Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The San Antonio Sound - the Next Generation

Probably the most enlightening musical revelations I’ve had this spring have come from all the great new music pouring out of San Antonio – the new Krayolas’ Americano album, the new Hacienda album, and two exciting punk groups, A Girl In A Coma and Pinata Protest.

Girl in A Coma – Jenn Alva, Phanie Diaz, and Nina Diaz – whose music was initially inspired by the Smiths and Nirvana, hit me like Latina spawn of the Runaways on first listen of their 2007 debut album Both Before I’m Gone and last year’s Trio B.C. The slash-and-burn chainsaw chords and aggressive vocals were expected, but they were delivered with enough grit, grind, occasional bilingual lyrics, and local Chicana references to qualify as a Nowhere But Sananto original. That sort of explains why filmmaker SA native Robert Rodriguez was falling over himself with his camera during SXSW filming Las Home Girls, and why GIAC’s latest 3 EP series, Adventures in Coverland, which includes cover versions of Selena’s “Si Una Vez,” Ritchie Valens’ “Come On Let’s Go,” Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” along with Beatles, Joy Division, David Bowie, and Velvet Underground send ups, wound up on Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records label. They were can have it both ways. “Si Una Vez” is particularly grabbing, capturing Selena’s passion and versatility and suggesting she might have had quite a career as a spirited punkette had she lived longer.

On their new album Plethora for SAustex Records, the band Pinata Protest – Alvaro Del Norte, JJ Martinez, Matt Cazares and Marcus Cazares - stakes out territory as the spiritual hermanos to Girl in A Coma. They are a straight up accordion-powered conjunto but work the polka beat with such furious aggro that they come off like the Pogues, if the Pogues came from South Texas instead of Ireland. Their ‘tude is hard and fast, with pauses now and then for something a lil’ more sentimental like “Love Taco.”

Hacienda - Abraham, Jaime, and Rene Villarreal and their cousin Dante Schwebel - really grabbed me on their first album Loud Is the Night, mainly for their lush harmonies that recalled the Beatles and the Beach Boys but in more of a contemporary context, like Fleet Foxes. This time out, on Big Red and Barbacoa they’ve emerged from their northeast San Antonio garage with a more polished sound that reflects touring and recording with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, the coolest band to come out of Ohio since….well, a long, long time.

It was Auerbach who hipped the bros to Doug Sahm, the patron saint of San Antonio music whose definitive Tex Mex sound popularized by the Sir Douglas Quintet’s sixties hits “She’s About A Mover” and “Mendecino” set the standard by which all SA music has been judged ever since. Since Hacienda wasn’t familiar with Sahm, I’m guessing it’s Auerbach’s influence that’s responsible for the songs “Big Red” and “Barbacoa.”
Unfortunately, the music doesn’t match the localized lyrics, which come off as pandering. What’s more significant is the harmonizing, which comes off as more Beach Boys than Beatles this time around – “I Keep Waiting” and “Hound Dog” could have been tracks off of Summer Days (and Summer Nights). The album as a whole isn’t the revelation that their surprising debut was. But cuts like “Gotta Get Back Home” and the instrumental roller-rink groove of “Barbacoa” whet the appetite for whatever comes next from the Hacienda boys.

The Krayolas’ Americano is their best, most Santone recording to date, and honestly, the most San Antonio-sounding pop artists since Sir Doug himself. The Saldana brothers (David and Hector), Van Baines, Joe Sarli, Barry Smith and friends work a borderlands beate infused with plenty of pop and Beatleseque influences to transcend being a regional confectin. Their past three releases have all had their moments, especially their bilingual cover of Augie Meyers’ “Little Fox” with Augie his own self pumping the Vox organ that was the Sir Douglas Quintet’s signature; the Catholic Malinche tribute “La Conquistadora,” and a disturbing slice of the Mexico drug wars “Corrido Twelve Heads In A Bag.”

