Houston Press Staff

Remembering John Nova Lomax: A Gifted Story Teller

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax Photo by Harriet Lomax

John Nova Lomax, the incredibly gifted writer about music and Texas life, who made it his practice to talk with people no matter their backgrounds, who absorbed local history and wrote about it with authority, who had a never-ending sense of curiosity, died too soon on the morning of Monday, May 22, 2023.

He chronicled Houston and its people and Texans across the state with love and compassion balanced by a keen eye for hypocrisy and humor. He wrote columns and stories that will last long past their publication dates.

Andy Van De Voorde, executive associate editor of Voice Media Group who oversaw music editors at all of its publications including the Houston Press where John worked for 12 years, had worked closely with John who became a corporate mentor to many of the other music editors.

“I loved working with John because he proved on a daily basis that a supremely talented writer can also be a supremely fine human being. He was honest and he was decent, and it set him apart. In particular, I remember how much he was affected by the suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina. For the next year his voice-mail message ended with a simple request: ‘Please do something for the people of New Orleans.’ I know that in his own way he did something for the people of Houston.”

John was just 53 years old and leaves behind a number of close relatives including his son John Henry and daughter Harriet Rose – both of whom he was extraordinarily proud of both for who they are and their achievements. On my second visit to him in the hospital recently, he had me look over a packet of photos of him and his children, smiling and happy at just being together.

John went on to write for several publications in Texas (Houstonia, Texas Monthly and Texas Highways) but from 2000 to 2012 he wrote for the Houston Press where I was his editor. There was little “beginning” about him. He had a gift and the only things that had to be sorted out were those pesky libel laws that limited him from time to time in what he could say.

In 2007, he wrote about troubled Country star Doug Supernaw, who had fallen on hard times in a succession of encounters with law enforcement all over the state. John tracked him, following the arrest reports  and was finally done after months of work and handed in the story. Two days later he got a tip that Supernaw had landed himself in a Houston jail. After a brief hesitation because it meant ripping apart what he’d already done, he went to the jail and Supernaw talked with him. That was another of John’s strengths; he could get almost anyone to talk with him.

The result: a story so extensively researched and eloquently written that it won a music writer’s top honor in the Deems Taylor ASCAP Award. He traveled to Lincoln Center where officials hung a medal around his neck at the annual ceremony.

Brian McManus, formerly with the nightlife columnist with the Press and now Global Editorial Director for NMG in New York, remembered that trip:

"I forget what year it was, but he came to the East Coast to collect an ASCAP award for his Press story about Doug Supernaw. I was living in Philly and he and his wife at the time stayed with us. We then made the trip to New York together to the Lincoln Center. I was always struck by John's encyclopedic mind, and his knowledge of history—of music and Texas, mostly. But that trip taught me it knew no bounds. I had been in Philly a few years at that point and he knew so much more about it and its history than I had.

"Ditto in New York. He could point out several landmarks and tell me the story behind them, things I'd passed several times and not given much thought about. What he had questions about he investigated himself and then reported back with answers upon returning to Houston. "You know that open air market on 52nd Street in your neighborhood...that started when..." That kind of thing.

"He was just endlessly curious and so so smart. I had a weekly poker night when I lived in Houston that he frequented and likely would've won each week if not for his habit of getting bored a couple hours in and making reckless bets, which freed him up to have conversations with the other players who'd already been bounced. That was the real reason he came anyway. He wanted to learn everyone's story."

John followed his Supernaw story a while later with his Sole of Houston series. He would walk through the often hidden neighborhoods of Houston, frequently accompanied by his friend David Beebe, and just talk with people along the way, coming up with a clearer picture of Houston and its people than any census tract or survey could ever deliver. This was the kind of loosely structured story that even experienced journalists would have trouble with, but John knew Houston so well, he always had a plan and a pathway.

Which is not to suggest that John was a saint. As his father and folklorist John Lomax III readily acknowledges, John Nova liked to drink more than he should have, and eventually it got the better of him, going through cycles of hospitalizations, recoveries and relapses which accelerated as he got older. A proud man, he often kept the rough times to himself.

Thanks to one government “intervention” in the 2000s — a result of John getting one too many driving tickets — he got in the best shape he’d been in for years. He stopped driving and rode his bicycle to and from work every day and to appointments. The pounds melted away and he looked younger and healthier.

Occasionally, in the office or at bars afterward, John would talk about his family life growing up. His troubled mother had had several addictions (he would write about this later)  and die at an early age. John went to live in Nashville with his father. As it turned out, one of his housemates was a young Steve Earle who was house sitting for John's father who managed Earle at one point. "He grew up around me and Townes [Van Zandt]," Earle said Monday night.

"I was really proud of what he did, going back to Texas to live. That's sort of a choice. He went to Houston on purpose," Earle said of John, who he and many of his family called Nova.  John even helped out for a bit as a roadie for Earle before leaving to go to Europe and then back to Houston. "I've known him since he was literally a baby, " the noted performer said, adding that he even helped  build John's childhood sandbox.

By the time John  got to high school “he wasn’t being challenged” at the school he went to in Nashville, his father says, and John moved back to Houston to live with his grandparents, surrounded by aunts and other family members. And to attend Strake Jesuit.

A few months ago when John was out of the hospital and living in an Extended Stay America where I visited him, he brought up Strake Jesuit saying he hated it when he started there, but that it saved him. He would go on to travel the world – he lived in a kibbutz with his first wife for a while – and dropped in and out of the University of Texas. His father gave him some liner notes to do, and eventually he returned to Houston and started writing for the Press, before becoming its Music Editor and then a staff writer at his request. He wanted to expand his writing beyond covering music.

