Lubbock on Everything
"We grew up with two things pounded into our brains from the day we were born," says songwriter Butch Hancock in a West Texas drawl capable of transforming a normal conversation into smoky music. "One is, God loves ya and he's gonna send ya to hell. The other is that sex is dirty and evil and nasty and filthy and sinful and bad and awful and you should save it for the one you love. So it's no wonder we were all schizoid maniacs."
It's the shank of a typically sweltering Southwest Texas evening. The latest band led by Hancock's longtime friend Joe Ely has just kicked some buttock at Cibolo Creek, a revitalized ancient dancehall on the outskirts of San Antonio, and I'm barreling back down the highway to Austin. Sprawled across the backseat of the rental, exuding a wiry athleticism, Butch Hancock is ruminating on many things, including growing up in Lubbock, Texas.
Flat and mysterious, 365 miles southeast of Austin, Lubbock has spawned a most talented and and mystically inclined generation of musicians. The cabal includes such remarkable singer-songwriters as Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Terry Allen, Jo Carol Pierce, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock; looming guitar giants like Lloyd Maines and Jesse Taylor; as well as the idiosyncratic and way, way, way off-Broadway writer-actor Jo Harvey Allen. "Lubbock's really a psychedelic place," says Hancock. "At least as bizarre as any place on the planet. God never intended man to live there."
This talented circle of friends, as warm-hearted and peculiar as any you'd care to know, flies the flag of a uniquely American nomad scene. It doesn't resemble late-'60s San Francisco: they all like each other too much and mostly never even tried to sell out. And it isn't late-'70s Athens, Georgia: age and maturity have deepened their work. During the past few years, the Lubbock posse has suddently hit its collective stride, making wise and wonderfully warped neocountry music about highways and heartbreak and hard lives lived under a fat old sun.
* * *
"Sometimes I think UFOs had more to do with all the weirdness than the psychedelics," reckoned country guru Jimmie Dale Gilmore with gentle enthusiasm a few weeks earlier as his van cruised smoothly through Austin's hilly outskirts. We'd just left his local new-age bookstore. There, while browsing the Robert Anton Wilson shelf, Gilmore heard his name called out from the store's substantial UFO section. It was Texas Tornados bassist Speedy Sparks, a longtime friend. The connection is smalltown and friendly, yet smacks somehow of old coots bumping into one another in a porn shop. In Austin ("the little town with the big guest list," as Michael Corcoran once dubbed it), from Roky Erikson to the Butthole Surfers, country music and flying saucers go together like a shot and a beer
A lot of people from Lubbock, including Hancock and Gilmore, have swell UFO stories. Is it mere coincidence, then, that so many people raised up in Lubbock during the 1950s and '60s evolved into musicians and artists with visions skewed by unidentified flying hallucinations, flatland revelations and mystical visions, naively blissful psychedelic adventures, flamboyant parents, strong women, twisted childhood imaginations, hardcore country music, and primal rock 'n' roll?
It's been said that all Lubbock ever had was Buddy Holly and UFOs-- most notably a set of photographs taken in 1951 of the so-called Lubbock Lights--and now only the UFOs remain. Lubbock was also home to the legendary underground country band the Flatlanders--which featured Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock--a group firmly enmeshed in the metaphysics of its environment. Those raised in Lubbock speak of a meticulous planar topography. "It's like a grid pattern," Hancock says, "almost like a computer field." Harsh fundamentalist mores mixed with Zenlike boredom in Lubbock, while its daunting climate instilled feelings of respect, reverence, and dread. The Hub City (so-nicknamed because of the highways that radiate away from it) may have been hell, but until Lub bock's young accumulated the gas money to split, it was their hell.
The Flatlanders and friends were among the first Lubbock generation to grow up with automobiles as a given following a period of massive urbanization. Lubbock for them was a crude, rural place where some kids were lucky enough to pick up guitars instead of television sets. "We did a lot of things because we didn't know we couldn't do 'em," Hancock recalls.
"At night the city was ours because it all closed down," says Jo Carol Pierce, 49, the talented singer/songwriter/social worker and Gilmore's first wife. "We lived in alleys during the night. Jimmie and I moved together to California several times--the first was in 1964, when our daughter Elyse was five weeks old, with $60 and an old Rambler--but we'd always get busted back to Lubbock. We thought it was some kind of Indian curse."
