Sunday, June 29, 2008

Q and A on

If you haven't checked out do so now, since a fine Question and Answer session with Los Angeles writer ("The Catalog of Cool") Gene Sculatti has been posted. Gene is a quintessential California cat, having grown up in San Francisco and in the Napa Valley before wandering south to Los Angeles a few decades ago. We did a lot of catching up between the Qs and As.

Sonicboomers is edited by Bill Bentley, a Houston native, Austin music writer and for the past twenty years or so, the publicist for Warner Brothers Records and for Neil Young, among numerous clients. Sonicboomers is aimed at music fans of a certain "maturity," meaning I can relate to just about every story on the site and have at least some familiarity with every contributor including Gene, Jaan Uhelszki, John Morthland, Ed Ward, and John Swenson .

Click on the link and look around

Here's the text to Gene's Q and A with me about the book:

Bob Dylan's folks didn't let him grow up to be a cowboy. Or so Willie Nelson says, recounting the two American bards' carousing at the Peckinpah corral during the filming of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Nelson's parents don't seem to have expressed much concern about what Willie Hugh grew up to be, but they gifted him with an abiding love of music, and that--along with tales of the road and records, honky-tonk hopheads, ex-pimp percussionists and a cultural history of mid-century Texas--is what Joe Nick Patoski has pressed between the pages of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (Little, Brown).

It's a big job, but Patoski's up to it. From Nelson's 1930's childhood in Abbott, Texas and his early songwriting success through his reinvention as country's original "outlaw" and his beatification as a classic American singer, it's all here. Nelson's voice is here too (the writer, a longtime Austin music journalist, had full access to his subject), but so are the voices of family, bandmates, roadies, promoters and all manner of fellow travelers who've accompanied Nelson in his restless journey from earnest Ray Price wannabe to pop icon to national treasure. What emerges is a portrait of a complex, imperfect, sweet, contrary man allotted far more than your average share of pluck and talent. Why him, Lord? God knows, but we're all the better for it.

Sonic Boomers caught up with Joe Nick Patoski on his recent visit to California, where he talked to us about Nelson, the book and the Dallas stripper who got the project off the ground.

Sonic Boomers: How did the idea to do a Willie Nelson biography come about? Nelson had already done his autobiography in 1988. What made you think there was more to the story?

Joe Nick Patoski: It really started 35 years ago, when I interviewed Willie for a since-defunct music magazine. Over the years, I always thought I had a book in me about this strange place called Texas, but I assumed it would eventually be done by some academic press. Then an agent called in 2005 and said, "I can get you money if you write me a book on Candy Barr" (legendary burlesque queen, porn star and cohort of Jack Ruby). I said, "No, I've got this Texas book in me." He said, "Well then, write it through somebody--like Willie Nelson." A light bulb went off, and I thought, "Yeah! Willie represents Texas. His story is the story of the state from the Depression to the present." So he went and got us a deal.

SB: You interviewed more than 100 people in your research for the book, including Nelson. Was he was forthcoming, or were there subjects you were steered away from?

JNP: He wasn't forthcoming only when he couldn't remember. I asked him about the breakup of an arrangement he had made to play some dates at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, and he said, "I wanted 100% of the door instead of the 80% they offered." But the deal really fell through because Armadillo management complained to Willie that his musicians and crew were carrying guns and knives, and Willie refused to rein them in. He said, "Well, if you don't like my friends, you don't like me," and that was it. These people helped him and he stayed loyal to them. That's just who the guy is. I said to his daughter, Lana, "What do people not know about your dad that you think should be mentioned?" She said, "Probably the con in him, how much he likes to pull one over on someone." That told me a lot. It's salesmanship, as practiced in Texas and the South: the door-to-door Bible salesman of yore became the cigarette salesman became the NASCAR salesman. It started in the church, but it runs through country music today. I mean, it's still "The Willie Nelson Show" with long-time friend Scooter Franks coming out to do old-time warm-up. This could be a barn-dance revue. Willie's so traditional in so many respects and yet so modern, adaptable and progressive.

