By Bob Livingston
(March/April 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 2)
We were a band with no name. Not that we hadn’t tried: the Unborn Calves, Ro-de-o-dee Riff Raff, the Bluebonnet Plague, the Hoodlums of Love. We were bouncing back and forth between opportunities: recording and touring with both Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker. These were heady times for a 22 year old from Lubbock.
The year before, I had followed Murphey to Austin from Wrightwood, Calif, after an earthquake scared us to death and a gypsy in Colorado told us to “git out of there while the gettin’s good.” We headed back to Texas, played gigs along the way and recorded Murphey’s first album, Geronimo’s Cadillac, in Nashville. Jerry Jeff, who had also recently settled in Austin, already had a few decent records under his belt when he arrived on the scene. The most notable was Driftin’ Way of Life (Vanguard), arguably the best record he has ever made. Jerry Jeff had also written “Mr. Bojangles,” and that didn’t hurt his chances none.
The band was a rowdy crew: three rockers, a country steel player, and a West Texas folkie. Gary Nunn, Craig Hillis, Michael McGeary, Herb Steiner and me, Robert Livingston. How we got together and how we got to be part of an historic record album is a story of synchronicity, magic and dumb luck. I’ll try to explain it as best I can …
After Geronimo’s Cadillac, we played on Jerry Jeff’s first “Austin album” for MCA in 1972, the one simply tilted, Jerry Jeff Walker. The record gave Jerry Jeff’s career a major shot of vigor and longevity. Packed with great story songs like “Charlie Dunn” and “That Old Beat-up Guitar,” and rockers like “Hill Country Rain” and Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” (well, we made it a rocker!), Jerry Jeff Walker offered a cutting edge, raw-boned, folk-rock/country sound. Along with Geronimo’s Cadillac, it would help begin a worldwide awareness of Austin and its music, and kick-start the “progressive country” scare of the ’70s. But how to follow it up?
It was a cold spring day in 1973. We had just finished recording Murphey’s second album, Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, in Nashville. The day after we finished the record, we left for Austin to join back up with Jerry Jeff for a tour. Gary Nunn had decided to skip this tour and go off with Murphey to London to mix Cosmic Cowboy. That was high fun for sure, and a great opportunity for Gary to meet some London publishing bigwigs. But it wasn’t long before Gary found himself wandering the city alone, trying to stay warm in his cowboy boots and leather jacket. It was the worst winter in Europe in 20 years and most of the hotels and apartment blocks in London had the habit of turning the steam heaters off during the day when folks were at work. Gary, feeling depressed and homesick, wrote “London Homesick Blues” one afternoon in the cold-as-ice flat he was staying in. Like Shakespeare said, “Sweet are the uses of adversity!”
As we left Nashville without Gary and bumped along the Tennessee roads back to Austin, Jerry Jeff was hatching a new project. He wanted to record an album in the dancehall in Luckenbach, Texas, a tiny worn and wooden town in the Hill Country with a population of three. Jerry Jeff had visited Luckenbach several times and had fallen in love with everything about it, and especially with Hondo Crouch, its “Grand Imagineer” and “Prime Minister.” Hondo treated Jerry Jeff like a son and Jerry Jeff looked at Hondo as sort of a surrogate father. Anyway, they were best friends. Jerry put the idea to Hondo about recording in Luckenbach and Hondo, ever the promoter, went for it hook, line and sinker.
While Jerry Jeff was mulling all of this over, we played shows from New York, over to the Northwest, down the West Coast and back to Austin. Meanwhile, Gary came back from London disillusioned and broke, and had decided to abandon the biz altogether and go back to pharmacy school at Texas Tech. (Even today, I wonder what it would be like to have Gary as my pharmacist!) But we corralled Gary and got him out to a meeting at Jerry Jeff’s rambling ranch house outside Austin. Jerry Jeff convinced us that we were going down to make a record in Luckenbach, and it was going to be great! We all joined up for the endeavor, even Gary, who decided to give history one more chance. When we asked what songs we would be recording, Jacky Jack said not to worry, “something’s bound to come out!”
Michael Brovsky was a big bear of a man with a bushy beard and a penchant for bullshit. Brovsky was Jerry Jeff’s New York manager and producer and the man that Jerry Jeff turned to when he decided to do something off the beaten path. The first thing Brovsky did was to hire a world-class mobile recording unit called, “Dale Ashby and Father,” and bring them down to Texas. The Ashbys were the owners and engineers of the rig. There were only a few of these state-of-the-art mobile studios around at that time, and the Ashbys had the best.
At the time, I never thought much about whether we were recording in a studio environment or otherwise. With Murphey we recorded in studios. With Jerry Jeff, it was pure funk, always. “Clams” (mistakes, in studio parlance), out-of-the-blue harmonies (with strange “slaughtered 13th chords”), and sometimes the band even talking and joking around during the song, were all left in the mix. The Jerry Jeff Walker album was made in the primitive conditions of an old dry cleaning building on Sixth Street called Rap’s Cleaners, with no studio console, just a 16-track Ampeg that we all plugged into in the middle of the room. And now we’d be in a wide-open dancehall in Luckenbach with scorpions crawling up the walls and banty roosters singing in the trees. That was the way Jerry Jeff rolled, and it was our job to support him wherever he decided to record. It wasn’t any different when we recorded with him in Nashville studios later on down the road. All of those records were recorded funky and on the fly, with engineers always being caught without the tape moving — it drove ’em crazy. But it was just what it was — or as we used to say in the band, “What it is, what it is.”
It was hot in Texas in August 1973, real hot. The Ashby outfit arrived a few days before we did and commenced to set everything up, running mic cables and wires into the dancehall and in the trees across the street in the back of the general store. It wasn’t long until they realized there wasn’t near enough electricity in the town to accommodate all those tubes, compressors, power amps, noise reduction units, and guitar and bass amps. But with Hondo’s help, they had the county rewire the whole town and provide plenty of juice for what was to come.
There were no motels or accommodations of any kind in Luckenbach, so the band checked into a cluster of rustic little cabins, tucked back a-ways from Main Street, in nearby Fredericksburg. Then we went out to inspect the scenery and set up. We set our amps on the dance floor in front of the stage, picking our spots and settling in around Jerry Jeff who was urgently trying to finish six songs at once. McGeary set his drums up on the stage behind us. We baffled everything with bales of hay and the Ashbys set up mics and booms on everything. We needed a piano, so we brought mine from Austin, a Baldwin spinet. (The leg got busted during the move and the crack is still there.)
Michael McGeary had a friend from California named Kelly Dunn who played a Hammond B3. Kelly had showed up in Austin a few months before and we had all jammed together a few times at Gary’s house. Jerry Jeff liked what he heard and asked Kelly to come along to Luckenbach … with his B3. After we set everything up, a couple of girls showed up right about then. Sweet Mary Egan, a fiddler from Austin who played with Greezy Wheels, and JoAnne Vent, who sang with a gospel voice. They fit right in and added a touch of sweetness to a barn full of boys that had been rode hard and put to bed wet.
This was the general order of things: We would wake up at the cabins late, eat breakfast in town and get out to Luckenbach around 2 p.m. every day. When we pulled up, Jerry Jeff would be mixing up a batch of sangria wine in a big galvanized tub. We would hang out for a while, watch the sky and the clouds drift by, eat some lunch, drink some sangria, start to fool around with our instruments and jam, getting loose.
Jerry Jeff had a couple of songs he knew he wanted to do: “Little Bird,” a song of his he had recorded before on a previous record, and Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” The rest of the album would be recorded on the fly.
The first song we cut was a two-beat called “Gettin’ By.” Jerry Jeff made it up as he went along and the verses were different every time he sang it. “Hi, Buckaroos, Scamp Walker time again! Think it’s time to slide one by you once more …” To this day, Jerry Jeff still opens his shows with ‘Gettin’ By.” He also wanted to get his recipe for sangria down in a song, so he wrote “Sangria Wine.” We tried it a few different ways; country, rock, bluegrass. Somebody said we should play it reggae, but most of us didn’t really know what reggae was all about. McGeary, who had dabbled around the smoky Rasta edges of reggae music, gave us some ideas. He had Craig Hillis play what would turn out to be the signature guitar lick that begins the song — “deda dedel-le” — and had me answer on the bass with “dum-dum, da-dum.” There were plucking steel and fiddle parts and B-3 in there, too. It sounded funky, it was country reggae, and it seemed to work. “In Austin on a Saturday night, man it’s time to make up some Sangria wine …” Even the crickets were singing in time! Hondo was always hanging around with us, and when we sang the chorus, he sang along, “Oh, oh oh oooh- oooh oh, I LOVE … San-gri-a wine!”
