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Every Saturday nite, yours truly hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, showcasing all kinds of Texas sounds created over the past century of recorded music. The show runs two hours because Texas spans two time zones and frankly, the music is too dang big to limit it to one hour.

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Mack McCormack, song hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world that McCormick dove into so zealously is gone.

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

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Conjunto: The Soul Music of South Texas

https://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/life-arts/soul-music-of-south-texas

My story on Conjunto music in Texas Coop Power magazine

Soul Music of South Texas
Conjunto, built upon a polka rhythm, turns accordions and 12-string guitars into a unique sound and subculture

By Joe Nick Patoski
March 2020

 

El Flaco

Esteban “Steve” Jordan began playing accordion at the age of 7.
IMAGE: John Dyer

Flaco Jiménez brought the conjunto accordion to Amsterdam in 1989 and Dwayne Verheyden answered the call and learned to play like Flaco

Eduardo Garza of Mission was one of the big winners at the 2019 Big Squeeze youth accordion competition.
IMAGE: Courtesy Texas Folklife

Joel Guzmán at the Alamo.

IMAGE: John Dyer

Teenage conjunto performer Darren David Prieto with Santiago Jimenez and Luis Almanza, Carnitas Uruapan, San Antonio,  2015.

Santiago Jiménez Jr., who gave accordion lessons to Prieto.
IMAGE: John Dyer

Los Texmaniacs have taken conjunto as far as China.

With her 12-string guitar, Lydia Mendoza became the first female star of Mexican American music.

San Antonio’s Eva Ybarra is known as the Queen of the Accordion.

Narciso Martínez was one of the recording pioneers of conjunto.

 

Darren David Prieto played the accordion in Carnitas Uruapan, a meat market on the west side of San Antonio, one Sunday morning in 2016 while customers lined up for tamales and carnitas. Back then, the market hosted a weekly residency with accordionist Santiago Jiménez Jr., younger brother of accordion legend Flaco Jiménez. The gig was practice for Jiménez, but for Prieto, it was an apprenticeship and a steppingstone to a career performing the soul music of South Texas.

Jiménez introduced the shy teenager from New Braunfels, then 16, as “mi protegido”—his protégé—and, blushing, Prieto nodded toward Jiménez and added, “Mi profesor.” This unlikely venue and early start time was a very big deal for the slight, quiet young man because as part of a new generation of conjunto accordionists, it was his opportunity to learn from a master.

As Jiménez played his diatonic button accordion, accompanied by a sideman strumming chords on a 12-string guitar called a bajo sexto, pounding out a rhythm to propel the sounds from Jiménez’s accordion, the meat market’s owner occasionally walked out from behind the counter to harmonize with Jiménez in vocal duets. “Margarita, Margarita,” they crooned, faces inches from each other. Sit-ins from the neighborhood were part of the weekly routine. Grammy Award winner Max Baca of Los Texmaniacs walked into Carnitas wearing a football jersey and shorts rather than his western stage outfit and sat in with the band, playing bajo sexto.

Conjunto’s bouncy rhythm, typically a polka, is why it is also known as música alegre, happy music. Like blues and country, conjunto—pronounced cohn-hoon-toe—is indigenous, only regionally specific to South Texas, with mostly Spanish lyrics. In South Texas, and anywhere conjunto’s influence extends, the term is applied to both sound and subculture.

Conjunto has two key instruments: the diatonic button accordion, which, like a harmonica, changes notes as air is pushed or pulled past vibrating reeds, and the bajo sexto, which provides the rhythm and backbeat. Most modern conjuntos also include drums, guitar and bass.

At a time when most American roots music’s popularity is on the downswing, conjunto’s roots are spreading. Public school programs in La Joya, Los Fresnos, Brownsville and other towns across the Rio Grande Valley have added conjunto to their curricula, and bajo sexto classes are taught weekly at the Conjunto Heritage Taller and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio. “We get them from 8 to 80,” said Rodolfo Lopez, Conjunto Heritage Taller director. “Conjunto is us, la gente. This is a unique music form.” Kids from the taller (workshop) have dominated the state-wide Big Squeeze youth accordion competition sponsored by Texas Folklife since its inception in 2007.

Conjunto was born in the late 19th century when German immigrants introduced the button accordion to South Texas. In part because of its rural roots, it was known as cantina music. Conjunto made its commercial debut in the 1920s and ’30s, when Columbia and Bluebird joined other labels in the fledgling recording business, setting up studios in rooms at San Antonio’s Gunter and Bluebonnet hotels as well as at local WOAI radio to record musicians solicited by talent scouts. Conjunto accordionists were recruited to San Antonio alongside bluesman Robert Johnson, western swingsters Bill Boyd & His Cowboy Ramblers and the Tex-Czech sounds of Adolph Hofner as well as Texan Mexican singer Lydia Mendoza.

The instrumentals by those conjunto accordionists sounded Mexican with additional Bohemian, Czech and German elements, reflecting the influence of the immigrant communities of South Texas.

