When I'm 64
The road no longer beckons, but Austin does
In 1999, on his way out of town, Earl Poole Ball ran into Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert at the Exit Inn in Nashville
"Where ya going?" asked Volkaert.
"I'm on my way to Texas," Ball replied. "You should be too."
Ball was leaving a lifetime of performing, producing, and acting, heading southwest for a permanent winter. He'd set his sights on Austin years before, telling Doug Sahm of his intentions. "You may as well," Sahm quipped. "Everybody else has."
As piano player with artists such as Buck Owens, the Byrds, and 20 years with Johnny Cash ("A Honky-Tonk Song," Music, December 24, 1999), Earl Poole Ball had recently exited a stint with Roy Clark in Branson, Mo., an experience that left him cold.
By 2000, Volkaert too had settled in Austin. The guitarist makes no bones about his affection for the state capital and his intent to stay here "until they run me off." He enjoys regular gigging with one-time Johnny Paycheck and Gilley's house-band bassist Billy Dee, who moved here in 1997 ("Chiseled in Stone," Music, October 10, 2003). Ernest Tubb's longtime guitarist Pete Mitchell relocated to Buda in 2000, and Neil Flanz, from Gram Parsons' Fallen Angels, celebrates one year in Austin this month.
Sixties blues shouter Lavelle White, the Faces' Ian McLagan, and Mark Andes of Spirit and Firefall all found Austin a softer place to fall in during the Nineties. Chicago blues harp legend James Cotton moved here in 2000 around the time Volkaert and Mitchell arrived. Bill Kirchen is one of the town's newest residents; he played landmark shows in Austin with Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen at the Armadillo in the Seventies. Pinetop Perkins, pianist for Muddy Waters' band, just signed a lease on a South Austin apartment.
Veteran musicians are flocking to Central Texas the way jazzmen migrated to France in the Seventies and Eighties. They come for the quality of life and the ever-increasing chance to work around their peers, yet there are pitfalls to this town's allure. Is Austin the new Paris, or just a Lone Star Rancho Mirage for the over-50 set?
It Ain't Easy
The curve on what's considered "old" as a musician is a dilly. Redd Volkaert gets props at 48 for being an "elder statesman" while Billy Dee is a year younger, mere sprouts next to Pinetop Perkins, nearly twice as old at 91. After a performance last summer, Perkins shuffled up to a bespectacled 70-year-old in a wheelchair. "Well hello, young man," Pinetop greeted him cheerily. For Pinetop, age is clearly a state of mind.
All of the musicians cited herein are veterans of the road and witness to the music business at its best and worst; Perkins plays piano because as a young man he got between a jealous chorine with a knife and her intended victim. The wound severed tendons in his left arm and he could no longer play guitar. Rigors of the road take their toll in endless ways, and after a certain age, many performers don't want lengthy tours or gigs away from home.
"As far as getting into a car and driving up to Dallas for a $250 job, I'm not gonna do it," declares Pete Mitchell, 60. "I'd rather go to Austin and make $100 and sleep in my bed that night. Ten years ago, I'd have hopped in the car. Now, I'm in a position to turn down those things. It's a luxury."
Earl Poole Ball, 63, doesn't mince words.
"I didn't want to tour anymore," he says bluntly. "I wanted to find a place I could sit down and play music."
Choosing Austin as a sort of retirement destination seems simple, yet the intricacies of survival here are anything but easy. The ready availability of gigs in Austin and increasing number of professional players is a nearly idyllic situation for highly credentialed musicians, all of whom know the situation could easily go bad.
"The bottom dropped out in the Eighties," mentions Neil Flanz, 67. "For 16 years, I did telemarketing to pay the rent."
If Flanz had been in Austin then, he may well have had to resort to the same sort of fallback. Today, however, he performs regularly, collects Social Security and a pension from his years as a union musician, and teaches music to stay afloat.
Health concerns are an issue for many of these musicians: Ball's bad back makes him wish aloud for "someone to load my keyboards and equipment." He plays with the Lucky Tomlin Band, one of its perks being health insurance. For other musicians, qualifying for Social Security means qualifying for Medicare. Fortunately for Austin, the musicians interviewed for this story enjoy overall good health and vital careers.
A Town South of Round Rock
"It was hearing Dale Watson's song 'A Town South of Round Rock' that drove me crazy!" recalls Del Puschert of his decision to move to Austin. "I called the Ernest Tubb Record Shop [in Nashville] and the guy said it was out of print, so I called Cornell Hurd and he burned me a copy. Man!"
By coincidence, the 72-year-old sax player, who briefly backed Elvis and played behind the Coasters and Drifters, found himself on a bill in Austin with both Hurd and Watson in 2003. Puschert subsequently played and recorded with Hurd. That was all it took to convince the Annapolis, Md.-based musician to head his bus south to Texas for the winter.
"After last year, they asked me to come back this year. I said, sure, I'll winter down here in Austin and have a hoot! That's exactly what I've done and really enjoyed it."
