While their significant individual accomplishments are also profiled here, Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez also collaborated for several magical albums. Their respective performing talents meshed perfectly, Taylor’s weary wisdom brightened by Rodriguez’ piercing desire and punctuated by her flawless fiddle. An essential New Yorker and journeyman musician, Taylor became a Texas songwriter for a while, and Rodriguez’ songwriting skills blossomed through their association.
Many of their songs, notably the devastating “I Need a Wall”, play with the charged notion of the “May/December” romance. Most, however, are simply stunning observations of life and love that will grab you and won’t let go.
What can be said about this man that hasn’t already been debated, cussed and discussed? Not much, given his iconic status in country music and progressive culture, but maybe there is perspective to be gained about the larger than life existence of Willie Hugh Nelson, the favorite son of Abbott, Texas.
First, the voice. An natural instrument so extraordinary that it is instantly recognizable in every corner of the world. In the abstract it might be dismissed as a nasally Texas honk, but to listen is to bear witness to perfection: confident, controlled, welcoming and wise, a portal to other places, places of warmth, comfort and beauty. A voice unparalleled in popular American music, with the possible exception of Sinatra himself.
The guitar work is equally perfect, but understated, punctuating, almost hidden behind the voice. “Trigger”, he calls his instrument. Maybe the only classical guitar in American country music, and when he throws in a little lead the room goes quiet.
Then there is the writing. Willie has been performing for so long, often covering the work of others, that his songwriting prowess is sometimes overlooked. He started off in the fifties as a contract songwriter in Nashville. When the dust settles he will be remembered as a songwriter, having written or co-written over 2500 songs, including masterpieces like “Crazy”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “Whiskey River”, “Night Life” and “Hello Walls”.
But Willie’s highest purpose is not the writing or the voice or the guitar. It is, rather, his status as an icon of decency and unabashed humanity, a fine soul tossed around by the storms of life. But Willie has always come up smiling, caring more about us than about himself.
He was the engine of the “outlaw” movement of the seventies, and the course of that bloodless revolution tells us much about the strength and character of Mr. Nelson. Certainly the cause, resistance to the commercialization of the American folk idiom by Nashville corporatists, was noble, and the leaders of the movement, Willie and Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser and others, were certainly principled and courageous. But for Willie Nelson the movement was a natural and inevitable extension of his very being: a man who has lived his life with strength and conviction, with a personal and unerring sense of right and wrong, without a whit of concern for the opinions of others.
He has lived a generous life based completely on this notion of personal integrity and responsibility, and is universally loved by fans of all political persuasions. He has been an active proponent of LGBT rights, the ethical treatment of animals, the development of bio-fuels, and support for farmers through “Farm Aid”, which he began in 1985 with Neil Young and John Mellencamp.
Willie Nelson, one of the very tallest Texans.
Three more things to know about Willie Nelson: (1) he moved back to Texas in 1970 when his Tennessee home burned down after a long night of songwriting with his friend Hank Cochran, (2) he has appeared on screen over thirty times, including in movies like The Electric Horseman, Songwriter, The Red Headed Stranger, Barbarosa and Honeysuckle Rose, and (3) in 1980, he sang Ray Wylie Hubbard‘s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” at the White House with First Lady Rosalyn Carter.
Shawn Colvin is a musical renaissance woman. An important songwriter, but also a dazzling guitarist and singer of extraordinary power with just-below-the-surface vulnerability. Technically flawless on-stage and in the recording booth, her songs can soar with sunny grace or bring you facedown to the floor with gritty despair.
Born in South Dakota, Colvin moved to Austin in 1994 after launching her career from Berkeley and NYC, and she has become one of those quiet stars of the city. You are as likely to catch her perform nationally or internationally as in her hometown.
Colvin established herself with her debut album, 1989’s Steady On, which earned aGrammy for that year’s Best Contemporary Folk Album. Since then she has released eleven more albums of originals and covers, including Fat City (1992), Cover Girl (1994), the platinum A Few Small Repairs (1997), Holiday Songs and Lullabies (1998), Whole New You (2001), These Four Walls (2006), Shawn Colvin Live (2009), All Fall Down (2012), Uncovered (2015), and this years collaboration with the great Steve Earle, Colvin and Earle. Along the way she has received additional Grammys and other awards, and has collaborated with such diverse folks as Buddy Miller,Patty Griffin, Teddy Thompson, Sting, Béla Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and others.
Shawn established her style and following in NYC during the eighties, and was originally pegged as part of the “new folk movement”, working with Suzanne Vega, John Leventhal and appearing in a Broadway production or two. She signed with Columbia records during that time, the home of such contemporaries as Tracy Chapman, Vega and the Indigo Girls.
Three things to know about Shawn Colvin: (1) while born in South Dakota, growing up she also lived in London, Ontario and Carbondale, Illinois, (2) she originally moved to Austin to play in the Dixie Diesels, an early Western swing band, and (3) she published a memoir, Diamond in the Rough, in 2012, detailing her life’s journey.
>Janis Joplin‘s short life illuminated many hard truths. The isolation of a social outsider, the perils that lay in wait for a willful and hard spoken woman and the deadly mix of insecurity, hard fame and unbridled self medication. Her life also stood for the ferocious cultural collision of black blues, poor white soul and the driving and newfound rock and roll of the sixties, and the resulting impacts on America, good and bad.
Born in the petroleum wilderness of the Texas Gulf Coast, Joplin hit Austin in the early sixties and immediately made her mark on the burgeoning folk scene. Soon she was hanging out and singing with the legendary >Kenneth Threadgill and igniting the sparks of what would become the Live Music Capital of the World.
From there she traveled an arc of genius and loss that ended in her overdose death in 1970 at the age of twenty-seven. Her memory continues to sear at the collective American consciousness. She reminds us of how we often mistreat those that seem different, of the repression of raw female sexuality, of how fame and adoration sometimes lead to abject loneliness. She also reminds us of the visceral celebration of love and life that was her art.
Janis didn’t sing, she stomped and wiggled and wailed her way through a song. She was rock and roll at its finest and most elemental. Pure energy, pure abandon, pure love. But off stage was a different matter…constant battles with self worth in a world that was often less than kind. Everyone was mesmerized by the spectacle of Janis Joplin, but the world kept her at arm’s length, and destroyed her in the process.
Janis was regarded as a singer, but she also wrote songs, alone and with others. Great songs like “I Need a Man to Love”, “Kozmic Blues”, “One Good Man”, “Women Is Losers” and the unforgettable “Mercedes Benz”.
Three things to know about Janis Joplin: (1) in 1962, the campus newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin portrayed her as a very early hippie; (2) for a while she wheeled around San Francisco in a psychedelic Porsche, and (3) she was romantically linked to Kris Kristofferson when she died.
Nobody writes lyrics like James McMurtry. Brilliant, piercing and wry. Sweeping vistas of ordinary lives, set mostly in small towns and dark backwaters. Songs like novels. Literature.
Sure, he’s plenty smart and his father Larry is one of the greatest novelists ever to come out of the Lone Star state, but even that doesn’t fully explain the strength of this work. Powerful songs such as “Levelland”, a charging rocker and the best ever portrait of hard life in panhandle Texas, “Choctaw Bingo”, a fantastic, mesmerizing journey into the redneck underworld of east Texas and “Ruby and Carlos”, a brutally poignant vision of the slow death of impossible love. Layers of complex meaning, portraits of people lost in the dark corners of this big world, pieces of biting beautiful reality. Randy Newman, maybe, but in a cowboy hat.
McMurtry was raised in Fort Worth and Virginia, where he attended a prestigious prep school. At the University of Arizona in Tucson, he started playing his songs in front of small crowds, then he played a few shows in Alaska and moved to San Antonio to work as a bartender and house painter, and maybe become an actor or a songwriter. He’s been living in Austin for quite a while now.
In 1987 McMurtry was one of the New Folk winners at the Kerrville Folk Festival. By 1989 he released his debut, Too Long in the Wasteland, then Candyland in 1992 and the phenomenal Where’d You Hide the Body in 1995. He then released It Had to Happen in 1997, Walk Between the Raindrops in 1998, St. Mary of the Woods in 2002, Childish Things in 2005 (album of the year in the Americana Music Awards), Just Us Kids in 2008, and Complicated Game in 2015.
James McMurtry’s words are often rough and acerbic, delivered with weight and solemnity, but the wisdom is always there, and sometimes sharp humor and bitter irony. Deep as mud but clear as spring water.
Three things to know about McMurtry (1) his son Curtis is an up and coming songwriter, (2) his first album was produced by John Mellencamp, and (3) he once played guitar for luminous madman Kinky Friedman.
Vince Bell was born in Dallas in 1951 and the road has since taken him to homes in Venezuela, Houston, Austin, California, Fredericksburg, Nashville and Santa Fe. He cut his teeth in the Houston songwriter scene of the seventies, in old places like Sand Mountain Coffeehouse and Anderson Fair, hanging out with the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark when they were in town, as well as folks like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Stephen Bruton when he got to Austin.
Bell adopted the artist’s life when he graduated high school in 1970. A writer’s writer, Bell is a master of imagery, each of his songs a literary journey into the seams of a deep and rich imagination. He takes you to places on the map and in the heart, painting vivid pictures, splashing your emotional landscape with new colors, new ideas, new questions. Try as you might, you will not find the bottom of these deep waters.
In December of 1982, Vince was recording an album in Austin when his car was broad sided by a drunk driver. The recording, which included guitar work by no less than Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson, would never be released. Bell was so severely injured that he was mistakenly reported as dead by local press in Austin. He woke from a month-long coma with grievous injuries to his brain, spine and right arm, and began a tortuous, decade-long journey to recovery of his life and the ability to make and play music.
Vince had to learn to handle the guitar again, creating new ways to pick and strum with his changed right hand, and his playing is the better for it. The great voice is still there, all sugar and rust, seeming to get better with age.
Bell weathered his tragedy and came out the other end swinging, first with Phoenix in 1999, a profound ode to damage and redemption, followed over the years by Texas Plates, Recado, One Man’s Music, and Live in Texas.
Bell’s music often has an ethereal, lilting quality, like in “Mirror, Mirror”, or can be gorgeously melodic, like in “Woman of the Phoenix” or “I’ve Had Enough”. Cerebral, evocative, mysterious, satisfying.
Three things to know about Vince Bell: (1) he was a star quarterback in high school in Houston (gotta play that football in Texas), (2) a ballet was set to his music and staged at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theater, and (3) he has written a book, One Man’s Music, about his struggle to recover from his accident.
Patty Griffin lays herself bare in achingly beautiful meditations on love and all the things that bear on love. Work that is completely fresh and original. Simple songs. Spare, nothing extra, just seamless snapshots of the moments and the feelings that we will all pass through. Lessons we learn, losses we endure, joys we remember. Little raindrops falling on deep waters, rippling forever.
Hailing from Old Town, Maine, the youngest of seven children, Griffin had an early interest in music which she credits to her mother, who sang around the house in a voice like Peggy Lee’s. Patty purchased a fifty-dollar guitar at sixteen, an investment that would pay off, but not for a while.
The breakup of Griffin’s first marriage, in 1992, was the catalyst for positive change and a more ambitious approach to her art. One door closes, another is revealed. Soon she was regularly performing her original songs in Boston coffeehouses. Her first attempt at an album was fraught with problems, but in 1996 she managed to produce a debut album, Living With Ghosts, taken from original demo recordings. Two years later she came out with a follow-up album, Flaming Red, backed by a full band and a real production team, and she was on her way.
There are many other professional accolades, including two Grammy Awards (seven nominations in all), Album of the Year and Artist of the Year awards from the Americana Music Association (seven nominations in all) and Inspirational Album of the Year from the Dove Awards (two nominations). Last year she launched her own record label, PGM.
Griffin’s voice is stunning instrument, a hide of resolute hope stretched over a skeleton of hard experience. Her songs steer us through familiar places, places of stillness and love and hope as well as places of fear and risk and disappointment. Her performances, particularly when she is alone with a guitar or piano, are profound and captivating. Patty Griffin is one of the most talented songwriters working today. If you don’t know her work, you should.
Three things you should know about Patty Griffin: (1) she was turned down for several commercials, including spots for Diet Coke and Downy, because her voice was just too sad, (2) she has collaborated, musically and romantically, with Robert Plant, and (3) she once worked as a waitress.
It is impossible to exaggerate Lucinda Williams’ significance to the evolution of alternative country music. An early voice of independence and originality, she stormed onto the live music scene in the seventies, and might properly be called the first female member of the outlaw movement.
Born to a literary family in Louisiana, Williams landed in Austin in 1974 and developed her craft in the rich beginnings of our progressive country scene. She has since lived in Los Angeles and Nashville, but has never lost her southern sensibility and swampy drawl.
Like so many other elemental artists, Lucinda’s work embodies both courage and fear. The lyrics are often dark but also hopeful, her voice is a combination of tentative fragility and gritty resolve. She’ll have you staring out the window, remembering the twists and turns of the road behind you, and just when you least expect it she pops the clutch and accelerates into pure pulsing joy. You’ll find yourself dancing out of the shadows and into the sunlight, your heart lighter than air. Her work is so clear and clean and right, so essential to what we now call good country music, it is impossible to imagine Williams singing anything but her plaintive portraits of hope, lust and heartbreak.
Williams first recorded her savagely beautiful work in 1980, with Happy Woman Blues, released by no less than Smithsonian Folkway Records. She hasn’t slowed down since. While she has seemingly influenced every songwriter to come in her wake, her own influences are undetectable, even irrelevant. Who cares what Hemingway was thinking? Just read the damn book.
