Cheatham Street Warehouse and the Outlaw Songwriting Tradition in Texas by Dr. Gregg Andrews

Introduction: Guest Blogger — Dr. Gregg Andrews

When I first met Dr. Gregg Andrews, I instinctively liked him, but then I have met few people who wear white snakeskin boots so easily that I did not get along with.  Having listened to some of his music, I mentioned that he sounded like a blend of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Billy Joe Shaver.  I think the smile that appeared on his face was much less from receiving a compliment than from finding someone else in the room who wanted to talk about Billy Joe Shaver.  I immediately felt this blog would be that rarest of pairings: the perfect meeting of author and subject.

Dr. Andrews is an accomplished labor historian and the author of Nationally Awarded books like City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer and Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town, but I can’t say he would claim himself an academic first and a musician second.  Historians and musicians both are nothing if not storytellers, and these two parts have become one for Gregg Andrews.  The working-man stories that fill his books, and the rebellious characters his wife, Dr. Victoria Bynum, shares with readers, are the same stories folk and country music have been telling for years.  Gregg Andrews sees both sides of that coin.

Blending these stories with those of his own life, set to the ethereal sounds of wind through moss-laden branches on the darkest of Texas nights, Andrews developed his own unique brand of “Swampytonk Blues,” which he writes and performs as Dr. G and the Mudcats.  Songs such as “Jones County Jubilee” and “Night Train From Pecos” inspire comparisons to Kris Kristofferson, Robert Earl Keen, and others of the Texas Singer/Songwriter tradition.  Who but Gregg Andrews could tell us the story of this tradition’s rise with such a perspective?  Bowtied and Fried is proud to feature this guest-blog by dedicated historian, talented musician, and helluva good storyteller, Dr. G.

- RCP

Cheatham Street Warehouse and the Outlaw Songwriting Tradition in Texas

At the end of December, I headed back to Texas to promote my new CD, “My Daddy’s Blues,” lay down some new rhythm tracks in the recording studio, and play a few gigs with the Mudcats in the greater Austin area. Shortly after my wife, Vikki Bynum, and I drove away from our house in the Missouri countryside along the Mississippi River, we tuned into Sirius XM Satellite’s “Outlaw Country” to get the right vibe for the trip. I mean, after all, it was time for Dallas Wayne’s weekday show, and he, too, is a Missouri boy who has found the outlaw singer-songwriter atmosphere and hardcore honkytonks of central Texas to his liking.

No sooner had we tuned in than we heard back-to-back songs by the Band of Heathens, Todd Snider, and the Randy Rogers Band. Alright, the trip was off to a cool start! After Vikki quickly interjected, “Hey, we know all of these guys,” I thought back on the role of Cheatham Street Warehouse (http://www.cheathamstreet.com), a creaky old honkytonk in San Marcos, Texas, in giving us a place to meet, get inspired as songwriters, and share the small stage that had launched George Strait in the mid-1970s. As Vikki and I sped south through the beautiful Ozarks, my thoughts turned to the important part that Cheatham Street, known for nurturing songwriters, had played in encouraging me ten years ago to integrate the honky-tonk night life of a singer-songwriter into my day job as a history professor at Texas State University-San Marcos.

Kent Finlay, a singer-songwriter, opened Cheatham Street in June, 1974, amid the explosion of Progressive Country, or “Redneck Rock,” music in Texas. At that time, rock and roll artists enjoyed considerable creative control over their music, but country music was tightly controlled by Nashville record labels and producers. For artists who loved the Outlaw spirit that infused the music of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and encouraged their break from Nashville in the early 1970s, Texas, especially Austin, was the place to be. Texas was where you could do music your own way with the musicians you wanted to use, where you could enjoy artistic freedom and produce records how and where you, not the record companies, wanted them produced. Waylon and Willie, Nashville veterans, certainly didn’t create the Outlaw movement, but they celebrated it and became superstars in the process. With long hair and beards, a rawer, more rocking sound, plenty of drugs, and hard-edged lyrics that captured their honky-tonk lifestyles, they became the national symbols of rebellion against the slick-produced sounds of pop country music coming out of Nashville’s Music Row under the influence of record producers like Chet Atkins.

