Charley Crockett on the Westerns That Influenced Him – Cowboys & Indians magazine

https://www.cowboysindians.com/2024/03/charley-crockett-on-westerns/

BY Joe Nick Patoski

Rising country star Charley Crockett talks Yellowstone, Johnny Cash, and the westerns that influenced him.

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Terry Allen, Truckload of Art by Brendan Greaves

on TexasHighways online 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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That Mexican OT and Johnny Dang

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/nothing-beat-the-heat-like-that-mexican-ots-johnny-dang/ 

It may not be Spotify’s most-streamed song of the summer (that would be Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night”), but “Johnny Dang” by That Mexican OT wins my vote for the Texas Song of the Summer 2023.

The catchy rap tune gained traction in May when a snippet went viral on TikTok, due in no small part to the charismatic artist doing his rap while nonchalantly cradling a rooster in one arm. (Hey, if Tyler the Creator can cradle a cockroach, why not a chicken?) With that social media boost, the single charted seven weeks in a row on the Billboard Hot 100; meanwhile, the video has racked up more than 21 million views on YouTube, with 25 million global on-demand streams per week via Luminate. Plus, “Johnny Dang” has inspired over 65,000 video creations to the song on TikTok.

 

 

What’s the appeal? You can start with the real-life person behind the song’s title. Johnny Dang is a Vietnamese-born, Houston-based jeweler who’s known as the King of Bling for his gem-encrusted grillz that range in price from $250 for a single gold vampire fang to $20,000 for deluxe Carre-cut diamond teeth sets. He creates these and other custom-designed pieces for high-rolling rappers and hip-hop artists, sports figures, and other celebrities.

 

 

As for the song’s creator, That Mexican OT (the OT meaning “Outta Texas”) is the stage name of 24-year-old Virgil Rene Gazca. Raised in Bay City, he brings a distinctive Tex-Mex flavor to the rap game with his effortless rolling-“r” trills and cool vaquero style (think straw cowboy hat, boots, and a big, bedazzled belt buckle).

Rapping since age 4, Gazca displays his talent with a masterful flow and dexterity. The bouncy cadence of his wordplay is complemented by a similar light and bouncy musical bed.

On “Johnny Dang,” he’s joined by two guest rappers, his buddy DRODi from Freeport and veteran Houston rapper Paul Wall, whose scattershot punctuated flow provides a distinctive counterpart to Gazca’s style. Wall, who suggested Johnny Dang appear in the song’s video, began collaborating on grillz designs with Dang back in the late 1990s, and that relationship extends to an annual backpack giveaway for school kids at Johnny Dang & Co. every August.

In the video, Dang appears as himself, showing off his own grillz and enormous diamond-encrusted chain while pouring himself a glass from a bottle of brandy. It’s been a fast ride for the Vietnam immigrant, who arrived in Houston in 1996 at the age of 23 and found work doing jewelry in a flea market with his already-settled cousin.

As for the lyrics, do a search online and you’ll find the song described by fans as everything from a “trap anthem about living life to the fullest” to “a celebration of the lavish lifestyle that comes with wealth, status, and reputation.” It contains the usual motifs you’d find in a gangsta rap song (drugs, violence, Louis Vuitton), with some Texas thrown in (“Pop trunk on a hater while we waving goodbye / I’m from Lonestar sipping lean with pecan pie”). The whole South Texas-Mexicano aesthetic is something new and completely different in rap—and as refreshing as a cold bottle of the National Beer of Texas on a hot summer day.

It’s a puro H-Town multicultural setup, too: a song featuring a very successful immigrant from Vietnam performed in the Black vernacular of rap by a Tejano from the boonies (no slight on Bay City; Gazca himself refers to his hometown Bay City as “Dirty Bay,” a place so country that the nearest mall was in Lake Jackson, where Selena Quintanilla grew up).

Gazca is modest about his breakthrough hit. “It was literally another song out of my head, nothing special,” he says, adding, “It’s become Johnny Dang’s theme song. He went to Florida to see [boxer Floyd] Mayweather and they were playing it. He’ll go to smoke shops in Vegas and they’re playing it. He loves it.”

Embracing the cholo vaquero street vibe throughout his new album, Lone Star Luchador, which came out in July and includes “Johnny Dang,” Gazca appears on the illustrated cover as a lucha libre wrestler, masked up and ready to battle in the wrestling ring. He carries the theme over into videos as well. But he’s no one-trick pony when it comes to his music. “I come at you with rock, I come at you with country, I come at you with jazz,” he says. “Mariachis are part of the game plan. My people, they love it…They been waiting for me, cuz.”

At this pace, That Mexican OT can add his name to a growing list of great rappers—Megan the Stallion, Travis Scott, Bun B, etc.—from the Lone Star State. And fans can expect more great summer songs.

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The Comal River

https://texashighways.com/things-to-do/on-the-water/rivers/go-with-the-flow-on-the-comal-river/ 

by Joe Nick Patoski     Photographs by Kenny Braun

It’s High Noon on a scorching Saturday in August, and I’m standing on the banks of Hinman Island in Landa Park in New Braunfels, the main public access to the Comal River. Dubbed “the longest shortest river in the world” by locals, the cool river is a hot spot in the summer. I’m watching a parade of folks of all ages and walks of life plop down in clusters of multicolored inflatable tubes.

A steady line of tubers enters the river across from Hinman Island at Texas Tubes, one of the main launch sites. Before long, the 60-foot-wide waterway is filled bank to bank with several hundred tubers. It creates a traffic jam just upstream from the Tube Chute, the city-owned concrete waterslide that’s the highlight of most Comal tubing trips.

An hour later and about a mile downstream, across from the packed Schlitterbahn parking lot, I watch another tube jam from the porch of a riverbank condo just below Warnecke Falls. Despite the crowding, all I hear is laughter. Everyone is having a grand time.

Tom and Patty Pfost, the condo owners, view the scene with measured amusement. “You should see it July Fourth weekend,” Patty says. “You can walk across the river on all the tubes jammed together. Today isn’t so bad.”

On peak days­—meaning Saturdays in July­—anywhere from 14,000 to 20,000 tubers are on the Comal, according to New Braunfels River and Watershed Manager Amy Niles. Roughly half a million people float the 2-mile stretch each year. The hospitality industry’s impact on Comal County, which includes New Braunfels, is $700 million annually.

The Comal consistently ranks as one of the most popular tubing destinations in Texas alongside the Guadalupe, San Marcos, and Frio rivers. Those rivers have much longer tubing stretches but are subject to low or no flow in drought conditions. While tubing shuts down on those rivers, the Comal, fed by the largest springs in Texas, continues to run high enough for floating. With 14 river outfitters, an array of shuttle buses, parking lots, restaurants, and bars catering to the crowds, tubing is big business in New Braunfels­—especially on summer weekends.

