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Fairness Doctrine

In music, as in law, David Rodriguez tries to fit things together

"I'm trying," says singer-songwriter David Rodriguez over a breakfast of strong coffee and sweet corn muffins at a friend's West University Place home, "to lessen the lag time between the time that I write a song and the time it's released."
Like his scattered discography, Rodriguez is tough to keep up with. He travels a lot, including frequent touring trips to Europe, and it seems almost everywhere he goes, and everything he sees, inspires a song.

A good number of those songs have made their way onto albums such as Avatars, Angels and Ashes, recorded live at Houston's Anderson Fair in 1991, and Man Against Beast, recorded live at Austin's Chicago House in 1990 and re-released on CD as The True Cross by Dejadisc in 1993. The True Cross constituted Rodriguez' first national exposure, and it was roundly and rightly lauded, even though the album's material was more than a decade old before it found its way to most fans' ears. Apparently, even David Rodriguez the performer has trouble keeping up with Rodriguez the songwriter, but he's started paring down the backlog with the release this week of Forgiveness, his self-produced first studio album.

It's just one of many things Rodriguez is trying to do, and over the course of a rambling interview, he offers hints of the rest. He's ready "to write new things that are more forward looking, rather than hanging on to frustrations of the past." He hopes to have a brand new studio album out by early next year. When time and resources converge, he'd like to tour and record with a full band -- something Rodriguez hasn't done since the early '80s. And he continues to hone his songcraft in pursuit of the self-legislated dictum that "art should be fair."

This last mission might sound odd to ears accustomed to the folk world's never-ending flood of unsolicited subjectivity, but Rodriguez isn't just blabbing. In conversation, as in his songs, he chooses words carefully, amending himself for the sake of clarity as he goes, and rarely fails to emphasize his sardonic wit. His doctrine of fairness has roots in his Hispanic heritage and in the five years of the early '80s he spent in the practice of law.

"I always did things in a way that was different than the way most people did things. Even practicing law I did a lot of stuff that took me beyond what most people think practicing law is. That's how I got involved in community things and eventually helping people to pursue different types of community work. It's practicing law, but more as an advocate or a go-between or a person that tries to bring different groups to the table to negotiate things. Carrying messages or translating messages or ironing out disputes, agreements. It's not law like you go into a courtroom, but it is legal in the sense that it takes an ability to listen to both sides and try to figure out where they fit together."

What Rodriguez discovered is that all too often, both sides don't fit together, and his songbook is filled with tunes reflecting a deeply felt exploration of racial and class injustice. "They Ain't the Avatars," from Avatars, Angels and Ashes, was written in response to, and in the midst of, an Austin neighborhood's battle to keep its park. Songs like "Ballad of the Western Colonies" and "The Third World" from The True Cross make explicit comment on border mentality from both sides of the tracks. Those topics may deserve the weary yawn they generate when relayed on newsprint, but Rodriguez is such a personal writer, and so non-didactic an analyst, that even ham-fisted elements can't overpower the whole of his storytelling.

Rodriguez grew up in south Houston's industrial district, was stricken as a child with polio that left him with a limp he carries to this day, and came of age in an atmosphere of "bicycles, bayous, hurricanes, refineries, '58 Chevrolets, Hearst shifters, cigarettes in your T-shirt and an older brother that would sneak you a six-pack of Pearl."

He began learning guitar at nine, under the tutelage of a local honky-tonk picker who gigged regularly up and down the Telephone Road strip. "He had an old f-hole guitar with those flatwound strings on it, sounded real mellow. He taught me my first riffs."

Not surprisingly, he read loads. "It seems like the schools that I went to had good libraries. We had everything in those libraries. The surrealists. Left wing to the extreme right wing. One of the things that made me want most to be a professional artist of some sort was the Letters of Dylan Thomas, because he just seemed to have so much fun."

Rodriguez went to Milby High School and was exposed to Houston's thriving folk scene at a time when Lydia Mendoza, Lightnin' Hopkins and Townes Van Zandt were regulars on the scene. It left him with a ringing, complexly primitive finger-plucking guitar style, a keen eye for firsthand observational songwriting, and a rough, rich and deeply soulful voice -- all of which stand out on Forgiveness, a collection of songs of which Rodriguez says: "I try not to go out and stir up something to observe it. It's much more real to me the less I really have to do. I've learned to stand back a little more, be more an observer and less a participant."

Forgiveness spreads its net wider than the highly political Avatars, Angels and Ashes and The True Cross. Like all of Rodriguez' recorded work, Forgiveness lacks the production quality the material deserves, but there's a compensating raw immediacy that would likely be lost if a pro ever tried to make this fly in Nashville.

Not that Nashville is ready to mass-market this style of confrontation; in their pointedness, Rodriguez' songs have more in common with what they used to call protest songs than with the personal relationship-obsessed, rainbow-loving contemporary folk crop. Partly because of that pointedness, partly because of the lone-man-and-his-guitar performance and partly because of his "minority" status -- which must, in the public eye, signal grievance -- it's tempting to label Rodriguez a modern day protest singer and leave it at that.

"No," Rodriguez protests, "not really. It's a question of language and what people are accustomed to. The whole idea that it's a protest to argue in a song, or to posit in a song, that something right ought to be done.... This is characterized as a protest, it's already got a negative thing around it. They could call it prayer music, or pleading music, or beautiful music or hopeful music, but they call it protest music to put the burden on the person singing to justify something that's self-justifying -- that those that have the least deserve something."

David Rodriguez celebrates the release of Forgiveness and performs at 8 p.m. Friday, August 19 at Sand Mountain Music, 617 W. 19th Street. Tickets $8. Call 864-9770 for info.

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