We talked about what he was going to do next and he became animated as he talked about putting out a book, a collection of his Sole of Houston columns. He was using a walker then but moved fairly well, though he tired quickly.

A few weeks later, all that got set aside as his health worsened and he cycled in and out of Methodist Hospital, finally ending up in the ICU Ward at St. Luke’s in the Med Center attached to too many tubes to count.

Previous to this, the last time Lomax III had seen his son he says was in the first months of 2020 before the pandemic got underway. “He was heavy but he was scrambling over rocks,” Lomax III said.  During the height of the pandemic , they would talk by phone and John would tell his dad everything was all right. But it wasn’t. By the end of 2022 his condition, which he'd been concealing from the rest of his family, worsened and required medical intervention.

Chip Phillips, his stepdad, says one thing he's learned from John's death is the importance of actually seeing someone. Although they too were talking, "I didn’t have eyes on him. Don’t ever take your eyes off your loved ones."

Phillips said he was so proud of John's writing. "Anyone who knew him, knew they were in the presence of something special, really incredible. He was amazing and a great credit to the city of Houston he loved. And he loved Hermann Park. I don't think God ever created a kinder, gentler, more innocent soul."

His sense of humor didn't desert him , even at the end, Phillips said.

"I was present when Nova asked one of the doctors on the ICU that was telling him he was dying, what would be listed as the cause of death. The doctor told him cirrhosis. Nova said 'Can we tweak that a little bit?' The doc was being all business at the time and said 'The fact that your liver is not functioning is what is causing your kidneys to fail so yes, cirrhosis.'

"Nova said it was just a series of bad decisions. I said so is that what you want listed as the cause of death and he said that would work. Death by a series of bad decisions.

"Also we talked about what he wanted to be written on a grave marker. He said 'To Live is to Fly.' Which is a Townes Van Zandt song. Also, he said 'Learn From My Mistakes.'"

Brian McManus was among those remembering John for the great help he was to people hoping to become writers.

"He opened the door for me. I was a line cook and musician he covered who expressed an interest to him about writing. He gave me a shot, and absolutely didn't have to. Many wouldn't have. From there I contributed to the paper more and more under his guidance and constructive feedback. I got so many reps in under him, by the time I moved to Philly I had managed to cobble together some semblance of a writing career pitching other outlets. He imbued me with the confidence to think that was possible. I honestly thought, through my work for him, that I had what it took. I'd learned from one of the best. There was nothing an editor out East could do to scare me. Love to him and his family and children."

Lomax III says they will probably have a quiet family service for his son, followed at some point by a memorial celebration with music. John loved music and his father wants a chance for people to say goodbye. They are also hoping to put out a paperback book of his writings.

One we hope they include is the saga "Lawn Mower Man" written in 2010. As it begins:

For Kenneth Page, all that he had built his dreams around vanished in a cloud of Central Texas dust on that terrible day this past March. That was the day his wife, Ardes, loaded up his beloved dog in the truck Kenneth bought her as a wedding present and drove right out of his life.
The Lawnmower Man
Photo by Jeff Balke

As the story goes on to say, with declining fortunes and a refusal from his wife to return to him, the out-of-work Texan decided he would ride his lawnmower from his home in Thrall, Texas to Florida. Intrigued by this slice of Americana, John proposed to intercept Page on his ride to glory and began tracking media reports as the man rumbled through the Southern heat.

Longtime Press contributor Jeff Balke accompanied John on that trip. “It was wild,” he says now. They would ask people along the way if they’d seen the man riding the rattletrap and be pointed in the right direction.

Occasionally Page would leave them a phone message such as this one:

"Hey Mister Lomax, this is Kenneth Page. I made it through that town, what's its name? (Muffled voices in background.) Yeah. In other words, I made it over the Mississippi bridge, I made it through Baton Rouge and I'm fixin' to get back on 190 and make it on down the road. I had a little trouble with the po-lice...They kinda got upset that I crossed the Mississippi bridge on a lawn mower, but hey, you know, that's life. Three of 'em were real good about it and one of 'em was kinda crappy.

They finally found the lawnmower rider  at a gas station in Eunice, where he got his photo taken and was interviewed in person. Balke's memory of the assignment:

"When then-Houston Press Art Director Monica Fuentes asked if I was available to drive John Nova Lomax deep into western Louisiana in search of a guy riding a lawn mower, the answer was immediately yes. I had just started doing freelance work for the Press and had been a long time fan of John’s writing, only recently getting to know him through Cathy Matusow, the managing editor I was dating and would later marry.

"It turned out to be pretty much everything I expected. We listened to local Zydeco on AM radio, stopped at farm stands to buy local honey, talked up Cajun characters in auto repair shops, chatted about our lives and families, and laughed a lot. We didn’t make it back to Houston until sundown, exhausted but thrilled with what we found. I had one of the best photos I’d ever take for a cover story and John had yet another tale to tell, like always. I also came to understand that John’s best stories weren’t in written words, but experienced in the moment. I feel very fortunate I was able to share in one of them."

It’s comforting to think that wherever John Nova Lomax is right now, he’s chasing some great story across the South tracking a rogue lawnmower driver, sitting in a jail listening to a down-on-his-luck former star or just meeting with people going about their unexceptional lives — which often became exceptional in his hands. Just as his own life was. 
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing