Cindy Cashdollar profile from 2007

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Cindy Cashdollar has five Grammys from her 81/2 years of playing steel guitar for Asleep at the Wheel, but the statuettes didn’t come easily. “I was completely petrified that first year (1993),” says the Woodstock, N.Y., native, who has made Austin her home for 14 years. “I was in way over my head.” Although an accomplished dobro player who backed Leon Redbone the previous five years, Cashdollar was a mere dabbler at steel when she joined the veteran western swing band known for its virtuosity at every position. At Cashdollar’s audition to replace John Ely, Wheel boss Ray Benson went pre-Simon Cowell on her, saying, “Well, you’re obviously not a steel player.” But Benson, impressed with her dobro work and willingness to learn the language of western swing, gave Cashdollar a six-month tryout. It didn’t hurt that the striking blonde with a closet full of vintage western threads was that rare female steel guitarist.

A novelty no more, the air-sweetening Cashdollar has become not only one of the most in-demand session players in Austin, but an instrumentalist recruited nationally to play on records by Bob Dylan (“Time Out of Mind”), Ryan Adams and the Cardinals (“Cold Roses”), Graham Parker (“Struck By Lightning”) and many more. She’s also toured the past couple years with Van Morrison and Rod Stewart and has an open invitation to sit in with the “Prairie Home Companion” house band, with host Garrison Keillor usually pulling Cashdollar – he loves to say her name – out into the spotlight for a number or two.

“When I get a call about working on a project, they always say, ‘We want your sound,'” says Cashdollar, who’s been playing with James Hand lately. “But I really can’t tell you what my sound is.” Reviews have used such descriptions as “lush,” “atmospheric,” “emotive” and “diverse.”

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Cashdollar’s sound is a combination of things, says guitarist Redd Volkaert, who often volleys solos with Cashdollar when she sits in with Heybale. “She’s a master of the nonpedal steel guitar,” he says of her main instrument, which looks like the traditional steel guitars you see at honky tonks, but the only pedal she uses is for volume control. “Most steel players can only do one thing – the lap steel players are more into rock and blues, and the pedal steel guys do all that corny country stuff – but Cindy can play it all.” Her 2004 debut album “Slide Show” displayed her range, from Hawaiian-style pieces to hardcore western swing and airy pop numbers.

“I’ve tried to play the pedal steel guitar, but it’s too mental, too mechanical,” Cashdollar says. “I like to keep it simple, if not a little left of center.”

And she’s learned that the key to progression is keeping an open mind. “When I was making that double album with Ryan Adams, he said he wanted to make my amp settings sound like Jerry Garcia’s,” Cashdollar says, “and I really didn’t understand what he was going for. Jerry Garcia was a great pedal steel player – just listen to the steel on ‘Teach Your Children.’ But our styles are so different.” After “Cold Roses” came out, a fellow musician told Cashdollar he liked her work on it. “I didn’t think you played pedal steel,” he said. Cashdollar smiled. Adams was right.

Cashdollar gets burnt out sticking with one style of music too long. That’s what happened when she left Asleep at the Wheel in 2001.

“I went to Ray and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t do this anymore,’ and he said, ‘What took you so long?'” The average stint for a steel or fiddle player in the hard-touring band is about six years.

But once liberated from the nightly salute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Cashdollar found herself in a slight state of panic. Now what? The life of a freelancer can be an insecure one.

She soon picked up a gig with BeauSoleil on its 25th anniversary tour. The western swing upstart who joined the Wheel had become a novice of Cajun music, playing in that genre’s most distinguished band. But if anything, Cashdollar’s a quick study, with an insatiable desire to learn different styles.

“She’s as eager now as she was 15 years ago,” says Volkaert. “Cindy listens to everything and is constantly asking questions.”

It’s funny to think that if Levon Helm had not accidentally shot himself in the leg practicing pistol techniques for a movie role in the mid 1980s, Cashdollar might never have taken up the steel guitar. Helm couldn’t play drums while he was recuperating, so he started an acoustic group with former Band bandmate Rick Danko and Cashdollar on dobro. After Helm’s leg healed, he went back to the drums with a vengeance and turned his acoustic group into a rockin’ bar band.

“You couldn’t hear the dobro at all, so Rick lent me an antique six-string lap steel to play in that group,” says Cashdollar, who grew up on a dairy farm not far from the Band’s famous “Big Pink” house.

She had started to play the guitar at age 11, but was so shy and insecure those first few years that she’d only play in the closet. When Cashdollar was 12 she went to her first concert, whose opening act was her guitar teacher Billy Faier. The headliner was Van Morrison.

The next time Cashdollar saw Morrison in concert, she was behind him, seated at her nonpedal steel guitar. Having seen her in Asleep at the Wheel, Morrison hired Cashdollar in 2006 to tour in support of “Pay the Devil,” his country departure album. “That tour was great,” she says, “very challenging.” For starters, Morrison wanted Cashdollar, who is used to well-timed fills, to play constantly. Then, when Morrison canned the horn section in mid-tour, Cashdollar and fiddler Jason Roberts (another Wheelster) had only four days to learn how to cover for the missing horns.

Perhaps the highlight of Cashdollar’s massive résumé was her time in Dylan’s studio band for 1997’s highly acclaimed “Time Out of Mind.” When she got the call, at first she thought someone was goofing on her but then realized that no one could be that cruel. “I don’t know how Dylan knew of me,” she says. “They just told me, ‘Well, we finally tracked you down.'”

Cashdollar’s name (it’s real) has made it to the top of the preferred-players list for the nonpedal steel guitar. She’s even released a trio of instructional DVDs. And to think that she used to be so insecure about her steel playing that she’d talk in her sleep about string gauges and tunings.

“I was just so determined to make it work,” she says of her tryout with the Wheel. Indeed, this player has always had a lot of pluck.


THE PRIDE OF EAST AUSTIN: L.C. ANDERSON YELLOW JACKETS

Anderson H.S. band 1955. Photo by Neal Douglass

Anderson H.S. band 1955. Photo by Neal Douglass

Trumpet players blew so hard to produce the slightest spit of sound that they almost passed out. Drummers snapped their sticks with all the rhythmic sense of a pair of tennis shoes in the dryer. The honks of confusion rang out in the music room on the first day of band practice.
It was 1950 and Austin native Alvin Patterson, a 27-year-old recent graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, sat in his office at Douglass High School in El Paso and wondered what he’d gotten himself into. The school had never had a band before. His thoughts turned to his mentor, B.L. Joyce, the larger-than-life band director at L.C. Anderson High School in East Austin.

Patterson wondered how the man he called “Prof” would handle the situation. He took a deep breath, thrust the door of his office open and stood firmly before his musical beginners, but the dissonance barely dispersed.

THWACK! Patterson brought his baton down hard on a table top. The room froze. “Rule number one,” Patterson intoned, sternly. “When I step up to the podium I want to be able to hear a pin drop.”

Patterson sits in his home office/Anderson High museum in East Austin and smiles at the memory. “I always thought Mr. Joyce was maybe a little too strict until I had to control a room full of kids with noisemakers in their hands,” says the 81-year-old recent retiree. “You’ve gotta demand discipline and respect or there’s gonna be chaos.”

The Anderson High School Yellow Jacket Band, whose lofty alumni include bop trumpet great Kenny Dorham and former Motown arranger Gil Askey, had only two directors in its 38-year history. Joyce founded the band in 1933 and ruled it with an iron baton until Patterson took over in 1955, when the old man was forced to resign because of a new statewide regulation that required high school band directors to have music degrees. That Joyce, who got his college degree in tailoring from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, didn’t step down voluntarily made for a rough return for Patterson.

L-R Teddy Wilson, Alvin Patterson, Kenny Dorham at the 1966 Longhorn Jazz Fest.

L-R Teddy Wilson, Alvin Patterson, Kenny Dorham at the 1966 Longhorn Jazz Fest.

“We gave (Patterson) some grief that first year,” says Joseph Reid, who played clarinet in Joyce’s last and Patterson’s first bands. “If there was anybody you could call a legend in East Austin during that time, it was B.L. Joyce.” Imagine replacing Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama or taking over “The Tonight Show” after Johnny Carson’s retirement. Several band members quit after Patterson’s first practices. But the 1940 Anderson grad didn’t shy from the challenge and was eventually able to carve his own imposing legacy until federal orders to desegregate closed Anderson, Austin’s historically black high school, in 1971.

Long before Janis Joplin sang at Threadgill’s and Willie Nelson got the heads and ‘necks together at the Armadillo, Austin’s reputation as a music town was forged by the Anderson High School band. Resplendent in uniforms as bright as a September sunrise, the Yellow Jacket Band would trek to the annual Prairie View Interscholastic League competitions and invariably come back with a trophy. Under Joyce’s directorship, the Jacket band won the state championship seven times from 1940-1953.

“If we got second place it was a big disappointment,” says Ernie Mae Miller, a tenor sax player with the band from 1940-43, who went on to a lengthy career as a singer/pianist. “We just sounded better than the other bands. When they called our name as the winner, we were like, ‘Of course!’ ”

B.L. Joyce

B.L. Joyce

For most of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, the East Side was invisible to most of Austin’s West Siders. The predominantly black neighborhood on the other side of the freeway might as well have been a town far away. But when the Yellow Jacket Band marched down Congress Avenue, its presence was full and pronounced.

They would span the full width of the street, causing rubberneckers to jump back on the curb or else be swallowed up in their swagger of brass. “We felt like we were representing not only our school, but our entire community,” says Reid, who heads the Original L.C. Anderson Alumni Association. “When we sang our school song (‘When the days are dark and dreary/We are never blue or weary/ It’s ever onward, upward, forward, marching AHS’), we really meant it.”

The Yellow Jackets were the first black band to march at a Texas inauguration, for Gov. John Connally in 1959. They were the first all-black band to play in the Austin Aqua Festival parade a few years later.

