Austin and it’s country roots, by Robert Ward

by:  Robert Ward

This is a portion of Mr. Ward’s article; you can read the entire article here:

All of this good news on the Austin scene started in the late ’60s when a number of singer/songwriters, mostly Texans who had moved to the big urban music centers like LA and Nashville, decided that they needed to get off of the commercial songwriting treadmill and go back to their own roots. So around 1968, many of these folks found their way back to Austin. And back to country.

In the early ’60s, these same musicians had scorned country music as ignorant and silly and hideous. If you were a young hip Texan, country was music for rednecks, something you wanted to get away from. It took the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and a little-known album by former Kingston Trio member John Stewart (California Bloodlines) to give ideas to the prodigal sons of Austin. Soon, musicians like Michael Murphey (best known for his songs “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and “Backslider’s Wine”), wild folkie Jerry Jeff Walker, esoteric mountain musician Bobby Bridger, talking jive artist Steve Fromholz, and a host of others were experimenting with traditional country music tunes, but writing lyrics that expressed their own visions of things. The visions were more complex, ironic and articulate than those of the older, uneducated country musicians. These talented singer/songwriters then joined forces with local rock ‘n’ roll musicians, fiddlers, and banjo pickers to start a new hybrid form. It was at once lyrical, topical, and personal, while retaining the hard-thumping, hard edge of rock ‘n’ roll. During a typical performance of the Lost Gonzos, Jerry Jeff Walker’s current backup band, you could expect to hear a country beat, a jazz break, a tasty rock lick or two, some down-home fiddling, and all of it played faster and harder than mere country.

For several years Austin became a place where musicians could gather, learn, and cooperate. The scene was one in which, according to Austin musician Bobby Bridger, “personal growth and the music always took precedence over cash and success.”

Perhaps the best example of a musician who found himself in Austin is that of middle-aged Nashville songwriter Willie Nelson. Nelson had been pumping out songs for other people for 15 years and had made a pile of loot. Everyone from Johnny Cash to Perry Como had cut Nelson’s songs. Yet Nelson was a frustrated man. His own singing career had never progressed beyond a cult following, and he was sick to death of the business parties, the back-stabbing, and the hypocrisy of Nashville. So in the late ’60s, Nelson moved to Austin. That may not sound like much, but in Nashville music circles it was considered tantamount to slitting your wrists and locking the bathroom door. Nelson’s friends besieged him. He was making money. He was popular. Why had he grown his hair long? Why did he hang around with hippies and Commies? What would happen to him in Austin? Nelson, as uncertain as anyone, simply knew he could stand no more. “Nashville almost broke me,” he says now. “I had to go. No matter what.”

To his surprise, Nelson met scads of talented musicians in Austin who felt as he did. It wasn’t long before he had given up his Nashville-Bible salesman look for good and was seen smoking joints, wearing a red bandana around his forehead, drinking Lone Star beer, and eating nachos with the local crazies. Instead of fading away, his career boomed. He came out with new songs, new records. This past year he had his greatest hit ever, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and when Bob Dylan brought his Rolling Thunder Revue to Houston recently, Nelson played with them for a night. His subsequent album, Red Headed Stranger, has won all sorts of awards, including Best Country Album of the Year.

‘It’s a bunch of crap, this cosmic cowboy bullshit,’ says ex-Austinite country music singer/critic Dave Hickey. ‘They get up on the stage and come on like bad-asses. Most of these guys like Jerry Jeff Walker have never been near any real violence.’

Nelson and the other Austin singers have become so popular that their very success has threatened the purity they sought. Music leader and Austin idol Michael Murphey recently left town, complaining that the scene had been taken over, like Nashville before it, by business freaks, record wheeler-dealers and hustling managers. Sure enough, calls flood into Moonhill Productions, Austin’s top booking agency, every day. But even though Moonhill handles some of Austin’s most popular artists (Rusty Wier, B. W. Stevenson, Denim, Asleep At The Wheel), there is a great deal of bitterness between the company and some of the Austin musicians who haven’t forgotten why they came back to Austin in the first place. “I don’t want to live in Music City, U.S.A.,” says Bobby Bridger. Moonhill is certainly not the only business enterprise to see dollar signs. Nashville singer Waylon Jennings, whose career was finally launched by picking up on the cowboy, Rough Rider image, wants to open a recording studio in Austin, and there are a dozen other people with similar ideas. (Right now, Austin has only one recording studio, Odyssey Studios.) And, of course, the media have not been slow to pick up on Austin either. Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy have been paying close attention, and just last month Oui magazine featured a rave article about the town.

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