Monday, May 18, 2009

Texas BBQ, The Book

As both a connoisseur and critic of barbecue in its many manifestations, I am not easily swayed by other critics, much less books on the subject. But I gotta say, nothing comes close to the wonderful book of photographs and essays focusing on the Central Texas barbecue belt that my colleague Wyatt McSpadden has put together for the University of Texas Press. John Morthland's essay sets the table (no silverware required) and Jim Harrison's essay pumps up the whole carnivore thang. But McSpadden's images are the star here, focusing on the cuisine's basic elements - meat, pits, wood, fire, knives and the men who make the ritual happen. He chose the some of best locations to zone in on - Kreuz Market and Smitty's in Lockhart, Louie Mueller's in Taylor, Gonzales Food Market in Gonzales, the New Zion Missionary Babtist Church in Huntsville, Hallettsville, Prause Meat Market in LaGrange, Luling City Market (best in Texas and the world, I think) - and the best people manning the pits, especially his portraits of Roy Perez, all muscle and grit framed by his mutton-chop sideburns.

This isn't a complete guide or a cookbook - Robb Walsh's book is still the best in those respects. What McSpadden achieves is getting to the heart of the culture of Texas barbecue, peeling back the crust to reveal its smoldering soul.

From the butcher paper inner cover images to the school desk seats at Sonny Bryan's in Dallas, the smudged walls at Smitty's and the faded signage ("If the Bears kill, we'll cook it") at Mama & Papa B's in Waco, Wyatt McSpadden captures the essence of Texas barbecue so well, you can smell the smoke every time you turn the page. It doesn't get any better than that.

(in case you can't tell, the following are my own BBQ photographs, not Wyatt's)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Stephen Bruton, Six-String Maestro

Turner Stephen Bruton, the Fort Worth flash and "the best damn rock and roll guitar player in the world," as his friend, mentor, and bandleader Kris Kristofferson would introduce him night after night, rode off into the sunset on Saturday at the doorstep of the Pacific Ocean.

Stephen was music, a genuine player's player. He was a mandolinist, banjo picker and guitarist who trafficked in bluegrass at Arlington Heights High School where he was recognized as Most Talented and performed with the Brazos River Ramblers. His mom and dad ran Record Town, a record shop across from TCU that his brother and mother still run today, and one of the greatest dispensers of "hep" Fort Worth ever had, educating critic Dave Hickey, producer T-Bone Burnett, and western swing scholar Kevin Coffey, among others.

He rambled around briefly after graduating from high school, hanging out in Woodstock with Geoff Muldaur and the players in the Band before hooking up with Kris Kristofferson, for whom he ended up playing lead guitar for 17 years. Back home, he dove into the blues at local jooks, most prominently the New Bluebird Nite Club, where he and his high school music buddy T-Bone (formerly J. Henry) Burnett co-produced an exceptional gritty live recording of Robert Ealey & His Five Careless Lovers, a band that included Stephen's brother Sumter. Stephen fronted his own occasional Fort Worth band, Little Whisper & the Rumors with Jim Colegrove, whom he'd met up in Woodstock, when he wasn't hanging in his new hometown of Los Angeles, where he was the kid with the gig to a cadre of hungry Fort Worth expats including Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark.

After leaving Kristofferson, Stephen joined up with Bonnie Raitt just as she was enjoying her second burst of fame for Give It Up for an extended spell, writing songs for her. He briefly worked with Bob Dylan.

In the 1980s, Stephen drifted from LA down to Austin where he reinvented himself as a producer (Alejandro Escovedo, Marcia Ball,Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Hal Ketchum, Chris Smither, Storyville, among others) and a session player, recording with Elvis Costello, T-Bone,Delbert, B.B.King, Lowell George, Bob Neuwirth, and the Wallflowers, while playing solo and band gigs inAustin. His songs were covered by Hal Ketchum, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Patty Loveless, Jimmy Buffet, and Bonnie Raitt.

His movie star good looks were the real deal. He appeared in a number of films beginning with "A Star Is Born" and "Songwriter."

