Panhandle-Plains Museum, Canyon, Texas

Part Three of the stories behind the story of my West Texas Music drive, one of 18 drives in Texas Monthly’s Drive issue, June, 2012

CANYON is the gateway to Palo Duro Canyon, Texas’s Grand Canyon, and the home of Texas’s Smithsonian, the Pahandle-Plains Museum, which tells the stories of the people of the Panhandle, the Great Plains, and far North and near West Texas. It’s a beautiful building loaded with outstanding artifacts and recreations of dugout, Indian communities, and old western towns. One of my favorite artifacts is a painting by Georgia O’Keefe when she was a teacher at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, now known as West Texas A&M. It illustrates that this part of Texas, not New Mexico, was where O’Keefe first fell under the influence of bright natural light.

PPM is an easy place for a curious mind to get lost in.

Unfortunately, for being such a great repository, PPM does not have a permanent music exhibit (then again, in Amarillo, just up the Interstate, there is no absolutely no formal recognition of local hero Eck Robertson, who is credited with making the very first country music record with Henry Gilliland when the Victor company released two sides they recorded, “Sallie Goodin” and “Arkansas Traveler,” in 1922).

What the PPM does have is an extensive archive including music artifacts. If a visitor plans ahead to make an appointment with archivist Warren Sticker, you can go into the stacks and see up close and personal one of Bob Wills’ fiddles (the best they’ve got in Turkey is a fiddle that belonged to Bob’s father), as well as the acoustic guitar belonging to Buddy Knox from Happy, the band leader of the Rhythm Orchids, the West Texas rock and roll and rockabilly band second only to Buddy Holly’s Crickets, famous for their big hits “Party Doll” as well as “Hula Love,” “Rock Your Baby to Sleep,” and “Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself.”

PANHANDLE- PLAINS HISTORICAL MUSUEM
CANYON Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, 2503 4th Avenue, Canyon
806-651-2244 panhandleplains.org.
Admission $10 for adults, 9am – 6pm Mon-Sat during summer months
To see Bob Wills’ fiddle and Buddy Knox’s guitar, contact archivist Warren Sticker to set up an appointment. 806 651-2254, wstricker@pphm.wtamu.edu There is an additional $5 charge to access the research center

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Woody Folk Music Center and This Land is Your Land Fence, Pampa, Texas

Part two of the story behind the story of my West Texas Music drive for the June issue of Texas Monthly magazine


Woody Guthrie, America’s greatest folksinger may have come from Okemah, Oklahoma, but he came of age in Pampa. Here’s what I found, starting with the Woody in Pampa website :

THE WOODY GUTHRIE FOLK MUSIC CENTER is the old Hall Drug Store on Pampa’s red brick old main street, where Woody worked from 1930-1935 and learned to play guitar, combined with the barber shop next door. Woody’s father ran a “cot house” across the street for oil field workers who flooded the town in the early 30s, which may or may not have included a bordello in the back.

The folk center is the vision of local historian and author Thelma Bray, whose two biographies of Guthrie are on sale at the center; the second, revised edition was published after Pete Seeger consulted Bray.

While the center is packed with photographs, newspaper articles, and copies of letters Woody and others wrote (did you know his song “Up from Boston” is the Boston Red Sox theme?), the center’s greatest artifact is “the building itself,” says Mike Sinks, one of the center’s supporters, who showed me around. “It’s where Woody Guthrie learned to play music.”
He also formed his first ensemble, the Corn Cob Trio, in 1934.

Sinks tells good stories about Woody, how he was known around town for spending so much time in the library reading books, and how his political leanings still divide the town – an attempt to name a street after him failed in the mid 90s when a Pampa official protested that Guthrie was a “communist” and naming a street after him would give the town a bad reputation. [Pampa officials today could do worse than talk to their peers in Okemah and find out what they’re missing.

Taking cues from Woody, live music is the main feature of the center: acoustic jams on the first Friday night of every month, electric jams on the third Friday, and informal pickings any old time.

The tracks where Guthrie first started hopping freights to California are a block north.

320 South Cuyler, www.woodyguthriepampatx.com The office is open 1-4 Fridays, but if you’d like to look around the folk center any other time, call or email Mike Sinks (806-664-0824; sinks2011@hotmail.com), or one of the other center board members found on the website and open the building for you and show you around. Donations appreciated.

Arlo Guthrie played Pampa on behalf of the folk music center back in March, a few weeks after Jimmy LaFave stopped in coming back from a Colorado gig, which was front page news in Pampa.

Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday will be celebrated at the center on July 25 and nationally on July 14, his actual birthdate.
All pickers are welcome, in the spirit of Woody.

THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND MUSIC NOTE FENCE in East Coronado Park on the south side of the AmericInn motel, 1101 North Hobart, (US 70 North), was created by welder Rusty Neef. Pampa city fathers balked at naming a street after Guthrie in 1995. “They didn’t want to name a street after a communist,” Mike Sink said. Nothing was said of Guthrie’s three tours of duty for the US military.

For general Pampa information go here cityofpampa.org

Good listening: The Saturday morning Western Swing and Other Things radio show hosted by Dodge City, KS Marshal Allen Bailey and his sidekick Cowgirl Jane, heard on High Plains Radio public radio affiliates throughout the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, and Kansas every Saturday

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Turkey, Texas Home of Bob Wills

The first stop of my West Texas Music drive, as seen in the June issue of Texas Monthly magazine (texasmonthly.com) was Turkey, Texas, home of the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills

base of the statue

Here’s the lowdown on all things Wills in Turkey:

Last April was the 41st year of Bob Wills Day, which draws some folks more than two weeks before the actual event for jam sessions. The Hotel Turkey is reserved exclusively for Texas Playboys on that weekend, according to Lorene Setliff who was manning the counter in the museum on my visit. “They come from everywhere. This morning we had people from Canada and from Delaware. They just want to enjoy the music and see how Bob lived.”

Jim Rob Wills lived poor on the 600 acre cotton farm north of town between the Big Red and Little Red rivers. He lived rich once he made it in music. He honed his people skills cutting hair and chatting up customers at Hamm’s Barber Shop.

Among the artifacts are Ann Richards’ letter recognized the Bob Wills postage stamp, a sheet of Bob Wills Texas lottery tickets, a copy of Dwight Adair’s “Faded Love: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, photos of Bob at home in Abilene in 1957 with his kids and at Wills Point in Sacramento, California where he spent the late 1940s, a fiddle that belonged to Bob’s father, and a shaving brush and scissors from Ham’s Barger Shop where Jim Rob honed his people skills, and a framed Playboy Flour sack from Red Star Milling in Wichita, Kansas.

An enlarged photo of the Texas Playboys standing at attention in front of their bus, with Bob astride a horse on one side, takes up an entire wall. Koozies, notepads, ball caps, bumper stickers, CDs and books by Townsend, Rosetta Wills, and Al Stricklin, the Playboys’ longest-serving pianist, are among the gifts for sale.
602 Lyles, 806 423 1253, 806 423-1033. 8-noon, 1-5 pm weekdays only, or by special appointment. Donations accepted.
The Gem Theater hosts the First Saturday Jamboree on the first Saturday night of every month. 217 Main St., contact Marie Cruse of Turkey Heritage Foundation 806 423-1420.
The whole town comes alive for Bob Wills Day, the last Saturday in April
For more information: www.turkeytexas.net

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Big Squeeze finalists

On to Houston, and Miller Outdoor Amphitheater on June 2 for the Big Squeeze finals and the Texas Accordion Kings and Queens concert.

Here are the four finalists:
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from left: Michael Ramos, Luis Gonzales, Peter Anzaldua, Omar Garza
Photo by Michelle Mejia, 2012, Texas Folklife

The wrap: TEXAS FOLKLIFE’S BIG SQUEEZE ACCORDION CONTEST FINALISTS ANNOUNCED

Free Concert and Playoffs held at The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum Saturday, April 28

Finalists will perform at 23rd annual Accordion Kings & Queens Festival held on Saturday, June 2 at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theatre

Austin, Texas – April 30, 2012 – There was a whole lot of squeezeboxing going on last Saturday on the Lone Star Plaza at the Bullock! There were over 700 music fans in attendance—the largest crowd on record for the semifinals contest—to cheer this year’s winners as they were selected. The Big Squeeze 2012 finalists are: Peter Anzaldua, 15, of Brownsville; Omar Garza, 17, of Mission; Luis Gonzales, 16, of Grand Prairie; and Michael Ramos, 16, of Dallas. These young musicians will perform at the Accordion Kings & Queens Festival in June when the 2012 Big Squeeze Champ will be crowned.

The Big Squeeze 2012 semifinals for up-and-coming musicians was held in Austin at The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum on Saturday, April 28. This was the third consecutive year that The Big Squeeze contest has been held at the popular museum that tells “the story of Texas.” Semifinalists performed before a panel of judges and the public on the Lone Star Plaza in front of the museum, Saturday, April 28, from 2:00-5:30 p.m. A free concert was also held on the Plaza. Joe Nick Patoski emceed this year’s contest and performance. The program featured Joel Guzman, two-time Grammy Award winner and considered one of the best accordion players in the country; Ruben Paul Moreno, zydeco phenom who has just been nominated for the 2012 Zydeco Music Awards; and last year’s Big Squeeze Champ Ignacio “Nachito” Morales.

