I Before E

Cosmic Soulman Rusty Wier, Still Dancing After All These Years

I Before E
Photo By John Carrico

It's the Thursday prior to Mother's Day, and Rusty Wier is about to play one of the shows of his life for 50 or so people at the Saxon Pub.

Andy Tarrant, Wier's longtime bassist, hitches his instrument high on his chest and falls in step with the bandleader's acoustic strumming. Cole El Saleh kicks in on the piano as Larry Nye's electric guitar and Jeremy Bow's drums follow suit. The loping rock beat starts heads bobbing and toes tapping.

Sitting tall on a stool front and center is Rusty Wier, "6-foot-5 with boots and hat." Next to him on a small table, a row of tequila shots. He holds his black acoustic guitar and gives the audience a boyish grin, just as he's done every Thursday night, week in and week out, month after month, for the past 12 years. That's more than 600 shows in one club and Wier approaches each one with the same affable professionalism. Once upon a time, he sat on the pinnacle of success and has the double platinum record to show for it, but he is, as he will tell you, just an entertainer.

"I been in bed with Eliza Jane all day," sings Wier in his distinct, soulful twang. When he reaches a punchline in the melody or the lyric, Wier kicks out one long leg for effect, like a rider reigning a racing steed.

In the front row, a leggy brunette with obviously fake but stylish big hair rises and slithers into a snake dance. She dances with most of the men in the front room before the night is over, but for now, she's entrancing an aging jock in a polo shirt.

"She's gonna wear y'all out," winks the evening's entertainment at her suitors before introducing the previous song as "Eliza Jane" from his new album I Stood Up. It's his eighth album, the first recording in five years, as solid an effort as his own personal favorite, 1976's long out-of-print Black Hat Saloon, or his 1974 classic, Stoned, Slow, Rugged.

"If everybody in the world bought just one copy," he ribs the audience while displaying the new CD, "I'd be rich."

"Woooo!" hollers an exuberant young woman in a straw cowboy hat and bleached blue jeans. Wier offers a devilish grin and raises a shot glass for "Quervo's Gold" from '97's Are We There Yet? He follows with a few other crowd pleasers and then invites singer Tommy Elskes onstage for a duet of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody." It's dedicated to Wier's mother, noted as "one of her favorite songs," and rendered with heartfelt tenderness and lovely harmony.

Wier plugs the new album again when he sings the rousing title track, "I Stood Up." The song feels like an instant classic, one that will reside in the singer's hefty catalogue for eternity, but what's most striking is his voice. Rusty Wier has the voice not of a country crooner but a soul singer. It possesses that rich, thick quality suited as much for gospel and blues as Otis Redding covers like "Try a Little Tenderness."

Such covers are welcome, but the audience loves his originals like "Quervo's Gold" or the ever-popular "I Hear You Been Laying My Old Lady." When he announces the last song of the night, everyone know what it's gonna be. Wier closes every performance with "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance," Bonnie Raitt's double-platinum hit from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. It's been covered innumerable times, but it remains Wier's signature song.

After the last "Dance," Wier steps from the stage onto the floor and circulates among the audience, grinning, introducing himself, posing for pictures, shaking hands, and giving out hugs. The clubgoers love the personal attention, and Wier is generous with it.

These fans have sustained him in a career entering its fifth decade. Perhaps 30 or so made it to the end of the set, but he treats each one with respect and gratitude. It's just another show, but it's a Rusty Wier show, and that means the entertainment value is as high as the songwriting standard.

I Before E
Illustration By Kerry Awn

Rusty Wier's songs can't quite be pigeonholed in any one way. They are folk-rock at the base, layered with liberal doses of country and blues, and peppered by the lyrical humor of a back porch poet. His music has been called cosmic, progressive, and rootsy. It was pure Americana before the term was popular.

Call it Rusticana.

Ride a Stick Horse

The next afternoon, Friday, Rusty Wier is finishing the last of a large platter of shrimp on rice at Serrano's on Ben White. The restaurant is a favorite of his, and he allows that he eats there at least weekly. "An old dog goes where he's petted best," he quips, refilling his glass of ice tea -- no sugar or lemon -- from the frosty pitcher on the table.

A boy's grin rises on his white-bearded face, lined like soft leather and framing bluebonnet blue eyes. He tips back his riverboat gambler's hat, a trademark since the Seventies. Its abbreviated crown is black straw with a black felt brim. A silver pin with the initials RW adorns the middle and guitar picks flank the hatband. "My summer hat," he calls it, acknowledging an all-felt one for winter.

In many ways, Wier has the dream career. He's as crucial to the foundation of Austin's fabled songwriting reputation as Townes Van Zandt, but doesn't tour relentlessly like Willie Nelson, "unless somebody wants to pay me a tremendous amount of money. I can be bought," he wisecracks.

