Monday around lunchtime, local singer-songwriter and multiple 2010 HPMA nominee Lee Alexander emailed us that Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett were being interviewed together on NPR's World Cafe. Not only that, he added, both men were saying lots of nice things about Houston, where - in case you hadn't heard, for some mystifying reason or another - they cut their musical teeth under the tutelage of mentors such as Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt.
Unfortunately Rocks Off usually can't pick up KPFT, which airs World Cafe (noon-1 p.m. weekdays), in our office for shit, and (cough) we're not really supposed to stream stuff at work. But this was too good to pass up, so we went ahead and did it anyway this afternoon. Here's what the two Texans had to say about their musical education in the Bayou City.
On running away to Houston at age 14:
Steve Earle: It was just the first big thing out there when you headed east [from San Antonio]. I think my intention was to go to Nashville then, but we blew up the Vespa in Flatonia and hitchhiked the rest of the way in. I met the girl that wound up becoming my first wife on that trip, and it just started this relationship with the city.
I met Townes Van Zandt for the first time on that trip. I saw Mance Lipscomb perform for the first time on that trip. They caught me and brought me back, and I kept going back. I told my parents Gram Parsons was playing at Liberty Hall and asked if I could go. They said no, so I ran away from home again.
Musically, I'm as much from Houston as I am from San Antonio. San Antonio's kind of weird - It's a great place to be from, Doug Sahm's from there, and he was the local rock and roll hero. Gatemouth Brown lived there for years and years and worked at the Eastwood Country Club.
But it's a cover-band town, for whatever reason, and it's evolved into a metal town. If you were trying to perform your own material, the first thing you did was get the fuck out of San Antonio.
On why Houston is his favorite city in Texas:
Earle: At the risk of pissing anybody off, I have really strong theories about Houston. I love Houston. It's my favorite city in Texas.
I used to have the Austin fetish. But for me, it was too close to home. It was only 90 miles away and the weather was too good, the dope was too cheap and the girls were too pretty, and there was no fucking way I was going to get anything done in a place like that, so I went to Houston.
Houston was... I mean, think about what comes from Houston. There's undeniably something there. Leadbelly lived in Houston. Lightnin' Hopkins lived in Houston for the whole last part of his life, most of his life. Mance Lipscomb lived in Navasota and came into Houston to play at the folklore center.
That's really what my background [is], and I think Lyle's background too, is that we're basically folkies, and we came from... I started playing when I was too young to play bars, so I played coffeehouses. I wanted to sound like Jimi Hendrix, but my dad wouldn't let me have an electric guitar, so I gravitated toward acoustic stuff.
That meant Beatles and Stones songs that were more acoustic-oriented, but it also meant backtracking toward early Bob Dylan records. And being in Texas, there was a scene in every major city in Texas - you can include two or three clubs or coffeehouses that popped up in every one of those towns.
That scene sort of grew up around all of them. There were places you could go and learn firsthand how to be a folksinger.
On his own, and the scene's, Harris County roots:
Lyle Lovett: My family has lived on the same piece of ground since the 1840s, so for me it wasn't a choice as much as it was feeling lucky to be in that environment. It's just what Steve said - Guy [Clark] and Townes lived there, and Mickey Newbury.
Earle: Mickey Newbury's the godfather.
Lovett: Guy told me that it was Newbury that encouraged him to write his first song.
Earle: Newbury was Townes' first publisher.
Lovett: And of course Jerry Jeff Walker lived in Houston too, but the way Townes - I mean, Townes and Lightnin' were very close, and the way Townes interpreted Lightnin's work, and then the way Guy in that great Guy Clark detail, the way he reports on everything.
Just the standard that was set by Townes' writing and Guy's writing alone. It's still - the impact still endures in Houston. But there were such great places to play. A question that I'm asked really often is, "What is it about Texas? Why are there so many singer-songwriters who come from there?"
I do think the orientation is a little different. Your orientation just to the songwriting process, or why you might write a song - Steve and I went to Nashville to try to get into the music business, [but] you went out and played in Houston. You went out and played in Austin and Dallas.
We were able to play to an audience of people, not an audience made up of the music business. Performers wrote songs for their shows, not to try to impress somebody except to be good enough for the audience that would come.
Sound familiar, Houston? Like, something that still goes on today, provided you know where to look for it? Stream the entire episode here, including performances from Lovett ("Diamond In the Rough" with Shawn Colvin, "San Antonio Girl") and Earle ("City of Immigrants," "Someday"). NPR is also streaming another Texas singer-songwriter immortal's brand-new album, Alejandro Escovedo's Street Songs of Love, here.
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