Tracking the beards
Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 3pm – Nashville, Tenn.: A tan, late-model SUV rolls down Broadway, pulling up in front of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Here, the Texas Troubadour hosted his Midnight Jamboree over the airwaves on WSM, Saturday nights after The Grand Ole Opry.
That's when the Opry was broadcast just around the corner in the Ryman Auditorium, "mother church of country music." Across the street: Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, where a struggling young Willie Nelson sang to settle his bar tab.
The rear passenger door opens. My black, high-top sneakers are about to hit concrete when an impeccably manicured hand from the front seat claps down on my shoulder.
"Have you got enough money?" asks ZZ Top leader Billy F. Gibbons, peeling another $100 bill off a huge roll.
Minutes earlier, a few blocks away at my Embassy Suites, he disrupted the flow just by walking in and looking like Billy F. Gibbons: green woolen dreadlock hat, Ray-Bans, immaculately tailored black suit, and the most famous beard in rock & roll. He waves me over and all around gasp. ("Ohmigawd, it's ZZ Top!") I will come to find that the whole world thinks Gibbons' name is ZZ Top.
"I'm glad I found you," he hisses conspiratorially in his clipped, precise drawl. "I have to see a dentist. I'm in a lot of pain. I recommend that you plan some other activities while I get this tooth looked at.
"Say," he adds, pulling out that roll and extracting an earlier $100. "Have you got any walkin' around money?"
Gibbons and I had initially met backstage in Austin's ACL Live at the Moody Theater a month earlier, where he apologized profusely for a last-minute band meeting with management nixing a planned interview. As a make-good, he then offered to fly me to Nashville, where he'd put me up and hang out with me and my recorder before ZZ Top played the Ryman. Now he's dropping me off for a record-shopping spree on his way to the dentist.
The interview doesn't happen in Nashville either.
Frank Beard Has Grown a Beard
"We bought a house in Devil's Cove on Lake Travis, the No. 2 party cove in the United States," reveals Frank Beard, 64, about him and his family now splitting time between Austin and Houston. "It was excellent, until the lake went half-dry! We bought it in 2007, the lake went dry, then it filled back up in 2009. Then it went down again.
"I got tired of waiting on it, so we bought a second house on the main body. Now we're moving."
As ZZ Top's laconic drummer speaks, I text my editor the biggest news here: "Frank finally gave in – he now has a small beard."
Tour manager Pablo Gamboa calls it the "ZZ goatee." It hardly rivals Billy Gibbons' and Dusty Hill's twin front beards, but it'll kill the endless jokes about the guy named "Beard" not having one.
Beard likes La Futura, ZZ Top's first studio LP in nine years and 15th overall beginning in 1971, co-produced by another iconic beard, Rick Rubin.
"I like the fact that it was made more like the way we used to make records: getting together and jamming and playing. It's not overproduced. It's just pretty much an in-your-face, what-you-see-is-what-you-get record."
Beard's a font of anecdotes – historical, band-related, local.
"The Armadillo World Headquarters was one of the great places. I actually got fired down there, one time. I overindulged during the show, and our manager [Bill Ham] got so mad at me, he fired me. So, Dusty quit, because he fired me."
"[Ham] changed his mind."
Remember September 1, 1974: ZZ Top's First Annual Barn Dance & Barbecue at Memorial Stadium?
"Bill Ham put that whole thing together and did an incredible job," recalls Beard. "He managed to get the five biggest promoters in the United States to work together, which in itself was an incredible feat. He had Barry Fey, Don Fox, Alex Cooley, and Bill Graham. He said, 'We're gonna do this show in Austin,' and we weren't that big yet. We were starting to get big, but I didn't think we were that big. It always seemed like a pie-in-the-sky dream to me, that we could pull off something like that.
"Then he got Darrell Royal to let us play in the football stadium. I don't know that it ever happened before, but it certainly never happened afterward! The fans messed up his brand new AstroTurf football field, and he swore, 'There will never be another show there.'"
Asked if his partner in rhythm gets enough vocal opportunities (only one on La Futura), he recalls an earlier ZZ Top event, at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
"Fifty thousand people were there, but you could hear this one voice crying out from the crowd, 'LET DUSTY SING ONE!' It was his mom! She was about 60 years old at the time. So, we've always got to think about that one: 'Let Dusty sing one!'"
Beard nods. "I like the ones Dusty sings."
Let Dusty Sing One
"That was my mother, yes!" laughs Dusty Hill, 64. "That's true! The thing is, my mom, bless her heart, she was my biggest fan all my life. Every band I was in before this one, I did all the singing. So, she wasn't quite used to the shared responsibility. A good Texas mother. Not everybody's mother would yell that in front of everybody."
