Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

Shaggy, Austin and Billy Joe (tales of redemption)

Once, Dallas was owned by a 17-year old girl named Shaggy. She acquired the deed in a complicated transaction, whereby she became the midnight DJ for the local "obscure but well to the left" commmunity radio station, a kind of Prairie Pacifica. She staked her homesteader's claim on the Metroplex with a midnight post-punk show called "Pajama Party". Every Saturday night, if you knew to eat your peas and carrots, you stopped and took in at least an hour of "Pajama Party", where, in the last heyday of 45s, the songs might alternate between something you could see at a club in a local cheap motel next Thursday to something from a remote section of New Zealand.

Shaggy loved music, and loved the (unpaid) gig, had interviews with people who never got interviewed by anyone else, and sometimes she read the Bible on-air, between playing music that might otherwise be profane. I believe everyone in California optioned her movie rights in succession, giving her convenient little payments for films that never got made.

She watched her parents suffer from debilitating illnesses, she saw her own star fade a bit, and she had to give the deed to Dallas back to real estate developers, who renamed "Oak Lawn" to "Uptown", and moved aside vintage homes to build luxury highrise townhomes.

It's now some seventeen years later. I saw part of Shaggy's re-emergence at the Sons of Hermann Hall last night, along with two country music songwriters who have been to Nashville, but now know better.



One of my two law partners and his brother celebrate ages 55 and 60, respectively, this month. As my partner's brother runs the most fun record store in the Metroplex, Bill's Records, they felt that a musical celebration was in order. Accordingly, someone arranged a series of three club dates with local folks they like to hear.

My wife and I drove the 25 miles down into Dallas, into the Deep Ellum area. Deep Ellum is Dallas' "cutting edge" musical area, a former 20s jazz juke joint center turned into an 70s industrial warehouse zone but magically transformed into a great music scene. It's on "Elm" Street, but "Ellum" has a bit more jazz. When I first moved to Dallas, in the mid 80s, you could go to Club Dada, Theater Gallery or the Prophet Bar and on any given evening see this year's international cult sensation, or a garage band from the tract home suburb of Euless, depending on the evening.

It was a scene without ropes, without 'cool', without snobbery. Unlike Austin, Dallas is not a scene with a "sound", but instead is a place where tons of electic little bands make their own way in their own way.

But we were bound for the Sons of Hermann Hall. This old building, built by a German fraternal lodge, hosts roots, country, country-rock, Texana, zydeco and any of a dozen other regional musics in their upstairs performance area. You see, the Sons of Hermann figured out that music was a good way to supplement life insurance sales for a fraternal order. The building is cool and decades old. The pictures on the wall of the 1965 Womens' Bowling Association Champions (an alley is there on-site in the basement, I'm told) are classic.

We arrived at 7:30, which some fliers said was the "start time", but of course, nothing was actually started then, other than lots of folks with long hair in cowboy hats listening to the jukebox playing Elvis Costello's song "Alison". We read free weekly music magazines about rock and blues, while my wife drank a Corona and I drank a Diet Coke. A woman dressed as a kind of honky-tonk sweetheart of the rodeo came to me and asked if one was permitted upstairs. I thought she was a customer, like us, so I said "not yet". A moment later, she and band members headed upstairs, and I realized she had mistaken me for a member of management, and she was asking about sound checks. Then I decided that she must be a band member, which explained her rather "country loud and Texas proud" leather and jeans and chaps look. Later, I imagined that she was "with the band", as I never saw her on stage. I wished, for a moment, I had a cowboy vest and a stern, rogue-ish look. The crowd, by the way, varied from people who looked like they were torn from a Spaghetti western to a blonde couple who looked like they could be in ads for "how be hip on only 100,000 a year" to people who, like me, look like vague reminders that April 15 is tax day.

At some point, I ran into my partner's daughter, standing in a "in line for the show" queue, a charming woman in her mid 20s I always enjoy seeing. She lives in San Antonio with her husband and child. I wish I had spent more time talking to her--I always find her story interesting because in addition to being a nice person, she got her law degree at the University of Texas and then realized she is not a lawyer. I wanted to see if she had made additional progress in sorting that out. I was not at my conversational best, however. I find I rarely am good at assaying good discussion topics when I skipped a meal to get to a concert that didn't start when I thought it would. My partner's daughter's husband, a really cool tax lawyer with a big San Antonio firm, had graciously agreed to watch their very young son, allowing my partner's daughter to spend the time with her father, his wife, her brothers and her uncle. Fortunately, my wife made up the gaps in my awkward style, advising as the evening went on how my partner's daughter is so attractive that she would play Nefertiti in the movie, given all the regalness of bearing.