Experience “Righteously”, Williams’ inky ode to lust or “Blue”, her riff on resignation and surrender. Listen to her powerful recitation of all the simple things that make life worth living in “Sweet Old World”. A provoking take on the riddle of the cup which is “half empty or half full”.
There is no living artist that has contributed more to American songwriting. Discover this very important soul.
Three things to know about Lucinda Williams: (1) she is the daughter of noted poet and professor Miller Williams; (2) she first performed live in Mexico City; and (3) September 6th is “Lucinda Williams Day” in Santa Cruz, California.
Jimmie Vaughan learned to play the guitar while growing up in Dallas, and headed south in the late sixties to help create the emerging Austin rhythm and blues scene. In the seventies he teamed up with California vocalist and harpist Kim Wilson, uber-bassman Keith Ferguson, and drummer Mike Buck to form The Fabulous Thunderbirds, arguably the coolest cadre of musicians ever to rise from the River City.
And when we say cool, we mean a swamp full of original, theatrical, gritty cool…an ongoing ode to the real rhythm and blues that had been forged over the decades by (mostly) black men and women in Memphis, Detroit, Houston and Fort Worth. The Continental Club and the old Soap Creek Saloon were haunts for the T-Birds, who were a sharp contrast to the doe-eyed cosmic cowboys that were building the other parts of the Austin music scene during the same period. Jimmie curled over his Stratocaster in blustery pachuco pants, jet black hair held steady in a pompadour with some shiny petroleum product. Kim was fond of all black outfits and black Ray-Bans, sleeves all rolled up high, topped off by a glittering turban worthy of Joan Crawford. Ferguson played bass with heavy lids and a scary stare, early tattoos visible through a translucent bowling shirt, while Buck was on drums, stoically keeping the whole rocking’ shebang on track.
Vaughan began a solo career in 1994, and has been tearing it up with a succession of friends ever since. He is inevitably compared to his beloved younger brother, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, but their creative styles were quite different.
Stevie looked at the sky and let her rip, a classic blues seer channeling something from beyond, but Jimmie’s approach is more studied and cerebral. Each of his songs is built upon a completely original and intricately constructed riff, a backbone to hold up a load of swinging soul and shouting joy. The result is real mastery, a completely authentic urban folk journey.
Vaughan plays the blues guitar as well as any white boy, including the likes of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Duane Allman and his brother Stevie. His rhythm and blues will pull you out on the floor, whether you can dance or not, and his slow blues are impeccable, entirely original but reminiscent of the best of Muddy Waters, Hound Dog Taylor or Gatemouth Brown. In recent years he’s been incorporating jazz undercurrents, performing regularly at C-Boys Heart & Soul on South Congress. Backed up by Mike Flanigin’s throbbing B-3 organ, Jimmie sits while he plays, surveying the crowd with a sharp eye, trying to figure out just who really gets it.
Doug Sahm’s influence on Texas music is not well enough known, but impossible to overstate. With his original stew of rock and roll, country, soul, Tejano and rhythm and blues, a little Motown and a little psychedelic polka, Sahm pushed the scene along for close to fifty years until his untimely death in 1999. He pulled us into unexpected eddies and cultural confluences, always with a smile on his face and a Pearl in his hand. “You just can’t live in Texas unless you got a lot of soul”, he said, and then set out to prove it so.
Sir Doug was a child prodigy. He came of age on the stages of San Antonio, made his name posing as part of the British invasion, and moved to San Francisco (with the likes of Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter and Boz Scaggs) as a Texas ambassador to the Summer of Love. In the seventies he moved to Austin, his “Groover’s Paradise”, to help fuel its exploding musical adventure. He stayed for the rest of his life.
First there was the Sir Douglas Quintet, San Antonio boys with Beatle cuts, then the Texas Tornados, with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez. The fabulous Augie Meyers was always by his side. Sahm could lay down a sad country tune, but his trademark was something else entirely, a sort of rolling Texas jump funk that pulled hippies, rednecks and old folks alike out on the dance floor. His lilting drawl and hammering guitar, Augie’s pumping Vox, the testifying honk of Rocky Morales and the West Side Horns. Joy, set to rhythm.
Check out “Beautiful Texas Sunshine”, a sketch of the carefree Austin of the seventies, and imagine laying on a big slab of limestone with the lover of your dreams, clear waters swirling all around you, “Cowboy Peyton Place”, a two-steppin’ ode to serial heartbreak and “Just Groove Me”, a classic Sahm bluesy groove that will have you sliding and swaying around the kitchen table.
Doug’s son Shawn carries on the tradition in Austin with the Tex-Mex Tradition, and second son Shandon is a noted drummer with the Meat Puppets. In 2008, Austin dedicated Doug Sahm Hill to the man, looking over the lake in downtown Austin. He would have considered that groovy.
The happy hippie in a ten-gallon hat, the original cosmic cowboy, the pied piper of the Texas Hill Country. Doug Sahm changed our music forever.
Three things to know about Doug Sahm: (1) he sang “Teardrops In My Heart” on San Antonio radio at the age of five, (2) in Austin, 1953, two weeks before his death, Hank Williams pulled Doug up onstage to play, (3) in 1973, Atlantic Records released Doug Sahm And Band, featuring appearances by Bob Dylan, Dr. John, David Bromberg and Flaco Jimenez.
Stories abound about Billy Joe Shaver, the tragedies endured, the stands taken, the paths chosen. Suffice to say that there is not an insincere bone in the body of this man. A son of Corsicana and Waco, Texas, Shaver’s songs leap straight from the heart and speak to those parts of us that need some dignity, some justice. This is poetry straight from the black soil of East Texas, earthy and real.
The word outlaw has a bit of a nefarious meaning. To the Nashville establishment in the early seventies, it was tagged to a number of country and western artists who weren’t as welcome on the Grand Ole Opry stage as the likes of Porter Waggoner or Dolly Parton. At the helm of the “outlaw movement”, as these artists came to be known, were Texans Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the lesser known Shaver…maybe the truest outlaw of them all.
The trio’s work, and more importantly their attitudes and actions, led to a minor exodus out of Nashville and into Texas, where they found a much better reception for their heartfelt music and their wicked ways.
“It’s all right to call me an outlaw, but it’s hard to be an outlaw when you ‘ain’t wanted”, Shaver said in an interview. “No, back in those days when we first started that movement, it was more like outcast than outlaw. They didn’t want us in there.”
For his part, Shaver stayed out of the spotlight, likely not by choice. Rather, his penchant was for crafting indelible, gruff and spare country songs that bled authenticity. The kind of stuff that didn’t get played on the Opry stage too often.
These songs eventually got the attention of Jennings after he was confronted by Shaver in a Nashville studio. Billy Joe famously warned Jennings to listen to his music or get his “ass whupped”, and Jennings wisely chose to listen. The result was Honky Tonk Heroes, Waylon’s 1973 album of Shaver’s songs that ushered in the outlaw movement, instilling a more rock ’n’ roll approach to country, and influencing a slew of artists then, such as David Allan Coe and Kris Kristofferson, and now, such as Hank Williams III and Wayne Hancock.
Yet, for all it has accomplished, outlaw country has yet to be accepted by the Nashville elite, and that’s just fine with Shaver. “They were afraid we’d mess up what they had and they had something that was good,” Shaver added, “but it wasn’t as good as what we brought to the table. We were probably ten or fifteen years ahead. They claimed it was rock ‘n’ roll; it wasn’t. It was just kick ass country, the way we play down here in Texas.”
Shaver stands as one of country music’s true originals that is still actively writing, his latest release being the highly acclaimed Long in the Tooth, an album which has shed a brighter light on the honky-tonk hero. The album’s opener is a duet with Nelson, aptly titled “Hard to Be an Outlaw.” It’s the perfect frosting on the cake that is Shaver’s hard fought career, one that was never ideal in terms of development. However, he’s still standing and he remains the epitome of Texas music… independent, ornery as hell, and steadfast. Country as it gets, in all the right ways.
Three things you should know about Billy Joe Shaver: (1) at a young age he lost two fingers working in a sawmill, which shaped the way he plays guitar; (2) Shaver’s son, Eddy, performed alongside his father up until a tragic heroin overdose in 2000, and (3) his on again/off again wife Brenda refused to let Billy Joe play on Honky Tonk Heroes, telling Jennings “He don’t want to be on no outlaw album. He don’t want to go back to that kind of life.”
Certain artists serve as engines for the songwriting scene. Their talents go beyond writing and performing their own work into catalyzing and shaping the work of others, carrying forward the torch in productive and enriching cooperation. Folks like Stephen Bruton, Steve Earle and Chip Taylor, names like Lauderdale and LaFave. Forces of nature like Buddy Miller.
Miller, who lives in Nashville with his musician wife Julie Miller, is a consummate artist who wields a fine voice, a soaring guitar and an impeccable ear for the heart and soul of country music. In a long career of creation and collaboration with an extraordinary array of artists, he has worked as a songwriter, producer, session or touring instrumentalist and vocalist, recording engineer and trusted friend. He has worked with folks like Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Levon Helm, Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, Solomon Burke, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Allison Moorer, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Earle, Lauderdale and many more. His fingerprints are all over the record of good country music, and he’s not done yet.
If Buddy Miller is an engine of the songwriting world, he is damn sure a Rocket 88.
The litmus test is, of course, his own work, mostly honed in partnership with the very talented Julie. Appalachian-scented harmonies delivering visceral and universal truths. Stuff that will always make your heart beat and sometimes make your eyes water. Stuff about love, mostly, the good kind and the bad.
Three things to know about Buddy Miller, all of which attest to his standing in the industry: (1) he has won at least twelve Americana Music Honors & Awards in various categories; (2) in 2008, No Depression named him “Artist of the Decade”; and (3) he co-produced the television hit Nashville.
Raised in a Fort Worth musical family, Stephen Bruton grew into a pillar of the Austin music scene before his death in 2009. He made his name as a prized session and touring guitarist, but evolved into a producer and mentor, shaping the work of veterans and up and comers with musical prowess, reliable taste and kind demeanor.
Stephen also wrote great songs. Moving glimpses of love and loss, rolling testifiers to the freedom he chose and lived to the hilt. Between 1993 to 2005 he released five solo albums of moving original work, including What It Is, Right on Time, Nothing but the Truth, Spirit World and From the Five.
Bruton was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 but reacted with strength, resolve and an acceleration of creativity. He recorded a stellar traditional album, The Texas Sheiks, with Geoff Muldaur, Cindy Cashdollar, Suzy Thompson, Johnny Nicholas and Hughes. He also helped Burnett and Ryan Bingham write and perform the music for the film Crazy Heart, which was released after Stephen’s death in May of 2009 and dedicated to his memory.
Stephen Bruton was a hell of a Texan. He is remembered with great love, and his talents are sorely missed.
Three things to know about Stephen Bruton: (1) as a boy he worked in his family’s record store in Fort Worth, (2) his brother is noted blues guitarist Sumter Bruton, and (3) he played Captain Almeron Dickinson in the 2004 film The Alamo.
Another Hill Country master with a streak of Oklahoma red dirt, Kevin Welch cuts a handsome swath of contemplation, sincerity and integrity. Performing solo or with band, family and various friends, Welch’s voice and guitar work are equal to his songwriting. Listen to “Fold Your Wings” and reach for a lover’s hand, real or imaginary, or consider the unintended consequences of adoption in “Bastard Nation”. Serious and beautiful stuff that cuts to the bone.
Born in California and raised in Oklahoma, and after cutting his teeth for several years with a couple of bands on honky-tonk road, Welch moved to Nashville in 1978 to become a contract songwriter. He started playing the nightclubs with local bands and ultimately formed his own outfit, The Overtones. In 1988, with the encouragement of buddy Steve Earle, he wrangled a record deal and released Western Beat in 1990 and Kevin Welch in 1992. In 1995, Life Down Here on Earth came out on Dead Reckoning Records, a label he formed with Kieran Kane, Tammy Rogers, Mike Henderson and Harry Stinson, and was followed by Beneath My Wheels in 1999 and Millionaire in 2002.
The 2002 record, which featured a cast of Scandinavian musicians, would mark Welch’s productive association with friends from other countries, including The Danes from Denmark and The Flood from Australia.
Kevin has also had a long and important collaboration with other Dead Reckoning artists Kieran Kane and Fats Kaplin, recording a number of albums as Kane Welch Kaplin, including Lost John Dean, which reached number one on the Americana charts and garnered nominations at the 2006 Americana Honors and Awards.
In 2008, Kevin moved to Wimberley, Texas, just outside of Austin, and is now a regular in the Austin and Hill Country live music scene. His most recent solo release, 2010’s A Patch Of Blue Sky, is a stunning collection of powerful and ruminative originals.
A quiet voice of immense strength, a steady habit of saying what needs to be said. If you take up with Mr. Welch, you’ll keep him around awhile.
Three things to know about Kevin Welch: (1) he is the father of Austin musicians Dustin Welch and Savannah Welch; (2) he conducts regular songwriting workshops, usually from his home Wimberley home, and (3) he lives in a log cabin.
Hailing from Tyler, the rose capital of Texas, Adam Carroll is revered by listeners and other artists alike as a prolific and authentic chronicler of lives of folks in the Lone Star State, and pretty much everywhere else.
Carroll’s hopeful drawl soars above the human landscape, observing and recording the snippets of joy, irony and wit that bless and inflict us all. A simple turn of phrase is just the top layer of love, joy and loss stacked miles deep. What at first strikes as funny, even frivolous, quickly turns to irony and barely disguised pain, then circles back around to his one lesson: this is life, it’s what we’ve got. Stop bitching and start living.
