The Cadillac Ranch at 50

The history of the Cadillac Ranch for  TexasHighways.com

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/fifty-years-of-cadillac-ranch/

How the Amarillo art installation became an iconic American roadside attraction

The vintage Cadillacs at their original location in the 1970s

Fifty years ago on the summer solstice, three experimental architects and artists completed Amarillo’s iconic Cadillac Ranch. Facilitated by a larger-than-life eccentric millionaire, the permanent installation of 10 Cadillac sedans buried nose first at a 60-degree angle into the dirt of a flat field within eyeshot of Interstate 40 has become the Panhandle city’s No. 1 tourist destination and biggest roadside attraction. It’s a must-see for road trippers touring Route 66, America’s Mother Road, seen by more than 1.4 million visitors a year.

Cadillac Ranch at 50, an exhibit documenting the strange and quirky history of the site at the Amarillo Museum of Art, opens June 1 and runs through Aug. 15, with a special celebration on June 21. One hundred enlarged photographs by Wyatt McSpadden, who has documented Cadillac Ranch since its inception, share space with videos, drawings, and ephemera from Chip Lord from the Ant Farm art and architecture collective that dreamed up the project.

Lord and fellow outsider architect Doug Michels formed Ant Farm in San Francisco in 1968 for underground design projects. “We were doing concepts, sketches, and photo collages of imaginary landscapes and environments,” Lord says. “It was a way to realize some ideas that would expand on conventional architecture.”

When Hudson Marquez joined the group, the three bonded over their shared obsession with automobiles. “At Ant Farm, we were car crazy,” Marquez recalls. “It was always drawing cars, collaging cars, making art with cars. I had an idea to make seed packs where you could plant seeds that would grow cars. You could have a field of ’49 Fords or ’59 Cadillacs that would grow out of the ground.” But to realize any concept, they needed a physical site. And money.

Installing the vintage Cadillacs was no easy feat

The Ant Farm sent out letters with their idea to a number of eccentric millionaires around the country. Prominent Amarilloan Stanley Marsh 3 answered back with an oversized letter written in 36-point type. “I’d love to do something with you, but I only do things here in Amarillo,” Marquez recalls him saying.

Lord and Michels stopped in Amarillo after finishing the House of the Century, a tubular ferro cement lake house near Angleton built with Houston architect Richard Jost. By the end of their visit two days later, Marsh asked Lord and Michels to draft a proposal. “We went back to California and drew up this idea of making a monument to the rise and fall of the Cadillac tailfin,” Lord says. The drawing had a text box in the corner—the budget. They would need $250 to hire a backhoe, and $300 for each of the 10 cars. Marsh gave the Ant Farm the green light.

The Ant Farmers descended on Amarillo. They placed ads in the Amarillo Globe-News seeking used Cadillacs and checked out Marsh’s land holdings. They picked a site near Interstate 40 and the old Route 66. “They were mysterious, these three hippies,” says Wyatt McSpadden, the young photographer who worked for Marsh at the time. He remembers Lord, Michels, and Marquez lived on the property while putting the site together. “They were gone a lot because they were out shopping for cars, trying to make deals, get cars as cheap as they could.”

Finding the first car, the 1949 Cadillac, proved to be a struggle. They found one on the east side of Amarillo, though it cost them a whopping $700—far over budget. “As soon as Doug had the title, somebody pulled the canvas off the bed of the truck,” McSpadden remembers, “and it was full of sledgehammers and axes. Doug took an axe out and started beating on the front of the car. They didn’t care what the front of the car looked like. That was my first involvement with the Ant Farm and the Cadillacs.”

The Cadillacs were moved from their original spot to its current location in 1997

The first hole was dug, and they got the car into the ground. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Marquez says. “We hadn’t dug holes to put cars in before, and we didn’t know anyone who did, so we were just flying by the seat of our pants. We just dug some holes and drove the cars in at 60 degrees, same angle. We didn’t talk about that. It just happened to be. It looked good.” The whole endeavor took less than a week.

The day after the Cadillac Ranch was finished, Marquez rose before dawn and drove out to the site to watch the sunrise. “I was blown away,” he says. Marquez remembered a talk the radical French artist and sculptor Marcel Duchamp gave in Houston. His idea was that when someone sets out to create, they start from what they think is zero and in their mind is 100% of what they want to create. “It’s in your mind, but you never get to 100. That doesn’t happen,” Marquez says. “But that morning was as close to 100% as I ever got.”

On June 21, 1974, a huge party was held in celebration of the ranch, a big tent, open bar, and Amarillo notables included. Shortly after, the Ant Farmers returned to San Francisco to work on other ideas. “When it was first built, it wasn’t hyped yet,” says David Turner, who was the assistant director at the Amarillo Art Center at the time. “People didn’t know what it was. It was just this oddball group of cars some crazy rancher planted in his field.”

There was no signage identifying the site, making it hard to convey the installation was an artist-made sculptural piece. Seeing the installation up close required some want-to. “You used to have to stop on the road, take your life in your own hands, go through a barbed wire fence, and hope for the best,” says Tom Livesay, director of the Amarillo Art Center in 1974.

Though grafitti wasn’t part of the original plan, it’s become tradition for visitors to leave their mark

A year later, journalist Charles Kuralt, host of the folksy On the Road program on the CBS television network, passed by in his bus, pulled over, and put Cadillac Ranch on the map. He was charmed. “At first, we thought someone might be trying to raise little baby Cadillacs,” Kuralt says. “Then we thought maybe the farmer just parked them this way each year after he bought a new model.”

Marsh talked up the Ant Farm and compared the Cadillac Ranch to Stonehenge, declaring, “It’s the most important roadside attraction of our generation.” Kuralt ended the segment waxing poetic over “a cowboy herding steers out there where the tall tailfins grow and the traffic heads west on Route 66 and the Texas sun goes down on the chromium bumpers of the American dream.”

Next came the bullet holes, an instinctive reaction around the Panhandle. If there’s something out there and you don’t know what it is, shoot it! “People would take their keys and scratch their initials into the paint,” Lord says. “Eventually, we went out there and signed it, to copyright.”

Then came the spray paint. First as simple graffiti tags—names, expressions of love, expressions of hate. Then wholesale paint jobs. “I was kind of outraged when people started spray-painting it,” Livesay says. “I asked Stanley what he thought of that, and he said, ‘I don’t give a damn.’ It showed ownership. People had to care enough about it, or hated it enough, to come see it. And they did.”

In 1997, Cadillac Ranch moved 2 miles west to its current location. The city of Amarillo was growing, and parking lot lights were visible at the installation. “That property was getting more valuable,” McSpadden says. “It was harder digging them up and replanting them than it was putting them in the ground the first time. From the road, it didn’t change at all. It was still the same flatland background.”

The relocation coincided with the dawn of the internet. Cadillac Ranch had become a featured attraction on RoadsideAmerica.com. Social media further broadened its reach. Cadillac Ranch remains a metaphor for the Golden Age of the American automobile, but over 50 years, it’s taken on many meanings and interpretations. A search for “Cadillac Ranch” on Instagram retrieves images of the Cadillac Ranch at sunrise, sunset, during dust storms and blizzards, and as a backdrop for selfies.

The scent of Krylon is fairly constant. On Cinco De Mayo, red, green, and white paint have dominated. The Cadillacs have been painted pink for child cancer awareness. After Michels died in 2004, the Cadillacs were painted black, his favorite color.

McSpadden spent two days at the site in October 2022, making portraits featured in the Cadillac Ranch at 50 exhibit. “I got people from England, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland,” he says. “People paint, they leave, and 20 minutes later somebody comes up and paints over what they painted.  They don’t just paint the cars, they paint the dirt, they paint the access road, the barriers are painted, the trash cans are painted.”

Four years ago, Marsh’s son, Stan Marsh 4, added a merch truck that sells spray paint, beverages, and tchotchkes on the site. “The Cadillacs are one of the last things in the nation that are truly wild,” he says. “There are no bathrooms. There is no running water. There’s no shade. There’s a different energy out there. It’s an adventure every time.”

Marquez says he’s only had two good ideas in his life. “One was the Cadillac Ranch. The other was copyrighting Cadillac Ranch,” he says. “Ant Farm owns the copyright to Cadillac Ranch. For many years we’ve made money, it’s like an annuity. Commercials, clothing lines, billboards, print ads, everything.”

Marsh’s heirs still own the Cadillac Ranch. Following a series of debilitating strokes, ownership of the land was transferred from Marsh to a family trust. He died in 2014, shortly after facing allegations of sexual abuse by multiple minors. Though perception of Marsh’s reputation may have changed following the allegations, Cadillac Ranch’s legacy continues to stand the test of time.