Besides Dorham, Miller and Askey, more than two dozen future band directors, including Ray Murphy (Hobbs, N.M.), T.W. Kincheon (Caldwell High), Richard Elder (Taylor High) and John Whitehurst (Boulder, Colo.), passed through the ranks, but then so did such notables as Travis County tax collector Nelda Wells Spears, Dr. James Hill (chief of the University of Texas community relations department), John Q. Taylor King (former Huston-Tillotson College president and head of King Tears Mortuary), longtime H-T music department head Beulah Curry Jones and educator Charles Akins, who became the first black principal of a predominantly white high school in Austin in 1973.

“Teach the whole person. That’s what I learned from Mr. Joyce,” says Patterson, who spent 32 more years in education after the original L.C. Anderson High closed. (The current Anderson High, at 8403 Mesa Drive on the West Side, was built in 1973.) “Being in the band was more than just playing the right notes. It was about building character and leadership skills. If you didn’t toe the line, we’d put you out of the band in a second.”

Jazz turns the tide

A tailor who made custom suits out of his house at 1706 E. 14th St. and taught the trade at Samuel Huston College, Benjamin Leo Joyce was also a musician who played tuba in the Army band during World War I. With a desire to give black students the same kind of musical training given in the white schools, Joyce started canvassing East Austin in late 1932 looking for kids who wanted to play. He also solicited neglected instruments. An Austin trumpeter, William Timmons, had been teaching a community band over at the youth center on Angelina Street but he was soon off to join the Ringling Bros. circus band. Joyce recruited four Timmons students — Alvin Patterson’s older brother Roy, Hermie Edwards, Ulysses Fowler and Raymond Edmondson — as the core of his first AHS band.

Joyce made the uniforms that first year; no beginning band ever looked so snappy.

The players were expected to carry themselves in a manner consistent with their sartorial splendor. “Mr. Joyce didn’t put up with an ounce of foolishness,” says Ernie Mae Miller, whose grandfather Laurine Cecil Anderson was the school’s namesake. “You couldn’t play no jazz either.”

Joyce bent his strict “no jazz” rule only one time that Patterson could remember. “We were playing football against Wheatley (the archrival from San Antonio) and they were beatin’ us,” he recalls. “Butdouglasscheerleaders even worse, their band was showing us up, playing all these hot big band swing numbers. So Mr. Joyce called me over and said, ‘What was that swing thing you were playing the other day when you thought I was out of listening range?’ I said that was ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and he said, ‘OK, let’s hear it.’ ” The band also did Cab Calloway’s “Fat Foot Flewzy.”

Miller, who was also in the band at the time, recalls that the crowd went nuts when the precise, militaristic Yellow Jackets of marches and grand overtures turned to swing and jazz. “It lit a fire under the football team, too. We ended up winning the game,” she says, with a hearty laugh.

When Patterson was in the band with Dorham and Askey, the trio and such friends as trombonist Buford Banks (father of noted local jazzman Martin Banks) and trumpeters Paris Jones and Warner “Rip” Ross would meet in the back yard of Patterson’s house at 1709 Washington Ave. to play improvisational jazz. Though Dorham went on to iconic status, replacing Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948 and co-founding the influential Jazz Messengers in 1954, he often deferred to the older players in the back yard jam sessions, especially Hermie Edwards, recognized as the baddest horn player in East Austin at the time. “Kenny was quiet, deep,” Patterson recalls. “Very thoughtful and perceptive.”

After being drafted into the Navy in 1942 and stationed in Boston, where his job was playing “Taps” as the body bags from World War II were unloaded, Patterson met up with Dorham when the trumpet player was in Billy Eckstine’s band. “He used to copy Erskine Hawkins when we’d jam in Austin,” Patterson says, “but he started getting into his own thing.”

Dorham, known for his dark trumpet tone and graceful melodic flights, died in 1972. But Patterson was able to hang with him one more time, when Dorham returned home, with fellow native Austinite Teddy Wilson and an all-star cast, including John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Dave Brubeck, to play the 1966 Longhorn Jazz Fest at the old Disch Field (next to City Coliseum).

Gilbert Askey, Motown great.

Gilbert Askey, Motown great.

When Askey made his triumphant return to Austin in the mid-’60s, he brought a trio of singers from Detroit to a party at the Hamilton Avenue home of his mother, Ada Simonds. “Everybody was pretty much focused on the Supremes,” Patterson recalls of the special guests. Askey’s credits include arranging and producing the likes of Curtis Mayfield, the Four Tops and the soundtrack to “Lady Sings the Blues.”

Whatever success Askey achieved, he was quick to credit Joyce. When the old man passed away in 1980, Askey, who currently lives in Australia, wrote a poem called “I Am an Extension of Him” for the funeral program. “Mr. Joyce lives on in the things I do, for without him there’d be no me,” it ends.

The impeccably-dressed, well-spoken Joyce came from an era, Reid says, when educators were bigger heroes in East Austin than footballers or singers. “The legends you heard about growing up were Miss (Lucille) Frazier, the English teacher and Mr. (Lawrence) Britton, the track coach,” says Reid. “Even going back to when I was in elementary school, the older kids would say, ‘Just wait until you’ve gotta take Mr. Pickard’s science class.’ Anderson High was the thread that kept the community together.”

The school was all black until the late ’50s when a handful of Hispanics attended. The first white student to graduate from Anderson was in 1970. The next year, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that favored busing as a preferred method of integration, the federal government sued the Austin school district and ordered district schools to desegregate. As the first federal suit following the Supreme Court decision, the Austin case was a national news story for several months.

AISD’s decision in July 1971 to comply by closing Anderson High, which had fewer than 20 nonblack students (out of a student body of about 800), “just devastated us all,” says Patterson.

The one-way busing — with black students sent to white schools, but white students not sent to black schools — especially rankled East Austinites. On the first day of the new school year, 121 former Anderson High students did not report to their new schools.

“It’s like they ripped the heart out of East Austin,” says Reid. “You wanna know when the neighborhood started going downhill? It’s when they closed Anderson.”

Patterson moved to McCallum High School, where many of the black students were bused, and remained a counselor in the community relations department until 1984, when he took a position as assistant to the dean at St. Edward’s University. He retired last June at age 80. Fittingly, a Juneteenth parade of marching bands ended at Patterson’s doorstep in East Austin, a show of appreciation for the 16 years he led the best high school marching band in Texas.

The building at 1607 Pennsylvania Ave. that housed Anderson High School from 1913-1953 burned down 20 years ago. Kealing Junior High now sits on the site. The original Olive Street location of Anderson (1907-1913) — which was originally named E.H. Anderson High for L.C.’s older brother — burned down in 1947.

But the brick building on Thompson Street, which housed L.C. Anderson High (renamed after the 1938 passing of its first principal) from 1953-1971, still stands. Anderson alum Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson has restored the running track and the football field on the west side of the school, but the building, which now holds the Boys & Girls Club and an alternative learning center, does not resemble a place that once anchored an entire community.

Sometimes when Patterson drives on that street, his mind brakes for memories. Other times he drives by and looks away, not wanting to revisit what used to be.

But it’s a special place, this building where Joyce passed him the baton, where he became a father figure to a family of students, just like the old man had been.

“Mr. Joyce was as strict as they come — you sure didn’t want to feel his wrath,” Patterson says. “But I think you’ll find that, deep down, kids want someone riding them, demanding the best out of them.”

The fumbling disorder of a band practice can, with the right guidance, evolve into the sweetest sound.

Anderson High in 1955. The second of three buildings.

Anderson High in 1955. The second of three buildings.


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To C-Boy, With Love

romeinn

 

People make the place. Consider the Austin music scene, where a hideous National Guard armory (Armadillo World Headquarters), abandoned furniture warehouse (the original Antone’s on Sixth), and a lumberyard (Liberty Lunch) transformed into low-rent live music palaces because of the bands that played, the people who ran the joints, and the crowds that couldn’t believe they’d found such paradise on Earth.

In 1978, a Jewish accounting student from the Houston suburbs went to a West Campus blues club called the Rome Inn. In time, he became protégé of the old black man who ran the joint. Thirty-six years later, there’s a bright red and white awning on a hot new club on South Congress: “C-Boy’s Heart & Soul.” Inside glows tribute in the form of a Sixties juke joint, with vintage waterfall lamps and classic R&B sleeves, to a humble man who loved the blues.

“So, who’s C-Boy?”

Steve Wertheimer spent more than half a million dollars and 18 months of his life in order to answer the question he kept hearing over and over for the official grand opening on New Year’s Eve, 11 months ago.

“If it wasn’t for C-Boy Parks, I wouldn’t be in the music business,” he told a couple who asked him about the name of the club, which opened amid much oohing and ahhing at the former location of dive bar Trophy’s.

Dressed in a white suit jacket that matched white eyeglass frames, Wertheimer was more guide than host on opening night, returning again and again to old pictures on the wall around a heart-shaped mirror. There reside photographs of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, playing a small stage in a packed club on West 29th, where Texas French Bread is now.

“Here’s a good one of me and C-Boy,” he pointed to a photo of a teenager with active skin and frizzy hair stretching out from under a cap. Next to him stands a black man 34 years his senior, with a big smile on his face. C-Boy grew up in Austin, but had a deep country accent.

“I grew up around black people,” explains the club owner. His father, Henry Wertheimer, owned the pharmacy on Rosenberg town square and many was the night little Stevie would ride with his dad to the “other” side of the tracks to deliver medicine to the elderly. “My dad taught me to respect everyone and to help whenever you can.”

Two years after Henry Wertheimer died in 2005, a middle school in Rosenberg was named after him. Many of his good deeds, including funding the school district’s free breakfast program, had not been made public until the dedication of the school in his name.

 

C-Boy Parks didn’t own the Rome Inn, where he came to work in the kitchen in 1967 when it was an Italian restaurant. But after it changed to a live music venue and he was promoted to manager, the Rome became C-Boy’s club, no doubt.

C-Boy at the Frisco

C-Boy at the Frisco
Courtesy of John Mintz

“C-Boy made everyone feel welcome,” says Wertheimer. “And he was always working.”

