Why I Still Love Texas: Guy Clark and His Sidekicks

We went to hear legendary singer/songwriter Guy Clark at the wistfully named One World Theater in the hills west of Austin last night. Clark is ill and in pain, but “he’s still jumping off the garage.”  He walked out slowly with a cane and sat in a cushioned chair. Clark was joined by his longtime writing partner, Verlon Williams, who sings like the Southern cousin of Steve Goodman.

It was a small, quiet crowd in a small quiet venue. The pain got to Guy more than once and he forgot the lyrics to several songs. He’d mutter, “Shit,” or, “Y’all are being very sweet about this mess.” His wry humor was there, you bet. There was no nervousness in the audience, no impatience, no tension. Just sympathy for his pain and joy at his effort.

Anyway, he launched into “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” He got through the verse about “they called me sidekick,” then he stumbled. The words escaped him. A moment later, faster than a mad dog cyclone, the audience sang them for him like they’d planned it all along. Hell, they even sang a little harmony. They sounded reverent and heaven-bound, like the choir that sings with Alison Krauss on “Down to the River to Pray.” Here’s what they sang:

One day I looked up and he’s pushin’ eighty
He’s got brown tobacco stains all down his chin
Well to me he was a hero of this country
So why’s he all dressed up like them old men

And that’s why I still love Texas. Guy’s love of people with all their faults and beauty is there in his lyrics. He made it real tonight with his very presence. His fans love of his love for people was there when they stepped in to sing a song they knew so well because they’ve been waiting, too.


And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy

When then-President Richard Nixon sat down at the piano on the stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1974, he was reinforcing a conservative, polemical wall of sound to help contain several decades of transformational popular music, from blues and jazz to rock & roll. Music was the last thing on his mind.

As part of his notorious race-based “southern strategy,” Nixon led the efforts of conservative elites to co-opt American country-western music. He got the idea from George Wallace’s 1968 campaign, which Wallace had filled with country stars like Hank Snow and Hank Williams Jr.

At his Grand Old Opry gig, Nixon bragged that White House performances by Merle Haggard and others had been huge successes with his “very sophisticated audiences” because the country singers spoke to “the heart of America.” He was lying, of course. In his diary, Nixon aide Bob Haldeman confessed that the Haggard concert “was pretty much a flop because the audience had no appreciation for country/western music and there wasn’t much rapport.”

Nixon’s tricky fib and Haldeman’s confession are just more evidence of conservative elites’ cynical manipulation of lower middle class whites in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and other transformative rebellions of the 1960s. Nixon had nothing in common with Merle Haggard’s audience. Blueblood George H.W. Bush had nothing in common with Lee Greenwood’s audience when he deployed Greenwood in his 1988 campaign. That didn’t mean they couldn’t pretend.

The right-wing colonization of country music is still very much in play. Continue reading “And, On Piano, Dick Nixon: Music and Anarchy”

Untamable Melodies: Music’s Revolutionary Spirit

Alone in the walnut-paneled music room, his favorite of Fair Lane Mansion’s 56 rooms, automobile tycoon Henry Ford picks up one of his two Stradivarius violins. It is 1920 or so and Henry, cocooned in his woolen three-piece suit despite the summer heat, stretches his bow arm for a little elbow and shoulder room.

Henry plucks the A string uncertainly, then steps to the grand piano at the far end of the room and searches the keyboard for A. Counting forward on the white keys from Middle C – C, D, E, F, G, A – he pokes at the A, then plucks the A string of his violin again. His ear hears the same pitch. Unison, they call it, a good name for the sound of happy hands on his assembly line. He plucks the other strings and touches a couple of tuning pegs lightly, but doesn’t adjust them. Close enough.

Tucking the fiddle just so under his narrow chin, he bows each string once, and then, pinching his eyes at the difficulty of playing in E-flat, he begins to play one of his favorites, the 19th Century hit “Home, Sweet Home.” He whispers John Howard Payne’s lyrics as he plays.

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

Henry Ford’s industrial brainstorm – a moving conveyor that brought parts for assembly to stationary workers – was matched only by his insight that mass production was worthless without mass consumption. So, he helped invent American consumers. They, like his assembly line workers, would have the goods brought to them for assembly into an all-American consumer lifestyle. In this there would be harmony.

