'Long Gone Lonesome'
From Scotland, a Lone Star state of mind
Considering how bowled over local audiences were by the National Theatre of Scotland's touring production of Black Watch last spring, the news that Texas Performing Arts had booked the company for a return engagement this season must have prompted cheers. (It did from me, but then Black Watch topped my list of great experiences in the theatre last year: See "Top 10 Theatrical Wonders of 2011," Jan. 6, 2012.) You should know, though, that the production the National Theatre is bringing to Austin for its second visit could hardly be more different than the strikingly theatrical drama of soldiers at war that it brought for its first. Rather than transporting us to Iraq, this show sticks much closer to home – their home and ours.
See, Long Gone Lonesome is about country music – the music of our heartland as heard by a fisherman on the distant shores of the Shetland Islands and embraced as his own. Thomas Fraser was a native of Burra Isle, one of those rocky outposts in the North Sea far to the northeast of the Scottish mainland. Like so many of his neighbors, he made his living from the sea, but he'd been captivated by American blues and country music since he'd heard it as a boy in the 1930s, and Fraser absorbed it note for note until he could sing and play a Jimmie Rodgers tune and sound just like the Singing Brakeman. While desperately shy, Fraser played enough local gigs to develop a huge following near his home, but he never pursued a musical career. And he might never have been known outside his village had he not recorded himself singing hundreds of songs on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Following his death at age 50 in 1978, family members preserved and circulated some of that material, and Fraser is now considered one of the great unsung singers of the form.
In 2009, musician and music historian Duncan McLean was approached by the National Theatre of Scotland to transform the story of this lost musical hero into a play. The result features McLean's Lone Star Swing Band – this man has his own deep affinity for country music, especially Texas swing – recounting the tale of Fraser's life while paying tribute to him with the music he treasured so. There's lively storytelling, singing, and after almost every performance, dancing, too, as the band breaks into a set and room is made for the audience to do a little boot-scootin'. It's a sweet, spirited celebration of one man's passion for music, a music that spoke to him from across an ocean – made all the sweeter by being performed in the state where so many of the songs he loved were born. In a sense, these travelers from Scotland will be bringing Fraser home.
Long Gone Lonesome runs Jan. 19-21, Thursday-Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 2 & 8pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 23rd Street & Robert Dedman Dr., UT campus. For more information, visit 477-6060 or visit www.texasperformingarts.org.