Americano shows the Krayolas wearing their Sixties pop-rock sensibility proudly on “Good Little Girl (She Don’t).” But it’s when the band digs even deeper into their hometown roots with the help of the West Side Horns and Flaco Jimenez that the music gets interesting. “Exit/Salida” is a direct descendant of Sir Doug’s “Nuevo Laredo,” groove-wise. The horns provide the hooks to the title track “Americano,” the punchy brass harmonies punctuating compelling lyrics that speak to SA’s cultural duality. It’s that rare track that once you start humming it, you can’t get out of your head. Flaco throws down some serious accordeon licks for the ambitious “Wall of Accordion,” a local ref to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. But it’s Louis Bustos’ soaring sax that makes the tune cook and smoke, rendering the accordion as almost an afterthought until Flaco’s backyard riffing on the next track “Soy La Pared” brings redemption. “Fruteria (The Fruit Cup Song)” which celebrates a San Antonio slice-of-life as a puro pop confection, “Home,” an introspective slice of life about an immigrant working woman, and the dirty blues of “Piso Diez” are all Krayolas, needing no outside musical assistance to hit the mark.

Not every track on Americano works, and their latest single “1070 (I’m Your Dirty Mexican) about Arizona’s new immigration laws isn’t even on the album. But what the Krayolas, Hacienda, Pinata Protest, and A Girl In A Coma have collectively achieved bears notice: Sir Doug is dead – long live Sir Doug; these bands represent the next generation of San Antonio music makers with a musical sense of place. The spirit of Sir Doug lingers, but each group has stepped out from under his shadow to create sound that are new and completely different but still come out puro SA. In other words, that South Texas groove is stronger than ever.
Una polkita anyone?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Springs of Texas Odyssey

photo by Erich Schlegel

from Texas Highways magazine
(click on the header to go there)

By Joe Nick Patoski

Springs feed the life force for humans (and other living things) throughout Texas, and have done so ever since … well, ever since there have been humans in Texas. Archeologists point to evidence that shows people were hanging around some of Texas’ largest springs more than 10,000 years ago. That’s a long time, especially in a region historically regarded as too harsh and hellishly hot in the summer to support large numbers of people.
At least until air conditioning came along.

Prehistoric human presence at Texas springs is indicated by tangible evidence such as flint Clovis dart points unearthed near San Marcos Springs. For more evidence, consider the extensive rock art adorning the walls of shelters and overhangs throughout the region west of Del Rio defined by the confluence of the Devils and Pecos rivers with the Rio Grande. The more lighthearted modern-day equivalent of those prehistoric clues might be today’s symbols of time spent near springs: inner tubes, fly rods, swimsuits, kayaks, and paddles.

Prehistoric and contemporary evidence both pretty much speak to the same truth: When the heat is on, Texans seek out springs. Immersion in cool, pristine waters forced up to the surface from the depths of an underground aquifer beats air conditioning any day. In my book at least.

Truth be known, springs make their particular pieces of Texas a pleasure any time of the year, because of the way they bring sustenance to vegetation, to wildlife, and to the entire natural world—humans included.

All the springs of Texas together produce 117,000 liters of water per second, according to the late Gunnar Brune, a geologist for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and the Texas Water Development Board. Brune’s landmark book The Springs of Texas is regarded as the Bible of Texas Springs because it’s the only source of detailed research and information on the subject. Originally published in 1981 as a privately printed labor of love, the book was revised by geologist Helen Besse and published by Texas A&M Press in 2002.

Brune tempered his passion for springs with a prophetic observation in his writing: Numerous springs were failing or had gone dry while the underground aquifers that fed them were being drawn down. Increased human and agricultural use, the spread of impervious cover through development, and a climate trending toward less rainfall were the main culprits.

The considerable number of communities, schools, churches, and other places across Texas with the phrase springs or spring affixed to them, particularly along the 98th Meridian where the rocky limestone hills meet the blackland prairie and coastal plains, attest to the value Texans have placed on springs for many generations. During periods of extreme drought, like the summer of 2009, springs often become a widespread public obsession—a keystone indicator of the state’s need for water.

Then there are those of us who pay tribute by simply jumping in.

My own personal springs odyssey began as a child, first at Burger’s Lake on the far west side of Fort Worth, a public swimming lake whose chilly waters are fed by Roaring Springs. Next, I experienced Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, a water-oriented tourist attraction inspired by Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida. At Aquarena Springs, the star attractions included Ralph the Diving Pig, underwater mermaids, Glurpo the Clown, and a ride over Spring Lake in a glass-bottom boat. I can still remember being fascinated by one springs complex named Oatmeal Springs, whose puddles of bubbles vividly illustrated how perfect its name fit.

