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.
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.”