A number of pioneer songwriters–Steve Young, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Michael Martin Murphey, The Flatlanders (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Joe Ely),Townes Van Zandt, Freda and the Firedogs (Marcia Ball), Janis Joplin, Gary P. Nunn, and Jerry Jeff Walker, just to name a few, contributed to the vibrant musical forces taking shape at the time in Texas. The birth of Willie’s Annual Fourth of July picnic (1973) and Austin City Limits (1976) drew even more attention to the new music. Hippies and “rednecks” mingled freely (and peaceably) at many honkytonks and venues that supported the Outlaw movement.

In 1977, when Waylon and Willie recorded the hit song, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” written by Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman, they drew attention to a place that had been an important center of Outlaw songwriting for several years. Willie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Gary P. Nunn, Kent Finlay, and a number of other Outlaw songwriters at that time used to hang out in Luckenbach with Hondo Crouch, the “Clown Prince,” poet, and town’s owner. There, under the stars with roosters in the trees, they played dominoes, cracked jokes, and swapped songs, reveling in the camaraderie and creativity fueled by such a laid-back environment.

Finlay drew on the sense of community in Luckenbach when he opened Cheatham Street Warehouse, whose low ceilings, seasoned wood, tin sheeting, fabulous acoustics, and location just a few yards from the railroad tracks stir the imagination of writers.

He’s much more than a club owner, though. First and foremost, he’s a songwriter whose thriving weekly Songwriters Circle on Wednesday nights sets Cheatham Street apart from the overwhelming majority of honkytonks. In that sense, it has few, if any, equals. When you walk into the place on Wednesday nights, you feel the reverence and awe as hungry songwriters lucky enough to get their names on the sign-up sheet wait their turn to walk on stage and try out a couple of their original songs before a listening audience. Patrons know, or soon learn, that Wednesday nights are special, that if they can’t keep from talking while a songwriter is performing, they’d best find another place in town to hang out. As Finlay once said, “It never has been a money maker night, but it sure is a great night for keeping our integrity.”

Finlay has developed some highly successful artists at Cheatham Street, including George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Todd Snider, Randy Rogers Band, Terri Hendrix, John Arthur Martinez, Monte Montgomery, and others. Beginning on October 13, 1975, Strait and Ace in the Hole played the first of 40-50 gigs there. In fact, it was Finlay who took Strait to Nashville for the first time to shop demos in 1977. At the time, Strait’s determination to stick with traditional country music and western swing put him at odds with the commercial trend toward pop/country in the national marketplace, but his integrity paid off when he signed his first deal with MCA Records just a few years later. As Finlay recalls, “We already had this little thing, this little anti-slick country thing going. . . in our minds, you know, and we were sick of it.”

Since the Outlaw movement’s heyday in the 1970s, Cheatham Street has featured many Texas songwriters who have re-invented and re-energized the music and taken it to new audiences. Ray Wylie Hubbard, for example, has become a folk hero and songwriting guru as he put his own stamp on the Outlaw music and image. Whether Americana, Texas Country, “Red Dirt,” Blues, Western Swing, Tex-Mex, Hip-Hop, or Zydeco, songwriters in Texas benefit from the rich cross-cultural fertilization and tradition of independence and artistic freedom in the state’s diverse music. The Dixie Chicks, Robert Earl Keen, Walt Wilkins, Guy Clark, Bruce and Charlie Robison, Shelley King, Dale Watson, Slaid Cleaves, Pauline Reese, Brigitte London, Randy Rogers, and many other artists have drawn on the same Outlaw spirit, broadly defined, to produce great, distinctive music the way they want to do it.

In today’s pop culture in which image often trumps substance and talent, the true meaning of the word, “Outlaw,” in country music sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of tattoos, drugs, beer drinking, frat parties, and hard living outside the law. About four years ago, though, Brigitte London, an Austin songwriter influenced heavily by Waylon, Willie, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson, moved to Nashville to try to reignite an Outlaw movement against Music Row. Backed by members of Waylon’s original band–Jerry “Jigger” Bridges (bass player and business manager), Richie Albright (drummer), Fred Newell (steel guitar), and Barny Robertson (keyboardist), as well as guitarist Eugene Moles, she hosted a series of shows at Douglas Corner Cafe in Nashville. The Spirit of the Outlaws shows brought together many indie artists from all over the country whose songwriting had impressed London. At each show, with the former Waylors backing them, guest songwriters played a couple of their own songs as well as a few recorded by Waylon, Willie, Haggard, Cash, or Kristofferson.

