Rednecks, Armadillos, And Me
Thirty years ago my book told the inside story of the Austin music scene and received what you might call mixed reviews from some of its subjects. It's time to revisit those freewheeling years.
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I WAS 29 WHEN THE IMPROBABLE RISE OF REDNECK ROCK was published. I had been anxious to write a book but had little idea of how to go about it. Apart from a few months of toil at small-town newspapers, my published output amounted to an eight-line poem in the Texas Observer and four articles in the newborn Texas Monthly; on three of those assignments, feeling too green as a reporter and otherwise insecure in my craft, I had enlisted a collaborator. But one of those early pieces caught the eye of David Lindsey, a slender young man with a well-trimmed black beard and a penchant for stylish attire. Like me, David had blue-collar roots in the West Texas oil fields. Like me, he wanted to write for a living and was working up the nerve to try it. In the meantime, he thought he might make his way as a book publisher.
In the summer of 1973 he mentioned an article I’d written on Austin music to a pretty, dark-haired colleague named Melinda Wickman, suggesting that it might be expanded into a book. Melinda was a photographer with extensive studio training and impatient talent, and she knew me. We had dated briefly when we were growing up in Wichita Falls: Sunday night church followed by Cokes at some drive-in and a round of putt-putt. Neither of us had been fast aboard the roaring train of the sixties. We’d been out of touch for a while when she called. I met David and Melinda for dinner at one of the Night Hawk restaurants that then passed for Austin cuisine. After a couple of hours, we convinced ourselves that we had a book.
We were a very cocky team until an item in Texas Monthly announced that Jay Milner and Chet Flippo were writing books about the Austin music scene. This was chilling news. Milner was a veteran journalist and a novelist who had hitched on as the house writer with Willie Nelson’s entourage. Flippo had been covering Texas music for Rolling Stone with great flair. Both were capable of selling their books to national publishers with much deeper pockets than those of Heidelberg, the small shop run by David and his wife, Joyce. In no uncertain terms, David told me that the first horse out of the gate was going to win the derby.
My working life became a blur. The duplex where I lived in New Braunfels was strewn with pencils, pads, recording reels, interview transcripts, album covers, dirty laundry; the faucet in my kitchen dripped for months because I wouldn’t take the time to figure out how to change a gasket. (David’s feel for the market proved to be correct. Milner and Flippo wrote other admirable books, but their takes on Austin music never came out.) As the weeks passed and our pile of pages grew, David began to remind me of our need for a title; he had advertising deadlines to meet. I took to calling it Sing Me a Texas Song—not bad, but too quiet. At last, one afternoon I rapped on David’s screen door.
“I think I know what to call it,” I told him.
Like a conductor, I waved my hand over the rough spots; I would fill in the blanks later. “‘Da Duh da Duh da Duh of Redneck Rock.'”
It was a gimmick, and I later paid for it. I was often asked to defend my title, for though it was offered tongue in cheek, it did have a confrontational edge. “Progressive country” was the standard generic term, claimed by the KOKE-FM radio format and endorsed by Flippo in Rolling Stone, but even then that sounded like the wishful thinking of liberal Democrats. Though we were well into the seventies, the sixties still cast a long twilight, and elsewhere the cultural dialectics seemed as stiff as iron bars. On country stations Merle Haggard fairly sneered the line “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” and in the movies Easy Rider‘s Southern rednecks rose to hippiedom’s occasion by blowing Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper to kingdom come. In Texas, of all places, we proposed to dispense with that inane hostility and have it both ways.
THERE WAS A LOT OF DEBATE over the origins of all those beards, boots, hats, fiddles, and pedal steel guitars. One theory held that Austin’s music boom had tapped into a vein of maverick country-western that went back to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel lent a great deal of credence to that interpretation. I pushed the other line: that Armadillo World Headquarters—the favored Austin concert hall and beer joint—had more in common with Bill Graham’s Fillmores than with the Grand Ole Opry. In Austin music, I heard echoes and refrains of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and The Whole Earth Catalogue. Of course, I listened with prejudice. My boyhood was tuned in to Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, not Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb.
My favorite concerts took place in Hill Country meadows that long ago vanished into Austin’s pricey suburbs. One rare evening transpired at a place called the Bull Creek Party Barn. What I remember best was the incredibly lovely changing light of the sky. The afternoon was warm; people were swimming nude in the clear-running creek. But then a norther blew through, and soon campfires were blazing and throwing sparks at the sky. The Armadillos were mixing the sound and videotaping the players on an outdoor stage. These included Bobby Bridger, Willis Alan Ramsey, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willie Nelson. I don’t remember who was onstage, but it was just past dusk when someone grabbed the mike and blurted that Richard Nixon had fired his Watergate inquisitors in the Saturday Night Massacre. Tell me that was a stock country-western scene. A breathless “ooooh” rose from the crowd, then fast changed into cries of outrage and strange glee. We howled for his head and danced all night. Lord, those years were fun.
