Longtime readers of Texas Monthly will surely recognize my friend Mike Shea’s name. From 1998 to 2010 the longtime Austin resident and SXSW executive covered the book beat for the print magazine and, for much of that time, hosted the popular Texas Monthly Author Series at an Austin bookstore. What many of them don’t know is that prior to his tenures with SXSW and TM, Mike spent years as an aspiring professional songwriter and musician. Because his songs were never recorded and released by a major artist, he was astonished last Tuesday night, while watching the seventh episode of Ken Burns’s Country Music documentary, to spot, for three seconds, this 44-year-old photo of his guitar-toting self in his own country music salad days:
After a few rewinds and text messages from friends convinced Shea that he had indeed seen what he thought he’d seen, he set about tracking down the photographer who had taken the shot—former Austinite and current Floridian John Van Beekum, who has coincidentally done some work for TM over the years and offered to send Mike a couple of prints.
Van Beekum also asked Mike to provide some backstory and context for the shot and wondered whether Mike knew some of the people Van Beekum hung out with during his own Austin days. Here’s a lightly edited and slightly amended version of the email Mike sent him in response:
Many thanks for offering me a couple prints of your still photo from the documentary. Incredible that it surfaced after 40-some years. It was a total “holy shit” moment when it popped up onscreen. My wife, Toni, had joked earlier that Ken Burns would get around to me “in the episode after you and Willie both move to Austin.” And she was right—as usual.
So, you ask how a 20-year-old from Massachusetts happened to be carrying a guitar around Austin in late 1975? Well, during summer break of my sophomore year at Bard College, I bought a Greyhound Bicentennial Ameripass (30 days of unlimited bus travel) and headed for Nashville to sing my way into a publishing deal. Armed with my guitar and a demo reel of songs I had performed at Greenwich Village hoot nights (yes, at the famed Gerdes Folk City, where Bob Dylan essentially got his start), I intended to pitch my music for a couple weeks and then travel around at random.
By day I walked Music Row and played tapes for A&R guys (as one does), and by night I drank at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and talked my way onstage at the Wheel on lower Broadway (as one also does). A couple publishers said, “They really like your kind of music in Austin” (read: we don’t really like your kind of music in Nashville) so I headed to Texas and stepped off the bus in downtown Austin. It was a different Austin from today—a time when the Texas Capitol dominated the skyline, and Democrats dominated the Capitol.
When I asked a local about Austin’s entertainment district, I was pointed toward Guadalupe Street, known as the Drag on the University of Texas campus. When I stopped for a bite to eat at a 19th Street diner, the chatty waitress noted my guitar and duffel bag and invited me to stay with her and her boyfriend for a couple days. The next day, she encouraged me to return to the Drag to busk near the 23rd Street Artist’s Market, and that’s where the other guy in the picture showed up guitar-in-hand and asked to join in. His name was Sonny, and he was a bit of an operator. Within a couple days, he had hustled up gigs for us at Willie (Nelson)’s Pool Hall, the Sit-n-Bull topless bar, the Texas Lady (Mexican cafe), and a few other places. I have no idea where Sonny ended up in the world, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in politics or arbitrage or both.
After a few weeks, and encouraged by some small successes, I decided I had the music business figured out. So I quit school, found a $60 apartment near Les Amis Cafe (bottomless coffee and 75-cent pitchers of draft beer), and never left Austin.
I kept writing and handing off demos to artists like Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Joe Ely. In 1978, Gary P. Nunn of the Lost Gonzo Band took me into Pecan Street Studio to record my song “Endlessly” so he could pitch it to Willie. It’s unlikely Willie ever cut the song, but over time I’ve added nine companion songs, and the resulting concept album would make a fine 21st-century bookend to Red-Headed Stranger. (Buddy Cannon, call me?)
For a decade or so, I wrote more songs and played clubs as a solo act or as part of a duo and with my different bands—Reckless Angels, the Scanners, the Devils, and Smash Palace. Some of those places, like Soap Creek Saloon, Liberty Lunch, Split Rail Inn, and Club Foot, are long gone, but a few—the Hole in the Wall, the Continental Club, and Antone’s—are still hanging in there. Eventually the real world came calling with a serious SXSW day gig and a side hustle as Texas Monthly’s book columnist, and of course my amazing wife and family. Music became the thing I did at home, and that’s fine too.
Oh, the hat I’m wearing in your picture was plunked on my head by a visibly over-served but gentlemanly patron at Willie’s Pool Hall who insisted that country music was simply not sung bareheaded. The Gibson B-25 guitar I’m carrying was later burgled from my duplex by an acquaintance with a nasty but well-hidden penchant for breaking and entering. Several years later I received a nice note from him bearing a Texas State Penitentiary return address, asking whether I might contribute a modest sum to his commissary fund—for old times’ sake. He included a local newspaper’s profile of the Scanners, my R&B band at the time. He didn’t mention the Gibson.
Unfortunately I’ve never crossed paths with any of the Austinites you mention in your email. I used to drink occasionally at the Cedar Door when it was on 15th Street with my friend David Brooks and political/writer types like Carlton Carl, Ross Milloy, Mike Kelley, County Commissioner Ann Richards, and that lot. But I mostly ran with my bandmates and other musician friends of the time like Gary Hartman, Shawn Colvin, Willy Wainwright, Paul Glasse, Ron Rogers, Deborah Giles, and Bill Carter & Ruth Ellsworth.
And here I am 44 years later:
So there you have it. Certainly more than you care to know, but reminiscing is way more fun than working.
This post has been updated to correct an error. The Cedar Door was on 15th Street, not 14th Street.