Two bedrock lessons learned by a young man who today owns Continental Clubs in Austin and Houston, buildings Downtown, pieces of successful restaurants including Perla’s and Elizabeth Street Cafe, the Lonestar Round Up car show, an auto repair business, and more. Even then, Wertheimer says his portfolio wasn’t complete until he honored C-Boy Parks with the club that bears his name.

“That’s always been my dream,” he says a few days into 2014. “I’ve been thinking about C-Boy’s for years and years.”

He’d drive by Trophy’s location, which had a brief run in the Eighties as one of Austin’s first Cajun restaurants (Big Mamou) and think, “That’s my C-Boy’s.” When word got out about his honoring Louis Charles “C-Boy” Parks, Wertheimer kept hearing from musicians who played the Rome Inn, whose heyday lasted only two years. Two spectacular years.

“You’re doing the right thing,” Jimmie Vaughan told him.

Wertheimer says he’s never been more sure about a business venture.

“He was a major part of my life for several years,” he says of Parks, who died in 1991 at age 66. “The Rome Inn has always been the standard, in my mind, for how to run a club.”

The blues scene integrated Austin like nothing before it, with UT students going to Charlie’s Playhouse on East 11th and bands like Clarence Smith & the Daylighters backing white singers. White blues musicians like Bill Campbell, the Vaughan brothers, and Angela Strehli sought out obscure Eastside blues players. Yet besides local African-American musicians W.C. Clark and Dr. James Polk, and deejays such as Tony Von and Lavada Durst, C-Boy Parks from East Austin had the greatest impact on the local blues scene.

“So, who’s C-Boy?”

There was a time, says Wertheimer, when everybody in town knew C-Boy Parks.

“He didn’t need a ticket or a backstage pass. If C-Boy wanted to go see Stevie Ray Vaughan or the T-Birds he’d just show up. And be treated like royalty.”

To C-Boy, With Love

Courtesy of Steve Wertheimer

Antone’s, internationally renowned “Home of the Blues,” helped put Austin on the map, but from 1978 until its final blowout on April 20, 1980, the Rome Inn was the hottest club in town for local blues acts. SRV played every Sunday and Paul Ray’s Cobras had Tuesdays, but the hottest night was “Blue Monday,” with the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

“Nobody would go down to Antone’s to see the T-Birds,” says former club owner Steve Dean, whose AusTex Lounge (at the current Magnolia Cafe location on South Congress) was a hub for roots rock. “But when C-Boy gave them Mondays, they slowly built it up to the point that if you didn’t get there by 8 o’clock, you might not get in.”

Billy Gibbons would take a busload of Houston friends to the Rome Inn on Mondays to see the T-Birds and immortalized the “fiend scene” on “Lowdown in the Street” from ZZ Top’s 1979 album Degüello: “So roam on in, it ain’t no sin to get low down in the street.” That same year, the T-Birds paid tribute to the lovable man in the sweat-stained blue T-shirt with slow harp instrumental “C-Boy’s Blues” from their debut LP Girls Go Wild.

“We went to all the clubs,” Wertheimer says, listing the Armadillo, Soap Creek, Antone’s, and Split Rail as regular haunts. “But there was something special about the Rome Inn. And that was C-Boy.”

Though there was no food service after the Italian restaurant closed, C-Boy cooked for the bands, who especially loved his “don’t need no teef to eat my beef” barbecue.

“He would work at the Rome Inn until 3am, have time to go home and take a shower, then he was back at the Night Hawk at 6am,” marvels Wertheimer. “He worked 20 hours a day.”

Parks staffed various Night Hawk diners for 45 years and was in the kitchen at Night Hawk No. 2 on Guadalupe in 1963 when Harry Akins became the first restaurant owner in town to integrate his dining rooms. He slept after his Night Hawk shift ended at 2pm, then was back at the Rome Inn by about 7pm to get ready for the crowd.

“C-Boy wasn’t there to party,” says Wertheimer. “He was there to work. But he had a blast, just being around all those people who loved him so much.”

The only time he’d take a break was when the T-Birds played swamp pop classic “Mathilda,” for which he’d cut up the dance floor.

C-Boy Parks had an especially patriarchal pull on Steve Wertheimer, who bugged the old man for a job until he was stationed behind the bar one night. Over the next few months, the pair became unlikely running buddies. There’s a photo of the two of them taking apart the bar after its final night.

Dean brought in floodlights and filmed the Rome Inn’s last waltz. He kept the footage on VHS somewhere in a box of tapes, but after C-Boy’s Heart & Soul opened, he found it and bought a VCR to watch it. Aside from eight seconds of live SRV that he sold to VH1 for a bio, the public hasn’t seen the footage. A collector of music memorabilia, Dean refuses to digitize the tape and put it online, but in it, a 25-year-old Stevie Ray Vaughan finds his power trio identity in the opening slot, and then the Fabulous Thunderbirds destroy the place with their swampy interpretation of Chicago blues. Dean’s footage also includes an interview with Parks, who speaks in such a country blues accent he’s a little hard to understand. You can feel the love he had for the Rome Inn and the people who made it.

Wertheimer graduated from UT with a degree in accounting in 1980, a bad year for Austin clubs in general and C-Boy Parks in particular. Not only did the Armadillo learn that it would close on the last day of the year, but C-Boy became “devastated” – Wertheimer’s description – when he learned the Rome Inn was closing at the end of its lease in April. The club’s owner, who lived in Burnet and only occasionally dropped in, had decided to shut down.

Parks also lost his job at Night Hawk No. 2, which closed in 1980, and worked at Night Hawk No. 1 on South Congress and Riverside, which burned down in 1985, and Akins’ eatery the Frisco on Burnet Road. During the next couple of years, Wertheimer dipped into his pocket a few times to help his friend pay bills, “but C-Boy was a proud man and didn’t like asking for money.”

“What he wanted to do was work,” says Wertheimer. “So me and a buddy bought him a [portable] barbecue pit and went into the catering business.”

Backstage, T-Bird Riverfests on Town Lake came well fed, but the jobs weren’t consistent. Then one day, Parks got a call from Hank Vick, who used to own Steamboat and other clubs. He’d just taken over the lease at Lake Austin boater hangout Ski Shores and wanted Parks to run the kitchen. “I don’t do anything without Mister Steve,” he told Vick. That’s how Wertheimer, who worked full-time as the controller for a real estate developer, received his entrée into the restaurant/club business, since Ski Shores also featured live music.

Vick, a legendary Austin raconteur who passed away several years ago, deserves his own story. Let’s just say he had to leave the country at some point, making Wertheimer the sole proprietor. With a lot of bills to pay – Vick had been writing checks on a closed account – Parks apologized profusely to Wertheimer for getting him involved.

And yet, if Wertheimer didn’t own Ski Shores, he wouldn’t have known the Continental Club was available in late 1987. The Schuler family, Ski Shores regulars, owned the building at 1315 S. Congress and approached Wertheimer about leasing the club.

“After the mess I’d gotten myself in, my first reaction was, ‘No, thanks,'” chuckles Wertheimer. “But working there with C-Boy every day started me thinking about the Rome Inn.”

Like C-Boy’s Heart & Soul 26 years later, Wertheimer’s Continental Club opened on New Year’s Eve.

After a near-disastrous first year, when Wertheimer recast the gritty Continental as a Fifties-style hamburger joint, the club started slowly finding its own identity. Key was Junior Brown on Sunday nights. Just as the T-Birds slowly built Mondays at the Rome Inn, Brown didn’t play to many folks in the beginning, and Wertheimer pulled money from the bar register to keep him coming back. After word got out there was a guy who sang like Ernest Tubb and played guitar like Jimi Hendrix, Sundays at the Continental became a thing in town.

C-Boy was there when his protégé turned things around and created the modern version of the Rome Inn. Then, in 1991, he was suddenly gone. C-Boy’s longtime girlfriend Frances called Wertheimer in hysterics to tell him the old man wouldn’t wake up. Steve bolted over to C-Boy’s place on East 12th and Airport Boulevard, but arrived just after the funeral home took the body. That was 22 and a half years ago.

“I think about him every day,” says Wertheimer.

Help people. That’s what Henry Wertheimer and C-Boy Parks taught their boy Steve. You help people to help yourself. Fill a room with music and folks who love it, and sometimes it becomes a palace. You’ve just gotta walk through that door.


Austin’s Lebanese influence and the roots of ACL Fest

His newborn daughter had him up at 4am again and after he put her down, Charles Attal knew he couldn’t go back to sleep, so he got dressed and walked the mile down the hill to Zilker Park. This was late September 2008 and the park’s Great Lawn was in the process of being transformed into the setting for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which would fill the park with 75,000 fans for three days the next week.

Charles Attal's grandfather Wolfred (r) and his brother Gus co-owned A&A Drugs on Sixth Street.

Charles Attal’s grandfather Wolfred (r) and his brother Gus co-owned A&A Drugs on Sixth Street.

Since Attal books the festival as a partner at C3 Presents, you can imagine the amusement it brought to the overnight security team to see their boss standing in the field in the pre-dawn hours with a hose in his hand, watering the grass. Attal returned almost every morning for a week.

“Hand-watering is therapeutic,” says Attal today.

Gifted a facsimile of the groundskeeper shirt Bill Murray wears in Caddyshack by his partners, the local concert promoter calls Zilker Park a special place for him since he was a little boy and his uncles and their uncles would sleep there the nights before Easter and the Fourth of July to claim a section of picnic tables for the large, clannish Lebanese family.

“I’ve seen so much of the Austin I knew disappear,” laments Attal, “so knowing that Zilker Park will always be here was reassuring.”

It wasn’t until a few months later that he discovered his family’s deeper connection to Austin’s jewel. Attal’s great grandfather, Shikrey Joseph, was one of the brothers sent by their schoolteacher father from a mountain village in Lebanon to Austin in the 1880s and ’90s to avoid being drafted by the Turkish army during the years of rule by the Ottoman Empire. The first sibling to arrive was a 14-year-old Cater Joseph (b. 1867), followed soon after by John and Isaac, then Shikrey and Nahoum.

