Houston Music

Rocky Hill: Ballad of a Lone Star Legend

The late Rocky Hill was a handful. Even his widow, Joy, told the small but attentive Saturday-afternoon crowd celebrating the (very) belated release of Hill's album Lone Star Legend at Cactus Music's Record Ranch that being his bride was "like being married to a tornado."

Hill was a man of tremendous appetites and tremendous talent, the typical mercurial artist whose brilliance made him that much more volatile. He was tutored by Lightnin' Hopkins, and stood toe to toe with Jimmy Reed and Freddie King when they sat in with Hill's Dallas-based band American Blues, featuring younger brother Dusty on bass and Frank Beard on drums. Eventually both Hills and Beard moved to Houston, linking up with Moving Sidewalks guitarist Billy Gibbons and manager Bill Ham.

Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Beard formed ZZ Top. Rocky also signed a deal with Ham, but styling himself "the anti-Clapton," he wanted to play the blues. So he did.

"This was a guy who could outplay the best of them," Gibbons once said. Like everyone else who heard Rocky Hill, he knew talent when he heard it.

Rocky's ferocious whistling tone earned him not only his fellow musicians' respect, but a reputation as perhaps the best Texas blues guitarist anywhere, black or white. He had the kind of upper-body strength that could bend guitar strings the way most people couldn't do with a slide piece, as well as the kind of habits and personality that could be a little difficult to handle.

"He was the hardest act that I've ever had to manage, and I managed Steve Earle, Townes [Van Zandt] and the Cactus Brothers," says John Lomax III, who has been in the Nashville music business since the mid-'70s and whose son John Nova Lomax is a current Houston Press staff writer as well as Rocks Off's predecessor in the music editor's chair.

Around 1977, Lomax borrowed some musicians from Delbert McClinton's band and cut an album with Rocky Hill featuring songs written by Hill, Van Zandt and David Olney. Lomax owned Olney's publishing rights and managed both Hill and Van Zandt, all of them with "handshake, look-me-in-the-eye deals," he says in the Legend liner notes.

That album would become Lone Star Legend, but never got further than some rough mixes. Lomax says they decided to take a break, perhaps to think about adding some more songs to the eight they already had in the can. Then Hill "walked out on me," he says, before he tried to make a deal with Ham.

In the Legend liner notes, Lomax quotes Rocky Hill as saying, 'I picked up [Ham's] desk and dumped it on that asshole." Lomax says he and Ham even tried to wrangle a deal with Rocky together, but that didn't take either.

Lomax's partner at the time was entrusted with the master recordings and promised to keep them in a temperature-controlled environment. Instead his partner kept them under his sink. Then the pipes burst, so Lone Star Legend will forever be as is.

It exists today at all because the engineer at the studio outside Dallas gave Lomax a cassette of the album's rough mix, which he transferred to CD around 1991, he says. Last year he wanted to put it online, but instead found a deal to release the album in the UK with the British label Floating World. (An alternate title is The Lost Legend.)

Lone Star Legend was cut almost entirely live, with "minimal overdubbing," says Lomax. However rough the recording may be, though, Hill's incandescent talent is obvious, especially on songs like Van Zandt's "Waitin' Around to Die" and his own "Hoodoo Eyes."

Joy said Saturday that Rocky had put his demons behind him and had been talking about doing more music. He had even been playing some gigs in the weeks before he passed away in April 2009. Touchingly, a little heartbreakingly, she still has a few pictures of him on her phone.

More than that, Lomax says there are "acres" of unreleased Rocky Hill music, and that one song, a "serious blues thing" recorded with the late Doyle Bramhall Sr., would be releasable as is.

Lomax says he never did reconcile with Rocky, that "we stayed in touch, but he never did say 'I'm sorry.'" He now does some importing/exporting and is working on a couple of books. He's glad to finally see Lone Star Legend released, he says, but has no further designs on it.

"I don't want to be a label," he says. "I'm just trying to put it out in a few shops."

Lone Star Legend should be available at Cactus, but call ahead -- it looked like the store sold out of the limited number of copies Lomax brought with him Saturday. Seeing someone else pick it up and run with it would be nice, though, he adds.

"I'm hoping to find someone to license it in North America," Lomax says. "To stir up enough interest [that] someone will put it out."

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray