Hurd Is the Word
'Country Music's Worst Nightmare'
"We're gonna play, and some of you are gonna dance. Holy mackerel, it's the Cornell Hurd Band!"
Amid a brassy crush of guitars, piano, steel, fiddle, drums, bass, and sax, Cornell Hurd and his ninepiece band swing into "I Don't Care What It Is That You Did When You Lived in Fort Worth." In this atmosphere, heavy on the Mexican decor, icons, and portraits of south-of-the-border folk heroes, a wheezy blast of conjunto or norteño might be de rigueur, but the sound accompanying this Western swing number is the scraping of chairs on Jovita's wooden deck. Longhairs, grayhairs, and the occasional couple under 40 rise from their tables and step onto the dance floor for the first of two solid hours of music.
"Entertainment" might be a better word for what Hurd and company serve up every Thursday at the South Austin Mexican food mainstay, their sets encompassing a wide margin of music, dancing, probably dinner, and definitely laughs. Yuks go with CHB's sweeping swing like Western shirts and cowboy hats, though Hurd and his troupe balk at the notion of being called a comedy band. It's about the music, he insists, and he's right: Those packing the dance floor at Jovita's for the last 10 years or the band's monthly Broken Spoke gigs aren't looking for snake-oil schtick between the shuffles. They want to dance like the dickens. Cornell Hurd and his band of merry musicians are only too happy to oblige.
The guitars twang, the steel zings, the fiddle weeps, and the dance floor is shoulder-to-shoulder. Standing about 6 feet 4 inches in hat and boots, Hurd surveys the room and leans to the microphone.
"Welcome to Texas, where we still love our women."
The Hurd Mentality
Away from the weekly shows and behind the black felt cowboy hat and embroidered Western shirts is another Cornell Hurd. Not just the quick-witted California native who claims a Bay Area Music Award for his work with the Mondo Hot Pants Orchestra. Not just the former hard-drinking, coke-snorting party guy who survived a stint in rehab. Not just the executive headhunter by day who wears Hawaiian shirts in his South Austin gumshoe office. Not just the family man who brags about his wife and children. We're talking about the true-blue patriot who, with his family, visits the grave of B-24 bomber pilot 2nd Lt. Lloyd Hughes in San Antonio every Memorial Day.
"Many people consider me an expert on this, but I just hang with the experts," he says. "Go to August 1, 1943, World War II. We sent bombers at low level, zero altitude, to try and cut six months off the war in Ploiesti, Romania. There were horrible losses, and they gave five medals of honor that day to airmen. They probably could have given away 15.
"One of the guys killed that day was a Texan, Lloyd 'Pete' Hughes, from Corpus Christi. They named a building after him at A&M. Every Memorial Day we go put flowers on his grave at Fort Sam Houston. Danny Young took that picture. His dad was flying next to Hughes when he was killed," explains Hurd, holding up a framed snapshot of the grave site, then beams as he points to two figures in the picture. "And these are my boys, the rock guitar players."
Hurd's love of military planes and fascination with them is evident in the decor of his office just off South Congress. Collaging the sky blue walls are historical photos, newspaper clippings, album covers of Red Foley and Ernest Tubb, memorabilia, the Chronicle cover with Doug Sahm, postcards, and numerous drawings by his sons, who have followed in their dad's bootsteps playing music. Debra Hurd has gone even further, trading in her stint as band keyboardist for motherhood and a successful career as a painter (Cornell is distantly related to New Mexico artist Peter Hurd).
Likewise his desk is a mountain range of papers, books, CDs, and other tools of his trade. Yet another section of the office is dedicated to Debra's vibrant prints and oils. A tall man in his late 50s with a thatch of straw-colored hair and glasses, he leans back in his desk chair. It creaks in protest, but he's comfortable and stretches his legs as he folds his hands over his belly. He's got a story to tell and maybe a bone to pick.
"I worked as a headhunter in the semiconductor business for years," he nods. "No one I ever talked to said they wanted to come here because of UT or Longhorn football. No one ever said they wanted to come because of the state Capitol. I never met anyone doing that job who didn't know that Austin is where the music is. And look at this!"
He snatches a map from the recent NAMM convention and rips it open, pounding a broad finger on it.
"The local convention bureau gave this to people coming into town! Look at the places they highlight here Sixth Street! It doesn't even go to South Austin! This is the live music capital of the world, and they pass this out. It's not just shot bars and tattoo parlors. It's music, and people come to enjoy the music. When we forget this, the magic will be gone. Music is the face of this town."
The South Austin Way
If music is the face of this town, then the Cornell Hurd Band is the face of South Austin. For 10 years, they've attracted tourists and townies to Jovita's on Thursdays with a wicked twist of Western swing, pure-dee country, and a lightning bolt of rock & roll. Hurd jokes that they're "country music's worst nightmare," but Nashville should get on its knees and thank him for reading the honky-tonk bible and adhering to its golden rule: Thou shalt not forsake thy dancers.
To the bandleader, this is a no-brainer. It's what any good C&W group should do. With his assemblage of nine crack musicians, handpicked for their chops and quirk, dancers are second only to players.
"I have a lot of guys who play music because that's what they do," he says. "There's no thrill like being onstage. Nothing like it. I feel sorry for people who can't be up there when the band is swinging hard and the audience is dancing. That's a stone-cold groove.
"We're cowboys, and we play Western swing and Texas music. No bones about that. We play shuffles and waltzes and two-beats. It's the core of what we do. You take away that, and it's not going to happen out there. All those people get up and dance. It's not kids getting up to dance, it's people who know how to two-step and waltz. This is why I came to Texas. The dance tradition never went away. This is the South Austin way of life.
"Unless it's a sit-down gig, which we don't do very often, I want them to dance. So when it comes time in the show that there's a funny line, funny phrase, I'm watching their faces to see if they'll react. If they laugh, chuckle, or smile when I say it, then I know they can hear what I'm saying through the PA system. Or they're not too stoned. Then I can get away with playing 'Genitalia of a Fool.'"
Hurd prides himself in CHB's stellar lineup. The current band includes steel player Scott Walls, fiddler Howard Kalish, guitarists Paul Skelton and Blackie White, bassist Randy "the Badger" Glines, drummer Lisa Pankratz, rubboard player Danny Young, pianist T Jarrod Bonta, and saxophonist Del Puschert. Many of them sing, and on any given night, guest stars line up for their moment of glory in the band's spotlight. In addition, soundman Allen Crider, band secretary Judy Julian, and song tracker Alana Foster operate as CHB's unofficial staff.
Then there's the core of women who pass the tip jar weekly, including Dr. Hannah Rittering, director of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for Women. No wonder Hurd holds an annual staff dinner.
"What I wanted," waves Hurd, "was a place you could take your family or guests from out of town and say, 'It's Thursday night let's go see Cornell at Jovita's.' In 10 years, we've played almost 1,000 songs. Alana started counting them when we got to around 500.
"But it's tough to survive in this town. Every one of these guys I play with and the alumni of the band all share the success of this band."
That's no small number, either. On www.cornellhurdband.com, alongside the songs titles, is a listing of former bandmembers and guest musicians numbering almost 175. It's an impressive array that includes Commander Cody, Lazy Lester, Sal Valentino, Leon Rausch, Glen Tillbrook, and Johnny Bush. Local luminaries include Kinky Friedman, Pinetop Perkins, Bill Campbell, Maryann Price, Floyd Domino, Marcia Ball, Billy Dee, and Clifford Antone.
The last name on that list makes Hurd pause. Thursday nights at Jovita's was a regular stop for Antone, as was Hardcore Country Tuesdays at the Broken Spoke.
"We'd play, 'I Don't Know Why I Love You but I Do' every week for him, then do Nat King Cole's 'Ramblin' Rose.' The Thursday before he died, we played 'I Don't Know Why I Love You but I Do' for him, then stopped. He was dancing with Judy. 'Where's "Ramblin' Rose?"' he said. The next week he was gone. It hit everyone like a bolt from the blue.
"Clifford Antone's death was brutal. Clifford was nothing but a prince to us, always. If someone wants Austin to be a better place for musicians, try being more like Clifford Antone."
The Whoopee Cushion of Respect
Wanna get Cornell Hurd riled up? Suggest that the Cornell Hurd Band is a comedy act. He'll launch into a lengthy diatribe about why he's not Pagliacci in a Stetson. Respect is a whoopee cushion that's deflated as easily as it's blown up.
