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sxsw2014 Mon Mar 17 2014
Robbie Fulks rounds out his reports from Austin. He comes back to considering the business of the festival, and considers how well he played his part this past week. Plus, he offers up a quick lesson on how to play a Texas honky-tonk gig.
I cleaned up and left the house in west Austin and went back to the hotel near downtown, where there was still a room in my name. Rob and Josh from Bloodshot Records were in the lobby, and together we headed to the little cantina where I was for some reason part of an afternoon of "Brooklyn Country Music." On the way over we talked about the unpredictable benefits vis-a-vis the certain costs of participating in South by Southwest. Rob said that a generous partnership with a beer company, the end result of a social relationship with loopy youngsters fortuitously forged at SxSW years ago, got his company through the recession and provided years of ballast. He said that he tells his bands, "I can tell you what will happen if you don't come to Austin, I can't tell you what will happen if you do."
For myself, I hope one thing comes out of my sizable investment here, and that's a precious spot on the lineup of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the blue-chip fall festival in San Francisco. I was told that the booking lady was at our Yard Dog show on Friday. Other than that, the contacts I made — with, for instance, a promoter from Columbus, a house concert couple from Baltimore, a very friendly editor/writer/photog from Acoustic Guitar magazine — were great to have but probably not necessary to come here for a week to obtain. If I can make my way into the elite H-S ranks, though, chalk this trip up as a solid success for ole Robbie.
Late morning, I got the news that Parker Rector, widow of the masterful mandolinist (and personal favorite) Red Rector, had just died. It was weird to learn, because I had just met Parker and two of Red's children at a show in Knoxville in February. We talked a long time; knowing that I was such a fan of Red's, Parker, who was cleaning her house and organizing a lifetime's memorabilia, had brought me photos of Red's instruments with written detail on each. After I was home from that trip I received in the mail from her two large binders about Red's life, with her shaky handwriting on the brown envelope. All of this was very moving, and to have it show up in my life just a few weeks before hers ended felt cloudily karmic. Then, the day her mailing came, I chanced upon an out-of-date email from a woman in the Broadway musical Once. She had asked me to videorecord some encouraging words for one of the actors who liked my music and was facing some obstacles. Since I had Parker's package right to hand and at the top of my mind, I read the actor her words about the saving power of music as it revealed itself late in her life with Red — quoting roughly from memory — "the life of a musician was hard, but the music made it worthwhile. Music was the difference between living and merely existing." About two hours later on this same morning that I got the email about Parker's passing, I got a thank-you email from the actor.
At the Brooklyn country show I did a song in Red and Parker's memory, one he had recorded with Fred Smith that I love, "I'll Never Let You Worry My Mind Anymore." I hadn't played it in a while and so forgot a line or two, which I made up on the fly. Likewise I forgot a couple lines on my song "Waiting on These New Things To Go." Despite that and the intermittent rain, the show went pretty well. I went from there to a Folk Alliance party at Threadgill's. Then I ran 5 miles and showered and it was dinnertime already.
The idea of Austin behaving like New York or L.A. puts me in mind of the old adage about mixing shit into ice cream — doesn't make the shit taste any better and basically ruins the ice cream. Just for the purpose of this anecdote, Austin is the endangered ice cream, New York the shit. I read online about a promising Sushi restaurant, called Uchi, on South Lamar. It looked fancy, so I called to see about reservations, asking if I needed one to get a table for one at 6:15. She said probably not, and that if there was not a table ready exactly when I arrived, the bar would be happy to sell me a drink. I asked, to clarify, whether 6:15 would be a long wait for a table, but she only responded with a sharp and withering laugh: "A-ha-khaa-hah!" When I drove over, arriving at 6:15, the valet stopped me at the entrance. "Just so you know," he said, "it's at least an hour and forty-five minute wait at this time." I guess that's why she laughed!
I drove north on Lamar while thumbing across yelp recommendations on my iPhone. A place with the dubious name of Wink, on the north side of downtown, looked promising: not only well-reviewed but expensive, food-snob-serving, vegetarian, all of which I was in the mood for. The haughty dyke who was manning the maitre'd desk as well as waitressing for the whole room warmed a little to me over the course of the hour that ensued, but not all that much. "Table for one?" I asked. There were about 15 tables and people at 5 of them. "I think we can accommodate you," she replied starchily, and from there it was downhill into expensive, bland or salty, uncreative food in trace amounts (a plate of scallops, which had little on it but scallops, had three of them and cost $30). Interestingly, there wasn't one vegetarian entree on the menu, just a small smug declaration down at the bottom about Wink's embrace of vegans, allergy sufferers, native Americans, and the religious symbolism of Robert Bresson.
