The Whole Bow
Alvin Crow plays it his way, always has
If you're looking for a dogfight or cockfight, ask Alvin Crow. If you're looking for an argument about pit bulls, politics, or baseball, find Alvin Crow. If you're looking for the best fiddle player in Austin, Alvin Crow's your man.
He's an opinionated cuss, that Alvin Crow. Born and raised on the south side of Oklahoma City, where Wanda Jackson was the local kid done good, he grew up in a country-music-loving family then embraced rock & roll as a teen. He left Oklahoma and traveled south to Texas, adopting the capital city just in time to make his mark in the heyday of progressive country. If you're looking for someone who had the music business on a platter but walked away from record contracts and international tours to stick close to home, meet Alvin Crow.
It would be easy to think of this Broken Spoke fixture as an unrepentant redneck. His latest album is called White Trash Opera, and he's pictured on the front standing next to a pickup in front of a trailer. Cradling a shotgun. That's the image a life of a hardcore country has wrought, yet he's more akin to the Ralph Lauren shirts he wears with the sleeves torn off: Quality product with rough edges.
"I can't remember a time when there wasn't music all around me," Alvin Crow states in his flat Oklahoma drawl. The 54-year-old fiddler perched on a stool beside his computer in his South Austin studio, where eye-popping panels of zebra print line the walls. His trademark ripped-sleeve Western shirt displays well-built arms honed as much by weights as a lifetime of fiddling around. Naturally blond hair is tinged with white and behind the early Buddy Holly-style glasses, the years only show when he smiles and his eyes crinkle at the corners. In the movie of his life, he should be played by Gary Busey.
The oldest son of Para Alvin Crow and Laura May Tigner, he describes a childhood filled with musicians on both sides of his Comanche-Irish family. He proffers a specific tip of the Stetson to his paternal grandfather for teaching him fiddle at age 4. At 5, Crow landed a seat in the Oklahoma Symphony.
"My grandfather on my father's side was a well-known musician around Oklahoma," begins Crow. "He played with Wylie & Gene, who wrote a song called 'My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again.' He did studio work, played fiddle and guitar, harmonica, mandolin a little of everything."
Crow's young ear was attuned to the music around him, and he eagerly pursued an instrument so he could join the family fun. Relatives such as his Aunt Shirley Fae Crosby sang what he calls the local hits of West Texas, the Panhandle, and Oklahoma, 1890-1910.
"True folk music," asserts Crow, "before Western swing, before the Thirties. Country music before commercialization."
The magic of radio roamed the flat, sweeping plains of the Panhandle, where WKY and KOMA out of Oklahoma City broadcast day and night. Rock & roll was in its infancy and one of its major proponents hailed from nearby Lubbock. Buddy Holly hit the charts with countrified rock and a passion to play, and like Crow, he too wore glasses, hardly a hallmark of rebel lifestyle. Yet when he exploded on the airwaves singing, "All of my love, all of my kissing, you don't know what you've been missing, oh boy!" young Crow understood instinctively.
"By the time I was about 15 or 16, I was playing in the symphony, was the fiddler in someone's country band, fronted my own rock & roll band, and had a folk act going. My family was very supportive of me. Before I could drive, they'd load up the station wagon and take us to gigs my parents were roadies! The only time they weren't supportive was when we'd practice in the garage and the cops would come. Which was pretty regularly."
Both sides of Crow's family spread out between Amarillo and Oklahoma City, a situation that allowed them to live in Sweetwater, Okla., and license farm trucks and equipment in Texas because it was cheaper. Crow moved to Amarillo for the first time after he graduated high school, but returned to Oklahoma City to pursue rock & roll.
The atmosphere in Oklahoma City was appealing only in the lyrics of "Route 66" in the late Sixties. The Easy Rider mythos took shape in Texas, but was evident all over. Muskogee, as Merle Haggard boasted in song, was a place where even squares could have a ball, but God help the longhairs who ran afoul of the law there or anywhere else in the Sooner State.
"Cops became very aggressive toward people with long hair," recounts Crow. "It was like a war going on. It was dangerous to have long hair anywhere in the South. My Amarillo bandmates once made the mistake of taking a girl home after a dance to one of the small towns in the Panhandle.
"The sheriff saw the long hair, pulled 'em over, took 'em out of the car, beat the crap out of 'em, shaved their heads, kept them in jail for three days, then kicked them out on the highway in the snow. Barefoot."
For the next few years, Crow bounced between Amarillo and Austin, but the third move to Amarillo in 1972 was also the last trip back to the Panhandle. This time, Crow took with him a new vision of country music that was simply a return to tradition. He formed a band, the Pleasant Valley Boys, named for "a little hick town" north of Amarillo.