Attal knew all that. Because of the Joseph family’s rich influence in Austin – in the areas of fashion, real estate, entertainment, retail, and politics – the story of their humble roots is well-known. Yet not until Austin attorney Philip Joseph, Cater’s grandson, researched and printed out an 18-page history of the family, did Attal learn that their first relative to arrive was taken in and mentored by Andrew Jackson Zilker, a self-made millionaire in the ice business who bought Barton Springs and the surrounding 350 acres in 1901.

Philip Joseph found that information in a 1976 paper by retired schoolteacher Jeanette Fleishmeier, which is kept at the Austin History Center. Fleishmeier based her history on 1975 interviews with three of Cater Joseph’s 10 children: Eddie Joseph, Jennie Emmett, and Cecilia Norton. Their father told them that, besides giving him a place to stay, Zilker taught him math and bookkeeping and helped him with his English.

Fleishmeier’s account retraces the journey of a kid who, like so many, had his name shortened at Ellis Island. His real name was Cater Joseph Cater, and he was from a family of Maronite Catholics in the mountain village of Roumieh. After some time in New York City, his sponsor, Dajeeb Dieb, arranged Cater’s travel by ship to Galveston. From there, he took a train to Hempstead and then walked the final 111 miles to Austin with only a bag of “silver” that turned out to be worthless.

The family of Shikrey Joseph.

The family of Shikrey Joseph.

Perhaps A.J. Zilker saw a bit of himself in the hardworking Joseph, who bought wares in town, packed them on his burro, and traveled as far as Johnson City to sell them to farmers and ranchers. When his brothers arrived in Austin, they worked together as peddlers until saving up enough money to open mercantile stores and fruit stands, initially on East First, then Congress Avenue, and finally on East Sixth Street.

Zilker was born in New Albany, Indiana, on the banks of the Ohio River. As a cabin boy, he read Henderson Yoakum’s History of Texas and dreamed of making his fortune on the new frontier. At 18, he worked on a riverboat to New Orleans and eventually made it to Austin by ox cart and on foot in 1876.

A year earlier, the first drum of ammonia for the manufacture of ice made it to Austin from Galveston and Michael Paggi had already opened the city’s first ice house at Barton Springs, which had been discovered in 1837 by William Barton. Zilker was fascinated by artificial ice and got an entry-level job in a new plant at the end of Colorado Street to see how it was made. A few weeks later, he was the engineer and before the end of the year, he was leasing the plant, which he renamed Lone Star Ice Works.

Austin residents were skeptical that man-made ice would work, so Zilker staged a demonstration on Congress Avenue, with chunks of lake ice on one side and artificial ice on the other. The lake ice melted before the Lone Star ice and Zilker soon had more customers than one ice house – with a maximum output of 1,000 pounds a day – could handle. He soon opened ice plants all over Central Texas and also became Austin’s first Coca-Cola bottler.

Zilker and his wife, the former Ida Pecht, who grew up in Austin’s Germantown neighborhood (Red River between Seventh and 12th Streets), built a two-story house at the corner of Second and San Jacinto, in what was then called the 10th Ward. Cater Joseph and his brothers lived together in a red brick house just a block away, at what is now the site of the Four Seasons Hotel. They opened a confectionery in the front of the house and lived in the back.

This article originally appeared in the Austin Chronicle in Oct. 2013.

This article originally appeared in the Austin Chronicle in Oct. 2013.

“Lebanese are the direct descendants of the Phoenicians,” says Charles Attal’s father, “Lucky,” a noted antique dealer and appraiser in town for almost 50 years. “They’re the merchants of the world, building ships from the cedars of Lebanon. It’s in our blood.”

Land and liquor were the main areas of business for the proud new Americans (Cater Joseph became a citizen in 1900). After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, there were more than 20 liquor stores on East Sixth and Red River, and the majority were owned by Lebanese families. Twin brothers Theodore and Arthur Jabour opened a package store on East Sixth that served as the foundation for the Twin Liquors empire of almost 70 stores in Central Texas today.

Charles Attal’s grandfather Wolfred, whose father Augustus immigrated from Tripoli in the 1890s, sold booze out of the A&A Drug store he owned with his brother Gus. It was across the street from the Jabours’ concern, which caused serious price wars.

“But they were still friends at the end of the day,” laughs Lucky Attal. “That was just business.”

With the tight-knit Lebanese community in Austin, family was always the most important thing.

“We were always all together on holidays, weddings, and funerals,” he says.

Lucky’s mother Martha cooked a feast every day at the Hyde Park home she shared with husband Wolfred Attal. On special occasions, members of other Lebanese families – the Hages, Ferrises, Dacys, Zegubs – would drop by for a taste of the old country: cabbage rolls, grape leaves, tabbouleh salad, shawarma, and hummus. Martha Attal, whose mother died of a bladder infection when Martha was about 10, learned her trade from her stepmother Jenny, who married Shikrey when she was 15 and spoke only Arabic in the house.

“We were very proud of our Lebanese heritage, but we were Americans,” says Lucky.

The extended family was rich with the entrepreneurial spirit, especially Cater’s son Eddie Joseph, who owned two movie theatres on East Sixth – the Yank and the Iris – plus a string of drive-in movie theatres, a bowling alley, Campus Men’s shop, and tons of property in town. His home was at 1700 San Gabriel.

Eddie’s brother Harry Joseph also had his hand in many ventures, starting Centennial Liquors, running the Schoonerville hamburger joint (which became El Patio in 1954, opened by Shikrey’s son Paul), and buying two blocks of property on Guadalupe Street from the 2900 block north. Harry was close friends with Jamal Antone, who headed the Lebanese Federation from his Port Arthur import business. When Jamal’s son Clifford needed help relocating his blues club from Sixth Street where the building was to be torn down – and after a brief foray in North Austin – Harry went across the street and convinced the owner at 2915 Guadalupe Street to rent to Antone’s.

A Lebanese family, the Hages, owned the building and the land where the Armadillo World Headquarters put Austin on the national music map from 1970 to 1980. M.K. Hage Jr., whose sister Lee was married to Houston super lawyer and University of Texas

Andrew J. Zilker

Andrew J. Zilker

benefactor Joe Jamail, built the Medical Park Towers in the Sixties, so when a long-haired Eddie Wilson signed the lease for the Armadillo (at $500 a month) he did so in Hage Jr.’s plush office in the Towers. Hage Jr. wasn’t the most popular Austinite when he sold the land at 525 Barton Springs Road to a developer and the Armadillo was torn down to make way for an office building.

The Josephs received their greatest measure of national recognition in the Sixties when Joseph’s Men Shop at 217 Congress Avenue, owned by Cater’s sons Ernest and Philip Joseph, became known for supplying President Lyndon Johnson his custom-made Stetsons (Silver Belly Open Road model). President Johnson’s father, S.E. Johnson Jr., patronized that same block of Congress Avenue 50 years earlier to stock up on supplies at the Joseph Brothers’ Merchantile.

As vice president, Johnson ordered a pair of hats from Joseph’s for John and Jackie Kennedy, which he planned to give them in Austin the evening of Nov. 22, 1963. The names of the president and first lady were embossed on the inside bands. The Secret Service came by in early December to pick up the most somber of keepsakes.

Lucky Attal and Catherine Burke, of Irish descent, were married on Nov. 23, 1963. There had been so much planning that the date couldn’t be rescheduled, but since flights out of Texas had been canceled the day after the assassination, they spent their honeymoon

L-R Charlie Walker, Charles Attal, Charlie Jones- C3. Photo by John Anderson.

L-R Charlie Walker, Charles Attal, Charlie Jones- C3. Photo by John Anderson.

in the comfort of family.

Wolfred Charles Attal, born in 1967, was always known as Charles, but on a Pony League baseball team trip to Oklahoma with the Manchaca all-star team, he was teased by teammates after the announcer said, “Stepping to the plate is number four, Wolfred Attal.” Years later, when music agents discovered Attal’s real name, they started calling the 2005 winner of the Bill Graham Promoter of the Year award “Wolfie,” but Attal took the jibe as a source of pride. Some called his grandfather Wolfie, too.

More than half a century earlier, Andrew Zilker had planned to build a mansion at Barton Springs, but when his wife Ida fell ill in 1912 and died soon after, he abandoned the plan and stayed at the house on Second and San Jacinto. In 1918, he transferred the deed for 42.51 acres, which included Barton Springs Pool, to the city with the stipulation that it would donate $100,000 to the Austin school board. He also maintained a right of way to the Springs so his livestock could drink the water.

“We felt that it would be wrong for this beautiful spot to be owned by any individual and that it ought to belong to all the people of Austin,” Zilker said at the time.

He donated 300 more acres, including the land where ACL Fest takes place, to the city, which agreed to pay another $200,000 to the school board in 1932. A few weeks before his death in 1934 at age 78, the great man gave the city a third parcel, where Austin High School now sits.

The Zilker home was put up for sale in 1944 and bought by Eddie Joseph for an undisclosed sum. He tore down the old Victorian house and put an office building in its place to house three businesses: General Hotel Supply, Meyer-Blanke Dairy Supply, and Armstrong Automotive Supply.

C3 Presents, the concert promotion business Charles Attal founded with Charlie Jones and Charlie Walker, had its first offices across the street from that property.

Right next door from where Attal’s great grandfather Shikrey sold fruit when he first arrived in America.

Martha Attal circa 1925. The mother of Lucky, the grandmother of Charles.

Martha Attal circa 1925. The mother of Lucky, the grandmother of Charles.


Weeded out: No pot on the UT plantation

1410062285000-Charlie Strong vs BYUMarijuana’s active ingredient THC is not harmful, the scientific tests that I choose to believe have concluded. But if you’re a member of the University of Texas Longhorns, pot is really bad for you. It’ll cause you to lose your dreams, as well as your scholly.

