Musical magic hit Austin, Texas, in the early 1970s. At now-legendary venues such as Threadgill's, Vulcan Gas Company, and the Armadillo World Headquarters, a host of country, rock-and-roll, blues, and folk musicians came together and created a sound and a scene that Jan Reid vividly detailed in his 1974 book, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.
The breadth of talent still astounds—Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Delbert McClinton, Michael Martin Murphey, Willis Alan Ramsey, Kinky Friedman, Steve Fromholz, Bobby Bridger, Billy Joe Shaver, Marcia Ball, and Townes Van Zandt. Reid's book even inspired the nationally popular and long-running PBS series Austin City Limits, which focused attention on the trends that fed the music scene—progressive country, country rock, western swing, blues, and bluegrass among them.
In this new edition, Jan Reid revitalizes his classic look at the Austin music scene. He has substantially reworked the early chapters to include musicians and musical currents from other parts of Texas that significantly contributed to the delightful convergence of popular cultures in Austin. Four new chapters and an epilogue show how the creative burst of the seventies directly spawned a new generation of talents who carry on the tradition—Lyle Lovett, Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, Jimmy LaFave, Kelly Willis, Joe Ely, Bruce and Charlie Robison, and The Dixie Chicks.
The Gay Place
A Yodeler and the Queen
Looking for a Home
Something to Do with Age
Beer, Cocaine and ...
Just a Waltz
The Boy from Alabama
The Golden Fleece
The Ballad of Evelyn Goose and Donna Dumbass
The Quota on Singing Texas Jews
Willie the Lion
The Day of the Locust
Good Day for the Blues
If this book had any beginning, it was probably in a little building with brown asbestos siding at the corner of 23rd and Grace Streets in Wichita Falls, a small city on the Texas side of the Red River, whose hymn was enduringly sung by novelist Larry McMurtry:
I once had a character say it was the ugliest place on earth, but since that time extensive readings in the literature of Patagonia, Siberia and Central Asia have convinced me that while dramatically apt, the statement should not be pressed as literally true. Ulan-Bator, Omsk, Semipalatinsk, Tashkent and some of the villages in the district of the Lob Nor, these are all at least as ugly, and doubtless the list will grow even longer as I read on.
McMurtry was a native son, practically. He grew up on a nearby cattle ranch, which possibly accounted for some of his antipathy toward the old hometown. Of course, some people wouldn't live anywhere else. It was a quiet, clean town, they argued, a good place to raise a family. It was known as the City That Faith Built. Maybe so, the counter argument ran, but faith picked a hell of a place to set up shop.
The little structure at 23rd and Grace was an unpretentious manifestation of that faith. It housed blond, uncushioned pews which rarely seated more than 300 people, a modest pulpit, a stark baptistry, a two-story classroom addition. Over the years it had its problems—a fire that traveled through the heating ducts and left the place stinking for months, ministers forever on the lookout for greener pastures, the disfellowship of a popular deacon gone wrong. And it served an aging neighborhood, which meant there was never much money in the church coffers, and when the old died off, they were replaced by more and more Chicanos who were probably Catholic, and in any case not welcome as prospective members. But the congregation at 23rd and Grace persisted; it socialized together, planned for the future together, cared for its impoverished, aged, and afflicted together. It was a workingman's neighborhood, a workingman's church. On the building's front were letters cut from aluminum by a member's metal shears: Church of Christ.
An Irish Presbyterian and immigrant named Thomas Campbell unintentionally founded the sect in Washington, Pennsylvania in 1807. However, the gospel was spread by his son Alexander—who once debated the subject of infant baptism with a Presbyterian for sixteen days while Henry Clay moderated—and a score of transient evangelists like Raccoon John Smith, an Alabaman who one day disrupted a Methodist service by quaffing down the infant baptismal water and telling the stunned minister, "Brother, I drank your Jordan dry." But those of us who grew up at 23rd and Grace knew nothing of that; all we knew was that it was the Church, the one built in the first century on the rock of the apostle Peter's faith, not his person. It was the one in accordance with Scriptures, the one on guard against frills and misdirection, the one that stayed alive in attics and catacombs during the deviancy of the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation. Which was the reason we didn't have a piano like our Baptist brethren down the street.
The Campbells' movement fractured in 1906, primarily over the means of making a joyful noise unto the Lord, as commanded in Psalms. One faction reasoned that since the Scriptures weren't explicit on the precise mode of the joyful noisemaking, surely the Lord wouldn't mind if the music which reached His ears was concordant. The other said it was taking no chances. The former became the Disciples of Christ, the more affluent Christian churches of most towns in the Midwest and South. The latter became the fundamentalist Churches of Christ.
As a result the members of the church at 23rd and Grace lifted their voices without the assistance of a piano or organ or even a small trained choir. There was just a brother in the pulpit who could tell one pitch from another, who waved a hand in the air and tried to get the lumbering vocal flight off the ground. Roughly half the members tried to discipline their voices in soprano, alto, tenor, and bass ranges. The others sang to the best of their ability. If the a capella gathering at 23rd and Grace had ever gathered in the Mormon Tabernacle, they probably would have set off harmonic vibrations that would have brought the house down, but if there was any beauty in that determined sect, it was in its music.
Some of the songs in the hymnal were cumbersome and plodding, as if written by some aging, alchemistic monk, but others took off in simple soaring flights of emotion. Songs written by lyricists with evocative Southern names like Jessie Brown Pounds and Fannie J. Crosby. Songs of a loving God who nevertheless had stated a law and meant to keep His word. Sorrowful yet exultant songs about Jesus at Calvary. Imagistic songs about the Gentile Zion.Songs of sweet, sweet assurance that the next life wouldn't be as hard on faithful Christians as this one had been. And most important, songs of invitation.
Though the sermon occasionally began with a quip or anecdote, the message was dead serious. They were utopian Christians who hoped against long odds that the world would adhere to the example of the first-century church, and like most utopians, they reserved scant sympathy for those outside the enlightened inner circle. The road to the promised land was in fact so straight and narrow that it could only accommodate faithful members of the Church of Christ, and by midsermon the address often boiled over into attack upon rival sects, upon members who failed to live up to their commitment, upon those truculent members of the audience who had not taken the first step.
Those words resounded in the ears of adolescents reminded daily that we were now accountable for our actions, but the sermon alone was more likely to leave us petrified in our pews than at the front professing our faith in Jesus. But toward the end the preacher's rhetoric softened, and with a final plea he relinquished the microphone to the song director, who led the congregation in a song that was soft, lilting, and sad:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling
The contrast between the two appeals was jarring. While the sermon instilled guilt and dread, the invitation hymn provided emotion and hope. For most adolescents raised in the church the combined appeal eventually worked. We bolted down the aisle on the verge of tears, confessed our faith, and endured our dunking in the baptistry while our mothers cried. They would have cried more had they known that, for far too many of us, it was simply an emotional moment, lacking in either comprehension or conviction. We had just succumbed to the pressure.
After that signal moment was past, we didn't stop growing up. Some of our legs outgrew the space between the pews, and all of us had friends outside the church. We were missing out on a lot of things, and we knew it. We chalked up considerable mileage responding to subsequent invitations and renewing our wavering faiths, but the seeds of backsliding were being sown on those very pews. Sermons became drones of sound of uncomfortable length. The pews tacitly reserved for "the young people" became a playground of covert social gamesmanship. Coy notes were passed back and forth, the seating arrangement became the indicator of dating trends, sly elbows nudged brassiered ribs every time the congregation stood to sing "Let Him Have His Way with Thee." After the nighttime services we piled in old Mercurys and Fords and circled the town for hours, copping feels and engaging in the prevalent titillation, profanity.
As time progressed many of us abandoned that faith altogether, though we would carry the stamp of those years as long as we lived. There was the Sunday morning in 1960 the preacher urged the membership to vote for Richard Nixon, thereby avoiding a papal takeover. I'm more appreciative and measured in my indignation now; they were fundamentalists, but with that one exception they were apolitical—there was no such thing as the Christian Right, at least not in our Church of Christ. But one Sunday we young people watched a filmstrip that set creation in the year 4004 B.C.—a chronology, I would one day read, that was first advanced by an English archbishop named James Ussher in 1650 and had been debunked and hoorahed most of the years since. Suddenly their blue-collar beliefs seemed anti-intellectual in the extreme. But a likelier cause of our disaffection was the realization that while there was security in the knowledge that one held the keys to the kingdom of heaven, there was also loneliness in the proposition that one's friends, even one's father, didn't have a prayer. Soon all that was left of our faith was our love for the music. We never dreamed those melodies would revisit us one day in the form of popular music.
The break was rarely abrupt; we drifted back and forth on the social tides. But the farther we got from shore, the more probable it became that we would land on some fascinating territory—in my case, next door. In 1951 a kind old woman named Cochran sold one of her lots on Keeler Street to her son Lee and his growing family, and sold the adjoining lot to the Reids. An unlikelier match of neighbors could not have been arranged. My parents were earnest Depression-scarred people who worked hard in the daytime and slept at night, except when my father worked the graveyard shift at the refinery. Lee Cochran played trumpet in a western swing band called the Miller Brothers, and his wife kept right up. My father spent half his time at home clipping hedges and pushing a lawnmower; once in a while you'd kick up a crumpled beer can in the Cochrans' yard. Saturday night was the quietest night of the week around the Reid household, but it was something the Cochrans recuperated from.
