Mack McCormack, song hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world that McCormick dove into so zealously is gone.

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

Continue Reading

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
Goodstock - Exclusive Rail

 

Texas craft goods made for wherever the summer takes you

 

Visit Lubbock

Get the Magazine

Save up to 68% off the cover price

Subscribe

True Texas in Your Inbox

Sign up for magazine extras, upcoming events, Mercantile specials, subscription offers, and more.

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

 

Continue Reading

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.”

Continue Reading

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.

 

 

Continue Reading

Texas’ Swimming Holes Are Drying Up

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

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

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

An Ode to Texas’s Disappearing Swimming Holes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

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

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

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

Illustration by Bráulio Amado; Source image: AP

Texas Icons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


But then the winning stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pop, pop, pop.

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

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

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

Continue Reading

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

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

by Joe Nick Patoski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge – the Wild Rio Grande Valley

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

Explore the wilderness and wildlife of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Creature Comforts

By Joe Nick Patoski

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

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

A redhead duck. Illustration by Lin Jesse

Beyond Laguna Madre,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Texas tortoise. Illustration by Lin Jesse

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

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

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

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

Cycling on Steve Thompson Wildlife Drive. Photo by Eric Schlegel

Visiting Laguna Atascosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My ears perk up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the spirit of Laguna Atascosa.

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

Laguna
Atascosa Wildlife

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the January 2023 issue
Continue Reading