Inevitably Texan

Left-Winging It with Cornell Hurd

To me the story has never been `Us versus Nashville,'" says Cornell Hurd. "The story is that we exist at all. A town that has Asleep at the Wheel, and Jerry Jeff Walker, and the Geezinslaws, and Junior Brown, and Wayne Hancock, and Dale [Watson] and Don [Walser]; maybe Dale could exist in another town, but Charlie Burton couldn't. And neither could I."

Cornell Hurd isn't topping the charts. He doesn't even have a record deal. In fact, as has been pointed out in these pages before, he's been known to perform before almost-empty houses. But he's living his dream. He's living and playing music in Austin, Texas. "I couldn't see living any place else," says Hurd. "And one of the reasons I enjoy living here so much is the Roy Heinrichs and the Charlie Burtons and the Wayne `The Train' Hancocks and Don and the Derailers."

Hurd, who just reeks of South Austin, is munching on lunch at one of the most quintessential Austin hangouts, the funky Texicalli Grill. The place is an extension of owner Danny Young's personality, the walls covered with a combination of left-wing political bumper stickers and local music posters dating back to the earliest days of Austin's modern scene. With heralded poster artist Guy Juke joining us, it's the perfect place to interview someone as off-kilter as Hurd.

Hurd's only been living here since 1989, but his history with Austin goes back considerably further. He began his musical career at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and then transferred to Berkeley. He was a hippie, but one who hadn't quite gone with hippie orthodoxy, finding instead that he really loved country music (hmm, that sounds familiar). In the Bay area, he found a like-minded crowd, including then-unknowns Ray Benson and George Frayne (who has since enjoyed fame as Commander Cody).

"It was really a story in Rolling Stone about Commander Cody, and then going up to see Cody in Berkeley that made me want to be near that stuff," says Hurd, "so I transferred. We were really strange guys in the sense that maybe we were leftists, but we were also really not buying into the Jerry Rubin philosophy, not really into offing the pigs.

"It was a great time in the sense that the catalogs were going from mono and stereo vinyl to just stereo, so this mono stuff was just thrown out there, just vomited up on the public for like, nothing, man. I bought records for a quarter. You could buy a record if it looked interesting. I bought my first Red Simpson record 'cause it was a truck-driving record, it had a picture of a truck with his picture on the trailer. It was like 50 cents."

Benson, of course, moved to Austin in the early Seventies, where Asleep at the Wheel became recognized as the nation's foremost purveyors of Western swing. Hurd stayed in California, but, thanks to his new Austin connection, found himself getting booked at the Armadillo World Headquarters and played on KOKE, which was then pioneering a format known as "progressive country." Hurd liked what he saw. Literally.

"I got off that bus in April in 1977, and we'd been on the road in the Midwest, and it was funky and dirty, and it had been a cold winter, and we got off the bus and the guys at the Armadillo said, `You need to go to Barton Springs.' Those chicks were going topless! Jeez, man, it was like all of the sudden the sun shining, chicks are topless... it was not a hard decision to make as to whether this was a great place. It was like we were in some place we weren't supposed to be.

"Finally, after coming here for years, my wife [piano player Debra Hurd] said `Well, you always talk about Austin, and you have friends in Austin, why don't we just move to Austin?'"

Certainly, it seemed to be a perfect match: A guy with a left-of-center attitude playing country music, in a city with a decidedly skewed view of country. And kindred spirits -- there were plenty of those. Aside from already being friends with Benson, Hurd found open arms at places like Henry's Bar & Grill and the Broken Spoke. Indeed, he liked the Spoke well enough that he recorded an album there, the obviously titled Live at the Broken Spoke, complete with owner James White's famous welcome-to-the-Spoke monologue.

And it was in part through White and the Broken Spoke that Hurd became acquainted with legendary Texas fiddler Johnny Bush, who sings on four cuts from Hurd's new CD, Cool and Unusual Punishment. (Rounding out his Austin recordings, Honky Tonk Mayhem was Hurd's first disc after arriving here). Working with Bush has been a particular thrill for Hurd. Since recovering from his vocal cord problems, Bush has reemerged as a hero of Texas music, with Dale Watson also recruiting him for a guest spot on his Heaven or Hell album.

"It wasn't the cosmic cowboys that brought guys like me and Junior to this town," explains Hurd. "It was the Bensons and the Johnny Bush and Bob Wills influence that brought some of us down here. It was great to work with Johnny Bush." It was a dream come true and I'll tell you what -- the man is one of the best guys I've ever met in show business, no bullshit. The guy is a genuinely nice guy, a genuine talent. The man has more soul in his little finger than most of these people have in their entire careers. Bush is one of those guys that I like just about everything the guy did."

Yet, not everyone in Austin seems to have the same affection for Hurd. In keeping with the theme of all the performers in this section, Hurd seems to have been left behind in the explosion of Austin's country scene. As mentioned in a previous Chronicle article about our city's most recent alternative-country wave, he just isn't attracting the attention that has come to Watson, Walser, et al. What can account for this? One night out at a Cornell Hurd Band show or one listen to one of his albums quickly erases the notion that it might lack of talent. His band -- and Hurd takes great pains to point out that this is a whole band, with very talented musicians -- can swing with an abandon that could set fire to a dance floor. Anyone who could leave a Cornell Hurd Band show without having fun would have to be dead.

Well, a "buzz" about one's band is a relative thing. Bands that go unnoticed in one market can be a hit in another, for whatever reason. And Hurd has his buzz -- in fact, a lot of musicians might want to trade places with a guy who has been written up in New Country and Country Music (one of the articles was titled "Garth Brooks' Worst Nightmare.") And of course, Hurd has the requisite foreign following, like any good Austin band; his following in Australia is pretty strong, as a stack of magazine articles and radio playlists will prove.

So what's up here?

"There's a lot of competition," says Hurd referring to that long list of local acts he mentioned. He also perceives a kind of a generation gap in which he and his music might not translate to the late-20s age group that populates Derailers shows, although that doesn't really explain the popularity of Walser or Brown. And, although it may be a chicken-or-the-egg situation, lack of a high-profile label may also hurt.

"Here's my take on things: Two things, one, I don't have a record deal on a local label or a major label. I haven't really pursued it, though. Two, the hardcore group of fans you have in this town are younger people, 35-100 people who will come out and see one of these acts come hell or high water every time they play. But in the bigger picture of things, they aren't really that significant -- they allow you to play better gigs here in Austin. But you see my [press] from Australia, and it's obvious people like my record just as much as the Derailers. They don't view Roy or Cornell as different, they're just listening to the records."

Don't interpret any of that as bitterness, however. As said, Hurd loves it here, and loves the people who populate the music scene, fans and musicians alike. In fact, he says being here has only impacted his band positively -- "This band learned how to swing a whole lot better in Texas. It wasn't accidental. We swung before, but we swing a whole lot more now."

In fact, you just have to wonder why it took him so long to get here. To quote another Bay-area resident, it's been a long, strange trip -- one that was no doubt inevitable.

"I saw Benson at the Asleep at the Wheel 25th anniversary, and I came up to him and said, `Did you ever think it would last this long?' And he said, `Oh yeah. I knew it would. And I knew you be here, too.' " n

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