Our book churned toward production. To meet his deadlines, David needed a cover image; we all agreed it should be a picture of Willie. Melinda strapped camera gear across her shoulders and headed for a venue where Willie was playing. Her jaw dropped when he walked out of the wings with a clean shave and a Big Spring haircut, grinning at the audience’s reaction. Without the hair and beard, the most charismatic man in Texas looked like Elmer Fudd.
I nominated a shot of Jerry Jeff singing and grinning at a young woman who flung her arms and boogied at the foot of a stage, but the photo was slightly out of focus and would only get worse in the printing. Which was apt, once we thought about it—everything about Jerry Jeff’s life seemed to be slightly out of focus in those days.
Michael Murphey was in the process of deciding he would henceforth be Michael Martin Murphey; the portent of the makeover wasn’t quite like Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali, but there was an element of that. “Cosmic Cowboy” and “Alleys of Austin” had been songs of definition. Michael had helped Austin become a stage and breeding ground for singer-songwriters, and the “supernatural country-rockin’ galoot” personified their ascendance and airs in the seventies, even as he got the hell out of Dodge. And Melinda had a performance picture of him, beatific in a cowboy shirt, blond hair gleaming in yellow and green light.
That was the image on our cover, but Michael hardly thought it was an honor. He hated it. He didn’t think I had the credentials to write about him or any other musician, and he despised the ideological drift of the expression “redneck rock.” He didn’t want to have anything to do with rednecks. Everything about his life and art was meant to repudiate rednecks. Poor Joyce Lindsey was trapped on the Heidelberg phone one day and got to listen to him shout.
The Armadillos were videotaping everything that moved in those days. With a cheerful note, Eddie Wilson, a founder of the Armadillo and Threadgill’s restaurants, in Austin, recently shared a transcript of a conversation about me that surfaced in the restoration of those priceless tapes:
Eddie: He comes in talking about how I run a beer joint? He don’t know nothin’ about running a beer joint. . . . The a—hole that wrote that book is a groupie, and he quoted a junkie about how I’m trying to operate to keep alive. And it’s in hardback, so it’s history; there ain’t nothing we can do about it. There ain’t nothin’ we can do about it. . . . That book is hardback, so it’s history. You—
Michael: There is one person sitting in this room that can do something about it.
Eddie: You go to the library in ten years. And if you’re in the eighth grade and you’re writing a paper on the Austin music scene and you pull that book out, no matter how many reviews I write, it’s history. I was educated in those libraries.
Michael: I’ll bet you one thing, though. I’ll bet I’m the only one that can take that book off the market right now. And I’ve got a lawyer to prove it. [Wilson snorts.] Guess who doesn’t have written permission from me to use that picture on the front of the book?
Eddie: He doesn’t have written permission from me. And I’ll admit my picture’s kind of bad, but yours is good. Now, you can’t deny that. You got a good picture.
Michael: Yes. But you’re not on the cover.
No suit was ever filed. When I saw Michael again, his son, whom I had known as a toddler with knee-high red boots and a ukulele, was a tall, handsome young man playing guitar and singing on TV with his dad. Michael seemed happy in the life he had made in northern New Mexico as a minstrel of the last days of frontier cowboys and Indians. He came over to chat, and I was pleased to learn that the hatchet between us was long buried. I’m told he comes to the Kerrville Folk Festival in boots and a hat and duster—the Lonesome Dove look—and boasts to the old hippies, Armadillos, and lefties that he and Rod Kennedy, the festival’s founder, are the only right-thinking Republicans on the grounds. Eddie long ago became a friend of my family’s and a frequent ally in our political agitations. But in 1974 I had completely alienated the performer who first drew me to the subject and the most important and enduring businessman and champion Austin music ever had. Among the people I had written about, there was no consensus that my book had gotten it right. And on that front, things got worse before they got better.
A PROMINENT TEXAS DISTRICT ATTORNEY with a broad knowledge of Fort Worth had told me that, rightly or wrongly, the police in that city used to associate Willie Nelson with drugs other than marijuana, and Willie was furious when he saw that in print. He made no secret of his love of cannabis but swore he’d fire anybody in his bunch whom he caught using hard drugs. The scene was changing quickly, however, and the changing fashion in drugs was part of it. “Everything changed in 1974,” Marcia Ball told me flatly. “Eddie Wilson always maintained that Austin was predicated on cold beer and cheap pot. But 1974 was when we started seeing cocaine.”
