Surf City Texas

Catching a Break: Surf City Texas

Galveston Bay
A group of Galveston surfers has been surfing the wakes of ships in the Houston Ship Channel for six years. Photography by Erich Schlegel.

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
April 4, 2004

TEXAS CITY, Texas — It’s too flat to surf the beach and not quite warm enough to chase oil tankers in the bay, but James Fulbright is still obsessing over the perfect wave.

The 46-year-old Galveston surf shop owner has the classic sun-bleached look and uniform of a surfaholic, down to the scruffy beard, baggy shorts and flip-flops. And he’s got that hard-headed ‘tude common to Texas surfers, a pitiable cult for whom lousy natural waves are a semi-permanent way of life.

When the weather’s nice and Gulf is flat, as is usually the case, Mr. Fulbright and three friends are surfing some of the most perfectly formed swells in the world by riding the wakes of supertankers plying Galveston Bay. This mastery has earned them fame in surfing circles worldwide.

But when it’s too windy or too cold to surf behind oil tankers, as it has been pretty much for the past five months, Mr. Fulbright takes his passion inside a metal building in a salt-rusted industrialpark near Interstate 45.

There, he obsesses about a surfing technology he’s so serious about, he’s almost exhausted his personal savings, he explains as he bids adieu to two similarly attired gentlemen – also in T-shirts and shorts – leaving the oversized shed.

"They’re engineers who heard about it and flew over from France," he says.

"It" is a modified 35-square-foot kiddie pool assembled from a mess of black vinyl, plywood islands, hoses, pipes, pumps, pressure gauges, blue paint and wood to resemble a 1/12th scale model of a beach waterfront.

His wife used pipe cleaners to fashion little palm trees, with sand sprinkled around for effect.

This is the prototype of a surfing wave machine that he hopes will revolutionize the sport of surfing by taking it off the beach and into water parks around the world.

"Want to see it work?" he asks excitedly, moving to jigger some buttons and levels before getting a response.

At the far side of the kiddie pool, a burst of pressure fires out of a compressor, creating a small wave that is split into two parts by a wooden divider.

"See how they both peel down the line?" he says, grinning. "It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it?"

Mr. Fulbright’s zealotry and imagination are informed by the realities facing every surfer in Texas, condemned by the eternal frustration of realizing that no matter how much one wills it, the Gulf Coast is a lousy place to surf, unless a hurricane or tropical storm is brewing.

"Gulf Coast surfers are an extremely devoted bunch. We’re the most devoted group of surfers on the planet. We take what we can get, and drop everything we’re doing on a moment’s notice to ride a wave."

Hard-headedness

But out of such frustration comes determination and creativity. In late February, Mr. Fulbright concluded 18 months of testing and dismantled the scale model in the water tank to focus on building a full-scale prototype. (The project is featured in Tom Banks’ documentary Wave Maker, which will be screened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston on April 9th as part of Houston’s FotoFest film festival.)

"I’ve finally got it going but I’ve spent all my savings. So we’re desperately seeking funding."

Mr. Fulbright started surfing at the age of 12. He has been looking for a better way to surf ever since.

"As you get older, you get more particular," he says. He has done the traveling bit, going to California, Mexico and Costa Rica. "Half the time, it’d be flat there like in Texas, but you’d blow all that money getting there."

Chase Boat
John Benson passes the time between ships surfing the wake of the chase boat. Surf bored. Photography by Erich Schlegel.

While a student at Texas A&M University, he and his landlocked pals would surf behind boats on Lake Somerville. When they weighted the towing boat with extra people, they could generate waves large enough to ride without a tow rope.

Mr. Fulbright and some buddies took that idea a step further six years ago, after watching oil tankers pass through the bay between the coast and the Houston Ship Channel.

Then the light bulb in his head went on while he was working at a surfboard fin factory.

"One day, I overheard two sailors who sailed from Clear Lake to Kemah talk about how their 35-foot boat almost got swamped by a rogue wave generated by an oil tanker. I thought to myself, ‘Hmmmmm.’ I asked them if it was surfable. They didn’t surf but said it might be.

"I bought a 17-foot Boston Whaler," Mr. Fulbright says. "I studied the waves. I studied the tides, the currents, and the depths of the bay. I hung out in a bar in LaPorte where all the pilot boat captains drink. I started buying drinks. I’d asked where they found waves that they avoided, what channel markers.

"They thought we were crazier than hell asking where to go surfing in the bay," he says. "It took me about six months of reconnaissance but I finally found some constant spots. Lo and behold, I caught the wave of my dreams."

Secret surfing

The supertankers left wakes of perfectly shaped swells so good that the unusual surfing exploits of Mr. Fulbright and his buddies were captured in the 2003 documentary Step Into Liquid which profiles 50 surfers from around the world and their secret surfing spots.

The group members have to not divulge to others where they go.

"This morning I ran into a guy on the beach who said he had information I could use if I gave him information," Mr. Fulbright says. "I said, ‘No way.’"

Still, they’re loyal to their sense of place. Mr. Fulbright and his friends also have another rule that when surf is up on the coast, oil-tanker surfing is not an option.

Ship-wake surfing is not for everyone, Mr. Fulbright cautions. It requires more planning, patience and precautions than beach surfing does.

"You can’t just jump into it. It took me years to get it down. We respect distance from the ships, distance from other boats. We’re very particular when we go."

But there’s a payoff.

Last fall, he says, "I caught a wave that I rode for three miles in ten minutes. Nowhere in the world can you ride a two- to three-mile wave. When it’s been flat on Galveston for a week, we’re surfing till our legs cramp up."

Lining up a wave takes a while to master, he says.

"It takes a boat. It takes skilled maneuvering. That water is littered with sunken boats, pipelines, shallow shoals. You have to burn a whole day to do it. You can’t just do it a little while. Someone has to drive the boat, and nobody wants to drive. I usually have to because it’s my boat. But dude, let me tell you this," Mr. Fulbright says, his eyes lighting up. "It’s worth it."

So is going broke and having to hustle for investments for his wave machine and a park built around it, which he calls Surf City Texas.

Getting a fix

Oil-tanker surfers and his invention go hand in hand, Mr. Fulbright contends. Both are answers to the endless quest to satisy his surfing addiction.

"I’ve wanted to have a wave pool since I first started surfing," he says. "The ones that exist are really bad. My focus was to make a great wave that is really challenging and as natural a surfing experience as possible."

"As Gulf Coast surfers, we’re damned and determined to surf when we want to," he says. "We’re so desperate we’re chasing around oil tankers. That’s how desperate we are. But who would have imagined the best waves, better than any waves in the world, are in our own backyard?"

Or in his own metal building?

He has already commissioned a logo of a steer’s skull – similar to an icon on the Eagles’ album covers – surrounded by water. And he’s set up a Web site, SurfCityTexas.com.

Surfer magazine ran a feature in its July issue, identifying Mr. Fulbright as a "Texas tanker-wave hustler" and calling his idea "the latest, and possibly greatest, advancement in wave-pool technology."

Now all he needs is dough. "It’s not sophisticated technology," he says. "It’s a bunch of pipes and a pond." That happen to generate some awesome waves.

Almost as good as an oil tanker does.

[visit The Dallas Morning News]


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Willie Nelson

Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression. Order Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from Amazon here.


Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now

No Depression
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September-October 2004

Willie Nelson
Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now. Photograph by Jim Herrington

Willie Nelson may not live forever, but sometimes it seems that way.

LUCK, Texas, isn’t as easy to find as it used to be. Development has sprawled the entire 25 miles from downtown Austin to this idyllic little spot in the Hill Country near Lake Travis where Willie Nelson created his own universe more than two decades ago. The old corner store that was once a landmark is now a bank. The entrance gate is practically lost among the McMansions and ranchettes that have sprouted up.

This fact of life is not lost on the guy in the Willie Nelson T-shirt driving the mower over the fairway of the Briarcliff Country Club. After providing directions to a wayward tourist, he wisecracks, “Welcome to Oak Hill,” referring to the suburb fifteen miles closer to the city.

Still, there’s enough acreage surrounding Luck that once you stumble onto the dirt main street, you realize Willie Nelson’s home base is safely in a zone of its own. The cowboy town of faux buildings – including a feed store, barn, gunsmith, church, and bathhouse – hasn’t changed much since it was built for the film Red Headed Stranger in the early 1980s. Unchanged, but deteriorated to the point that Luck today looks less like an Old West movie set and more like a real 20th century small town in Texas that is drying up and blowing away. Whatever it is, it is Willie’s World. The rest of us are just visiting.

I had come for my last sit-down with Willie Hugh Nelson. I’d been writing about him since I hit Austin in 1973, a year after he did. I’ve spent the ensuing years listening, watching, and observing him as he played shows on flatbed trucks, in drive-in movie theaters (with Paul Simon sitting in, no less), in amphitheaters, in performing arts halls, and at too many July Fourth Picnics to count. Somewhere along the way, the television appearances, movie roles, and inductions to various halls of fame added up to Willie achieving some kind of sainthood, with just enough speed-crazed hustlers, soulful used-car salesmen, and honest-to-Sam-Houston characters to keep me engaged.

Like Austin, Willie too has changed along the way. He came to the game as a songwriter. Some say that particular skill fell by the wayside decades ago – that he’s sliding by on cruise control, that he hasn’t written a memorable song in years. And yet, in the midst of all his albums of cover songs, tribute songs, collaborative affairs with high-profile buddies, television specials, and films, he’s still continued to write songs – including an antiwar protest number that briefly stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy late last year. Not to mention enough straight-ahead country tunes to justify a full-blown album that may be his best work in ages (It Will Always Be, due October 26 on Lost Highway).

Willie Nelson
Willie and Paul English (background) at Stubb’s in Austin, TX, May 2001.
Photograph by John Carrico.

But even if he hadn’t written a line in a quarter-century and decided to follow the path of Fats Domino – who once reasoned he didn’t need to write another song because he already had more than enough hits to perform in concert -Willie would justify a visit just because he’s Willie. After all, he personifies the outlaw movement that presaged altcountry. He’s the one credited for putting Austin and Texas Music on the map. He’s a pop culture icon, bandanas, pigtails, running shoes and all, the one Texan more popular than George Bush. He’s the gold standard for Texas marijuana: If it’s Willie weed, i.e. pot fit for him, it’s top-of-the-line bud. And he’s just mysterious and mystical enough to keep everyone guessing. You never know what you’ll find when you’re in Luck.

That said, we’re both old enough to be lucky just to be alive.

He’s 71. I’m 53.We’ve both done a pretty fair job taking care of ourselves. While Waylon kept roaring until a few years before his death in 2002 at age 64, Willie quit the powder and the partying back when he was about my age. These days, drinking means water more often than whiskey. His biggest vice remains his appreciation of the sweet smoke.

Change at this stage of the game usually means some kind of diminishment, and in the case of Willie, the black cast on his left arm was a big red flag. Carpal tunnel syndrome, the repetitive motion injury of the computer age, had finally gotten to him. He had scrunched and contorted his fretting hand into chords on his battered guitar, Trigger, one time too many. The surgery that was required to fix the problem knocked him off he road for the first time since… well, forever.

But it wasn’t just him who was hurting and hobbled.

His friend Ray Charles had passed away five days before. Willie’s drummer and lifelong partner in crime and other adventures, Paul English (of “Me And Paul” fame), can’t make it through an entire show anymore. Paul’s son, Billy English, carries the load when it comes to keeping the beat. Another drummer during Willie’s outlaw glory days, Rex Ludwick, passed on earlier in the year, his life cut short from too much drinking. Even the title of Nelson’s new CD, It Will Always Be, especially the track “Tired”, suggests loss and resignation.

So Mr. On the Road Again had been forced to adjust to the sedentary life off the road. Not that his band minded – 220 dates the previous year were a few too many for some of his players, all of whom except Paul are younger than Willie.

I thought I’d done my last interview with him five years ago, when he drove me around Luck in his pickup truck and I caught him off guard when I asked whether there were times when he got tired of being Willie. His response -“Not really, but if I do, I go and hide” – said a lot. He’s very much a public figure who enjoys his station in life. Wouldn’t you enjoy it if everyone around you acts glad to see you and showers you with compliments? But he’s also human enough to enjoy his privacy and the opportunity to chill whenever he can.

Two years ago, I went to the well one more time, speaking to him by phone while he was on his way to play a show in Nebraska for a club owner friend who was down on his luck. That really, really, really was my very last Willie story, I thought. What else was there for me to ask? What else was there for him to say?

That’s what I got for thinking.

Willie Nelson
Willie at the Paramount Theatre, 1999 during "Willie Week". Photograph by John Carrico.

BETWEEN releasing It Will Always Be, performing relentlessly, recording prolifically, appearing in commercials and TV specials, plotting more film roles, speaking out on behalf of family farmers, Dennis Kucinich and marijuana, and writing one of the first protest songs against the war in Iraq, Willie is living ten lives at once. The most stunning example is the new album, a full-blown, state-of-the-art polished piece of work that rings with clarity and purpose like his recordings of thirty years ago.

Not bad for an old fart who’s supposed to be in his autumn years.

I walked into the saloon that’s the official Luck World Headquarters, but the room was empty and silent save for the hushed audio from CNN on the big screen at the end of the bar.

Willie wasn’t there. But Willie was everywhere.

Every square inch of space on the walls was covered with 40 years’ worth of Willie memorabilia. There were photos of sister Bobbie, Johnny Bush, and Ray Price. Two Roy Rogers kiddie guitars were propped behind the bar. The Old Whiskey River Kentucky Straight neon sign shared space in one corner with bleached cow skulls. Movie posters advertised Red Headed Stranger, Texas Guns and Barbarosa. A photo of Willie on a golf course flanked by Darrell K. Royal, the storied University of Texas football coach, Mack Brown, the current UT coach, and hometown golf star Ben Crenshaw vividly illustrated his exalted role as one of Texas’ living treasures. He is clearly not averse to the idea of being Willie.

Someone once wondered aloud how weird it must be, sitting in the middle of your own personal universe, surrounded by photos, posters, neon, and trinkets all about you. But when “you” is Willie, it doesn’t seem so strange. The building with the creaky wooden floors – recently outfitted with air conditioning – is more like his playhouse. There’s a pool table up front, a chess table over to the side, a Bose radio behind the bar, a CMT director’s chair on the floor. There’s a small room in back where Willie can conduct a guitar pull or record a picking session on a whim. There’s always old friends such as Ben Dorsey, Bill McDavid, David Zettner or Freddy Powers nearby to hang with, or to pick with.

Outside the saloon, I found Rusty and Ed, who were doing busy work around the premises. Ed said Willie was probably on the bus, where he really likes to hang when he wants to lay low. But Willie wasn’t there, either. A crew of four was busily renovating the interior (as if the tricked-out rolling mini-mansion needed an upgrade). “Willie was expecting you,” one renovator said. “But not for another four hours. You might check at the recording studio.”

Rusty led the way to the Pedernales Recording Studio in a battered RV. We hadn’t gotten down the hill and outside the main gate toward Willie’s golf course before Freddy Fletcher, the studio owner who is Bobbie Nelson’s son and Willie Nelson’s nephew, pulled alongside, rolled down the window of a black Mercedes, and said, “Hidy.”

A muddy Chevy pickup pulled behind the Mercedes. It was Freddy’s uncle, grinning from ear to ear. He was dressed for summer in a black straw western hat with a dangling lanyard and a black tank top shirt hanging loosely over his running shorts and running shoes.

We caravanned back to the bus long enough for Willie to determine maybe that wasn’t the best place to sit and visit. So we headed back to Luck.

“How’s it been going?” I asked as we walked into the saloon.

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson in the sanctuary of his tour bus on Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles, Ca, July 2004. Photograph by Jim Herrington

“It’s perfect,” he said, his green-brown eyes twinkling, illuminating the scruffy white beard and long mane of hair flowing out of his hat to below his shoulders. “It couldn’t be any better.”

I got a closeup of the cast on his left arm. Willie was holding it close to his chest like a gimp. The other hand juggled a tall Starbucks cup and a big fat joint.

“Pull up a chair,” he said after we walked inside. He went around to the other side of the bar and pulled up a stool, assuming the role of a bartender ready to dispense whatever wisdom and advice was needed. He fired up the fatty in his good hand.