But during five visits over five months, I discover that any other time, the Comal is a whole different river. Clear with a hard rock bottom, fed by cool, constant 72-degree water, and shaded by tall trees and lush vegetation, the Comal looks and feels like paradise.

Two people stand holding tubes in front of a large stack of turquoise, blue and white river tubes

Texas Tubes worker James Thomas and Owner Colie Reno
A map of various points along the Comal river

Illustration by Tisha Lee

When I first meet the Pfosts a few days before at daybreak near Hinman Island, all is calm. A couple anglers stand on the riverbank, casting lines into the water. Several people, including Tom, stroll past on their early morning walks. And Patty is one of the eight bobbing heads treading water in the river who call themselves the The Silver Nutria Swim Club, folks of a certain age who meet early in the morning to take a dip together in the Comal year-round.

I am introduced to the Silver Nutria by Jeff Davis, who is showing me the Comal from a local’s perspective. Davis, using the pen name Patnarain, wrote the chapter on the Comal in the 2022 Wittliff Collections Literary Series book Viva Texas Rivers! His line, “This river has become my salvation, or at least my salve,” led me to ask to swim with him. An unapologetic river nut, Davis moved to New Braunfels in 2018, where he works remotely as a senior research analyst for a national law firm. This morning, he’s dressed for action in swim trunks, a lightweight shirt, floppy hat, snorkel, mask, and river shoes.

We jump in to swim near the Tube Chute just before sunrise, and Davis immediately dives underwater and heads upstream toward the falls by Wursthalle, the turnaround point for his mile-long daily swim.

He finishes his morning ritual by sliding down the Tube Chute, then lingers at the bottom beyond the churning whitewater, where he dives deep and joins several other snorkelers scouring the bottom for treasure. Tubers topple over here all the time, often leaving possessions behind.

“I did pretty good yesterday,” he says after we get out of the water, pulling a gold wedding band out of his dry bag to show and tell. “I took it to the jeweler, and he said it was a knockoff.”

Then he produces a shiny plastic gold chain necklace that is also definitely fake. He puts it around his neck as he recounts other underwater finds: credit cards, phones, watches, all kinds of trash. The detritus pickings have led him to observe that while beer drinking is still the thing among tubers, seltzers and canned mixed drinks are gaining popularity.

Fetching trash from the river bottom is part of the price he pays to enjoy the Comal. “The river is such a jewel in its natural state,” Davis says, “it just makes sense to do something to preserve it.”

A man with a short white beard wears a teal shirt reading "Silver Nutria Swim Club"

Silver nutria member Dee Buck

At noon on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, under sunny skies with temperatures in the low 90s, I join Niles as she makes her rounds along the Comal. Her job includes oversight of rules, regulations, and operations on the river, as well as protecting the endangered Fountain Darter fish, the river, and the overall spring system.
With a slight chance of rain and schools back in session, there are considerably fewer tubers than the last time I was here.

“We have had so many people in the past, I couldn’t see how we could tolerate more,” she says as we walk Hinman Island, above the Tube Chute. “But over the past two years, it’s leveled out. People who want to avoid crowds are coming earlier in the day and coming on weekdays instead of weekends.”

Safety is a key concern at the Comal. When the river becomes overcrowded with tubes, the Tube Chute entrance is closed for 10 minutes to make it safer to exit downstream. “The Comal is a family destination,” Niles says. “People who want a rough and rowdy time go elsewhere.”

At the Prince Solms Park entrance, where most of the 14 licensed outfitters with shuttles drop off tubers to begin their float, Niles chats with two park rangers in distinctive lime green shirts and black shorts. The rangers patrol the banks of the river around Hinman Island, which is packed with swimmers, waders, and picnickers. About 30 rangers and 25 police officers are on weekend duty, along with lifeguards stationed at the Tube Chute.

An overhead view of a large clear river with a rope across and a small rock chute visible in one corner

Looking upstream at the tube chute

Downstream, we stop at the Garden Street Bridge exit on the river, the next-to-last exit point for tubers. “It’s never crowded here, even when tubers are backed up at the Lincoln Street exit,” she says. Lincoln Street, the last exit for tubers, is wheelchair accessible. At the top of the steps, buses, vans, and trams wait to shuttle tubers back to their starting points.

A woman smiles in front of a river scene, with people jumping into the water in the background

Amy Niles

We loop back to Landa Park, a pastoral landscape shaded by oaks, willows, and cypress and crisscrossed by river channels and canals–parkland that has been enjoyed by locals and tourists since 1898. There are paddleboats to rent on Landa Lake, channels to wade in, picnic areas, a golf course, a miniature golf course, and a kiddie train. There’s also the Landa Park Aquatic Complex, which consists of a rectangular chlorinated Olympic pool; a kiddie pool; and the natural pool fed by the Comal with concrete banks, a gravel bottom, along with swings, a floating platform, waterslides, and lifeguards.

Niles works closely with HAVA, the Hospitality and Visitors Association of tubing concessionaires, lodging operators, restaurants, and other entities tied to the river economy. Shane Wolf, the COO of Rockin’ R outfitters, the largest river outfitter in the state, cites the HAVA-New Braunfels partnership as critical to the Comal’s ability to accommodate thousands of visitors each day in search of a good time. “Relations with the city are better than they’ve ever been,” he says. “They realize they need us, and we need them.”

The outfitter also utilizes 20 miles of the Guadalupe River—when there is water. “The Guadalupe really hasn’t had decent flow for the past 10 years,” Wolf says. “But when it’s down, like it was last summer, the Comal is still running.”

River recreation is baked into the local culture. New Braunfels founder Prince Carl Solms chose the site in 1845 for his community of German immigrants due to its proximity to the river. During the town’s first quarter-century, dams and mills were constructed on and along the Comal for industry.

But beginning in the late 1800s, locals and tourists were drawn to the Comal for leisure. Photographs at the Sophienburg Museum and Archives in New Braunfels capture men fishing in 1879, boaters in Landa Park in 1888, and swimmers at the Comal Baths bathing park in 1900. Before air-conditioning, the Comal was literally the coolest place in Texas to spend the summer.

A small group of people sit on concrete steps and swim in a river scene under green trees

People enjoying the river at Hinman Island Park

A sign in the northwest corner of Landa Park identifies Comal Springs as the largest complex of springs found in Texas and the American Southwest. Humans have lived near these waters for more than 12,000 years. The springs extend upstream for 10 city blocks past Spring Island, a residents-only park, all the way to the headwaters.

I visit the headwaters for the first time on a breezy 80-degree day in mid-October. My guide is Nancy Pappas, the managing director of the Headwaters at the Comal, a nonprofit formed in 2017 to raise funds after New Braunfels Utilities made the decision to tear up its maintenance facilities and restore the marsh habitat in 2012.

 

10 rules of the river every tuber must follow

DON’T bring glass, foam, or disposable containers.

DON’T litter.

DON’T bring volume-drinking devices, like beer bongs.

DON’T jump from bridges, dams, or trees into the Comal River.