As for the children, there were two Reids, four Cochrans. But as the older Reid moved into adolescence, she came to regard even her brother with cheerful disdain, which left me to deal alone with four rival males. I considered the Cochrans pugnacious, cantankerous, yet somehow sissified. They dismissed me as one of the breed who spat on sidewalks, took baseball seriously, and asked his mother for permission before he went somewhere. The only thing we really had in common was that we were kids from the other side of the tracks. Our FHA houses faced a railroad right-of-way, but by accident of school boundary lines we crossed those tracks daily to consort with well-groomed children whose grandfathers struck it very rich in the oil boom, which left us with something of the outlook of a Cockney dropped into the House of Lords. I'd have to say, though, that the Cochran offspring handled that better than I did. My face burned red when my father dropped me off at school in a 1948 Chevrolet, but one day in 1952 Corky Cochran swaggered past the "I Like Ike" buttons sporting a lapel pin which indicated his parents were faithful Democrats. I had to give him credit for that. But I figured I was tougher and smarter than Corky Cochran and was thinking about being a preacher when I grew up. All he did was play with his mean Chow dog and talk about his daddy's band. The Cochrans watched when I departed for Wednesday night Bible study. I watched when they loaded the Pontiac for another Saturday night on the town. We viewed each other with high suspicion.
One day a school chum asked me what the Cochrans' old man did for a living, and I pantomimed a horn lick and snorted, "A trumpet player." My mother boxed my jaws for the remark, and after that I kept my snobbery to myself. But the disdain was half-hearted anyway. There was an element of pride in being able to turn on our new television and see my next-door neighbor, dressed in western suit and hat, step up on cue and play his trumpet for the Wichita Falls audience. In longevity and reputation, the Miller Brothers were a qualified success. Then as now, you could pretty well assess a band by its means of travel. The prospering ones flew, the aspiring ones owned a big air-conditioned bus, the struggling ones drove two hundred miles for gigs in NCO clubs. The Miller Brothers owned a bizarre 1955 Chevrolet stretched like an accordion into a limousine.
The Miller Brothers were great travelers. They toured twenty-three states, Canada, Greenland, and, according to a retired member, were the first western swing band ever booked in Bermuda and Puerto Rico. They even cut several records for Four-Star and made some money off their sales. But for me they were strictly a local phenomenon. Apart from high school football and an outlying Air Force base that was supposed to be number seven on Russia's nuclear hit list, they were Wichita Falls' claim to fame in the fifties.
Unfortunately, the theater outlived the act. After nearly two decades, the Miller Brothers went their separate ways in 1959, and all too soon people were wondering why the local saloon was called the MB Corral. The MB on country-western nights was a raucous, rowdy place where, as legend had it, a roughneck one night stomped the bejesus out of a sideburned singer named Elvis Presley.
It was a nice place to be on Saturday night, as long as your number wasn't up. A bland but noxious breed of petroleum nouveaux riches held the economic reins to the city, but their Cadillacs weren't the ones parked outside the MB. The Caddys outside the MB had dents in the doors. The sure-enough rich drank their weekend bourbon in Dallas or at the country club, while the MB patrons mixed their own and drank the same stuff cheaper. Though most of the patrons had lived inside the city limits longer than they cared to remember, they donned boots and Stetsons and high-heeled shoes and descended on the MB for a wild old Saturday night. They courted, kissed, and worked up to adultery on the dance floor, and entertained themselves during band breaks by flinging quarters at a trio of jukebox dancers remembered by one patron as "those jive-ass shufflin' tapdance niggers."
To me, the fact that the older Cochrans hung out at the MB was one thing, but allowing their kids to tag along was another. The Cochran boys were great name-droppers, though most of the country-western names didn't mean anything to me at the time, and they liked to taunt me with their mastery of the latest dance steps. The Church of Christ deemed dancing to be a wanton and sinful activity (and it was, or at least a host of aching virgins longed for it to be) but that prohibition was a lost cause. I watched American Bandstand every day that I wasn't out chasing some ball, and briefly there was a locally televised sock hop run by a disk jockey and future record producer named Snuff Garrett. But regardless of which dance I mastered, the Cochrans were always one step ahead, primarily because they had access to the people who usually set American dance trends, the blacks.
Wichita Falls was segregated then. There were segregated drinking fountains downtown and restrooms at the bus station for Men, Women, and Coloreds, the latter sign set apart in blue neon. I encountered black faces occasionally at the kid baseball games—the segregated teams were allowed to play each other—World Series and on city buses headed toward domestic jobs in the mansions of the rich, but their world was a city away from mine. The dual system even applied to music. The country bands trooped through the South and played for white audiences in honky-tonks like the MB, while the black rhythm 'n' blues bands traveled the same highways and played the same dance halls, but those Thursday or Sunday night affairs were generally off-limits to whites. Yet because of their father's ownership interest, the Cochrans went to Coloreds-only dances at the MB Corral. They fairly babbled with excitement the mornings after. More niggers than you could count but they treated you alone, even treated you friendly, and lord how they danced, danced to the finest music imaginable. Bo Diddly and Jimmy Reed and B.B. King, Chuck Berry and Bobby "Blue" Bland and Ike and Tina Turner.
Those were the stories that tipped the balance. The dances sounded primitive and wild, yet somehow niggers with razors didn't sound any more dangerous than rednecks with whiskey bottles. Besides, any fruit that forbidden just had to taste sweet. The afternoon before one of those dances the Cochrans extended a rare, mocking invitation for me to join them, and I went home to sulk, wrestle with temptation, consider the consequences, and surrender.
"Mother, can I go out to the MB tonight?"
"No," she said, startled, then she looked at me, a foreknowledge of defeat welling in her eyes.