Perfect? But the hand…

“Oh, it’s getting better. I’ve had to get some assistance, but I’m back to where I can roll,” he allowed, passing the hemp bomber across the bar. “Some of my therapy is rolling and it’s getting pretty good. This is the longest that I haven’t played the guitar. It’s still painful and sore and I’m not really jonesing to get back up there. I’d love to play, but I want it to feel good when I do, and I want to be able to play as good as I played the last time.”

He didn’t really have a choice but to take a break. “The last couple years, it was so painful, I was kind of dreading the next show,” he explained. “It was getting worse and worse, getting numb. I’d wake up and it would go to sleep. I found out there’s hundreds of thousands and millions of people that are going through this same thing, all over the world. I was just talking to a mandolin player awhile ago over on the golf course, a big ole boy. He had this same operation back in the ’80s. He said it takes time, but he was back picking in awhile and he’s still doing it.”

The surgery shut down the show. “I couldn’t see going out with a hand mike,” he said. “I’m not saying I won’t?’ [He did just that at his Fourth of July Picnic in Fort Worth before going back on hiatus in preparation for a scheduled tour of minor-league baseball parks with Bob Dylan in August.] “If things don’t get well, then I might be hiring out as a vocalist,” he chuckled. “I’ve done that before. It’s easy, you know.” He can sing with the best of them, as he’s demonstrated by pairing up with folks such as Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Julio Iglesias. But Willie watchers know that’s not the whole Willie. Even he acknowledged that.

“Songwriting is the easiest thing for me to do,” he said. “It requires less effort and less thought than what it takes to learn what Django [Reinhardt, the gypsy guitarist] did on that last record. Writing’s first. And I love to perform. I enjoy the interaction between us and them. That’s good for your ego. It keeps you going and going back again. Me and the band, we enjoy being out there and we enjoy working. And we come home and we enjoy this for a little while. But we get ready to go back pretty quick. Everybody who knows us knows that’s the way we are, even our wives and kids.”

Willie Nelson
Razorcut: Willie Nelson, Nashville cat.

Then he startled me by acknowledging he was mortal.

“It’s kind of like you stopped a big train for a minute. It gives everybody a time to stop and think, ‘Whatever this is, is not going to last forever.’ So we might as well enjoy the rest and take it as far as we can.”

I had no reason to doubt him. All I needed to do was look into his eyes.

Those watery, soulful, puppy dog eyes have served him well.

Kevin Connor, who hosted an impromptu Willie radio performance with reggae legend Toots Hibbert on the lawn of Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel during the South By Southwest festival in March, related how after the show, he walked up to Willie to thank him, and was immediately stopped in his tracks by Willie’s eyes. “He didn’t need to say a word. He said all he needed to say with his eyes,” Connor said.

It’s a similar observation to the one Eddie Wilson made 32 years earlier, when Willie and Paul English showed up at the beer garden of the Armadillo World Headquarters to talk about doing a gig at the hippie rock emporium that would become the foundation of Austin music. “Although he was in a house full of strangers, a few enlightened folks recognized him and approached him in awe,” Wilson said. “I then observed a trait that has been consistent throughout his career: He suffers fools gladly, and as long as someone’s talking to him, he does not break eye contact. It’s a quality I’ve seen in only two other people – [former Texas governor] Ann Richards when being talked to by children, and Muhammad Ali when he’s talking to girls.”

Grant Alden told me he regards Willie as Yoda, the all-knowing, ancient and revered Jedi master of the Star Wars trilogy. Somehow that doesn’t quite square with the flashes of a Baptist preacher conducting a tent revival that flare up sometimes when he’s playing a show. I regard him as more of a Zen cowboy, always at peace residing in the moment, but ready to ride and shoot at the drop of a hat. He moves through the world as if bulletproof; even the IRS couldn’t burst the bubble. There’s more than a little Perfect World in the whole danged concept of Luck, Texas, designed for the inner kid hungering to play Cowboys & Indians. “Hey, let’s go shoot ’em up!” “Hey, let’s go rob the bank!” The street’s long enough to re-create High Noon on a whim. And it’s always 4:20 somewhere in Luck.

IN TRUTH, Nelson is a flawed figure. He’s on his third family and his fourth wife, not exactly a surprise given his penchant for staying on the road. His life history is tailor-made for a country song, back when country was called country & western and really sounded like it. He and Sister Bobbie were abandoned by their parents as kids. They were raised by kinfolk. He grew up a hustler, just scraping by. He knocked around Fort Worth, a wannabe salesman attracted to the used car salesmen – real salesmen who could sell you the shirt off your own back – and through them became familiar with the Dixie Mafia. (There are stories about Roger Miller and Willie working as bellhops at the Hotel Texas that indicate he was no stranger to hustling illicit vices.) He learned music from Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, who ably demonstrated time and again how to put on a show and dance (fast song, fast song, slow song). He learned the business of music as a disc jockey, debuting on KBOP in Pleasanton southeast of San Antonio.

Willie Nelson
For the Good Times: Willie and Waylon celebrating willi’s 60th birthday at Antone’s in Austin, Tx 1993. Photograph by John Carrico.

His entry into showbiz was playing in bands such as Paul Buskirk & His Little Men and Larry Butler’s group before joining up as a Cherokee Cowboy behind Ray Price, the honeydripper vocalist who epitomized countrypolitan, the hybrid sound that was too smooth, too swinging and too hip to qualify as straight country. In the early 1960s he came into his own as a songwriter with “Crazy” (Patsy Cline’s signature piece), “Hello Walls” (Faron Young’s signature piece), “Night Life” (a classic for Ray Price and B.B. King), and “Funny How Time Slips Away” (which made the career of rhythm & blues crooner Joe Hinton) – but not before he learned the hard way about publishing, royalties, and composer credits. He sold the rights for “Night Life” and “Family Bible” (a top-10 country hit in 1960 for Claude Gray) for $50 each, figuring he could always write another song.

He was ambitious enough to front his own band, and made a comfortable living recording small hits, covering his own compositions on the road, and dabbling in television. For a spell in the late 1960s, he hosted his own weekly variety television show in Fort Worth, live from Panther Hall. But the system didn’t much care. He was valued for his songwriting skills, not his performing or recording talents. It was telling then that he was a cool daddy by Nashville standards, favoring a razorcut hairdo, golf shirts, tight slacks and Italian loafers – about as outside the mainstream as one could get in Nashville those days.

Somewhere along the way, he got full of the Music City mainstream, the assemblyline production of hits, and the straight life. It didn’t help that his house had burned down. So he came back to Texas, for the gig money, for the familiarity of home turf, and for the belated Lone Star version of San Francisco that was going down in Austin. Long hair and cowboy boots were suddenly cool. Beer and pot were held in equal regard. Recent arrivals including Doug Sahm, Michael Murphy, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Freda & the Firedogs were breaking down traditional music barriers. Rock and folk were sounding twangy. Country was morphing into something else. Audiences could perfectly understand Willie’s band breaking into an extended twenty-minute jam on “Whiskey River”; after all, they’d heard the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band.

Whether it was being in the right place at the right time or finally growing into the role of Willie, he proceeded to lead a movement hat signaled a shift in popular music and marked the start of a continuum. He wrote in song cycles, as heard on 1971’s Yesterday’s Wine his last Nashville album), 1973’s Shotgun Willie, 1974’s Phases And Stages, and ultimately 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. Even if the songs weren’t all jewels, he was nothing if not prolific. David Zettner told the story walking into a Nashville motel room and finding him passed out with sheets of paper strewn about. The sheets contained the words to “Shotgun Willie”, written in a single frenzy of inspiration.

By covering a collection of pop standards n 1978 for Stardust, still his best-selling album, he transcended country and left Nelson behind, evolving into a general all-purpose icon with a single name: Willie.

It’s been 26 years of smooth operating over since.

Willie Nelson
© Charlyn Zlotnik
Cult Hero: 1977

His comfort level has allowed him to indulge in the weirder side of life. He’s an avid reader of America’s most documented psychic, Edward Cayce, and can quote from Cayce’s writings. There was a time when a psychic surgeon hung around with the Family, performing healing “operations.” He enjoys listening to paranormal radio host Art Bell as much as his pal Merle Haggard does.

The size of his extended Family is nowhere what it was back in the glory days. Back when, his entourage swelled into the hundreds. These days, the Family has been reduced to the core of his band (Mickey Raphael, Bea Spears, Paul English, Billy English, sister Bobbie); his crew, headed by Poodie Locke (who also runs what amounts to Willie’s own personal beer joint, Poodie’s Hilltop, for those times when he needs to reconnect with what brung him to the big dance); and a chosen few close personal friends.

He doesn’t seem to miss leading a bigger parade. Life is much more manageable at this juncture. He’s flexible and nimble enough to pick and choose his spots. He spends almost as much time on the Hawaiian island of Maui as he does in Luck or on the road, in one of the most beautiful spots on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. That’s where his current brood – wife Annie and his youngest kids – lives these days.

“It’s for my boys who are growing up,” he says of the Maui homestead. “They were born around here. And then we moved over there. They’ve gone to the Montessori school here and now they go to the Montessori school over there. They’re doing great. It’s like another small little town. I have a lot of friends there. Don Nelson, the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, is a good friend of mine and we play golf over there all the time. He’s real good and has a lot of money. So he doesn’t mind losing. I say he doesn’t mind. He can afford to lose. I’m sure he minds. We’re more or less back down toward Hana. Me and Kris [Kristofferson] used to ride a lot over by the Hana Ranch. He was living there at the time. Me and my family would stay there and we’d ride over. Saddle up every day and go out and ride. It had 3,000 acres to ride on there."

WHICH MAKES it all the more unusual that he appears to be willing to put the sweet life on hold and gear up to promote It Will Always Be. Maybe it’s because it’s the first album in awhile to hold its own against his 1970s classics. Or maybe it’s largely because of the sense of finality it conveys. There’s no fairy dust, no Rob Thomas or disco whistles, just a collection of songs – three of them his – done straight away. “Tired”, co-written by Toby Keith and Chuck Cannon, may infer weariness, but the title track (one of the Willie originals) reassures. Several cuts are straight-ahead classic country songs, particularly “I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leaving)” and “Big Boody”. He excels best as the ladies’ man, performing spot-on duets with daughter Paula Nelson (who wrote the song they sing, “Be That As It May”), Norah Jones (bringing out her sultriness and jazz strengths in a way her last recording did not), and Lucinda Williams (getting low, lean and wanting on her song “Over Time”). Lucinda and Norah may be the truest Willie disciples of all, applying outsider thinking to recording and performing.

The irony is that It Will Always Be is a classic Nashville production. The Family Band stayed home for this one, with the exception of harmonica player Mickey Raphael. Willie ran down the list of songs he wanted to do with producer James Stroud, who lined up a state-of-Music City roster of studio musicians (including guitarist Brent Mason, keyboardists Matt Rollings and Steve Nathan, bassists Glenn Worf and Michael Rhodes, drummers Shannon Forrest and Eddie Bayers, and steel guitarist Dan Dugmore) Willie walked in and laid down scratch vocals, then did the serious vocals back at his Pedernales studio.

“That has a lot to do with the songs themselves, and the arrangements, and the band that James Stroud put together,” Willie said. “Those guys are great. They played ‘Big Boody’ and they turned around and played with Norah Jones. Those guys are that good. The tracks were cut in Nashville and brought here. I went in and did my vocals over in the studio. Then they took the tapes back to Nashville and Norah came in and recorded, my daughter went in and sang, so did Lucinda. It sounded great.”

He admitted that going back to Nashville broke the typical Willie anti-formula formula. “It was all done kind of different than I normally do things. Usually, we just go over and set up and play. But James Stroud is a good producer. That’s where he shines. I had to put together the songs. He knew the musicians to call. I sent him a scratch vocal of some things, so he knew how it was supposed to go. He played it for the band. Those guys could get the feel of anything.

Willie Nelson
Pedernales Studio, 1996. Photograph by Jim Carrico.

“It’s kind of a ‘the-best-of’ situation because I get to sit here in Austin out in the woods and sing with the great musicians out of Nashville, and I don’t have to fly all the way up there. It almost sounds like cheating to do it that way. But with all the new high-tech things they have, they can do it OK. There’s always a group of guys in Nashville who are the hottest thing going. And if you’re a good producer and really on top of it, you know who they are.”

Since he’s Willie, he was even able to get Sugar Hill Records to agree to hold back the gospel album he recorded with his sister (tentatively titled Farther Along and originally scheduled for summer release, it’s been pushed to an as-yet undetermined date), and to rush Lost Highway’s September 14 release of the DVD of Willie Nelson & Friends: Outlaws And Angels (a superstar concert with Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Bob, Dylan, Kid Rock and others that he taped in Los Angeles last spring for a Memorial Day special on the USA Network).

“Those folks at Lost Highway, they’ve been good,” he said, “so I want to try to give them a good shot.” But Mr. Practicality is hardly wedded to the Nashville assembly-line concept. Given his druthers, he prefers the recording process be kept simple. The attitude reflects the truth that for all the other attributes heaped upon him, Willie is first and foremost a player. And players want to play, not waste time setting up. Emotion trumps technology any day.

“I’m lazy,” he laughed. “So naturally, I like to go right back into the studio there,” he said, nodding to the small spare room, no more than fifteen feet square. “That’s where we did Rainbow Connection and the Ray Price album [last year’s Grammy-nominated Run That By Me One More Time, his first duet album in 23 years with his 77-year-old mentor]. It’s just easy to do. We all gather around like a radio show in there and sing and play around a single microphone.

“I enjoy both ways of making a record. Doing it this way with a guy like James Stroud, Chips Moman, or Fred Foster or someone like that, you turn everything over to him. You get together and say, "These are the songs I want to do and here’s how I want to do them. Next thing you know, you’re doing them in the studio. I enjoy that. On the other hand, I enjoy taking the band or David Zettner and do it simple.”

The big studio down the road, Pedernales – which he lost in 1990 when he was hit with a heavy bill by the IRS, then bought back two years later with a little help from his friends – is busier than ever. “We got Pat Green in there now,” Freddy Fletcher said of the third-generation Texas country outlaw. And Geffen’s mixing down some rap group. Don’t ask me.”

But Willie can walk in whenever he gets a whim?

“It’s getting harder,” Fletcher smiled. “But we manage to move things around to get him in.”

“Having your own studio has its positives and negatives,” Willie said. “The good thing is, you can go do anything you want to, anytime you want to. The bad part is you can’t put them out, you know, because you can only put so many things out.”

Like, say, more than 2,000 finished tracks in the can. Some are with Shelby Lynne (“She can sing. God, she can sing”), some with fiddle maestro Johnny Gimble, several albums’ worth with Merle Haggard, and countless others with his cutting and putting partner David Zettner. “We’re still stumbling across things we have over there,” he says.

Which explained why he’s in no rush to do more. “I don’t want to record right now,” he said. “I don’t want to record until I can play.”

TWO DAYS after our talk, Willie played at Ray Charles’ funeral in Los Angeles, performing Charles’ signature piece, “Georgia On My Mind”, the official state song of Georgia. Willie could hardly get through the performance. His voice intermittently cracked with emotion; he sounded spent and very, very blue. But B.B. King broke up while performing during the service too.

Willie Nelson
It Was A Very Good Year: Willie Nelson and Ray Charles. Photograph courtesy Rhino Home Video.

The bond was cemented long before Willie ever met Brother Ray. “I was playing clubs in Houston back when ‘What’d I Say?’ and ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ were big,” he recalls. “I loved him, all those songs. Jimmy Day could play any Ray Charles song,” he adds, referring to his longtime pal and steel guitar legend who died in 1999. The impact Charles made with the release of Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music in 1962 was not unlike what Willie did to country with Shotgun Willie and Stardust a decade later legitimizing the music to the outside world as a cool sound that had soul.

A close friend said Charles was Willie’s hero. It showed when he talked about him. “We played chess a lot,” Willie said. “He kicked my ass more than once and enjoyed it, I guess, better than anybody. We was playing down here one time, we’d done a show together and he was staying over at a hotel. I went over to visit him and he invited me to play chess. I said, ‘Sure.’ And I kind of thought to myself, ‘OK, I’ll play chess.’ The hallway was nice and bright and everything. We walked into where the table was and sat down. And not a light on anywhere. Then Ray brought out his chess set. All the pieces were the same color. It was a Braille chess set, where he could feel the pieces and play. And he kicked my ass really bad. Of course, in the dark, it’s hard to play. I made him promise me the next time we’d turn on some lights.