London’s ambitious attempt to shake up Nashville ended after a few Spirit of the Outlaws tour gigs in Texas and other parts of the country, but the philosophy and politics behind it led her to create Outlaw Magazine (http://www.outlawmagazine.tv). In a partnership with Robin Keen, a media expert and web designer, she features independent writers who go against the grain in a number of ways consistent with the original Outlaw movement. To further showcase the music of indie artists, she created the weekly internet Highwaywoman Radio Hour.

Like London, Kent Finlay, who hosted a Spirit of the Outlaws tour show at Cheatham Street on September 23, 2007, emphasizes that we shouldn’t lose sight of the original meaning and integrity of the Outlaw tradition in Texas music. After all, even Waylon, himself, got caught in the contradiction between the music and the Outlaw image pinned on him when federal agents busted him for possession of cocaine in 1977. As he complained in the chorus of his song, “Don’t Y’all Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand”:

“Don’t y’all think this Outlaw bit’s done got out of hand?
What started out to be a joke the law don’t understand
Was it singing through my nose that got me busted by the man?
Maybe this here Outlaw bit’s done got out of hand out of hand.”

In one of Finlay’s songs, “I’ve Never Been in Jail” (Paper Napkin Music, B.M.I.), he, too, spoofs the tendency to confuse the hyped and often imitative Outlaw image with the rebellion against Nashville’s cookie-cutter sound and monopolistic control that fueled the rise of Progressive Country in the late 1960s and early 70s. I think I’ll let the hook of his song be the last word (for now anyway) on the Outlaw issue: “I could’ve been a big star, but I’ve never been in jail.”

Dr. Gregg Andrews (Doctor G & the Mudcats)

Be sure to check out some “Swampytonk Blues” at Dr. G’s website, http://www.outlaw-agency.com/doctorg.  For an example of his deep blend of personal, bluesy lyrics and evocative guitar that will linger philosophically afterwards, give a listen to the haunting “My Cousin Jessie.”

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24 Responses to Cheatham Street Warehouse and the Outlaw Songwriting Tradition in Texas by Dr. Gregg Andrews

  1. MCH says:

    Dr. G:

    From the perspective of an Cheatham Street insider, I’m curious where David Allan Coe fits into the genuine outlaw equation, or if he really fits well at all? While musically linked to the likes of Steve Earle, Guy Clark, and Steve Young, and undoubtedly sporting requisite rough and tumble credentials, DAC also seems to be a walking billboard for the “shuffle”–flaunted drugs, criminal activity, tattoos–that you describe, and intentionally so. In short, how would you characterize Coe’s place in the outlaw tradition, then and now?

    • Gregg Andrews says:

      Matt–Well, based on my experiences at Cheatham St., I would say that DAC is not highly regarded as a factor in that equation. As you know, too, he has been a very controversial figure who has tried to cash in on the Outlaw image in a number of ways, including self-conscious identification with Waylon, Willie, and others. He’s definitely an ‘in your face” kind of writer and self-promoter who exploited his own prison experiences to cultivate the Outlaw image, including an unsubstantiated claim that he at one time was on Death Row. Some of his supporters have defended him from charges of racism, sexism, and homophobia, insisting that the controversial lyrics to two of his albums in the late 70s and early 80s were meant for shock value. DAC, himself, denies the charges. Some of his defenders compare him to Kinky Friedman, but in my view such a comparison isn’t fair to Kinky.

      I will say, though, that DAC has written some very good songs–The Ride perhaps being my favorite. I have to confess, however, that one time when a friend and I were playing a happy hour gig, a guy at the bar hollered out for me to play You Never Even Called Me By My Name. My friend looked a little stunned when I tore into the song, and even more stunned when the guy at the bar slipped a $20 bill into the tip jar! So, that song got me the biggest tip I’ve ever had.
      BTW, Mudcats will work for BBQ!

      • MCH says:

        Dr. G:

        Have Willie, Waylon, or perhaps Jessi C (post-2002 on Waylon’s behalf) made any public efforts to separate themselves from DAC? Not having been included in The Highwaymen, with all of the guys Coe tried to play up as his best buds, must have stung?

  2. Angela Elder says:

    Boy did I enjoy reading this! Might I suggest to The Southern Roundtable that a research trip be placed on our agenda…I do believe we need to witness some live Swampytonk Blues in order to truly appreciate the ideas discussed in this post. Either that, or Dr. G and the Mudcats should expand their next tour to include a trip to Athens…

    • KAH says:

      I second this motion. And now I am going to update my iPod =)

    • Gregg Andrews says:

      Thanks, Angela. Would love to bring Doctor G & the Mudcats to Athens for a show. Had a great time there–cool downtown area. Got to see Railroad Earth. I forget the name of the venue, though. Anybody help me out?

