Texas Guns and Texas Music
(This article was written in l981 twenty years before I moved to Texas. The events described occurred during an extensive hitch-hiking trip, one of many that I have made in my life.
It was written for publication in the WOODSTOCK TIMES, of Woodstock, New York, where I spent most of my life when I wasn't exploring the world.)
I think I'll go back to old Texas;
A Pilgrimage, yes, I suppose.
I like to turn on the old car radio
And hear Maddox Brothers and Rose.
(words and music by Jerry Faires)
I have driven through Texas many times in my life and I always enjoyed it, never having had an experience one could describe as bad. But Texans have a terrible reputation around the country. They are stereotyped as braggarts. Always boasting about how big Texas is and how big everything in Texas is. Texas, I have heard, is no place to get stuck in, is full of red-necks, and is generally the arm-pit of the USA. My experiences do not bear out this reputation. I have always found Texans to be cheerful, polite, and, like most people around the country, willing to go out of their way to help a stranger.
I have no doubt that Texas has its assholes, but I have never come up against any. But reputations do not grow out of nothing. With smoke there is usually some sort of fire.
I may have discovered part of the reason for this contradiction between what I heard before I came to Texas and my experiences there. The one thing that most Texans have that I have never noticed anywhere else in the country is an intense love of their home state far above and beyond the feelings that most Americans have for their own state.
Texas is the only place I have ever seen people around the campfire all night singing songs about their home state. I have never heard a song about New York, though I am sure one may exist. New Jersey? Pennsylvania? Forget it! Texans seem to have a deep love for the culture of their home. Not the Government, but the people, the ranches, the cattle, the history, which is a hell of a lot more interesting than most other states. This is what Texans try to share with us when they are abroad.
Oklahoma City to Kerrville, Texas. An all day drive with my friend, Terren, official photographer of the Kerrville Folk Festival. Through the Texas hill country, past the LBJ Ranch, now a Texas State Park, until you see a hillside dotted with little squares of color, the tents of the campers.
We set up our tents and went to find the action. Music everywhere! Wandering from campsite to campsite I heard the usual run of folk music with fiddles, guitars, and mandolins. My first surprise. No banjos! I saw only three or four banjos in the entire crowd for the nine days I was there.
I had never heard of Townes Van Zandt. Terren never stopped talking about him during the drive from Oklahoma City. She introduced me to him and he immediately invited me into the RV he was staying in. We had a beer and he then suggested a couple of hands of poker. It seemed a bit strange, but who was I, a stranger in these parts to question the local behavior. He made it sound like the most ordinary everyday thing in the world. After I had lost about thirty dollars to him, I finally bowed out and went on my way. It was about three months later, after we had become friends and were performing together that he admitted that he had been flat broke and needed the money to buy gas to get the borrowed RV back to its owner.
I wandered around the first day, talking to folks and trying to get a feel for the place and the people. This was the Kerrville Folk Festival's tenth successive year and the festival's promoter and MCs never tired of telling the crowd how marvelous it was that this had been going on for ten years. A general self back-patting never completely stopped and while it did not actually become tiresome---there was a real group spirit going---I could have done with more music and less talk from the stage about festivals past and present.
The first night I went to the campfires where all pickers got their chance to perform for the folk. These sessions were informal and lasted into the dawn. Two or three festival heavies would get things going and would then leave for their own campfires, assignations, or what-have-theys, leaving field to the general audience of pickers and singers.
I started one session early the first evening and quickly gathered a large group of listeners. I wanted to made as good an impression on the folk as I quickly could so that the promoters would hear of me and I would get to perform on the main concert stage, if possible. As far as I knew I was completely unknown in Kerrville. As it turned out none of this plotting was necessary, but I didn't know it yet.
After I played a while one of the heavies took over and started the ball rolling around the group, each person that cared to singing one or two songs. By the time I left a few hours later, I was impressed by two things. One: most of the material I was hearing was brand new to me. And two, most of it was about Texas. Texas, the state, the land, the people, cows ranches, history, was the subject of all these songs. Some were fun-poking hilarious. Others tear-provoking serious. And the crowd there knew the songs well. All the choruses were roundly joined. This was no up tight folk singing gathering needing a Pete Seeger to get it going. These people were singing THEIR music about THEIR home. For the first time in my life I was experiencing a group of English speaking people lustily and unselfconsciously singing their living music. These were not the old folksongs I was used to hearing. These songs were being written now or in the last few years. I really didn't know because it was all so new to me.
Whenever the circle came back to me I felt some embarrassment because none of my music, my banjo instrumentals, the old-timey songs I did seemed to contribute to what I perceived as the flow of the evening. But I quickly overcame this self-consciousness and was having a ball by the next day.