SB: You write about how Nelson never really fit in with established notions of country music, particularly, following his songwriting success with "Crazy" and "Night Life," when he signed to Liberty and RCA in the 1960s.

JNP: Yeah. The country producers thought he didn't know what he was doing--singing behind the beat, altering the time signature--but his was basically a jazz approach. The labels didn't really get this, but some of the arrangers and musicians he worked with did. Those Nashville studio players told me, "Yeah, in the '60s we were listening to Dave Brubeck, we weren't listening to Hank Williams." That's always been there in Texas music, particularly in western swing, which is jazz music played by guys dressing up like cowboys.

SB: While he later essayed a whole progressive-country style, Nelson never toyed with rock 'n' roll, as other country artists like Johnny Cash and Buck Owens did.

JNP: The closest he came was covering the Beatles' "Yesterday." The interesting thing is, when he got to Austin in the '70s, he and his guys weren't rock--you already had rock groups like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers starting to do country--but that's not what he was. But then there's the story of him playing McMorris Ford, at an event to show off the 1974 models. It's a straight up family gig, with the free hot dogs, a live country band and everything, but by then the Austin hippies had got the word out on him, so they're there too. When the band comes to the instrumental break in "Bloody Mary Morning," they go into this extended jam like the Allmans or the Dead. By that point they'd matured into a freight train of a band. They could play anything.

SB: Finally, where's Willie Nelson at now?

JNP: He's still movin,' and here's what's beautiful about him: At 75, he's not Dean Martin watching cowboy movies with his teeth out. He's in the moment, constantly touring, he's got his album with Wynton Marsalis coming out, he's recording with Johnny Bush again. The main difference between him and Bob Dylan is Willie loves what he's cultivated and Dylan's freaked out by audiences and how he's touched people. Willie and his sister Bobbie are doing exactly what they were raised by their parents to do, period: play music.

— 06/26/2008

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Signing at Felix Chevrolet in downtown LA

Back when country music on television was a new idea, Felix Chevrolet sponsored several local programs in Los Angeles including western swing bandleader Spade Cooley, Cliffie Stone's weekly revue, and even wrestling.

In that tradition, "Giant" Felix Chevrolet joined forces with Go Country 105, Los Angeles' go to radio station for country music, and staged a book signing featuring Go Country's Shawn Parr and Felix Chevrolet's Darryl Holter who performed a set of originals including the home team's favorite "Don't Touch My Chevy."

Reading at Book Soup in LA

Book Soup is the kind of cramped, crowded bookstore you think every city has but doesn't anymore. It's pretty great, especially for being on the Sunset Strip, across the street from where Tower Records used to be (I parked by the old wall, for sentiment's sake).

I did a reading and signing at Book Soup and a bunch of folks turned out including Judge Elizabeth Grimes, rockabilly legend Ray Campi, Fort Worth/LA guitar ace Bill Horn, songwriter Tonio K, writer Joe Rhodes who autographed his Ice Road Truckers article from TV Guide, old friend Roberta Cruger from Creem magazine and MTV days, Austin/LA rock goddess Carla Olson and her squeeze Saul Davis, screenwriter/producer Joan Tewksbury, writer/producer/creator John Shulian, Fuel2000 Records CEO Len Fico, publicist to the music heavyweights Bob Merlis, Felix Chevrolet majordomo and singer/songwriter Darryl Holter, Debbie and Tim from the Electric Fetus in Mpls., the creator and star of Lil' Art's Poker Party, Art Fein, and a buncha other friends and Willie fans.

Twas a gas.

I Love LA

Used to didn't so much, but between the fab weather (the line "going to California where they sleep out every night" kept going through my head), all the beautiful exotic landscaping still in peak bloom,

visiting old friends and meeting new ones, witnessing the return of neighborhoods and the no longer uncommon sight of pedestrians in the face of growing congestion and rising gas prices, and having two book events, I sure did this time.

