Economist on Texas songwriting traditions

Rohit Khare (
Sat, 6 Feb 1999 16:24:12 -0800

Duck --

It just blew me away to see a piece in the Christmas double-issue of
the Economist that seems so clearly indebted to that recent
commemorative issue of Performing Songwriter on Texas Music and your
interview with Willie Nelson. I never thought I'd see the day that
Duck and The Economist would bend my ear on the same topic -- much
less the same direction :-)

Best wishes,


Country music. Choirs of cowboys
DATE 16-Jan-99

Country music

TEATRO by Willie Nelson.Island. ISBN 314-524548-2. Catalogue 5245482.
STEP I NSIDE THIS HOUSE by Lyle Lovett. MCA. ISBN 08811-18312.
Catalogue D211831.
WALKING DISTANCE by Robert Earl Keen. Arista. ISBN
07822-18876-2.Catalogue 88762.
WRAPPED by Bruce Robison. Lucky Dog ISBN 7464-69134-2. Catalogue SNY691342.
LIFE OF THE PARTY by Charlie Robison. Lucky Dog. ISBN 7464-69327-2.
Catalogue SNY69327.
DOWN AT THE SKY- VUE D RIVE I N by Don Walser. Watermelon ISBN
4344-3107-2. Catalogue 6344310172.
SAID AND DONE by Flaco Jimenez. Barbed Wire-Virgin. ISBN 2438-46530.
REVERB DELUXE by The Derailers. Watermelon. ISBN 4344-31004-2.
Catalogue 64344310042.
FLAMING RED by Patty Griffin. A&M. ISBN 31454-0907-2. Catalogue AM409072.
STRANGEST PLACES by Abra Moore. Arista-Austin. ISBN 07822-18839-2.
Catalogue 7822188392.
A FEW SMALL REPAIRS by Shawn Colvin. Columbia. ISBN
7464-6719-2.Catalogue 4843272

WILLIE NELSON recently became only the second Texan to receive the
prestigious Kennedy Centre Arts Award for his contribution to
American music. About time too, some would say.

If country music has been saved from commercial Nashville's oily
quiffs and bubblegum lyrics, it is thanks to a single-handed rescue
operation by this great man. The Lonestar state has always boasted a
rich musical talent, but it took the coming of Mr Nelson and his
fellow cosmic cowboys, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, to
catapult the sleepy state capital-Austin-into the spotlight. The city
still doesn't quite live up it to its own brazen billing as "Live
Music Capital Of The World", but it has become perhaps the most vital
centre of the great American musical experiment. The Armadillo World
Headquarters made its acquaintance with Willy Nelson one fateful
August night in 1972. The Armadillo, a National Guard armoury
converted into a dance hall, quickly became an unlikely magnet for
musical geniuses. Sweat-soaked nights here were characterised by the
breaking down of traditional musical genres. Rednecks fell for Frank
Zappa while hippy intellectuals at the University of Texas became
disciples of Mr Nelson.
Austin has changed a lot since then. The hippies have share options.
The city has doubled in size and become a high-tech leader. Its music
scene has diversified, encompassing punk, grunge and funk. But its
laid-back slacker lifestyle and love for rootsy, heartfelt music
remains infectious. When your correspondent moved here, he wore ties
and was a musical inept. Now departing for colder and darker climes,
he has dispensed with the ties and haunts used-record stores and
late-night shows.
Music lovers across the United States have had a weekly dose of the
city's music scene since "Austin City Limits" began broadcasting in
1976, consistently one of the most popular shows on public
television. It has a simple formula: top-notch musicians,
stripped-down acoustic sets, and a discerning live audience.
Austin radio stations-notably 107.1 KGSR , which readers can tune
into on the Internet at a hometown
voice for local talent. "We were founded to play music that didn't
quite fit in elsewhere," says Jody Denberg, a KGSR deejay. There are
no hard rules-provide a hometown voice for local talent. "We were
founded to play music that didn't quite fit in elsewhere," says Jody
Denberg, a KGSR deejay. There are no hard rules; unlike Seattle sound
which is essentially grunge, there is no distinct Austin sound.
Perhaps the best description is Yalternative (as in "y'all");
anti-establishment music which seeks out the fertile ground between
rock, blues, folk and country.
Austin is flooded with live music. On any given night there are more
than 100 bands playing. Most will not make any money. No matter.
Musicians head to New York, Nashville and Los Angeles to be famous,
they come to Austin for the love of playing. The centre of the live
music scene is Sixth Street, arguably the densest concentration of
live music anywhere in America. The 40 or so clubs and bars there
echo with blues, jazz, punk, country and techno. On weekends music
spills out on to the hot, crowded streets and pools into an
indistinguishable throb. Locals are spoiled for choice. They can pay
a few dollars to listen to, say, Flaco Jimenez, a frenetic and
brilliant San Antonio accordionist, or slip next door to catch Mitch
Watkins, a hometown guitar legend, or mooch even further down Sixth
Street to catch a promising young funk band.
Some will retreat to mellower hideaways. Among these are the Broken
Spoke and the Continental Club. The Broken Spoke has hosted almost
every single luminary of country music and features a sawdust dance
floor over which Texans of all ages swirl. Regulars here include The
Derailers, an upbeat country band guaranteed to crack a grin on the
dourest face, and Don Walser, an icon of country yodelling (yes,
yodelling). The Continental Club is a darker, smarter haunt favoured
by hipsters. Regulars here include America's leading house rocker,
Junior Brown, who is recognisable for his ten-gallon hat and spiffy
retro Fifties shirts, and yet another epic hometown guitarist, Jimmie
Ray Vaughn.
The richest vein of Lonestar music, however, remains that of the
lyrical singer-songwriter. The best was the late Townes Van Zandt
whose songs have been extensively covered, most famously "Poncho and
Lefty" and "If I Needed You". Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl
Keen-one-time college roommates at Texas A&M University-are his heirs
today. Mr Lovett's crystalline new double album, "Inside This House",
is a compelling tribute to great Texas songwriters. Robert Earl
Keen's new album, "Walking Distance", includes a song-"It Feels Good,
Feelin' Good Again"-which should convert most readers instantly to
the Lonestar musical cause. Among the up and coming
singer-songwriters are Bruce Robison and his brother Charlie. The
narrative drive of their lyrics and the raw heft of their voices will
reach an audience far beyond the smalltown Texas they write about.
Nor is singer-songwriting just restricted to men. Austin boasts a
treasure trove of talented women singer-songwriters. Patty Griffin's
second album, "Flaming Red", makes for cascading, occasionally
thrashing poetry of the highest order. Abra Moore, a longtime
Austinite who served her apprenticeship in hometown bars, is now
achieving deserved national success with her album, "Strangest
Places". And then there is Shawn Colvin whose 1996 album, "A Few
Small Repairs", won a Grammy award and established her as one of the
foremost women singers of any genre in the United States.

At 65, Willie Nelson is still the king. He still churns out achingly
good songs which he claims to drag whole from the ether. Where most
country songs have three chords, Mr Nelson's often have four or five.
Mainstream Nashville songs still stick to familiar and largely
conservative formulas, Mr Nelson's swerve headlong into the
zeitgeist. His discography now includes over 200 albums, with more to
come. He still weaves tirelessly across America aboard his legendary
"Honeysuckle Rose" bus. And he still proclaims the virtues of hemp
products at every opportunity. This is, after all, a man who
celebrated his release from a Bahamian prison on a pot-smoking charge
by lighting up a mighty "Austin torpedo" the very next night on the
roof of Jimmy Carter's White House.