Dylan two used record albums while minding the counter of a friend’s record shop).
I quit writing for a few years to manage a band called Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns, which included my then-girlfriend and now wife, Kris Cummings. The band’s first gigs at the Lone Star Café in New York were informed by Chet’s presence and by Martha Hume’s guidance how to work the New York media.
The passing of Martha last winter and my missing a remembrance of Martha hosted by Chet in June prompted a trip to Nashville for Chet’s remembrance.
It was a fine time.
Before the proceedings, I had a chance to visit with Chet’s niece and with his younger brother Ernie, while Mickey Raphael, who was representing Willie Nelson and Family, pointed out all the folks who had showed up.
The memorial opened with a series of photographs laying out the life of the son of a fundamentalist preacher father and a tough, rifle-toting mother. Chet was an aspiring photographer and writer as a young boy who knew how to focus, how to operate a mimeograph machine, and how to publish an underground newspaper before he was thirteen. Until the image popped up on the screen, I did not know he, like me, was a high school cheerleader – high schools in Texas cities had boy and girl cheerleaders both. Photographs of Chet with Willie and President Jimmy Carter, with Dolly Parton, with his beloved Martha, and with a parade of other notables rolled out, one after another.
Then, the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “At the Crossroads” played on the sound system. Most of the gathering did not know the song, its composer, Douglas Wayne Sahm, or its significance. But they couldn’t missed the chorus: “You can teach me a lot of lessons, you can bring me a lot of gold, but you just can’t live in Texas, if you don’t have a lot of soul.”
The voice of Johnny Cash sang “I Shall Not Be Moved” before Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash stepped to the podium. Noting that since the Armadillo World Headquarters no longer exists and that the Lone Star Café in New York is just a memory, she said there wasn’t a more appropriate place to celebrate Chet’s life than Nashville, in the building where the kind of country music greats that Chet respected most were honored upstairs in the Hall of Fame.
She was followed by Bill Carter, who ran security for the Rolling Stones in the mid seventies when Chet was covering them extensively for Rolling Stone. Carter opened by relating how the Stones feared Flippo and his investigative talent for unearthing details that lesser journalists never got. Carter went on to relate how Chet and him became and remained good friends over the years despite their initial adversarial relationship. No wonder. Mickey Raphael whispered that Carter was working for the Secret Service when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Chet had been a cryptographer in the Navy with top-secret clearance. No wonder these one-time adversaries were friends for life. They were both former spooks.
“Chet set an high standard for journalism,” Carter said. “He led a big, bold life.” He also captured the craziness of the Rolling Stones on the road at their peak, Carter related, epitomized by the run-in the band experienced with San Antonio authorities, egged on by media czar Rupert Murdoch, who first planted his flag in the United States buying the San Antonio News, which was making a big deal about the inflatable twenty foot phallus that Jagger used as a stage prop. That prompted a line by Flippo about “no big dicks allowed in San Antonio.”
Flippo’s relentless pursuit of the story while covering the Stones tormented Mick Jagger, who complained, “He’s everywhere” to Carter. “In every city, he knew exactly where we were and what we were doing.”
Carter introduced the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose John McEuen told the story of how Chet wrote about their Will The Circle Unbroken project in which a band of hippies, as McEuen described the Dirt Band, collaborated with a bunch of country music old-timers including Mother Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson to make an album. Turns out, Chet even joined the chorus of recording. The three players, joined by songwriter Matraca Berg, then launched into a spirited rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side.”
Peter Cooper, the music journalist for the Nashville Tennessean, read excerpts from the “Fishing With Bobby Bare” chapter of Chet’s book Everybody Was Kung Fu Dancing, which went a long way explaining Bare as the kind of country music iconoclast that appealed to Chet. Cooper was followed by Bobby Bare himself, who said,” I did take Chet fishing. We went bass fishing and wound up catching a lot of crappie.” Bare recalled his first meeting with Chet in New York and how he didn’t fit the Rolling Stone writer stereotype he expected, and of subsequent visits in New York and later in Nashville. He also credited Chet for making him a rich man. The photograph of Bare that accompanied the first article Chet had written about Bare showed the singer-songwriter putting a plug of Red Man chewing tobacco in his mouth, which got him a million-dollar endorsement from Red Man
Rosanne Cash returned to the stage, recalling that Bobby Bare sang harmony on her very first record, before singing “The World Unseen,” a song she wrote after her father, Johnny Cash, had passed, supported by John McEuen on mandolin.