For the past 13 years, he fronted the Resentments, a collective of clean and sober players (Jon Dee Graham, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Bruce Hughes, the late Mambo John Treanor and John Chipman)who held court early Sunday evenings at the Saxon Club, an under the radar joint where they developed a bar band groove so cool, they were "discovered" and toured Japan and Europe, but hardly anywhere else in the United States.

His sobriety helped inspire others, including Stevie Ray Vaughan,to straighten up and save themselves, which he shared with me for the book Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire

Stephen was diagnosed with cancer in December 2006, a few days after I visited him to talk about Willie for the book I was working on. We ended up talking about Fort Worth's rich but hidden music history, touching Sock Underwood, Robert Johnson, and graveyard jams involving white and black musicians in the days of segregation.

After a long fight with his sickness, he left Austin this past winter when T-Bone Burnett chartered a jet for Stephen the night after T-Bone won a Grammy and brought him to Los Angeles where they were working on a movie soundtrack.

Stephen had a full life despite barely making it to 60. He had so much more in him, though, his early exit is a huge loss for those who knew him and loved him and those who simply knew him through his music.

Condolences to his mother and brother, his wife, and all his family and friends.

Godspeed, music maker. You sure sound good.


Services for Turner Stephen Bruton will be at 10 am Saturday, May 15 at Holy Family Catholic Church, 6150 Pershing, in Fort Worth. Burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery will follow.

There will be a viewing at Thompson's Harveson & Cole Funeral Home, 702 8th Avenue in Fort Worth on Friday evening beginning at 5:30 pm.

Edwin Bud Shrake, Literary Lion

Bud Shrake had twenty years on me, and went to Paschal not Arlington Heights. He was already working at the Fort Worth Press on Jones Street in Hell's Half Acre when I was born. He was mentored by sportswriting legend Blackie Sherrod and had Dan Jenkins and Gary Jap Cartwright as mentors. He dated a stripper from Jack Ruby's club, covered the Dallas Cowboys at their birth, wrote for Sports Illustrated, was part of cafe society at Elaine's in New York where he drank and bullshitted with the leading literary lights of his day. He moved to Austin in 1968 before any cool did and dreamed up his own Texified cafe society with the Mad Dogs, a group that included Cartwright, writer Jan Reid, county commissioner Ann Richards, and music bard Jerry Jeff Walker. He was successful enough to fund the Armadillo World Headquarters with a few well-placed loans. He proceeded to write novels, ghost Willie Nelson's autobiography and partner with golf pro Harvey Penick on his Little Red Book of Golf. When Ann Richards was elected Governor of Texas, he was her First Gentleman and Significant Other. I don't think either of them ever got over the serendipity of it all.

A younger writer who moved to Austin to soak up the culture and write about it couldn't help but fall under Shrake's spell and influence. So it was with some trepidation that the same writer would approach Shrake to look through his papers to see how he wrote Willie's autobiography before contemplating writing his own biography of Willie. Shrake was nothing but encouraging. Still, there was more trepidation when the young writer asked Shrake if he could talk to him about the process and what he learned, and relief when Shrake invited him to coffee. At the end of a five hour coffee, interrupted by several breaks so one of two older men could go pee, the not-so-young-anymore writer heard nothing but encouraging words from the literary lion. That validation emboldened the not-so-young-anymore writer to take the leap and write a book like no other he'd written before. It might not have been Shrake-level literary brilliance, but it exceeded what the writer thought he had in him.

Texas writer had been a description reserved for early 20th century lights such as J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb. Shrake embodied that term for late 20th century writers all the way to the here and now, defining the modern Texas and its culture better than anyone had before or has since. What stuck with one writer who came up in Fort Worth two decades after Shrake did was his ability to delineate between "hip" and "hep." Lots of places and lots of people flattered themselves by thinking they were "hip." Fort Worth, Shrake had observed many times, was never "hip." But it sure was "hep" - hepper than just about anywhere on earth. The images that Bud Shrake conjured with words - like when someone was thirsty they needed a "drank" and his description of the "perp walk" the police would make the hoodlums do for the edification of reporters every week - made it so.

So call him what you want. I'll just call him the heppest cat who put words on paper in this corner of the world.