Texas conjunto recording pioneers Bruno Villarreal from Santa Rosa, Narciso Martínez of La Paloma and Santiago Jiménez of San Antonio all eavesdropped on Czech, German and Polish dances in South Texas and incorporated what they heard into their own music.

Conjunto follows neither mariachi nor ranchera traditions, nor is it norteño, the accordion style popular in northern Mexico. “It’s a melding of European music and the Mexican bajo sexto,” Rodolfo Lopez explained, noting that Czech redowas, Bohemian schottisches, waltzes and polkas all came from Europe. “We just added our jalapeño chiltepin flavor to it.”

Flaco Jiménez, the older of conjunto pioneer Santiago Jiménez’s two sons, expanded awareness of the genre in 1973, appearing on the album Doug Sahm and Band, featuring the rock musician from San Antonio and an all-star lineup that included Bob Dylan. Sahm sought out and played bajo sexto with Flaco Jiménez in his backyard on San Antonio’s west side. “He could groove,” Jiménez said.

Flaco Jiménez would ultimately take conjunto accordion around the world, recording with Ry Cooder, Peter Rowan, the Rolling Stones, Dwight Yoakum and Emmylou Harris before joining the Tex-Mex supergroup Texas Tornados.

Esteban “Steve” Jordan of Elsa, a dashing figure with an eyepatch known as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion, also worked as a conjunto innovator. One record label described Jordan’s style as acordeón psicodélico. If Jiménez was the standard-bearer, Jordan was the experimentalist—always pushing the envelope until his passing in 2010.

Another notable exporter of conjunto accordion is Joel Guzmán of Buda, who performs with his wife, Sarah Fox, as Aztex; plays and records with country rocker Joe Ely; and joined Paul Simon on his Homeward Bound tour. One of few professional female accordionists, Eva Ybarra earned a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017.

Conjunto is no longer exclusively a Texas thing. Japan has several conjuntos who were inspired by Flaco Jiménez’s appearance in their country with the Texas Tornados. Dwayne Verheyden from the Netherlands mastered Jiménez’s playing style, then mastered Spanish to better communicate with Jiménez and conjunto audiences. After his performance at the Tejano Conjunto Fest in San Antonio in 2014, fans patiently lined up to have their picture taken with him, as if he was the Justin Bieber of conjunto.

Conjunto’s crossover appeal comes to life in the music of Conjunto Los Pinkys, an Austin band led by octogenarian Isidro Samilpa; a middle-aged Polish import from Saginaw, Michigan, named Bradley Jaye Williams; and Mark Weber, an accordionist from San Antonio. Another crossover success is Stevie Ray Vavages of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, who learned the bajo sexto playing the native sound called chicken scratch.

Darren Prieto is part of the next wave.

Typical of most Texas kids, he grew up listening to rock, country, jazz and hip-hop. Not typical of most Texas kids, he chose to play accordion when he was 14. “I was always with my grandfather,” he explained. “Around our house, conjunto music was always on. I listened to all types of conjunto, from Los Pavo Reales to Ruben Naranjo.” The summer before he entered high school, Prieto picked up his grandfather’s accordion, just as his own father once had. By that September, he’d learned some polkas. “I started falling in love,” Prieto said.

Web Extra: Where To See and Hear Conjunto

KEDA-AM (1540) in San Antonio, which streams online.

Rancho Alegre Radio’s sampler playlist.

Texas Folklife presents Big Squeeze competitions in the spring. The Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg hosts the semifinals, and the finals are staged at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin. Big Squeeze champions all perform at the Texas Accordion Kings and Queens concert and dance at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston the first Saturday in June.

The Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, sponsored by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, is conjunto’s biggest bash of all, staged at Guadalupe Theater and in Rosedale Park May 13–17.

Rancho Alegre Conjunto Music Festival in May in Austin, plus weekly tardeadas in the spring and fall.

Narciso Martínez Cultural Arts Center Conjunto Festival in Los Fresnos in October.

Two documentaries tell the story of conjunto: 1976’s Chulas Fronteras, by filmmakers Les Blank and Maureen Gosling, and Songs of the Homeland, filmed in 1995 by Hector Galán.

Conjunto Musicians, Their Lives and Their Times is an audio program in the Onda Latina Collection at the University of Texas featuring Esteban Jordan, Flaco Jiménez, Santiago Jiménez Jr. and Tony de la Rosa.

The Texas Conjunto Music Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito is one of the cradles of conjunto. It’s open Thursday–Saturday at 210 E. Heywood St. Call (956) 245-1666 for more info.

Janie’s Record Shop is the go-to shop for conjunto 45s, CDs and 12-inch vinyl, with a store jukebox and loads of autographed photos of conjunto stars. It’s at 1012 Bandera Rd. in San Antonio. Call (210) 735-2070 for more info.

Del Bravo Record Shop, run by the family of conjunto composer Salomé Gutierrez, is as much a museum as a record shop. Don’t miss the Lydia Mendoza tribute display, which includes one of her stage dresses. It’s at 554 Old Highway 90 in San Antonio. Call (210) 432-8351 for more info.

