various artists,
Luckenbach! Compadres!
(Songs of Luckenbach, Texas)

(Palo Duro, 2007)

If I were asked "What I Like About Texas" -- the title of one of the songs on this disc -- my list would consist mostly of the names of Texas musicians. Texas's cultural and political legacy may be ... um ... open for discussion, but no one would dispute the self-evident proposition that the Lone Star State has nourished an impressive number of outstanding artists in just about every genre you can think of.

One that most people think of immediately, of course, is country music: Bob Wills, Milton Brown, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, George Strait, Dixie Chicks -- just a few names that pop off the top of my head. Even Jimmie Rodgers, the Mississippi blue yodeler often asserted to be the founder of the genre, lived in Texas for a while.

Since the early 1970s Texas has harbored what, for want of a better phrase, we'll call an alternative-country -- not necessarily to be confused with trad-country -- scene. It thrives virtually on its own, with many of its practitioners, nearly all of them singer-songwriters, unknown outside its borders. The more ambitious performers may cross those borders in search of a larger regional following elsewhere in the Southwest. Not, I infer, all that many; this scene is startlingly self-contained and self-sustained, with an audience possessed of fiercely tribal loyalties. Unless a particular performer or band is seeking recognition in Nashville, Texas country music doesn't sound much like the swill in which hot-country radio bathes these days. The independent label Palo Duro has documented this movement in a series of sympathetically produced CDs. These recordings have introduced me to some artists of whom even I -- a roots-music obsessive who keeps ears close to the ground -- had never heard.

His megahit-composition "Mr. Bojangles" notwithstanding, Jerry Jeff Walker has never seemed to me to be more than a modestly endowed journeyman, no major talent by any definition imaginable to me. Still, more than three decades ago he had the wit to transform himself from Greenwich Village folk singer to Texas country-rocker. Not that he exactly abandoned folk, which would always be a presence in his and other Texas music to come, but he added an electric band, honkytonk-country themes, roadhouse-rock rhythms and a particular way of viewing the world. That way of viewing was first dubbed "gonzo" or "cosmic," two adjectives that, uttered today, would only date one mercilessly. The result, a stoned-hippie-faux-redneck sound, amounted to a country music for long-haired folks who ordinarily didn't like country music.

A live album Walker recorded in the microscopic, destined-to-live-on-in-hype hill-country town (more accurately, space in the road) Luckenbach in 1973, Viva Terlingua! is a founding document of the Texas alternative-country school. It has been many years since I heard it. I do, however, recall that at the time its heavy-duty Texas-tude rubbed me as more irritating than ingratiating. But then, I've never claimed to be a prophet.

The now-titled Luckenbach! Compadres! started its checkered life as Viva! Terlingua! Nuevo!, released this past October. With a range of artists, none named Jerry Jeff Walker, it revisited the original album, which introduced songs destined to be cult favorites: Guy Clark's novelistic "Desperados Waiting for the Train," Ray Wylie Hubbard's riotous "Red Neck Mother," and Gary P. Nunn's enduringly lovable "London Homesick Blues" (subsequently the Austin City Limits theme song). The just-mentioned songs are handled respectively by Brian Burns, Cory Morrow and the Derailers, singing from a stage of a Luckenbach tavern/club/dance hall over two nights in January 2006.

It became quickly clear that however well-intentioned Palo Duro may have been, Walker did not appreciate the gesture. Eight days after its release, he brought suit against the label over copyright issues. Palo Duro withdrew the album. After resolution of legal matters, the disc was reissued this spring under the present title. Other recordings of live Luckenbach concerts are scheduled to follow.

The original Viva Terlingua! held nine songs, and all are here, as are members of Walker's first-generation Gonzo Band (including Nunn, with whom Walker had a famously stormy relationship which on occasion erupted into on-stage confrontations), plus other Texas pickers, singers and writers you may or may not know of, more likely the latter if you don't live there. Outside Texas the most notable, in the relative sense, are the Derailers and Jimmy LaFave. In the album's standout cut, LaFave delivers a mesmerizing reading of the late Townes Van Zandt's "I'll Be Here in the Mornin'" -- a ramblin' song from the folk end of the Texas spectrum -- so idiosyncratic that it disposes of Van Zandt's melody altogether for an eerier, more desolate one of LaFave's own creation. "I'll Be Here" does not appear on Viva Terlingua!, nor do a couple of others. Nor does Kent Finlay's recitation of the late Luckenbach godfather Hondo Crouch's poem "Luckenbach Daylight."

Six of the songs are Walker compositions, and they've aged better than I would have thought. Perhaps that owes as much to the relaxed, affectionate interpretations by singers and bands enjoying a fine old time with them as to the tunes themselves. It's good to be reminded, too, of "Backsliders Wine," by Michael Martin Murphey -- not, as the credit here has it, Michael Murphy, who is an actor and does not, as far as I know, write lovely country songs that manage at once to lament alcoholism and to celebrate it.

review by
Jerome Clark

9 June 2007

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