photo by Todd V. Wolfson
By Jay Trachtenberg
In normal times, for the better part of a decade, guitarist Denny Freeman lent his name to the nominal leadership of an air-tight little four-piece of Austin music lifers Friday nights at the Saxon Pub. “The Band”, as they were known by the decidedly older crowd who packed this happy hour each week, provided a mix of Texas rock ‘n’ blues, R&B chestnuts, 1960s’ roots rock from The Stones to CCR and, of course, a healthy smattering of Austin heroes Doug Sahm and Roky Erickson. This gig was much more than a musical feast; it was a social gathering of old friends, many the veterans of the Armadillo World Headquarters crowd. Their appreciation of Denny’s fretboard mastery was evident as they bestowed love onto him and his axman compadre, John X. Reed, after every dazzling solo turn. Lifers Speedy Sparks on bass and Rodney Craig on drums rounded out what was perhaps the quintessential Austin garage band.
But that’s only one example of Denny Freeman’s musical mastery, which cut a swath across the Austin scene over the course of a career that touched six decades. He came to town in the very early 1970s with a host of Dallas refugees that included Jimmie Vaughan, Paul Ray, Doyle Bramhall, and a bit later, Stevie Ray Vaughan. While the Austin scene at the time was dominated by cosmic cowboys, this gang came to town to play the blues. Denny was a founding member of Paul Ray & The Cobras, where he mentored a young Stevie Vaughan.
Toiling at legendary haunts like The One Knight, Soap Creek and the original Antone’s on 6th St., and gigging with the likes of Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli and W.C. Clark, Freeman, as much as anyone, established Austin as a blues mecca. He was a member of the incomparable Antone’s house band, primarily as the pianist, during the club’s 1980’s heyday where he backed a who’s who of blues legends like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush and Albert Collins. He would move to Los Angeles and work in Taj Mahal’s Phantom Blues Band with fellow Cobra saxophonist Joe Sublett in the 1990s.
For several years at the start of the new millennium, Denny toured the world with Bob Dylan and appears on the 2006 album Modern Times. Returning to Austin, he once again became an immediate mainstay of the local scene. This included playing steel guitar in Reed’s old-time country band, jazz gigs at Antone’s and Continental Gallery, and, of course, Friday evenings at the Saxon. For a spell, he commuted back and forth to Dallas in between gigs to care for his ailing father.
Denny was not a flashy or ostentatious individual and his guitar playing reflected this. He was an artist who knew how to blend in when necessary, laying down tasteful, and soulful licks one minute, forging a fuselage of riveting solos the next. Two albums capture Denny at his finest: the all-instrumental A Tone For My Sins from 1997, and the newly reissued Cobras set, Caught at the Continental Club, recorded in January 1981. While the former reflects the many moods of Denny Freeman, the live date is a balls-to-the-wall affair with where Freeman peels the paint with one devastating solo after another.
Denny Freeman leaves shoes that will be hard to fill in the Austin music scene, both as a gracious, self-effacing gentleman and as a masterful musician. And for a lot of us, Friday evenings will never be quite the same without him.
Jay Trachtenberg will be featuring Denny Freeman’s music on his Sunday Morning Jazz program this week, 7-10am.
By Elizabeth McQueen
When I visited Austin for the first time, I made a beeline for the Broken Spoke. I was living in the DC Metro Area and had developed a love of old school country music. I’d heard about Austin’s scene of people who felt the same way, and knew that if you dug country music, you had to check out the Broken Spoke.
I grew up in Arkansas and the East Coast, and I had seen a lot of things — but I had never seen a place like the Broken Spoke.It hailed itself as a “honky-tonk,” a word I had only heard sung by long-dead mid-twentieth century country stars. When you walked in the door, you entered a rustic looking bar/restaurant. Beyond that was the dancehall; low-ceilinged with a small stage rising above a large dance floor – where people were actually dancing.
I had no concept of what a two-step was. I saw couples moving around in a circle, rocking in rhythm, one partner occasionally spinning another. I remember thinking it looked so beautiful — like people were doing the Viennese Waltz to a country song. And even though I had never been to a honky-tonk before, this one felt like home.
