Saturday, April 26, 2008

Blues Education Pt. 2

Okay, now. Before leaving the nest and springing my small town self on the rest of the world, I had very few vinyl records (had the aforementioned Cream and some others from the top 40 ). The only turntable in the house was the family stereo console, which meant that I had limited access and when I did, few in the house wanted me to share my music with them. When I was a senior in high school (1969), I asked for a stereo cassette deck as an early graduation present, partially because no one I knew had one (they all had 8 track systems) and I could make copies and actually record myself, which I thought was pretty cool. I soon found, though, that cassettes were difficult to find as the new format on the market and I found myself having wait until I could make a trip to Houston and into a real record store to have any kind of selection available, but forget trying to locate a blues cassette. I would find one or two worthy additions to my new library with each trip and I procured cassettes by Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, and a group none of my friends had never heard of before (nor I). I picked up the Allman Brothers' Idlewild South that introduced me to "Hoochie Coochie Man" and to some of the finest blues licks that I had ever heard. I still think it's a fine version of that Muddy Waters hit. I was not really a "blues fan" yet, but those guys sold me with their level of musicianship. THEN--silence.

My first experience in the world of consumer electronics and customer service is one that would be repeated many times during my adult life. The Ampeg cassette deck died after three months on the job. I took it back to where I had bought it and they agreed to ship it off, but explained that it was out of warranty and I would have to pay the postage up front. Okay, whatever, just do it! So, it was shipped to California and sat waiting for a Japanese power supply for pretty close to a year. I won't even mention the number of long distance phone calls made during that period of time. So, I left for college with an appreciation of blues music and an understanding of what it was I liked, but without any blues to call my own.

I chose Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos as my future Alma Mater, not because it was ranked as one of the top party schools in the nation, but because of the influence of a teacher who spun tales of what wonderful experiences he had while in college there. Of course, the first experience I faced was adjusting to life in a dormatory and the diversity of personalities within. I began to gravitate to those that had extensive record collections and was introduced to such albums as Derek and the Dominoes, Layla; an album which contained some of the most emotional, heartfelt music that I had ever heard--mostly blues. I heard my first John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac (when they were a blues band), Savoy Brown, and numerous other groups that covered blues tunes and most of them were from England. A kid down the hall from me had Paul Butterfield's first album of great blues covers and, by golly, he was American and he soon became much better known for his appearance at Woodstock. Fairly soon, I began to run across students who owned actual blues album and a few who actually played blues guitar in their dorm rooms, so I began a sort of appreciation apprenticeship. The one guy in particular that impressed me the most, had a steel bodied Dobro on which he had mastered a wicked slide attack. He had a fantastic blues collection also. I would hang out at his spot for hours.

But for me, the epiphany came with the live music taking place around the San Marcos area during the '70s. Being that we were a short 30 miles down the road from Austin, the music found its way south. When I was a college freshman, San Marcos offered very few clubs with live music. It was in a semi-dry county in which citizens had to go through a ridiculous charade of joining a bar's members only club to drink mixed alcohol. So, most of the music we heard live was at frequent street dances and private keg parties. Freda and the Firedogs (known as Marcia Ball today) were the most popular street dance entertainment, along with acts like Greasy Wheels, St. Elmo's Fire, Shiva's Headband, and many others. A little blues seemed to be in the reportoire in most of the bands back then. The student center even booked that "little band from Texas" way before anyone knew who ZZTop was, except the 300 or so of us who showed to see them, for free with ID.

Then came the Storm. One night a few friends and I went to a hall out in the country that was rented out for a large keg party. As we waited outside the building to get in, I heard a knocked out version of "Hideaway" blasting through the walls and I thought, "Whoa, there is some kind of blues being played here tonight". When I walked through the door, I witnessed a skinny guitarist playing his soul out and then swapping leads with a second guitarist who mesmerized me on the spot. I pretty much ignored those that I came with and just flat soaked up what these guys were doing with the blues--which was playing the hell out of it. I didn't know until much later that these two guys were the brothers Vaughn--Jimmy and little bro Stevie.

After a couple of years in town, the legislature said it was okay to vote and drink at 18 and San Marcos became totally wet and wild(er). Clubs opened all over town and sprang to life. The Nickel Keg Saloon and Cheatham Street Warehouse became bastions of live music and Austin musicians began cycling through and some of those were connected with the blues, like Omar and the Howlers, Gatemouth Brown, and even Mance Lipscomb, until Disco tried to kill the living daylights out of live music (today it's Karaoke). Matter of fact, the first blues albums that found their way into my possession appeared in the parking lot of the Cheatham Street Warehouse one afternoon. I was shooting pool with a buddy and a poor soul walked in peddling his record collection for rent money (or so the story goes) and I followed him to his car's trunk filled with albums that he was selling for a dollar a piece. One box was jammed with the blues and I traded him a twenty dollar bill for my first pieces of blues history. All of a sudden, I had records by Muddy Waters, BB King, Albert King, Freddie King, Lightning Hopkins, and many more. I didn't have a turntable, but one of my roommates at the time did, so I gave him a dose of the blues. Those albums were the REAL entry point for me into the music and I never look back.

Disco did take its shot at live music. The Cosmic Cowboys rode to the rescue to save the day as a popular genre that could at least keep some of the clubs solvent. Blues took a back seat to Michael Murphy, Rusty Weir, Alvin Crow, Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, etc...who all packed San Marcos' clubs and halls. Countryish styles became the order of the day for most of the '70s. A young George Strait was beginning to catch on when I left town in '79 (got a story there, too).

There was a period, though, that we could find the music that we loved being played by those that loved it. Every once in a while, someone would get someone like Freddie King booked into a hall in town. I remember awakening one morning after one of his gigs and his tour bus was parked in front of our house. We lived in a large abode with eight guys upstairs and five females downstairs (seperate quarters) and it seems that some of the band members were invited to stay over (downstairs). Sometimes it took travelling north to Austin, to places such as the One Nite, the Hole in the Wall, Rolling Hills, Soap Creek Saloon, or the Rome Inn, but once we got there, we were duly rewarded with the best blues musicianship in the land. One of the groups we tried to catch most often was Paul Ray and the Cobras with Stevie Ray on guitar because they kicked the blues big time. A friend frequently invited me to Austin to hangout in an apartment that his girlfriend, who managed the complex, provided for the night. The apartments were adjacent to the Rome Inn and both were owned by the same guy. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were in residency at the Rome Inn, so we caught Kim Wilson, Jimmy Vaughn and crew frequently, and many times they made an appearance at the party room. None of these guys were stars and there were yet to be any recording contracts. They were just doing there thang for those of us who dug it. If I'd have known any of them would be famous, I'd have taken notes, pictures and gotten autographs. What the hey, I do have the memories. Maybe, it's a good thing that I'm jotting them down now. By the way, that's more of Son John's artwork attached to this article. Anyway--'Nuff for now.


Mike Lynch said...

Hey Rick,

Nice blog, pal - keep up the good work!


Ricky Bush said...

Thanks Mike,

Means a lot coming from you.

See ya--

Anonymous said...

Great blog!
My introduction to the blues was not unlike yours. Allman bros, Savoy brown, ect., except we had Robert Cray instead of the Fab T-birds.
As Mike suggests, keep up the good work. Your two sites are my first stops in cyber land every morning
Dean Smith-Portland

Ricky Bush said...

Hey Dean--

Thanks for the comments. Yeah, I think that there's a lot of us out yonder. I've heard plenty of tales regarding the Portland music scene over the years. It probably rivals Austin's history.
See ya--