Jailhouse Rock

Barbara Lynn's August-issued CD is not only her big shot at breaking through but also Clifford Antone's best chance at, umm, breaking out.

Their obstacles are formidable. Owner of the famed Austin nightclub that bears his surname, Antone pleaded guilty in January 1999 to money laundering and conspiracy to deliver marijuana, and was sentenced in May to four years in federal prison. And Lynn, who has been recording steadily since the mid-1980s when she resurfaced after nearly 20 years of offstage life, had yet to generate any support -- from fans or label honchos -- until she hooked up with Antone. The club owner, who also owns Antone's Records, released Lynn's album, Hot Night Tonight, under the amalgamation Texas Music Group. It is distributed by major player Ryko. Not since 1962, when the Beaumont-born singer-guitarist scored a Top Ten pop hit with "You'll Lose a Good Thing," has so much attention been cast in her direction.

The stakes are high. If Lynn can survive the rigors of supporting an album and win over an audience, then Antone might be able to bust out of -- not prison but the shell of his bad image. Instead of being seen as a counterculture leftover who has yet to grow up, Antone could look like someone who still cares about class and classy music, and still knows how to sell it. In addition to Lynn's release, cuts by Pinetop Perkins, Doyle Bramhall, Toni Price and James Cotton, among others, will be put forth by the Texas Music Group. Born of Antone's Records and Watermelon Records, the Texas Music Group now comprises three imprints: Tres Mojitos for Cuban music, Lone Star Records for roots and country, and Antone's for blues and soul.

Lynn isn't playing it safe. Thankfully. "You're the Man," track one, includes competent yet silly rapping from Lynn's son, Bachelor Wise Johnson, and is as rich, sonically, as sparkling water. All treble, no bass. At this point, blues purists are groping for the exit. But hey, that's their problem.

The rest is all pretty sharp contemporary soul. There are some solid touches, like the backup male choral section that appears on a few tracks, and once in a while a quality lead melody rises up out of the easy-swaying rhythms. Production could've been better, though. Lynn sounds as if she were singing into a portable tape recorder, her voice is so loud. Amplified admires the lack of echo but can't comprehend the unpolished construction. This is important only because some songs are rendered nearly unlistenable by the flaws.

Nothing about Lynn has ever been typical. She grew up in a Creole family, studying the piano, which she soon forgot about the moment she saw Elvis swivel a hip. Inspired by rock, she began to play the guitar, left-handed, and eventually became one of the first females identified with the instrument. After she started her first band, covering Elvis tunes, she met the legendary Huey P. Meaux, who recorded Lynn in New Orleans. "You'll Lose a Good Thing" was the result.

Port Arthur-born Antone and the Texas Music Group are giving Lynn and its other artists a big push. In addition to the numerous releases, the Texas Music Group is also putting out a compilation CD, Cliff's Picks, which offers choice cuts -- handpicked by Antone -- by Marcia Ball, Doug Sahm, Sue Foley and, among others, Lynn. Unlike on Hot Night Tonight, the production is top-notch on Lynn's contribution. On the compilation disc, there is also an interview with Antone taped in jail this summer in which he comments on each artist. Even in jail Antone knows how to spin.

Good thing the blues doesn't discriminate. Though partial to black males, the blues also catches up with women and white folk. So maybe it's predetermined that Lynn's album goes nowhere and Antone spends the rest of his days warding off a bad reputation. Success and happiness happen where the blues don't.

And vice versa.

'Round TownTwo homeboys are out on the road with some major acts, and deserve recognition: Mark May is now touring with the outfit led by former Allman Brothers Band guitarist and co-founder Dickey Betts; and as he has been for years, John "Rabbit" Bundrick is crisscrossing the country with the Who. May, on guitar with the Betts band, probably won't be hitting Houston anytime soon, and Bundrick, on keys, has just finished playing town. Space City hadn't seen the Who since 1989.

Bundrick and the Who's nerve center and creative mastermind Pete Townshend have been inseparable since they met in the mid-1970s in England, where Bundrick was working for Island Records. Bundrick has become "Pete's" keyboardist. The same way Roger Daltrey is Pete's singer. The group, says Bundrick, is preparing songs for a studio record. Each member, including Bundrick, will contribute material. "If Pete thinks it's Who-ish enough," says Bundrick, speaking by phone from his parents' Houston home in his half-Texan, half-British accent, "then we'll do it."

The band is, as it was when Bundrick first joined in 1979, a five-piece. "Now, it's a working band, just like any other band," he says. "It's more fun on stage. We all rely on each other."

After Betts was fired by the Allman Brothers in May, he calmly gathered his thoughts, cursed the rest of the band, then called Houston's favorite local guitar hero since Billy Gibbons. A seven-piece outfit was in place in early August when rehearsals started. What was supposed to be a two-week tour has turned into a monthlong gig. May dropped everything he was doing, including his solo album, to join the legendary Betts. "It has helped other guitarists immensely," says May of playing alongside rock royalty. "It'll help my band a lot, if they're patient. It's a step up from what I was doing." May had tried out for Allman Brothers Band guitarist in 1997, but says he didn't have the slide chops to pass muster. Thankfully many of the Allman Brothers songs Betts has written and performs solo -- and the May songs that the Betts band plays -- don't depend much on slide lines.

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Anthony Mariani