Each semifinalist played two songs and the esteemed judges chose the four finalists. The judges for this year’s contest included Debra Peters, Austin accordion player and teacher; Abel Barajas, accordion player for Ram Herrera; and Johnny Ramirez, 2008 Big Squeeze Champ. Finalists will be awarded $300 each as well as having their hotel stay paid in Houston to compete before the expected large, enthusiastic audience of accordion fans at the Accordion Kings & Queens Festival on June 2. At that time, The Big Squeeze 2012 Champion will be selected by the panel of judges with help from the audience. The grand-prize-winner will receive a prize package valued at $4500, including a $1000 cash prize, a brand new Hohner accordion and recording time at the historic Hacienda Records in Corpus Christi, as well as promotional support from SugarHill Recording Studios, Hohner, Inc., Hacienda Records and Texas Folklife, and other professional opportunities.

”The Big Squeeze has proven to be one of our most popular programs at Texas Folklife,” says Executive Director Cristina Ballí. “Audiences love to hear young talent from all over the state and they love to hear their stories. The participants and their families take a wonderful experience with them that they’ll never forget. We are grateful to The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum for partnering with us again this year. We also deeply thank our incredible lineup—accordion legend and maestro Joel Guzman; Big Squeeze finalist from 2010 Ruben Paul Moreno, Reigning Big Squeeze Champ Nachito Morales—and, of course, the one and only Joe Nick Patoski. I’m also particularly grateful to our panel of judges who give so generously of their time and expertise.”

The Big Squeeze is supported by the members and Board of Texas Folklife, the City of Austin through the Cultural Arts Division, the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, the City of Houston through the Miller Theatre Advisory Board, the Houston Endowment, the Still Water Foundation, Texas Gas Service, and by a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts. Additional support is provided by regional businesses including Hohner, Inc., SugarHill Recording Studios, Hacienda Records, FBA Design, Sign Effects and Embassy Suites Hotel in Downtown Austin.

Texas Folklife
Texas Folklife is a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to presenting and preserving the diverse cultures and living heritage of the Lone Star State. For more than 25 years, Texas Folklife has honored the authentic cultural traditions passed down within communities, explored their importance in contemporary society, and celebrated them by providing accessible and joyful arts experiences. It is located in Austin, Texas, in the SoCo neighborhood—one of the city’s vibrant commercial and arts districts.

http://texasfolklife.org
1317 S. Congress Avenue
Austin, Texas 78704
T (512) 441-9255
F (512) 441-9222

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Could Texas Go It Alone? from NPR’s All Things Considered

National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett did a piece on Friday pondering What If Texas Seceded from the United States?

I was one of those playing along. Adelante Los Vaqueros!

Lone Star State Of Mind: Could Texas Go It Alone?

by John Burnett
Listen to the Story

All Things Considered
[8 min 54 sec]

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Lone Star Nation: Today, the Texas capitol flies both the American and Texas flags, but after independence the Lone Star flag would fly on its own.
Steve Dunwell/Getty Images

Lone Star Nation: Today, the Texas capitol flies both the American and Texas flags, but after independence the Lone Star flag would fly on its own.
text size A A A
March 30, 2012

It’s a popular idea in Texas that the Lone Star State — once an independent republic — could break away and go it alone. A few years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry hinted that if Washington didn’t stop meddling in his state, independence might be an option. In his brief run for the White House, he insisted that nearly anything the feds do, the states — and Texas in particular — could do better.

So we’re putting Perry’s suggestions to the test — NPR is liberating Texas. We asked scholars, business leaders, diplomats, journalists and regular folk to help us imagine an independent Texas based on current issues before the state. (Though, to be clear, no one quoted here actually favors secession.)

We begin our exercise in Austin, capital of the new Republic of Texas, where the Independence Day party raged until dawn to the music of Austin’s own Asleep at the Wheel. Lead singer Ray Benson announced to the crowd, “We have severed the ties with the United States of America. Texas is free!” and the masses roared in response.

The former state has reinvented itself as a sort of Lone Star Singapore, with low taxes, free trade and minimal regulation. It enters the community of nations as the world’s 15th-largest economy, with vast oil and gas reserves, busy international ports, an independent power grid and a laissez-faire attitude about making money.

