The Swan Song of the Austin Moser Awards

Posted by mcorcoran on June 29, 2017

Margaret Moser recognized by SIMS Foundation director Heather Alden at the Austin Music Awards during SXSW on March 12, 2014.

Story originally published March 2014 on Arts & Labor blog.

I sometimes refer to the Austin Music Awards as the Austin Moser Awards and it wasn’t a jab so much as the truth. Margaret Moser’s Olympic-sized personality dominates every aspect of the proceedings. Her graciousness is reflected by the vast number of categories and her almost cornball sense of family carries over to her loyal crew – hippies in tuxedos, barmaids in bouffants, old friends in sparkled gowns. I’ve long called the AMAs the prom for the Austin Music Scene and have been quick to mock its smalltown nature in the midst of the music industry’s biggest week. But to tell you the truth, it’s the one thing during SXSW I have almost never missed.

There’s just no atmosphere anywhere quite like the Austin Music Awards. The awards show used to be the Austin music scene’s biggest night until SXSW started five years in and slowly began to tower over Moser’s event like the condos around the Broken Spoke.

But SXSW didn’t change much, if anything, about the AMAs, except that superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Pete Townshend, in town to keynote, took the stage in surprise appearances. Certain bookings, like Okkervil River backing Roky Erickson in 2009 or Moser’s old beau John Cale joining Alejandro Escovedo, would bring in the badgeholders, but the AMAs have remained a mainly local event. This is the traditional last chance for everyone who kept Austin music going for 361 days of the year to have one last hug before the invasion.

Moser’s broad musical taste – she’s both a careful historian and a giddy booster for kiddie bands – is manifested by her bookings. At the March 12 awards show, for instance, the stage of the Convention Center’s Austin Ballroom will hold everyone from the Texas Tornados to the Young Bloods Choir of musicians’ kids like William Harries Graham and Marlon Sexton.

And, as always, there will be a beaming Margaret, with her hair piled high, making everybody feel special.

This is the last year the Austin Music Awards will feel like it has for the past 31, as Margaret Moser is stepping down as director/queen. And in May, she’ll retire as staff writer at the Austin Chronicle, a position she’s held since the paper’s inception in 1981. Margaret was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer in February last year and began chemo the week after last year’s awards show. She needs to concentrate full time on her health.

Next year there needs to be a new category at the AMAs, the Margaret Moser Award for music community service. It’s hard to specify just what Margaret has given to the musicians and the fans of this town, but when you meet her you know Austin is a special place.

She’s flawed – who isn’t? – but she’s managed to turn a negative, caring too much about stuff that doesn’t mean shit (celebrity, gossip), into a positive by crafting ways to make it interesting. In this regard, Margaret and I have always been kindred spirits. But we’re sometimes an estranged brother and sister; after all, I took over her popular column at the Austin Chronicle in 1984 and she took my best friend.

When I started to work at the Statesman in 1995, coming from the Dallas Morning News, certain folks at the Austin Chronicle saw it as a betrayal. The Statesman’s new Thursday entertainment tab XL was in direct competition with the Chron. We spent a couple years messing with each other, sometimes in good-natured kidding and sometimes in all-out war. Once I left a notebook behind somewhere and Margaret went through it and found my idea to start a column at the Statesman called “Austin Confidential.” I didn’t know this until months later. But I ditched the idea when I was watching Moser’s access TV show “Check This Action” and she introduced a new segment called “Austin Confidential.” It was something we laughed about later.

In 1996, things heated up and got a little mean. I had written a piece about “The SXSW Keynote Jinx,” which was in the wake of maiden keynoter, producer Huey Meaux’s, arrest for having sex with a slew of underage females. It was a low blow on my part. Someone at the Chronicle, either Margaret or one of the young writers she controlled, dug up some quotes from an old Chron where I proclaimed Meaux as my new idol, marveling that such an elder was always accompanied by young women. My cheeks were on fire. They got me good.

But that same night, I struck back. I was covering the awards show for the newspaper and on the way out to make my deadline, I encountered a young musician carrying a couple of winner plaques. He was known for his cynicism and when we joked about the awards, he noted an incident at the most recent Grammys when Eddie Vedder’s acceptance speech was about how little the arbitrary recognition really means in the whole scheme of things. “After he said that, Pearl Jam probably sold a million records,” said the musician. “But these awards,” holding out his AMAs, “really don’t mean anything.”

I used that quote to end the article and the next time I ran into the musician he said Moser had called him that morning in tears.

Hell of a thing to do to the person that helped get you started in this town, but competition makes me a little crazy. When Margaret and I went at it, it was kinda like a brother and a sister unloading on each other at the Thanksgiving dinner table. There was love at the bottom of all the pettiness.

The first thing I wrote for the Chronicle, two months after moving here in 1984, was a mostly-negative review of Joe Ely (backed by the jazz band Passenger) at the T-Bird Riverfest, which was then the biggest annual concert in town. I sent it in, completely unsolicited, and it sat on editor Louis Black’s desk for a couple days. He had no intention of running it. But Margaret read it and insisted. I was pleasantly shocked when the Chron came out the next week and there was my review. And a couple days later came a letter telling me off. I still remember the first paragraph: “HORSESHIT!”

I introduced Margaret to my roommate Rollo Banks, figuring there might be a love connection, and five months later they were married. While on their extended honeymoon in Hawaii, where Rollo still had a tattoo shop, I subbed on Margaret’s “In One Ear” column and basically became the opposite of her. She wrote nice things about the bands, I made fun of them. And my approach became instantly popular. “Margaret’s column says ‘fuck me,’,” I’d tell people. ‘My column says ‘fuck you’.” I talked about myself a lot back then.

Margaret still thinks that I orchestrated the whole thing to take over her column, but that’s not true. Only because I didn’t think of it. It just so happened that Margaret now had a husband (they stayed together a few years) and didn’t want to go out anymore. I was new to town and didn’t want to stay home. I called my column “Don’t You Start Me Talking.”

The day Margaret was going to move into Rollo’s apartment, we got a truck and went to her dilapidated duplex on Red River near First at about 9 in the morning. When me and Rollo got there, we heard laughter from outside. Margaret and her friend E.A. were sitting in the middle of the living room, around a pile of posters, letters, postcards and all sorts of rock flotsam and jetsam. There was not a box packed. The girls had stayed up all night, their last as sister groupies, reminiscing.

Rollo was livid and slammed the door behind him. “Call me when you’re ready!” We came back around 4 hours later and the whole place was packed up and ready to go. Margaret was apologetic. She just got carried away by all the memories.

That’s how this year’s Austin Music Awards will be for many. A hundred awards will be given out, but the night will be about the one person who kept the show going on these years. For Margaret it’ll be a time to recollect all the memories, but for the rest of us it’ll be a thanks for those she’s created.

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Washington Phillips, a son of freed slaves, created sacred porch songs for the ages

Posted by mcorcoran on June 12, 2017

Wash Phillips circa 1950

by Michael Corcoran
The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. For me that was in 1999, when Phillips’ mournful, moralistic “Mother’s Last Word To Her Daughter” on a knock-off compilation of 1920’s black church singers knocked me out. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also intricately developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. From what background did this completely original artist emerge fully formed?

His grandfather, also named Washington Phillips, was a slave, born in Kentucky in 1801 and most likely ”sold down the river” to a Texas landowner in the 1850s, along with his wife Ann and teenaged sons Austin, Houston and Tim. Not long after they were emancipated on “Juneteenth,” June 19, 1865, the Phillips men started buying farmland in the freedmen’s community of Simsboro, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.

Both Tim and Houston Phillips had sons they named after their father, who lived to be 81. The oldest grandson, Tim’s boy “Little Wash,” was born in 1880 and went on to record for Columbia Records from 1927-29.

Houston’s son Washington Phillips, born in 1891, was a farmer who went crazy, was committed to the Texas State Hospital in Austin in 1930 and died there eight years later.