My partner's sons came in, and the high school principal had a shirt with large ornate roses across the shoulders. I told him he needed a 10 gallon straw hat and boots from the Tony Llama Factory Outlet in El Paso. I do not own boots or a hat now, but I remember that the Tony Llama Factory Outlet was not less a discount purchase opportunity than a sort of weighing of the soul of the potential purchaser to determine his or her worthiness for boots. It's like that place in Monrovia, California in which the problem of harsh microclimates means that each potential purchaser must audition to buy a plant ("Honey! They won't LET me buy a camellia! Let's go!", the upscale frustrati laments sound out).

The younger son had his relatively new wife with him, and they looked as though they belonged together, somehow.

At nine-ish, after they let the lodge members up, they invited the rest of us up to the upstairs performance space. It had a little rectangular stage in the corner, and ample space for a few hundred folks to sit at chairs at folding tables. Although a bit of nicotine and less legal subtances was in the air, the place was not all that smoky, thank goodness.

Austin Cunningham took the stage first, with just his guitars. He's a songwriter by trade, with a song by Wynonna in the country top 40 as I write this. He followed the "traditional path" of moving to Nashville to try to find his break. He sold a lot of songs to a lot of country luminaries, but he discovered those grim truths about record companies and making a living at music. He found his soul again, though, where it had been deposited right by the masters in some vault, and moved back home to the Dallas area. Now he sells his CDs himself, writes a song or two, and seems in danger of achieving full sanity. My partner introduced me to him, and he proved to be a nice guy. We liked his set a lot, because it was more "Texana" than country, Texana being that curious genre that combines folk, country, and rock into something that is "none of the above" and "all of the above".

His lyrics were a mix of diatribes against record companies, paeans to food, mildly profane numbers and a spiritual, "Arms Wide Open". Although each of the three acts performed songs with traditional honky-tonk lyrics, each had at least one gospel or spiritual song, and at least one thing to say about personal beliefs. It's in the water here, it's in the blood. The juxtaposition was a fascinating way to spend the Saturday night before Easter.

After Austin finished, Shaggy, now known by her real name, Nancy Moore, took the stage. She does not dress or act like a sweetheart of the rodeo, but instead is a down to earth, non-fashion-plate, jeans clad, good ol' Texas gal, albeit a good ol' post-post-punk-but-now-I-sing-country good ol' Texas gal. She said "Guess who also celebrated birthay last week? The girl with the size 10 1/2 feet!". She had a band, which played country on the fringes of country rock, with a bit of country swing nostalgia thrown in. It was uptempo, non-depressing honky-tonk fun. Her lyrics tended to have pithy little bits of fun, like "My reputation is solid--will you help me break it?" and "I am the smoking gun--you are the trigger". She closed with an a capella gospel song. She has not retaken the deed to Dallas, but she made a solid down payment on some musical acreage out in the prairie, somewhere, it seems to me. It's not prime real estate, but you can run some horses and llamas on it, you know?

I liked her song about how the over-dressed manicured women she saw at a Dallas restaurant should kick off their heels, pony up to the table, and enjoy the Mexican food with the sweetest onions.

This morning when I looked at her website, I noticed that she is the editor for the local newspaper's calendar section, and I realized that this was probably the "Nancy Moore" who helped me when they ran the weekend announcement on my January chess tournament.There are angels among us, all unaware, you know.

The headliner was Billy Joe Shaver, a fellow from Corsicana (home of the fruitcake-generating Collin Street Bakery). Billy Joe is north of 70s, now, and is best known for writing most of the songs on Waylon Jennings' "Honky Tonk Heroes". His long run in Nashville got him lots of respect but no fortune. In recent years, he's lost the wife he married three times during his life, his son the ace guitarist, and various battles of various kinds. But he was at home in Dallas with an audience that knows great songwriting when it's on tap.

In life, you probably know a Billy Joe Shaver song, even if you don't know you know one. I found I knew a few. His band was tight, and he seemed to make up the set list as they went. He gave a great show, if one a bit more in the Nashville vein. I thought to myself how even Nashville types now arrange their songs to sound like Allman Brother songs, but I read this morning he used to record for Dickey Betts' label, so maybe he comes by his influence naturally. He switched effortlessly from honky tonk to gospel to Nashville to simple ballads, clearly a survivor. I went to see the sequoias once, and the thing you notice about 1,000 year old sequoias is that they don't survive without scars. But they keep on growing.

We left after a lot of the folks we were with left, but not before saying goodybe to my partner's brother, the birthday celebrant. He has friends in Claremont, CA, where my wife went to college, so we talked about Clarmont things. I told him how L. Frank Baum used to live there.

We overslept the 6:30 a.m. Easter service, but otherwise we suffered no ill effects of the late night drive. It was a wonderful evening about renewal, and hope. There's second chances and new beginnings all around. You just have to play your guitar, and sing loud and proud.
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