Thanks for the wisdom and the advice.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Poodie Locke passed away today. You might know him as the proprietor of Poodie's Hilltop Bar & Grill, or as the stage manager for Willie Nelson & Family.
I've known him as a larger than life figure, a wild man, the heart and soul of Willie's storied road crew, and a genuine friend.

He's was the Go To Guy for translation and better understanding when I was working on the Willie biography and the most fun cat I've ever played golf with, even thought I never picked up a club. He was also a hard working sumbitch, working the phones or his laptop even when he was having fun, always looking out for the boss and fronting for him without anyone ever realizing how smooth he was getting things done because his MO was total duct-tape.

Between him and his Momma Locke, who ran a boarding house, I realized Waco had more soul than most folks gave it credit for. He always knew where he came from, and would get the busses to stop for burgers at Cupp's whenever they were passing through.

He was the only roadie to have his own line of barbecue sauces. He was funny as all get-out, a great storyteller (oh, the time he talked about Larry Trader having told too many lies at the picnic at Spicewood, he had to be helicoptered away) and so real, I witnessed the alleged crazy man Johnny Knoxville kneel in fealty in Poodie's presence. Poodie was the real wild man. On the road, he was always plugged into the action, leading daytime tours of medical marijuana clinics (how he got access was a testament to his prowess and reputation) and to Alcatraz for a cadre of friends and followers when Willie did the Fillmore for a week a couple years back.

Last time I saw Poodie about three weeks ago, we talked about surviving. He told me he'd never been sick a day in his life. I asked him what his secret was. "Genes, I guess," he shrugged, before going about his business. I was going to catch up with him at Carl's on Saturday and when I couldn't swing that, I was going to drop by Spicewood and see him today. They say it was a heart attack. I'm glad it was quick. Poodie was too full of life to fade away slowly. He exited stage left at the top of his game, and at the top of his boss' game. I miss him already.

My condolences to Gloria (Mamma) Locke, his sister Cindy, his girlfriend Shaye, and all his family and all his friends around the world.

UPDATE (mil gracias, Texas Clem)
James Randal "Poodie" Locke
Rest in Peace Big Boy

He will be buried Monday in Waco at Conally Compton Funeral Home.
There will be a Memorial Celebration in his Honor in Austin in a few weeks. Details to follow.
I'm sure there will be something scheduled at the Hilltop as well.

In the meantime, Clem passed this along to make us smile.


By Buddy Prewitt

May 7, 2009 2:32 PM | Link to this

It is tough losing your best friend. He was my Brother. 33 years side by side. Godfather of my kids. Nobody’s enemy.

I know it is harder for Shaye, Mama Locke, Cindy, and the rest of the Family.

My thoughts and prayers will be forever.

Rest in Peace Big Boy, you deserve it. There is not enough space for the words that you deserve. If you knew him, you know.

Now somebody else is gonna have to write the book.

You will NEVER be forgotten.

Your Best Friend Forever, Budrock

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sonny Rollins

Witnessing a living legend can be a dicey proposition. Chuck Berry at 70 was an abomination, one of those Wish I Hadn't moments that destroyed whatever respect I once had for the cat. James Brown in his 60s made me wince and wonder about his knee pads.

So Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist whom I'd never seen, was a calculated risk. At 79, I should just be thankful to have witnessed him in the flesh. As he walked on the stage of the Bass Concert Hall on Sunday night with an uneasy, limping gait, the impression was underscore: after more than fifty years of jazz innovation, I was fortunate to experience a live Rollins performance before he exits Stage Left from this good earth.

But once his microphone was fixed five minutes into the first tune, age and time vanished, and performance he led his five piece group was just that: a performance of a great player essaying lush ballads, familiar ballads and even flashes of hard bop, no perspective required. His tone, his command, his presence, the players around him - everything was what great music should be. His brass counterpoint, trombonist Clifton Anderson (his nephew) provided the perfect counterpoint to Sonny and riffed improvisations as satisfying as the front man's. Guitarist Bobby Broom, who played his first gig with Sonny when he was just sixteen – at Town Hall, no less and also served briefly as Miles Davis’s guitarist, as the only guitarist to work in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and had a long stint with Dr. John (a tip of the Hatlo Hat to Matt Farmer), took his improvised leads on his Gibson to places where the bus doesn't run before bringing it all back to the basic groove. Rollins' showed his obvious delight, pushing him and urging him on, mouthing his approval whenever Brown's breaks moved him. The rhythm section of Bob Cranshaw's cool and understated bass, drummer Kobie Watson's expressive fills, and Victor See Yuan's smooth conga and percussive fills provided a solid foundation for all the riffs that flew from the players.