As an adult, my girlfriend turned me on to swimming at Barton Springs in Zilker Park just across the Colorado River (now Lady Bird Lake) from downtown Austin. It took a few weeks to adjust to the instant chill whenever I hit the water, but once I did, I was hooked. Soon, I was swimming a mile a day on all but the coldest days of the year (on those days, the constant-temperature spring water actually felt warm). I proudly wore my Barton Springs T-Shirt that bragged the water temperature was 68 degrees year round.

Barton Springs led me to quit cement ponds (traditional swimming pools), swear off chlorine and lap lanes, and search for more springs. On my odyssey, I sought out the wholly charming Krause Springs in Spicewood, visually dazzling Hamilton Pool in western Travis County, Blue Hole and Jacob’s Well in Wimberley, the natural swimming pool at New Braunfels’ Landa Park, and back to San Marcos. At Aquarena, the swimming pigs are gone and the tourist attraction has transformed into Aquarena Center, home of the Texas River Center and the Texas Rivers Systems Institute, both part of Texas State University.

As I continued my quest, I discovered Las Moras Springs in Brackettville, San Felipe Springs in Del Rio, the spring-charged Devil’s River (arguably the most pristine waterway in Texas), an unnamed spring that fed a long stretch of the west fork of the Nueces River, and the desert cienega, or springs, known as Independence Creek, south of Sheffield. Further explorations in Far West Texas took me to Rio Grande Hot Springs in Big Bend National Park, Chinati Hot Springs, seven miles north of Ruidosa, which is about 40 miles west of Presidio, Indian Hot Springs south of Sierra Blanca, and San Solomon Spring at Balmorhea State Park.

Of all these spring-fed destinations, Balmorhea remains my favorite swimming place in all of Texas – except for a few secret swimming holes, the locations of which I’ll never reveal.

Springs have inspired my writing over the years and research into the dynamics of springs (as well as the politics associated with water rights) led me down to the path to better understand these unique environments. While on the quest, I have been privileged to witness artesian springs literally gushing from out the ground from a “honey hole” in Kinney County and (only a few weeks ago) a spring roaring out of a jumble of rocks at the bottom of a limestone cliff on the banks of the Blanco River.

Springs aren't just limited to the western half of Texas, either. One of the most unexpected springs I’ve visited are those near Bayview and Port Isabel where General Zachary Taylor’s troops refreshed themselves on their sojourn to the Mexican War in 1846.

The streams that springs feed draw me in just as much as their sources do. I’ve lazed under and around waterfalls on the Devils River, including Dolan Falls which lies at the juncture of Dolan Creek and the Devils River, at Krause Springs along the Pedernales, in Hamilton Pool, at Gorman Falls created by springfed Gorman Creek near the Colorado River in Colorado Bend State Park as well as Mexicana Falls, Cottonwood Falls and unnamed (but not unappreciated) falls. I’ve canoed, kayaked, snorkeled, swam, tubed, fished, and soaked in some of the most wonderful water on earth, each and every adventure a Technicolor splash.

I have swum alongside thousands of endangered pupfish and with hundreds of other piscine species, as well as scores of red-eared sliders and Texas spiny softshell turtles. More than a few great blue herons have shared the view with me on other occasions and in other spring-fed settings.

Believe me when I say the view of the undersides of ducks and geese floating on the surface of some of the clearest waters this side of the Caribbean—including the crystalline spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park and in Barton Springs—is strange and wonderfully exotic. So is the sight of scuba divers from across West Texas, New Mexico, western Oklahoma, and Kansas converging around the headwaters of the pool. As the divers navigate the water 20 feet below the surface, I’m skimming along the surface and watching their antics through swim goggles.

Those kinds of experiences have led me to believe that maybe Texas has the best springs on earth.

Turns out there’s more than a little truth to that perception. Texas is blessed with an abundance of springs — more than 2,900 springs in 183 Texas counties had been documented by Gunnar Brune over the course of his life; Helen Besse is researching and recording springs in the 71 other counties of the state.