Freda and the Firedogs, the group Marcia sang and played with, ran its course like most bands, and its end was symbolic. A lottery had been instituted for the Vietnam draft, and the gifted West Texas guitar player John Reed drew one of the black beans. Without Reed, Marcia said, the band lost its center of gravity. Its last gig was at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic at an auto racetrack near Bryan and College Station in 1974. “It was the first time I yodeled onstage,” she said. “I was debuting my ‘Cowboy Sweetheart’ routine, and I was so excited. At the start of the song, I’m singing and yodeling, when an airplane flies over, then these two guys parachute out of the plane with smoke bombs on their ankles. Every head in the crowd was turned. Nobody was paying any mind to me and my yodeling.”
That wasn’t the only smoke that picnickers came back discussing. Accomplished singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen was then about to start his freshman year at Texas A&M. He had a flashy Ford Mustang and, he hoped, a hot date. But instead, smoke and flames erupted in a parking lot. Cars were consumed. In fear of exploding gas tanks, people ran for their lives. Robert Earl listened in disbelief to the announcement of a license plate number that belonged to him. His prized car was a total loss (a Mustang in flames would later make a droll cover for one of his records). When his date showed up laughing, he asked her, “What are you laughing about? We don’t have a ride.” She said, “I do,” and left with two guys. “Everybody there felt so bad for me,” Robert Earl recalled, “and somebody said, ‘Hey, would you like to meet Willie?’ They took me to his bus, and he came out for a minute. He said, ‘I’d really like to talk, but I’ve got to go jam with Leon Russell.'”
The carefree music festival quickly deteriorated into a scene of outright thuggery. “I got in a lot of trouble over that festival,” Marcia said. “I just saw a lot of things I didn’t like. It was chaos. We came home, and some neighbors were out doing yard work. I told them all about it. Well, one of them was a UPI reporter, and he went right to work and wrote a very unflattering description of Willie’s picnic, quoting me. I never saw the piece, but one day I flounced into Willie’s pool hall to put up a poster for a gig. The room got very quiet. Then Willie’s mama said, ‘That’s her. She’s the one.'”
About that time, “outlaw country” became the generic for Austin music. The metaphor was employed to convey the musicians’ rambunctious and far-roving styles and their rebellion against the industry, especially in Nashville. But some people took the outlaw routine to heart. David Allan Coe, a broad-shouldered ex-con and a country singer of considerable talent, went around boasting of murdering a man in prison with a mop wringer. At an outdoor Outlaw Concert west of Austin in 1976, Coe wore a sleeveless denim jacket stitched with motorcycle gang colors and a swastika. His Bandido biker cronies had pistols bulging in their jeans. His latest song on jukeboxes was “Willie and Waylon and Me.”
Scarier than Coe was a biker from California who insinuated his way onto Willie’s bus and into his entourage. Unlike the Bandidos, he wore his gun holstered. Everyone called him “the pistol whipper.” Texas Monthly editor Bill Broyles talked me into writing about the hokum. They titled the story “Who Killed Redneck Rock?” A graphic artist illustrated it with the backside of a country singer who had a pistol in the back pocket of his jeans, a hunting knife lashed to one boot, and a cowboy belt hand-tooled with the words “Bad Ass.”
Broyles was right to heap scorn on the mood of street-fighter chic that was taking over, but the byline didn’t have to be mine. For an $800 payday, it probably wasn’t the smartest career move I ever made. Willie let it be known in a trade journal interview that he was deeply offended, predicting that next I’d be writing about “the reincarnation of redneck rock.” One night in the Austin airport, some shouting women—one of them Willie’s wife—informed me that a number of large and angry men were eager to get their hands around my neck. Poor John Reed. Not only did the guitarist get drafted; he had a name that closely resembled mine. One night at the Rome Inn, in Austin, the pistol whipper (who has since passed from this life) forcibly propelled him backward across the room and into a wall, thinking he was the author of the article.
First line of a country song: It was a severe case of mistaken identity.
FOR SEVERAL REASONS I DECIDED it was time to go live in the country. Melinda Wickman took photographs of Willie and many other musicians for a while and then caught on as a still photographer on movie sets. There she met the young director who became the father of her children. When that marriage ended, she stayed in their house in a Vermont village on the Canadian border, and she became a school librarian. All of us were stunned and sickened when a flood destroyed almost all the negatives of the vibrant pictures she had taken of the Austin music scene. David Lindsey, chastened by the beating he took as a publisher, bore down and became one of the country’s most thoughtful writers of crime novels: A Cold Mind, In the Lake of the Moon, Body of Truth, and many more.
I bought a lot of music as albums turned into cassettes and CDs and the term “record” became almost obsolete. But I didn’t write another line about music for twenty years. I didn’t think I ever would again. My wife, Dorothy, and I would read the club listings and talk about going out to see some favorite singer or band, but we almost never did. Someday I hoped to have a long talk with John Reed. I always figured I owed that guy a drink.