Texas Music News
Jordan Mackay contributed to this regular Ranch feature from October, 1997 to August, 1998.
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Willie Nelson, Beck, Lisa Loeb, Swing
Separated at Beck: Some of you may have caught Willie Nelson’s appearance last week on “The Tonight Show” where he held the stage with one of LA’s most original artists, Beck. There’s an interesting story behind that collaboration and behind that whole night in general. Put into perspective by Mark Rothbaum, Willie’s manager, the two stars performance comprised but one segment of a night in which Willie had all the musical generations covered. For some background, Willie’s and Beck’s first collaboration was Willie’s appearance in the video to Beck’s song “Jack-ass.” The two found a link in the figure of country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers. Beck, it turns out, is a huge Jimmie Rodgers fan and a fan of all traditional country music. Well, Willie had recorded the Rodgers song “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia” on the recent Jimmie Rodgers tribute album. And so when Willie booked them on the Tonight Show to promote their appearances at the upcoming Farm Aid, it was only natural that they play the very same, “Peach Pickin’ Time.” Immediately after playing “The Tonight Show,” where they were backed by an eclectic group of musicians including producer Don Was on bass, Willie had to go off and play a Gene Autry 90th birthday tribute. The circle is completed in that perhaps Autry’s most profound musical influence was Jimmie Rodgers. So Willie, whom you could call “The Singing Central-Texas-Country-Hippie,” in the course of a night went from covering “The Singing Brakeman” with “The Half-singing, Half-rapping, Half-sampling L.A. Guy” to play at a benefit for “The Singing Cowboy.” Sources tell me that Nelson thinks “very, very highly” of Beck. The two evidently enjoyed playing together a hell of a lot so don’t be too shocked if at some time you again hear the two names in the same breath. Of course, Jimmie Rodgers’ specialty was yodeling, which Rothbaum said made the Beck/Willie collaboration especially poignant because “of the two of them, Willie won’t yodel.”
Eyeful, earful, and hopefully not awful: On a recent tour of Europe with the Counting Crows, bespectacled indie rocker Lisa Loeb met television’s “The Nanny,” Fran Drescher. Evidently the two hit it off in a New Yo-wahk minute and next thing you know, Loeb’s guest starring on that singularly terrible CBS show this season. She plays the assistant to Bobbi Flekman, Drescher’s character from Spinal Tap, who is making a return. The show’s set to run on October 15. Furthermore, Loeb just finished filming Serial Killing for Dummies which will co-star Texan Thomas Haden Church of TV’s “Wings” and “Ned and Stacy” fame. A dark comedy, the film is expected to hit festivals next year. And for your earful of Loeb, she has a new album coming out November 11. It’s called Firecracker and its first single, “I Do,” will start getting airplay just about . . . now.
On the Record: Swing music’s revival is no secret. In fact it’s a bludgeoning shout in every club in every city in Texas. That said, a couple of new swing albums recently crossed my desk: The Merchants of Venus’ Who Knew (self-produced) and Asleep at the Wheel’s Merry Texas Christmas Y’all (High Street Records). The loungy sound of Austin’s Merchants is actually pretty fun to listen to. Singer George Brainard’s voice is deep and cheeky and has the right sound for the music. His emotive crooning on “Sweet Charade” managed to persevere through what unfortunately comes through the speakers as a stiff-sounding production. I’ve seen these guys live and much of the warmth of their sound was subtracted in the studio process. Even so, the tunes can remain catchy, like the poppy “Dastardly Scheme” and the homage to cooking for a date, “Eggplant Parmesan.” Asleep at the Wheel’s holiday album brought a smile to my face. Maybe because I was listening to it at eight in the morning in October or maybe because it has some of the more original Christmas music I’ve heard in a while. Christmas albums are tough because you only want to listen to them once or twice a year, if that. But if you have to hear one, this is a good choice. They do a few original-ish takes like “Swingin’ Drummer Boy” with a jungle-drum beat and “Christmas in Jail,” as well as jazzy classics like (fill in Christmas carol of choice). Guest-musicians appear from time to time, like Tish Hinojosa singing “Feliz Navidad” with Ray Benson, and (once again) Willie Nelson doing “Pretty Paper.” For me, the best song was “Silent Night,” with its tranquil steel guitar leading into Don Walser’s occasionally off-pitch rendering of the lyrics.
—Jordan Mackay 15-10-97
Nanci Griffith, The Crickets. Texas Radio, Reckless Kelly
Chirps Ahoy: They’re saying that this is Nanci Griffith’s last tour as we know her. It’s not the last time she’ll hit the road, but it may be the last time she hits it with her group, the Blue Moon Orchestra. From all reports, her ‘97 tour which started last summer in Europe and continues through the end of the year, has been pleasing audiences across the globe.
Of course, she’s also been touring with the Crickets, Buddy Holly’s old band, which her people say has been a great experience for both parties. The average show goes like this: Griffith plays for a while with the orchestra, then the Crickets will come out and join her, and then just the Crickets, and then just Griffith, and . . . you get the idea. Evidently, the Lubbock group has been receiving standing o’s every night for renditions of old hits like “That’ll Be the Day.” And Griffith has been teaming up with Crickets front man, Sonny Curtis, on the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which Curtis wrote.
Griffith’s future remains undetermined as rumors fly: maybe a move to more rock-and-roll styled music, maybe a stint with broadway show tunes, or maybe she’ll venture out on a solo acoustic tour with John Prine.
Airwave to heaven: A new radio network hits the air next month. Headed by Dain Schult, a 29-year radio industry veteran, and based out of Bryan/College Station, the Texrock radio network is going to cater to non-metropolitan Texas with an ever-growing tally of stations (soon to be up to 34 if all his deals go through). Schult says that the incipient network won’t attempt to challenge large-market networks like Capstar—the Texas-based national radio conglomerate—in the big markets of Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, but hopes to make significant inroads in smaller areas. Their first five stations will be heard in Burnet, Horseshoe Bay, and Bryan/College Station. Texrock, named by train enthusiast Schult after the old Rock Island Line (aka the Texas Rocket, which sped between Houston and Dallas), will encompass four formats on its stations: adult-contemporary, tejano, country, and big band/nostalgia.
All Texrock programming will originate from the one location in College Station, but will be heard in various small markets across the state. “The beauty of it,” Schult says, “is that we can customize our satellite broadcast because we’re staying in one state.” He also says that with this modest and provincial approach, Texrock will try to promote Texas-made music as much as possible. The network should be a boon to small-market areas and hopefully to Texas artists as well.
On the Record: People are starting to sit up and take notice of Austin’s Reckless Kelly. Their first CD, a lively affair called Millican (Cold Spring Records), came out this month. Self-described as “hick rock,” Reckless Kelly falls under the alternative country order. For five guys in their early twenties, the group has admirably achieved a gritty, experienced sound laden with tight vocal harmonies and country-rock instrumental tropes. I like their enthusiasm and sincerity very much, but can’t help but think that for this music to really ring with the authenticity to take it to a higher level, these kids are going to have to live a few more years. You know, get married and have their wives leave them, and then come back, etc. They have two things going for them: they’re good now and time is on their side. Hopefully the passage of years will enable their music to deepen in hue and texture and eventually Reckless Kelly will be really good.
—Jordan Mackay 1-11-97
Austin Lounge Lizards, Trippin’ Daisy, Lisa Loeb, Denny Freeman
Sweet Arrangement: Sugar Hill Records has enthusiastically announced their signing of the Austin Lounge Lizards to a new record deal. Tom Pittman, banjo and pedal steel player for the Lizards, said vaguely that “some financial problems” at Watermelon, their last label, led to their seeking something new. He also says that Sugar Hill was a good fit for his band because “they’re known for bluegrass, but kind of have a corner on Texas Music” in that such artists as Terry Allen, Guy Clark, and Butch Hancock have also recorded with the label.
Their new record, Employee of the Month, is due out in February 1998. If the album yields a single, it’ll be the song “Hey Little Minivan,” which Pittman describes as a Beach Boys-esque arrangement about a guy who for years drove a little muscle car and now has a minivan, yet fawns obsessively over the minivan as though it were the sports car. Are the Lounge Lizards minivan drivers themselves? Only one of them, Pittman says; the rest of the bandmembers’ cars are comprised by an economy car and three pickups. Good vehicles are essential for this group, who are in the middle of a tour which takes them from Calgary, Alberta to Euless, Texas to Decatur, Georgia.
Planting a seed: Dallas’ Tripping Daisy has gone into the studio to record their third full-length album this month. They won’t say more about the Island Records project except that it will be produced by Eric Drew Feldman who, besides having produced such diverse groups as Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu, is the bass player for P.J. Harvey. Look for it sometime next year.