“We talked a little bit about music whenever it came time to decide what we wanted to do together. I could be in one country and he could be in another. Whenever they asked him what he wanted to do, he’d say, ‘Whatever Willie wants to do. Have Willie call me.’ So I’d always call him. And whatever I wanted to do, he would do it. But it was mutual.”

At least he’d had time to say his goodbyes. “We did a song together in the studio in April, ‘It Was A Very Good Year’; we had some fun.” The song, about aging and looking back, is included on Genius Loves Company, an album of Charles duets released by Concord August 31.

“[Last year] I was at his birthday party. He and Quincy Jones and two, three of us sat around and talked and had a drink and ate cake. Right after that I went to the Apollo Theater in Harlem for the anniversary of the theater and Ray got a tribute that night. I sang ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’.

“You know, there are a lot of younger people than you and I already gone on,” he told me with a soft sigh. “So it has nothing to do with age. There’s those huge disasters that happen on the planet when 20,000 people get wiped out, and there’s no age preferences there. We’re all headed that way.”

I COULDN’T wait any longer. I blurted out a question: What ever happened to “Whatever Happened To Peace On Earth?”

Last December, on Christmas Day, Willie was moved to write an anti-war protest song. It became a much-talked-about news item for a couple of news cycles, an impressive feat considering the song hadn’t even been recorded when it became news; it was just a lyric sheet. But as quickly as it appeared, it vanished from the public eye. Had he been pressured to back off at the risk of being Dixie Chicked?

The question I had been hesitant to ask got him going.

Willie Nelson
Night Life: Ray Price and Willie Nelson, July 4, 2000. Photograph by John Carrico.

“Well, I decided I didn’t want to make money out of it,” he explains. “I did make it available on the internet,” he said. (Words, lyrics, an MP3 audio of a simple performance, and a video of the song can be found at: www.kucinich.us/nelson_ poe_song.php) “Or you can go to SMN.com and hear me sing ‘The War Prayer’ and ‘Jimmy’s Road’; all those songs are there.

“The Democratic Party called and asked if they could include the song on the CD they’re putting together of anti-war songs, anti-administration songs. The Democrats think that my song should fit in there. And I said, ‘Go ahead. Because I don’t want any money out of it.’ But I still believe everything that’s in there.

“I don’t care about airplay. I knew it wouldn’t get airplay because I know that there’s hundreds of channels out there who are on the other side. They might play it and ridicule it a little bit. That’s why I didn’t send them a copy. I knew there was a couple of lines in there that might piss off a few folks. But if it didn’t do that, I’d failed in what I was trying to do, which was to get the message across that what we’re doing and the direction we’re going is not right.

“In the song, I said a lot of things. You remember a long time ago when we heard all that, ‘Don’t believe anything you read, about half of what you see, and nothing you hear?’ That’s pretty much true. And if it was true back then, it’s damned sure double true today. You can’t believe what you hear. You can’t believe what you see. So there you are.

“You have to start using your intuitions to say, ‘What do I really feel about this? Do I like killing people? Do I like jumping on other people and taking over their oil and just killing whoever I want to kill to get it and justifying it by saying, ‘We’re freeing you folks?’ No, I can’t go along with that.

“When that song was getting all the flack, some guy called me in San Antonio when I was doing one of those call-in radio shows. On the show, I was talking about the line, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’ He called up and he said, ‘That really doesn’t mean that. That means under certain conditions, it’s OK.’

“I said, ‘Well, you know, I think way back when, God knew how to spell. So if He says, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ that’s what He meant. He could have said, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless You Have A Very Good Reason.’

“If the churches in the world are set up to bring about peace on earth, where are they at now? I mean, whose side are they on? How can they be for peace on earth and still say, ‘Let’s attack anybody who don’t like us, let’s force them into being Halliburton employees. It’s the best thing for them.’ You can’t drop 150,000 troops down in Oklahoma City and say, ‘OK, guys, here we are. We like that old oil over there.’

“When He said, ‘Peace on earth,’ was he just kidding? Isn’t that really what we’re supposed to be trying to do? I mean, are we going to put peace on earth on the back burner while we go over and take over a few countries? And then it will be peace on earth?”

He’s doing his part by voting with his pocketbook, and his lifestyle. “My wife and I are driving cars that operate on vegetable oil,” he offered. “The exhaust smells like french fries. On Maui there are several hundred cars now that run on vegetable oil. Neil Young’s buses are running on vegetable oil. When I go out again, we’re going to be running on vegetable oil. Because it’s available and it’s no more expensive and it’s not screwing up the environment. There are so many reasons to do it. Fifty years from now there won’t be any oil according to all the geniuses out there.

“There’s a solar well out here that’s running the whole town out here, running the well. I’m putting up a 100-foot windmill to do electric, to run the house and anything else it will run. I’m experimenting with all these things because I know we’re running out of oil and we’re running out of this, that and the other. The wind and the sun are good alternatives.”

THERE’S SOME irony, then, that Willie’s first chart action in too long a time was his duet last year with Toby Keith. “Beer For My Horses” was a change of pace for both Nelson and Keith, who has injected patriotism into his music in the same manner as otherwise undistinguished talents such as Lee Greenwood and Gary Morris. Keith’s 2003 album Shock’n Y’all went quadruple-platinum.

Willie Nelson
Philadelphia Lawyer: Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, July 4, 2003. Photograph by John Carrico.

“That’s part of what he does onstage, is he sings these kind of songs,” Willie said of Keith, whom he regards as a friend. “And that’s fine. But it’s not what I’ve ever done. I think I may have sung ‘Jimmy’s Road’ [the antiwar soldier’s song he wrote in the early ’90s for his album Who’ll Buy My Memories? The IRS Tapes] a time or two on the stage. But I don’t really want to get in there and divide the audience. I’d like to try to do everything I can to keep them together.

“Everybody likes ‘Stardust’. Everybody likes ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’. Everybody likes ‘Beer For My Horses’. You can take music and use music to please anybody anywhere, I do believe, regardless of whether you’re a Republican or Democrat?’

That understanding allows him to sympathize with the dilemma President George W. Bush faces. “People think they know that they can blame anything in the world on whoever has took on the job as the president. It’s a stupid move for anybody to make, to run for president. Because what do you do when you win? You got everybody in the world firing at you. Honestly, for eight years he was governor here and I never saw him. He was a great governor. He said a couple of nice things about me one time. So I had no problem. I don’t know how they talked him into running for the president.”

That doesn’t hold him back from championing a very different politician. For most of the past year, he’s been one of the highest-profile celebrity backers of Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, an underdog from the very beginning and an underdog to the end. “He’s a good guy, a good man. He’s standing up for the right things,” Willie said. “He’s not an insider. He does all right in Ohio. They know who he is there. But in order for him to break into that league up there, it’s gonna take a little more time. And maybe he doesn’t want to break into that league.

“The reason he stayed in there and went around talking to people is that he wants the Democratic Party to keep some of its values, some of the things that it’s known for. You got to hand it to him for that. I think Kerry should meet with Dennis and see how a portion of the party feels. I’m not a Democrat; I’m not a Republican. But I am interested.” Even as he backed Kucinich as long as the congressman was a declared candidate, Willie raised money for John Kerry, doing a charity concert in Los Angeles with Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond.

He’s also remained active with Farm Aid, the organization he co-founded with Neil Young and John Mellencamp in 1985 to champion the family farmer. For all the high-profile publicity brought by Farm Aid concerts, it’s been an uphill battle, he admits.

“We have fewer farmers now. We used to have 8 million. Now we’re less than 2 million. We’re losing 300 to 500 a week,” he noted. “And that’s the plan of the powers that be. That’s the way that it’s set up. Because they think fewer and bigger is better. I know that’s not the truth. I know that when you take a farmer off his land, you also take him out of his home. That’s just not the same deal. When you’re talking about land that we’re feeding our kids on, we need to know that it’s done by somebody who feeds their kids on that land, drinks from the same water. And that’s not the way it’s happening.”

He’s sincere enough about those beliefs to set an example. “We have an organic garden up here that Ed and the guys have been working on all year,” he explained. “We’ve got all kinds of vegetables, tomatoes and peppers over there come right out of that. These peaches here are from Fredricksburg down the road. The more people read the papers and watch the news and see what’s going on in the food industry, they begin to say, ‘I used to couldn’t spell organic but, you know, now I need some.”

In a stroke of good timing, Ed delivered a plate of boiled cabbage, fresh from the garden, to the bar.

While he ate his cabbage, Willie detailed how the same forces that have squeezed the family farmer off the land are squeezing folks like him off the radio. “You know, they’re not playing outlaw music that much anymore. And so they’re not getting outlaw commentary anymore. Most of the stations are owned by large corporations who program their music in Connecticut or somewhere. I remember the days when I could take a handful of records and go into San Antonio, Austin, and walk into the radio station and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be here in ten days, will you play my records?’ ‘Sure, man,’ the disc jockey would say. He’d put it on and play the record. Ten days later I’d get a nice crowd over at the Broken Spoke.

“You can’t do that anymore. One of the problems that I find with radio is that it’s controlled by too few people. There are a few stations around that, you know, are still trying to do it the old way. And that’s fine. And I think eventually it will win out. Because I don’t think you can control music that much.”

But he’s hardly crying in his beer about airplay.

“I’m very fortunate to have all this,” he said, surveying the room. “Honestly, it’s a day-to-day, a moment-to-moment thing. Things will be all right now, but then in a second there will be a lot of unfinished business. So it’s just a day-to-day. There’s too much going on. I’m thinking about doing some things out here.

Willie Nelson
Honeysuckle Rose

“Remember those Tales Out Of Luck shows? [Willie and friends, including Merle Haggard, filmed a series of cowboy shoot-’em-up short movies in Luck.] There’s some folks out of England who have a DVD company, they want to distribute some more of those. So we’re going to shoot some more. I thought I would do one around the song Cowboy Blues’ about the old cowboy who’s laying there at night wondering if he still can. I thought that would be a good one. You remember ‘A Horse Called Music’? Just get some songs like that and ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys’.

Although the peak of his film career came with the lead role in Honeysuckle Rose in 1980, followed by Red Headed Stranger in 1987 – movies in which he pretty much played himself, albeit coming off a tad more wooden than he does in real life – he’s matured into a very credible character actor through more recent cameos in films such as Wag The Dog, a full episode of the TV detective series Monk, and a string of commercials including a major ad campaign for the Gap. His memorable line “My face is burning!” while sitting in a barber’s chair in the 2003 Super Bowl commercial for H&R Block has been eclipsed by his most recent TV turn for Capital Metro in Austin, which touts alternatives to driving your car. The spot opens with James White of the Broken Spoke, Austin’s historic honky-tonk, standing onstage and announcing Willie before looking around and mumbling to no one in particular, “Y’all seen Willie?” The scene cuts to Willie sitting n the back of his bus stalled in traffic, saying to no one in particular, “Are we there yet?”

“I may not be any better at acting, but I’m more comfortable in it,” he said. “We’re working with New Line to do a movie. I just met with the writer. Years ago I bought a script called Tougher Than Leather from the boxer and actor Tex Cobb and a friend of his in Philadelphia. We were going to do this movie with me and Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Fairchild, and Tex. It evolved from Diamonds In The Rough to Blood Diamonds, then another rewrite and another rewrite. But right now New Line is rewriting it again to do sometime late this year or next year. They’re doing all the work and we just come down and set up.”

I was getting comfortable enough to get personal and ask him how it felt, being in a room surrounded by your own image staring back at you. Was it weird, as my friend insisted it was?

“Well, you know, I look around the room here and think of a lot of good times and a lot of good memories,” he said. “If nothing else, sitting around and looking at these pictures is a good enough reason to be here. It’s nice to come back in here and look around and see where you’ve been.

“You want to go upstairs and see what it looks like?” he asked. “I haven’t been up there in awhile.”

On my previous visits, I assumed the stairs were fake, leading to nowhere, like a movie set. But these were real stairs. Halfway up the staircase, he stopped to show me his hidey hole, a crawl space built into the wall. ‘It’s my escape hatch if I need it,” he smiled. He wasn’t kidding.

The upstairs was hot and empty, lacking air conditioning or much sign of life. The main room was bare, save for a painting of Willie that appeared to be of mid-1970s vintage and a wood-cut portrait of Waylon Jennings, the only Waylon memorabilia I spotted in the saloon.

Another room had gym equipment and boxing gear – two speed bags, a headache bag, and several big bags. This is where he works out when he can, practicing martial arts and living up to the black belt he earned from an Austin instructor named Master Oh three years ago.

I hit the speed bag with one hand for a few reps.

“It’s probably out of air,” Willie said.

He was right. It was almost deflated.

I turned around just in time to witness Willie kicking one of the heavy bags. It wasn’t just a swipe, like mine was. It was a hard, swift kick.

Whap!

Then he did it again. Whap! And again. Whap! Whap! And again. Whap, whap, whap, whap.

Every time the bag swung around after absorbing a blow, he kicked it again, hitting the sweet spot in the middle. Willie Nelson kicked the shit of out of the bag for two minutes straight, hard enough and relentlessly enough for me to quickly conclude I don’t ever want to get in a street fight with him, no matter how old he is.

Which is the point.

The kickboxing demo convinced me he was neither old nor feeble. And he sure ain’t dead. There is a whole lot more to him than I’d given him credit for.

Final visit, my ass. As I left Luck, Willie made that clear.

“See you back here again,” he said.

Joe Nick Patoski’s first article on Willie Nelson appeared in Zoo World magazine. He has written about him for Rolling Stone, Country Music, Picking Up The Tempo, Texas Monthly, The Austin Sun, and other publications.

Read my MVP Q&A with Mickey Raphael, which ran in the next to last issue of No Depression. Order Willie Nelson: An Epic Life from Amazon here.

Those seeking all things Willie should visit willienelson.com and stillisstillmoving.com.


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Walk Like Cleto

Chingo BlingWalk Like Cleto

Austin Chronicle
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 11, 2004

H-town’s Chingo Bling, hip-hop’s Tamale King.

The oversized football jersey, diamond-studded braces on his teeth, and hubcap-sized medallion around his neck with his name emblazoned in silver are straight outta south side Houston, the H-town underground, hip-hop epicenter of the Dirty South. So are the tracks full of chopped beats, hot DJ mixes, and improvised freestyles about supersized egos, insatiable sexual prowess, nasty ho’s, name-brand labels, and hustling on the street.

By contrast, the black cowboy hat, aviator mirror shades, leather duster jacket, rodeo belt buckle, and full quill ostrich botas are not. These icons belong to the northern Mexico vaquero and the Culiacán narcotraficante, not the gangstas on the bloque. In lieu of Hummers and pit bulls, his status symbols are pickup troques and fighting cocks (Cleto’s the name, fighting’s his game, and he drinks from a bowl with his name spelled out in diamonds). Mainstream MCs rap about slanging crack while doing the hustle, but this vato raps about slanging tamales, like his parents did, to get ahead. Cocaine, pork – it’s all the same.

Chingo Bling is multiculti Texas in full 21st-century glory. The Mexicanismo edge instantly makes him one of the most intriguing, original, and hilarious hip-hop acts ever to blow up out of the Lone Star State. In Chingo Bling’s mundo, shit is chit, shout-outs are chout-outs, DVDs are DBDs, and videos are bideos. Under the clowning and cussing, boasting and toasting, there’s a message that bears contemplation, even if beats aren’t your thing. Even when he’s shilling, urging fans visiting his Web site to call their favorite radio stations to request “Walk Like Cleto,” Chingo Bling’s voicing hard truths:

“Fact: Latinos are the largest minority in the United States.

“Fact: Radio stations target Latinos for their advertising dollars.

“Fact: What you request doesn’t always get played.

“Latinos are being: targeted, overlooked, exploited, undervalued.”

The weathered ranch-style tract house on a busy thoroughfare near Gulfgate in southeast Houston hardly looks like a media empire in the making. Burglar bars cover the windows. A pickup is parked on the front lawn. Vendors push their carts in the streets. A grill at a nearby bus terminal advertises hamburguesas estilo Monterrey – hamburgers made the authentic Nuevo Leon way, just like home.

Inside this unassuming residence it’s all business. Somebody’s laying down tracks with Pro Tools in the small studio. The webmaster (www.chingobling.com) monitors traffic on the fan forum, which is getting 30,000 hits a week. Three guys stuff mailers with CDs, T-shirts (T-churts), posters, and merchandise. Sister Dalila is working the phones, doing her part to make Chingo Bling the biggest Tex-Mex hip-hop star on the planet.