Austin, on the other hand, is built for slack. Cushioned by beautiful lakes and the panoramic Hill Country, Austin boasts both intellectual sustenance, in its university, and probably more good musicians per square foot than any other place in the world. Smack dab in the middle of the town there's the oasis of Barton Springs, a platonic ideal of a swimming hole. "It's supposed to be an energy center," Gilmore says cyptically as we pass by, "and I have personal reasons to believe there's something to all that."
* * *
One broasting afternoon in Joe and Sharon Ely's well-refrigerated home in the rolling hills south of Austin, I kicked around the Lubbock mystique with Terry Allen, actress/playwright Jo Harvey Allen, and our host over iced tea and avocado slices. The Allens, frequent visitors to Austin, escaped the Hub City a few years earlier than their friends, and today reside in New Mexico. Together they wrote Chippy: Diaries of a West Texas Hooker . The play, which made its debut last June in Philadelphia as a work-in-progress directed by Joan Tewkesbury, is scheduled to hit the road this spring.
Starring Jo Harvey in the title role, and featuring husband Terry, the former Flatlanders, and Jo Carol Pierce, Chippy adapts the actual 1930s diaries of a wild-partying, syphlitic prostitute who hootchie-cooed an estimated 6000 men throughout Texas, apparently having a ball in the process. "She'd fall into all these crowds that knew each other," says Jo Harvey, who discovered the diaries. "It was one big party scene. I always think of that song of Joe's: 'The road goes on forever and the party never ends.' But it was real tragic, too."
The Philadelphia performances included such surreal moments as Gilmore crooning Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" in drag, and a barbershop-quartet rendition of "Downtown Cocksuckers Ball" sung in cowboy boots and boxer shorts. Chippy captures an era and an area that resonated for the actors through stories they'd been told by their parents and grandparents of a boom-or-bust period when one family suffered from rickets while their next-door neighbors celebrated a front-yard gusher. It also suggests the shifting fortunes of fast friends who've drifted apart but always come back together over the years.
"The time period is fascinating for West Texas," explains Ely, lighting another in a long series of filtereds. "All the farmers' crops had blown away and the Great Depression was still going on. But all of a sudden these oil towns are going like crazy."
"People were either starving to death or striking oil," agrees Jo Harvey. "The weather was extreme--everything was."
"Riding the rails as a teenager, I saw the places Chippy'd written about, places my grandparents had lived. I'd remember the stories they'd tell, about how kids would go to school with wet bandanas over their noses because the dirt was so bad."
"It was a funny way to hook into our history on a very personal level," says Terry. "It was a real fateful gathering."
Terry Allen, 50, a good-looking smirker with just enough middle-aged girth to stay one of the boys, is the acknowledged brat of this middle-aged pal pack. During his show at Austin's Zona Rosa club that night, he bowdlerizes the opening line to Gilmore's best-known song and the Flatlanders' misbegotten single, growling, "Have you ever seen Dallas from a B-52 at night?" Allen's a hamfisted barrelhouse piano player seemingly uncomfortable in more than one octave. His sardonic tunes make his more elegant works stand out like cactus jewels. The arch "Truckload of Art" and "The Collector (and the Art Mob)" resemble the early attempts of good friend David Byrne, while "Rollback," and "Lubbock Woman" possess a gritty rootedness the city mouse should envy, swinging with a subtle offbeat shuffle unique to his hometown.
As though the beneficiary of some cosmic mistake, Allen has amassed a string of weird and wonderful albums on Fate Records for which the adjective "quirky" functions for once as more than a cliché. He's usually backed by the Panhandle Mystery Band, Lubbock sessioneers borrowed originally from Joe Ely. Allen, who's earned a lot more money from his art career than from his music, writes songs whose diffidence, satire, and sincerity nearly defines the Lubbock mystique.
Terry's mother was one of the last of the silent-film piano accompanists. His father, Fletcher Manson "Sled" Allen ("he had big feet") was a one-time player-manager of local baseball team the Lubbock Hubbers, and subsequently promoted weekly wrestling matches, Friday-night black dances with such acts as B B King and T-Bone Walker, and Saturday-night country affairs headlined by the likes of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. Terry saw Elvis Presley at Sled Allen's Jamboree Hall, where Ely recalls being knocked out by James Brown in his prime.