Today, people come from all over the world to see Cadillac Ranch

Stanley Marsh 4 regards the Cadillac Ranch as a participatory work of art that everybody is welcome to collaborate on. “Every mark is permanent, but it’s also temporary,” he says. “You can say anything you’d like to say with absolute freedom—but it’s going to be covered up in 30 seconds.”

The next 50 years are less certain. “We’re looking at options to preserve and protect the Cadillacs for future generations,” Stanley Marsh 4 says.

Lord is not so sure. “I favor not doing a restoration. With farmers, when a truck stops running, they put it out in a field and it rusts away.  Just let it rust down to nothing, which eventually it will,” Lord says. “That’s the most logical end of Cadillac Ranch.”

Whatever Cadillac Ranch’s future holds, Livesay appreciates what it means to the Panhandle city. “It’s wonderful it’s lasted so long and generated so much excitement for the town,” he says. “It’s grown with the times. You can’t argue with the facts.”

 

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Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.

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Terry Allen and The Truckload of Art

https://texashighways.com/culture/a-new-book-details-the-life-of-terry-allen-and-his-truckload-of-art/

Terry Allen at Arlyn Studios in Austin in May 2019. Photo by Barbara FG

Maybe you’ve seen Terry Allen’s work.

His sculpture Caw Caw Blues, which contains the ashes of his friend Guy Clark, stands sentinel at the entrance of The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos. Countree Music, a 25-foot bronze cast of an oak tree and a map on the terrazzo floor depicting Houston as the center of the world, accompanied by music, is planted in Terminal A near Gate 17 of Bush International Airport in Houston. Passengers entering security gate D30 in Terminal D at DFW International pass under a 30-foot bronze wishbone titled Wish. A life-size statue of CB Stubblefield of Stubb’s BBQ fame stands on the site of his first restaurant on East Broadway in Lubbock. Nestled in the palmetto palm thicket outside The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria on the banks of Lake Austin is Road Angel, a bronze cast of a 1953 Chevy coupe, the car Allen drove as a teenager, accompanied by more than a hundred audio soundbites (including one of mine), that was permanently installed in 2016.

 

More likely, you’ve heard Allen’s work.

His song “Amarillo Highway,” about a “Panhandlin’ man-handlin’ post-holin’ Dust bowlin’ Daddy” is a much-covered Texas country classic. The churning “New Delhi Freight Train” was first recorded by the rock band Little Feat. At 80, he’s still out there performing with his Panhandle Mystery Band which includes family and friends, among them son Bukka Allen, pedal steel maestro Lloyd Maines, guitarist Charlie Sexton, and fiddler Richard Bowden— often in conjunction with an art opening.

You may have even seen Allen without realizing it. He and his wife Jo Harvey Allen play Oklahoma couple Aunt Annie and Uncle Jim in the Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon.

He’s been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and is in the West Texas Walk of Fame by the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock. Texas Tech is finalizing plans for the Terry and Jo Harvey Allen Center for Creative Studies.

Call him what you want: the patriarch of Lubbock creatives, the greatest living visual artist from Texas, the other Texas music godfather besides Willie, the storyteller of the American West. It’s all pretty much true.

In 2016, Allen created Road Angel which can be seen at The Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria. Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons/courtesy of The Contemporary Austin

 

Now comes Truckload of Art, a 500-page biography by Brendan Greaves, to explain it all.

The first Terry Allen art I ever saw made me laugh out loud. The Paradise was a stark diorama of three spaces, the primary space—a parking lot—bathed in red light with the word “Paradise” in pale blue neon script on the back wall as the centerpiece. Directly below is a planter with three measly cacti, two plastic palms, a car tire, and a pair of plastic flamingos. Flanking the planter were doors marked Lounge and Motel in red neon. Beyond the vinyl-covered doors was a motel room with shag carpeting and a honky-tonk bar space with a jukebox. Paradise was part of The Great American Rodeo Show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 1976. Eleven artists were given a year to develop a rodeo-inspired piece. Allen paid homage to the kind of spaces where a real rodeo cowboy would feel at home.

The first Terry Allen music I really paid attention to was the 1979 album Lubbock (on everything), marking the artist-musician’s return to his hometown to collaborate with a new iteration of Lubbock music makers, among them singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who was two classes behind Allen at Monterey High. “I always knew I was destined to write songs,” Gilmore told me recently. “But I thought you had to be really old to be a songwriter. Terry was the first person I saw perform original music. He sang ‘Red Bird’ while playing piano one day at Monterey. That really inspired me.”

Allen and Jo Harvey had been living in Fresno, California, when he came back to make Lubbock (on everything). He instantly became the Don of the Lubbock Mafia of music maker. The Allens eventually moved back—sort of—settling some years later in close-enough Santa Fe.

It’s hard to ignore the tall polymath with stooped shoulders, the piercing eyes of a hawk, and a wide rubbery mouth that can hardly contain his unapologetic flatland twang. Art and music are the same coin, as far as he’s concerned, means to tell stories, which he is very good at doing, in many different ways. He’s so prolific, and so driven to create, he demands to be heard.

Greaves is founder and owner of Paradise of Bachelors Records in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which has reissued Allen’s older recordings and released his most recent albums 2013’s Bottom of the World and Just Like Moby Dick in 2020. Greaves, a self-described “lapsed art worker,” met Allen through the gallery where he worked. He’s collaborated on several projects with Allen and received a Grammy nomination for his liner notes, but taking on the monumental task of telling a very dense story while explaining the dual worlds of art and music, working off journals Allen has kept since junior high, was a whole other deal.

Allen’s father, Sled, a former minor baseball player who promoted wrestling and music events in West Texas, including Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, who Terry met on one of the six times he played Lubbock in 1955-56, long before most of the world knew who Elvis was. His mother, Pauline, a onetime professional piano player and full-time alcoholic, was 18 years younger than her husband. The biography shows how both inform Allen’s love of performance, his skill at promotion and showmanship, but most of all, his creative drive, providing the inspiration for his DUGOUT series of works.

Allen got his art education at Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles. One professor brought visiting Dadaists and surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Leonora Carrington to lecture. The surrealist Man Ray often stopped by the school to talk to students about the life of an artist. Allen was hooked.

Concurrent with his Chouinard schooling was his pursuit of music. The first song he ever wrote “Red Bird” scored him an appearance on the music television series Shindig! in 1965, generating enthusiasm from Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles.

In 1969, he wrote “Truckload of Art,” a song about a real truckload of art from New York destined for Los Angeles to show the upstart West Coast artists how art was supposed to be done, that crashed on the highway. Two years later, a snippet could be heard coming out of the radio of Warren Oates’ GTO in Two-Lane Blacktop, an arty feature film about street racers on a road trip across the southwest.

After graduating from Chouinard in 1966, he began teaching there and followed by teaching gigs at UC-Berkeley and Cal State Fresno.

Truckload of Art focuses on relationships, beginning with Allen’s partner in crime and marriage, the toothsome Jo Harvey. Theirs has been a tempestuous, sometimes competitive coupling while he chased myriad muses and she pursued her career as an actor, playwright, poet, radio producer, and songwriter—whenever they weren’t working together. He thought she should perform only original pieces she created. She enjoyed working in film.

Also documented is Allen’s long friendship with Dave Hickey, the acerbic writer, dealer, curator, and university professor from Fort Worth who opened A Clean, Well-Lighted Place gallery in Austin in 1967, and became the most incisive art critic of his time. Like Allen, Hickey wrote country songs, too.

Allen’s Corporate Head outside the Citicorp Plaza in Los Angeles. Photo by William Nettles

I’m not schooled enough to pass judgement on the art beyond my immediate reaction, and Allen usually makes me laugh. That was the immediate response when I saw Corporate Head, the life-size bronze of a businessman burying his head in the wall of a Los Angeles office building. The publication Atlas Obscura describes the work as “almost whimsical, yet rather grotesque.”

Sometimes the work has an edge too sharp to appreciate. That speaks to Allen’s interest in Antonin Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty, which strived to “shock the audience.” Allen was drawn to Artaud’s 1937 travelogue A Voyage to the Land of the Tarahumara about time spent in Mexico among the Tarahumara people experimenting with peyote. His curiosity led to staging his own play about Artaud Ghost Ship Rodez in Lyon, France.

The downs are as interesting as the ups. Juarez, the first of 13 albums he’s recorded, failed to launch as a Broadway musical, despite his collaboration with David Byrne, best-known as the lead singer of the band Talking Heads. The run of the 1994 theatrical play Chippy: The Diary of a West Texas Hooker, co-written with Jo Harvey for the American Music Theater Festival, turned out to be brief, but yielded the song “Fate with a Capital F” cowritten with Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, which remains one of my favorite Allen songs.