  3. RCP says:

    I agree completely that too many focus on the one half of Outlawry while ignoring the second, but for Willie, Waylon, and the boys, these were entirely intertwined. It takes a certain kind of personality to buck the establishment, one that necessitates a rebel attitude. So many new artists today find it legitimizing to publicly cultivate that attitude while marching in step to Nashville’s drum. For the Outlaws that rebellion may have come naturally, but it was still something they could sell. Being a rebel may have alienated them from the establishment, but celebrating it endeared them to their fans. As Waylon so famously quips in the song you quote, “They got me for possession of somethin’ that was gone.”

    • Gregg Andrews says:

      Robert–First, thanks so much for your intro. I agree with you about many young artists trying to cash in on the Outlaw image even while under the thumb of Music Row. It raises the larger question of the relationship between creativity and commercialism. How do we define “authenticity”? Are any artists immune from the forces of commercialism as they put their music out there? Maybe these questions will invite comments from others.

  4. JHW says:

    As a faithful follower of any and all outlaws and rebels, beer drinkers and hell raisers, I thoroughly appreciated this close up and personal peek at Cheatham Street and Outlaw songwriting. Would another Texas product–The Old 97s–fit the bill as well? Also, its seems, from the personalities listed here, that “outlaw” music is largely trans-Mississippi. Is this the case, or are their similarly rebellious acts back east, and if so, who are they? Would bands such as Cast Iron Filter, Jupiter Coyote, and The Blue Dogs fit the “outlaw” mode, or are they too pop-conscious and mainline? Surely J.J. Grey and Mofro proudly bear the banner of outlaws, no?

  5. RCP says:

    JHW-

    If we move the Outlaws east, how many new doors do we open? Contrast the rebellious Outlaw image with that of your average Bluegrass performer, for example Alison Krauss. Now surely Ms Krauss is not your typical beer drinking, tattooed, hell raising Outlaw, but when Nashville offered her a gig singing typical country music, she left it on the table for less refined talent (like Taylor Swift) and continued to make the music she wanted to. Even the most enthusiastic anti-fiddler out there must admit, the music that Krauss, and companions like Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill put out, is far purer than the polluted swill on Kicks 101.5. I’m curious what other anti-establishment music movements trace a lineage to the Outlaws: Did Phish or Widespread first cut their licks on Honky Tonk Heroes and Black Rose?

    • Gregg Andrews says:

      To: JHW and RCP–I haven’t seen the Old 97s in concert and don’t feel like I know enough about them to comment (although I do like their version of “Champaign, Illinois”). Like I said in my blog, it’s important to remember that what defined the rise of Progressive Country was the struggle against Nashville for artistic freedom and creative control. Texas provided the atmosphere for it, but certainly we find rebellious artists in all genres of music, regardless of the region of the country, who battle for control over their music. Ani DiFranco is a good example of someone who has maintained her independence and artistic freedom by establishing her own record label. This has given her control over lyrical content, instrumentation, etc.–in fact, most, if not all, aspects of the creative process. In San Marcos, Texas, Terri Hendrix, who got her start at Cheatham St. Warehouse, has similarly maintained control over her music, including marketing, distribution, etc. Although her image and outstanding music, which is more folk-oriented, don’t even remotely resemble the “Outlaw” brand that so many are trying to imitate today, she is every bit an Outlaw in the way she has insisted on keeping creative control over her music. In that sense, she’s firmly in the Outlaw tradition that we commonly associate with Waylon and Willie in the early 70s.

  6. MCH says:

    JHW: I’m guessing at some point the “outlaw” moniker must fork to accommodate both the Texas-based/country outlaws Dr. G is writing about and plantation-inspired Delta Blues (which seems to be at the core of JJ Grey and Mofro’s work–maybe they represent a happy medium between the two?)? It’s an interesting point wherever the two branches might meet, especially given the X-Rated or Underground tracks DAC and company laid down back in the day (all the while with an A-A drummer).

    Are we really going to give Taylor Swift the satisfaction of being labeled “typical country music?” Does Kanye West have a WordPress account….

