Wednesday, March 28, 2012
[This was published in the late, great Seattle biweekly music publication The Rocket as a preview for a tw0-night stand at The Backstage featuring Don Walser, Butch Hancock, Santiago Jimenez and Tish Hinojosa on March 28-29, 1995.]
By Peter Blackstock
For a well-traveled man of 60 who just recently retired from his day job, Don Walser sure seems a lot like a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed teenager.
He may not quite have that youthful jump in his step as we slowly shuffle back to the office of Babe's, a restaurant in Austin where he and his Pure Texas Band play every Monday night, to do an interview before the gig. But once you get Walser talking, there's no mistaking the sprightly youthfulness in his manner -- from the beaming gleam in his eyes, to the wide-as-a-tractor-trailer grin that splits his double-chinned mug ear-to-ear, to the giddy giggle reminiscent of a juvenile junior-high prankster.
Not to mention some of the company he keeps in Austin. "Are you familiar with the Butthole Surfers, and ol' Jeff Pinkus, who used to play with them?" he says, when I bring up the subject of how he has become a favorite at Emo's, Austin's most popular alternative-rock nightclub. "Well, we were one of their favorite bands, and they always hung out with us when they were in town. And they finally got us down to Emo's to play.
"Oh, and there's another guy that comes out to see us all the time. He usually comes to Jovita's (a Mexican restaurant where Walser and his band play every Tuesday night). He has a group called Ministry. Do you know who I'm talking about?" Al Jourgenson? "Al Jourgenson, yeah, that's the guy. Anyway, I went out to his place one day, just me and my guitar, and we played a little bit. And he showed me his new studio he had. And right on the board, he had a bumper sticker, Pure Texas Band! And he told me, 'Your CD's the first thing we played on this thing!' "
Exactly how or why the Buttholes and Jourgenson became such big fans of someone who plays music so totally different than their own is anyone's guess, unless you simply accept that you don't necessarily have to play classic country music to appreciate it. And it's almost impossible not to appreciate Walser, who has a keen ear for the most revered songs country music has produced since the beginning -- and also a voice to belt it out like probably no one you've ever heard.
At one point during our interview, Walser ely not believe your ears. And how many singers do you know who can make their voice sound more like a steel guitar than a steel guitar does, as Walser demonstrates on the 1949 Stan Jones gem "Cowpoke"?
Playing songs that are half a decade old is an integral part of what Walser and his Pure Texas Band are all about. "My heart's just not into doing Top 40 country," he says. "When I first started singing, I noticed there were a few bands around that would get together and they would learn the up-to-date tunes, and that was all they did. But what you're doing, you're constantly working up new stuff, and then in two weeks or a month or six months, it's plumb gone and forgot about, and you've spent all that time on those old tunes that are no good. And I just decided I wasn't gonna do that."
Though Rolling Stone from Texas indeed delves significantly into the catalog of classic country music with tunes by the likes of Marty Robbins, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jimmie Rodgers and Willie Nelson, Walser also wrote or co-wrote five of the songs on the album. Not that you'd really notice much of a difference between the covers and the originals; his own material is heavily rooted in the old sounds he dearly loves, even if it has meant he's never gotten much attention from the Nashville cats.
"I had a pretty good bunch of songs that I thought were good about 20 years ago, so I went to Nashville," he recalls. "And they all really liked what I had, but they all told me one way or another real nicely, that, 'This is great stuff, but we haven't done it in 20 years.' So I told 'em, 'Well, when 20 years comes from now, I'll still be doing it.' And I am, I'm still doing it. I just didn't want to play the games that you have to play. And of course now, I'm tryin' to help a few people keep this old traditional country music alive. It's like a big ol' oak tree out there. If you destroy the roots, it's gonna die, and that's what's happening right now, I think."
Walser's efforts seem to be paying off. Seeing a full house of tattooed, nose-pierced twentysomethings spinning and singing along to his band at Emo's on a Friday night is all one needs to confirm that there is indeed room for his beloved old country music in the hearts of the Alternative Nation, as incongruous as it may seem. Of course, there's also the possibility that the kids may see him as nothing more than an entertaining curiosity, but he's not so sure about that.
A 60-year-old solo traditional country act on a showcase full of rock bands at CMJ might seem strange enough -- but then there was the time a couple years back when Walser actually opened a show for his pals the Buttholes in Austin. "It was our band and the Bad Livers and the Butthole Surfers," he recalled. "And I'll never forget Jeff Pinkus -- I was tellin' him, 'Well, good, I've been wantin' to hear y'all play.' And he said, 'Oh, Don, you don't want to hear this band.' And I said, 'Sure I do!' And he said, 'Naw, you really don't. You need to just go on home!' And I said, 'Naw, I'm gonna stay and listen, man!'
