The Austin Chronicle


By Christopher Gray, September 10, 2004, Music

West Texas Waltz

Even 45 years after the infamous plane crash of Feb. 3, 1959, the legacy of Buddy Holly is still something of an enigma. There's the rock & roll visionary who directly influenced the Beatles and Rolling Stones; the inadvertent fashion icon with 20/800 vision whose distinctive eyewear inspired a young Elton John and, obviously, Elvis Costello; and the shy, down-to-earth Lubbock High graduate and former Cub Scout who loved honky-tonk and Western swing. Whoever he was, Holly, as several people remarked last weekend, "put Lubbock on the map."

Every Labor Day weekend since 2000, the city has toasted its most famous native son at the Buddy Holly Symposium, a four-day smattering of concerts, clinics, receptions, presentations, and panels radiating from the Buddy Holly Center, a converted railroad depot one block off Buddy Holly Avenue in downtown Lubbock. The unofficial theme of this year's symposium was Holly's background in country music, celebrated on the recent release of the Stay All Night: Buddy Holly's Country Roots CD. There's also the fact that, according to Buddy Holly Center director Catherine Prose, last year's gathering, which featured Bob Schneider, among others, skewed too rock & roll.

"The Fifties people were really put off by that," she said Friday evening in the center's tree-shaded courtyard. "So this year we wanted to make the nostalgists happy."

After a reflective acoustic set from Lubbock native and Austinite David Halley – Austin was also represented by Bob and Tucker Livingston and Patricia Vonne – the South Plains' most famous living musicians, the Flatlanders, popped in to warble three songs, including Stay All Night's "Long Time Gone." Friday's main course came courtesy of the West Texas Roots Project, a six-piece pickup outfit anchored by Stay All Night co-producer Tommy Allsup, a towering 73-year-old Oklahoman who backed Holly on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour before going on to play more than 10,000 sessions with Bob Wills and countless others. Between Wills standards like "Faded Love" and "Right or Wrong," Allsup recalled how he gave up his seat on the doomed airplane to Ritchie Valens after losing a coin flip (and later that 50-cent piece). He also introduced Holly's older brothers Larry and Travis Holley, who sang the old hymn "Softly and Tenderly" and joked that they were "charter members of Lubbock." Holly, born Charles Hardin Holley in 1936, was the youngest of four and therefore nicknamed "Buddy," while "Holly" was nothing more than a typo on his first recording contract.

Saturday, the action shifted to the International Cultural Center at Texas Tech University, where city officials presented recently passed Cricket Niki Sullivan's widow and son with a proclamation, and Allsup, the Holleys, and Holly's high-school sweetheart Echo McGuire signed autographs at a post-luncheon fan fair. Holly expert Bill Griggs moderated a panel on the aftermath of Holly's death with Allsup, Winter Dance Party drummer Carl Bunch, and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Musical star John Mueller, during which Griggs revealed that the real reason the plane crashed was ice on the wings, not pilot error. Allsup, meanwhile, discussed bassist Waylon Jennings' taking over lead vocals after the crash. "I knew when that tour was over that Waylon was going to be a star." During the following songwriter's panel, Holly's "widowed bride" Maria Elena, who danced up a storm at Mueller's closing hits set that night, watched from the audience in anonymity.

Buddy Holly may have put Lubbock on the map, but the future of the symposium in his honor is in doubt. The city of Lubbock owns and operates the Buddy Holly Center, and its budget is perpetually tied to what Prose dubbed "the age-old territorial cowboy fight." Further complicating matters is the $30,000 the city must pay the Holly estate each year for the right to use his name at symposium events outside the center. Even getting the word out has been difficult. Though she said attendance at the center had risen from 28,000 the first year to 43,000 in 2003, Prose said her marketing/promotion budget is minuscule, and plenty of locals are still unaware of its existence. The Lubbock City Council is scheduled to decide the center's fate at its Sept. 28 meeting.

But there's more to Lubbock than Buddy Holly. After their cameo at the center Friday, the Flatlanders played a sold-out show at the intimate Cactus Theater, balancing nuggets like "West Texas Waltz" and "If You Were a Bluebird" with lots of metaphysical banter and good-natured potshots at their hometown. "I think the reason we make fun of Lubbock so much is that we've come to realize how much we love it," drawled Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Just how much was evident in Lubbock native and Texas Rollergirl Amy Maner's documentary Lubbock Lights, which ponders the unusual amount of creative types to hail from the South Plains.

As best Lubbockites like Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, Tommy X Hancock, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and Bob Livingston can figure, the causes of such artistic fertility could be the land's stupefying flatness, the lack of much else to do, or, simply, that everyone is an alien, deposited in West Texas by UFOs sometime in the Fifties. Most people in the film and in the audience seemed to think No. 3 sounded best. Sitting in the Cactus balcony, watching Lubbock Lights for the first time as dad Bob provided commentary, Tucker Livingston was suitably amazed. "If this is what my roots are, no wonder I'm so crazy," he gasped.

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