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.

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.

“All right.”

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

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