DON’T bring more than two tubes per person. (You can also rent tubes from one of the many river outfitters.)

DO bring lifejackets for weak swimmers and children under 8. (Personal flotation devices are provided to Comal River tubers for free with a deposit at the New Braunfels City Tube Chute or other river outfitters.)

DO leave containers under 5 fluid ounces at home.

DO ensure noise devices are not audible beyond 50 feet.

DO make sure your cooler is less than 30 quarts and has a clasp on the lid (zipper, Velcro, latch, cord). Limit one cooler per person.

DO make sure round inflatable tubes are less than 5 feet in diameter.

A young woman rides a scooter on a concrete sidewalk in front of tall green trees and a riverfront

Landa Park is an excellent place to scooter

Pappas walks me across an asphalt lot fronting Klingemann Street where it intersects with Lakeview Boulevard. We continue down a crushed granite trail through lush native grasses and waving reeds to a vernal pool at the edge of the savanna.

“The first pool channels through swales,” she explains, gazing beyond the pool. “The borderline is literally here. This crease is where the coastal plains end and the Balcones Escarpment begins.”

She adds that the site was the original water plant for New Braunfels. “This was swamp, they called it,” she says. “So many people don’t know these headwaters exist.”

The walking trails, display gardens, and natural spring overlooks are part of a $23 million restoration that will also include outdoor classrooms, wastewater treatment wetlands, and composting facilities. Yet to come is the transformation of the on-site buildings into an interpretive center recreating the Edwards Aquifer to show how springs, groundwater, and karst topography, such as caves and sinkholes, interact.

Documentation of the habitat and archeological digs is ongoing. “We have a good citizen science group at the headwaters,” Pappas says. “They’ve identified 1,100 species of plants, birds, and insects. This is a really biodiverse environment.”

A month later, I meet Melissa Welch-Lamoreaux, a communications specialist who works with the New Braunfels Convention and Visitors Bureau, in a parking lot near the Landa Falls tube rentals. It’s a beautiful late-November day with clear skies and temps climbing into the mid-70s. I brought my short sit-on-top kayak while Welch-Lamoreaux has her stand-up paddleboard.

“This looks about perfect,” she says as we haul our crafts to the river. We have the Comal practically to ourselves. For an hour and a half, we paddle and talk all the way to the confluence with the Guadalupe. When I ask Welch-Lamoreaux if a love of paddling or tubing was a requirement for her job, she laughs. “No, I just got lucky,” she says. “I love this water.”

An overhead view of two people relaxing and holding hands in brightly colored inflatable tubes on clear water

Tubers take a relaxing float on the Comal

We portage around the Tube Chute, where boats are not allowed. Carrying our watercraft on the sidewalk by the chute, Welch-Lamoreaux runs into two friends. The three locals discuss their strategies for dealing with Comal crowds: leave by noon on summer weekends or only visit on weekdays.

When we reach the confluence, Welch-Lamoreaux makes another introduction. “Meet Hank,” she says as we paddle toward a tangle of brush on the opposite bank, where a great blue heron stands sentinel on a small promontory. “He’s here all the time.”

Even on extra-crowded summer weekends.

Recreation Destination

New Braunfels has welcomed tourists to the Comal and its environs for more than a century

1845 – Prince Carl Solms from Germany settles New Braunfels. He chooses the site for its proximity to the Comal River.

1881 – Banker William Clemens constructs the Clemens Dam, adjacent to the present-day Tube Chute, for a cotton textile mill that never comes to fruition.

1898 – Henry Landa establishes Landa’s Park near downtown. Now called Landa Park, the beloved city park comprises 196 acres.
nbtexas.org

1910 – Professor F.E. Giesecke, who taught architecture at Texas A&M, buys more than 60 acres to establish a summer school for incoming college students.

1918 – With 56 acres purchased from Giesecke, Otto and Martha Warnecke establish Camp Warnecke. Tubing is a popular pastime at the family resort, which is featured in Life magazine in 1951.

1925 – New Braunfels holds a Venetian Carnival with decorated boats on Landa Lake. The carnival draws roughly 20,000 people and repeats in 1926 for the final time.

1950s – Bucky Warwick organizes the first Aquacade for the Miss Texas Pageant held in Landa Park’s spring-fed pool.

1961 – Ed Grist, the city meat inspector, creates Wurstfest to honor sausage. Six years later, the booming 10-day fest moves to Wursthalle in Landa Park. wurstfest.com

1976 – The city builds the Tube Chute, which is still popular with tubers almost 50 years later.
nbtexas.org

1979 – Bob Henry and his family build four waterslides descending from a faux German castle and call it Schlitterbahn. The park, now owned by the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, has won Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Award for Best Waterpark for 24 consecutive years.
schlitterbahn.com

1997 – The San Antonio Express-News reports that tubers are forgoing the Guadalupe River, which is swelling due to rain­, and heading to the Comal River—leading to a boom for local business owners.

From the July 2023 issue
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It’s High Noon on a scorching Saturday in August, and I’m standing on the banks of Hinman Island in Landa Park in New Braunfels, the main public access to the Comal River. Dubbed “the longest shortest river in the world” by locals, the cool river is a hot spot in the summer. I’m watching a parade of folks of all ages and walks of life plop down in clusters of multicolored inflatable tubes.

A steady line of tubers enters the river across from Hinman Island at Texas Tubes, one of the main launch sites. Before long, the 60-foot-wide waterway is filled bank to bank with several hundred tubers. It creates a traffic jam just upstream from the Tube Chute, the city-owned concrete waterslide that’s the highlight of most Comal tubing trips.

An hour later and about a mile downstream, across from the packed Schlitterbahn parking lot, I watch another tube jam from the porch of a riverbank condo just below Warnecke Falls. Despite the crowding, all I hear is laughter. Everyone is having a grand time.

Tom and Patty Pfost, the condo owners, view the scene with measured amusement. “You should see it July Fourth weekend,” Patty says. “You can walk across the river on all the tubes jammed together. Today isn’t so bad.”

On peak days­—meaning Saturdays in July­—anywhere from 14,000 to 20,000 tubers are on the Comal, according to New Braunfels River and Watershed Manager Amy Niles. Roughly half a million people float the 2-mile stretch each year. The hospitality industry’s impact on Comal County, which includes New Braunfels, is $700 million annually.

The Comal consistently ranks as one of the most popular tubing destinations in Texas alongside the Guadalupe, San Marcos, and Frio rivers. Those rivers have much longer tubing stretches but are subject to low or no flow in drought conditions. While tubing shuts down on those rivers, the Comal, fed by the largest springs in Texas, continues to run high enough for floating. With 14 river outfitters, an array of shuttle buses, parking lots, restaurants, and bars catering to the crowds, tubing is big business in New Braunfels­—especially on summer weekends.

But during five visits over five months, I discover that any other time, the Comal is a whole different river. Clear with a hard rock bottom, fed by cool, constant 72-degree water, and shaded by tall trees and lush vegetation, the Comal looks and feels like paradise.

Two people stand holding tubes in front of a large stack of turquoise, blue and white river tubes

Texas Tubes worker James Thomas and Owner Colie Reno
A map of various points along the Comal river

Illustration by Tisha Lee

When I first meet the Pfosts a few days before at daybreak near Hinman Island, all is calm. A couple anglers stand on the riverbank, casting lines into the water. Several people, including Tom, stroll past on their early morning walks. And Patty is one of the eight bobbing heads treading water in the river who call themselves the The Silver Nutria Swim Club, folks of a certain age who meet early in the morning to take a dip together in the Comal year-round.

I am introduced to the Silver Nutria by Jeff Davis, who is showing me the Comal from a local’s perspective. Davis, using the pen name Patnarain, wrote the chapter on the Comal in the 2022 Wittliff Collections Literary Series book Viva Texas Rivers! His line, “This river has become my salvation, or at least my salve,” led me to ask to swim with him. An unapologetic river nut, Davis moved to New Braunfels in 2018, where he works remotely as a senior research analyst for a national law firm. This morning, he’s dressed for action in swim trunks, a lightweight shirt, floppy hat, snorkel, mask, and river shoes.

We jump in to swim near the Tube Chute just before sunrise, and Davis immediately dives underwater and heads upstream toward the falls by Wursthalle, the turnaround point for his mile-long daily swim.

He finishes his morning ritual by sliding down the Tube Chute, then lingers at the bottom beyond the churning whitewater, where he dives deep and joins several other snorkelers scouring the bottom for treasure. Tubers topple over here all the time, often leaving possessions behind.

“I did pretty good yesterday,” he says after we get out of the water, pulling a gold wedding band out of his dry bag to show and tell. “I took it to the jeweler, and he said it was a knockoff.”

Then he produces a shiny plastic gold chain necklace that is also definitely fake. He puts it around his neck as he recounts other underwater finds: credit cards, phones, watches, all kinds of trash. The detritus pickings have led him to observe that while beer drinking is still the thing among tubers, seltzers and canned mixed drinks are gaining popularity.

Fetching trash from the river bottom is part of the price he pays to enjoy the Comal. “The river is such a jewel in its natural state,” Davis says, “it just makes sense to do something to preserve it.”

A man with a short white beard wears a teal shirt reading "Silver Nutria Swim Club"

Silver nutria member Dee Buck

At noon on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, under sunny skies with temperatures in the low 90s, I join Niles as she makes her rounds along the Comal. Her job includes oversight of rules, regulations, and operations on the river, as well as protecting the endangered Fountain Darter fish, the river, and the overall spring system.
With a slight chance of rain and schools back in session, there are considerably fewer tubers than the last time I was here.

“We have had so many people in the past, I couldn’t see how we could tolerate more,” she says as we walk Hinman Island, above the Tube Chute. “But over the past two years, it’s leveled out. People who want to avoid crowds are coming earlier in the day and coming on weekdays instead of weekends.”

Safety is a key concern at the Comal. When the river becomes overcrowded with tubes, the Tube Chute entrance is closed for 10 minutes to make it safer to exit downstream. “The Comal is a family destination,” Niles says. “People who want a rough and rowdy time go elsewhere.”

At the Prince Solms Park entrance, where most of the 14 licensed outfitters with shuttles drop off tubers to begin their float, Niles chats with two park rangers in distinctive lime green shirts and black shorts. The rangers patrol the banks of the river around Hinman Island, which is packed with swimmers, waders, and picnickers. About 30 rangers and 25 police officers are on weekend duty, along with lifeguards stationed at the Tube Chute.

An overhead view of a large clear river with a rope across and a small rock chute visible in one corner

Looking upstream at the tube chute

Downstream, we stop at the Garden Street Bridge exit on the river, the next-to-last exit point for tubers. “It’s never crowded here, even when tubers are backed up at the Lincoln Street exit,” she says. Lincoln Street, the last exit for tubers, is wheelchair accessible. At the top of the steps, buses, vans, and trams wait to shuttle tubers back to their starting points.

A woman smiles in front of a river scene, with people jumping into the water in the background

Amy Niles

We loop back to Landa Park, a pastoral landscape shaded by oaks, willows, and cypress and crisscrossed by river channels and canals–parkland that has been enjoyed by locals and tourists since 1898. There are paddleboats to rent on Landa Lake, channels to wade in, picnic areas, a golf course, a miniature golf course, and a kiddie train. There’s also the Landa Park Aquatic Complex, which consists of a rectangular chlorinated Olympic pool; a kiddie pool; and the natural pool fed by the Comal with concrete banks, a gravel bottom, along with swings, a floating platform, waterslides, and lifeguards.

Niles works closely with HAVA, the Hospitality and Visitors Association of tubing concessionaires, lodging operators, restaurants, and other entities tied to the river economy. Shane Wolf, the COO of Rockin’ R outfitters, the largest river outfitter in the state, cites the HAVA-New Braunfels partnership as critical to the Comal’s ability to accommodate thousands of visitors each day in search of a good time. “Relations with the city are better than they’ve ever been,” he says. “They realize they need us, and we need them.”

The outfitter also utilizes 20 miles of the Guadalupe River—when there is water. “The Guadalupe really hasn’t had decent flow for the past 10 years,” Wolf says. “But when it’s down, like it was last summer, the Comal is still running.”

River recreation is baked into the local culture. New Braunfels founder Prince Carl Solms chose the site in 1845 for his community of German immigrants due to its proximity to the river. During the town’s first quarter-century, dams and mills were constructed on and along the Comal for industry.

But beginning in the late 1800s, locals and tourists were drawn to the Comal for leisure. Photographs at the Sophienburg Museum and Archives in New Braunfels capture men fishing in 1879, boaters in Landa Park in 1888, and swimmers at the Comal Baths bathing park in 1900. Before air-conditioning, the Comal was literally the coolest place in Texas to spend the summer.

A small group of people sit on concrete steps and swim in a river scene under green trees

People enjoying the river at Hinman Island Park

A sign in the northwest corner of Landa Park identifies Comal Springs as the largest complex of springs found in Texas and the American Southwest. Humans have lived near these waters for more than 12,000 years. The springs extend upstream for 10 city blocks past Spring Island, a residents-only park, all the way to the headwaters.

I visit the headwaters for the first time on a breezy 80-degree day in mid-October. My guide is Nancy Pappas, the managing director of the Headwaters at the Comal, a nonprofit formed in 2017 to raise funds after New Braunfels Utilities made the decision to tear up its maintenance facilities and restore the marsh habitat in 2012.

 

10 rules of the river every tuber must follow

DON’T bring glass, foam, or disposable containers.

DON’T litter.

DON’T bring volume-drinking devices, like beer bongs.

DON’T jump from bridges, dams, or trees into the Comal River.

DON’T bring more than two tubes per person. (You can also rent tubes from one of the many river outfitters.)

DO bring lifejackets for weak swimmers and children under 8. (Personal flotation devices are provided to Comal River tubers for free with a deposit at the New Braunfels City Tube Chute or other river outfitters.)

DO leave containers under 5 fluid ounces at home.

DO ensure noise devices are not audible beyond 50 feet.

DO make sure your cooler is less than 30 quarts and has a clasp on the lid (zipper, Velcro, latch, cord). Limit one cooler per person.

DO make sure round inflatable tubes are less than 5 feet in diameter.

A young woman rides a scooter on a concrete sidewalk in front of tall green trees and a riverfront

Landa Park is an excellent place to scooter

Pappas walks me across an asphalt lot fronting Klingemann Street where it intersects with Lakeview Boulevard. We continue down a crushed granite trail through lush native grasses and waving reeds to a vernal pool at the edge of the savanna.

“The first pool channels through swales,” she explains, gazing beyond the pool. “The borderline is literally here. This crease is where the coastal plains end and the Balcones Escarpment begins.”

She adds that the site was the original water plant for New Braunfels. “This was swamp, they called it,” she says. “So many people don’t know these headwaters exist.”

The walking trails, display gardens, and natural spring overlooks are part of a $23 million restoration that will also include outdoor classrooms, wastewater treatment wetlands, and composting facilities. Yet to come is the transformation of the on-site buildings into an interpretive center recreating the Edwards Aquifer to show how springs, groundwater, and karst topography, such as caves and sinkholes, interact.

Documentation of the habitat and archeological digs is ongoing. “We have a good citizen science group at the headwaters,” Pappas says. “They’ve identified 1,100 species of plants, birds, and insects. This is a really biodiverse environment.”

A month later, I meet Melissa Welch-Lamoreaux, a communications specialist who works with the New Braunfels Convention and Visitors Bureau, in a parking lot near the Landa Falls tube rentals. It’s a beautiful late-November day with clear skies and temps climbing into the mid-70s. I brought my short sit-on-top kayak while Welch-Lamoreaux has her stand-up paddleboard.

“This looks about perfect,” she says as we haul our crafts to the river. We have the Comal practically to ourselves. For an hour and a half, we paddle and talk all the way to the confluence with the Guadalupe. When I ask Welch-Lamoreaux if a love of paddling or tubing was a requirement for her job, she laughs. “No, I just got lucky,” she says. “I love this water.”

An overhead view of two people relaxing and holding hands in brightly colored inflatable tubes on clear water

Tubers take a relaxing float on the Comal

We portage around the Tube Chute, where boats are not allowed. Carrying our watercraft on the sidewalk by the chute, Welch-Lamoreaux runs into two friends. The three locals discuss their strategies for dealing with Comal crowds: leave by noon on summer weekends or only visit on weekdays.

When we reach the confluence, Welch-Lamoreaux makes another introduction. “Meet Hank,” she says as we paddle toward a tangle of brush on the opposite bank, where a great blue heron stands sentinel on a small promontory. “He’s here all the time.”

Even on extra-crowded summer weekends.

Recreation Destination

New Braunfels has welcomed tourists to the Comal and its environs for more than a century

1845 – Prince Carl Solms from Germany settles New Braunfels. He chooses the site for its proximity to the Comal River.

1881 – Banker William Clemens constructs the Clemens Dam, adjacent to the present-day Tube Chute, for a cotton textile mill that never comes to fruition.

1898 – Henry Landa establishes Landa’s Park near downtown. Now called Landa Park, the beloved city park comprises 196 acres.
nbtexas.org

1910 – Professor F.E. Giesecke, who taught architecture at Texas A&M, buys more than 60 acres to establish a summer school for incoming college students.

1918 – With 56 acres purchased from Giesecke, Otto and Martha Warnecke establish Camp Warnecke. Tubing is a popular pastime at the family resort, which is featured in Life magazine in 1951.

1925 – New Braunfels holds a Venetian Carnival with decorated boats on Landa Lake. The carnival draws roughly 20,000 people and repeats in 1926 for the final time.

1950s – Bucky Warwick organizes the first Aquacade for the Miss Texas Pageant held in Landa Park’s spring-fed pool.

1961 – Ed Grist, the city meat inspector, creates Wurstfest to honor sausage. Six years later, the booming 10-day fest moves to Wursthalle in Landa Park. wurstfest.com

1976 – The city builds the Tube Chute, which is still popular with tubers almost 50 years later.
nbtexas.org

1979 – Bob Henry and his family build four waterslides descending from a faux German castle and call it Schlitterbahn. The park, now owned by the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, has won Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Award for Best Waterpark for 24 consecutive years.
schlitterbahn.com

1997 – The San Antonio Express-News reports that tubers are forgoing the Guadalupe River, which is swelling due to rain­, and heading to the Comal River—leading to a boom for local business owners.

From the July 2023 issue

 

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El Camino Real de las Tejas Crankie Suite

https://texashighways.com/travel-news/a-musical-about-el-camino-real-de-las-tejas-cranks-out-a-colorful-history/

 

Images unroll on the crankie and accompany the music performed by Brian Beattie, creator of ‘El Camino Real de los Tejas Crankie Suite.’ Photo by Joe Nick Patoski.

There are two great stories of Texas, as far as Brian Beattie is concerned. One is the Alamo, about which much has been written, honored, preserved, and mythologized. The other, El Camino Real de las Tejas, not so much.

The historic King’s Highway linking northern Mexico with far East Texas is “our most underappreciated cultural resource,” Beattie says. “I don’t think there’s any single thing that sums up the story of Texas like El Camino. Everyone used this [highway]: the first humans, tribal traders, the animals who carved out a path before them. It wasn’t a battle [like the Alamo]; it was who we are. Everyone had to use it—natives, Spanish, Anglo settlers.”

An avid explorer of historical sites across Texas and a founding member of Glass Eye, an influential art rock group in 1980s Austin, Beattie set out to address El Camino’s lack of recognition by doing something that only a musician could do: He wrote a musical about it.

El Camino Real de los Tejas Crankie Suite, as the title implies, tells the story of Texas’ most historic road through Beattie’s vocals and electric guitar, accompanied occasionally by Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood-style plinks on a celesta keyboard. Helping tell the story is Beattie’s wife, visual artist Valerie Fowler, who, at the beginning of the show, pulls back the diminutive red curtains of a stage box about the size of a puppet show. Slowly, she starts turning one of two cranks on the top of the set, and moving images of different scenes she has painted appear in synch with Beattie’s storytelling.

That’s the “crankie” part of the musical’s title.

Used to create a scrolling panorama—or moving picture—the crankie was a means of enhanced storytelling predating cinema. It was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States and England throughout the 1800s. Some crankies were bigger than a movie screen and toured theaters as exhibitions. The concept was revived in the late 20th century, largely by musicians, and thrives as a steampunk retro-futuristic artifact. Now, the device helps bring the Camino Real to audiences.