On the Record: The cover of Lisa Loeb’s new CD, Firecracker (Geffen), features a soft-edged portrait of the artist in pink and off-white. It was conceived by Mark Miller, a popular painter for magazines and advertisements during the 50s and 60s. The painting has a pinup-girl quality to it, with Loeb lying dreamily on what looks like pink carpet in only a long dress shirt, showing a lot of leg and staring out at you from behind those trademark specs. It’s a telling visual introduction to the album: Chances are that if you genuinely like the cover, you’ll be enthused about the satiny songs and bubble-gum production inside. If you like songs about love with lyrics like “This is where I meet my muse / and it feeds me / This is how I buy the sun / and it feeds me,” you will like this album. But if not, steer clear: When the bubble she’s blowing pops on track six, things get mighty sticky.
Denny Freeman is one of the great latter-day Texas blues guitar players. From his position on the stage, he’s seen the big ones come up beside him, play a little, and then go on to bigger things. Freeman himself never really cashed in the way his friends the Vaughans did, but served as an unostentatious and venerated participant in the parade. Perhaps it’s this soulful steadiness that comes through on the exquisitely named A Tone for My Sins (Dallas Blues Society Records), his new album. What makes Freeman great is the way he comes through in his playing—not technically mind-blowing, but rife with feeling and impressively tasteful. This is the kind of playing that only the accumulation of experience and wisdom can produce.
—Jordan Mackay 15-11-97
Long John Hunter, Watermelon Records,The Derailers, Steve Earle
Long time John: Texas Monthly’s Joe Nick Patoski wrote this description of Texas Blues guitar legend Long John Hunter.
“If anyone knows a thing or two about late nights in smoke filled bars, wild men and even wilder women, and how live music can incite a fight/start a romance, it is Long John Hunter. For a significant stretch of time between 1957 and 1970, Hunter ruled over Juarez, Mexico as the King of the Night, holding court in the Lobby Bar, the centerpiece of an entertainment strip that functioned as an all-purpose sin city for a significant percentage of the population of the southwestern United States, particularly residents of El Paso, Texas, just across the Rio Grande.”
Hunter, whose shows in Juarez make for stories that sound like tall tales, never received the large-scale fan recognition a talent like his deserves, but he managed to make fans out of contemporary musicians like Buddy Holly, James Brown, and Billy Gibbons. Finally in 1996 a prominent label, Alligator, released his album, Border Town Legend, and Hunter started to get press, radio play and fan recognition. This year he’s got a new album out called Swinging From the Rafters (also on Alligator) which I have not yet heard, but am eagerly expecting. The title of the new one refers to something that Hunter would do during his shows: hang from the rafters with one arm while continuing to play guitar with his free hand. Juarez is a wild town and Hunter had to do something to hold the attention of the audience there, hence the gymnastics. He’s been on tour in Europe throughout November, but has shows in Houston, Austin, and Fort Worth planned for late December—worthwhile gigs to catch.
Daddy of a deal: Sire Records, a label known for, among other things, putting out the early Madonna records as well as LPs for the Talking Heads and The Ramones, has entered into an agreement with Austin’s Watermelon Records. The deal allows Watermelon—mostly a roots rock and alternative country label—to keep its autonomy, but enlists Sire’s marketing ability for some larger releases. This should help some Texas bands find larger markets more easily and certainly indicates that larger labels have significant interest in what some of the smaller, local labels are able to turn up. The first release under the Sire/Watermelon agreement is the Derailers’ Reverb Deluxe.
On the record: With the above-mentioned record deal and a new CD release, Reverb Deluxe (Sire/Watermelon), local Austin band the Derailers have been enjoying quite a bit of attention from Texas media. Deservedly so: these guys are beloved by everyone who knows them and their music—fundamentally good ol’ honkytonk country that is perfect for smoky bars and dance halls. They’ve got a stylish look—slicked back hair, shiny suits, and big smiles when they play—and their surfeit of character touches the songs on the album. A lot of the songs are familiar to the Austin audiences who’ve seen these guys all over the place, but the lively instrumental “Ellen” never fails to cheer me up. Furthermore, the incredible long, black, and fuzzy eyebrows of singer and guitarist Tony Villanueva add to the fun of a live show more than any other eyebrows in modern music history. Imagine how they sound on CD!
Steve Earle’s El Corazon (Warner Bros/E-squared) is his third release in the last three years. The albums together comprise a kind of trilogy chronicling the stories and emotions of a guy who’s just gotten off a stint in prison and is turning his life around. Of course, El Corazon means “the heart,” clearly the place where the songs on this record originate—and where they hit hardest. Earle is one of those great musicians whose soulfulness emerges even through the coldness of digital technology. The album covers a lot of musical genres from the bluegrass “I Still Carry You Around” to the smoldering, distorted Neil Young-esque “Taneytown” to the mellow, folksy “Christmas in Washington.” The last track is called “Ft. Worth Blues” and is in memory of his mentor and friend Townes Van Zandt. This album is probably the strongest Earle has yet produced and is full of charitable sentiments to warm holiday hearts. Also goes well with a glass of egg nog.
—Jordan Mackay (12/1/97)
Axes to Grind, Crowded Townes, Lone Star in England
Axes to Grind: The Guitar Army was in full march on Thanksgiving Night at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth. The annual spectacle brings together an extended family of guitarists to take over a club and jam the night away. This year, seasoned professionals Buddy Winnington (John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers) and James Pennybaker (Lee Roy Parnell) participated, as well as guitar-slinging rancher Tom Reynolds, and 17-year-old Drew Webber. These touring pros may only have a few days to spend in town during the holidays but the siren call of a whiny blues solo inevitably calls them to the stage. The Army’s been getting together for over ten years now and the event comes together rather haphazardly—any organizing that’s done is handled by brothers Steven and Sumpter Bruten, who run the 41-year-old Record Town in Fort Worth, and Dave Milsap, who has a guitar school in town. The Guitar Army got its start playing at Fort Worth’s famous club The Hop, but has since moved through J & J’s Blues Club and Horny’s before finally settling at Billy Bob’s. Although a rhythm section is usually assembled for the show—often including a sax, piano, and harmonica—for the most part it’s all about the guitar. Some years there’s another performance at Christmas, but after doing Turkey Day this year, Sumpter isn’t sure if there’ll be one in December or not. Just so you don’t miss it, keep tabs on the entertainment section of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; they’ll sound the trumpet announcing the Army’s advance.
Crowded Townes: After almost a full year of informal Townes Van Zandt tributes in Texas and elsewhere, Austin City Limits officially got into the act on Sunday, December 7, by gathering a star-studded group of musicians for a “Songwriter’s Special Tribute” to the late folk singer. Sitting in a semi-circle were Cowboy Jack Clement (Van Zandt’s first producer), Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, John T. Van Zandt (Townes’ son), Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, and Peter Rowan. If it sounds like a lot of people, it was. While Official MC Guy Clark conducted the evening as smoothly as possible, passing the spotlight down the line as each musician performed his or her favorite Van Zandt song and related an amusing anecdote from the past, some audience members felt the event was marred by too many participants. For instance, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris got to sing only one song and it was forty minutes before they got to do it. Still, there were many, many stirring moments: Lovett and Earle singing a duet on “Lungs,” Jack Clement’s version of “The Sake of the Song,” and the whole group finishing up with an energized version of the classic “White Freight Liner.” One critic explained to me that Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris weren’t ever all that close to Townes and the reason they did only one song (the famous “Pancho & Lefty,” which both of them had separately recorded) was because it was the only one they knew. He opined that the people who really knew Townes (and should have been there) were the likes of Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. But at the same time it was touching to see Steve Earle, who was a Van Zandt protégé, mouthing the words to even the songs he wasn’t performing, and to hear Lovett tell the story of buying his first Van Zandt record when he was a teenager.
Lone Star in England: Palestine’s Dale Watson won the British Country Music Association’s award for Best International Artist on an Independent Label. He was the only award-winning American artist who actually attended the ceremony which, he said, was much more fun than many U.S. shows because of its “innocence and enthusiasm.” He was also nominated for “Rising Star” (which fellow Texan LeeAnn Rimes won), Best Album, and International Male Vocalist alongside Alan Jackson, George Strait, and Garth Brooks (“So I didn’t have much of a shot”). Watson says they made Budweiser and Lone Star available to him over there so he could celebrate like a true Texan instead of having to drink swill like Bass or Newcastle.
—Jordan Mackay (12/15/97)
Texas music year in review.