Texas Is ‘Open For Business’

The Texas Association of Business advertises the new nation’s economic potential with a radio ad that declares, “Texas: Now it is a whole other country — and it’s open for business … C’mon over. Be part of our vibrant free-market nation.”
Driving around Texas, it’s not uncommon to spot bumper stickers that tout the idea of an independent Longhorn nation.
Enlarge John Burnett/NPR

Driving around Texas, it’s not uncommon to spot bumper stickers that tout the idea of an independent Longhorn nation.

“What we have been able to do since we threw off the yoke of the federal government is create a country that has the assets necessary to build an incredible empire,” says Bill Hammond, the association’s president.

Imagine airports without the Transportation Security Administration; gun sales without the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; land development without the Endangered Species Act; new congressional districts without the Voting Rights Act; and a new guest-worker program without Washington gridlock over immigration reform.

Indeed, new immigration laws sailed through the Texas Congress. Immigrant workers are now legally crossing the border to frame houses, mow lawns and clean hotel rooms.

“We now have a safe and secure guest-worker program that allows immigrants to come and go as the jobs ebb and flow, and fill the jobs that Texans are unwilling to do,” Hammond says.

The new normal is a leaner government that bears little resemblance to the full-service nation it left behind. The Tea Party faithful who embraced nationhood early on say it’s a lot better than being beholden to Chinese bankers.

“What is the Republic of Texas charged with actually doing? [It’s] charged with defense, charged with education, charged with a few things that you have to do, and the rest is wide open,” says Felicia Cravens, a high school drama teacher active in the Houston Tea Party movement. “Liberty may look like chaos, but to us it’s a lot of choices.”

Under statehood, the U.S. government contributed 60 percent of all Texas aid to the poor. In an independent republic, federal benefits like food stamps, free school lunches and unemployment compensation would disappear, according to two Dallas Tea Party leaders.

Liberty may look like chaos, but to us it’s a lot of choices.

– Felicia Cravens, Texas high school teacher

“The nation of Texas is a living experiment into what we call the empowerment society. It is no longer a caretaker society,” says Ken Emanuelson, founder of the Grassroots Texans Network.

Texas Tea Party member Katrina Pierson adds, “There’s a safety net that’s always been out there. We don’t have that anymore. You will be a productive member of society and our environment doesn’t allow for people to not be productive.”

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson imagines that low-wage Texas would become a new magnet for assembly plants that might have considered setting up shop in Mexico or Malaysia.

“Since Texas has become independent, we are surprised — and some are pleased — to see that maquiladora [or foreign-owned] plants are springing up on the south side of the Red River and on the Sabine [River],” Jillson says. “The American South is complaining because some plants are moving to Texas.”

With independence, the epic battles between the state of Texas and the Environmental Protection Agency would finally be over. The state sued the EPA repeatedly for telling Texas how to run its refineries and coal-fired power plants. Business experts say the new republic would rely on voluntary pollution controls with minimal oversight — a boon to the industrial sector. But how would that go over with residents of refinery towns who have to breathe the air where they live?

“I am very, very skeptical that the nation of Texas will do a good job at protecting the health and safety of the people, because the EPA is no longer in the equation,” says Hilton Kelley, founder and director of the Community Empowerment and Development Association in Port Arthur. “It’s all about petroleum; it’s all about money.”

‘Peeling Back The Onion’ Of Texan Independence

As an independent country, Texas’s red granite capitol building would no longer fly the American flag, only the Lone Star. The new nationalism that breaks out inside the new government would soon be tempered by an independence hangover.

“Every day we’re peeling back the onion and finding another level of complexity that I don’t think anybody initially anticipated,” says Harvey Kronberg, longtime editor and publisher of the Texas political newsletter Quorum Report.

According to Kronberg, a modern sovereign nation requires more — not less — government than a state would. Consider all the new departments it would need to monitor things like foreign affairs, aviation and nuclear regulation. And then there are all the expenses Washington used to take care of — things like maintaining interstate highways, inspecting meat and checking passports.

“Reality is beginning to stagger the folks in the [capitol] building,” Kronberg says.

Public education is a good example. In 2011, the Texas state Legislature slashed billions of dollars from school systems at a time when Texas was already 43rd among the states in per pupil spending and dead last in the number of adults who completed high school.

Steve Murdock, the former Texas state demographer and current director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, expects that things would not improve under the budget of a struggling infant nation.

“For Texas to be the competitive nation that we would all wish it would be, it has to make major improvements in education,” Murdock says, “because right now it’s falling short.”

Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski sits on a bench in downtown Austin, ruminating on the hassles of self-rule.

“You can’t get in the car and go to New Orleans [and] be there in six hours anymore,” he says. “Listen, have you been to the Louisiana checkpoint in Vinton? They’re extracting some kind of revenge, the way they treat us as Third World citizens.”

