Sunday, March 6, 2011

Music for Grownups

I have a lot of friends who know way more about music than I do.  Most of them grew up in cities and had access to indie radio and/or older siblings who helped them learn what is good. Plus they are just cooler than me. When I reached the point of post-secondary education, I hadn't heard of any bands people listened to.  Who the hell was Depeche Mode? That I had seen Stevie Ray Vaughan open for Dire Straits cut no ice with the girls in the dorm, and I felt, not for the first time and certainly not the last, an outsider.  (Twenty years ago, a fellow small-town friend once told me she knew she'd reached a comfort level with her musical upbringing when she could stand up in a room full of similarly sophisticated school friends--long after graduation, mind you--and say, "I like Bob Seger!")

I lived through the nineties, already feeling like an old fogie, not liking much I heard on mainstream radio.  Then late in that decade I moved to Texas, and discovered a wonderful music scene, quite apart from the Nashville machine.  I had little kids and while I would have loved to head to Austin to listen to the next cool thing, it didn't happen.  But back around 2000, my friend Cathy invited me to see Kelly Willis at a now long-gone venue in Fort Worth called Caravan of Dreams.  Willis, a diminutive redhead, came onstage in a sundress and flipflops, guitar slung across a narrow shoulder.  Then she sang like an angel, wonderful songs with lyrics that pulled at the heart.  I learned that her husband, Bruce Robison, a gifted songwriter, had penned much of what she sang that night.  And thus it began for me. 

Now there are stations all over Texas featuring Red Dirt music. Bands people outside of Texas and Oklahoma have never heard of are being played, concerts are filled from Denton to Beaumont and beyond, and the genre is thriving.  I like quite a lot of this music, but my favorite station is one I discovered on a vacation with my children back in the summer of 2005.  It goes beyond the Red Dirt format and describes itself as Americana, and every time I listen to it, it sends me a new gift. 

The kids and I went to New Braunfels that August. We were changing schools--or at least my daughter was, having attended an expensive private school that we couldn't afford and should have known so long before--and were transfering in, so the children had to miss the first week until the class rosters were sorted out.  I was worried sick about how all of this would work out, and was working someplace that wasn't a good fit. It would end soon, I sensed. And I knew in my bones, if not in my brain, that my marriage was breathing its last gasps.  This vacation was suspended animation for me. 

We stayed in a little mom and pop motel right beside the Comal river. The place was dingy but the location was perfect, as it was still terribly hot.  The spring-fed river felt like heaven, and we went on our first tubing expedition, a rite of passage in Texas, and then I sat by the pool and drank cheap wine while the children splashed in the pool.  I found a radio station called KNBT and heard wonderful music and incredible pride in the long, until-now unknown to me history of music in Texas.  All of it came from people who were no longer young: they'd all had the corners knocked off them, but their stories of how it happened made for fine listening. 

We went to Gruene, a few miles away, and saw the oldest dancehall in Texas.  We escaped the white glare of midday and went into the dark, quiet hall, which felt almost holy in the quiet afternoon. It still smelled like beer, though.  The kids stood on the stage and I took their picture in the spot where Willie Nelson and Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett and later Pat Green and Kelly Willis stood and where so many talented people stand every weekend.  At that moment, I felt like I was suddenly privy to a marvelous, well-kept secret, a brief glimpse of what it might be like to be a native. 

When I got home, the kids got into the wonderful school that would be a safe, happy place for all of us during the next few tumultuous years.  The job ended, mercifully, though income then dropped precipitously. A practical problem, which I am fortunately well-equipped to solve. Also, I felt another presence in my marriage, about which my instincts would prove correct.  It didn't feel like a blessing then, but over time it's become clear it was a tremendous one. 

Now I listen as much as I can to this music, but once again I enjoy friends who know much more than I do.  They are the ones who've caught the legendary shows in Austin and at holes in the wall in the heavenly Hill Country that surrounds it. They grew up listening to this stuff and got to see Texas legends during Padre Island spring breaks and on Friday nights on Sixth Street in Austin. Despite the handicaps my upbringing has dealt me, I do my best to learn, though, and love what I hear as I stream KNBT (no flashy name, note) in my office in the Big D.

There are not many catchy tunes, but plenty are genuine. In addition to the classics, many of which are nw to me, there are new songs with timeless themes. I've recently fallen in love with the music of Paul Thorn, who is from Mississippi, in addition to that of Chris Knight and Cory Morrow and the Avett Brothers.  Then there are my long-standing affections for Kelly Willis and Patty Griffin, and an ever-growing web of musical knowledge filled with pleasant surprises.   I encourage you to listen and let me know what you like.

1 comment:

  1. Sue, that's a great post. You are right, Texas based musicians have carved out a niche for themselves which is growing quickly. The Austin scene is well known in the music world and their influences are growing exponentially.