Friend Joe Gracey passed in mid November, just after his 61st birthday, so his friends and family are throwing a big ol’ bash for him on Sunday, December 4 @ 2 pm at Austin City Limits Live in downtown Austin. Even if you never heard of Joe, if you dig Austin, Texas music and all that is cool about this part of the world, you’re invited to send off one of the tastemakers who made it so.
I am honored to have been asked by his family to write his obituary. God bless Kimmie, Jolie, Gabe, Jeremie, brother Bill, and all his friends and relatives.
After a well-spent life defined by a series of reinventions, each more outrageous and ‘way cooler than the previous one, Joe Gracey has left the building – this place we call earth. Born in Fort Worth on November 14, 1950, Joe distinguished himself as a communicator at an early age. He built his own radio studio in the family attic in sixth grade, mowed lawns to get his first guitar, played in teen bands alongside fellow Fort Worth- ers Stephen Bruton and T-Bone Burnett, and projected gravitas and au- thority as a veteran newsman and familiarity and intimacy as a country music disc jockey for KXOL-AM and FM when the 16 year old wasn’t at- tending classes at Paschal High School. His mother drove him to work at the radio station.
Like many other young Texans of his generation, he gravitated to Aus- tin to attend the University of Texas where he graduated with a degree in American Studies while moonlighting on Austin’s Top 40 radio station, KNOW-AM, and writing the first rock music column for the Austin American-Statesman, immediately over- stepping his assigned category by writing about country and folk music too, focusing on the unique country-rock musical hybrid that was incubating in Austin.
In 1974, he joined KOKE-FM in Austin, the first progressive country radio station in the world. Blessed with a warm, full-bodied voice with enough of a lingering drawl to leave no doubt where he came from, Gracey be- came an intimate friend to strangers who discovered they could learn a few things about music by listening to the radio; unlike his broadcasting peers, Gracey was fixated on what he said as much as how he said it.
Smart and a smartass both, he was a pillar of a burgeoning music community on the verge of being discov- ered nationally and internationally. He welcomed music fans to some of the most exciting and eclectic music be- ing created as one of the voices who did radio commercials for the storied Armadillo World Headquarters. It was Ol’ Blue Eyes, as he called himself, who coolly and casually opened his microphone so Willie Nelson and his friend Kris Kristofferson could perform an impromptu concert for listeners at home.
Gracey not only played Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours, he took the time to explain ET’s signifi- cance and line out Tubb’s hip bona fides for a generation that had previously ignored their parents’ and grandparents’ music. He turned on music lovers to exotic sounds in their own backyard such as Tex-Mex con- junto music as articulated by his friends Doug Sahm, Ry Cooder, and Flaco Jimenez; and western swing, the almost-forgotten Made In Texas country-jazz hybrid popularized in the 1930s, kickstarting its revival by put- ting Asleep at the Wheel and Alvin Crow into heavy rotation. Gracey played a critical role defining Super Roper Radio, as KOKE was known, demonstrating how the Rolling Stones and Gram Parsons were related to George Jones and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. In that respect, he was as influential as Willie Nelson, Austin’s musical godfather, in bringing the hippies and the rednecks together through the common love of music.
With Gracey as program director, Billboard magazine crowned KOKE-FM as “Trendsetter of the Year.”
Gracey’s trendspotting abilities earned him the role as talent coordinator for the new “Austin City Limits,” now the longest-running music series on American television, when the series started in 1976. Through Gracey, the remaining Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, Flaco Jimenez y Su Conjunto, and Clifton Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Zydeco Band performed for national television audiences for the first time. His byline continued ap- pearing in the Austin Sun and the literary country music journal Picking Up the Tempo.
In the summer of 1977, inspired by his mentor Cowboy Jack Clement, he left KOKE-FM a few weeks before the station’s format switched, and headed downstairs to the basement of the KOKE building where he fash- ioned a four track TEAC recorder and two windowless offices into the funky, duct-taped recording studio known as Electric Graceyland. The studio was the site of some of the first recordings of future blues legends Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miss Lou Ann Barton; The Skunks, Austin’s first punk band; and Tex-Mex rockers Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns. Gracey also recorded the demo that scored the Fabulous Thunderbirds their first record contract and worked the dials for Lubbock songster Butch Hancock and his Dixie’s Bar and Bus Stop cable television music series. He recorded Stevie Vaughan and Barton and the band Double Trouble at Clement’s Nashville studio.
