Nothing But the Truth
Alejandro Escovedo remembers his friend and collaborator Stephen Bruton.
By Raoul Hernandez, 1:08PM, Fri. May. 15, 2009
South by Southwest 1999 was a good year. Tom Waits headlined the Paramount Theatre Saturday Night, and Sunday, Robert Fripp set fire to the Electric Lounge. Wayne Kramer backed by the Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs downstairs at Emo’s equaled the second coming of the MC5. Amidst the din, ever so subtly, Stephen Bruton walked on water at the Parish.
That Thursday was my first-time walk up into the room, making its Sixth Street debut as a SXSW venue. Although the crowd was sparse, Bruton radiated serenity. His element, a rhythm dream team of Brannen Temple and Yoggie Musgrove, plus hopefully Stephen Barber on keyboards, needed only electricity to groove the Southwestern Zen of Bruton’s third album, 1998’s Nothing But the Truth, which had been my lifeline in the trenches of the campaign workload. That set resulted in countless others for me at the Saxon Pub, losing myself in Bruton’s boys though to 2002’s next platter, Spirit World.
When news of Bruton’s death last Saturday reached a dear friend of mine in Louisiana, he sent an email that night reminding me of a performance we’d seen the guitarist give in 2007 at Central Market. Spirit World opener “Yo Yo” rebooted my bond with Bruton’s soul hold. Last night, listening to Bruton describe the death of another retired brother of the Saxon Pub – Mambo John Treanor – on “Just a Dream” ached the same as having to call Alejandro Escovedo last Sunday for comment on his friend’s “crossing over.”
“Sooner or later, you face the great unknown,” offers Bruton in “Yo Yo.” If anyone was prepared, it was Stephen. For the rest of us, his burial is tomorrow, Saturday, 10am, in Fort Worth at the Funeral at Holy Family Catholic Church, 6150 Pershing Ave., 76137.
Austin Chronicle: What influence did Stephen Bruton have on your career by producing your first three solo albums?
Alejandro Escovedo: Stephen came at a time when I wasn’t even going to make a record, had no intention of making a record. I was in the [Alejandro Escovedo] Orchestra, my wife had just died, and I was in a pretty bad place. Here comes Stephen Bruton saying, “We’re going to make a record. It’s not going to be an Orchestra record. It’s going to be a record about songs.” Those three records, especially the first two, are probably the most important records of my life, right? He taught me so much about how to arrange songs, about how to write songs, about how to sing them, about how to play them, about how to gather a team of people around you that’s strong and all committed to same thing, and how to have fun doing it, how to enjoy the process of making records.
You know it’s crazy, because yesterday when I found out that Stephen had passed away, I was in the studio producing Amy Cook’s record, and all the things I learned from Stephen I’m using here on this recording.
So, it goes beyond the sound. It goes beyond the songs. It goes beyond even music for me. He did so many things for me.
AC: What made him approach you to say, “Let’s make a record”? Did you know him well?
AE: By that time I did. You know, it’s a funny story. I’ve told this in concert. When I first met Stephen, I was living over behind Kerby Lane, South Austin. He used to come running by. I had just left the True Believers, I think, or was still in the True Believers. I can’t remember. But we were still rock & rollers. He’d come running by, and I’d be doing something like watering the lawn, or just be out on the front porch or something, and he’d come by and have this beautiful head of hair and this actor’s face. He’s jogging and all fit and everything. He was an Adonis. And he’s really friendly to me, even though I didn’t know him. In having just come from New York, I was a little suspicious of him. I thought he was a coke dealer, or a Narc [laughs].
I didn’t really know what to think of him and then he invited me to his New Year’s Eve party and I finally saw his house, which was just down the street. I’m going, “It’s probably a cocaine party or something. I don’t want to go.” I asked someone, “Who’s this Stephen Bruton guy?” They go, “He’s a session musician, from L.A.” And to us, at the time, that was the worst thing you could say about anybody. And then I moved from there to just a few blocks away, and when [my wife] Bobbie passed away, we became close.
AC: So he’s talking about making a record when you’re not even thinking in that direction.
AE: Not at all. And you know the thing about it is that Stephen did that for so many people in this town. And not just in making records, but when people needed support, when they needed someone to talk to, or someone to be sponsored by, or whatever it was that someone was going through, he was always there. He was always there with support and wise advice. He was a stickler about it, man. When we made records, we had a blast, but when it came time to work, he was the commandante. He just laid down the law and we did it.
But it was beautiful. It was always done with love, and it was always done with humor, and it was always done with a lot of respect. I think we did our best work together. I really do.
AC: My favorite of those first three discs might be the last one, With These Hands.
AE: Yeah it was beautiful, because that was the record where we used Jennifer Warnes, and T Bone [Burnett] played on a cut that wasn’t used. It’s a great outtake. I think it came out on the reissue. Stephen Barber and I worked a lot with Stephen. We had a great band and a great time. I thought the songs were great; Willie came and sang with us. That was all because of Stephen Bruton.
I’ve always said, and you can go back to all the interviews I did for Gravity and Thirteen Years, but they were both of our records. It was a collaboration. I never think of those records without thinking about Stephen, and those songs, and that time.
AC: He battled cancer so long. How did you deal with that?
AE: I’ve been working so much that when he was sick I'd call him every now and then and we’d see each other. And then when he got through the throat thing I went to go see him. He was working on Marcia Ball’s record. We hooked up again, and we were both really happy to see each other. We spent the afternoon talking. I just started spending more time with him.
It’s funny, because I was telling this story yesterday. I brought him the Mahler prayer beads that I had used so much when I was sick. To Stephen, this was all kind of alien, but at this point he was willing to maybe just humor me I guess. So he started using the Mahlers, and I brought him the mantra that I had done, and even brought him pictures of the Buddha. He would sit in his back room and start chanting the mantra. I went with him once for a check-up and that was really heavy. I still have it on my answering machine when he called and told me he was clear and how happy he was.
I don’t know. I can’t grasp it.