We can all loosen our belts one more notch and let our swollen bellies out now that 1997 has drawn to a close. As every year finds more people in Texas, so too does each year bring more music to our clubs and stereos. In this column I’ll briefly look back at the notable events of 1997 and muse on the possibilities that 1998 may hold.
1997 was the year of Texas women in music. If you look at the top 200 at www.billboard.com, it is easy to pick out the biggest stories in Texas music from last year. LeAnn Rimes currently occupies spots 4 and 42, with her albums You Light Up my Life—Inspirational Songs—and Blue respectively, the latter having been on the chart for 77 weeks and the former having reached number one. Billboard writes, “LeAnn Rimes’ first three albums helped the teenager become the No. 1 album artist of the year,” beating out the Spice Girls and Celine Dion. It’s been a banner year for the 15-year-old Garland resident, indeed, a year that will be tough to match. Finding so much success at such a young age makes us wonder if Rimes can keep this pace up, and what she will do next. What was amazing in 1997 was that in the increasingly competitive world of country music, the combined success of Rimes and Oklahoma’s Garth Brooks means a tremendous amount of albums sold by two singers who grew up not too far away from each other in a relatively small parcel of arid, flat land.
The next Texas artist you encounter as you scroll down the list is Erykah Badu. At 24 (at the time of this writing), Dallas’ Badu is the next biggest story in Texas music. Her innovative melange of jazz, soul, and hip-hop has invigorated the R&B world and brought head-wraps and Afrocentric lyrics to MTV.
Lisa Loeb is also currently on the Billboard charts with her album Firecracker.
Aside from these top-selling acts, there were some other notable albums last year. Specifically I’m thinking of Steve Earle’s El Corazon, Robert Earl Keen’s Picnic, Abra Moore’s Strangest Places (of course, another Texas woman and one whom was being significantly promoted in New York when I was there a couple of weeks ago), Roy Hargrove’s Habana, and Ornette Coleman’s Colors. Feel free to write in with some of your favorites and we’ll see what kind of sampling we get.
Badu’s new R&B bodes well for new music in 1998. So many artists from the Dallas area made the news last year—Rimes, Loeb, and Badu—that I think things might shift to Houston here in ‘98. This may not mean the chart-busting success of the North Texans, but there’s some interesting stuff brewing down South. Particularly I plan to keep track of the Latino Rock scene and some of the smaller label hip-hop acts from Houston. Until then, Happy New Year.
—Jordan Mackay (1/1/98)
And the grammy nominees are . . .
The ‘you really like me’ department: Grammy nominations were announced last week and, all in all, 24 Texans were among the honorees. Dallas’ Erykah Badu got a nod in the Female R&B Vocal Performance category, but will vie with Paula Cole, Fiona Apple, Hanson, and Puff Daddy in the New Artist category. In the Female Pop Vocal category, Austin’s Shawn Colvin will be going up against the likes of industry heavyweights Mariah Carey and Sarah McLachlan. Colvin was also nominated for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for Sunny Came Home.
Houston’s La Mafia compete once again for the Mexican-American/Tejano award with their album, En Tus Manos; they won the Grammy in that category last year.
Joe Sample received a Contemporary Jazz nomination for his solo album Sample This and Dallas-born trumpeter Roy Hargrove received a nod in the Latin Jazz category with his Cuban group, Crisol.
Dallas’ Pantera was included in the Metal Performance category.
Austin’s music scene was represented with the nominations of Abra Moore in the Female Rock Vocal category for her song “Four Leaf Clover” and Eric Johnson’s “S.R.V.” for Rock Instrumental.
Dallas’ youth gospel choir God’s Property was nominated for R&B Song and Group Performance for “Stomp,” their crossover hit produced by and featuring Fort Worth’s Kirk Franklin. They are also up for Best Gospel Album by a Choir. Franklin, who won a Grammy last year for Contemporary Soul Gospel Album, was also nominated for Producer of the Year for his work with God’s Property.
Country categories were chock full of Texans, including Houston-raised Clint Black (Male Country Vocal, Country Collaboration with Vocals), San Antonio’s George Strait (Male Country Vocal, Country Album), Dallas’ LeAnn Rimes (Female Country Vocal); Willie Nelson (Male Country Vocal); and Austin’s Asleep at the Wheel (Country Instrumental).
Do the Grammys mean anything? Of course not. Even if someone you like is lucky enough to get nominated, they probably won’t win. The major categories seem to mostly follow Billboard sales charts, and it sometimes seems the nominators have trouble even finding enough nominees to fill up the smaller categories. But congratulations to all those Texans who did get nominated, it’s always nice to be recognized.
The ‘you really don’t like me’ department: On a more entertaining front, Wiley Alexander reported in the January 11 San Antonio Express-News that the irrepressible Kinky Friedman was stirring up trouble again, as he’s likely to do anytime he’s allowed to get close to a microphone. Seems he was a guest on a taping of the country music show “Crook & Chase” to promote his mystery novel Road Kill when he offended host Lorianne Crook with a couple of bawdy golf jokes (“The only good balls I ever hit were when I stepped on a rake”). He also mentioned that he was asking k.d. lang to cover his song “Put Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed” for a forthcoming Kinky tribute album. The jokes and the k.d. lang comment were eventually cut from the taped show and never aired, but producer Tom Spychalski, a seven-year veteran, was fired for not preparing the hosts for Kinky’s style.
—Jordan Mackay (1/1/98)
SXSW, Tejano Music Awards, Eric Johnson, Los Skarnales
Marching Orders: Now that it’s the end of January and our new year is already 1/12 over, we can begin to look at the the big events on the horizon of Texas music. People are naturally gearing up for SXSW, starting March 18 in Austin. There is buzzing about the big acts slated to show up, but these things change up to the last minute and it’s best not to be too hopeful. Last year, I went to a club called the Cactus Cafe to hear a program advertising acoustic guitar legends John Fahey and Jorma Kaukonen; instead of being treated to an embryonic journey, I waited in line for an hour, only to discover that neither of them were even in town. Even SXSW’s list of “early confirmations” which include some compelling acts—Amy Rigby, John Hammond, and a band from Japan intriguingly called Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her—is followed by the emphatic parenthetical, “Everything always subject to change.” So, as with government and religion, believe at your own risk.
On the seventh of March, the 18th annual Tejano Music Awards will take place at the Alamodome. The announcement ceremony was held January 24 in Arlington. Tejano music is surprisingly popular in the Dallas Metroplex. Rudy Trevino, executive director of San Antonio’s Texas Talent Musician’s Association, the organization that produces the yearly awards, told The Dallas Morning News that the traveling Tejano Music Awards Nominees Dance came to Arlington’s Desperado Nightclub for the first time because “36 percent of the TMA ticket sales outside of San Antonio are purchased from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.”
A good friend reports that a three-day music festival is being planned for March 26-28 in College Station. He says that it will be called “North By Northgate” after SXSW and a popular area of town known as Northgate. Among groups that have been approached are Tripping Daisy, Kacy Crowley, Letters to Cleo, Pat Green, Vallejo and an assortment of local bands. Again, who knows what the line up will actually be.
Full Johnson: The Austin Chronicle reports good news for fans of elfin guitarocrat Eric Johnson. It sounds like Rhino records is definitely going to reissue the long out-of-print album from Johnson’s group, The Electromagnets. The record, from the seventies, is in the process of being remixed and will bring all those wide-eyed guitar fanatics a chance to hear a young Johnson in the early stages of his career playing rock/fusion. The Chronicle also says that Johnson is starting to record a new album this week for a late summer/early fall release. That’s about as believable as President Clinton hiring the Spice Girls as White House interns. Normally for Eric Johnson albums, the formula for finding the actual release date is to take length of time quoted and add three years. The word on the street is that Johnson is trying his hands at a more bluesy, improvised style, something which could conceivably be accomplished faster. Again, don’t count on it. What keeps Johnson in the studio for all those years is less the speed and quality of his playing, which we know to be impeccably fast and consistent, but his obsessive connoisseurship of tone; he might rerecord a whole song if he found out he had the wrong kind of battery powering his distortion pedal. As for Johnson doing a blues album—I’ve seen Johnson playing the blues at Antone’s in Austin and that had about as much allure as hearing Jean Pierre-Rampal take the stage with Pantera.
On the Record: Los Skarnales, Vatos Rudos, (Pinche Flojo Records). Since first hearing about this band several months ago, I’ve been trying to get a copy of their new album released back in June. Finally, after many calls, it arrived. It was worth the wait. This Houston ska band, one of the vanguards of the Rock en Español movement, goes at their tunes like there’s no mañana. Rendering their songs alternately in Spanish and English, they bring extreme gusto and energy to their music. Yet their exuberance is well matched with tight playing and carefree, liberating songs that reflect the band’s rock, ska, rockabilly, and Latin influences.