Carroll has released seven albums of original work to date, and he has collaborated with the likes of Lloyd Maines, Michael O’Connor, even the late Kent Finlay. Many great writers, folks like Hayes Carll, Terri Hendrix and Slaid Cleaves, have been guided and inspired by his work.
At a young age he received the ultimate compliment of a tribute album, Highway Prayer: A Tribute to Adam Carroll, which features loving renditions of his songs by the likes of James McMurtry, Tim Easton, Jamie Lin Wilson, Verlon Thompson, Matt the Electrician, Wilkins, Carll, Hendrix, Cleaves and others. A fitting honor to a songwriter’s songwriter.
Keep preaching your gospel, Adam. We need it. We need you.
Three things to know about Adam Carroll: (1) he now makes his home in San Marcos, Texas (a lovely version of seventies Austin); (2) Lloyd Maines has produced five of his records to date; and (3) he cites the great Butch Hancock as one of his most significant influences.
Alejandro Escovedo has brought a bit of both coasts to the Austin scene. Born to a renowned musical family from San Antonio, and raised in Texas and California, you might guess that he came of age running the streets of the Big Apple with the likes of Lou Reed and Garland Jeffreys.
Escovedo is a rocker, tried and true, his work infused with gritty passion and steely soul. After starting his career with The Nuns in the hardcore San Francisco punk scene of the early eighties, he moved to Austin and helped sow the seeds of cowpunk with brother Javier, Jon Dee Graham and Chip and Tony Kinman, in seminal bands Rank and File and True Believers. He has subsequently built a solo career and captained both Buick McKane and The Sensitive Boys. Alejandro has released a number of critically acclaimed albums, and has collaborated successfully with Ryan Adams, Chuck Prophet and Bruce Springsteen, and others.
Never at a loss for a sharp lyric or a compelling melody, many of his songs, especially the lilting ballads, bear more than a trace of country. Visit “Rosalie”, a simple call to a lost lover, for an example of Escovedo’s softer side. For a taste of the harder stuff, check out “Faith”, a muscular rocker with Springsteen singing alongside. For a measure of Escovedo’s emotional depth, listen to “Fort Worth Blue”, a brilliant instrumental farewell to the late Stephen Bruton. This one draws tears in Los Angeles and Luckenbach alike.
Never at a loss for a sharp lyric or a compelling melody, many of his songs, especially the lilting ballads, bear more than a trace of country. Visit “Rosalie”, a simple call to a lost lover, for an example of Escovedo’s softer side. For a taste of the harder stuff, check out “Faith”, a muscular rocker with Springsteen sharing vocals. For a measure of his emotional depth, listen to “Fort Worth Blue”, a brilliant instrumental farewell to the late Stephen Bruton that draws tears in Los Angeles and Fort Worth alike. Bruton was Alejandro’s first solo producer, and the two worked together to create three great albums released in the nineties, Gravity, Thirteen Years and With These Hands.
Alejandro has been long exposed to a heap of diverse musical and cultural influences. He comes from a large family of artists who have made their respective marks in Cuban jazz, rock and roll, punk and country. Well-known Escovedos include Alejandro, brothers Coke, Pete, Javier and Mario, and niece Sheila E. of Prince fame.
Over the years, Escovedo, who recent relocated to Dallas, has grown into a senior statesman of the Texas music scene. He continues to create new music and tours regularly. Another supremely gifted artist who has marked Austin and elsewhere with a passionate and singular vision, and a graceful soul.
Three things you should know about Alejandro Escobedo: (1) he opened for Los Lobos early in his career, (2) he started his musical career in a punk rock band and (3) he suffered from Hepatitis-C, including a long recovery.
Jeff Plankenhorn is a larger than life presence on stage. A big man with a kind smile and generous demeanor, he is often the bedrock that binds a host of talents into a moving whole. Then he picks up his slide, looks down in his lap and the joint starts hopping.
Plankenhorn made his name in Austin as a preeminent guitar slinger, especially as a slide specialist. Now he is everywhere in town. Regular gigs include the Apostles of Manchaca, with Malford Milligan at One to One Bar; a regular Resentment at Saxon Pub on Sunday nights; sitting in regularly with Austin friends at various recording studios and listening rooms; and finding time to tour nationally and internationally.
He has also found time to put pen to paper and is increasingly known for his impressive songwriting and powerful voice. With the recent release of SoulSlide, a collection of mostly original work, he has completed his bona fides as both a master instrumentalist and an important songwriter and singer.
The origins of Plankenhorn’s musical journey share a note with so many others…small town America, a church choir, a deep sense of community and ministering to others through his gift of music. It was love at first sight for Plank, this giving and sharing through music, a love that has only deepened over the years.
Born in Ohio and educated in Michigan, his older brother John had a significant role in Plankenhorn’s evolution as a musician. John encouraged him to experiment with all types of music and, above all else, just keep playing. John gave Jeff his first guitar at the age of ten, and stringed instruments quickly became his passion. While he certainly mastered traditional styles of playing the acoustic and electric guitar, his true love became the slide or steel guitar, and decided to take shot at the life of a professional musician.
Plankenhorn’s musical repertoire is both broad and deep, moving effortlessly through folk, country, blues, bluegrass, gospel, rock and soul. He has released four albums to date, Plank, The Speed of Hope, Live at the Saxon Pub, and the mentioned SoulSlide, which includes contributions from friendsMilligan and Ruthie Foster.
Three things you should know about Jeff Plankenhorn: (1) he started singing and playing the piano when he was seven, (2) his brother composes avant-garde chamber music, and (3) his nickname is “Plank”.
Kevin Higgins has been around awhile, fronting Austin’s “Cosmic Dust Devils” and now touring and recording as “Ghosts of the American Road”.
But Higgins found his solo mojo in 2009’s “Find Your Shine”, a simply stunning collection of stories and portraits that stretch from his imagination to the desert horizon. His El Paso roots shine through these tales of lonesome survivors, bleached and weathered in the vast empty that is West Texas. Giants and poets have risen here and imagined something more. The strongest left to find it.
This stark territory figures large in the landscape of Texas music, and is considered by many to be the birthplace of the rawest and realest version of an art form that trades in hard reality. Holly, Jennings, Ely, Gilmore and more than a few Hancocks. Loners squinting into the wind to the horizon, looking for that sliver of sun that signals the end of the storm.
“Find Your Shine” is as close as anyone has come to painting a picture of life in this outback. A place so bleak that its people have been hard for generations, a place where something good is so rare that it stands out like an antelope in yellow grass. Easy to find but hard to hang on to. In “Monahans”, a jewel about first love lost, Higgins confesses “…you grab ahold of something good and it slips right through your hands.”
In the powerful “West Texas Aggregate”, Higgins remembers a father that just “stares straight ahead” and a brother that “hardens up his heart and welds it to his muscle car.” In the end, he is resigned to the hand he was dealt. “This is my home, this is my place, these are my people, despite what we say.”
“Infinity”, an ode to real and enduring love, is welcome relief from the desolation, as is “Kickaround Kid”, an endearing story about a child’s boundless strength in the face of heartbreak.
This record is the real thing. Toss one back, throw Kevin Higgins on the table and feel those dusty winds blow right through you.
Three things to know about Kevin Higgins: (1) his talented wife and musical partner, Barbara Malteze, is always by his side, (2) Barbara and Kevin are reported to spend quite a bit of time in the lovely Texas Hill Country outposts of Fredericksburg and Hondo, and (3) he buys his boots in El Paso.
Will T. Massey’s boyish voice bears little trace of his San Angelo, Texas roots, and his fragile lyrics hint at hidden fears and turbulent waters. Massey searches this world for justice and peace, and judging by his remote but profound songs, the world has come up a little short.
Will T. was ambitious and an early learner, cassette recording and handing out tapes of his first album Pickin’, Poker and Pickup Trucks, while still in high school. He graduated, moved to Austin and made an immediate splash, releasing Kickin’ up Dust in 1988 and Slow Study in 1989, working with the likes of Lloyd Maines, Ponty Bone and Tish Hinojosa. He also began an impressive touring schedule with folks like Townes van Zandt, Chris Isaak, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen.
Then he kicked it into overdrive. In 1991, at the age of twenty-one, he had landed a record deal with MCA and released Will T. Massey, teaming up with Roy Bittan, Mike Campbell and Kenny Aronoff. The work was well received by the industry and the critics, and he was nationally lauded in the pages of Rolling Stone, Time Magazine and The New York Daily News.
But something began to go very wrong. Will’s demeanor began to change, his behavior became increasingly erratic and irrational.
He was entering a long and dark journey of bewilderment and isolation, a journey that would see little light for another thirteen years. A stint in Seattle, then back to Austin. Lost, alone, often homeless. Involuntary hospitalizations. Then, with the help of a last good friend, he found a doctor he could trust and a name for his illness: schizophrenia.
Will ultimately sought treatment and began to reclaim his art, releasing two albums in 2005, Acoustic Session and Alone. He followed with Letters in the Wind in 2006 and Wayward Lady in 2008. In the years since, Will T. has continued to make his way in this world and show us his beautiful heart. He has recently released another record of original work, The Weathering.
Pour a glass of your favorite and enter the soaring mind and delicate soul of Will T. Massey.
Three things to know about Will T. Massey: (1) the political bent of Wayward Lady was inspired by a letter James McMurtry wrote to Billboard challenging other songwriters to be more outspoken about world events, (2) the great Lloyd Mains produced Slow Study, and (3) he once had a video on Country Music Television.
Ana Egge’s voice pulls from some deep well, somber and strong, calming but bracing. With roots in North Dakota, New Mexico, Austin, and now Brooklyn, she writes powerful songs that are inhabited by the ghosts of a wide swath of old and new America.
Ana’s free spirit was fostered from an early age, growing up on the North Dakota prairie and the daughter of “back-to-the-land” hippie parents. She learned the art of adventure through the sites of a gun and experienced the pulse of a motorcycle at the tender age of five. Her father was a wheat farmer, her mother a teacher, but their wayward spirits soon had them splitting time between the prairie life and a hot springs commune in New Mexico, driving back and forth in a 1969 Dodge van.
Soon they gave up the vastness of the prairie for the spirituality of southern New Mexico, and moved south to open an alternative school. Ana’s days were filled roaming the mountains barefoot and soaking up the banter of a host of eclectic personalities. It was a world that sparked imagination and fueled her natural creativity.
Ana’s musical spirit was stoked by listening to an errant cassette of Iris Dement and a stint in her high school bluegrass band. Egge has since expanded her range of instruments to guitar, mandolin, bottleneck slide and piano. And, of course, there’s that voice.
Ana is one of those rare souls who is completely comfortable in her own skin. She remains true to her roots while connecting deeply with those fortunate to experience her music. Captivating. Alluring. Ancient water for parched souls.
Three things you should know about Ana Egge: (1) she currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, (2) she studied under a luthier and built her own guitar, which she has been playing since she was fifteen, and (3) she was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, also the home of Buffy Sainte-Marie.
K Phillips leads mostly from the keyboard, singing and occasionally grabbing a guitar in the course of his barn-burning live performances. Sort of like The Isley Brothers calling Billy Sol Estes to the stage in a thumping Tom Green County beer joint. Just try to keep your rear in the chair when Phillips gets the rhythm pumping and that Hammond honking. His one release to date, American Girls, delivers plenty of that roadside rhythm and blues along with some very nice acoustic soul. A second release, Dirty Wonder, is on the near horizon.
Phillips’ Texas roots run deep…born in West Texas and raised on his grandparents’ cattle ranch in the Concho Valley. He remembers cruising the country back roads with his mother, the dry wind in their hair, Fleetwood Mac blaring from the speakers. By the age of five, K was writing poems and songs, humming and fooling around on an old guitar.
“I learned from a young age that music is a release and that it can heal you,” he once said. By fourteen he was playing in bar bands and learning the piano and organ.
But more hard lessons were in store for young K Phillips. In his eighteenth year, in separate accidents, West Texas lakes claimed the lives of his girlfriend and a close friend. Almost a Greek tragedy, but all too real. In the depths of his grief, K decided to seriously pursue his passion, music, and hit the road to Austin and New Braunfels, Texas.
He has since added harmonica and accordion to his instrumental toolbox, and is barnstorming across the roots music landscape. He leans heavily on his life experiences and pulls from places that resonate with those experiences. Gospel and blues, R&B and country, rock & roll, maybe a touch of folk. He is certainly achieving his dream “…to play the songs I want to sing and play them to people that want to hear them.”
While his music has drawn comparisons to Tom Waits and Keith Richards, K was most excited by the recognition of his work by Adam Duritz of Counting Crows. In October of 2014, Duritz covered Phillips’ “Kat’s Song” at Bowery Electric in NYC, calling K up on stage to help with the vocals. One of K’s long-time idols, the opportunity to sing with Duritz meant the world to this West Texas boy, and Phillips subsequently toured with Duritz and Counting Crows.
K Phillips is aiming for the stars and will damn sure get there. Keep a close eye and ear on this West Texan!
Three things to know about K: (1) he was named after Kris Kristofferson, (2) his grandfather was a Texas criminal court judge, and (3) he now lives in Nashville (we hope he finds his way back to Texas soon).
Some artists channel a calm wisdom that is as comforting as a father’s voice. We listen because their words feel right and true, gifts that might help us through our own dark nights. Chip Taylor is such an artist.