Hill, besides being ZZ Top's bassist and the Other Guy With a Beard, is also the member most likely to still look like he's fresh off the cover of 1975's Fandango!: crisp cowboy hat, Nudie rhinestone Buck Owens suit, boots. His twang perches somewhere between Beard's elasticated drawl and Gibbons' enunciation. He mentions that his only daughter once considered making music a family business.
"She's never known any different. I remember when she was 12 years old, she thought she might want to be a keyboard player, to play in a band. And I didn't really want her to do that, but whatever she wanted to do was fine by me. She'd only seen me play at the Cotton Bowl, though – places like that. So, the next night, I took her to a real funky blues club and I pointed out to her, 'See the band there? They're working. This is what working musicians do. Don't go into it if you're thinking about the Cotton Bowl and things like that.'
"I never heard anything about wanting to be a musician after that. She didn't have a clear view of that, but she was 12. She'd only seen the large shows."
Among ZZ Top's landmark accomplishments, the trio created a new identity for Texans. You could wear a Stetson, but you were hipper than the hayseed stereotype.
"All we did was take what we were and brought it forward," says Hill. "We obviously had a great amount of pride in being from Texas. It all bloomed out of the Seventies. We were bunched up with Southern bands, and there's nothing wrong with that at all. We just wanted to make it clear we weren't a Southern band. That's more like Georgia, I think. We were a Texas thing.
"In 1976, we did a tour called the Worldwide Texas Tour, taking Texas to the people. You may have heard of it. It was a longhorn steer, a buffalo, six buzzards, a couple of javelinas, and rattlesnakes. It was a really ambitious undertaking, especially at the time. And people, not for the first or the last time, said, 'Well, you guys are crazy!' Because we weren't that well-known outside of certain areas, but we took this massive show out because we wanted to.
"It was a huge deal: The stage was in the shape of Texas, and it was slightly slanted towards the audience so that people could see the shape. Which meant Billy and I had to stand at an angle every night! But there was a huge screen at the back that looked like a desert scene. It started at sunrise, and it was timed to end at sunset. It was a very cool thing.
"I remember somewhere up north, there was a guy from the press we were talking to one afternoon, and he was pretty intimidated by the buffalo. So I got Ralph [Fisher, chief animal wrangler] to take him over and pet it. So, yeah, he was cool with it and everything. Then he got all cocky and was talking with some of his friends after we left, and as he walked by the buffalo, he slapped it on the rump. It took off!
"We didn't see that guy at the show! In fact, I don't think we ever saw him again. But you don't want to get too comfortable around those critters. Same thing could be said about us, I guess.
"We find ourselves in a nice position," continues Hill. "Through the career, planned or unplanned – usually unplanned – we've taken different turns. And it's culminated in a worldwide following that's pretty substantial. It's much appreciated by us, too. I can remember some people came aboard a few albums ago. A lot of people came aboard with Eliminator who didn't know the stuff before. And some people are hardcore First Album/Rio Grande Mud/Tres Hombres fans. So, there's a place for everybody there.
"When we did Eliminator, at the time, it was experimental for us. It obviously turned out real successful, but at the time, we caught crap about it from some of our old fans. They thought we were deserting our roots or our old style or whatever. I never understood it, because what we do in the studio, we don't do for anyone else. We just do it. And that's what was created then.
"But tastes change, and some fans want to hear certain things and that's it. Some fans are open to everything. I assume it's like that for everyone, but we've been very fortunate, even outside the U.S. – in Europe and Australia and South Africa, wherever. To this day, it still surprises me in a great way, like, 'Damn! That's cool!'
"It's amazing that we still draw the way we do."
"Yes," affirms William Frederick Gibbons, 64. "That was the surprise, unannounced."
"Who?" asks Dusty Hill.
"Jimmy Page showing up with Bad Company," says Gibbons.
The two are now combing their memories backstage at San Antonio's Alamodome about the Barn Dance & Barbecue.
"I tell you, that was about the last show we played in Austin for a long time," points out Hill. "The football coach was really perturbed with us. He acted like we went out there ourselves and cut out that piece of AstroTurf in the shape of Texas. It looked huge in the paper, but it was about this big [indicating a tiny area with his hands].
"Plus, we didn't do it. We were onstage! But it was very cool. It was a helluva lineup on that show: Santana, Bad Company, Joe Cocker."
"They speak of 'Don't Mess With Texas?'" laughs Gibbons. "Well, 'Don't Mess With Darrell [Royal]!'"
"'You'll never play Austin again!'" huffs Hill. "He was damn near right!"
No rock band played in the stadium again until the Eagles in 1995.
"I know!" says Hill. "We were responsible for that! We have to take credit for that."