—Jordan Mackay (1/1/98)
The Toadies, The Black Experience in Country Music, The Bobby Fuller Four
Toad Tunes: The Toadies, Fort Worth’s raging rockers, are huge—easily the biggest alt-rock band to make it out of Texas since the Butthole Surfers. Right now they’re in Austin, working on their as-yet-untitled next album. Produced by Butthole Surfer Paul Leary (whose work last year on Sublime’s album, propelled the group to icon status), and scheduled for a summer release, the effort is the band’s major label follow-up to 1994’s smash hit and platinum-selling Rubberneck. “They’re keenly aware of their sophomore status,” Leary told me. “They’re very anxious not to become your typical sophomore band that doesn’t make it and gets forgotten.”
The album may show the band moving in a new musical direction. Leary says that lead singer Todd Lewis is deliberately trying to get away from the older material. And while Rubberneck was primarily influenced by the Pixies, The Toadies mentioned that they’ve been listening to new and broadly varied styles of music like Stereolab, Thin Lizzy, and Elvis while writing the songs for the new album. There are other reasons the new album will probably present a different sound. For one, the first album was primarily the brainchild of lead singer Todd Lewis; many of the songs were born of the residual pain he carries from his difficult relationship with his father, a minister, as well as the ordeal of going through a divorce during the album’s recording. The new album is supposed to be more of a group effort. Also there’s a new band member, Clark Voegler, formerly of the Dallas group Funland.
What’s more, the Toadies are having a lot of fun recording; they say it’s a different and profoundly better experience than the first record. Lewis said that it’s a relief from Rubberneck, the culmination of 18 years of songwriting, to be recording songs written over the course of one year and lots and lots of touring. The band also mentioned how nice it was to be recording in Texas. “There’s a misconception,” said bassist Lisa Umbarger, “that to make a good recording you have to go out of Texas, that the studios here don’t have good enough equipment. But that’s [not true].” Evidently the band members like being just a few hours from their homes in the Metroplex, and are easing right back into the languorous rhythms of Austin. Hey, one of the recording or mixing venues they’re using is Pedernales, Willie’s studio!
Despite the reputation of morbidity they’ve achieved from the dark lyrics on some of the songs on Rubberneck, especially the hit Possum Kingdom, Leary says, “They’re like large children,” noting that they leave candy wrappers all over the studio and often sneak out to visit local comic book stores. (Several of the band members are confirmed Star Wars fanatics, and, in fact, Umbarger played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi.) Leary says, “They’re actually quite a bit of fun. I never think of them as being gloomy, except every now and then when I think of the lyrics of Possum Kingdom. That sounds gloomy.” thetoadies.com
On the Record: From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music (Warner Brothers.): This three-disc compilation was born of a 1993 poll which found that 24% of country music’s listening audience is black, an astonishing number considering the small percentage of black country artists. Thus this collection, which is everything and nothing you may want. It is solidly-put-together, nicely packaged, and contains a highly interesting book, but some of the music is kind of boring. The project seems to have more value as an archive than for everyday listening.
That said, the compilation approaches black country music broadly. Disc one contains old country, bordering on blues with lots of acoustic, rural music. Disc two is comprised of famous country songs interpreted in the soul idiom by such figures as Al Green, Etta James, and Ray Charles. Finally, disc three features more traditional country music written, covered, and recorded by black musicians. There are several Texas artists represented here: the Dallas String Band in 1928, Ivory Joe Hunter in the ’40s, Joe Tex in the ’60s. Disc three is laden with early Charlie Pride, which, surprisingly, isn’t all that bad. If you’re interested in this historical area of black endeavor, From Where I Stand is something you’ll want for your collection.
Never to be Forgotten, The Bobby Fuller Four (Del-Fi): This is a three-disc compilation on Mustang Records, a subsidiary of Del-Fi. Of course, El Paso’s Fuller is best known for the international hit, “I Fought the Law,” and for his mysterious and premature death at age 23. Fuller’s promise was universally acknowledged and the talent he displayed, even at that young age, was prolific, but sadly he’s never received the posthumous greatness usually conferred on rock stars who die young. “I Fought the Law” is the prototypical West Texas song and was penned by fellow Texan and former cricket Sonny Curtis (who also wrote the theme song to the Mary Tyler Moore Show), but Fuller’s own music displays a broad command in moving from excellent surf guitar in “Our Favorite Martian,” to ballads like “A New Shade of Blue,” to pop candy songs like “Fool of Love.”
Did Fuller commit suicide as the LAPD report concluded? Not likely, since he was found roughed up and drenched with gasoline. The more likely explanation is that he was keeping intimate company with someone else’s girl, a club owner with mob connections who had intended to put a scare in him but left Fuller in his unventilated car where he accidentally died after inhaling fumes all night.
This is a fantastic collection. If you’re looking for a thorough primer on Fuller, this is an excellent place to go, with two discs of his Mustang singles and a third disc comprised of a live performance. It also contains a wonderfully informative booklet recounting fond remembrances and a detailed account of the weird circumstances surrounding Fuller’s death. The music is pure, honest, forceful, and fun.
—Jordan Mackay (2/15/98)
Going home with a Grammy, Swingin’ in Cyberspace, Tinseltown Tunes
Going home with a Grammy: In the big categories, Texans did phenomenally well, led by Shawn Colvin who was awarded both Record and Song of the Year for “Sunny Came Home.” Dallas’ Erykah Badu took two awards, collecting R&B Album and Female Vocal of the Year. It was nice to see La Mafia, Roy Hargrove, and God’s Property also bring home the goods. There were a few amusingly alarming moments to talk about, too. When Colvin and songwriting partner John Leventhal walked to the stage to accept their Song of the Year award, Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard grabbed the microphone and boasted about his band. Later, he was removed from the hall. Also, a strange man danced on stage shirtless with the words “Soy Bomb” painted on his chest while Bob Dylan played. He, too, was removed. And perhaps most strange and beautiful of all, Aretha Franklin filled in for an ill Luciano Pavarotti by singing his signature aria Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot. Now that’s talent!
Swingin’ in Cyberspace: Here’s a great example of the fusion of popular music and Internet technology: Virtual Voyager, a project of the Houston Chronicle online. Providing reporting crews with digital cameras, audio equipment, and laptops, Virtual Voyager has sent journalists out on assignment around the world and allowed them to report back about their experiences via video and audio on the Web. The newest installment tunes in to Chronicle writers Mark Evangelista and Rick Mitchell, who are on the road with Texas’ kings of western swing, Asleep at the Wheel. Provided the technology is current, “visitors to the site can meet band members, view historical videos and clips from the road, tune into audio segments, and laugh along with Asleep at the Wheel’s joke of the day.” This Voyager thing is a great idea—I’m already imagining future episodes: “Cocktail Hour with Charles Barkley,” and maybe, “Endgame: life on the Chess circuit with IBM’s Deep Blue.”
Tinseltown tunes: Texas music will soon be emanating from as many speakers at movie theaters as from nightclubs. Singing cowboy Don Walser’s contributions on Robert Redford’s upcoming film The Horse Whisperer has been well-documented; but how many are aware that west Texas native Terry Allen has just finished the soundtrack for the new film Baby Dance for Jodie Foster’s Egg Productions? Scheduled for an August airdate on Showtime, the film stars Laura Dern and Stockard Channing. Furthermore, Austin’s Bad Livers did the music to Richard Linklater’s latest, The Newton Boys, starring Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, Juliana Margulies, and Skeet Ulrich. That film will have its world premier in mid-March at the SXSW film festival.
On the Record: Three Texas bands had significant releases last month—two currently on Trance Syndicate and one that used to be on the indie label before they signed with a major. Founded by Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey, there’s a certain consonance among the sounds of these Trance bands (not to say that they sound the same—they don’t). Does this herald the coalescence of a scene—that fabled convergence of sound and iconoclasm that ultimately attracts ravenous corporate labels to a signing-frenzy? Will the explosions that occurred in Athens, Georgia and Seattle, Washington happen in Texas with bands of this type? Or will the hype just peter out with a quiet resignation to normalcy?
. . .And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead [self-titled] (Trance Syndicate): This band has developed a reputation around Austin for a capacity for violence: in their music as well as in the occasional and willful destruction of their instruments. Their album backs this up on the sonic end, and depicts a violence of sound that mirrors real-life violence in both its unpredictability and its occasional juxtaposition of quieter scenes of beauty. You can hear Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine in this music, and it maintains the atmospheric yet dissonant Trance tradition. On headphones some of the noise on this album can create headaches, but is that such a bad thing?
