Old Man River
Lifesaving Loogies, White-Water Rapids, and Songs About the Finger: Step Inside the House of Steven Fromholz
By Andy Langer, Fri., April 20, 2001
In 1967, Steven Fromholz took just under three hours to write "Daybreak," "Train Ride," and "Bosque County Romance." Long before Lyle Lovett paid his respects by including them on 1998's Step Inside This House, "Texas Trilogy" stood as Fromholz's signature work. It's a complex, cohesive, and graceful epic, and along with inspiring singer-songwriters like Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and Nanci Griffith, it's been the subject of at least one doctoral thesis and been turned into a play.
A current Fromholz work in progress, "#2," isn't the trilogy's sequel or even likely to be similarly regarded anytime soon, but by way of contrast, its author calls it the most difficult song he's ever written. So much so, in fact, that it didn't make it onto A Guest in Your Heart, Fromholz's first new studio album in nearly a decade. After years of tinkering with "#2," this much he does know: It's a song about a guy whose girlfriend has done him wrong. The problem has been finding a verse to match the chorus: "I'm just sitting here, wishing I could do the same to you/you're the one that made me feel like #2."
"I guess it's just hard to write scatological love songs," laughs Fromholz.
Whether you saw the punch line coming or not -- or whether you believe the song even exists outside the punch line -- it's classic Steven Fromholz. For at least 35 of his 55 years, Fromholz has carved out a reputation as a jack of all trades -- singer-songwriter, actor, adventurer, singing cowboy, and family man.
To some, Fromholz represents the last of the Renaissance men. To others, he's merely the goyim's answer to Kinky Friedman. But to say he's simply skilled in relating anecdotes is understatement -- although that's Webster's definition for "raconteur," a description that appears in his official biography. For his part, Fromholz says you can call him either a "singer-songwriter" or a "comedian." Just don't call him late for dinner.
"I would hope you'd call me an 'entertainer,'" he says. "It's what I put down on forms asking for my occupation: 'Church preference?' Red brick. 'Sex?' Yes."
While it's questionable how well Fromholz's wit translates into newsprint, he has a proven track record on tape. Lovett didn't just cut "Texas Trilogy" for Step Inside This House; he opens the 2-CD set with Fromholz's "Bears," which while subtler than A Guest in This House's "I Gave Her a Ring ("... she gave me the finger"), demonstrates the songwriter's deft use of humor. Fromholz says he's always looked at the lighthearted fare and stage rants as strategic tools for crowd control.
"Two-thirds of my repertoire is love songs," he says. "The key is to intersperse up-tempo songs around the love songs so you've got a sine wave running through the concert, moving people up and down the emotional scale. If you're doing love songs and making people cry, you'd better make them laugh, too. It's one of the oldest show biz adages -- leave 'em laughing. Make sure they have a good time."
Fromholz is a big believer in the theory that audiences won't have a good time if the performer they've paid to see doesn't look like they're having an even better time. This philosophy inspired his anything-for-a-laugh showmanship and filled many a room by word of mouth, but it's also one he's taken to the extreme. He says he enjoys being onstage so much he's become a horrible audience member.
"I love the life, I love being up there onstage," he enthuses. "It's my place. I like the lights. But there have been times I see somebody else onstage and I think, 'That's my spot. What are you doing on my stage? Get off there. I'll be there in a minute.' I can't help feeling like that. Performing requires a certain kind of magic, and either you have it or you don't. And if you don't, you're never gonna get it.
"I have it."
That kind of magic might not be something that gifted performers ever lose, but Fromholz believes that as recently as three years ago he'd at least lost touch with it. Keeping busy with a starring role in Larry L. King's The Night Hank Williams Died and guiding rafting trips through Big Bend National Park, he was playing out only occasionally, and while he'd cut demos for 10 of the songs that would eventually appear on A Guest in Your Heart, Fromholz admits he'd allowed his alternate careers to supercede the music. It was Lovett's homage to his favorite Texas songwriters that made Fromholz sit up and take stock of his situation.
"He didn't owe us anything, but he sure paid us a lot," the Temple-born Fromholz says of Step Inside This House. "When I found out he'd cut my songs it made me feel warm and good all over. It made me feel like a songwriter again."
In the Seventies, Fromholz's songs were recorded by dozens of other artists, most notably Willie Nelson ("I'd Have to Be Crazy"), Michael Martin Murphy ("Song for Stephen Stills"), and John Denver ("Yellow Cat"). But Lovett's tribute was hard proof that Fromholz had touched a new generation of songwriters, and that his albums didn't have to remain in print to be influential.
"Texas Trilogy" originally appeared on Here to There, a 1969 album from Frummox, Fromholz's short-lived, Colorado-based partnership with singer-songwriter Dan McCrimmon. "Bears" bowed on Rumor in My Own Time, Fromholz's 1976 LP for Capitol. Lovett has said his love of Fromholz's songwriting dates back to his initial forays into musicianship, and the author of his admiration has every reason to believe him.