Continue reading “Untamable Melodies: Music’s Revolutionary Spirit”

Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs – Alone in This Together

In my last review of Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs I promised a follow up about how their album would have a living room sound to it–meaning intimate and minimal studio intervention in the music.  So I’ve been waiting to talk about that while the band fine-tuned their album before release for over a year.  Definitely worth the wait, the album, Alone in This Together, has been out for a couple of months, along with a video.  Meanwhile, the band has been busy with a west coast tour, planning an upcoming east coast tour and even some small portion Star’s boots and maybe some elbows and knees of other band members made an appearance in a Rolling Stone photo while they performed with Pearl Jam for PJ20.  Now that’s rock and roll.  Speaking of the living room, here is the band jamming on children’s instruments at Keith Ash’s (bass) house where the band was hanging out together for a barbeque.

Back to the album. I believe that had I listened to the album at the time of the first interview, talking about the living room flavor would have made a ton of sense. While it is, as promised, intimate and not at all overproduced, enough hard work and I assume, massively creative energy has influenced what this album has ultimately become.  What I hear when I listen closely, is a sophisticated layering effect that I usually find in great bluegrass.

Don’t get me wrong, the album sounds nothing like bluegrass.

But I draw the analogy because like great bluegrass, skilled musicians take us on a ride full of pleasant surprises, full of complex and unexpected arrangements.  However, unlike Bluegrass, the overall effect of this ride is subtle.  Noticeable, yet subtle.  And actually, I didn’t notice it at first.  Initially, I was swept up by the vocals and the lyrics as you might be–you’ll want to know more about what she is saying; you’ll sit still and imagine the situation that provoked those words to come together the way they did.  See what I mean in the track titled Gold and Silver:

Love could never live here
In a house that is so cold
The windows bolted down for good
The window panes are dull
The floor it creaks with every step
And echoes through the air
‘Til it’s swallowed up by silence
Through the cracks and down the stairs

-Alone in This Together, Star Anna & The Laughing Dogs

And have a listen to Star’s vocals, which are frankly just becoming indescribable for me.  Flipping through a thesaurus for hours wouldn’t give me the right words.  The effect of her vocals on her fans (if I may say so) is more of a gestalt experience—the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Back to the subtlety.   Now that you hear how down right awesome the title track is and recognize that  you are also, in fact, hearing is Mike McCready of Pearl Jam on guitar, the word subtle might be a confusing description.  Here’s what I mean:  you can sit on a plane and listen to this album four times in a row (yes, I did this) and sometimes you really notice how the guitar (Justin Davis) goes left while the keyboards (Ty Bailie) go right and something interesting is happening with the drums (Travis Yost), or you connect to the lyrics—your mind winding down a road you took once and the nostalgia it still evokes in you.   Still another time, you listen to the album while you read and it just works without you noticing much at all.  As Peter Griffin might say, it doesn’t insist upon itself.  But it is there for the taking.  I never have exactly the same experience when I listen to Alone in This Together.  I think that speaks to the depth of the album.  Star and the dogs are never self-conscious or affected personally or musically.  As I mentioned before, they are deep, genuine and just all around great people to meet.  And maybe that is what Justin Davis (guitar) meant when he described the album as having that living room sound.  Could be it…provided that your living room has Star’s unflinching and smoky vocals, a talented band that loves doing what they do together and guitar accompaniment by Mike McCready of Pearl Jam.  So yeah—I definitely need a living room upgrade.

Listening to Alone in This Together, or any recording of the band, for that matter,  leaves me with an intense craving to see them live.  The album is great.  Instantly a favorite.  I have two.  No shit.   I bought one, got one as a gift and I’m keeping them both. However, listening to this album just allows me to get a fix in between the few shows I can make in Seattle.  Much to their credit as musicians—this is a band that is best live.  Which brings me to their east coast tour.  If they are going to be anywhere near you—buy tickets.  Go see them.  Show the hell up.  Anyone who has seen them will back me on this.  You can not miss them if you are lucky enough to be anywhere within a 3 hour radius of them.  Even if they are planning to play children’s instruments (probably not).  Do it.

Here’s a little taste of them live with Mike McCready at PJ20.

Here are their tour dates.  Get out your calendar.

10/14/11 Great Falls MT- Machinery Row
10/15/11 Bozeman, MT – The Filling Station
10/16/11 Spearfish, SD – Back Porch
10/17/11 Sioux City, IA – Chesterfield Live
10/18/11 Des Moines, IA – Mars Cafe
10/19/11 TBA
10/20/11 Chicago, Il – The Hideout
10/21/11 Milwaukee, WI – Shank Hall
10/22/11 TBA
10/23/11 Cleveland, OH – Brother’s Lounge
10/24/11 Buffalo, NY – Mohawk Place
10/25/11 Albany, NY – Valentine’s
10/26/11 Allston, MA – O’Brien’s Pub
10/27/11 Brooklyn, NY – Southpaw
10/28/11 New York, NY – Piano’s
10/29/11 Hoboken, NJ – Maxwells
10/30/11 Philadelphia, PA – The Fire
10/31/11 Asbury Park NJ- The Saint
11/01/11 Washington DC – The Black Cat
11/02/11 Chapell Hill, NC – The Cave Tavern
11/03/11 Atlanta, GA – Smith’s Olde Bar
11/04/11 – TBA
11/05/11 Kansas City, MO – Czar Bar
11/06/11 Lincoln, NE – The Zoo Bar
11/07/11 TBA
11/08/11 TBA
11/09/11 Boise, ID – The Reef

Purchase their album and visit their site www.staranna.com.

