Overdue respect... Thumbing through a May special section on the national blues scene in Rolling Stone, I was distressed to find not a single line of ink devoted to Houston. Where Austin had its own headline and at least a column's worth of coverage, the city that was home to the legendary Duke/Peacock label and nurtured the likes of Lightnin' Hopkins, Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland was virtually ignored (as was Dallas, I might add). Not that Austin doesn't deserve credit for its remarkable PR efforts over the last few decades to firm up its reputation as the state's undisputed music capital. But an honest reflection of Texas blues' ghettoized roots it ain't.
In Houston, the heart of the blues legacy (or what's left of it) is in the Third and Fifth wards. But let's face it, out-of-town blues aficionados and their journalist counterparts may not want to venture there without a knowing escort. Back in 1995, a Houston English professor named Roger Wood was one such escort, showing award-winning photographer James Fraher around the decaying Houston haunts where you can still hear the old blues hands strut their stuff without a cover -- priceless little dives like El Nedo Cafe and Miss Ann's Playpen, both in the Third Ward, and C. Davis Bar-B-Q in Sunnyside.
"My first goal in inviting Jim down here was simply to get a Houston person or two into [one of his] exhibits," Wood says. "I kept him as busy as I could, and he was amazed that in one evening we could go to two or three venues for free and hear music that he really was turned on by."
Little did Wood know then that his time with Fraher would pay off so handsomely for our local scene. The photographer took what he'd absorbed back to David Nelson, editor of the Chicago-based Living Blues magazine. One thing led to another, and a proposal for one or two articles on Houston artists snowballed into Wood and Fraher collaborating on two all-Houston issues of the national publication, the second of which is available now (the first came out in January of last year and is still available through the Houston Blues Society). The latest Houston issue features a richly detailed cover story on Joe "Guitar" Hughes and articles on Sherman Robertson, Guitar Slim, Calvin Owens, Oscar Perry, Little Joe Washington, Leonard "Lowdown" Brown and hosts of others. Most of the profiles were written by Wood and the photos were taken by Fraher, including the warmly regal cover shot of Joe Hughes.
"When you put the issues side to side, over 50 local folks have been acknowledged in some way," says Wood, who is a professor at Houston Community College's Central campus on the edge of the Third Ward. "Living Blues has been around 27 years and has never covered any city in that kind of depth. They've done issues focused on a city, but that usually involves [features on] three or four people."
Actually, there are likely some fairly compelling reasons behind Rolling Stone's glaring oversight. Houston has been hapless at best -- negligent at worst -- in preserving and playing up its significant stake in making the idiom what it is today. Furthermore, the city has never been much of a tourist destination; pedestrian-friendly magnets for music lovers such as Austin's Sixth Street and Dallas's Deep Ellum district simply don't exist here -- and aren't likely to for quite some time (if at all). "[Houston lacks] one central, totally acknowledged geographic location that everyone recognizes as the music place," Wood says.
And while the Houston Blues Society and clubs like Billy Blues continue to do their part to keep the scene alive, especially in the more moneyed (read: white) areas west of downtown, the essence of the Houston blues experience will always remain enmeshed in the sagging shotgun shacks and musty juke joints. Still, Wood admits, "The scene isn't what it once was, and it can't be -- things have changed."
Etc.... It appears local rockers the Sonnier Brothers have made good use of money from their development deal with major label Lava/Atlantic. The band headed to Austin's Hit Shack earlier this month for several days of recording with producer Dave McNair. Well regarded for his low-budget studio-craft, McNair has also worked with Houston native Trish Murphy. The Sonniers' four-song demo has been shipped off to Lava, which will decide whether to play or pass on the group. I've got a nice feeling about this one.
The female-led Celtic folkies in Gordian Knot have plenty to celebrate these days. The Houston trio has an enchanting new CD in stores called Jenny Adair, on SixMileBridge singer Maggie Drennon's Loose Goose label. Even more impressive, they've landed an opening slot on Lilith Fair's second stage Thursday at The Woodlands. Girl power, indeed.
-- Hobart Rowland
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