Forget that a Longhorns running back totally into Bob Marley won the Heisman trophy fifteen years ago or that a team of stoners brought a national championship back to Austin in 2006. This is a new regime led by a coach with zero tolerance- and one win.

Statesman football beat writer Brian Davis, whose writing is as flashy as his name, turns out to be a pretty good reporter. He scoured university records to find out that first year football coach Charlie Strong is a big fan of drug testing, going through almost twice as many lined plastic cups in 8 months as his predecessor Mack Brown did on average per year: 188 to 104. Brown usually tested players in the spring and mid-October, but never during training camp or before the season opener, Davis reported.

But Charlie Gotcha didn’t stop after testing 104 players from March 19-28, according to university records. On April 11, another 18 players were tested, then two on April 30, and one more on May 3. Fifteen tests in July were followed by 16 in August, when the players and coaches were living together in the dorms. “We drug test,” Charlie proudly proclaims. One helluva recruiting slogan.

Chief Strongbow has dismissed nine braves this season and suspended three, including Daje Johnson, whose Ramonce Taylor impression bombed like Henny Youngman at the Apollo. Daje is the Missing Link, with his blazing speed needed to spread the defense, which would loosen the box for our star (in high school, at least) RBs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. But we also need Da J to give recruits a 2014 highlight reel that consists of more than short passes and shorter runs. Then there’s the suspended- for unspecified reasons- Josh Turner, who is missed badly in a defensive backfield in a constant state of quandary, dig?

And let’s make this clear: the drug that makes players fail is marijuana. Cocaine and heroin last in your system just slightly longer than bad Chinese food, but traces of THC can be found in urine 45 days after someone hands you a joint at a Wiz Khalifa concert. The way this team has been weeded out, it seems that those not accused of raping were vaping. ricky

Can’t have players who have smoked marijuana- they might screw up the coin flip. Or run a hurry-up offense with a 4-point lead and 4 minutes on the clock. (Maybe the coaches should be drug-tested.)

You don’t need to test me to know I’m a marijuana advocate; my phone’s contacts list looks like a yelp pizza index. The benefits of herb lap the detriments, especially in a sport where off-field violence is a major concern. Nobody fights when they’re stoned because, as comedian Bill Hicks pointed out, they forget what they were arguing about. Put the THC back in team?

Meanwhile, Longhorn Nation unanimously applauds Coach Strong’s heavy law and order approach. It’s good to see a black authority figure, for a change, coming down hard on young black men. (Don’t deny that there’s a racial element on that plantation with goalposts.) There’s even been talk of Roger Goodell seeking out Strong for advice on how to administer his five core values: 1) Honesty 2) Treat women with respect 3) No drugs 4) No stealing and 5) No guns. Seems to me that list is self-explanatory, but Goodell is so intent on keeping his $44 million job, through public relations, he’s also trying to set up a meet with Oprah or at least Liz Gilbert.

It’s also worth pointing out that then-Longhorn Cayleb Jones, now a star receiver for Arizona, would not have violated Charlie’s Core in 2012 when he coldcocked a tenis player who was chatting up #4’s ex-girlfriend. The Chuck Fiver leaves out a bunch of things, like treating the other half of the world’s population with respect.

Number three means any street drugs, even the ones delivered by bike messenger. Even the ones that help with stress and anxiety. Even the ones that make Foster the People sound good. It’s a rule and if you break it that means that you put yourself above the team and so you’re gone. It’s less a crackdown on potheads than players who think the rules don’t apply to them. I get that.

I love Charlie Strong, I do. He’s the best possible coach Texas could’ve hired since Kevin Sumlin wasn’t going anywhere and Art Briles hates UT. But I also think a great football team needs a few ME guys (also known as playmakers) on the field. Football is a crazy-ass sport. You’ve gotta not only be big, fast and strong, but you have to be fearless to succeed. We need a few guys that don’t count their items before getting in the express lane. I’m not saying Horns players shouldn’t be tested for drugs, but once they pass the mandatory group piss-off, why sneak up on them later? The players work hard for no money to allow Charlie Strong to make over $5 million a year. Let ‘em smoke some boo.

Jamaal Charles meets with Horns RBs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray before Kansas game.

Jamaal Charles meets with Horns RBs Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray before Kansas game.

Everybody’s convinced that Charlie’s chocolate muscle factory is going to be churning out 12-win seasons as soon as he gets his own squeaky clean players in place. The best high school player in Texas, Mesquite Poteet LB Malik Jefferson, is leaning hard towards Austin after being sold on Strong. But if I’m a parent of a supremely talented athlete with his whole world ahead of him, do I want to risk him getting kicked off the team in a public humiliation and playing JUCO in Brenham if his urine isn’t pristine? “Zero tolerance” would scare me if I could see my kid making a mistake.

The Strong philosophy will attract some recruits and repel others, but the idea is that we want guys who embrace discipline and team unity. It’ll take time. Be prepared for a season where the Hook ‘Em Horns sign will also answer the question of how many wins we can expect. Today’s game against Kansas is going to be tough. I think the Jayhawks squeak one out, 19-17 and Texas limps back to Austin 1-3, with Baylor and OU up next. We’re all supposed to just sit back and applaud Charlie Strong’s cultural upheaval of UT football because we’re going to be great in a few years, but I’d like to propose an alternative to Coach Strong’s 5 core values. Follow these and we’re looking at 6-6, baby.

The 5 Cork Values

  • Beat your man, not your woman
  • No man-made drugs
  • No assholes
  • No 5-yard passes on 3rd and 10
  • Beat Kansas for godssakes

 


JFS: The Bay City Holy Rollers

BishopJones

September 2005: Hurricane Rita is threatening to postpone the fourth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. At the last minute, the 180 mph winds uprooting trees near the Gulf Coast take a turn before Central Texas, and, instead of a storm, Austin gets a heat wave, with temps reaching 108 degrees. Just past noon in Zilker Park that Friday, I seek refuge from the burning sun at the only stage with a roof that extended over the public.

The program tells me that a group from Bay City called the Jones Family Singers have just come onstage. An older gentleman with a James Brown step to his drawl introduces the group as his five daughters, two sons, and a grandson. Twelve-year-old Ian Wade then kicks it off with a fierce snare; the sisters in matching lime green shirts and jean skirts start to sway as if moved by a spiritual wind. For the next hour, I’m transfixed.

A live volcano in a forest of soul, Alexis Jones rears back and erupts with all the passion a voice can hold. In an era when popular religious music often sounds like reworked Mariah Carey, this family band packs the power of vintage black church music. Past the lyrics and the fervor, all the love, here was a supernatural talent daring you, “Tell me there’s not a God.”

As a lifelong rock & roll fan, I’d started waking up to find the Soul Stirrers, not the Rolling Stones, the Staple Singers, not AC/DC, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, not Prince, in my CD player after a night of partying. You know, those times when you want to keep adding power and energy in that hour before the heap? The unbridled jubilation of black gospel was becoming my night-melter of choice.

I thought my chance of ever experiencing that music live had passed me by. All the greats were dead or dying. And the best new music reinforced the idea that what happens in church, stays in church. The Jones Family had been singing and playing gospel music on the Church of God in Christ circuit for over 20 years before they torched the groove fields of ACL like it was gospel night at the Apollo.

That was eight years ago, and I’ve seen the Jones Family Singers dozens of times since. In church and in nightclubs, at South by Southwest and ACL, at festivals in front of thousands and in big, empty rooms. These women who work fixing hair or in child-care jobs became my Pentecostal Phish. I’d drive hours to see them because they had something I needed.

Some shows were better than others. Sometimes the crowd gets into it and sometimes they don’t know what to make of all that preaching. Either way, not once did the Family look like they’d rather be somewhere else. Neither was there a time when I didn’t walk away feeling a little more alive.

Gospel is freedom music, evolved from songs the original African-Americans sang in the fields of the antebellum South to soothe their souls. While they couldn’t sing openly about their desire to be free, slaves could rejoice in the story of Exodus, when the children of Israel yearned to be liberated from bondage. When slaves sang, “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land/Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go,” they did so with the vigor of deep personal connection.

Group patriarch Fred Jones Sr. is a bishop in the Church of God in Christ.

The “hard gospel” style of the Jones Family can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century, when “shout songs” became synonymous with the Holy Ghost possessing a soul. After the Pentecostal movement, headed by the Church of God in Christ, was born on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906, churchgoers spoke in tongues, rolled in the aisles, waved their arms wildly, shouted “Hallelujah,” banged on instruments, and clapped their hands in sanctified percussion.

The Jones Family Singers come out of the COGIC music tradition of Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers of “Oh Happy Day,” though Bishop Fred Jones Sr. was raised a Baptist in Lake Charles, La. For nearly 30 years, he’s presided over the Mount Zion COGIC in Markham, just outside Bay City, where the Family live and work day jobs. Weekend soul-saving performances give sweet release.

Beginning in the Eighties as the teenaged Sensational Zionaires, the JFS played churches in and around Houston and recorded an album with original lead singer Cynthia Fray. When she moved back to Florida with guitarist-husband Eddie Fray, the band, wanting to separate itself from all the other Zionaires in the gospel field, became the Jones Family Singers. Earlier this year, they congregated at Jim Eno’s Public Hi-Fi studio and, with producers John Croslin and Eric Friend, recorded The Spirit Speaks, which comes out Tuesday.

Austin filmmaker Alan Berg (Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW), decided that his documentary on the Jones Family needed newer, higher-quality recordings than the band had made previously, hence The Spirit Speaks. Most of the CDs the JFS sell at gigs were recorded live in church.

Producer and Reivers frontman John Croslin had seen the JFS wreck a church at SXSW a few years earlier, but he didn’t know the power of this church family until he and Friend, the former Spoon keyboardist who does a lot of musical supervision work on Mike Judge projects, went to Bay City in late 2012 to listen to the band perform at a rehearsal at Mount Zion. I sat in the back row and proudly watched the Jones Family destroy the two producers for almost two hours. Croslin had no idea they were that good and, frankly, neither did I.