He used Electric Graceyland to collaborate musically with his partner in crime, Bobby Earl Smith, as the Jackalope Brothers. Gracey and Smith also did radio promotion for Alvin Crow & The Pleasant Valley Boys while Gracey often opened shows for Crow with his brother Bill as The Amazing Graceys.
It was during this flurry of recording and promoting that Gracey was dealt the lousy hand of a cancer diagno- sis that eventually robbed him of his gifted voice.
Only 27, Gracey fought the hard fight medically while simultaneously adapting. A Magic Slate kids’ erasable writing tablet tucked under his arm became a Gracey accessory so he could scribble a quick response to any questions and allow him to engage in conversations, followed by the soft, barely-audible rip as he cleared the pad to erase the message once his words were understood.
In 1979, his friend TJ McFarland introduced him to the love of his life, Kimmie Rhodes, a singer-songwriter from Lubbock, as well as a playwright, painter, writer, and all-around creative force.
They married in 1984 and settled in Briarcliff where he helped raise Kimmie’s sons from a previous marriage, Gabe and Jeremie Rhodes, and their daughter, Jolie Morgan Goodnight Gracey. A family band emerged with Gracey playing bass and Gabe, a talented producer in his own right, who absorbed all the nuances of the elec- tronic recording art from Joe, playing guitar.
Kimmie and their neighbor Joe Sears started writing plays together and Gracey joined the fun as an actor, playing the part of the skeleton barkeeper in the play “Windblown,” and the role of the clown in “Small Town Girl,” in addition to other performances.
He also worked the audio console at nearby Pedernales Studios for a number of years and in 1996 was at the controls for Nelson’s groundbreaking album, Spirit, which inspired Nelson to redefine his live sound. Gracey and David Zettner built the small, simple recording studio in the back of Willie’s Luck World Headquarters saloon where Willie liked to hold court and make music at the spur of the moment, which yielded the albums, Picture in a Frame, Willie’s 2003 album of duets with Kimmie, and the Grammy-nominated collaboration be- tween Willie and Ray Price, Run That By Me One More Time.
Rhodes and Gracey’s shared love of food and fine wine (he learned how to keep boudin warm on his Cadillac’s engine returning from a trip to visit Clifton Chenier in Lafayette, Louisiana), along with numerous European tours by Rhodes launched another career for Gracey – food writer – as championed by their friend Colman Andrews, the editor of Saveur magazine, for whom Gracey did several pieces. Joe and Kimmie also taught cooking classes together. Their food adventures and Kimmie’s continued popularity in Europe eventu- ally led to the couple’s renovation of a small 1,000 year old stable-farmhouse in the Languedoc province of France.
Gracey never stopped creating, and he started a blog, Letters from Graceyland (Graceyland.blogspot.com) to share his latest adventures with readers.
Cancer-free for 30 years, the beast reentered his life in 2009. The bad news was accompanied by good news though. Doctors at M.D. Anderson Hospital would embark on experimental surgery that led to a partial resto- ration of his voice. But the new cancer was joined by other cancer, leading to several months of treatments in Houston. Afterwards, Joe and Kimmie were able to spend some weeks together in their French place again with friends and family before returning to Texas one last time.
Sickness never defined Joe’s life. It was an irritant and obstacle to be overcome so he could pursue his many interests. He defined it; it didn’t define him. And although so much of his professional career revolved around music, his life was much more than that too, as his extensive network of family and friends that spanned the globe would attest to.
They all knew that Gracey’s presence could never be ignored. He was not the kind of person to let that hap- pen. Which is why despite his unplanned departure, he wanted his friends, family, and all the strangers he never met to hold close to their hearts the advice he dispensed whenever he signed off from another shift on the radio:
“Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can.”