Several years later, I sat by myself in a Wichita Falls bar while the sun down went outside. Behind me were five years on the campus of a college nicknamed "Hometown Harvard." Half a decade, spent not in the pursuit of knowledge but in the surface camaraderie of a fraternity, of that elusive loving woman, of whatever it was we sought in the narcotic glow of a blacklight with Ravi Shankar on the stereo.
It was just a bar. The only other occupants were the broad-hipped matron of the place, who stood by her cash register counting receipts, a waitress who nibbled Fritos and swiveled on her stool, offering periodic glimpses of her panty girdle, and a large young man who practiced the same pool shot over and over, missing most of the time. He was a high school football hero who a few years earlier had bounced a basketball off my chest and invited me to do something about it. I didn't, for I was afraid of him. Now he had been cut by his Canadian Football League team and didn't recognize me.
The waitress slid off the stool, smoothed her skirt, and flounced my way. "You got some jukebox change, honey?" I begrudged her a quarter, and she flounced over to the jukebox, which lit up and started clicking when she dropped the coin.
Music hadn't played much of a part in my life in recent years. Jazz struck me as tedious, classical music was an incomprehensible bore, and folk, which had stirred me for a while, had gone the way of Johnny Rivers and the Whisky á Go Go. The Kingston Trio got plowed under with the New Frontier; Bob Dylan had gone electric, shocking his purist fans, and started playing rock and roll. I rather liked the sound of his band, later famous as the Band, but to my church-trained ear he still couldn't sing. My interest in rock music in those years was half-hearted. I listened to retrospectives of Buddy Holly and realized what a great talent the Lubbock youngster had been. But most of the groups whose records I bought had been copying the Beatles so long they just seemed tired, and try as I might, I could not get into acid rock. Even the Rolling Stones were putting out records that made Mick Jagger sound like a lost calf who'd been grazing mescaline. My pseudohippie friends tried to drag me along when Cream or Blue Cheer came to Dallas, but I refused. I feared that if they got me down there they'd stuff some substance down my gullet that would paralyze my medulla and fly me to places I did not wish to be, and I didn't want my hearing ruined by some over-amped shrieking guitar.
I had never been to a real rock concert. The closest I had come was when my fraternity brought the first of the American faux Liverpool groups, the Sir Douglas Quintet, to the MB Corral, a project that had our heads swimming with dollar signs at its inception and left us with a net profit of fifteen dollars and seventy-five cents. Our teeny-bopper patrons conducted themselves pretty much in the manner of their parents, but that night policemen descended on the MB like a swarm of mosquitoes. The consumption of alcohol was forbidden inside the premises, which took out much of the steam as the leader of the quint, a San Antonian in mod dress named Doug Sahm, belted out the refrains of their biggest hits. "She's about a mover." "Rain, rain, rain, rain." He seemed generally aghast at the youthful glue-sniffing going on around him.
As for my ties with country music, they were all but severed. God knows what had happened to all the Miller Brothers. Leon was still playing around, but his brother Sam was running a booking agency, and one member was reduced to playingwith makeshift bands, disciplining a stoned drummer whose attention seemed to wander with a glare and a stern, "Two four, two four." Lee Cochran opened an ice cream parlor after the band broke up; his children had grown up furtive and shy. I watched the Porter Wagoner Show on television occasionally, with the morbid fascination I would have felt if I'd been allowed to watch medical students perform surgery on a cadaver. Country music was worse than soap opera television. Divorce and drinking and struggling to get rich for nothing, country music seemed to deal with the standard derangements all right, but it turned them into sentimentalized virtues. It was the music of a despairing status quo. Hence my apprehension when the barmaid plugged my quarter into the jukebox.
Yet her first choice pleased me. A new country singer named Willie Nelson had come along, and I found myself liking him. Like too many Nashville recordings, his songs were sugared by string arrangements, and his lyrics offered no more solutions than the average hillbilly wail of mourning, but at least he sounded like they were genuine problems. Some of the songs sounded like he was ready to put a gun to his head. There was an element of suffering in Willie Nelson's songs, a rasp and shiver of the Dust Bowl in his craw. He sounded like he'd done time in plenty of godforsaken Texas towns.
The barmaid walked away from the jukebox, and left me alone with Willie Nelson. It was a song about social inertia, and in my youthful conceit it seemed to be aimed directly at me. When Larry McMurtry wrote about the ugliness of Wichita Falls, he wasn't talking about the surrounding countryside. No one has been more appreciative of the bunchgrass prairie and even the mesquite thickets in that locale. Rather it was the dreadful sameness of towns like Wichita Falls, and what that sameness did to you. It was a spiritual ugliness, a sense of one's youth leading nowhere.
Turn out the light the party's over It seems that all good things must end Let's call it a night the party's over And tomorrow starts the same old thing again
If anything in my life was a certainty, it was the realization that it was time to get out of that town.
