From the Music Desk
On Willie, Billy, Stevie Ray, Blaze, and more highlights from four decades of covering Austin music
In Austin, music is politics. It's the action. It's gossip. It's history. Love stories and tragedies play out through this scene that's the heart of this city. Music is activism and cultural resistance. It's a community of small businesses. All that's pervasive through pages of the Chronicle's music section, 40 years over. The leading characters in those stories, most time, are people who make music. This town's always been rich with bands – still is – and we look up at them, doing their thing onstage, and wonder what's their story? The Chronicle tells those stories and the characters come to exist as our heroes and friends and cautionary tales, and if they die, the world stops spinning for a couple beats, then we look for a tribute in the local rag. Sequentially, music is the fifth section of The Austin Chronicle, but we all know it's page one.– Music Editor Kevin Curtin
Losing Stevie Ray Vaughan
By Michael Hall
Copy Editor, 1989; Managing Editor, 1989-1991
I came to the Chronicle office the morning of Monday, August 27, 1990, and was sitting around talking with Louis Black and some others, getting ready to start putting together another issue. The phone rang, and Louis answered it like he always did: "Chronicle." This time it wasn't someone looking to place a classified ad. It was someone asking if we had heard the rumor that Stevie Ray Vaughan was dead. No, we hadn't heard. We began making calls, desperately hoping it wasn't true. But it was. Stevie's helicopter had crashed after a gig in Wisconsin, killing all aboard.
We were dumbstruck. Nothing like this had ever happened in Austin. Everyone in town seemed to know Stevie, but especially everyone at the Chronicle, where we had watched him grow up onstage at the Rome Inn and Antone's. We were only in our second year in 1983 when he released his first album, Texas Flood, and I got to interview him. Stevie was irrepressible – a smart, engaging, funny, unpredictable ("George Jones is the greatest singer in the world") rascal who hammed it up for our cover shot, playing an old guitar under one of his legs. He was serious about his music, but he didn't take himself seriously.
Seven years later Stevie was dead. I asked Louis if I could write Page Two, and he said yes. He was like I was: heartbroken, shellshocked. What the hell could we possibly say? All I knew was that any remembrance of Stevie had to be as much about Austin – and how he helped define us – as it would be about Stevie the man and the guitar player. It also had to be about the Chronicle, where he was our early hero, our patron saint. Even though Stevie was a genuine rock star, he was still one of us, the mob of musicians, slackers, journalists, artists, writers, filmmakers, politicos, and other weirdos trying to make our voices heard in the world. That's why we were so sad.
How Willie Nelson Made Me Respectable To My Family
By Tim Stegall
"Do you ever write a bad song?" I asked the country music legend seated across from me on the plush tour bus.
He smirked. "No!" We both laughed hard into my tape recorder.
He sipped more coffee, fixing me with a wry grin. "Well, at least none you'll ever hear."
His name: Willie Nelson.
That little exchange didn't make it into the resultant article, "Twisted Williemania: On the Bus Again With Willie Nelson" (Feb. 9, 1996). Maybe it should have. Also left out: How this first of three interviews I did with Austin's greatest musical ambassador made me respectable to my editor and family.
Mom didn't understand my day job. "Rock critic?! What th' Hell is that?!" She'd never heard of rock journalism, didn't comprehend how I got paid (not well, but...) to write about records I was sent in the mail for free. Who takes this noisy bullshit I listened to seriously, anyhow? She didn't. Why would anyone else?!
Raoul Hernandez was certainly puzzled when I plopped down on his couch two weeks earlier. "Willie Nelson's coming to town. He's been dropped by Columbia Records, which makes no goddamned sense. They just issued a Willie box set!"
"Tim," he grimaced at me, "why would you want to talk to Willie?! You're our token punk rocker!"
"Because he's great," I shot back. "If you want the Tim angle, this tribute album is out, filled with people like L7, X, and Soundgarden covering his songs – Twisted Willie. Willie CDs are now on the Emo's jukebox."
A week later, I watched Beatles-scale pandemonium from the driver's seat of his tour bus, the Honeysuckle Rose, as he met visitors. Moments later, I shook hands with Bruce Springsteen, playing in town and paying his respects.
Mama Stegall never told me I'd meet the world's biggest rock star on duty. Then again, she never understood my job. Until I sent her an autographed Willie Nelson photo. It hung in her living room until she died, as she proudly told anyone that her son was a magazine journalist who wrote about music. She'd never tell them I was also a punk rock musician, though.
Sitting Down With Billy Joe Shaver
By Doug Freeman
Billy Joe Shaver's house in Waco was as unassuming as the songwriter himself: modest and filled up with Jesus, but with a distinct enough sense of menace from the thick padlock on the front door to discourage approachability.
Having had the honor of sitting down with a myriad of songwriters at different parts of their careers, Shaver represented my favorite type. At 73, the Honky Tonk Hero was tired enough of his own myth-making stories but still proud of his hard traveled life. He had his scars and losses, his grudges and blessings, and was willing to talk deeply personally about them all during the afternoon I spent with him ("God Loves Ya When You Dance," Aug. 17, 2012).
