By Lynne Margolis
Despite the uncanny timing, one of the few events Louis Jay Meyers certainly did not plan was his death from a heart attack on March 11, 2016 — the very day the president of the United States was to give the kickoff keynote speech for the event Meyers helped birth 30 years ago: the massive South By Southwest Interactive, Film and Music conference and festival.
Meyers’ departure just hours before he’d planned to attend President Obama’s speech earned mentions in publications around the world. But many of those publications might have noted his passing regardless of when it occurred, because Meyers, 60, left his mark on music communities everywhere, not only via SXSW but in so many of his other endeavors.
To say he had his hand in many pies is a vast understatement. In the days after his passing and at Monday memorial celebrations at Austin’s Strange Brew and Kansas City’s the Brick, friends, colleagues, bandmates, clients and others whose lives he touched shared countless stories about this slightly built Austin native’s propensity for concocting plans, subversive and otherwise —and how he so often managed to turn them into realities far exceeding the original vision. Tales of his behind-the-scenes path-smoothing, unsung acts of kindness and unwavering commitment to music and those who made it were barely tempered by recollections of occasional head-butting sessions or moments spent on his bad side — signs of humanity that, in the end, made him all the more beloved.
Of course, the most famous scheme he had a hand in hatching was South By Southwest; Meyers and Roland Swenson, a staffer at alternative newspaper the Austin Chronicle, are credited with convincing editor Louis Black and publisher Nick Barbaro to support their plan for a regional music-industry conference in Austin. But even before that, Meyers promoted reggae shows at the legendary Austin venue Liberty Lunch and around the region. (For anyone familiar with the concert promotion game, especially at the club level, his company’s name — EZ Money Productions — undoubtedly provoked a good laugh.)
Sometimes, Meyers wound up plucking his beloved banjo, pedal steel or guitar onstage; he’d started his first band, Jagid Sky — along with his first management job — at 12. After earning a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Arkansas, he returned to Austin, where he played in and managed several bands; Killer Bees co-founder Papa Mali credits Meyers with putting his “little reggae band from Shreveport” on the national and international map. Mark Rubin, most renowned as the Bad Livers’ bassist/tuba player, counts Meyers’ 1982 booking of Rubin’s “shitty local reggae act from Norman, Oklahoma” as his first professional gig.
A Celebrity Access industry profile notes Meyers “recorded, toured, produced or performed with Bill & Bonnie Hearne, Bob Schneider, Killbilly, the Killer Bees, Mojo Nixon, Fastball, Willis Alan Ramsey, Tommy Ramone Erdelyi and Jello Biafra, among many others.”
Functioning in those roles and as a partner in Liberty Lunch led to his role in creating SXSW, but after nine years as the guy who had to say no to an increasing number of bands pinning their dreams on exposure at Southby, he sold his quarter-share of the enterprise to his partners and moved on, becoming the talent buyer for Antone’s and organizing New Orleans’ LMNOP conference.
But he never gave up his roles as co-host of the SXSW golf tournament or captain of the agents/managers team at his much-loved closing-day softball and barbecue. During SXSW 2007, Meyers also performed in Erdelyi’s bluegrass band, Uncle Monk, and played pedal steel in his own reggae band, the Mau Mau Chaplains, which opened for Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Let’s pause for a minute here to consider the words “reggae” and “pedal steel” in the same sentence, much less together in a musical context. That’s exactly the sort of genius that led Meyers to envision a redo of the Who’s Tommy as a “bluegrass opry.” But more about that in a bit.
In 1999, he moved to Denmark and became involved with a songwriting collective called Song Island. It became the model for the Troy Campbell-helmed House of Songs, a multi-national songwriters’ exchange program. In 2001, Meyers was invited to Amsterdam to create the A2A: Access to Amsterdam conference. He planned what likely would have become a very successful gathering, had it not taken place one month after the events of 9/11.
Folk Alliance International board member and former Voice of America reporter Joan Kornblith, who first met Meyers as one of A2A’s few attendees, says that conference would still be going on had it not been for the timing.
“Those of us who did attend, bonded; some of my dearest friends are people I met through Louis at A2A,” she recalls. “Because of that, I always tell people ‘If Louis is involved, count me in.’”
In 2003, he took the reins of the Austin Music Network, which he managed until 2005. That’s when the City of Austin returned the dedicated access channel on which it ran to Time-Warner, which privatized it as ME-TV. Meyers then became executive director of Folk Alliance International. Under his leadership, a somewhat stagnating organization with an identity problem (previous name: North American Folk Music & Dance Alliance), a conference held in a different American or Canadian city each year (with time-consuming negotiations repeated each time) and conflicting opinions regarding what constituted folk, morphed into a more secure, stronger — and growing — entity.