Wier is also one of the founding fathers of the "Austin Sound," along with Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Martin Murphey, and Steven Fromholz. He collects regular royalties for his "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance," and has appeared on Austin City Limits three times. And he's something none of them can claim to be: A dyed-in-the-Lone-Star-wool Austinite.

Truth be told, the 56-year-old performer has lived in Austin only since he was six days old. The only son of Dorsey and Owana Wier, Rusty comes from strapping Texas German stock. His father owned the Tally Ho Restaurant at Seventh and Congress.

"When I was 3, I'd ride my stick horse through the restaurant between the tables while the pianist played 'The William Tell Overture.'" Relates Wier. "Been a ham ever since." It delighted the patrons and was Wier's first lesson in entertaining.

Besides the Tally Ho, Dorsey Otto Wier ("a good German name") was proprietor of the Plantation restaurant near UT, as well as "a coupla hotels in Houston. That was daddy. He ran hotels and restaurants and read books on farming." In sixth grade, the Wiers moved from Austin to a Manchaca farm and attended Porter Junior High. "I was the first boy in the girls' restroom in Porter Junior High. I didn't get caught, but everybody knew."

Music was not performed in the Wier household, but Rusty remembers seeing relatives playing fiddles and singing at family reunions. "I played pots and pans with spoons and finally they bought me a set of drums when I was 10. Then they turned around and bought me a soundproof room.

"My parents liked Dixieland music, so I played along to those records. The elementary school had a band, but I looked at them and thought, 'Use these fat sticks? And play on this pad? Nah, I have a set of drums at home.'"

By age 13, Wier was drumming for the Centennials. "They'd come pick me up, and mama and daddy'd say, 'He's gotta be back by 11.' We never made it on time." The Centennials led to 10 years of playing rock & roll in bands such as the Wig with Benny Rowe and Lavender Hill Express with Layton DePenning and future Gonzo man Gary P. Nunn. The experience broadened Wier's musical horizons.

"I sat in with some of the old black guys at Ernie's Chicken Shack on the Eastside, Webberville Road. Nineteen years old, and I'd go in there and buy me a bottle in a brown paper sack. My stepsisters used to go there with their dates. That's how I learned about it -- by eavesdropping. That's how I found out how to ask for booze, from their dates."

The rich, bubbling brew of Austin's Sixties scene mixed folk, blues, and rock, leaving Wier thirsty for more. "I wanted to call Lavender Hill Express 'the Blue Mountain Train.' I was trying to go country even then."

I Before E

Lavender Hill Express was a popular local act, playing everywhere from the Vulcan to teen canteens and sock hops. Ambition bit some of the members, however, and Wier was "not invited" to play with Nunn's new band when he left the group. Instead, the odd man out picked up a Mel Bay book of guitar chords and taught himself to play guitar.

Take This Job and Love It

"I decided to be a folksinger, so I went down to the Checkered Flag and auditioned for Seigel Fry and Allen Damron," recounts Wier. "At the end, they handed me a broom and said, 'Here, sweep the floor. You gotta sit and watch people and learn.' Two days later, I said, 'I'm ready.' Sweeping was like farm work, and I'd had enough of that."

Wier liked Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, two bands whose sounds are intrinsically roots-based. He also learned Hank Williams songs "because my daddy made me learn 'em. I know one verse and the chorus to just about every Hank Williams song. His favorite. Mine too, I guess. Simplicity. Simplicity is beauty."

Life in Austin was anything but simple, however. Its celebrated hippie lifestyle was under constant surveillance by police and harassment by local rednecks. Janis Joplin, the 13th Floor Elevators, Doug Sahm, Steve Miller, and other Texas musicians found the West Coast more to their liking. Wier stayed in Austin and formed a folk trio with DePenning and John Inmon.

Staying in Austin and being an Austinite didn't guarantee anything. As the Armadillo opened in 1970 and assumed its role as the Fillmore of the South, not everyone felt a part of it. "I wasn't part of the 'In Crowd,' you might call it, of the Armadillo, but I did play there a few times."

That potent mix of folk, rock, and blues created in Sixties Austin fermented. In 1972, Michael Murphey released Geronimo's Cadillac, followed by Cosmic Cowboy Souvenirs the next year. A sound was born, and so was its identity. But just as Willie & Waylon and the boys were getting back to the basics of life in Luckenbach, Wier tried California ... and returned quickly. His arrival back in Texas came with divine inspiration.

"I lived in L.A. for about six months on 38 cents. I left L.A., driving home. By the time I got outside Dripping Springs, I'd been gone for so long, it just came to me ... 'Don't it make you wanna dance, don't it make you wanna smile.'

"About once every 10 years, someone puts it out, most recently Chris LeDoux. Jerry Jeff before that." So did John Hiatt, Barbara Mandrell, Colleen Peterson, and of course Bonnie Raitt, whose version from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack was a massive hit. "I wish I could write about five more 'Don't It Make You Wanna Dance' songs.""

