My first inclination was to name this column “Lonesome Onry and Mean on the Heartworn Highway of Dust That Lefty Bit Down South.” In spite of its unwieldy length, that reference to two famous songs by godfathers of the Texas music movement plus the 1981 documentary on the infant Texas singer-songwriter movement coalescing in Viet Nashville encapsulates the idea behind this column fairly concisely. It covers sacred musical real estate and ties Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Townes van Zandt to the same musical Artesian spring. Houston and Texas music trails lead off in all directions.
While Waylon doesn’t have a glaring Houston connection, the trails from Waylon eventually lead to other legends and myths: to Steve Young, who went to school in Beaumont for a while, wrote Waylon’s signature hit “Lonesome, Onry and Mean” (no, it’s not the Dukes of Hazard theme, Goober), and was featured in Heartworn Highways; to Billie Joe Shaver, the quintessential Texan songwriter, performer and all-around character who authored Waylon’s huge hit “Honky Tonk Heroes,” which became the national anthem of the Outlaw Movement; to local hero Rodney Crowell, who wrote “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” (“grew up in Houston down on Wayside Drive”), who wrote Willie’s hit “Til I Gain Control Again,” and was also in the movie; and to Steve Earle, who wrote “Devil’s Right Hand,” which Waylon cut, “Telephone Road,” which Waylon didn’t cut, and was unbelievably young but hardly innocent when he appeared in the movie.
Earle always admits Houston was the first town that let him sing his own songs for living. And anytime we start talking about Earle, that all leads back to the Sand Mountain folk club, to Townes, Guy Clark, Richard Dobson, Rex Bell, Earle, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Fromholtz, Mogen David, Sweet Mary Jane, and a man called Horse. Which leads to Anderson Fair, Eric Taylor, Nanci Griffith, Lyle, Dana and Shake, Vince Bell, and Lucinda.
Willie had nothing to do with the movie or with the Houston Sand Mountain folk enclave per se, but Willie’s trails not only lead straight to the old lower Westheimer folk joint, they also lead to the beer joints of East Houston and Pasadena. Willie wrote several of his greatest hits in the car as he traveled from west Houston to his night job on the east side. Without Willie Nelson there might never have been a Gilley’s, and without Gilley’s there is no John Travolta, no Debra Winger, no Urban Cowboys. It was Willie’s 1982 cover of van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” with Merle Haggard that not only altered the landscape of country music but actually put a fragile financial floor under van Zandt for a while.
Unfortunately it also led to van Zandt’s uncomfortable appearance on The Ralph Emery Show, which unblinkingly revealed on national television Townes in all his shattered, frightened, brilliantly flawed, in-need-of-shelter parts to the country music faithful who had to be shaking their heads and grasping for their bibles at this unruly Texan who had no more in common with Roy Acuff and Porter Waggoner than Hilary Clinton has with Monica Lewinksi.
The trails leading to and from van Zandt are too numerous to mention: Guy Clark, Crowell, Earle, Rex Bell, Richard Dobson, Eric Taylor to name but a few. Joe Ely tells a story about picking Townes up hitchhiking outside Lubbock and taking him home. Perhaps no songwriter ever sold fewer show tickets or records but had as much influence on the writers around him and those who picked up the scent and followed the trail. His influence, particularly in Texas and Nashville, is unfathomable.
I started in the music scribbling racket strictly by accident when a McKinney boy named Mike Johnson got mad enough about a Texas music chat thread to start Rockzillaworld, his own Web site of music chat and record reviews. One of the first common threads we discovered was a reverence for the Fifties television show out of Ft. Worth, “Live at Panther Hall.” A one-hour live honky tonk music show, for me it undid all the damage the Church of Christ preacher had done that morning. I think the first time I ever saw a Nehru jacket was when Willie wore one on that show. Later he would issue a landmark album called Live at Panther Hall that kept a lot of people in West Texas from pulling a .45 and blowing their brains out.
My uncle is 81 now, but when he reminisces about his wild honky tonk days back during the oil booms in Odessa he is always proud to note that, “Out at the Stardust we called him Talkin’ Willie, ‘cause he didn’t really sing.” Shotgun Willie would never measure up to Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, or Hank Williams to my uncle, but I loved them all, along with Jimmy Rogers and Woody and Hoyle Nix, Buddy Holly, Bobby Fuller, and Sam the Sham.
So, in a nutshell, that’s the lay of the land beneath this column. And “Lonesome Onry and Mean” will have to do as a title because “Lonesome Onry and Mean on the Heartworn Highway of Dust That Lefty Bit Down South” is just too damned long, even for cyberspace. Also, as I told Steve Young when I asked his blessing to use his song title, lonesome, onry and mean is just how I feel a lot of the time. That song always spoke to me.
In closing, let me add I want to hear from you readers. Seen a good drum solo or a great band? Send me a video. I have a soft spot for good stories about the old days, so send me yours. Or, if you don’t have any, then just send along good bar stories, recipes for drinks, dips, bbq, chili, homebrew, hangover cures, home remedies. If I like them, I’ll use them somehow for the betterment of mankind -- or at least our mutual amusement. ‘Til next time. – William Michael Smith