A Q&A With John Spong
The senior editor on writing about outlaw country, hearing Jerry Jeff Walker tell stories, and listening to good music.
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In the late sixties, country music was defined by the glossy looks and sounds of Glen Campbell and Tammy Wynette. That’s the way Nashville wanted it. Dictated it. But in many places around the country, the counterculture had become popular culture—love was free, songs were psychedelic, skirts were short, and hair was long. And somehow, at no certain time in 1972, Austin became the place where it all came together, where redneck rock, or outlaw country as it eventually became known, was born. For this month’s issue, senior editor John Spong interviewed many of the artists who made it happen, from Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker to Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver, and weaved together their anecdotes and observations into a captivating oral history. Here’s the story behind the story.
Much has been written about outlaw country over the years, including stories in the pages of TEXAS MONTHLY. Why cover this topic again?
The piece satisfied the first rule of writing about history for a magazine: find an anniversary ending in a “5” or a “0.” Since this was the fortieth anniversary of that first, ill-fated outdoor country festival that grew into Willie’s now-famous Fourth of July Picnics, we had that covered.
What prompted you to do an oral history? And how difficult was it to get people to talk?
Part of the reasoning actually plays off your first question. We’d written about some of this stuff before, but we’d never done it as an oral history. That gives a new look. And this was a perfect topic to do in that fashion. These folks are professional storytellers. Getting their versions of the events in their own words was going to be far more entertaining than anything I would have written about it. And they seemed to really enjoy walking me through their recollections.
Have you ever done an oral history? If so, how was this piece similar or different?
I’ve done a couple, one on the making of Dazed and Confused, and one on the making of Lonesome Dove. But this one was tougher. The scope was bigger in almost every sense, meaning geography, the window of time depicted, and the number of significant participants. Right up until we went to press I was still thinking of people I wished I could have talked to.
Surely, you had massive amounts of interview material. Walk us through the process of stringing together quotes to make a story.
In the big picture sense, this story was easy. It needed to be told chronologically. But once you move from the forest to the individual trees, things get harder. Obviously there was going to be a lot of Willie in the piece. But this wasn’t a Willie story, and he wasn’t the only person in Austin back then. So we needed to get a sizable amount of Murphey and Jerry Jeff in there, and the sensible way to do that was to talk about the big records they made. That’s why, for instance, ¡Viva Terlingua! gets its own section. But we also needed to discuss some of the guys who might not be as familiar to people now, like B.W. Stevenson and Willis Alan Ramsey. If some reader learns those two guys’ names from this story and goes and buys their records, that’ll be a great thing to have accomplished.
But then also, you end up with anecdotes that simply demand to be in the piece. Sometimes they don’t fit anywhere obvious, or communicate anything that necessarily advances the narrative, but they’re so funny or weird or whatever that you have to find a way to sneak them in there. The best examples of that are the quotes near the end about Paul English and Geno McCoslin. The oral history didn’t really need anything that’s in that section, but how can you leave out Paul English causing Little Richard’s jaw to drop?
What was the most outrageous story you heard while working on this piece?
Every single thing that came out of Billy Joe Shaver’s mouth could qualify, but that was more or less expected. The stories about Geno McCoslin, on the other hand, came straight out of the blue. I’d never heard any of them, and most of them made the story. The only one that didn’t was one Ray Benson told about how Geno once booked Willie to play the Sportatorium in Dallas. Well, the Sportatorium only held two thousand people, and there were at least that many more lined up outside to get in as Willie started to play. But the fire marshal said Geno couldn’t let anyone else in unless it was to replace someone who’d left. So Geno put “Men’s Room” and “Women’s Room” signs over two exits, and when people mistakenly walked through the doors, he wouldn’t let them back in. Instead he’d sell a couple more tickets at the front. Just nuts.
Would this story have worked if you hadn’t gotten Willie to cooperate? Why or why not?
We certainly could have tried to pull it off, and there’s a lot of interesting things in the piece outside of what he said, but who’d have wanted to read it? We were really lucky he agreed to visit.
Were any of your impressions of these artists changed after interviewing them? Why or why not?
I hadn’t ever listened to much Jerry Jeff before working on this. But his stories about how he recorded his first two MCA records really made them sound cool. And the records themselves, which I’d never listened to except for bits and pieces here and there, are great, especially compared to what other people were doing at the time. Think of the context. Take the Eagles, for instance. While California’s country-rock was evolving into this really pretty, tidy, urbane sound, Jerry Jeff was pulling Texas music out into the cedar breaks because he’d met a guy out there—his spiritual mentor, Luckenbach owner Hondo Crouch—who he liked to get drunk with. Never mind that Luckenbach wasn’t wired for electricity and that Jerry Jeff forgot to bring any songs. That’s a pretty cool backstory to have running through your head when you listen to ¡Viva Terlingua!
In your story you mention that certain folks just landed in Austin. Why do you think Austin was so receptive and nurturing to the changes in music at the time? Could it have happened in Dallas? Or elsewhere in Texas?
I don’t know if this could have happened anywhere else. I was a little curious at first why it didn’t happen in Dallas. That’s where the Rubaiyat was, and that was the center of the folk scene. But Dallas was such a conservative place. Austin had UT. And it had the Capitol and all the liberal Democrats who were still hanging around from The Gay Place days. And there were a lot of things that fell together just right, like the Armadillo opening when it did. And Jerry Jeff sticking his head in the door at Murphey’s house while the band was rehearsing. And those two guys just happening to have a young, excited audience building when Willie comes looking for a place to start over. Or maybe it was as simple as Ray Benson likes to say: “Rent was a $100 a month and weed was $10 an ounce.”
What was the one thing you wanted to include in your piece that you didn’t have room for?
We should have had more Waylon. That’s actually a good rule of thumb for life in general.
What do you want readers to take away from your story?
I’m hoping people read this with their Internet access handy, and that they go looking for the songs and records described and give them a listen. And that they buy them. Most folks—at least most folks I know—have a copy of Willie’s Red Headed Stranger somewhere. But hardly anybody has Yesterday’s Wine (1971), which is a shockingly good album that actually sounds even weirder now than it did when it came out. So find it. And find B.W. Stevenson’s first record, or if you can’t, at least listen to him sing “Texas Morning” on YouTube. It’s perfect pop songwriting by Murphey and beautiful vocals by B.W. Or get a copy of Willis Alan Ramsey and wonder while you listen where that second album is. Or any of the albums Waylon made between Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean (1973) and Ol’ Waylon (1977). Not only has no one ever been able to duplicate the sound he and his band were getting, no one has ever even tried. It’s that distinct.
Steve Earle summed it up at the end of the story when he said that the thing that has lasted from that time for him is the music. It really was a special time. That’s why people are still talking about it.