"I don't play music as a hobby," he states. "I make model airplanes as a hobby. I play golf as a hobby. And I have friends who are comedians. There's no way I could do that. No way. When people say we're funny, 95% of it is what I say in-between songs. It's just personality. I loved Mad magazine growing up. My father had a good sense of humor. He wasn't really a 'funny guy,' but he was a public speaker. I'm not afraid to say these things, and maybe I got that from my dad. I try to get the audience to understand who we are. And when we start playing, it's all business.
"Comedians, actors, musicians, they do it because they wanna be loved. Was I the class clown? Nah. Was I thought of as being funny? Yeah. But if you look at the course of my career, I've got all these records. Never, ever do I hear anyone refer to me as a songwriter, yet I have written and recorded probably more songs than 90 percent of the songwriters in this town."
A wise old tattoo artist once said that once you put the red clown nose on, it's hard to take it off. But what if the clown nose is applied by the audience? Hurd relates a story about Paul Skelton yanking off his shoe in Dallas and playing guitar with it. The audience loved it, then began showing up with objects for the guitarist to play guitar with. Hurd called a halt to the routine after a caulking gun was offered.
A good bandleader is many things. He's the heart, the brain, the soul of a band. He's the emcee and the father figure. He calls the tune and the shots. He may be the songwriter, producer, and arranger. Sometimes, he's funny.
"Country music used to be tongue-in-cheek humor," admits Hurd. "The Geezinslaws go there. That's a band that plays funny songs. The Uranium Savages. There's a lot of that classic country laughing-while-you're-crying in our music, but it's not just tear-in-my-beer. It wasn't until my divorce that I started writing like that. You can't really know it until you've been through it. It's not something you get over tomorrow. It stays with you and it hurts."
One of country music's most revered traditions is the corny title. Pun-heavy groaners like the Statler Brothers' "You Can't Have Your Kate (and Edith, Too)." Johnny Cash's "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart." Bobby Bare's "Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life." Jerry Reed's "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)."
"I will cop to intentionally making funny titles," shrugs Hurd. "I was driving down the road listening to a guy sing a song about Fort Worth. It was hot, I was tired. I said, 'I don't care what it is that you did when you lived in Forth Worth.' And I thought, well that's got good rhythm. But I can count all our funny songs on one hand: 'Genitalia of a Fool,' 'Brother, It's All Lunchmeat to Me.' 'Your Ex-Husband Sent Me Flowers.' Is it any funnier than Junior Brown doing 'My Wife Thinks You're Dead'? Is the humor more important than the music?
"On my tombstone they will probably write 'The Genitalia of a Fool.'"
If It's Thursday, This Must Be Cornell
"Is anyone unclear about how this works?"
Cornell Hurd addresses the Jovita's audience, where the waitresses have more tattoos than the band. He explains that no cover at the door means Please Feed the Tip Jar and Be Generous, Because There Are 10 People Playing Up Here.
The tip jar. It's become the bane of Austin musicians as more and more clubs have gone to a play-for-tips policy. Some musicians are insulted by it, regarding it as a shakedown. Others simply don't want to beg for money. Some patrons are bemused by it, especially if they've paid a cover and have a tab going. Others are just chintzy, dropping $1 into the jar. After all, it said "no cover" at the door. For Hurd, it's a challenge.
To ease the pain of parting with the green, he offers novelties such as inflatable hammers and saxophones, with a $5 or larger tip. There's there the ever-popular Wives of Presidents limited edition whoopee cushion. "Authentic sounds from the real seat of power," brags the label. It works, too, making one more willing to fork over a few extra bucks.
"No excuses," announces Hurd. "If you've got a $100 bill, we'll take it. If you've only got a check, write it. If you've just got a credit card, we'll give it to Blackie, and you'll get it back next week."
The bandleader tilts his head as the tip jars begin their rounds. The brim of his black hat shades his face against the blue spotlight as he looks back at Paul Skelton and nods. The band launches into "Take the Chains From My Heart," and the dance floor fills once again.
"Welcome to Texas," Hurd's commanding baritone booms. "Get up and dance."