Check out my work at www.keeshadavis.com and www.simfotico.com.  I am a professional photographer and do freelance web design while I juggle a full schedule at the University of Washington as a Ph.D student in Education.  Photos of Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs copyright Keesha Davis, Simfotico, LLC.

We Need a Little Light

What interesting parallels I’m having this week with the stories I wrote ten years ago as the Slate Diarist not long after 9/11. There was a lot of talk in the media then about how 9-11 had changed everything, but I suspect that less changed than we predicted. Ten years ago I was trying to shape my thoughts about writing simply, about telling stories that move me, and about my recently published Christmas book, When Angels Sing that has this past year been made into a feature film.

I was even more focused on my script, Waiting for Gordo, a South Texas adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s classic that I had set on the border, not far from where I am writing this week on the Rio Grande River in and around Laredo. Gordo was a small effort to personalize a story that is too often dehumanized and always politicized.

A decade later, the eight candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination – arguing like an octopus turned on itself – are arguing about border immigration and freeloading illegals in the same tone I was hearing then.  I’m not going to hold my breath for a solution, but I have learned this week that border intervention is a huge business and not likely to ever become a smaller one. It’s been an honor to look for a little understanding of border issues in the company of Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and one of the greatest and bravest photographers of our time, Lynsey Addario. Watch for Joe’s stories and Lynsey’s photos on Joe’s Swampland Blog and in Time Magazine for the next month.

But first, here’s my Slate Diary Blog from soon after 9-11 – a time capsule to a me that I hope I can hold onto.


The beauty of being a free-lance writer is you get to pick your subjects, themes, and characters. Unless they pick you. The age-old dictum, of course, is to “write what you know,” a philosophy that works for a time, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a tattoo. Much better to write what you learn.

So after a long day on a film set watching my words turn into pictures, the questions before me tonight are: What did I learn today? And what can I write?

Foremost, I learned that my daughter is not the only one plagued by dreams hanging on our fears of a darkness that threatens to envelop the earth. This morning, one person after another related their sleepless experiences until it seemed like half of America must have awakened at 4 a.m. from what I can only describe as a collective nightmare. Oh, if this war were only a dream, how sweet would be our waking tomorrow.

One thing I learned in that quest today, learned and relearned as I have to learn nearly every day, is the aspiration to write simply. Misquoting Faulkner—but raising a glass to his spirit—my goal is to write from the heart, not from the balls or brains (though those can be handy in a pinch).

A few years ago, while a guest on Sky TV’s literary talk show from London, I was talking with Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass series and other timeless tomes. Pullman is a former schoolteacher who started quite a row in the literary world by saying the art of storytelling had been foolishly devalued by hip literary stylists. I believe Martin Amis was one name that he singled out, though I don’t intend to reduce one great writer to hoist up another. But I do think Pullman was right to wonder if the literary hipsters weren’t forgetting to give something back to their readers.

I later shared a few ales and words on this subject with Richard Cohen, the British publisher of my novel, Fast Greens, which I was promoting at the time. Richard fell more into the Pullman camp than the Amis, saying that he had once worked for a marvelous publisher who only asked one question when Richard found a novel that he wanted to publish. “Did itmove you?”

Cohen also gave me a piece of advice I’ve carried ever since. One of the advantages of being a Southern writer (or a Texas writer), he said, is that the innate style and language of our region enables us to write close against the line of sentimentality. (He neglected, however, to mention the Sisyphean nature of defining the line that separates sentiment in its true light from blatant sentimentality.)

A couple of years ago, I wrote one of those little Christmas novels that a cynic might think the product of monetary desperation. But this was a story that chose me. I’d been thinking of writing something for my family’s Christmas but had no solid ideas. Then one morning I awoke from a late night’s reverie and began to write. Twenty days later, I stopped writing and sent the book to my friends and family as a Christmas present. One week more, and the editor of Algonquin Books called to say she’d like to publish When Angels Sing, which most critics lauded as a heartfelt story simply told. But two critics (fans of Martin Amis, I imagined) absolutely loathed my story of a man who had to shed his hatred of Christmas in order to hold the love of his son.