Most descriptions of Austin start with its terrain—a rolling prairie broken by ancient upheaval into tiers of wooded ridges where the ghosts of Comanches and Tonkawas dance at night—and end with the bacchanalian circus of Texas politics, with perhaps an ambivalent dart or two thrown at that shaft of higher learning, the University of Texas tower. By several measures, here is a place where the South intersects with the West. The Balcones Fault sets farming country and culture apart from the ranches, and Austin sits square upon that divide. Austin is an ever-growing city with ethnic divisions, poverty, violence, ugly corridors of neon, and suburban sprawl. But for decades Austin's image had derived from the central, adjoining regions of the capitol and campus. While working on the U.S. Senate staff of Lyndon Johnson, a young Dallas refugee named Billy Lee Brammer portrayed Austin in 1961 with a stylish and libidinous political novel called The Gay Place.
It is a pleasant city, clean and quiet, with wide rambling walks and elaborate public gardens and elegant old homes faintly ruined in the shadow of arching poplars. Occasionally through the trees, and always from a point of higher ground, one can see the college tower and the Capitol building. On brilliant mornings the white sandstone of the tower and the Capitol's granite dome are joined for an instant, all pink and cream, catching the first light.
In droll fashion Brammer was setting up his readers for a fall with his idyllic panorama, but people who came out of Texas' plains and piney woods and border chaparral and their unhandsome towns and cities believed in the beauty and distinctiveness of Austin, long after it began to fade. The blend of smallness and sophistication was most seductive from the late fifties to the early eighties. Residents made summer routines of swimming at several cold, spring-fed pools that gush from the limestone of the dormant fault. With time and fashion carne the joggers and bicyclists streaming along by the hundreds on the city's trails. Always, too, in those parks one saw youths sailing Frisbees to dogs, and pairs of lovers on the lawns, stealing a moment in the sun. It often seemed to be a city of young, mostly naked bodies, teasing and proud. Then, as now, the men who ran state government tended to be rock-hard conservatives, but liberals dominated Austin's politics. And conservatives with upright church-going and chamber-of-commerce ways back home showed a pronounced taste for the local mead and pleasures of the flesh. Students, artists, lobbyists, and legislators were by nature a transient lot, and their antics gave Austin a reputation as a night-life playground for bright rowdies and rascals passing through. Texas' first accomplished urban novel captured a place with a superiority complex, where the rules of engagement were fast and loose. In 1970, Austin was still that kind of town. Love affairs, or at least flings, were rather easy to come by.
In outward appearance, Austin had changed in the decade since Brammer wrote his novel. Few Texas politicians wore LBJ-style Stetsons anymore, and turquoise vendors, Hare Krishnas, drug dealers, and panhandlers crowded the university sidewalks that had been terrorized by the mad sniper Charles Whitman in 1966. Austin's image was unchanged, but it was growing a new style, and there was a new center of attention. Longhorn football games were no longer quite the epic events they once had been; the storied liberal hangout, Scholz Beer Garten, was no longer the place to be on Saturday night.
Music had long been a part of Austin life. Austin was the most bohemian city in a very conservative state; artists of all stripes were naturally inclined to think they could find an amiable climate and perhaps a receptive audience there. But the state capital was often shunned by major touring performers, for the chances of handsome gates were greater in the larger cities of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. In between those concerts, Austinites contented themselves with what was available locally. Folksingers strummed their guitars for nickels and dimes in the university area. Rock and rollers lived communally, tried to imitate their heroes' best licks in free concerts in the park, and paid their bills by playing rubberstamp dance music for fraternities and sororities. Rhythm-and-blues bands played wherever they could, which was usually limited to the black east side. Country bands played in beer taverns as waitresses circled the room with tambourines in their hands, soliciting donations for the musicians. Any of those musicians might attract spirited local followings, but they knew, and their followers knew, that if they were going to make any sort of national impression, one day they would have to try their luck in the major music centers—New York, Los Angeles, Nashville.
In 1970 two developments began to change that. A number of musicians who were already battered and bruised by the major music centers began to settle in Austin. They were songwriters and singers of varied experience and potential, but they were good enough to land recording contracts with major companies. Many had backgrounds in folk and rock music that was not particularly indigenous to Texas, but the music they spawned in Austin was rooted in forms young Texans had grown up with: gospel, blues, and country and western. That same year a group of young men and women launched a music enterprise with an arresting name, Armadillo World Headquarters.
It was a counter-cultural honky-tonk with adequate floor space but almost no furnishings. That first year the south Austin enterprise seemed doomed, but it survived through the tenacity of its founders, who were driven by a dream of a community center for artistic expression. Armadillo World Headquarters grew in community acceptance, if not profitability, and it became known as the forum for the music being offered by the immigrant musicians. As the musicians grew in popularity they created an audience famous for its exuberant response, and performers from other parts of the country began to covet appearances at "the Armadillo." The success of the recorded Austin artists encouraged other local performers to return to the roots of their musical heritage, and the success of the Armadillo prompted other entrepreneurs to bid for a piece of the action. Soon Austin was swarming with talented young musicians, and the most popular public spectacle was now live music. Through a curious national press and word-of-mouth communication by touring musicians, Austin. gained almost overnight a reputation as one of the most exciting centers of musical activity in the country.