The $12 cup of coffee at LA Mills might have been a bit much though.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Joe Nick Interviews Mickey Raphael

A cool vid of the interview I did with Mickey during SXSW is now posted on the SXSW website.
Go to music and follow the links to the video. You gotta have Quicktime to see it.

Mickey's got a very cool side project in the hopper you'll be hearing about soon.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Krayolas review

Hector and the boys and Lord August restore my faith in all that's good about San Antonio. Te amo, San Anto. Vaya con dios Ray Liberto tambien.

from the San Antonio Express News, Sunday, June 8, 2008

The death of Douglas Wayne Sahm in 1999 marked the end of what I'd known as the San Antonio Sound, defined by those few pop hits that managed to emerge from San Antonio's spicy menudo of musical exotica created by blacks, whites and browns in the Alamo City — songs like Sunny and the Sunliners' romantic teen anthems “Talk to Me” and “Put Me in Jail,” Rene y Rene's “Lo Mucho Que Te Quiero,” the Sunglows' peppy “Peanut (La Cacahuata),” the Sir Douglas Quintet's “She's About a Mover” and “Mendocino,” Doug Sahm's “Chicano” and Toby Beau's “My Angel Baby” all the way to the Texas Tornados' version of Augie Meyers' “Hey Baby (Ke Pa So).”

The cover art for the Krayolas' new CD, 'La Conquistadora,' is by San Antonio's David Zamora Casas.

On the Web
The Krayolas on MySpace
The Krayolas office Web site
They swing, they sway, the rhythm's just right, the groove's on and the words are sincere.

When Doug died, I thought all that went with him. The one exception was “San Quilmas,” the album released by Sahm's old big band the West Side Horns and featuring the last significant recordings of the sax genius Rocky Morales, who honked and buzzed and also sang inspiring vocals on two Jimmy Reed covers that came close to replicating the master himself. So the presence of Augie Meyers and his magic Vox organ were reasons enough to be curious about “La Conquistadora,” the new album by the Krayolas, whom I'd mainly regarded as a Beatles band — not that there's anything wrong with that. Embracing the British sound and look worked for Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers and the Sir Douglas Quintet 40 years ago, even though their sound was really S.A. homeboy.

It turns out that's pretty much the story of Hector Saldaña (whose day job is Express-News staff writer), his brother David, and their band, too. Their sharp matching suits are classic Carnaby Street look, and their basic two-guitars-bass-drums setup is straight out of the British Invasion. The addition of Augie merely confirms the suspicion. The curtain is pulled back and the truth revealed. The Beatles bit masked their S.A. roots. Listen close enough, and the Krayolas could be grandsons of Sonny Ace y Los Twisters, Rudy and the Reno Bops and Charlie and the Jives. And then some.

“La Conquistadora” aims high, beginning with the title track's invocation of Catholic and Aztec mythology to tell a folk-rock saga rife with Dylan-esque symbolism. It runs through a striking telling inspired by a death notice (“Catherine”) and melodic, hopeful love songs full of vivid word pictures (“Your Doorway Darling”) and precise street sketches (“Nolan Street Bridge”).

With power-chord chunklets crashing into accordion and bajo sexto riffs and an obligatory blues shuffle thrown in just because, a knowing ear can't help but recognize them as Nowhere Else local boys. But you don't have to appreciate that to dig the Krayolas' chili. Pure and simple, the Krayolas crank out some of the finest pop songs since the Raspberries and Cheap Trick, their lyrical depth mostly flying under the radar because the music is so alegre.

Plus they know how to choose their covers. One of the two songs Hector Saldaña didn't write — Augie Meyers' “Little Fox” — is so hooky and insanely upbeat, it is guaranteed to be etched into your subconscious, whether you want it or not, if you play it 10 times in a row. Back in the day, that would have translated into a sure Top 40 hit. These days, enjoying it for what it is — a great song and part of the best contribution to that storied San Antonio Sound that's come along in years — is pleasure enough.