I dashed off irate letters to these reviewers—letters I later regretted, learning the hard way that it’s better to offer thanks to those who give us praise. I also learned a more valuable lesson—that we can’t make the entire world into what we want it to be. The writer’s job, if you put your faith in the verities of old, is to shine a light on what is already there. To help us all awaken from the dream within a dream so that someday we may realize the dreams within our hearts.

Samuel Johnson wrote that we tell each other stories in an attempt to be made whole. Through storytelling we reveal who we are at the core; through storytelling we lay bare the hearts and souls of humankind, 6 billion people whose DNA can all be traced to a handful of common ancestors. Can there be any wonder that we share the same dreams?

So let me tell you a story from the set of Going to California—a story that even a sentimental writer wouldn’t have the balls to make up. In my episode, “Waiting for Gordo,” the two guest roles are Pucho and Fortunato, Latino characters inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Pozzo and his slave, Lucky. As the coyote Pucho, we enthusiastically cast Tony Amendola, the kind of actor you always dream will say your words. A man of infinite moods, Tony moves so deftly from darkness to light and back again that I wish I could be his full-time scribe, following close behind and whispering everyday lines into his ear just to hear him make me sound brilliant.

More important to today’s story, though, is the young man cast as Fortunato. The show’s producers knew only that on videotape, Bernardo Verdugo seemed to be an angelic natural as an illegal alien who is discovered in the trunk of a car where he has been locked by a coyote. Like so many people from so many parts of the world, Fortunato’s great aspiration is to come to freedom, to make a new life in America. After the first few scenes this morning, I complimented Bernardo on his performance, and he said that it was not a difficult part for him. Six years ago, well before he got his green card and residency in the United States, Bernardo was brought to America by a coyote.

“How did you cross the border?” I asked.

“Locked in the trunk of a car,” he said.

And then I watched him climb back into the trunk of a car. The lid slammed shut, and I thought of him there in the darkness, wondering what awaited him. Cameras rolled and our director softly said, “Action.” As the trunk came open, the sun peeked out from behind a tall cloud, and long rays of light shone in upon the face of Bernardo Verdugo.

And on a film set high atop a hill on a ranch outside of Austin, the shared dreams of a young man from Mexico and a writer from Texas came true.

We finished the scene to everyone’s delight, then the sun slipped back behind the clouds. That’s when I heard someone say, “We need more light.”

Spotify Killed the Record Store

I hate to say it, but I think the arrival of Spotify in the U.S. signals the death knell for indie record stores. For less than 10 bucks a month, I now have access to just about any artist to whom I want to listen. On my computer. And my phone.

Okay, so Bob Dylan isn’t on Spotify, but don’t most of us Dylan fans have at least a dozen of his albums floating around anyway?

Spotify has sent me on another PJ Harvey kick. The woman whose lyrics once inspired me to move to Spain (I want to bath in milk/eat grapes/Robert DeNiro/sit on my face/I want to go to Spain/spend nights/just sipping on nectar & ice) keeps putting out stunning, avant garde albums that never feel like repeats.

Needless to say, I am psyched to have all this rad music on hand for so cheap, but pretty bummed for good old Waterloo Records.

Spoon at Waterloo Records. photo by Manuel Nauta.

Part 3: Documentaries that Change the Way We Think About Art

Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of ‘Smile’ is a documentary that proves the maxim that no art project is ever dead.

The film tells the story of the album “Smile”, the most famous rock and roll album never released. The story begins with the Beach Boys’ ride to incredible fame on the wave of young Brian Wilson’s genius.

Wilson, whose fragile mental constitution was unable to handle the stress of touring, eventually stayed home to write the music that the Beach Boys played to adoring audiences around the world.

The film explores the interesting artistic competition between The Beatles and the Brian Wilson, who were both pushing to create a groundbreaking, innovative and important new album.

But while Brian Wilson wanted to fully engage in this competition by following up the Beach Boys’ “cutting edge, mega-hit” “Pet Sounds” with an even more unconventional album “Smile,” that would be Wilson’s masterpiece, the other members of the Beach Boys balked, wanting to stick closer to the surf sounds that had launched their career.

As a result, “Smile” was never released and Wilson—devastated both by the miscarriage of “Smile”  and the successful birth of  The Beatles’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”–spiraled down into a deep and legendary depression. (Many music lovers who came of of age in the early 90s can still sing all the lyrics to the Barenaked Ladies’ song “Bryan Wilson”).