Bedhead Transaction de Novo (Trance Syndicate): This Dallas group’s third album similarly upholds its label’s good name, but in a different way altogether from the aforementioned group. Don’t get too energized to see this band live, because they’ve taken minimalism to new minimums. But on the album, I kind of love it. First songs usually attempt to encapsulate the mood, spirit, or sound of an album. Transaction’s first song is meant to blow you away . . .with softness. “Exhume” starts so slowly—guitar and bass building on quiet, methodical, alternating sonorities—that the vocals don’t begin until minute three of the four-minute song. A little bell provides the only percussion. There are some livelier songs on the album, but even those such as “Extramundane” have a moribund, blood-moving-slowly-through-your-arteries feeling that is a pleasant change of pace.
Sixteen Deluxe Emits Showers of Sparks (Warner Records): This Austin band has received tons of good press for this album, and deservedly so. It marks the group’s decisive foray into committed pop music. And as singer Carrie Clark croons in “Let it go—Hey, it’s alright.” There’s still plenty of the band’s trademark guitar noise, but there’s also a more melodic, accessible pop-groove to it. Is it more sophisticated? In a way, yes: this record deftly integrates sonic improvisations with newfound pop sensibilities.
—Jordan Mackay (3/1/98)
Best of the Fests, Michael Fracasso, The Hunger
Best of the Fests: This is music festival season in Texas. Musicians everywhere are taking time out of their recording and touring schedules to gear up for days and days of performances, sounding through both the open air and the dark smoke-filled regions of our state. Of course the South by Southwest music fest gets underway this week. The festival, held in Austin, may be the largest in the country and offers a great opportunity for the interested to discover new bands from Texas and around the world. I noted quite a few groups venturing from Dublin, Tokyo, and London this year, and I’m not talking about the Texas counterparts of these cities. Nevertheless, SXSW really remains a Texas festival, and the people who book the showcases deserve credit for keeping the list heavy with Texas groups. I’m not going to bother listing all the notable bands coming to town in this space, so if you’re curious, check out the schedule yourself at the SXSW homepage.
Other festivals in April are worth marking on your calendar. The Old Settlers Music Festival in Round Rock, April 3 & 4, will feature an acoustic set by Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin as well as Lubbock native Jimmie Dale Gilmore and some of his friends. Out-of-state bluegrass stars Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas will also come to town. A Tribute to the Golden Era of Country Music with western swing legends Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys and Dale Watson will take place on April 4 at the Bronco Bowl. And Houston’s International Festival, April 18 – 26, will bring Denton’s polka stars Brave Combo and spirited rockers The Old ’97s (from Dallas) as well as an “international” component including reggae great Burning Spear. Also look out for the Bowie Street Blues Fest in San Antonio featuring W.C. Clark and the Blues Review.
On the record: Michael Fracasso World in a Drop of Water (Bohemia Beat): You believe Michael Fracasso when he belts out the declarative opening lines of the first song, “Hospital:” “Don’t ask me about the ever after/ I’m living in the here and now.” This third album from the Austin singer-songwriter is his cleanest, most seamless offering yet, and though Fracasso sings of living in the moment, the songs have a timeless feel to them. He delivers a throwback quality with Orbison-like singing on the upbeat “Started on the Wrong Foot,” and the folksy “Gold.” His ultra-sincere, clear-throated voice is perfectly matched with his intelligent songwriting and the album features superb guitar playing and instrumentals as supplied by backup musicians, including Charlie Sexton, who also produced the CD. (And he did a fine job, I might add. It’s got a great sound).
The Hunger Cinematic Superthug (Universal): Houston brothers Jeff and Thomas Wilson, both vocalists and keyboard players, began playing with bassist Brian Albritton in 1991 and issued the self-produced single,”Never Again.” Adding guitarist and drummer Max Schuldberg, the band now finds itself at the moment of the release of its fourth album—its first on a nationwide label. The style here is what I’ve heard called “Techno-Rock” and has the distorted power guitar riffing of hard rock mixed with techno drums and synthesizers to give it an edgy, rave-like feel. I may be crazy, but it all sounds kind of eighties to me and the songs—titles like “Hey God,” “Whore,” and “Anarchy”—are offered with an all-too-heartfelt Billy Idolish sneer. The band is metronome tight and as singers, the Wilsons possess these kind of pre-fab rock voices that complete the paradigm. I imagine that there are a great deal of teen rockers out there who will eat this stuff up.
—Jordan Mackay (3/18/98)
Soused by Southwest
Viva La Mafia: Do you know the difference between tejano and mexicano-regional music? Well, neither does the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), those people who produce the grammies. Houston’s La Mafia won the 1998 grammy for best tejano/Mexican-American performance for the album En Tus Manos, the sextet’s second consecutive Grammy. Before the trophy had even cooled off, however, they were hearing complaints from one of the losers, San Jose, California’s Los Tigres Del Norte. Los Tigres, who have been nominated for ten grammies and won only one, cried foul at the voting process on two accounts: that the voting is skewed towards Texas’ Latin population, giving Texas bands an advantage; and that Los Tigres is not a tejano group. “That’s like putting Garth Brooks or Madonna in that category,” says Los Tigres manager Alfoso de Alba. “You do that and they would win every time. There needs to be two categories—tejano and mexicano regional.” He has a point, not only are Los Tigres not tejano, but La Mafia is becoming less and less tejano as they travel the globe picking up new styles. “They have much more a world music sound now,” says La Mafia publicist Abel Salas. I talked to Freddie Martinez, Jr. who helps run Freddie Records in Corpus Christi and who also chairs the Texas chapter of NARAS. He agrees about the need for another category and, in fact, says he’s been diligently working to that end for the last couple of years. But as far as unfair voting practices, he says “no way.” In fact, Los Tigres’ complaints, says Martinez, are “a sign of sour grapes, I think, but also show a lack of understanding of the voting process.” None of this fazes La Mafia, though, who are definitely at the peak of their long career. Not only have they won grammies, played to huge crowds in Texas and elsewhere, but they recently received a deal to do commercials for Jumex, the Mexican juice company (think guava nectar). In and of itself, that may not sound significant, but it’s a big deal for a foreign group to be popular enough in Mexico to land a prime endorsement contract. As for Los Tigres, perhaps NARAS will get the picture by the time next year’s grammies roll around.
Blues club opens its Gates: Friday, April 10, saw the public grand opening of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s Dallas club, One Foot in the Bayou. The Dallas Morning News reports that it “bears more than a passing resemblance to the House of Blues nightclubs. Colorful folk art pieces and corrugated metal cover the walls, and the club glows with light from cathedral-style fixtures and a candle-lined religious shrine.” Brown is one of the most influential and revered of Texas’ blues guitarists and at 73, he played the opening night with impressive spunk.
On the record: The Horse Whisperer (MCA Nashville) .
When I first heard word of the Robert Redford film about a guy who talks to horses I was pretty non-plussed. It’s the same reason I’ve never read All the Pretty Horses—I know it’s a great book, but I just can’t get around all this horse stuff. Reservations aside, I put on the soundtrack yesterday and was unexpectedly carried off to the open prairie—and not by horseback. The album opens with a cheerful Dwight Yoakum cover of the Tex Owens song “Cattle Call.” The guitar-strummed, accordion-accompanied waltz reminds me of the joys of sand-laden winds coming off the acrid plains and eating beans straight out of the can with a cup of stiff black coffee, and Yoakum’s soaring yodels make you feel right welcome by the campfire. Other highlights include the bona fide Flatlanders reunion on “South Wind of Summer.” Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock have been around Texas enough to know something about ranching and horses and it comes through in their music, even if it sounds a little sappy. Gillian Welch does a beautiful turn with an austere tune called “Leaving Train.” And there’s plenty from other Texans Lucinda Williams (“Still I Long for Your Kisses”), Don Walser (“Big Ball’s in Cowtown”—that apostrophe after ball is crucial to a proper understanding of the song), and Steve Earle (the soulful “Me and the Eagle”). I’ll whisper you this: If the movie’s as good as the soundtrack, I might just go see it.
—Jordan Mackay (4/15/98)
Viva La Mafia, Blues club opens its Gates, The Horse Whisperer.
Soused by Southwest: Approximately 800 bands in some two dozen clubs over about four nights makes for hazy memories. Luckily, I took notes as I did my turns at Austin’s 1998 South by Southwest Music Festival and Conference in mid-March.