Some sweet bits pass by too quickly, such as Byrne’s bewilderment participating in a guitar pull with Allen and friends, and Allen’s dust-up with Tommy Lee Jones over verisimilitude. And I would have enjoyed eavesdropping on Hickey and Allen debating art.

It’s the little things that impress. Allen played in a band in high school with David Box, the teen chosen to replace Buddy Holly in the Crickets after Holly’s death in a plane crash in 1959, only for Box to die years later in a plane crash. In 1972, he played the Dripping Springs Reunion, the precursor of Willie Nelson’s Picnics, thanks to a Dave Hickey booking. Even Andy Warhol and the Manson Family make cameos. He’s been everywhere—Cambodia, France, London, Mexico, and India, telling stories every which way. And he took notes.

With Greaves’ help, Allen tells his most compelling story yet, the story of his creative life.

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Fort Worth’s Caravan Of Dreams

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/remembering-fort-worths-caravan-of-dreams/

 

Performers for “Kabuki Blues,” an original drama created at Caravan of Dreams. Photo by Courtney Carroll

Forty years ago, a most unusual performance and arts space opened its doors in downtown Fort Worth. A two-story brick building on Houston Street built in the 1880s was repurposed into a music venue featuring jazz and blues, a record label and production company, a theater with its own touring ensemble, dance studio, art gallery, and a restaurant, topped by a rooftop cactus garden, grotto bar, and a geodesic dome.

The Caravan of Dreams was avant-garde, experimental, quirky, exotic, or the work of a cult, depending who you asked, and quite the anomaly—as if Parliament-Funkadelic’s Mothership had landed in the heart of Cowtown.

Music historian William Williams, who has been documenting music in North Texas for decades, still can’t get over the Caravan and its 18-year run as the coolest performing arts center in Texas. He decided to try and explain it all in Caravan from Dreamland: When Cowtown Conjured a New Frontier, a three-volume history, complete with hundreds of images, told through accounts of participants, staff, patrons, and fans, along with advertisements and news accounts.

“It’s a poignant story,” he said. “They did some amazing things, then it started to fade. And here I am sifting through the ashes.”

 

The idea for the performing arts space was hatched by Fort Worth’s Ed Bass—one of the four billionaire Bass brothers and nephew to Texas oil billionaire Sid W. Richardson. He created the group with ecologist John P. Allen and artist Kathelin Hoffman of the Synergia Ranch, an “ecovillage” commune of academics, artists, and scientists in New Mexico who were involved in ecological projects around the world.

Bass fell in with the Synergia Ranch folks in 1973 through a construction project in New Mexico and ended up joining The Theater of All Possibilities performing troupe. He funded Synergia projects around the globe, including an art gallery in London, a cattle ranch in Australia, and a hotel with a library and cultural center in Kathmandu. The collaboration helped fulfill Synergia’s mission to fuse together arts, sciences, and enterprise. “They were one of the more successful communes to come out of New Mexico, where there was a huge concentration of New Age communities,” Williams said.

After years of traveling with Synergia and the Theater of All Possibilities throughout the 1970s, Bass returned home, ready to breathe life into Fort Worth’s nonexistent nightlife. He opened the Caravan’s doors on Sept. 29, 1983. Fort Worth had never seen anything like it before, and nothing like it has come along since.

The Caravan of Dreams in downtown Fort Worth. Photo by Juan Trahan

The venue’s name was inspired by a couplet written by Bahaudin, the Sufi mystic: “Here we are, all of us: in a dream-caravan. A caravan, but a dream—a dream, but a caravan. And we know which are the dreams.”

The opening featured experimental jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, a native son returned to the hometown he long ago left behind, to debut his original composition Skies of America with the Fort Worth Symphony. After the performance, Coleman’s group Prime Time played the club over the opening weekend.

“Are they cultural pioneers, or rich folks or crazy people?” Diane Werts of the Dallas Morning News mused in an article about the opening. “Actually—delightfully—a little bit of all three.”

For the next eight years, a dream lineup of jazz and blues greats graced the Caravan’s music stage, among them Eartha Kitt, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Wynton Marsalis, Sun Ra, Hugh Masekela, and Herbie Hancock. The venue also hosted hometown acts the Juke Jumpers, Johnny Reno, Robert Ealey, and T-Bone Burnett, and a hot new guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“People of all cultures and backgrounds showed up and had a good time,” wrote Fort Worth journalist Bob Ray Sanders. “It was a mecca for creative exchange that was broader than music, because there was poetry and film and theater. It was a cultural thing that was going on here.” Fans even drove over from Dallas, locals marveled, including professional athletes from the Dallas Cowboys and the Dallas Mavericks.

Born in Waco, the late American jazz musician and composer Roy Hargrove won two Grammy Awards. Photo by Juan Trahan

Psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, Beat Generation writer William Burroughs, anthropologist Jane Goodall, poet Yevengy Yevtushenko and John Allen/Dolphin delivered lectures and spoken word performances at the Caravan. Dance companies graced the theater stage. The Jubilee Theater’s performance of “Negroes in Space” drew record crowds, a big deal in the once-segregated city.

Eight years in, the variety of talent presented in the performing space broadened. Lyle Lovett, a Texas singer-songwriter-bandleader whose music was neither jazz nor blues, sold out five consecutive shows. Jerry Thompson, a principle in the Dallas Alley bar mall concept who had been hired as Caravan’s president, launched a six-month remodel that expanded capacity of the music room, while presenting rock bands like Little Feat and Los Lobos and singer-songwriters such as Lucinda Williams, in addition to featuring jazz, soul, and blues artists

Thompson’s eye was on the bottom line, a novel concept at the Caravan. Operations became more efficient. “Some of the Synergists on the waitstaff weren’t specifically trained or experienced in those positions,” Williams allowed. But the Synergia people had moved on.

In 2001, the Caravan closed for good with a final performance by the nuclear polka band from Denton, Brave Combo. The Synergia folks were moving on to a bigger project, Biosphere II in Arizona, an experimental three-acre closed ecological system in which eight people would live that Bass helped underwrite. Bass shifted his Fort Worth focus to the Will Rogers complex on the west side, overseeing new facilities for national cutting horse competitions and the construction of the Dickies Arena, as well as riding in the city’s annual rodeo parade. A new tenant, the Reata Steakhouse, was moving in to the Caravan space.

As much as Bass and Synergia play major roles in the Caravan, it’s the other stories that make this history come alive. Marjorie Crenshaw, president of the FW Jazz Society, and the superfan Marie Holliday, are profiled in Williams’ work.  So is artist and mask maker Leticia Eldridge, who speaks as a Caravan insider who wasn’t part of the Synergia group. The creations of the rooftop cactus garden, and the jazz and dance murals in the building are detailed.

The section recognizing I.M. Terrell High School band director G.A. Baxter and the future jazz greats he educated at the segregated school including Ornette Coleman, King Curtis, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Prince Lasha, Dewey Redman, and Cornell Dupree is enlightening, important scholarship. Several of these same players reunited to perform at the Caravan together.

Fort Worth native and performer Letitia Eldridge acts on stage with a masked singer. Photo courtesy William Williams

The Caravan of Dreams has been gone longer than its run lasted. Ed and Sasha Bass operate the Caravan of Dreams gallery downtown, using the original logo of the performing arts center. Downtown is a little quieter after dark. The action that once swirled around Sundance Square has moved to the Stockyards district.

Williams’ Caravan project stands as a reminder of what once was. “Everything under the sun has a time-stamped expiration date on it, even a performing arts center,” he says. “The decline and end is as important as the ascendent energy. You have to see it in its totality.“

Caravan from Dreamland: When Cowtown Conjured a New Frontier is available to download for free at Williams’ nonprofit Metro Music Project website.

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Mack McCormack, song hunter

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/on-the-hunt-for-mack-mccormick-a-houstonian-and-folklorist-who-loved-texas-blues/

Mack McCormick (right) photographed with drummer Spider Kilpatrick. Photo courtesy National Museum of History Archives Center, Robert Mack McCormick Collection, 1485, Box 10, Folder Photographs of Mack McCormick, modern, 1960-1998, undated

The first time I saw Mack McCormick’s name, it was attached to the liner notes on the back of the first albums issued by Arhoolie Records, the storied American folk music label founded by Chris Strachwitz. At the time, I didn’t know McCormick had led the Polish-born music enthusiast, who passed away earlier this year, to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Clifton Chenier—Arhoolie’s core artists—before falling out with him. The break was a familiar pattern for Mack McCormick, as I came to learn.