CMT ran a brief video tribute reel that was better suited for television viewing, followed by music executive Paula Batson who spoke of her long friendship with Chet and Martha and of her understanding that no matter how tight they were, when Chet was on the job interviewing one of her clients, he was relentless in pursuit of his story. Paula spoke of the early eighties “when Texans owned New York,” specifically citing Chet, Rolling Stone publisher Joe Armstrong, and Texas Monthly/Newsweek writer Richard West, another mentor of mine, and of Chet and Martha as a couple (“You knew they were sweet enough for each other”), and their deep knowledge and understanding of high culture and low culture.
A video of Jann Wenner, the cofounder of Rolling Stone, affirmed Chet’s role in making country music and country musicians hip. Without him, the magazine would have never covered Willie, Waylon, or Dolly Parton, much less Gary Stewart, George Jones, and Charlie Daniels. But he was hardly just country. “He was the best music writer we had,” Wenner said. Period.
Dierks Bentley sang “50 Miles” (of elbow room) with the Dirts and Matracha Berg before Ernie Flippo spoke on behalf of the family, noting that “50 Miles” was a song we sang at church,” and spending a good chunk of his remembrance celebrating all the misspelling of Flippo’s name (Chet and Martha saved all the misspelled letters) and how one reader decided Chet Flippo was the best made-up name in Rolling Stone. Chet was the only Chet in the family. Chester W. Flippo, Sr., their holy roller preacher father with a prominent mane of tall hair, was Chester, or C.W., but never Chet.
Ernie represented the family well, maintaining his composure until the last line, when he said Chet departed this world too early.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, joined by Bentley, Bare, Cash, and Berg, closed with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with a recent photograph of Chet alone on a Florida beach on the big screen behind them.
Gone too soon, perhaps, but a well-spent life.
Afterwards, I visited with Chet’s older sister Shirley. Ernie had mentioned that Shirley was being chaperoned by her nine year old little brother on a car date (“a chartreuse Mercury”) when Chet first heard Hank Williams on the car radio. That initial exposure would eventually lead to writing Williams’ biography Your Cheatin’ Heart.
Hank Williams is not well-known in Nashville today, despite being the single most-influential voice in country music. Nashville’s changed, but so has Austin, New York, Fort Worth, as have music and music journalism. But the words of the chronicler remain, telling the stories of a very special time and some special places, inhabited by a parade of good people.
A remembrance card at the memorial quoted Chet from A Style Is Born: The Rock and Roll Way of Knowledge in the tenth anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, published in December 1977. Great writing, he observed, is “like a letter from home, a transitory home, a home for the soul, a storehouse of everything meaningful to me. Music was, and still is, the starting point (proving the old analogy that was you listen to forms the soundtrack to your life) but that encompasses one hell of a lot.”