"So I got up there on the side of the stage, and I found out pretty soon why he didn't want me to stay. They had these two screens going at one time, and one screen they had a naked lady gyratin', and then on the other screen, they had a sex change operation goin', changin' a guy into a girl! I know that's why ol' Jeff didn't want me to stay!"
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
By Peter Blackstock
It’s kind of an eyesore from the outside, this humble cottage industry that Butch Hancock calls home, a few yards from the antiquated streetcar tracks on a mostly deserted block in the middle of downtown Austin. Huge planks of plywood hide the graffiti that covered the abandoned storefront before Hancock moved in a couple years ago. Above the boards is a modest but intriguing sign, painted by Hancock, that depicts a city skyline as seen through a rearview mirror, along with the name of the establishment: “Lubbock Or Leave It.”
Then there’s the timeless beauty of his love songs, such as “If You Were A Bluebird”: If I were a highway, I’d stretch alongside you/ I’d help you pass byways that had dissatisfied you/ If I were I highway, I’d be stretchin’/ I’d be fetchin’ you home.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Several of Hancock’s best songs (including the aforementioned “Bluebird” and “Firewater”) are included on Own & Own, a two-CD set issued by Sugar Hill in 1991 and culled from the seven albums Hancock released on his own Rainlight Records label between 1978 and 1987. (None of those original albums have been issued on CD, but cassette copies are available by mail-order through Lubbock Or Leave It, 406 Brazos St., Austin, TX 78701.)
Sunday, February 12, 2012
You don't cover "My Funny Valentine" light-heartedly or off-handedly. It's not a happy-go-lucky love song, despite its title; its melody is weighted with something heavier, darker, harder to reconcile. To be honest, it's never really been a song I've longed to hear around the Ides of February. And yet, there is *something* about it... a peeling-back of artifice, perhaps, leaving the singer with nowhere to go but straight through the heart of it, their persona betrayed by the way they choose to deliver those offbeat words.
I thought about that when Jason Kutchma chose "My Funny Valentine" to conclude his set at the Whiskey in Durham tonight. The best-known versions are probably those by Ella, or Frank, or perhaps Chet Baker; my frame of reference is probably a little skewed, as I came to know it through renditions recorded several decades later by Elvis Costello and Rickie Lee Jones. For both of those artists, the song did the trick: The character of their voices when they sang it revealed much about the distinctive nature of their respective personalities.
The same was true tonight, even after Kutchma and his band, the Five Fifths, had served up an album's worth of their own first-rate original songs (plus a cover of David Bowie's "Heroes") with tasteful arrangements of guitars, bass, piano, pedal steel and fairly minimal drums. Kutchma began the set solo and ended it that way too, imbuing the dark, warm, hazy room with a take on "Valentine" that was remarkably assured in spite of its vulnerability. His voice acknowledged the darkness inherent in the song, yet seemed determined to press on toward the light on the other side.
Fitting, then, that the first song they've served up to the public from the album they recently recorded is called "There's A Light On"....
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Thanks to Howe for sharing it with us, and Bill Carter for creating it.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
By Peter Blackstock
Driving west on I-10 from Austin, the desert creeps up on you, gradually revealing itself mile after mile after mile until the entire landscape has changed. The winding rivers, lazy lakes, scrubby trees and colorful flowers of the Texas Hill Country finally give way to barren creekbeds, rocky outcroppings, desolate plains and various forms of cacti.
The transformation somehow seems as spiritual as it is physical. The world exists on a different plane: broader in scope, wider in space, deeper in soul. Here in the heart of West Texas, everything truly is bigger.
Biggest of all is the Rio Grande, and nowhere is it so grand as in Big Bend National Park, so named for the gargantuan turn the river takes as it winds through a series of deep canyons on the border of Texas and Mexico, a couple hundred miles southeast of El Paso and Juarez. Though Texas isn’t generally known for its mountains, several peaks in the park are quite impressive, rising to nearly 8,000 feet from a much lower base than, say, the Colorado Rockies, which sprout from a mile-high boost.
Hiking trails and campgrounds are plentiful throughout the park, but it’s the river that rules this region, providing a major recreational draw for adventure seekers in the Southwest and beyond. About a half-dozen companies operate raft trips on the Rio Grande, ranging from day or weekend trips through the three main canyons (Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas) to weeklong excursions through the Lower Canyons.
One company in particular has carved out a unique niche in the market by combining the rugged splendor of Texas geography with the ragged glory of Texas music. Far Flung Adventures, based in the tiny ghost town of Terlingua just outside the park, regularly offers three-day/two-night trips in which a renowned Texas singer-songwriter comes along for the ride and performs intimate campfire concerts for the rafters.
