Poison 13, Meat Purveyors, and Churchwood Guitarist Bill Anderson Loads Out of Town

If not for Austin, “I don’t know if I would have been a musician at all”

Bill Anderson playing with the Horsies at the Austin Outhouse in 1995 (Photo by John Anderson)

Ask a seasoned musician how many bands they’ve been in. Their pupils will dart up and to the left, accessing the memory part of the brain, their lips will move ever so slightly as they silently count, then they’ll give you a number. For a lot of us, it’s a single digit.

I posed that question to Bill Anderson, the ingenious guitarist who’s been a staple of exciting Austin bands over the last four decades, knowing I should’ve packed a lunch waiting for his response to unfold. He didn’t even try.

“I’ll get you a list,” he promised.

Here’s that file, with rough dates of existence:

Happy Death (1984)
Poison 13 (1984-1987)
Shockhead (1985-1986)
Ballad Shambles (1985-1988)
Daniel Johnston (1985-2019)
Hand of Glory (1989-1992)
Blow Up! (1990)
Joan of Arkansas (1991-1993)
Horsies (1992-1999)
Big Foot Chester (1994-present)
Meat Purveyors (1996-2008)
Jon Langford & the Far Forlorn (1996-present)
Neko Case & Her Boyfriends (2000)
Cat Scientist (2003-2007)
Deano & the Purvs/Ice Cold Singles (2007-present)
Unprofitable Servants (2008)
Churchwood (2008-present)
Bamako Airlines (2014-present)
Fontanelles (2016-present)
Magic Moments Band (2017)
Ouiness (2018-present)

That’s 21 bands, involving more than 70 musicians, over a span of 37 years.

An exceptional guitarist – aggressive, versatile, consistently conjuring memorable riffs – Anderson saw induction into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 2003 for his elite band membership. He relishes group dynamics and lives for musical chemistry. He thinks of bands as assemblies of interesting individuals instead of units.

Anderson’s favorite part of this whole music thing? Band practice.

“I kind of feel guilty, because this last year’s been hard for so many people, but I’m retired and I’m in five bands and I’ve talked most of them into practicing weekly,” he admits. “So I haven’t even missed doing shows because I’ve been getting the part I really like: the camaraderie, the creating, the collaboration.”

Pocket Fishrmen frontman and Chronicle news contributor who’s played with Anderson in the bluegrass/alt-country social club Joan of Arkansas, as well as popular Nineties global groove outfit the Horsies, and more recently vocal harmony-driven dance group the Fontanelles, Brant Bingamon characterizes his friend as forever the guy organizing rehearsals and pushing to never miss a week.

Bill Anderson, in the studio, tracking the Horsies album Touch Me Columbus (Photo by John Anderson)

That band practice schedule won’t continue – at least not at its usual frequency. Anderson’s moving away this month. He and his wife sold the house they built more than a decade ago and are putting down roots in New Mexico: El Prado outside of Taos.

The Maryland-raised musician moved to Austin in 1982, at age 23, following a girlfriend who’d enrolled at the University of Texas. The LeRoi Brothers playing at campus area Texas Tavern notched his first show here.

“I fuckin’ loved them! Steve Doerr was my hero,” Anderson gushes. “If there was any band that I saw early on and said, ‘I want to play guitar like that,’ it was those guys: Don Leady and Steve Doerr. I thought Steve was super fuckin’ cool.”

“I’m not a super wide-ranging guitar player, but I know a little about a lot of things, so I can kind of squeeze into anything,” he demurs. “I guess I would say I’m good at being in bands.”

A young Anderson abused his position as a ticket taker at a movie theater inside UT’s Jester dorms, letting in for free anyone who looked punk rock. That’s how he met Chris Gates, a friendship he says changed his life. Anderson roadied for Gate’s now-legendary punk/funk band Big Boys.

Gates also introduced him to members of funny hardcore band Happy Death, which cemented the guitarist’s first band role. In the spring of ’84, Gates invited Anderson to play in a new band with Big Boys guitarist Tim Kerr, fellow roadie Mike Carroll, and drummer Jim Kanan. Poison 13 played garage blues punk, toured nationally on bills with Black Flag, the Replacements, and the Minutemen, and became progenitors of grunge.

“Austin punk wasn’t one kind of music. It was a big umbrella,” posits Anderson. “I really loved the approach, the do-it-yourself ideal.”

By the mid Eighties, Anderson met his lyrical foil in singer/poet Joe Doerr, who’d made the scene as frontman for the LeRoi Brothers. The two shared creative space in rock/blues quartet Ballad Shambles and into the ensuing decade behind hard rock project Hand of Glory.

“[That’s] undoubtedly the band I came closest to signing with a big label, which probably would have been the absolute worst thing that could have happened to me at that time,” he confesses.

In 2008, inspired by Captain Beefheart’s flipped-out blues, he and Doerr came together once again to form Churchwood, a musically exhilarating, lyrically surrealist project that’s put out five incredible LPs.

Churchwood: (l-r) Joe Doerr, Billysteve Korpi, Julien Peterson, Bill Anderson, Adam Kahan (photo courtesy of Leon Alesi)

The 62-year-old confirms that his right arm never got more tired than in the Meat Purveyors, a super charged, yet fully acoustic bluegrass outfit that played at hardcore punk tempos where his frantic guitar rhythm fill in for the drums. The quartet, in which Anderson wrote the lion’s share of the songs and Jo Walston sang lead, clicked with alt-country scene and released a handful of albums on Bloodshot Records. The latter Chicago indie isn’t the only esteemed cult label he’s worked with, either – Sympathy for the Record Industry, for one, issued two albums by he and Walter Daniels’ blues rippers Big Foot Chester – but the Meat Purveyors remains “by far the band I covered the most miles in a van with, and it was fun.”

Anderson with the Meat Purveyors at the Hole in the Wall in 1999 (Photo by John Anderson)

Anderson’s also acted as a sideman for artists of international acclaim. A friend to Daniel Johnston from 1985 until his death in 2019, the axe slinger contributed to the albums Continued Story and Rejected Unknown. Since 1996, he’s played alongside the great Welsh wordsmith and original punk rocker Jon Langford in various ensembles. In 2000, he toured as a part of Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, who had just released Furnace Room Lullaby.

“I’m not a super wide-ranging guitar player, but I know a little about a lot of things, so I can kind of squeeze into anything,” he shrugs. “I guess I would say I’m good at being in bands.”

Bill Anderson at home in 2004 (Photo by John Anderson)

Though he’s headed off to New Mexico pronto, Anderson’s stashing a couple guitars and amplifiers in town so he can come back and play shows. Exiting this ground where he became a musical fixture for generations of bands left him reflective last week about his time in Austin.

“There was an element of chance that I even ever came to Austin and I’ve always felt super lucky that I landed here when I did,” he says. “It was a perfect time for someone like me to get here. Through the punk rock scene, it was super easy to look around and see how you could play music. I didn’t understand that growing up.

“I thought you had to be a rock star, but I didn’t know how to do that.

“Then I got here and it was like, ‘I know these people, I can do this, I want to be in a band too.’ Even though it was an acerbic punk rock scene, it was really supportive and you just did it. I don’t know if I would have been a musician at all if I hadn’t landed in Austin in my early 20s.”

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Bill Anderson, Happy Death, Poison 13, Shockhead, Ballad Shambles, Daniel Johnston, Hand of Glory, Blow Up! , Joan of Arkansas, the Horsies , Big Foot Chester, Walter Daniels, Brant Bingamon, Joe Doerr, Steve Doerr

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