First, I feel the need to address the criticisms of SXSW. Cynicism was fashionable this year as ubiquitous claims rang through the cool spring air that the festival was nothing more than Mardi Gras for the music industry, a kind of spring break for record company employees and music press. A&R people from every record company, major and minor, had shots leveled at them: complaints that they weren’t going to sign any bands (as most bands were already signed) and they were only here to get drunk. Members of the music press corps received similar treatment, chided for being here in greater numbers than the bands they were supposed to cover, and for being fat, lazy alcoholics who spend more time bragging about the size of their record collections (which they build for free) than reporting on the music industry. All such complaints may be well founded and reasonable, but as far as I can tell, that’s just the state of the art and there’s no better place to watch it roil than at SXSW.
Of course there was obnoxiousness. It starts simply with the people who find it necessary to wear their conference badges all the time, day and night, even when dining in restaurants away from the venues and the convention center. I saw the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel at two thirty in the morning, packed with chattering, self-important twenty-somethings rubbing their wings together in a noxious din of babble. The schmoozing is insufferable in itself, collecting like ribbons of cheez-whiz over the floors of bars: be careful or you’ll get it on your shoes. And there was so much smoke. Part of that was because every day at the trade show, Winston had a booth giving away free cigarettes. Winston had a cigarette girl walking around at a party sponsored by Interview magazine. Winstons, Winstons everywhere. Insidious.
So enough with the down side, the up side is simple and large: The music. Each time I was annoyed at the circus surrounding the event, all I had to do was look up to the stage in front of me to be revitalized by the music being created there. Here’s a rundown of the highlights:
Wednesday night: After Austin’s Spoon played a taut set at Liberty Lunch, I hung around for the Liquor Giants from L.A. Their Beatle/Stones influence was readily apparent, but lyrical, buzzing hooks made for good pop. I’d heard a lot about Tommy Keene, but the old popster’s set bored me to tears so I went home.
Thursday night: I spent the whole evening at the Electric Lounge for New York’s Flydaddy Records Showcase. It began with Boston’s Syrup USA, a pop band whose lyrical guitar and synthesizer grooves recall a slightly simplified Stereolab. But save for the bouncing of the bass player, it was a low energy performance that managed to produce high energy music and I got into it. Next was Chicago’s Number One Cup followed by Olivia Tremor Control, an experimental Zappa-like pop band that creates listenable, even catchy music.
On Friday night I was excited to see the Handsome Family, a duet based out of Chicago, starring Odessa-raised singer/guitarist Brett Sparks. Their last CD, Through the Trees has been frequenting my stereo for the past month, but the band presented a rather uneventful live show that was too accurate a reproduction of the album. I was happy to catch the last half hour of Sally Timms, the lead singer of the old British group, The Mekons. She put on a mellow, smiling pop show and it felt like a privilege to be in the presence of her low, lithe voice.
There were other bands and other shows, but by Saturday night the cumulative exhaustion was overpowering and I had to put myself to bed early. By Sunday I was ready to have it all go away. The music is exhilarating if you focus on that and suppress your annoyance at the overindulgence of the whole affair. Yes, at the week’s end I was ready for it all to go away, but I’m already looking forward to next year.
—Jordan Mackay (4/1/98)
A Scot’s take on western swing; Austin’s Fastball tops the charts; new CDs from George Strait and the Gourds.
A Scot’s search for swing: Duncan McLean is this Scottish guy who happens upon a Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys record in an Edinburgh record store a few years ago, and buys it because of the amusing picture of Wills on the cover and the silly-sounding (to a Scot) name of the group. But after a listen, he falls in love with the music, so much so that he is compelled to come to Texas, log over 10,000 miles of highway, and write a book about the experience. Lone Star Swing (W.W. Norton, $14) is the result of McLean’s pilgrimage to find the spirit and remnants of western swing, the music of which Wills is considered the patron saint. McLean describes his mission the best:
I am not from these parts. I’ve come a long way in search of real live western swing. I won’t find real live Bob Wills, that’s for sure: he’s been dead 25 years. But his spirit lives on; I know it, I feel it . . .And now I am after something. I don’t know exactly what it is, and I don’t know exactly where I’m going to find it. But somewhere out there, further south and further west—out amongst the country dancehalls, the ranch to market roads, the old musicians hunched over tin-tack pianos and tenor banjos—somewhere in the wide, sun-struck wilds of Texas, that’s where I’m going to track down the spirit of Bob Wills.
McLean won the Somerset Maugham writing award a couple years ago for his short story collection, Bucket of Tongues, and financed his Texas trip with the prize money. Now that the book is out, McLean and some of the surviving members of the Texas Playboys—Herb Remington, 72, John “Dusty” Carrol, 64, and Jim “Way Out West” Gough, 66—met at Houston’s Brazos Bookstore for a reading and a short concert. On a similar note, the rumors that Texas writer and musician Kinky Friedman is going to Scotland to pursue the roots of Scottish bagpipe music are false . . ..
Fast climb: The Austin band Fastball continues its improbable rise to world domination. Their single “The Way” is the number one song on Billboard’s Modern Rock charts and the number 58 album in the country on the top 200. That’s only one spot behind Hanson and thirteen spots ahead of Radiohead. Not bad for a group whose first album, 1996’s Make Your Mama Proud sold fewer than 3000 copies.
On the record: George Strait, One Step at a Time (MCA Nashville) . This is perhaps the most perfect album of all time. But perfection can be so boring, and that’s a perfect lesson to be reminded of. The album prances like a proud palomino through all of country music’s over-traveled territories and comes away without the slightest wear on its saddle. There’s the cry-in-your-drink title cut, the mellifluous and classic-sounding “I just want to dance with you,” and the Spanish guitar-inflected “Maria,” all rendered with brilliant banality and perfect pallor.
The Gourds, Stadium Blitzer (Watermelon) . This much awaited album begins with the chirp of crickets, a familiar sound laden with character that inspires many an association. In contrast to George Strait, the Gourds, a bluegrass-folksy-pop outfit, have plenty of idiosyncratic charm to go around. A harmonica jump-starts and powers the upbeat “Magnolia,” and the banjo and accordion decorate “Boil My Strings.” At their best, The Gourds are reminiscent of The Band, in leaving the mark of their acoustic souls all over this new album. It’s also refreshing that the Gourds—who frequently cover Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” at their live performances—don’t take their music too seriously either. The lyrics of another new song called “I Ate the Haggis,” invoke Scotland and whiskey to a Tex-Mex beat. Welcome to Texas, Duncan McLean?
—Jordan Mackay (5/1/98)
The new Bass Performance Hall opens in Fort Worth, local musicians return from the Lone Star Music Fest in Florida, and Don Walser’s new CD is a welcome blast from the past.
Formidable foyer: How big is the biggest news in Texas music of the last couple of weeks? It occupies a 200 x 200 square foot block of downtown Fort Worth, has 2,056 seats, and cost $67 million. It’s the new Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, which had its grand opening Friday, May 8. The question that’s been posed in our nation’s newspapers is: Why, on the threshold of the 21st century, would anyone build a 19th century-style opera house? Allen Meyerson of the New York Times reports of the opening, “If the Bauhaus and the modernist architecture that ensued had never happened, Edward P. Bass said as he gestured out from the mezzanine over an entrance foyer graced with pilasters, fluted columns and a frescoed dome: ÎThis is what you would get.’” If you’re looking to perform there sometime this century, forget about it. Supposedly, the house is booked up until, well, either the fat lady sings or Gabriel blows his horn.
Texas does Tampa: A troupe of Texas musicians invaded Southwest Florida on Saturday, May 9 for the Lone Star Music Festival, a day of Texas tunes put on by Tampa radio station WMNF. The station had queried listeners as to which they wanted: a tribute to Louisiana music, or the natural sounds of Texas. Of course, the Lone Star State was the preference. So, a sizable contingent of Texas bands—consisting of fledgling Tejano band, Grupo Vida; jazzers, Hot Club of Cowtown; Dallas bluesman Robert Ealey; and Kelly Willis, Don Walser, Robert Earl Keen, Alejandro Escovedo, Reckless Kelly, Jon Dee Graham, singer-songwriters Butch Hancock and Ana Egge, and Anson Funderburgh—made the trek east and performed before a crowd of three to four thousand people. Says station program director Randy Wynne: “From all the reports, it was a fabulous festival. The music was great, everything ran smoothly. Most of the artists had never been here before and the two biggest buzz acts were Reckless Kelly and Alejandro Escovedo. Evidently Reckless Kelly sold 100 CDs in about 15 minutes.” Reckless’ tenacious publicist Jill McGuckin confirms this and praises WMNF for being big supporters of Texas music. “That station’s been a banner station for supporting Texas music,” she says, “and they have a very strong signal, reaching Tampa, Sarasota, and St. Petersburg.”