Yet Puschert is outspoken on the issue of money. He takes none for his work with Hurd or playing at the Broken Spoke. But a lifetime of experience makes him blunt on the subject.
"They say Austin's the live music capital, which it is, but you can't make a living. You can play live all you want, but it doesn't mean you'll make any money. Look at a great band like Asleep at the Wheel. They have to go out on the road to make money. The business is cruel.
"There's so much free music here. It spoils the people, and they don't want to pay for it. If you can see Dale for $5 or $6 on a Monday, why pay $10 or $12 on Friday?
"This is music I wanted to play but couldn't make a living at. Now that I don't have to make a living anymore, I play what I wanna play, where I wanna play it."
The litany of good people, good music, good food, and good weather is chanted repeatedly with the highest praise for local players such as Dale Watson, Alvin Crow, Don Walser, and Cornell Hurd. Holding the bar so high offers a challenge to players like Billy Dee, who moved here to play with Watson before striking out on his own.
"I wanted to play with musicians who could swing more so I could get better as a musician too," reasons Dee. "I figured I'd find some heavy musicians here."
"Austin is a great place to try and grab the ring if you're younger," Ball declares. "At my age, it's also a great place to watch others go after it. Watch the parade and be in the band."
The combination of attractive factors and the influx of professional talent makes sense to Casey Monahan, director of the Texas Music Office.
"Austin's music-friendly reputation extends back to the Sixties," explains Monahan. "Artists dream of the opportunity to live in a town where the pursuit is more music than just music business. Technology has caught up with that desire. Increasingly, well-known artists are living where they want to live rather than where the music industry has long demanded they reside."
Technology has also made DIY dreams come true. Cyberspace deposits marketing and sales of CDs and merchandising right in the artist's hands, via Web sites and at public appearances and gigs. All the artists cited here have recent CDs they carry to gigs and sell happily. It's an empowering trend that offers direct artist-to-fan relations, which makes musicians like Billy Dee happy.
"A lot more music is coming down the way," predicts Dee, "and that makes this a better place to play. I love that on a Thursday night when I'm off, I can see Dale play Ginny's or Jesse Dayton at Ego's. On a Sunday, I can go see Redd and Earl in Heybale! at the Continental. When I have a night off, I look in the Chronicle listings and there's always somebody to go see. Always something to do. That's what I like about Austin."
Turn It Up
In his neat apartment on South Congress, Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins sits in an easy chair with two fishing poles propped in the corner behind him.
"I'm deef," he says, pronouncing the word like "reef," tugging on his right ear, and cocking his good left ear toward the speaker. That limits interview conversation with him to a great extent.
A mahogany end table stands before him, on it a silver ashtray, and Perkins' ever-present, well-shuffled deck of cards. Next to him is another side table, with a bowl of hard candies. On the opposite wall leans a black upright piano lined with awards and plaques honoring his 91 years on Earth. Above the piano is a wall full of photos and mementos of a life in music. Being in the presence of genuine blues royalty is an awe-inspiring experience, especially when he offers little nuggets from his past without prompting.
"I played with Muddy Waters 11 long years. I got along with him pretty good until he got a booking agent who started taking all the boys' money. The whole band quit."
Perkins pushes himself out of the easy chair and walks a few steps to the piano. His fingers are unusually long and exceedingly tapered, with perfect oval nails the color of sliced almonds. They dance across the ivory keys with a little less deftness than before, but the notes are solid and resound in the small apartment and out the sliding glass door, opened on this unseasonably warm day. He begins to play a rollicking blues number and accompanies himself singing.
"I like that," he tells himself. "Mmm hmm."
One of Perkins' trademarks is his hat. A collection of them lines the wall above his piano and follows around the corner to the next wall. Fedoras, dress hats, even a Stetson.
"People give me the hats," he explains, waving a hand in their direction. "I buy them. Women give them to me."
He chuckles at his last sentence.
"I've traveled to places I can't recall the names of here, there, overseas. My favorites are the ones where I make the most money."
That last comment is qualified by the travel he does these days in his own honor. He played Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Center last month and will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys in addition to being up for an award. Ironically, he's competing with fellow Austinite James Cotton.
"He got paid $10,000 to play for Jimmy Carter at the White House once," laughs Perkins' de facto interpreter, Clifford Antone. "He liked that!"
The pianist's days are spent resting comfortably. The television is always on for company. The constant presence of friends like Antone and a caregiver means he has someone to watch over him. He settles back into his chair and reaches for the deck of cards.
"I play cards. I like to go fishing and play blues, but I don't do it on the Lord's day. It made people happy, but I hope the Lord will forgive me."
The Lord should forgive him. Perkins refined and carries on a boogie-woogie sound as informed by barrelhouse piano as gospel, having performed with musical greats including Waters, Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, and B.B. King. Life takes on a completely new meaning when the future is here and now, and tomorrow is a question mark. When friends and family are gone, and time plays mean tricks with hearing and slows the fingers maddeningly, Pinetop Perkins has the answer.
"Turn the music up a little louder."