Playback: Sanctified Souls
Uncovering Arizona Dranes, remembering Brent Grulke
A sightless gospel screamer possessed of the Holy Ghost, Arizona Dranes was the first to record hot piano with praise lyrics, pioneering gospel music with a series of test records in 1926. While her boisterous style became seminally influential to the gospel beat, history consigned Dranes to oblivion.
Austin brand writer Michael Corcoran has done his best to rescue Dranes from obscurity. Packaged by respected avant-roots label Tompkins Square with a 16-track CD, He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes contextualizes the pianist's innovations. Corcoran, who wrote this very music news column in the Eighties and later gained notoriety as the Austin American-Statesman's music sage, has been undergoing a career shift from critic to historian since the millennium, long before he took a retirement buyout last year.
"I was doing a story on Kirk Franklin and someone mentioned Arizona Dranes inventing the gospel beat and that she was from Texas," he recalls. "Gospel music is where soul, R&B, and rock & roll all came from, so if she invented this thing, she's significant."
Corcoran wrote about Dranes in 2002, prompting a reader working at Austin's Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired to pass on enrollment records from 1897 with Arizona Dranes' name on them.
"At that point I had no idea she had anything to do with Austin," he admits. "Suddenly I'm going, 'Shit, so Arizona Dranes, the first person to record piano on a gospel record and who made a blueprint for modern gospel that influenced everybody from Jerry Lee Lewis to Fats Domino, learned to play in Austin?'"
That set Corcoran off on something very few people do in this age: primary research. He examined black newspapers in Dallas, traveled to the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, dug through boxes of Pentecostal scraps in Oakland, purchased a college dissertation on Dranes' influence, and spent a month on Ancestry.com.
With his research, Corcoran constructed a new and different history of Arizona Dranes, one that corrects popular misconceptions about her age, race, musical education, and the time of her confederation with the Pentecostal church.
That holy madness, where parishioners speak in tongues and become possessed by spirits, explained the author in a recent NPR interview, is demonstrative of the vital component in Dranes' musical execution: losing control.
"The preachers would preach about the spirit possession, and then they would say, 'Here's Arizona Dranes' and she would just show them what they were talking about."
From roasting Austin icons to unearthing seminal music legacies, Corcoran still pursues his subjects with zeal. Hear more from him today (Thursday, Sept. 6) at the Texas Music Museum (1009 E. 11th), 5pm.
"My whole idea during this project was this is the only shot I get to do Arizona Dranes and I'm going to do everything I can to do it," reasons Corcoran. "I took the buyout from the Statesman for this very reason. I got paid very well, but I didn't want to keep writing reviews because when the next day's paper comes out, your stuff's gone.
"I wanted something that would last a little bit, so when the Arizona Dranes project came up I just jumped on it. This is exactly what I need to do. This is a dream for me."
"Brent was fanatical about music. He was the ferociously intelligent cog in the whole scene. He knew everything that was going on locally and who was in every band and what they were doing. That's why so many artists want to be part of this, because he affected that many bands." So reminisces Jon Dee Graham, whose all-star True Believers reunite on Saturday at ACL Live at the Moody Theater for GrulkeFest, honoring fallen South by Southwest Creative Director Brent Grulke, who died suddenly of a heart attack on Aug. 13 at the age of 51. Though they've performed occasionally since breaking up in the late Eighties, this will be the first in a long time that core members Rey Washam, Alejandro Escovedo, Javier Escovedo, Denny Degorio, and Graham take the stage together. "Brent was our road manager for quite a while and we logged a lot of miles with him," says Graham. "I think coming together to honor him and help his family is as much joy as we can make out of a sad occasion." GrulkeFest's lineup represents a seminal slice of local music history, with many of the acts re-forming specifically for the event. Included on the bill are the seeds of Austin's indie scene – Eighties pioneers Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, Doctors' Mob, and the Reivers, along with latter-day Grulke gratefuls Fastball, Sixteen Deluxe, and the Wannabes (see "Music Listings," p.64 for more). "There's this web of connectivity between Brent and all these bands," Graham points out. "He was involved on such an intimate level and with such a deep love for the Austin music scene. He was elemental to it all. There are tangents of connection between all bands in Austin, but Brent was right in the middle. Everything went through Brent." Proceeds from the Sept. 8 concert go to an education fund for Brent's son Graham Grulke.
› Kathy Valentine won't be playing bass on the Go-Go's Sept. 25 appearance at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, or the band's sold-out homecoming at the Hollywood Bowl. In fact, the Austin native discovered only last week that she'll be missing the landmark group's entire tour after her wrist was left broken and dangling when her "Satan sandals" caused her to slip on Aug. 18. Valentine's osteopathic surgeon turned out to be a fan and vowed to have her back for the tour with the addition of a titanium plate and 11 screws. A vegetarian for decades, she even took to consuming beef knuckle broth in order to speed her recovery, but, alas, the band decided to sideline her for the whole outing. Since joining the group in 1980, Valentine's only missed four shows when she was "quiet pregnant" in 2002. The off-time will give the co-writer of "Vacation" ample time to work on an upcoming album for her local quartet the BlueBonnets as well as a solo record, her first since 2005. "Since then I got divorced and when things are miserable, it's always a good songwriting environment," she teases. "It was a rough few years so I have a lot of good material."
› Follow That Bird has changed its name to Mirror Travel. "We haven't felt like Follow That Bird for a long time," offers drummer Tiffanie Lanmon. "We chose the name seven years and two bass players ago and you can just imagine how much has changed." The Mirror Travel moniker comes from artist Robert Smithson's 1969 essay "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan." The local rock trio will break in the new name Saturday at Mohawk for Wild Frontier Fest, an all-day event with almost 30 bands including Baths, What Made Milwaukee Famous, Mother Falcon, and a rare Diving Captain performance.
› Hanly Banks' new Bill Callahan documentary finds the artist formerly known as smog behind the wheel and up on stage during his 2011 Apocalypse tour. The typically enigmatic Callahan provides voiceovers that are excruciatingly pensive: "I love America and I feel like somebody needed to talk to her, or I needed to talk to her." The film perseveres with wonderful performances creatively captured, like the psychedelic mash-up of a baseball game and Callahan singing "America!," plus his brilliant rendition of "Riding for the Feeling" cut with portraits of everyday people. The local premiere of Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film happens at the Stateside Theatre Sept. 14 and features a live performance by Callahan. The event raises funds for Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit that teaches creative writing to kids.