Not that there’s lots of competition. South Park Mexican, the biggest Tejano/Mexicano MC to date, is still cooling his heels in the can after being convicted of having sex with a minor. Kumbia Kings, the Corpus Christi act headed by A.B. Quintanilla III, the brother of the late Tejano superstar Selena, have boy band aspirations, not rap dreams. Cali Latino hip-hoppers Akwid don’t resonate with Texicans.

Plopping down in the captain’s chair in front of the studio mixing board, Chingo Bling removes his shades and reveals Pedro Herrera III, a twentysomething with a degree in business administration from Trinity University in San Antonio, which produced the Butthole Surfers.

“Pedro – that’s my business side,” he explains. “As Chingo, I say what the fuck I want. Pedro’s in charge of the career. Chingo pays the bills. Chingo’s out of hand sometimes.”

The schtick comes honestly. His father and mother emigrated from Valle Hermosa in northern Tamaulipas to Houston. At 13, he was declared a youth at risk and sent on scholarship to a prestigious prep school in New Jersey. At Trinity, he focused on marketing and pulled a shift at the college radio station, KRTU.

“I was just a regular jock, but I’d say, ‘My cousin Chingo’s in town,’ and all the phones would light up.”

He started making mix tapes, rhyming and burning CDs a couple years ago, selling them out of the trunk of his car at flea markets and mom-and-pop record shops.

“I had no expectations, no pressure. It was me in my apartment thinking, ‘I’m going to pay my phone bill with these 12 mix tapes I’m trying to sell.’ You never know.”

Since then, he’s returned to his hood, releasing two CDs and three Mañosas bideos, a Chicano version of Girls Gone Wild. On May 5, ‘Chingo’ de Mayo, he dropped his latest CD, The Tamale Kingpin. He’s also done bideos on making tamales with a tamale queen, and put out The Adventures of Chingo & Bash, a smoke-out road trip in the tradition of Cheech & Chong with his partner in rhyme Baby Bash. If nothing else, he’s representing in a novel way.

“In rap, everybody’s shouting out their name, shouting out their neighborhood, their part of town,” he explains, “but nobody’s representing the town their parents are from. That’s what I did. I’m proud of Valle Hermosa, Tamaulipas. You hear me saying, ‘North Tamaulipas, raise up!’ Kids tell me no one’s done that before. I’m telling our story.”

Since the collapse of Southwest Wholesale, the distributor that nurtured the indie scene in Houston, acts like Chingo Bling have had no choice but to work outside the box. He makes being independent a point of pride, bragging on the cover of an earlier CD that “Bootleggers Avoid Him, Labels Can’t Afford Him, Women All Adore Him.” He tours (Boise, Phoenix, Portland, and Albuquerque), gets ink in publications like Lowrider and Murder Dog, and settles for radio play where he can find it.

“I’m stuck [being played] on Sunday nights. It’s our curse, the Latino curse. Sunday is the day we barbecue, the day we picnic, the day we cruise, the day we get airplay. But don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the play.”

He’s done the math.

“We’re rabbits,” he laughs. “The DNA of America is changing daily. Places where there weren’t many Mexicans, where there weren’t many oranges to pick, are full of Mexicans now. I feel like we’re on the brink of what hip-hop was when it first started. What’s the word I’m looking for? Exponential growth!

“With so many of us here, so many multiplying, and still my cousins coming over, somebody’s got to make movies for us, somebody’s got to make DVDs, somebody’s got to entertain us. I doubt it’s going to be the old fat guy in New York who works for NBC. I think I’m going to beat him to the punch.”

He cites New Orleans cottage industry Master P and Austin’s cinematic big dog Robert Rodriguez as role models.

“I learned the independent route from Master P. His movie I’m Bout It started the whole direct-to-video B-film black-action urban-drama explosion that’s taking up all the shelf space at Blockbuster. They’re cutting checks to whoever will bring them the next cholo movie, Barrio Weekend, Lowrider Summer, or gangster flick with two brothers going across.

“Rodriguez is a player. The studios, which are like record labels, want to own him and get what they can out of him, so he can produce and become part of the machine. But he won’t play by the rules. ‘You guys in Hollywood are too traditional; you overspend. Your movies aren’t profitable. I’m going to set up shop out of my house in Austin and cut out so many middlemen.’ That’s slowly what we’re doing here.

“There’s so much more to being independent than just getting $8 a CD instead of 75 cents. When you’re with a major, they tell you, ‘This is your release date.’ They’re going to walk me down the hallway. ‘This is Susie, she’s going to be doing your artwork. This is Josh, Michael, and William – they’re your marketing team.’ They’re going to misspend money, and I’m going to have to pay for it.”

He prefers working the tamale angle.

“My dad sold tamales at his job for 30 years. He would take my mom’s tamales to work and sell them. I know people who’ve been able to quit their construction jobs and set up shop, selling tamales. That’s the spirit of hip-hop – the hustler. ‘I’m cooking this, wrapping that, selling this.’ That’s a hustler and a half.

“People don’t think selling tamales is an honest living. Why do they look up to drug dealers? Because they’re entrepreneurs and independent and they’re living lives? Hey, if that’s the case, I’ll sell tamales and I ain’t got no permit. I’m on the corner, too. I got my Igloo.”

[Walk Like Cleto in the Austin Chroncicle]


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Up Close and Texan

Los Angeles TimesUp Close and Texan

The Los Angeles Times
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 30, 2004

Visitors for the big ‘fooba’ game have their own ways. So listen up, all y’all.

Perhaps you’ve noticed the sudden appearance of 40,000 or so strange-looking tourists in Pasadena and nearby environs – the ones in burnt-orange golf outfits with big hats and big hair that block your views of the San Gabriels.

If you’ve leaned in close trying to decipher the language they’re speaking, you might have overheard phrases like “fooba” or “purtier’n Tyler.” And if you’ve followed them, you’ve noticed how they get excited about the prospect of horses clopping down Colorado Boulevard on New Year’s Day and go gaga about the Gap in Old Town Pasadena because it’s nothing like the Gap back home.

These visitors are called Texans, a breed apart from the usual out-of-towners from the Midwest who typically materialize around this time of year. But this particular group is hardly composed of your run-of-the-mill, boot-scooting, Wrangler-wearing, pickup-driving, yee-hawing Texans. Rather, they are devotees of the Longhorns of the University of Texas (a.k.a. “The University”) in a state where the only two sports that matter are football and spring football.

We Texans are by nature an exuberant, friendly and sometimes obnoxious lot. But this bunch is really over the top. Forgive them their arrogance (at least that which is not inherent), because they’ve never been to the Rose Bowl before and it’s been a long, long time since they’ve been to any big bowl game.

Like all Texans, they speak with a pronounced accent that is sometimes hard to understand, a point driven home a few weeks ago at a bookstore in Michigan where I was searching for a copy of Life magazine.

“Laugh magazine?” the clerk said, shooting a funny look. “Never heard of it.”

You might think you’re hearing “techsuhsfaht” repeatedly, but that’s really “Texas fight” with a severe drawl.

You will also notice their tendency to blurt out “Hook ’em!” and make odd little waving gestures whenever they encounter a fellow tourist.This arthritic expression of raised index and little fingers, with the middle and ring fingers held down with the thumb, is not a gang sign nor a heavy-metal rock-on signal. This is an affectionate shadow-puppet version of a Longhorn, the UT mascot, summoned to demonstrate faith that UT will gore the University of Michigan’s Wolverines on Saturday.

If they suddenly turn somber, as if they’re having a patriotic moment, it is advisable to give them plenty of space. The school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” is a celebration of paranoia. Of course, you’d be paranoid too if you went around singing, “Do not think you can escape them/ Rise up so early in the morn/ The Eyes of Texas are upon you/ Till Gabriel blows his horn.”

Although more than a few of these UT boosters are in the oil and gas “bidness,” which plays to the old Texas stereotype, many of the really serious fat cats reflect modern Texas’ diversity. Their numbers include a character who is really named Jim Bob, who owns the world’s biggest gold mine; the Dallas takeover artist who made George W. Bush a millionaire by paying him too much for his baseball team; a car dealer whose real name is Billy Joe but prefers to be called Red, who also happens to own an NFL team on the side; and the Houston lawyer who beat Pennzoil out of more than $1 billion in a lawsuit and has since spent so much of that loot on his alma mater that university officials have erected not one, but two statues in his likeness on campus. If you run into any of the above, there may be some benefit in placating them, like a really big tip.

To avoid offending the visitors, it’s best to avoid addressing them as “you guys.” Always refer to them as “y’all” except when referring to a group of them, when the proper reference is “all y’all.” When in doubt, just give a knowing wink and smile and say, “yewbet.”

Under no circumstances try to pander by suggesting the visitors sample the local Mexican food or barbecue – the California versions just don’t cut it with this crowd and never will, no matter how much sour cream and avocado you pile on. As far as Texas fans are concerned, California is all bean sprouts and tofu anyway. Better to offer a really big steak. A side of beef is hard to mess up.

And don’t talk politics or energy price gouging. If you must bring up a famous W. from Texas, better to discuss Willie (as in Nelson) than the president. The latter is embraced as a native son (even though he is in fact an Eastern blueblood born in Connecticut) mainly because he says “noo-cul-lar.”

Which is another great thing about Texans. Anyone can be one. Declaring yourself a Texan is all the roots you’ll ever need. It’s like the popular bumper sticker says: “I Wasn’t Born in Texas but I Got Here as Fast as I Could.”

And if Texcess seems a tad overbearing, remember, it could be Texas A&M playing in the Rose Bowl instead. The University of Texas is in Austin, a blue island in a red-state sea that is frequently described by the rest of Texas as the People’s Republic of Austin.

Aggies, by comparison, are the Lone Star bund, partial to military uniforms, knee-high leather boots and severe buzz cuts. Their “traditions” include spending the whole football game standing up with their hands on their knees, as if straining at stool. Fortunately, for UT fans and Californians alike, the Longhorns regularly whip the Aggies in football.

So all y’all make the best of this weekend. It could be worse. Honest.

[The Los Angeles Times]


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Stay All Night

Stay All Night – Buddy Holly’s Country Roots

Stay All NightWest Texas Roots
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2004

Buddy Holly took the world by storm when he broke out of Lubbock, Texas in 1957. His singing and playing was the freshest version of rock and roll to come down the line. It was as if his music had come out of a vacuum from somewhere in the middle of the proverbial nowhere. But locals knew better. Before there was Buddy Holly, the all-American rock and roll hero, there was Buddy Holly, the good ol’ boy from the Hub City of the south plains know for his style of Western Bop. That was a nice way of saying that the hormone-addled nitro-fueled teenager played western, honky tonk, and western swing music with way too much energy and enthusiasm to pigeonhole him as plain old country. Countless hours of picking and singing went into polishing, honing, and embellishing his sound that would later become an international sensation.

Stay All Night – Buddy Holly’s Country Roots is the first historical accounting of how Holly got where he did, performed by those who knew Holly best: Buddy’s bandmates; Tommy Allsup, Carl Bunch, and Larry Welborn, and Buddy’s earliest professional collaborator Jack Neal. They are joined by the Texas Playboys, that swinging big band led by Bob Wills from down the road in Turkey, Texas. Adding to the account are Buddy’s brothers and mentors, Larry and Travis Holley, and his contemporaries Al Perkins and Billy Grammer. Featured also are a new generation of stars from Lubbock – the Flatlanders; Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock; and some Holly disciples from far beyond Lubbock including Robert Reynolds from the Mavericks, and blues masters Judy Luis-Watson and Paul Watson. Together these players weave the cultural heritage of West Texas through the thread of this music. Each and every song is an old familiar tune for those who grew up in Buddy Holly’s place and time. Some are jukebox standards, others dancehall favorites. A few drifted in on static airwaves from faraway radio stations in Shreveport and Nashville. Two are previously unreleased tracks by Buddy Holly and Jack Neal as performed for their radio show on Lubbock station KDAV. Each and every track tells a piece of the story about how the torch was passed to the kid with horn-rimmed glasses, and how that torch has been passed on to others.

Stay All Night is more than the name of a song. It’s more than an album title for a collection of soulful, heartfelt songs that could have been made nowhere but Texas.

Stay All Night is a celebration of a talent like no one before or since, the talent that nourished Buddy, and the talent he’s inspired since, from Lubbock, Texas to the entire planet.

[More About West Texas Roots]


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The Ride – Los Lobos

The Ride – Los Lobos

Los Lobos - The RideHarp Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September/October 2004

When it comes to defining American music over the past quarter century, no band comes close to Los Lobos. It would be understandable, given their long track record, if they slacked off now and then, as The Ride’s lengthy lineup of guest artists including Cafe Tacuba, Bobby Womack, Ruben Blades, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Mavis Staples and Garth Hudson seems to suggest. (What? Rob Thomas wasn’t available?). But fears of sliding into complacency are alleviated from the first throaty honk of Steve Berlin’s bari sax on "La Venganza de Los Pelados," the opening track on which Los Lobos flash their Mexicanismo credentials all the way through the last note of "Chains of Love." Sure the guests gussy up the proceedings, particularly Elvis’ turn on "Matter of Time" and Mavis Staples’ soaring vocals on "Someday." But it’s tracks like "Rita"√Ďall atmosphere, introspection, with no outside help whatsoever-that make this more than just another album from just another band from East L.A.. With Los Lobos in charge, music doesn’t get any better than this in these United States.

[Los Lobos] [Hollywood Records] [Harp Magazine]


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The Resentments

Sunday Evening Coming Down

The Resentments
The Resentments (left to right) Bruce Hughes, Stepen Bruton, Jon Dee Graham, Jud Newcomb. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

No Depression
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
March-April 2004

How the Resentments rose from under-the-radar lark to become a real band with a higher place and purpose.

LIKE NEARLY ALL significant events that contributed to making and defining Austin’s music community, the Resentments were unintended.

The original idea was just a cool deal on Sunday nights a casual little musical get together on the one night nobody was working. The rules were simple: no rehearsals, ever. As long as two players showed up, it was an official gig.

The idea was born five years ago, when Joe Ables, the owner of the semi-legendary South Austin music joint known as the Saxon Pub, was strategizing how to bring in a few warm bodies on the deadest night of the week. Somewhere along the way, Ables consulted Stephen Bruton, the guitarist, singer, composer, producer and Fort Worth cat with the Kristofferson/Raitt/Dylan pedigree, who off lived a couple miles farther south just South Lamar and had adopted the club as a home base.

Bruton had developed something of an affection for the room. It had all the basic necessities – a horseshoe bar, sixteen tables, three booths, a low, postage-stamp-sized stage in the corner where the big-screen TV usually is – and was far enough off the beaten path, yet close enough to home.

“Saxon Pub is the most unhip place to play,” Bruton says. “But the first time I went in, I fell in love with the place when this guy materialized through the haze of cigarette smoke and with this raspy voice, quoted from ‘Too Many Memories’ [a song from Bruton’s 1993 album What It Is], telling me I nailed the third verse.”

An early-evening Sunday show would give him a forum to test new songs, let others try theirs out, and play lots of acoustic guitar, something he hadn’t done with much regularity since his early days with Kris Kristofferson. Since Bruton had inherited the Doug Sahm chair as Local Wise Man Who’s Been There and Done That and didn’t mind sharing his experiences with his youngers, he quickly rounded up a quorum of like- minded old-school writers and players.

The Resentments
Sunday Night Line-Up: The Resentments onstage at the Saxon Pub, December 2003 Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

The initial crew included well-known country singer Hal Ketehum, who also happened to be a frustrated drummer, on drums; Keith Carper, a veteran Austin bassist; David Holt, a gifted and notorious hotshot hired-gun guitarist; and Jon Dee Graham, an equally gifted and notorious guitarist who was becoming better known as a singer-songwriter with a gravel-road growl and a growing list of impressive solo albums.

Bruton picked the name the Resentments. “Geoff Muldaur’s daughter in New York had a band called the Resentments. I thought it was such a great name, what better way to honor it than to steal it?” he reasoned.

Over the course of the next year, everyone except Bruton and Graham dropped out because of work demands, other gigs, or relocating. Their shoes were more than ably filled.