Joe is survived by his wife Kimmie Rhodes Gracey, daughter Jolie Gracey Musick and husband Jason; sons Jeremie Rhodes, Gabriel Rhodes and wife Carmen; grandchildren Louis and Ruby Rhodes, Isaac and Isabella Bryson; brother Bill Gracey and wife Cathy; nieces Christy and Kate Gracey; and, Louis’ mother, Jamie Rhodes.
The family is grateful for the loving care and attention provided by M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Nobelity Project (www.nobelity.org) or M.D. Anderson Can- cer Center (www.mdanderson.org).
A public celebration of Joe’s life will be held on December 4, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. at the Austin City Limits Moody Theater, 210 W. Willie Nelson Boulevard, in downtown Austin, Texas 78701. Y’all come.
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
November 8, 2002
There’s an inherent flaw to creating a Texas Top 40 using Billboard as the source: Billboard didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a clue. According to Billboard, Mouse & the Traps, the Tyler, Texas, band that paid homage to Bob Dylan with “Public Execution,” later immortalized on the Nuggets punk retrospective, didn’t even exist. In Austin, Ray Campi’s “Caterpillar,” the Slades’ “You Cheated,” and Roky Erickson’s first band the 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” also acknowledged on Nuggets, Vol. 1, were all radio hits. The Moving Sidewalks, Billy Gibbons’ first band, garnered loads of Houston AM radio airplay with their psychedelic single, “99th Floor,” alongside the Elevators and Fever Tree’s “San Francisco Girls.” Rene & Rene’s bilingual belly-rubber “Believe Me” got so much South Texas airplay that they were radio gods. So, my Texas Top 40 is offered with considerable hesitation. You may think Christopher Cross was somebody because Billboard recognized “Ride Like the Wind” and “Sailing.” I find another local San Antonio chart-topper, Sonny Ace y Los Twisters, who was doing Rock en Español before there was a name for it back in the mid-Sixties, far more significant, not to mention spiritually nourishing. Any chart that doesn’t have room for Jimmy Dee’s “Henrietta,” the Triumphs’ “Garner State Park” (before B.J. Thomas went solo), Bruce Channel’s follow-up to “Hey Baby” — “Going Back to Louisiana” — isn’t really an accurate barometer at all.
[You Cheated in the Austin Chroncicle]
West Side Horns
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
September 13, 2002
San Quilmas (Dialtone Records)
Within the first few bars of “Rainbow Riot,” the opening track of the West Side Horns’ San Quilmas, three great revelations came to me while getting reacquainted with the honey-dripping saxophones of Eracleo (Rocky) Morales, Spot Barnett, and Louis Bustos blending with Al Gomez’ trumpet, Jack Barber’s swinging bass, and Arturo (Sauce) Gonzalez’s fat Hammond B-3 chops: 1.) Doug Sahm lives! The Horns defined Doug’s puro San Antonio pachuco soul, and you can hear it right here. 2.) San Antonio Express-News music critic Jim Beal was right on comparing the West Side Horns to the Memphis Horns, and the reggae rhythms of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. They’re that good, and that distinctive; worthy of the North Texas tenor tradition, articulated by Buster Smith and carried by David “Fathead” Newman, and the Honker & Shouter school, defined by Arnett Cobb and still practiced by Grady Gaines. The West Side Horns sound like San Antonio should, with roots firmly planted in the R&B and swing traditions of Aaron (T-Bone) Walker and Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown in particular, with a jalapeño con Big Red afterburn. 3.) They’re pretty great taken on their own terms, especially with the added presence of Johnny Moeller on guitar and his brother Jay on drums. They traffic in a bluesy instrumental jazz-funk, where lead breaks are economical, short, and to the point, and all ears are first and foremost locked on the rhythm. Sort of like those other all-stars from Memphis, Booker T. & the MGs, if they’d grown up on El West Side: an obscure Freddy King instrumental (“High Rise”) here, Joe Zawinul there (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”), and like-sounding originals (“Hit’ N the Jug”) sprinkled in. Thrice the formula is broken, when Morales vocalizes (quite well) in an earthy voice, recalling in verse and timbre the great Jimmy Reed, one of the first black bluesmen to find favor among white