The quality of Taylor’s music, and his kinship to the great Texas songwriters, was best expressed when critic Anthony DeCurtis said “if names like Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Townes Van Zandt mean anything to you, you should make a point of discovering Chip Taylor.”
Born James Wesley Voight to a Yonkers, New York family of diverse movers and shakers, Taylor has been a performing songwriter for over fifty years now. But that’s only part of this illustrious family story. Brother Jon became a renowned actor (and the father of Angelina Jolie), and Barry is a noted academic and volcanologist. Father Elmer was an ace golfer, and Chip initially intended to follow in his footsteps.
After professional golfing didn’t work out, Chip decided to try his hand at music, moving to Nashville to take a job as a contract songwriter, and he was a good one, writing such monuments as “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”.
But Taylor’s talents were too expansive to be cooped up in a Nashville writer’s room, and he continued to write and perform for himself. In 1973 he released Chip Taylor’s Last Chance, an important contribution to the burgeoning blend of folk and country, and ultimately a cult classic. Over the ensuing decades he would evolve into one of our most important songwriters, a world artist in residence, releasing over twenty albums of original music, to date, most recently 2015’s The Little Prayers Trilogy.
But even a life that rich wasn’t rowdy enough for Chip Taylor. In the eighties he took a break from songwriting to become a professional gambler, and was good enough to earn a ban from most of the east coast casinos.
By the end of the nineties he again felt the pull of his art. In 2001 he visited Austin for SXSW and discovered the lovely Carrie Rodriguez at a live performance. Turning his talents to the Texas tradition, Taylor made several stunning, critically acclaimed albums with Rodriguez, a virtuoso fiddler, singer and songwriter in her own right.
Taylor has since retraced his steps to the East Coast and across the Atlantic to the Emerald Isle and Scandinavia, continuing to write wise and achingly beautiful meditations that have as much in common with Hemingway and Faulkner as with Lennon, McCartney or Dylan. He has especially found his way into the hearts of Norway. In 2012, the patron songwriter of that country, Paal Flaata, recorded Wait By The Fire, an entire album of Taylor’s songs.
In 2011, he was preparing to play a festival there when a lone killer took the lives of seventy-seven, mostly children, in the capital of Oslo and on the island of Utoya. A week later, Chip wrote and performed “On This Darkest Day”, a stunning tribute to the victims, a powerful ode to love and humanity in the face of mindless hatred. In the light of the new morning, he reminds us, we still have each other.
While Taylor has clearly grabbed life and lived it, his words are often more illuminating than comforting, more questions than answers. Still, a father’s voice gives comfort.
Three things to know about Chip Taylor: (1) he has had a long association with guitarist John Platania, who played on some of Van Morrison’s best work, (2) his album Yonkers, NY was nominated for a Grammy in 2011, and (3) In 1980 he appeared in the film Melvin and Howard.
It’s like you finally started listening to your old drunk uncle from Shreveport and realized he was channeling an enlightened hillbilly cocktail of Tom Waits, Ernest Hemingway and Lenny Bruce. Kevin Russell, aka“Shinyribs”, begins as an assault on your senses and becomes a journey that cannot be described but must be experienced.
Russell’s early life followed the boom and bust cycles of the oil patch, his family rambling from Beaumont to Houston to Abu Dhabi to Shreveport like a pack of East Texas gypsies. At the tender age of fourteen, young Kevin found his father’s guitar under his bed next to a sewing machine, a billy club and box of comic books. Lucky for us he fancied the guitar.
His first move, from blue-collar Beaumont to the well-to-do suburbs of Houston, and the jump up in class status, left Russell a bit unsettled. Playing music and writing songs quickly became a habit, as did skateboarding and listening to punk rock, which left an indelible imprint on his young soul. Yet another move, this time to Shreveport, marked the true beginning of his musical journey. There that he formed his first band, the Picket Line Coyotes. Steeped in the punk of his Houston days, Russell also began to bend to the demands of his country/rockabilly soul, beginning to shape the outrageous persona we now know as Shinyribs.
Russell found his way to Austin in 1993 and soon founded a band called The Gourds. Featuring Kevin on vocals and guitar, Claude Bernard on keyboards and accordion, Keith Langford on drums and Max Johnston and Jimmy Smith on everything else, the band rolled down the music highway for the next eighteen years, never staying in the lanes and nicking a guardrail or two, and became both a favorite of Austin locals and national fans. The band is currently on “hiatus”, with members continuing to churn out their art in various side projects.
Russell, in particular, could not be satisfied with just one creative outlet, and in 2007 began to also perform as Shinyribs. Over the years, Russell has grown his instrumental repertoire to include mandolin, banjo, and most recently the ukulele. Few sights can rival big ol’ Kevin wailing on a tiny wooden uke, or busting out a hillbilly acapella on a moment’s notice. Listening to this creative giant might evoke Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Wonder and Woody Guthrie, and he has shared the stage with the likes of Jon Dee Graham, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mark Rubin, Scrappy Jud Newcomb and Michael Fracasso. Enter this psyche. You’re tough enough.
Three things you should know about Kevin Russell: (1) the name Shinyribs came from a transient woman who panhandled on a corner near Russell’s home (after he gave her a plate of BBQ, she would shout “shinyribs” every time she saw him), (2) the Picket Line Coyotes played at the second SXSW event, where they were accused of stealing a dive bar’s Jim Morrison velvet painting (they were innocent of course, but one could easily see why such a fine establishment would miss a velvet painting of anything…) and (3) at seventeen he consulted a shaman and discovered paranormal ties with both Jerry Clower and Gene Watson.
Ryan Bingham is the real thing. A real Texan, a real rodeo cowboy, a real songwriter. An old friend once remarked, after listening to a young Bingham play on a front porch in Marfa, Texas, “I don’t know exactly what it is, but whatever it is, this kid’s got it.”
Born in Hobbs, New Mexico, Ryan was raised mostly in Texas. Laredo, Stephenville, Houston and Fort Worth. Along the way he did a little time on the bull riding circuit.
Bingham came out of the chute in 2007 with Mescalito and has followed with an additional four albums to date. In 2011, he collaborated with T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton on the soundtrack for the Jeff Bridges film Crazy Heart. Ryan and Burnett wrote the theme song, “The Weary Kind”, earning each an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. The score included “Fallin’ & Flyin'”, written by Bruton and Austin Songwriter favorite Gary Nicholson. Bingham also made a brief appearance in the film as Tony, the leader of a small town band backing Bridges as a broken country singer trying to get by.
Bingham’s work is completely original, remote and strong, bearing the traces of long roads, flat horizons and dusty arenas. Hard years and tough circumstances…his mother drank herself to death, and his father took his life. The songs range from bitter introspections to hard-edged rockers. All hold both anger and gratitude and come from a place of secret darkness and lessons learned. The graveled voice, the dry places between the lines, the wary reserve of a man who can never quite tell friend from foe. Bingham squints in the newfound glare of fame, but he still looks straight ahead.
Three things to know about Ryan Bingham: (1) he now makes his home in Los Angeles, (2) his wife, Anna Axter, has directed a number of his music videos, and (3) some folks remember him as a baby, diapered and perched on the juke box of the Halfway Bar between Hobbs and Carlsbad, New Mexico.
“Journeyman” usually refers to a seasoned and reliable guitarist or drummer, but what does it mean for a songwriter? In the case of Walt Wilkins, it means an everyman master who has portrayed, with passion and wisdom, all of the high hills and deep creases of our lives. A native of San Antonio and an Austinite for years, Wilkins is one of those artists who can only be fully understood through a grasp of his entire body of work, which is substantial. He emerges as a man of wisdom, a beacon for the rest of us, maybe even a healer.
Working quietly in the “next big thing” hustle of the Austin music scene, Wilkins has steadily gathered converts and friends, even a few disciples. His pieces resonate over time, simple in the beginning but becoming profound observations of universal truths.He has given us his take on simplicity (“Just Be”), joy (“Hey Tomorrow”), success (“I Chose This Road”), failure (“Some Men Fall”), the past (“Walnut Street”), the future (“Down the Track“), fate (“Trains I Missed”), poverty (“When There’s No Money Coming In”), faith (“The Angels’ Share”, “Poetry”), lost youth (“Privileges of Youth”), aging (“Up and On My Way”), mortality (“The Songs I’ve Sung”), replenishment (“Rain All Night”), resistance (”Hang On to Your Soul”), persistence (“Velvet Sky”), love (“Genevieve”, “Untitled”), lost love (“Absolut Crazy”), young love (“Something Like Heaven”, “Soft September Night”), old love (“Under This Cottonwood Tree”, “Walk Through This World With Me”), gratitude (“Between Midnight and Day”), rebirth (“Wrapped”), acceptance (“Quiet Moon”, “Grey Hawk”), and salvation (“It’s Only Rain”).
And then there are the masterpieces. In “Tonight I Might”, Wilkins contemplates hopping that train and leaving it all behind. The result is simultaneous joy and regret, capped by soaring, call and response guitar work. In “18 Days of Rain”, a man gives strength by refusing to bend to his lover’s melancholy. “Someone Somewhere Tonight” spans birth to last rites, passing first love, hopelessness and rebirth along the way. In “Walnut Street”, we hear whispers of the past in an old Texas home. “Long Winter” speaks to, and for, a family that has survived hardship and faces the future, together. In “If It Weren’t For You”, Wilkins gets down on his knees in gratitude for his woman, and in “Dear God”, he asks his God for both guidance and an explanation. Finally, he takes a damn good shot at the spiritual essence of love in “More Like the River”.
Wilkins maintains a coveted weekly slot at the Saxon Pub when he is in Austin, currently on Wednesday nights. Backed by the seasoned Mystiqueros and often accompanied by his lovely wife Tina Mitchell Wilkins, all accomplished artists in their own rights, Walt Wilkins continues to quietly bless us with his wise and beautiful observations of life and love.
Three things you should know about Walt: (1) he lived in Nashville for 11 years (he got back to Texas as quick as he could), (2) he has been called the John Steinbeck of music, and (3) he helped Sam Baker produce his debut album, Mercy, in 2004.
Bruce Hughes is first a bedrock bass player, the go-to guy who sets the stage for a dean’s list writers and performers from Austin and elsewhere. Over the years he has backed the likes of Bob Schneider, Poi Dog Pondering, True Believers, Ronnie Lane, Dr. John, Cracker, Jason Mraz, Arthur Brown, Johnny Nicholas and many others. He often lends his soul-filled voice to the mix.
On stage at the Saxon Pub or a host of other classic venues, Bruce effortlessly provides the backbone to pretty much any kind of good music. Always smiling, always grooving, eyes sometimes closed, sometimes open and scanning the crowd. In between songs he’s always good for a brilliant wisecrack or observation from far left field.
He is also a very talented songwriter, having released three solo albums of original work, including Bluebird, Shorty and Trap Door, as well as BHANA with his All Nude Army. Hughes’ songs are well bottomed and well hooked, ethereal and a little smart-assed. Kinda like a blissed-out Alex Chilton on stage with the Beatles, singing a Billie Holiday song. A little like that.
If you want to catch Hughes at his most relaxed, hit the Saxon Pub on Sunday nights for his regular performance with The Resentments. If everyone’s in town, you’ll find Bruce, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Jeff Plankenhorn, Miles Zuniga and John Chipman on stage, delivering an indescribably wonderful night of down-home Austin soul. Week in and week out, maybe the best show in town. The boys trade original songs, well-considered covers and ill-considered banter over a couple of intimate hours. All in all, a perfect end to the week.
While Austin is a magnet for artists from all over, its creative ecosystem also fosters amazing home grown talent. Bruce Hughes is a shining example of a world-class artist born and bred in Austin, and happy to stay right here. Bless his soul!
Three things you should know about Bruce Hughes: (1) he briefly appeared in Richard Linklater’s classic Austin movie, “Slacker”, (2) the first song he learned to play on bass was James Brown’s “Night Train”, and (3) he was an integral member of The Texas Sheiks, one of the last projects of his late friend, Stephen Bruton.
Trained in classical violin at the Berkeley School of Music and expertly apprenticed in songwriting and performing by the great Chip Taylor, Carrie Rodriguez has become a force of nature in the Austin music scene. Her music is at once powerful and ethereal, tied to the ground and soaring above it, equal parts flesh and soul.
Daughter of the luminous songwriter David Rodriguez and the painter Katy Nail, granddaughter of essayist Frances Nail and great-niece of Tejana legend Eva Garza, Carrie is extending a lineage of important Texas artists.
She found music early, wandering the halls of elementary school when a beginner’s version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” stopped her cold. Twelve years of violin lessons and a stint at Berkeley, she now wields a mean fiddle, and can more than hold her own on guitar, mandolin and tenor guitar. Her songs span folk to country blues to chicana to pure drawling country. Add a striking voice, spellbinding lyrics and full throttle stage presence, and you’ve got what Carrie self describes as “a half-gringa, half-Chicana, fiddle-playing Rodriguez.” Enough said.
Carrie grew up in a polarized world, one of the first generation of multi-racial offspring in old-school Texas, but determined to find her way. At the age of ten she was fully engaged in classical music, performing on her violin with others at Carnegie Hall. The adventures and lessons of these formative years would leave an indelible impression and the gift the wisdom. Be true to your heart, be proud of your heritage and family, and do what you love.
She used this wisdom to confront and resolve an important life decision…classical music or a different direction, something in her roots. Those roots, creative and Hispanic and Texan, were too deep and strong…she moved to Austin and exchanged the classical violin for a rough country fiddle, and took up the songster’s life.