Rollins' improvisation was a joy to hear and see, working his tenor hard, extending a note while letting his right hand drop to his side, walking out to the plank where only Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders went with confidence, then downshifting to full and mellow clusters of notes that shimmered in their luxuriance on "They Say It's Wonderful" back to back with "My One and Only Love," both from the Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane studio collaborations in 1962-3.

Over the course of an hour and a half, the ensemble grooved and wailed steadily on a handful of tunes, earning a string of standing ovations at the completion of each. The only pause in the articulated groove was towards the end when Sonny limped to the microphone to growl out "AWWWW-STIN" in appreciation of the crowd, noting twice that the last time he'd passed through town was playing the Armadillo, which he pronounced with the kind of conviction you could tell he had a soft spot in his heart for place. The band closed with "Don't Stop The Carnival" a Rollins standard with it signature Second Line backbeat. While it was clear Rollins don't do no encores (at this stage of his career, encores are redundant and standing up for close to two hours on those old legs of his is no cakewalk), the audience was not going to let him go, so he gathered the group to walk out on stage one more time and wave, then walk off. The cheering didn't stop, so the group reluctantly came out for one more, with Sonny playing AND singing lead on a blues shuffle "It's a Lowdown Dirty Shame." The band played, departed, came out for one more wave at the crowd, and everybody went home tired and happy, the cats who made it all happen included.


The acoustics at the redone Bass were pretty sweet once the sax mic glitch was resolved.

And Hank Alrich of the Armadillo World Headquarters recalled the last time Sonny played Austin for me today, via email:

"The airplane had hit a huge air bump and he'd smacked his upper lip against solid structure and split it open. He played a long and amazing set with blood running down his sax, took a break and did another one. What a fucking hero.

"How the hell can Austin not bring back Sonny for all those goddamn years? That is beyond pathetic. Live music capitol, my ass."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Nine Pin Bowling

from the May issue of Texas Coop Power (click on the headline for the whole PDF file)



IT’S SATURDAY AFTERNOON AT THE Fischer Bowling Club, a humble building
beneath shady oaks on a two-lane county road in the Hill Country with a
red-wood storefront exterior made distinctive by eight white bowling pins
arranged in a circle on the wall around a red pin in the middle.

Inside, it feels like a long time ago. Four teams of bowlers are keeping the
pin boys at the end of the alley under the Willkommen zum Fischer sign busy, setting up a new diamond-shaped rack of pins whenever all the old rack of pins are all knocked down, or the red pin in the middle, also known as the kingpin, is the only one left standing.
The bowlers sit in the rooster benches—as the three rows of bleachers are called—waiting their turn to roll, exchanging pleasantries and small talk, while the team captain records the team scores on the chalkboard by the side of the lanes and calls up the next team bowler. After rolling balls and knocking down pins for a while, on cue, everyone takes a break, with half of the bowlers going outside to stretch and the other half heading to the bar, popping open $1.50 beers and 50-cent sodas, keeping tabs on the honor system, firing up the jukebox or flipping through the pages of the bowling club scrapbook on the counter while three kids scamper beneath them. After a few minutes’ respite, a petite, gray-haired lady blows a whistle, and
everyone goes back to bowling.

Step inside any of the 19 ninepin bowling clubs clustered around Comal,Bexar and Guadalupe counties, and step into Texas as it used to be. Ninepin bowling is one of the last Old World traditions that Germans brought with them when they settled a broad, fertile swath of Central and South-Central Texas in the mid-to-late 18th century. Ninepins were the most popular form of bowling in the early United States, but since the 1930s, when the game was outlawed in several states for its associations with gambling and other shady activities, Texas has been the only place
where ninepins remains popular.Tenpin bowling replaced ninepin, and its popularity was sealed in the 1950s when pinsetters were automated.