Chris Mills was playing with a quartet at the Tap Market on Colorado St. It was the best I'd ever heard Chris. His hired-gun keyboardist loudly evoked early Steve Nieve, and the front-of-house mix was pumping and perfect, with the vocals crisply on top and the whole almost too loud but not. The room itself struck me as well-suited to rock-band dynamics, moderate-sized and with plenty of non-parallel lines and little nooks for the waves to wander around, and a variety of textured surfaces including a few hard harsh ones.
I was at the end of my stay here and I couldn't have gone out on a higher note than a 4-hour sweaty roadhouse gig with Rosie Flores. I had expected it would be just us two over at Ginny's Little Longhorn, but there was lots of first-class support on hand: a string bassist, Todd; a fiddler, Beth (please forgive me on the faulty surname retrieval!); good old Lisa Pankratz on the drums; and Brad Fordham also on hand to plunk the doghouse. Then there was Teri Joyce, the singer for whom the word "spunky" was invented, and Brennen Leigh, who sang like a fucking angel, and the Cactus Brothers, whom I'd also bumped into at the Brooklyn thing earlier, and they all got up and down and made some noise. Rosie was playing electric guitar like a house afire! Some of our song choices were precariously ambitious — "All I Have To Do Is Dream," "Brand New Heartache" — for one or two people not knowing the changes and the harmonists not having sung them together in advance, but so what. She'd call and and I'd call one, and occasionally Lisa or Beth sang one, and soon 4 hours were buried in a blur of E notes, double stops, and Bulleit rye.
Texas honky-tonk gigs, at least with players like this, are a little different from those in Nashville or Chicago. In leading up from the title of the song being called to the opening notes, there's sometimes a good deal of interesting scholarly discussion. A: "Let's do 'Under Your Spell.'" B: "What intro?" C: "I think fifteen eleven?" A: "Uh...OK." C: "Or...." B: "Which version is that? Doesn't Buck's have an 8-bar intro?" D: [sings a example fiddle line over an 8-bar intro]. C: "So what's the intro?" B: "I think, eleven forty-four fifteen eleven." C (comically): "In other words, eleven million, four hundred forty thousand, five hundred and eleven will be the intro?" A: "Wait, are we doing the Live at Carnegie Hall tempo?"
When I called "When Will I Be Loved?" Rosie and I disagreed on the opening verse lyrics ("I've been made blue" vs. "I've been cheated") and naturally I deferred, but since she had the Ronstadt/Souther version in mind, she was right. When Brennen called "Two More Bottles of Wine," I transmitted the changes and feel to the bassist, but she did the Emmylou version and I had confused the picture with the Delbert version. All these little discussions were motivated not by confusion — maybe after the 5th shot of Bulleit confusion did come into play — but by a love of old records and a conviction that they are holy texts. Country music is treated more religiously in Texas than anywhere else, I'd say. In Nashville they just shout "Key of B fifteen eleven!" and count it off; but that's a business town. There, you might play in a little saloon in front of framed photos of Webb Pierce and George Jones and Eddy Arnold, universally recognized country music legends. In Texas, the 8x10's will be of Redd Volkaert and Johnny Bush and Clay Blaker and Alvin Crow and so on, folks that are in their own ways as good as or perhaps better than the Nashville names, but peculiar to and representative of Texas. As far as religion goes, it's a cool religion, like Confucianism.
I can't remember half of what we played, but we hit "Take Me Back To Tulsa," "Bandera Highway," "My Heart Skips a Beat," "Tall Tall Trees," "Rockabye Boogie," "The Bottle Let Me Down" (twice), "Something to Brag About," "Crazy Arms," "Let it Be Me." Nothing but fun. Needless to say, the things that made it fun were largely the things that made it different from most of what was going on that week down there. Most of what we played wasn't written by us. People were dancing and grinning, not standing and absorbing. (There was even a fight at night's end, with one guy yelling "Cunt!" at a woman who tore out of the lot while the guy stomped the other way with another woman.) We got paid. We were improvising over mutually known songs. Singing, and prodigious or interesting soloing, were emphasized about equally in the performance. All this stuff is what I enjoy about playing rooted country music. Its pleasures are more than compensatory for being out of the mainstream of music. It was never clear to me before I started working and fraternizing with musicians outside my realm in recent years, but many if not most musicians aren't able to come together, unknown to each other and unrehearsed, and play together for hours on end with no paper. That's something deeply delightful, the shared tradition and approach and repertoire, the head arrangements. I've heard musicians from both the more academic and popular camps express envy about that, and I believe them. I think all of us instinctively feel this privilege we have when we get together to play like we did last night.
One pretty gal in the audience was celebrating her birthday: Harlan Howard's daughter, Clementine, how about that? In Clementine's honor we sang some of our favorite Harlan compositions. Rosie of course did "God May Forgive You (But I Won't)." Then she called "I Fall To Pieces," and later I sang "Above And Beyond." Here's a picture of Clementine and me at the end of a long happy night. Cheers!