The last week has wreaked heartache on Austin music fans. Friday, beloved local deejay Larry Monroe stopped breathing unexpectedly. Sunday, cowboy poet Steven Fromholz died in a hunting accident. Both men, through music, made an indelible mark on Austin.
"Larry lived for the segue," observed longtime friend, KUTX jock, and Chronicle constant Jay Trachtenberg. "He could take a song title, verse, or reference and tie a great set of songs together."
Monroe, ubiquitous on local airwaves for over 30 years, died Friday morning at the age of 71 after being checked into St. David's South Austin Medical Center with breathing problems. Though it was known Monroe suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his death was sudden.
A native of Indiana, he landed in Austin in 1977 and four years later scored a job at KUT, where his Phil Music filled the space between City Council sessions. Monroe went on to host Texas Radio, Segway City, and his essential Blue Monday show, which always commenced with Fats Domino singing "I've got to get my rest 'cause Monday is a mess."
In 2009, Monroe's hours were cut, prompting an avalanche of angry letters to this paper and a "Where's Phil Music?" sticker campaign. In 2010, he opted for retirement from KUT and, in 2011, was recruited to join Dripping Springs Americana station KDRP.
"We asked if he'd do a show with us and he said, 'Yes. As long as you don't tell me what songs to play,'" recalled KDRP founder Daryl O'Neal, who called Monroe a patriarch for the growing station, which added an Austin signal in 2012. "He was the spark that made us believe in ourselves."
On Monday, Omar "and the Howlers" Dykes and Antone's Records couple Eve Monsees and Mike Buck guest-hosted Blue Monday.
"Larry played all the music that the squares wouldn't touch," recalled the latter.
The Grim Reaper's been working overtime in Austin lately. Before Monroe, we mourned the passing of folksinger Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, guitarist Will Indian, and, just last Thursday, booker Charlie Hatchett Jr., who was a crucial gatekeeper of Austin music for decades. His Hatchett Talent Agency represented acts including the 13th Floor Elevators, Christopher Cross, Bubble Puppy, and ZZ Top. He also played guitar in the Chevelles (revisit "The Hatchett Man," Sept. 30, 2011).
While heads were still hanging for the aforementioned, news broke Sunday that singer-songwriter Steven Fromholz was fatally wounded on a ranch near Eldorado, when a rifle he was transporting fell and discharged.
From his playful wit to his brilliantly detailed Southwestern songwriting, Fromholz epitomized the bold charm of Texas. He was an actor, a rafting guide, and the 2007 Poet Laureate of Texas, but most knew him as a songwriter, a profession he mastered in 1969 with "The Texas Trilogy" off his duo Frummox's debut Here to There, which helped lay groundwork for the outlaw country genre. Fromholz's songs were cut by John Denver, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson, who had a No. 2 hit with "I'd Have to Be Crazy."
"Fromholz was my friend and teacher," remembered Lovett in a prepared comment. "He provided me and so many others with encouragement and help when we were first starting out. He was the kind of positive spirit that made everyone in the room he was in feel better – whether he was onstage or not."
Fromholz, who lived in Austin from 1974-2003, was also a clever activist, organizing the first mass mooning of the KKK and standing up for homeless rights by staging a peaceful "sleep in" at the Capitol.
"We were friends for 50 years, and he was an easy pal to be with," recollected Jerry Jeff Walker, who regularly performs Fromholz's "Man With the Big Hat" and started singing "Dinosaur Blues" when he heard of his compadre's death. "Here's a line from it – Steven in a nutshell: 'One of these days I'll disappear/ You'll look around I won't be here/ Don't you worry people, there ain't nothing to fear/ I'll be going where the river flows.'"
"One of the great buffaloes is gone," laments Walker. "I sure will miss him, but he'll be with me when I sing."
Remember Steven Fromholz Sunday, Feb. 2, noon-4pm, at the Palm Door. Open to the public.
Under new leadership and adjusting to national health care reform, the vital signs of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians remain strong. New Executive Director Reenie Collins, appointed in November after the exit of longtime HAAM honcho Carolyn Schwartz, has come out of retirement to return to the musicians' health care network she helped develop nine years ago. On her desk, there's a handwritten list of bands, all of which include HAAM members, she wants to see live.
"I'm not an insider on the music community," she admits. "I can't sing or play a lick, but I love music and I remember sneaking into the Armadillo and going to Liberty Lunch."
It's Collins' expertise in health care, not music, that's proving vital as the nonprofit steers through a transformative period of reform with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. HAAM doesn't qualify as mandatory minimum insurance under the ACA because it's not technically insurance. It provides access to health services by collaborating with partners like Seton Hospitals, SIMS, and Estes Audiology. That means most HAAM members who live above the federal poverty line must purchase insurance before April 1 or face a tax penalty under the ACA.
Sixty percent of HAAM members don't earn the minimum yearly income qualification of $11,490, so nothing will change for them. Collins encourages the other 40% of HAAM members to purchase insurance through the federal marketplace, which works nationwide, covers the whole family, and provides maternity care – all things HAAM doesn't do. They can still receive HAAM's vision, dental, and psychiatric care. Of the 40%, roughly 25% have signed up for insurance through the marketplace so far.
"Some people are choosing to use only HAAM and pay the fine because they trust us and feel comfortable with Seton's services," reports Collins. "Others have bought marketplace insurance and are excited about its advantages."
One of Collins' goals for 2014 is to expand member services that not all marketplace insurance plans cover, like dental, which HAAM offers $600 worth of services yearly.
"To a musician, their mouth and teeth health is really important," points out Collins. "There are other services we'd like to expand too, so I think for the future we're looking at where else we can partner."
HAAM currently has about 2,000 members and will continue to enroll more uninsured musicians.
"Every nonprofit's dream is not being needed anymore. If our mission was being met 100% because of Affordable Health Care, that'd be awesome," says Collins. "I don't see it in the future, but that's the dream."
Musicians with questions about the Affordable Care Act, call HAAM: 512/322-5177.
› Chaos in Tejas organizer Timmy Hefner has decided not to host a 10th year of his underground music festival this spring. "In the end, I knew I couldn't top myself and I didn't necessarily see a point in doing another festival," he says. "I feel like I'm running out of cool, unique things that I'm really excited about." See the full interview at austinchronicle.com/daily.
› The former Antone's and Beauty Ballroom location at 2015 E. Riverside is now the Midway Field House, an arcade and sports bar, complete with an indoor basketball hoop and a fictional team, the Midway Bulldogs. Longtime Emo's GM Jason Sabala, who also owns the Buzz Mill across the street, took over the space. "There's a lot of people who want to go watch a game, but they don't want to go to a bar where there's some guy in a Patriots jersey screaming at the TV," offers Sabala. Midway Field House launches Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 2, and will continue as a work-in-progress until its grand opening on the first day of baseball season, March 31.
› Music for the X Games, June 5-8 at the Circuit of the Americas, includes Kanye West, Flaming Lips, Gary Clark Jr., Bad Religion, and more. Tickets on sale Friday.
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