Travis County Picker, Jim Stringer
Jim Stringer has been making music for almost 40 years now, though you'd never know it by spending time with him. He sure doesn't look 53 years old; he's not particularly wrinkled and has only the slightest suggestion of gray hair. In fact, Stringer could well be Austin's Dick Clark. Surely he qualifies as a local poster child for the "music keeps you young" club.
Of course you probably wouldn't recognize his unwrinkled face even if it was on such a poster. Moreover, it's a safe bet most locals don't know the name either. Non-music-playing locals that is. Mention his name to Austin's country contingent, and you'll get a chorus of nods and smiles. "One of the best guitarists in Austin" -- you'll hear that one, too, particularly from the likes of Ted Roddy, Roger Wallace, Susanna Van Tassel, and Marti Brom, with whom he plays regularly. His own group, the AM Band, has held down a Thursday-night residence at the Carousel Lounge for the past three years.
"At this point in the game, Jim's one of the A-team players," says Roddy. "I love playing with him because he's an incredible and creative guitar player. He's conscious of making things musical. He's not afraid to jam and stretch out. I love all kinds of music, and Jim does too, so I can relate to him on all kinds of levels, and that's one of the joys of playing with him."
An Austinite since 1994, Stringer is no newcomer to town; his second disc, On the Radio, is just out, its patented "swang" a cheerful amalgam of swing and twang patterned after the good old days of radio, when all genres, from rock & roll to country, were part of the Top 40 and radio stations played it all. Considering his age, Stringer remembers such a time well.
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, about 90 miles south of Kansas City, his family had roots in Texas going back generations. Getting the idea to play guitar, like so many others, from seeing Elvis on television in the mid-Fifties, Stringer spent his adolescence anchoring garage bands. In the Sixties, his high school bands played mostly instrumentals patterned after Duane Eddy, Link Wray, and the Ventures. He moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas in 1966 and stayed there until his move to Austin 18 years later.
"Lawrence is a great music and arts town," says Stringer. "It's Austin on a one-tenth scale."
The guitarist was himself no small part of Lawrence's attraction for a time, his band Tide having built a sizable following between the Rockies and the Mississippi. Along with his new AM Band disc, Stringer has been handing out the bonus CD Extra Jim's, a journey though his musical past, including three tracks from Tide. Since this was the era of extended jams and Southern rock, the Tide tracks reek of patchouli with a rootsy side.
"We made an attempt to never play a song the same way twice," laughs Stringer.
Tide was successful enough -- "wildly popular in some places," he says -- to start a music magazine as well as their own recording studio. Having overextended themselves financially, the band was on the verge of calling it quits when a Lawrence-based film company came to their rescue by using the band's music in an industrial film for General Motors. Though the money helped Tide appease its creditors, Stringer had grown tired of the road.
Married with a family by this time, Stringer was having trouble keeping that side of his life together. He talked to someone at the film company about a job, and was soon hired as sound man and music producer. This was a more stable form of income, but still kept him away from home a lot, and his marriage (the first of three) dissolved. He ended up writing jingles, scoring industrial films, and providing incidental music as a full-time job.
"I provided scores for 550 films and a couple hundred jingles," Stringer remembers. "I quit, because I could see that with video coming up, the end was coming for them. Industrial films today are cheap, and they look that way because they're shot on video and don't have the same production values that we were using."
During this time, he kept his guitar chops up by performing as a member and sometime-leader of a house band at the Jazz House in Lawrence. As the name implies, it was a jazz club, and gave Stringer a chance to play with the likes of Jay McShann, Art Farmer, Red Rodney, Zoot Sims, and Claude Williams. While the film company job ended in 1985, Stringer hasn't worked a regular job since.
"I developed a teleprompting system when I was there," explains the guitarist. "One particular company became interested in it [and] I developed it for them. It doesn't make me rich, but it keeps a basic level of income so I don't have to live in a box somewhere."
With Stringer free to perform full time, first came a string of bands in Lawrence, most notably the Novellas and the Stringers. The bass player and one of the vocalists for the Stringers was Sharon Ward, a sassy woman with a big voice, who moved to Austin in 1994. Stringer followed shortly thereafter.
"I came down here and did an acoustic solo thing for a while," recalls Stringer. "Then Sharon and I got together with Karen Biller and put together Git Gone. The idea was to do a more traditional style of rockabilly. Karen booked us almost every night of the week. She was a real dynamo. That lasted for about a year and a half or so, then she left to go play drums with Cornell Hurd.
"It wasn't 'til she left that we knew how much we missed Karen's booking ability. But we had some good things going."
Those included a stint at Hank's Roadhouse on South Lamar until it went under and a regular Sunday evening gig at the Draught Horse, but Git Gone was just one facet of what Stringer was doing musically at that point. He put together a little home studio and recorded some tracks with Austin country diva Susanna Van Tassel that ended up on the locally produced compilation The Edge of Country.
Roddy, who also had a track on that disc, liked Van Tassel's contribution enough to contact Stringer about recording together. What started out as demos in 1997 turned into a full-on project that was finally released late last year as Ted Roddy & the Tearjoint Troubadors' Tear Time. Stringer also recorded most of Roger Wallace's outstanding debut Hillbilly Heights, Karen Poston's soon-to-be-released debut, and both AM Band CDs in the Music Room, which doubles as his living room. The Music Room also doubles as Stringer's label, which releases his albums as well as Roddy's and Poston's.
"All these little, independent labels are really after bands to tour, but they don't offer tour support," Stringer proclaims "This is why the Music Room exists right now. It doesn't seem fair to me. The whole industry is set up to screw the artist. It's some kind of slavery mentality that says you're so privileged to be doing this for the record company that you should be willing to go out and do it just for the glory of it.
"[They tell you that] as an artist, you shouldn't be involved in business decisions and you shouldn't be going after money. You should just do it because you're an artist. People buy into that. It's your livelihood, for crying out loud! Nobody does that. It's such a bizarre mentality. A label like HighTone can't do anything for an artist that they can't do for themselves, if they're willing to put time into it."
Incidentally, it was the Oakland-based roots label HighTone that initially released Travis County Pickin', a collection of tracks featuring an all-star cast of, what else, pickers. The collection was a critical success and went a long way to establishing Stringer as one of the most creative players in town.
"The idea for it was to carry on the tradition of country jazz like Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West, Roy Lanham and James Burton," Stringer says. "I got together with Dave Biller, Joel Hamilton, Casper Rawls, Brian Hofeldt, and Scott Walls -- some of the best pickers in town backed by one of the best rhythm sections: Lisa Pankratz and Kevin Smith."
Drummer Pankratz, like so many local musical peers, can't say enough good things about Stringer.
"I love playing with Jim," she crows. "I play with him regularly in three or four different bands. One thing that's great about him is he's a versatile and supportive sideman. He can adjust his style to each act, and you can always count on him to play something good. That's what I look for in a sideman and musician."