"On the Dumbass Highway," chuckles Crow. "It's really the 'Dumas Highway,' but we all call it 'Dumbass.'"
For musical inspiration, there was Austin's Kenneth Threadgill playing hardcore country music, not country folk for hippies.
"While I was in Amarillo, someone had the brilliant idea to do a Woodstock for country music called the Dripping Springs Reunion. I went to it with my parents, saw Hank Snow, Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, as well as Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings. Kenneth Threadgill was there with Bill Neely, doing 'Coming Back to Texas,' and yodeled in harmony. It bowled me over. I thought, 'If a guy like that can make a living in Austin with that kind of country music, I'm getting my ass back to Austin.'
"The Pleasant Valley Boys' target audience was hippies even though we were playing redneck bars. The wall between hippies and rednecks was 100 miles high back then. It was serious stuff, but I moved in both hippie and redneck circles.
"I used to play honky-tonks with wire in front of the bandstand and bouncers. Places that if you didn't want to participate in a free-for-all fight, then you left before the bartender called last call. The Cotton Club in Lubbock was that way. The Real Last Mile in East Texas. People would stand up at the drop of a hat and pop the person next to them. It was a tradition of violence you don't see today."
The Pleasant Valley Boys played their last gig as an Amarillo band, leaving for the final time New Year's Day 1973. That was a remarkable year for Austin country-folk-rock. Crow credits its popularity to a trio called Rusty, Layton, and John Rusty Wier, Layton DePenning, and John Inmon.
"People got to know that sound as progressive country. They oughta be paying royalties to Rusty Wier, 'cause he started it."
Freda & the Firedogs were also among the acts emerging that year, as was a San Antonio native who'd twice hit the charts in the Sixties and relocated to Austin. Doug Sahm had also been the poster boy for a peculiar, Southwestern crossbreed of garage rock that evolved into an indefinable, unmistakably Texas sound. For Crow, it was an unforgettable reminder of the rock & roll of his youth.
The Pleasant Valley Boys easily established themselves throughout the Seventies with regular gigs at Bee Cave's Soap Creek Saloon and appearances on Austin City Limits. Crow dabbled in rock & roll side projects like Nyquil Roger & the Razors, but when the Pleasant Valley Boys' first album was released, "Texas Kid's Retirement Run" became enormously popular on the local circuit.
Crow's friendship with Doug Sahm grew closer when, spurred by the early punk/New Wave revival of garage rock anthems in the late-Seventies, Sahm re-formed the Sir Douglas Quintet. Crow and Speedy Sparks joined the ranks of SDQ, along with original members Augie Meyers and Johnny Perez, and released the critically praised Border Wave in 1981. Yet the pace of touring and band pressure brought Crow to a life-changing decision. He left the band and came home to Texas.
"Border Wave was Doug trying to get into that New Wave niche," nods Crow. "It was a great record. Those songs were poppy, catchy. It should've been a hit. It wasn't. I've long since stopped trying to understand the record business."
"The screen door hadn't smacked Annetta [White] on the butt when Alvin started playing 'Honky Tonk Women,'" cackles Michele Murphy about Crow's recent flouting of the no rock & roll rule at the Broken Spoke after the owner's wife left (see sidebar).
Betty Wills Knows
Murphy's played and worked beside Crow as rhythm guitarist off and on since 1984. She's not the first female Pleasant Valley Boy, but she's the first to call Crow boss on the weekend then switch roles during the week. He teaches bands year-round at her Natural Ear Music School (austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2003-08-22/music_feature.html ), and is camp director at her summer music camp.
"Alvin is all muscle and sinew when it comes to playing fiddle," nods Murphy, describing Crow onstage. "Maybe it's a streak of Oklahoma City mean. Johnny Gimble and Howard Kalish are great musicians, but Alvin is a tough guy. And he knows 10,000 songs.
"Alvin is very much in control of what goes down onstage. We were playing the big dance hall in Johnson City, and the owner was a German who had a control booth over the bar. After the first set, he called Alvin over the loudspeaker to the booth. Alvin returned and his jaw was set. He said the owner didn't like the way we were taking our breaks and wants us on his schedule. So we did exactly what the man wanted.
"Then, two minutes before 1am, I saw Alvin look over his shoulder to the clock behind the bandstand. He was watching the sweep hand. He wound down that fiddle song to the very second that it turned 1am. That's what the man wanted, that's what the man got."
When it comes to teaching kids at Natural Ear, Crow eases up without loosening up. Teaching roots rock & roll is a throwback to his own youth, when getting a band together meant teaching his brother and neighborhood kids how to play. The emphasis on roots is most meaningful to Crow.
