Strings Attached

Will Linden move on to become a music mecca or fall beneath the weight of a racist past?

In interviews concerning both his environmental activism and music, Henley, who lives in Dallas with his wife and kids, has fondly recalled his childhood in Linden.

"I knew everybody in town," he told the Albuquerque Tribune in 2000. "They knew me. They knew my mother. They knew my father. We had one school, one traffic light, one Dairy Queen and one sheriff. So it was a great way to grow up. I didn't have some of the cultural amenities to be had in a big city, but I had security and a great deal of freedom."

Henley frequently visits Linden, where he has raised funds for the municipal hospital and pledged money for the proposed courthouse restoration. He has also served as the grand marshal of the annual Wildflower Trails Parade.

The MCT Theater is the first step toward economic recovery.
Daniel Kramer
The MCT Theater is the first step toward economic recovery.
Wilson says police tried to cover up Johnson's beating.
Craig Malisow
Wilson says police tried to cover up Johnson's beating.

But the town hasn't relied on just Henley to raise awareness.

With $108,000 in state funds, the nonprofit Music City Texas, Inc. transformed an abandoned VFW auditorium into the quaint 400-seat Music City Texas Theater, the opening salvo in the town's fight for economic recovery.

The town also has people in place to handle a big-scale music operation. Richard Bowden is a city councilman and guitar player who's toured and recorded with his childhood pal Henley, Linda Ronstadt, Dan Fogelberg and others. He left Linden for L.A. in 1970 and returned a few years ago, never severing ties with his industry contacts.

A plump, bespectacled man with gray hair and beard, Bowden has a laid-back demeanor and bathroom humor that made him a minor celebrity as one half of the country comedy duo Pinkard and Bowden. He continues the tradition in his solo work -- song titles on his latest CD include "Fudge Packers in Disguise," "Fat Girl Fart" and "Since My Baby Turned Gay."

Bowden's latest coup was to bring in album-oriented rock staple Jackson Browne for a July concert at the MCT Theater. He says the posting on Browne's Web site has already caused a nationwide buzz among fans willing to pay up to $100 a ticket to see the mop-topped baby boomer in such an intimate setting.

"It'll be like him playing in your living room," Bowden says.

With his stories about the wild 1970s -- barging buck-naked into a hotel lobby while on tour with Ronstadt, covered with shaving cream and asking the concierge where to buy a razor blade, for example -- Bowden is clearly the most media-friendly Music City Texas ambassador. More subdued is Russell Wright, a retired air force and commercial airline pilot who is now the executive director of the Linden Economic Development Corporation. The corporation goes after state grants, which are in turn pumped into Music City Texas Theater renovation and promotion.

"People are interested in music," says Wright, who works out of a quiet office just off the courthouse square. He was born in the Missouri boot heel and settled here a few years ago with his wife, a Linden native. Although he looks white, he says his mom was a full-blooded Cherokee and his father was half-Native American. "If you go back and you look at the depression era, people didn't have enough money to feed themselves, but on the weekends, they went dancing…so music has always been where people sought relief. And we're going to play to that."

Wright and the Music City Texas board eventually want to open a museum honoring Cass County musicians, as well as a Texas Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. These attractions would tie Linden into the planned East Texas 59 Road Trip, which would include the Tex Ritter Museum and possible music venues and museums in Marshall and Jefferson.

So they have buy-in from Henley and effective people in place able to pull in class acts. Unfortunately -- at least for success in the entertainment industry -- Linden has another hurdle to overcome. It's dry. If you want a beer, you've got to drive at least 15 miles to the nearest liquor store or about 30 miles to the nearest club.

"Personally, I don't drink, but do I think that they need to go wet? Yes," Wright says. "If this county is tax-poor, one way that you can overcome it is to have some limited avenues for social drinking. It will enhance your ability to attract the restaurant business [and] the entertainment business."

Linden law allows patrons of the MCT Theater to drink alcohol from a plastic cup -- they just can't walk around with an open bottle or can.

"Music City Texas concerts are BYOB," Wright says.

But lately, Linden has more to consider than wet versus dry and which performers could be lured to Linden.

That's because it has drawn national attention for the Billy Ray Johnson assault -- a notoriety that Wright says unfairly taints the town.

Race relations have thrust Cass County and Linden into the national spotlight before.

In April 2001, a black man named Clarence "Tank" Cole was found hanging from a tree off CR 1620, about two miles from where Billy Ray Johnson would be dumped two years later.

Cole left behind a vague note authorities found in his locked Chevy Nova, parked nearby. "I'm sorry," read the uncharacteristically shaky letters. "I love you all, but I hate myself. Don't know no other way to fix this. I'm sorry. Love u all, Tank."

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