Joe Nick Patoski is the author of “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life.”

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Texas Accordion Kings, Saturday June 7 Houston

Step Rideau and His Zydeco Outlaws, La Tropa F, the Knights of Dixie Orchestra, Yours Truly as your MC, and a dancefloor where everyone dances and moves counterclockwise no matter what culture they come from.

Miller Outdoor Amphitheater, Hermann Park, Houston, Saturday night, 7 pm.

Free. Gratis, gratis, gratis.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Threadgills June 8th birthday signing

Well, it's actually two days after my b-day, but Eddie Wilson at Threadgill's doesn't care because he's throwing a little shindig on Sunday June 8th at 1 pm. Here's what he's got to say about it:

At the Original Threadgill’s on North Lamar, June 8th, this Sunday, immediately following the Bluegrass Brunch (11-1) there’ll be an Autograph Birthday Party for Joe Nick and his Willie: an Epic Life (Little Brown) that lasts till the books run out. Connie Nelson and others who appear in the book will also be on hand to autograph Joe Nick’s book and say Happy Birthday and Thanks for a beautiful piece of page turner history. All the run-ins, shoot outs, marriages and hard times with all the glory of forty million records and honors (Man of the Year honors from the American Jews and American Indians in the same year) galore. Come get the signature of everyone who shows up and build your own collector’s edition.

Have a Bloody Merry Morning,

Eddie Wilson

Sunday, June 1, 2008

New York Times Digs the Book


Lone Star Superstar

Published: June 1, 2008

It was 1975, and Willie Nelson was about to begin a national tour of hockey arenas and other massive concrete venues. Country music had seldom been heard in spaces of that scale. His first album for Columbia Records, “Red Headed Stranger,” was about to be released, and its sound was so spare and stark that the label’s president introduced it to his executives by saying, “It’s probably not commercial and might not be made for country radio.”

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Willie Nelson


An Epic Life.

By Joe Nick Patoski.

Illustrated. 567 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $27.99.

Nelson wasn’t concerned. “It is my time,” he said.

Propelled by the hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Red Headed Stranger” became a huge, double-platinum success, and in the 30-odd years since, it has remained Nelson’s time. He has sold more than 50 million albums, won countless awards and honors and become a genuine American hero — not bad for a guy who’s also known as a pot-smoking, tax-dodging supporter of Dennis Kucinich.

On April 30, Nelson turned 75. The event was marked by the publication of Joe Nick Patoski’s much-needed, well-told biography, “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life”; a comprehensive four-CD box set, “One Hell of a Ride” (with extensive liner notes, also by Patoski); and this summer, the latest addition to Nelson’s seemingly infinite discography, a typically atypical collaboration with Wynton Marsalis titled “Two Men With the Blues.” Nelson himself honored the occasion by taking a rare day off from his never ending world tour, between stops in Copenhagen and Oslo.

Patoski, a veteran Texas music writer, has previously written books about two other Lone Star legends, Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He has now turned his attention to the ultimate Texas artist. Patoski has been thorough, conducting more than a hundred interviews and drawing on extensive historical research and an impressive familiarity with the 300-plus albums that form Nelson’s oeuvre. Nelson has long seemed the personification of “laid back,” but it is his quiet determination and unwavering focus that shine through the pages of this admirable biography.

These traits aren’t really surprising, since Nelson started writing lyrics at age 6 and worked his first professional gig, with a local polka band, when he was 10. His hard-partying parents took off soon after his birth, leaving Willie Hugh to be raised by his grandparents in tiny Abbott, Tex. The family was poor, even by the standards of the Texas backcountry in lean Depression years. He quickly figured out that playing the guitar might offer a more attractive, and lucrative, livelihood than picking cotton.