When the haunting spirituals of Washington Phillips were first made available on CD in 1991 with I Am Born To Preach the Gospel (Yazoo), the liner notes incorrectly based biographical information on the death certificate of the cousin who died in the state asylum at age 47. The Washington Phillips who recorded such distinctive gospel tunes as “Denomination Blues,” What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” and “Paul and Silas In Jail” lived until 1954, when he died at age 74 after a fall down the stairs at the city hall in Teague, the nearest town to Simsboro.

I stumbled upon this case of mistaken identity in 2002 when I was a music critic for the Austin American Statesman and used the Austin death of the “wrong” Washington Phillips as a local connection that would justify a lengthy profile of an intriguing gospel obscurity.
Another bit of misinformation passed on was that Phillips backed himself on a dolceola, a rare “portable grand piano” produced only from 1903-1908 in Toledo, OH. What a weird tale this was, a preacher with a head full of voices playing heavenly tunes on a doomed miniature keyboard!

But the dolceola theory has also been discredited, once and for all, by a recently-discovered article which ran in the Teague Chronicle in November 1907. Under the headline “A Unique Instrument,” the brief detailed “a negro in town, named George Washington Phillips,” who played music from “a box about 2 X 3 feet, 6 inches deep, and which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp…He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs.” The 27-year-old Phillips called his homemade instrument a “Manzarene,” the article said. East Texas had never seen or heard anything like Washington Phillips, who dropped the “George” as his grandfather and cousin did. Sixty years after his death, the world still hasn’t heard anything like the 18 tracks this son of freed slaves recorded in Dallas on five December days from 1927-29.

Washington Phillips was the sixth of 11 children born to  Tim Phillips (b. Kentucky 1843) and Nancy Cooper Phillips (b. Tennessee 1848), who were married in 1867. The family lived on a farm in Simsboro whose ownership can be traced to Dr. James Wills, the great grand-uncle of Western swing king Bob Wills (born in nearby Kosse). According to Freestone County deed documents, James Wills sold “Abstract 217” in 1854 to H.M. Ewing, who sold it to James McMillan just before the Civil War.

In 1870, Tim and Houston went in together on 320 acres, purchased for $240 from neighbor McMillan, head of one of the last few white families in Simsboro. Their older brother Austin (b. 1838) and wife Drucilla bought their first parcel in 1867 and accumulated 203 acres over the next two decades. Land was freedom to the ex-slaves. Music was just something you sang and played to lighten the burden.

Prejudice has long been the social soot in the farming community of Freestone County, where slaves surpassed the number of whites, about 3,600 to 3,200, in 1860. From 1850 to 1860, the decade the Phillips family is believed to have relocated from Kentucky (because of place of birth information on the children), the slave population of Texas grew from 58,161 to 182,556, as white planters fled south and west to keep their slaves from deserting and joining the Union Army.

Kentucky was one of the northern slave states known for “stocking and raising” slaves for sale to the southern states after the transatlantic slave trade was discontinued in 1808, according to Michael Tadman’s seminal 1996 book Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South.

Wash’s family took the Phillips name from the plantation they worked on, according to an 85-year-old Earl Phillips, the grandson of Wash Phillips’ uncle Austin. Earl served as the family historian in 2002 when I interviewed him by phone from Denver, but like so many elderly witnesses from 13 years ago, he’s passed on since. Earl told me his great-grandfather Washington Phillips was owned by the men named Karner and Phillips, who founded Mexia’s Karner-Phillips department store. But I originally dismissed that info because Karner-Phillips wasn’t established until 1878. There were a few bits of Earl’s family history disputed by public records, so everything had to be independently verified.

Reading the 1860 Slave Schedules for Freestone County with my index finger, however, it shows that a John Karner owned slaves whose ages (names weren’t listed) roughly matched the elder Washington Phillips (60), his wife Ann (45), sons Houston (20) and Tim (17) and daughters Katy (12) and Susan (6). Patriarch Phillips was actually 59 and Houston 19, but it wasn’t uncommon for census takers of the time to round up ages, especially for African-Americans, who often didn’t know their own birthdays.

A native of Bavaria, Karner stowed away to the land of opportunity as a teenager and fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto that brought Texas independence in 1836. Later, known as “Dutch John,” the Indian fighter, Karner was given land for his service and he also bought up parcels around his grant- 65 properties in all- in the 1850s. According to deed documents kept at the Freestone County clerk’s office in Fairfield, some of his dealings were with a man named Frank A. Phillips, who may have owned the plantation Earl Phillips told me about, but I was unable to find any other information to back that up. A 1860 county agricultural report said there were seven plantations of over 500 acres in Freestone County, where cotton was king and corn was queen, but didn’t name any of them.

When the Civil War broke out and Freestone County voted 585-3 to secede from the Union, Karner joined the Confederate Army. His slave quarters were empty soon after he came home in defeat. On June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Union Army General Gordon Granger read the order that proclaimed slaves were free men and women.

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Although Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 ended the Civil War, it took awhile for the Union Army to come to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Juneteenth was always a big day for Wash Phillips,” said Doris Foreman Nealy, a retired nursing school instructor who grew up on a farm next to Phillips “He’d dig a pit and slaughter a hog and cook it all day.”

Juneteenth, the oldest statewide celebration commemorating the end of slavery, was sponsored in Simsboro by the Magnolia Burial Club and held in the grassy picnic area common to all three black churches: Hogie Primitive Baptist, Wesley Tabernacle A.M.E. and Mount Pleasant Trinity Baptist Church. Phillips was acquainted with the pulpits at all three and often led the preaching and singing, Nealy said..

That Phillips was well-versed in the varying beliefs and customs of different churches is evident in “Denomination Blues,” the song which forged a  bond with the counterculture crowd when it was discovered on a blues compilation in the 1960s and covered by Ry Cooder on 1972’s Into the Purple Valley. Coyly denouncing hypocrisy in organized religion, Phillips mocks six different black denominations before launching into the verse: “You can go to college, you can go to school/ But if you ain’t got Jesus, youse a educated fool.” On the second part of “Denomination,” Phillips hits harder, singing of preachers who “think they’re doing well” and that “all they want is your money and you can go to hell.”

Wash Phillips was a product of post-slavery black America, when blues and gospel music were next door to each other- like a liquor store and a church on many a ghetto street- and yet spiritually an ocean apart. Not only were blacks separate from whites, they were divided amongst each other as sinners and saints. Then once again in church, split between the mainstream Baptist and Methodist denominations and the screeching, pounding “holy rollers” of the Pentecostal sect.

But Phillips, an unordained “jack leg preacher,” wasn’t made for those categorical times. “He was just so different from everyone else,” said Nealy. As a younger man, Wash would roam Freestone County on Sundays to sing and testify at Pentecostal and African Methodist Episcopal services. The 1930 U.S. Census found him living in Dallas, occupation “Holiness minister.”  But later in his life he settled into his role as Rev. Wash Phillips at the Pleasant Hill Trinity Baptist Church, just down the road from his 87-acre farm. “He was an enlightened person,” his second cousin Earl Phillips said in 2002, recalling that the singing farmer/preacher smelled of linament oil and made herbal remedies that he sold from his mule cart, along with plums and ribbon cane syrup.  

I Am Born to Preach the Gospel and I Sure Do Love My Job

The lyrical distaste found in “Denomination Blues” and “The Church Needs Good Deacons” was perhaps born from too many Sundays waiting to be called to the pulpit while less-pious men with degrees spewed their pretentious babble. But his former neighbors said he didn’t carry the same bitterness about a promising musical career that didn’t happen. None of the half-dozen former Simsboro residents I interviewed were even aware that Wash Phillips had ever made a record. Nobody from back home knew that one of his songs “You Can’t Stop a Tattler” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her platinum-selling 1976 LP Hasten Down the Wind. Royalties never rolled his way, because no one knew anything about this Washington Phillips, who could’ve come from anywhere.

When the Teague Chronicle ran an article about Phillips’ death on Sept. 20, 1954, there was mention of the mule cart, but not the musical career. They didn’t even get his name or age right, calling him Wash Williams, 77. But posterity holds Phillips in high regard.