It would make this piece far too long to go into detail about the various singers I heard that night and got to know during the festival. But I will mention three men. Mike Williams, a big blustery, red haired smiling freak singing delicate flowery songs about his eight year old daughter. Tim Henderson, ordinary looking spellbinder with his intense love of Texas through his songs. And Frank Hill, the only one of the three that looked like a Texas to my stereotypically accustomed eyes, with his raw SOMEBODY'S GOT TO PICK FOR THE PLAIN FOLK. These three were typical, if not the best, of the singers I heard there.
Next day, wandering around through the craft booths I met Crow Johnson ,a black haired woman, selling her records and little four holed ocarinas she made. The size of a quarter, they played a chromatic octave in the piccolo range. You could wear one on a string around your neck and never know they were there until time to make music. After a while we got to the "Where are you from?" stage and, Lo and Behold, she is Forest Goodenough's daughter, Amy. I used to see her around Woodstock when she was tiny.
Having been in and out of the music world for thirty years I know how difficult it can be when just before, or right after, a performance, some old friend whom you haven't seen for a long while, shows up and wants your attention. Therefore I made only one unsuccessful attempt apiece to communicate with three big stars of the festival. (Why was I being so coy when I wrote this in 1981? We are talking here of Odetta, Peter Yarrow, and Bob Gibson.) On the other hand, David Amram, with whom I once performed at Café Lena in Saratoga, was tickled to see me, and we made some music together, on and off the stage.
But the best old friend meeting was with Carolyn Hester whom I hardly know at all except by dim recollection and reputation. She and I came together quickly because we have had similar experiences in the music business world. We both dropped out years ago because of intense dissatisfaction with our lives as professional singers, and now, having both found ourselves to some degree, are playing our way back into the field, each in out own way.
On Sunday morning Carolyn played at a folk mass and I went to her afterward and reintroduced myself. She was happy to see me and we arranged for me to sing with her at a song swapping session she was running. She also asked me to play with her at her evening concert the next night. All of this came to pass.
Before I go any further I must say that this is not meant, in any sense, to be a review of the Kerrville Folk Festival. It is, I fear, a rather halting attempt to make some sense of my own impressions and experiences.
I introduced myself to Allen Damron on the third day. He seemed to be a person of some influence there and also, like me, played a long neck banjo. His reaction to my name was unexpected.
"Ah liked t' shit!" he told me later. He had grown up, musically speaking, on my old records and couldn't believe I was actually there in the flesh. I have since discovered a few more people in the Southwest that know of or have my old records. In fact, I am sure I made more friends through them than dollars, unquestionably the better deal.
Allen said he would get me engagements in Austin, and he did. After the festival I went to Austin where I performed for three days at Snavely's, a new folk club.
Things went so well there that I am going back on September 22 for a two week gig on my way back to Woodstock.
There were many other Texas songwriters in Austin that I had never heard of. I mention only two more; Rusty Wier, who impressed me with his beautiful command of his medium as a writer, singer, and performer, and Gary P. Nunn, who wrote the LONDON HOMESICK BLUES. Since I had never heard this song of Gary's before, I figured no one else had either. Loving it, I learned it and sang it at the gig in Austin, only to learn that it was well known. This may be taken as a comment on how much I knew of Texas music before I get to Texas. While I was singing the chorus a weird looking guy jumped up on the stage and sang it with me. This pissed me off and I wished someone would get rid of him for me. The only other time I had ever seen anyone do this was in Woodstock, years before, when Bobby Shehorn, a Texan living in Woodstock, jumped up uninvited to sing with Brian Hollander which pissed Brian off. I figured it was a Texan thing. After my set I found out that my stage jumper was Gary P. Nunn who had written the song, paying me the ultimate compliment. It was a good lesson for me.
But the best part of all of this for me was the dozen or so musicians there who really got off on my music, and played it with me as I did theirs. I fit in in Texas musically as I never seemed to anywhere else. Stuff I had been playing for years and seemed to leave most Woodstock musicians cold was received with enthusiasm in Texas, both Kerrville and Austin. I had the intense satisfaction of hearing my compositions understood and played along with by these Texas musicians, players of the highest quality. I didn't have to explain or 'teach' them. They heard and played. Perhaps a real Woodstock music festival would bring out the same spirit in Woodstock musicians, a spirit of musical togetherness unencumbered by the knowledge of who is making how many bucks. Woodstock would certainly benefit more through a local musician's festival then it ever did through the dope ridden abstractions of the so-called Woodstock Nation on sale in most shops from the playhouse to the Bear Café.