On the record: Don Walser Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In (Sire/Watermelon). Walser’s new release, his first on a major label, may just be the one to introduce old “rosy-throated Don” to the rest of the country. Texans, particularly Austinites, have known about him for a long time. Regular gigs at Austin clubs, Jovita’s and Babe’s, have been ongoing for years and such experiments as opening for the Butthole Surfers at the punk club Emo’s have allowed him to reach a large cross section of music listeners. The album is a wonderful throwback to country swing—pure of heart as the purple sky at sunset Walser must have seen when playing at the Sky-Vue Drive-In, an outdoor theater in the West Texas town of Lamesa where Walser occasionally opened for a kid named Buddy Holly. The classic sound of this record almost feels like it should be coming from a wobbly 78 rather than a shiny digital disc. But Walser’s soaring tenor sounds good any which way, and his Pure Texas Band is as fine a group of musicians as you’ll find anywhere—Anywhere, that is, where the classically-trained Kronos String Quartet is not; the group accompanies Walser on a haunting, stunning version of “Rose Marie.” Other highlights include Hank Snow’s “A Fool Such as I” and the swing-laden “Cherokee Maiden.”
—Jordan Mackay (5/14/98)
Edgefest in Arlington creates a roar outside the ballpark; Junior Brown’s sizable tribute to Jimi Hendrix; and the lite read Texas Music hits bookstore shelves.
Unwelcome roar: May 17th’s Edgefest was a hit at The Ballpark in Arlington, but the ball may have been hit right out of the park. Concert promoters didn’t think Arlington residents lived close enough to the amphitheater next to the Rangers’ stadium to be bothered by noise from the festival, but some locals have asked the city council to disallow such events in the future. Aside from the complaints of loud music and cursing, the 11-hour-long festival went down without a hitch. The event attracted around 30,000 music fans to hear such groups as Everclear, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and Denton’s freaky Bobgoblin. Less than a dozen arrests were made, only two people were treated for heat exhaustion, and evidently traffic was less severe than during a Rangers’ sellout. Even so, the first big music event at The Ballpark may be its last because a couple of residents couldn’t deal with an afternoon of din. What of the 30,000 people who had a blast?
Homage to Hendrix: We all know that Junior Brown likes to throw Jimi Hendrix riffs into the mix at his idiosyncratic jazz/rock/country shows. But now the Austin Chronicle reports that guitar wizard Brown has thrown a much bigger tribute to the Hendrix experience into his shows lately: none other than the portly drummer Buddy Miles, formerly of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. Miles also appeared on the Hendrix albums Electric Ladyland and The Cry of Love and has played with Carlos Santana. Miles, who is based in Fort Worth, will continue to play with Brown when he’s available says the Chronicle, but is not considered a permanent member of the band.
A light read: A new book about Texas music has come out by native Dallasite Rick Koster, who currently lives and writes in Connecticut. With the original and titillating title Texas Music, the book weighs in at only 340 pages, which Koster says was due to a contractual page limit with St. Martin’s Press. Koster says it easily could have been 1,000 pages long. Texas Music is divided into eight sections—country, rock, blues, folksingers and songwriters, “the flavors of ethnicity,” soul/R&B, easy listening, and jazz—and even though its current length keeps it from covering the state’s musical history and current scene with the depth it sings out for, it still makes a handy reference tool.
—Jordan Mackay —Jordan Mackay —Jordan Mackay (6/1/98)
Elias Haslanger’s Kicks are for Kids is a classic-sounding jazz with a serious groove that will grab you with its quiet confidence; Santiago Jimenez, Jr. has a new release with Corridos de la Frontera.
On the record: Elias Haslanger Kicks Are For Kids (Heart Music) . The Austin saxophonist’s fourth release bears his name on the cover, but what jumps out at you with the opening tones of the first track, is Edwin Livingston’s bass. This is what a cohesive band should sound like. On that first number, after the bass groove is down, the drums (played by J.J. Johnson, who anchors the whole thing beautifully) gracefully jump in, in cool-jazz style, and the piece begins to bounce with a mellow swing. Then enter the leads, trumpet (Tito Carillo), sax, and piano (Fred Sanders), in tight harmony. Haslanger’s is a classic-sounding jazz with a serious groove that will grab you with its quiet confidence. The whole album continues impressively from top to bottom. At 28, the saxaphonist’s compositions are marked by a studied melodic authority as well as an easy-going elegance. Besides the title track, I especially enjoyed the standard-ish “Eugene and Marie” and Haslanger’s controlled, emotive playing on “Free for Three” which bobs and weaves from its opening easy roll onto wilder, freer places. The venerable Ellis Marsalis contributes graceful piano on the album’s lone cover song, a gentle version of Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me.”
Santiago Jimenez, Jr. Corridos de la Frontera (Watermelon) . This latest batch of songs from the son of one of conjunto’s greatest legends has the polka bounce characteristic of the style, but not much of the energy that makes you want to jump along with it. Santiago is as capable as his father—if not as eminent—on the accordion as well as at handling the swaying, breezy Mexican melodies of the vocals—and the album is a pleasant listen. But something failed to grab me. Maybe it was that the tempos were generally unmodulated and plodding. Maybe it was the lack of dynamic variation. But after the first few songs I found myself tuning out, wishing for something more spicy and flavorful.
—Jordan Mackay (6/15/98)
ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons has been making his way around Austin where he’s said to be songwriting, Mexico Regional is named a new Grammy category, and King Coffey’s Trance Syndicate label comes to an end.
Gibbons gazing: You’re driving down the street and you see a little guy with a long brown beard, dark sunglasses, black jeans, and a black leather jacket. The person you’re with says, “Hey, look! There’s that guy from ZZ Top.” You get the joke—that shmoe wearing all black in 105-degree heat does look like Billy Gibbons, ZZ Top’s gravelly-voiced frontman, except for the fact he’s wearing this weird, black rubber shower cap type number, notable for the nubby, round nipples protruding from it. It looks like this wacko has put a cow’s udder on his head. A few days later you are introduced to this guy; he’s wearing the exact same outfit, and he is indeed Billy Gibbons.
Gibbons has been as ubiquitous in Austin as rain has been scarce the last couple of weeks. He seems to be staying in the same hotel that houses Texas Monthly’s offices. He turns up at local downtown restaurants like the Iron Cactus and Mezzaluna. He makes an announcement at the Austin Bar and Nightclub Awards. Evidently he’s “sequestered” himself in the capital city to write songs and music for the next ZZ Top album, probably to be recorded later in the year in Houston.
A nuance of note: The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has decided to add mexicano regional as a new category in the Grammy Awards. This move answers the complaints of groups like California’s Los Tigres Del Norte that they were shut out of winning Grammies because the only category for which they could be nominated was the Tejano category. A majority of NARAS’s tejano category voters live in Texas where tejano is popular and thus groups like this year’s winner, Houston’s La Mafia, were seen as having an unfair advantage. In inaugurating the new category, NARAS shows that it can be sensitive to other cultures, noting nuances in musical style that may be imperceptable to many, but which matter significantly to those who play and listen to the music.
No longer enTranced: I just heard that Butthole Surfer drummer King Coffey’s label, Trance Syndicate is shutting down. An excellent label known for putting out quality bands like Sixteen Deluxe, Bedhead, and Ed Hall, Trance’s loss will be much lamented. Craig Stewart, who has run the day-to-day operations of the label for quite some time said “it was all King’s decision. He just wasn’t so passionate about running a label anymore.” Stewart says that most of Trance’s bands are comfortable with the decision and that they shouldn’t have too much trouble getting picked up on other labels. Stewart himself will continue to shepherd his label, Emperor Jones, which worked under both Trance and their umbrella, Touch and Go. Emperor Jones’ top group, American Analogue Set, will stay with Stewart.
In related news, the Butthole Surfers are going label shopping as it seems their relationship with Capitol has run its course. Rumors have been flying about the Butthole’s latest album, still unreleased, which was finished and then pulled by Capitol. One rumor claims the record is being held simply because it was really bad; a second reports that Capitol was concerned that it didn’t seem to have a radio-quality single on it. Craig Stewart, however said that it’s not really either of those things, but still wouldn’t give a concrete reason. Whatever the cause, it’s going to be a while before anyone gets to hear the album.
—Jordan Mackay (7/1/98)
Pushmonkey finishes recording their major-label debut; Indefatigable Pervis plays on; Scandinavian cowboy Eric Moll charms with his plaintive strains; and Austin roots king Don Leady debuts Alamo Suite.