The experience was one of the reasons I would later move to Austin. And the Broken Spoke would become one of the places I frequented. Once I started spending time there, I realized that there was a reason it felt so good — because the owner, James White, set the tone.
I’ll be honest, I never knew James that well. I never had dinner at his house, he never had dinner at mine. But I knew how he made me feel. As I started playing music, I would perform at the Broken Spoke — I played my first SXSW showcase there, and later, when I joined Asleep at Wheel, I would play the yearly Christmas show. Every time I saw James he said hello, called me by my name, and made me feel welcome in his place.
When my husband, Dave Sanger, asked me to marry him, I knew it was a yes. And I knew exactly where I wanted to get married — at the Broken Spoke. Dave thought it was a great idea. And so, on March 15, 2004, the Monday before SXSW, we got hitched at our favorite dancehall. We pretty much invited everyone we knew. It was an amazing experience, to partner up in a place that made so many people feel comfortable, but also made them feel a sense of wonder. Most of my friends and family from out of town had never been in a real honky-tonk before. They marveled at the memorabilia on the walls and the trough in the men’s bathroom. They felt at home in the place that James built.
The news of James White’s passing has hit people hard. As Austin grew, a ton of funky old places got sold and disappeared. But James didn’t let that happen to the Broken Spoke. In recent years I would marvel at how the Broken Spoke has adapted to new Austin. It looked like the house in the Pixar movie “Up” – a worn treasure literally surrounded by sparkly new condos.
James must have known that his place was magical and that once it was gone, the loss for Austin would be real. But now I see that it wasn’t just the building, but the spirit imbued in it by the owner — a man who always treated you like you were welcome — like you were home.
The Broke Spoke will carry on without James, and I believe the spirit that he brought to the place will persist. After all, he opened the Spoke in 1964 and put so much of himself into it. From now on when we visit the honky-tonk, we won’t be able to see him smile or say hello, but I’m sure we’ll still feel his presence, as we listen to the band and dance in slow circles on the dancefloor.
By Jeff McCord
Austin musician Tony Cruz, best known for his conga work that helped drive the perpetual rhythms of the city’s Afro-Beat unit Hard Proof, died on January 4th. Battling cancer, he succumbed to heart-related illness.
A Puerto Rican born in the mid-fifties mean streets of New York’s Lower East Side, editor Greg Ackerman, in his post on the Comic Clash, describes how his Aunt’s salsa parties helped shift Tony into music’s gravitational pull.
Hard Proof founder and drummer Stephen Bidwell started the band with Tony on board. Cruz was there for the band’s first rehearsal in 2008. Bidwell recalls Cruz’s big personality and tales of his formative years. “His first gig was backing up a James Brown impersonator on the drums, but Tony sold his drumset after his cousin took him to see Santana at Madison Square Garden. He learned congas and timbales around his neighborhood, playing in rumbas in parks and such.”
When not gigging, Cruz did extensive work as a stagehand. “At some point,’ says Bidwell, “he was a roadie for a few bands on the Fania label. His sound definitely came from Nuyorican salsa traditions.” (According to Ackerman, his first work in this area was for a little-known film director named Francis Coppola, on a film called ‘The Godfather’.)
Cruz would regale his friends with stories of his run-ins with superstars while working concerts. “He claimed he was behind Jimmy Page’s amp during the laser scene in ‘The Song Remains the Same’”, recalls Bidwell. “He left NYC for San Diego at some point, fleeing a girl who tossed his record collection out of a window.”
Bidwell remembers Cruz’s tales of times spent in California and Florida, and when he first arrived in Austin around 1996. “His first Austin gig was at Tower Records in the drag, backing up Roy Hargrove on an in-store. It was a one-off, unfortunately. He played in a ton of other Austin bands. In the Empanada Parlor days (the same scene that birthed Austin’s Grupo Fantasma), he played timbales in a band called Cubanasa. Other names I know are Tumbateo, Collect all Five, and Big Orange.”
