The Good Times Ain't Over
Outlaw country songwriter Freddy Powers, still strutting
By Doug Freeman, Fri., Aug. 22, 2008
Carl's Corner materializes like a haphazard oasis. The familiar truck billboard landmarks the exit off Interstate 35E, its paint faded, the wooden frame a sparse ruin of broken ribs. The line of trucks and cars pulling up the ramp on July 3 has traffic clutched at a standstill, bewildering coincidental travelers with the migration to seemingly nowhere.
The grand opening of Willie's Place is but one more improbable episode in the odd history of Carl's Corner. With an official population of 134, the 1.9-square-mile town is little more than Carl Cornelius' fabled truck stop, independently incorporated in 1986 in order to sell alcohol in the otherwise dry Hill Country. Back then, truckers were lured into the oasis by the siren's call of Treasure Chest, a female voice flirting over the CB from Cornelius' headquarters.
Today, it's Willie Nelson's new biodiesel fuel hub and music theatre that has drawn the droves to the rural mecca. While the biodiesel isn't yet flowing from the pumps, the music is pouring out in a constant stream; a litany of country-music legends assembled to both commemorate the opening and benefit the Freddy Powers Parkinson Organization. The crowd crams to capacity inside the theatre, lining up two- and three-deep against the wood walls, where paintings of silhouetted cowboys and Western landscapes hang in brazen defense of questionable taste.
In the wings of the stage, Freddy Powers sits quietly as Merle Haggard steps out into the spotlight. Powers looks tired, his body rattling with a slight but constant tremor from the Parkinson's. David Allan Coe stands like a bear behind him, one hand on the back of his chair, glowering above the gnarled braids in his beard. While Haggard burrows through his string of hits, Powers mouths the words that he accompanied for more than 20 years as rhythm guitarist for Haggard's band of Strangers.
Powers' name stands alongside some of country music's most enduring classics; he penned songs recorded not only by Haggard but by everyone from Ray Charles to George Jones. The longing to be back onstage with the band visibly hulls the lines of Powers' face. When Haggard's wife, Theresa, who is singing backup, finally spies him on the side, she rushes from the stage to hug him. She tries to draw Powers up to sing, but he declines until the final song. As Haggard rounds into the last verse of "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)," Powers slowly shuffles up to join Theresa on the back line of microphones:
The best of the free life is still yet to come,
and the good times ain't over for good.
"I love ol' Freddy," offers Haggard on his tour bus after the show, a long black pipe held in his left hand and eyes warm in fond recollection. "Freddy's just a lovable man. Anybody that don't like Freddy Powers, I put 'em under immediate suspicion.
"When he was at his peak, he was the most energetic individual. Anytime either of us would mention anything that we wanted to do – hell, build an airplane or play music – we did it. We bought a nightclub; we built houseboats. We wrote number one songs. We accomplished a lot of things. Freddy and I share some gorgeous memories."
The friendship between Haggard and Powers runs deep, their adventures together spanning more than any catalog of country songs could encompass. When they began collaborating in the 1980s, Powers' jazz guitar and poignant songwriting softened the hard edges of Haggard's honky-tonk, resulting in indelible ballads like "Natural High," "A Place to Fall Apart," and "I Always Get Lucky With You."
Powers' influence and career extends back much further. Born in Duncan, Okla., in 1931, Powers moved with his family to the flat plains of Seminole, Texas, when he was 6. Their small family band played Dixieland jazz for local dances, but Powers had ambitions beyond West Texas. At 16, he enlisted with the Marines, avoiding the Korean War by joining the Marine Corps' Criminal Investigation Division.
"When I got out of the Marine Corps, I came straight home, because I knew then I wanted to get into music," recalls Powers. "I went to barber school in Dallas to supplement my income, which a lot of musicians did. Johnny Gimble went to school the same time I did. A lot of musicians took up barberin' because they could go from town to town and still do music."
Powers also began taking guitar lessons with incomparable string man Paul Buskirk, who introduced him to one of his promising pupils with a similar affinity for fusing country and jazz, a young songwriter named Willie Nelson. Powers was among the first artists to ever record one of Nelson's songs, putting "Heartaches of a Fool" to wax in 1955. Nelson even joined Powers' band on bass for a short time, working the infamous honky-tonks along the Jacksboro Highway. They had to cover the tuba with a mesh screen to keep the crowds from flinging their beer bottles into the bell.
Freddy Powers & the Powerhouse Four was a strange but popular outfit, three banjos and a tuba playing Dixieland and dance-hall jazz. Powers eventually opened his own club in Arlington, which he parlayed into frequent appearances on both NBC's The Tonight Show and The Today Show, and soon had a national reputation and tours across the country.
Las Vegas in the 1960s was an entertainer's paradise. Mob money flowed freely from the casinos, and artists were toasted like royalty. The glamour and attention was a world away from the rough barrooms of Texas, and Powers found himself right in the midst of it.
He was hired to lead the house band at the Stardust, the flagship enterprise of Allan Glick's Chicago Mafia-backed Argent Corp. In the plush red booths at the back of the lounge, Powers spent his evenings drinking with notorious gangsters like Lefty Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro, who were running operations at the Stardust behind titled fronts like "entertainment director." Rosenthal and Spilotro would later become the inspiration for Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci's characters in the film Casino.
"It was unbelievable," Powers reminisces. "Everybody worked for the mob, seemed like, and the mob was easy to work with. They only wanted to make money on gambling, so they'd give you free drinks and practically gave away food. They loved to be around entertainers. The bigger the boss, the nicer they were, really."
