Just Say Ho
Talk about little accidents of grace -- the first time I heard the new, cryptically titled Scott Miller song "Say Ho," I was on my way to work and had just boarded the light rail at the Hermann Park/Rice station. As the lines "Reading Homer to some Cherokee maidens / and you know how Tennessee is in the fall / If you're not gonna make your dreams epic / why bother to dream anything at all?" billowed from my headphones, it suddenly dawned on me that "Say Ho" was a tribute to our city's namesake warlord/politico/orator. And at that very second, as my train hummed its way past Sam Houston's equestrian statue in front of the Warwick, I could have sworn I saw the Big Drunk wink.
Last week at the Mucky Duck, Miller closed his set with "Say Ho." After the show, and before I took him over to the statue for a drive-by photo op, I grilled Miller about what possessed him, a thirtysomething rock-and-roller and native of rural Virginia long resident in Knoxville, Tennessee, to write a song about the biggest of all of Texas's big men.
"Virginia and Tennessee created you, and I came down here to check on my blood investment," says Miller. "I want to see how you're doing with it."
Like Miller, Sam Houston was born in the Shenandoah Valley and later moved to Tennessee, albeit Maryville and later Nashville, in Houston's case. Miller learned all that and more by researching the song via the purplish prose of Marquis James's 1929 biography The Raven. The book has made a Sam Houston fanboy out of Miller.
"If The Raven is right, then Sam Houston was one hell of a motherfucker, just a badass," he says. "The whole story about the ring that his mother gave him when he left home that had the word 'honor' inside it, how she told him that her door would forever be closed to traitors or cowards, that whole thing. And I don't know how much of that is myth, or how much of it you're supposed to believe. I'm sure he was...well, I won't say he was crooked, but he was determined. And he was a drunk...he was everything. He had every fallible thing you could have, he had everything goin' against him that he coulda had, and he still persevered and he still did everything he had to do."
Miller hoped "Say Ho" would stir up some spirited conversations on his Texas swings. So far, he says, the reaction has been disappointing. (On stage at the Mucky, he joked that nobody in Dallas had understood "Say Ho," so he planned to write a song for them called "Tee La," about their patron saint Tom Landry. He also noted the prevalence of Virginia-themed streets around the Mucky, which is on Norfolk and near Richmond and Portsmouth.)
"I thought that comin' down here and remindin' everybody that he was a Virginian would start a fight, but nobody gives a damn," he says. "And then I thought that maybe it wasn't that nobody knows who he is, it's that they know who he is and they don't care, and that bothers me even more. Do I just need to come down here and reform the education system? Is that the problem?"
And if you think about it, we really should celebrate Sam Houston more.
After all, what American city has a cooler namesake? Sam was a man, folks. He took both an arrow and a bullet in one battle against the Creeks and fought on. He caned the crap out of an Ohio congressman who questioned some of his dealings, right in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. "He did that with one arm!" Miller says. "He had one arm down from a war wound, and he still beat the shit out of people!"
He was a century ahead of his time on the Indian question, knew that the Confederacy was doomed from the outset and risked his reputation and life to say so, and though a slaveholder, he allowed his slaves to earn money on the side and even broke the law by allowing them to learn to read and write. And then there was the little matter of whipping the main body of the Mexican army in 17 minutes and capturing the head of state in the process.
They just don't make 'em like that anymore. Could you imagine Rick Perry, an arrow sticking out of his bloody hip, charging a trenchful of amped-up Creek warriors? (I could maybe see "tough gramma" Carole Keeton Strayhorn doing that, but not Governor Goodhair.) As Miller puts it in severely mathematically challenged fashion, what other American city is named after a person who was "Half mystic and half showman / half poet and half sage / and way too stubborn to ever admit defeat"?
"Say Ho" gave me an idea: I asked Miller if he would consider embarking on a project similar to Sufjan Stevens's grand odyssey. So far, indie rocker Stevens has covered Michigan and Illinois into his stated project of 50 concept albums about all 50 states. Miller could do the American cities version -- an album about the namesakes of all the major metropolises here.
But as Miller quickly pointed out, after you did Lincoln, Nebraska, and Washington, D.C., and took your pick of the Jacksonvilles, you'd quickly run out of promising fodder. Take the major Texas cities, for example: Nobody is even sure who Dallas was named after -- it might have been James K. Polk's vice president, it might have been some other schmo, but in either case, the dude was a nonentity compared to Sam.
And trust me, as someone who was once assigned to read a biography of the man, I can tell you that Stephen F. Austin was an intensely boring dude, a run-of-the-mill commercial real estate broker in over his head among some of the most exciting times in American history. Were he alive today, you would find him flipping lofts in Midtown. "Yeah, you'd have to call the Stephen F. Austin album Location, Location, Location," Miller quipped into his whiskey.
San Antonio is named after St. Anthony of Padua, who is a bit livelier -- as the patron saint of lost objects, he mans the lost-and-found desk of the Catholic bureaucracy. He also had an odd habit of preaching to animals -- he once forced a mule to kneel in adoration before a communion wafer and later compelled some trout to listen to one of his sermons. (Evidently these were eared trout.)
Or so the Catholic Encyclopedia says, anyway, and just as we know that he was stubborn as a mule and drank like the fish Anthony preached to, we have much better evidence that Sam actually did the things the history books tell us he did. Which, in all cases, were exactly the things that Sam Houston told us he would do. As Miller puts it in "Say Ho," "Is there anyone still left so full of honor / that you trust everything you heard? / In Texas anywhere that you may wander / Sam Houston was the man that kept his word."
Former Houstonian and Mercury Records recording artist Mary Cutrufello was back in town last week for a show at Rudyard's. Four years ago, with high hopes and nary a kind word for Houston's rock music infrastructure, she took her hard-core country/balls-out heartland-rock sound with her to Minneapolis. (Don't trip -- we don't have much good to say about our rock music infrastructure either.) There, she hoped to get her career, one that had once seemed headed for arena-sized levels, but had more lately slipped into a funk, back on track.
More and worse setbacks than mere inertia awaited, though. Not long after her move, her powerful voice was silenced -- her vocal cords had sprouted callus-like nodes. Game as ever, she posted graphic pictures of the little boogers on her Web site. "I got some very interesting e-mails from that," she jokes, but the nodes were no laughing matter. "I had to break up the band and I was just sort of casting about, you know?"
Things were looking pretty grim. Her money was running low, so she started calling her connections in Texas, hoping to find a gig as a guitarist. "I called some people in Austin to see if there was anything on the 'Have Tele, will travel' tip. The first guy to call me back was Mike Norton, who was putting together the Tish Hinojosa tour. So Tish and I went to Europe, just the two of us."
Like so many underappreciated American artists before her, Cutrufello was astounded by how much support she had across the ocean. "I found, to my amazement, and even though the tour wasn't billed as 'Tish Hinojosa and Mary Cutrufello,' that people were coming up to me with pictures from 15 years ago. And the Havoline Supremes cassette from 15 years ago...I was flabbergasted."
Based on her reception on the Hinojosa tour, it wasn't hard to envision a successful tour under her own banner. Late last year, she embarked on a Dutch-German-Swiss jaunt assembled by Norton. "Some of 'em were more rock gigs where I played my more recent stuff, but in Switzerland, for some reason they're just crazy for Dale Watson and people like that, so we honky-tonked it up. And that's great for me, because they are a fairly well-heeled country. So not only do they love that stuff, they're willing to put their money where their mouths are. They also come to the shows in full western regalia. They do line-dance, which is unfortunate, but they are doing the best they can for being as far away from here as they are."
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