Sing Me Back Home

The Return of Libbi Bosworth

There comes a time in all our lives when we face a challenge to our integrity. Sometimes the challenge is minor -- a small temptation that's easily resisted. For others, it may be some unbearable burden, a major event that will shape how others will view you, and how you will view yourself -- for the rest of your life.

For musicians of substantial skill, a challenge of the latter sort will inevitably arise. Sooner or later, all those years of hard work and scraping by will attract someone from the major-label music industry. This person will come bearing fistfuls of money, and seductive promises of fame... for a price. "Of course," the label rep will say, "You'll have to change this to make it more marketable. And you should start playing it like Group X does... they're the hot new thing; we're looking for the next Group X. And fire your band. We'll get you a new one."

More than one Austin act has faced this test. They've grappled with the decision of how far to go in playing by the industry's rules, and whether doing so will make them a sell-out. The struggle has tortured many a musician. Yet it didn't bother country singer Libbi Bosworth too badly. To hear her tell it, back in 1992, she was ready to sell out. To hell with virtue; she was ready to break out of Austin obscurity and do what it takes to make it as a professional musician.

"...I don't really have a so-called chip on my shoulder about radio," Bosworth told The Austin Chronicle (Vol. 11, No. 26), a year and a half before moving to Nashville. "I think radio can be very beneficial to me in the future and I'm not ready to write it off. I don't feel like an alternative country musician at all."

Yes indeed, Bosworth was ready to sell her soul. Well, that's what she thought, anyway. Things turned out a bit differently, however. It seems Bosworth had more integrity than even she realized. Any desire to sell out had to be tempered by whether her stomach could stand it. It couldn't, and she now calls Austin home again.

"My attitude towards [radio] now is probably the opposite of all those things," Bosworth said more recently. "What happened in Nashville was that I got up there and found there are really great pockets of really talented songwriters and musicians. But just in general, I found the attitude to be such a business atmosphere. I'm really in it for fun, that's the number-one thing, and I didn't really feel like I wanted to do whatever it takes to be a success in radio or over in Nashville. Maybe four years ago I had the hunger and the drive to do it, but now I just have a lot of other priorities. If I can't get onstage and play and have it be fun, then I don't want to do it.

"The business was just interwoven into everything. I just felt like... it gave me the icks. I remember when I first moved up there, going to a couple of parties and talking to a couple of people, and two different people said this to me, I couldn't believe it: `What kind of music do you play?' and I said, `Well, it's mostly country & western.' `Oh, you need to drop the "western," honey.' Two different people told me that! I just remember thinking, I guess if you want to be Linda Davis or Reba McEntire or whatever and do that thing, you do have to make a lot of sacrifices, and I just didn't want to make them. And I still don't."

When Bosworth left town in 1993, it was much to the chagrin of this reporter. Although I couldn't tell her, I was hoping she'd fail. Bosworth possesses a voice that you've heard before, probably on a honky-tonk jukebox. No, she doesn't have any singles out, but if you've ever put in a quarter and played Loretta Lynn or Patsy Cline, or punched "A-11," then you've heard her. It's a voice splashed with beer, one that puts an arm around your neck and shuffles with you across the dance floor, one that searches for an all-night trucker show on AM radio as you head home in your old pick-up. It's a voice Nashville doesn't deserve; it gave up its claim to it years ago and doesn't appreciate it today. If she had "made it," well... success is relative, isn't it?

Call it what you like, failure or change of heart, but Bosworth hardly came back to Austin with her tail between her legs -- more like with an album under her arm, or much of one, anyway -- a good album.

Matt Eskey of Freedom Records no doubt took a similar glee in her "failure." He had heard a demo of Bosworth on a song titled "It's Late," and was impressed enough to make it the lead track on his critically acclaimed True Sounds of the New West compilation. The pure country number, which could pass for a classic cover, was the type of tune Bosworth was born to sing, and Eskey knew it -- even if she didn't. When she finally came back home, he was practically waiting at the city limits for her, and once she'd had a chance to work out some personal problems -- including having surgery -- the two sat down to hammer out the last wrinkles in what would become The Outskirts of You.