Those who have participated in Far Flung’s river music series over the past decade include such marquee names as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Robert Earl Keen, Tish Hinojosa, Darden Smith and Peter Rowan. The unrivaled stars of the series, however, are Steven Fromholz and Butch Hancock, whose lives have been significantly redirected by the pull of the river.
Fromholz inaugurated the series in the late ’80s and was so taken by the experience that he eventually became a trained boatsman as well, and set up a part-time residence in Terlingua (his primary home is in Austin). Hancock followed suit shortly thereafter, becoming a music-trip regular in the late ’80s and earning his oarsman credentials in the early ’90s before finally heeding Big Bend’s call completely and relocating from Austin to Terlingua in 1996.
The move marks a full-circle evolution of sorts in Hancock’s life cycle. Raised in Lubbock and a member of the pioneering band the Flatlanders in the early ’70s (along with Ely and Gilmore), Hancock moved to Austin in the mid-’70s shortly after recording his first album, West Texas Waltzes And Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes. He released about a dozen records of varying textures and tones during his two decades in Austin, but 1997’s You Coulda Walked Around The World revisits the rustic simplicity of his debut, a solo recording of just guitar, vocal and harmonica.
Lyrically, Hancock has replanted himself firmly in West Texas soil as well, which is what makes his music so ideally suited to Far Flung’s river excursions. His words echo in seemingly every experience of the adventure. Driving the back roads of Lajitas to the put-in point, the chorus of “This Old Dirt Road” comes to mind; the border adventure tale of “Leo y Leona” practically provides a plot map to the area; “Barefoot Prints” ponders the reflections of moonlight, sunlight and starlight on the Rio Grande.
Starlight, coincidentally, is where our journey begins — at the Starlight Theatre, which sits next to Far Flung’s headquarters in the heart of “downtown Terlingua” (consisting only of those two facades and a gift shop). Having set out from Austin around dawn on a Thursday in mid-November, my father and I pull into Terlingua shortly after dusk (”You can drive all day and never leave Texas,” another of Hancock’s lyrics reminds) and drift into the Starlight, which functions as a restaurant and bar in addition to presenting occasional musical and theatrical events.
Across the room I happen to spot Joe Nick Patoski, a senior editor for Austin-based Texas Monthly magazine who’s in the area researching an article. Presently he’s joined by Fromholz, who informs us that our river trip with Hancock will be greatly enhanced by the ever-entertaining guidesmanship of Gary “Catfish” Callaway. We meet Callaway the next morning and instantly appreciate Fromholz’ assessment: “They call me Catfish because my mouth is bigger than my brain. And the fact that I just told you that proves that it’s true!”
Soon enough, however, Catfish’s considerable wisdom of his domain becomes evident. An outdoorsman and river guide for three decades and a minority owner of Far Flung, he knows the Rio Grande intimately, from its habits to its habitat to its history. As he rows our boat of five — Catfish, my father and me, and another father-son pair from Houston — downstream with breezy deliberation, he identifies bird species and rock formations, recalls floods and other incidents that altered the form of the river’s banks and rapids, and continually curses the tamarisk trees whose byzantine root structures drain water from the river at an alarming rate.
Drifting along lazily behind us, barely visible amidst a barricade of supplies surrounding him on his raft, is Hancock, who’s serving as cargo crew as well as campfire balladeer for our journey. Occasionally Catfish will nod back in the direction of Butch, careful to be out of earshot so as not to embarrass him, and marvel about how that guy in the trailing boat happens to be one of the great songwriters of our time.
Soon enough we’re treated to firsthand evidence of that assessment. After pitching our tents at the Friday night campsite and devouring a hearty steak dinner (Far Flung feeds folks mighty well on these trips), we gather around the fire, hoping that a threatening sky will hold off long enough to allow Butch to play a few tunes. (The story’s often told of how, around ten years ago, Hancock played his song “Just One Thunderstorm” one evening at a Rio Grande campsite and, on cue, the heavens opened forth and poured.)
The rain mostly holds off on this night, though a light drizzle eventually prompts us to scoot a few feet under the tarp protecting the makeshift kitchen. Playing for an hour or so, Hancock treats us to classics from his past such as “If You Were A Bluebird”, Terlingua-inspired tunes from his most recent album including “Long Sunsets”, and even a couple new numbers he hasn’t yet recorded. Those who have caught Hancock in the cozy confines of the Cactus Cafe in Austin might assume they’ve heard him in the ideal environment, and they’d almost be right — but nothing could ever transcend the experience of Butch’s songs rambling along the river’s banks, rolling upon its rippling waters, reverberating off its colossal canyon walls.