Mambo John Treanor came first. His musical roots in Austin were planted deepest, going hack to his gig as freeform percussionist for Beto y los Fairlanes, whose weekly gigs at Liberty Lunch in the late 1970s set the stage for the making of a scene. Treanor was an Austin original, a devotee of the city’s famous Barton Springs swimming hole who fashioned hats out of roadkill, served time for growing pot, and played with just about everyone in town at one time or another (notably the Vanguards, Jazzmanian Devil, Marcia Ball, Abra Moore, Guy Forsyth and 47 Times Its Own Weight).

Next came Scrappy Jud Newcomb, the guitarist, singer-songwriter and producer (Beaver Nelson) who wears his undisputed championship belt as the Most Insatiable Gig Dawg in Austin with pride. Bruton entered Scrappy’s radar as producer of two albums by Loose Diamonds, the band that was Newcomb’s calling-card into the Austin scene.

They hit it off. Scrappy is Bruton twenty years younger, with a spare, muscular picking style and a curiosity for and appreciation of obscure traditional folk and blues as much as mainstream rock ‘n’ roll, plus movie-star good looks.

Last to sign on was Bruce Hughes, the utility bass player who rode into prominence with the stridently eclectic Poi Dog Pondering (who around 1990 were Austin’s best selling recording band), played and recorded with practically everybody, and knew Bruton from Lonelyland, one of two bands Hughes plays in that is fronted by Bob Schneider (who over the past five years has sold more CDs locally than any single Austin artist, including Willie).

Somewhere over the following couple years, between getting comfortable with one another, playing weekly rounds of songwriter show-and-tell, trying on a number of offbeat, oddball covers pulled out of the attic, and trading licks, the three guitarists, one bassist, and multidimensional percussionist gelled into a real band. Treanor’s death from cancer in 2001 sealed the deal, giving the Resentments motivation to continue and take it to the next level. Somewhere along the way, the casual gig has become something else.

YOU COULD DESCRIBE the Resentments as an Austin-scale version of the Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Steve Stills Supersession group hatched in the late ’60s, four decades later – a reason for three guitarists from varying backgrounds to get together, play, and show what they know.

But I sure won’t. To compare them to that diminishes the breadth and scope these guys cover. The bassist brings songs to the table too, and they’re pushed by an exceptional drummer, John Chipman, who used to set up Mambo’s kit and managed to replace the drummer who couldn’t be replaced, the guy who gave this weekly gathering meaning and purpose.

They sure didn’t hype it. Everyone has enough work to sustain their chosen career paths as musicians, thank you, and digs what they do for a living. Still, comparisons to everyone from Crosby, Stills & Nash to the Traveling Wilburys, the Texas Tornados, the official and unofficial versions of the Outlaws, and The Band can be justified. There’s more to this weekly little off-night get-together than meets the eye.

It starts with the genuine, authentic feel of the songs – collectively, this quintet carries more songwriters than any other collaborative venture in town. In this setup, their roles as sidemen are as crucial as their composing skills. Throwing a song into the ring every three or four turns that can stand up to the ones your compatriots are throwing in, and then reverting to backup role, is as hard as, if not harder than, fronting your own band for the night.

Once they get comfy on their stools, they demonstrate an exceptional grasp of the songwriting craft, a deep well of musical knowledge, and a mastery of the tricky ability to ply the tools of their trade in a listening environment and still manage to scorch the paint off any empty stools every now and then. It all wraps up neatly by 10 p.m., usually capped with a nice little fire-power drill by the three-guitar volunteer army, Graham embellishing the demonstration with searing shots of lap steel ricocheting around the room.

“People come up to me all the time and say this reminds them of Austin before there was a scene,” Bruton told me.

I know I can trace the off-night tradition as far back as 1971, when Freda & the Firedogs, the group fronted by Marcia Ball that is regarded as the first bunch of longhairs in Austin who could play authentic country, held forth at the Split Rail, a no-cover joint on South Lamar that would draw spillover crowds on Sunday nights.

It’s endured over the years in others forms and fashions: Blue Mondays with Storm at the One Knite, the Tuesday Night Cobra Club at Soap Creek, Tuesdays at Liberty Lunch with Beto y los Fairlanes, Blue Mondays with the Fabulous Thunderbirds at the Rome Inn, Tex Thomas’ Sunday night services at Hut’s, the Scabs at Antone’s on Tuesdays, Toni Price’s Tuesday early-evening Hippie Hours at the Continental. None, however, started quite so accidentally or blew up into something so substantial that it created a band, a real band.

The Resentments
There he is: Stephen Bruton. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

I was already familiar with a lot of the Resentments’ individual histories. I’ve known Bruton since high school in Fort Worth. I actually worked with Graham when I was band manager of the True Believers, the mid-1980s rock band in which Graham, a border rat from Quemado down by the Rio Grande, played a crucial role. The True Believers’ road manager and sound technician, Mike Stewart, went on to manage and produce Poi Dog Pondering, the studiously eclectic ensemble where master of quirk Bruce Hughes fit right in; his local credentials went back to bands such as Iomega and the Shades from Raul’s Club punk era. The True Believers convinced a band from Ohio called the Highwaymen to move to Austin, where Troy Campbell met an eager local boy named Jud Newcomb and conspired to form Loose Diamonds. Newcomb, known locally simply as Scrappy Jud, also worked with Mambo John Treanor in Toni Price’s band. And you couldn’t claim to be a regular on the club circuit without Mambo having entered your life sooner or later.

But I didn’t understand how or why this informal group had blown up into either a) the best band in Austin, b) the coolest regular party in town, c) the best bar band in America (according to MSNBC.com’s John Schulian), or d) the Texas version of the Buena Vista Social Club.

So I paid them all a visit.

I tracked down Bruton, who at 55 is the elder of the band, to the studio/rehearsal hall/music museum behind his house, where he tried to explain it in terms we both understood. “You’re from Fort Worth,” he told me. “You know what it was like. You could do anything, like go from a fiddle convention with David Ferguson at the Round Up Inn to dirty blues at Mabel’s Eat Shop to going to see King Curtis and Cornell Dupree over in Stop Six and not blink an eye. It was completely natural to me to listen to the Kingston Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Howlin’ Wolf back to back. We didn’t know any better. No one knew any better. It was making music on music’s terms, see what flies.”

Bruton left Fort Worth as the banjo flash of the Brazos Valley Ramblers bluegrass band (at one time, he auditioned for and was offered the banjo chair in the Dillards), and as a white-hot blues player who knew his way around the juke joints. He had (co-produced, with fellow Fort Worthian T Bone Burnett, the splendidly atmospheric Robert Ealey & the Five Careless lovers album Live At The New Bluebird Nite Club (Blue Royal) in 1973, still my favorite live performance recording of all time. And he knew more about music than just about anyone because his dad (a former jazz drummer) and mom ran Record Town, a retail shop known around Fort Worth for having the deepest catalogue of jazz, blues and race music in the city.

“You’d be able to quote from things you didn’t realize you knew, to cite the guitar solo on the second cut of the Seeds’ first album, or that hard sax sound on Ray Charles’ albums,” Bruton says. “You heard 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? That came out of Record Town.”

That sounds about right.

He’d started working Austin clubs in the early ’70s, with his band Little Whisper & the Rumors and with Delbert McClinton, while living in Los Angeles and working as Kristofferson’s guitarist. He moved permanently in 1983 after finishing his supporting role in the film A Star Is Born.

The Resentments
Marching Guitars: Jon Dee Graham (l), and Jud Newcomb, with John Chipman in the shadows. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

“I realized I was making my money on the road,” Bruton recalls. “I wanted to be closer to my mother, my father and my brother in Fort Worth. It was easier getting around, because it was fuckin’ Texas. I loved L.A. and I still do, but I didn’t want to be sitting around thinking about when I was going to be making enough money to get back to Texas.”

He didn’t go back to his hometown, though. “There was more going on in Austin than in Fort Worth. Musicians seemed to have more drive and ambition. It all kinda added up.”

Since settling in, Bruton has built an impressive resume producing albums for Alejandro Escovedo (which earned him full credentials as a Local Hero), Chris Smither and Marcia Ball, while recording several albums of his own.

The Resentments gig was “a natural extension of what I’ve done for so long in sessions, gigs, playing for people big and small.”

I FOUND JON DEE Graham one chilly mid-morning five blocks from his house, sitting at a table under an awning at Jo’s Coffeehouse on South Congress Avenue chain-smoking American Spirits, taking contemplative sips from his latte, his pale blue eyes fixed on the traffic going by. He said he didn’t have a clue why the Resentments were happening. He was somewhat preoccupied since he was on his way to a house on Rebel Road where Charlie Sexton was waiting to finish the mix on his fourth solo album, due out later this year on New West.

But Graham, 44, a hardhead for as long as I’ve known him, let down his armor-plated badass exterior long enough to try and put the Resentments in perspective in a curriculum vitae that includes stretches with Austin’s proto-punk power trio the Skunks, several bad new wave bands, the True Believers, Lou Ann Barton, Kelly Willis, John Doe, Michelle Shocked, Simon Bonney, Ryan Hedgecock, and Calvin Russell, as well as producing Kacy Crowley and Steve Wedemeyer.

“As a musician, I’ve learned never to pass up an opportunity to play onstage, especially a situation where Bruton and I can jab insults back and forth,” he says. “And there’s some nights onstage with him that I realize at least once he is the best guitar player in America – it’s hard for me to say it, but it’s true. So how am I not going to play with these guys?”

It’s still a goof and afterthought, he adds, and for exactly those reasons, it works. “Because of the casual nature, it becomes all about the music and the songs. Mambo and Scrappy, the thing they’ve turned me on to, is that music is sacred. These songs are so good, how am I able to not do it?

“There’s no five-year plan. There’s no record contract at the end of the rainbow …. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t know which, it’s generating interest,” Graham continues, citing last year’s tour of Europe as a particular point of growth for the band’s profile. “The Germans are swapping bootlegs. By the end of the tour we were selling out places."

“We’ve built and rebuilt the most patient, willing audience possible. They’re prone to listen to the songs, even though sometimes we spend more time talking than playing. Everybody is so good, we play for each other. In some ways, it’s a serious head-cutting going on. Bruton makes me play outside myself. If Scrappy has a day off, he spends it learning an album like Big Pink. He’s this walking catalogue of songs. Bruce will uncork a funk song that I’ll play on lap steel. Bruton writes songs that have chords with numbers on them.”

EARLY ONE Saturday evening, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, the hardest-working Resentment of them all, and who Graham describes as the “sponge” of the band, was holed up in his South Austin apartment, the seven-days-a-week all-night worker without a gig. He wasn’t complaining. The rare night off allowed him to indulge in his second-most favorite activity, listening to records, which in this case meant analyzing an obscure ballad by Billy Stewart, whose stuttering interpretation of “Summertime” was a top-4O pop hit back in the ’60s.

Tall and strapping, rather than scrawny and scrappy, the 35-year-old tried to point out with some pride that he actually took enough time early in the day to put a coat of paint on one wall of his small kitchen. But the sloppy paint job might not be the best way to demonstrate to others that he has an outside life. In fact, he shouldn’t bother. The evidence around him, from the crates brimming with vinyl, CDs, tapes and books that are piled up around his living room, to the glass bottleneck on the coffee table, to the mandolin he cradled and plinked while conversing, suggest he’s all about music.

He didn’t like talking about his past too much, though he allowed his mother and father’s roots were in Mississippi, that he was mentored by Casper Rawls, Rich Brotherton and Champ Hood, and that he’s played with the Atlantics soul revue, Loose Diamonds, Walter Tragert, Beaver Nelson, Toni Price, and Ian McLagan.

“I’m kind of superstitious that way,” he says. At one point, he couldn’t listen to a National Public Radio program on the radio before a show, reasoning the even, measured voices were the antithesis of what he was trying to achieve when he played. Too much mellow would harsh his buzz.

He said he’s always been drawn to what he describes as trance music – Muddy Waters recordings from the 1950s, the Stones’ classic work in the ’70s around the time of Sticky Fingers, music from Jamaica since it was first made – music that could create “this tense atmosphere that could change the way the room looked.”

The Resentments do that to him, Newcomb says. “A lot of my education is playing every Sunday, having something click and realized by a melodic passage or a chord change. It’s everything I imagined a band could be after I saw The Last Waltz, never mind that I later learned from Levon Helm’s book that the movie wasn’t the way it was. For me, it’s like the Knights of the Round Table with the Resentments.”

BRUCE HUGHES opened the door to his brightly painted wood-frame home on a tree-shaded block of East Second Street,

John Treanor - Mambo
Not Forgotton You: Mambo John Treanor. Photograph by Carlos San Miguel.

a stone’s throw from 1-35 and Austin’s central business district, long enough to hold it open before he headed back into the kitchen, stepping around and over recording equipment scattered about. He was grinding beans for a midday cup of a rare Kona blend coffee from Hawaii. He really didn’t need it because he was already chattering away at the speed of light. He just likes the taste.

As the bassist for Bob Schneider projects Lonelyland and the Scabs (and before that the Ugly Americans), Hughes tends to be absent more frequently than any other Resentment, but never so long to be considered a candidate for replacing. “It’s better to be too busy than not busy enough,” he reasoned.

Slight, curly haired and constantly animated, he was the last piece to the Resentments puzzle, “the fourth corner of the square” as Graham put it. An Austin native music animal if there ever was one, he grew up on the northeast side of the city, started performing at 13, and has never looked back. “I thought every town was like this,” he says. “When I first heard ‘Smoke On The Water’ coming out of a garage, I assumed Deep Purple lived on Corona Street.”

His resume includes “everybody for five minutes” from the punk/new-wave scene, a stretch with the punk-funk band Skank, and time with Arthur Brown and Jimmy Carl Black, Dr. John (for two weeks), Cracker (for nine and a half months), and True Believers, in addition to his aforementioned tenure in Poi Dog Pondering.

“Every bandleader has always given me grief – ‘Why aren’t you committed?’ I am committed,” he says. When Hughes, 42, finally got the “black feather we sent him in the mail,” as Graham describes it, he thought he was ready. “I had Sundays off, but it was daunting. There was

a lot of intensity. The players were high-caliber. But I’m a quick study. Everything about the Resentments was on the fly: no rehearsals, no charts. After a month, I knew all the material. Then I was hooked. It took me a year before I started to bring in songs of my own.”

The payoff is “getting to play with the best players in town who play for the sake of the song. I don’t want to shred. Being able to get that feeling of being in the right place at the right time in the right universe – that’s what I’m in it for. The feeling comes quick and goes quick.”

JOHN CHIPMAN has what would appear to be the toughest role in the band, sitting in Mambo John Treanor’s drum chair.

The Resentments
Outside Your Door: Newcomb, Hughes, Chipman, Bruton and Graham. Photograph by Carlos San Miguel.

“When you heard him playing, he had this unmistakable voice in his playing, “Chipman remembers. “You could literally cut his body in half. One half would be swinging and the other half would be playing straight time. The entire band had to follow his groove.

“It’s an honor being Mambo’s sub,” Chipman said on the phone from Houston, where he was visiting future in-laws and shopping for an engagement ring at a gem and mineral show. The 35-year-old San Angelo native with a music degree from the University of Oklahoma (specialty: marimba) moved to Austin in 1993 and started playing a number of $25-a-night pickup gigs while working days for Tommy Robertson of Tommy’s Drum Shop. “He taught me enough at his factory that I built my own drum kit,” Chipman says.

He eventually racked up road miles with George DeVore and Marcia Ball before taking stock of what he wanted to do. “After Marcia, I didn’t pick up sticks for four months,” he recalls. “One Saturday night, my phone rang. It was Stephen. I’d gone to Resentments shows over the previous weeks. Mambo used to bring his washboard to George’s gigs, and a couple times toward the end, I came to help set up his drums for him. He was too weak. A month after he died, Stephen asked if I’d come out. He’d tried two or three different guys and it wasn’t working out.

“I asked Stephen when he wanted to get together. He said, ‘Tomorrow night, Saxon Pub. You know the drill, no rehearsal, lots of ridicule. Show up at 7.’ I had nothing to hear. NO CDs to listen to. I was probably tentative. But you play what you play. Stephen said, ‘Don’t worry, if we don’t like what you’re doing, we’ll tell you.’ That was two years ago last December.”

For Chipman, the Resentments are therapy. “Once a week I get to have a three-hour session with these incredible songwriters who are also incredible players. I’m never shocked by what I hear coming off the stage from any one of these guys. We may play the same song a hundred times, but every time, it comes out different.”