    • Gregg Andrews says:

      Well, Matt, let’s hope not (re-Taylor Swift)! As you can probably tell, I love the mix of plantation-inspired Delta blues and Texas Outlaw country. JJ Grey & Mofro records for one of my favorite blues labels–Alligator, which has showcased the music of Albert Collins, Marcia Ball, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Delbert McClinton, W.C. Clark, and a number of other Texas artists. I would include JJ Grey & Mofro among my current personal favorites, along with Cary Hudson and Blue Mountain and Paul Thorn) in terms of Southern storytelling, originality, earthy Delta blues influences, etc. I still really like the roughness of 1930s botttleneck blues, but it’s important to point out that for Delta-born musicians like Muddy Waters who moved to Chicago, a lot of the country roughness was smoothed out of their sound by Chess Records in order to make their music more palatable to middle-class urban audiences. Even Leadbelly gave in to marketing image pressures from the Lomaxes. I think Benjamin Filene’s book, Romancing the Folk, is excellent on this point.

  7. Vikky Anders says:

    How do I love the sounds of Dr G and his Mud Cats? Let me count the ways…..On second thought, it would take too long! Sorry!

    Just call me one happy fan!

    Vikky Wilburn Anders in San Diego

  8. Terry O' says:

    Having had the pleasure of attending that show Greg mentions at Cheatam St on September 23, 2007, I can say that it was amazing. I’m not a musician, but love music. That was such a wonderful introduction to the ‘Outlaw’ movement that Bridgett created. From knowing Greg and learning more about the history and content of what the Outlaw movement means, I can only wish those involved the best. Meeting Kent Findlay was great, only saw him at this one show, but you know how some people just leave an indelible positive impression, I’ll never forget him. I have so much enjoyed learning about the history of the Texas singer/songwriter and so glad of Greg’s (aka ‘Dr. G’) involvement.

  9. Gregg, great blog, I really enjoyed reading it. As someone who has basically moved in to Cheatham Street over the last 5 years, I love to see it get more publicity. As you know, I’m a huge fan of the Mudcats. Keep spreading the good word and making great music, and I can’t wait to see you on the next trip back to Texas.

  10. What a wonderful piece, and I am very honored to be included. Hopefully, those that read this will get a sense of the magic of Cheatham Street Warehouse and the spirit that has been cultivated over the years by the great Kent Finlay and others as well, including Doctor G himself. In this write-up, he has done an excellent job of depicting the true nature of an “Outlaw” culture.

    To me, mass consciousness is a loop, and the music industry circles that loop continuously. (Supplying junk food to hungry kids that don’t understand why they are still hungry.) Working outside of it is constantly challenging and sometimes heartbreaking, but is so creatively rewarding and absolutely necessary if one wants to be in complete expression. Music (or art in any form) should not be defined by what someone deems ‘sellable” but rather a genuine expression in organic form. You can honor some traditions while still creating your own path – outside the loop. The only time I was ever in jail was because I refused to pay a seat belt fine (I know, they save lives) because I felt it was my body, my decision.. and a Texan police officer took offense to that. After 4 hours, I gave in, paid and was out. So, I’m hardly scary– and only have one lil bitty tattoo. ;)

    One of the greatest songwriters I have ever known, and finest people I may add, is Doctor G. He can be getting lowdown in the dirty swamp blues and still teach you something with what he’s singing about. He contributes to the big picture just by being himself and I thank him for that.

  11. Thad Requet says:

    I really enjoyed the article and would love to vist Cheatham Street Warehouse sometime. I’m a big fan of Todd Snider, Joe Ely, Charlie and Bruce Robison and many others. One that you didn’t mention that I’m a big fan of is James McMurtry. I know he has played there many times as well.
    I’m proud to say I’ve known Gregg since I was about four or five years old. He gave me my first guitar when I was about six. I stayed with Gregg and his previous wife as a little kid while my mother was giving birth to my twin brothers. Gregg and my father spent hours listening to Bob Dylan in the early 70′s and those songs made a major impact in my life as well.
    Brigitte London is another excellent singer/songwriter Gregg mentioned. My wife and I were fortunate enough to attend one of the Spirit of the Outlaw shows in Nashville. I was blown away at the up close and personal experience with such great singer/songwriters, Dr. G (Gregg) being one of them.
    The internet is a wonderful thing as it has allowed us to be able to reach these singer/songwriters in a way we could never do before. It allowed me to re-connect with Gregg and his wife Vikki, and has allowed me to experience the outstanding music of those who have played at Cheatham Street, even though I’ve never been there…..yet.
    Thanks for the excellent article Gregg.

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