"Hell, rock 'n' roll was a big deal in those days because they were burning records," says Terry, who left Lubbock with Jo Harvey in 1962. "Joe said it best. There were three things to do in Lubbock: You went to church, you went to a movie, or you went to a club."
"When we were dating," recollects Jo Harvey, a bubbling pot of West Texas feminist charm and bubbling life force, "Terry would pick me up and say, 'Run for you life!' Our whole date would just be total make believe, running and hiding all night long!"
"And drinkin'," amends Terry with a chuckle.
"Drinkin' and pretendin' people were shooting at us. We'd get back in the door and go, 'Whoo! We made it!'
"I wanted to leave Lubbock from the time I was aware of it," says Terry.
Ely did too. "I joined the Ringling Brothers circus just to have somewhere to go." A rocker since junior high, Ely was a poor kid who worked in places like the Chicken Box and Burger Chef before music began to interfere with high school. At 46, Ely looks every bit the weathered rockabilly road scholar. A vast bouquet of hotel-room keys decorates his living room.
"What was your job in the circus?" I ask.
"I took care of the llamas and The World's Smallest Horse," he deadpans.
As the laughter subsides, it occurs to me that Allen and Ely represent two faces of the same dusty Lubbock coin. Using similar raw musical materials, Allen draws a smirking mustache on the hardscrabble country sound. Ely, on the other hand, exploded a relatively trad country-rock sensibility into full-blown rockabilly spectacle. It's a long way from the sterling Hancock and Gilmore tunes that made Ely's eponymous 1977 debut a hit with the Clash to this year's rock-hard Highways and Heartaches . Inbetween, though, were plenty of hard years as Ely's career headed south.
Still and all, Ely had played a dazzling reunion show the previous evening at Austin's Aqua Festival accompanied by original bandmembers Lloyd Maines and Jesse "Guitar" Taylor. Integral parts of the Lubbock musical gestalt, these two guitarists, whom Ely glommed onto during the Sunday jam sessions at Christopher B. "Stubb" Stubblefields's legendary Lubbock barbecue, still perform irregularly with most of these singer-songers. Maines strikes me as the scene's secret weapon. He's an incredible steel guitarist whose effects box generates everything from sweet country hypnotics to a steam locomotive's roar, a uniquely Lubbock sound.
"The wind was always blowing," says Ely. "There was something kinda really eerie about it. There'd always be a branch scraping on the window all night and the screen door would just go bam! bam! bam! " You'd lay in bed and hear this scratching and moaning going through the house. The air was full of dirt and static electricity."
As though on cue, Mr. Stubblefield himself pulls into Joe's driveway. An imposing black cowboy enters the house accompanied by a lovely young woman who, like her date, packs a 7-Eleven Big Gulp. "Stubbs can tell you some Lubbock stuff," says Ely of the seemingly ageless black chef, who still owns a restaurant in Lubbock yet resides elsewhere.
"Lubbock reminds me of a huge monster that fell out of the sky," says Stubbs with malicious glee. "Every once in a while it moves, but they don't know who to call in to kill the damn thing. All the good people left Lubbock, tell ya the truth about it. But all our relatives and ancestors and things we used to do best are still there, so naturally we gotta have some affection for the place. I just love to go up there, 'cause I know I'm gonna leave the next day or so."
Terry Allen laughs in agreement, and speaks of hiding from tornadoes in the cellar. "From the time you were a kid you were aware there was shit bigger'n you out there," he says. The author of such songs as "New Delhi Freight Train," "Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy," and "Arizona Spiritual," Allen recently spent several months recording his oddball tunes in India with local musicians. But when I ask about the mystical streak that runs through so much Lubbock music, he just laughs.
"You been talking to Jimmie, haven't you?" Allen guffaws. "Jimmie learned astrology to get girls on the road!"
* * *
A little sun-sign knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing. But any red-blooded American girl would have to agree that, with his long silvery hair, sexy Cherokee cheekbones, and contemplative mien, Gilmore looks damn fine on the cover of Spinning Around the Sun , Elektra's bid to expand the cosmic cowboy genius of his 1992 masterpiece After Awhile into secular success. Turn this surprisingly well-read West Texan on, and he'll free-associate gladly on the lay lines, UFOs, legal peyote, DDT trucks, "regional DNA," and anything else that might help explain Lubbock to a stranger. Whatever the reason, he says, Lubbock generates some of the world's finest underappreciated songwriters. Gilmore was a member of that set until fairly recently, but he always had his perfect country voice--a calm and ghostly wind in the night--to fall back on.
