Viper Moon

Slim Richey recovers

Viper Moon
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

There's a tint of solemnity mixed into the celebration on this warm Sunday evening. Threadgill's beer garden is full, and the Jazz Pharaohs are onstage laying down an easy big band sound that has pockets of the crowd swinging.

By the entrance, Slim Richey quietly leans against the wooden railing. Unmistakable in his white hat and white-rimmed plastic sunglasses that match the color of his long, whisping beard, twisted loosely into a braid, Richey greets the arrivals to the April 1 benefit in his name with handshakes and hugs.

A pillar of Austin's jazz scene and the self-made "most dangerous guitar in town" behind deft and dexterous picking on local stages for nearly two decades, the 74-year-old guitarist is lucky to be here. He pulls in tight to understand his well-wishers and returns quiet responses. Richey's hearing and voice are still scarred from the hit-and-run that left him hospitalized in late February.

An hour later, as Richey takes the stage with his quartet, the Jitterbug Vipers, he assumes an altogether different presence. His fingers work across his instrument with a natural fluidity, playing against the rhythm of his wife, Francie Meaux Jeaux, on upright bass as Masumi Jones pushes the percussion and Sarah Sharp delivers a ripple of shimmering vocals out front. The mad joy of Viper jazz seeps out into crowd.

Wolf at the Door

"I can't remember the accident," says Richey, sitting on the patio at Lamberts before the Vipers' weekly Wednesday night residency. "I just remember walking the bass back to the car and waking up in the hospital."

On February 24, the Jitterbug Vipers were loading out from a show at the Volstead Lounge on East Sixth Street. It was their second gig of the night, having earlier played the Elephant Room and then rushed across town to join the bill of the Gypsy Jazz Jamboree.

The maroon SUV that struck Richey backed up and sped away from the scene, leaving him unconscious in the road. Witnesses chased after the vehicle, which sported dealer plates, but it and the driver have yet to be found.

"He was motionless, surrounded by EMS, face down with goalpost arms, but the bottom half of his body was twisted in a way that I remember thinking, 'That is not a normal body position that happens in nature,'" recounted Sharp on her website the next week. "I got down on the ground with my head next to Slim's ear and slipped one hand under his head, which was turned to the side.

"My hand was full of blood. I had no idea whether Slim was alive."

Richey was raced to University Medical Center Brackenridge. Though he amazingly suffered no internal injuries or broken bones, the severe concussion and damage to his head kept him hospitalized for three days.

"I lost a couple teeth, lost some of my vocal ability, and I lost some of my hearing ability," says Richey. "After I got home from the hospital, I picked up the guitar to play it and see if I could and I didn't have a problem, though.

"The response has been great," he continues. "I'm not sure it will cover everything, but it will certainly keep the wolf away from the door. We've already got a bass. The other bass was a $3,500 Henman bass, and it was 20 years old, but a pretty darn good bass. It took a lot to replace that."

Richey's concern for his wife's bass is telling. Even as his medical bills mount toward $50,000 after Medicare support, the music remains central.

Jazz Grass Waltz

Born in the small East Texas town of Atlanta, just shy of the Arkansas border, young Michael Richey became enamored with jazz despite the provincial locale. His older sister played piano and helped usher in his discovery of artists like early guitar genius and Texan Charlie Christian.

"At that time, it was hard to hear jazz guitar on the radio," Richey admits. "There was Les Paul, but he wasn't so much jazz as he was informed by jazz."

The sound surrounding Richey in the Fifties was instead Western swing, and it soon became a unique bridge in the styles he blended. By high school, he'd started his own swing band and took advantage of outlets including the school's marching band and orchestra.

"I got to see [guitarist] Herb Ellis in '55 and '56," he recalls. "Somehow me and my buddies convinced our band director to take us to that concert, and we went to the philharmonic. I wanted to get backstage, so I just walked back there, and there was Dizzy Gillespie. I said, 'Tell me why your horn points up' and he puts his hand on me and says, 'I don't want to talk about that.'

"The door man saw me talk talking to him and walked away, so I was backstage and got to talk to Herb Ellis. And I got to see him the next year, too, and we got to be friends and we were friends until he passed away."

Richey attended college at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where he settled for a decade, ensconcing himself in the jazz scene and teaching guitar. By 1965, at the behest of his first wife, he quit playing shows and eventually moved to Fort Worth.

There, Richey hustled session work and his own Ridge Runner record label. A decade later, the guitarist's influences of jazz, bluegrass, and Western swing were taking hold in string jam bands across the country. His 1977 LP Jazz Grass remains a seminal document of the era, folding jazz into the newgrass genre behind the featured support of Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Joe Carr, and Alan Munde.

"I was making a living at bluegrass festivals selling records and T-shirts, and those guys would come by and say, 'Let's play some jazz,' and I would teach them some jazz," laughs Richey. "I'd have people come seek me out, and the girls would want to come sing their jazz, so that's what we'd do."

Richey and Meaux Jeaux moved to Austin in 1992, settling in Hays County. He began playing regularly at the Elephant Room on fiddle with the Jazz Pharaohs, and he and Meaux Jeaux eventually formed the Dream Band, which pivoted through a succession of vocalists including Julie Lowery, Alice Spencer, Lady Lacynica, Leeann Atherton, and others.

In 2005, the couple joined Kat Edmonson in Kat's Meow, helping establish the young singer as a powerful new voice (see "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," April 6). The Jitterbug Vipers followed in 2007, initially with Emily Gimble as singer, and with Sharp eventually taking over vocals.

Save the Roach for Me

When the Jitterbug Vipers take the stage at the 25th annual Old Settler's Music Festival this weekend, it will mark the 24th time Richey has played at the event. With their impromptu collaborations and mergers of genres, festivals are a way of life for the guitarist.

The performance will showcase tunes from the Vipers' new album, Tell 'Em Joe Sent You, the quartet's first studio LP together. It's also the first to contain all "viper" material, the snake moniker being Twenties and Thirties Harlem slang for marijuana enthusiasts. Tell 'Em Joe Sent You comes crafted in songs from and inspired by the era's swing jazz and weed culture, including an original tune by Richey and Sharp in "Viper Moon."

On the album, Richey's guitar is a marvel. The mellow tones dissolve into his feverishly picked, jumping breakdowns as Sharp's voice slips suggestively into the creases. "Viper Mad" jives a sultry lilt, and "Minnie the Moocher" rises into an unexpected spiral of notes. "They Raided the Joint" twists a smoky blues to the shuffling rush in "The Stuff Is Here" and cheeky puff of "Save the Roach for Me" and "Who Put the Benzadrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine."

"Viper Moon," meanwhile, sways gently against the golden bends of Richey's strings. It all swells into the sound of dark dance halls, hazy backrooms, and the loose abandon of intoxication.

Though it will take time for Richey to recover to full effect, the viper logic of the new album's "When I Get Low I Get High" serves as a fitting refrain for the guitarist: "That old rocking chair ain't never gonna get me/'cause when I get low, oh I get high."

Slim Richey's Jitterbug Vipers play the Old Settler's Music Festival tonight, Thursday, April 19, 7:45pm at the Campground stage.

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Slim Richey, Jitterbug Vipers, Francie Meaux Jeaux, Sarah Sharp, Threagill's, the Jazz Pharoahs, Herb Ellis, Charlie Christian, Kat Edmonson, Old Settler's Music Festival

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