Alejandro Escovedo: R-O-C-K with the U.S.A.

Iconic rocker’s love affair with the Austin, part two

Alejandro Escovedo: R-O-C-K with the U.S.A.
by Todd V. Wolfson

It’s obvious Alejandro Escovedo took his time picking the acts both highlighted and performing in his United Sounds of Austin show Saturday at the Moody Theater. In a way, it’s a second chance at a once-in-a-lifetime project, one that began years ago in Chicago.

The notion – representing the growth of local music through the work of various artists – stayed with him, and took root. If last January’s marathon performance at the same venue acted as a retrospective for his own music, this one looks back at 60 years of Austin’s musical evolution, a variable and colorful landscape ripe for exploration.

“Dolores & the Bluebonnet Boys! She had a regional hit called ‘The Austin Waltz,’” marvels Escovedo at the discovery of popular country act Dolores Ferris and her band of the Fifties.

His research to include the panoply of genres feeding local music took him out of the studio to such places like the Texas Music Museum and South Austin Popular Culture Center, where he chose photos for a presentation accompanying tomorrow’s performance. Photographers from Burton Wilson to Todd Wolfson have contributed images.

“We interviewed Kimmie Rhodes, so we have a lot of Joe Gracey’s sign-offs on KOKE-FM – with Waylon [Jennings] and Gram Parsons. Through the Texas Music Museum, we discovered more about the Eastside, how it became designated in 1928 as ‘the Negro district.’

“We wanted to know more about the Eastside clubs like Big Mary’s, Victory Grill, and Ernie’s Chicken Shack, plus artists like Blues Boy Hubbard and Snuff Johnson. Steve James is doing a Snuff Johnson song.”

The guests alone are compelling: Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely, Roky Erickson, Butch Hancock, Rosie Flores, Terry Allen, J.T. Van Zandt, Steve James, plus the Skunks, the Hickoids, and many more. And like Escovedo’s discovery of Dolores & the Bluebonnet Boys, it’s the not-so-well known names that truly unite these sounds.

“We’re doing Louie Guerrero songs and a Johnny Degollado song. Max Baca is doing Camilo Cantu,” continues Escovedo, citing popular young accordionist Baca, paying tribute to Austin’s unrecorded accordion master Cantu.

One name performing made us both stop and genuflect: Dr. James Polk. Born in Corpus Christi, Polk attended Huston-Tillotson College and received his B.A. in Music Education there. Playing around Austin as a young man, he joined the Ray Charles Orchestra in 1978 as organist and pianist. Later he became its writer, arranger, and conductor. Polk taught at Texas State University in San Marcos from 1990 to 2006 in the Jazz Studies Department.

“They’re doing a Kenny Dorham song,” says the host. “With Elias Haslanger, and James will tell stories of early Austin.”

Escovedo laughs.

“The show’s been a lot of work, but I learned so much.”

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Alejandro Escovedo, United Sounds of Austin, Lucinda Williams, Roky Erickson, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Elias Haslanger, Skunks, Hickoids, Louie Guerrero, Johnny Degollado, Camilo Cantu, Dr. James Polk, Kenny Dorham, Dolores & the Bluebonnet Boys, Burton Wilson, Todd Wolfson, Texas Music Museum, South Austin Popular Culture Center, Joe Gracey

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