Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Blues Education Pt. 3

Disco had pretty much nailed live music venues from the mid to late '70s in San Marcos, but the movement that started the Cosmic Cowboy wave continued rolling with the Outlaw country music of Willie, Waylon and the boys. Jerry Jeff Walker's was one of the most popular party bands on the college circuit and "Sangria Wine" was quite the sing-a-long tune. The Cheatham Street Warehouse kept the live scene going by booking him, Gary P. Nunn, Alvin Crow, Asleep At The Wheel, Ray Wylie Hubbard and others on occasion. In between these bookings were the wannabees. Willie Nelson played at one of the first city sponsored Chilympiad cook-offs way before he was a house-hold name and returned to headline several more (matter of fact, my first date with my wife was at a such a show). Gruene Hall, a short 15 miles from town, booked similar talent along with the likes of Doug Sahm, who was enjoying a quite a surge in popularity, along his Farfisa (or Vox as pointed out in the comment section) organ master Augie Meyers. The Getaway nightclub, named after the Steve McQueen movie filmed in town, kept local country bands employed. The Cheyenne Social Club opened up late in the decade a began packing the house with "stone" country bands, one of which continued reach unprecedented success.

Once upon a time, in one of my journalism classrooms, I got to know a fellow by the name of Ron Cable who asked me what I was up to for a particular evening. Not much, I told him. He said that a good band was playing at Cheatham Street and if I had nothing to do that I should show up and bring a few friends. We did and I saw fairly quickly why he wanted us to come out--he was the lead guitarist. Oh well, maybe he didn't tell me, thinking that I would doubt the talent of such a band and not show. It didn't take long at all for the front man's vocals to catch my attention. He had absolutely the best voice that I had ever heard live and in person. He was a cut above any of the acts that had been through this bar and he was a student at Southwest Texas State University. He told me that this was his first gig with the band and I told him how impressed I was with his singing and told him that his voice should take him somewhere--that was an understatement. Soon after that, The Cheyenne Social Club began booking The Ace and the Hole band with George Strait every Thursday night for a $3 cover charge. They soon became the hottest ticket in town.

So, country and western music more or less was ruling the day when I left San Marcos in 1979. There was a club called the Too Bitter which booked local guitar hero Van Wilks and other rock bands frequently. Krackerjack with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Tommy Shannon trekked in from Austin on occasion to liven up the club and create sparks, but not often enough. Still had to head over to the state capital to catch much in the way of blues and one club in particular became the Mecca for the music.

Sad to say that I made it to Antone's only once during my tenure in college. Clifford Antone was booking legends such as Muddy Waters, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Lazy Lester and Buddy Guy. The problem was that ticket prices were normally $20 and up, during a time that few places asked more than $4 for a cover charge. Even the Armadillo World Headquarters, which was mashing musical genres together on one bill, rarely charged more than a $3 entry fee--even for ZZTop. I had sporadic transportation back then and seldom could convince anyone, that I knew, that a night at Antone's was worth the price and then a career move took me away.

I never dreamed that an interview with school officials with Brenham ISD would lead to a 29 year teaching career there, but they were desperately trying to fill a journalism position that sprang open in the middle of the summer of '79 and when I showed up the start of school was only a few weeks away--so I was hired and stayed on for the duration. I didn't expect to find much in the way of blues in the record bins in the one shop in town, so I was surprised to see Stevie Ray Vaughan staring at me from the cover of his inaugural release, Texas Flood. I knew that eventually someone would recognize that the boy had talent and would put it down on record. I didn't know just what impact his presence would mean to the blues world outside of Austin, Texas. The Fabulous Thunderbirds with Jimmy Vaughan had already been stirring the pot, but Stevie Ray boiled it over and a re-surgence in interest began and was prodded along by such nonsense as the Blues Brothers phenomenon. Not long afterward, I spotted the unmistakable tatooed torso of Johnny Winter on his Alligator records produced, Guitar Slinger, which put him back on the map that SRV was outlining. Johnny Winter was one of those blues/rock guys that I failed to mention earlier that impressed me in the early '70s. His Progressive Blues Experiment, with future SRV bassman Tommy Shannon, was a favorite of mine and included the harp playing of Big Walter Horton. He was hailed as a mighty guitar hero by the new rock rag Rolling Stone magazine and his career skyrocketed, but he applied his heroics to playing rock music which sold a bit better than blues. Substance abuse derailed his career and he returned to his true blues credentials in the late '70s and early '80s. He still played in his million notes a minute style, but it was all blues. What was most important to me about the Winter release was discovery of a record label devoted to blues music, albeit "house rocking" blues music, and which gave me a mail-order outlet for my music and clued me into the Living Blues magazine to which I promptly subscribed.