None will miss Cruz’s contributions more than Hard Proof, where he played such a key role in their relentless rhythm section. Having lost a friend and bandmate, Bidwell describes the group as “rattled”.
Ironically, Cruz’s death marked the one year anniversary of Hard Proof’s last pre-pandemic gig, on 1/4/20 at the Continental Club.
Billy Joe Shaver performs at South By San Jose in 2013. Photo by Erika Rich/KUTX
by Jeff McCord
No one personified the stereotypical image of a Texas ‘outlaw’ country singer quite like Billy Joe Shaver. Shaver, 81, who passed away on October 28 after suffering a stroke, embodied every check box in a classic country song: a hard-scrabble small-town upbringing, a life of family and personal tragedy, a charismatic and wildly colorful storyteller who was also t-o-u-g-h as they come.
Born at the end of the Great Depression in Corsicana, Shaver was largely raised by his grandmother, his father long gone, his mother off working in Waco. He was more or less out of school by the eighth grade, helping his uncles pick cotton. By 17 he had enlisted in the Navy, and after getting out, floated from one job to another, even trying his hand as a rodeo cowboy. Four years later, a gig at a sawmill resulted in Shaver losing most of two fingers on his right hand. He taught himself to play guitar anyway.
Shaver moved to Houston in the sixties and befriended Townes Van Zandt while drinking and hanging around the Old Quarter club. That led Shaver to Nashville, but he had a tough time cracking the establishment there until Kris Kristofferson recorded Shaver’s “Good Christian Soldier” on his 1971 debut, Word spread. Shaver would meet an impressed Waylon Jennings at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic, and he passed on a bunch of songs to Jennings. After weeks went by without a word, Shaver claimed he showed up at Jennings’ place and threatened to “whip his ass” if he didn’t listen to the material.
Waylon filled his 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes with Shaver’s songs, and soon other stars from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash came fishing for new hits. That same year, Shaver finally recorded his own debut album.
It didn’t sell. And despite such vivid songs (and hits for others) as “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Someday),” “Ragged Old Truck,” and “You Asked Me To,” despite such songwriting legends as Willie Nelson singing his praises (he once called Shaver “the greatest living songwriter”), neither did any of his subsequent releases. When Monument, the label that released Shaver’s debut, went out of business, Shaver drove through the plate glass window of a car dealership. Nashville kept their distance from the mercurial singer.
And so it went, peer acclaim and respect, a devoted cult following, but a career constantly derailed by Shaver and his personal upheavals. He first married his wife Brenda while in his twenties. He would divorce and marry her twice more. She died of cancer in 1999. Their son, Eddy, a fiery guitarist, became Billy’s partner in the father/son duo Shaver. They co-wrote one of Shaver’s best-known tunes, the uncharacteristically upbeat “Live Forever.” But Eddy would be found dead of a heroin overdose on the last day of the year 2000. Shaver himself almost died the year before, suffering an onstage heart attack at Greune Hall.
And there was Shaver’s temperament. After his son’s death, the story goes, Willie Nelson had to talk Shaver out of trying to kill Eddy’s drug dealer. And in 2007, there was an incident that cemented his outlaw status. An argument in a bar ended up with Shaver shooting a man in the face. Despite several eyewitnesses claiming they heard Shaver ask the man “Where do you want it?” before firing his gun, in true Texas justice, Shaver was acquitted of all charges.
Despite his dark side, everyone loved the man and his bigger than life persona. One of several KUT/X interviews is the stuff of legend around here, where he described, live on air in vivid detail, his botched (and apparently, unintended) circumcision.
Shaver’s status as a country music legend only grew in the last decade. Despite never being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, numerous prestigious honors and awards came his way. His final album, 2014’s Long In The Tooth, which features the Willie Nelson duet “Hard To Be An Outlaw”, became a best seller. Shaver took it all in stride. He did what he wanted, lived a life unconcerned of the opinions of others, driven, above all, by the need to create.