Those Sunday morning performances on the small stage at Carnitas Uruapan, where he learned from Santiago Jiménez Jr., stoked Prieto’s creative fire. “He helped me learn to get over stage fright, how to talk to the crowd and even how to be a humble musician,” Prieto said.

The gigs at Carnitas Uruapan stopped in 2018 when the owner retired. But Prieto remains tight with Jiménez. “You can hear a little bit of Santiago Jiménez Jr.’s style in my own playing,” Prieto said. “Playing conjunto music is so fun. It isn’t like any other music. It has that beat that makes you want to dance. It makes you feel alive.”

Web Extra: Joe Nick Patoski’s Conjunto Experience

Writer Joe Nick Patoski, a self-confessed conjunto addict, offers this playlist of some of his favorite conjunto songs and artists. He has been writing about conjunto music since 1975 for Texas Monthly, Oxford American, Rolling Stone, Country Music and other publications. He hosts the Texas Music Hour of Power, 7–9 p.m. Saturdays on Marfa Public Radio and Wimberley Valley Radio.

Writer Joe Nick Patoski, a confessed conjunto addict, lives outside Wimberley and is a member of Pedernales EC.

This appeared in the March 2020 issue

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Willis Alan Ramsey in NPR Music

https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2018/04/09/598843883/the-follow-up

 

The Follow-Up
The price of perfection is cheap, if that’s all you spend your money on.
April 9, 20186:01 AM ET
JOE NICK PATOSKI

 

 

He walked into the restaurant with the pronounced limp of an old warrior, which he attributed to a bad back, and mentioned a history of self–medication with alcohol. A friend had given him a blister pack of steroids and a prescriptive anti-inflammatory that he examined as he slid into a booth at Threadgill’s in south Austin, Texas. The thick head of hair had turned gray and the sloe-eyes drooped a little more. But that infectious smile remained, same as ever.

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Here & Now Visits Texas Music Hour of Power

Jeremy Hobson of National Public Radio’s Here & Now program visits with the Texas Music Hour of Power for DJ Sessions

Joe Nick Patoski is our guide through the music of Texas — from western swing to zydeco to Tex-Mex.

Patoski (@joenickpatoski) hosts the “Texas Music Hour of Power” out of Marfa Public Radio, and tells Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson about why he believes in “salvation through Texas music.”

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Roy Orbison Museum in Wink

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The Roy Orbison Museum in Wink isn’t easy to get to, since it’s not close to anywhere but Wink. But we made an appointment in advance, by calling 432/527-3743, and arranged to meet Edith Jones, who would open up the museum upon our arrival, opening up the World of Roy to a couple curious visitors.

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Wink is a classic oil patch town that despite the steady stream of fracking trucks in and around the community, has clearly seen more hubbin’ days. Roy Orbison’s family moved to Wink when he was in junior high school. He was born in Vernon, the same hometown of Jack Teagarden, the King of the Blues Trombone, and Paul English, Willie Nelson’s drummer. The family moved to Fort Worth before moving again to Wink following the end of World War Two.

Roy quickly found his place working on the high school annual, starting in junior high, where he illustrated annuals with his sketches.

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During his senior year, the Wink Wildcats were Class A state champions in Football, whose path to state Roy illustrated here

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He formed his first band, the Wink Westerners in high school which became the Teen Kings when the band switched from playing western music to playing rock and roll.

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Popular throughout West Texas and the South Plains, the band had their own television show in Midland and in Odessa, and backed up Slim Whitman for a spell when that entertainer found himself stranded without a backup band. The Teen Kings first recorded in Dallas for the storied Jim Beck, then made their way to Memphis, where they recorded for Sun Records, the same label that recorded the first tracks of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, and also recorded in Clovis, New Mexico for Norman Petty, who recorded Buddy Holly and Buddy Knox, among others.

 

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He emerged as a solo artist under the tutelage of Fred Foster of Monument Records, who broke Roy as a singing star, taking his talent to England in 1963 where he toured with a new band called the Beatles.

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Throughout his career, he never forgot where he came from.

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Edith Jones moved to Wink after Roy had departed. She and her husband wanted to restore the Rig Theater next door to the museum. After that effort stalled, she’s become active in the Roy Orbison Museum and helping to organize the annual Orbison festival, which for the first time in twenty-six years, was not held in  2015. [Bands interested in appearing at Wink for 2016 should get in touch with Edith now]

 

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Edith is a great tour guide and told some good Roy stories. She even let us try on a pair of Roy’s sunglasses, whose lenses were so coke-bottle thick, I got dizzy just putting them on.

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We also bought some t shirts from past festivals and a Roy Orbison  koozie. Edith graciously gave us a small sample of “Pretty Woman” perfume that was developed by Roy’s second wife and widow, Barbara, now deceased.

 

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Edith told us about the time Carl Perkins came to the museum. He was dressed in all white and managed to not dirty himself despite the dust and the dirt that are part and parcel of the Permian Basin. Carl donated to the museum these autographs that the Beatles gave to him.

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We left a donation in the jar by the door in thanks for Edith’s time and knowledge.  If you go, you should too.

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