The inside of Kimmie Rhodes's Austin-area home is more like a museum archive these days. Decades-old papers, photos, letters and reel-to-reel tapes occupy various nooks and crannies, material that the Texas singer-songwriter has been digging through for weeks that belonged to legendary KOKE-FM radio disc jockey Joe Gracey, her late husband, business partner, bass player and muse.
Having spent the past four years picking up the scattered pieces of her life after her husband's drawn-out battle with cancer — and his death in November 2011, nine major surgeries in Houston later — the process of sifting through these remnants of his life might prove too daunting for some surviving spouses to handle.
Yet Rhodes says she is no longer grasping for the kinds of memories she yearned for during the first couple of years after Gracey's death.
Now she's poring through his belongings to celebrate his life — and her own — as associate producer on a Country Music Television documentary, They Called Us Outlaws. Endorsed by the Country Music Hall of Fame, the program examines the rise of a stubborn, ornery breed of country music in Nashville and Austin in the 1960s and '70s championed by the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. She’s also cobbling together a book that compiles her and her late husband's memoirs.
Rhodes released her first album in 1981 and is still best-known in some corners of the country-music realm for “Picture In a Frame,” her 2002 album of duets with Nelson recorded by her husband. She started off 2015 with yet another tour of Europe, where her haunting, intimate songs about loss and yearning are revered.
Because of the demand for her performances in Europe, Rhodes doesn't fit in that many U.S. shows. She rarely even plays gigs in Austin, her adopted hometown for more than 30 years. Though she started off as a regular at iconic venues such as the Broken Spoke or the Saxon Pub decades ago, she rarely plays out unless asked to sit in here and there with a friend, often accompanied by her son. Her Texas appearances are so rare these days, in fact, that Rhodes said many people assume she still lives in Nashville.
What helped Rhodes finally turn the corner toward becoming her own person again was the release in March of her latest CD, Cowgirl Boudoir, produced by her son, Gabriel. Though the CD includes three tracks that touch on her husband's death, such as “Don't Leave Me Like This,” Rhodes says she was finally ready to sing about moving forward.
“I already wrote the 'Oh, God, my husband died’ record,” Rhodes says. “For 30 years, he would breathe out and I would breathe in. But I had to find my autonomy and let some light into that place where I was.”
Rhodes credits her son for helping to refocus her writing and nudge her toward an epiphany of self-awareness in their co-writes, “Me Again” and “What Do I Have Now,” as well as contributing to one of the highlights of the CD, “Having You Around,” a song about a lover who is more trouble than he's worth, the kind of creep that Canadian songstress Kathleen Edwards plotted against so deliciously a decade or so ago on her album Back to Me.
“He forced it out of me,” Rhodes says of her son. “He brings a fresh musicality to songs and has an incredible energy for writing. The day we wrote 'Having You Around,' along with [Austin singer] Johnny Goudie, was more like a garage-band hang. I will take a long time to finish a song; it's great to write with somebody who's a fast horse.”
At times, the record takes on a distinctly Beatlesque vibe, with electric sitars and 12-string guitars — Rhodes describes it as ‘cowpunkadelical’ — sort of a magical mystery tour of sounds that influenced Rhodes when she was a teenager growing up in Lubbock, the place that Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly put on the map.
Her father plied Rhodes with a steady diet of classic country, not to mention some libations for her and her underage friends.
“When you lived in Lubbock back then, you'd have to go outside the city limits to buy liquor,” she recalls. “My dad would drive us to Kinky's liquor store and buy beer for me and my friends, with George Jones blaring on his car radio, though we'd want to get back to party to the Stones. At the time I was too tragically hip to say I liked [country]. I never thought I'd grow up and record an album with Willie.”
Now 61, Rhodes barely flinches anymore when radio interviewers regularly ask her why she isn't an Americana or country superstar, considering how many stellar artists have recorded her music over the years. She says the answer is pretty simple.
“I never once focused on what I felt was mainstream, and always just made the kind of art I was most passionate about,” explains Rhodes. “That just led me to working with Willie or Cowboy Jack Clement or anybody else, who accepted me as one of them, so that was rewarding enough. I just stayed on my own path, rather than jump on some superhighway.”
Indeed, after her gigs in Houston, Rhodes will be back in her role as musicologist, going through old recordings at her home and interviewing singers such as Marcia Ball about the influence of the Outlaw Country movement while working on the documentary.
After a short pause, Rhodes says what surprised her most among the piles of boxes and papers was a vintage recording of a radio interview her husband did with late San Antonio rocker Doug Sahm. During the program, the legendary Houston producer Huey Meaux, who recorded Sahm's biggest hit, “She's About a Mover,” with the Sir Douglas Quintet in 1965, called into the station to talk with them.
The other was a letter written to Rhodes by her soon-to-be husband shortly after they first met in 1979, in which he said he was looking forward to recording with her sometime and wanted to help her with her career and that he loved her voice.
“It's become the most precious thing to me,” Rhodes says, emotion welling up in her voice. Then she pauses and laughs.
“Guess he had no idea what he was getting himself into.”
Kimmie Rhodes performs with Lisa Morales and Jay Boy Adams as part of songwriter's night, 7:30 p.m. tonight at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. She will also play Wednesday, October 21 at Dosey Doe Music Cafe, 463 FM 1488 in Conroe.