"He was very true to the way they were originally written and sung back on those old records," says Fromholz, who's spent years trying to get the rights to re-release both Here to There and 1982's Frummox II as a 2-CD set. "It reminded me how they really went. After years of wandering around entertaining myself by trying to twist them into something different each time, it was very interesting to hear them that way again. Hearing his instrumentation and a band that good play my stuff helped build the excitement for me."
Fromholz admits the expectation that publishing royalties from Step Inside This House would return him to "multi-thousandaire" status helped bolster his enthusiasm for stepping up his performance schedule, but his real return to form came only after Lovett invited Fromholz, Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, and Eric Taylor to swap songs at two New York gigs. For Fromholz, the shows were career-size jumper cables.
"It took seeing all those guys and playing for a New York crowd to realize I'd been neglecting the magic," explains Fromholz. "It had been over there bubbling, but I'd been ignoring it, I'd been writing songs and playing some, but until then, I hadn't been jumping up and down. I realized I just wasn't chasing it like you chase it when you're really chasing it."
Almost immediately after the New York gigs and a similar Austin City Limits lineup, Fromholz's phone began ringing with requests for live appearances. At the same time he began accepting those invitations and playing more often to larger crowds, he also picked up the pace on the A Guest in Your Heart sessions -- finishing the tracks he'd begun, writing a batch of new tunes, and adding guests like (now late) pedal steel legend Jimmy Day, fiddle giant Johnny Gimble, songwriting peers like Butch Hancock, and even Lovett himself.
"Once Lyle got my attention, things really did change," he says. "I played with a different attitude. And I got treated differently. Everybody's knowledge of me and attitude towards me seemed to shift some. I had one gal tell me, 'Steven, you're finally gonna get what you deserve.' I told her, 'My God, I hope not.'"
Truth be told, Fromholz isn't exactly sure what the music business owes him; he calls his career "an enigma wrapped in a shroud." Janey Fromholz has described her husband's approach this way: "Steven Fromholz has fought stardom for 30 years." Journalist Jan Reid called Fromholz "the most luckless musician alive" all the way back in his 1973 book on Austin's outlaw country scene, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. And while it's true that collaborations with Michael Nesmith and Stephen Stills didn't quite pan out, that his 1974 solo debut for Elektra has never seen the light of day, and that he's probably recorded twice as many albums as he's released, Fromholz says the hard luck tag isn't one he's been anxious to wear.
"I never felt unlucky," he maintains. "Ever. I'll swear to any God you want that I always felt like the luckiest man in the world. So many worse things can happen than never having your record come out. There's a lot of people that never get to make a record, and I've done eight or nine. I've played Carnegie Hall with Stephen Stills. I lived through a lot. I have beautiful children and a family that loves me. And I get to do pretty much whatever I want. I'm a real lucky man."
That Fromholz was always counting his blessings rather than numbering his failures even impacted his early-Seventies drug use.
"I didn't like taking downers," he says. "I was always like 'Let's go the other way.'"
True to that approach, it was perhaps cocaine that derailed Fromholz's best shot at grabbing the gold ring -- a 1971 association with Stephen Stills that quickly progressed from roadwork into studio collaboration. The pairing lasted all of six months before Fromholz walked away from it, tired and nearly broken.
"For a while, the gold ring I was trying to grab was up my nose," admits Fromholz. "It was a time of incredible drug abuse in all our lives, and that it didn't kill me is a blessing. Again, I'm real lucky. But it made me want my life back, because at that time you damn near had to give it up to keep up. I wasn't willing to do that. I had to get my health back. I was a funny green color when I quit. I lived for six months on cocaine, Jim Beam and cheeseburgers. And them cheeseburgers will kill ya."
Today, Fromholz can pinpoint the day in November 1971 he decided to quit. Jerry Jeff Walker was playing Coconut Grove, Florida, right around the time the Stills/Fromholz studio sessions were beginning, and after Walker and his girlfriend went out drinking with Fromholz, the trio went back to the studio to visit Stills.
"The girlfriend poured beer on one of Stephen's managers' heads, and Jerry Jeff hawked a loogy on the soundboard," chuckles Fromholz. "He didn't like those rock & roll guys I was hanging out with. And I credit him with showing me the way out ... I quit two or three days later. His loogy saved my life."
Walker's loogy also served as Fromholz's formal introduction to "outlaw country" and as a doorway to Austin and its place as the capital of what he terms "the Great Progressive Country Scare of the Seventies." It wasn't until eight years later, in 1979, that Fromholz once again reached out for a lifeline -- a 25-day canoe trip.
"Twenty-five days in a canoe without alcohol, tobacco, or drugs really turned me around," he says of the trip through Minnesota and Canada. A few months later, he accepted an invitation to work with Far Flung Adventures in Big Bend, rowing and singing on the company's river trips.
"I fell in love with the people, the river, and the country," Fromholz says. "Running the rapids is the only exhilaration I know that compares to performing."