He joined a western swing band in his teens, singing and playing lead guitar, and refined his skills in the Air Force, on bases from San Antonio to Biloxi. After his discharge came sojourns in, among other places, Vancouver, Wash. (where he worked as a radio D.J.); Los Angeles (for one in a series of ill-fated record deals); and Nashville, where Nelson first made history with a remarkable run as a songwriter in the early 1960s.

In rapid succession, he knocked out “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”; all of these songs made the cut when David Cantwell and Bill Friskics-Warren compiled their list of the 500 best country songs in their book, “Heartaches by the Number.” But all were hits for other singers, and Nelson knew he needed to be out front himself, presenting his music in his own way, however unorthodox his voice and unconventional his look.

Easier said than done, given the Nashville assembly line of the era. Nelson began putting together the tight-knit musical team that would stay intact for decades and building a following on the road. But it wasn’t until 1972, when the legendary producer Jerry Wexler signed him as the anchor for a country division of Atlantic Records, that someone encouraged his idiosyncratic, genre-bending sounds in the studio.

The results didn’t sell as well as Wexler hoped, and the whole Atlantic experiment collapsed, but as usual it didn’t faze Nelson — in the meantime, he had resettled in Austin, where the hippies and the rednecks were finding common ground in the renegade tradition of country music. He called a kindred spirit, Waylon Jennings, and told him “something is going on down here.”

Suddenly, the world caught up with Willie Nelson, and by sticking to his guns, he now seemed visionary rather than stubborn. A hastily assembled compilation of songs by like-minded artists was given the title “Wanted: The Outlaws” and became country’s first million-selling album. In 1978, “Stardust,” a magnificent collection of standards produced by the soul artist Booker T. Jones, was an even bigger hit, and Nelson was a bona fide celebrity. Soon, he was also a movie star, playing variations on himself in a string of films, from “The Electric Horseman” to “Half-Baked.” His addiction to touring kept accelerating — the Oscar-nominated “On the Road Again” (which he called “the easiest song I ever wrote”) was more than just a theme song; it was a creed to live by.

“How Willie Nelson almost lost everything was quite a tale,” Patoski writes. The singer’s battle with the I.R.S., a result of an investment deal gone south, gave him yet another identity in the early 1990s — this time as a tax cheat. He settled his debt through a variety of means, including the sale, by auction, of much of his land holdings and the humiliating experience of selling an intensely personal album, “IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories?” exclusively through commercials on late-night television. “He didn’t do it the easy way and plead bankruptcy,” his longtime associate Kinky Friedman said. “He did it the cowboy way.”

Since then, Nelson has kept on moving. He plays state fairs, minor-league ballparks and Las Vegas ballrooms. He puts out new music nonstop, which in recent years has ranged from the God-awful reggae album “Countryman” to “You Don’t Know Me,” a luminous collection of songs by the underappreciated country songwriter Cindy Walker. His voice remains immediately identifiable, and virtually unchanged over 50 years. His appeal is all but universal, as illustrated by his collaborations with everyone from Ray Charles to Julio Iglesias to Kid Rock.

The one thing missing from “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life” is a healthier dose of skepticism. Nelson has reached a near-mystic stature with his fans, but the reality is that his need for perpetual motion has also extended to his home life, where he has been through three divorces and the suicide of a son. Yet the only flaw Patoski singles out is Nelson’s excessive loyalty to his friends, even in the face of various arrests and mishaps.

Nelson’s story doesn’t have the gothic edge of Johnny Cash, haunted by the death, in childhood, of his older brother, or the quest for redemption that Merle Haggard nursed after his days as a young criminal. At times Nelson has threatened to become a punch line (and often embraced the impulse), but he has lived a sprawling, uniquely American life, and it deserves an examination this comprehensive.

At one point, Patoski recounts, Nelson “blew up” at his lawyer for presenting him with a proposal for an estate plan. When he calmed down, he explained his philosophy: “Let’s not plan. It’s a lot more fun if we don’t.”

Alan Light is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys.”