By Michael Corcoran, AAS 2004
His eyes were darting, terrified, like an animal not yet used to a new cage. Ricky Broussard looked spooked as he waited to take the stage at the Hole In the Wall — a territory he once utterly owned — on June 7, 2002. He stiffly nodded and smiled at well-wishers. When he stepped up, strapped on his guitar and plugged it into his amp, it was with the gleeful anticipation of a dicey medical procedure. He looked around the club and saw the guy he used to buy cocaine from, the folks he used to drink with until the sun came up and more than a couple of fellas he’d battled in drunken bouts. Broussard took a deep breath and then got ready to play stone-cold sober for the first time in more than two decades.
“We used to fuss, we used to fight,” he sang, separating the lines with four curt guitar notes, then repeated the words as the crowd erupted. “We used to hoot and holler late into the night and let the shotgun blast/We’re plumb out of our minds/we’re going nowhere fast.”
Halfway through that first song, Broussard settled down and his band, Two Hoots and a Holler, played one of its best sets since its Black Cat Lounge heyday in the late ’80s/early ’90s. And when the crowd screamed and stomped for one more encore, Broussard and a friend from his support group back in Seguin were already in the car. The Austin music scene’s notorious symbol of unrealized potential, who never let something trifling like morning light break up a party, was heading home before last call.
“I’d played the Hole hundreds, maybe even thousands of times,” Broussard recalls of that gig, “but that was the first time I ever really felt the love from the people. It was like, everybody in the place was in my corner.”
It was really always like that, but Broussard had previously been too messed up, too insecure, too defensive to notice. The local music community fell in love with the ragin’ Cajun since he started coming here from Seguin as guitarist in the Surfin’ Cajuns in the early ’80s. Fronting his next band, Two Hoots and a Holler, Broussard dripped with star power. Such catchy, faintly exotic rock songs as “Blues in the Night,” “Step Fast” and “Middle of the Night” defined Monday nights at the Black Cat, where the crowds lined up hours before showtime and didn’t let up all night.
Local musicians, meanwhile, were awed by Broussard’s instinctive grace on the guitar; his single-string runs were songs within the songs. “When you looked into the crowd at those early Two Hoots shows, you’d see a couple dozen guitar players,” says musician Jesse Dayton. “A bunch of us would follow them from gig to gig because Ricky was doing something different than all the other roots or rockabilly bands in town. He wasn’t mimicking his idols; he had his own hybrid that was like Joe Strummer and Bobby Fuller rolled into one guy that you absolutely couldn’t take your eyes off.”
Managers, label owners, club bookers, other musicians were always there to slip a business card or scribbled phone number into Ricky’s hands. But for every person out to help Ricky’s career, there were 50 who just wanted to hang out with him after a gig. Fans passed packets of cocaine and methamphetamine to him through their handshakes, young women yanked him into spare bedrooms, bartenders looked the other way as Broussard loaded cases of beer into the van after a show.
“I got swept up in it, big time,” Broussard says. “The first time I saw people in the audience mouthing the lyrics to songs I wrote, that just blew me away. I was connecting, man, for the first time. It felt so good that I didn’t want the party to stop.”
He was the chosen one, blessed with so much talent, so much intensity. Everyone wanted a piece of Ricky Broussard before he got famous and moved away.
The singer/guitarist, meanwhile, was paralyzed with self-doubt and attendant substance abuse. “I kept wondering, ‘Am I the real deal or have I been able to fool everybody?’ ” He self-medicated with heroin, whiskey, crack cocaine, really anything he could get his hands on. In true self-destructive form, Broussard’s rage was often leveled at fawning supporters. One night, members of a University of Texas fraternity approached him to play a party for several thousands of dollars, and Broussard hurled obscenities at them and had to be restrained from fighting the whole group of them.
“I had 100 forms of fear running through my mind,” Broussard says. “I started questioning the motives of everyone who was close to me. When (bandmates) Vic and Chris would come to me and say, ‘We’re worried about you,’ I’d think, ‘Yeah, they’re worried about their gravy train going dry.’ I pushed everybody away.”
During the second South by Southwest Music Festival in March 1988, Two Hoots attracted the attention of Oakland-based Hightone Records, which had money to put into new bands after releasing a couple million-sellers by Robert Cray. “The label owner, Larry Sloven, came up to us after the set and said he really wanted to take us to lunch the next day,” Two Hoots bassist Vic Gerard recalls. “I picked a spot that was a couple blocks from one of Rick’s haunts, but he never showed up. Me and Sloven sat there for two hours and then he got up and said, ‘Well, if he can’t even meet me for lunch . . .’ ”
Even his favorite club owners struggled with the singer’s erratic behavior. In 1992, Broussard quit the Black Cat, a gig that was paying the group as much as $2,000 every Monday, after owner Paul Sessums made a crack about the singer’s masculinity when Broussard bowed out early one set after hurting his leg on one of his trademark leaps.
“One night they had a sold-out crowd at the Continental Club and Ricky played about four songs and then handed me his guitar,” says Dayton. ” ‘Here, finish for me, man. I gotta score,’ ” Broussard told Dayton, then disappeared out the back door. Broussard’s association with the Continental Club ended in 1993 when he got in a drunken fight with a popular local singer he had been seeing. The angry words turned to blows and things really got ugly. “I just snapped,” Broussard recalls.