audiences in the south and Texas in the late Fifties and early Sixties (he influenced Delbert McClinton, Steve Miller, Augie Meyers, and Dusty Hill among others). Ever since he single-handedly revived the career of Freddy Fender with his searing solo on Sahm’s version of “Wasted Days, Wasted Nights” more than 30 years ago, I’ve regarded Morales as the one of the best, if not my very favorite, horn player in the state. His sendup of Reed seals the deal, because he’s got Jimmy, trashed-out and drawling, down cold. Rocky Morales is beyond cool. Rocky is hep. But on this recording, he’s only among equals, because he stands next to Spot Barnett, the house band leader at the Ebony Club on San Antonio’s east side, and the object of admiration of all three horns in the West Side Horns as teenagers as well as Doug. (“I used to want to be a pimp like Spot,” Sahm told me almost three decades back.) Barnett came out of retirement at Sir Doug’s behest in the mid-Nineties and has stuck around, his seasoned honks providing the anchor for the horns in more ways than one. In that respect, San Quilmas is really a piece of history, a continuum of Doug, T-Bone, Gatemouth, Freddy, Clifford Scott, and all the other arbiters of Texas jump blues pumped into the corpuscles of SA vatos. The breadth of their repertoire, always coolly danceable, and a pedigree of those they quote from underscore a greater, bittersweet truth that when the Horns finally hang it up, this kind of sound will be gone for good. Hear it while you can. It’s the sound of roadhouses and jukes, dancing to the music so hard you can feel the whole joint shake. And while you’re at it, you might want to work on those dance steps, too.
James Luther Dickinson
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 18, 2002
Free Beer Tomorrow (Artemis)
You may know Jim Dickinson as the daddy of those North Mississippi All-Stars, producer of the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me, or the guy who played piano with the Stones on Sticky Fingers and Dylan on Time Out of Mind. For others, he’s the white cat out of Memphis, who 30 years ago cut his one and only solo album Dixie Fried, one of the best rock & roll albums of all time. Well, the Dickinson growl and his hard-bitten Easy Credit No Money Down, Years to Pay philosophical rant is back, most clearly evident in “Hungry Town,” which throws more than a few hints about where the Stones at their peak learned their funk. Or take “Asshole,” a tune that manages to rhyme the orifice with both “that’s so” and “low class-o,” and even inject “little children” into the lyrical fray while skipping along to a musical duel to the death that pits a gypsy violin against a smoky xylophone. With his greasy fingerprints smudging a gospel rant/Ry Cooder retro-roots mandolin stomp (“JC’s NYC Blues”), sentimental covers of Irma Thomas’ “It’s Raining,” and Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly,” plus loads of references to gambling that only Texas hustlers in Vegas and Southern cads on riverboats can fully appreciate, Dickinson’s album should be required to carry the following warning: “Anything Dixie Fried may not be good for your health, but it sure sounds good anyway.” The artery-clogger lives.
illustration by Nathan Jensen
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 19, 2003
All I wanted for Christmas was satellite radio, but I couldn’t wait.
In October, I broke down, got one, had it installed, paid $156 for a year’s subscription, tuned in and turned on. Now all I want for Christmas is a satellite radio in every car and in the house and a lifetime subscription.
See, I’m a radio nut. As a kid, I walked a mile every Wednesday to KFJZ 1270 in Fort Worth to get the Top 40 survey hot off the presses. I’ve remained involved with the medium ever since. (For starters, I’m a regular Monday guest on the Kevin & Kevin show on KGSR-FM). So when I say satellite radio has changed my life, you need to understand what kind of life it is.
Until satellite, my fixation with radio meant knowing way too much about Rush, Sean, and all the frothing right-wing shouters who dominate the AM band and being too intimate with the tics of Brad Messer, Jim Bohannan, Carl Wiglesworth, Jim Rome, Tony Bruno, and La Ranchera de Monterrey. (Disclosure No. 2: I am not a Libertarian). Now, with 100 channels to choose from, those characters have vanished from my life. So have bad infomercials for miracle joint medication.