Roky Erickson, Godfather of Texas psychedelia and the lead singer of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, is honored with a restrospective of three reissues of the best music of his solo career. Light in the Attic records has reissued The Evil One, Don’t Slander Me, and Gremlins Have Pictures as splendidly-packaged CDs and vinyl LPs, both formats including extensive liner notes by yours truly. The liners for all three combined make for a small book about Roky’s post-Elevators career. I’d actually participated in the first extensive interview with Roky following his incarceration in the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane (a bad deal that has to do more with Texas’s twisted form of justice than with Erickson’s mental state), and wrote about Roky completing the recording for the Evil One (released on 415 Records in the US and on Epic UK around the rest of the world) when I was a reporter for the Austin Statesman. I learned a lot doing research on these recordings. TEO and Don’t Slander Me were mostly recorded in San Francisco and produced by Stu Cook, the bassist for Creedence Clearwater Revival, along with Billy Miller, the autoharp player who was part of the band Blieb Alien that backed Roky in his first post-Rusk appearances and recordings in Austin in 1975. Duane Aslaksen’s guitar and production skills are critical pieces of The Evil One and Dont Slander Me, as part of the Aliens, Roky’s studio band. Gremlins Have Pictures includes the primitive Ritz Theatre live performance that led to Erickson’s first single, “Starry Eyes” and “Two-Headed Dog” produced by Doug Sahm and issued as a 45 on Mars Records, as well as recordings Roky did with the Explosives, the Austin power trio that toured with him in the early 80s. The Ritz gig (the show is introduced by Austin artist Jim Franklin) led to Erickson’s return to the stage and studio. The stories are told by Stu Cook, Roky’s manager Craig Luckin, along with Billy Miller, Duane Aslaksen, Freddy Steady Krc, Epic A&R chief Howard Thompson, and many others, shining light on a brilliant, sometimes twisted career at its peak, with madness always lurking in the shadows. The deets are here: www.lightintheattic.net
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I put together an hour’s worth of Willie music and small talk for Marfa Public Radio.
Willie’s benefit concert in Alpine in 2004 was instrumental in putting the station, KRTS, the smallest of all National Public Radio affiliates, on the air.
Or, link to upload here
Willie Nelson turns 80 on April 30.
This should be a national holiday.
I’ll be hosting an hour-long show on Willie and his music on MarfaPublicRadio.org at 3 pm central and 8 pm Tuesday. Tune in.
If you’re in Far West Texas, you can hear the broadcast on KRTS-FM 93.5 in Marfa, KRTP-FM 91.7 in Alpine, KDKY-FM Marathon 91.5 and KXWT-FM in Odessa-Midland, 91.3
Back in late January, I caught up with Willie Nelson for the first time since the biography I wrote Willie Nelson: An Epic Life was published.
We talked about music, his new recordings, Lance Armstrong, and life its ownself.
I’ll post the interview in a few weeks. If you’re hot to read it now, go buy the magazine and help out some good folks including a few writers.
and here’s the story:
Five years ago, my 500 page historical biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, was published on Willie’s 75th birthday. At least seventeen biographies and his own autobiography, ghosted by Bud Shrake, no less, were already out there, but you can’t write about Texas without writing about Willie. I already knew him as the most interesting person in the world, just as he struck me during my first interview with him back in 1974. It turned out there were a lot of new things to learn, and unlike the case with most public figures, the more I knew, the more I liked him. Since a whole lot of other folks feel the same way, I’ll be talking about him for the rest of my life.
Since the Willie book, I’ve been obsessing about football, the Texas high school version and the Dallas Cowboys version, so I hadn’t been inside the Willie bubble in awhile. With his 80th birthday rolling around, a fine, even number to stop and ponder, it was a good time to check in. A lot had changed, I quickly discovered. A lot remains timeless.
Nutty Jerry’s is a massive, utilitarian metal building a few miles east of Winnie, the southeast Texas farming community just off Interstate 10 that is home of the Texas Rice Festival. Nutty Jerry’s is the community’s big bar, dancehall, and all-purpose entertainment facility. On a Friday night in late January, it was also a tour stop for the longest running road show in music, the Willie Nelson and Family traveling revue, this particular leg being one week into the Old Farts and Jackass Tour.
A little more than a year earlier, on the morning of January 8, 2012, Kevin Smith got the call from Mickey Raphael: “Can you drive to Winnie tonight and play with the band?” Smith was the standup bassist for Heybale! the trad-county supergroup of hotshot pickers featuring Merle Haggard’s guitarist Redd Volkaert and Johnny Cash’s (and the “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”-vintage Byrds’) Earl Poole Ball, currently in their fourteenth year of Sunday night residency at the Continental Club in Austin. Smith had also logged time with High Noon, the retro country band, original rockabilly Ronnie Dawson, western-swinger Cornell Hurd, and had knocked off more than 160 dates in a year-long tour with Dwight Yoakum in 2006. He got on Willie’s radar three years later by playing on the Willie and the Wheel album and tour, when Smith was with Asleep at the Wheel.