"We try to instill in them a historical perspective, that Ozzy Osbourne and the White Stripes didn't just fall out of the sky. They came from somewhere. We use Texas roots music Doug Sahm, Buddy Holly, Bobby Fuller. The kids know who Roky Erickson is, and they look at him with proper respect. And to the rest of the world, 'Two Headed Dog' is a new song."
"Two Headed Dog" isn't likely to appear on the set list at his Broken Spoke gigs, however.
"Annetta would like it to be all hardcore country, but she likes Buddy Holly," admits Crow. "She wants us to play 'I Fought the Law' and 'Texas Kid,' but she doesn't want us to play 'Honky Tonk Women' or 'We Gotta Get Outta This Place,' so if we do, it's usually in the third set after she's gone home."
Broken Spoke owner James White chuckles about his wife Annetta's hard line and credits Alvin Crow as a prime reason the venerable dance hall maintains its tradition.
"I had Bob Wills here in 1966, '67, and '68," remembers White. "He opened that front door right there and walked in with a cigar in his mouth and a fiddle under his arm. Cowboy hat on and ready to play. Betty Wills told me Alvin played the fiddle like Bob Wills more than anyone else. She herself said, 'That Alvin plays the whole bow, back and forth.' That meant a lot to her. That's a darn good compliment, 'cause Betty Wills, she knows."
White's also effusive in his praise for Crow's talent scouting. In 1975, the fiddler recommended Ace in the Hole, a popular San Marcos act whose lead singer was a local named George Strait. Ace in the Hole opened Crow's shows for five years. More recently, Crow recommended the Derailers, who also rank as favorites among Spoke-goers. Yet it's Crow's reverence for tradition that moves White and others.
"He can do Elvis, he can do Buddy Holly, he can do cowboy, he can do Western swing, he can do country, hardcore Jimmie Rogers stuff," testifies White. "I've had the Texas Playboys out here, and when they come, they all ask about Alvin and want him to get up there. He's Mr. Jukebox. You can't fool him playing 'Stump the Band.' He knows all the songs."
Crow is more modest about his three decades at the dance hall.
"The Broken Spoke exists because people are not getting their dose of country music either on the radio or at nightclubs," he says. "It's there to give people real country music. No popular stuff. It took me a while to get into the Spoke, but when Freda & the Firedogs and I started playing, James saw the light. He decided to change it to original but hardcore country music. He's kept it that way ever since, and now that's the Spoke's reputation. If they don't preserve it, who's going to?
"When I moved here, there were a dozen places like the Spoke around Austin. To say the Texas dance hall is in decline is an understatement, but thank God the Broken Spoke is holding the line."
There's no typical schedule for Alvin Crow these days. He might be lifting weights or at the computer overseeing his HardcorCountry fan list on Yahoo! (Yahoo! decided that the word "hardcore" only had sexual connotations, so Crow varied the spelling after they deleted his original list.) He might be rehearsing the Flames, his kid band, or booking the Mavericks, his side rock & roll project.
He might be up at 6am for baseball practice with his youngest son Josh, or over at the studio with another son, Jason, who plays with the Rockland Eagles and also teaches at Natural Ear. He might be talking with daughters Emily and Jessica, or son Adam. He might be consulting with his wife of 21 years, Stephani, about his oft-maligned favorite breed of dogs. He calls himself a pit-bull activist.
He could be headed to a nursing home or assisted living complex with his fiddle and Dixie, his beloved Staffordshire bull terrier. As part of his volunteer work, he'll take a felt-tip pen and draw a circle around Dixie's eye, because most of the elderly residents were raised on the Little Rascals, and she looks like the Rascals' dog, Pete. Crow says one of the things they miss the most in these homes is pets.
"Dixie is a well-trained therapy dog," Crow avers. "She schmoozes with the folks while I play the songs they may have heard as children, fiddle tunes from the Twenties like 'Red Wing,' 'Beaumont Rag,' 'Down Yonder,' and 'Sally Gooden.' At the end of the program, I call her up onstage and I start playing the song 'Dixie.' Normally, she'll 'sing' along as soon as she hears the first notes, and it brings the house down."
In the nearly 50 years of public performance that Alvin Crow counts as his career, he has few regrets and seldom looks backward. He's played Austin City Limits twice, appeared at Carnegie Hall, toured Europe, had his moments on the silver screen, and been voted into both the Texas Music Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
"I am a person not satisfied doing one or two things. I am active 'cause it's the way I have to be. That's why I gave up my recording contract and backed off the lifestyle. They wanted me to get on a bus and stay on a bus, just record and tour. That's good for a lot of people, but it's not good for me.
"I've got way too many things to do. My family, my kids, my dogs I'm not willing to give those things up. Willie, he loves touring. Ray Benson used to. But when I saw that life looming in front of me, I said, 'No, I'm going back to Texas to do what I do.'
"And here I am."