Steel Bluebonnet Determination

Robin Shivers' gift to the music scene

Steel Bluebonnet Determination
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Robin Shivers' death on Oct. 26 left Austin another hole in its soul.

Shivers, 53, was instrumental in creating the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, yet her other efforts in the music community were substantial. Besides years of service to the Seton health care system, she also worked with KLRU and chaired its benefit concerts.

When her interest in music began dominating her time, she started a management company and took on roots rockers Loose Diamonds and their frontman Troy Campbell as clients. Among numerous boards she served on, she advised the Gibson GuitarTown project and Clifford Antone's annual fundraiser for American YouthWorks. Her dance card was always full.

Still, nothing in Robin Shivers' life growing up suggested she'd one day be a patron saint of the Austin scene, a contemporary Saint Cecilia on the Colorado. And Shivers – a socialite in every sense of the word – didn't just change the music community. The music community changed her.

The Unlikely Angel

Graham, Texas, sits in the center of a triangle with Wichita Falls at the top and Abilene and Fort Worth at the bottom. "The North Star of Texas," as the region calls itself, was settled and prospered because of its natural bounty of salt. Shivers was born Robin Ratliff there on March 23, 1956, and the family name is still present throughout the area.

Hers was a family of privilege. John Wesley Ratliff was an investor and venture capitalist married to Robbie Harlan. Early in Shivers' life, her parents moved with their four children to Fort Worth, where she graduated from Arlington Heights High School. Even then, her direction was focused. While classmates were giggling over 16 Magazine (see "Dreamsville," Nov. 30, 2007), the girl nicknamed "Grandma" by her family for her organizational skills read Fortune and The Wall Street Journal.

After graduation, she applied to and was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin, taking courses in business administration. To no one's surprise, she was an excellent student, and her mostly male classmates often called upon her for homework assistance.

Robin Ratliff cut a striking figure on campus. Dressing in jeans with silk shirts and high heels, she exuded the casual elegance Princess Diana was noted for. Even recently, her hairstyle was a throwback to the coiffed fashions of the 1950s and pre-mod 1960s, eschewing the lanky straight hair often favored since the hippie era. She emanated gentility and good breeding from the social class that avoids media glare and believes your photo should appear in the paper only three times in your life: birth, marriage, and death. She was a modern Southern belle with a butter-melting accent and a manner of looking into your eyes that let one know you were the center of her attention.

No wonder she glided seamlessly into the life of Allan "Bud" Shivers.

Tailor-Made for Each Other

If Robin Ratliff led a privileged upbringing, it was one tailor-made for a man like Bud Shivers. They were introduced on a blind date at a sit-down dinner. Robin looked beyond the silver wheelchair he was in, the result of an accident that broke his neck while in the U.S. Coast Guard. She gazed into his eyes with that penetrating look of hers and saw strength of character and intelligence. They married in 1978.

Allan "Bud" Shivers Jr. was named for his father, Allan Shivers, the governor of Texas from 1949 to 1957. The Shivers family lived a life Bud's younger sister recalls as idyllic. Cissie Shivers Ferguson recalls watching parades from the vantage point of the Governor's Mansion and thinking, "The Capitol grounds were our extended playground." When the Democratic governor broke with his party over the Tidelands debate, turning his support to Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower, the Shivers administration marked a turning point in Texas politics. That trickled down to the young married couple of Robin and Bud, who counted among their friends George W. and Laura Bush.

To some, Shivers' lifelong devotion to her husband resembled that of Eleanor Roosevelt, who told the nation, "I am my husband's legs." Yet Shivers wasn't her husband's legs. He was mobile with his chair and stood tall on his own reputation as a consultant with the Shivers Group. While the couple didn't have any children, they led an active life, socially and politically. Robin Shivers, Cissie Ferguson notes, "was more than just well-matched to my brother.

"She completed Bud's life."

Lady Bird of the Music Scene

For some 28 years, Robin Shivers worked in the Seton health care system, supporting the Seton Fund and the Daughters of Charity. She and her husband served on the board for much of that time, and when the opportunity came to work with KLRU, she took it also. With her ever-present smile and unflappable demeanor, she resembled another Texas matriarchal figure, Lady Bird Johnson, who devoted her efforts to making Texas more beautiful long after Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency and death.