“Tommy Tedesco, in that Wrecking Crew documentary, said there’s three reasons you should take a gig – the hang, the money, and the music,” Smith said, fairly beaming as he tuned up a bass on the crew bus before the show. “All three of those are just great here. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Bee Spears, the one player in the Family band who could hear and anticipate Willie’s sometimes unusual timing and his tendency to sing behind the beat, died from exposure after falling outside his home in Nashville on December 8, 2011. The loss of the forty-year veteran was the band’s first personnel change since rhythm guitarist Jody Payne retired in 2008 after thirty-five years on the road. Spears’ last gig, which was a few days earlier in Mississippi, happened to also be the very last gig for Chris Etheridge, Willie’s long ago bassist in the early 1970s, who sat in with Bee and the band, knowing he was dying of cancer.
In the wake of Bee’s sudden death, Billy English switched from drums to bass (regular drummer Paul English, Billy’s brother and Willie’s friend and bandmate for sixty years, was at home in Dallas recuperating from a stroke) and Willie’s son Micah filled in on drums to finish out the year’s dates.
Smith doesn’t just play bass. He also plays old-style slap bass with a big upright, bringing a new-old sound to complement the other addition, young gun guitarist Lukas Nelson, who opens shows with his band, Promise of the Real, before joining his father’s band as second guitarist.
But on this balmy, late January evening, Lukas wasn’t feeling well, so his dad would have to handle the guitar chores alone, which actually turned out to be a good thing. Paul English had experienced a second wind and rejoined the family, playing and doing the books on the road. Paul allowed that he and Willie had played a round of golf had played a round of golf not too long ago but stopped after nine holes; they were two old duffers with nothing left to prove.
Music, however, was another matter. “I’m feeling good,” English smiled in his office in the back of the band bus, where he offices to keep the band’s books.
Poodie Locke, the garrulous stage manager for the band for the past 35 years and a legend in his own right, passed away from a massive heart attack in 2009. Filling his shoes was young John Selman, Poodie’s neighbor at Willie World. John, who joined the family after road managing Randy Rogers, had been at the job long enough to run a very tight ship. Shows were running on time from stage call to last note, performances consistently hitting the ninety minute mark, a cutback from the four-hour marathons of the 1970s, perhaps, but mighty impressive for a six-piece that included three octogenarians and one septuagenarian.
The three-bus, one-truck conglomeration was a lean, mean traveling machine, with music as the driving force binding everyone on board, one reason why Willie’s home base studio, Pedernales Recording, had recently gone private, so Willie can record whenever he wants.
Mickey Raphael, the Dallas-born harmonica man responsible for giving every WN tune its indelible ID, was almost giddy with the band’s renewed sound, the new crew boss, and the revived Paul. As the former “kid” in the band, Mickey went out of his way to mentor John Selman and now Kevin Smith in the Willie way. The infusion of youth was proving infectious.
The night before on an off-night in Baton Rouge, Mickey broke his standard “I usually stay in when we’re not working” policy and headed to Lafayette, an hour away, with Lukas Nelson and Kevin Smith in tow to join guitar wild man C.C. Adcock at an informal private jam and gumbo party with C.C.’s Lil’ Band of Gold compadres Warren Storm, Steve Riley, and Lil’ Buck Senegal, and David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, and the rest of Los Lobos.
Staying in on most off-nights reflects the maturation of Willie’s players. These days, wild times are recalled, not lived. “Everybody’s over their nonsense,” is how Kevin Smith put it. “I’m a pretty square dude. I don’t know how I would’ve done in the Poodie days.”