Beginning in the 16th century, explorers mapped out trails and subsequently trade routes that were linked by springs. When the railroads came to Texas in the 19th century, springs often played a role in where the tracks were laid; without them steam locomotives could not quench their prodigious thirst. The second transcontinental railroad, which passed through Houston, San Antonio and El Paso, included stops near San Pedro Springs, Los Moras Springs, San Felipe Springs, and the artesian springs that once flourished around Van Horn. When US 90 west of San Antonio was constructed in the early 20th century, it passed near these same springs.

The largest concentration of Texas springs bubble to the surface in the Hill Country, in a region roughly bounded by Austin, San Antonio, Del Rio, and Junction. Here, the famous 1100 springs—once touted by commercials for Texas-brewed Pearl Beer—push water up from limestone beds to feed creeks, streams, and the Frio, Llano, Colorado, Pedernales, Nueces, Blanco, Guadalupe, San Marcos, and Medina rivers.

The largest cluster of springs in Texas finds the surface at the base of the Balcones Fault at Comal Springs in Landa Park in New Braunfels. The next largest springs complex emerges at San Marcos Springs, 20 miles north of New Braunfels in San Marcos.

The Aquarena Center on the banks of the springs features an aquarium exhibit that explains the unique freshwater ecosystem of the headwaters of the San Marcos Springs, as well as the importance of aquifers, rivers, and aquatic systems. Nearby, tanks house live specimens of eight endangered or threatened species that depend on the springs for their survival. In Austin’s Zilker Park, at Barton Springs pool, you’ll find an educational exhibit called Splash! which takes visitors on an underground multimedia and interactive trip into the Edwards Aquifer.

No matter where they are, or whether they have been civilized with dams, stone walls, ladders or diving boards, or if they are same as they ever were in their wild natural state, springs are destinations of choice for millions of Texans for all the right reasons: to look at, to immerse in, to play around, to appreciate, to savor, and to marvel over. Nowhere but Texas is there water like this.

Last one in is a rotten egg!

In addition to writing about Texas’ natural wonders, Joe Nick Patoski authored several books, including a recent biography of Willie Nelson and an upcoming history of the Dallas Cowboys.
Photographer Erich Schlegel particularly enjoys shooting photographs underwater, as evidenced by this issue’s cover image.

Jimmy Donley reconsidered by Ed Ward

Shades of Eddie Hinton, Ed Ward does a righteous take on Jimmy Donley, the greatest, most tortured singer songwriter you never heard of, and a true master of Swamp Pop. His best known songs were "Please Mr. Sandman" "Born To Be A Loser" and "Forever Lillie Mae" although he also did a bitchin' swingin' version of "South of the Border" when he was cutting for Decca.

He was just as notorious for selling songs to Fats Domino such as "Rockin' Bicycle" and "What A Party" for a few bucks and for being successful on his second suicide attempt.

Huey P. Meaux cried telling me about Jimmy in the first interview I had with the Crazy Cajun back in 1974. I have never looked at the process of writing songs the same since.

Here's Ed (click on the head for the link to NPR and Fresh Air)

The first time I'd ever heard of Jimmy Donley was when a friend put on an album of his songs and I noted that the cover had his tombstone on it. If I'd known more about Donley, that tombstone would have come as something of a relief, because from all accounts, this was a man you didn't ever want to come into contact with. He was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1929, and by his early twenties was playing bars around Biloxi, Miss. where he came to the attention of another musician, Ernie Chaffin, who had already started to record for Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn. Donley's star might have risen earlier, but just as he was making a name for himself, Uncle Sam came calling, and he went into the army, which stationed him in Panama.

Around Biloxi, they thought the army was a good idea: when Donley and Chaffin performed, sometimes Jimmy would hear someone in the audience say something he didn't like and put down his guitar and attack them. But not even the armed services could help, and before too long, Donley was back in Mississippi with a psychiatric discharge. At this point, Pee Wee Maddux, a local songwriter, arranged for Jimmy to audition with Decca Records in Nashville, and not only did they sign him, they recorded four songs immediately, in February, 1957.

Of course, there were loads of rockabilly singers out there at this point, and Decca had more than their fair share of them, but since, like most major labels at the time, they had no idea what would sell, they just threw the records out there. They probably didn't even care that Donley's accent is sometimes impenetrable, although they figured it out six months later when they had him record some country standards. After that, they left him to his own stuff, including the song he's best-known for, "Born To Be A Loser."

