A Trip to Bountiful

As Billy Joe Shaver played his 1940s-style "The Good Ol' USA," only the eightysomething guy in the old Stetson and the UT golf shirt knew the moves. Dancing with a pretty blond some 50 years his junior, the natty old fellow was truly cutting a rug, as they used to say, even if his steps were a little arthritic. Since the swing revival of the late '90s never truly reached Wharton, Texas -- where this little tableau was being enacted -- his youthful dance partner could only watch as the old guy stiffly but enthusiastically ran through his quicksteps and lindy hops. Young guys in ball caps and older fellows in cowboy duds looked on and smiled. Then Billy Joe shifted gears. The band revved up "Georgia on a Fast Train," and the old guy shuffled back to his Coke at the bar. The ball caps and cowboy hats and their dates clustered close to the stage and sang along… I got all my country learnin' / Milkin' and a churnin' / Pickin' cotton, raisin' hell, and bailin' hay.

Since this was Wharton, some of those fans may even have been telling the truth while they sang along. Usually only Billy Joe can make that claim.

Tooling around Pollstar.com a couple of weeks ago, Racket happened to notice that Billy Joe Shaver was playing in Wharton at a place called the Innkeeper. Billy Joe? In Wharton? What is this place called the Innkeeper?

A few more clicks and it became apparent that a road trip was in order. Wharton is only 50 miles from Chez Racket, and from the look of its Web site, this joint was something different from your run-of-the-mill Texas dance hall. First off, it's not a roadhouse -- it's smack-dab in downtown Wharton, directly across the street from the county courthouse. What's more, it bills itself quite urbanely as an "ale house and martini bar." Then there's the fact that it has a 6,500-square-foot hardwood dance floor, an adjacent antique mall and an under-construction hotel next door and upstairs.

And then there's the fact that Billy Joe Shaver is Texas's greatest living songwriter, a character straight out of William Faulkner. Or maybe not -- if Faulkner ever created a character like Billy Joe -- a craggily handsome, hard-drinking, two-fisted former field hand/sawmill worker who is also a man of a forgiving religious faith and one of the great poets of our time -- he probably would have been scoffed at. Such a character would seem like an unbelievable Southern gothic superman. Then to put that guy through the kind of Job-like travails Shaver has endured: the loss of his wife, mother and son in three short years that must have passed like decades… The author of a story like that would be sadistic as well as implausible.

But then Billy Joe's kinda like God -- if he didn't exist, someone would have to invent him.

Yep, no question. It was time to load up the Racketmobile and get the hell out of town.

Wharton is a somewhat schizophrenic place. It sits in a black-soiled sea of cotton, albeit one dotted by islands of rangeland, peach orchards and pecan groves. Wisps of raw cotton lie tangled in the grass along the roadsides leading in and out of town. Downtown Wharton is dense and shady -- red-brick Victorian buildings crowd in concentric squares around the 1888 courthouse, which stands a block from the green and swift-flowing Colorado River. If it weren't for the cowboy hats and Mexican restaurants, you'd think you were in Mississippi or Alabama, especially when you contrast Wharton with El Campo, Wharton County's second city, which is as sun-baked and open as Wharton is leafy and green.

Two world-famous men have put Wharton on the map. One -- Dan Rather -- left town long ago and has never come back for any great length of time. The tiny house he grew up in -- little more than a shotgun shack, really -- has been moved to the grounds of the Wharton Historical Society. Who knows? Perhaps within those walls dwells the secret of where the frequency lies, Kenneth.

The other -- playwright/screenwriter/author Horton Foote -- returned home after stays in New York and Los Angeles. Like Faulkner, Foote has spent the better part of his professional career fictionalizing and chronicling the slow death of the Old South in his hometown.

One such manifestation, and one that Foote is on the record as particularly loathing, is along Richmond Road, once the town's grand, mansion-lined boulevard. It's where most of the gas stations, tire barns and, most important for Racket and family, cheap motels stand today. Ours was a classic 1960s effort. It was cleaner than most of its ilk, and it did have a pool, albeit one with the paint flaking off the bottom. And yes, the water's surface was sprinkled with dead dragonflies, and somehow the chlorine level was gentle enough to allow a colony of waterbugs to thrive in its depths, but hell, at least the water was wet. There were even a couple of palm trees. What do you expect for 40-odd bucks?

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax