By Richard Skanse
Anthony “Lucky” Tomblin was 58 years old by the time he released his first full-length album, 2001’s Lucky Club Music (credited to the band Lucky 13). But it wasn’t a late start so much as it was a case of a life full-lived coming full circle — and beginning anew.
“Lucky had been singing since he was a kid,” says Redd Volkaert, the celebrated Austin Telecaster master who spent a decade playing and recording in the Lucky Tomblin Band, the all-star honky-tonk ensemble Tomblin started a couple years later. “So it wasn’t like he got to a point in his life where he was like, ‘Hey, I think I want a band.’ He was in bands 40 years ago. But I guess he just got kind of, you know … sidetracked.”
By “sidetracked,” Volkaert is referring to the better part of four decades that Tomblin — who passed away Tuesday in San Marcos at age 72 after a long illness — spent as a successful attorney. But he uses the word in light, fond jest, knowing full well that his late friend and bandleader was not the sort of man who was ever inclined to get sidetracked or drift once he set his mind to doing something. After all, Tomblin, who adopted the nickname “Lucky” as a scrappy, resourceful kid growing up poor in a family of nine children, worked his own way through both college and law school — and not even an early taste of musical success in and around his native San Antonio, performing in the same circles as Doug Sahm and Auguie Meyers and scoring a regional hit with “On My Love,” his folk-rock single for Dynamic Records, was gonna knock him off course.
“Whatever Lucky did, he loved doing 200 percent,” Volkaert says. “That was the thing that made him different from a lot of folks — he was severely focused. Whatever he did, he did it full-on and put everything he had into it.”
But even though his all-in commitment to practicing law and raising two daughters (Amber Walter and Tiffany Carnes) with his wife and college sweetheart, Rebecca, meant putting the honky-tonk way of life on hold for a couple or 40 years, Tomblin’s passion for music never waned in the slightest.
“My dad’s soul was musical,” says his daughter Tiffany. “Music defined Lucky’s spirit, and also our family. When I was born, we had to stop at the Sunken Gardens music venue (in San Antonio) on the way home from the hospital so he could introduce me to the musicians, and when I was in grade school I slept many a weekend night on two or three vinyl or metal chairs pushed together at the Too Bitter (in San Marcos) listening to his musician friends. My babysitter at one point was Joe King Carrasco. Growing up there were musicians over at the house all the time. It was not unusual to fall asleep to a guitar jam going on on the screen porch, and several times I would walk in the house with a friend and find Augie Meyers playing the piano in the front room.”
Tomblin, who dabbled in the music business from behind the scenes throughout his legal career, produced both Meyers’ 2001 album Alive and Well at Lake Taco and the 1977 Sir Douglas Quintet record Live Love. “His favorite musician was Doug Sahm, and they were brothers from another mother,” says Tiffany. “Doug and Lucky would sit next to each other and the two would talk a mile a minute making plans to take over the world.”
Although Tomblin never specialized in entertainment law, it was only natural that his loyal support of his musician friends meant helping them out when they had legal needs. Tiffany notes that her father was also known to reach out to promoters on behalf of musicians, and he’d even pay them if they were out of work. “As an example, he had a close musician friend who he admired greatly who had fallen on hard times, and Lucky and Denise (Boudreaux, Tomblin’s longtime executive assistant turned band manager) worked to get him out of the shelter and into an apartment,” she recalls. “Lucky provided the apartment and any costs that his friend needed for the rest of his life, and he never thought that was special or above the norm — it was just the type of man he was.”
In 1984, Tomblin purchased a former fire station in downtown San Marcos and converted the building into a hybrid law office and recording studio, the later appropriately named The Fire Station. It wasn’t long before the studio began attracting quite a roster of Lone Star luminaries, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely, and of course Sahm and Meyers — who along with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez used The Fire Station to record their 1990 debut as the Texas Tornados. Three years later, Tomblin sold the studio to his alma mater, Texas State University (then still known as Southwest Texas State). The state-of-the-art facility is now the crown jewel of the university’s sound recording technology program.
By the time Tomblin was finally ready to retire from regular law practice and focus on music full-time, he hit the ground running with a veritable A-team of some of the best players in Austin, if not all of Texas. In addition to Volkaert, other MVPs in the Lucky Tomblin Band over the course its 10-year, four-album run included piano player Earl Poole Ball, pedal steel player Cindy Cashdollar, bassist Sarah Brown, drummer Jon Hahn, and guitarists John X Reed, Casper Rawls, and Bobby Arnold (the Fire Station’s longtime recording engineer.) The LTB toured both nationally and internationally, with their third album, 2007’s Red Hot from Blue Rock, earning them “Pure Country Duo/Group of the Year” honors from the Academy of Western Artists. The band’s other albums included 2003’s The Lucky Tomblin Band, 2006’s In a Honky-Tonk Mood, and 2010’s Honky Tonk Merry Go Round.
Tomblin’s daughter Tiffany notes that he was never more happy than when he was playing music, and it showed. “It was a real easy sort of situation to play in a band with Lucky running it, but he was also wide open to everybody’s ideas all the time,” adds Volkaert. “And every album we did, he was so into each and every song. Even if it was one he didn’t write, he’d talk about who wrote it and how he found it — he would do that at every gig even. And he was always genuine and always had time for people at every gig. Some front guys or band leaders or whatever — and I’ve played with a whole pile of ’em — will get preoccupied with some other bullshit at gigs, but he was never that guy. Coming off the stage during a break or after the show, he never sat down — he was always out visiting with everyone in the crowd, and if he shook your hand and said ‘nice to meet you,’ he really meant it — it wasn’t part of his schtick. To me, that was amazing to watch.”
Along with recording and performing his own music, Tomblin continued to produce and work with other artists and music entities throughout the last two decades of his life. In 2006, he executive produced the documentary Antone’s: Home of the Blues. According to Dr. Gary Hartman, director of the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State, after the documentary was finished, Tomblin donated all of the archival materials from the production to the school’s Wittliff Collections to be included in the university’s archival holdings on Texas music. Hartman notes that Lucky — who he called “one of the most genuinely kind and generous people you could ever meet” — and his wife maintained very good relations with the university for years; in addition to teaching business law and real estate law, Tomblin also served on the Center for Texas Music History’s Advisory Board. “He was a big supporter of education and preserving Texas music history,” says Hartman.
Tomblin’s philanthropic endeavors were not limited to music, either. As noted by his other daughter, Amber, Lucky and Becky were able to parlay his success from the law practice into establishing the Tomblin Family Foundation, which donates every year to a number of different local and national charities. She also adds that her father, who was “very connected to the Native American culture” and even adopted into the Kiowa Apache tribe, “produced many powwows and fundraising events to raise money for urban Indians.”
According to Boudreaux, another cause that was near and dear to Tomblin and his wife’s heart was CASA of Central Texas, an advocacy group for abused and neglected children in the court system. CASA was the beneficiary of an all-star tribute to Tomblin held four years ago at the Texas Music Theater in San Marcos. In addition to the Lucky Tomblin Band, the Sept. 2, 2012 “A Labor of Love: A Musical Salute Honoring Lucky Tomblin” — which raised more than $17,000 for CASA — featured performances by Delbert McClinton, Ponty Bone, the Texas Tornados (with surviving original members Meyers and Jimenez along with Sahm’s son, Shawn Sahm), a “pianorama” jam with Earl Poole Ball, Floyd Domino, Emily Gimble, Nick Connolly, Red Young, and Gray Gregson, and a duo set by Terri Hendrix and Lloyd Maines.
Hendrix, like Tomblin a San Antonio native who has called San Marcos home for most of her adult life and music career, called Lucky “a true patron of the arts and a tireless cheerleader and advocate for those in need. Simply put, he was a real saint. He changed many lives, including my own.”
In fact, Hendrix added that if not for Tomblin, there “would be no OYOU” — or “Own Your Own Universe,” the non-profit arts center she’s been building to serve San Marcos and the Hays County community. It was through Lucky and Becky, who she met in 2010 at a benefit the Tomblins hosted in their backyard for HAAM, that Hendrix was introduced to Boudreaux, who in turn introduced her to Mike Lawrence, one of the OYOU’s founding board members.
“None of this would have been possible without Lucky,” Hendrix said. “With an easy smile and kind nature, he had a way of bringing out the best in people and introducing them at the right time. If you knew Lucky, he was your fan. He was a quiet pillar and ardent supporter of the Texas music scene. He never wanted credit or attention called to his numerous contributions to the arts. He simply wanted songs to be written, sung, and performed. I’ll never forget him, and will honor him in how I go about my own life. Love the moment. Love your family. Love the music you play. Be kind. Be yourself. That’s Lucky Tomblin — the man who made his own luck. But I’d have to say that it was those who had the honor of meeting him who were the lucky ones.”
Not surprisingly, that last sentiment has been expressed almost word for word by just about every friend who’s talked about or shared remembrances of Tomblin this week, from band members to Dr. Hartman to even U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-25th), a longtime Tomblin family friend who was a featured speaker at the “A Labor of Love” tribute back in 2012. Hear it enough, and it sounds nothing at all like cliché — more like a refrain deeply felt, known, and sung by heart.
“I don’t think I ever saw that man frown, ever,” marvels Volkaert. “He was always smiling, life was great. He deserved the name Lucky, and I think that everybody that knew him or had anything to do with him, they’re the lucky ones. Me included. No question.”