Heartworn Highways, James Szalapski’s gritty and lovely documentary about the country songwriting scene of the seventies, features mostly Texas musicians in Austin and Nashville. Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and of course Townes Van Zandt, are portrayed as rugged (and often addled) cowboy poets giving birth to the “outlaw” scene. This take features Van Zandt and the legendary Uncle Seymour Washington at his home in the Clarksville neighborhood of Austin.
If you grew up in small town Texas, or loved your grandmother, or ever chased the DDT truck down the street, you need to hear this one. McMurtry at his finest.
A lotta love, a little lust. Joe Ely slow dances his truck stop girl into highway heaven.
It is no secret that West Texas produces musicians of uncommon creativity and grit, likely the result of too much flat land and steady wind. Insightful artists with on-stage mojo…indelible characters with plenty of that old Texas don’t-give-a-damn, contemptuous of white lies, cow pies and pigeonholes. Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely and David Halley, to name a few. Butch Hancock, Amanda Shires, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Jo Carol Pierce and Tommy Hancock, to name a few more.
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.
The late Jesse Winchester performed his signature ballad at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, circa 2010. We miss Jesse. We even miss Mississippi a little bit.
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.
2015 saw the release of a tribute album, Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins, an Austin salute to the work of this great artist. Produced by our own Kevin Russell, Jenni Finlay and Brian T. Atkinson, the disc features Hawkins’ originals interpreted by Austin Songwriter favorites Shinyribs, Mary Gauthier, James McMurtry, Jon Dee Graham, Gurf Morlix, Danny Barnes, Ramsay Midwood and Randy Weeks.
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.
Kevin’s ode to the perils of young love. Barbara Maltese helps out.
I guess we’ve all had our “Rosalie”. Or wish we did.
The Mean Eyed Cat Bar, named after the Johnny Cash song, is one cool bar…located close to downtown Austin and blessed with towering Texas Live Oak trees. Reportedly over 300 years old, this bar is a true Austin establishment. The interior rooms celebrate the life and times of the late, great Johnny Cash, while the bar serves up a great selection of Texas craft beers and innovative cocktails to keep things interesting. A stop worth making when you are prowling the streets of downtown Austin. Be sure to like them on Facebook.
1621 W. 5th Street, Austin 78703
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.
Griffith has released some twenty albums in her career, winning a Grammy in 1994 for Other Voices, Other Rooms, a cover album of songs written by special songwriters. She has toured and recorded with the likes of John Prine, Iris DeMent, Tom Russell, Emmylou Harris, Phil Everly, Mary Black, Don McLean, Willie Nelson, Adam Duritz, Bernie Leadon, The Chieftains and others.
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.
Every January, high in the snowy mountains of northern New Mexico, Austin songster Drew Kennedy holds a gathering of poets and dreamers called Red River Songwriters’ Festival. In year’s past I’ve witnessed standout performances from the likes of Ray Wylie Hubbard, Max Gomez and Walt Wilkins. This year the line-up includes Jim Lauderdale, Steve Poltz, Walt Wilkins, Susan Gibson, Kelley Mickwee and others, as well as Mr. Kennedy. This year, the mighty Jack Ingram will also be there.
The folks that travel to this intimate event are of common minds and hearts, and the players feel the love. This year’s festival takes place in Red River, New Mexico on January 24-26.
“Sass” is a revered quality in Texas, a blend of joy, spunk and casual fearlessness. If you’ve got it, you’ll have friends aplenty in the Lone Star State.
Leeann Atherton is sass on wheels. Born and raised in South Carolina, she took a turn in Nashville before becoming the resident Queen of the South Austin scene. Compared to everyone from Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris, Leeann is a cultural treasure and a damn fine citizen. Check her out every Friday night at Maria’s Taco Xpress, or sneak in to her annual Full Moon Barn Dance.
Lane Gosnay opened the doors to The Bugle Boy in 2005, promising a small town listening room dedicated to the songwriters of Texas and elsewhere. She had repurposed an old military barrack into an intimate, theater style hall which creates a lovely and respectful space for the artists and their followers. Located in LaGrange, Texas, a lovely burg about midway between Austin and Houston.
Check out their calendar and head out to the green countryside for some fine music in a special place.
Sisters Allison and Shelby breathe new life into this Dylan classic. A little different edge sung in the feminine voice, particularly in these days of renewed focus on gender inequality.
