Faster Than Sound: Remembering Chet Himes, Johnny Limón, and Riley Osbourn
Three Austin music scene stalwarts passed in late August
August claimed far too many anchors of Texas music. Fans poured out remembrances for Dallas-based Power Trip frontman Riley Gale, 34 (see "In a Previously Unpublished Interview Late Power Trip Frontman Riley Gale Talks SXSW, COVID, & American Healthcare"), and Nashville singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, 38, rooted locally by father Steve Earle having grown up just outside of San Antonio. The scene also says goodbye to three dedicated Austin music contributors.
Nonstop Recording Engineer Chet Himes
In 1979, the debut album by San Antonian Christopher Cross made Grammy history in sweeping the major four categories (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist), a feat only recently matched by Billie Eilish. Credit in part recording engineer Chet Himes, who also worked with Carole King, Joe Ely, and Eric Johnson. Influential studio and live sound pro, Himes, 73, died of a heart attack on August 22.
Cross and Himes met while growing up in the Alamo City, where the latter played in Sixties psych act Homer, known for a trippy cover of Willie Nelson's "I Never Cared for You." In a 2012 Chronicle interview, Himes said the friends moved to Austin in 1972 and off they flew: "We were at Warner Bros.' Amigo Studios in L.A., one of the best studios in the world, and we were given carte blanche. ... It was a magical, fulfilling time that worked because we were doing it for the love of the music."
Himes eventually bought and operated Amigo before returning to Texas to launch more such spaces. In the 2010s, after designing a home studio for Ghostland Observatory, he built a Dripping Springs studio with guitarist Van Wilks. Gear from there moved to Scott Collins' local Chicken Run Studios, which the owner calls "a straight-up Chet Himes museum with his huge [Rupert Neve Designs 5088] console." Most recently, Himes operated out of Cibolo Studios in San Antonio.
"Chet worked on his own time," recalls Collins. "He would take people under his wing, become a mentor, and that's where you'd live."
Jon Dee Graham attested on Facebook: "He saw no dissonance between my punk rock roots and my outsized aspirations. He was unfailingly kind and spent many hours with me in the studio helping me figure out what was what."
Himes also recorded with local songwriter Jane Ellen Bryant, who wrote on social media, "Chet Himes believed in me before anyone else and helped me get my start in this city."
Tejano Music Advocate Johnny Limón
A member of one of East Austin's largest, most influential families, Johnny Limón stretched his involvement across affordable housing, environmental justice, and practically every other facet of life for Austin's communities of color. The avid advocate for Tejano artistry died of unknown causes on August 16 at age 69.
"When it came to Tejano music, that was his first love," explains Ana Maciel, board president of the Oswaldo A.B. Cantu/Pan American Recreation Center. "He would always speak up on the importance of minorities being present and given funding. He made sure the city was held accountable."
Alongside participation with countless community organizations, Limón also led the choir at St. Julia Catholic Church. In 2005, he helped form the Austin Tejano Music Coalition, where he served as vice president until his passing. Tejano musician Leonard Davila remembers collaborative efforts to hold the annual Mexican American Experience festival during SXSW, as well as a State Capitol event for the coalition's 10th anniversary, which attracted thousands.
"Johnny was with us when we would picket some of these radio stations," remembers Davila. "When [stations] said 'Latino,' it didn't include Tejanos and Mexican Americans."
At an August 5 Music Commission meeting, Limón called for creation of a musical hub at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center using the city's $12 million creative space bond, as well as designation of Live Music Fund dollars for Latin music.
"At huge music events [in Austin], our music is included 0%," he pointed out. "That just shows you who are the ones that are being left out. Our music has been here, from mariachi to conjunto to the big Mexican orchestras. Then it became Tex-Mex, then Tejano music. And yet, we struggle."
Prolific Pianist Riley Osbourn
Riley Osbourn said he picked up guitar as a Fredericksburg teenager because "no one wants to date a classical pianist in a football town," according to his wife Bev Shaw.
His rock band practiced after-hours in the local church, where Osbourn played organ during service. Over a prolific career, Osbourn became best-known locally as the house pianist at Antone's Nightclub for over 25 years. He died on Aug. 25 at age 73 in a hospice facility.
"Night after night, if you wanted to hear the real stuff and a [B-3 organ] played as well as anybody, you could go to Antone's and Riley would be playing," says Marcia Ball, who featured him on many records. "When he laid it down, it was exactly what it was supposed to be."
Osbourn toured for over a decade with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, alongside gigs and recordings with Jerry Jeff Walker, B.W. Stevenson, and Los Lonely Boys. He appeared on some dozen Austin City Limits episodes, including the very first taping with Stevenson, later swapped out for the Willie Nelson pilot. His lengthy credits include two Grammy nominations, for Nelson's Milk Cow Blues and Shepherd's Live! in Chicago.
Bassist Larry Fulcher played in Antone's Blue Monday Band with Osbourn throughout the Nineties: "For Blue Monday, we made $8 each, but we got to hang out with Riley. Not only would he play something genius, he would drop profundity on you with his wit. Philosophy, politics, whatever, he was a Renaissance-type guy, but with a little Jack Nicholson smirk."
After battling throat cancer and then suffering a stroke four years ago, Osbourn built his piano skills back up in anticipation of Ball's next Pianorama show.
"He fought through surgery and refused to accept that the doctors said he wouldn't play again," says his spouse. "He practiced every single day."
Austin City Limits announced a modified season 46 of the PBS show without in-studio audiences. According to a press release, a "mix of new, already-taped episodes and selections from our archives" will include locals Jackie Venson and White Denim alongside out-of-towners Rufus Wainwright and the Mavericks.
Sixth Street bar staples B.D. Riley's Irish Pub and Dirty Dog Bar have closed permanently. After 20 years Downtown, Riley's owners will focus on their second location at Mueller. Dirty Dog, a haven for heavy metal, hopes to open a new space after COVID-19 restrictions lift. Owner Rob Hicks wrote, "We held on as long as we could even after losing revenue from March through today and with no end in sight."