Once upon a time, band problems revolved around the inability to match drugs. When Willie banned coke back in the 1970s, the rest of the band continued doing blow. When everyone was dropping LSD, someone slipped Mickey some PCP, causing him to pass out at the side of the stage during on those four hour marathon sets without anyone noticing Mickey was missing. Mushrooms and Richard Pryor onboard caused Budrock to forget how to work the lights at the same of one show. If the band was jacked up, they were nowhere near as jacked up as opening act Johnny Paycheck nervously paced up and down stairs thanks to a lot of speed. The band was so high at some shows, “We played for four hours just to keep from having to get off the stage and having to deal with anybody,” Mickey said. These days, “Willie’s smoking and no one else is doing anything; it’s almost like a real band now,” Mickey marveled.
For all the recent changes, which included the late arrival and early departure of Willie’s bus from every gig, the core of this band of gypsies rolling down the highway remained the same. Budrock aka Buddy Prewitt, Jr., lighting director for the ages, reported he’s switched to LED lighting which has eliminating the heavy lifting of big lights and trusses of yesteryear. Tunin’ Tom, steward of Willie’s ancient guitar, Trigger, watched the Simpsons while Kenny Koepke showed off smartphone pics of his grandson. Billy English hung with his brother Paul in the office in the back of the band bus while Flaco Lemons tweaked the sound inside where the Franks Brothers and friends were setting up the merch booth. Outside Honeysuckle Rose, driver Gates Moore talked up Dallas Cowboys with top security man LG, who talked up his 49ers. Inside the bus, David Anderson maintained traffic control while staying close to Willie’s side.
While all the usual preshow business swirled around him, the man at the center of it all sat serenely in his booth chair in his rolling home thirty minutes before showtime, wearing a black t-shirt that read North Shore on the front with a map of the Hawaiian Islands on back. He was twirling a big fatty in his hand while surveying the world around him, facing forward, as always.
Willie’s friend Turk Pipkin had brought a guitar to be signed and auctioned for a fundraiser for the Nobelity Project. Daughter Lana poked her head out from the back of the bus where Little Sister Bobbie (actually, his big sister) was resting up, while daughter Amy sat up front, talking to Kevin Smith after Kevin got last minute instructions to open in A minor.
Willie, it turned out, had been rather busy for a man with his 80th birthday in sight. His book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die was a bona-fide national best-seller. On the heels of the album Heroes, he had a new record about to drop, Let’s Face The Music and Dance, with an album of duets lined up behind it, along with a tour schedule that would keep him on the road, interspersed with breaks, through next fall.
“Still working, still fun, people are still showing up,” he said off-handedly of the schedule ahead.
The new album was kind of a repurposed Stardust. Rather than pulling songs from the Great American Songbook, though, Face the Music And Dance is part-Irving Berlin, part-Django Reinhardt, and all-Willie.
“Someone came up with the idea, ‘Why don’t you do an Irving Berlin album?’ I started thinking about his songs and all of a sudden, Face the Music is there. I listened to Sinatra’s cut on it and Diana Krall’s got a great cut on it. I really fell in love with the song all over again.
But instead of going total-Berlin, Willie veered off into other composers starting with “Walking My Baby Back Home,” and running through “You’ll Never Know,” and “Twilight Time.” “These are all great romance songs, “ he explained. So Irving Berlin simply became the inspiration.
“We’re playing a song or two or three from it every night, mainly because it’s new music and we enjoy a couple of new Django things that we’re doing.”
Ah, Django. Willie couldn’t do an album of classics and leave the original gypsy swing guitarist out of the mix. “Many years ago, Johnny Gimble gave me a tape of Django stuff,” Willie explained. “It’s the first time I ever heard him, and I realized as soon as I heard of him, I’d have to hear a whole lot more. I probably have everything he ever recorded, from the Hot Club of France to when he played the electric in New York. He was the greatest guitarist ever.”
Face the Music and Dance marks the second time he’s recorded “Nuages” and “Vous et Moi,” both of which appeared on 1999’s swing album Night and Day. But on the new version of the latter song in particular, Willie exhibits some of his finest guitar picking on any recording over the past two decades.