Her career hit full stride in 2001 when she met Chip Taylor at Austin’s South by Southwest while on-stage with a distinguished group of artists celebrating their Hispanic heritage, including Carlos Santana, Los Lobos, Linda Ronstadt, Gloria Estefan and Jose Feliciano. They decided to throw in together and started a collaboration that would last five years and produce four stunning albums.
She lives in Austin and is married to musician Luke Jacobs, carrying on the family tradition of passion and creativity. The story is just beginning.
Three things you should know about Carrie Rodriguez: (1) January 17th is “Carrie Rodriguez Day” in Austin, (2) she has her own recording label, Luz Records (her middle name is Luz, Spanish for light), and (3) she learned Spanish from her ex-husband, as she didn’t grow up speaking it at home.
Kris Kristofferson is a living testament to the ethic of the singer-songwriter. Introspective and gregarious, astute observer of the ebb and flow of human emotion, courageous, independent. Kristofferson was there in the beginning, living the life, sowing the early seeds. Come to think, maybe he started the whole damn thing.
Born in Brownsville, Texas to a military family, Kristofferson has lived pretty much everywhere, and has done pretty much everything. Army Captain, helicopter pilot, boxer, rugger and runner. Rhodes Scholar, actor (with a Golden Globe Award) and pretty boy. But foremost, a songwriter.
Raised mostly in California and steered by his father towards a military career, his family never forgave him when he quit the army to become an artist. Kris got over it, and has had as much fun in this life as anybody, more than most, just being free and easy.
He landed in Nashville in 1965, swept floors to survive and did practically anything to get someone to listen to his songs. But he was never really part of the Nashville machine, nor would he become an “outlaw” from the traditional country scene like his buddies Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Kristofferson never pretended to be a country boy, never pretended to be anything other than what he was…a road hardened hippie California drifter from Texas. He was the absolute antithesis of the Nashville cowboys that whooped it up on Saturday night and still pretended to go to church on Sunday morning.
The full measure of this man’s work, and the real import of his influence on the art form, can only be appreciated from a distance. He has written great songs, of course, completely original and diverse barnburners that have become country standards. Songs like “For the Good Times”, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Help Me Make it Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee”. Songs still instantly recognized and loved around the world.
But perhaps more important than what he did was the way he did it. Kristofferson wrote and produced the way he wanted, not the way some record executive told him to. His original recordings are raw and spare and dusty, delivered with a few scratchy guitar chords and a sandpaper voice, and they were much the better for it. Kris was one of those early preachers of the simple spoken word (along with the likes of Bob Dylan and Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen), teaching us that the value of the music is in the message, not the package. The book rather than the cover.
Kris Kristofferson has had a long and beautiful journey, and we’re quite lucky that he took us along.
Three things you should know about Kris Kristofferson: (1) he has a Masters degree in English literature, and once wanted to be a novelist, (2) he was romantically involved with Janis Joplin when she died in 1970, and (3) to get Johnny Cash to listen to some of his early songs, Kris landed a helicopter in his front yard.
The songs of Mickey Newbury came from a place of serenity and sadness, beautiful recollections of the ones we left behind, pretty portraits of love’s bittersweet residue. He pulls the memories to the surface and leads us through the pain, ultimately to a place of resignation and quiet joy. There is no anger in these songs, and little regret, just dusty gratitude for the love he had and the life he lived.
Newbury came from a different time. Born in Houston in 1940, there were no footsteps to follow, no radio folksters to awaken or inspire him. He was a natural poet, with something inside of him that had to get out. As a teenager he locked himself in his room to dream, write poetry and learn to play a wooden guitar.
At nineteen he joined the Air Force and spent a few years in England, then returned to the States to become a songwriter. He chased gigs to showcase his work in Texas, Tennessee and Louisiana, living in his car and working the shrimp boats when he needed money. He ended up in Nashville and, in 1964, signed with Acuff-Rose. Now a full-fledged contract songwriter with Nashville credentials, Newbury honed his craft in the days before labels and wholesale commercialization, and soon found his songs being recorded by the disparate likes of Don Gibson, Tom Jones, the First Edition, Eddy Arnold and Solomon Burke.
He released his first album of his own work, Harlequin Memories, in 1969, married soon thereafter, and produced three classic albums in the coming years, including Looks Like Rain, Frisco Mabel Joy and Heaven Help the Child. These were his finest songs, utterly original and compelling work that was mostly overlooked in the cultural frenzy of the late sixties. But other writers were listening. You can still hear him in their songs.
In 1973, having built a respectable stream of songwriting royalties, Mickey and his wife Susan moved their family to her hometown in Oregon. He continued touring and, in 1980, was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He decided to take a break from the business and focused on his family for a few years. Imagine a Texas songwriter living in Oregon, looking like a cross between Robert Mitchum and Pat Boone, playing golf in double-knit pants.
He came back strong in the nineties and produced a wealth of more fine work before passing away in 2002. Newbury released more than twenty albums over a long career, changing the course of folk and country music alike.
Three things you should know about Mickey Newbury: (1) country DJ Ralph Emery called him the first “hippie-cowboy”, (2) he convinced Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt to pursue songwriting careers in Nashville, and (3) Elvis Presley famously covered “An American Trilogy”, Newbury’s arrangement of classic American folk anthems.
Guy Clark, who left this world on May 16, 2016, was one of the Texas songwriters who made the path and led the way. His work embodies all that is good about “progressive” country music. Truth and passion. Storytelling. Stories worth telling.
Born in deep West Texas, Clark was the son of a country lawyer, a good and steady man he celebrated in “The Randall Knife”, possibly the most compelling song a son has ever written about his father. Guy hit the road to find the world of songwriting, living over the years in Los Angeles, Austin and ultimately Nashville, where he worked as a contract writer and carried on with the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt. He stayed there for the rest of his life. It was, as he said, “where the business was”.
Early on he met the love of his life, a lovely painter from Atlanta, Texas by the name of Susanna. They were together, through thick and thin, till she passed in 2012. Listen to “My Favorite Picture of You”, from his last album of the same name, and hear eternal love put to words.
Van Zandt was a life-long friend of both Guy and Susanna, and they weathered their wild lives together until Townes’ death in 1997.
Clark’s poetry is best demonstrated by his first and seminal album, 1975’s Old No. 1. He was a master at taking us back to the stories of simple folk forging lives in hard places with their backs, hands, and hearts. He was also known for the work he did to supplement his earnings as a songwriter, driving heavy equipment, shaping wood in his workshop, crafting guitars. Listen to “Boats to Build”, a testament to honest craft and proud self-reliance, in which he urges us to turn away from the noise and fear and put your hands to the work that you love. Everything will be all right.
Clark practiced his art for over forty years and was a steady friend and invaluable mentor to those who followed his path. Folks like Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Robert Earl Keen and others gathered often around the Clarks’ kitchen table to drink, listen and learn.
Guy Clark was a physical presence, tall and lanky and handsome, his eyes both mischievous and wary. When he spoke the results were equal parts wisdom and silliness, always profane. He was one of those giant souls who gave intelligence and dignity to the songwriter’s art, and he makes us proud to call this music our hearts’ home. The one-woman man, the gentle philosopher, the natural poet of simple presence and strength.
A very tall Texan, and we miss him dearly.
Three things to know about Guy Clark: (1) he was instantly recognizable by his denim shirt and big turquoise ring, (2) he was often accompanied on stage and on record by the great Verlon Thompson, and (3) he first learned to sing in Spanish.
Someone, can’t remember who, once said that Van Morrison was the only musician to have invented a personal emotional equivalent of the blues. Almost right, but not quite.
Ray Wylie Hubbard is an original cosmic cowboy who got lost for a few decades only to be born-again as a near holy man. He grabbed hold of the craft and took it somewhere different, right up to the edge of the blues, and in the process invented his own damn personal emotional equivalent.
Austin Songwriter remembers him at the Alliance Wagon Yard on a rainy Friday night in 1975. He had travelled a hard and wild road from his boyhood in Oklahoma through Dallas, New Mexico, and now downtown Austin. Along the way he picked up a few bad habits, but he held that audience like a sunset holds a gaze.
Hubbard was one of the lesser known outlaws, and he made no friends in the music machines of Nashville or Los Angeles. He fought for the recognition he deserved but refused to compromise, and as a result his immense talent was little known outside of Texas. For those reasons, and probably a hundred others, he started to disappear into the dark recesses of the times, and by the late eighties he was almost forgotten.
Hubbard was not the only impaired genius stumbling around the stages of Austin in those days, and he would certainly not be the last. Some never stopped stumbling, but Ray Wylie eventually cinched up his jeans, dusted off his soul, and came storming back with a lot more stories to tell, a lot more music to write.
In 1987 Hubbard stopped the drugs and alcohol, and was propped up by none other than Stevie Ray Vaughan when his will got weak. He pursued guitar lessons to take his talents to a new level, and in 1992, eight years after his last album, he self-released the incredible Lost Train of Thought. He has continued with a string of records that are increasingly breathtaking in depth, form and spirit, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Like some old-time evangelist run out of town, Hubbard has a new church, a new congregation, and a new suit of clothes. Katy bar the door!
Ray Wylie Hubbard speaks pure truth and hard-earned wisdom, and you cannot listen to him without learning something about yourself. A hint of New Mexico, a bit of Dallas and a lot of Oklahoma and the Texas Hill Country. You will certainly hear the blues. The front porch kind, played with calloused fingers on weathered guitars. You will also hear a bit of Ray Wylie in the songs of worthy young writers, and their songs are better for it. He is grizzled and his music is gritty, but he is a messenger and his words are true and real.
Three things to know about Ray Wylie Hubbard: (1) he attended high school in Dallas with B. W. Stevenson and Michael Martin Murphey, (2) his seventies band, the Cowboy Twinkies, invented an early version of cowpunk, and (3) in his early years he was the prince of the Outpost music club in Red River, New Mexico.
Kelly Willis was born in the red dirt of Lawton, Oklahoma and lived the displaced life of an army child, unable to put down roots in any one place too long.
Her parents’ divorce when she was nine struck a heavy blow. Taking after her mother’s love of music, she sought solace in singing, and at the tender age of sixteen she was fronting her boyfriend’s band under the new name Kelly & the Fireballs…a sign of great things to come.
After graduating from high school in the mid-eighties, Kelly found herself in the live music capital of the world, Austin, Texas, and began developing the sizzling blend of country twang and rocker edge that would become her trademark. She has a pristine voice that is both lilting and powerful, often drawing comparisons to that of the legendary Patsy Cline. Her down home delivery of elegant Texas country will cut you to your core.
It took a while for Willis to achieve the success she deserved. Her first three albums, all greatly anticipated, but were met with tepid acceptance by critics and fans. It wasn’t until the 1999 release of her self-produced fourth album, What I Deserve, that she really hit her stride. Time Magazine called it “the smartest, most consistently worthwhile country CD” released that year. In the coming years she produced another three albums which cemented her success and standing, and which included collaborations with Vince Gill, Dan Tyminski and Chris Thile. She took a well-deserved hiatus from touring in 2008 to focus on her family (she is married to songwriter Bruce Robison, and they have four children).
Willis has captured the attention of such notable Texas songwriters as Nanci Griffith, who helped her land her first contract with MCA, and the great Lyle Lovett. In addition to her solo success, Kelly often appears on-stage with her husband. The Bruce and Kelly Show takes us back to other great performing couples…Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings and Jesse Colter. Big shoes to fill, but these two do it right with a sincere chemistry that is easy on the eyes and sweet harmony to the ears. It is indeed special to see them perform one of their intimate love songs in a spellbound Austin club.
Three things you should know about Kelly Willis: (1) her musical career started with her own version of Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear”, sung at a carnival recording booth, (2) her voice appeared in the1991 movie Thelma and Louise, singing “Little Honey”, and (3) she once made People magazine’s list of the fifty most beautiful people in the world.
Having been mentioned, with other visionaries, in Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Name Droppin’”, Mary Gauthier has plenty of Texas cred and the life lessons to back it up. Gauthier (pronounced “go-shay”) writes dark pictures of lost love and life gone awry, and sings them deep like the brackish waters of a Louisiana bayou.
Gauthier was born in New Orleans, but had far from a normal childhood. A mother forced to surrender her newborn to an asylum, a baby girl left on the doorstep of a big world, a difficult start. A mother she would never know.
Mary was adopted a year later, but ran away at the age of fifteen to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, it began with the discovery of drugs and alcohol, and stops along the way included drug rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, brief stints in jail and many nights crashing on friends’ couches.
She struggled to find her feet and decided to pursue a culinary career. She would eventually own three successful restaurants, but her demons continued to haunt. Arrested for drunk driving on her way to the grand opening of her restaurant, Mary found God’s grace on the floor of a jail cell. The clouds of hopelessness and despair began to lift and, filled with newfound hope, sobriety became her new norm.
She also found music and her stunning talents as a writer and performer. Music provided truth, something starkly absent in her childhood, and truth became the elixir to start healing the old wounds.
Lyrics have a special place in Gauthier’s heart…a place of solitude and refuge from the storms of abandonment and chaos. Songwriting is an expression of her life experience, and the miles of rough roads give absolute authenticity and rich texture to her work.
But Gauthier’s creativity is too vast to be confined to songwriting. She has also published short stories and is working on a book about the art of songwriting.
Her story is worth sharing, and share she does, with passion and depth, and with a message that is as captivating as it is challenging. Don’t settle for anything less than absolute truth and real love.
Three things you should know about Mary Gauthier: (1) her first album, Dixie Kitchen, was named after her first restaurant which served Cajun food in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, (2) she wrote her first song at age thirty-five, and (3) her songs are studied as literature at Vanderbilt University.