It was decided to concentrate on the talents of the singers and musicians instead of trying to re-create the explosion that is the JFS live. The band can be wonderfully all over the place in concert, with Alexis and Jones Sr. both slowing down songs to make observations and the group sometimes leaping from song to song like it’s an hourlong medley. Yet The Spirit Speaks contains 10 songs that each have a distinctive personality you’ll want to spend time with. This is the album this group’s been waiting three decades to make.

While the disc was being mastered in New York, the Jones Family volunteered its services for a Fourth of July festival in Brazoria, some 30 miles outside of Bay City. With the temperature at 103 and no shade for fans, the JFS played to a “crowd” of seven. This from an 8-foot-high stage in a field that could hold 10,000. The group put on a show as if there were people as far as the eye could see.

They sang, they danced, they vamped, and they even pulled out their encore number “(You Make Me Want to) Shout,” usually reserved for when the crowd just won’t leave until they hear one more. The smiles onstage were as broad as I recalled eight years earlier at ACL and although I can’t speak for the other six in the audience, I can testify that, once again, they brought out chills in the triple digit heat. That’s why the Jones Family remain one of the best live groups in gospel/soul music. They play for the people, yes. More importantly, they play as a family and for their Creator.

In this purity of purpose comes a simple truth: They can’t be tamed, those voices reaching out to heaven’s gate. The spirit can’t be contained.

Both gospel and blues came from “Negro spirituals” sung in the fields to keep the misery at bay. The Jones Family and other gospel musicians point out the huge difference in the genres. The blues singer is alone in this world – nobody knows the trouble he’s seen. The gospel voices are a family of faith anyone can join. You just have to believe there’s a force out there greater than you. Sometimes music is all the proof you need.

JonesFamilyGroup


Meet Rick Perry’s lawyer Tony Buzbee

(originally published in Texas Super Lawyers Magazine 2014)

Anthony "Tony" Buzbee of The Buzbee Law Firm in Houston

by Michael Corcoran

Tony Buzbee was a 22-year-old lieutenant just out of the ROTC at Texas A&M when he faced his Marine squad for the first time during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. If his men had any thoughts of testing the new “kid” commander in Kuwait, they were soon erased.

“There’s nothing you can beat me at,” Buzbee said to the group. “Not at boxing, or in one-on-one basketball, or in cards or a footrace. I’m stronger than you and I’m smarter than you. So don’t try me.” Any questions?

“That’s how you lead in the Marines,” Buzbee says two decades later in his large and sparse office that looks over downtown Houston from the 73rd floor. “You’ve gotta be fearless.”

Buzbee brings the same refuse-to-lose swagger to the law firm that bears his name—and he’s been able to back it up. “Prepare, prepare, prepare,” Buzbee says when asked how he uses his military experience in the legal field. “Then execute.”

Juries eat up the Tony Buzbee Show, a mix of homespun charm and vitriolic turns when he spars with a hostile witness or opposing counsel.

His epic battles against British Petroleum, which, Buzbee estimates, yielded more than $300 million in personal injury judgments for his clients in Texas and Louisiana, landed the Houston attorney on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2010. He may be the closest the Southwest legal field has to an action hero, and there’s even been talk of making a movie based on his fights with BP. Asked who he sees in the lead role, Buzbee smiles. He’s thought of that before. “Gerard Butler,” he says. Butler, the handsome Scottish actor (“300”) who drank his way out of the legal profession and onto the big screen, would have to work on the slight East Texas accent that Buzbee turns up in court when it’s to his advantage.

Competitive? Michael Jordan is competitive. Tony Buzbee is a psycho. He’s obsessed with winning. And with his landmark victories including the $75 million he earned for offshore drilling workers in a wage fixing suit, Buzbee’s not only earned respect, but in his 14-year career, he’s pocketed as much money in the courtroom via jury awards as Jordan made on the court.

“Tony Buzbee is the biggest, baddest, meanest dog in the yard—that’s a fact,” says Houston attorney Chad Pinkerton, who worked at the Buzbee Law Firm from 2005 until starting his own office in 2007. “But he’s also generous and he cares a lot about his people and his clients. He taught me everything I know about practicing law.”

A fashionably-coiffed Buzbee, looking ready for cocktail hour with his trademark ice-blue handkerchief peaking out of the pocket of a tailored suit, says, “I’m not the lawyer people hire because I have a cool website or a nice ad placement in the Yellow Pages. They hire me to beat the other guy… They get so (angry) that they say, ‘I’m gonna call Tony Buzbee!’ If that doesn’t send shivers up the spine of some pompous corporate lawyer,” he says with a big smile, “well, it should.”

Buzbee hates losing so much that he hasn’t been present to hear a jury’s verdict read since 2001. “It’s just too nerve-wracking. Thank God it’s rare that I lose, because when it does happen, I just want to roll up in a ball like a baby. The next day it feels like I’ve been beaten by sticks. My feeling is that if you can handle losing, you’re a loser.”

Buzbee drills younger attorneys on what he calls “the architecture of the case.” It’s all in the foundation and blueprints. “You don’t win a case in your opening or closing arguments,” he says.

Buzbee shrugs off his big victories and dwells on the few setbacks, including a political defeat when he ran for Texas State Representative in 2001. (“My last foray into politics.”) Winning is profitable, but you always learn more when you lose. “The first case I lost was a young girl who’d been burned at Wal-mart,” he recalls, putting the year in the late ‘90s, soon after he’s expanded from his first office in Galveston to downtown Houston. “Oh, I gave the best arguments,” he says. “My opening statement? You could’ve put it in a book. Cross-examination? Brilliant. Closing argument? Of the eight jurors, there were seven crying.” Buzbee’s excited cadence is reminiscent of a Southern preacher. “In each of the discreet elements of the case, I shoulda won. But I got poured out. The jury note came back: “Can we give this little girl money and still find Wal-mart not liable?” Buzbee knew he’d lost the case.

“I hate to lose, but what I won’t say is that the jury sucked,” Buzbee says. “What I won’t say is that the judge screwed me. It all comes down to the architecture of the lawsuit. That’s what I drill into all our young attorneys. The case has been decided before you get into the courtroom.” Preparation and putting yourself in a place to win: the Marine instincts have only become deeper ingrained. “It still all boils down to this: Have you presented a story that the jury buys into?”

Houston attorney Frank Spagnoletti, who has worked on cases with Buzbee and against him, has known the younger lawyer since he was a clerk just out of law school. “Tony Buzbee is a different cat,” says Spagnoletti. “But he’s leading the next generation of top lawyers in Texas. I’ve known Joe Jamail and John O’Quinn and Tony is a throwback to that era. He has the legal abilities, the financial abilities and, most importantly, the huevos that most other lawyers don’t have.”

Zoe and Tony

Zoe and Tony

At age 45, with four children and his wife Zoe, whom he met at A&M,  Buzbee says he’s looking for balance in his life. Where does it come from, the unbridled tenacity, the hardcore competitive streak? Buzbee asked himself that a few years ago and went in search of the answers on ancestry.com. Then he visited the towns in Alabama where his people settled. “I found that I come from a long line of Buzbees with chips on their shoulders,” he says, “and it continues to this day.” He traced his lineage back to his great-great-great-great-grandfather, Reeves Buzbee, who was in jail in Coosa County, Ala., in 1860 at age 70 for murder. Tony Buzbee visited the jail and stood in one of the tiny cells for a long time, thinking.

Actually, he didn’t have to go back too far to find evidence of the Buzbee flame. “My dad is a true character,” he says of butcher Glenn Buzbee, who now tends the cattle ranch his son bought outside Atlanta, Texas, where Tony Buzbee grew up. During courtroom breaks, Buzbee loves to tell stories about his old man, like the time he wrestled a bear to settle a barroom bet. “He would not only fight at the drop of a hat, he’d drop the hat himself.” Tony Buzbee recalls one altercation that started when his father called the parents of a boy who had thrown some of Tony’s things out the window of a moving school bus. “The kid’s mother answered and my dad gave her a good cussin’,” Buzbee recalls. When the boy’s father heard about that, he called Glenn Buzbee back and threatened to whup him next time he saw him. “Come over RIGHT NOW!” Glenn yelled into the phone. “We waited and waited, and the guy never showed up, so we went to bed,” Buzbee says. About midnight, the man rolled up to the Buzbees’ and got out of his car. “He’d had a few beers for courage, I guess.” Glenn Buzbee jumped out of bed, charged outside in his underwear and clocked the guy on the side of the head. But he slipped on the dew and fell down, which gave the other father an opportunity to jump in his car and hightail it on out of there. Buzbee laughs as he recalls the sight of his father “chasing the guy for six blocks in his tighty whities.”

Buzbee was just an average student in high school, but he desperately wanted out of his small town in the upper right corner of Texas. “Going to A&M was really the turning point in my life,” he says. “Being from a podunk town, I wasn’t sure I could be as good as everyone else.” He took hard to the Corps of Cadets and earned the rank of commander of Battalion K2. “Our motto was ‘The best in every way,’ and A&M gave me the confidence to believe it.” Buzbee was recently appointed to the Texas A&M Board of Regentsl; he donated the money to build the Buzbee Leadership Learning Center for cadets on campus.

Buzbee went straight into the Marines out of college, a newlywed deployed to the Middle East. “It was tough on my wife,” he says. “In four years, I was home four months. But she’s a strong person and we made it work.”

Buzbee says he “ate, slept, breathed the Corps. Except for the fact that you couldn’t make any money, I’d still be in the Marines.” He would have liked to stay in long enough to break Chesty Puller’s record as the most-decorated Marine in history.

After his military bid was up, Buzbee attended University of Houston Law Center and graduated in 1997, the same day his first child was born. While at law school, Buzbee’s hero was UH alum John O’Quinn, best known for winning a $1 billion verdict against Wyeth Laboratory for its diet pill fen-phen. Quinn was also known for a fleet of cars—more than 600 luxury and vintage models—that would make Jay Leno drool.