Still, it’s the old warhorse, “South of the Border,” that catches the ear, especially the singer’s plaintive “ai-yi-yi”s. “It’s one of those naturals when you’re from Abbott,” the man across the table said matter-of-factly, inhaling deeply before passing the big joint. “It’s one of the first songs you learn. I’ve got a lot of Mexican in me,” he laughed.
Willie asked if I heard about Country Music Association Male Vocalist r of the Year Blake Shelton’s comments about “old farts and jackasses” and that “nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music,” which earned Shelton a heated response from Willie’s friend and mentor Ray Price, who suggested Shelton check back in sixty-three years to check on his legacy. Price signed his letter “Chief Old Fart and Jackass.”
“Wasn’t that funny?” Willie said. “Ray will kick his ass. I think it was a stupid thing to say. I think he realizes it now, that maybe he stepped in it a little bit there.” He paused then expounded. “It’s not often they do [step in it]. Most everybody I know has a lot of respect for those who came before them. I think it was unfortunate thing he said. I haven’t heard a lot of that.”
Willie’s response was to rename his roadshow “The Old Farts and Jackass Tour.”
After Face the Music and Dance comes the duet album, To All the Girls. “I did some songs with Loretta Lynn, Dolly, Roseanne Cash,” Willie said. “You know, I keep having fun doing it. It’s my band on Face the Music and for the Duets album that’s being produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s Nashville musicians who know me up there.”
We talked about the revival of Paul English (“I don’t know. He’s been getting into that Viagra or something”) and the growing acceptance of marijuana, an appropriate topic since Willie sits on the advisory board of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, and was passing around some very strong weed at the moment. “I think there’s 15 or 20 states where medicinal is legal. It’s just a matter of time. When the economy gets worse, and worse and worse, people are gonna say, ‘Wait a minute. We’re missing a deal here.’ And they’re going to finally tax it and regulate it like Chesterfields. They’ll find out there’s a whole lot of money there. “
As onerous as his bust two years ago at the Sierra Blanca checkpoint on Interstate 10 in West Texas may have been, I thanked him because it got me a byline in the Texas Tribune and New York Times. Willie derived some benefit from the inconvenience too. “After I got busted I started the Teapot Party. There was a Tea Party and I thought there should be a Teapot Party. It was kind of a half-ass joke, but it’s now represented in every state in the union and in some foreign countries. There are millions of pot smokers out there who could vote if they wanted to. “
We also talked about Lance Armstrong, the other famous mega-celebrity with Austin ties, who had confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he had doped while winning seven Tour de France cycling races. If anyone could relate, I figured it was Willie. He could.
“If it [doping] is a bad thing to do – and in some instances and with some age groups, it would be a bad thing,” he said, maybe there was reason to go public. “But I don’t know any sport that’s drug-free, do you? From professional football to wrestling.” He laughed and said, “I know some of those old wrestlers who took better pain pills than you ever saw, because they went through a lot of pain. There’s a lot of sports out there that depend on drugs to get them [participants] to the next big town.”
Just like some entertainers enjoy a fine smoke before they hit the stage.
So in a way, Willie had been where Lance is. “We oughta look at it like, ‘Let’s don’t judge ‘til you’ve walked in that man’s shoes. Let’s not tell him how to live or what to do.’ That’s what we were all taught early in life. Judge not, lest you be judged. I don’t think any of us can afford to be judged too close or harshly.”
Turned out, Willie and Lance were friends. “I’ve passed a couple emails back and forth, but he got real busy,” Willie said. “I didn’t want to bother him.”
Did Willie offer Lance any advice?
He nodded, exhaling. “Fuck ‘em.
“Who knows what brought everything on and why everything was like it was? I think BC, Billy Cooper [Willie’s one-time driver], said it pretty good: ‘It’s my mouth and I’ll haul coal in it if I want to.’
“I know one thing that comes to mind when all that happened. I had an arm that I couldn’t use. I hurt it really bad when I was playing golf. George Clooney told me about a doctor in Germany. I went to see him. He took blood out and recharged it with a lot of healing qualities, put it back in, and my arm got OK. It’s about 100% now. You just can’t throw everything in one big bag and say, That’s bad.’”