A mild chill hung in the air one April night in 1973, a faint reminder of the harshest winter Austin had seen in years. But there was also a flowering smell of spring, a dance of light on the Colorado River. Trusting hitchhikers lined the curbs. An abandoned armory with a skating rink for a next-door neighbor, the Armadillo was flanked by a parking lot riddled with chugholes. Leaning against the Armadillo's wall outside were a trio of young blacks whose leader watched the movement of loosely clad white girls with long slow sweeps of his hat brim, turned a quarter over in his palm, and addressed every other male, "Hey brother, you got a dime?" On the other end of the parking lot, a German shepherd watchdog impounded for the night in an auto repair shop yard reacted to the stream of intruders with alternating bluff and bewilderment.
Inspiration had visited the Armadillo's staff artist again. He had started off on an outdoor wall with a mural that portrayed Ravi Shankar and band at ethereal work while in the background a nine-banded armadillo devoured the moon, but the mural on the new building housing additional toilets was more complex. It was a hazy landscape of blue Texas Hill Country, enlivened by slices of watermelon, an ice cream bar, an old Chevrolet pickup parked near a stand of shade trees, an apple half with the Alamo for a core.
The interior sensation of the Armadillo was one of dark, airy space, at least until the cloud of smoke began to build. No one was onstage yet except a black cat that slept with one paw hanging off the piano, and elsewhere in the hall the look was barren. There were concrete walls, sparrows fluttering around the ceiling, a concrete floor partially covered with patches of used carpet, a few tables, and folding metal chairs. Overlooking the space was another mural, this one depicting bluesman Freddie King in fervent guitar play while an armadillo burst from his chest, splattering blood. Freddie King recorded an album at the Armadillo once.
A group of young boys played touch football with a pillow on the carpeted section of the floor, hurdling toddlers in diapers and taunting younger siblings. But their field began to shrink as the growing crowd ran out of tables and chairs and staked claims on the floor. The first band onstage was Whistler, a group that introduced Austin to country rock in an east side barbecue dive in 1969 but disbanded shortly afterward because of nagging creditors. Whistler was together again for the first time in several months and the set was somewhat ragged, but the singer and piano player sounded a little like Linda Ronstadt, and they got a nostalgic reception.
Another opening act was Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys, one of the more hopeful bands in Texas at the time. Man Mountain, who wasn't all that mountainous, sat playing a pedal steel and dobro while fellow San Antonians, one wearing a straw cowboy hat, another a railroad cap, the third shoulder-length blond hair, parodied Buck Owens, praised the legendary Chicken Ranch whorehouse in LaGrange, and brought the house down with a colored barbershop revival of the old Cadillacs hit, "Speedo."
The headliners began to drift out of the darkness after Man Mountain's encore and a short break. A woman with waist-length hair and a Barbra Streisand nose walked over and sat down at the piano with her back to the audience; a longhaired young man flapped his elbows as he tuned his bass; an older man in a Honolulu shirt with long blond hair and a harrowed face slouched over a pedal steel; the drummer, Paul English, was costumed in a Machiavellian beard, Dracula cape, and Pancho Villa cartridge belt. English started a drum roll, and a white spotlight inspected each of the band members, then settled on a short man in boots, beard, cowboy hat, and gold earring who walked to the microphone.
Willie Nelson had changed a great deal since he used to wear mock turtlenecks to his gigs, but except for the addition of some rock licks it was the same music—the thumping bass, the rinky-tonk piano, the vocal steel, the same flat, sorrowful baritone. The performance consisted of a tight, virtual medley of the songs Nelson had written, but for those familiar with country top forty, the list was astonishingly long: "Hello Walls," "The Party's Over," "Night Life," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Me and Paul," "Yesterday's Wine." Nelson didn't record all those songs in hit-single form, but he sang most of them better than the artists who covered them. Yet the contagion of his performance derived more from the singer than the songs. On record, Nelson was a superb country singer and guitar player—but onstage he was a magician.
The guitar-and-song performance became the great American ritual long before Willie Nelson made his debut, but he was a master of the art. Young girls didn't scream when he walked onstage, and it was impossible to picture Nelson whanging his guitar against an amplifier, voltage sparking all around him. He stood less than six feet tall, his torso was beginning to belly out a little with age, and he cocked his hip and dipped his shoulder as he played his guitar and seemed forever in want of a comfortable stance. But he was always seeking eye contact with the people in front of him, nodding and grinning once it was established. Women flushed with pleasure when the skin around Nelson's eyes wrinkled on their behalf, but his look seemed to be just as direct and genuine when it fell on another male. He involved the audience with himself, his music, and they felt better for it. His songs might be sad, but he had the look of a happy man.
As remarkable as Nelson's act that night was his audience. While freaks in gingham gowns and cowboy boots sashayed like they invented country music, remnants of Nelson's old audience had themselves a time, too. A prim little grandmother from Taylor sat at a table beaming with excitement. "Oh, lord, hon," she said. "I got every one of Willie's records, but I never got to see him before." A booted, western-dressed beauty from Waxahachie drove three hours for the show, and she said, "I just love Willie Nelson and I'd drive anywhere to see him ... but you know, he's sure been doin' some changin' lately." She looked around. "I have never seen so many hippies in all my life." But she abandoned her date to dance a good part of the night away with one of them, a brawny thirty-year-old named Sunshine who used to ride broncs and play football for Texas Tech before he underwent some changes of his own.
