“The most dangerous guitar player in Texas” wasn’t half as threatening as that handle implies. In reality, Slim Richey was a joyous human being. An Austin character.
Few musicians broke the mold like the charismatic guitarist, a disciple of Thirties jazz and hep-cat slang, who loved to “get tall” on reefer and radiated outrageous personal style. That typically involved costume sunglasses, a Santa beard, and Mardi Gras beads dangling off the headstock of his hollowbody axe.
Richey, whose molten guitar pickin’ became an Austin staple beginning in the Nineties with the Jazz Pharaohs, Back Porch Vipers, the Kat’s Meow, Slim Richey’s Dream Band, and the Jitterbug Vipers, died Sunday after a long tango with lymphoma. He was 77.
“Slim had an effortless style apparent to everyone who played with him or watched him play,” says local saxophone standout Elias Haslanger, who knew Richey the better part of two decades. “It flowed out naturally, because he was extremely in-the-moment. As a person and as a player.”
Haslanger notes that Richey cultivated an immense mental Rolodex of songs – thousands – that extended from the early swing jazz era of the Twenties to bebop, modern jazz, and Texas swing. His dedication to music remained unwavering.
“Slim would drive to Terlingua in a moment’s notice to play a show,” Haslanger recalls. “He worked harder than the younger guys and he did it out of sheer joy because of his passion and love for music.”
Richey was born in the East Texas town of Atlanta in 1938 and moved to Austin in 1992. He and his wife, Francie Meaux Jeaux, who plays upright bass in Jitterbug Vipers, resided in Driftwood at an estate nicknamed “Peckerwood” and were regulars at both the Kerrville Folk Festival and Old Settler’s Music Festival. “Regulars” might be an understatement. They played almost every year.
“He and Francie are the fabric of the scene and a big part of the campground culture,” says Old Settler’s director Jean Spivey. “Our audience loved him and wanted to see him every year. I think that with his passing, a little part of old south Austin has gone away.”
Spivey says the Jitterbug Vipers were booked this year, but Richey couldn’t play because of his health. His fatal bout with cancer wasn’t the guitar whisperer’s only health scare in recent memory. In February 2012, while loading out from a gig at the Volstead Lounge in Austin, Richey was the victim of a hit-and-run that left him hospitalized with a severe concussion.
“I lost a couple teeth, lost some of my vocal ability, and I lost some of my hearing ability,” Richey told the Chronicle that year. “After I got home from the hospital, I picked up the guitar to see if I could play it. I didn’t have a problem.”
The following year, the Jitterbug Vipers released their second album, Phoebe’s Dream, with a track about their six-stringer entitled “Dangerous.” Singer Sarah Sharp sang, “He takes a lickin’ and keeps on pickin’, boy he gets around.”
Richey was famous for encouraging Austin’s young musicians, a quality that helped kick-start the career of Austin breakout Kat Edmonson, who was an unseasoned 22-year-old singer when she met Richey in 2005.
“I was hanging out at the Elephant Room,” she said via phone Sunday evening. “I’d just started going there to sit in at the jazz jam on Monday nights. Slim was there one of the first times I sat in. It was really dark and he walked up to me, crouched down next to my table, and asked me if I wanted to be in a band.
“He had sparkly sunglasses on, a long beard, and a hat. I thought he was kind of crazy.
“I said, ‘Do you have a band?’ and he said, ‘I’m a guitar player and I’m looking to put together a band.’ I said, ‘Well, I’d like to hear you play,’ because I was a little bit on guard.”
Richey invited the non-committal Edmonson to give him a list of songs she sang and to come over to his house.
“I drove all the way out to driftwood and met him and Francie,” continues Edmonson. “Every song I named, he played and played beautifully. So we decided that day to have a band. We became so familiar, so quickly.
“Then it was just a matter of coming up with a name. He had a lot of different names pertaining to jazz music of the Thirties that focused on marijuana. I was not that open to thinking about pot. So we settled on a neutral name: the Kat’s Meow.”
Edmonson spent the next two years gigging all over Texas with the couple, who she says were revered far and wide.
“In every city we went to, every festival, every town we played, the young guitar players would wait to learn from Slim, and they’d sit in a circle and jam with him.”
Edmonson calls that period of her career one of massive artistic growth.
“I didn’t know the music scene before that,” she admits. “I was just getting my feet wet. So I learned about live music, and I learned about the Austin music scene. I learned about gypsy jazz players, and I learned about Wimberley’s culture with all the old Austin hippies – the real ones.
“But the main thing I learned from Slim was to be you,” she says. “He embraced me for who I was. I’d never met people like that before – people that just lived and didn’t judge. He was who he was 100 percent and I really appreciate that. I want to do that more with myself.
“I don’t know if his life was always like that. I think his life was a lot different before he moved to Austin. He made a very deliberate decision about how he wanted to live. It certainly wasn’t happenstance.
“He told me there was a point in his life when he was just full of despair. He wanted to talk to somebody about it and they told him, ‘You get to choose who you want to be in this world. Take all the attributes of the people you love and admire and make them your own and live that way.’ That was a turning point in his life, and I think about that story he told me a lot.”
That sense of individualism manifested in Slim Richey’s music – beautiful and unique – until the very end.
“Nobody played like Slim,” says Edmonson finally. “And that’s really what I’ve been thinking about today. That voice is gone.”
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