When I stepped foot into Burton Wilson’s home, I stepped back in time. His walls are buried behind pictures he has taken throughout his life. Some of them are framed; some are hung with just a thumbtack. Most of them are black and white photographs. The really big ones are his favorites, he tells me. Burton Wilson loves to tell stories. Every picture on his wall has a story, and he remembers even the smallest detail behind each one. Not all people have something they can leave behind that tells the world how they lived. But Burton Wilson has—right there on his walls. And now with his new book, The Austin Music Scene Through the Lens of Burton Wilson, he shares his walls with the world.
LG: How did you get interested in photography?
BW: Well, I’ve always been interested in photography. I used to take a lot of pictures and then I would go into the darkroom. In the sixties the University of Texas here at Austin built a new art building, close to the football arena. They started a new course in fine arts photography taught by Russell Lee. Russell was a good friend; I knew Russell very well. He was a world-famous photographer, traveled all over the world photographing. So when he started teaching, I jumped at the opportunity to start with a professional like him. I took four semesters with him. And then when I got out, some clubs in town—one called the Vulcan Gas Company—started on Congress Avenue. The people who ran it were friends of my son. So I just moved right in and started photographing there. They were featuring rock and roll bands, which was all right with me, but they had old-time blues performers too. Old-timers like Sam “Lightnin’ ” Hopkins and people like that who had been singing the blues forever. Well, I’d always had an interest in the blues. My wife, Katherine, and I had been collecting records and things for years. I thought that blues music was a dying art form. They sing the blues now, but it’s different than the old ones. So I just started shooting pictures of the blues musicians. It’s just a thing that I’ve been interested in for a long, long time.
LG: What was your first job as a photographer?
BW: This is a good story that I enjoy telling. Back in the days of the Vulcan Gas Company, Johnny Winter was playing there. He had a trio from Beaumont. The bill that night was Muddy Waters and Otis Spann, old-time blues musicians who had driven down from Chicago to do that gig. The Johnny Winter trio did the setup for them. Well, as it happened, Johnny Winter’s trio stole the show from the great Muddy Waters, and Muddy Waters was a famous blues performer. I had records of him back in school. Muddy Waters realized what had happened and sharpened up his second act the next night, but still, the night belonged to Johnny Winter. Well, some people realized that they should get him on tape. And so they went to the Vulcan Gas Company and asked for the best photographer and they sent them to me. They called me to do the cover for the Johnny Winter album—that’s that cover there [Wilson points to the large framed photo of Johnny Winter on his wall]. They told me exactly how they wanted Johnny Winter shot, with his various hippie costumes and his various guitars. I said that was fine with me. Johnny showed up and he had oh, about five guitars and that many different costumes. We started shooting a bunch of film. I’d do a set with him, and then we’d get a new guitar and a new costume and do it all over again. I got down to the last of the film, and he picked up an all-steel guitar. I was so intrigued with that all-steel guitar that I posed him with his face reflected in it. I said, “Well, I’ve got to do exactly what the record people want done, but I’m going to do my own thing here just once.” So I went on my own and shot that and sold it to Imperial Records and they used that photograph for the cover.
LG: So tell me about the book. How did it come about?
BW: Well, back when I was starting out at the Vulcan Gas Company, I published a book on my own that I called Burton’s Book of Blues. It was successful, but it didn’t do a whole lot. Independent books like that don’t go very far. Then Jack Ortman, who owned a bookstore downtown, suggested I publish another book. I didn’t really want to put it all together on my own, the way I did with the first one, so I told him that if he got someone else to publish it, I’d go ahead and work on it. Well, Jack got Eakin Press to reissue it. I added some new material and text—the first one didn’t have any text, only pictures—and that was it. That’s the book that I have out now, called The Austin Music Scene Through the Lens of Burton Wilson.
LG: Who wrote the text of the book?
BW: It’s mine and Jack Ortman’s. We combined eyes. I had all the statistics on the shots and did most of the text. I would shoot a band, and he would help me identify a lot of the musicians on the stage. He was great at identifying people in the photograph.
LG: You probably have hundreds of pictures of these artists. How did you decide which pictures would make it into the book?
BW: Variety and chronology. We tried to progress chronologically. We started back in the mid-sixties and went up to the nineties. Then we submitted the portfolio of the ones we wanted to Eakin Press, and they helped select the ones they wanted to print.
LG: Are there any personal