Gibbons leans back and smiles at his bandmate of four-plus decades. An elegant, impeccably groomed, and highly intelligent man with an old-world graciousness, Gibbons masterminded ZZ Top after his Houston garage psych band, the Moving Sidewalks, disbanded in 1969. Jimi Hendrix pronounced him one of the best young guitarists in America on TV, even if Dusty Hill likes to tease that the musical superhero called him "Billy Gibson." Recently, a man recognized him in France as "ze Bones man!" for his reoccurring role on the Fox TV drama.
A master of pinch harmonics and gloriously distorted guitar tone, Gibbons, too, liked La Futura's raw approach.
"I'd known Rick [Rubin] a couple of decades before I officiated working together," he explains. "And there was a distinctive change in the dynamic. We were pals and now we're business associates. But we were kinda happy to be going through the motions and doing it as he would have it. It was different and that was of interest to us, because we had done it from so many different angles. Here was the opportunity to say, 'Hey! Well, maybe – just maybe – here's something we haven't tried yet!'
"Well, sure enough, we were on one tune and we started ... it was gentlemen's hours. We didn't get started until noon. But Dusty leans over about 9pm, and says, 'Y'know, we've done this song now for about nine hours. Do you think we can ask Rick how much better it's gonna get?'
"So, through the glass, thanks to the microphone between us, I said, 'Hey, Rick! We've been on this number for nine hours! Dusty and I were just wondering ...?' And Frank was all smiles – he couldn't hear what we were addressing. Rick says, 'Oh, yeah! We got it on the second take, right after noon! We just like watching you guys play!'
"Through all this so-called electronica era – Eliminator spilling into Afterburner – granted, there was some experimentation that went far outside what could be considered rootsy blues. By no stretch of the imagination did it come close to the word tradition. This was experimentation at its zenith. And at the same time, you could stack the room with the latest technological breakthroughs, and we've still got one foot in the blues.
"Frank and Dusty have worked together since they were 14," Gibbons continues. "They're by no means reduced to just sidemen. Yet, the functionary positioning of sidemen is to lay out a platform that makes it the most beneficial springboard. Dude, I can go just crazy, and there they are, providing that platform. Probably one of the reasons it has worked so well for so long is they enjoy being the chassis, the railbed.
"I get to be the gear grinder."
ZZ Top, and Gibbons personally, have strong, deep ties with Austin. Moving Sidewalks, whose second of only three reunion performances occurred at Austin Psych Fest in April, were inspired by and associated with Roky Erickson's 13th Floor Elevators. Gibbons attended UT briefly in 1968, studying art and political science. He credits pioneering KOKE FM as inspiration for Fandango!'s "Mexican Blackbird."
"Austin's become very sophisticated, and I think the groundswell that started long ago for it as a cultural and musical destination has solidified and it's become a source of importance for the players and the observers. Look at South by Southwest now. It draws people from all corners of the globe. It's really something to speak of.
"This is a question that comes up from time to time: 'Well, it ain't the Austin it used to be!' Well, it's never gonna be the Austin that it used to be! And that could be 50 years ago or 50 minutes ago. And the complainers can go and stand in that corner, but those who are willing to move forward and go with the flow have my vote. I certainly have no qualms about enjoying the novelty of the way it's progressing.
"You want to complain about traffic? Well, find me any community with any semblance of civic activity. At certain times of day, people are going to be out and about. Do you really want to spend all your time complaining about that?"
Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 11pm – San Antonio
"Tim, do you have pockets on you?"
Billy Gibbons waves a jar of peanut butter at me, the kind that's natural, which means it must kept refrigerated and stirred before using.
"Man, this is some good-spreadin' peanut butter," he says. "You need to take this home. You're going to need some crackers to spread it on, too."
Gibbons dashes into the next room, where ZZ Top changed into their stage clothes earlier in the evening, before playing to 14,000 people at the Alamodome. He returns with boxes of both Ritz crackers and Premium saltines.
"You need both for that peanut butter, man. And pockets aren't gonna do. We need a bag for you."
I reach into my small briefcase and pull out canvas grocery bags I carry around with me always as an exclusively Capital Metro commuter with erratic food-gathering opportunities.
"Outstanding!" he exclaims, shoveling everything on ZZ Top's dressing room rider into my bags. "Here, you need some Dr Pepper ... and Fanta Orange ... and ginger ale. Oh, man! Do you drink tea? Here, we've got all kindsa tea! Now you need something to sweeten it!"
Gibbons starts stuffing my pocket with packets of Sweet'N Low.
"Here, you need to drink more water! Have some fruit – that can be your breakfast! Peanuts – there's your protein! Mustard, honey ... oh, we've got juice! Here, you need your juice!"
He scoops up handfuls of plastic knives and forks. "You need some silverware, right?"
Then he looks at me, profoundly.
"Always take the rider home with you. When you're on the road, you never know when the next meal will be."