Greezy Wheels Take a Last Bow
Still Greezy after all these years
Willie Nelson gets all the credit. When Abbott's favorite son took the stage at the Armadillo World Headquarters on August 12, 1972, Austin's founding myth was born: rednecks and hippies, beer chuggers and pot smokers, shit-kickers and free-lovers brought together. Good thing those wheels had already been greased.
If the Lone Star capital could be defined by a single band, Greezy Wheels remains top contender. The outfit, with Cleve and "Sweet" Mary Hattersley at its core, forged an amalgam of styles that defied category: stoner string band cut with psych-rock blues and laced with jazz and zydeco. Exotic, intoxicating – it sparked a dance orgy. Greezy, all right.
"To me, 'greezy' is just a combination of everything," muses Cleve, who formed the band in 1970. "It's swamp, it's Bach, it's everything. Every song is its own universe, so it's the whole kitchen sink."
Greezy Wheels touches nearly every part of Austin's contemporary musical formation. Cleve landed in the heart of Texas after a stint in San Francisco, where notorious guacamole facilitator Big Rikki tried to get him to join the 13th Floor Elevators. Sensing the group's inevitable implosion, he passed, but took up her offer to move to Austin.
The original outfit formed behind Cleve jamming country rock with guitarist Pat Pankratz (drummer Lisa Pankratz's uncle), bassist Mike Pugh, and percussionist Tony Laier. They discovered Mary Egan sitting in on fiddle with Kenneth Threadgill one night.
"I just fell smitten with Mary the moment I saw her. The whole band did," laughs Cleve of his wife. "We were very fortunate to hit at the perfect time. The Armadillo had just opened and needed a community identity. Eddie [Wilson] came and saw us rehearse at the Checkered Flag a week after Mary joined the band, and immediately hired us as one of the openers for the Flying Burrito Brothers.
"We'd never played a room larger than 15 or 20 people, and it was a full house. And we blew the place away. We couldn't believe it."
Sweet Mary's fiddle became a distinctive calling card for both the band and the local scene in the Seventies. Classically trained, from a musically renowned family in New Mexico, she discovered Austin after dropping out of college and short stints in San Francisco and New York. In Austin, her playing backed everyone from Doug Sahm to Jerry Jeff Walker on landmark live recording Viva Terlingua!
When Cleve's younger sister Lissa joined the outfit in 1971, Greezy Wheels' sound defined the Armadillo as much as anyone, a cosmic cowboy version of the Grateful Dead with stomping Texas fiddle. Songs like "Country Music & Friends," better known by its crowd-raising chorus of "Cocaine, country music, and good ol' Lone Star beer," rallied the still-nascent Austin music scene.
"We were always a hippie band, but when we started doing it in 1970, there were still people with long hair and without long hair, and they were very different," offers Mary, noting how the crowds began changing at the AWHQ.
"We could sell out our shows at the [1,500-capacity] Armadillo and make pretty good money," offers Cleve. "So we worked a deal with Eddie Wilson where they would ask us to play for people they were worried about selling tickets for. Willie was the first one."
As Greezy Wheels rose alongside the burgeoning scene, Cleve caught a 17-year prison sentence for a dope smuggling bust that had been in appeal since before he had started the band. He served 11 months before securing release thanks to friends in high places. During his absence, the lineup added Tony Airoldi and Madrile Wilson, and by 1975 London Records issued their debut, Juz Loves Dem Ol' Greezy Wheels, followed by Radio Radials the next year.
Extensive touring then took its toll.
"The music, the family, the greezy – all eroded away," wrote Cleve in the Chronicle (revisit "The Real Greezy," Oct. 12, 2001). "The musicians went first. Both Tonys, Madrile, Pat, and Mike were replaced by Chris Layton, Victor Egly, and Chip Dill. General musicianship soared, and yes, loyal fans stayed with us, but the family/greezy thing was gone."
In 1978, Greezy Wheels finally cut the engine, and Cleve, Mary, and Lissa moved back to New York. Cleve continued to promote Texas music, taking over management of the seminal Lone Star Cafe where he booked acts like the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Delbert McClinton, Johnny Winter, and a young guitar slinger named Stevie Ray Vaughan. When the Hattersleys returned to Austin in 1985, they found a vastly changed city and music scene.
Since blues ascended nationally in the aftermath of the Thunderbirds and SRV's chart success and MTV exposure, Cleve took up booking onetime Sixth Street guitar palace Steamboat and managing performers like Chris Duarte, Killer Bees, Kinky Friedman, and Lou Ann Barton. Mary, meanwhile, began teaching fiddle to the next generation of true Austin natives. Three of her students are currently at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, including the talented Jordan Sisters.
"Playing again was only a dream," admits Cleve. "I kept writing songs through the Nineties, but I put them on the shelf. Then, when Mary got breast cancer, it was really, 'What do you do now?' You do what you gotta do, what you're supposed to do."
In response to Mary's illness, the Austin music community came out in force. A benefit at La Zona Rosa brought together a diverse group of artists that Greezy Wheels had influenced over the years, from Asleep at the Wheel and Double Trouble to Shawn Colvin. That sent the Hattersleys back into the studio to reprise the band.
Their string of albums over the past decade, released on the band's own MaHatMa label, have proven the band as eclectic and adventurous as ever, most notably 2004's HipPOP, 2011's Gone Greezy, and this year's String Theory 2.0. The founding Hattersley trifecta fleshed out the new century's incarnation with Penny Jo Pullus, John Bush, Brad Houser, and Matt Hubbard, and became a frequent fixture at events like Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles in New York and Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnics locally.
Yet, getting onstage has only gotten harder with age, and as Bush, Houser, and Hubbard all join the reunited New Bohemians this summer, Cleve decided to end the band's live performances. Lissa will continue to front her jazz outfit, Trip Trio (see "Sometimes the Bride," June 12, 2009), and Mary still inspires and instructs through her Blazing Bows. Cleve plans to continue recording.
"It's a young man's game," he admits. "There's no question the muse is still there, and we're still writing and will continue to do that, but it just becomes more and more difficult to mount gigs."
Greezy Wheels' farewell blowout at Threadgill's this weekend once again threads Austin music history, but the band's legacy now manifests less in their music than in the homegrown sound they've inspired. This town has thrived on a template of stylistic fusion laid out by Greezy Wheels, from the irreverent roots of the Gourds and Bad Livers to the stringing sting of Weary Boys and psychedelic country of the Lonesome Heroes. Artists like Warren Hood, Phoebe Hunt, Shinyribs, and even the cosmic funk of Golden Dawn Arkestra follow tracks pioneered by Greezy Wheels.
Our sleepy musical mecca is no more, but Austin never lost its greeze.
Summer of Love 50th Anniversary, starring Greezy Wheels, Extreme Heat, and Uranium Savages, converges at Threadgill’s World Headquarters Sat., June 24, 7:30pm.