But ninepin, along with the kids who “set ’em up,” never lost favor in Texas.
Today, the tri-county ninepin clubs are the last place in America where bowling
is done like this. Ninepin bowling has a direct connection to a time when social clubs functioned as community centers for German immigrant farmers and others
working the fields. It was often the only social option outside the church.
Annual memberships under $25, a night of bowling for about $6 and beers under $2 are reminders of how fun used to be a whole lot cheaper and simpler. All one needs to do is commit to bowl one or two nights a week and (for the better bowlers) be willing to travel to “roll-offs” against other clubs.

The functional exteriors of the buildings,ranging from cinder block to limestone to modern metal siding; their lowfrills,full-service interiors with tables, chairs, ballrooms, bar and jukebox; and their locations at the edge of cultivated farmland, at crossroads or in oak-canopied oases, are testament to the industriousness and values of the clubs’ founders. The current members, who revel in the old ways despite encroaching cities and suburbs, are testament to the staying power of ninepins.

The specter of the Target sign hovering above the horizon marking yet another power-center mall going up within eyeshot of the Freiheit Bowling Club in New Braunfels does not diminish what the club and the corrugated tin-sided Freiheit Country Store next door symbolize. In the here and now,ninepin bowling clubs not only still
function as they were intended to when they were established more than a century
ago, they’re cool. You don’t have to bowl or even go inside to appreciate nuances such as the sign out front of Solms Bowling Club, just south of New Braunfels and
just west of Interstate 35, that spells out “Solms Bowling Club 100 Years” in
horseshoes. For all the intrusions thatso-called progress brings, most bowling
clubs have enough land for barbecue pits, shaded pavilions and horseshoes
on the side or around back to get away from it all.

One such example is the eight-lane Mission Valley Bowling Club west of
New Braunfels at the crossroads of State Highway 46 and FM 1863. The newbie
of ninepin clubs, established in 1943, it remains a surviving slice of countryside
in a rapidly developing area. Similarly, it may take some rooting around to find
the Bulverde Community Center Bowling Club behind the Bulverde Community
Center and next to a school on Ammann Road. Even the Spring Branch Bowling Club on busy U.S. Highway 281 conveys that feeling of refuge. Go around back where the pit and pavilion await under a thicket of oaks, and it still feels like country.

The presence of a ninepin bowling club means a drinking establishment or dance hall is in close proximity, often as not. The Bexar and Germania bowling clubs outside Loop 1604 east of San Antonio are within walking distance of the Double Ringer Lounge (known locally as “Teddy’s”) at the crossroads of Zuehl as well as a public shooting range. The Barbarossa, Bracken and Freiheit bowling clubs are all adjacent
to classic beer joints. The 120-year-old Freiheit country store and dance hall has a rep for its griddle-cooked hamburgers, shuffleboard, jukebox and a sign out front that says, “Gun Owners Parking Only, Violators Will Be Shot.” The Fischer Bowling Club, operated by the Agricultural Society of Fischer, which dates back to the 1870s, is adjacent to a 100-year-old dance hall also operated by the society that is available for private functions. The six-lane Blanco Bowling Club is most famous for the Blanco Bowling Club CafĂ© in front of the alleys, world-renowned for its
truckstop enchiladas and lemon and chocolate meringue pies.

People are perhaps the most crucial ingredient of all that makes ninepin what it is. There’s a lilt in the accents of many bowlers who act like they’ve known each other since they were kids. This may well be the case, since some bowlers go back three or four generations. Listen close, and what you thought was pronounced “bear” for
Bexar is referred to as “becks-are” by ninepin bowlers.

Folks at one club seem to know folks at other clubs, as was the case with Kendra, who ran the Freiheit Country Store next to the Freiheit Bowling Club, who said to say hi to Alvin Seiler at the Barbarossa Trough next to the Barbarossa Bowling Club; and with Sharon Coker, the manager at the Laubach Bowling Club, who showed off the bowling pin-themed curtains she redid and gave a brief history of the club founded by the San Geronimo Harmonie as Dean Martin crooned “That’s Amore” on the jukebox. She reckoned that the bowlers in Marion were tougher competitors to go up against in a roll-off than the bowlers over at the Bexar, Germania and Cibolo bowling clubs.