Lucky for us, natural musicians are drawn to Austin like honeybees to a sunflower. For every writer with a dream and a beat up Martin guitar, there is a slinger with a Stratocaster, a Berklee grad with a fiddle or a cowboy with a pedal steel. An embarrassment of riches, we suppose.
“Scrappy” Jud Newcomb is a Mississippi boy who hit Austin in the late eighties as a young guitar virtuoso, and has since evolved into a pillar of the local scene, as well as an all around good citizen. His first steady gig was with Troy Campbell and the legendary Loose Diamonds, and as his reputation got around he became a go to guitarist for a host of artists, both on stage and in the recording booth.
Newcomb is the Austin version of the big hair guitar god. He can play anything with anybody at any time, and when it comes his turn you’ll want to hear every phrase, every nuance, every lick. He’ll close his eyes and slip somewhere far away, and the beauty will just pour from his fingers like praise from a mother’s lips.
Early on the great Stephen Bruton became Newcomb’s good friend and important mentor. Jud followed a path remarkably similar path to Bruton’s, session guitarists that grew into singers, songwriters, producers and prominent arbiters of style and taste for the larger creative community. They played and traveled together until Bruton’s death in 2009.
But Newcomb really shines as a solo artist, having released three albums of captivating original work, including Turbinado (2003), Byzantine (2005), and Ride the High Country (2008). He is also a key creative force behind a number of great albums by The Resentments.
These days you can catch Scrappy on Sunday mornings at the El Mercado with the Purgatory Players (with Jeff Plankenhorn, Seela Misrah, Jon Dee Graham, Jon Greene and whoever else might decide to show up and sit it). Then, on Sunday evenings, at the Saxon Pub, don’t miss Scrappy with The Resentments (with Miles Zuniga, Bruce Hughes, Plankenhorn and John Chipman). Maybe the best show in town, week in and week out.
Scrappy Jud Newcomb, tallest Texan ever to step out of Mississippi.
Three things you should know about Scrappy: (1) he got his nickname from the Loose Diamonds…it started as a joke, “scrappy” referring to a little tough guy (Jud is more reminiscent of a tall Texan), and the name stuck, (2) he travels light, and (3) he dreams of hiking in Slovenia.
Following the 1986 release of Guitar Town, Steve Earle was hailed as the savior of country music. Three decades later, and despite personal detours that would have taken a lesser man down, he just might have pulled it off.
Not without some help, though.
Raised outside San Antonio, Earle has done time in prison and in Nashville, and now muscles his way around the streets of New York City. Some sort of hillbilly renaissance man, his impact on songwriting and country music cannot be overstated. This man has advanced the notion of folk music into places never before imagined. Consciousness and conscience. Every melody fresh, every thought committed, every argument sound. Earle is a seer and a flawed messiah, and there is absolutely no telling where he will take us next.
In the early eighties, the country music landscape was bleak for folks intent on creating genuine country music. Steve Earle was one such artist. One that would not be dissuaded, despite Nashville’s best efforts to push him into the mainstream. Earle’s consistent resistance earned him a place in the “outlaw” territory, on the fringes of country and western proper; one foot over the rock and roll border; and a keen eye on the folk horizon.
Earle’s career is a roller coaster tale, fraught with vice, a dismal penchant for marriage and divorce and, most importantly, a gritty determination to find his place in the annals of modern music. He found that place with the aforementioned release of Guitar Town. Up to then, Earle had been somewhat successful at songwriting, his work having been recorded by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and Travis Tritt, among others. In the seventies he held down a gig as bassist for the late Guy Clark, but his recording career remained stalled. Guitar Town changed all that, ushering him in as a new school outlaw who was rewriting the rules and carving out a singular voice.
Since then, Earle has consistently continued to record: always on his own terms, never again a servant of Nashville commercialism or a follower of current trends. The pearls of his career, and there are many, include the definitive Copperhead Road and the joyous I Feel Alright, a comeback LP for Earle, fresh off drugs and productive as all get out. Ever the outlaw, Earle found himself in a more political mood with the 2002 release of Jerusalem, which contained the controversial “John Walker’s Blues.” Terraplane, released in 2015, is steeped in the blues and solid evidence that Earle is still as ornery as he is talented.
Steve Earle’s music — roughly hewn, earnest, sullen yet hopeful, resilient and triumphant — is his own. That’s an achievement not reached by the majority of artists, and it puts him the company or Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and even his hero, Townes Van Zandt. This is directly linked to Earle’s unwavering honesty and steady pursuit of the truth via song, all of which have forever embedded his music into the hard American soil.
Three things to know about Steve Earle, (1) he has won three Grammy Awards, (2) his sister, Stacey Earle, is a singer/songwriter and (3) he has been married seven times, including twice to the same woman.
Born in Oklahoma City and reared in Lubbock, David Halley blew into Austin in 1983 and commenced blowing minds with 1990’s Stray Dog Talk, a stone cold masterpiece. Hidden among a stunning array of barn-burning rockers and stuttering rock-a-billies is “Rain Just Falls”, an achingly beautiful, down home meditation on lost love that has been envied and recorded by many. Halley delivered more spark and angst with 1993’s Broken Spell, but has since quieted down, dedicating himself to fatherhood and the occasional live appearance.
Revered as uncompromising and completely original, Halley speaks a language all his own. His take on Jo Carol Pierce’s “Loose Diamonds” will give you a true glimpse into the depths of this rare soul. A new release, A Month of Somedays, is a beautiful step in Halley’s journey, and we hope for much more!
Few songwriters have achieved Eliza Gilkyson’s poetic soup of inventiveness, gravitas and sheer emotion. Her songs are a flowing literature of joy, regret and feminine wisdom, infused with stubborn morality and deep conscience.
The entertainment industry was always a part of Glikyson’s life, and music was always in her blood. The daughter of singer and songwriter Terry Gilkyson, perhaps best known for his sixties work with Disney, and sister of Tony Gilkyson, who played guitar for Lone Justice and X, Eliza grew up in the hustle and bustle of Hollywood.
Tragedy struck when her mother was killed in an automobile accident. Still in her teens, Eliza sought refuge from the pain in the rural southwest. Trading cosmopolitan for communal, worlds away from all she had known in urban California, she began to hone her life’s vision in the wilds of New Mexico.
In 1969 Gilkyson released her first album, Eliza ’69, then took a decade off to focus on raising a family. She worked on her songwriting, and worked at healing old wounds, in the spiritual solitude of the deserts and mountains, performing occasionally in bars and other small venues. She also studied the plight of Native Americans and became their passionate advocate in word and song.
In 1981, Eliza found her way to Austin, where she spent seven impactful years, helping to mold and shape the bourgeoning music scene. Although she later moved back to New Mexico, by way of Europe and Hollywood, Gilkyson remains an important Austin songwriter and citizen. She is an active member of several political and Austin environmental organizations, including Save Our Springs and 5604 Manor.
Eliza Gilkyson is a willowy beauty with a naked soul and a sharp tongue, and her catalog is deep, diverse and stunning. Her life is a book, each chapter taking us on a journey of self discovery, encouraging us to ask hard questions, challenging us to search for our deepest meaning. Music has coursed through her veins since those early Hollywood days, and our world is a better place for it.
Three things to know about Eliza: (1) she earned her first Grammy nomination at age fifty-five, after she had become a grandmother, (2) her son, Cisco Ryder, has produced two of her albums, and (3) she often hosts songwriting workshops at her home near Taos, New Mexico.
John Hiatt was born in Indianapolis, but you’d swear from his lyrics that he was a southern son of Memphis or New Orleans, maybe even Muscle Shoals. His deep soul pulled him from the Midwest to Nashville and the life of a professional songwriter, and before long he was performing around town, solo and with a band or two.
But as is usually the case, this man’s music is best heard from the horse’s mouth. Hiatt trades in a sort of joyful swamp soul with liberal pinches of country, rockabilly, southern rhythm and blues and a little Crescent City jazz. The mighty Mississippi is a recurring visitor in his songs, and in some ways the big river is a metaphor for his journey from the Midwest to the port cities of Memphis and New Orleans.
John can lay down a sad song with the best of them, but there is always a smile in the air, always the sense that things will be all right, no matter how much it hurts right now. Quality, good-time stuff from a master of the southern way.
Three things to know about John Hiatt: (1) his song, “Riding With the King” went double platinum when it was covered by Clapton and B.B. King, (2) Little Village, his short-lived collaboration with Cooder, Lowe and Jim Keltner, was named after a song by Sonny Boy Williamson II, and (3) his song, “Perfectly Good Guitar”, was a righteous reaction to the scourge of rock and rollers bashing their guitars on-stage.
Robert Earl Keen married careless soul with country smart-ass and came up smiling. He has captured the coarse irony of good people tumbling across the Texas landscape, staring down fate and two-stepping the night away. A native of Houston, now living in the Texas Hill Country, Keen’s songs are equal parts reckless joy and dusty sorrow, but in the end, always ring true.
Keen was born in Houston and grew up a natural reader, excelling in literature and poetry. His parents were busy professionals with little musical inclinations, but his siblings helped the young Keen stir the embers of his artistic side…his brother introducing him to the music of Willie Nelson and his younger sister contributing by way of her mad foosball skills. She dragged him to tournaments in the bars of Houston where he soaked up the sights and sounds of traditional country music, and he was hooked. The summer before starting college, Keen picked up his first guitar and began teaching himself to play, studying a country music primer. The embers flared into a bonfire when he met and befriended another Texan in journalism class at Texas A&M University…a fellow by the name of Lyle Lovett.
The college years were rich and productive for the budding musician. Keen spent most of his evenings exploring bluegrass and folk music in the local bars, and long afternoons spent on the porch of his rental house at 302 Church Avenue, often in the company of Lovett or his good friend Bryan Duckworth, who would go on to become a fixture in Keen’s band as a fiddle player. That porch became a sacred gathering place and the inspiration for “The Front Porch Song”, a classic co-written by Keen and Lovett that would appear on their respective debut albums. Whether he knew it at the time, Keen was forging literary talents and planting the seeds for an artistic style that would someday rock the Texas music scene and help shape what was becoming progressive country music.
This would not happen overnight. Keen moved to Austin after graduation, continued writing and performing and became a regular at venues like the Cactus Cafe and Gruene Hall. He won the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1983, the same year he produced his debut album…but continued to struggle to find his place. At the urging of friend and fellow songwriter Steve Earle, Keen moved to Nashville to make his mark, his new wife Kathleen in tow.
Music City was not kind to the young Texan, and Keen missed his mark, maybe the target altogether. The lowest point came when Robert Earl and Kathleen drove to Lawrence, Kansas for a gig. On the way back, their car broke down and left Keen standing on the side of the road, wondering what to do, when a bus came blowing by, “Steve Earle” painted on the side. The car repairs soaked up all their savings, and they arrived back home in Nashville to find an empty and vandalized house.
Keen’s mantra is simple, “brute force and ignorance…just keep pushing”. Push he did. Twenty-two months to the day after they moved to Nashville, Robert Earl and Kathleen returned to Texas and made peace with the fact that he might not ever perfectly “fit” in…but they would be happy.
He kept pushing, kept up the “brute force” with a tireless devotion to touring. His performances accentuate his multi-faceted talents in folk, country, rock, bluegrass and, of course, Americana, and he guides his audiences through a complete range of emotions with emotional ballads to wistful stories of western life to hard-rocking anthems, always with a little careless soul and country smart-ass mixed in.
Three things you should know about Robert Earl Keen: (1) he was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012, along with his friend Lovett and the late Van Zandt, (2) one of his favorite quotes is from the movie Diner when Mickey Rourke says, “Do you get the feeling that something’s going on that we don’t know about here?”, and (3) he has recorded twelve studio albums, six live albums and one compilation, for a total of nineteen career releases, so far.
Drew Kennedy bases out of New Braunfels, a lovely Texas Hill Country town nestled along the banks of the Comal and Guadalupe rivers between Austin and San Antonio. A town settled in 1845 by German idealists and a fitting locale for a principled and energetic artist like Kennedy.
He might be called a reluctant but diligent optimist, looking for the good in people and circumstances while not always sure he will find it. Like many of us, Kennedy loves a sad song, the deep longing and familiarity of a well-crafted testament to lost love. However, in his work he strives to look forward, to new days and new loves, to the wonderful life we have left.
But damn, he can sure write a sad song. Consider “Sleeping Alone”…or a hopeful celebration of love not lost, like “Rose of Jericho”. Kennedy is a young man, and like the best of songwriters, his music chronicles the map of his own life, and in the process he speaks to each of us about our own life…beautiful stuff indeed.
Kennedy released his first LP, Hillbilly Pilgrim, in 2003, and has since blessed us with six more, including his latest, 2014’s Sad Songs Happily Played. He is also a writer of fiction, having published Fresh Water in the Salton Sea in 2011, the story of a heartbroken musician, which is connected, in letter and spirit, to his album of the same name.
Three things to know about Drew Kennedy: (1) he came to the Hill Country via Virginia, his birthplace, and Houston; (2) the work of the great Guy Clark is a major influence, and (3) he is a master of hats.
Eric Taylor’s voice sounds a little like God’s might, starting off low and considered and ending up booming and insistent, as though he were speaking a truth that no one else had yet discovered. One of those intimidating kind of guys, big and smart, singing and staring you down, even when his eyes are on the floor. It is almost certain that this man’s mind stretches to places that are just beyond the reach of the rest of us, places of darkness, but also places of inspiration.
