Country-Soul Comes Full Circle

Too Tall Ted Roddy

by Greg Beets

Ted Roddy is a

venerable Austin music scene figure whose gumbo of American musical styles is evolving into something as reliable as your job once was. Whether he's leading the Talltops (as in "Teddy & the Talltops"), crooning cocktail standards with the Naughty Ones, or channeling the King twice a year as the mastermind behind Ted Roddy's Graceland Revue, Roddy is like a demonstrative professor who breathes life into dusty old sounds.

Roddy's new Hightone release Full Circle travels many avenues in its 13 songs. Instead of aiming for a country & western, rhythm & blues, or rockabilly pidgeonhole, Roddy uses Full Circle to pay personal tribute to his own varied musical upbringing with no apologies to purists. While such a goal is usually more uplifting in theory than in groove, Roddy's product actually manages a high percentage of Southern-maid, butt-rocking goodness.

Roddy's musical journey started in Corpus Christi, the "Sparkling City by the Bay" of Full Circle's lead cut. "There's not much shaking there anymore musically, but when I was just coming of age to go out and hear live music, there were a lot of local acts that were really, really good," says Roddy. "Freddy Fender was playing at the Rogues Club when I was in high school. That was right before he made it big with `Before the Next Teardrop Falls.' Tony Joe White used to live there, too. He was playing in Corpus right up until `Polk Salad Annie' came out.

"Most of the people I was exposed to were in local bands. They turned me on to jazz, blues, and a lot of different things. I grew up listening to country from my mother's side of the family, so that's kind of where I got my blend of country and blues."

After seeing Freddie King open for the Amboy Dukes, Roddy's will to play music was solidified. Luckily, he was in excellent company. At that time, Corpus was also home to future Austin luminaries such as Chris Layton and Joe Sublett. "Chris and Joe were like older brothers to me," Roddy says. "When I was in high school, I'd come up here to listen to blues at Antone's and sleep on Chris and Joe's couch."

Another one of Roddy's teenage chums was Jim Heath, who went on to serve a spell in the original Talltops' Dallas line-up before transforming himself into the Reverend Horton Heat. "I met Jim when I was in this band that was playing his junior high school prom," Roddy recalls. "He was into blues and none of my other friends that age were into that stuff. Everybody else was into Bad Company or whatever, so we kind of had a common bond."

Roddy broke into steady gigging with the Midnighters in Dallas with blues guitarist Mark Pollock. Those days are energetically recalled on Full Circle in the song "New Bluebird," a boogie-woogie paean to one of Roddy's all-time favorite clubs. "The Bluebird Lounge was a place in Fort Worth where the Midnighters played quite frequently," says Roddy. "It was a wild place. The crowd was racially mixed, but there were never any problems. Everybody had a blast. It was probably the closest thing I'll ever see to a juke joint in this day and age.

"We were up there on New Year's Eve one night playing `Auld Lang Syne' and everyone in the club had gone outside. We thought we were hearing firecrackers until the bartender opened the back door and started firing off shotgun rounds. Everyone had brought their guns and was out on the street shooting it up to ring in the New Year. But I never got any bad vibes from that place at all. It was just like getting out on Saturday night and letting it all hang out."

After the Midnighters folded in 1983, Roddy started the Talltops by recording a four-track demo in his living room with Heath. Rockabilly was booming in Dallas at that time, and Roddy was afforded the opportunity to play with area rockabilly legends like Sid King and Johnny Carroll. "But then it all kind of fizzled out and we were the only rockabilly band in Dallas," says Roddy. "It was real hard to get work up there."

"I felt like if I was really going to make it in music, I was going to have to move, and I was either going to California or Austin. Some friends of mine in the Paladins wanted me to join, so I flew out to California and played with them a bit. But I felt like their sound was complete as it was. They didn't need me, so I came to Austin."

Roddy arrived here in 1985, and it didn't take long for roots-rock mavens to take notice. The Talltops released Crazy Date on the French New Rose label in 1987 and it garnered "Best EP" honors in that year's Chron Readers Music Poll. The seeds of hype attracted the interest of Hightone's Bruce Bromberg, thus igniting what has to be one of the longest label-artist courtships on record.

"I've been talking to Hightone for so long," Roddy says. "You wouldn't believe it. Back in '87 or '88, Jimmie Gilmore brought them out to see me at Hole in the Wall. They used to have another partner with the label, Dennis Walker, and he was really, really interested. About that same time, some guy from PolyGram comes along and offers a development deal, so we went with him and it kind of fizzled out. Then Hightone came back around, but Zoo/Praxis showed up and they wanted to do something. By the time they were really able to make decisions, both deals had gone bad and I was back to square one.

"But I've always stayed in contact with Bruce. Hightone put me on a compilation in 1991 called Points West, and Bruce kept calling me and saying, `What's going on down in Austin?' He said it was always eating at him that we'd never done a record, and it just kind of fell together this time."

Now, Full Circle presents Roddy and Hightone with the task of promoting a not-so-easily classifiable album in a world that often prefers to keep its musical forms segregated, but Roddy is used to that. "We used to play at Antone's and we'd get in trouble for bringing a steel guitar in there," he laughingly recalls. "A lot of places didn't want you to mix it up, but I always felt that to be true to myself, I had to mix it up.

"My main heroes are people who mixed country and blues. People like Doug Sahm, Tony Joe White, Rockin' Sidney, and Lazy Lester. There are all these people who mixed the two together and came up with something great."

For Roddy, one of the more positive consequences of bringing more blues elements into Full Circle was being able to fully incorporate the harmonica. After doing harp session work for Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dale Watson, and the Mojo Nixon/Jello Biafra collaboration, Roddy was more than ready to play on his own album. "Drums were my first instrument, but I always wanted to play the harmonica," he says. "I actually learned to play by playing along with Howlin' Wolf's Live and Cookin' at Alice's Revisited album. I also listened to Paul Butterfield on the Woodstock album. I couldn't figure out how he could play like that out of a little harmonica... For awhile, I was playing straighter country gigs around town and I couldn't bring the harp into it. But now, it's a lot more comfortable."

Perhaps Roddy's strongest suit is his deep-well baritone voice that adapts easily to most any style he tries. Ironically, though, singing was the last piece of his puzzle. "I never thought I could sing," says Roddy. "When I was in high school, the bands that were big were Led Zeppelin and Bad Company, and there was no way I was going to sing like that, so I didn't even try. When I joined the Midnighters, I auditioned for Mark Pollack and he said, `You're going to be the singer.' So I was kind of forced into it. Eventually, I found my own style of singing, but it was tough."

If you force him to give it a definition, Roddy likes to call this style "country-soul." But since Full Circle places him closer to the border between the two styles than ever before, some degree of backlash is inevitable. "I realize it's been a problem," he concedes.

"A lot of people's perception of the record is, `Well, what is it? Are you country or are you blues?' And the answer is, I'm both. n

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