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Gunfights and Ragtime

Houston's City Hall and Market House, circa 1904.
Courtesy of UH Digital Libraries

Catfish Reef

For the first century after Houston's birth in 1837, happenings of music and revelry were advertised word-of-mouth. Music journalism generally consisted of classical reviews, and most of those who could chat about those times have passed, making it harder to find what's left today.

What's left are library reserves of research volumes alongside torn pictures and captions tucked and scattered throughout a small variety of faded and discolored scrapbooks. Looking through dozens of those, this is what we found:

Early settlers described Houston as full of saloons and brothels and gunfights; it was a young Southern town with the temperament of the West. Meanwhile, business was booming, ensuring some glitzy elements in Houston's nightlife even then.

Yadon's Saloon was a popular spot. It was located at the corner of Congress and San Jacinto several blocks down from the old Kennedy Bakery building, which became the home of La ­Carafe in 1962. It was said to be popular "among locals who had the means to buy themselves drinks," meaning richer folk.

Like many saloons of the time, Yadon's may have had a piano on which two-steps were played; ragtime was growing in popularity even beyond downtown brothels. In addition, gunfights were said to break out frequently at ­Yadon's.

One recorded gunfight at Yadon's, which broke out on the evening of July 29, 1901, was remembered vividly. Witnesses saw this fight progress north on San Jacinto and west on Franklin before it looped the block and ended up back in the bar. There, a rambunctious ­gunman by the name of J.T. Vaughn was silhouetted, gun in hand. Officers fired at him, and he fell and uttered these final words: "I died game."

It was said that Yadon's Saloon then closed for the night.

Another gunfight broke out at Yadon's on the afternoon of December 11, 1901, when a man by the name of Sid Preacher jumped up on a buggy and took out a double-barreled shotgun while debating his gambling practices with an officer.

The shooting began shortly thereafter, and everyone in possession of a gun died at the scene.

Preacher had been arrested for gambling troubles several months before the incident, allegedly for operating a gaming device. After this arrest, his attorney advised him, "You arm yourself with a six-shooter and the next policeman who attempts to arrest you without a warrant for any offense, except for carrying a six-shooter, shoot his belly off."

Turned out Preacher followed that advice about as plainly as it was given.

Aside from the glamorized civilian accounts and police reports, there was much advertising for the friendly Bank of Bacchus in the scrapbook clippings. This bar and billiards parlor was opened in 1858 by 20-year-old Dick Dowling, who would go on to become one of Houston's leading businessmen and a Civil War hero for the Confederacy before his death in 1867.

Dowling's bar was said to be located across the street from the courthouse square at the southwest corner of Congress and Fannin, and then about a decade later at the northeast corner of Congress and Main, where it was in business for many years.

Bank of Bacchus was advertised consistently in many 19th-century Houston papers as a haven where deposits of cash were to be exchanged for withdrawals of whiskey. It was said to court the city's fancy business elite and was reportedly not the best place for those wanting to hear live music.

Houston's music scene in the early years ranged from fiddlers to bluesmen and ragtime players, and people drunk and sober danced to the music. In addition, the local development of civic music societies began at this time. The first performance of what would become the Houston Symphony took place in 1913.

The more high-minded local music of the early 20th century was to be found at the Houston City Auditorium, located at the corner of Main and McGowen. The old Houston City Hall and Market House on Travis and Prairie housed some of these shows, too, as did the Rice Hotel.
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Screwston, Texas

Melancholy Baby
Houston's blunt-loving Devin the Dude sings the blues on eighth album One For the Road.

Brando

To say Devin the Dude is Houston's rap Yoda would seem like a slight to theDude.

At 43, he seems almost timeless, still rolling through copious amounts of weed while letting his inner thoughts bellow out in between tokes. His voice has never reached more than a lovable croak, switching between romantic anecdotes that seemingly won't get him to point B from point A ("Lacville '79") and down-and-out blues ("Stray").

That has been Devin's motif for the better part of two decades: He's Houston's most relatable everyman who seemingly can't get a handle on love nearly as well as he can get a handle on a blunt or seven.

But One for the Road, his eighth studio effort, seems like the most mature Devin Copeland has ever felt on wax. There's the playful oddball who appears on three separate skits as a part-time radio-station shock jock delivering humorous ads about improving sexual impotence, but there's also the Devin who — for once — contemplates his mortality and has moments of fatalism when things have hit absolute bottom.

 

At this point in life, either the Dude is going to share a parable about his love life that can't find the straight and narrow, or he's going to drop off detailed words of encouragement. It's as if he determined his wheelhouse long ago and continues to capitalize year in and year out.

The synth scales provided by C-Ray on "Reach for It" pack a measured punch as Devin lists the virtues of running out and snatching his goals as opposed to waiting for them. But that patience couldn't be any more absent on the album's lead single, "Probably Should Have," on which he's forced to throw in the towel on a possible good relationship thanks to his "other" mind overruling his primary mind at every single turn.

The Dude understands whimsy. He also understands when to crank up sex interludes such as "Hear the Sound," which reaches a rung not too far below "Sex Faces." His at-times nasally singing voice has long been one of the hallmarks of his everyman approach.

Even when he fails ("Probably Should Have"), Devin eventually finds a way to succeed. His producers follow this template rather effortlessly, as the lone "big" production on here, "I'm Just Gettin' Blowed" (feat. Tha Business), breezes through with saxophones and drums, itemizing a day in the life of the Dude, who hasn't changed no matter how many different strains of weed have passed through his system.
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Only in Houston

For the Sake of the Song
Covering Townes Van Zandt is easy, but nearly impossible to do well.