Miles performs “You Can’t Break My Heart” for Austin Songwriter.
If only that were true.
Everything’s gonna be alright!
Back to the bayou with the great Lucinda Williams.
The sensitive boy from Canada with some sage and impossibly gorgeous advice.
Van the Man says search your heart for the lion.
Take a trip to the mountaintop and turn your world from silver to blue.
This photo or Guy and Susanna Clark means something more to folks of a certain vintage. It’s the semi-hippie attire, for sure, and the old school VW, but something more. It’s the look in their eyes. The look of confident dreamers in love, looking out to a limitless horizon.
Yours truly is of that vintage, and remembers that feeling. It was the early seventies, the tail end of the sixties awakening. We had it all figured out. We had identified all the mistakes of the past, greed and war and hate and fear, and we were building a world of love that would soar into the ages like a dove above a field of wildflowers. We intended to march forward in peace, heal the wounds of history and live as one.
It all seemed so simple. You can see it in their eyes. It wasn’t that simple.
Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello with their take on “Wild Horses” by Jagger and Richards.
Dusty and distant. Love in the rear view mirror.
“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.
Michael had the opportunity to visit with Walt in the condo recently…
The late Jesse Winchester with some beautiful wisdom.
Another musical luminary from the Lubbock area, Butch Hancock is best known for his on and off collaboration with Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore known as The Flatlanders, but he has been gracing us with fines songs and storied solo performances for more than four decades now. Raised on a dry-land cotton farm in the big empty, he lived in Austin for a number of years before moving to Terlingua, Texas, a Big Bend “ghost town” perched above the Rio Grande and home to an ex-patriate community of artists and other rugged individualists.
Like Ely and Gilmore, as well as folks like Terry Allen and Jo Carol Pierce, Hancock is a wandering intellectual with little respect for appearances, social norms or cultural institutions. He looks out at the world and calls it like he sees it, and he sees it pretty clearly. Good or bad. False or true.
He sings in a dusty, far-away voice that is grounded in experience and a little regret, but all in all you get the sense that he has things pretty well figured out. He has a habit of penning absolute classics that find the grace in life’s moments of beauty, discovery and contradiction. Songs like “Boxcars”, “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me”, “West Texas Waltz” and “If I Were a Bluebird”. Existentialism and romanticism, loss and gain…songs that speak to the possibilities up ahead, just beyond the horizon.
Three things to know about Butch Hancock: (1) he is a charter member of the “Lubbock Mafia”, a cadre of talented musicians from the Hub City, many of which ended up in Austin, (2) he is as talented a photographer as he is a musician, (3) he is known for this quote about his hometown: “Life in Lubbock, Texas taught me two things. One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, dirty thing on the face of the earth and you should save it for someone you love.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter is a songwriter of uncommon depth and sensitivity who came of age in the seventies as a folksinger in the clubs of Washington, D.C. She began enjoying significant commercial success in the eighties, when Columbia Records began promoting her as a “country” artist, but never allowed her work to be processed, categorized or compromised, and has always spoken directly from a kind mind and a full heart.
She is especially revered for her consideration of the changing lives of women, perhaps most famously for the brilliantly caustic “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” from 1992, and her name is spoken in the same breath as that of Lucinda Williams, Mary Gauthier and Shawn Colvin. Carpenter has focused on other social and political issues that are close to her heart, often speaking for those on the wrong end of social power structures. Consider “John Doe No. 24”, her stunning portrayal of a child born without sight or hearing in long-ago New Orleans. Abandoned to the orphanages and institutions of the south, no link to the outside but his memory of the scent of blooming crepe jasmine.
Mary’s work is literary and profound, often evoking the gothic south of William Faulkner or Willa Cather’s vast Midwest. She recalls the strength and majesty of young love, or the dusty regret of passion that wasn’t quite strong enough to last. Like so many of our favorite artists, we smile through tears at the memories she pulls to the surface.
Carpenter’s songs have been covered by the varied likes of Joan Baez, Tony Rice, Wynona Judd, Trisha Yearwood, and has recorded with folks like Colvin, Radney Foster, Dolly Parton and the Indigo Girls. Over her career she has won five Grammy Awards and a host of other formal accolades in the course of releasing fourteen albums of mostly original work.