As long as there are good people like Coker, the balls roll, and the pins are reset manually (don’t forget to tip your pinsetter), ninepin remains the only way to bowl in at least one part of Texas that’s like nowhere else in the world.

Barbarossa Bowling Club, 4007 FM 758
(between Zorn and New Braunfels), New Braunfels,
(830) 625–2034
Bexar Bowling Alley & Social Hall, 15681 Bexar
Bowling Club Road, Marion (1.5 miles south of
Interstate 10 off Trainer Hale Road, east of San
Antonio), (830) 420-2512
Blanco Bowling Club, 310 Fourth St., Blanco,
(830) 833-4416
Bracken Bowling Club, 18397 Bracken Drive
(off FM 2252, north of Evans Road), Bracken,
(210) 651-6941
Bulverde Community Center Bowling Club,
1747 E. Ammann Road (west of Bulverde Road and
FM 1863), Bulverde, (830) 438-3065 www.bul
Cibolo Bowling Club, 601 N. Main St. (north of
FM 78), Cibolo, (210) 658-2248
Fischer Bowling Club, Fischer Store Road (off
Ranch Road 32), Fischer, (830) 935-4800
Freiheit Bowling Club, 2145 FM 1101 (at FM 483,
1 mile east of Interstate 35), New Braunfels, (830)
Germania Bowling Club, 1826 Zuehl Road,
Zuehl (near Bowling Club Road, 1.5 miles south of
Interstate 10 off Trainer Hale Road, east of San
Antonio), (830) 420-2675
Highland Social Club, 2929 S. W.W. White Road,
San Antonio, (210) 333-4567
Laubach Bowling Club, 1986 Laubach Road,
(1.5 miles east of State Highway 123), Seguin,
(830) 379-9033
Marion Bowling Club, 111 W. Krueger (north of
the railroad tracks by the Catholic church),
Marion, (830) 420-2205
Martinez Social Club, 7791 Saint Hedwig Road
(at FM 1516), San Antonio, (210) 661-2422
Mission Valley Bowling Club, 2311 W. State
Highway 46, New Braunfels, (830) 629–0028
Rogers Ranch Bowling Club, 1651 Rogers
Ranch Road (County Road 223 off FM 2001, 1.5
miles east of State Highway 21 between Lockhart
and Niederwald), Lockhart, (512) 398-2809
Solms Bowling Club, 175 N. Solms Road (1 mile
west of Interstate 35), New Braunfels, (830) 608–
Spring Branch Bowling Club, 12830 U.S.
Highway 281 (less than a mile south of FM 306),
Spring Branch, (830) 885-4611
Turner Bowling Club, 120 Ninth St., San Antonio,
(210) 227-4412,
Zorn Bowling Club, 12000 State Highway 1

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Life and Times of Vince Bell, Texas Songwriter

Vince Bell has been a stalwart of the Texas singer-songwriter scene since he emerged in Houston in the early 1980s. He was a rising star in Houston and in Austin until he was almost killed in a car wreck in 1983. A severe head injury effectively wiped out his career. For awhile. His determined rehabilitation and subsequent comeback have culminated in a trifecta this year: an album, a one-man play, and a wonderful book titled One Man's Music, that tells the tale. Head injuries are difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to overcome, which Vince relates well in his telling. We see progress from the outside; he sees it from the inside looking out. Either way, his recovery alone makes for an inspiring story. But it's the details along the way that make this such a good read, capturing the vibe of the Old Quarter and Anderson Fair in Houston through anecdotes such as his wild night opening for Townes Van Zandt and recalling his last recording session before his car wreck in which Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Johnson and Chris Holzhaus added their guitars. Tim Leatherwood, Mandy Mercier, Kathleen Hudson and a cast of great pickers and poets all make cameos.

This is a fine book about Texas music, the singer-songwriter tradition, and a personal journey that ends triumphant in the here and now. I'm proud to know Vince as both a friend and a fellow traveler.

Click on the headline to go to his website, and catch up on all his exciting exploits.