Back Home in Texas
Libbi Bosworth Returns With "Libbiville'
It sounds like the grandfather Buddha of Austin country music, big daddy Don Walser, but closer inspection reveals the Northern Exposure clap-on-the-back of truly fine Texan Barry Corbin. "Welcome to Libbiville!" he hails, and up two-steps a country fiddle straight out of Coal Miner's Daughter. Liner notes credit Brendon Anthony and none other than legendary Johnny Gimble. Then comes a voice honky-tonk's dreams are danced to. "He took my rubber duck, and left his tattoo on the table," sasses Libbi Bosworth. "I'd like to come within 100 miles of something stable." All aboard!
The spry, Hill Country Flyer shuffle of "South Texas Highway" sails through the station next, a full head of steam built on Chip Nolan's accordion, Lloyd Maines' pedal steel, and Gurf Morlix's tangy harmony. John Sieger's diamond rio in the rough, "Disappearing Ink" ("read your love letters in disappearing ink"), skips to the jukebox on Paul Skelton's jitterbugging guitar via track three. "Highway 59," meanwhile, a dry-eyed eulogy for Bosworth's alcoholic father, is the very definition of grimace in your beer.
"Man Overboard," a Tammy Wynette-style nogoodman duet with Toni Price, the sultry jazz croon of "Baby Your Baby," and eyelash-batting "Straight to My Heart" spell it out plain and simple: Men, can't live with 'em, can't drown 'em. Welcome to Libbiville, the unofficial capital of traditional, A-town country music. Just in case there's any doubts whatsoever, "Back Home in Texas" pinpoints the source of Bosworth's affections.
"You may have heard of it," writes the singer in Libbiville's booklet. "Bluebonnets. Cowboys. Heat that could refry your beans. Boob jobs. Pickup trucks with shotguns in the window. Okay, so it ain't all pretty, but it's home. There are three songs about Texas on this record, but while I'm the first one to wave the Texas Flag (or wear it), they're really about being home, in a place where I feel I belong. Texas is the place I have come back to over and over: when Hollywood lost its glitter, when New York seemed too distant, when Nashville didn't need me.
"I've been all over this great state. Of course I have my favorites: Gruene Hall on a Saturday night when it's a sweltering 100 degrees -- inside. The Continental Club at 1:30am on a Sunday night, getting my boots set on fire by Shoeshine Charley. The former Henry's Bar & Grill, smelling like five kinds of cigarette smoke, with a Shiner Bock in one hand and a pickled egg in the other."
There's more, too. Bosworth's pickled ode to Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "Pine Box," and the dusty-road ramble of Bobby Braddock's "Something to Brag About," with Bosworth and Don Walser making eyes at each other. Closing time softens with "Good Luck Charm." Brandishing 10 of 13 tracks proliferated by Bosworth, plus cameos from a bevy of local town and country stars like Bruce Robison, Casper Rawls, Gary Primich, and Earl Poole Ball, Libbiville bests the country queen's divine 1997 debut Outskirts of You if only because it's completely her affair, right down to Bosworth's red, white, and blue painted toenails on the back of the CD.
"Thank y'all for stopping by," waves Corbin 43 minutes later. "C'mon back."
Bosworth notwithstanding, some of us never left.
"How good is Libbi Bosworth?" repeats Don Walser. "I think she's the best thing around. Very good, very talented, very good songwriter. I think she's a sweet lady."
Something to Brag About
The Derailers' Tony Villanueva reads from the same script.
"She's great," repeats Villanueva through the every-fifth-word Morse code of his cell phone, the band somewhere near San Francisco. "She's got a wonderful voice, she's a great songwriter, and she has a great, positive essence that comes through her music. In other words, she's great. She's awesome. I remember seeing her at Henry's when we first got to town. Incredible."
Paul Skelton, who along with Casper Rawls is Bosworth's main guitar foil -- Keith Richards to Cornell Hurd's Mick Jagger for 26 years and counting ("it's like the Hell's Angels, once you're in ...") -- echoes the growing chorus of Libvillians.