The crowd pressed toward the stage, resulting in a bobbing, visually bizarre mix of beehive hairdos, naked midriffs, and bare hippie feet. An aging man in a turtleneck stubbed out his cigar and dragged his wife into the mayhem, where she was startled and shocked by a joint passed in front of her face. That was clearly asking too much of her. A young girl observed the woman frantically fanning the air in front of her face. She smiled, looked the woman in the eye, and took another hit. But Nelson relieved any tension that developed beneath him. He played straight through for nearly two hours, singing all his standards then starting over. They handed him pitchers of beer, threw bluebonnets onstage, yelled, "We love you, Willie"—and he yelled back when he finally called it quits: "I love you all. Good night." A night which for many had been a sort of hillbilly heaven, though Tex Ritter would have undoubtedly taken issue with the form.
Willie Nelson had not always been the object of such adulation. For more than ten years he had been an extraordinarily successful country songwriter, but he had never really come into his own as a performer, and he had begun to feel like he was wearing a straitjacket weighted with Nashville lead. The hobo funk of Jimmie Rodgers was gone from country music. It was polished, packaged, and sold like any other form of commercial music, and behind it all, one suspected, were men with graying sideburns, Brooks Brothers suits, and television advertising mentalities who wanted to make damn sure all those folks in the hinterlands had some little ditty to tap their toes to, thereby assuring the flow of dimes and dollars. And the sad thing about it was, even the best country artists fell prey to that kind of condescending dishonesty.
They were coaxed and wheedled by the country music oligarchy, and some of them were made very rich. Johnny Cash rose from the humblest of circumstances to sing about World War II heroes who died unnoticed in the gutter and to entertain inmates behind prison walls. He was asked to perform at the White House and later accepted the host's role on a bland television variety show, only to see it die a slow death at the hands of the ratings, no longer in touch with the people his voice represented so long. Merle Haggard sauntered through life with a working-class chip on his shoulder and a caustic view of those who thought education or wealth or youth made one man better than another. But then those songs of working-class resentment made Merle Haggard a superstar, and while he continued to sing about getting laid off down at the factory, he spent much of his time wagering his fortune in the casinos of Nevada. Kris Kristofferson was a former Rhodes Scholar who took a job pushing a broom in Nashville before he bowled over that town with songs that fashioned poetry from the idiom of truck drivers, hitchhikers, and dirt-poor country musicians. He broadened the perspective of country music by courting the favor of the rock audience and going to bat for new artists like Steve Goodman and John Prine, who sang like they came out of Chattanooga rather than their hometown of Chicago but who introduced left-wing political sentiment to the traditionally conservative country form. However, Kristofferson became a star, too. He sang the praise of official Nashville (for it had been kind to him), moved to Los Angeles, and started writing songs about the love affairs of show-business celebrities. He seemed more interested in making movies than making music.
All along, the real Nashville rebel was Willie Nelson. He made enough money to sit back and be grateful, but he never toed the Nashville line. He flew in the face of country music racism by going to bat for Charley Pride, whose success in turn created the opportunity for a Chicano superstar, Johnny Rodriguez. Nelson encouraged an old member of Buddy Holly's Crickets, Waylon Jennings, who added "Midnight Rider" and "MacArthur Park" to his country repertoire and in turn lent a helping hand to another broke Texas songwriter, Billy Joe Shaver, who credited Nelson with starting it all: "Willie laid down such a heavy track record that nobody could ignore him. He's the one that busted it wide open."
Nelson did not grovel in the presence of Chet Atkins, and he was the first to say to hell with what Nashville thought; he was going to take his recording business to New York and go home to Texas and run around with Leon Russell if he wanted to. Young Austinites loved him for that, and they had drawn closer because of Nelson and his younger running mates. Nelson stood apart from other recording artists in Austin. For all his inventive jazz phrasings, he was a country singer from start to finish and did not aspire to be more than that. As the oldest and most established, as the man who might have scaled the heights of Nashville but pulled out because he didn't like what he saw—and still kept his career alive—he was inevitably their leader. The younger performers had also skinned their noses on the pavement of the major music centers, and like Nelson, they came to Austin to rescue their self-respect and sanity. Michael Murphey was a factory songwriter for Screen Gems before he returned to Texas. Jerry Jeff Walker was a jail-bent drifter who took a beating in New York. Steve Fromholz was the victim of a transcontinental shift of his recording company's offices. B. W. Stevenson stalked the sidewalks of Los Angeles in search of a music businessman who would listen. Willis Alan Ramsey was turned down by James Taylor's producer. Bobby Bridger was manipulated by his Nashville recording company. Rusty Wier auditioned for talent scouts but made his living in bars. Kinky Friedman achieved a measure of success by resorting to hard-sell hype. The styles of those performers were highly individualized, but together they distilled a blend of music that reflected the background, outlook, and needs of a unique Austin audience.