Although the karmic credit has evened out over the years, Gilmore's first band was originally called Jimmie Dale and the Flatlanders. Formed in 1970 when pickin' pals Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock found themselves living together quasicommunally in Lubbock after drifting far and wide, the Flatlanders were a group ahead of their time but stuck firmly behind the c&w eightball. Hippie country bands had begun sprouting like mushrooms on cow shit when this exquisitely eccentric group casually came together. But with the assistance of Western swing fiddle veteran Tommy Hancock (no relation to Butch) and saw bender Steve Wesson, this smelt like the real McCoy. Real enough so that the group found itself recording an utterly original debut album in 1972 for veteran Nashvillepreneur Shelby Singleton.
"I thought they were absolutely great," recalls Singleton, who'd purchased Sun Records from Sam Phillips in 1969. "Their music was strange. Different. Unusual. With the musical saw and Gilmore's vocal style, I thought it stood a chance of being a hit--but I couldn't get any radio station to play it." Singleton released Gilmore's "Dallas" (containing the unforgettable line, "Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye") as a promo single, and One Road More as an eight-track cassette. Not surprisingly, they barely made a ripple. "In those years," Singleton explains patiently, "we didn't release albums unless we could get radio play for 'em." The rest was cult history until Rounder rereleased it in 1990 under the apt title, More a Legend Than a Band . And the Flatlanders? According to Butch Hancock, bad management drove them asunder quickly but amenably. "Joe was the first to say 'this sucks' and take off." Hearing the group today, however, during one of its rare reunions, is bliss that transcends nostalgia.
Confessing to a mystical predisposition as big as all outdoors, Gilmore, 48, has driven a long road since then. During a seminal 1960s peyote experience, "this indescribable feeling of total happiness and oneness washed over me, and the thought came that I was a religious or spiritual person living in a totally secular society that only gave lip service to notions of divinity or the infinite." Following the Flatlanders breakup, Gilmore discovered the adolescent Indian guru Maharaji Ji and followed his bliss to New Orleans, where "It was kind of like boot camp". Maharaji Ji's spiritual program "just struck a chord with me and worked," he says. "To this day I regard what I learned from Maharaj Ji as being a very positive thing in my life." Gilmore still tries to get together with the guru annually.
"Jimmie Gilmore read that book Communion and decided he'd probably been picked up and operated on by a space ship," says Jo Carol Pierce over peach cobbler at the Salt Lick, an Austin-area BBQ meccca down the road from the Elys. "I think if anybody else had said that to me, I would think, 'Oh, you're real imaginative.' But Jimmie Gilmore . . . well, that could possibly explain a whole lot. 'Cause Jimmie has this strange effect on electricity. Street lights go out all over when he walks down the street. He's got unusual electrical wiring, I think."
Pierce is a powerful songwriter and the sort of gregarious redhead who a few decades ago might have been described as "blowsy." She and Gilmore have a granddaughter from their marriage and have remained friends. During the past few years, Pierce's songwriting talent has been belatedly recognized; usual suspects and local luminaries such as Gilmore, Ely, Terry Allen, David Halley, Pork, and Psychomotor do them justice on one of last year's best unheard albums, Across the Great Divide: Songs of Jo Carol Pierce , a benefit for the Austin Rape Crisis Center she operates.
For Pierce, coming of age in Lubbock meant learning about freedom from Jimmie Dale and the other bad boys. (Her "narrative musical," Bad Girls Upset By the Truth , poses the musical question, "What are these boys for and what am I supposed to do with them?") "The path for girls was straight and narrow in Lubbock," she says. "Then we got around these boys and they were naughty . They broke the rules all the time, which was thrilling. Jimmie especially opened my mind about breaking the rules--or acting as if they just didn't apply to him. It had mainly to do with freedom of movement: like staying out all night to watch a meteor shower."