Meyers helmed the organization’s headquarters move to Memphis, where the conference was held from 2007-12 (following a year in Austin), and a second relocation to Kansas City, Missouri, where it just wrapped the third year of a five-year conference commitment. Meyers stepped down from the top job in 2014, but stayed on for a year as special projects coordinator, launching the conference’s winter music camp, music fair, public-concert component and the Folk Store, among other projects.
Handpicked by Meyers to run the now 3-year-old music camp, Rubin reflects, “When working for Louis, if ever a plan of action came up, everybody would discuss its merits one way or the other until a quiet moment when Louis would ask everyone assembled, ‘So, who’s looking out for the musicians in this deal?’ That was his mantra: ‘Who is speaking on behalf of the interests of the working musician?’”
Rubin says he and Meyers bonded over their shared experience as cultural anomalies: “Southern-born Jews who had the great misfortune to grow up with a love and appreciation of bluegrass, country and western swing, so much so that we both identified with it as our native tongue.”
He calls it a misfortune because both encountered anti-Semitism within those musical realms. “We both were told to our faces, on multiple occasions, that we had no hopes for a career playing ‘white man’s music,’” Rubin recalls. To their credit, they persevered, and, Rubin says, ultimately were enfolded even more meaningfully into the communities they’d once been cast out of.
Rubin was happy to learn Meyers’ mantra had not changed much during his Folk Alliance stint.
“The word I heard him use over and over again was ‘community.’ How do you foster a community and how do you link communities together for their common benefit?’”
On that particular goal — bettering the music community — Meyers never wavered. In 1997, the Austin Chronicle reported Meyers and two partners were close to announcing plans for Roadcrew, “a new union for roadies.” Intended to “represent sound men, guitar techs and the like,” the goal was “to supply the industry with competent, trained people.”
That plan may not have taken off, but Meyers had a knack for putting ideas into action — and inciting others to do the same. Jenni Finlay, who knew Meyers her entire life (he and her father, Kent Finlay, were in a band together before she was born), recounts many times in which he encouraged her to take on projects far outside her comfort zone. That he also left her to navigate them on her own was his way of giving her the confidence to do what he knew she could. But like a mama bird, he always was there to catch his fledgling if she stumbled a bit or needed help facing down a scary obstacle. [When asked to share some reflections, Finlay sent such an eloquent response, we had to use it all. See sidebar.]
Her experiences echo in the words of many who expressed their grief and gratitude online and elsewhere. The Stray Birds’ Facebook post read: “His vision for the professional music community as a whole, and the individuals by which it is comprised, was nothing short of pioneering. He managed to use his own ideas to help make the dreams and goals of others tangible and real.”
Meyers also knew how to recruit others in pursuit of making his own dreams real. For 20 years, he carried in his head the sound of Tommy — the classic, and in some ways classically structured, rock opera that was the Who’s magnum opus — as a “bluegrass opry” done with fiddles, mandolins, Dobros and banjos. For 15 of those years, he searched for just the right band to pull it off. When he finally heard Springfield, Missouri’s HillBenders, he knew he’d found them at last. As he liked to say, he knew before they did that they were doing the project. All he had to do was convince them. Once he did, and they learned their parts and got in the studio, they knew something magic was happening.
When the band debuted Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry, in its entirety at the 2015 Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City, the audience did, too. The multigenerational awe was palpable. Meyers stood offstage — a hotel-ballroom platform — and beamed as the audience delivered a wild standing ovation. Another Meyers notion some had met with eye-rolling skepticism had turned out brilliantly, eventually earning him and the band a backstage meet ’n’ greet with composer Pete Townshend. Meyers had been looking forward to the band’s April performance at the Old Settler’s Music Festival in Driftwood, where he would have presented his “Whograss” baby to a largely hometown crowd while getting a chance to revisit a festival he hadn’t attended in years.
The HillBenders learned of his passing while in Australia, and posted their heartbreaking reaction.
“[Louis Meyers was] our manager, our confidant, our very dear friend and arguably the most important member of our band … . A visionary leader, Louis was an inspiration and a guiding light for us that can never be replaced. For the last two years he has worked tirelessly to bring his brainchild to life and to share it with the world. His legacy will live forever in the echoes of its greatness. He was so incredibly special and his impact on the music world will be felt for generations to come.”
Lead singer and mandolinist Nolan Lawrence added, “I lost a manager, a mentor, a supporter, an inspiration, a partner in crime and one of my closest friends. He left behind an unforgettable legacy of love and compassion for the music that lifted his soul and the people that make it. He touched the lives of so many around the world and his unbounded generosity lives on in the hearts and minds of the untold numbers who were lucky enough to cross his path. There are few in this world who cared more deeply for the music than Louis Meyers and I am so proud to have called him my friend. With each tear that falls, an impossible void is left in its place. You will always live in my heart.”
Similarly eloquent sentiments continue to flow from all directions, using glowing terms including “inspiration,” “visionary leader,” “guiding light,” “tenacious idealist” and “wise, funny, steady, savvy and supportive.” And also “instigator,” “partner in crime,” “co-conspirator, ringmaster and enabler of the highest order.”
That last comment comes courtesy of his friend known as Bullet Head, who called Meyers “one of the best sinners I ever met,” adding, “I never thought of LJM as a visionary as much as the most industrious and promiscuous embracer of cockamamie schemes I ever met. … Louis never tried to make order out of the chaos, but he was a master of keeping the chaos moving in the right direction. The elephants, the flaming batons, the tuba players and the clown car were all going to get into that ring no matter what LJM had to do to make it happen. Even if the chaos sometimes overwhelmed the whole damn thing and it unraveled before his eyes, he kept on grinning. Cause he always had another scheme behind that grin.”
Some say Meyers had a mercurial temper. Others say he was simply a no-nonsense guy. Notes Kornblith, “You always knew where you stood with Louis. I never asked for his opinion on a project unless I was ready for the answer. That’s not to say I always listened to his advice, but I always learned something.”
Kornblith often found herself strolling around this year’s Folk Alliance conference with Meyers, and notes how gleefully he sang one particular refrain whenever someone approached him with an “issue.” He’d tell that person to talk to her, then grin and repeat, sotto voce, “Not my problem; not my problem.”
“There a few people you meet who really change your life. For me, Louis was one of those,” she says. “He was a great connector, too. Louis wasn’t just happy knowing you — he wanted you to know everyone else, too.”
Another common thread is his seemingly limitless ability to make time for others. Accounts of random meetings turning into lengthy conversations and brainstorming sessions abound, along with stories about seemingly myriad projects. Since launching Meyers Music Management in July of 2015, he’d been managing the HillBenders and Sam Baker. By early November, his handpicked director had captured Baker performing a Kansas City concert for an upcoming DVD release. He also was working with Jeff Plankenhorn, and no doubt would have attended the artist’s Soul Slide album release party and showcase Saturday at Strange Brew.
By 2007, he was already talking about establishing a folk music hall of fame and museum and a music-industry retirement community. When I heard he was talking with Kinky Friedman about creating the “Shalom Retirement Village” at Friedman’s Utopia Ranch, I kept telling him how perfect that plan was, and how I hoped I could live there, earning my keep by capturing priceless stories and caring for the dogs and other creatures awaiting adoption.
Whenever we crossed paths, usually at conferences and festivals, I always got a hug and, if I was lucky, an update on what he was up to. My last hug was less than a month ago in Kansas City. I was so looking forward to getting another this week; I figured it would likely be at the annual Folk Alliance-sponsored day party at Threadgill’s — which he bumped to Wednesday so Finlay could have his Saturday slot. Sadly, that’s turned into another memorial, one of many being held in his honor. The Brick is planning a full-fledged tribute night on June 27. Word is that a tribute is also planned as part of Wednesday night’s Austin Music Awards, and yet another Friday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Palm Door at 401 Sabine St.
Meyers was laid to rest Monday morning at Austin Memorial Park. He didn’t get a chance to realize what Rubin called “his last great big idea” — and could have become one of his greatest contributions to Austin’s music community.
“I hope someone out there picks up the torch and fulfills Louis’ final vision of selfless service,” Rubin says. “That would be a fitting tribute for all he’s given us, don’t you think?”
Indeed. At Monday’s Strange Brew memorial, Louis Black said, through tears, “It’s going to be really hard to live in a world without Louis Meyers.”
But we could live in a world that keeps his legacy alive by making that last dream of his come true. The Louis Jay Meyers Shalom Retirement Village at Utopia Ranch might be an awfully long title — and he would never name it after himself — but it sure would speak volumes about everything he meant to everyone who loved him. Which was just about everyone who was lucky enough to know him.