Dreaming It Alive

Kimmie Rhodes' Realization

She's a person who dreams her future and makes it happen," is what Joe Gracey offers in way of a character sketch of his wife, West Texas singer/songwriter Kimmie Rhodes. "She doesn't let things happen on their own," continues the veteran bassist/producer/engineer. "She envisions what she wants. She's always moving towards her vision."

There're a couple of different ways to interpret Gracey's observations. Rhodes herself takes the floor with 'em: "We were talking about the word `realize' the other day," she says between bites of gingerbread and sips on an iced cappuccino. "To realize is to make something real. And to realize a dream means you had a dream and it became real. And I think that's what I do. I realize my life."

Then, there's Interpretation Number 2, which sorta locks into Number 1: Kimmie Rhodes has made her life the central part of the creative process. Once a painter in younger days, she's since opted for the thousand-words approach, using fine strokes to apply thick amounts of visual imagery to songs which appear to draw much from a childhood spent in Lubbock. And if the tunes have nothing to do with Rhodes' formative years, West Texas' dry, hot winds still blow through 'em, the parched beauty of its landscape surrounding whatever pocket drama is unfolding within the song.

And if you've gotten this far into this article without a question mark hovering above your head, that's amazing. You'd still be forgiven, however: Save for her self-released 1981 debut, Kimmie Rhodes & the Jackalope Brothers, all recorded evidence of her artistic existence has only been available in Europe. (Or, as Rhodes queries, does 500 copies of a homegrown indie LP really count as "having a record out?") By such logic, her recent Justice Records debut, West Texas Heaven, also happens to be her first American release -- or, at least, her first album to see distribution beyond the trunk of a '66 Buick.

Still, if Rhodes' career has been a secret in her homeland, it's hard to tell whether it's been well- or ill-kept. After all, to judge from the large and auspicious supporting cast on West Texas Heaven, Rhodes counts some fairly weighty company amongst her fans, including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely, and Townes Van Zandt. The likes of Wynonna and Trisha Yearwood have found her originals gripping enough and suffused with sufficient ache to merit applying their respective interpretive touches to their surfaces. The makers of the TriStar film Mrs. Winterbourne must have felt the same way: They commissioned a Kimmie Rhodes tune, "I'm Not an Angel," for its score.

When meeting Rhodes, it's hard not to see what's so compelling about her music, as she so perfectly embodies its best qualities. Striking and youthful in appearance, Rhodes' clear, lightly-colored eyes engage yours in conversation and refuse to relinquish their grip. Her West Texas drawl is deep, but her diction is that of a scholar -- no "lottas" or "sortas" or "gonnas" for this lady. Kimmie Rhodes is completely the "lot of," "sort of," "going to" type. She's a thoughtful, poetic conversationalist, with the same flair for language found in her lyrics.

Music seems to have surrounded Rhodes from an early age. As a child, she sang in a family gospel trio, and speaks enthusiastically about music ranging from Bob Wills to Bob Dylan to the Beatles to Broadway musicals. Although she'd been playing guitar and writing songs since her early teens, Rhodes only assembled her first band and recorded upon moving to Austin in 1979. Gracey, who's been her co-conspirator starting with the Jackalope Brothers (which they describe as an exaggerated mix of rock & roll and Roy Rogers & Dale Evans), had been an associate of Willie Nelson since playing his records at KOKE-FM in the Seventies, but it wasn't until Rhodes was scouting out Nelson's Pedernales Recording facilities that she met the country music legend.

"The day I went out to the studio," she recalls, "they introduced me to Willie, and he asked, `Do you write songs?' I said, `Yes.' And he said, `Well, why don't you come out here and make a record?' `Okay!' And I've done part of every record I've ever made out there. That probably helped me more than anything, and he's done a lot of things to help me." Including featuring her prominently on his recent Just One Love album as well as any number of his picnics or Farm Aid benefits. Nelson also lent his distinctive tones two a couple of tunes from West Texas Heaven, "Hard Promises to Keep" and "I Never Heard You Say."

The longer one speaks to Rhodes, the clearer two themes emerge: The first is a fascination with the creative spirit and process. Although it pops up time and again through the 90 minutes we spend talking at Kerbey Lane on South Lamar, she never expresses it better than when asked about whether Lubbock musicians feel Buddy Holly's shadow looming large over their own efforts.

"I think the shadow of the magic that takes place in artistic people looms over Buddy Holly the same as it looms over all the rest of us. I don't think it was just Buddy Holly. I think that Buddy Holly was a huge example of how powerful it can be. I think he was just another of us. I think he was just an amazing, special another one of us. I think that it was the same spirit that looms over Joe Ely and Roy Orbison and Waylon Jennings, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Gilmore. I think it's just we are privileged that we are receptors and get to participate in a creative thing that's bigger than Buddy Holly. I think he was just one of those people."

The second theme, simplicity, manifests itself in many ways. She and Gracey have stripped their performing context down from the cartoon Roy-n-Dale madness they recall of the Jackalope Brothers days to a simple family trio of Rhodes, Gracey, and Rhodes's son Gabe on lead guitar, piling the gear in the back of a well-equipped van (complete with a video system and a driver-accessible, built-in beer cooler), comfortably riding from gig to gig like some weird, Texan Von Trapp family. Or maybe you hear it when Rhodes speaks of her unhurried songwriting methods: Refusing to ruin perfectly good tunes by forcing them out, she prefers to "live with" a rotation of 10 or 11 songs at any given period, allowing them to blossom and unfold as they have lived a little more with her.

Then again, Rhodes also wants to tour with a fully staged musical she's been working on for a while now.

"I'm gonna keep that simple, too" she says of Small Town Girl, the autobiographical work that began as one song and grew into something else. "As simple as you can keep a play. I'm gonna keep the props down, keep the cast down, and try to have it where people who were working on the stage can also be working off the stage. People who are directing are also actors. I'm gonna try to have multi-talented people involved, people who can sing and dance and carry stuff and put makeup on."

Rhodes laughs as she dreams aloud. "It's working!" she says, recalling the concept of "realization." "I'm making a plan." n

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