Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir

'Willie Nelson: An Epic Life,' excerpt: 'Austin, 1972'

Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir
Photos by Todd V. Wolfson

The hippie chick didn't hesitate when the Open Road camper pulled over to offer her a ride just outside of Kerrville. The woman looked old enough to vote, but barely. She was certainly not the down-and-out variety of hitchhiker who once populated the sides of highways. She was a genuine Texas hippie chick – straight, long hair below her shoulders, no makeup, tight tank top, no bra, denim cut-off shorts, sandals, stash bag, macramé belt, redolent of patchouli oil, the whole package sunbaked and radiating an I-don't-give-a-shit attitude. She just wanted a ride to Austin.

The men in the camper required no discussion among themselves before pulling over to fetch the young woman with her thumb pointing east.

To the hippie chick, the men in the Open Road camper appeared to be older guys in their thirties and forties who looked sorta like bikers but sorta not, a rough bunch showing signs of wear and tear maybe, but with a modicum of cool, although they sure weren't hippies like she was. And yet, the aroma of righteous weed wafting from inside the camper got her attention before she even stepped inside.

A high time was had by all on the ride through the Hill Country. The country singer and his band and the hippie chick got along just fine. She was dropped off in the caliche dirt parking lot of a body shop near the corner of South First Street and Barton Springs in South Austin, just across the Colorado River from downtown, at the Armadillo World Headquarters, an old National Guard Armory that had been transformed into a hippie concert hall, beer garden, and cultural center.

Like the Avalon and the Fillmore in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Armadillo was all about the music and a shared tolerance for marijuana and psychedelic drugs. But unlike San Franciscans and hippies just about anywhere else, Texas hippies also embraced Lone Star and Pearl Beer and country music as a part of their twisted heritage. The Armadillo had already brought in a parade of talent that would otherwise have bypassed Texas, including Ry Cooder, Little Feat, Captain Beefheart, Taj Mahal, Dr. John the Night Tripper, and Frank Zappa. But there was a definite twang to many of the touring acts, such as the Flying Burrito Brothers, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Bill Monroe, and especially Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen. They were younger musicians raised on rock & roll but inspired by the country music their parents grew up with, a movement defined by the seminal 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the California folk-rock band the Byrds. This version of country was considered safe by hippies rather than the antithesis of the counterculture, which is how most mainstream country was regarded by the young hipsters.

The Armadillo and a smaller club in West Lake Hills, west of town, called the Soap Creek Saloon, where Doug Sahm ruled the roost, were the touchstones of the Austin version of the country-rock culture, where long hair, blue jeans, cowboy hats, boots, good pot, cold beer, and cheap tequila fit together naturally. If a line had been drawn in the sand, hippies and cowboys in Austin were hopping over it.

Willie had been noticing a few longhairs showing up whenever he played Big G's in Round Rock, some of them asking to hear chestnuts like "Night Life," "Fraulein," and "San Antonio Rose." He'd been touring all over the world trying to find his audience, and here they were, looking for him. When he started hanging out in the clubs of Austin, he realized hippies who dug cool music were everywhere. He also noticed a style, or lack thereof.

"It became apparent the audiences were dressing down," he said. "At the [Grand Ole] Opry, everybody dressed up, wore suits and ties. At the Armadillo and places like that, nobody dressed up. I felt out of place being dressed up."

He adapted quickly, letting his hair grow long, growing a beard, dressing onstage in blue jeans, tennis shoes, and T-shirts, with a bandanna around his neck or head. It was no big deal to Willie. "I'd already done that," he said, pointing out that jeans, casual shoes, T-shirts, and bandannas had been standard issue in Abbott, like they were everywhere else in Texas when he was growing up. Hippies were the new adapters.

As the 1960s faded into the 1970s, the 251,808 residents of the capital city of Texas led a wonderfully simple, sheltered, semi-idyllic existence. Set on the banks of a river that had been dammed into a string of narrow lakes where the Hill Country descended into the coastal plains and prairies, Austin was easily the most beautiful city in a state often dismissed by out-of-staters as plug ugly. Its older neighborhoods were lush with oak and pecan trees. A natural spring less than a mile from downtown functioned as the city's main public pool. Several lakes were within a 30-minute drive of Congress Avenue.