Calling the music of Washington Phillips “the absolute height of rural originality,” musicologist Garry Harrison wrote in his fretlesszithers.com blog in 2005 that, “It would have been unusual enough if he had merely acquired and learned to play a fretless zither, an instrument with virtually no known performance tradition. But it appears that what (Phillips) did was to re-configure two fretless zithers, to expand the range of both the melody and accompaniment sections… and then to become a highly skilled player on his creation, producing other-worldly tones unlike those made by any other instrument.” While playing two zithers simultaneously, one hand for the chords and one hand for the melody, this self-made virtuoso also sang in a vulnerable, penetrating voice of faith.

From the Teague Chronicle 1907

Washington Phillips recorded 18 sides for Columbia in five sessions in Dallas, from Dec. 1927 to Dec. 1929. His first three ‘78s- all released in 1928- registered his best sales, topping off with 8,725 copies of the debut “Take Your Burden To the Lord and Leave It There” b/w “Lift Him Up That’s All.” But then came the Stock Market Crash in Sept. 1929 and suddenly food became a bigger priority than buying downhome gospel blues records at 75 cents per. Forty-seven when he made his first recordings, Phillips was washed-up by 50. By the time Sister Rosetta Tharpe changed “Denomination Blues” to “That’s All” and had a secular hit with it backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in the early ‘40s (the first record on which she played electric guitar), Phillips had completely recessed into the country life.

But there’s too much talent and originality in Phillips’ music for it not to eventually find an audience and what Cooder revived continues to grow slowly. A swell in interest in the zither-playing preacher came when his song “Mother’s Last Word To Her Son” wove a spiritual thread through We Need To Talk About Kevin, the 2011 Tilda Swinton film about a school massacre. Covers of Phillips songs by the likes of Vince Gill, Mogwai, Phish, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Rodney Crowell and Mavis Staples continue to bring attention, while many more musicians are content to listen and be inspired by the true artist who created against all odds.



“Leave it there, oh leave it there,” he sang in that sweet tenor of the truth. “Take your burden to the lord and leave it there.” Sometimes it can be as simple as that, knowing when and where to let go. Sometimes 18 songs is the whole shot.

The three men named George Washington Phillips- the grandfather from Kentucky and his grandsons from Freestone County- are buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery in the countryside six miles west of Teague. But several searches of the “colored” side could locate only two tombstones. That the Washington Phillips who was gospel’s great disappearing act would take his eternal rest in an unmarked grave seems about par for this course in music history.

The great musician didn’t die in the state asylum. And his instrument was not a dolceola. It never really mattered what he played- it doesn’t change the music he left behind. But it’s comforting to know, that the singer who has affected so few people so profoundly, didn’t live out his last few years in mental torment, but surrounded by the people who knew and respected him for who he was.




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Hear Jimmy LaFave sing “In My Life” (John Lennon)

Posted by mcorcoran on May 24, 2017

      1. 07 In My Life

On Oct. 9, 2000, which would’ve been John Lennon’s 60th birthday, Jody Denberg hosted a tribute concert at the KGSR studios. On Facebook, Marsha Milam posted about how Jimmy LaFave just walked in, asked Jody which songs were left (Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin and many other acts were involved) and when he found that “In My Life” hadn’t been claimed, LaFave walked up to the stage, without rehearsal, and sang this number.

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Still Freewheelin’: Happy 76th birthday Bob Dylan

Posted by mcorcoran on May 24, 2017

The best Bob Dylan show I ever saw, will ever see, was in November 1995 at the Austin Music Hall. This was not long after his friend Jerry Garcia died from substance abuse-related causes, and Dylan seemed sharper, more in-the-moment, than the barely coherent legend I saw at the Chicago Theater a couple years earlier. I distinctly remember his great guitar playing on “Silvio” that night in Austin, when he was joined onstage near the end by opening act Ian Moore and Charlie Sexton. The next night was also great, with old friends Doug Sahm and Ray Benson sitting in.

This was the article I wrote for the Statesman to advance the AMH show.


Someone once asked Pete Townshend of the Who what effect Bob Dylan had on him. “That’s like asking me how I was influenced by being born,” Townshend said.

In a conversation about Dylan in the late ’60s, John Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine, “I used to write a book or stories on one hand and write songs on the other. I’d be completely free-form in the book, but when I went to write a song I’d be thinking `dee duh dee duh do dooo, do de do de doo.’ And it took Dylan to say `Oh, come on now, they’re the same thing.”’

Dylan and the Band debuted in Austin in 1965

You wanted to laugh when you first heard it, but then you started listening to what that voice was saying, and you didn’t laugh. You changed and started noticing things, such as all the black maids waiting to catch buses to the rich part of town. Or you looked beyond the daily Vietnam body count on the news and saw the faces of dying youths. You started asking questions.

Bob Dylan is the most important musician of the 20th century because he changed a generation’s way of thinking and forged a literary style of rock that is still vital 35 years after Robert Zimmerman boarded a Greyhound bus in Minneapolis, and Bob Dylan stepped off in New York City. To give you an idea of how much younger musicians look up to Dylan, two recent hits (Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” and Hootie and the Blowfish’s “I Only Wanna Be With You”) were based on Dylan songs, as if those works have become ingrained into America’s emotional landscape.

He took his name from poet Dylan Thomas, but in his early days on the Greenwich Village folk circuit, Dylan was styled after Woody Guthrie, whom he’d often visit in the hospital where the pioneering protest singer was wasting away with Huntington’s disease. Steeped in the folk tradition of stealing out of respect, young Dylan did Guthrie right down to the Huck Finn cap and the penchant for talking blues.

From the Beats, especially Jack Kerouac, Dylan found an undercurrent of jacked-up expression to tap into. But on his second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” the 22-year-old established himself as a major talent in his own right with such moving compositions as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Masters of War,” “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” In his nasal, stretched-out voice, Dylan wiped the likes of Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell off the face of the earth.

Critics often trace the roots of punk back to the Velvet Underground, but that band’s leader, Lou Reed, was a cheesy pop songwriter until Dylan came around to meld poetry with popular music. The song that probably triggered the punk- rock tradition was “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which, truth be told, was inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.” What Dylan brought to Berry’s rapid-fire wisecracks was a streetwise swagger and a sound as exuberant and dangerous as a bus speeding downhill with arms sticking out of all the windows.

The year was 1965, when Dylan was booed by the folk Nazis of Newport because he came out with an electric band and snarled holes into the kumbaya night as he spit out “Johnny’s in the basement/ mixin’ up the medicine/ While I’m on the pavement/ thinkin’ ’bout the government,” as the band plugged into the audience’s hostility and flailed away. That was a great punk-rock moment, nine years before the Ramones first counted off “1-2-3- 4” at that bar in the Bowery called C.B.G.B.’s. Rage and release are the cufflinks of punk, and Dylan’s early rock material remains some of the most snarling music ever made. The lyrics didn’t always follow some apparent meaning, but just hearing them, you know exactly what they’re about.

The generation whose voice was Dylan’s has grown old and had kids and sought comfort where adventure once reigned. And for a while, Dylan did, too, performing infrequently from his alleged 1966 motorcycle accident until his born-again Christian period in the late ’70s. As evidenced by Dylan’s 1984 appearance on the David Letterman show, backed by L.A. punk band the Plugz, the singer-songwriter has opted for a rawer sound during his last 10 years of almost nonstop touring.

Sometimes Dylan’s stripped-down approach works great, as with the recent “MTV Unplugged” segment and subsequent album. Plus, recent reviews have been raving about Dylan’s creative rejuvenation of late. With an ever-changing repertoire (“Drifter’s Escape,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All Along the Watchtower” and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Alabama Getaway” seem to be the only constants) and a solid, unflashy band in drummer Winston Watson, bassist Tony Garnier, guitarist John Jackson and steel guitarist Bucky Baxter, this season’s edition of a Dylan concert is purported to be a winner.

This is good news to fans who’ve followed Dylan’s inconsistencies lately. Like Frank Sinatra, who was tagged for forgetting the words of his signature tunes on his latest tour, Dylan has good days, when his dark genius shines through, and he has bad days, when the audience is forced to play “name that tune.” Such standards as “Tangled Up In Blue” and “Just Like a Woman” have been rendered almost unrecognizable with Dylan’s mumbling and aimless rearranging.