That was Willie the Star talking. As the grand old man of Texas music, did he dispense advice to younger musicians coming up?
“If they’re any good, they wouldn’t listen to me or anybody else,” he allowed. “They’ll do what their instincts tell them to do and they’ll wind up doing the right thing. You can get a lot of bad advice out there.”
And what were Willie’s instincts telling him?
“To go do a show right here in a minute,” he said, nodding his head towards the big building outside the bus. “That’s about all I have planned until tomorrow.”
Those soulful, deep brown eyes across the table signaled it was time to go to work.
With the band dressed in various shades of black, and Trigger, his battered guitar tethered to his red-white-and-blue macramé strap, Willie had the full house at Nutty Jerry’s eating out of his hands from “Nightlife,” a tune originally recorded less than an hour from Winnie at Gold Star Studios in Houston, just before Willie hit Nashville and was discovered 53 years ago. This particular version showcased his guitar-picking with a long extended improvisation of deft, distinctive notes. He wore the song like an old sweater.
“Little sister” Bobbie, two years his elder, took off on her signature piece, “Down Yonder” to kick the show into gear, followed by “Me and Paul,” the saga of misadventures with Willie’s drummer, his back, and his best friend, Paul English, who nodded assuredly in time with the rhythm as he worked his brushes on the snare.
The crowd provided the response lines to “Good Hearted Woman” “in love with a good-hearted man.” Before long, hardcore fans were pressing up against the stage, women were standing up, arms raised high, mouthing the lyrics, with yeehaws and rebel yells echoing off the walls. Several times, Willie removed the red bandanna he wore around his head and tossed it into the crowd, with outstretched hands grasping for it like it was one of Elvis’ scarves, only better.
The last half of the show was pure tent revival, with daughter Amy and son Lukas, arms around each other, taking the stage to sing backing vocals while their father rolled through “On The Road Again,” “Always On My Mind.” three Hank Williams songs including “I Saw The Light,” working in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away” until closing with his latest, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a spiritual with decidedly secular lyrics.
As the band played on, Willie signed autographs for fans bunched at the lip of the stage, autographing hats, pieces of paper, shirts, bras, dolls…anything offered for close to five minutes.
And then he walked offstage. The band finally shut down, and Paul English gingerly escorted Sister Bobbie offstage. When Bobbie recognized a writer waiting at the bottom of the steps, she lit up, gave him a hug, and accepted his compliments for her performance. She kept smiling as she sweetly allowed, “The sound wasn’t very good tonight. You’re just going to have to come back and hear us again real soon.”
Her words made me stop and marvel. Bobbie and Willie have been playing together for seventy-six years. Seventy-six years. That’s longer than any two people in the history of American music. From their perspective, they’re simply still doing what their grandparents raised them to do: make music, and have fun doing it.
Paul helped Bobbie step gingerly onto Honeysuckle Rose, then stepped off as the door closed. Within seconds, the bus with the half-eagle, half-Willie face painted on the back began to back out of its parking spot. A minute later, it had vanished into the coastal fog.
And that should have been that.
Except that the following night in Bossier City, Willie and Family were joined onstage by one of his mentors, Ray Price, who sang “Crazy” and “Nightlife” and killed with his performance, inspiring Willie to advise the audience, “Watch out for them old farts!” The next night, Willie did an intimate two-fer with old friend Kris Kristofferson at the Bluebird Café in Nashville.
Like the big wheels rolling, the Willie show never really stops. It just keeps on going. The man behind it all wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rant ‘N’ Roll: The Wisdom Of Willie
—by Mike Greenblatt, February 27, 2013
Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die: Musings From The Road (William Morrow), by Willie Nelson, with a foreword by Texas Jewboy Kinky Friedman, can be read in one sitting. Consider it dessert to the much more substantial main course of Joe Nick Patoski’s Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. Willie, who hits 80 in a few weeks, is still vital. His current album, Heroes, is terrific and his new album, Let’s Face The Music And Dance, due this spring, will have new originals and covers in the Willie way of Irving Berlin, Carl Perkins, and most surprisingly, Spade Cooley. Cooley (1910-1969) has fallen out of favor ever since he murdered his wife who had an affair with cowboy movie star Roy Rogers.