Beattie’s interest in the Camino Real started about seven years ago, when he attended an event at Lobanillo Swales in Sabine County. Tom Byrd, who was then president of the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service in the protection and development of the Camino Real across Texas and Louisiana, told him someone needs to write a song about the Camino like “Route 66.”

Beattie responded by writing a musical. “I realized at a certain point I wasn’t going to be the rock guy playing clubs, trying to do the thing that most younger people do,” he says. “I craved the narrative in songs, and I was too old to go out and pretend I was a rock dude.”

Visual artist Valerie Fowler created the images used in the crankie. Photo by Joe Nick Patoski.

Instead, Beattie became a history dude. He started reading books about the trail, and of all the resources he tapped into, he found the diaries from the first Spanish expeditions across Texas the most revealing, with descriptions of specific tribes and their movements, alliances, and customs.

But the fire for the project was really lit when Beattie took a long bicycle ride and stumbled upon ruins at a site of a future park southeast of Austin. In his research, he came upon a passage that mentioned a particular entrada, or trail entrance, and a spring and a creek. He realized what he’d seen while cycling had been described by Spanish explorers.

“Everyone agrees with this description,” he says. “They camped around this creek that had no name. Exactly 2.65 miles southwest of McKinney Falls today is Onion Creek Metropolitan Park, 450 acres that are unanalyzed. That’s where I’ve found big beautiful swales and four homestead sites. There’s stuff no one knows about and you can learn about [it] just walking around.”

As for the crankie, this is not the first time Beattie has incorporated one into a show. He used one in his 2014 musical, Ivy and the Wicker Suitcase, an ambitious project that included his former bandmate Kathy McCarty, composer Will Sheff of Okkervil River, singer Grace London, guitarist Bill Callahan, and the late savant Daniel Johnston.

For the Crankie Suite, Fowler spent a year drawing and painting fluid, impressionistic landscapes peppered with historic figures on two 48-foot-by-30-inch rolls of paper. First, she penciled in the images, then applied ink, a lot of watercolor, and colored pencils. “It’s multimedia,” she says, adding it’s also all Brian. “He told me what to draw, which scene, measured it out how it would go with the timing of the songs. And I just drew it.”

At each performance, Beattie introduces the crankie. “It’s kind of like a time machine, but it’s hand-cranked,” he says in a showman’s voice. “It becomes our window into history during our curious journey across Texas. Please do not climb into the crankie box!”

He then explains that the expedition “will go by in a flash,” taking the audience from Mission San Juan Bautista in Guerrero, Coahuila, through what is now Laredo, to Los Adaes, Louisiana [the capital of New Spain]. Along the way, he says, “We will be bouncing through time meeting different people in a manner which may be disorienting…Just remember, although every stop on our tour is a different place at a different time, we’re simply traveling northeast.”

With Beattie’s dramatic singing, fuzzy guitar chunks on his Gretsch, and Fowler’s illustrations, it’s a compelling 45-minute saga. The narrative song artfully explains, in rhyme, how the King of Spain ordered six Spanish missions and a fort established along the route. The goal was preventing the French from encroaching on New Spain. Once Los Adaes was declared capital of the province of Texas, it effectively discouraged French ambitions on points west.

Throughout the musical, rivers are celebrated and the topography is described in detail, down to ancient marker trees and more recent markers, such as a tire shop, along the historic passage. The future is even contemplated. “It’s 2031, Val-e-rie and I, are riding our bikes on, El Camino Real de las Tejas! A hikeable, bikeable trail to link San Antonio and Austin!”

The couple have taken their crankie show on the road to San Antonio, Floresville, Bastrop, and as far away as San Augustine with the aim of playing a string of dates along the Camino Real. Steven Gonzales, the executive director of El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association, is helping them realize that goal.

“The Camino Crankie does a great deal of good to raise awareness about the Camino Real de los Tejas,” he says. “It brings the stories of the trail to life in ways that a history book cannot, and it has the ability to draw in children, students, artists, and others who may not typically be history-loving types. Because of this, it has the power to draw support and understanding to the trail and our association in a way that most other genres of conveyance cannot.” More information about the associations’s work, including volunteer opportunities, can be found at elcaminotrail.org.

The next performances of El Camino Real de las Tejas Crankie Suite take place May 21, with shows at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., at Wessels Hall, Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farms in Austin. As Beattie notes, “The performances will be celebrating the 302nd anniversary of the passing of the huge Aguayo Expedition through the Austin area.”

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KTRU Rice Radio – Cool broadcasters and unsung music critics

https://magazine.rice.edu/spring-2023/record-enthusiasm

My story on KTRU for Rice Magazine

Rice Magazine

 

Five decades of KTRU DJs are linked by their love of the music and a unique archive of thousands of music reviews tucked among the stacks.

Community DJs Nicole Buergers and Ashley Turner host the show “Afternoon Delight.”
Community DJs Nicole Buergers and Ashley Turner host the show  “Afternoon Delight.” 

By Joe Nick Patoski | Photos and video by Gustavo Raskosky

The control room of KTRU Rice Radio has a well-lived-in look. Shelves of compact discs surround the room’s desk and main microphone. All of the walls are plastered with yellow-and-black KTRU bumper stickers, along with graffiti and other ephemera, mostly identifying bands and record labels. Within reach of the on-air disc jockey are two video screens and bays to play CDs, cassettes and digital audio, with two turntables for vinyl records on either side. Additional microphones and chairs for guests are set up opposite the main mic.

 Director of Student Media Katharine Shilcutt hosts a show that often features her favorite band, The Roches.
Director of Student Media Katharine Shilcutt hosts a show that often features her favorite band, The Roches. 

This uniquely cluttered space is ground zero for some of the wildest music heard on Houston airwaves and online. And for the DJs — mostly Rice students — it’s where they’re having the most fun while pursuing their studies.

The woman talking animatedly into the main microphone, with headphones covering her curly mane, is Katharine Shilcutt, the director of student media at Rice and also a DJ. She squints close at one of the turntables as she tries to cue up a track from a clear vinyl album. Once the track begins to play, she swings around her chair in search of a 1970s vintage album by The Roches.

Being a DJ is what KTRU is all about; there are 150 of them at the station. “Rice University does not have a radio-television-film department,” Shilcutt says. “This place is most definitely not a springboard to a career in broadcasting. We’re not training these people how to be professionals. This is just where you come when you care about music. It’s the students teaching themselves and finding a spot to express themselves.”

GLORIOUS CHAOS

Student DJ Keegan Pierce ’24 plays accordion music from Texas and Louisiana, mixing conjunto with zydeco and Cajun.
Student DJ Keegan Pierce ’24 plays accordion music from Texas and Louisiana, mixing conjunto with zydeco and Cajun. 