We cut Michael Murphey’s great barroom ballad, “Backslider’s Wine,” with a weepy lead by Herb Steiner on steel. Next was Jerry Jeff’s own “Get It Out,” an off-kilter rocker that I could never get a handle on. Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” was somber and floaty with the train screaming off into the distance at the end and Craig playing a Les Paul full of steam and smoke.
We recorded everything mostly dead on and only overdubbed some background vocals, “oohs” and “ahhs” and “fight for your rights!” Tourists would wander into the dancehall to listen and sometimes sing along. Everything was wide open and had a live feel to it and Brovsky and the Ashbys captured it all. We were making progress, but we needed something else to kick things into higher gear. Jerry Jeff decided to do a live concert on Saturday night and record it all. Somebody made up some flyers advertising the show with $1 admission.
THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT
The flyers worked wonders and on Aug. 18, 1973, several hundred people from all over the Hill Country turned out and crowded into town and the Luckenbach dancehall. It was triple standing room only: redneck farmers, cowboys and hippies, frat boys and sorority girls, bankers, carpenters, hucksters, preachers and teachers, all literally hanging from the rafters and looking over shoulders in the windows and doorways, trying to see and hear and be a part of it, spilling out into the street and over to the general store where long-neck Lone Star beer was the hot seller. The mystery, excitement and anticipation of the event were palpable. We were used to playing for packed houses with hell-raising crowds, but this night was something special and magical. It was only later that I understood it.
We climbed in over the crowd, took our positions, picked up our guitars and kicked it off. At first, we did songs from the Jerry Jeff Walker record: “Hill Country Rain,” “Charlie Dunn” and a screaming version of “L.A. Freeway.” We played some of the songs we had recorded earlier in the week, but none of the “live” versions ended up making the cut for the album. But we did catch a couple of real keepers that night …
Almost a year before, between tours with Murphey and Jerry Jeff, I played in a band with Ray Hubbard called Texas Fever. Hubbard had written a crazy song about his run-in with a woman from Oklahoma called “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” Ray was afraid to actually sing the song in the band, but I learned it. I learned it. One night, when I was back playing with Jerry Jeff on that tour down the West Coast, Jerry broke a string and asked me to do a song while he changed it. So I sang “Redneck Mother” and the crowd went crazy and started singing along and pouring beer on their heads! It had a great reaction and Jerry Jeff took note of it and decided then and there that “Redneck Mother” would go into his show, with him singing it.
When we did “Redneck Mother” that night in Luckenbach, it was the first time most of the crowd had ever heard it, but the place went stumpy and by the time the song was over, they knew it and sang louder than the band on the choruses! The crowd reaction was deafening and amidst the roar of applause at the end, I suddenly screamed out, “That song was by Ray Wylie Hubbard!” Later, during the mix-down, Jerry Jeff decided to leave this little shout-out on the record, and after a few months of the new record’s release, a few hundred thousand people knew Ray Wylie’s name and that he had written “Redneck Mother.”
“THAT WAS GARY P. NUNN!”
One afternoon, earlier in the week, Gary had sung “London Homesick Blues” to us underneath a tree behind the general store. We all knew it was special, but what happened that Saturday night with the song was pure magic. We had just played “L.A. Freeway” and Jerry Jeff suddenly turned to Gary and said, “Play that song about London you sang the other day!” We had never had a chance to rehearse it and didn’t really know it. Gary started singing it slow and uncertain and we struggled with the edges. After a couple of verses and choruses, however, we knew the changes and the words, and as the song progressed and the choruses came drifting by, the crowd took to it as their own: “I want to go home with the Armadillo! Good country music from Amarillo to Abilene…!”
