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.

If you love Jo Carol Pierce, Austin Songwriter suggests you check out Terry Allen, Butch Hancock and Blaze Foley.




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.

If you love Ryan Bingham, Austin Songwriter suggests you check out Guy Clark, Kevin Higgins and Kevin Welch.




 




Ramirez lays it down on a twilight tour of the beautiful Texas countryside.  




The one and only Ted Hawkins lends his heart-stopping voice to this classic country song. This one will wake you up.




Mr. Sahm called Austin his “Groover’s Paradise”. Enough said.




Feed the dog and grab the keys. Vince is taking us to Mexico!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v93MxXbZYCA




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.

If you love Bruce Robison, Austin Songwriter suggests you check out James McMurtry, Mary Gauthier and Robert Earl Keen.




“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…




Ray Wylie’s simplest ode to love. Enough said.

See his austinsongwriter profile here.




The magnificent Chris Smither does Rowland Salley’s “Killing the Blues”.




Mary Chapin Carpenter with an almost impossibly beautiful story about an impossibly beautiful soul.




Kevin Welch explores the layers of regret that can settle over long time love. He asks his lover to forget the pain, if only for a little while, and follow him down to where love still lives.

 




>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.

If you love Janis Joplin, Austin Songwriter suggests you check out Carolyn Wonderland, Freddie King and Lucinda Williams.




Smither, who ranks with the great Jimmy LaFave in interpreting Dylan’s work, with an early classic.




John Prine’s favorite song. A gorgeous portrait of the dusty realities of growing old.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_PbfxNsdZs




Walt’s tribute to wooden walls full of memories and dimpled windows that still let in the sunshine.







The incomparable Patty Griffin with her ode to the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Do something beautiful today.




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.

If you love Vince Bell, Austin Songwriter suggests you check out Kevin Welch, Eliza Gilkyson, and Michael Fracasso.




“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.




In a beautiful call to the past, Carrie dreams of Lola Beltran and Javier Solis.




BettySoo‘s gorgeous take on the eternal classic by the legendary Cindy Walker.







Everything’s gonna be alright!

 




  A lotta love, a little lust. Joe Ely slow dances his truck stop girl into highway heaven.




Lyle Lovett

 




The genius of Kevin Russell. See his Austin Songwriter profile here.




With help from Carrie Elkin and Chip Dolan, Sam paints the eternal beauty of fifty years of marriage. Performed live at the Folly Theater in Kansas City, Missouri.




Miles performs “You Can’t Break My Heart” for Austin Songwriter.

If only that were true.




I guess we’ve all had our “Rosalie”. Or wish we did.







Wistful Lucinda for a quiet morning.




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.

If you love Willie Nelson, Austin Songwriter suggests you check out Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams and Roy Orbison.




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 HarrisPatty GriffinLucinda WilliamsWillie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Levon Helm, Rodney CrowellShawn 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.

If you love Buddy Miller, Austin Songwriter suggests you check out John HiattJim Lauderdale and Steve Earle.




In the way back, Freddie King took Europe by storm, Introduced with a dose of Groover’s Paradise by the legendary Jim Franklin. “Have You Ever Loved a Woman”, indeed.




Nanci remembers growing up in Austin.

 




A beautiful take on a spellbinding song. Thank you, Patty, and our mysterious friend.




Jimmie V, Kim Wilson and the T-Birds bringing the soul to supper! Happy Saturday, ya’ll.







Van the Man says search your heart for the lion.




Eliza considers the cost of love.




There is no place for a soul recharge like Austin’s Saxon Pub on a Sunday night. The Resentments lay down a heaping helping of ironic wit and neighborly joy. “Damaged Goods” is an ode to lost love written, guitared and vocaled by Scrappy Jud Newcomb, backed by Jeff Plankenhorn, Miles Zuniga, Bruce Hughes and the omnipotent John Chipman.

If your soul is in need of a tune up, come on down to the Saxon and sit awhile with the boys. It’s the next best thing to church.




Bob the Man with a little magical realism.




Jimmie from the way-back with a slice of Austin style rhythm and blues.







David Ramirez and Summer Ames team up on his gorgeous tune about faith. He vows to carry on, to “breathe deep, love strong, and hold on forever”.




A cool dip is just around the corner.




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.

 




Pretty memories from the very beginning of the Texas scene. We miss you, Buckwheat.




Shinyribs says go get you some milk and mash potatoes!




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.

If you love Ted Hawkins, Austin Songwriter suggests you check out Blaze Foley, Jesse Winchester and John Hiatt.




K with a slowed-down version of his soulful “What I Can’t Have”. Have some tears with you cheerios!




Early on a Sunday morning. A young father kisses his children, still in their beds, holds his wife for a long moment, then climbs into his truck and drives into the dawn. He won’t be back till Friday night.

Josh Grider and Kelley Mickwee paint the picture of a family struggling to get by. Men trying to find work, any work, anywhere. Women holding down two or three jobs. Kids asking questions that have no answers.