Patoski imagines losing a number of friends to the post-secession “Texodus,” when U.S. citizens fled Texas for the Upper 48 states. He says he’s rooting for the republic, but he’s anxious for its future.
Today, all that marks the state line between Texas and Louisiana are welcome signs. After independence, those signs would most likely be replaced with the customs and immigration checkpoints that come with any border crossings.
Enlarge Getty Images

Today, all that marks the state line between Texas and Louisiana are welcome signs. After independence, those signs would most likely be replaced with the customs and immigration checkpoints that come with any border crossings.

“I’m still proud to be a Texan,” he says, “but I wish they would’ve thought this through before they jumped and cut the cord.”

Step 1: Don’t Go To War With Oklahoma

During the state’s first run as a republic, from 1836 to 1845, Texas established diplomatic relations with England, France, the Netherlands and the United States. Today, the modern nation of Texas would find even more countries eager to build embassies in Austin, says Carne Ross of Independent Diplomat, a New York firm that advises fledgling nations.

“Because of Texas’ wealth — [it’s the] 15th-largest economy in the world — [foreign nations] do not want to have bad relations with Texas,” Ross says. “There are many countries, China for instance, that want to preserve their ability to access countries with major oil and gas reserves, so Texas fit into that.”

Unlike the first republic, a modern nation of Texas needs to have positions on things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“But what was interesting was that Texas’ positions were often quite different from the remaining United States,” Ross says.

What would Texas’s foreign policy entail? Country singer and humorist Kinky Friedman imagines what he would do as the Texas secretary of foreign affairs.

“I think the first thing we would do is go to the Third World countries and teach the women how to grow big hair and give the men Rick Perry wigs,” he says. “I will keep us out of war with Oklahoma. And one of the first countries we’ll open free trade with is Cuba. We will be opening cigar stores all over Texas. We’re not supporting their economy; we’re burning their fields.”

From Texas To La Republica De Tejas

Texas might see itself as culturally akin to its former fatherland, but as time goes on, the nation’s destiny would be determined by its genetic ties to the south. If current demographic growth continues, Texas will become majority Hispanic within a generation. The prospect of Texas as the newest Latin American nation amuses Austin cultural marketing consultant Mando Rayo.

“Texas becomes La Republica de Tejas,” Rayo says. “The panhandle city of Amarillo becomes Amarillo, and our national pride, the Dallas Vaqueros, win the Super Bowl.”

But would the U.S. let Texas go or would there be a constitutional standoff and opposition from the remaining united states? University of Texas, Austin, presidential scholar H.W. Brands doesn’t anticipate a painful separation.

“The Texans were all set for a fight,” he says. “I don’t know, maybe they were a little bit surprised — maybe they were miffed — that much of the rest of the country said, ‘Well we’ve had enough of the Texans, let ’em go. We’ll be better off without ’em.’ ”

The premise of an independent Texas isn’t actually all that popular in the Lone Star State. Last year, Public Policy Polling asked Texans if they favored secession, and fewer than 1 in 5 were for it. As for the 18 percent that said yes — they can just consider our simulation food for thought.

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Pleasures of the High Rhine: A Texas Singer in Exile book review

Richard Dobson is a Texas singer-songwriter from Tyler and former roughneck who gamboled around Galveston and Houston, then Austin and Nashville, before spending the past 13 years living in Switzerland and playing all over Europe. That’s the shorthand. The long version is this fine piece of contemporary literature, Pleasures of the High Rhine – A Texas Singer in Exile.

I’ve known Richard since the 1970s when he was hanging around Austin and sometimes touring as part of Townes Van Zandt’s band, as told in his previous book Gulf Coast Boys, and have stayed in touch over the years by reading his eloquent observations in his occasional Don Ricardo’s Life and Times newsletter.

He’s enjoyed nominal success, his songs having been covered by Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Kelly Willis, Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, and the Carter Family, among others. As solid as his tunes are, it’s Dobson’s literary writing that grabs me.

Pleasures of the High Rhine was written at a critical time in Dobson’s life: his friends Townes and the writer Roxy Gordon have died fairly young, leaving him to contemplate their lives and demise. A red-haired Swiss woman has left her family and joined him in Galveston for a year before returning to Switzerland as a couple. A new millennium has begun.

Pleasures of the High Rhine covers songwriting, collaborating, performing and recording with a German band led by Thomm Jutz (now a Nashville cat), the strangeness of playing venues that ostensibly showcase American country music, and observations thereof, a critical skill for any songwriter.

But it’s also about living as an expatriate in a foreign country, redefining what home is, learning to speak German, being welcomed into a new family, living on the Swiss-German border, food, drink, his relationship with Edith, trips back to Houston and Nashville, gardening (including growing his own marijuana in a society that doesn’t much care one way or another) aging, and, water.

