One, Two, Tres, Cuatro: Killing Floor

Another blues singer's called back home: honorary Austinite Hubert Sumlin

Memphis in the meantime: Hubert Sumlin (r) 
with late local music philanthropist Robin Shivers on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., in 2009
Memphis in the meantime: Hubert Sumlin (r) with late local music philanthropist Robin Shivers on Beale Street in Memphis, Tenn., in 2009 (Photo courtesy of Susan Antone)

Deep in a velvet April night back in the spring, driving with Chris Gray from Texas to Mississippi for Pinetop Perkins' funeral, the music had to be right. Not Muddy Waters, though we had him on CD and satellite radio. Not the rusty Delta call of Robert Johnson. We went for Howlin' Wolf and met him in the bottoms with smokestack blues.

Whenever the Wolf's gravelly baritone needed a little sugar, it came from Hubert Sumlin's guitar. That guitar played its last note in Austin in July at Antone's 2011 anniversary show. Sumlin, 80, was already on supplemental oxygen, but like the veteran he was – of decades and decades of trips to Austin from Chicago – he played to the soul. When he passed Sunday, Dec. 4, yet another chapter of the blues ended.

"I was born on the plantation where my grandmother was a slave."

Some years back, Sumlin settled into the chair across from me, dressed to the spiffy nines in the old-school way. My microphone wasn't even ready; we were interviewing for the Antone's: Home of the Blues documentary when Hubert Sumlin delivered the line that has since become a defining moment in my career. The weight of the words filled me with awe. This wasn't just music. This was living American history. It conjured up sepia images and iron truths and unrequited emotion. It left me speechless.

Hubert smiled, straightened his silk tie, and winked.

I love tuning in the radio while driving in unfamiliar places because it's a game of chance, especially with AM radio. AM is largely the bastion of conservative talk shows in East Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but occasionally music seeps through, and suddenly you're listening to Bollywood outside Houston or cabaret in Cajun country or an Arkansas station while in Mississippi, and magic happens. A song you've never heard fills the car with a perfect pulse, and for a few moments, the world drives to it along with you. Then, just as suddenly, the air crackles and the signal is compromised and the music is gone with the headwinds.

Who sang that song? Maybe I'll never know.

Signing off: Alvin Crow and Joe Gracey (r) on Aug. 3, 1977, during the latter's last show on KOKE-FM. This has been an ol' Blue Eyes Production.
Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can.
Signing off: Alvin Crow and Joe Gracey (r) on Aug. 3, 1977, during the latter's last show on KOKE-FM. "This has been an ol' Blue Eyes Production. Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can." (Photo by Ken Hoge)

FM is another universe, so if AM isn't an option while driving, NPR or classical stations are my choice, and college radio if available. One of my recurring complaints about driving to San Antonio is that while the city itself has one of the most distinctive sounds on the planet – a Latin flavor that's inherent not just to Tejano and conjunto but also to jazz, rock, punk, and country – you can't hear it on the radio except a few times during the week on KSYM-FM.

That's where kudos go to all the Austin frequencies (KLBJ-FM, KUT, KGSR, 101X, KOOP, KVRX, KVET) that rotate local music into the mix. Lip service doesn't hurt, after all. On KONO-FM, "San Antonio's greatest hits," native son Christopher Cross gets played with no acknowledgment of his Oscar, origins, or five Grammys. It's such a point of pride to be able to drive visiting rockers and have them marvel at Spoon, Jimmie Vaughan, and James McMurtry on local radio.

I'm guessing it was quite hot on the August afternoon in 1977 outside KOKE-FM when my then-husband Ken Hoge was on photo assignment for the Austin Sun. Inside the North Lamar studio, Alvin Crow's Okie humor and Joe Gracey's baritone drawl filled the control room with laughter and banter. It was Gracey's last day on the job at KOKE and the two were giving good send-off to the listeners. Gracey's broad vision remains very much alive in today's local programming of

In the photo below, Gracey, who died last month at 61 (see "Joe Gracey RIP," Earache! Music blog, Nov. 17), has cancer and doesn't know it. He will soon become aware of something not being right. (Cancer ultimately took his voice.) Isn't that the cruel luxury of photographs, their ability to be mirror memory and also act as a crystal ball?

But look at him and Crow here, young and in the moment. Gracey was one of those guys who was always around on the scene, at the shows, by the bar. Listening, nodding, talking, his eyes blue like soft rain. Wish I could have been at Gracey's memorial at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater last Sunday, Dec. 4. It was by all accounts a fitting tribute, attended by hundreds. Instead, I was in San Antonio, thumping the pulpit about South Texas music and why it matters. Actually, I was making the announcement, thanks to the support of the South Austin Popular Culture Center and Planet K, of the founding of the South Texas Popular Culture Center in San Antonio, dedicated to documenting and preserving the music culture of South Texas.

I think Joe Gracey would be good with that.


By the way, "One, Two, Tres, Cuatro" isn't its predecessors "Off The Record" or "Dancing About Architecture," much less the Chronicle's first music column, my "In One Ear." Those columns were dedicated to club news, scene gossip, and industry talk. This column is an ongoing dialogue about 35 years of life spent writing about music. And despite my tendency to believe people now get all the news they want from Twitter and the Web, reader Joshua Goodman took me to task.

"For many years I have looked to that space in the Chron every single week for a fix of what is happening, current, and relevant to life in the Austin Music Scene. Not so much as what life in the scene once was. I have been here long enough to know the difference between the two quite well. I appreciate both!!! It is just that I am looking for the current and future."

Joshua and I exchanged spirited messages via Facebook. I told him that a music news column would return to the Chronicle, but that for the present, "One, Two, Tres, Cuatro" was up, and wrote, "I'm too old for that routine and done my time in the clubs. But it is an important job, and for the very reasons you stated."

We keep our end of that commitment to those who want to know that South by Southwest Music announced Bruce Springsteen as its 2012 keynote speaker, that Marcia Ball received a grammy nomination last week for her Roadside Attractions LP, that Beauty Bar is opening its own satellite bar – the Beauty Ballroom – on the burgeoning Riverside Drive strip on New Year's Eve, and that Marmalakes is playing the Chronicle's free music series Paper Cuts at the Palm Door on Tuesday, Dec. 13.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 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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Hubert Sumlin, Joe Gracey, Chris Gray, Howlin' Wolf, Alvin Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Pinetop Perkins

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