The interviews that can truly change how you think about the world are rare gifts if you can dig deep enough with someone. With young artists, it most often emerges in their earnest searching of identity, art, and purpose, the kind of sincere conversations I've been able to have with artists like Erika Wennerstrom or Charley Crockett.
Older songwriters, though, have spent their lives observing and distilling. They've learned a few things, but it seems that people rarely ask. Fans want to hear the crazy stories, and the artists know the schtick that entertains. Shaver seemed beyond that, alone in his house, even as the national press suddenly showed a brief spurt of interest because he had written a song about his recent trial for shooting a man in a local bar.
We talked mostly about his son and God as he showed me around the house. He was proud and stubborn and humble and hurt. He had no airs to pretend or reputation to promote or protect. He'd already laid it all out in his songs anyway.
When he came to Austin later that month for the photo shoot, Raoul and photographer Sandy Carson wanted him to lay in Barton Springs. Shaver didn't hesitate, and it's still one of the Chronicle's most iconic covers. And the same lack of pretension and honest immersion into the moment of our conversation made it one of my favorite stories to write.
Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss
By Raoul Hernandez
Music Editor, 1994-2021
"Let's go backstage and meet Bruce!" Honey, this is work. I'm reviewing the show. We're not traipsing backstage for cocaine and blowjobs! (As if.) And yet, there we loitered after a show in the intimate steel box encasing the original Austin Music Hall (2,000-2,500), once an abandoned warehouse in a gotham district only housing Liberty Lunch, now City Hall. The venue proprietor himself, the recently late Tim O'Connor (R.I.P.), produced two chairs for us and stuck 'em front row left for an interpersonal audience with Bruce Springsteen, performing solo Jan. 26, 1996, during the Ghost of Tom Joad tour. Springsteen on Broadway, eat your heart out.
Sharon Osbourne patrolling the Music Hall balcony when Ozzy played there proved no match for parallel job fulfillment at this show from Barbara Carr, whose clipboard and bullshit detector suffered no halfwits. Springsteen's co-manager looked us up and down like the eye of Sauron, and, improbably so for a spur of the moment request, let us pass. We two, four ladies from the Capital Area Food Bank, breakout Chronicle Music muckraker turned Statesman star Michael Corcoran, and the Boss fidgeted in silence deep in the bowels of the green rooms.
No one said a word, crickets.
Growing up Bay Area: The Pointer Sisters alighted "Fire" and Greg Kihn bopped "For You" and "Rendezvous." I begged my father to buy me Born in the USA at the mall. Even so, Asbury Park held no personal mythos. That saved me in those 20 minutes that the specter of Tom Joad and I faced off. "Not your first time in Austin," I shrugged. He chuckled, we nodded, then traded small talk like dudes in an empty bar. Afterward, Corcoran fumed at me for hogging the floor. Three years later, when Springsteen reunited the E Street Band and shook down the Erwin Center, I finally saw the light.
"After the show," concluded my review, "Springsteen admitted being glad the Reagan-era 'Boss' of Born in the USA had gone the way of Bonzo. He was also thankful that the wayward Springsteen of the last decade found the path again. A path passing through the heart of Texas ('where all the great singer-songwriters come from') long enough to hook up with Joe Ely for one final show stopper, Woody Guthrie's 'Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.'"
Keeping the Flame Alive
By Lee Nichols
Contributor, Media and Beer Critic, Associate News Editor, Staff writer, 1987-2011
Having written at least 1,680 pieces for the Chronicle, according to its online archive – and probably closer to 2,000, since the archive only goes back to 1995 – and for nearly every section of the paper, it's hard for me to narrow it down to one favorite. But I think the piece I'm most proud of is my bio of Blaze Foley.
For some time after I wrote it, people tended to treat me as a bit of an expert on Blaze. But the truth is, I only saw him play once in my life – at Hole in the Wall, opening for Timbuk 3, shortly before he died in 1989. I didn't know him, I never got the chance to interview him, I never even had an extended conversation with him – I went up to him after that gig and said, "I enjoyed your performance, I'd like to write you up in The Daily Texan," and he said, "That would be great." A bullet one week later prevented that conversation from happening.
But Blaze made a deep impression on everyone around him. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, always colorful. Conversations with his friends, and even those who still had some anger toward him, painted a vivid portrait.
It's a story that people occasionally still contact me about, hoping for more information. Or I come across folks who have just discovered Blaze's music, and I point them to it so they can understand him better – an hour before I sat down to write this, just such an interaction happened between me and a friend 30 years my junior.
It's probably the only article I ever wrote in which my main subject was long dead. But thanks to the people who knew him, loved him, or had to put up with him, their stories brought Blaze back to life for me, and I hope for Chronicle readers. That's the power and magic of journalism.