Shivers and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson at the HAAM Benefit Day kickoff in September 2008
Shivers and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson at the HAAM Benefit Day kickoff in September 2008 (Photo by Callie Richmond/Courtesy of HAAM)

While chairing fundraisers that brought the likes of George Jones and the up-and-coming Garth Brooks to Austin, Shivers' longtime but private love for music began to merge with her hospital work. Those KLRU fundraisers provided a new, more artistic gratification in her work, and in the early 1990s, the Shiverses opened a management company, RRS Management.

"She had killer shoes and awesome hair," Troy Campbell recalls from when he applied for a job with her office. "I started to tell her about myself, and she pulled out a file on the Jo Carol Pierce record and said, 'I know about you.' She said she wanted to manage a national artist. I told her I didn't want a manager; I wanted a job. 'I'll keep my eye on you,' she said.

"After that, I'd be playing an acoustic gig, and I'd see her at the back. She wouldn't acknowledge us. She might look up, but she was writing notes the whole time. Then she'd split. About three months later, she asked to have a meeting with me and said: 'Look, I thought about it. I'd like to manage you, and here's how it's going to go. I'm not here to give you money,' she said. 'First on my list is getting your publishing back.'

"Number two on her list was getting me health insurance."

The deal sealed with an agreement to get Campbell's publishing back and his promise to "learn everything about publishing and why [he] lost it."

"She had all these books about the music business and publishing because she researched everything like there was no tomorrow," explains Campbell. "So I would sit in the back [of the office] and read books. I hated it, but lo and behold, she got all the publishing back as well as the masters."

In taking on the management of Troy Campbell and subsequently his band, Loose Diamonds, Shivers may well have experienced the epiphany that guided the rest of her life: The value of being born to class privilege lies in focusing on efforts that better the community.

No Pollyanna

As a band manager, Robin Shivers was no dilettante, yet she understood her wealth and social standing made her something of an outsider. Austin's music scene is a place Campbell recalls the late Stephen Bruton warning him about: "This town loves to see you win, but it also loves to see you lose, so you have to hit it out of the park every time."

Shivers, whose first trip through a fast-food drive-through was with Campbell at Taco Cabana, had no intention of failing.

She also chafed at being stereotyped. "I'm no Pollyanna," she'd protest. Yet there was an innate goodness to her that made the most hard-bitten veterans check their tongues against profanity and call her "ma'am." That quality hid her steel bluebonnet determination and made it easy to move from backstage at Antone's to the boardroom at Seton and back.

Managing Loose Diamonds gave Shivers tremendous insight into not only the business aspect of music but also the personal needs of musicians themselves. Paramount in that was health care and musicians' lack of ability to buy or sustain it. It wasn't just musicians, either. It was the club employees, roadies, agents, and other crucial cogs in the machine that weren't getting grease. She watched as benefits became monthly then weekly events, and then turned into a kind of benefit mania, sometimes with several in a week.

Shivers didn't believe in small benefits, though she donated generously and often. Why, she wondered to those around her, don't Austin's major corporations donate to the arts? In Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston, it is a given that big businesses underwrite the arts. In Austin, it was a radical thought for a community that regularly emptied its own pockets to support itself.

The success of Clifford Antone's Help Clifford Help Kids fundraiser for American YouthWorks laid largely with Shivers. The program designed to help at-risk teens and dropouts get their high school diplomas while training for the future is often, Susan Antone believes, "the last house on the last street for some kids.

"And Robin was such a class act," laments Antone. "Once she got in the door, she always made it better."

HAAM 2.0

Then there was HAAM. The seeds had been planted years before, between fundraisers and management adventures, but it grew to fruition as the millennium changed and its engine met with various industry factions around Austin, sometimes at lunches, sometimes in appointments, sometimes by genteelly collaring people like Ray Benson at events. When Robin Shivers tackled a job, she saw it through past the end.

Robin and Bud Shivers
Robin and Bud Shivers (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

She had visited and studied the Musicians Clinic in New Orleans and applied her years of experience from Seton to HAAM, which developed a wide array of services: mental-health counseling through the already existing SIMS Foundation, primary health care provided by the Seton Family of Hospitals, and dental care services provided by St. David's Community Health Foundation Leadership.