I played more music with strangers in the three weeks in Texas than I did with friends in Woodstock for the last ten years. Sometimes we change and grow inwardly, showing no outside manifestation of that change until something happens to trigger the change into an observed reality. Perhaps on my return home I will find music all around me as I never did before. That would be a blessing.
AND TEXAS GUNS
I know less about guns than I knew about Texas music. I know that guns can be used to hit a target. I know that there are different sizes, types and styles, but I know very little about them. A rifle is a long gun and shoots with greater accuracy than a short gun, a pistol. That is the extent of my knowledge about guns.
I have never seen a gun used threateningly in real life and I hope I never do. But I will tell you about one hitch-hiking experience when I thought it was happening and perhaps could have had I behaved differently. Two years ago I was headed west on Interstate 40 in Tennessee and got a ride at night with two local men. They were only going a short distance and they assured me they would let me out at a busy, well lighted exit ramp because, as I told them, I didn't want to be stuck at a dark lonely place at night. As usually happens, they asked me to play my banjo and I, being very tired, declined, saying they would never hear it above the noise of the moving car, my usual excuse.
In a little while the driver said to his companion, "Let's see that pistol in the glove compartment."
The passenger took a gun out and handed it to the driver who waved it sort of aimlessly over his shoulder--he was not pointing it at me--and said, "We carry this in case folks get strange ideas, and we know how to use it, don't we?" His friend agreed and took the gun and put it back in the glove compartment. I tell you, friends and neighbors, I felt very weird at that moment. Here I was, riding at night, helpless, in a car with two strangers who had just waved a gun at me. This had never happened in all my years and thousands of miles of hitch-hiking. The image of me lying dead on the roadside and all my stuff stolen--my fantasy gave equal weight to both--presented itself to my imagination. Had I gotten "that" ride, the one some folks always talk about when I mention hitch-hiking?
The moment had come to play music. Out came the banjo, noisy car notwithstanding. I played my best songs, including THE GREAT ASSEMBLY, the one that never fails to get 'em. They loved it and after I had played a while, the passenger handed me two dollars. I took the money because my paranoia was still high from seeing the gun, and I didn't want them to think I had any money.
Then they let me out at a dark lonely exit and I was full of fear again. Hadn't they assured me that they would let me out at a busy place? I walked away from their car, in the glare of their headlights, expecting the worst, a bullet in my back. I got to the other end of the exit ramp and they still hadn't moved. When I had settled down to wait for another ride they finally started moving and pulled up along side of me.
"This isn't where we meant to let you out," said the passenger. I realized that their behavior was not that of two scheming predators and I got back in the car. They drove me one more exit and I got out at my desired interchange with restaurants and motels lighting up the night. Driver handed me three dollars which I accepted for the same reason as before. There was no doubt that I had more money on me than they did but I didn't want to shake their image of me; the lonely broke banjo player wandering the world.
When they left I sat and went over the entire experience in my mind. I saw how irrationally I had behaved. The mere sight of the gun for a few seconds had blinded me to their behavior which was, at all times, open and friendly. If anything, showing me the gun was evidence of their fear of me. I was in their world, their car, and knew perfectly well that guns were an ever-present fact of life in the South, certainly more so than in the north. As least Southerners do not try to hide their guns as much. I clearly saw that the sight of the gun had caused me to clam up and make no attempt to get to know them, while they were being talkative and friendly. I was the one who was weird. I hoped to learn from this experience. I also decided to leave their five dollars in their community along with a few of my own and took an inexpensive motel room for the night. Back to the present trip.
In Austin I stayed with Allen Damron who generously offered me space while I was in town. There were three cat skins spread out on one wall of the living room. Guns, rifles, shotguns, seemed to be all over the place. Three stacked in one corner. Two under the couch. A bunch leaning up against the sink in the kitchen. Looking for a stamp on a cluttered desk I accidentally dropped a hidden pistol on to the floor. Every once in a while someone would pick up a gun, aim it, fool with the mechanism a bit, put it down--all seemingly at random--with no real purpose behind the move, sort of the way one might idly pick ones nose.
I asked Allen, "Are any of these guns loaded?"
"Y'all won't find the loaded ones lyin' around." Was the cheerful answer. Years later, telling this story about my reaction to the guns in his house, he claims he answered, "They all are!"
About this time I realized that this trip of mine had two themes that were starting to cross and weave with each other. Guns and music. I felt in no personal danger. There was a lesson to be learned here and I determined to remain open and learn it.