I began to build a blues library of music and literature beginning with receiving my first Alligator records catalog and also after discovering Frank Scott's Down Home Music (now called Roots and Rhythm) mail order company that sold plenty of blues titles. He also had an excellent blues review book entitled The Down Home Guide to the Blues, that provided excellent information for the blues neophyte in me. Soon I was reading about rural blues, urban blues, Chicago blues, Delta blues, and deep blues by researchers such as Robert Palmer, Paul Oliver, Peter Gulranick, Samuel Charters and Steven Calt and was becoming much more knowledgeable about the music that I fell for over a decade earlier. It was still difficult to get copies of what the critics termed "essential" blues albums because many were long out of print and the cassette format rapidly began replacing the vinyl record and tons of those records never made it to tape. I began to also discover the relatively new and small record labels such as Blind Pig, Blacktop, Flying Fish, and Rounder that carried a blues catalog of more recent artists. Living Blues magazine was soon joined by Blues Revue and Blues Access as major blues publication. All three subscriptions dented my budget.

Early in the '90s, when it seemed that the blues revival was waning, something very strange happened. Columbia Records decided to release the complete recordings of the great Robert Johnson's 1936-37 songs recorded in San Antonio and Dallas. In a short period of time, the bluesman's box set reach "Gold" record sales and major labels began combing their vaults for what they felt would amount to pre-war blues gold. It also stirred my interest in the old timers and pretty I gained an immense appreciation and fascination for Charlie Patton, Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Willie Brown, etc...and these recordings became readily available. So, I went way back in time and studied the music of the originators and was amazed at the depth of the music. The worldwide web sprang to life and suddenly my music had retailers online dedicated to the genre--life was good.

Eric Clapton kept the boost going by re-visiting his blues roots with 1994's From The Cradle on which he offered covers of classic electric blues from the likes of Otis Rush, Elmore James, Lowell Fulsom and others. He proved to his doubting record label that new blues recordings could prove profitable, as the release was one of his biggest sellers. He also praised blues veterans such as Buddy Guy and BB King and paired up with them on recordings and in concert. In recent years, he paid tribute to his main man Robert Johnson by cutting two different discs (one acoustic and one electric) and a dvd of the proceedings to high acclaim.

I regained my appreciation for the sound of the blues harmonica in the mid '80s when a movie called Crossroads that mixed blues fiction with fact and was filled with Hollywood hokum, but contained some great music. It was the first movie to highlight a story involving and including the blues, so I liked it. What caught my ear and yanked around on it the most was the harmonica playing of Sonny Terry and John "Juke" Logan, who provide the sounds for actor Joe Seneca character. It was at that point that I decided that I could do that and I set out to do it and have been trying to get it down ever since. Anyway--still to come: harpin' the blues.


Anonymous said...

Fun journey back in time from the San Marcos perspective. Usually it's Austin Austin Austin. Thanks for the diffent POV!

One point to clarify: Augie Meyers plays a Vox organ. Always did, and still uses the same one now in the studio that he did with the Quintet. Farfisa organs have that similar roller-rink sound but Augie wasn't reproducing piano chords, his keyboard style was imitating the accordion as heard in Mexican bands around San Antonio when he was growing up.

Ricky Bush said...

Hey Anon--

Thanks for your correction! Augie used to play San Marcos quite a bit with his band. Share a picture of beer with him between sets at the Too Bitter. He was loving life over at his ranch in the Marion area (I think).

See ya--