For decades a social class of hangers-on had refused to leave the city simply because the legislative session or college semester was over and economic opportunity lay elsewhere, but now there were more of them, and many never set foot on the capitol grounds or university campus. In the main they were middle-class youths who hailed from Texas' cities, but as such, they were rarely more than two or three generations removed from more rural times, and they came to Austin because the ease of those times lingered there. Relatively free of hassle, in Austin they could smoke their dope, sail their Frisbees, walk their dogs without a leash, and in a few secluded coves outside the city limits, sunburn their asses swimming naked. Most worked at some job or another, but somehow it didn't cost as much to live in Austin, and many would just as soon quit as report to work on Monday. Politically, they constituted a new breed of conservative, one that despaired over big-city hustle and twentieth-century progress and romanticized "getting back to the land." (Which was fine with the ruling establishment. At least they weren't out in the streets ten thousand strong, like they were the Friday after Ohio National Guardsmen killed four Vietnam war protesters at Kent State.)
Whether American youth would prove as passive in the seventies as it had been in the fifties was an intriguing question, but without doubt the pace had slowed considerably, and that slowdown was reflected in popular music. The stasis of rock and roll might be a lull before another storm, but it was as if the musicians and audience burned themselves out in their psychedelic search, or like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin, found that reality was worse than they ever thought. Vietnam was a nightmare, but what could you do when the Houston ship channel was threatening to ignite, University of Texas students were locked out of their dormitories because there was no natural gas to heat them, and Richard Nixon was the overwhelming choice of the American people? Take another tab of acid? The craze for nostalgia, to get away from it all, engulfed almost all popular forms of American expression, and in Austin, the musical retreat led naturally enough to country and western. Aspiring vocalists began to sound exactly like Ernest Tubb, and a scuffed pair of cowboy boots became an essential ingredient of a hip wardrobe.
At many levels Austin music was little more than a glorified strain of nostalgia rock, but the young performers near the top of the pyramid accomplished more than that. None were country purists. Most paid their dues in rock or folk music. And they were not the first to adapt their styles to country and western. Everybody from Ringo Starr to Judy Collins to Mick Jagger turned to it occasionally, and the definitive country-rock album remained Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds, who also pioneered folk-rock and Jesus-rock. The most popular country-rock artists still lived on the West Coast. As one Austin songwriter put it: "Them city-slicker pickers got a lot of slicker licks than you and me." But Los Angeles country rock suffered from its slickness; most of its devotees were basically mimicking a form, and were often too urbane to play country without a trace of put-down. But in Austin the roots were real, and the music rang true.
Instrumentally, the best Austin musicians wove blues, rock and roll, and gospel into the fabric of country, but their lyrics voiced the same old suspicion that maybe moving to the city wasn't such a good idea after all. But while mainstream country contented itself with self-pitying accounts of the state of suburban captivity, Austin music suggested an active disengagement, a quest for another way of life. The best place to stand on one's two feet, it seemed to say, was at home, and that implied coming to terms with one's heritage and making the most of it. By giving it positive direction, Austin's musicians transformed country from a music of middleclass misery to one of down-home delight.
As commerce, the long term of Austin music was anybody's guess and nobody's insurance policy. But for the moment, Austin was a social oasis in the middle of a Texas desert, and music was its cultural spring.
By Jan Reid
Jan Reid has written for Texas Monthly, Esquire, GQ, Slate, Men’s Journal, Garden & Gun, the New York Times, and many other publications. His books include The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, The Bullet Meant for Me, Rio Grande, Texas Tornado: The Times and Music of Doug Sahm, and two award-winning novels, Deerinwater and Comanche Sundown. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Scott Newton has been the still photographer for Austin City Limits for the last twenty-five years.
“Ever wondered why God chose Austin to be the live music capital of the world? Read this book.” —Kinky Friedman
“Jan Reid’s The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock is the only book I know that tells the real story of my honky tonk heroes Willie, Billy Joe, Jerry Jeff, Waylon, Kinky, Janis, and the incredible scenes in Austin in the late ’60s and early ’70s. This is the real deal, a must read for the people from the country that love their music and a must for city dwellers who need this music.” —Dennis Hopper
“Reid’s book is a classic, and its prescience is a thing of wonder. Today there are literally hundreds of performers who owe their sound if not their very existence to the curious amalgamation Reid captured in his book. . . . This updated version is of immense cultural value and will surely appeal to a generation of music lovers for whom ‘redneck rock’ is simply a natural occurrence, albeit one of obscure origins.” —Robert Draper, GQ Magazine
“Reid’s book is an important source for understanding the appeal of ‘outlaw country music’ and for comprehending the ways in which myth and reality have intersected to create the idea of ‘Texas music.’” —Bill C. Malone, author of Country Music, USA, and Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class
"The book is a vivid reminder that before he became country music’s star, Nelson was the essential figure in seeding an unprecedented and fertile musical culture in Texas." —Madison Searle, Texas Music