All Pushed Out: Popular Austin band and interminable Texas tour-mongers, Pushmonkey, have finally finished recording their major-label debut for Arista. They’ve been recording in L.A. with esteemed rock producer Mike Clink of Guns În’ Roses and Aerosmith fame. Pushmonkey, consummate professionals that they are, will no doubt offer a redoubtable record of first-rate production values and professional gloss. Will it move us? We shall find out.
Pervis just goes on and on and on: Formed in the early nineties, the Fort Worth band Pervis has been grinding and screeching in Dallas-area clubs ever since. In 1993, MCA funded a demo record for the band, but it didn’t materialize into anything. Last year, the group’s second lead singer left the band and it was widely assumed that the end of the raucous group was nigh. But singer Rachael Strauss sings on, and the band which had always been overshadowed by the two frontwomen shines on Pervis’ second release for Idol Records, Cleansed by Fire. The album rips and tears through several songs that will be familiar to many who have followed Pervis live, but the band’s energy is abundant in the digital vistas of the CD as well. Songs like “Mannequin,” “AWOL,” and “Kites Cost Money” display the tight playing and twisting hooks of the musicians, and Strauss’ lyrics are appropriately postured. The only problem is that there’s not much originality or innovation in the music: they’re doing well what people did well years ago. It would be nice to hear them plumb some new depths.
Thanks to Joe Nick Patoski for the following reviews:
Most of Moll: If singing cowboys ever become the national craze in Norway, I’ve no doubt it will all be because of Erik Moll, a Wimberley resident and songster in the Texas troubadour tradition with deep Scandinavian roots. His plaintive voice hits all the right high lonesome notes on his third solo album, Most of All (Fire Ant), a kicked-back self-produced gem of thirteen ballads that straddle the divisions between country and folk, all underlaid with an understated intelligence not common to either genre. Picks to click: the ethereal, quasi Tex-Mex “Can You Handle It?”, “She Thinks Different Now” (check out his yodels), and the bluesy, straight-to-the-point “I Love Your Cookin”.
Sweet Alamo Suite: From his role as a charter member of Austin roots kings, the Leroi Brothers, to front man for swamp rockers the Tailgators, the conjunto trio Los Cadillos, and his latest creation, Alamo Suite, a three-piece jazz outfit (all of which have the same personnel), Don Leady has proven himself to be such an expert stylistic interpreter, he passes for an original. Alamo Suite, the self-titled album by Leady as jazzbo, works the same turf as Texas guitar great Herb Ellis, messing around with bluesy, jazz-inflected instrumentals. Listening to it is like having a lounge in your own home, without the bothersome barroom smoke or loud talkers at the next table.
—Jordan Mackay (7/15/98)
Dwight Yoakam in transition but with a new record; Willie at the Led Zep reunion; Spoon gets good press; and a CD Review of Houston’s Blue Wing.
Austin Inspiration: In an interview with Dwight Yoakam, CNN’s Showbiz Today revealed that the actor/singer’s new album was written while he was in Austin shooting Rick Linklater’s historical western The Newton Boys. This is Yoakam’s first album in three years; he’d been spending his time writing a screenplay and acting in several films. Yoakam told CNN, “I did feel like I was in a transitional point in my life when I began writing this album. I’ve been inspired to do other things too because of that musical exploration.” I was a part-time waiter while the movie was shooting in Austin and happened to have Yoakam as a customer. The admission that he was in a transitional period at the time came as no surprise to me. The night I waited on him he ate modestly, mostly just picking at his vegetables. He gave no real sign that his writing might be going well other than the tip: he left ten dollars on a $25 check. His generosity was appreciated at the time, and I hope his record does better than the movie he made while writing it.
What’d Willie Think? The New York Post reports that Willie Nelson was among the throng of Led Zeppelin fans who caught the recent Jimmy Page/Robert Plant concert at Madison Square Garden. According to eyewitnesses, cheers erupted from the crowd when the aging duo launched into “Stairway to Heaven.” Nelson’s reaction to the playing of the classic song is unknown.
Propelled by the Press: A Series of Sneaks, the Elektra debut of Austin’s Spoon, was recently reviewed in the Washington Post. A good clip for the noisy trio, the reviewer says that the album’s first single, “Car Radio”—which has caused problems for the record company because at 90 seconds it’s too short for radio play—is “probably also too jumpy, too oblique and just too catchy [for airplay].” He goes on to praise the album’s distinctive and varied sound, writing that the “union of artiness and earthiness makes the album both distinctive and propulsive.”
On the record:Blue Wing (Moonlight Gold) This Houston Bluegrass quartet is composed of highly accomplished musicians who know how to make a song sizzle and tell a story along the way. Dan Crook’s acoustic and steel guitar playing truly stand out and Jeff Trathen’s electric guitar and harmonica keep it going. Kelly Lancaster’s swift mandolin paces the rhythm, and the whole thing is anchored by Sandy Buller’s acoustic bass. Many of the songs are memorable, especially the first one, “Couldn’t Stop the Wheels,” and others like “In Art” and “Black Diamond.” The tightness and command in the playing makes for a vibrant album.
—Jordan Mackay (8/1/98)
Gospel according to Jaci: Houston’s Contemporary Christian star Jaci Velasquez has signed a five-album, Spanish-language deal with Sony Discos. The major label debut of the 18-year-old singer, whose current disc on Myrrh topped Billboard’s Top Contemporary Christian chart, will be a secular record.Velasquez may be young, but her career began eight years ago when she started traveling around the U.S. and Latin America with her family’s music ministry. When Jaci was fourteen, the manager of another gospel group saw her sing in the small town of Columbus, Texas and sent word of the prodigy to Nashville, and soon after she was signed to Myrrh. Looks now like her star will continue to rise ÷up toward the heavens.
Strait Talk: The Country Music Association (CMA) raised an enthusiastic thumb’s up for tradition with this year’s award nominations. Texan George Strait became the most nominated performer in CMA history by snagging five nods, including one for entertainer of the year. Strait has now racked up 47 CMA award nominations over his 17-year career, finally surpassing Merle Haggard’s record of 43. Strait, 46, is a former rancher from Pearsall, Texas and is known for his simple, bare-bones approach, in the face of the gaudy, spectacle-sown styles of other country performers. In concert, Strait and his Ace in the Hole Band acknowledge his country music influences with covers and tributes to such forefathers as Haggard and Bob Wills. The CMA, composed of 6,100 industry members who vote on the nominations, ignored younger but popular artists like LeAnn Rimes and Alan Jackson this year. Does this indicate the beginnings of a movement to quell the tide of “new country?”
Tejano Turmoil: Rudy Trevino, the executive director of the Texas Talent Musicians Association, which organizes the Tejano music awards and serves as main organ for the tejano industry, has resigned without warning or explanation. This leaves lots of speculation as to the reasons and the import of his departure. Board president Robert Arellano explains Trevino’s leaving in this way: “We’re heading in a certain direction and we want to take tejano music to new levels. Tejano has gotten a little stale in the last year or so and we feel that the TTMA can take it to new markets and new states in the Midwest, Southwest, west coast and to Monterey, Mexico. Rudy had been here for 18 years and he wanted to do his own thing.” Arellano did confirm that Trevino is starting his own Tejano music organization, a move that prompts the suspicion of bad blood between the association and its former director. Arellano would only offer the very politic response to questioning that Trevino had been interested in branching into norteño music, while the rest of the TTMA board wanted to stay strictly tejano. “We’re the tejano music industry,” says Arellano. “Our mission statement is to promote tejano music, the bands and the industry. Rudy wants to go norteño. That’s fine.”
Ice, Ice, Maybe: The August 12 New York Times features an article on the return of Dallasite Rob Van Winkle to the recording industry. Van Winkle, better known to most of us as Vanilla Ice, is the guy who made it cool to be white. After plummeting from the king of the charts to the land of miserable has-beens, Ice has turned it around, forsaking rap for the punk/hard rock style on his forthcoming album, Hard to Swallow. Just who is this genre-jumping enigma? NYT columnist Neil Strauss writes: “The real Vanilla Ice is probably somewhere between the boastful faux rapper of To the Extreme and the troubled faux punk of Hard to Swallow. On the outside, he seems like a fraternity jock; on the inside, he is a self-described hypochondriac with attention-deficit disorder, anxiety and intimacy problems.” So does this puzzle wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a riddle sound more like: a) a hard-core street rapper; b) a hard-core punk singer; or c) a hard-core character from Woody Allen’s last film? And will his new album be a success? I, personally, can’t wait to find out.
—Jordan Mackay (8/15/98)