Instead, I channel-hop from three jazz stations, an all-jam channel, channels dedicated to nothing but the blues, folk 24-seven, bluegrass, and global hip-hop to various shades of contemporary and alternative rock, country, reggae, and world music, National Public Radio, Public Radio International, Bloomberg, and the BBC. Not long after I got satellite, I drove from Austin to Houston to Fort Worth in the same day. I could’ve just as well gone on to Amarillo.
In one 15-minute stretch, I heard Doug Sahm lamenting about not going back to Austin anymore, John Coltrane blowing “My Favorite Things,” OutKast doing their version of the same song, “Jet Song” from West Side Story, and the latest news from Radio New Zealand. I even finally “got” French chanteuse Edith Piaf as she warbled her way through “Accordeoniste.”
My obsession began in 1999 when I cornered Mark Cuban, then one of two founders of Broadcast.com, a collection of radio stations on the Internet, after he gave the keynote address at South by Southwest Interactive.
“I love hearing all these different radio stations from all over the world online,” I told him. “How can I do that in my car?”
Cuban related how the Federal Communications Commission had licensed two companies to establish satellite radio networks, which would broadcast from outer space to the whole nation and give listeners a far broader selection of choices than existed on the AM and FM bands. Theoretically, it was the radio equivalent of subscription satellite television.
Cuban and his partner Todd Wagner subsequently sold their business to Yahoo! and became billionaires. I followed up Cuban’s tip, invested heavily in the two licensed companies, Sirius and XM, and lost my ass when the high tech bubble burst.
Since then, both XM and Sirius managed to stay solvent, launch satellites, develop receivers for consumers, and in the past couple of years become real radio networks. XM has the lion’s share of the market — 1 million subscribers to Sirius’ 150,000 — largely because it had a one-year jump getting product into stores and has stayed ahead with innovations such as a device that allows listeners with Sirius radios to dial up XM, too. The FCC has ordered both companies to develop radios compatible with either service.
Still, tech glitches, the considerable expense of buying and installing a satellite radio, and my bad financial bet kept me away until I was offered a next-to-nothing deal for a Sirius Plug & Play radio this fall. Three hundred dollars later, it’s a brand-new bag.
Although it has considerably fewer subscribers and costs more ($12.95 compared to XM’s $9.95 monthly tab), Sirius’ 60 music channels are commercial-free; XM’s music channels run two minutes of advertising per hour, still considerably less than over-air stations. Sirius’ talk stations include two NPR streams, a PRI stream, “liberal” talk streams, and the only gay-lesbian radio channel in the nation.
Plus, since I vote with my pocketbook, the considerable investment by Clear Channel, the San Antonio-based company that has choked creativity in radio, in XM and the involvement of Lee Abrams, the radio programmer credited with turning free-form progressive rock radio into a highly structured, highly profitable format known as AOR (“album-oriented rock”) 30 years ago, sealed the Sirius deal.
Sirius has two Plug & Play models you can insert into “docking stations” at home and in other cars, but the signal from the Audiovox I purchased first was getting “stepped on” by all four of the available frequencies one tuned in to in order to pick up the satellite signal. When I complained to Sirius, I was offered the Kenwood Here2Anywhere Plug & Play. The signal conflict is resolved because the Kenwood has a direct FM modulator, though the smaller screen makes it more difficult to read what’s playing, which is one of the biggest plusses of both satellite services.
Eventually receivers on the market will be cheaper and pick up both Sirius and XM signals, which the FCC has mandated. It’s going to take several years’ worth of new cars with factory-installed satellite radio for the concept to be fully embraced.
As much as I have come to enjoy Talk of the Nation, The Splendid Table, The Savvy Traveler, Whad’ya Know, and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! — all fare from NPR and PRI not heard on local affiliate KUT-FM — the music channels are the big difference. The six hip-hop stations have exposed me to nuances of the street that have previously escaped me with solid jocks stringing the mixes together. The five dance channels, particularly the rave channel, are guaranteed uppers whenever I need an audio pep pill. The three classical channels and the jazz, swing, show tunes, and bluegrass channels are my top choices for sonic wallpaper as I cruise.