Three things to know about Mary Chapin Carpenter: (1) she is distantly related to the late, great songwriter Harry Chapin, (2) in 2014, she released an orchestral album and performed it live at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and (3) she has coped with periodic bouts of depression with what she calls “the learning curve of gratitude”.
A little Newbury to calm your morning.
Oklahoma is sort of the Bermuda Triangle of the Great Plains. We know there’s some magical stuff going on within those dusty borders, but we’re a little scared to head on in and check it out.
The musical magic is referred to as the “Red Dirt” scene, and a rich vein of that fertile ground runs right to Travis County. Some of our favorite artists carried a little of that dirt with them, folks like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jimmy LaFave, Kevin Welch, Travis Linville, even Michael Fracasso, and Austin music is certainly the better for it. In truth, the rambling red dirt of Oklahoma is a close geological cousin to the cotton fields and caliche flats of West Texas. It spawns poets of uncommon insight.
There’s a new kid out on there on the airwaves, name of John Fullbright, and he seems destined to take us a little further into the dust bowl frame of mind. Pause a little before you venture into the world of Fullbright, because he will grab hold of you with a steely grip. Every song will take you somewhere you’ve never been before, and in every song you will learn something more about yourself. Woody Guthrie would be quite proud.
A child of Okemah, like Guthrie, Fullbright cut his teeth with formidable Red Dirt artist Mike McClure. His breakthrough year came in 2012. A stunning performance at SXSW in March, the main stage at Kerrville Folk Festival in June and the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in July. In the middle of all that he released his debut album, From the Ground Up, to much acclaim, and the boy from Oklahoma was on his way.
He storms the stage with piano, acoustic guitar and harmonica, his voice weathered and high. His appearance is earnest and rosy-cheeked, somewhere between high school history teacher and a budding televangelist. He exhibits the wisdom of a thinking man twice his age, channeling a jailhouse full of old souls. He navigates the killing fields of love and bites down on the eternal social issues. His words will cause you to pause, maybe even change your own tune a little.
John Fullbright is a troubadour in the best sense, spreading an enriching gospel of finding what’s right in each of life’s precious moments, and railing against the rest like an angry archangel…a foe to hypocrisy and a friend to what’s right. Expect much more in the years to come.
Three things to know about John Fullbright: (1) Townes Van Zandt was an important and early influence, (2) his first significant public performance was at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah in 2005, and (3) in 2009, he released Live at the Blue Door, a great live album recorded by Travis Linville at the Oklahoma City club.
Bob the Man with a little magical realism.
Walt’s tribute to wooden walls full of memories and dimpled windows that still let in the sunshine.
The genius of Kevin Russell. See his Austin Songwriter profile here.
Eric Taylor performs his pensive “Dean Moriarty”, with wife Susan, in The Netherlands.
“In the summertime, the graveyard is the coolest place to be”.
The empty spaces of West Texas have proven a petri dish for the fashioning of powerful but unorthodox art. Music, of course, but also literature, theater and the visual arts pour from the souls of a few brave thinkers driven exiled out on the endless prairie. Outsider pioneers like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Joe Ely, Terry Allen, David Halley, Amanda Shires, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore…and, maybe most of all, a heretical spitfire by the name of Jo Carol Pierce.
If ever there was an artist immune to categorization, it is Pierce. Raised in and around Lubbock, where she met Ely and Hancock, and was briefly married to Gilmore, she moved to Austin in the seventies and began a life-long exploration of her endless creativity. Ultimately she would wear the hats of novelist, playwright, screenwriter and songwriter all equally well.
There are the plays: Falling, Papergirls, New World Tango, Bad Girls Upset by the Truth, and In the West, which was performed at the Kennedy Center in 1991.
Encouraged by Ely and Halley, Pierce took up songwriting in the eighties and began performing around Austin. In 1993, adoring local musicians cut Across the Great Divide: Songs of Jo Carol Pierce, a tribute to her work featuring interpretations by Ely, Gilmore, Allen, Halley, Darden Smith, Troy Campbell and the Loose Diamonds, Kathy McCarty, Gretchen Phillips, Rich and Kathy Brotherton, and others.
It is certainly plausible that plainness and desolation give rise to existential quandaries and soul-searching art. But then where are the profound messengers from, say, Las Vegas or Scottsdale?