The latter is where Dobson really sings. He opens with a passage about fishing in the Gulf off of Galveston, down to describing the second and third sandbars offshore and the joys of “green water” fishing in the fall when the Gulf clarifies briefly into Caribbean-like beauty. Finding beauty in its harsh roughness, he writes the Texas Gulf like no one I’ve read before.

He soon finds himself on the Rhine River and delves into it with similar zeal and a newfound curiosity.

His pursuit of a fishing license – no easy thing in Switzerland, requiring an extensive 140 question test in Deutsch – a steep learning curve how to fish the Rhein, especially for elusive trout, and his summer swims in the river lead to deep history of the river and its inhabitants, including not so pleasant events such as Kristalnacht when synagogues were burned and Jews persecuted, and the historic fouling and restoration of the waterway.

He gets it.

Contemporary global events such as the election of George W. Bush and 9-11 are seen from a distance that lends perspective, written by a kindred spirit.

The finest singer-songwriters possess the gift where their words often transcend the music. In Pleasures of the High Rhine, Richard Dobson’s words simply sing.

Available through mytexasmusic.com

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Throwing a party for Joe Gracey

Friend Joe Gracey passed in mid November, just after his 61st birthday, so his friends and family are throwing a big ol’ bash for him on Sunday, December 4 @ 2 pm at Austin City Limits Live in downtown Austin. Even if you never heard of Joe, if you dig Austin, Texas music and all that is cool about this part of the world, you’re invited to send off one of the tastemakers who made it so.

I am honored to have been asked by his family to write his obituary. God bless Kimmie, Jolie, Gabe, Jeremie, brother Bill, and all his friends and relatives.