But then, as with Sinatra, there’s no denying the powerful presence of Dylan, even on an off night. He’s Bob Dylan, whose music touched and helped change the world, and to many fans, that’s enough.

Throughout his startling career, Dylan has often been two people simultaneously: the folky and the rocker, the hedonist and the moralist, the Christian and the Jew, the imitator and the original, the gypsy and the sofa lump, the center of attention and the pained recluse. And now he’s the living legend who plays the kind of joints that Natalie Merchant plays. But that’s how he seemingly wants it, plugging in with his overachieving garage band and rolling down Highway 61 one more time.

Off the road, he’s just another schlub at home, taping “Larry Sanders” and cooking spaghetti. But on the stage — any stage — he’s Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of the rock era. On tour, he gets to be Bob Dylan all day long, and can you blame him for wanting that?


WHEN: 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday

WHERE: Austin Music Hall

HOW MUCH: $29-$32


(from box)

Dylan: The essential recordings

1. “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” (1963). Dylan’s self-titled debut consisted mostly of reworked traditional numbers, but this follow-up was filled with powerful originals such as “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Masters Of War” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” All hail the new songwriting genius.

2. “The Times They Are A-Changin”’ (1964). More future classics including the title track, which still serves as the anthem of the turbulent ’60s, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”

3. “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965). Dylan goes electric on the first side of this album, offering up “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Maggie’s Farm,” among others, but then ends the album with a string of his greatest acoustic songs, including “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” If you can afford only one Bob Dylan album … you need to find a better-paying job.

4. “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965). The title track is perhaps Dylan’s most electrifying number, and this album ends with what could be his darkest tune, “Desolation Row.” This is a record of extremes, with the classic first track, “Like a Rolling Stone,” leading into the snarling “Tombstone Blues.”

5. “Blonde On Blonde” (1966). This double album generally is regarded as Dylan’s greatest recorded triumph, but that’s mainly because it had twice as much music, because everything Dylan did during the amazingly prolific ’65-’66 period was absolutely brilliant.

6. “John Wesley Harding” (1968). It was the height of ’60s freakdom. The Beatles just had made “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” while the Stones were working their bit of weirdness with “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request.” Meanwhile Dylan bucked the trend by making an album of acoustic moral parables. You’ll find “Drifter’s Escape,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” on this one.

7. “Blood On the Tracks” (1974). Dylan’s latterday masterpiece opens with the enduring “Tangled Up in Blue” and just keeps on rolling through material such as “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “Simple Twist of Fate.” Don’t call it a comeback!

8. “Infidels” (1983). After his puzzling, yet not altogether meritless born-again period, Dylan launched this return to Philistine-like prowess. “Neighborhood Bully,” an indictment of U.S. foreign policy, rocks hard, while “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” and “Sweetheart Like You” are tuneful emotional workouts.

9. “Oh Mercy” (1989). Producer Daniel Lanois gave Dylan a textured bedrock sound that inspired such groove-oriented tunes as “Political World” and “Everything’s Broken.” Never before has a producer’s stamp been so evident on a Dylan album, but one can’t argue with the results.

10. “The Bootleg Series” (1991). This three-disc set shows that Dylan’s throwaways and unused tracks are better than almost anyone else’s keepers. It’s amazing that “Blind Willie McTell,” recorded 10 years earlier, never made it on an album until now.


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‘All Over the Map’ Dedication: Stephen Bruton

Posted by mcorcoran on May 9, 2017

Stephen Bruton, T Bone Burnett and Flex Fleming, Fort Worth circa 1964.

One Saturday, every Saturday, in Fort Worth, 1960: A pair of 12-year-olds in the T.H. Conn music store messing around with the various stringed instruments hanging from the walls. The shorter of the kids always went back to his favorite guitar, a beat-up Epiphone Texan acoustic, which had the sweetest tone he’d ever heard. Finally, he brought it over to owner Woods Moore, and they talked for a while, with Moore scratching his chin before agreeing to a deal. “Stephen got that guitar for about half of what it was worth,” T Bone Burnett recalled in 2009 of his smooth-talking friend, musician Stephen Bruton. “He took it home on the city bus in a brown paper wrapper.”

Five decades later, the lifelong friends earned critical raves for their original film score to Crazy Heart, which got Jeff Bridges his Oscar as a washed-up country singer with one good song left in him. “This film has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Burnett, who was one of the movie’s producers in addition to sharing music supervisor credit with Bruton. “When we won the L.A. Film Critics award, it was so sad for Stephen to not be there. This was really his film. I turned the music over to him.” Austin music mentor Bruton died at 60 in May 2009 at Burnett’s home in Los Angeles after a 2 1/2-year battle with throat cancer. Burnett and director Scott Cooper screened Crazy Heart for Bruton about two weeks before he died.

“We just set out to do something really good, and Stephen knew we had done that,” said Burnett, whose wife Callie Khouri based the Nashville TV series character Deacon Clayborn on Bruton. A recovering alcoholic, Bruton made some really good records under his own name, but thrived mostly in the shadows. He had looks and ambition, but his talents were as guitar player, songwriter, producer.

Stephen Bruton photo by Todd V. Wolfson.

After leaving Cowtown for good in the early ’70s, Burnett and Bruton took separate career paths, with Bruton plying the guitarist trade with Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt, among other notables. Burnett made his name as a producer with the first Los Lobos record, Elvis Costello’s King of America, Gillian Welch’s Revival and other fantastic records, but he really shot into the stratosphere as a producer with the multiplatinum touch on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2000 and then seven years later topped it with Raising Sand by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

As a guitarist/songwriter for hire, Bruton was sometimes frustrated that his oldest friend, now a music industry mogul, wouldn’t throw much work his way. But T Bone said he was just waiting for the perfect project. “When Crazy Heart was a go, Stephen was the first person I called,” he said in 2009. I visited with Bruton while he was undergoing treatment for cancer in 2007. He was going to beat it, no two ways about it. He was a South Austin Superman, able to resuscitate an ailing club called the Saxon Pub, not to mention the careers of Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Alejandro Escovedo, and the livers of hundreds he helped get sober. In his home studio, Bruton had a picture on a music stand of him playing guitar with Brownsville native Kris Kristofferson for the first time, in 1971 at the Lion’s Share in San Rafael, California. Bruton was 20 and Kristofferson was on a Jimmy Webb-like songwriting tear that included “For the Good Times,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me and Bobby McGee” in quick succession.

The two had met in Fort Worth a couple years earlier and when a spot opened in his band, Kristofferson asked Bruton if he was interested in playing the guitar. “Man, that’s all I’m interested in.” Stephen ended up playing with Kris for 17 years. Playing with Raitt was his main gig in the early ‘90s, but then Bruton came off the road to write songs, produce records (After Awhile by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Gravity by Alejandro Escovedo) and play his own gigs. At age 40, he became a first-time frontman. And the star of meetings in the basements of Protestant churches. The night he died, I was on the phone with Kristofferson to write the obit. He talked about proudly watching the hotshot guitar-playing kid become a man. “When my son was going through some hard times, Stephen was there to help him get sober,” said Kristofferson, on the verge of breaking down.