Eight years after his death in 2015 at the age of 85, the self-taught music folklorist and field researcher from Houston is finally having his moment. The Smithsonian Institution has recognized Robert “Mack” McCormick with a book, an exhibit, and, coming Aug. 4, a box set of 66 field recordings he made that are nothing less than the most comprehensive collection of Texas blues music ever assembled.

McCormick was a high school dropout who held a series of odd jobs to underwrite his passion—collecting, recording, and writing about music from what he called “Greater Texas,” East Texas and surrounding states extending back to Mississippi. He was particularly fond of African American blues. From the 1950s through the 1970s, he traveled throughout Texas and the South searching the places where early recording artists and their music originated and seeking out the music makers and people who knew them. For McCormick, it was all about the hunt for music and information, which he rarely shared, even while he dealt with personal issues including anger and isolation and clinically diagnosed manic depression.

As a field researcher chasing music, McCormick was directly influenced by John Avery Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, the trailblazing song hunters and music folklorists who were also from Texas. Lomax’s eldest son, John Avery Lomax Jr., and McCormick were both involved with the Houston Folklore & Music Society, founded in 1951, which nurtured the careers of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, and Guy Clark.

Unlike the Lomaxes, who were tied to academia and the Library of Congress, McCormick was an amateur obsessive. To support his habit, he drove taxis and worked for the U.S. Census Bureau in Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1960, just so he could learn more about barrelhouse pianists in the neighborhood. In addition, he did contract work for the Smithsonian in the late 1960s and early ’70s, scouting the South for talented musicians to perform at the institution’s summer music festival.

Mance Lipscomb with his family, photographed by Mack McCormick. National Museum of History Archives Center, Robert Mack McCormick Collection, 1485, Box 20, Folder 17, Outsize photos, Texas Blues, undated

Of all the musicians McCormick studied, none captured his attention more than Robert Johnson. In May, the Smithsonian published McCormick’s much-anticipated Biography of a Phantom: A Robert Johnson Blues Odyssey about the influential Mississippi Delta blues guitarist and singer who once recorded 42 songs at sessions at the Gunther Hotel in San Antonio in 1936 and the Warner Brothers/Vitagraph building in Dallas in 1937 before dying in 1938, allegedly under shady circumstances. He would become a major influence on Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and other British rock guitarists of the 1960s, and one of most mysterious figures in blues music.

Twenty years after Johnson’s death, McCormick started chasing Johnson’s ghost. Studying phone books and maps and making cold calls, he drove all over Mississippi following leads, visiting neighborhoods, asking around. McCormick’s manuscript about his quest was first finished in the early 1970s, but he continued making revisions without ever publishing it. After McCormick’s death, John W. Troutman, curator of music and musical instruments at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, edited the manuscript and wrote the book’s detailed preface and afterword.

Here’s my suggestion to truly appreciate Biography of a Phantom: Skip Troutman’s commentary until later, forget you’ve ever heard anything about McCormick, and dive in.

It’s a fun ride, part detective mystery, part anthropological travelogue. McCormick’s research methodology may seem quaint and dated, but it led to opportunities for direct contact: He speaks with relatives and friends who knew Johnson very well—and under another name. As the hunt progresses, McCormick’s appreciation of the secondary characters as real people changes, and he understands the artist more in the context of the community he lived in, culminating in a vivid scene in 1970 in a Mississippi Delta shotgun shack, where the music so familiar to his friends and family is played back to them on recordings.

John A. Lomax’s Adventure of a Ballad Hunter is the template for all books about collecting music. Other books, such as Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches and Do Not Sell at Any Price by Amanda Petrusch, do deeper dives into that obsessive world, but Biography of a Phantom hits the sweetest spot. It shines the light on the music chase at a time when scores of collectors were fanning out to the countryside trying to find out about a blues song’s origins or a recording artist’s roots.

McCormick’s friend Roger Wood, author of the books Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues and Texas Zydeco, says the published manuscript reminded him of John Graves’s Goodbye To A River. “[I]t takes the reader on a very personal trip with the narrator, who intertwines history and immediate experience, prior knowledge, and discovery, to communicate how a place, a culture, has changed over time (and will change more in the future),” he tells me in an email exchange. “I see/appreciate this book as great writing, the most fully articulated presentation of Mack’s narrative voice and capacity for engaging his audience.”

Wood adds, however, that McCormick would have hated it. “Mack would likely be furious about myriad details and developments with this [or any] publication beyond his control and the process that led to it,” Wood says. “He would likely threaten lawsuits, claim victimhood, add several new names to his enemies list, etc. Even if he had consented to whatever transpired, he would likely be furious, if not immediately, eventually—after he had taken time to sprout and nurture grievances. That was Mack.”

With fury and resentment no longer impediments, the story that finally has come out stands on its own merits. It’s a quest that anyone who has loved a particular song or artist can relate to. For blues researchers and scholars, this is as deep as the hunt for music ever gets.

When doing his field research a half century ago, McCormick knew he would draw scrutiny of white law enforcement and Black community leaders, but he jumped the color line nonetheless, a brazen act at the time. A Black researcher chasing white music could not have done the same. This reality is addressed in Treasures and Trouble: Looking Inside a Legendary Blues Archive, the exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of History opened in June in Washington D.C.

For Texans unable to travel to the nation’s capital, the exhibition showcases artifacts from “The Monster,” McCormick’s nickname for his massive collection of work, along with a reexamination of the process of gathering and preserving music. There is a focus on the patriarchal dynamic of a white man documenting a Black man’s history in the Jim Crow segregated South, and a frank assessment of McCormick’s myriad issues, which included grifting and hoarding.

McCormick persuaded Johnson’s siblings and heirs to share photographs and stories and sign agreements to share in profits from his estate, but he did not return materials to the relatives, as letters in the exhibit document. A Memphis producer named Steve LaVere subsequently secured an agreement from Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Thompson that effectively undercut McCormick. He wasn’t the only music hound chasing Johnson’s ghost, and the realization that he might not be able to capitalize on his quest might have contributed to McCormick’s fragile mental state.

McCormick preserved critically important music and information about African American musicians in the early and midcentury, and how he went about it is rightfully called into question. Certainly, what he did then is not what someone could do today. Then again, what they were chasing no longer exists.

Finally, there’s the music. On Aug. 4, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings releases Playing For the Man At Door, a 66-song box set of field recordings made by McCormick between the 1950s and ’70s, along with 128-page liner notes that include essays from producers Jeff Place and John W. Troutman on McCormick’s life, the musician’s daughter Susannah Nix on growing up with the massive collection, and musicians and scholars Mark Puryear and Dom Flemons on the marginalized communities to which McCormick devoted his life’s work.

Any controversy about McCormick vanishes when listening to these songs. The field recordings are McCormick at his obsessive best—on the street, being so bold as to request someone perform for his recorder (a request usually fulfilled), taking notes, occasionally interjecting a question, trying to capture the moment, in living rooms, porches, backyards, bars, and even prisons.

There are some familiar names. The storytelling preceding songs like Mance Lipscomb’s version of “Tall Angel at the Bar,” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ duet with Long Gone Miles, “Natural Born Lover,” is priceless. But most of the performers of these recordings were neither famous nor notorious outside their communities. I got to know some of the lesser-known characters, including barrelhouse pianist Robert Shaw, the ethereal Gray Ghost, and drummer-rapper Bongo Joe Coleman (what may be his first recordings). Performing live in person, each comes off as an original.

Revelations abound. “Quills” by Joe Patterson features one of the last players in Texas skilled in blowing handmade quills, or pan pipes made of cane, a talent famously articulated by Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas from Big Sandy in the 1920s, who McCormick also extensively studied. “St. James Infirmary” by Dudley Alexander and Washboard Band, sung in English and French, is a stellar example of Creole music that predates zydeco.

Mack McCormick leaves behind a dilemma. He was a terribly flawed individual. He obsessively guarded what he knew. He became paranoid his research would be stolen. In other words, McCormick consigned himself to death before the rest of the world could learn what he knew.

The world that McCormick dove into so zealously is gone.

What is left is all that McCormick learned about Texas blues and roots musicians, particularly African Americans. That work was both critical and monumental. Now that that knowledge is accessible, recognition of what he did is something to celebrate, nevermind the baggage of the tortured life that came with it.

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Texas’ Swimming Holes Are Drying Up

My story about swimming holes in Texas, drought, and climate change in the 50th Anniversary issue of Texas Monthly magazine.

https://www.texasmonthly.com/travel/ode-to-texas-disappearing-swimming-holes/

swimming holes Blanco State Park
The Blanco River in Blanco State Park in September 2018. Photograph by Nick Simonite
Texas Icons

An Ode to Texas’s Disappearing Swimming Holes

I’ve spent the past half century immersing myself in Texas’s clear, cool waters. But if development and drought have their way, I may be the last of my kind.