Three things to know about Jo Carol Pierce: (1) she is life-long friends with Sharon Ely, wife of Joe, and Jo Harvey Allen, wife of Terry, (2) she and Terry wrote a play, Chippy, which resulted in the album of songs recorded by Terry, Ely, Jo Harvey Allen, Hancock, Robert Earl Keen and Jo Carol, and (3) she has more than a passing interest in the history of the Jacksboro Highway, the storied Fort Worth home of out in the open gambling, bootlegging and prostitution.
Jim Lauderdale’s baritone twang is booming and earnest and sketches a roadmap of the roots and pedigree of real American country music. The journey began in his North Carolina birthplace, headed west through his current home of Nashville, on to Oklahoma and through the whole state of Texas. It ended up at a truck stop in Bakersfield, California.
Lauderdale has been preaching the honest gospel since 1986, putting out twenty-seven albums of original work and collaborating along the way with the likes of Ralph Stanley, Buddy Miller, Nick Lowe, Robert Hunter and others. His songwriting evokes times past. Some have called him a “preservationist” or “revivalist” of old country, and he is certainly a chronicler of folk history. But while history is his canvas and his songs are steeped in the familiar country themes of struggle and loss, he also paints with a musical brush dipped in the colors of joy, hope and wonder.
On stage he is a sight to behold, holding his ground in a tastefully understated Nudie suit, graying main blowing and flowing like some kind of Fayetteville Fabio. His music lilts and swings in a kind of uplifting spiritual celebration, almost like a rural North Carolina Baptist church on Sunday morning. This is music that soothes the soul and shines a warm light on the days ahead.
Jim’s latest record, This Changes Everything, is a Lone Star state affair, recorded in Austin with help from folks like Chris Masterson, Brennen Leigh, Noel McKay, Sunny Sweeney, Kevin Smith and Bobby Flores. A number of Texas songwriters, including Bruce Robison and Hayes Carll, contributed to the songs.
Three things to know about Jim Lauderdale: (1) as a youngster in New York City he worked in the mailroom at Rolling Stone magazine, (2) when he first moved to Nashville he lived on the second floor of Buddy and Julie Miller’s house, and (3) in 2016, he received the “WagonMaster Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Americana Music Association.
Pretty memories from the very beginning of the Texas scene. We miss you, Buckwheat.
Jeff wishes America a happy and thoughtful birthday. Onward and upward, people.
Bruce Robison hales from the storied Texas town of Bandera, way out on the western edge of the paradise they call the Hill Country. One of the self-appointed ‘Cowboy Capitals of the World”, Bandera is a rollicking little town on the banks of the Medina River, famous for errant behavior, barbeque, the aforementioned cowboys, and great live music. Willie Nelson once wrote a lovely instrumental about the goings-on in Bandera County.
There are great old Texas families out there, the Potters, the Buckalews and most especially the Robisons. Bruce and musician siblings Charlie Robison and Robyn Ludwick grew up tossing hay, drinking beer and rope-swinging down on the deep part of the Medina. They all held the gift of song.
Bruce moved to Austin to make a name for himself and married the fabulous Kelly Willis in 1996. In recent years they have increasingly recorded and toured as The Bruce and Kelly Show, and the sum of their parts is something to behold. This writer swears he’s witnessed, in the course of a single live set, Kelly and Bruce tiff, sulk and then make up while duet-ing one of their gorgeous love songs. That’s drama worth the while, a marriage to admire.
Bruce is a worker and a craftsman. Each of his songs feels like he started with a novel and distilled it down to twenty lines that rhyme. The lyrics feel like a thrown rock dancing across deep waters, each skip pulling common feelings and memories to the surface. Take, for example, Travelin’ Soldier, an arid but moving journey through young love, leaving, longing, war and loss. Or Angry All The Time, an aching chronicle of good love lost to the darkness of our lesser selves.
Three things to know about Bruce Robison (1) he stands about 6’7”, which is pretty tall even in Texas, (2) his spent much of his childhood in the music bars of Bandera like The Cabaret, Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar and the 11th Street Cowboy Bar, and (3) he and Kelley now have a passel of children.
Wistful Lucinda for a Saturday morning.
Emmylou Harris with a wistful version of her old compadre’s song. Buddy Miller on lead guitar.
>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.
Guitars sizzle in Austin every night. Here are some of our favorites.
Kevin Higgins visits the busy intersection of first love and hard reality. The magic is gone, but the memories stick around forever.
John Hiatt paints lost love in pastel regret. Ry Cooder soars on slide guitar.