“It’s already been proven that taxing and regulating marijuana makes more sense than sending young people to prison for smoking a God-given herb that has never proven fatal to anybody,” writes Willie, who also writes “the greatest musician, singer, writer and entertainer that I have ever seen or heard is Leon Russell” and “the best country singer of all time was, and still is, Ray Price.”
Willie’s also a big fan of the three-fingered gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953), whose “Nuages” he covers on the upcoming album. I saw Willie at Farm Aid last year. His guitar playing is extraordinary. He came on to jam with Neil Young and his timing was so jazz it was thrilling. Neil did all he could do to keep up with him. He sings the same way, a bit behind the beat. Drives musicians crazy. New cats find it hard to deal. His band seems to stay put. They know his predilections. Harmonica player Mickey Raphael says, “When I started this gig, I was 21 and I’m 60 now. I learned so much from watching Willie play, and his unique phrasing has given me a musical education I would have received nowhere else.” The book features other testimonials including his sister, his fourth wife, Annie, and some of his six children and seven grandchildren (but none of his eight great-grandchildren).
Willie is as comfortable playing with jazz trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis as he is playing reggae, blues or standards. Screw Rod Stewart’s five albums of American standards. They’re all garbage. When Willie Willie-izes the great American songbook, everything old sounds new again.
“Annie and I have oral sex all the time,” he writes.
He admits to having been beaten up a few times in his life. Even had a gunfight once when he kicked off his property the abusive husband of his daughter and the wife-beater came back shooting. Luckily, everybody missed.
Greatest songwriters? Willie lists Billy Joe Shaver, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Vern Gosdin.
“I’m so opinionated that I can give you my opinion on anything, anytime, and I’m glad to do so because I’m just an asshole,” he writes.
He tells a few jokes and gives out with one Major League piece of advice: “If you want to be a star, you should start acting like one now, so that when you become one, you will already know how to behave, and maybe you won’t blow it. For instance, I don’t know anybody who is better drunk than sober. You might get by awhile, but sooner than later it will take you down. I know. I tried it.”
There was a period in his band with two drummers and two bassists, and the music got harder and wilder like The Allman Brothers: “Everything was great until we all got on different drugs,” he writes, “then it sounded a lot like a cluster-fuck and a catfight going on at the same time, but we had fun.”
Way back in the mid 1980s, I managed a rock and roll band called The True Believers, a three-guitar five-piece ensemble in Austin whose members were Jon Dee Graham, Alejandro Escovedo, Javier Escovedo, Rey Washam and Denny DeGorio. It was my last flirtation with the so-called music business before returning to writing full-time. They recorded one album for EMI-Rounder and had another one ready for release when they were dropped by EMI. That second record was released a few years later as a two-fer with the first album on Rykodisc as Hard Road.
That was that. Alejandro, Jon Dee, and Javier have all enjoyed successful solo careers, although the memories of the band remain strong.
Last September, they reunited to play a benefit in Austin for Brent Grulke, their onetime sound man who was the creative director for South By Southwest. The band had so much fun, they’ve decided to do it again, one more time, playing SXSW (Saturday, March 16 at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, late), lining up some May dates and going into the studio again.
Only, there’s not much of a music business left. So rather than be disappointed by some A&R weasel at a record company in Los Angeles, the True Believers are going Kickstarter, raising money to cut a single just after SXSW. Who knows if it will pay off? The cool thing is, if enough fans raise $5,000 they’ll get a brand new single out of the bargain, have ownership in the band, and prime the pump for a whole new album.
Raising dough, playing SXSW and cutting a record have sucked me back into to the music business. It’s unfinished business for me, and for them. Check em out and jump on board. Whoever you are, you’re sure more fun to deal with than an under assistant West Coast record weasel.
And for those willing to invest in some over the top Texas rock, we salute you.