When Buzbee started winning million-dollar judgments for his clients (taking 40% as his fee), he also started accumulating expensive cars. Then, O’Quinn died in a single-car accident in 2009 and Buzbee had a shift in priorities. “John O’Quinn didn’t leave behind any children. He didn’t have a wife. He just had all those cars,” Buzbee says. “I was thinking that if John O’Quinn could come back to pass on one last bit of wisdom, he would say, ‘Cars are just a bunch of metal.’”attorney-tony-buzbee-dont-believe-a-word-bp-said-in-congress

Around the same time, Buzbee was starting to worry that he and his family were being defined more by what they had than what they did: “My kids would ask me what car I was driving that day because that’s what the kids at school wanted to know.”

Buzbee decided to donate all his cars to be auctioned off for charity, raising $2 million for Jesse’s Tree, which helps homeless people turn their lives around. “I kept only one car,” he says, with a twinkle that cues a punch line. “But it was a Maybach,” List price: $550,000.

Buzbee is rich beyond his dreams. But in his heart he’s still the son of a butcher from East Texas. “You remember those notes you used to pass around in school to girls? It would say, ‘Do you like so and so, check yes or no.’ When I was in sixth grade there was this girl I liked a lot, and when I got the paper back, under ‘Do you like Tony Buzbee?’ she had checked no. I was crushed.”

“It feels the same way when you lose a case. It’s the ultimate rejection.”

As Buzbee excuses himself to polish an opening statement he’s been working on for three weeks, the attorney he’ll be facing might wish that little girl from Atlanta, Tex. had just checked yes.

 


Billy Joe Shaver wudn’t born no yesterday

Originally published May 3, 2001

billyjoe1When Billy Joe Shaver gives directions to his modest house on the outskirts of Waco, he says to disregard the handwritten sign on his front door. “Please do not disturb. I haven’t slept in two days,” it says.

“That’s just so some ol’ drunks don’t come by at 5 in the morning to talk,” Shaver explains. ” ‘Course I used to be one of ‘em, so I really can’t complain too much.”

The self-effacing “lovable loser and no-account boozer” left the bottle behind long ago and has returned to his honky-tonk hero status with a stunning new album. Critics are gushing over Shaver like they haven’t since 1993’s “Tramp On Your Street” and fans are packing his shows and lining up afterward to shake his two-fingered right hand and give him homemade gifts. At a recent show in Luckenbach, a woman gave Billy Joe a saucer-shaped rock on which she had painted, “If I could sit across the porch from God, I’d thank him for lending us your music.”

The 61-year-old in the blue work shirt, whose face is the map of Texas music, can’t fully enjoy the attention, however. He doesn’t even listen to the record he’s so proud of, because hearing it just reminds him of the hole in his band, the hollow in his heart, where his son Eddy used to be. The 38-year-old ex-prodigy, who looked like a Guitar World cover in the making when he started playing professionally with his dad at age 12, succumbed to a heroin overdose on Dec. 31, 2000, the morning after he received an advance to record a solo album for Antone’s Records.

“We knew going in that it was our last record together,” Shaver says. “So we worked really hard to make it a good ‘un. I really think that Eddy did some of his best playing ever on this record.” The theme of “The Earh Rolls On,” which opens with the positively bouncing “Love Is So Sweet,” is that life is hard, but worth it. Often accused by Texas singer-songwriter purists of overplaying, Eddy shows relative restraint here, finger-painting the moods of songs such as “Star of My Heart,” which his father wrote in early 2000 while Eddy was in treatment for heroin addiction. At the end of the album, the guitarist finally cuts loose, breaking free from the past. The song, the album’s title track, is about finding a light in the darkness of tragedy.

Eddy and Billy Joe

Eddy and Billy Joe

“It’s just such a loss,” says Shaver, a deeply religious man who has known great blessings and, it seems, great curses as well. A year before losing his son, Billy Joe knelt at the deathbed of Eddy’s mother, Brenda, the woman he married three times (and divorced twice) since they met at a high school football game in Bellmead when she was 16 and he was a 20-year-old just back from the Navy. “She was my first love and my last,” Shaver says, showing a photo of a beautiful young woman with light brown hair and softly biased eyes that would be passed on to Eddy. “She was a farm girl,” Shaver says, then smiles at a favorite memory. “She’d be out there riding a tractor in her bikini.” A few months before Brenda died of cancer, Billy Joe’s mother, Victory, passed away. Her name was the title of a gospel album Billy Joe and Eddy recorded in 1998.

“I always figured I’d be the first to go,” Shaver says. Looking back on a rough-and-tumble life of bare feet, bare knuckles and bared soul, you believe him.

His father bailed on Billy Joe before he was born, and with his mother having to work two jobs, baby Shaver and his older sister were raised by their grandmother in Corsicana. “She gave us reality,” Shaver recalls. “Our grandmother told us straight out that there wasn’t no Santa Claus, but just play along with the other kids. Unless the Salvation Army dropped off something, we didn’t get no Christmas presents.”

Grandma was also a strict disciplinarian. When a 10-year-old Billy Joe snuck off to see comic hillbillies Homer and Jethro, as well as a little-known opening act named Hank Williams (an experience recounted in “Tramp On Your Street”), his guardian was waiting up with a switch in her hand. “I think the reason I remember that show so well was because of the whippin’ I got,” he says.

When his grandmother died, 12-year-old Billy Joe moved to Waco to live with his mother, who worked as a waitress at a honky-tonk called the Green Gables. “I was barefoot, wearing overalls held together by safety pins, and people would give me nickels for the jukebox,” he says of nights spent with the bouncer as his baby sitter. “There were a lot of military people around Waco then, and I guess I reminded them of their kids back home, so they treated me real good.” Shaver had felt at home in a roadhouse that smelled of beer and smoke, where the jukebox always seemed to play Lefty Frizzell when he walked in.

Back at home, Billy Joe clashed with his stepfather and often took off on freight trains or rode his thumb right outta Waco. When he turned 17, his mother signed the papers for him to join the Navy. “I was glad to go, and they were glad to see me go,” he says.

The Navy experience didn’t turn out too well for the hotheaded recruit, however. Shaver spent the last several months of his enlistment in the brig at Portsmouth, N.H., after he decked an officer at a party. Billy Joe was facing a court martial, but after penning a plea to the commanding officer, explaining his side of the scuffle, Shaver says he was released with an honorable discharge. He’s always managed to find the words that would get him out of seemingly hopeless situations.

TO KNOW BILLY JOE SHAVER AND NOT HAVE A STORY TO TELL IS LIKE COMING HOME FROM A WILLIE NELSON PICNIC WITHOUT A SUNBURN.

There are famous Billy Joe stories, like how he lost three fingers at the knuckle on his right hand in a saw accident at Cameron Mills when he was 22. Shaver had recently read an article about how a man in Asia had his severed fingers reattached, so in the midst of great pain he gathered up his three lopped digits. “The doctor said he couldn’t do anything for me,” Shaver says. “I told him that in Japan they just sewed somebody’s fingers back together, and he said ‘Well, this ain’t Japan.’ ” He returned to work with his hands bandaged and his fingers in a jar. When a woman at the mill asked for his fingers for some sort of voodoo ritual, he gave them to her.

Shaver and Jennings backstage at the Armadillo. Photo by Burton Wilson.

Shaver and Jennings backstage at the Armadillo. Photo by Burton Wilson.

There’s also the one about the time he spent six months in Nashville tracking down Waylon Jennings, who had promised to do an entire album of Shaver songs after hearing “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me” during an impromptu guitar pull in a trailer backstage at the infamous Dripping Springs Reunion show, the precursor to the Willie Nelson picnics, in 1972. “Waylon asked me if I had any more of them ol’ cowboy songs, and I said I had a whole sack full of ‘em,” Shaver says. But afterward, Jennings wouldn’t return Billy Joe’s calls.

Frustrated and broke, Billy Joe finally found Waylon in the hall of a recording studio late at night. “I told him that if he didn’t make good on his promise to record my songs, I’d whip his ass right there. I was so (angry) I didn’t even notice these two big biker bodyguards at his side.” Before the two could pounce on Shaver, Jennings raised a halting hand and sat down with the fuming songwriter to talk about the album that, hey-Hoss-I’m-still-gonna-do-but-I-just-been-busy. “Waylon asked me if I knew just how close I came to getting a major ass-whipping,” Shaver says with a laugh.

When Jennings recorded “Honky Tonk Heroes” in 1973, he broke so many rules that the album turned into the opening salvo of the “outlaw country” movement. Besides playing 10 tracks by an unproven songwriter, Jennings insisted on using his own touring band in the studio. The result was a record that holds up like Creedence Clearwater Revival, riding a great groove on tracks like “Black shaver1Rose” and then taking a touching turn on “You Asked Me To,” Billy Joe’s best love song to Brenda.

But even though Shaver, still struggling in his early 30s, had finally caught his big break, he fought Jennings every step of the way. “He wanted to change some lyrics or do the songs a little bit different, and I didn’t want him to,” says Shaver, whose songs are so much a part of him that he has never recorded another writer’s material except on a Merle Haggard tribute album and a collection of Townes Van Zandt covers coming out soon.

But even as he’s stubborn about his precious compositions, the word that friends most often use to describe Shaver is “humble.” Austin guitarist Stephen Bruton, who played on the 1973 debut “Old Five and Dimers” (” Billy Joe couldn’t believe that he was really making a record”), says that whatever success Shaver has attained since then, including writing a top-five hit for John Anderson (“I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal”) hasn’t changed him a whit. He still carries himself like “the hobo with stars in my crown” of one of his earliest songs, “Ride Me Down Easy.” Ask about his time as a bull rider in the early ’60s, and Billy Joe will say, “Well, I didn’t really ride ‘em. I just tried to stay on as long as I could.” Told that he’s the best songwriter Texas has ever produced, and Billy Joe will start talking about Van Zandt and Willie Nelson.