It was good karma for what Kris had done for an insecure songwriter decades earlier. “Kris was always so encouraging,” said Bruton in 2007. His confidence grew when he co-wrote the title track of Kristofferson’s 1972 album Border Lord, but Bruton’s greatest writing thrill when Raitt and Willie Nelson sang a duet of “Getting Over You” on Willie’s terrific 1993 LP Across the Borderline. Between T Bone and Kristofferson was Delbert McClinton, who was Bruton’s running buddy in the ’60s, when a teenaged Stephen and his older brother Sumter III were guitarists in the house band of a Fort Worth juke joint called the Bluebird. Their father, a jazz drummer, owned the hippest record store in Fort Worth, and the Bruton brothers soaked up all that rhythm and blues. In McClinton, who would later teach John Lennon how to play blues harmonica, Bruton found a kindred musical spirit. They grooved to Texas music, that lowdown blues/funk/country sound, where the juke joint met the honky tonk. Bruton would come home from a Kristofferson tour of concert halls, and then just as happily play dives with Delbert. Through his association with Kristofferson, who always kept his band with him when he was shooting movies, Bruton beefed up an acting resume. He loved being in movies so much that when he was late for guitarist Jon Dee Graham’s wedding in 1998, someone joked, “turn on a movie camera and he’ll be here in five minutes.” Though he had a bigger role in the 2004 remake of The Alamo, Bruton’s most memorable movie scene was in Songwriter, when Bruton, shivering in his skivvies, has a beer bottle shot off his head by Rip Torn, as punishment for fooling around with the Torn character’s wife.

Bruton and Jeff Bridges were inseparable on the set of Crazy Heart.

Bruton knew the road life, both sides, as well as anybody, and he used pieces of that in helping compile the character of Crazy Heart’s Bad Blake. It was his idea, for instance, to have Blake empty out a urine-filled water bottle after a long drive. But Bruton’s chief contribution was crafting such songs as “I Don’t Know,” “Somebody Else” and “Fallin’ & Flyin’” that would fit Blake’s career.

Before a song was written, Burnett and Bruton listened to the records Blake would’ve grown up on- from bluegrass to Haggard to Dylan- to get inside his musical evolution. The listening sessions brought the pair back to Record Town, which father Sumter Bruton Jr. opened near the Texas Christian University campus in 1957 and is still there (as of 2017). “Back then you couldn’t order records unless you had a record store,” Burnett said. “So Stephen could get, like, old blues and bluegrass records from the Library of Congress that nobody else could get.” The teens would thumb through catalogs and then wait for records by Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf to arrive. At night, the underage pair and McClinton would dive into the musical melting pot that was Fort Worth, hiding under pool tables to catch black rockabilly great Ray Sharpe and slipping in some Jacksboro Highway roadhouse to hear Ernest Tubb.

“From my point of view, Stephen embodied the soul of Texas music,” Burnett said. “He went deep into what made it unique. I learned so much from him.” Asked what was it about Fort Worth that made it special, Burnett recalled a scene from The Last Picture Show, when the main characters are sitting out by a desolate stock pond. “The ground is gray and the water’s gray and the trees are gray, and the Ben Johnson character says, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’” Burnett said. “(Fort Worth) didn’t seem like much to most people, but it was a magical place to us.”

Crazy Heart ends with an a capella version of “Live Forever,” the Billy Joe Shaver song, sung by Robert Duvall, then the credits end with a dedication to the memory of Stephen Bruton. He passed six months before the movie opened.

On the night of May 9, 2009, Bruton told his loved ones keeping a vigil at his bedside that he was going to sleep. He never woke up. Leaning up against his bed was that old beat-up Epiphone Texan, the guitar he bought in Fort Worth in 1960. It’s the guitar he played in the score of Crazy Heart. They made it almost 50 years together.

Let’s also dedicate this book to Turner Stephen Bruton, who tapped into the soul of Texas music whenever he was onstage, in the studio or just alone at home, writing a song he couldn’t wait to play for someone.

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RIP Roscoe: Death of a True Believer

Posted by mcorcoran on April 21, 2017

It’s fashionable to bitch about newcomers in Austin, even though we all came from somewhere else. But some transplants are more like reinforcements, letting us know through their unbridled enthusiasm that we live in a special place.

Ross Shoemaker, who everyone here called Roscoe, came down with the great Oklahoma migration of the ‘80s. At first he was known as “the guy who recorded The Shit Hits the Fans,” the legendarily awful/perfect, drunken Replacements set at the Bowery, where he worked in Oklahoma City. God, how Roscoe loved the ‘Mats! But after you ran into him a few times and hung out at a couple 3 a.m. living room parties, you knew him as the guy who loved ALL his music deeply and sincerely. He was the pure fan, not a snob. I would tell him the Replacements were way overrated and he would laugh and rattle off 26 song titles that told me it didn’t matter what I thought.

Roscoe, who got jobs at Waterloo Records and Liberty Lunch so he could be around music fulltime, died last night in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. He’d moved back to his home state at least 20 years ago. Got married, had a daughter, stayed in touch. At about 9 p.m. Wednesday, Ross was driving his Ford Focus when a Cadillac Escalade crossed into his lane and hit him head on. Cause of the accident is being investigated.

The word spread through Facebook Thursday morning like a Roscoe whoop at a True Believers show. The first things folks who knew him mentioned was that he was a great friend of music and a devoted father to teenaged daughter Sadie. To me he represented Austin in the ‘80s, when you toyed with excesses daily because that party was too good to end. All the bands we were getting tired of- Doctors’ Mob, Wild Seeds, True Believers, Poison 13, etc.- almost became new again in Roscoe’s pure and devout worship. “His love of music was contagious,” Max Crawford of Poi Dog Pondering posted on Facebook. Words that should be engraved somewhere meaningful.

Following Ross on Facebook was a human roller coaster ride. His bad days were painful, especially after he lost his job a couple years ago, but then he’d see a great band or run into an old friend and it would be the Roscoe of old. “Awesome” was his favorite word and it meant something when he said it.

I enjoyed a perfect day with Roscoe in June 2014 when I was sent to Tulsa for a story about the lawyer who represented the wife in a divorce that was settled for $1 billion. I couldn’t wait for the interview to be over because I was meeting Ross for lunch at Goldie’s, a hamburger joint recommended by former Tulsa musician Ron Flynt. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly about the highs and lows of being a single parent. We both married dumb, but conceived wisely. Roscoe’s ex was a newlywed or about to be, so she was always calling him to modify the custody situation, he said. “I always say ‘sure,’” Roscoe told me. “I’ll take every minute I can get with my daughter.” We had a lot in common, but not all of it good. I think Roscoe was 9 months sober at the time and went to meetings.

The best part of the day was when Roscoe proudly showed me around Tulsa, with its rich musical history. We went inside the famous Cain’s Ballroom, which would probably be a CVS right now if it was located in Austin, then drove to Leon Russell’s old church studio where so much great Leon, Tom Petty, Freddie King and J.J. Cale stuff was recorded. He took me to the Woody Guthrie Museum, which is worth a long drive in itself, then showed me Guthrie Green, a fantastic free live music venue bankrolled by a billionaire music lover. He showed me the small club where Alejandro Escovedo had played just a few days earlier and where Roscoe got to catch up with his old friend. He moved away, but never really left. Last stop was the intersection of Greenwood, Archer and Pine Streets, from where Tulsa’s GAP Band got their name. It was a great day to talk about the music we love, where some of it was made.

About two weeks ago, Roscoe proudly posted the list of Rolling Stone magazine’s “50 Greatest Live Records of All Time,” which ranked The Shit at No. 50. M’man produced one of the 50 greatest live records of all time! Then gave the tape to the band because that’s the kind of fan, the kind of man, he was.

If you can live a life like Ross Shoemaker did, so full of love and enthusiasm, you will have a great one. It will be a real life of ups and downs, deep sorrows and bursts of euphoria. A life that touches many.

“Alex Chilton” is a song about being a fan. I’m playing it for Roscoe now and it’s never sounded sadder. This is gonna take some time.


Posted in Austin, Austin-Zeitgeist, Music, Uncategorized | 16 Comments »

Mirth, Sins & Fire: 40 years of throwing my life away

Posted by mcorcoran on April 13, 2017

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

525 Cummins St. The former home of Sunbums and me.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer my senior year of high school. She died at the end of freshman year of college and I never really went back, for a variety of reasons. But mainly I was using my license to go a little crazy.

In December 1974, an Islands sensation named Aerosmith- who were totally unknown on the Mainland except in Boston- opened for the Guess Who at the HIC Arena. The sold-out venue of 7,500 had about 1,000 left when Guess Who were done. Half the crowd left immediately after Aerosmith. Never seen an opening act blow a headliner off the stage like that, so I decided to write a review and send it in to Sunbums, Honolulu’s counterculture rag.