He knows he’ll never fill Treanor’s shoes. “It was real tough at first [replacing Mambo]; I was one of his admirers. There will never be another John Treanor. If you sat down and took a tape of him to a professor of percussion pedagogy, they’d say, ‘What’s going on there?’ I had to listen to him for ages and ages to realize that this guy, when he plays time, he’d make certain limbs swing, then do a straight eighth-note pulse with other limbs, perfect timing, but with a pulse that would ebb and flow in synch with the soloist.

“I’ve never heard anyone do that in that fashion. Most of the time, that would sound choppy. With Mambo it’d just sound smooth. It’s insane. I spent hours trying to replicate what he did naturally and finally gave up. The first month or so, I was constantly second-guessing myself: Is this what Mambo would’ve done? I finally realized, they haven’t told me l stunk yet, and I keep coming back.”

TREANOR’S DEATH on August 20, 2001, was the wake-up call. Toward the end, he was tying his arm above the cymbal stand in order to be able to hold it over the drums and play because he was too weak to raise his arm. “I asked him, ‘Mambo, why are you doing that?” Graham recalls. “He said, ‘Because if I don’t do this, I can’t play.’ That is the lesson of the whole fuckin’ thing, right there.”

“He was profound,” Bruton agrees. “And not only his drumming. He personified the Resentments attitude.”

Graham and Newcomb visited him in the hospital the day before he died. “It was a Sunday,” Graham said. “His mom, Lucille, called and said it was pretty bad. Scrappy and I came down later that day. It was obvious Mambo wasn’t going to make it. He was passed out when Scrappy said to me, ‘Maybe we ought to call the Saxon and say it ain’t gonna happen tonight.’ Mambo came to life and said, ‘Nuh-uh. Go play the gig. I’m not scared.’ He made it clear that to not play would be a disservice to him. It’s still his chair. Chances are slim he’s coming back to claim it, but if he does, it’s his gig.”

The Resentments
Saxon Angle: Graham (lap steel), Newcomb (mandolin), Bruton (guitar), Hughes (bass), Chipman (drums). Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

Things have been snowballing ever since.

Last year it began with their discovery by Germans on the last day of South By Southwest. “Someone got word of the Resentments on Sunday night,” Bruton says. “Not only is it not part of South By Southwest, it’s completely under the radar. How obscure can that be? These guys play one gig at one bar on one night of the week. So of course they loved it.”

An invitation to tour in the summer followed. Hughes got the wheels spinning, thinking it’d be great to have a new CD to sell overseas (they’d released a live recording, Sunday Night Line-Up, in 2002). He organized the session and the artwork. They booked engineer-producer Stuart Sullivan’s Wire Studios, and two days later, they had a self-titled album to sell on the tour. It was picked up by Austin indie Freedom Records for regional distribution last fall, followed by Freedom’s nationwide release on February 17.

“We’d be laughing, cutting up like little kids half the time,” Newcomb says. “We didn’t even know what songs we were doing. Every song was one or two takes, max. Nobody in the band had ever been in a recording situation like that.”

The tour took their collaborative efforts to a higher level. Maybe the covers had something to do with it, encompassing Dewey Redman’s racy “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You?” and the country spiritual “Long Journey” by Doc Watson’s wife, songs that normally would be judged as strange bedfellows. With the Resentments, they were pieces of Americana that went together hand in glove.

Since the band returned stateside, the new disc has developed legs. Hughes’ joyously loopy, self-referential stream-of-consciousness tune “People Ask Me” has been added to the playlist of influential Austin triple-A radio station KGSR – not bad for a song he wrote in fifteen minutes before he started laughing. “Fifteen minutes later, I had seven verses,” Hughes says. “There is no rhyme scheme.” But there sure is a great big sound backing up his words.

Another European tour is set for this summer. Another CD is being talked about. “The beauty of this band is you don’t have to write twenty songs every other year to make an album,” Bruton said. “With these guys, you can bring in three songs and have a new release on our own little humble situation and go to Europe and sell it.”

It has certainly energized Newcomb. “It’s becoming more of a prospect,” he marveled. “I think everyone woke up to what’s right under our noses. This could develop into a really great band, like The Band. If we had to go out all of a sudden for six months, I’d think it’d be the greatest thing that ever happened.”

The Resentments
For The Good Times: Hughes and Bruton share a smile. Photograph by Todd V. Wolfson.

ON A SUNDAY in January when most folks are at home watching pro football playoffs on television, the loyalists drift in until the Saxon is packed by the time 7:30 rolls around.

Bruton hasn’t returned from Delbert McClinton’s Blues Cruise. No Bonnie Raitt, Ray Wylie Hubbard,James McMurtry, Freddy Powers, or Al Anderson are standing by, eager to sit in (all have done so at various past Resentments gigs, most recently Raitt in early January).

While Bruton’s absence is noted with acerbic musings about whether he’s gambling in the Bahamas, laying low in Key West, or was simply driven crazy by playing the same four chords every night, “with a harmonica thrown in every now and then,” as Graham jabbed, it’s no less of a band.

“It leave more room for those who do show to show our stuff,” Hughes says about nights when colleagues are missing. “They’re all mike hogs, you know.” It’s a nice way of saying there is so much competitiveness that a prospective off-night can be just as sharp and edgy. With Graham hauling out a boatload of lap steel pyrotechnics to keep the proceedings interesting, it is.

Somewhere in the middle of Graham’s song “Big Sweet Life”, they manage to get to that special place Hughes talked about the reason they play. The instruments lock into a groove that choogles, then soars, launched by Chipman’s brushes. Five women and one guy respond by jumping up and dancing in the tight empty spaces between the tables in front of the stage, facing the band, urging them on, letting them know it feels all right. The room seems to levitate.

And though their fifth member is somewhere between Florida and Texas, his words ring true surveying the scene: “This is what happens when you let musicians do what they want to do when nobody’s looking.”

[visit No Depression]


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It’s a Texas Thang

It’s a Texas Thang – Or Is It?

The Texas Observer
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 3, 2004

It was on a trip to my mother’s native country of Greece that I realized there really is such a thing as Texas culture. My cousin had just introduced me to a teenage boy on a bicycle. He asked where I was from. As was my habit, I told him I was a Texan.

His face lit up with recognition.

“Texas? Ah, yes!” he said in broken, thickly accented English. “Cowboys! Kennedy! Bang bang!”

He hadn’t gotten it exactly right (or so I thought at the time; these days I’m not so sure), but at least he had an image in his mind.

Telling him I was from Iowa wouldn’t have sparked a visual in his head. New York, maybe, but only if I was talking about the city, not the state. California might have triggered some form of recognition. But any Californian would know which California to specify—northern or southern—from the git-go. The two regions are very different from one another, as any northern or southern Californian will tell you.

Texans, on the other hand, think of themselves as pretty much one and the same, no matter if they’re born-again rednecks or flaming secular humanist libs, city folks or country folks, if they live in downtown Houston or suburban Plano, or come from Dalhart on the treeless Great Plains or from the Rio Grande Valley, 700 miles south on the edge of the tropics. For all those people from all those disparate places to think of themselves as a whole, some kind of culture has to exist.

Texas culture has been the conceit that’s driven much of my writing career over the past four decades. I staked my point of view to the belief that Texas was a place unto itself, and that if I treated it as its own country, there was more than plenty to write about. New York or Los Angeles would no longer be necessary. Besides, “Texas writer” sounded a whole lot more respectable than “minor regional writer.” I found the subject matter I was looking for in music, the finest of all the fine arts in Texas, where regionalism flourished in the sounds of Texas country, Texas rock and roll, Texas blues, Tejano, conjunto, and Texas jazz. Two artists in particular, Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, proved consistent fodder since they shared the belief that you could do your art in Texas, carve out a comfortable existence, and still Be Somebody on the national stage. It worked for them and it’s worked for thousands of others since. I took to heart the observation of the accordionist Ponty Bone: Texas was an isolated pocket of good taste.

Over time I came to discover Texas culture expressed in the literature of McMurtry and Graves, the films of Horton Foote and Robert Rodriguez, sports (Dallas Cowboys, Texas Longhorns, Texas Aggies), food (you name it), and couture (hats, buckles, etc.). Besides Texas music in its various forms, I championed the three basic Texas food groups (BBQ, chicken-fried steak, and Tex-Mex), indigenous folkways such as rodeo, the Hidy sign, Big Red, Dublin Dr Pepper, dancehalls, jeans, and handmade boots—the icons that make us stand out from everybody else.

Lately though, I’ve been asking if there really is a Texas culture left. Did Wal-Mart culture subsume it and I just missed it in the papers? Or has Texas always been an amusing caricature to distract us from the reality that Texas is always and forever the minor leagues, a cute, charming, somewhat blustery place to stop that will never be confused for the Big Show? Marketing people love talking about branding concepts, people, and material goods. Well, Texans may have invented the branding iron, but it is that very marketing mentality that threatens to dilute those characteristics that make us Texan and create the dynamic of Texas culture. To which I say: Don’t fence me in.

Geopolitics has a lot to do with this reassessment. Our president has jingofied Texas to the point that anyone else flaunting anything remotely smacking of Texan is subject to acts of overt revulsion as much as they’re likely to elicit a smile or a hug. When I travel out of the country, I don’t take my boots with me anymore.

It’s weird to admit that, since I bought into Texas culture from my very first taste of barbecue at the age of two. But it may be true. Twenty years ago, more blue jeans were manufactured in El Paso than any city in the world. Today, no one makes jeans in El Paso (or San Antonio, for that matter). Kids don’t wear ’em much either. Joe Peters, whose family has been selling cowboy hats to the rich and famous for more than 75 years in Fort Worth, complains hats are out of style. Where’s the next McMurtry or Graves? Just what are those tepid box office receipts for the second filming of The Alamo trying to tell us?

Or, Texas culture may have morphed into something else, judging from the month of programming the Trio cable television network dedicated to the state last summer. “Texas, America Supersized” month featured a nice concert in California starring Willie and his heavy friends and several airings of Slacker, which defines modern alt.Texas culture. Three documentaries focusing on Texans and guns, obesity, and the unique way we mix bidness and politics pretty much nailed the modern version of the culture. The bidness/politics doc was from Germany. The other two were British. In their eyes, we’re a little scary, somewhat reactionary, and a tad crazy from the heat. But no matter how harsh the point of view may be, we still manage to come off radiating just enough charm to win them over. Sound familiar?

The documentaries viewed Texas as neither unique nor distinct but rather as the anti-California. The Texas wildcatter, the oil millionaire driving the big Cadillac, smoking the biggest cigars, and throwing around $100 bills is gone. He has been replaced by the fattest, least literate, dirtiest-dealing, back-slapping, Halliburton-whoring corporate citizen in these United States. Hell, we’re not even Mississippi with good roads anymore. Mississippi’s highways have been upgraded while we’re busy talking toll roads.

Which begs the question: Is Texas still Texas anymore? Or is it all hat, no cattle? Real cowboys are nigh impossible to find these days. As Alpine rancher Tom Beard told me a few years back, most so-called cowboys would prefer to admire themselves in the mirror than put in a hard day’s work. Then again, ranchers aren’t what they used to be either. Robert Halpern, the editor of the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, told me locals speak in code when they define people as either ranchers or ranch owners. It’s a nice way of acknowledging ranch owners aren’t real ranchers. (Note to the White House press corps: Before the Bushes bought land in Crawford in 1999, the “ranch” was referred to by locals as the Englebrecht hog farm.)

There’s a conspiracy at work here. Blame it on interstate highways that have linked the nation together and made everywhere look like everywhere else, immigrants from elsewhere who bring their ways with them—not so much the Nigerians, Nicaraguans, or Oaxacans, but the New Yorkers and Angelenos—clone restaurants, big box stores, and electronic media. Country music is no longer about music from the country or for country folks; it’s the pop music of the suburbs of America, lite rock in disguise. Valley Girl-speak is the lengua de preferencia in the Woodlands and Frisco, same as it is in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Wal-Mart is bigger than Texas even.

Worse, what little distinctive culture that’s left has been pimped and whored to the point it isn’t really Texan-ness that’s being projected. Note to all y’all: Some of us may still say warsh instead of wash even when we know better, but no one I know, even the last Bubba on earth, says noo-cu-lar like our President does.

Heck, even Texas music has been compromised. For all the good the Dixie Chicks and Lloyd Maines have wrought, I’m wary of Pat Green, who pulls in crowds bigger than Willie by serving up a watered-down version of what Texas music once sounded like. No fool, Green built his career on injecting the word “Texas” into as many songs as he could write when he was a young pup striving to become the next Robert Earl Keen. He has matured considerably and has uncanny business sense. But if you take his artistry at face value, say on his recent single “Wave On”—an exceptionally well-constructed song that calls up images of water and the beach and if nothing else, the lake—it has no sense of place, in a Texas kind of way. At least Charlie Robison has the good sense of name-dropping the Dallas Cowboy transvestite bar in Nuevo Laredo’s Boystown, where most of the pretty waitresses have Adam’s apples. A real Texan understands these things without having to make a big deal out of it.

A similar debate is stirring up a stew in culinary circles. Board members and supporters of the Hill Country Food and Wine Fair are questioning whether affiliation with Saveur magazine and national food celebs has been beneficial or deleterious to showing the best of Texas foods and wines. If they think New Yorkers’ embrace of barbecue is off the mark, they should’ve been around when Hollywood discovered Gilley’s back in the 1970s.

So just when I’m ready to kiss it all off and start buying jeans at the Gap, my neighbors tell me about the foreign exchange student from Germany who came to live with them this summer. Wolfgang stepped off the plane wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt. He got to suit up and practice with the local 3A high school football team. He bought a Seal of the State of Texas belt buckle. Before he left, he was fantasizing about buying his very own Dodge Ram pickup even though he admitted, “My countrymen would not understand.”

No, they wouldn’t. But while Wolfie’s vision may be as skewed as that Greek boy all those years ago, he gives me hope. I can relate to his fantasy vision of Texas because in isolated pockets of good taste, that vision is more than just a fantasy. Yewbet, Texas culture still exists. I’m betting the ranchette on it too.

[The Texas Observer] [Joe Nick’s Blog for It’s a Texas Thang – Or Is It?]


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Guad is Good; Guad is Great

Guad is Good; Guad is Great

Texas Parks and Wildlife - July 2004Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2004

It’s the finest recreational river in Texas, but how long can it last?

One late afternoon in mid-February, the day after the frst signifcant snowfall in 19 years, I launched a sit-on-top kayak from the low-water crossing near where I live onto my river, a tributary of the Guadalupe River. It was due for an inspection. It was early in the season for this kind of excursion, but I’ d been feeling the tug for weeks.

The calendar said winter, but spring was subtly stirring wherever I looked. A loud scree overhead identified the first pair of zone-tail hawks nesting in the top of a nearby cypress, none too happy with my presence. The first kingfisher flashed right in front of me, then skimmed above the water in full glide. A mockingbird hopped among the bare cypress branches, scouting for nest sites. A small turtle, its shell caked gray with mud, scooted atop a boulder to sun itself. A bass peeked out from under the base of the same boulder, submerged at the bottom of a deep hole.

With each dip of the paddle, I stirred up liquid diamonds that dazzled in the sunlight. The boat moved swiftly as I paddled through placid, deep pools, and scraped rock and fought currents. Where I could find them, I rode riffles and rapids, and whenever necessary, I sloshed through shallows, dragging the boat behind me.

While surfing the little rapids, I’ d occasionally get in a groove where I didn’ t have to paddle at all. Rather, I was suspended in the rapid, nose upstream, waves rushing downstream, motionless in the midst of perpetual motion, losing sense of time and even existence. In one of these trances, my meditative state was interrupted by a white-tailed doe stealthily sidling up to water’ s edge about 100 yards upstream to take a drink. She spied me about the same time I spied her. She took another quick drink, stepped gingerly on several flat rocks in the water before bounding into a pool and scampering up to cross over to the other side. Two larger whitetails followed, going through the same routine. Look, drink, scan again, step, step, plunge, step, step across. Negotiating around a particularly large limestone hazard, I glanced back to spot a great blue heron, the giant bird-queen of the river, moving upstream, flapping her pterodactyl-like wings just enough to keep her sizeable trunk above the surface of river.

None of the rapids were so much as class II-worthy. But on a mid-winter’ s day in Central Texas, I was more than satisfied. I couldn’ t imagine a better place to be on this earth. That thought stuck with me all the way back to the house even though my butt was numb and I couldn’ t feel my toes.