After three decades of a terrible struggle with overeating, mental illness and drug use, Brian Wilson began to work through his stage fright and other problems and in 2004 he turned his energies back to his painful and beloved masterpiece “Smile.” The album was released 37 years after its conception and Brian Wilson played the album in its entirety at Carnegie Hall.

What brought about this healing and redemption? According to the documentary, it was purely and simply the love and support of his wife Melinda Ledbetter, who he married in 1995.

The film, which includes many present day interviews with Wilson, is both a fascinating portrait of artistic genius and an inspiring tale for anyone who has considered giving up on a beloved and devastating dream.

Lyrics to the Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson”

Drove downtown in the rain nine-thirty on a Tuesday night,
just to check out the late-night record shop.
Call it impulsive, call it compulsive, call it insane;
but when I’m surrounded I just can’t stop.

It’s a matter of instinct, it’s a matter of conditioning,
It’s a matter of fact.
You can call me Pavlov’s dog
Ring a bell and I’ll salivate- how’d you like that?
Dr. Landy tell me you’re not just a pedagogue,
cause right now I’m

Lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did
Well I’m lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did.

So I’m lying here, just staring at the ceiling tiles.
and I’m thinking about what to think about.
Just listening and relistening to Smiley Smile,
and I’m wondering if this is some kind of creative drought
because I am


And if you want to find me I’ll be out in the sandbox,
wondering where the hell all the love has gone.
Playing my guitar and building castles in the sun,
and singing “Fun, Fun, Fun.”


I had a dream that I was three hundred pounds
and though I was very heavy,
I floated ’til I couldn’t see the ground
I floated ’til I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me, I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me, I couldn’t see the ground
Somebody help me because I’m


Drove downtown in the rain nine-thirty on a Tuesday night.
Just to check out the late-night record shop.
Call it impulsive, call it compulsive, call it insane;
but when I’m surrounded I just can’t stop.


Part 2: Documentaries that Change the Way We Think About Art

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Steve “Lips” Kudlow with renowned country musician Damon Bramblett at Emo’s.
Steve "Lips" Kudlow with renowned country musician Damon Bramblett at Emo's.

I had no desire to watch a documentary about a Canadian heavy metal band, but I did and it told me more about a love of and commitment to an art form than any film I have ever seen.

Anvil: the story of Anvil is moving, poignant, inspiring and deeply heartbreaking. It poses the questions with which many artists that have yet to achieve any sort of fame or monetary success grapple: Am I delusional? Should I give this up? Is my perseverance admirable or ludicrous? Is my relentless pursuit of my art form worth the many costs I suffer as a result of my efforts?

The film follows the founders of the heavy metal band Anvil, Steve “Lips” Kudlow (lead vocals, lead guitar) and Rob Reiner (drums). The two have been best friends and band mates since they were fourteen. In 1984, they toured the world with heavy metal bands Scorpion, Whitesnake and Bon Jovi. All the bands on the tour had astounding subsequent success, except for Anvil.

The film begins with shots of Anvil during this glory tour and then flashes forward twenty-something years. Anvil is still together, but playing strip mall bars to a small but dedicated group of fans. Lips and Rob are working decidedly unglamorous day jobs—Lips as a catering delivery driver and Rob as a construction worker. But the years, lack of success and drudge work have not dampened the pair’s enthusiasm or hope of once again reaching a wider audience. It’s wrenching to watch Rob and Lips’s sometimes painful hopefulness and dedication despite the cost to their marriages, finances, and even their friendship with each other.

And viewers of the film have to wonder, how could this aging pair even imagine they will ever make a comeback in the young man’s world of heavy metal? And yet it’s impossible to keep from rooting for them wholeheartedly as they come to represent every dedicated musician struggling to gain some recognition despite staggering odds.

It’s clear that Lips and Rob keep playing metal and pushing for their dream of having an audience for their shows because their passion for their music forces them to do so. An apt lesson for any aspiring artist.

Musician Sam Baker Makes Visual Art Debut

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Poet Jardine Raven Lebair reads in front of Sam Baker's paintings.

Beloved Itasca-born songwriter Sam Baker made his visual arts debut last Thursday night at (Un)(In)hibited, a group art exhibit held at the Continental Club Gallery.

Baker showed two paintings, (pictured in the photo, left to right) Untitled, and Woman with Green Hair and Oil Blue Eyes.

(Un)(In)hibited also featured works by photographer Todd Wolfson and artist Bale Allen, as well as music by John Dee Graham.

Baker recently returned to the studio to record a single with accordion player Joel Guzman. Baker hopes that the song, about 14 Mexican nationals who died in the Arizona desert, will help draw attention to the plight of illegal immigrants and the need for workable immigration reform.