We don’t actually enter the majestic Santa Elena Canyon until the following afternoon, having spent the first day following the river’s twists and turns through the mesa-pocked frontier of the Chihuahua desert. We stop for lunch at the entrance to the canyon, taking a relatively short but awe-inspiring hike up a fairly steep trail leading to the canyon’s precipice. Peering one direction, down into the chasm created by the sheer cliffs on both sides, ignites the nerves with dizzying wonder; gazing another direction, across the vast cactus-covered playas of Mexico, beckons the soul to the edge of eternity.
We spend Saturday night deep within the canyon, chilled and whipped by a whistling wind that quickly renders our nice hot dinner less than lukewarm. This is, after all, West Texas, a place where “the wind is gonna blow tomorrow, just like it blows today,” as Hancock sings on “Wind’s Gonna Blow You Away”. The natives have long since learned to weather the elements, and Butch has no problem keeping us up for quite awhile, regaling us with the misadventures of “Split & Slide” (”Well Split he slipped and started to slide/And Slide he slipped and split his side”) and the simple wisdom of “Chase” (”You might chase a tune/You might chase the muse/You might chase the moon/You might chase the blues”). Finally, and fittingly, Hancock leaves the music to be carried away on “The Wind’s Dominion”.
Sunday morning, only a short float remains through the rest of the canyon to our early-afternoon takeout point, though it’s probably the most scenically spectacular portion of the trip, the canyon’s walls towering ever higher and revealing formations such as Smuggler’s Cave, a giant hole in the wall on the Mexican side. Then it’s out of the long shadows and back into the bright sunlight, Santa Elena’s tight fortress receding abruptly and giving way once more to the desert’s endless horizon.
Driving back to Austin, watching the parched plains transmute back into rolling hills mile after mile after mile, I recall all those treks across I-10 I’d made in my younger days, and how hard it always was to readjust to urban civilization after spending a few days amid the soul-stirring nature of this country. As usual, another song of Hancock’s — this time it’s “Texas Air” — comes to mind, and captures the feeling exactly:
Leave my spirit on the prairie
Bury my bones in the sand
Toss my troubles to the western wind
Baby it’s a wide, wide land.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
By Peter Blackstock
That it was R.E.M.'s time to say goodbye came as no surprise. Thirty years in, eleven years beyond the timeline they'd once vowed to follow, a tenure without Bill Berry approaching the tenure they'd had with him: It was time, if not past time. There had been reasons to keep going, for better and for worse, but the end was always near. And so it was here. We knew, understood, accepted.
As it happens, there was a farewell note left on the mantle. It's called "We All Go Back To Where We Belong", and I find myself drawn to it much more than I'd imagined was possible, at this late date in a lifetime relationship with a band long taken for granted. As the title suggests, it harkens back to the beginning, a reminder of why such alchemy had first coalesced, of where it all flowed from. Which is not to say it's retro: R.E.M. circa Chronic Town would not have been capable of this particular shade of accumulated beauty. The unapologetic gracefulness, the sympathetic twinges of strings and horns, the clarity of message and purpose....these are the full blooms from wisdom gained along the way.
But the artistic impulse, the underlying current of emotion -- that carries over, and connects 1980 to 2011. Then, as now, the pull of a melody divines the direction. It's the feel of the sound that determines the words. And so "I could live a million years" bridges over three decades into "I will write our story in my mind."
The poetry always mattered, even when the words were elusive. They became clearer over time; that clarity sharpens to its finest point in this final address. "This might be my innocence lost." "I can taste the ocean on your skin." "I woke up thinking we were free."
And the answer to the end of this band, fittingly, comes in the form of a question: "Is this really what you want?"
We all, ultimately, must ask this of ourselves. Where we proceed from that reckoning is up to us. And yet, the nature of the past exerts its power over the future: "We all go back to where we belong." This is not as reactionary as it sounds. "Things don't change, they never have," a contemporary of R.E.M. used to sing. But the meaning, really, was: Things don't change, they're not so bad.
And so it follows that this "going back to where we belong" is not so bad, either. R.E.M.'s final offering is the perfect closer to my 2011 year-end collection of songs, but if you play this collection on a loop, it feeds right back into the opening track, "Burning Up The Sky," delivered in the same key by a twenty-something band called the Parson Red Heads. On the heels of R.E.M.'s end-of the-road concluding statement, the Parsons reopen the dialogue with wide-eyed wonder: "We are living, living in a new age, living in a new age, kicking up the dust."
As I write this, there is a picture on my laptop screen of a breathtaking midsummer sky -- layered shades of grayish blue, brilliant red and glowing orange reflected upon the waters of Liberty Bay, against a silhouette of evergreen trees, a lonely rooftop, and a hillside speckled with the scattered lights of town, stretching out across the horizon. It looks for all the world like a heart-stopping sunset. But, in fact, it was taken just before the dawn.