Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top 10 Moments in '70s Progressive Country

When I was asked to compile a list of Austin musical moments related to my new book Progressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture, I decided to take a broad approach to the task. Thus, this list isn’t exhaustive or definitive; I’m not going for the ten absolute best or most significant moments in the life of Austin music in the 1970s. Rather, these are ten moments that I find particularly interesting, that complement the narrative of Progressive Country, or that otherwise capture something of the scene’s flavor. Lists like this are never finished works; they are invitations to a conversation. So, if we run into each other at a show someplace, feel free to bring up some other moments you might have chosen.

—Jason Mellard


Janis Joplin’s last visit to Austin, July 1970

The connections between San Francisco in the ‘60s and Austin are dense. (The South Austin Popular Culture Center has even mounted an exhibit on the subject, on view through January 2014). Migrants from the Texas capital and elsewhere helped define the West Coast counterculture, and blues queen Janis Joplin may well be the poster child for these developments. Long before wowing the crowds at Monterey Pop, Joplin held court with Lanny Wiggins and Powell St. John in Kenneth Threadgill’s North Lamar bar. Her last visit to town honored Mr. Threadgill on the occasion of his birthday, at a concert in Oak Hill helmed by Shiva’s Headband. Her set was short and messy, but she also introduced Austin audiences to Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” The show also provided a taste of things to come, as Daily Texan journalist Roger Leinert wondered at the strange crowd of “longhairs and rednecks, hippies and businessmen.”


Dripping Springs Reunion, March 1972

By 1973, Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnics would ramp that hippie-redneck rhetoric to its fever pitch, but the first Central Texas “Country Woodstock” was the Dripping Springs Reunion of March 1972. The concert ably matched Nashville’s old guard with its new wave of singer-songwriters. Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, and Dottie West appeared alongside Merle Haggard, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. Threadgill was there, too. Willie would play the Armadillo World Headquarters for the first time a few months later, sealing an alliance that would launch the first Willie Fourth of July picnic at the same Dripping Springs site in 1973.


Austin Music Has a Lot To Be Grateful For, Thanksgiving 1972

By November 1972, enough young artists in Austin had turned to country that this new, rootsy, rock-inflected “progressive country” sound could produce a little bit of magic on any given weekend. Thanksgiving that year was one such time. The Grateful Dead were in town to play a show at the Municipal Auditorium. Word got around, and Doug Sahm, Leon Russell, Jerry Garcia, and Phil Lesh, joined by members of the 13th Floor Elevators, Shiva’s Headband, and Greezy Wheels gathered for an impromptu jam session at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Sahm led the supergroup in rousing renditions of everything from Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” and Chuck Berry’s “Roll over Beethoven” to Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” and a little bit of everything in between. In the same weekend, the United Farm Workers held a benefit concert that brought Willie Nelson, Steve Fromholz, and Greezy Wheels together with Alfonso Ramos, Vida, and Teatro Chicano. These two events show that what was going on in Austin music was not divorced from the national music scene or from the decade’s tumultuous politics. The Dead and Russell thought highly enough of Sahm to follow his lead on a tour through musical Americana, while progressive country stalwarts Nelson and Fromholz lent their substantial talents to the Chicano Movement resonating in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio. 

Download the full Thanksgiving Jam on adioslounge.com >>


Soeur Queens Appear at the National Women’s Political Caucus in Houston, February 1973

It is important to think about the music made in Austin in broad terms–it’s not just about the stars, but about all kinds of individuals who took up a guitar, fiddle, or microphone in the decade to add their voices to Austin’s raucous chorus. Just as with the Chicano Movement, women’s liberation was an inescapable presence in the midst of what could at times seem to be a very macho scene. You likely haven’t heard of the Soeur Queens, but they were one of a number of the decade’s acts that could make a point and have fun doing it. I first learned about them from Gail Caldwell’s 2006 memoir A Strong West Wind. The Queens were a progressive country-esque act who built sets out of their own women’s movement-themed songs alongside such progressive country standards as Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Dallas.” In 1973, they took their act on the road to the first National Women’s Political Caucus being held in Houston and serenaded Gloria Steinem with Them’s “Gloria.”


Recording of Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band’s Viva Terlingua at Luckenbach, August 1973

In the summer of 1973, Jerry Jeff Walker and Austin’s key musical players the Lost Gonzo Band retreated to Luckenbach to record Viva Terlingua, an album that may well be progressive country’s paramount document. Like Walker himself in the 1970s, the album alternates brilliantly between laid-back, informal, pastoral and boisterous, rowdy, and just a little bit out of control. Walker and the Gonzos—Bob Livingston, Gary P. Nunn, Craig Hillis, Michael McGeary, Herb Steiner, Mickey Raphael, Mary Egan, and a handful of others—offered canonical renditions of songs by Walker, Nunn, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Michael Murphey, and Guy Clark. If Viva Terlingua doesn’t convince you there was something in the water in Central Texas in 1973, consider the fact that this year also saw the release of Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages, Michael Murphey’s Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, Doug Sahm’s Doug Sahm and Band, Waylon Jennings’s Honky-Tonk Heroes, B.W. Stevenson’s My Maria, and the debut albums of Asleep at the Wheel, Billy Joe Shaver, and Kinky Friedman.


Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen Record Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas, November 1973.