A River of Pleasure

Of the 15 major rivers in Texas, the Guadalupe is the Texas-most river, springing to life in the Hill Country, that sweet spot where east and west, north and south, coast and desert, tropics and prairie all converge, and diversity thrives and flourishes. The Guadalupe runs exceptionally cool, swift and clear until it reaches the fertile rolling plains, where it widens and muddies and roils through hardwood bottomlands and past the historic towns of Seguin, Gonzales, Cuero and Victoria before reaching the coastal prairie and its delta in San Antonio Bay.

The Guadalupe is the home of the state fish of Texas, the Guadalupe bass. It is the only river in the state that sustains a year-round trout population. Marked with dramatic stretches of limestone cliffs and tall bald cypresses on the upper half, and distinguished with water that begins gin-clear, evolves into an ethereal green-turquoise and ends an earth brown, it’ s the prettiest river in Texas. Fed by the state’ s two biggest springs – the Comal and San Marcos – and supporting abundant wildlife and several endangered species, the Guadalupe has attracted visitors for more than 12,000 years and today is probably enjoyed by more people than any other river in the Southwest.

But the water of this beautiful river is under pressure from growing urban demand. Whether the river will endure for another 50 years, much less 300, is not certain. For all its attributes and benefits – and in part because of them – the Guadalupe may be Texas’ most troubled river. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population of Central Texas booms, the Guadalupe has a forbidding future, and that is a shame when you consider how many Texans take pleasure in it.

Back at the house, I estimated how many other people might have been on the Guadalupe and its main tributaries, the Blanco, San Marcos, and Comal rivers, that same February day. I figured at least several thousand. Fewer than 10 miles south of my little play spot, a flock of sailboats breezed across Canyon Lake, the sole significant lake on the Guadalupe, while several hundred people walked the dam over the course of the afternoon.

Downstream, several hundred more men, women, and children were spread out along the banks, tying flies to their lines, scanning the surface and casting into the fast-moving, chilly waters for elusive trout. A little farther down, a handful of hard-headed kayakers played in the waves around Hueco Springs and Slumber Falls, the most reliable whitewater in Texas. Up and down its length, even in winter, the river is a boon to recreationists. Canoeists and kayakers were paddling it, scuba divers were plying its transparent depths at Canyon Lake, duck hunters were sitting expectantly in blinds on its delta and birdwatchers were searching its forests and marshes.

Once the waters warm in the spring, the thousands enjoying the Guadalupe and its tributaries swell into millions. Each day, thousands of people head to Schlitterbahn on the banks of the Comal in New Braunfels and pay more than $25 to play in America’ s top-rated water park. On any hot day, some of the best river-swimming on earth is in the Guadalupe basin. The curious idyll of "toobing," as it is referred to around New Braunfels, Gruene and San Marcos, where the pastime is most popular, attracts tens of thousands of aficionados on Easter, Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends. The Tube Chute in Prince Solms Park in New Braunfels is a water flume that’ s been a tourist attraction for many decades. All told, no other river in Texas is so heavily used for recreation. Plain and simple, the Guadalupe is fun.

A Hill Country Playground

I have driven the length of the Guadalupe River in stages, exploring its multiple delights, tracing its geography. The river insinuates itself into the rocky oak-and-cedar scrub landscape of western Kerr Country very subtly. There are no specific headwaters, no gushing artesian spring. Dry washes and gullies gradually collect enough moisture from small springs to hold water in pools that stretch longer and longer until a steady, shallow stream trickles over a hard limestone bed and then tumbles out of the craggy hills towards the sea, more than 200 miles away.

At Boneyard Draw, on Farm-to-Market 1340, a sheer 60-foot limestone bluff in the distance marks a bend in the drainage, the first hint of canyons to come. A wooden sign identifies a "parking bird-viewing area" on the perimeter of Stuever’ s Ranch. Just below the crossing is the turnoff to the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been testing cedar (Ashe juniper) eradication, brush-clearing and other water-saving land management strategies. In addition to being a center of whitetailed deer research, this WMA holds one of the great concentrations of wild turkeys in the state.

Less than a mile down the road, I detour down a county road, towards Cherry Springs Ranch, Guadalupe Bluffs Ranch, and the Price’ s Joy Spring Ranch Bed & Breakfast. At a low-water crossing, I find the river, sparkling in the sun, the palest of greens with a slight tinge of blue, scooting over the hard rock bed.

A mile farther, the river is moving full-tilt and roaring to life, with a deeper blue tint, a ribbon of sustenance snaking along a narrow alley guarded by soaring cypress trees and flanked by high bluffs, some rising up 100 feet above the water surface. Turkey buzzards politely wait on a fence post while I pass before resuming clean-up duty on a mangled piece of road kill.

A slide leading directly into the water on the banks of Mo Ranch Camp marks the beginning of the "camp run," consisting of Camp Waldemar and Camp Stewart on the North Fork, and Camp Mystic, Heart O’ the Hills Camp and Camp Arrowhead on the South Fork. Crider’ s rodeo arena and dance patio is also on the south fork. There’ s not too many places in this world where a couple can two-step under the summer stars to the sounds of western swing fiddles and the steady rush of the river.

The Guadalupe widens, narrows, and spills from limestone shelf to limestone shelf as it moves past patios, swings and ornate rockwork of dream ranches owned by CEOs, corporations and churches. In one field by the river, scale replicas of Stonehenge and two 13-foot-high Easter Island statues have been erected.

The North Fork and South Fork join just below the Hunt Store, a community gathering spot for vacationers, hunters, fishermen, swimmers and visitors for more than 80 years. Several generations of the wealthiest, most influential Texans have spent the summers of their youth on this part of the river, learning the basics of life and being exposed to a wilder, more untamed version of the natural world than exists near the cities they come from. Small wonder riverfront property here has been the most coveted real estate in the Hill Country for decades.

Anyone can glean a semblance of that experience by passing a night at an old-fashioned resort such as the Waltonia Lodges on the Guadalupe River, or jumping in and cooling off at Schumacher’ s Crossing, the first significant swimming hole with easy public access on the river.

The bluffs fade farther into the background from the river as it flows between Hunt and Ingram. Ingram Dam creates large enough pools to support a bass boat or a one-man sailboat and offers younger river rats the pleasure of dam sliding.

Parks become more plentiful farther downstream: Louise Hays Park on the south bank through most of Kerrville and Kerrville-Schreiner Park east of town. In both parks, people are disc throwing, fishing and hanging out. The river gains stature but loses a little bit of its curb appeal as it flows past Kerrville, Center Point and Comfort, the bluffs considerably diminished, most of the cypress logged out long ago.

The magic returns just below Comfort and Interstate 10, as the Guadalupe narrows, snakes and curves through a verdant valley, parts of which have been cultivated by German farmers from the same families for more than 150 years. To stumble upon the hamlets of Welfare and Waring practically hiding under giant oak motts is like discovering a lost fairyland.

Though the entire 89-mile length of the Upper Guadalupe qualifies as a wilderness river experience – save for the dam in Ingram and all the low-water crossings – the 39-mile middle section between Seidensticker Crossing below Waring to the privately owned Bergheim Campgrounds at FM 3351 conveys the sensation of being somewhere Out There, with more heifers on the banks than humans, more fish in the water than folks.

Below Bergheim and Edge Falls, the 1,939-acre Guadalupe River State Park and the adjacent Honey Creek State Natural Area offer public access to four miles of unspoiled riverfront, more than any park on the Guadalupe and situated a mere 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio. The park attracts hikers and mountain bikers, as well as toobers, swimmers, and paddlers.

Every Saturday at 9 a.m., Honey Creek opens its gates for a walking tour of the ecologically fragile environment, which encompasses several native species of plants and animals, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.

I keep looking for the right superlative to describe the upper Guadalupe’ s blend of wilderness and playground, and one remark sticks in my mind. At Kerr WMA I stumbled upon Anthony Glorioso, a fresh-faced, curly-headed college student from Poughkeepsie, New York, who was working as a field assistant on a study of wild turkeys by radiotelemetry. Glorioso had never been to this part of the world before, he said.

Asked about his first impressions, he lit up.

"It’ s like Africa!" he exclaimed.

The New Yorker got it. The Guadalupe is that special.

Canyon Lake

The most intense recreational use of the river is along the 40 miles of streambed from Highway 281 through Canyon Lake – one of the finest inland spots in Texas for sailing and windsurfing – and below Canyon Lake to Gruene and New Braunfels. In New Braunfels, the Comal – at three miles in length often called the country’ s shortest river – joins the Guadalupe, providing additional flow from Comal Springs. The crowds come for the natural beauty, the dependable flow, and, in summer, relief from the heat. Even in the middle of August, the water temperature remains brisk, rarely climbing over 70 degrees.

The 8,200-acre Canyon Lake was created by the construction of an earthen dam in the mid-1960s. Through managed releases, the dam tempers the wild swings between drought and flood that define the typical stream flow of Texas waterways; the Guad has water when other rivers may not. Since the release is from the bottom of the dam, chilled water is the norm and a boon to the stocking of trout. And since Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited reached a settlement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the flow is supplemented through the hottest, driest months of the year.

In July 2002, Canyon Dam was put to the test by weeklong storms that dumped close to 30 inches of rain into the watershed. The dam functioned precisely as its engineers intended. When the water level in the lake reached near the top of the dam, overflow went over the spillway for the first time ever. The torrent from the spillway carved a dramatic gorge out of the countryside, accomplishing several thousand years of erosion in a matter of days. The result – a dramatic red-dirt gorge pocked with springs, pools and pouroffs – is being studied by geologists. But sometime in the near future, parts of the gorge will likely become another recreational opportunity.

I’ m disturbed to learn that recreational users have not been given a seat at the table in regional water planning, although permit amendments have been approved to draw more than twice as much out of Canyon Lake as has been historically allowed. While it is common knowledge that recreation is the major economic engine for Canyon Lake, the Lower Guadalupe, the village of Gruene, and the town of New Braunfels, no research has been done to calculate the total economic impact of having a bountiful, flowing Guadalupe.

Lower Guad

Recreational opportunities do not stop at Interstate 35. Despite all the focus on the Upper Guadalupe, the river offers plenty of diversions and opportunities after exiting the Hill Country. Between New Braunfels and Seguin, the river widens into Lake McQueeney, a wider-than-normal part of the river. Still, it holds enough water to attract boaters, swimmers, and water-skiers, including the Ski Bees, the first water-ski gang I ever wanted to join.

Twenty miles north of Lake McQueeney is the starting point of the Texas Water Safari, which bills itself as the "World’ s Toughest Boat Race." Last summer I stood on the banks of San Marcos Springs, the second-largest spring in Texas and the headwaters of the San Marcos River, and watched a couple hundred crazies go through last-minute preparations before beginning the 260-mile test of physical and mental endurance. Staged every June since 1963, the race from San Marcos to Seadrift follows the San Marcos River to Gonzales, where it joins the Guadalupe, and down to the coast. While the Safari is technically a race, the challenge for most entrants is to finish the course in 100 hours, which earns racers a pin.

I heard racers’ tales of Hallucination Alley, a side effect of sleep deprivation that has been experienced by most of the contestants who’ ve done the race. I met Julie Basham and Ann Best, two 40-year-olds attempting the race for the first time, and Julie’ s dad, or his ashes in an urn, at least. "Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish," Basham explained. She was going to spread his ashes at the finish, if they made it that far (they did). John Bugge introduced me to his 9-year-old granddaughter, Jessica, who became the youngest paddler to complete the race. Ian Adamson, a 38-year-old professional adventure racer and four-time Eco-Challenge champion from Sydney, Australia, put the safari in perspective: "To me, this is the best boat race I’ ve ever run, starting in a clear, freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast." Talking to them made me want to do the race, too.

But there are more leisurely ways to enjoy the pleasures of the lower Guadalupe that don’ t require a hundred hours of paddling. The "Guadalupe Loop" is a birding route sponsored by the towns of Victoria, Cuero and Gonzales that includes sites along the river. Situated between Luling and Gonzales, Palmetto State Park offers a birding trail that meanders through a lost swamp rife with palmetto palms. In winter, the park is home to large roosting flocks of caracaras. The Athey Nature Preserve and the adjacent Riverside Park in Victoria is one of the hotspots on the Loop, offering birds such as the river’ s specialty, the green kingfisher.

Near the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Bay, the tidal marshes and riparian woodland of Guadalupe Delta below Victoria are a whole other world, where heat, moisture and fertile soil conspire to cook up a piquant stew of marine and terrestrial life. Birders flock here to spot anhinga, American bittern, glossy ibis, Ross’ s goose, bald eagle, Virginia rail, Couch’ s kingbird, golden-crowned kinglet, winter wren and late neotropicals.

The Guadalupe feeds them all.

Sustaining the Guad

Yes, the Guad is great, but for how much longer? In 2002, the nonprofit environmental group American Rivers designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States because of demands placed on it from growing Central Texas cities.

Perhaps more than any other Texas river, the Guadalupe faces a diminishment of its flow in the coming years. The thirsty city of San Antonio is looking to the Guadalupe for more water. One plan under close consideration and considerable discussion involves taking water from near the mouth of the Guadalupe at the town of Tivoli and piping it 120 miles back to San Antonio. The project is estimated to cost from $683 million to $785 million, or more, depending on design. The flow of the Guadalupe is also potentially affected by pumping in unregulated parts of rapidly growing Comal and Hays counties, which are part of the Guadalupe basin. This explosive development includes more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.

The Guad is beset by a combustible mix of historic laws, traditions and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand could soon outstrip the existing supply. The "rule of capture" is still the building block of Texas water law. Under it, groundwater belongs to the owner of the property above it, and plans are in place for excessively pumping underground reservoirs that provide the Guadalupe its sustenance. Surface water, such as the river and its tributaries, belongs to the people of the state, and is managed under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine which says, "First in time, first in right." Surface water, too, is being coveted as a resource that can be moved and sold to the highest bidder.

The problem is that the real price of water, in terms of its effect on wildlife and recreation, have yet to be calculated. Thirty-five miles away from the mouth of the Guadalupe as the black-bellied whistling duck flies, I ran into Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator of Aransas/Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn had been a speaker at the eighth annual A Celebration of Whooping Cranes and Other Birds in Port Aransas, the town’ s end-of-winter birding and ecotourism festival. When I found him, he had finished hearing Norman Johns, the water research scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, lecture about freshwater inflow, a major unresolved issue in Texas water planning.

Without fresh water from the Guadalupe, the health of shrimp, oysters, fish and other marine life in San Antonio Bay and other nearby bays will be at risk, Johns explained. His PowerPoint presentation layered current water usage and projected water usage in 2050 onto historic data from the great drought of the 1950s. The numbers suggest the likelihood that in the next drought of record, the population of blue crab, the main food source for whooping cranes, will crash, jeopardizing the most successful recovery of an endangered species in Texas.

Stehn joined the long line of witnesses telling me how remarkable the Guadalupe is. After all, what other river nourishes 198 whoopers during the winter so they can fly up to near the Arctic Circle for the summer? Without the Guadalupe, thousands of visitors wouldn’ t be coming to the refuge to try to spot the tallest bird in North America.

The final stop on my tour of the Guadalupe River was at Austwell, a sleepy little community on the western bank of Hynes Bay, the northwestern thumb of San Antonio Bay, where the Guadalupe meets the sea.

"You carry it in. You carry it out," reads the hand-painted sign by water’ s edge. A single lighted dock juts out into the water. Two men lean on a rail, their fishing lines dipping down.

Wind is a constant, bending the sea oats and cattails northward and stirring up mud in the shallows to add a brown earth tone to the pallet of rich green slate and pale blue hues streaking the expansive bay. Ducks settle contently in salt marshes, shielded from the wind. A redbud blooms near a stack of crab traps, and a Texas lantana is showing all colors, the first clear signs of spring’ s arrival. Austwell is quiet and silent and like some of the stretches of the Upper Guadalupe, refreshingly remote and disconnected.

I start to approach the two fishermen on the dock, but think better of it.

Maybe they’ re in the same zone of solitude I was farther upstream that late February afternoon. If they’ re not, maybe if they’ re left alone long enough, they will get there. I walk away, leaving them be, shaking my head in amazement that the Guadalupe is the reason they are there. My river is a special river indeed.