This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

I lived through the golden age of Texas swimming holes. Having spent my youth submerged in chlorinated pools in and around Fort Worth, I moved to Austin in 1973 and discovered Hippie Hollow before it was a county park and Barton Creek before a mining executive threatened to build a giant development along its banks.

Swimming in clear artesian spring water was a revelation to me. As a child, I’d seen San Marcos Springs when it was the Aquarena Springs theme park, but I didn’t associate the crystalline waters that Ralph the Swimming Pig frolicked in with something that was accessible to me. And yet, to my delight, I came to learn that they were.

The water in a Texas swimming hole is a pale blue or green or a hue somewhere in between that you can see through, often right to the bottom. Your eyes don’t sting when you open them underwater. There are creatures to observe—minnows, perch, crawfish, carp, catfish, bass, turtles, ducks, and maybe even, God help me, a water moccasin. A spring-fed swimming hole means cool-to-cold temperatures. The bottom is limestone, not squishy mud. Spoiled by such wonders, I quickly developed an aversion to cement ponds, as The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jethro Bodine called conventional swimming pools, and flinched at the scent of chlorine.

My then-girlfriend got me hooked on doing widths at Austin’s famous Barton Springs, and pretty soon I had worked up to swimming a round trip along the pool’s roughly one-eighth-mile length. Then it was a half mile and then a full mile. I was addicted. If I missed a day, I got cranky.

My search for clear, clean water turned into a treasure hunt. Hill Country rivers were prime targets: the Guadalupe, the Comal, the west fork of the Nueces, the Blanco, the San Marcos, the Llano, the Frio, the Medina. Creeks that fed the rivers sheltered hidden delights such as Jacob’s Well, Krause Springs, and several Blue Holes.

But I also found swimmable springs near Houston (swimmable but murky—it’s Houston!), near the Panhandle (Roaring Springs), and in the desert (Independence Creek). I became a regular at Balmorhea State Park, in far West Texas, swimming in the pool every month of the year. There are secret spots that I’ve been sworn never to reveal, at the risk of physical harm, and secret spots I can’t share because I trespassed. Having a gun pulled on you when you’re sopping wet is no fun.

Swimming-hole denizens are my tribe. We quietly exchange information about places worth checking out and share where the crowds aren’t. I’m fortunate to have friends who own ranches with secret holes to swim in and to have been invited to the Narrows, a typically off-limits miniature canyon in the Hill Country smack-dab between Blanco and Wimberley.

My obsession grew so fevered that thirty years ago my family and I left Austin for Wimberley to gain regular access to the Blanco River. I found an ideal swimming hole, and for years it has been part of my daily routine during the warm months.

Along the way, I’ve learned about karst topography and other unique features that make Texas swimming holes so abundant. I’ve also learned about the rule of capture, a Texas law that allows property owners to draw as much underground water as they wish, even at the risk of drying up a neighbor’s wells and springs. In the fifties, it effectively killed Fort Stockton’s Comanche Springs, once the largest in West Texas.

It wasn’t the first swimming hole to disappear, and it’s far from the last. In 2021, for the first time in my many summers in Wimberley, the Blanco ran so low that there wasn’t enough river to swim in. Extended drought, exploding population growth in the watershed, and aggressive groundwater pumping had reduced it to a trickling stream.

My bible, Gunnar Brune’s Springs of Texas, Volume 1, had warned me that this would happen. A technical volume published in 1981, it’s an expanded version of a 1975 report that Brune, a Fort Worth geologist, prepared for the Texas Water Development Board. He noted that the decline of Texas springs, in number and in volume, began with the first Spanish colonists and continued to the time of the book’s publication, largely as a result of agricultural, industrial, and municipal use of water, as well as the reduction in groundwater recharge.

That decline continues, primarily fueled by population growth. By 2005 only 17 of the 31 large springs once known in Texas remained. During the drought of 2022, Blue Hole, in Wimberley, and nearby Jacob’s Well were closed to swimming because of low or no flow. The Frio River at Concan went dry. Las Moras Springs, near Brackettville, stopped running. And this sad trend will likely only accelerate: we’re expecting a hotter, drier Hill Country in the future.

Some years back, I toured the Coal Mine Ranch in the isolated Trans-Pecos borderlands northwest of Candelaria. My host paused at a field of sun-bleached rubble. This was an ancient river delta, he said, leaning down and picking up a large rock to hand to me. Up close, I could make out the fossilized remnant of a very large turtle shell.

Will this be the fate of so many of the springs, creeks, rivers, and swimming holes that I love? Will the iconic image of our times be a minnow trapped in a shrinking puddle as the waters retreat? Or will the springs flow again and my beloved Blanco return when the rains come? So far in my lifetime, the water has always come back. But what about the next time?

Though the signs right now are dire, my faith remains strong enough that I recently ordered a new swimsuit, goggles, and earplugs. Perhaps I’m fooling myself. Perhaps hope is the only thing that springs eternal.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “C’mon in, the Water’s Finite.” Subscribe today.

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The Dallas Cowboys Used to Sell NFL Dynasties. Now They Sell Drama

https://www.texasmonthly.com/arts-entertainment/dallas-cowboys-americas-team-jerry-jones-drama-super-bowl/

My story on the Dallas Cowboys for Texas Monthly’s 50th Anniversary Issue

Illustration by Bráulio Amado; Source image: AP

Texas Icons

It’s been almost thirty years since America’s Team last played in the Super Bowl, yet fans remain hooked on Jerry Jones’s soap opera.

This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

When the first issue of this magazine was published, the Dallas Cowboys were at the peak of their First Dynasty. They had two recent Super Bowl appearances and one championship in their back pocket, and three more Super Bowls and another championship a few years in the future. Between 1966 and 1981 they posted a remarkable 171–59–2 record and never came
close to suffering a losing season.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. To be living in Texas, and
especially Dallas, at that time was to feel a certain electricity in the air every September to January. Cowboys fans took no small amount of pride in the fact that a team from Texas—a place viewed by many as an exotic outpost on the far reaches of American civilization—was suddenly regarded as America’s Team. Imagine, today, the next Facebook or Amazon or Google emerging from the frozen tundra of Anchorage, and you’ll have an idea of how transformational the whole thing was.

There were many factors at play. Over at Monday Night Football, the biggest sports show on television, Cowboys alum and East Texas native “Dandy” Don Meredith was throwing down with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. His quick-witted quips and insider observations, delivered in a thick drawl, forced a national audience to deep-six a hundred cornpone stereotypes of Texans.

There was an interesting tension at work on the field that you just couldn’t avert your eyes from. On the one hand, the Cowboys projected a clean, wholesome image. Coach Tom Landry (“God’s Coach”) was an early supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and appeared with evangelist Billy Graham at the opening of Texas Stadium, in Irving. Quarterback Roger Staubach—U.S. Naval Academy grad, devout Catholic, and gutsy field general—earned the nickname “Captain America.” Linebacker D. D. Lewis once declared that the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium had been put there “so God can watch his favorite team.” This was the Texas of Sunday morning church crowds rushing home for kickoff, the Texas whose loyalties were defined by the T-shirt slogan “God, Family, Cowboys.”

And then there were the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, whose girls-next-door image strained to compete with their skimpy tops and hot pants. Along with a good number of the players, who painted the town red on a regular basis, America’s Girls hinted at the other side of the sacred-and-profane Cowboys.

Big D was God and go-go girls, the new Texas contradiction of a church on every corner and newfangled singles apartment buildings with hot tubs and tanning decks just down the block; of housewives with beehive hairdos brushing past Jack Ruby’s topless dancers in the produce aisle at Tom Thumb. Who didn’t want to know a lot more about that?

Above all, the Cowboys won and won and won. Captain America was slinging TDs, the Doomsday Defense was stopping the enemy at the goal line, and the victories kept piling up. For Dallas, still trying to crawl out from under the dark shadow of the Kennedy assassination, the Cowboys represented a long-awaited redemption: This wasn’t the city of hate, where Cora Lacy Frederickson, the wife of an insurance executive and part of Congressman Bruce Alger’s Mink Coat Mob, had once brought a protest sign down on the head of United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Dallas was home to the winningest, cockiest crew of badasses to ever pull on football helmets and the only ones ballsy enough to put a big star on each one. The city, much to the chamber of commerce’s relief, would never be the same.


But then the winning stopped.