"Don't It Make You Wanna Dance" made Wier a star and heralded the beginning of the good times, good money, and good tours. Wier traveled with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Pure Prairie League, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Waylon Jennings, Commander Cody, Doug Kershaw, Ray Charles, and the Allman Brothers. Sometimes, as with George Strait, they were the openers and he the headliner.

"What really sticks out in my mind is touring with the Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Daniels. I really liked Tucker. A lot of country, but a lot of R&B. Toy Caldwell was a good buddy. A cool guy."

As Seventies whipped into a frenzy of albums, traveling, Austin City Limits appearances, and high times ("in more ways than one"), just as suddenly it was over. Blues bands were getting the local attention, and punk and New Wave was getting the national attention. The whole Cosmic Cowboy thing seemed, well, old hat. The Eighties had arrived.

The Saxon Cometh

"There was a camaraderie in the Seventies that was gone by the Eighties. You either did drugs or they did you. When they started doing me, I went, 'Hey, I snorted Peru.'"

Rusty Weir seems glad to be past those days, but he's not polishing his halo just yet. "I drink. I'll admit I smoke. That's about it. Still got half a brain left."

And it wasn't just the drugs or the roller-coaster success of "Don't It Make You Wanna Dance." The dynamic changed in music, and while he wasn't prepared for it, he rolled with it nevertheless.

I Before E

"In the Eighties, it was back to doing duos and singles. I finally got a band together, but it wasn't like the Seventies. Nothing ever stays the same. I tried to keep my integrity and not give up what I believe in. I believe in my music. If you sit around long enough, I'll play something you like."

The best thing about the Eighties for Rusty Wier was the Nineties. That's when the Saxon Pub opened. Ask Joe Ables about Wier and you're likely to get a long, low chuckle. As proprietor of the Saxon Pub for 12 years, the blond, broad-shouldered Ables recalls in an instant the day Wier walked in.

"We got this location, because we were too old for Sixth Street," explains the proprietor. "The crew was just setting in the stage and sawdust was flying and the door wasn't even in that day, just an opening. Here comes Rusty walking right into the place where the door went. He stepped up on the stage, looked around nodding, and said, 'This'll be it. Yep, this'll do.'"

Wier cracks a grin at the story. "Did I say that? Well, I feel comfortable with that place. I know everyone there. And I've been drinking on Joe Ables' tab for 12 years," he chuckles. "It's part of the deal. Joe'll say, 'Rusty, next one's on me.' And I'll say, 'It always has been.'"

"I use Rusty as a example to these younger acts, who get a little sniffle and then want to cancel," Joe Ables confides. "Even before it happens, I always tell 'em about him. I've seen him sicker 'n a dog, but hit the stage, and you'd never know it. A true professional."

Austin country up-and-comer Kevin Fowler is a "big-time" fan of Wier's. The former member of Dangerous Toys is now on the high road as a contemporary country artist and he appreciates the path Wier's trod.

"A lot of the young guys doing the Texas music singer-songwriter thing owe Rusty Wier," attests Fowler. "He's been plugging away for years; he led the way for a lot of us doing well. We played the Larry Joe Taylor family gathering for singer-songwriters a couple weeks ago in Meridian. Seven thousand people were there, and when Rusty walked out, they roared. You should have heard it: 'Wooooo!'" Fowler issues a low wind-tunnel sound in demonstration.

"His songwriting is genuine," avers Fowler. "And he's still got that outlaw edge. Never lost it. I dig him. He's the man. I hope I'm doing as good as him when I'm his age."

To Mother, With Love

The day after Mother's Day, Rusty Wier buried his mother.

Owana Wier died less than 12 hours before his Thursday show, and no one but the band, bar employees, and select friends knew. He dedicated his cover of "To Love Somebody" to her, and sang a few "mama" songs, but that's about all he let on. The audience applauded for the show, guffawed at the jokes, and sang along when they knew the words. And his band never gave it away.

"She didn't want me to miss the show," he said simply of his decision to play the night of her death.

And play he did. The entertainer grinned and bantered with the audience like always. Maybe he did a few more shots of tequila than usual, but who's counting? The best-kept secret in Austin is Rusty Wier's Thursday show at the Saxon Pub.

"It's the good thing about being not-so-popular," he reasons. "If I was popular, I couldn't do that. One night I'll play for 10,000, and the next night I'll play for 10. Just make 'em smile. It's what I'm there for. They're not there to hear all my problems. And I do my best to make 'em laugh."

In a town where the stalwarts of classic Seventies country who forged the genre's reputation are seldom here, Rusty Wier can be found weekly at one of the few clubs that upholds that songwriter tradition. His Thursday shows should be required attendance for anyone who fancies they know Austin music and on every music-loving tourist's list of sites to see and hear. Through rain, sleet, and dark of night, Rusty Wier delivers.

"I've had a wonderful time. I feel privileged. There's nothing else I could have possibly done in my life where I would have had as much fun and made a living. I play songs, I make music, that's what I love to do. And I don't have to kiss nobody's ass."

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