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Photo by P.F. Bentley

Within days I got a nice letter from the new Sunbums editor Kathryn Hellenbrand, saying that they already had the Aerosmith review covered, but she liked the other piece I had sent in as a sample of my non-musical writing. It was a first-person account of getting my ear lobe needled called “Preparing For Piercehood.” She set up a meeting, and the rest, as they say…

I don’t know what I would’ve done in 1975 without Sunbums. My dad remarried horribly and I was set out into the world. Kathy became my mentor and 525 Cummins Street, in the hideous Kaka’ako neighborhood of Honolulu, became my new home. I was sleeping in the back room of my job at the Ford Island Gym in Pearl Harbor, but if I wasn’t there, I was at Sunbums or reviewing concerts or down on Hotel Street, where the transvestite prostitutes were better looking than the girls.

Better known today as “Shanghai Kate,” Hellenbrand was 31 at the time, living with the tattoo artist Mike Malone, and they had bought Sailor Jerry’s famous tattoo shop at 1033 Smith Street. Having come from New York City, Kate and Mike were streetwise as hell, something I decidedly was not. They took in strays and I was ready to follow anyone. Boy, did I hit the lowlife highlife lottery!

When I arrived on the masthead of Sunbums in January 1975, it was pretty full of rock critics. Or folks pretending to be, so I mainly wrote “humor” pieces at first, but I exhibited a real flair for concert reviews, so after a few months I was the lead guy.

Now, while my mother was alive I had never smoked a joint, never gotten drunk, never shoplifted, never did anything illegal. I even waited until my 18th birthday to go to the porno shops, when there was nobody checking IDs.

But I was on my own at 19, basically orphaned, so I made up for lost time. The first time I got stoned was driving over the Pali Highway with Kate and her prostitute friend/ Sunbums associate editor, going to see Blazing Saddles. The three of us were howling uncontrollably to the point that the usher came to ask us to please keep it down.

I had never purchased drugs until the day of the Earth, Wind & Fire concert I was to review at the Waikiki Shell in June 1975- 40 years ago this week! I split a gram of coke with Kate and she pulled over at McDonald’s and I ran in for some coffee stirrers, which looked like plastic coke spoons back then. Just having drugs in my pocket made me high.

When I got to the Shell that night and went to pick up my ticket, it came with a backstage pass. Since Sunbums was owned by mid-level promoter JFL Concerts, I knew that backstage passes had varying levels of access. One of my jobs at JFL shows, even the ones I reviewed, was as gofer for the VIP area, so I saw how most of the folks sporting those passes couldn’t get in there, with the free booze and nice food spreads. So when I slapped on the sticker at EW&F I didn’t expect much. But I thought I would just keep walking backstage until someone said “that’s far enough,” and to my astonishment I was waved through all the way to the VIP. Now I could do that coke! So I went into the men’s room and found a stall and started dipping in that McDonald’s spoon and, basically, blowing white powder all over the bathroom floor. After a few minutes there was this big rush of people into the bathroom and I could hear the door lock behind them. They were black guys yelling at each other about getting high before the show. They were Earth, Wind & Fire!


They settled their deal in about 10 minutes and after they left, I remember sitting there on the commode with my clothes on thinking “this is the life I want to be part of.” And I’ve never looked back.

Been some lean years. Been an intervention or two. Been times when I wished I’d had a job pounding nails or digging ditches- anything but this writing that won’t come. But I have to say it’s been a great life overall. I’m good at it and it pays the bills.

Anyway, all this came up again like bad Chinese, when I read all those posts from Bonnaroo, where by most accounts Earth, Wind & Fire were the hits of day one. (They’re coming to Austin July 23 on a double bill with Chicago). I found a recent nostalgia column written by Hawaii’s legendary promoter Tom Moffatt (unfortunately named “Uncle Tom’s Gabbin’”) that quoted from my June 1975 Earth Wind & Fire review and there seemed to be some juice in the 40th anniversary. Forty years of throwing my life away, the best way I know how.

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Austin’s ‘Street of Dreams’: From Pecan Street to Dirty Sixth

Posted by mcorcoran on April 10, 2017

“A big rat came out of one of the old buildings and scampered into an alley. A discarded newspaper fluttered against a parking meter in the early morning breeze. Keys grated in locks and doors opened and the smell of hot coffee came into The Street.
East Sixth Street was open for business.”

– Dan Grover, Austin American Statesman, July 1953

Austin’s most famous street has earned the nickname “Dirty Sixth” over the past few years, with a boozy, unruly Bourbon Street-like atmosphere and a YouTube driven reputation for violence. You almost forget the history of the street whose majority of buildings, even those housing tattoo parlors, frat bars and gawdy gift shops, were erected in the late 1800s.

The mob that mills between the barricades on weekends tripled during South by Southwest and became menacing, with street brawls and cops in riot formation. “SXSW has lost Sixth Street” was my shortest tweet of the week, as I gave up trying to see a band that was just two blocks away. The few, miserable-looking badge-wearing registrants I saw moved through the roving street gangs and drunken frats like they were navigating chest-high swampwater. This was not in the brochure!

The proximity of clubs on Sixth, many of which change to live music venues for a week to catch a whiff of the windfall, was a key to the appeal of SXSW in the early years. But during this past fest, two forays into the fray reminded me of that line from Apocalypse Now: “Don’t get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right. Why would I ever leave South Austin during the third week of March?

This Saturday will be another crazy time on Sixth, as the last night of the Texas Relays has become the traditional Black Party Night in Austin. Not only will there be the Urban Music Festival at Butler Park (starring Kool and the Gang), but Sixth will be packed from Brazos to Red River Streets with tens of thousands of African-American teenagers and young adults trying to hook up.

Stubb’s tried to capitalize on the crowd one year and held a big hip-hop show with national acts. But they sold fewer than 60 tickets to the 2,000-capacity venue. Two blocks was too far from the real action, called “parking lot pimpin’,” with the closed-off street creating a free venue.

Some Sixth Street merchants and club owners made news a few years ago when they closed the night of Black Saturday, some nailing plywood over their windows. Their venues didn’t cater to the crowd and none of their usual customers could get through the mob, they argued, but the moves smacked of racism.

History reminds us that Sixth Street, which turns 175 years old in May, was built on true diversity. While the rest of Austin abided by rules of Jim Crow segregation, East Sixth was always open to every race. Black businesses were next to white, Lebanese, Chinese and Hispanic storefronts. White businesses on Sixth, like Hyman Samuelson’s Crown Tailors at 408 E. Sixth, advertised on black radio shows, such as Lavada Durst’s “Dr. Hepcat” on KVET. “Now if you want to be draped in shape and hep on down, get your frantic fronts at Crown,” Durst would say.

Master tailor Eli Gonzales and owner Hyman Samuelson help a customer at Crown Tailors 408 E. Sixth St. circa 1950.

Sixth Street is the closest Austin’s ever gotten to 14th St. in Manhattan. And yet today it’s become synonymous with hooligans and loud, stupid noise.

Sixth Street is at a crossroads, with most business owners and patrons pining for the more manageable past. Downtown streetscaping plans have been submitted to wash that “Dirty” right offa the street, making Sixth an “18 hours a day” family-friendly destination. Vote yes on the proposition, known as the Good Luck With That bond.

But when you consider the history of Sixth Street, it’s an avenue well worth saving. Sixth Street is actually the coolest thing about Austin.

I’ve been learning about Sixth in the 2010 book Images of America, Sixth Street, by Allen Childs, an Austin doctor who worked as a boy at his family’s shoe store on E. Sixth St. A lot of things I didn’t know, like Austin’s first HEB, then called H.E. Butts was at 600 E. Sixth Street. The Academy retail chain started as a military surplus shop on Sixth. Twin Liquors grew out of Jabour’s. And Austin’s first J.C. Penney’s was in the building at 204 E. Sixth St. where Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson once ran a boardinghouse on the second floor, while her husband made caskets on the ground floor.