Powers reveled in the perks but remained strictly focused on his music. His Dixieland band became a Vegas staple, Powers famous for his deft banjo, gentle tenor, and quick sense of humor on stage. He watched the biggest stars of the day pass through the city, and they often took in Powers' show at the Stardust. In Vegas, he also first met Haggard, who was then playing bass around town for Wynn Stewart.
By the mid-1970s, the game in Vegas was quickly changing. The government began tightening controls on the mob, and corporations moved in. Country music was also undergoing a revolution as the Outlaws ousted Nashville's saccharine sounds. Powers returned to Texas to produce Nelson's 1981 platinum album, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
"My friends around me, like Willie, were making it big all of the sudden, playing country and writing songs, and I was riding a dying horse, which was Dixieland music," Powers acknowledges. "So I put down the banjo one day and never picked it up again. I started writing songs, and the first song I wrote was for Merle, and it was a number one hit: 'I Always Get Lucky With You.'"
The Spree of '83
"About 1980, we run into each other again," remembers Haggard. "Freddy was wanting to learn more about country music, and I was wanting to learn more about jazz, so we just sort of traded off. I went studying jazz and playing guitar for him for a while, and we started to write songs together and became really close friends."
In 1981, Haggard convinced Powers to move with him to Lake Shasta in Northern California. The two songwriters lived on houseboats, commencing a decade of debauchery affectionately referred to as "the Spree of '83." In a small, open-air, homemade airplane, Powers would survey the lake during the day and report back the most promising festivities to Haggard.
"It was a party," Powers laughs. "Merle and I got divorces at the same time, so there was hell to pay! It was a 10-year party, all through the Eighties. It was shameful!"
He winks and adds with a smile, "But I would love to do it again!"
Powers and Haggard's friendship may have been fueled by wild nights, but it was creatively bolstered by a continuous run of stellar songs and collaborations. "A Friend in California," "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room," and "Okie From Muskogee's Comin' Home" all became fixtures of Haggard's repertoire.
On tour with Haggard's band, Powers opened shows with his own threepiece. In 1983, he released his critically acclaimed album The Country Jazz Singer and also garnered a Triple Play Award from the Country Music Association for writing three No. 1 songs in a year.
The halcyon houseboat extravaganza eventually came to end with the birth of Merle and Theresa's children. Powers also met his future wife, Catherine, and in 1990, the two moved to Nashville. The stint in Music City lasted only nine months, though. Discouraged by the contemporary country scene, Freddy and Catherine retreated back West with an intention to disappear.
"We decided we were going to live off the land," Powers says. "So we bought a cabin and 40 acres by Lake Tahoe in the mountains." They used oil lamps to light the outpost and, for electricity, routed a spring from the top of the mountain into a refrigerator Powers converted into a hydroelectric generator. "We even had a wood-heated hot tub!" he boasts.
A Place to Fall Apart
Across the street from Willie Nelson's nine-hole golf course in Briarcliff, about 30 miles west of Austin, the Powers' two-story wooden house overlooks the horizon from the top of a hill, its light-blue paint sun-bleached and worn. They moved there in 1994, after returning to Texas to record at Willie's studio.
Inside, the entire ground floor is a single sprawling room, the walls a collage of pictures and mementos. Plaques and certificates for Powers' songs frame the area next to the entrance. Above the fireplace, a half-expired neon sign burns "Rogers & Hammerhead," the title of the CableACE-nominated talk show that Powers and Bill McDavid hosted on the Austin Music Network during the late 1990s.
Powers moves through the house in halting, caustic paces, "the Freddy Powers strut," he chuckles. What the misfiring nerve cells of Parkinson's have wracked upon his mobility, Catherine's energy more than compensates for. She's a small and wiry spark of movement and ideas, inexhaustible and determined.
"I can't play the guitar anymore," says Powers, easing slowly into a recliner. "It's indescribable. It was hard to give up that. When I first got Parkinson's, the thing that scared me was that I got to thinking back to when I first started noticing it, and it's been a long time back that it started bothering me. My left side has always been a little bit weaker than my right side; my left arm didn't have as much circulation, and my left leg was weaker. It was little things, nothing that we considered important."
After he broke his hand in 2004, doctors were able to finally diagnose the disease. Its effects over the next four years quickly progressed, but Freddy and Catherine immediately fought back by establishing the Freddy Powers Parkinson Organization to fund research and treatment (see "The Freddy Powers Parkinson Organization," above).
The onset of Parkinson's seems an almost cruel irony for a man whose 77 years have been defined by vigorous ingenuity and self-sufficiency. Even the constant wry smile of his younger years is now burdened into a stoic expression behind his scruffy beard, yet his eyes still flash in accord with his swift wit and contagious charisma.
Onstage at the private preopening party for Willie's Place, it's clear Powers is most at home performing. Always the entertainer, he turns his jokes self-deprecatingly on his illness.
"They call me the human vibrator," he barbs at the audience. "The girls love me! When I lay out in the sun, they call me Shake 'n Bake."
Perched uneasily still on a stool center stage, Powers delivers his long-familiar songs with the subtle touch only their writer can. His arms jerk in slight involuntary shudders, and his hands tremble as if still fretting across his absent guitar, but Powers' voice unfolds with calm, rich control. With his band supplying gently rippling jazz tones, Powers closes the set with his plaintive "All I Want to Do Is Sing My Song," echoing lonesome through the wooden theatre to a hushed audience.
All I want to do is sing my song,
Don't want to think about the times that things went wrong,
Just want to ease my mind, but the memory's much too strong,
All I want to do is sing my song.