"We probably worked 60 hours a week together for the first couple of years. I got paid; she didn't," says HAAM Executive Director Carolyn Schwarz softly. "That was the level of commitment Robin had, that roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-into-it thing. She was looking out for the musicians holistically – their music, their health, their finances."

In spring 2005, HAAM went public. Barely in town two years, Schwarz had been working with Insure-a-Kid when Shivers handpicked her to head the new organization. As outsiders to the scene, the two women shared many qualities, among them "a sense of perfection and also directness," says Schwarz.

Between them, HAAM was an instant hit, and has provided for some 1,600 people in the community. Most recently, ear clinics by Estes Audiology Hearing Centers were added to the roster (see "Off the Record," Nov. 20). Additionally, HAAM offers discounts for vision needs, second opinions, birthing, acupuncture, overall wellness exams, and more. Its success has galvanized other music communities to follow; in Arizona, the Tucson Artists and Musicians Healthcare Alliance patterned itself on HAAM. Yet the next move for Shivers was out the door.

"She was excited about the future," states Campbell. "She knew HAAM would work out and grow. Carolyn and the crew there are kicking ass. Her plan was to step out and work on something new. Of course, there will be a void, but HAAM will succeed. For my fellow musicians, the quality of life has gone up. For somebody with a dream like Robin, it was followed all the way."

"Robin was great about succession planning and trained me really well," agrees Schwarz. "She laid an amazing foundation and groundwork and left us in a strong financial and organizational position for HAAM 2.0, whatever that will be.

"I always thought we were going to do this together," says Schwarz, pausing to take a breath. "Now, I have her on my shoulder."

Grace

It's a warm May morning in 2006 as Robin Shivers walks into the Four Seasons restaurant, notebook in hand, and seats herself at the reserved table. Shortly, she's joined by a red-eyed Susan Antone; the nightclub's legal mouthpiece, Michael Maguire; and two friends, present to make this awful meeting just a little easier. Today we're putting together Clifford Antone's obituary.

Susan Antone is understandably an emotional wreck. She appears pulled together on the outside, but if you know her, the loss of her brother is palpable. She enters at a somnambulistic pace. Shivers rises and hugs her friend. Her words, delivered in a cool, comforting tone, soothe Antone, who nods. Shivers guides her to a chair, and Antone slumps into it. Nothing could make this day easier, but Shivers' presence made it bearable.

Two years later, the phone rings. Robin Shivers, in that voice no one could refuse, makes a painful request: Would I write Danny Roy Young's obituary?

The next morning, sunny and hot, we're at the Youngs' house on Bluebonnet Lane. Shivers is seated at the kitchen table amid the museumlike collections Young was famous for. His wife, Lu, and mother, Margo, flank her, their faces frozen in grief, trying to go through the motions despite being wracked with pain. His grown children and grandchildren wander in and out of the room, voices subdued and whispered.

Questions are asked and information is collected. Shivers' head bobs from one to another, her soothing voice a gentle balm to the raw emotions that come in waves of tears and bowed heads. When I'm finished gathering the details, I prepare to depart the Youngs, but she did not. Robin Shivers left only after there was nothing else to be done.

Two days after Shivers' death, an e-mail arrived. Her sister-in-law, Cissie Ferguson, whom I'd never met, asks that I write Robin's obituary. For so kind and generous a woman as Robin Shivers, it's a minuscule payment back for her massive efforts. Yet it's a terrible and deeply painful task. Two years younger than me and in seemingly excellent health – fit and trim – Shivers was a friend, a peer, and an inspiration, one of a small group of women my age in the business, and one I trusted implicitly because she was so completely honorable.

With the acceptance of that difficult request, I found a cruel solace in Robin Shivers' death. If she had to leave this world so early and so young, she went without pain and without violence, on quiet wings. I sat down at my computer, and the words flowed with aching deliberation:

ROBIN RATLIFF SHIVERS

1956-2009

On the 26th of October, in the year of grace 2009, Robin Shivers' unanticipated passing left a considerable emptiness in the Ratliff and Shivers families and in her larger circle of friends and acquaintances ....

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Robin Shivers, HAAM, Susan Antone, Carolyn Schwarz, Troy Campbell

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