‘The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock’ put Austin music on the map and launched a long career for the Texas writer; one night in Mexico City almost cut it short.
By Jeff McCord
Jan Reid, the Texas writer whose 1974 book, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, was one of the first to chronicle the state’s burgeoning cosmic cowboy scene, died on September 19th of heart failure.
Reid was among the stable of new writers brought in to launch Texas Monthly magazine in 1973, a cast of characters that included his friend and mentor Gary Cartwright and future stars like Stephen Harrigan. [In 2011, Harrigan said this about Reid’s historical novel, Comanche Sundown. “He has long been one of the best Texas writers ever, and Comanche Sundown is his masterpiece.”] Ann Richards, who was later the subject of Reid’s biography Let the People In, called him a “Texas treasure.”
But in 1973, the Abilene-born writer was still an unknown. The 1974 publication of Redneck Rock, developed from his earlier piece in Texas Monthly, would soon change that. Reid wrote in lyrical prose, imbuing flavor and character with the tiniest of details. The story of Willie Nelson’s return to Texas, the Armadillo World Headquarters, and the huge cultural shift playing out in Austin captivated the rest of the country. It remains one of Reid’s most popular books and has never gone out of print. The late SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke used to tell friends the book was the reason he moved to Austin, and I’m sure he wasn’t the only one.
Throughout his long career, Reid would not limit himself to music, or even journalism. He claimed his first love was fiction and would write several richly-detailed novels, alternating with profiles and biographies of characters as diverse as Ann Richards and Karl Rove.
“He always loved music,” says Texas Monthly Executive Editor and musician Michael Hall. “I remember him telling me he played in a band when he was younger, played harmonica. When [Reid’s 2002 book] The Bullet Meant for Me came out, a Woodpeckers [Hall’s band at the time] record was out at the same time, and we did a book and record release at the Continental Club. He got up on stage with us and sang “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”.
Neither the title of Reid’s book or his song choice were coincidental.
Hall first met Reid four years earlier, when as a newly minted editor at Texas Monthly, he was assigned to edit Reid’s piece on boxer Jesus Chavez. “I knew about him, of course,” says Hall. “He was kind of a legend by the time I got there. I was really nervous because… he was Jan Reid. And he was just the nicest, easiest guy to work with.”
Reid was a boxing aficionado and had met Chavez while training at Richard Lord’s Boxing Gym. His love for the sport is evident in the article’s lede: “Jesus Chavez’s ring name is El Matador, but he came out of his corner like a terrier trying to dismember a stork.” Even if you didn’t care about boxing, it’s hard to imagine not reading on.
“Chavez was this young, world-class fighter who was having all kinds of immigration problems,” says Hall. “He was doing this fight in Mexico City. I had edited the story, the fact-checker was John Spong and there was John Spong’s friend, David Courtney, we all knew each other and [decided to] make it an adventure.”
So Reid took his younger friends down to Mexico City for four days. They hung out with Chavez, and on their final night, after Chavez’s victory, they celebrated in the city’s Plaza Garibaldi.
“All the musicians hang out there,” Hall explains, “they play and they get hired out for jobs and they’re all dressed in their colorful outfits. It’s a lot of fun, really festive. And we sat down and got drunk. We sat there and just drank for several hours. I remember looking over at one point, there was sawdust on the floor because people were vomiting and they would just mop it up. It was mostly for tourists. But we’d had a really successful trip. Chavez had won. And it was also David Courtney’s birthday. We felt invincible.”
The group had been warned of cab hijackings that were going on at the time, and when leaving, they avoided the type of cabs thought to be the most dangerous. Even so, something seemed off. “I was in the front seat, the other guys were in the back,” remembers Hall. “At some point, we realized that the cabbie wasn’t taking us the way we’d asked him to take us. He pulled over into a park, which is really weird. And all of a sudden I saw somebody running up to the cab with a gun in his hand. I started pounding on the side, saying ‘Go, go, go!’. The cabbie just hung his head over the steering wheel. The guy got in and told us it was a robbery and we took off and drove through the city.”
When they stopped again and got out of the cab, Reid threw a punch at the gunman.
I wasn’t close friends with Reid, but in my tenure at Texas Monthly, he always made it feel that way. I came to know him as kind-hearted, generous with his time, and interested in your well-being. I remember being surprised when I heard about his aggression.
“I think he felt empowered,” Hall explains, “and responsible for bringing us all down there. He was the oldest, kind of taking care of us. And he was a boxer. Jan had been training for a couple of years and was in really good shape. Over six feet. One hundred and seventy-five pounds. He was very athletic. I think he felt he could take this guy. And if he had timed his punch, he would have, he would have knocked the guy right out. But he missed.”
The gunman fired a bullet into Reid’s gut. The gunshot would nearly take Reid’s life, but for some good fortune. The gunman ran off, the neighborhood gathered and an ambulance arrived quickly. Reid was rushed to a good hospital, and Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy soon arranged for him to be helicoptered to Houston.
In The Bullet Meant for Me, Reid chronicled his near-death experience and explored his life, boxing, and Texas masculinity. After the shooting, Reid’s health was wrecked, but his prodigious work ethic seemed to only increase. In addition to articles for Esquire and New York Times Magazine, Reid published over a dozen novels and non-fiction works, including a collection of his work called Close Calls, a profile of Tom DeLay, and a return to his love of music with a look at radio (Dead Air), a making-of chronicle of one his favorite albums [Layla], and a biography of Doug Sahm [Texas Tornado].
Seeing Reid and his wife Dorothy Browne [the political activist who died last Christmas eve] at various music shows around town was always an event. Everyone was drawn to them. This seemed against type for Reid’s soft-spoken demeanor.
“Jan did get a lot of stuff pretty fast when he was younger,” says Hall. “I know he was a very confident writer. Especially over the last few years, he was putting out books all the time. He never had the super success of a lot of his peers, you know, Harrigan, Larry Wright, or Sarah Bird.”
“We would have lunch and he would always ask about what I was doing, ask how my family was. He had this real strong Texas accent, and just the way it would come out would be very sweet. He had to do rehab for years, he had to do all this unbelievable work to come back from this thing. He wasn’t just shot in the stomach. It destroyed his wrist, too. He had so much work to do. And he never complained, he would tell you about it, but never in a whiny way. Most of us writers are kind of big babies; he was a tough, tough guy. It sounds cliche, but he just did what he had to do.”
In the forward to Close Calls, Reid lamented the double-edged sword of being known as a Texas writer. “It’s all anybody ever wants me to write about.” He goes on to say how he loves the state, something obvious to anyone who ever read his words. But mostly, he loved to write. The state where he happened to be born was in his DNA. Its places, its people, its culture, its music; Reid brought it all to life.