All dynasties, of course, run their course. It was perhaps inevitable that the Cowboys would come back to earth, beginning the eighties with three straight NFC conference championship losses. The team’s financially
overextended owner, Clint Murchison Jr., sold the Cowboys for $83 million in 1984 to Dallas business tycoon Bum Bright, who proved too cheap for the franchise’s good. After some success early in Bright’s tenure, the team stumbled through a string of three losing seasons, including a dismal 3–13 record in 1988. Only the cheerleaders seemed to rise above the mess.

Bright, caught up in the national savings and loan collapse and hurting for money, flipped the team, selling the Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million—a profit of almost $60 million. The buyer was Jerry Jones, an Arkansas oil and gas executive who had played football for the University of Arkansas.

On his first day, Jones named his old teammate Jimmy Johnson, the Port Arthur–born coach of the University of Miami Hurricanes, head coach and fired Landry on an Austin-area golf course. The abrupt dismissal of the Only Coach the Cowboys Ever Had heaped a dump truck of well-deserved ill will on the new owner. But all was forgiven and forgotten four years later with the first of two consecutive Super Bowl victories. At the heart of this Second Dynasty were quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin, and running back Emmitt Smith. Irvin was the ringleader at the White House, a rental property near the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters that was the biggest party pad in the NFL, where women and piles of cocaine were frequently on the menu. (Irvin also once attacked a teammate with a pair of scissors but wasn’t charged for any crimes in the incident and declared himself a born-again Christian.)

Those glory days would be short-lived. Johnson resigned as coach after the 1994 Super Bowl, following a pissing match with Jones over who deserved what degree of credit for the Cowboys’ greatness. Replacement coach Barry Switzer oversaw the Cowboys’ 1996 Super Bowl win—the third since Jones bought the team—mostly with Johnson’s players and playbook.

And the 27 years since then? Long-suffering Cowboys fans know the stats all too well: four playoff wins, zero Super Bowl appearances, no championships.

In another era, that would have spelled the end of a team’s cultural dominance. But fortunately for Jones, the National Football League today operates by different metrics than it did fifty years ago. Victories are great, but money is the name of the game, and Jerry Jones has proved as brilliant at the balance sheet as he is hapless on the gridiron. The game’s best-known owner has found revenue streams that no one had ever thought of: Pepsi became the official soft drink of Texas Stadium and the Cowboys, for hefty fees. Prices were jacked up for parking, tailgating, merchandise, and luxury-box rentals. Jones negotiated Texas Stadium sponsorships with Nike and American Express when no other team had such deals, blowing off the idea of league revenue-sharing. He led the NFL owners in renegotiating television contracts.

And the franchise continues innovating. Cowboys Stadium, in Arlington, now dubbed AT&T Stadium, is the prototype for all modern football arenas, with the world’s largest single-span roof, the world’s largest HDTV screen (when the facility opened; it has since been surpassed), the world’s largest retractable glass doors, the biggest walk-in beer cooler in Texas, augmented reality to enhance the pregame and postgame experience, world-class art on display, and the flexibility to host rodeos, concerts, conventions, and Texas high school football championships. The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, meanwhile, remain the only pro football dance squad that matters.

Amazingly, despite their relative weakness on the field, no team attracts television viewers like the Cowboys do. They lead the league in NFL-licensed merchandise sales, and their fan base is the biggest in all of football. In 2016 the Cowboys were valued at $4 billion, making them the most valuable franchise not just in the NFL but in all of global professional sports.

Jerry Jones’s business acumen notwithstanding, how can that be? How can a team that hasn’t made it to the big game—much less won it—in more than a quarter of a century still elicit that sort of loyalty from hometown fans and draw the fascination of everyone else? How, after all these years, are the Cowboys still America’s Team?

One reason fans stay glued to the TV screen all the way through December is because the Cowboys are usually competitive enough that there’s a chance that this year will be the year. The Cowboys still feel like a championship team, even if they aren’t really. (Longhorn and Aggie fans might find this description familiar.)

But it’s also true that no franchise does drama better. In today’s NFL, it’s the story lines and entertainment—“popcorn”—that keep people coming back for more. And no organization comes close to the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to selling that product. Consider: The signing and three-year stint of Terrell Owens, described as the most misunderstood player in the league, over the objection of then-coach Bill Parcells, who would publicly refer to Owens only as “the player.” Dez Bryant’s getting kicked out of NorthPark mall because someone in his group—possibly Bryant— was wearing his pants too low. The streaky heartbreak of Tony Romo, beginning with his last-second fumbled field goal snap in the playoffs against Seattle. The multiple arrests of former Cowboys Quincy Carter and Rolando McClain. Lineman Randy Gregory’s addiction issues. The intoxicated manslaughter charges filed against defensive lineman Josh Brent after the car he was driving rolled over, killing teammate Jerry Brown. The running question of how much rope Jones would give then-coach Jason Garrett. Jones’s refusal to hire a general manager because he thought he could do the job himself. Jones’s paternity lawsuits.

Pop, pop, pop.

Here’s the thing about popcorn, though: it may be irresistible, but it never quite satisfies. Every January, those same rabid fans, still trying to stay high on three-decade-old fumes, still humming Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” to themselves, are forced to wake up to reality. And if the team’s fortunes on the gridiron don’t turn around anytime soon, you might imagine that at some point, those loyal fans might start wondering just what it is they’re so loyal to. A name? A gloried history? Jones’s bank account? They might start wondering whether that loyalty has been repaid in kind.

For now, the season ticket holders and skybox owners and devoted television viewers seem to be holding steady. When the Cowboys are playing,
Dallasites—and plenty of other Texans, along with more than a few people in the rest of the world—still pause, all eyes turned in the team’s direction. The sweet smell of success from many seasons ago faintly lingers.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “America’s Team, Still.” Subscribe today.

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Triumphs @ East Bernard Riverside Hall and Swiss Alp: one last time

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/im-so-lonesome-i-could-cry-hitmakers-the-triumphs-call-it-quits-one-more-time/

by Joe Nick Patoski

After 63 years, The Triumphs are finally hanging it up. This time they mean it. Sure, there have been “last shows” before, but this time, after a few more live dates between New Year’s Eve and February, that’s going to be it.

“We’re retiring. For real,” says Don Drachenberg, one of the band’s vocalists who also plays saxophone. At 82, he is one of two members, along with Gary Koeppen, remaining from the band’s glory days in the early to mid-1960s. (A third original member, Tim Griffith, sadly passed away earlier this month.)

During its heyday, the band packed dance halls between Houston and San Antonio, engaged in storied battle of the bands with Roy Head’s band The Traits, and scored a hit record with a cover of the mournful Hank Williams ballad “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” sung by the group’s then lead vocalist, B.J. Thomas.

Formed in Rosenberg by Lamar Consolidated High School students, the band, named after the motorcycle, expanded over the years to include as many as seven to nine members. They first hung it up in 1980, but unable to quit the music, the group reformed in 1992. They called it quits a second time in 2020, with COVID-19 to blame.

“Our last performances were at East Bernard and Swiss Alp in January through February 2020, right before the pandemic hit,” Drachenberg says. “By the time May rolled around, all of our performing dates had been cancelled. By the middle of summer, we started yakking among ourselves. Live music and live dance halls may not be coming back for a few years. It looks like we’re done.”

That retirement lasted a year. A different tune was sung by the summer of 2021, when pandemic restrictions began to be lifted. “Three guys in the band started talking: we had a little gas left in the tank,” Drachenberg says. “A couple guys didn’t want to do it, seven of us did. We got back together in July to rehearse. In September, we started performing again.”

A year of gigs later and The Triumphs have reconsidered once again.

“We came to the conclusion we’re too old to be doing this. It’s too tiring, it’s too rough,” Drachenberg says, laughing. “You remember the good times, but you forget all the hours, lifting heavy equipment, all that. It was too much work and not enough fun.”

If ever there was a group who knew fun, it was The Triumphs. They built a following playing Top 40 and rock music in Texas dance halls between Houston and San Antonio. “East Bernard, Tate, Hilje, Hallettsville, Schulenberg, Moulton, LaGrange, El Campo KC Hall, Angleton Fairgrounds—we worked a circuit,” Drachenberg recalls. “We played those halls once a month, and worked in a party or a festival or reunion.”

Their repertoire included the popular songs of the day, from Motown and Jimmy Reed tunes to party songs like “Louie, Louie” and “(I’m A) Soul Man.” Very few original tunes were part of the setlist.