National touring acts took notice of Austin developments, and a handful even adopted the town as a kind of second home. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were a boogie-woogie/western swing act that hailed from Michigan by way of the San Francisco Bay Area. They appeared frequently at the Armadillo World Headquarters and chose it as the site of their Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas recording in late 1973. Moreover, the Armadillo used the occasion to invite the national rock press to town to check out what was happening down here, furthering a long relationship between Austin and the field of rock criticism. Seventies Austin nurtured the talents of Texan writers who would go on to have a national impact such as Chet Flippo, Grover Lewis, and Joe Nick Patoski, and it also attracted national rock writers to drop by for months, years, or entire careers, like Lester Bangs, John Morthland, or Ed Ward.


Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart Record Bongo Fury at the Armadillo, May 1975

But, you may say, “where’s the weird”? Not to fear. Among the national artists who took a shine to the Armadillo was one Frank Zappa. While on tour with partner-in-strange Captain Beefheart in 1975, the pair recorded the live album Bongo Fury. The album is notable, among other things, for Zappa’s sign off at the end of “Muffin Man,” the final track: “Goodnight, Austin, Texas, wherever you are!”


Clifton Chenier Plays Opening Week of Antone’s, June 1975

Progressive country held center stage in public perceptions of Austin for much of the mid-1970s, but the city’s musical offerings were quite diverse. Blues, in particular, had long been a popular genre in town, from the forest of venues along East Eleventh and Twelfth where T. D. Bell, Erbie Bowser, and Blues Boy Hubbard held sway to the young, white, west-of-the-highway clubs such as the One Knite and the Vulcan Gas Company. In the summer of 1975, Clifford Antone opened a performance space expressly for the blues cats to strut their stuff amid all the progressive country hype. The Chicago style would dominate in a club that would see the young Vaughan brothers, Denny Freeman, Doyle Bramhall, Angela Strehli, Kim Wilson, and others tutored by Muddy Waters, Albert King, and Hubert Sumlin. For the opening week, though, Antone went back to his swampy Golden Triangle roots with zydeco legend Clifton Chenier.

Soap Creek Saloon, various dates.

I was challenged to choose a single moment representing the Soap Creek Saloon. Heck, the Soap Creek Saloon couldn’t even settle on a single address, moving from the hills west of town to the old Skyline in the far north to a final resting place on South Congress. Any given night with the country-rockers Greezy Wheels or the consummate blues of Paul Ray and the Cobras could easily make the list. Soap Creek tended to be favored by filmmakers working in Seventies Austin. Butch Hancock plays there in the Eagle Pennell short Hell of a Note, and the venue graces the Peter Fonda vehicle Outlaw Blues. I might choose one of Soap Creek’s more absurd cinematic moments, though. In the film Roadie, Meat Loaf plays a Shiner Beer truck driver named Travis Redfish who goes on to become, of course, the world’s greatest roadie. In one scene, Travis Redfish and a crowd are enjoying the tunes of Hank Williams, Jr. at Soap Creek. A brawl breaks out, and Williams loses the crowd. At that point, he invites Roy Orbison to the stage—“Hey, Roy, you’re from Texas, how do we end all this?” Orbison then begins to sing the “Eyes of Texas,” and the entire room joins him. And this is not even the strangest moment in a film that features Blondie (doing a blazing rendition of “Ring of Fire”), Asleep at the Wheel, Don Cornelius, Art Carney, the Standing Waves, Alice Cooper, Sonny Carl Davis, and Austin mayor Carole McLellan (now Carole Keeton Strayhorn). Ray Benson has said that the Wheel was offered parts in both Roadie and Urban Cowboy and lost out when they opted for the former, but I sense a camp classic just waiting for its spotlight.

Filming of The Clash video for “Rock the Casbah,” released 1982

This is outside of the 70s, I know. The punk scene that exploded at Raul’s in 1978 has found abler chroniclers elsewhere (Barry Shank comes to mind). The Violators and the Skunks set the stage and The Huns burned it down. The Big Boys and the Dicks kept the beat funky and the show interesting. But as far as the relationship between punk and the Texas mystique goes, I’m intrigued by how the British band The Clash saw the state. Enchanted with Buddy Holly and West Texas rockabilly, The Clash traveled with Joe Ely and a young Charlie Sexton. Where the Sex Pistols played Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio and the Longhorn Ballroom in Dallas largely to get a rise out of the rednecks, the Clash appeared in places like Wichita Falls as a kind of respectful tribute to the American heartland. Filmed in Austin, the video for “Rock the Casbah” does not necessarily convey all that. It goes instead for a cartoon Texas across which a caricatured Arab and Jew find peace through music in the Austin landscape. Introduced by an armadillo scurrying along the side of the road, we’re left to wonder, “If it worked for the hippies and the rednecks, then maybe, just maybe . . . What seems even more improbable than world peace, though, is Austin’s skyline in the video, a visual reminder of just how much the city has grown and changed in the intervening years.

1 comment:

  1. I moved to Austin to attend trade school on Riverside Dr. I lived at the apartments across the street from Thundercloud Subs next to The American Statesman. Besides the cool skyline across the river I had no idea I was that close to the heart of the hip and cool music scene until one evening I went walking around to see which way the wind blew.

    I wish everyone could have experienced the Armadillo. I saw so many good music acts there I can hardly believe it myself. Money was tight so when I couldn't pay to get in I would hang in the outdoor area and listen to the bands through the wall. Not as good as being inside but it was still a fun experience that I still think about every time I am in the Barton Springs/1st Street area.

    To say the Armadillo beer garden was a bit psychedelic would be an understatement. It just so happens I was in my late teens and a little curious about breaking on through to the other side myself.

    Lucky for me legal drinking age was 18 back then.
    Hell, It was the 70's, It was Austin, It was fun!

    The Memory Remains!!!
    Excuse typos, misuse of the English language
    It's a family tradition : ) Drew F.