Sirius has turned me on to Jet, a hard-banging band from Australia; Krishna Das’ grooving chant “Kashi Vishwanath Gange” on the Horizons world beat channel; cool dance remixes of Nina Simone; and Iggy Pop redux now that he’s in heavy rotation with Sum 41 on several channels. I’ve heard more Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Ramones, Sex Pistols, and Clash in the past month than I have in the last decade. Then there’s Lou Reed’s live, barn-burning version of “Rock N Roll,” Lucinda, Chris Duarte, Omar, Lou Ann, Wayne the Train, and Marcia Ball more than once.
It’s not perfect. I’m already burned out on “Take Five” on Pure Jazz, and anything by the Pet Shop Boys. Although the Radio Mexicana channel and Planet Hip-Hop do a good job covering contemporary Latin sounds, there ought to be room for a Tejano channel like there is on XM. The talk channels could use some fine-tuning. The audio feeds from Fox, CNN, CNBC, and the Weather Channel don’t translate well, and as engaging as the BBC is, the UK POV isn’t always my cuppa tea.
Satellite radio won’t kill terrestrial radio. Even though I’ve found several variations of what I’d describe as KGSR’s adult-alternative format on Sirius, including Organic Rock, the Trend, the Bridge, Folk Town, and the Border, none has a Kevin & Kevin, Jody Denberg, a Sam & Bob, a Dudley & Bob, or a Buck on sports. Truth is, traffic reports, news, weather, and local flavor just can’t be done effectively from national headquarters in New York or Washington, D.C., where XM broadcasts from.
Similarly, as much as I enjoy NPR and PRI programming (caveat: Morning Edition and All Things Considered are not part of NPR’s Sirius package), I still prefer Aielli, Ray, Monroe, Trachtenberg, Ferguson, the departed Dan Foster, and the rest of the KUT music gang programming my sounds. They’re shining examples of why Austin radio doesn’t sound cookie-cutter if you know where and when to listen.
Local will always trump national with me. I do hope satellite puts pressure on Clear Channel, which owns one of every 10 commercial terrestial stations in the nation, including KVET-FM, KVET-AM, KHFI, and Z102, to ditch their cookie-cutter programming mentality that envisions a KISS-FM in every city with the same jock as host instead of emphasizing programming that reflects the city they’re broadcasting in.
But if they don’t, that’s not my problem anymore. I like what I’m hearing when I’m driving. You don’t have to take my word. Log on to www.sirius.com and www.xmradio.com and check it out. Just remember, the first listen is free. The subscriptions aren’t.
[My Obsession in the Austin Chroncicle]
(Photo by Scott Newton)
The Cult of Ray
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 18, 2003
Ray Benson steps out from behind the Wheel.
Everybody knows Ray Benson: the big guy with the big hat, booming baritone, and Ernest Tubb disposition. How can you miss him?
He is Asleep at the Wheel, the merry (revolving) band of musicians from both coasts who moved to Austin 30 years ago on the heels of Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, just in time for the birth of the modern Austin music scene. Smitten with an archaic, hip regional sound called Western swing, they had the good fortune of arriving before the crowds did.
Striking a responsive chord with the preslacker longhairs who dug their mentors and cohorts Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, as well as with the two-stepping old-timers who hadn’t heard Bob Wills’ music played like that since Bob Wills, the Wheel has since become a musical institution. The scores of Texas Playboy alumni who have sat in, recorded with, been produced by, or produced the Wheel at one time or another, plus the Grammy Awards lining the shelves of Benson’s office validate that.
Yet while Asleep at the Wheel has evolved into a Texas-sized tradition, the cult of Ray has been quietly building to the point that at 52, Benson has finally gotten around to releasing his first solo album, Beyond Time. It makes sense, since he’s always been more than a frontman. As much a hipster as Willie or Doug, he can hold his own on T-Bone blues and do Basie jump like an alum. He’s always been a deal maker, hustler, a mover, and a shaker.
Benson’s still all that. Like Willie, he’s one of the few bridges between old Austin and new Austin, and far more accessible than the Red Headed Stranger ever was. The consummate glad-hander and back-slapper.