“My Girl,” made popular by the Temptations, remains one of the most requested songs at a Triumphs’ show. “Color My World” by Chicago became a band standard during the 1970s, as did “Midnight Hour,” “Red, Red Wine,” and “Cotton Eye Joe.” And, acknowledging the musical heritages of the dance halls where they played, the band performed polkas, including a medley of “Julida,” “Beer Barrel” (aka “Roll Out the Barrel”), “A Ja Sam,” and “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

Two of their songs remain part of every Triumphs show today: their biggest hit, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Garner State Park,” which still is the last song played at Saturday night dances on the patio of the pavilion at Garner State Park north of Uvalde.

During the early 1960s, the Triumphs tried their hand at recording and realized some success, thanks to Houston Top 40 radio stations. Their first two 45 rpm singles, “I Know It’s Wrong” and “Lazy Man,” received airplay in 1962 on both KILT and KNUZ, with “Lazy Man” reaching No. 7 on KILT’s chart. Other hits included “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Billy and Sue” (reached No. 1 on KILT in 1964), and “Garner State Park.”

Then in December 1965, the band’s remake of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” broke out of Houston and went No. 1 nationally. Acknowledging the lead singer’s distinctive tenor voice, the band was promoted as B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs.

Things took a turn in March 1966 when the group was offered a slot on a national tour. Thomas eagerly signed on, but the rest of The Triumphs stayed behind. “Most of us were in college,” Drachenberg says. “We didn’t want to go. B.J. did. None of us had the aspirations he had.”

It’s a familiar showbiz story, only in this version the band that stayed behind never quit. “We’ve always been a local band,” Drachenberg explains. “We just wanted to enjoy what we do, and have our friends around us…We have so many fans that come out to see us. If we put something out on Facebook that we’re going to do something, we know several hundred people are going to turn out at that event. We recognize the faces, recognize the couples, even as they’ve gotten older. We have a hellacious fan base.”

Over the years, the band’s popularity could be seen at venues like Riverside Hall in East Bernard, which drew fans from Columbus, Eagle Lake, Bay City, Houston. The group was so popular there, Drachenberg says, “[w]hen it burned down in the late 1980s, they immediately built another hall.”

Playing Swiss Alp, a storied Texas dance hall between Schulenberg and LaGrange, is like going to a family reunion. “My wife’s family comes from Hallettsville,” he says. “Her grandparents danced at Swiss Alp, her parents danced at Swiss Alp, my wife and I danced there, my daughter in Schulenberg dances there. And now my granddaughter who lives in Houston dances at Swiss Alp.”

In 2010, 44 years after he left for biggest stages, Thomas performed with the Triumphs again. “Both of us were kicking ourselves for not having got back together earlier,” Drachenberg says. They continued doing special performances together until Thomas’ death in 2021.

Drachenberg admits he’s going to miss doing what he’s done his entire adult life. “Performing on the stage, you get a great feeling,” he says. “Having somebody applaud or go ‘Whoop!’ after you’ve done a song, that gives me chill bumps.”

And after the band gave so many people a good time with music, the fans are returning the favor. “People have been calling me, thanking me for giving their family so much fun and pleasure over the years,” Drachenberg says. “That feels really good.”

The Triumphs’ final public shows take place New Year’s Eve at the Silos in Giddings, Jan. 28 at the band’s historic home base Riverside Hall in East Bernard, and Feb. 18 at Swiss Alp Hall. For more information, check the calendar on The Triumphs’ website

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Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – the Wild Rio Grande Valley

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/explore-rio-grande-valley-wilderness-wildlife-at-laguna-atascosa-national-wildlife-refuge/

Explore the wilderness and wildlife of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Creature Comforts

By Joe Nick Patoski

A sunrise view of Laguna Madre from the Plover Point observation deck. Photo by Erich Schlegel; Illustration by Lin Jesse

An illustration of a swimming duck with a bright red head moving through tall grassy reeds

A redhead duck. Illustration by Lin Jesse

Beyond Laguna Madre,

on the ocean side of South Padre Island, a bank of cumulus clouds looms over the Gulf of Mexico. Morning light casts a palette of radiant oranges, yellows, pinks, and blues, minutes before the sun makes its debut above the clouds.

Sunrise in January is prime time at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley. The tropical humidity and heat, the norm from late March until November, abates, and the winter residents move in. From the Plover Point observation deck, the Laguna Madre —one of only four shallow, hypersaline bays in the world—shimmers with sublime views.

Living creatures are everywhere—in the water, on the land, in the sky. Songbirds flit out of the impenetrable thornscrub brush called the monte, while a pair of scissor-tailed flycatchers pirouette around a Spanish dagger yucca. A clutch of shockingly pink roseate spoonbills stands out among hundreds of white egrets, herons, and ducks congregating in a shallow pond. On the shore of the laguna, shorebirds gingerly step in the shallows in search of breakfast. Redfish, too, their tails extending above the water surface as they feed on shrimp. A brown pelican spies a tailing redfish and quickly scoops it up. On the road through the thornscrub, rabbits and roadrunners crisscross the path where a brilliantly dark indigo snake has just slithered. Coyotes, whitetail deer, and nilgai antelope roam undisturbed across the open savannah. Butterflies and dragonflies flutter around by the dozens.

A collection of palm trees and grasses with water and cloudy sky in the background

Redhead Ridge on the shore of Laguna Madre. Photo by Larry Ditto

Welcome to the wildest part of the wild Rio Grande Valley, which offers a glimpse into the natural world that flourished across deep South Texas before it was settled, farmed, and developed. Coastal, tropical, jungle, and desert all at once, the Valley is where the two major North American migratory bird flyways converge, and it’s a crucial wintering grounds for waterfowl. Laguna Atascosa is at the center of the action.

The rapidly developing region is also attractive to humans. From 2000 to 2020, the Rio Grande Valley population—including Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, and Willacy counties—grew 41% to 1.37 million people. According to the Texas Demographic Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the number is projected to grow another 15% to 1.58 million by 2050, depending on migration rates. But while habitat loss is the usual story in the booming RGV, Laguna Atascosa is all about rewilding.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service established the refuge in 1946, carving about 11,000 acres from a World War II gunnery range to protect wintering bird habitat, primarily the redhead duck on Laguna Atascosa. Over the past two decades, assistance from groups including The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund, along with settlement funds from the 2010 BP Oil Spill, have allowed the refuge to add over 50,000 acres to expand to more than 120,000 acres across multiple units. The South Padre Island Unit protects land on the northern end of the island, and the Bahia Grande Unit protects wetlands between Laguna Vista and Brownsville. Ongoing purchases are creating a new coastal corridor for wildlife to travel between patches of their fragmented habitat, including via special highway underpasses.

“There’s not a more significant place for wildlife diversity in Texas, and maybe the country, than the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from songbirds to ocelots to waterfowl,” says Jeff Francell, director of land protection for The Nature Conservancy in Texas. “Most of the native brush in the Valley was converted to farmland decades ago, and so to enhance the native wildlife populations, it’s important to take some of that land and restore it for wildlife. For example, one of the pieces of property we were able to acquire was an old shrimp farm, and we were able to buy part of it to provide a corridor for ocelots between Laguna Atascosa and Bahia Grande.”

Laguna Atascosa astounds in its diversity: 417 bird species, 130 butterfly species, 45 mammal species, 44 reptile species, and 450 plant species. And the refuge is far enough from the border to avoid lighting, walls, and other disruptive issues that have negatively impacted some refuges along the Rio Grande. Outside of a visitor center, a couple of roads, and a handful of overlooks, the refuge has very little infrastructure. Wildlife conservation is the priority. This is by far the biggest chunk of wild in the Rio Grande Valley

Two people, one with binoculars and another with a camera, look for birds along a watery shore

Birding on the tidal flats at South Bay by the Brownsville Ship Channel. Photo by Larry Ditto

About 15 minutes before daybreak, I meet the refuge’s visitor services manager, Georgie Garcia, in the visitor center parking lot and jump into his high-clearance pickup. Garcia, a Brownsville native and Iraq War vet, drives the truck across Buena Vista Road and opens the gate at the trailhead to Granjeno Trail, the access to Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. We continue to Plover Point to take in the sunrise before touring the heart of the refuge via roads, trails, and barely visible dirt tracks.

Garcia, one of seven employees, also maintains the trails with a brush cutter to keep the monte from encroaching, stocks the feeders and water features, conducts educational outreach, and coordinates the seasonal volunteers. The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group runs the bookshop in the visitor center, and volunteers help cover for Garcia whenever he is away from the service counter, which is the source of permits and information. Luckily, the service counter has a picture window that looks over a bird feeding station.

“Every day I bet my paycheck I’ll see a green jay,” Garcia says of the Neotropical bird rarely seen elsewhere in the United States. “There will be 20 on a feeder sometimes.”