E. Sixth has the greatest concentration of limestone Victorian commercial buildings west of the Mississippi. But even more impressive is the street’s human legacy. In a 1978 article in the Austin Sun about a fight between preservationists and developers over the 100 block, home then of Antone’s blues club and O.K. Records, Sixth Street was described as “breathing with a truly diverse urban life all its own.” But developers won that battle.

Why Sixth Street and not Fifth or Seventh? Sixth, originally called Pecan Street, became Austin’s east-west Main Street because it was the most level path from the east. And it was the closest street to the Colorado River that didn’t flood when the water would jump the banks in the years before a dam was built in the 1890’s. It was safe to build on well-traveled Sixth Street and so settlers and immigrants built dry goods stores and saloons and sporting houses and hotels. When the Houston and Texas Central Railroad came to Austin in 1871, the town’s population doubled to 10,000 in a year. Pecan Street was dubbed “The Street of Dreams.”

Austin’s red light district of gambling dens and houses of prostitution was called Guy Town and located between Lavaca and Colorado Streets south of Fifth until Mayor A.P. Wooldridge cleaned it up in 1913. But most legitimate business happened on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street.

Congress was segregated, so blacks couldn’t go to the Paramount Theatre. But they could watch movies at the Lyric Theater at 419 E. Sixth St., which was opened by prominent African-American dentist Everett Givens in the 1920s. Blacks were also welcome at the Ritz Theater, which opened in 1929, though they had to sit in the balcony. Austin’s first black business owner Ed Carrington bought an empty lot at 518 E. Sixth (Pecan) St. in 1872 and built a grocery store. Brother Albert opened a blacksmith shop behind the store. You don’t even notice that building at Sixth and Red River on weekends because there’s so much barking human traffic.

The 700 block of E. Sixth became mostly Hispanic at the turn of the 20th century, with Garza’s Meat Market and Austin’s first Tex-Mex restaurant, El Original, across the street from where Easy Tiger is now.

Sixth Street had various Chinese laundries in its early years and a Chinese Restaurant, Joe Lung’s, which opened in 1916 at the current location of Shawn Cirkiel’s Parkside eatery. Lung had been recruited, along with thousands of other Chinese natives, from his home near Canton to help build the U.S. railroads and decided to stay.

Sixth Street in the 1890’s.

Austin and Sixth Street were born the same day. Mirabeau B. Lamar, who succeeded Sam Houston as president of the Republic of Texas, discovered Waterloo, as Austin was originally called, while camping near the mouth of Shoal Creek while on a buffalo hunt. The town was home to two families at the time. Lamar suggested the location to the commission created to select a permanent site for the capital of Texas and they agreed, renaming Waterloo, Austin in April 1839. Lamar’s agent, Judge Edwin Waller, arrived the next month to lay out the town. In that original 15-block square, he named the north-south streets after Texas rivers and all the east-west streets after indigenous trees.

Sixth Street was Pecan Street until 1884, when the city had overgrown available tree names and decided to go numerical. Two years later, Sixth Street had its crown jewel when cattle baron, Col. Jessie Driskill built Austin’s first grand hotel at the corner of Sixth and Brazos. (Col. Driskill would lose his namesake hotel in a card game about 10 years later.)

Austin’s first financial center, the Littlefield Building, opened at the northeast corner of Sixth and Congress in 1911. For the first half of the 20th century, Sixth Street was bustling. As evidenced by the 1953 Statesman article which remarked that one could buy a reefer on any corner, Sixth Street started to fall on hard times after WWII, when Austin’s first shopping centers and suburban flight drew away customers. When I-35 was built in 1959, erasing the prosperous East Avenue melting pot, it created a barrier from East Austin.

Sixth and Neches, 1968.

The almighty Driskill closed in 1969 and was saved from demolition only through a campaign that raised $2 million. The next year the Ritz became a porno movie house. “The Street of Dreams” had become Skid Row.

But various Austinites wouldn’t give up on what was once Austin’s most vibrant thoroughfare. Architect David Graeber and wife Jean paid $13,000 for a condemned building at 410 E. Sixth St. in 1968 and turned it into an Architectural Digest-worthy home, with an indoor swimming pool.

Four years later, Ralph McElroy and Randy Baird opened the Old Pecan Street Café, Austin’s continental cuisine debut, in the former Zegub’s shoe repair store at 314 E. Sixth. It became such a sensation that they expanded next door to the former Big State used furniture location.

In 1974, Jim Franklin turned the abandoned Ritz Theater into a music venue. Shannon Sedwick and Michael Shelton kept the Ritz going, then gave Sixth an entertainment anchor with Esther’s Follies, at the same corner of Red River Street where Skinny Pryor once ran the Spanish-language moviehouse, the Cactus Theater.

History should be important to everyone, not just those born here, but the couple in a U-Haul asking directions to Oltorf. So much of our foundation as a city, as a people, is built on six blocks from Congress Avenue east to Waller Creek. Six blocks “with just enough danger to make it interesting,” as the Sun reported in ’78. Six blocks that have represented all of Austin for 175 years.

A little bit of danger and a whole lot of history makes Sixth Street worth revitalizing, no matter what the cost or inconvenience.

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Pulling Out All the Stops: Mike Flanigin’s B3 Shot

Posted by mcorcoran on April 8, 2017

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin was a guitar player, a real good one. In 1992, the Denton native toured the country with the Red Devils, the L.A.-based blues band whose debut King King was produced by Rick Rubin. After the Devils broke up in ’94, he moved to Austin because this is where guitar players go to chase work and tail and, maybe in the process, get a real education.

And then one night at Antone’s, in the corner of his eye, he saw the Hammond B3. Flanigin was playing an organ song- Big John Patton’s “Let ‘Em Roll”- on a steel guitar and he asked himself why wasn’t he playing it on that B3? Which was all it took. The first time Flanigin pressed his fingers down on the B3, he was no longer a guitar player. “Even when I didn’t know how to play, I knew this was the instrument I was meant for,” he said from the 1960’s house he rents in Rollingwood. “The B3 required all my attention, so I didn’t have time for the guitar anymore.” You don’t dabble with that four-legged cabinet that holds an empire of sound- it takes over your life.

Flanigin’s debut solo LP The Drifter, which comes out August 21 with special guests Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons, Kat Edmonson, Jimmie Vaughan, Rev. Gean West and Alejandro Escovedo, is the culmination of two decades of learning how to lock it down on the B3. But it also tells the story of his life in lyrics that this son of an Air Force pilot has been accumulating through his travels in the wild blues yonder. The title track of The Drifter is a Gatemouth Brown cover sang by Gibbons, but the other nine songs are Flanigin originals.

When he was still quite green, with his only organ experience in Doyle Bramhall Sr.’s band for a few months, Flanigin opened for B3 kingpin Jimmy Smith at the Mercury. Considering that Smith had recorded nearly 40 classic soul-jazz records for the Blue Note and Verve labels beginning in 1956, this would be like opening for Richard Pryor with knock-knock jokes. But Flanigin, then 32, got the gig because the club needed to provide a B3 and Flanigin had one. Luckily, this was the ground-floor version of the Mercury, not the one upstairs that’s now called the Parish, because hauling a 425-lb B3 and a Leslie speaker almost as heavy up a flight of stairs has caused many a roadie to consider another line of work.


Mike Flanigin in Marfa. Photo by Ashley McCue.

“I hoped and prayed that Jimmy Smith would show up right before he went on and miss my set,” said Flanigin, feeling insecure about his pairing with the absolute genius of grit n’ soul. “At one point I looked over and there he was. JIMMY SMITH WAS WATCHING ME PLAY THE ORGAN! I just froze up, man. I stopped playing,” Flanigin was able to compose himself after a long minute and finished the set.

The B3 actually belonged to Mike Judge, who Flanigin knew from Dallas, when the Silicon Valley creator played bass for Anson Funderburgh. Since Hammond stopped producing B3s in 1975, the organ had to be over 20 years old, but it had never been played in public when Judge bought it. Smith, who’d been playing every beat-up piece of shit organ the clubs provided on his tour, loved the pristine instrument.