[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – July Issue]


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Kinney County

Texas Parks and Wildlife - July 2005Water Wars

Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2005

How growing demand, fuzzy legal rulings and plain old stubbornness have turned Kinney County into a hotbed of water politics.

Unless you frequently travel U.S. Highway 90 between San Antonio and Del Rio, you probably don’t know where Kinney County is. Depending who you talk with, the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District is either the poster child for how not to manage groundwater, or the last best defense for rural areas fighting big cities that covet their water.

The sparsely populated county is located in that transition zone between the Edwards Plateau and the South Texas Brush Country on the edge of the Chihuahuan desert. Brackettville, the county seat and largest town, with a population just shy of 2,000, is directly across the highway from one of Kinney County’s natural treasures, Las Moras Springs, the ninth-largest group of springs in Texas, which discharge about 160 gallons of water a second. Fort Clark, which was built around the springs by the U.S. Army in 1852, thrives today as a gated residential community.

In 1959, Brackettville became famous as the location where the major motion picture, The Alamo starring John Wayne, was filmed. The movie set was preserved by landowner Happy Shahan and promoted as a tourist attraction called Alamo Village. But a couple of years before the movie was filmed, something more significant happened in Kinney County. While drilling an exploratory well northwest of town in search of oil, drillers hit water. So much water that when Senate Bill 1 — the landmark water legislation mandating that all regions of Texas secure water supplies for the next 50 years — was passed in 1997, Kinney County came into play.

The abundance of groundwater, the county’s small population, the growing demands of thirsty cities and Texas water law have made Kinney County ground zero in Texas’ water wars, as water marketers, legislators, attorneys and lobbyists grapple with the new local groundwater district over how much, if any, water can be pumped and sold outside the county without impacting water supplies, springs, creeks and streams inside the county.

From all outward appearances, the February 22, 2005, meeting of the board of directors of the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District at the Kinney County Courthouse in Brackettville is perfunctorily bureaucratic — board members and the general manager gather around a table to discuss audits, groundwater availability models, recharge numbers, well violations, management zones and a newsletter. The language bandied about is as complex as the aquifers the board is charged with overseeing — the Kinney County portion of the Edwards Aquifer, the Edwards-Trinity zone and the Austin Chalk zone — all of which lack definite boundaries separating one aquifer from the other.

But that only partially explains the tension in the room, which emanates from 11 people sitting in the gallery separated from the board by a railing. They represent the interests of those in Kinney County who want to sell their water. One holds an audio recorder, another a video camera to record the proceedings. From the comments overheard in the hallway during a break, they are a frustrated bunch. They felt that the board was ignoring allocations recommended by Steve Walthour, the hydrologist hired by the board to advise them on pumping permits. Board member Christopher Ring’s family corporation got more water than Walthour recommended; almost everyone else got far less than what they asked for. Allocations were based on land acreage, not on hydrology. They said board members had spread fear among voters that the county’s water was going to be stolen, in order to assure election of five of six board members opposed to moving water out of the county. The board refused the offer by WaterTexas, which most of the folks in the gallery were aligned with, to pay for a study of available groundwater. They even alleged that General Manager Darlene Shahan was working with her husband, Tully Shahan, the county attorney, to thwart their interests.

After the meeting, I head east to Hugh and Dennette Coates’ place in the Anacacho Mountains, where Hugh Coates loads me up with legal briefs and talks about the Pinto Valley farmland he bought in 1988. “We have big water there, shoots straight to the ground. Never has been a pump that’s sucked air in that valley,” he says. And yet, the groundwater district just allotted him less than one third of what the board’s consultant recommended. “It’s like coming to your house and saying, ‘You can have one bath a month,’ ” Coates complains.

Some of the other folks attending the groundwater district board meeting show up at the Coates’, too: Jewel Robinson, the publisher of The Brackett News and a Pinto Valley landowner who has applied for a pumping permit not to sell water, she says, but to assure flow in the creek that “means so much to me”; her son Wesley; Beth Ann Smith, the groundwater district board member who typically casts the lone dissenting vote in board matters; her husband, Richard Smith; Tony Frerich, the co-owner of Kinney County Wool & Mohair; Jennifer McDaniel, who works at the wool house, and her husband, Jim McDaniel, the last cotton farmer in the county.

Over a sumptuous spread of real South Texas Mexican food, they detail the unpleasantness that’s been visited upon them since the city of Eagle Pass first approached several of them eight years ago to see if they’d be interested in selling their water. Their willingness to sell has run headfirst into a board that they say is unwilling to compromise but keeps changing the rules anyway. The pumping caps set by the board are arbitrary, they say. Allocation of such measly percentages amounts to a property rights “taking” (in a legal context, “taking” refers to a government action assuming ownership of real property by eminent domain). They believe that anyone on Pinto Creek downstream from the Shahans and the Rings is getting shorted. Jim McDaniel, the farmer, got 41 percent of what he asked for and will have to go back to the board in July for more water in order to finish his crop. Still, he admits, if he ever gets the permitted amount he seeks, he’s inclined to sell his water and get out of farming altogether. Things have gotten so ugly, Dennette Coates relates, “They’re telling us not to eat in a particular restaurant; they’ll spit in your food.”

I’d heard a whole other story earlier in the day in Tully Shahan’s law office across the street from the county courthouse. Tully Shahan is the county attorney. His wife, Darlene Shahan, is the general manager of the groundwater district. Both have been instrumental in forming the groundwater district and leading the fight against exporting water from the county. The way the Shahans tell it, approximately two-thirds of permit applicants were trying to thwart the will of the county’s voters who elected the groundwater district members. Every sitting board member was reelected despite opposition, they point out. By going to state legislators and lobbyists, filing lawsuits and seeking to have the district dissolved, a tyranny of the few was destroying the board’s good work, or at least bankrupting it through costly legal fees.

“Eight tenths of one percent of county property is irrigated,” Tully Shahan says, “and the irrigators are trying to tell us what to do with 100 percent of the water.”

The water purveyors have lobbyists, they say. The district can’t afford one. “We have the highest tax rate and lowest budget of anyone out there,” says Darlene Shahan. “We are very limited in what we can do as a district. More than two-thirds of the current budget is being absorbed by legal and consulting fees.”

Tully Shahan produces an interim report by Senator Ken Armbrister, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Water Policy, issued before the Legislature convened last January. It proposes dissolving the Kinney County Groundwater District and bringing the county under the jurisdiction of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. the legislation introduced to accomplish this goal is HB 3571 (sponsored by Rep. Robert Puente) and SB 1857 (sponsored by Sen. Frank Madla). The move would leave the county without representation and cost the town of Brackettville at least $24,000 a year for water it is now getting for free, Tully Shahan contends. He pulls out another newspaper clipping that quotes Armbrister as saying the 1904 State Supreme Court decision on Rule of Capture is not in the Texas Constitution.

Darlene Shahan insists the district is doing what the Legislature intended — protecting existing water supplies and users before allocating pumping permits. “Why did we enter into hearings in August, spend money on technical studies, give people an open forum and due process?” she asks. “One hearing was 13 hours. [Water sellers are] saying that we were going to rubber stamp the hydrologist’s findings. If that was the case, the board wouldn’t have sat through those hearings. The water sellers just don’t like how the board is interpreting the rules. The board is doing their best to protect the water according to Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code and the local rules. We’re being as conservative as we can.”

To illustrate why the board is taking the cautious approach, Tully Shahan drives me out of town to the family ranch, a 16,000-acre spread just north of Brackettville, where the headwaters of Pinto Creek are located. He takes a modified golf cart through a pasture down to the rough creek bottom where the creek emerges out of a rocky outcropping and runs pure and shallow through the oak scrub. The cart scoots up over and around limestone gravel shoals to a perch overlooking a small tributary of the creek. A few stone skips away, bubbles float to the surface marking the main spring. The creek bottom, fully visible, shimmers with a pale blue tinge of purity.

Shahan then drives to another spot near a fence line. On the other side are wells that were drilled in the early 1960s that immediately dried up six wells on his family’s land, forcing him to drill new wells at considerable expense. The direct cause-and-effect have given him pause ever since, he says.

A little after eight the next morning, I meet Zack Davis at the Davis Hardware Store and Ranch Supply in downtown Brackettville. Davis, a tall, jut-jawed Kinney County native like Tully Shahan, is taking me to his farm in the Pinto Valley, about 5 miles northwest of town and about 20 creek miles upstream of the Rio Grande. Like most folks in the county, Davis wears many hats — veterinarian, farmer, rancher, former small businessman (after 26 years, he sold his store), husband of a pharmacist, father to six kids.

Pinto Valley is a small 4-mile-by-1-mile basin along Pinto Creek that is locally known as the “honey hole,” Davis explains, an exceptionally abundant source of recharged groundwater where most of the county’s irrigated farming occurs, marked by an almost straight line of artesian wells that run down the valley. Land within a mile yields no water at all. “I had a hydrologist out here once who’d studied this area,” he says. “He told me this solved a mystery — now he knew where all the runoff in Edwards and Real counties up on the Edwards Plateau went.”

After the bounty of water below was discovered in 1957, the Pinto Valley was intensively farmed for vegetables over the next 25 years. Buildings that once housed packing sheds and loading docks speak of that brief period when one-third of the nation’s cabbage and a good chunk of America’s onions were raised in Pinto Valley. But by the 1980s, economics prompted farmers to switch to livestock feed crops such as sorghum, oats, millet, Bermuda grass and alfalfa.

Even with more than enough water, farming and ranching are dicey propositions, acknowledges Davis. “There’s five to 10 percent of the livestock that there was in 1978. If we didn’t have hunting in this county, you could turn the lights out.” In fact, the hunting economy in Kinney County generates more dollars today than farming and ranching combined.

He drives his truck over a fresh field of oats, scanning the sheep and cattle grazing on the bright green cover to spot any legs sticking out of the furrows. Some sheep fall asleep while grazing and fall into a furrow and can’t get up, Davis explains. He finds several and puts them upright.

He stops to demonstrate just how much water there is in the honey hole. Using a large wrench to open a valve in a tangle of pipes, he unleashes a torrent of cool, clear water that shoots out of the pipe with enough force to knock a person down. That sort of abundance, along with queries from Eagle Pass, then Laredo, prompted Davis to organize farmers interested in selling water rather than using it to farm. His search eventually led to WaterTexas, an Austin-based company hired to represent the sellers’ interests. Ironically, one of the first things WaterTexas’ Dan Pearson told Davis was that Kinney County needed a groundwater district before exportation could begin.

Selling water is a higher, better use of the resource, Davis says. “If City X comes in and says they’ll pay me more than what I’m making on this, what am I going to do?” Davis asks. “Over in Uvalde, they built a Wal-Mart on prime farmland. This water is no different. It’s taking a different value than if we farm it. This water getting valuable isn’t my idea. It’s something that happened. It still has to be a managed, regulated resource.”

He still believes in the concept of groundwater districts, just as he believes in the Rule of Capture. “The Edwards Aquifer Authority scares me like it did 12 years ago [when the county successfully petitioned to be left out of the EAA’s jurisdiction]. At the same time, it can’t be any worse than what we have now.”

Davis sat on the groundwater district board until he resigned out of frustration and still sits on the board of the Plateau Region J regional water planning group along with Tully Shahan; the group oversees water planning in a zone that runs roughly between Del Rio and Kerrville. He views the Shahans and the Rings as co-conspirators bent on pressuring smaller landowners downstream like himself. “We feel like they’re trying to choke us out financially. They want to make it so we’ll have to go to them for their allotment if we want to sell water. But we’re fortunate. We don’t have to depend on the farm as our sole source of income. They’re not going to get my farm.”

Davis pulls his vehicle over by the banks of Pinto Creek. “I’ve seen it go bone-dry while the artesian wells are flowing,” he says, gazing over the spread of low oaks and mesquite and blindingly green, lush fields of oats and alfalfa that are fed by the artesian wells. He drives back to Brackettville, heads north to the other side of the Shahan and Ring properties all the way to Nueces Canyon, a stunning sliver of lost Hill Country scenery on the west fork of the Nueces River. Davis grew up on this land and has maintained the family homestead here. He gazes proudly over the rugged hills and fertile bottomland and says, “There’s not enough money in this world to dry up springs. You’ve lost touch with reality if money means more to you than something like this.”

Despite the effect of artesian well pumping on Pinto Creek, Zack Davis believes there’s plenty of water to give and relates the story about when Las Moras Springs went dry in 1964 (due to drought and heavy pumping for irrigated farming, according to many accounts), Brown & Root, which had bought Fort Clark after it was decommissioned, sent tanker trucks to fill up on water from an artesian well in the valley and drove the water to Brackettville.

The prospect of the groundwater district being dissolved and water speculators taking over groundwater in the next county prompted Jay J. Johnson, the owner of a bed & breakfast in Del Rio, to organize the West Texas Springs Alliance in March 2005, joining other groups throughout central Texas in the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance who are fighting water marketers. “Kinney County is a test case. If a fast one can be pulled on the naive citizens here, the same fast one can be pulled on any other board in any other county that is rich with water,” says Johnson. “I maintain that the true farmer or rancher should be allotted and receive the water that they need to conduct the agricultural business on their land. On the other hand, I’m totally opposed to anyone who would exploit and siphon from our aquifers so that water can be exported to the metro areas,” he says.

Kinney County Judge Herb Senne points out that the commissioners court, as well as the city councils of Brackettville and Spofford, passed resolutions supporting the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District and opposing its dissolution by the Texas Legislature.

“The voters of their county were given a choice whether to put a district in place. Seventy-eight percent of the people who voted in the elections said yes. That same ballot had the option of how to fund the district and 65 percent of those who voted chose to fund it with an ad valorem tax. If that doesn’t show the district is clearly the choice of the voters in Kinney County, I’ll eat my hat.”

Anecdotal evidence on both sides of the issue fails to address other lingering questions: Exactly what constitutes a private property taking? What constitutes degradation of a natural resource like a spring? Who pays for the degradation? Is there a right of guaranteed stream flow? How connected are the headwaters of Pinto Creek to the artesian wells in Pinto Valley? If the Legislature dissolves the Kinney County Groundwater Conservation District, what does that say about groundwater districts being the state’s preferred means of locally controlling groundwater use, and what does it say about preserving the Rule of Capture?

No matter what legislators, lawyers, lobbyists, judges, entrepreneurs or bureaucrats say or do, springs are vital to the environmental and economic health of Kinney County, just as they are everywhere else in Texas.

Though the feuding has spilled over into churches, schools, businesses and all over the county, each and every one of the folks I visited with has more in common with each other than they’d care to admit: They are passionate about protecting their land, guided by a deep and abiding love for its beauty, which in the respective cases of the Shahans, Coates and Davises is directly tied to the water.

Politics aside, Kinney County has some of the best water anywhere in Texas. The riparian corridor along Las Moras Creek below the headwaters was as alive with wildlife as anywhere in the Rio Grande Valley river brush just after sunrise one morning. The sight of artesian water gushing out of well pipes, pure, clean, cool, pushed as high as 20 feet in the air by underground pressure, is downright miraculous.

Some of the hows and whys of that miracle are answered by Gary Garrett at the Heart of the Hills Fisheries Science Center near Ingram. Garrett is a TPWD biologist who has studied the springs and creeks of Kinney County extensively. He wastes no time explaining their delicate condition.

“The headwaters of Pinto Creek are biologically unique. It’s one of only four places on earth where the Devils River minnow exists. It’s a natural lab scientists hardly ever see. Pinto is really two creeks. North of Highway 90, it’s quite a healthy system. That’s where the Devils River minnow thrives. South of the highway, the level of sulphur in the water is higher [writer’s note: and emits quite an odor], salinity goes up, ammonia goes up, turbidity goes up. The Devils River minnow is no longer found. Instead it’s the red shiner, which does well in a polluted environment.

“The value of rare, unique species is that they are biological indicators,” Garrett explains. “If there’s no value other than that, it is extremely important. I don’t mind water leaving the county if it doesn’t affect the flow of the springs and streams. The question is, how much? When they irrigate, some of the springs stop flowing. Those springs need to flow, that creek needs to flow. The death of an aquatic system ultimately affects humans. Keeping them healthy is healthy for all of us.”

A century after the Texas Supreme Court decision upheld the Rule of Capture by declaring groundwater too “mysterious and occult” to regulate, the mystery remains, in Kinney County at least.

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[visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine – July Issue]


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