The visitor center reopened in May after being closed for two years due to the pandemic. In 2019, the refuge restored its main thoroughfare, Buena Vista Road, from a potholed country road to a two-lane boulevard with bicycle lanes on both sides, along with eight large speed bumps to keep traffic under the 25-mph speed limit. The “Ocelot Crossing” signs are for real.

The park’s other road—Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive—closed to private motor vehicles in 2013 when a car hit and killed a lactating female ocelot. A 60-person tram operated on the loop seasonally in the 2010s until it broke down in 2018 and was declared beyond repair.

These days, hiking and cycling are the only ways to explore Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive and the 55 miles of other trails.

As we drive through two fallow fields lined with tree tubes containing seedlings and saplings of natives such as mesquite and hawthorn, Garcia says the refuge’s revegetation efforts have stepped up as more land has been added. “All that acquired property was ag fields,” he grins confidently. “Give it 10 years; it’ll be South Texas thornscrub.”

An illustration of a bird with dark brown wings, a white tuft, and small head with a beak sitting on a wooden branch

An Aplomado falcon. Illustration by Lin Jesse
A map of coastal Texas showing the Laguna Madre and Laguna Atacosa areas

Map illustration by Lin Jesse
A boat makes a wide white wake as it traverses a green channel

Boating the Stover Cove area on Laguna Madre. Photo by Erich Schlegel

The ocelot—a small, secretive spotted feline, about twice the size of a house cat—has become a symbol of the refuge. Laguna Atascosa is home to 30-35 ocelots, one of two breeding populations in the U.S.

In cooperation with the refuge, the Friends of LANWR group holds an annual Ocelot Conservation Day in March at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville—March 5 this year—with booths and presentations.

“We know the biggest problem is habitat loss,” Garcia says. “This past trapping season, they were able to trap six ocelots and put collars on them. The ocelot is an umbrella species; it’s at the top. If you restore their habitat, it’s going to help a lot of other South Texas species, some of them endangered or threatened.”

While making the rounds, Garcia chases off several cows that wandered in from a neighboring ranch, watches a gator snag an unsuspecting bird, and fetches the remnants of a mylar balloon snagged on a prickly pear.

We drive south to the 26,000-acre Bahia Grande Unit, an addition to the refuge that is west of State Highway 48 and the Brownsville Ship Channel.

An illustration of a large tortoise walking through green grasses and flowers

A Texas tortoise. Illustration by Lin Jesse

“This was a complete dust bowl,” Garcia says, gazing across rough vegetated lowlands spiked with yucca. “Now we’ve restored it to beautiful coastal prairie wetlands, with lomas, how it used to be.” Lomas are low vegetated hills that exist in only three places in the world. “We’re going to bring in some fresh water, which should balance out the salinity.” The Bahia Grande is hunting grounds for Aplomado falcons, which eat insects, lizards, birds, and small mammals.

We inspect a channel between two small inlets in the estuaries and watch a school of redfish forming a V as they move through. We stop near another small shallow lake, almost dry, and Garcia walks toward a sandy shelf, maybe 5 feet high. Beneath the shelf, dozens of perfectly circular beads no more than an eighth of an inch in diameter, each with a hole in the middle, are scattered in the sand around our feet.

“The thinking is this was on a trade route between the coast and the interior,” Garcia says. Once revegetation has taken hold and archeological work is complete in two to four years, Bahia Grande will have public access. For now, it is open to hunters on designated weekends in the winter.

A silhouette of a person riding a bicycle in front of a sunset

Cycling on Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. Photo by Eric Schlegel

Visiting Laguna Atascosa

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge offers a look at why the Rio Grande Valley was slow to be civilized for large-scale human population. What’s great for the creatures and critters translates to rough country for people—it’s hot, humid, windy, and buggy.

Park staff members recommend bringing a wide-brimmed hat, bug repellent, sunblock, long pants, high socks, and sturdy footwear to ward off ticks, chiggers, and snakes—regardless of the time of year.

The refuge doesn’t have food or drink for sale, and fuel is 15 miles away at the intersection of SH 100 and FM 510 west of Port Isabel. The nearest hospital is in Harlingen, 28 miles from the visitor center.

Admission costs $3 per vehicle. An annual pass is $10. The refuge trails are open daily, dawn to dusk. The visitor center opens Wed-Fri 7 a.m.-2 p.m. 22817 Buena Vista Boulevard, Los Fresnos. 956-748-3607; fws.gov/refuge/laguna-atascosa

The Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge group maintains a calendar of events and activities on its website, flanwr.org.

We don’t see a soul on our five-hour tour, except for a lone cyclist cruising along the back side of Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. He is clearly in the zone, steadily pedaling, lost in the rhythm and unaware of our truck inching up behind him. Garcia patiently keeps his distance for a few minutes, then gently taps his horn. The cyclist startles. He pulls over and grins as we pass.

The cyclist is Irv Downing, a 68-year-old former endurance racer who moved from South Padre to be closer to the refuge, which he cycles about “every other day.” Downing calls Laguna Atascosa his Serengeti. “The scenery, the setting, the laguna, it’s just spectacular,” he says. “My son was visiting from Seattle last week, and on our ride photographed 20 nilgai antelope.”

After talking to Downing, I figure I could bicycle this route too—if it wasn’t too windy, too hot, or too cold. “This is a difficult trail because of the distance and wind factor,” Garcia acknowledges. “The way to do this is on an electric bike.”

My ears perk up.

I couldn’t locate any e-bike rentals near the refuge, so I find one to borrow near my home in Wimberley and load it into my SUV. Back at the refuge, I meet photographer Erich Schlegel at the visitor center parking lot just before sunrise.

The narrow, paved route along Steve Thompson Scenic Drive is downright bucolic, especially with the rising sun casting a soft golden glow over the whole scene, straight out of a Van Gogh landscape. I pedal conventionally most of the way, twisting the accelerator handgrip whenever I lag behind Schlegel and whenever headwinds slow
my pace.

We cycle through the monte, up and down a loma, past prairies and estuaries, and along the shores of shallow lakes, bogs, mudholes, and wetlands. Wildlife stirs all along the way. Because we’re on bikes, the wildlife is more active, less oblivious to our presence, than when we were driving the route in a truck. We see several white-tailed deer scamper up from a creek bottom, followed by a herd of nilgai antelope cows who stroll across a grass prairie to meet up with a herd of nilgai bulls.

We cycle 13 miles in two hours including stops at Plover Point and Renee’s Overlook along the shore of the Laguna Madre. It’s a good workout, even with electric assistance. But it is nothing like the exhilaration I feel being there, passing the morning in that part of the Rio Grande Valley where the wild things are.

There is one caveat. No ocelot sighting. I reach out to Hilary Swarts, one of the refuge’s two wildlife biologists. Swarts is an ocelot specialist who has trapped and collared the cats on the refuge; she also documented the first ocelot kitten discovered on the refuge in about two decades.

Swarts, who has worked at the refuge for nine years, has spotted ocelots in the wild twice, one in July 2020 and one this past June, both near the visitor center. “Whenever I feel pessimistic, I remind myself they’re all over this refuge,” she says. “They’ve seen me more often than I’ve seen them. They could be staring at us right now.”

That’s the spirit of Laguna Atascosa.

“It’s that wild, that alive,” Swarts says. “And you don’t have to hike or bike to appreciatethat. Just plant yourself somewhere and watch.”

Laguna
Atascosa Wildlife

Birders are as hip to Laguna Atascosa as the birds are. The late Roger Tory Peterson, a pioneer of modern American bird-watching from New York, made six trips to the refuge in the 20th century in search of uncommon sightings. More than 400 bird species have been spotted at the refuge, including South Texas specialties such as green jays, Altamira orioles, and plain chachalacas.

Popular bird-watching sites include the visitor center, which is home to blinds, feeders, and water features; Kiskadee Trail, a paved, wheelchair-accessible path; and the Mesquite Trail loop and the Prairie Island viewing area.

Osprey Overlook, a covered platform with a sweeping vista of the 3,500-acre Laguna Atascosa, is a magnet for pelicans, herons, egrets, and, during winter, 85% of the redhead ducks in North America.

Endangered Aplomado falcons were introduced on the refuge in 1993 after being eradicated in most of the Southwest. Twenty-six pairs presently reside on the refuge, most around the Bahia Grande Unit.

Near Osprey Overlook is the trailhead to Alligator Pond, where alligators wallow in their element. And while you won’t likely see them, wild cats are out there too—bobcats, cougars, and ocelots.

Hunts, which take place on designated days between November and February, are managed to cull invasive hogs and nilgai antelope.

From the January 2023 issue
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