The next afternoon, Broussard woke up with the worst kind of hangover, the kind when you piece together the events of the night before and go: “Oh, my God. Did I really do that?” Gerard called the singer at home on, appropriately, Jinx Street, with a solemn tone. Broussard was banned from the Continental, disowned by a family of club employees that he’d been very close to.
“I couldn’t face what I had done to (the singer),” Broussard says. He went right to the liquor store and, for the next few months, was drinking booze every waking moment. His wife, who’d put up with so much in three years of marriage and about seven years of being together before that, finally left him. Then, Gerard joined the Derailers and drummer Chris Staples got a job with Whole Foods. Two Hoots and a Holler, once Austin’s most promising band had hung it up after just one album, 1990’s “No Man’s Land” on France’s New Rose label, only to play occasional reunion gigs at friends’ weddings.
Addicted to heroin, going through withdrawals when he was sent to jail twice for DWI arrests, Broussard hit rock bottom. In 1996, the SIMS Foundation musicians assistance program stepped in and offered to send Broussard through rehab. He took them up on it but was back on the hard stuff a few weeks after his discharge. A second rehab stint a couple years later also failed to take hold, though Broussard says he was starting to learn the tools of recovery, of coping with his guilt.
“A lot of people knew the maverick, wild-eyed showman,” says Gerard, “because Rick did his best to mask the super-sensitive side. He feels things very deeply.”
The ninth of 10 children of a civil service worker at a San Antonio Air Force base, Broussard grew up idolizing his older brothers, two of whom were the only white members of soul band C.L. and the Teardrops. When drummer brother David, a Vietnam vet, died of a heroin overdose in 1979, it hit Ricky hard.
A year earlier he had a musical epiphany when he saw the Sex Pistols at Randy’s Rodeo in San Antonio. “There was a real division between the metalheads and the punks and the local rock stations had been badmouthing the Pistols,” Broussard says. “That’s when I said ‘I’m there.’ ” Galvanized by the Pistols’ swagger in the face of their musical primitiveness, Broussard dropped out of school in the ninth grade and put together the trailer park anarchist punk band 60 Inch Bazookas. But his guitar playing, heavily influenced by Duane Eddy instrumentals, was taking him in a different direction.
“I saw Gene Vincent and Sid Vicious as connected,” Broussard says. “The rage of rockabilly and punk came from the same place.” Vincent and Vicious were also linked through heavy use of drugs and alcohol. Broussard could identify with the demons and struggled with the idea that the only way to get sober was to hang up the Fender Telecaster.
In early 2002, facing a third DWI conviction, Broussard entered rehab in Fredericksburg and says he’s been clean and sober ever since. He’s back with Two Hoots and a Holler, who’ve just released a CD of covers called “Songs Our Vinyl Taught Us” on Freedom Records.
“That was a fun album to bash out,” Broussard says. “It was a way to get reacclimated to the studio and to have something to sell at the shows, but I’m really excited about the next studio album.”
Broussard, Gerard and Staples are currently mixing the album, with Jesse Dayton producing. “Rick Broussard’s Two Hoots and a Holler,” which mixes newly recorded old songs such as “Katy Ann” and Broussard’s amazing claiming of “Sukiyaki” with new material, will hit stores in January.
“Ricky’s really the same guy, with the same intensity,” says Dayton, adding that Broussard was the last guy he thought would get sober. “When he plays, there’s still a lot of anger there, but he’s figured out how to bottle it in more productive ways.” Dayton says Broussard’s new material, including the brand new “I Cried the Day Doug Sahm Died,” is as good as anything he’s ever written. “One thing that hasn’t changed is Rick’s commitment to not do a boring show,” Gerard says. “He still hates a crowd that just sits there politely.”
When you get sober, the days get longer. And with all this new time, Broussard not only plays with Two Hoots, but he does solo acoustic shows and performs occasionally with the Mersey Lords, a Beatlesque cover band that includes Fastball’s Tony Scalzo and songwriter Kevin Brown.
It was a spectacular Two Hoots set at SXSW 2003, in a tent in back of Opal Divine’s, that convinced Broussard to quit his construction job in Seguin and concentrate on making a living playing music. “Man, we were firing on all cylinders that night,” he says. “It was just like the old days, only I wasn’t sticking a needle in my arm afterward.”
The SXSW set, just a few days after the death of his idol Joe Strummer, concluded with Two Hoots covering the Clash’s “Career Opportunities,” a song of bleak prospects. At the end of the number, Broussard swung his guitar over his head and pounded the stage with it until it smashed into bits. Many in the crowd, longtime Broussard watchers, no doubt thought the violent burst signaled a return to past ways. Dayton, who stood near the side of the stage laughs when asked if the destruction was part of the show.
“That was just some Telecaster copy piece of crap guitar,” Dayton says. “That was just Ricky’s way of saying goodbye to Joe Strummer.” Dayton pauses, as an out-of-control Broussard reel seems to run through his head for a few seconds. “Now there was a time when, if Ricky smashed a guitar, you could be sure it was his most precious, cherished, best-sounding one.”