Twenty years later, Fromholz still works for Far Flung, serving as a white-water river guide, swift water technician, and first-aid provider, leading trips through Texas, Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. Last year, he added horseback trips to his adventures, leading a trek to Mexico and earning a spot as the official "Singin' Cowboy" for Lajitas Stable. And last summer, he successfully navigated the Grand Canyon's white-water rapids, one of rafting's biggest challenges.
"I still live off that high every day," says Fromholz. "And while I learned a lot about the river on that trip, I learned a lot more about myself. I'm a wiser dude because of that trip."
It should then come as no surprise that A Guest in Your Heart's literal and thematic centerpiece is a tune called "If I Couldn't Get to the River." It's a remarkably authoritative and confident performance, and as on the rest of the album, his baritone is warmer, his songwriting sharper, and his guitar playing better than it's ever been.
One obvious key to the album's vitality is that it's been so long between releases; Fromholz is quick to note he's a decade older and a decade wiser than he was on his last trip into the studio. More than that, he believes 20 years of rafting, singing at campfires for a constantly rotating cast of characters, and commuting between Terlingua and Austin has finally allowed Fromholz the adventurer and Fromholz the musician to successfully inspire and improve upon one another.
"I'm constantly exposed to so many people of character, so many stories," says Fromholz, "And most of the folks I meet out in the country would have a difficult time living anywhere else. I get to drop in and leave, which being a double-Gemini, kind of schizophrenic dude, suits me fine.
"There was an old black-and-white television show in the Fifties called I Led Three Lives, where Herbert Philbrick was an FBI agent, a communist, and an insurance salesman. I'm the adventurer, family guy, and singer-songwriter. Herb Philbrick on the road is me. And somehow it all comes together and makes me happy. And I figure if I keep myself happy, I have a better chance of keeping everyone else happy."
Just how happy is Steven Fromholz about life at 55?
"Very happy," he says. "Look at your options -- 56 or dead."
Believing that river runs keep him in touch with the fitness and feel of youth, he says retirement isn't an option anytime soon.
"Ask Willie Nelson about retirement and he'll say 'I play golf and music. What do I have to give up?' That's how it is: I love everything I do. I love to play for people. I love the exchange at any level, whether it's a campfire, club, or concert hall."
In fact, Fromholz is already mapping out yet another avenue for exchange; as a storyteller and raconteur, he's begun appearing at corporate events and conventions. It's work inspired by one of his heroes, Cactus Pryor.
"Cactus is amazingly funny. We once did a Lady Bird Johnson wildflower thing together, and while I'm here singing in a sports jacket and cowboy hat, he showed up in a giant armadillo suit," says Fromholz, who's been searching for a bear suit ever since. "That's my kind of guy. He's a pro ... he'll do anything for a laugh. He's there when he says he's going to be and always does it right. I've tried to emulate that. I want to be where I'm needed."
At this point, Fromholz believes where he's needed most is as goodwill ambassador/CEO of Felicity Records -- the homespun indie he named after his second daughter (his eldest daughter is the subject of "Dear Darcy," one of his most enduring songs). So while A Guest in Your Heart is available online and in a dozen or so records stores across the state, Fromholz says it's very much in need of proper distribution.
"I'm so proud of this record, I simply want people to hear it, and I'm the best salesman I've got," he says. "Loretta Lynn got to be a star by knocking on little radio station doors and saying, 'Hi, I'm Loretta Lynn.' That's what I'm doing. I'm sending out product to everyone. If they're in an area I'll be in, they're getting a CD and card from me and if I'm there I'll stop by and say hello. I'm not above doing the legwork."
While "I Gave Her a Ring" is earning modest radio play regionally, Fromholz is already pitching several other songs from A Guest in Your Heart to other performers. In fact, despite the respect he commands from other performers, Fromholz has really penned only one true hit, "I'd Have to Be Crazy." Nelson's 1976 version went to No. 2 on the country charts.
"It may not have reached No. 1, but it meant I'd written a hit song, and that never goes away," he says of the song that was recently cut by local upstarts Pat Green and Cory Morrow for their Songs We Wish We'd Written. "Then again, you can bowl 300 once and they can't take that away either. But you have to bowl 300 again before it really makes a difference."
Not one to ever set his sights low, his most ambitious pitch will be to Garth Brooks, who Fromholz hopes will consider cutting A Guest in Your Heart's "A List of Lover's Questions" for his final studio album.
"It's a production-style song, so it's perfect for him," says Fromholz, who's working a promising friend-of-a-friend angle to get Brooks to hear the song. "He can go nuts with it, throw water at the crowd, and make tons of money with it."
Even if Brooks never hears the song, it's hard to imagine Fromholz will be too disappointed if the teaming never transpires. He has too much on his plate and too much unabashed enthusiasm to sweat the small stuff.
"I still love being onstage and am singing and playing guitar better than I ever have," he says. "I have new songs and very few regrets. That's an incredible place to be, and I have an incredible amount of faith. And it's not necessarily faith in God or the Earth Mother and Sky Father. It's a faith that things are gonna work out.
"The river's taught me you can't panic. So life's strange -- get used to it. If you're not used to it by 55, you've missed something along the way. I don't think I've missed much."