But Shaver earns a nod as the musical poet laureate of the Songwriter State, not just because he has the ability, like Springsteen, like Waits, like Prine, to nail an entire set of emotions and circumstances with a single line (his most famous: “Well, the devil made me do it the first time/ the second time I done it on my own” from “Black Rose”), but also because in Billy Joe’s lyrics you can hear music. The rhythm of his words is all the beat you need, as witnessed by this classic chorus: “I been to Georgia on a fast train, honey/ I wudn’t born no yesterday/ Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth-grade education/ Ain’t no need in y’all treatin’ me this way.” Can’t you just hear Eddy’s finger-pickin’ in the background as the tune whooshes down the tracks?

Billy Joe wrote “Georgia On a Fast Train” after repeated snubs by Nashville when he first started hitchhiking there in the late ’60s. He had been trying to find his way to L.A. but couldn’t get a ride West, so he crossed Interstate 10 outside of Houston and caught a truck driver headed to Tennessee. Unable to afford a demo tape, Shaver tried to play his songs for record execs, but was turned away at the front desk. Finally, he got Bobby Bare to listen, and soon Music Row was buzzing about the square-jawed hayseed from Waco who could put complex issues in simple terms, as he did with his Vietnam War ditty “Good Christian Soldier” (“We’re playin’ cards and writing home and having lots of fun/ Tellin’ jokes and learnin’ how to die.”)

It was that song that launched Shaver’s Nashville songwriting career. Even with Bare’s backing, Billy Joe was about to give up on the town where songs were written in offices instead of boxcars. But the night before he left for Texas, Kris Kristofferson stopped by to hear what Shaver had. After Billy Joe sang “Good Christian Soldier,” Kristofferson said he wanted it — which was rare, because Kris wrote all his own songs.

Then came the call to come down to Dripping Springs in the summer of 1972, where he would meet Waylon and, eventually, his life and country music would change.

“I REALLY DO THINK THAT BILLY JOE HAS AN ANGEL FOLLOWING HIM AROUND,” SAYS FREDDY FLETCHER, the Pedernales and Arlyn studios owner who played drums for Shaver in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “We’d find ourselves in terrible predicaments out on the road, but somehow Billy Joe would find a way out of it.” Once during a snowstorm near Minneapolis, Shaver’s van and U-Haul trailer skidded off the road and was sideswiped by an oncoming truck on the access road. The impact shoved Shaver’s van right back into its rightful lane.

Another time, Shaver escaped unscathed after baiting a crowd in Baton Rouge. “It was at a place called Jim Beam Country, during the “Urban Cowboy” craze, and the audience wasn’t listening to a single word Billy Joe was singin.’ They wanted to hear Johnny Lee covers or whatever,” Fletcher says. “At one point, Billy Joe announced ‘There ain’t a cowboy among the whole bunch of ya. Y’all look silly with your feathers in your hats.’ ” A few roughnecks had to be held back by their buddies after the set, but Shaver and the boys were soon on the road to the next adventure.billyjoeyoung

These days, the mellower Shaver carries an attache case wherever he goes, even if, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, he’s just going to Griff’s truck stop near Crawford for chicken-fried steak. “It’s something I picked up from Waylon,” he says, tapping his brown briefcase. “Even a gypsy needs to be organized sometimes.” His usual lunch partner when he’s not on the road is mechanic Jim Hollingsworth, his friend since seventh grade. “After he started getting some fame in Nashville, some people asked me if I knew Billy Joe Shaver,” Hollingsworth says. “They said I went to school with him, he was in my class, but I told ‘em I didn’t know any Billy Joe Shaver. Only Shaver I knew was Bubba Shaver.”

It was the same guy. Billy Joe was Bubba Shaver until he started signing his poems with his real name after he dropped out of school. “It was considered a sissy thing to write poems, so I made them print them anonymously in the school paper,” Shaver says. His words made an impact on his ninth-grade home-room teacher at LaVega High, who was the first to tell Bubba he had real talent. Hollingsworth and Shaver recently paid a nursing-home visit to Mrs. Legg, now 101 years old, and she recited one of Billy Joe’s old poems from memory.

On the way back from Griff’s, Shaver pulls his white van alongside the Chapel Hill cemetery and gets out. “I prayed every day to Jesus, asking him how I could help my son,” Shaver says as he takes a slow walk to the middle of the graveyard. “But that heroin is stronger than love.” Eddy is buried next to his mother, whom Billy Joe said Eddy never really got over losing in 1999.

“Eddy was always straight with me.” Billy Joe says of the son who was also his best friend. “He told me after he’d first tried heroin that he didn’t know what the big deal was.” Some of Eddy’s friends were using regularly, according to Billy Joe, and it wasn’t long before the son was hooked.

“I don’t blame Eddy, because I’ve been there myself, but I still can’t believe he would do that to himself.” Billy Joe runs his fingers across the letters of Eddy’s name, the closest he can come to touching his only son.

Later, Shaver tells the story of how drugs and alcohol almost drove him to end his life. It was in the late ’70s, and the family of three was living in Nashville. “I wasn’t being a good father or a good husband, and it was eatin’ away at me.” He says one night he saw Jesus sitting at the foot of his bed, shaking his head. “I got up out of bed and got in my pickup and started driving.” He ended up standing on a cliff, and contemplated jumping off. Like the Robert Duvall character in “The Apostle,” in which Shaver had a featured role, Billy Joe asked Jesus for direction, and the Lord told him to go back home and take care of his family. On the walk down the trail, Shaver says he started writing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day).” The next morning, he started packing, pulled Eddy out of school and headed down to Houston, where he would be away from his accomplices in sin — the dealers and friends who didn’t want to drink alone.

As he kicked his habits cold turkey, living off random royalty checks and wasting down to 165 pounds, Shaver got a call out of the blue that would put him back on track. It was from Willie Nelson, whom he’d known since the late ’50s honky-tonk circuit. Willie and Emmylou Harris were about to start a tour of arenas and, although there wasn’t time to put his name on the bill, Shaver could open the shows and make a few hundred bucks a night. “I can’t tell you all the times Willie’s bailed me out of situations, but that was a big ‘un,” Shaver says. “I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get up on a stage again.”

It was a call from Willie on the morning of Dec. 31, 2000, that helped Shaver get through his most difficult day. “When Eddy died, Willie said I needed to be among friends. He said I should come on out to Spicewood (to Poodie’s Hilltop Bar, where Shaver had a gig scheduled), but I didn’t decide to go until the last minute.” It was, Billy Joe says, the toughest gig of his life, the memories flooding each song until Willie and pals had to take over. But he got through the night and headed back to Waco, where he still lives — even though his band is in Austin — because his two pit bulls, Etawna and Shade, love the big back yard.

At Eddy’s grave, Billy Joe picks up a little Texas flag that somebody stuck in the dirt, not yet covered with grass. “You will always be around,” it says. “That’s from ‘Live Forever,’ that song we wrote together,” Billy Joe says. “Eddy had that beautiful melody and the guitar part, and after he played it for me, it just stuck in my head. I thought, ‘Man, I gotta really come up with something special for this one.’ ” A few months later, Billy Joe was driving the band back from a gig one night — he always drives — and he started thinking about how some songs seem to have lives of their own. A few years ago, Bob Dylan recorded “Old Five and Dimers (Like Me),” but when it came out on the soundtrack for “Hearts of Fire,” the song was credited as a traditional folk song. “At first I was (angry),” Shaver says, “but the more I thought about it, I took it as a compliment. Every writer wants to write something that’ll last long enough to be part of the public domain.”

With Eddy’s melody in his head on that long drive home, Billy Joe came up with the verse that brings context to the crazy life of a drifter with a sack fulla “cowboy songs.”

“Nobody here will ever find me/ But I will always be around/ just like the songs I leave behind me/ I’m gonna live forever now.”


This New York City does something to a person, Pt. 1

Last week, I came out of the Trader Joe’s on Bee Cave Road and as I started to drive away, a man next to a car with the front door open was waving for me to stop. He had a story. His wife (in the front seat) had just gotten out of the hospital and he needed to drive her to her family in Waco, but his debit card (which he showed me) didn’t work and he didn’t have money for gas. Could I give him $20 and write my address down and he would… I didn’t even listen to the rest. Sorry, man. I know a con and more times than not it requires gas money. Usually, they’ll be holding a gas can. When they should be holding an empty crack pipe.

When I got home, I called my son, a kind-hearted, gullible kid, who is away at college. I realized that I hadn’t sufficiently drilled into him that most people who approach you on the street asking for money are scam artists. “Don’t even think about it,” I told him. “Just make it a personal rule to never, ever give money to panhandlers.” If you stop to hear their plea it’s much harder to get away, so don’t even slow down.

Well, the kid was hearing none of it. He’s given his last dollar to a hobo and felt good about it. “He needed that money more than I did.” At that point, I realized that all the scratch I’ve worked hard for, and scraped together, and put into accounts that would make his life easier should I fall before my time, would be given away to scruffy alcoholics or con artists with a good line.

That’s why I’m staying at the Waldorf Astoria while I’m in NYC this week. The inheritance is in serious jeopardy. Better I run through it than Son Theresa hands it out.

Just about an hour ago I was at Trader Joe’s on Broadway at 72nd Street. (We’re spoiled Austin and I didn’t know how much until I went grocery shopping by subway.) So, after the 25-minute wait to check out, I had my bag of stuff the hotel marks up 2000% ($7.50 for a bottled water!) and was headed for the station when I saw a young man with long hair, wearing too much jacket for July, sitting on the ground, drawing. He had an old dial phone as a paperweight, holding down a stack of what looked to be drawings and notes. Big stack. “Starving Artist” was written on a piece of cardboard. He didn’t look up as I watched him draw. He didn’t even look up when I put a $20 bill in his little wooden box. “Bless you,” he said softly.

For $20 you could eat really well at Gray’s Papaya hot dog stand across the street and still get a nice bag of food at Trader Joe’s. For $20 you could also get pretty wasted on booze or high on drugs. It didn’t matter. He needed the money more than I did, so I gave him some. And when I was walking down those steps to the train, I never felt more like an artist myself.

grays