"How good? I don't want to offend anybody, but I think she's the best of all of them. For a couple of reasons. One of them, I think, is that because of the way she's lived her life and the things she's been through, she's the real thing. She writes from experience.
"I don't know a lot about her relationship with her father, but I do know I was in the studio when she cut a song on her first record called 'My Old Man.' It was just her and Casper. She sang it once, and that's all there was. It was one of those songs that was meant to be sung and cut once."
Forced to describe Bosworth for a herd of local country music fans that never stampede themselves over to one of her infrequent local performances, Skelton draws a blank.
"A cross between Chrissie Hynde and Loretta Lynn," he says finally. "We've played gigs that rocked our brains out. She can do whatever she wants; she can do a jazz tune, she can do whatever, but because of her upbringing, because she's a Texan -- which means a lot of things -- they'll always be the country music side of it.
"It's what she's come back to. It's what she was raised with. If you're a little girl that grows up in a bar, it's what you hear. In the same way Wayne Hancock is the real thing, Libbi's the real thing."
The only thing, more like. While Austin boasts more quality country acts than unemployed dot-commers, it's mostly a boy's club: Derailers, Don Walser, Dale Watson, Damon Bramblett (and non "D"-lights), Wayne Hancock, Roger Wallace, Chris Wall, Asleep at the Wheel, (and "W"-impaired) Cornell Hurd. The gals are harder to list: Kimmie Rhodes, Susanna Van Tassel, Marti Brom, Karen Poston. Kelly Willis, like Toni Price and Austin forebears Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith, has quietly transcended country music.
"There are plenty of female country singers in Austin," asserts Casper Rawls, "but none of them has the same package as Libbi -- the voice, the singing, her choice of songs. I don't know that there's many people that do. I'm not really an 'old-school' guy, but growing up in Texas and seeing that stuff in honky-tonks, she's definitely from the school of belting it out. There's not many of those left -- male or female -- 'cause the honky-tonks are so gentrified."
James White owns a honky-tonk, but the only thing "gentrified" about the world-famous Broken Spoke is Willie Nelson's bus when it's parked out front. White also reels off a passel of local female country singers, including Pauline Reese, "Rachel With High Horse," and Tracie Lynn, but concedes Bosworth may be the best. He recalls seeing her at his historical dancing rink for the first time a decade back, onstage with another C&W homeboy, Alvin Crow.
"I liked it!" booms White. "I tell you what, I thought she was one of the best female singers in this area. You know me, I like the twang to it. She's got a great voice."
Steve Wertheimer, owner of the gentrified backwoods boogie shack known as the Continental Club, as well as one of Bosworth's most ardent local patrons, pays the singer the ultimate compliment by saying she's good enough to share the stage with the ultimate old-school country/rockabilly queen, Wanda Jackson.
"There are few girls that sing country music like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette -- pure country," explains the Continental Op. "Susanna's one and Libbi's one. I get calls from girls who think themselves country singers, but it seems they're more pop than the type of stuff Libbi and Susanna are doing. That genuine, cry-in-your-beer country stuff."
There's more, says Susanna Van Tassel.
"Libbi's one of the smartest people I know," she says, "and has a lot of savvy as far as the music business. Along with that, she's all heart. Totally determined. She has so much joy for music. All that taken together is very appealing, very affecting. Libbi's great."
The infant in Libbi Bosworth's arms, being fed in the front room rocker of the singer's centrally located Austin abode, is the reason Van Tassel says her, Bosworth, and Marti Brom don't have higher local profiles: Motherhood takes "reconfiguring" a career in music. In fact, swaying serenely in the morning light, Bosworth is doing very little to evoke booze-soaked visions of roadhouse nights gone by.
Until she answers with her son's name, that is: Hank. Hank Robert. Not Henry, Hank. Correction. Country music resides here. It runs in the family, apparently; since his August birth, Hank's up all night and sleeps all day.
"He's gonna be a musician," Bosworth bursts out laughing with characteristic exuberance. "Please be a doctor," she coos into Hank's tiny, scrunched face. "Please."