The need was there at the very beginning, when at age thirty-four, on the title track of his debut album, he was already looking back.
“I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be/
More than the measure of what I thought others could see/
Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between/
For Cadillac buyers and old five and dimers like me.”
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
by Jeff McCord
In 1973, everyone was hearing Jerry Jeff Walker’s greeting from the lead track on his watershed release, ¡Viva Terlingua!, played on the radio. “Gettin’ By” was a mission statement, over a cowboy two-step. “Picking up the pieces wherever they fall/Just livin’ my life easy come, easy go.”
Walker, who passed away on October 23 at age 78, after a long battle with throat cancer, came from a folk tradition. Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in early forties New York, he would play in bands and busk through the south (including a brief stay in Austin), live in New Orleans, and along with the way, adopt his stage name.
In 1966, Walker relocated to New York City’s Greenwich Village. There, his trippy band Circus Maximus would release two albums, before Walker resumed his solo career. His 1968 album Mister Bojangles and its eponymous song, about a tap dancer Walker met in a New Orleans drunk tank, would become a top ten hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1971. The song would go on to be covered by Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis, Jr., among many others.
With newfound success, Walker set his sights westward, but a detour to Austin derailed all that. Walker decided he was home.
Much of what people knew of Texas music in 1973 consisted of Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, and those striving to make a living in the slick Nashville establishment – George Jones, Waylon, Willie and the boys. Like most anyone outside of the state, I hadn’t heard of Terlingua, or that matter Luckenbach (Waylon’s hit was many years down the road), the town (basically a saloon and dancehall) where Walker hired a remote truck to record Terlingua. Willie Nelson had already moved back to Texas, but his Red Headed Stranger masterpiece was still two years away. Meanwhile, Walker had done his homework, absorbing the works of relative Texas unknowns like Michael Martin Murphy, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
Walker’s covers of Guy Clark songs (the songwriter’s own debut album wouldn’t surface until 1975) were revelatory. His “LA Freeway” found moderate success. Terlingua included a cover of Clark’s classic, “Desperado Waiting On A Train”, and would aid as much as anything in Clark’s subsequent success.
Walker would have a long career of his own, influencing future stars like Robert Earl Keen. Showing his business smarts, Walker formed his own label back in 1986, when few others were doing so. He would release dozens of albums, and was honored by his peers at his annual birthday shows at Paramount Theater. His autobiography, Gypsy Songman, was published in 1999.
But no one denies Terlingua as Walker’s high water mark. The import of the album is hard to overstate. It didn’t sound like other records, even Walker’s previous releases. Such a free, boozy vibe had, at least at the time, rarely been captured on tape. Walker was in his mid-thirties at the time of recording but his voice sounds like old shoe leather, much more lived in. Hearing him stretch out the “Ohhhhh” in “Sangria Wine” is a marvel. His voice strains and cracks with pure joy.
Already well known, somewhat notoriously, for his riotous and drunken performances, Walker and his Lost Gonzo Band decided to end their Terlingua sessions in the Luckenbach dance hall with a concert. Expecting maybe fifty people to show at the remote location, they instead drew more like 900. It’s the two live recordings, both covers, included on Terlingua that cement its place in the pantheon of Texas music.
“Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother” was more of an idea than a finished song by a young songwriter named Ray Wylie Hubbard. “Pretty much all I had at the time”, Hubbard admits; the song was reportedly finished over the phone at the last minute.
And “London Homesick Blues”, a song about just that from Lost Gonzo member Gary P. Nunn wraps up the album. With its longing to be “Home With the Armadillo”, Nunn, in a shaky voice was laying down Texas history. The song would go on to be the theme song of PBS’ Austin City Limits for over thirty years.
On this magical Saturday night in a desolate dancehall, the audience’s reaction was electric, nothing short of rapturous. It’s hard to conceive of the cosmic cowboy movement without this moment, frozen in time. As the world was changing, Walker and his band played on, and the raucous crowd hollered in delight. This was their moment, and there’s not a person who has heard Terlingua since that hasn’t longed to be right there with them.