Austin Elders: Meet Guitarist and Defense Attorney Bobby Earl Smith

From professional musician to professional defender of musicians

Bobby Earl Smith in his garden (Photo by Katherine Irwin)

Some of Bobby Earl Smith’s first Austin memories are chasing fireflies, riding ponies on a carousel over at Lamar and Barton Springs, and getting his hide tanned for playing on the fire escape of the World War II military housing his family lived in as his father paused the pursuit of his law degree to enlist in the Air Force.

It was his father, Earl W. Smith (later, the honorable Judge Earl W. Smith), who brought Bobby Earl to our state capital while he attended law school at the University of Texas. In ’47, after Earl finished his studies, the family moved back to San Angelo, where Bobby Earl spent the rest of his formative years before moving on to graduate from Abilene Christian College, now Abilene Christian University.

But in the Sixties, the fun-loving spirit in chasing fireflies and frolicking on forbidden staircases drove Bobby Earl back to Austin with his wife. It was a jarring transition in some ways. Long before his father became a judge, he was head of the San Angelo school board, where they took Jim Crow head-on by leading a unanimous vote to make San Angelo’s one of few school districts to integrate in Texas. That was just one year after Brown v. Board of Education in ’54.

“When you would walk in there, you would smell spilled beer, cigarettes, and squashed french fries. And onion rings. I mean it smelled like – like you knew where you were.” – Bobby Earl Smith describing the legendary Split Rail Inn

Growing up in a fully integrated high school in San Angelo made Bob and his wife Judy P. Smith’s move to a completely segregated Austin in ’65 all the more jarring, especially when the federal government tried to make the city comply with the Civil Rights Act a few years later. As was true when other parts of the South tried to integrate, there were even riots where Judy – then a teacher at Reagan High – had her nose, throat, and lungs scorched by tear gas. That was 1971.

His trips to the UT law library were often coupled with regular visits to the legendary Split Rail Inn with his less studious cohorts. “They didn’t even pour concrete, just asphalt, and didn’t seal it,” Bobby Earl said of the Rail. “So when you would walk in there, you would smell spilled beer, cigarettes, and squashed french fries. And onion rings. I mean it smelled like – like you knew where you were,” which just happened to be one of the somewhat seedy birthplaces of Texas outlaw country.

Though he finished his degree, instead of practicing law, he wound up practicing guitar and becoming a fixture in the local music business.

After one of his fellow students whispered something to the house band about Bobby Earl’s country-folk chops, it was only a matter of time before he hooked up with Marcia Ball (aka Freda), Johnny X. Reed, and co. to form Freda & the Firedogs – a Sunday night staple at the Split Rail.

Doug Sahm introduced them to producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic. And they could’ve, should’ve, would’ve been on their way, except Bobby Earl says Nashville hadn’t yet figured out what to do with Austin’s new brand of eclectic – even lawless – country. But here, crowds were loving it.

In ’72, Bobby Earl was asked if the Firedogs might want to play at a political fundraiser for a new candidate running for the Texas Senate.

“I said, 'Who’s it for?’” Bobby Earl said in his tinny, West Texas twang, a coy smile forever playing on his lips.

“'Lloyd Doggett,’ they said.’ I said, 'Well, I like his politics. We support him.’ Then I said, 'Where?’ And they said, 'The Broken Spoke.’ And I said, 'We’ll do it!’”

That turned into a regular gig for two years. In ’74, the Firedogs played what would be their last gig of the 20th century at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic. Judy attended that concert, not knowing she was pregnant with her first child. It was a sad note, but by year’s end, things were looking up. The new dad bought a nascent record label and hooked up with Alvin Crow to form Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys, which would become one of the tightest country acts this side of the Mississippi.

A year later, they recorded live for the very first season of Austin City Limits, and Nashville was forced to pay attention, helping them produce and promote music that took them up the Eastern Seaboard, where a New York Times writer rated their Manhattan show among the best live performances of ’77, right next to the Rolling Stones live at El Mocambo.

The tour also took them through D.C., where one of Jimmy Carter’s staffers was so taken, he invited them to the White House to meet the president. Bobby Earl, himself a lifelong Democrat, was more than happy to. But someone in the band just had to change his shirt first, so they ran a little late, missed the president, and had to settle instead for some of that famous U.S. Navy Bean Soup, right from the Capitol mess hall. And according to Mr. Smith, it was “fantastic!”

Photo by Katherine Irwin

Bobby Earl has lived many lives. In the Eighties, he put away his Western wear and opened a criminal defense practice, sometimes representing musicians who tried to live up to the outlaw moniker. But music has never left his life. In the 2000s, the Firedogs got the band back together and in 2002 released an album they’d recorded 30 years earlier. In 2021, they released another long-awaited LP. Last year, the band celebrated Bobby Earl’s 80th birthday at C-Boys on South Congress, with the likes of Shinyribs and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

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Austin Elders, Alvin Crow, Bobby Earl Smith

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