Sam Scaief, Bosworth's husband, a Detention Enforcement Officer with the U.S. Border Patrol in Laredo, is up for the weekend, but out with 3-year-old Sam Jr., the couple's first child. The two met in Austin about the time Outskirts of You came out. She worked for an engineering firm, he was the FedEx delivery guy.
"I thought, 'There's husband number two,'" quips Bosworth. "'He's got a job.'"
Her first husband, guitarist Bill Dwyer, got Nashville in the d-i-v-o-r-c-e, while Bosworth returned to Austin to finish album number one. By that point, the singer thought she was through packing and unpacking. Born in Dallas, raised in Galveston, Bosworth, the youngest of six, had begun her travels at the age of 16, believing Hollywood held more promise for a lifelong extrovert than high school. A spread in Cosmopolitan on boarding houses for women on either coast clinched the deal.
Bosworth was back in Texas a year later, but after the homesickness passed, she turned 17 in Beverly Hills, working briefly at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. Two years later, on a dare, the fledgling entertainer packed a bag, trundled up the cat, and flew to New York to investigate the boarding-house situation. She stayed long enough to earn a college degree, but the closest she came was a semester at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Following a thankfully brief flirtation with punk rock ("one band, two gigs, six or seven names"), a Roseanne Cash tape landed Bosworth in Galveston searching for her root music, and then once more in L.A., where Lucinda Williams, Mandy Mercier, and Dwight Yoakam, among others, were setting down their own roots. That's where Bosworth hooked up with Dwyer and began belting out country music, one of their groups featuring future Austin honky-tonker Roy Heinrich.
"That's when I knew I would never do any other kind of music seriously," says Bosworth. "I knew what my voice was for."
As did Dwyer, so after a short layover in Salt Lake City, the pair settled in Austin in 1991. Two years and no brass ring meant relocating to Nashville, but Bosworth was back in CenTex shortly after her father's death in 1994. Outskirts of You is dedicated to T.P. "Bubba" Bosworth, while Libbiville honors the singer's mother, Doris Jean.
"My dad was a very bad alcoholic," says Bosworth, as candid today as she was in a Chronicle interview shortly after his death (auschron.com/issues/vol16/issue3/music.libbi.html). "Very belligerent, very abusive -- to everyone in my family, especially my mother, but also the kids. I probably got the least of it, because I was the baby. Lots of fistfights in our house, lots of name-calling, lots of, 'You're not good enough.'
"My mother set this example: No matter what happened, she was gonna get through it. I think that's why I have this real intense survival instinct. That's part of it. The part why I'd like to have a very grounded, normal life. I try to surround myself with people like that. It's really important for me to have a family, to have a job."
Asked whether it's too obvious to draw a line between the heartbreak of the best country music and her own circumstances, Bosworth doesn't hesitate for a moment.
"Oh no," she declares. "I'm the first to admit it's a total therapy for me. Ever since the first day I started singing, I was like, 'Wow, this feels great!' A lot of the songs I was singing were songs I learned going to bars with my dad, so I was working out lots of stuff. I still am. A lot of the pain is gone now, but you're always working out something. It was a total attraction, there was no line. I was just too stupid to know it.
"I was like, 'Okay, I don't want to have anything to do with Texas, or country music. I'm gonna go become an actress. Then I'm gonna go to New York and sing in a punk band. Then I'm gonna take some more acting lessons. Then all of a sudden, it was staring me in the face."
So was another round of trials and tribulations, it turns out. After finally completing Outskirts of You, then falling in love with a stable, non-musician type, Bosworth deserted Austin once again in 1998 for the car-killing desert near San Diego, her husband's career path leaving her hours away from the El Lay stages she hoped to commute back and forth to. She stayed five months before flying home for a visit, her 1-year-old son in tow.
"I knew in my head I wasn't coming back," admits Bosworth. "So did my husband. He says, 'I knew when I put you on that plane that you weren't coming back.' And it wasn't like I wanted to split up with him, I just wanted to be singing again."