As a boy, Taylor was a natural student of the ways of people, particularly drawn to the plight of the black community in Atlanta. He took to their culture and was soon enough learning their music, playing bass in a succession of soul and R&B bands, often the only white person on the stage. By the early seventies he headed to California, “like everyone else”, but only made it to Houston. There he was welcomed into the songwriting scene, perfecting his craft at places like Anderson Fair and Sand Mountain with folks like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett. He also found work at the Family Band Club, and met and played with blues legends Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
Houston was a cultural melting pot of people who knew no labels and followed no rules. Taylor absorbed the influences swirling around him and began to construct something all his own.
Almost literature (Griffith called him the William Faulkner of songwriting), his work combines complex lyrics, that tell a story you long to hear, with ethereal melodies that seem to float above the broken characters he describes. It is all delivered by voice and guitar that is a bit more polished than many of his peers.
Taylor has developed a unique and mesmerizing style of fingerpicking that blends traditional folk with blues licks he learned at the Family Band Club. To this day he makes his dreadnought ring and sparkle, almost effortlessly, tucked up high under his beard. His voice has grown rough and gravelly, but the important words come through clear and pure, the meaning never in doubt. Often he speaks instead of sings, like some hard-edged preacher from a different time, warning of the end and demanding repentance. Then he’ll look up and smile, and you wonder if he was playing all along.
In his long and distinguished career, Taylor has released nine albums, most notably Shameless Love (1981), Eric Taylor (1995), Resurrect (1998), Shuffletown (2001), The Great Divide (2005) and Hollywood Pocketknife (2007). He shows no signs of slowing down.
Three things you should know about Eric Taylor: (1) no less than Steve Earle refers to him as one of his heroes, (2) Vince Bell sang back-up on Hollywood Pocketknife, and (3) he has hosted songwriting workshops in England and Wales.
In 1977, Joe Ely came blowing out of Lubbock with his first record, Joe Ely, after sowing the early seeds of the High Plains scene with other hardy souls. He’s been delivering the goods ever since. Powerful music that pulses with rhythm and life, full of gritty optimism and unrelenting love.
Ely was born in 1947, in a place where one can gaze out on the horizon and still believe that the world is flat. The men in his family had worked on the Rock Island Railroad Line as far back as anyone could remember, but Joe didn’t take to the miles of steel and the smell of coal. Instead, the growing boy was drawn to music.
Ely’s father passed away when Joe was fourteen and his mother, stung by the sudden loss, was institutionalized for a year. He and his brother lived with relatives in different cities until they reunited, when Ely dropped out of school to help support what was left of his family by washing dishes and playing his guitar in the honky-tonks of Lubbock.
Like many a West Texan, the rest of the world beckoned and Joe heeded the call. He hoboed around America and ended up working in the theater industry in Europe. He headed home to Lubbock, ready to rock, and formed The Flatlanders with Hancock and Gilmore. By 1974 he had put together the Joe Ely Band with cohorts Taylor and Maines. He started passing around demo tapes and pretty soon he was signed by MCA and released his first solo album in 1974. Joe was up and running.
Jason Isbell’s music is raw in substance but perfectly polished in execution, sort of like Neil Young sitting in with Crosby, Stills & Nash before he signed on the dotted line. Perfect words about a far from perfect world set to haunting melodies, sung in a voice that is cautious, road weary and earnest, all at the same time.
Isbell hails from north Alabama, right on the Tennessee line, but now lives the Nashville life with his wife, Lubbock born songwriter and performer Amanda Shires. His music is pure southern grit, no-nonsense country that carries in it the diverse influences of rural Alabama. Raised in a musical family, he spent considerable time on his grandparents’ farm and in the Pentecostal church. He also absorbed the black culture all around him, and credits much of his sound to the “soul-influenced rock and roll and country” music that grew in the farmlands around Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Isbell cut his teeth with the Drive-By Truckers, joining that notorious outfit at the age of twenty-two, about the time that Austin label New West signed the Truckers in 2001. Isbell contributed songs and performed on three albums, Decoration Day, The Dirty South, and Blessing and a Curse, before leaving the band in the spring of 2007 to pursue his own vision.
Jason released his first solo effort, Sirens of the Ditch, in 2007, and shortly began forming what would become his regular band, The 400 Unit, an assemblage of crack musicians mostly from Muscle Shoals, named for a psychiatric unit in Florence, Alabama. In 2009 came Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, and Here We Rest in 2011.
His real breakthrough came in 2013 with the release of Southeastern, a dark meditation on the perils of addiction and the miracles of the new love he had found with Shires. In his years with the Drive-By Truckers, Jason became mired in the mud of intoxicants, but came clean in 2012 with the help of Amanda and his friend Ryan Adams. He followed in 2015 with Something More than Free, and Isbell is now receiving the national attention he very well deserves.
Often backed by Shires on fiddle and vocals, Isbell can rock the timbers but finds his real stride with country meditations on life and love, delivering lyrics and melodies with equally stunning effect.
Jason and Amanda had a daughter, Mercy Rose, in 2015.
Do not miss Jason Isbell. Best thing out of Alabama since muscadine wine!
Three things you should know about Jason Isbell: (1) accompanied by the great Elizabeth Cook, he has nodded towards Texas with covers of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and “Tecumseh Valley”, (2) his grandfather was a Penecostal preacher, and (3) he toured for a while with the band Centro-Matic from Denton, Texas.
Looking a bit like an Amish Hoss Cartwright, B. W. “Buckwheat” Stevenson turned heads even in the spectacle of seventies Austin. A native of Dallas, his beautiful tenor and surprising falsetto shone through on simple folk melodies, some reaching a national audience before his premature death in 1988. Stevenson’s early work is his best, full of tender hope and outsider loneliness.
B.W. was born Louis Charles Stevenson, but even that formidable handle wasn’t quite big enough for a man of this stature. So it was “B.W.”, or “Buck” to his close friends. He attended high school in Oak Cliff and began to discover his love for music hanging out with like-minded outlaws such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steve Fromholz and Michael Martin Murphey. Blessed with a booming operatic voice, he attended college for a year on a music scholarship, did some time in the Air Force, and started stretching his wings in the bars and clubs around Dallas.
Stevenson arrived on the Austin music scene in 1970, at the very beginnings of the progressive country movement, but there was little work to be found. Austin City Limits was no more than a glimmer in the eye of the folks at klru, and only a few clubs were showcasing the new cosmic cowboys roaming around the Texas Hill Country. Frustrated, Buck left the Lone Star state to find fame in Los Angeles.
This was a theme that haunted Stevenson’s short life. A big dog never let loose for the hunt. A major talent showing up a bit too early, again and again, often ill advised and mismanaged.
He arrived in Hollywood with a broken heart…his long time girlfriend refused to make the trip…and started writing some of the lovesick ballads that would become his trademark. It was one of these that caught the attention of RCA Records, and he signed up with his first label in 1971 and recorded and released his first record, B. W. Stevenson, in 1972. The album included many songs that resulted from a collaboration with old friend Murphey, as well as some of B.W.’s best work, particularly the longsome songs like “On My Own” and “Longsome Song”. RCA never promoted B.W.’s original work from this album, but the folks in Austin paid close attention, and welcomed him back as an integral member of the redneck rock scene. Stevenson returned to town and became a regular on stages with Kenneth Threadgill, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hubbard and others.
Stevenson suffered through more bungled attempts at commercialization, nine albums in total, and RCA never gave up trying to market him as a pop artist. The shameless Three Dog Night had a corporate hit with his “Shambala”, actually bumping his own version off the charts. Buck then released “My Maria” to some success on the pop charts, but became the Billboard’s #1 “Country Song of the Year” when covered by Brooks and Dunn in 1996.
“If you want something done right, do it yourself.” With his last album, Rainbow Down the Road, Stevenson accomplished what he had always wanted, an independently conceived and executed journey into the heart of a very fine artist. Willis Alan Ramsey helped with production, and the record featured many old friends, including Willie Nelson, Walker, Fromholz, Christine Albert, and Stephen Bruton.
Buck left us in 1988 at the age of thirty-eight. Way too early…a legend never fully appreciated…a gift only partially unwrapped.
Three things you should know about B.W. Stevenson: (1) in October 1974, he recorded the first episode of Austin City Limits, but the resulting tape was too poor to broadcast, and Willie Nelson’s performance taped the following night ended up being aired instead, (2) RCA came up with the nickname “Buckwheat” and (3) Buck and Stevie Ray Vaughan both rest in Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas.
Amanda Shires songs are grounded but ethereal, enchanting original work delivered with a husky voice that can suddenly erupt into a bird-like trill. Lilting stuff. In fact she seems to float above the rest of us like some kind of cowgirl songbird.
Raised in the storied Texas towns of Lubbock and Mineral Wells, Amanda found her first pawnshop violin in a at the age of ten. At fifteen she was playing for The Texas Playboys, formerly of Bob Wills fame, and then with Lubbock’s Thrift Store Cowboys. By 2005 she had blossomed into a virtuoso instrumentalist and performer and released her first LP, Being Brave.
From there she developed her singer-songwriter skills. In 2009 she released both the solo effort West Cross Timbers and the Rod Picott collaboration Sew Your Heart with Wires. Then two more solo records, Carrying Lightning in 2011 and Down Fell The Doves in August 2013.
Shires also married songwriter Jason Isbell that year and moved from Austin to Nashville. They have since had their first child, a daughter, Mercy Rose.
Amanda Shires is the real thing, her off-kilter creativity and strong voice demand focus of the listener, to immense reward. Promising times lay ahead.
Three things you should know about Amanda Shires: (1) in 2011 she appeared in the 2011 film Country Strong, (2) after a show in Tampa, Florida, a fan handed her a bag of “whiskers and claws and teeth and fur”, telling her the totem would make her “bulletproof”, and (3) some people call her “Pearl”.
Austin Songwriter reluctantly concedes that the best living songwriter is not from Texas, not even born on American soil. This person’s name is not Dylan or Van Zandt or Clark or Earle, nor even Lennon or McCartney. George Ivan “Van” Morrison is the greatest songwriter on the planet, and we’d be happy to pull on our cowboy boots, stand up on Leonard Cohen’s coffee table, and scream it to the heavens!
You certainly pause and remember when some sleepy disc jockey cues up “Brown-Eyed Girl”, “Crazy Love” and “Into the Mystic”, and you may have a vision of a wild-eyed leprechaun belting out “Caravan” with Robbie Robertson and the boys in 1978’s The Last Waltz. These were Morrison’s glory days, at least in terms of commercial success, before he began to transition from another incredible sixties rock star into a sullen sage of obscure wisdom and soaring spirituality.
He has been gracing us with an album every year or so since the release of Tupelo Honey in 1971, when he pretty much fell out of common favor. The music he has delivered since, filling more than twenty-five albums of original work, is utterly unique and simply magnificent. Too much quality and honesty for some, but for the rest of us an absolute treasure of the songwriter’s art. If you haven’t been paying attention, you are sorely in need of a thoughtful pause and a strong dose of Van the Man.
Born in 1945 in Belfast, Morrison has always maintained a proud sense of his heritage, Irish roots peppered with the blood of the Ulster Scots who migrated to Northern Ireland in the 17th century. He hit America in the sixties and has since lived and performed on both sides of the Atlantic, in the process garnering six Grammy Awards and a knighthood, as well as inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The accumulation of Morrison’s work can best be described as a spiritual life’s journey portrayed in a music sometimes known, too simply, as “Celtic soul”.
His songs are certainly the child of the Celtic tradition, but they also embody American jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, folk and blues. Someone once said that he had invented a personal emotional equivalent of the blues. Put another way, Van Morrison has created a personal musical literature that, while unabashedly drawing upon the various folk traditions he loves, is sincerely spiritual, genuinely inspirational, and all his own.
Along the way he has preached a little, but his message is always joy and possibility, rather than the dogma and judgment we are accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. A soft path through the days ahead, a little sunlight for the soul. Like we said, the greatest living songwriter.
Three things to know about Van Morrison: (1) his first band was named The Sputniks, after the controversial Soviet satellite, (2) he once worked as a window cleaner, inspiring “Cleaning Windows”, his joyful meditation on the simplicity of honest hard work, and (3) his daughter Shana Morrison is an accomplished musician in her own right.
David Ramirez writes melodic, brooding songs of love and life, delivering them with perfect pitch and regret. Young, but hopeful despite his well-worn scars. His work is profound and accessible, not much country except an occasional whiff of pedal steel, and his young catalog is deep.
Ramirez was a relative late bloomer, tapping into his musical gifts only after giving up baseball in his senior year of high school. With a new perspective and a fresh set of friends, he found himself singing in the school choir and performing in theater programs. That same year he picked up his first guitar and started playing in several “awful” bands, but he took to the music scene, and was soon entertaining crowds at open microphone nights.
His next real mile marker was discovery of the work of Ryan Adams when a friend gave him an album by the singer/songwriter. A gift that would keep on giving, Adams inspired Ramirez to push past long-standing boundaries into new emotional territory. Through this process, he forged his own cocktail of pop/folk/rock and started on his journey to the next mile marker…storytelling.
This part of the journey would be the most challenging for the young Ramirez. He lost his way for several years, stuck between his driving desire to live a larger life, the life of a poet, and the relentless realities of everyday life. But David had too much character to settle…he waited and fought and searched until the next mile marker appeared on the horizon, in the form of a relationship crisis.
Through the angst came an epiphany, ”If I want to be in a meaningful relationship with someone, I have to be honest in everything I do.” Truth, and the courage to tell it, set the stage for real storytelling, and David and his audiences have been reaping the benefits ever since, as he shares his intimate and personal life experiences through song.