After a well-spent life defined by a series of reinventions, each more outrageous and ‘way cooler than the previous one, Joe Gracey has left the building – this place we call earth. Born in Fort Worth on November 14, 1950, Joe distinguished himself as a communicator at an early age. He built his own radio studio in the family attic in sixth grade, mowed lawns to get his first guitar, played in teen bands alongside fellow Fort Worth- ers Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and projected gravitas and au- thority as a veteran newsman and familiarity and intimacy as a country music disc jockey for KXOL-AM and FM when the 16 year old wasn’t at- tending classes at Paschal High School. His mother drove him to work at the radio station.
Like many other young Texans of his generation, he gravitated to Aus- tin to attend the University of Texas where he graduated with a degree in American Studies while moonlighting on Austin’s Top 40 radio station, KNOW-AM, and writing the first rock music column for the Austin American-Statesman, immediately over- stepping his assigned category by writing about country and folk music too, focusing on the unique country-rock musical hybrid that was incubating in Austin.
In 1974, he joined KOKE-FM in Austin, the first progressive country radio station in the world. Blessed with a warm, full-bodied voice with enough of a lingering drawl to leave no doubt where he came from, Gracey be- came an intimate friend to strangers who discovered they could learn a few things about music by listening to the radio; unlike his broadcasting peers, Gracey was fixated on what he said as much as how he said it.
Smart and a smartass both, he was a pillar of a burgeoning music community on the verge of being discov- ered nationally and internationally. He welcomed music fans to some of the most exciting and eclectic music be- ing created as one of the voices who did radio commercials for the storied Armadillo World Headquarters. It was Ol’ Blue Eyes, as he called himself, who coolly and casually opened his microphone so Willie Nelson and his friend Kris Kristofferson could perform an impromptu concert for listeners at home.
Gracey not only played Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours, he took the time to explain ET’s signifi- cance and line out Tubb’s hip bona fides for a generation that had previously ignored their parents’ and grandparents’ music. He turned on music lovers to exotic sounds in their own backyard such as Tex-Mex con- junto music as articulated by his friends Doug Sahm, Ry Cooder, and Flaco Jimenez; and western swing, the almost-forgotten Made In Texas country-jazz hybrid popularized in the 1930s, kickstarting its revival by put- ting Asleep at the Wheel and Alvin Crow into heavy rotation. Gracey played a critical role defining Super Roper Radio, as KOKE was known, demonstrating how the Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons were related to George Jones and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. In that respect, he was as influential as Willie Nelson, Austin’s musical godfather, in bringing the hippies and the rednecks together through the common love of music.
With Gracey as program director, Billboard magazine crowned KOKE-FM as “Trendsetter of the Year.”
Gracey’s trendspotting abilities earned him the role as talent coordinator for the new “Austin City Limits,” now the longest-running music series on American television, when the series started in 1976. Through Gracey, the remaining Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Flaco Jimenez y Su Conjunto, and Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Zydeco Band performed for national television audiences for the first time. His byline continued ap- pearing in the Austin Sun and the literary country music journal Picking Up the Tempo.
In the summer of 1977, inspired by his mentor Cowboy Jack Clement, he left KOKE-FM a few weeks before the station’s format switched, and headed downstairs to the basement of the KOKE building where he fash- ioned a four track TEAC recorder and two windowless offices into the funky, duct-taped recording studio known as Electric Graceyland. The studio was the site of some of the first recordings of future blues legends Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miss Lou Ann Barton; The Skunks, Austin’s first punk band; and Tex-Mex rockers Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns. Gracey also recorded the demo that scored the Fabulous Thunderbirds their first record contract and worked the dials for Lubbock songster Butch Hancock and his Dixie’s Bar and Bus Stop cable television music series. He recorded Stevie Vaughan and Barton and the band Double Trouble at Clement’s Nashville studio.
He used Electric Graceyland to collaborate musically with his partner in crime, Bobby Earl Smith, as the Jackalope Brothers. Gracey and Smith also did radio promotion for Alvin Crow & The Pleasant Valley Boys while Gracey often opened shows for Crow with his brother Bill as The Amazing Graceys.
It was during this flurry of recording and promoting that Gracey was dealt the lousy hand of a cancer diagno- sis that eventually robbed him of his gifted voice.
Only 27, Gracey fought the hard fight medically while simultaneously adapting. A Magic Slate kids’ erasable writing tablet tucked under his arm became a Gracey accessory so he could scribble a quick response to any questions and allow him to engage in conversations, followed by the soft, barely-audible rip as he cleared the pad to erase the message once his words were understood.
In 1979, his friend TJ McFarland introduced him to the love of his life, Kimmie Rhodes, a singer-songwriter from Lubbock, as well as a playwright, painter, writer, and all-around creative force.
They married in 1984 and settled in Briarcliff where he helped raise Kimmie’s sons from a previous marriage, Gabe and Jeremie Rhodes, and their daughter, Jolie Morgan Goodnight Gracey. A family band emerged with Gracey playing bass and Gabe, a talented producer in his own right, who absorbed all the nuances of the elec- tronic recording art from Joe, playing guitar.
Kimmie and their neighbor Joe Sears started writing plays together and Gracey joined the fun as an actor, playing the part of the skeleton barkeeper in the play “Windblown,” and the role of the clown in “Small Town Girl,” in addition to other performances.
He also worked the audio console at nearby Pedernales Studios for a number of years and in 1996 was at the controls for Nelson’s groundbreaking album, Spirit, which inspired Nelson to redefine his live sound. Gracey and David Zettner built the small, simple recording studio in the back of Willie’s Luck World Headquarters saloon where Willie liked to hold court and make music at the spur of the moment, which yielded the albums, Picture in a Frame, Willie’s 2003 album of duets with Kimmie, and the Grammy-nominated collaboration be- tween Willie and Ray Price, Run That By Me One More Time.
Rhodes and Gracey’s shared love of food and fine wine (he learned how to keep boudin warm on his Cadillac’s engine returning from a trip to visit Clifton Chenier in Lafayette, Louisiana), along with numerous European tours by Rhodes launched another career for Gracey – food writer – as championed by their friend Colman Andrews, the editor of Saveur magazine, for whom Gracey did several pieces. Joe and Kimmie also taught cooking classes together. Their food adventures and Kimmie’s continued popularity in Europe eventu- ally led to the couple’s renovation of a small 1,000 year old stable-farmhouse in the Languedoc province of France.
Gracey never stopped creating, and he started a blog, Letters from Graceyland (Graceyland.blogspot.com) to share his latest adventures with readers.
Cancer-free for 30 years, the beast reentered his life in 2009. The bad news was accompanied by good news though. Doctors at M.D. Anderson Hospital would embark on experimental surgery that led to a partial resto- ration of his voice. But the new cancer was joined by other cancer, leading to several months of treatments in Houston. Afterwards, Joe and Kimmie were able to spend some weeks together in their French place again with friends and family before returning to Texas one last time.
Sickness never defined Joe’s life. It was an irritant and obstacle to be overcome so he could pursue his many interests. He defined it; it didn’t define him. And although so much of his professional career revolved around music, his life was much more than that too, as his extensive network of family and friends that spanned the globe would attest to.
They all knew that Gracey’s presence could never be ignored. He was not the kind of person to let that hap- pen. Which is why despite his unplanned departure, he wanted his friends, family, and all the strangers he never met to hold close to their hearts the advice he dispensed whenever he signed off from another shift on the radio:
“Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can.”
Joe is survived by his wife Kimmie Rhodes Gracey, daughter Jolie Gracey Musick and husband Jason; sons Jeremie Rhodes, Gabriel Rhodes and wife Carmen; grandchildren Louis and Ruby Rhodes, Isaac and Isabella Bryson; brother Bill Gracey and wife Cathy; nieces Christy and Kate Gracey; and, Louis’ mother, Jamie Rhodes.
The family is grateful for the loving care and attention provided by M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Nobelity Project (www.nobelity.org) or M.D. Anderson Can- cer Center (www.mdanderson.org).
A public celebration of Joe’s life will be held on December 4, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. at the Austin City Limits Moody Theater, 210 W. Willie Nelson Boulevard, in downtown Austin, Texas 78701. Y’all come.