Somewhere in the mystery of why Texas has such a bad press lies the fact that Texans are aware of this and seem to be overly sensitive to the impression they are making. As a result they tend to explain themselves more than generally called for by ordinary conversation. I can not know how they behave when alone with each other, but in my presence, and both on and off stage there was a generous sprinkling of humorous and not so humorous comments about the North and Yankees. It has been said that the South is still fighting the Civil War. But for anyone desirous of getting to know the South it would be foolish to criticize them for this. It is deeply ingrained in their humor and culture, part of what they are. Texas musicians anyway.
It was with full consciousness of these thoughts that I asked my host--after I had been there a few days, "What kind of cats are these?'--the skins on the wall. I hoped that this question would trigger a flood of talk about hunting and guns and I was not disappointed. I was ready to hear it. So far I had been spared the gun rap, but it was in the air, so to speak, and I felt that as an aware and friendly guest I should try to clear the air. Ed Balmer, a sage from Woodstock, New York, my home town, once told me something I will never forget.
"Responsibility lies with those who understand the situation." I would never try to manipulate a situation, but if one well placed question achieves a desired result, why not?
Allen told me how the mountain cats had to be thinned out because they were killing the valuable horses on his father's ranch. It seemed reasonable to me and I didn't interrupt as he answered my question. Finding no resistance to his story, Allen slowly shifted the thread of the tale from practical necessity to divine purpose. Am I exaggerating?
"Ah'd dah if I couldn't hunt them cats at least once a yeah. Ah'd jes' dah!" Readers, please forgive me for attempting to render Texas dialect. But hearing Allen's speech was very much a part of the total experience. And I must add here that I am not being critical of him. He was a good friend and I admire him intensely.
My host's room-mate was a peace officer. He carried two guns, a knife, and a night stick at all times. He gave me a detailed description of each, how they worked, the most effective way of using them, how well they killed, maimed, or scared, whatever the desired result. He ended by saying that they were tools of his trade, as a banjo was mine. I refrained from pointing out to him that my object was to use the banjo as much as possible while his was, or should be, to not use him tools at all, fearing that he would take it as sarcasm. This entire conversation with both friends was not an argument, nor was it a friendly discussion. We were all trying to state our case without offending, instinctively avoiding the areas where this would be impossible. I was there because of music and no one wanted to disturb that equilibrium. But we all wanted to communicate our feelings about all the weaponry about. We did pretty well.
Two more new friends from the same group invited me to visit them in El Paso on my way through. They owned a gun store and a firing range twenty miles from downtown El Paso. It seemed like part of my education and I accepted.
Back on the hitch-hiking road now. Domingo Cervantes drove me back to Kerrville and the Interstate. There I teamed up with a black veteran, Duane, who was making his first hitch-hiking trip in order to see the South first hand. He was totally ill-equipped for what he was doing and I saved him from real discomfort by sharing my water. We got a ride with a certain 'Joe' who, after telling us he had just paid thirty thousand dollars for his car (a Camero) wanted us to kick in with gas money. I gave him ten dollars. Duane and I rode with him most of the way to El Paso but we finally sent him on his way about 150 miles short of our goal. Joe was simply too weird for us. Also, as Duane pointed out to me, he had probably stolen the car. He had no gear and didn't even have keys to the trunk or gas cap.
I got into El Paso next day about noon. Searing hot, over 100 degrees in the shade. For the next three days, at the gun club, I met lots of shooters and listened to the sound of gunfire. On the hitch-hiking trip to Oklahoma City I had gotten a ride from a man who claimed to be an assassin, trained by the CIA to do our dirty work. He was very convincing. When I told my new hosts about it they laughed and said they knew of two others living in El Paso. They only killed out of the country. One was a member of the gun club. My Woodstock bred innocence was quickly ablating away from the heat of reentry into the world. I had mentioned my friend, the assassin, to number of people since I had come to Texas. So far I was the only one to be surprised.
Though my hosts considered themselves humanistic and open-minded they exhibited opinions I had come to regard as extremely right wing. Our only common interest was music. I was trying to learn as much as I could about guns: not the care and shooting of, but the role guns played in their lives. My host was tired of dealing guns and was ready to sell out. But his defense of guns was fierce. Once again I was exposed to opinions and beliefs of which I was aware but had never heard proclaimed. It seemed to boil down to "People, not guns, do the shooting" Here in the south, in El Paso, there was no one to look at and wink with when some one made some particularly outrageous statement. I was alone. Frequently people who are defending the open ownership of guns will wax philosophical and emotional about the great feeling or 'joy' of using a gun. When this happens I am always reminded of the words of a now faded Woodstock immortal who declared at the end of a snowmobile information meeting many years ago,
"You folks just don't know what its like to have twenty-two horsepower between your legs."
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