By the time “London Homesick Blues” came to an end, the crowd was singing so loud, we couldn’t hear ourselves think. The dancehall had turned into bedlam with people screaming and cheering. Then Brovsky came running out of the mobile unit and shouted to us, “Play it again, we ran out of tape in the middle of it and didn’t get it!” We were wild-eyed and breathing hard from the thrill of it. And that was when Gary said, “I have to put myself back in that place.” (What did he mean? Back in London? Back into the fever pitch when he just sang it? You’ll have to ask him.) So, we played it a second time and the audience knew what was coming. You think “Redneck Mother” had a great crowd reaction? Well, when we got to the last choruses of “London Homesick Blues” that night, we just kept singing over and over “I want to go home with the Armadillos …” Everyone, singing along, over and over. Maybe 15 choruses, I don’t remember. The crowd wouldn’t let us stop. When “London Homesick” ended, the roar and urgency from the crowd was otherworldly and I wanted everyone, including whoever might be listening to the record later, to know that my friend, Gary Nunn, had sung it. So I screamed, “That was Gary P. Nunn!” Jerry Jeff also left this proclamation on the record. “London Homesick Blues” would go on to be one of the great Texas anthems and the theme song to Austin City Limits. I can’t imagine Texas music without it.
IT AIN’T OVER ’TIL THE FAT LADY …
After Saturday night’s mythmaking, we slept in. We all wanted to get back out to Luckenbach to listen to what we had done. Jerry Jeff, who was probably staying at Hondo’s house through all of this, had gone on ahead. What I am going to tell you now should be kept absolutely secret, ok? All right then. The night before, someone in the crowd had given Kelly, uh … something for recreational purposes. And that morning everyone in the band decided, “what the heck, we’re off work, we did good,” so … well, we all took a bit of that something — ready or not, here we come. Now, I’m not saying it was a good or bad thing to do, or that I’m proud or not proud of it, but we did it and that’s all there was to it.
As we drove back into the rapidly changing Luckenbach scene, the something that we took was altering our consciousness in a definitive way. The dancehall swayed back and forth from the heavy rhythms of the night before, and soon it changed into a beautiful shade of lavender blue and it scooped us up and took off and flew to Paris, with us in it! Down below, we saw Jerry Jeff waving. He ran up, snagged our boot heels, and dragged us back down to earth with the announcement, “Hey, I just remembered, we have one more song to do!” Holy moly! How are we going to manage this?
Somehow, we pulled ourselves together and went to work. It was an old song he’d had around for a while but had never recorded called “The Wheel.” It was packed with great imagery, and each chorus ended with “the wheel kept spinning ’round.” If you listen to that cut, you can hear the ebb and flow of the broken wheel and some pretty interesting musical sketches painted right in there. As for myself, I was holding on to my bass and reality for dear life, just trying to play something coherent! It’s a wonder I ever made it out alive and without horns.
All week long, a photographer and good friend of Jerry Jeff’s named Jim McGuire had been snapping photos for cover ideas. He’d taken a shot of Hondo’s hand pointing to a bumper sticker by Rusty Cox advertising the Terlingua Chili Cook-off that was pasted on the door of the dancehall. Jerry Jeff saw that photo and decided it was the cover shot, and the record became, ¡Viva Terlingua! It made no sense to call the album that because we were in Luckenbach, but that was what was so good about it. What it is, what it is …
So we stuck a fork in it and called it “done!” and it was being mixed and the cover was taking shape, and the band still didn’t have a name. Then, a couple of weeks later, we were on our way to a gig at Castle Creek, a funky club in Austin, and we stumbled upon the “Lost Gonzo Band.” Now that stuck! Gonzo described us to a tee and especially it described ol’ Jerry Jeff. He was as gonzo as you could get, just south of Hunter Thompson. So the Lost Gonzo Band, in name and in spirit, first appeared on the inside cover of ¡Viva Terlingua! with a double-spread sepia photo of everybody. And that Gonzo Stew was just beginning to be stirred …
After all these years, ¡Viva Terlingua! still holds water and magic; great songs, rough-hewn and real. Jerry Jeff still packs ’em in wherever he goes and everybody in the room knows the words and sings them louder than the band. Everyone that played on the record is still in the game and plays in various concoctions night after night. I’m proud that I got to be a part of such an historic stepping-stone and that the record went into Texas music lore like it did. And … I was there!
Keep an eye out for Bob Livingston’s memoir, due out in 2013. For more information, visit www.boblivingston.org.