LET'S START with a confession: I never really liked country music. I found it schmaltzy and saccharine, couldn’t stand the whine of the pedal steel guitar, thought the songs too basic, the melodies too happy and the lyrics too simplistic. Three chords and the truth? In that case I'd rather listened to The Clash or The Damned.
I didn’t mind the odd tune, such as the Allman Brothers Band’s Ramblin’ Man, or The Stills-Young Band's Long May You Run, but overall I associated the genre with conservatism and John Denver's round glasses. But as we get older and wiser, our tastes change. So, in my record collection The Damned, Sex Pistols and The Clash now rub shoulders with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Steve Earle. In fact, I have a separate “country" section. So naturally, during my recent travels through Texas, I had to indulge in a bit of country and western tourism.
It started with a coffee break in a place called Bandera, a small city north-west of San Antonio which proclaims itself the “Cowboy Capital of the World". It’s all old-world charm with stores selling boots, hats, belts and shirts. There are plenty of dude ranches to live out your cowboy fantasies, as well as rodeos. But it was raining when I drove through, and the rhinestone shirt I wanted wasn’t available in my size (cowboys are big), so I left the rodeos and ranches for another time and headed north.
I stopped in a small city called Fredericksburg, which was founded by German immigrants and is mainly known for its wines. Texas wines? Yebo! My travel guide recommended Kalasi Cellars, just outside the city. There were no other customers. I paid $20 (about R390) for five samples and listened to the woman using the usual floral language to describe what she put in front of me. Slightly sloshed, I took out my credit card and left with a bottle of 2017 Kanchi Reserve.
Lucky in Luckenbach
While this could have been a pricey version of Darling in the Western Cape, my visit to Luckenbach, a few miles away, was a pure Texan experience. Luckenbach is a hamlet with an official population of three. It was established in the 19th century as a trading post. For a while it did all right but in 1970, when the population had dwindled to a dozen or so, it was put up for sale.
An actor and a rancher paid $30,000 and decided to turn Luckenbach into a country and western playground, using the old post office, general store, saloon and dance hall as props for a “genuine" western feel. The plan worked, and in the 1990s Willie Nelson organised a string of his famous 4th of July picnics here, including performances by big names such as Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely and Emmylou Harris. There’s also a song about the place, Luckenbach, Texas (Back To The Basics Of Love), a number one hit for Jennings in 1977. Willie joined him for some of the words. “Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feeling no pain,” we hear.
Well, pain I certainly didn’t feel on a late Tuesday afternoon in Luckenbach, where I wasn’t sure what to expect. A ghost town? A museum? Ruins? None of the above. After parking my car on the field where Willie Nelson and his friends must have entertained big crowds, I walked through a hamlet with the happy-go-lucky motto “Everybody's Somebody in Luckenbach".
As so often in America, you imagine yourself in a movie set, in this case an old western with John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. The saloon was open and served local beers, the friendly girl in the store sold me a blue T-shirt with the Luckenbach logo, and on a tiny stage three guys with grey hair, big bellies and acoustic guitars sang songs by dead country stars — or “slightly obscure oldies", as the one with the best voice put it. I did recognise a John Prine tune. About 20 people were drinking and watching. The sun went down. Another round of beer. A good time was had by all.
‘Live Music Capital of the World’
From Fredericksburg, it’s about 130km to Austin. The capital of Texas saw a huge influx of hipsters and tech bros from Silicon Valley after it turned out that housing was relatively cheap and the libertarian attitudes of the Lone Star State were good for business. I asked people about Elon Musk but no one could tell me where he lives (according to The Wall Street Journal, his new headquarters are just outside the city limits).
Despite the new money, new faces and new attitudes, Austin still advertises itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World". I wasn’t there long enough to verify this (New Orleans has the biggest number of music venues I’ve come across), but you sure as hell don’t have to look far to find live music. And the locals know their stuff. The owner of my Airbnb, a woman in her seventies, directed me to an excellent record store within walking distance (Waterloo Records) as well as a live music joint on South Lamar Boulevard called Broken Spoke.
Established in 1964 by James White, Broken Spoke is a proper honky-tonk joint with a saloon, a dance hall and a small museum full of photos of White with stars who have graced the Broken Spoke stage, including a busty Dolly Parton and a young and innocent-looking Willie Nelson. By the way, Willie, who was born in Austin, is undeniably the city’s hero. Apart from an impressive statue downtown, there are numerous murals dedicated to the singer who recently turned 90, including a huge one that says “Willie for President".
Evenings at Broken Spoke start with a small act in the saloon section, usually a lone troubadour whom no one really listens to. At about 8pm the action shifts to the music hall, where the brash Terri White teaches giggling customers the basics of the Texas two-step, closely related to the foxtrot. I’m sorry to say I didn't participate. My lame excuse is that I am right-handed when it comes to writing but left-footed when it comes to dancing, which means I always start on the wrong foot and my brain and limbs get more and more twisted while my partner gets increasingly irritated. But I must confess that when the main act, a cowboy called Sterling Drake, played his set, I was envious of all the happy couples circling the dancefloor while I sat like a dullard at a small table, clutching a warm beer.