"Born to Be A Loser" would have been called autobiographical, if Donley had had the insights others had into him. The song's relentless self-pity has made it a swamp-pop classic, covered by others, but Donley never saw a penny. He was deeply suspicious of the contracts he signed, and preferred to get paid in cash for everything he recorded. This would have meant the loss of a few thousand dollars if Donley hadn't done something that, for the times, was astonishing: one day he walked up to Fats Domino, whose voice resembled his, and auditioned a couple of his new tunes. Fats, a very smart man, bought them on the spot. In fact, Donley and Pee Wee Maddux got close enough to Fats that they appear in the chorus on his recording of "What a Party."

It's hard to tell how many songs Donley sold outright to Fats and his bandleader Dave Bartholomew and others, including Jerry Lee Lewis, but some with the songwriting credit "Jessup" point to Rev. J. Charles Jessup, a media-savvy preacher from the Gulf Coast to whom Donley sold the rights to his output.

It goes without saying that Donley's personal life was chaotic. He was married six times, and engaged to another woman he didn't marry, for whom he wrote one of his most beautiful melodies, "Arleeta."

Donley's violence towards his wives and girlfriends is horrifying to read about, and was fuelled, unsurprisingly, by his near-constant consumption of alcohol. Yet the women kept on coming, and kept on leaving.

In 1961, Donley did some leaving of his own: he demanded a release from his contract with Decca at gunpoint and signed with Huey P. Meaux's Tear Drop Records in Houston. These, too, failed to sell, and finally, on March 21, 1963, Donley got into his car, turned on the engine, and asphyxiated himself. Next to his body was a Bible, his mother's obituary, a picture of his wife Lillie Mae, and Ernie Chaffin's phone number. It was Donley's second suicide attempt. The first time he hadn't been able to afford enough gas to succeed. And his last request, that his friend Cozy Corley sing at his funeral, was denied: Corley was black.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Border Bandits, Bullock Museum, 7 pm Thurs May 6

Come out to the Bullock State History Museum in Austin, Thursday May 6 to watch the film Border Bandits, made by my Dallas friend Kirby Warnock, based on an oral history his grandfather gave him in the early 1970s. It's profound revisionist history. Following the film is a panel discussion I'll be moderating, so no fussing and fighting or microphone hogging.

The press release:
Border Bandits
Screening and Discussion Panel
Thursday, May 6
7 p.m.
Weekday Screenings
May 7, 10, 11, and 12
Noon - 1 p.m.

It’s won the Deep Ellum Film Festival’s Audience Award, garnered a “Texan of the Year” nomination from the Dallas Morning News, and even sparked a bill in the Texas legislature. Now it’s headed to the Texas Spirit Theater.

Based on the oral history of Roland Warnock — grandfather of filmmaker Kirby Warnock — Border Bandits explores the alleged shooting of two allegedly unarmed Mexican Americans by Texas Rangers in 1915.

A discussion of the film will follow the Thursday, May 6 screening. Panelists include Dr. Don Graham, University of Texas professor, writer for Texas Monthly and author of several cowboy books; Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, UT journalism professor, oral historian and director of the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project; Antonio Leal, senior captain and assistant director of the Texas Rangers and others.

According to the film, a group of Mexican "banditos" raided the McAllen Ranch in southern Texas. The next day a group of Texas Rangers purportedly eliminated the perpetrators. The late Warnock, then 19, witnessed the attack while working on the Guadalupe Ranch near present-day Edinburg, Texas, and later buried their bodies next to what is now a paved farm-to-market road.

“As an Anglo Texan who grew up with The Lone Ranger, I had to overcome a lot of disbelief when I started investigating this story,” says Warnock the filmmaker, whose exploration began nearly 40 years ago as part of an oral history project at Baylor University. “But it all happened, just as my grandfather said it did. I invite any doubters or skeptics to come watch it and judge for themselves.”

banditsBorder Bandits opens at the Texas Spirit Theater of The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum on May 6, 2010, for a limited engagement. Ticket prices are $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, military, students, and youths age 18 and under. The Texas Spirit Theater is located in The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum at 1800 N. Congress Avenue at the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. For info and tickets, call (512) 936-8746.

Visit the official Border Bandits website at visit

Showtimes and panelist appearances are based upon availability and sell-outs, changes, and cancellations occur without notice.