Austin didn't have the deep musical past of Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, or San Antonio, since its population was historically smaller than even Waco's. There were some local stars among the country bands that worked the area during the 1940s and 1950s, among them Cotton Collins, who wrote and performed an elegant fiddle-dance instrumental "Westphalia Waltz," which paid tribute to Central Texas's German heritage. Collins fiddled with perhaps the best-known musician in Austin, Kenneth Threadgill, a disciple of Jimmie Rodgers, the Blue Yodeler. Mr. Threadgill hosted folk music hootenannies at his North Lamar gas station beer joint in the mid-1960s, which were popular with a cabal of University of Texas students, including a future rock and blues singer named Janis Joplin and her friends Powell St. John and Travis Rivers – all three would enjoy careers in music in San Francisco during that city's hippie heyday in the late-1960s.

Two Austin acts made it onto the national charts in the 1950s – Ray Campi, a young rockabilly crooner and bassist, and the Slades, a doo-wop group that included the blind pianist Bobby Doyle. By the mid-1960s, a small but very hip rock & roll scene spawned the 13th Floor Elevators, a pioneering psychedelic band led by a screaming Travis High School dropout named Roky Erickson that had a national Top 40 hit, "You're Gonna Miss Me," distinguished by an electric jug, long before psychedelic became part of the music vocabulary. The Elevators and like-minded rock bands worked rooms such as the Old New Orleans, the Jade Room, and Mother Earth around the UT campus.

Austin was also a steady payday for the Top 40 and soul cover bands tapping into the lucrative fraternity and sorority party circuit around UT, a scene controlled by booking agent Charlie Hatchett that included young players such as Don Henley, who would later be the linchpin of a popular band known as the Eagles, and country rocker Rusty Wier.

Four Austin performers were capable of drawing 1,000 crazed hippies and college students at the drop of a cowboy hat: Michael Murphey, a flaxen-haired singer-songwriter from Dallas, who had the two best-selling albums in Austin, Geronimo's Cadillac and Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir; B. W. Stevenson, another Dallas folkie, whose husky voice powered several national hits, notably "My Maria," which reached No. 1 on Billboard's adult contemporary chart; Willis Alan Ramsey, a singer-songwriter-guitarist who also came out of Dallas, whose debut album showcasing exquisite ballads informed by country music was released on Leon Russell's Shelter Records, gaining him instant cachet with a hip audience; and Jerry Jeff Walker & the Lost Gonzo Band, whose live recording Viva Terlingua!, made in the old dance hall in the Hill Country hamlet of Luckenbach (pop. 3) with hay bales for baffles, set the standard for Texas-style country-rock. Jerry Jeff himself was the culture's icon, the out-of-control Gonzo "Scamp," prone to extended bouts of extreme drunkenness, especially when under the additional influence of a new drug on the scene called cocaine. He became something of a role model for throwing televisions into swimming pools and wrecking hotel rooms with more vigor than a British rock band.

"With Murphey I generally knew where he was coming from," said Herb Steiner, the pedal steel guitarist who played with both stars. "Jerry Jeff was an unguided missile."

Shortly after meeting Walker, Willie Nelson experienced that unpredictability firsthand at a guitar pulling late one night in Bastrop, east of Austin. A very loaded Jerry Jeff kept trying to grab Willie's guitar Trigger and play it, which irritated Willie to no end, finally prompting him to grab it from Jerry Jeff and pound him with his fists until Jerry Jeff was crumpled on the floor. As he picked himself up, he looked up at Willie and slurred, "I remember now. You're the same son of a bitch that knocked me down last night for the same reason."

Whenever Jerry Jeff wanted audiences to hear his lyrics, he worked Castle Creek, the former Chequered Flag, a listening room one block from the state capitol that booked singer-songwriters such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rusty Wier, and B. W. Stevenson. At Walker's request, a friend from Florida named Jimmy Buffett started sitting in between sets in the 300-seat room until he earned his own gig. Castle Creek provided inspiration for a song he wrote called "(Wasting Away in) Margaritaville," which would be his calling card when he played in stadiums to tens of thousands of wannabe islanders in floral-print shirts.

From the book Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski. Copyright 2008 by Joe Nick Patoski. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co., New York. All rights reserved.

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