‘My son plays in the band’
The next evening, I opted for something more rocky, less country. The waiters at a vegan restaurant suggested I should check out The Continental Club, which opened in 1955 and calls itself “the granddaddy of live music venues". The place featured in the movies Slacker and Boyhood and has seen gigs by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Joe Ely, The Replacements, Social Distortion, Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant, ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and Johnny Depp. When I was there, they had a band called The Ransom Brothers. I had never heard of them, but who cares when you can effortlessly stride into such a historical place?
At least, that’s what I thought. But as I stood in the queue, a man in his fifties approached me. “Do you have tickets?" he said. I shook my head. “It’s sold out," he said. “But I have a spare one if you like, it’s $20." I checked him out. Con man? Not sure. He seemed a decent guy, and he introduced me to his wife. “My son plays in the band," he continued. “He’s the singer and guitarist, and we have two extra tickets." I felt embarrassed for being so distrustful and handed him two tenners.
Thirty minutes later I was part of the crowd crammed into the tiny place, shaking my hips to The Ransom Brothers' good old southern rock, which included nods to the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Lone Star beer tasted good and the singer's father made sure I left with a Ransom Brothers baseball cap, which I promised to wear proudly.
On my way home in an Uber, there was some time for contemplation, which led to the yee-haw realisation that despite my initial misgivings (conservatism, gun fixation, cowboys) I really, really had come to like Texans. They are generous, friendly and relaxed. And I do get their Lone Star chauvinism. Not sure about the libertarianism though (it’s always the poor who suffer), and I certainly think their love for guns is very scary (although I didn’t see a single firearm during my 10-day trip). But that’s politics, and we’re here to talk about music. And the best, or at least the most unusual, was still to come...
The closest I’ll get to Dylan
That happened on a Sunday night, when I drove to an out-of-town joint called Sam’s Town Point. After some arguments with my GPS, I found a place that can be best described as a plot with a dimly lit dive bar that has live music. If you want a South African comparison, you’ll have to imagine Jo’burg’s old Melville transposed to the outskirts of Cape Town, with a touch of Benoni, run by beefy hippie cowboys with beards.
Anyway, while I sat at the bar sipping a muddy Electric Jellyfish beer (not recommended), I thought about the man I was going to see in about an hour: 92-year old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. His real name is Elliot Charles Adnopoz, and he was the son of a New York surgeon and a doctor. But Jack didn’t want a bourgeois career. After attending a rodeo at the age of nine, he knew what he wanted to be: a cowboy. And after hearing folk giant Woody Guthrie, he added singer to his list of ambitions.
He became a Jewish cowboy from New York City who married five times, survived tricky alcohol and drug habits and sang and played his heart out. He became close friends with Guthrie, a free spirit whose songs he interpreted with such passion that he sounded more like Woody than Woody himself. This truly impressed a young Bob Dylan, who had just moved to Manhattan in 1961. For a couple of years, Elliott became Dylan’s mentor. Dylan writes about him in Chronicles: Volume One, calling him “a brilliant entertainer" who was “so confident it makes me sick". They remained friends, and Ramblin’ Jack was part of Dylan’s booze-drenched Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-1970s. You can see him in the recent Martin Scorsese documentary of the same name. I’ve never seen Dylan (missed him by a day when I was in Alabama a few years ago), so this would probably be my closest encounter with the rapidly vanishing world of authentic New York folkies.
The show was sold out. A hundred or so people had found their way to the plot in south Austin. And after an entertaining support act which featured Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter, Serena, on vocals for a couple of songs, Ramblin’ Jack made his entrance. He still looked as Rolling Stone described him a few years ago, “resembling a slightly bow-legged ranch hand on a day off — black T-shirt, slightly scuffed black boots, jeans with suspenders that resemble a woven belt. White strands stick out from under his omnipresent cowboy hat, making him look like a noble bald eagle with hair." The only difference was that he now wore a beautiful stitched brown and beige cowboy shirt instead of the T-shirt.
He sat on a chair and was accompanied by a minder who also played acoustic bass guitar and asked us not to take any pictures after the first few minutes because Jack can’t stand those cellphones up in the air. His voice was croaky, an old crow. Sometimes he yodelled, which wasn’t a great idea. He talked a lot, or maybe we should call it rambling. He played from the songbook of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
The highlight was a duet with another weathered soul, 76-year old singer-songwriter Tom Russell, who happened to be in the crowd. Dressed in blue denim and wearing a cowboy hat, Russell sat next to Elliott and together they worked their way through Railroad Bill, an ancient blues ballad about an African-American outlaw named Morris Slater who robbed freight trains in the 1890s. “Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill/ He never work, an’ he never will,” they sang in shaky harmony.
After 45 minutes Jack put down his guitar and bade us farewell. He got a standing ovation. But I couldn't help wondering why he still does it, this life on the road, these dusty dives on the outskirts of town. “I can’t retire. If I could afford to retire, I would’ve retired today," he told Rolling Stone in 2019. That’s probably still the case.
I went to the merch stall, which was manned by his teenage grandson, who didn’t take credit cards. I wanted a souvenir, checked my wallet, found enough dollar bills and settled on a black T-shirt with a white drawing of a lonesome cowboy, made by Jack himself.
♦ VWB ♦
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