And what it became was a solid addition to the recent wave of great recordings by local country artists like Junior Brown, Dale Watson, the Derailers, etc. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best, and further solidifies Austin's reputation as the artistic center of the country music world. More importantly, perhaps, it's also an album that shows the emotional openness an artist needs to be great. Despite having her marriage to guitarist Bill Dwyer fall apart, she went ahead with the tracks that he recorded, rather than scrapping them. In fact, "It's Late," which reappears here, is a Dwyer number.

"I like the fact that it kind of chronicles my life a little bit," she Bosworth. "Some of the older stuff I think I'd sing totally different now, but that's how it was at the time, so that's the way I wanted to keep it."

Far more soul-baring are her tales of her father in the album's liner notes and on the painful closing track, "My Old Man." By her accounts, he was a difficult man with a difficult life.

"My dad was quite a colorful character," says Bosworth, without any humor in her voice. "He was a real bad alcoholic. He did a lot of bad things to a lot of his kids (there's six of us). I hadn't seen him in seven or eight years; he died two years ago, and I hadn't seen him in seven years when he died, and hadn't talked to him in four years when I hung up on the phone with him. I used to really be angry with him because I felt like he just let alcohol really control his life. We lived in a motel a couple of times when we were young. One time we were living in Waco and we lived in this warehouse; all six kids and my mother and father in one room.

"He was a dreamer and an alcoholic and they just didn't mix. He could never get anywhere and he could never overcome this big demon he had. When he and my mom divorced, he had a big chip on his shoulder about women, and was real angry about women. But he expected us to come around and ask him for forgiveness for whatever we did wrong, which was nothing -- we were just kids."

That began a long separation from him that wouldn't end until his funeral, which Bosworth says she attended with no small measure of disinterest. "I remember being at the funeral home, and my whole family was crying, and I was kind of like, `I don't really know what they're crying over, he jerked us around for so long, etc., etc.'

"But when I got a chance to see him actually lying there, I had what I would say was probably the most profound experience of my life, so far. I really broke down and threw myself at him and was bawling, telling him I loved him and I'm so sorry, let's please start over. It really affected me a lot, 'cause I had a lot of deep feelings for him that I didn't know I had.

"After that happened, I found out all these things about his past and about his childhood that made him the person that he was. He had a very sad, sad life -- a hard life. The only two things he could do were drink and listen to his music. We went through his records and he had a Connie Smith record, a Lightnin' Hopkins record... He didn't even like black people! Merle Haggard... it was just like, `Wow.' When I was younger, that was kind of a sad way to grow up, living in bars, but in a way, he taught me a lot about music. He had really good taste, and I kind of learned just from being around him."

Now past it all -- the pain of memories, divorce, career misdirections, landlord problems, the physical pain of the surgery, and a long period of wondering whether she ever wanted to play music again -- Libbi Bosworth now seems to be a pretty happy person. Those priorities she spoke of earlier pushed music to, if not the back burner, at least a little bit off the heat. She makes a good living as a computer technician, lives in a nice neighborhood, and now concentrates on what made music fun for her -- just the fun itself.

"I feel like, okay, I've been married, I've been divorced, I'm 31, I'm not getting any younger... my focus is more on what I want and what I don't want. I'm not saying I would not consider a big label, but I'm not going to get out there and hustle it. I'm not out there to play five nights a week, and I'm really not interested in playing night after night after night in Top 40 country bars, where I might have been four years ago. I'd rather play one good night at the Continental opening for somebody, or hopefully one day headlining it, and making a little money, than to play five nights a week at the Lumberyard ("My band's going to cringe when they read that," she laughs)."

Now, after having tried a little of everything -- including a younger-days stint as a pink-haired punk rocker in Los Angeles -- she has no doubt about where she wants to be. Right here.

"I'm not so wrapped up in the music part of things anymore," concludes Bosworth. "So, to me, Austin is just a nice place to live... I just love Texas. I don't think I ever want to leave Texas again. I've left Texas five times, and I feel like I never want to move again. I've been all over the place looking for something that was right here all along." n

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