William Michael Smith

Not all that long ago, Rocks Off saw some comment on a Facebook thread in which a guy claiming to be a poet said he didn't think Townes Van Zandt was the great poet/lyricist so many seem to think he is. His complaint: He felt that in every Townes song there was some flaw, some line that shouldn't have been added or should have beentweaked.

Steve Earle, no piker as a lyricist himself, cut an entire album of Van Zandt songs two years back. The often hyperbolic Earle once declared he would jump up on Bob Dylan's coffee table and proclaim that Townes was a better songwriter than Mr. Zimmerman.

Personally, Rocks Off isn't willing to go that far. Dylan may mail in a live show occasionally at this point, but it's hard to argue with the man's career, influence and lyrics. And no disrespect meant to Earle, but Dylan and Townes are two different Jimmy Webbs. Where Dylan's arc has been huge, lingering and spread across many universes, Van Zandt's was quick, hard and fairly brutal. That reality is reflected in Van Zandt's work, however flawed this Facebook poster may find it.

Despite that sniveling critique, one measure of the esteem in which Van Zandt's work is held — at least by singers and songwriters — is the substantial number of covers of his songs. Along with Earle, Richard Dobson recorded an entire album of Van Zandt songs, Amigos, in 1994, and Jonell Mosser did the same in 1996 with Around Townes.

Two years later, folkie Rhonda Harris released an entire album of Van Zandt songs called Tell the World We Tried, which pretty much went nowhere. In 2010, David Broza dropped Night Dawn, an entire album of poems Van Zandt wrote but never recorded.

Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt was released in 2001 and included the usual suspects: Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, etc. That same year, Texas Rain, an album of posthumous studio-magic duets with a star-studded list of Texas singer-songwriters, was also released.

Yet, in spite of the huge success Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard had with their cover of Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" in 1983, picking a tune from the Townes catalog can prove a tricky proposition.

Emmylou Harris was the first major talent to record a Van Zandt cover, cutting "Pancho and Lefty" six years prior to Nelson and Haggard. But outside of a cult of aficionados, the track fell mostly on deaf ears — if it was heard at all. If you weren't in that world, you probably never even heard it, although it was a regular in Harris's live sets.

Harris, Nelson and Haggard certainly fared better with Van Zandt than Evan Dando and the Lemonheads did. Dando's version is clean and tone-perfect, but his reading is more a straight homage that generates little excitement and adds nothing to "Waiting Around to Die," a gritty drifter's tale that, in the documentary Heartworn Highways, Van Zandt claimed was the first song he ever wrote.

 

We wonder what Dando was thinking when he stepped behind the microphone to record. It's not that it's "bad," it just adds nothing and fails to capture any of the emotional danger Van Zandt conveyed in the original. Dando sings it okay, but it just isn't believable.

Mumford and Sons add a bit more feeling to their cover of the gorgeous "If I Needed You," but something about this arrangement whispers that the UK folk-rock stars probably came to Van Zandt via Harris or Don Williams. They certainly put their own stamp on it, and it depends on the listener's level of Mumford fandom whether or not this works. To us, it's another Mumford yawner.

Steve Young was already a major force in the Nashville roots/singer-songwriter community when Van Zandt arrived in the city. He appeared alongside Townes in Heartworn Highways, which told the stories of the young Texas songwriter turks who were shaking up the Nashville system. With his god-like voice, Young could cover Madonna and sell it. He makes the wistful "Snowin' on Raton" his own.

Jason Isbell may have the 2013 Americana album of the year with Southeastern. A chilling vocalist, Isbell channels Townes about as well as anyone on his live version of "Pancho and Lefty," which Earle identified as the hardest Townes song to cover. Van Zandt frequently had trouble with the longish tale himself.
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Ask Willie D

More "Me" Time
A reader is concerned she's taking care of everyone but herself.

Dear Willie D:

I have a typical great life: a wonderful husband, great kids, a beautiful house and my dream job. But I feel like I've lost myself because I cater to everyone's needs except my own. I'm the mother who never misses a school function. I'm the wife who is a lover and friend who is always available for her husband's various needs. I'm the employee who stays after hours to finish a task. And I'm the friend who makes herself available for another friend, even if I don't have the time.

Well, I'm tired of it. I need a break, but I don't know how to stop going. I find it hard to say no to or let down the people I love when they're counting on me. If something doesn't give real soon, I could have a nervous breakdown. How can I put everyone else's needs on hold for a few minutes a day and set aside a little "me time" without feeling guilty?

"Me" Time:

Without fail, the older we get the more likely we are to get fed up with meeting the needs of others when our own needs aren't being met. To free up some time for yourself, you have to learn how to prioritize "essential" and "desirable" tasks. For example, taking your kid to school is an essential task, while hauling her to piano lessons 45 minutes across town three days a week is a desirable task. Take some of those desirable tasks off your plate and use the time you would've spent doing them as your "me" time.

Learn to say no. You don't have to feel guilty for not doing something for someone or skipping an event when doing so takes away from time that you reserved for yourself. You have to be healthy and happy to have a healthy and happy relationship with your family, because what you put out is what you get back.

As the message from the flight attendant before the plane takes off goes, in the event of an emergency, please put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.

Ask Willie D appears Thursday mornings on Rocks Off.


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