Jo Carol met Jimmie in square-dance class and it was like at first sight. "Everybody was way too cool to dance except Jimmie. We didn't know his name, so we called him Laughing Water 'cause he looked like an Indian and was just 'dosey doe'-ing and 'swing your partner' and everything." She met Ely and Jesse Taylor a few years later. "They were these darling young boys that never said a word. They rode on freight trains, hung out, and played music. But you couldn't talk to them; they were nonconversational and so shy, but never put up with any shit."
Gilmore sings Pierce's "Reunion" on Spinning Around the Sun , thereby adding her to his impressive songwriter "collection." "I'm as much in love with Butch Hancock's and Al Strehli's songs as if I'd written them myself," he admits.
Straddling the rock, folk, and country genres, Hancock is at 48 a master of earthy metaphysics and surging existential manifestoes. Architechtonically lovely Hancock tunes, including "If You Were a Bluebird" and "She Never Spoke Spanish to Me," pop up constantly in Gilmore's and Ely's respective repertoires. Hancock began composing songs in the key of second gear while driving tractors for his father. Today he's the real multitalent of the bunch. Absurdly prolific, he's studied architecture, knows his way around a camera, practiced honky-tonk videography, guides white-water tours, and performs live in marathon spurts. "Dry Land Farm," "Wind's Dominion," and "Just a Storm" find emotional space with political ramifications in fiercely stark country.
The wind-whipped post-Dylan troubadour also operates Lubbock Or Leave It in Austin. This charming gallery cum gift shop cum performance space is dedicated to the preservation of arcane Hub City music, graphics, poetry, and barbecue sauce. "Why 'Lubbock or Leave It'? Well, sometimes you're glad to get out of some things with only losing your stereo to her. It's a love-hate thing. I love Lubbock. It's great. But if you owned 400 puppy dogs or something, it's a bit much. They're all cute, but what do yo do with 'em? What do you do with that many streets that don't lead anywhere? You find the ones that go to the horizon."
Lubbock's perfectly aligned streets to nowhere had a couple of important things to say to Hancock and his friends. Get the hell out of here was one. The other, however, was a more positive message of endless possibility, a do-it-yourselfism from ground zero. "It was like, 'What the hell am I doing here?'" says Hancock. "As though you're on the moon or a foreigner. Jimmie and I have talked about how we've always been outsiders--and it became kind of an inside joke with us. Once you start to talk about Lubbock, anything is probably right and yet none of it makes any sense."
We still haven't figured out why a bunch of us ended up becoming musicians," Hancock concludes as we pull up in front of Lubbock Or Leave It. "We've gone through UFOs, the water, the wind, the isolation, the nothing-else-to-do, the women. The funny thing about Lubbock is, just standing out there on your front lawn you can look down the street all the way through town to the horizon. You realize there isn't much difference between over there at the horizon and over here, where you're standing. In effect, you're standing on the horizon, you're on the edge of the planet. It's a real bizarre thing. I think it's unconsciously affected people in ways they don't suspect."
More a Legend Than a Band (Rounder, 1990).
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Fair and Square (Hightone, 1988)
Jimmie Dale Gilmore (Hightone, 1989)
Live with Butch Hancock, Two Roads (Caroline, 1990)
After Awhile (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1991)
Spinning Around the Sun (Elektra, 1993)
Lubbock (On Everything) (1979)
Smokin' the Dummy (1980)
Roll Back & Pedal Steal (1985/1988)
The Silent Majority (1992)
Fate Records, PO Box 273, Mill Valley, CA 94942
Own and Own (1991)
Own the Way Over Here (1993)
Sugar Hill, PO Box 4040, Duke Station, Durham, NC 27706-4040,
Hardcore Hancock fans swear by the "No 2 Alike Tape of the Month Club" (406 Brazos, Austin, TX 78701), with 14 cassettes documenting the 140 original songs Hancock performed during an epic, star-studded, six-night stand at Austin's Cactus Cafe in 1990.
Joe Ely (MCA, 1977)
Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA, 1978)
Live Shots (MCA, 1980)
Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (MCA, 1981)
Lord of the Highway (Hightone, 1987)
Live at Liberty Lunch (MCA, 1990)
Love and Danger (MCA, 1992)
Joe Carol Pierce
Across the Great Divide: Songs of Jo Carol Pierce (Deja Disc, 537 Lindsey St., San Marcos, TX 78666, 1992)