While Ramirez describes himself more as a storyteller than a musician, he has toured with the likes of Shakey Graves, Joe Pug, Noah Gundersen, Gregory Alan Isakov and others. Initially focusing on solo work, he grew tired of the solitude of the one-man band and is now creating a musical family to share the stage with, a group of artists who understand and emphasize his messages.
An open heart, a vulnerable soul. A serious contender with a bright future, or a dark one. You be the judge.
Three things you should know about David Ramirez: (1) in one year he put 260,000 touring miles on his Kia Rio, (2) he has an ironic of humor (check out his instagram page) and (3) it was his high school choir director who first discovered that David had serious musical chops.
Then there’s Terry Allen, perhaps the most madcap of them all. A true renaissance man of letters, visual and recorded art, carrying more intellect, talent and taste than was meant to fit in the saddlebags of one dusty cowboy.
A son of Lubbock, self-exiled like so many luminaries of the high plains, Allen has lived in Santa Fe with his wife, Jo Harvey Allen, for decades, where they raised their musician son, Bukka Allen, who has since relocated to the green fields of Austin. Terry and Jo frequently dip down into Texas like a Comanche raiding party to spread their artistic seed, pillage a little and chew the fat with old friends.
Terry is a noted painter, songwriter, performer and playwright, while Jo is a similarly respected actress, writer and painter. His music could be described as the love child of Friedrich Nietzsche and William Burroughs singing in a nasally West Texas lilt. A cowboy with serious mental horsepower and artistic vision, he has produced ten albums of original and critically acclaimed work. Of particular note are 1975’s Juarez, 1979’s Lubbock (On Everything), and 1996’s Human Remains.
Three things to know about Terry Allen: (1) his father “Sled” played catcher for the St. Louis Browns in 1910, (2) another son, Bale Creek Allen, is a noted visual artist living in Austin, and (3) his visual art hangs in places like the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.
It’s a safe bet that Houston Marchman’s breath is tinged with road dust and a little farm-grade diesel. His songs are classic Texas folk, weary but hopeful, best experienced in an old truck. He can drive a melody and dip into some near-serious country blues. Gritty, real music from a Texas original.
Houston’s grandparents played an important role in his childhood, giving shape and texture to the stories he now sets to music. His grandmother gave him the gift of “storytellin’”, Texas speak for poetry, his grandfather the gift of music. Houston had a guitar in his hands by the age of five and wrote his first song at the age of thirteen.
His songs have their beginnings in his years growing up on his father’s ranch in Meridian, Texas. True to his nature, he has met life head on, hanging out with all the usual characters from small Texas towns, ranch hands, cowboys, seasonal workers from south of the border, the hard cases and the sad cases. It is this tapestry of experience that gives his music such depth and authenticity. A storyteller, with a story that everyone wants to hear, spoken in country, folk, and blues, even a little polka.
Marchman has a unique ability to captivate an audience. You’ll listen carefully to the text and tone of every word. You’ll feel that you were there, right in the middle of the story, or wish you were! His songwriting and storytelling has been compared to the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Robert Earl Keen, while his steely state of mind reminds some of John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle. As evidenced by his most recent album, Long Gone, this man continues to grow as an artist. Here he ventures further into the fertile ground of the blues, even delivering a fiery duet with the great Carolyn Wonderland.
Houston says he has a bit different approach to songwriting. He insists “the point is not to be creative but to be accurate in your experience and therefore you will be creative. Don’t write what you think listeners want to hear, write what you know.”
Three things to know about Houston Marchman, (1) he toured Japan as a bronco rider and singer in a rodeo, (2) he lived and worked in Nashville for eight years, and (3) he recorded a live album at Iron Horse Pub in Wichita Falls.
Ted Hawkins lived a hard life, but his journey was a gift to us all. Born black and poor in Mississippi, he did time in reform school and prison before trying his hand at music after hearing the work of Sam Cooke. The talent was obviously there all along.
While Hawkins traveled the rocky road of a hard-core bluesman, his music is rooted more in folk than traditional blues. The delivery is spare, unadorned rhythm guitar utilizing innovative open tunings. You can hear the strains of the Delta in his corncob voice, dripping with soulful joy and steeped in hard lessons learned. He was the musical poster boy of the “outsider” artist, big and raw-boned and completely oblivious to the etiquette and expectations of those around him.
He made his name as a busker on the boardwalk at Venice Beach, California, and his recorded output is sparse. A few dedicated admirers worked hard to corral Ted in the studio, attempting to navigate his addictions and tendency to disappear for extended periods of time. By his death in 1995, he had produced several albums of original work and magical takes on the songs of others. Like so many other great American artists, Hawkins found more respect and appreciation on the other side of the Atlantic. His dedicated European following was primarily the result of the admiration and efforts of British disc jockey Andy Kershaw.
Three things to know about Ted Hawkins: (1) he claimed that damaged fingers preventing him from bending notes in the blues tradition, (2) a documentary of his life and art, Ted Hawkins: Amazing Grace, was released in 1996, and (3) he died at about the time of the release of what would be his most famous album, The Next Hundred Years.
Resurrecting Texans from Freddie King to Janis Joplin, Carolyn Wonderland burns the blues with her rolling originals, piercing voice and blistering guitar work. Hailing from Houston, you can feel the Piney Woods and dark bayous in her songs, and Wonderland expertly and honorably carries on the proud tradition of the Texas blues. She now stokes the fires in Austin, and tours nationally.
Wonderland developed her renegade spirit at an early age and found that music was the perfect way to express her feelings. Growing up in a creative family, she had a wide range of exposure to all things musical, but her soulful voice and other worldly guitar talents quickly drew attention and recognition in her hometown of Houston. Songwriting would soon follow, and a few hard life lessons provided the grist for a now important collection of work.
Carolyn has always needed a large pasture to play in. At any early age she began sneaking into biker bars to crash the stage with the likes of Little Screamin’ Kenny Blanchard, Jerry Lightfoot and other legends of the Houston blues scene. She dropped out of high school to pursue music, lived for a while in a van in Austin, and made her way with a combination of talent, determination and a serious stubborn streak.
This gritty journey has shaped her live performances, unforgettable shows that showcase a ‘take no prisoner approach’ to the blues. Enthralling energy, wailing vocals, driving guitar. Often mentioned in the same conversation as Janis Joplin or Stevie Ray Vaughan, Wonderland has shared the stage with Los Lobos, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson. Ray went on to produce Carolyn’s albums Miss Understood and Peace Meal (with co-producers Larry Campbell, a two-time Grammy Award winner, and the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith), and continues to be an important collaborator and good friend. Another Austin songwriter, Terri Hendrix, has also had a profound impact on Wonderland’s art.
Carolyn tours with her band, Live Texas Trio, which includes Cole El-Saleh on keys and bass and Rob Hooper on drums. The band recorded a live album on location at three great Texas venues, including Antone’s in Austin.
The LA Times summed it up this way, “She’s the real deal”. We just say Wonderland is wonderful!
Three things to know about Carolyn Wonderland: (1) she is married to Alan Whitney Brown of Saturday Night Live (Weekend Update) fame, (2) she is a founding member of the “Austin Volunteer Orchestra”, and (3) she named her guitar ‘Patty’.
The story of Blaze Foley, the songwriter, is too often lost in the legend of Blaze Foley, the “Duct Tape Messiah”. Hard drinking, homelessness, and a squalid death all contribute to the sad story that can overshadow this poet’s spare, aching songs and searching voice. But legend springs from a life like Foley’s, and this particular legend is made up of equal parts inspiration, irony and plain old bad luck.
Born Michael David Fuller in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, Foley had music in his veins. From a young age he performed itinerant gospel with his mother, brother and sisters as The Singing Fuller Family, and the stage life stuck. Over the years the troubled troubadour would be known as “Depty Dawg”, “Blue Foley” (after his admiration for country artist Red Foley), and then “Blaze Foley”.
After roaming across Georgia and other parts of Texas, Blaze hit Austin in 1976 with Sybil Rosen, the love of his life, in tow. Over the next decade he gained the status of artist savant or court jester, depending on whom you asked. But the people that mattered loved him. Lucinda Williams called him a “genius and a beautiful loser”. Townes Van Zandt, with whom he developed a deep but reckless friendship, said “…he is one of the most spiritual cats I’ve ever met: an ace picker, a writer who never shirks from the truth; never fails to rhyme; and one of the flashiest wits I’ve ever had to put up with.”
When the “Urban Cowboy” frenzy hit Texas, and folks were walking around with silver tips on brand new cowboy boots, Foley took to putting silver duct tape on the tips of his beat up pair. Later he walked around Austin is a suit made completely of duct tape. The legend of the “Duct Tape Messiah” was born.
Other parts of his legend were not so shiny. Blaze had serious problems with alcohol, and was banned from playing, or even entering, such landmark Texas venues as the Cactus Cafe of the Kerrville Folk Festival. He often slept in his car, sometimes on the street. In February of 1989, when he was thirty-nine, Foley was shot and killed by the son of his friend Concho January. Carey January claimed self-defense and was acquitted of murder.
Just a month before his death, Foley recorded Live at the Austin Outhouse. Backed by Champ Hood and Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, this is the definitive collection of his small but profound catalog of music. Try “Oooh Love”, a stunningly simple sketch of the spark of new love, and you will smile and remember.
During his short life Foley worked with Gurf Morlix, Van Zandt and Calvin Russell, among others. His songs have been covered by Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett, and John Prine. Townes wrote “Blaze’s Blues” about his friend, and Williams wrote “Drunken Angel” as a tribute to Blaze. Morlix released Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream, a collection of Foley’s songs, and a documentary film, Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah, was released in 2011. The “beautiful loser” lives on.
Three things to know about (the death of) Blaze Foley (1) he is buried in Live Oak Cemetery in South Austin, (2) at his funeral his friends wrapped his casket in duct tape, and (3) Van Zandt claimed that he and friends dug up Foley’s body to retrieve a pawn ticket for Townes’ guitar.
Nanci Griffith was born to musical parents in Seguin, Texas, and was playing clubs down the road in Austin by the age of fourteen. She continued to write and perform while in college at the University of Texas, and became an important member of the seventies Texas songwriting scene, releasing three fine albums of mostly original material before moving to Nashville in 1986 to pursue her songwriting dreams.
Griffith has dabbled in numerous genres over the years, including country, folk, pop and torch. She calls her work “folkabilly”, but her best songs are sketches of the joy, loss and reflection that punctuate the tough paths of ordinary people. In other words, Griffith is yet another great Texas songwriter trading in real country music.
Others have mined her songs for their quality and the promise of commercial success, but you must hear these songs in her voice, lilting and childlike and completely original, evoking past lives lived simply and well.
Three things to know about Nanci Griffith, (1) she was once married to the great Eric Taylor, and flew to Vietnam and Cambodia to honor his service during the Vietnam War, (2) as a young woman she worked as a kindergarten teacher, and (3) she performed at the Grand Ole Opry in 2003.
It is absolutely worth your while to rediscover the recently passed Jesse Winchester, a writer of uncommon heart, wit and grace.
Born in 1944 in Bossier City, Louisiana and raised in Memphis and Mississippi, Winchester started playing guitar in high school and continued at Massachusetts’ Williams College. Shortly after graduating in 1966, he received a draft notice and, instead of reporting for Vietnam, boarded a plane for Montreal. He would become a Canadian citizen and stay there for thirty-five years despite the fact that President Carter granted amnesty to draft evaders in the seventies.
Winchester joined a Montreal band called Les Astronautes and began to write his own songs. Word got around and Robbie Robertson came to meet him, and agreed to produce his first album, Jesse Winchester, recorded in Toronto and released in 1970. Third Down, 110 to Go followed in 1972, then Learn to Love It in 1974, Let The Rough Side Drag in 1976. Be sure to revisit “Mississippi You’re On My Mind”, a 1974 love letter to the south from a young man very far from home.
Jesse released the incredible Nothing But a Breeze in 1977, the same year that Rolling Stone credited him with “the greatest voice of the decade”. That voice. Longing and hope and conscience all dipped in southern honey. Deep wisdom mixed with silly lust and sung in perfect pitch. A captivating, beautifully controlled yodel.
Winchester released four more albums, A Touch on the Rainy Side, Talk Memphis, Humour Me and Gentlemen of Leisure, before moving back to Memphis in 2002 for the love of a woman. He is remembered in Montreal as much for his Quebecois “ya’ll’s” as for his songs, rich in story, melody, rhythm and humor. He ultimately settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, and lived there with his wife until his death on April 11, 2014.
During his life Winchester’s persona evolved into a sort of dancing Memphis dandy, best demonstrated in 1999’s Gentlemen of Leisure, a completely original gem that cannot be described but must be experienced.
Jesse released Love Filling Station in 2009. In 2012, notable artists paid their respect to Jesse on a tribute album, Quiet About It, including Tex-centrics Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett as well as James Taylor, Rosanne Cash and Costello. It is a testament to Winchester’s performing prowess that none of these giants improve even a whit on his originals.
Winchester’s last album, A Reasonable Amount of Trouble, was posthumously released. Remember Jesse in the way he would have wanted. Listen to “good music, slow and steady, and share it.”
Three things to know about Jesse Winchester: (1) he arrived in Canada with $300, knowing no one, (2) he met Robertson in the basement of an Ottawa monastery, and (3) Jesse formed the band the Rhythm Aces, which ultimately became the Amazing Rhythm Aces.