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Snake Farm’s Charms Still Casting Spells

from the Friday, July 15 southwestern edition of the New York Times via the Texas Tribune

 

Tomorrow is World Snake Day, meaning a large number of vehicles will be veering off of southbound Interstate 35 at Exit 182, between New Braunfels and San Antonio, to pay their respects at the Snake Farm.

Before there was Sea World or Six Flags Fiesta Texas, there was the Snake Farm. Since 1967, when the main highway out front was still Route 81, parents of a certain age have viewed the Snake Farm as the only truly irresistible roadside attraction on the iconic car trip to the Alamo. Inner Space Cavern, Aquarena Springs (which featured Ralph the Swimming Pig), Wonder World Cave and the Natural Bridge Caverns could all be ignored. But if there was a herp freak in the back seat, you had no choice but to pull over at the Snake Farm.

Those carloads add up — and it’s not just families. Even after four-plus decades, the Snake Farm manages to attract 400,000 visitors of all ages annually. At $9.95 per person ($6.95 for children 2 to 12), it’s a tidy little business.

In the late 1970s, the iconic New York punk rockers The Ramones stumbled upon the Snake Farm while on tour between Austin and San Antonio. The band subsequently began to wear Snake Farm T-shirts as part of their stage and offstage personae. Snake Farm shirts, replicas of those worn by the late Dee Dee Ramone, have been available online for $49.95.

Five years ago, Ray Wylie Hubbard (the singer-songwriter who performs on the other side of New Braunfels tonight at Gruene Hall) paid homage with “Snake Farm,” a song about a guy in love with a stripper who works the counter at, yes, the Snake Farm. The engaging sing-along refrain: “Snake Farm, sure sounds nasty. Snake Farm, pretty much is. Ewwwwwww.”

A persistent legend among many young Texas males is that if you asked for change for a 20 at the Snake Farm, your double sawbuck would be kept and you’d be directed to one of the trailers out back, where a lady of the night would be waiting, in the tradition of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange.

The reality is snakes, and lots of ’em. More than 200 species are on display inside a no-frills cinder-block building. Stickers on some vivariums identify the Snake Farm’s Top 10 Most Venomous Snakes. The No. 9 King Cobra and No. 2 Black Mamba appear far more threatening than No. 1, the Inland Taipan, a small, rust-colored snake.

In addition to snakes, there’s a petting zoo, outdoor cages with lemurs, hyenas, parrots, monkeys, kinkajous and peacocks, and a pond filled with crocodiles and alligators. This explains the official name, Animal World and Snake Farm, even though the souvenirs all say Snake Farm Exotic Animal Park.

For the past eight years, the staff, led by Jarrod Forthman, the director of outreach, has overseen daily animal encounters at noon and 3 p.m., offering lizard talks and bringing out a huge python for photo ops. The big ’un is the Sunday 3 p.m. Croc Feed, in which the resident family of crocodilians have their once-a-week meal of raw chicken parts.

Mr. Forthman, 30, describes the weekly feeding as the most dangerous show in the country. “I have some job security, if you know what I mean,” he said with a sly grin. Mr. Forthman added that the farm was not regulated like most zoos. “So we’re able to do things normal zoos cannot,” he said. “You can get up close and personal.”

You can also get bitten. Mr. Forthman, who has been featured on the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” has 100 stitches in his right hand from one croc bite and is missing half a thumb from another.

With the recent purchase of 45 acres behind the present three-acre footprint, Mr. Forthman envisions more snakes, more animals and a drive-through safari. But it’s the old-fashioned cheesy aura and staff members’ willingness to risk digits and limbs in the name of putting on a good show that will keep drawing the crowds.

“I get no greater thrill than having to handle some of the deadliest snakes,” Mr. Forthman said. “Call me crazy, but I’m doing what I love.”

Joe Nick Patoski is a regular contributor to these pages.

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