Who do you think made the introduction between Denny Bruce and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, putting in motion the record deal that put Austin blues on the map? Who hooked up Stevie Vaughan with manager Alex Hodges? Who brought together Lance Armstrong’s management and the folks who made the Austin City Limits festival happen?
And he continues to move and shake in music circles from New York to L.A. as easily as he does in South Austin or Spicewood. Yep, that was Benson sitting in with Paul Shaffer and the band on Letterman a few weeks ago.
Squint a little harder through the bifocals, though, and it’s easy to see the changes in el mundo del Ray go beyond his solo debut. And it isn’t the white overtaking the red in his goatee, sideburns, and ponytail or the tour bus with the “For Sale” sign parked outside his office.
Which raises the larger question: Who the heck is this cat under the hat?
State Musician of Texas
Surrounded by guitars and loads of pictures of Benson with the likes of Little Richard, Brenda Lee, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Snow, and Laura Bush, Benson is in his element at Bismeaux Productions, his business and recording studio complex on Manchaca Road.
The geegaws and souvenirs such as golf trophies, a Spade Cooley album cover, Austin Sun music awards, and a “Shalom, Y’all” sticker on his computer, Benson instructs his faithful assistant Bridget Bauer to hold all calls (sorry, Mike Levy). David McGee, who’s doing a phoner for Barnesandnoble.com, and his mom from Philly manage to get through.
Taking stock of his life thus far, Benson first clears the air about recording under his own name. The band, he says, is alive and well. In fact, he’s currently mixing another live album, this one from Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. The bus with the “For Sale” sign is merely being retired. At this pace, the Wheel will roll on forever. Going solo is merely realizing what he set out to do 45 years after writing his first song. It doesn’t hurt that he owns the studio, a tricked-out, tube-amp, old-school environment “and a mixing board Elvis once sang through.”
“I’m just trying to express myself and do what I know how to do,” explains Benson. “Asleep at the Wheel’s concept has narrowed and crystallized over the years to what it is, and I didn’t want to mess with that.”
It hardly ends there.
In 2004 Benson succeeds classical pianist James Dick as the State Musician of Texas. He’s been co-producing a duet of Willie Nelson and reggae legend Toots Hibbert of Toots & the Maytals on Willie’s “Still Is Still Moving,” an occasion that finally resulted in his signing Trigger, Willie’s beat-up Martin guitar. That came on the heels of hosting a pilot for the CMT cable channel at Gerald Mann’s Riverbend Church last October. He won a regional Emmy Award for a PBS documentary he co-produced on the making of Ride With Bob, the Wheel’s most recent album to Wills. There’s also the T-Bone Walker Texas blues all-star tribute album he’s dreaming up …
At the same time, his civic profile has been steadily rising. He tried bringing baseball to Austin before there was a Round Rock Express. He sits on boards including the Rhythm & Blues Foundation and KLRU. He talks to business groups trying to explain where music fits in to Austin’s big picture. He could be mayor if he wanted the gig.
His running buddies are an eclectic albeit well-connected bunch, including writer Bud Shrake, football coach Darrell K. Royal, Clear Channel czar Steve Hicks, former Dell vice-chairman and philanthropist Mort Topfer, and Beavis and Butthead/King of the Hill creator Mike Judge, who happens to play a pretty mean bass. He’s on a first name basis with Republicans and CEOs. He raises money for Wild Basin. He’s a star on the Celebrity Pro-Am golf circuit.
He’s also newly divorced, though he continues to share a West Lake home with his wife of 20 years, Diane Carr. One son, Sam, is learning the music business and improving his golf at Belmont College in Nashville. Aaron is a high school senior. So what exactly is going on inside that Caledonia-sized head of his?
“All I can say is, everyone’s got to find their way,” laughs Benson. “I cherish my family. We went through the initial throes of the divorce and realized, was I going to pay an attorney everything I owned to get … whatever? So we worked it out.
“Yeah I see some other girls. Is it easy? No. Is it smooth? No. We all come with a lot of baggage. I don’t have the answer to the whole thing, but I’m trying to keep my family somewhat intact. Diane raised those kids and did an incredible job. I did as much as I could when I was home, but I was gone a lot.”