The sounds of KTRU range from the expected eclectic college-station mix of jazz, world, classical, reggae, roots and local bands to the arcane, obscure and underserved. KTRU’s weekly schedule includes “C-Pop,” featuring pop music from China; “Gaytru,” specializing in LGBTQ+ music; “Mutant Hardcore Flower Hour,” showcasing punk rock; “Roots d’Afrique” with music from Africa; “Genetic Memory,” airing the music subgenre known as Noise; and “Löded Diaper,” dedicated to teen angst garage rock.

Keegan Pierce ’24, a physics major with a minor in philosophy, works the 1 p.m. hour at KTRU on Thursdays, playing accordion music from Texas and Louisiana, mixing conjunto with zydeco and Cajun. “I went to a lot of live music with my dad when I was in high school [in Birdville near Fort Worth] and went to Deep Ellum a lot,” he says while a song plays over the air. “My freshman year, I sent him a request for zydeco music.” After segueing from a vinyl recording by Santiago Jiménez Jr. to an album track by Clifton Chenier, he explains that his KTRU experience has prompted him to refine his academic focus to acoustic engineering — working with sound.

Imogen Brown ’25, host of “Babewaves,” which focuses on music by women, femme and noncisgender artists, also testifies about the power of KTRU. Brown, who’s majoring in the study of women, gender and sexuality, joined the station because she loves to create, share and discover music. “Doing radio and being on air is a whole other entity that I’ve learned about along the way,” she says. “It means reaching people whom I don’t know and have never seen, and that’s terrifying and also exciting. It also means my family at home in New York is listening to me. My parents are staying up past their bedtime to tune in.”

Overnights, KTRU goes “robo,” airing music preprogrammed by the station’s chief engineer Ross Cooper and various students to reflect the breadth of what’s heard on live shows. Over the course of one sample hour, the mix ranges from South Asian and Chinese music and experimental jazz to Appalachian music and psychedelic rock.

At 3 a.m. on most weekdays, though, KTRU goes live for an hour with Matthew Bitz ’25, a chemistry major who goes from his shift at the station to open a Starbucks nearby at 4:30. “I play mostly jazz to create a calm atmosphere, not super out-there jazz. Houston has a great jazz history, and I like to explore that.”

Bitz has an audience too. “My shift supervisor at Starbucks listens, and we talk about what I played when I get there. I know people listen if they’re studying at Sid Rich, my residential college.”

KTRU fills an important hole for Bitz. “When I was in high school, my entire life was all about music,” he says. “I play violin and piano. I’d get up every morning at 6 to go to band practice and stay after school to do orchestra. When I came to Rice, I wasn’t doing music anymore. It was all chemistry science-y stuff. The opportunity to get back into music in this kind of way has been really enjoyable. I’d like to stay involved with radio in a small way, like the DJs here.”

KTRU’s vinyl stacks room holds thousands of records and a turntable for private listening.
KTRU’s vinyl stacks room holds thousands of records and a turntable for private listening. 

In addition to the students, regular folks in Houston host shows too. One example is a specialty show called “Afternoon Delight.” Community DJs Nicole Buergers and Ashley Turner, respectively a professional beekeeper and voice-over artist, get together every Tuesday and play two solid hours of 1970s soft rock.

Because, why not?

Back in the early 1980s when I first tuned in, KTRU played music I didn’t hear anywhere else. Tuning in was always a discovery. Forty years later, things sound the same as they ever did — cutting edge, proudly eclectic, wonderfully chaotic and somewhat subversive.

RESILIENT RADIO

There have been some significant skips along the way, including the Rice administration’s sale of the 91.7 frequency signal in 2011 followed by a long spell as an online-only station. In 2019, KTRU reemerged on air as a low-power FM signal on 96.1 and continues to stream online at ktru.org. The pandemic also took away a critical piece of KTRU’s programming: the live in-studio performance. KTRU returned to presenting live, over-the-air music in October 2022 with a concert by Katherine Wu ’23, a pre-med and neuroscience major who is also training to compete in archery in the Olympics. Wu played the Chinese guzheng, aka the Chinese table harp.

Community DJ Christopher Spadone has hosted the Roots d’Afrique show since 2008.
Community DJ Christopher Spadone has hosted the Roots d’Afrique show since 2008.

While those issues are behind them, there’s another challenge ahead. In the coming year, the entire student center will be demolished to make room for construction of the new 80,000-square-foot Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity. The current offices on the second floor of the Ley Student Center, KTRU’s home for the past 36 years, will move across campus into a temporary space.

When Shilcutt was appointed student media director in March 2022, a position that includes oversight of the Rice Thresher newspaper and Campanile yearbook, she started taking inventory around KTRU in anticipation of the coming move. A half-century dedicated to all kinds of music has built up the “stacks” at the station to more than 200,000 pieces of music, according to Cooper. That translates into tens of thousands of vinyl albums and compact discs as well as cassettes and tape carts — all of which will need to be moved twice.

In the process of taking inventory of the stacks, however, Shilcutt discovered the secret sauce that separates KTRU from everywhere else: the music reviews.

OBSESSIVE NERDINESS

One of the few rules at KTRU is that each piece of music aired must be accompanied by a review written by a KTRU DJ to provide insight and guidance to other DJs.

Conner Clifton, assistant director of student media, showed me what used to be the newsroom studio to point out several stacks of a hundred CDs each waiting to be reviewed in order to be played.

Every DJ at KTRU is required to write at least one review. “I thought they were so weird, funny and different,” Shilcutt says. “There were these bizarre non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the album: ‘Once I saw Eraserhead twice in two nights and to this day, I don’t know why I did that.’ That’s a review of Julee Cruise, ‘Floating Into the Night.’ Yes, it’s a David Lynch collaboration, but —”


A pleasant mid-tempo number, not a strong opener, but indicates the tonal medium of this album. — Anon, on opening song, “More Than This,” on “Avalon” by Roxy Music, 1982


So what makes a good Surfers album great? (1) Semi-s—ty production that makes everything sound as if drawn through a rusty sieve. — HK, on “piouhgd” by the Butthole Surfers, 1991


Reviews have been part of the KTRU experience since the station appeared on the FM airwaves in May 1971. The station’s debut coincided with the golden era of music criticism. Before then, music reviews were limited to pithy comments about records (“It’s got a beat, and you can dance to it”) made in trade publications. Criticism in newspapers and magazines, if published at all, was restricted to classical music and jazz.

President DesRoches in the KTRU studio
President DesRoches selects a Miles Davis record to play during a visit to the KTRU studio in 2022.

But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, college newspapers and consumer music magazines such as Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy started taking popular music seriously and birthed rock criticism. Reviews of music often became as important and entertaining as the music itself. Critics such as Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Ed Ward, Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches became recognized as serious writers, not just rock critics.

KTRU reviews reflect those times and carry the tradition to the present. Taken as a whole, the reviews make up an informal anthology of modern music as told by Rice students and community members who happen to be armed with microphones and access to all the music they can imagine.