After the crowd had cleared out, Smith went back onstage and sat at the organ. Flanigin was up there to get the B3 ready to move, but Smith motioned for him to sit next to him on the bench. And for the next 30 minutes, the master showed the novice a few things on the B3.

“I had heard that Jimmy Smith could be difficult and moody- that was his reputation,” said Flanigin, “but he was nothing but nice to me that night.” Flanigin would, a few years later, see the temperamental side of Smith, when the icon refused to go back onstage at Antone’s after the club’s B3 temporarily died on him. But that night at the Mercury was a magical experience that will stay with Flanigin forever.

“It’s all the blues, man,” Smith told the kid after one adventurous run. “I was thinking ‘that’s not like any blues I’ve ever heard,’” Flanigin said with a chuckle. The legend’s impromptu tutorial showed Flanigin just how much he had to learn.

Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith

James Oscar Smith of Philadelphia started off as a piano player, but switched in 1953 when he heard Wild Bill Davis play the Hammond organ in Milt Larkin’s Houston-based big band. A key selling point for music school graduate Smith was that the organ never went out of tune. The first great electric organ player of note was piano legend Fats Waller, who grew up playing church organ at his father’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Waller taught Count Basie, who made the organ swing in the ‘30s. Chicago’s Les Strand earned the nickname “the Art Tatum of the organ” in the ‘40s and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, and there was also Smith’s Philadelphia neighbor Bill Doggett, who played a Hammond in Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five before forming his own band and having a smash with sax man Clifford Scott on “Honky Tonk (Pts. 1 and 2)” in 1956. But improvisational virtuoso Smith created much of the language of the Hammond B3 organ and anybody who’s played it after, even the rock and R&B players like Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Greg Rolie of Santana, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Booker T. Jones and Billy Preston, have got some Jimmy Smith in their heads. He is the Source, like T-Bone Walker on the electric blues guitar.

The B3 came out in 1954, just when Smith was starting out, and he pioneered the walking bass lines with his left hand and fleet-fingered single note runs on his right that emulated Charlie Parker. Smith’s hands clasped the relationship between the upper and lower keyboards, while his feet on the pedals colored the undertones like a mournful string bass. The 1956 LP, The Incredible Jimmy Smith, changed everything.

The Philadelphia area was as fertile for B3 players as Chicago was for electric blues guitarists, with Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Don Patterson and more coming from Philly and New Jersey. The Garden State is where Flanigin tracked down one of his favorite organists Big John Patton, in 1999. “As a blues guitarist coming up, almost all your heroes had passed away,” Flanigin said. “But when I really started getting into the B3, I found out that most of the greats who played on my favorite records were still alive.” He knew that if he was going to get better he had to apprentice with a total pro.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Flanigin relocated to Boston at the turn of the 21st century when his wife at the time had a job there. Checking the New York City papers one day he saw an upcoming gig by Big John Patton at the Jazz Standard, so he took the train from Boston for the show. “He was a pretty dark cat, not really very approachable,” said Flanigin, but when it turned out that the older woman he’d struck up a conversation with was Patton’s wife Thelma, she introduced Flanigin to his hero. “I said, ‘I’d sure like to come to your house some day and learn a few things,'” Flanigin recalled, “and he said ‘sure, how ’bout tomorrow?'” Flanigin took the bus to Montclair, NJ, expecting to knock on the door of a mansion. After all, Patton, guitarist Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon made some of the greatest jazz organ trio records ever at Blue Note in the ’60s. This man was musical royalty, so Flanigin was surprised to see the Pattons living in a one-bedroom apartment. Flanigin slept on the couch and every morning for a week, he woke up to Big John’s B3 sounds while Thelma cooked breakfast. “All John ever wanted to do was play,” said Flanigin. For ten hours every day, the jazz great would show the student some things, then watch him try them on his own. You can’t get training like that at music school.

Flanigin visited the Pattons regularly over the next two years, usually staying over for about a week at a time, before heading back to Boston. Some nights Patton took Flanigin to organ-centric jazz clubs in Harlem. “He’d say, ‘This is my man, Mike. He’s a great organ player,'” and I’d feel like a million bucks.”

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Patton died in 2002 at age 66 from complications due to diabetes. His Hammond B3, which he bought in 1963 at Macy’s, sits in Flanigin’s living room. “We tried to get the Smithsonian to take it, but they wouldn’t, so Thelma gave it to me,” said Flanigin, who paid about $1,000 to have it shipped to him in Austin.

On a recent afternoon, Flanigin sat at Big John’s “desk,” which is what a lot of players call their B3s, and showed its features. Besides two 61-note keyboards, the organ has 24 foot bars, a volume pedal and 38 drawbars, also called “stops,” which a player can customize for his own sound. The term “pulling out all the stops” refers to an organ player who’s opened all the drawbars for crescendos. “It looks really complicated,” Flanigin said of the setup before him, “but it’s like driving a car. There are all those knobs and pedals, but after a while it becomes second nature.”


The electric organ was invented by Laurens Hammond of Evanston, IL in 1934 and advertised as an economical alternative to the massive pipe organs of churches, theaters and baseball stadiums. In that way, it was the first synthesizer. A non-musician, Hammond held 110 patents and had earlier invented an electric clock, which gave him his fortune, plus 3D movies and a card-shuffling contraption. Needing a new money-maker after the Hammond Electric Bridge Table ran its course, selling 14,000 units in two years, Hammond based the organ on the synchronized motor he used for his clock. He realized that it could produce tones that would never go out of tune. That was the gimmick, but Hammond’s accountant, a church organist, persuaded Hammond to go further and invent a new kind of electric organ. The sound on a Hammond is produced by 91 tone wheels, which revolve around a magnetic coil. Much of the appeal was that the keyboard action could be fast, like a piano, but it had the ability to sustain notes.

The B3's AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

The B3’s AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

In 1935, the first year of production, Hammond sold 1,750 organs to churches, but also drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which looked into a complaint by pipe organ manufacturers that Hammond was using deceptive advertising when it claimed that the $2,600 Model A could duplicate the sounds of a $75,000 pipe organ. A blind listening test was held and about 1/3 of the participants guessed that the Hammond was the pipe organ, which ended up being great publicity for Hammond.

Chicago-based Hammond introduced the BC model in 1936, the C model in ’39, the B-2 and C-2 in ’49 and the B-3 and C-3 in 1954. Besides churches, radio soap operas were early Hammond organ customers. Then, when Ethel Smith of Pittsburgh had a huge hit with “Tico Tico,” from the 1944 Red Skelton film Bathing Beauty, the home market exploded for Hammond, which produced the spinet organ in 1949.

Bobbie Nelson, who plays with her brother Willie’s band, got a job demonstrating Hammond organs in Fort Worth and paid the bills for years that way. Also up in Fort Worth in the late ’60s was Austin B3 favorite Red Young, “the Organizer,” who played organ on Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976, toured with Sonny & Cher, Dolly Parton and Joan Armatrading, recorded on sessions with Nelson Riddle and now plays all those great organ parts for Eric Burdon and the Animals. And we can’t forget Austin’s first great B3 player Dr. James Polk, who plays most Monday nights at the Continental Gallery with sax player Elias Haslanger.

During the ’70’s, jazz moved into a rock fusion sound that ditched the B3 in favor of clavinets, synthesizers and electric pianos. And the home market was taken over by cheaper digital keyboards. Hammond discontinued the B3 in 1975 and filed for bankruptcy 10 years later. But the B3 has gotten even hipper, especially after such acts as Medeski, Martin and Wood and Galactic introduced organ jams to festival crowds.

Hammond was bought by Suzuki Music of Japan, which produced a new B3 in 2009, but no self-respecting soul-jazz player would go for that digital model. Everybody wants to play what Jimmy Smith played. You’ve gotta have that attitude if you’re going to give your life to the B3. And this is the many-faceted instrument which is known to inspire such desire.



Ethel Smith becomes a thing with “Tico, Tico”

Jimmy Smith delivers “The Sermon”

Unsung: the Billy Preston Story

“Let ‘Em Roll” by Big John Patton



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