This, of course, is well-documented.
“You’re That Guy”
It all started when “three Jews” — Benson, Floyd Domino (ne Jim Haber), and Lucky Oceans (ne Ruben Gosfield) — a Vermont farm boy named Leroy Preston; Virginian Chris O’Connell; and Gene Dobkin, a bass player and fellow classmate of Benson’s from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, joined forces. Another Antioch student named Ed Ward brought Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen to campus, wherein the musicians saw the light. The rest is Austin music history, as Benson tells it.
“We cut our hair to do all this, so it looked right,” laughs Benson. “We wore Nudie suits. We basically said we were going to pass. We were kind of like black people. Over the years it’s been unreal. One time down in Louisiana, we played a Ku Klux Klan hall.
“I became Ray Benson the day before I started the band. I had read the Ray Charles biography, and his name is Ray Charles something or other. Jerry Reed is Jerry Reed Hubbard. I said to myself, those guys are smart; they’ve got stupid last names in terms of show business, I’ll do the same thing. Seifert just wasn’t going to make it, but Benson is great.”
The woodshedding took place in a 200-year-old cabin in Paw Paw, W.Va. They backed Stoney Edwards, one of two black men on Earth with a career as a country singer, and singers Connie Smith and Freddie Hart. They followed Cody and his big band to Berkeley, Calif., where they met Eddie Wilson.
“Eddie Wilson came out to [manager] Joe Kerr’s and just sold us,” recalls Benson. “All he wanted was to book the New Riders [of the Purple Sage] and Cody at the Armadillo. Joe told him about us. Eddie hears us and says, ‘You could be the house band.’
“Greezy Wheels was already the house band, but he was right. We were exactly what he was trying to do. Redneck hippies was his thing. We finally got a record deal, so we came down and played the Armadillo with Cody in ’73. Once we hit town, we went, ‘Whoa!’
“Michael Murphy and Jerry Jeff [Walker] and the songs that they did, to me that was like cool, cosmic-cowboy, electrified folk music. That’s not what [we] were about. We loved the New Riders from a lifestyle point of view but not their music. We loved the Burrito Brothers for doing what they did, but we didn’t like them because they were too slick. They were so L.A.
“Texas had it all. Willie and Doug were the two reasons. Willie had said to us, ‘What are you doing out there? You sound like you’re from here.’ Doug had given me one of his raps, and it made perfect sense. We figured out that we could get more gigs here than in the Bay Area, and it cost less to rent a house. And there’s chicks! And guns!”
A lot has changed since the Wheel found their mecca. Which leads to the inevitable question: Whither Austin?
“We’re mostly pricing ourselves out of the market,” states Benson. “I did one of those 360 summits, when the high tech boom was booming, and they asked me to come speak with Michael Dell and two other people. They asked that question: ‘What’s the difference between Austin then and where we’re at now?’
“I said, ‘Well, in 1973 we used to come to Austin to drop acid. Now, we drop antacid.’ Michael Dell turned three sheets of white.
“Obviously, the baby-boom generation has aged,” laughs Benson.
And so has Benson. Which is why he’s made the move he’s never made before.
“Lots of people come up to me and say, ‘You’re that guy.’ And as much as I enjoy that, I’d like them to know Ray Benson is that guy who does this stuff, because I’ve hidden behind Asleep at the Wheel for many years and behind incredibly talented people: Floyd, Chris O’Connell, Leroy Preston.
“What’s sad is that Chris O’Connell is a veterinarian’s assistant in Winchester, Va., and Leroy Preston is a data processor in Vermont. They don’t play at all. This business burns you out. It chews you up and spits you out. You’ve seen it a hundred times, and I don’t want to be one of those people.
“I want to play guitar — sing and write and make music. I know that. I don’t want to walk on the red carpet. I don’t like limos; I like buses. I don’t want to be a superstar at all.
“I want to ply my craft and make my music and have people love it.”
[The Cult of Ray in the Austin Chronicle]
Walk Like Cleto
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]