Which came with a heavy price: single parenthood. To make matters worse, a litany of woes beset Bosworth during the next 24 months, including a hard-to-diagnose thyroid problem, equally bewildering vocal-cord mayhem, and simply paying rent. Commuter marriages are no picnic either, in case you hadn't heard. As Bosworth explains on LibbiBosworth.com, "I felt like it was Libbi v. The World."
Last year, the family was reunited in a border town closer to home, but then her Web site's frighteningly hilarious "Libbi Does Laredo" diary leaves no doubt the singer's unwillingness to take a bullet for big Sam's loyalty to the INS. This spring, Bosworth rented a quaint, one-story home in a quiet, leafy green neighborhood just off Guadalupe. Have the hurdles been cleared, a new threshold crossed?
"I'll be honest," says Bosworth in an uncharacteristically grave tone. "For the last five years, I've felt like someone was serving me a plate of shit. I was like, 'Okay, I guess I'll eat it.' And you get finished with it, and it's like, 'Here's some more for you.' It's still a little bit like that, but it's gotten a lot better ...
"I feel like I've had all these battles that I've had to win. I'm really stubborn. I don't like being told I can't do something. I don't like being told by my body, 'You can't sing today, ha ha.' I know I'm walking through a door, what's on the other side remains to be seen.
"I guess what I'm trying to say, without getting too neurotic and coming down too hard on myself, is that I'm 36, I'm overweight, but if people want me, I'm here. I may not sing that great today, but I'm still gonna go out there and do my 100% best. Hopefully, in the next six months, year, I'll have these things resolved -- things that I can't put my life on hold for until they're resolved."
A week later, behind the autumn tarp enclosing the midtown Central Market's outdoor stage, Bosworth and band are giving 110%. Her voice, on the other hand, isn't holding up its end of the bargain. Not that anyone notices, the busy supper crowd of young urban parents staving off the cool evening air by chasing their tots. Bosworth and company, meanwhile, are trying to get the absent soundman to turn off the overhead heater. The thermonuclear pulse just makes Paul Skelton's playing more ornery.
Bosworth leads the boys through the shining star of Outskirts of You, "Don't Call Me Crazy," then Libbiville's "Ha Ha Ha" and "Highway 59." Her voice manages little projection, though by the time she launches into another new one, "Necessary," the band has picked up the slack. A mother holding her 3-year-old dances in front of the stage, the youngster's dazzled smile matching Bosworth's. When the song ends, the singer steps to the microphone.
"I have a brand-new baby at home," she announces radiantly. "His name's Hank."
Any Texan named Hank would appreciate Outskirts' "Honky Tonkin'," which rears up next -- especially one whose grandfather is most likely the song's subject. A few instrumentals, "Disappearing Ink," and "Pine Box" drive the evening's first set home, Bosworth's voice booting up toward the end. At the break, a man inquires about CDs. Informed of two different discs, he wonders which one's better suited to a first-timer. Get both, murmurs someone from Bosworth's entourage. He chooses Libbiville.
Tough choice, agrees Matt Eskey, who financed Outskirts of You on his credit cards as proprietor of Freedom Records, a now-dormant local indie that had the infinite good taste to release debuts from the likes of Bosworth, Beaver Nelson, Jon Dee Graham, and the Derailers. Spending most of his time maintaining a mail order, manufacturing, and wholesale label clearinghouse with another local indie-preneur, Lazy SOB Save Sanger, Eskey estimates that sales of both Bosworth releases are among the top sellers on TexasMusicRoundup.com.
"I love the Libbiville," says Eskey. "It's hard to make a good follow-up record, and I think she did. Libbi's new one has been a great seller, one of the best sellers in the catalog. Her record may be the biggest-selling one in the catalog. Her and Roger Wallace. That's saying lot.
"How good is she? I think she's as good as there is. She's a great songwriter; she has a point of view, which all the great ones do. She's a great performer, too. She's a beautiful person, inside and out."
That she is. Welcome to Libbiville.
Libbi Bosworth opens for Wanda Jackson at the Continental Club, Friday, October 26.