Dr. Frank, who wrote all but one of the songs on this album, showcases the benefit of a 1590 SAT score when used properly in the name of pop punk. — Melissa J., on “Love Is Dead” by the Mr. T Experience, 1996


DJ HK's review of “piouhgd” by the Butthole Surfers
DJ HK’s review of “piouhgd” by the Butthole Surfers

The reviews are generally curt, wordy, intelligent and passionate. Brown, the “Babewaves” host, is an avid reader of reviews. “The reviews are pretty descriptive and creative,” she says. “They make comparisons I sometimes don’t understand, but usually, a review gives me a good idea what vibe the song is before I listen to it and where it will fit in a set. It’s insane I can pull a review off the shelf from 1985 and someone is giving their opinion from that time. It’s a piece of history.”

Writing reviews is hard, Brown adds. “It’s not that I don’t like doing it. It’s hard to critically think about every song. I write music reviews for The Thresher. Those are more ‘sit down and let everything out.’ One sentence has to feed into the next. You have to paint the album as a whole. KTRU [reviews] are conversational.”


Seem to be caught in the same style as “Remain in Light,” but without the esoteric (“Listening Wind”) type songs. Technically proficient. … [The song “Swamp”] sounds like Byrne’s been taking hormones. Beat more prevalent. — MFZAKES, on Talking Heads’ “Speaking in Tongues,” 1983


“The reviews try to be as helpful as possible,” Shilcutt explains. “People want to leave their mark. People want to talk about this stuff. They want to talk about what makes a great Butthole Surfers album. ‘Here’s a list.’ Across time, DJs will argue with each other. They’ll add comments.”


All in all, Band of Susans shows the signs of a well-polished and professional band. However, they lacked a certain oomph to distinguish their music from a squeaky doorknob. — Matt Tenny ’97, on “Here Comes Success” by Band of Susans, 2012

DJ DG did not agree and scribbled below the initial review:

Bulls—. This is good s—.


As Kurt Cobain said, “[Jandek’s] not pretentious … but only pretentious people like his music.” — Corrin Fosmire ’21, on reclusive Houston recording artist Jandek’s album, “Houston Friday,” 2017

Another DJ thought otherwise: I was at this show, it was great.

A third DJ joined in: I actually hate this album.


Hard to believe such a gem comes from Merge. NMH [Neutral Milk Hotel] is mainly Jeff Mangum and is out of Ruston, Louisiana (maybe that’s why it is so good). Truly one of the best, if not the best, albums of ’96 and all of history. — Ajda Snyder, “On Avery Island” by Neutral Milk Hotel, 1996

Another DJ circled Snyder’s first sentence and scribbled underneath: You gotta love the attitude.


The older the review, the more tempting it is to figure out whether the reviewer stood the test of time. Sleater-Kinney, an all-female Pacific Northwest indie band led by future Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein, issued their fifth album “All Hands on the Bad One” in 2000. At the time, their tilt toward the mainstream in the wake of fellow PNW indie Nirvana’s global success hit DJ Holly all wrong. “I fear this is the death knell for SK … the spark is gone.” Holly was pretty much correct. SK made only two more albums before going on hiatus.


Absolute shambolic mess from the former Big Star and Box Tops front man. Tracks have lots of mistakes, random stops and restarts, out-of-tune instruments and voices … and it’s f—ing great. I double dog dare you to play it … you might even end up loving it as much as the rest of its cult following. — Anon, on “Like Flies on Sherbert” by Alex Chilton, 1980


KTRU’s copy of “Built for Speed” by the Stray Cats with the command “Do Not Play #1!” written on the label.
KTRU’s copy of “Built for Speed” by the Stray Cats with the command “Do Not Play #1!” written on the label.

With critics like this, I’m hardly surprised when Clifton opens up another crowded storage room at KTRU and points past mic stands, pieces of a drum set and amps to a shelf of vinyl albums. “That’s the ‘Too Popular’ shelf,” he says. There are familiar artists and titles such as David Bowie, “Bob Dylan at Budokan” (“That review was harsh as hell,” Clifton says), John Lennon (enough already of “Imagine,” evidently), and “every Paul Simon and Simon and Garfunkel we ever had.”

Such opinions run strong. Written on the label of the album “Built for Speed” by the Stray Cats is the command, “Do Not Play #1!” The song title itself is marked out entirely by black marker. But it’s not too difficult to see the reference, which is, of course, “Rock This Town.”

Even King Crimson (!), Kinks, Byrds and Father John Misty have been sidelined due to overexposure. Harry Styles and Taylor Swift never made it in to the stacks in the first place. But, Ray Charles! I shake my head.

“This place is nerdy,” Pierce says. “Everyone takes their obsession to the next level. This is like playing a sport at other schools.”


This “difficult second album” … may very well try the patience of current fans (although judging by the radiant post-coital afterglow among the online pundits, this may not be the case). — HK and Nancy N., on “Ys” by Joanna Newsom, 2007


What is Kraut rock? German proto-electronic minimalist rock, with a heavy focus on driving repetitive rhythm. — Anon, on “2 Originals of Neu!” by Neu!, 1972


TRUE INDEPENDENCE

At 11 a.m., Shilcutt wraps up her hourlong shift and yields the mic to Kelly Moore, the community DJ who hosts “Chickenskin,” a program focused on American roots music, and then heads downstairs for a meeting of KTRU’s board of directors, who are all student DJs. About 20 student board members graze through a buffet of Indian cuisine before getting down to the main topic: planning the upcoming outdoor show in April. This year’s show will be an all-Texas lineup of five bands. The punk band will close out the day, they agree, before moving on to festival logistics.

KTRU business manager Soleste Starr ’25 holds a copy of the CD “Solely” by Natalie Jane Hall.
KTRU business manager Soleste Starr ’24 holds a copy of the CD “Solely” by Natalie Jane Hall.

“This is just a nice place for students to gather and play music,” Shilcutt says. “The administration encourages them to do so and pretty much leaves them alone. People can play anything.”

Pierce, the accordion music DJ, agrees. “The radio is a creative outlet, something I enjoy. The place is a big part of the appeal. I love music and all of the stacks, all the reviews, the graffiti. I started organizing shows last year. When I get interviewed and asked about leadership, I cite setting up the outdoor live concert, being a stage manager, organizing meetings. I’ve been able to make cool things happen.

“KTRU, I don’t want to say they operate in a bubble,” Pierce says, “but they are generally unconcerned how other people do things. They want to do things their own way. That’s the Rice way. That’s the KTRU way.”


Can’t get enough of that black and yellow vibe?
Take a peek into KTRU’s studios through this video story. Meet the station managers, music director, business manager and director of student media and learn what motivates them to work — and DJ — at KTRU. Also, hear from former DJ Richard Baraniuk, an esteemed professor of computer and electrical engineering, on how KTRU Rice Radio shaped his listening habits. Finally, listen as these students reflect on the upcoming move of KTRU’s upcoming move to new spaces.

 

 

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