By Bob Livingston
(LSM March/April 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 2)
I had just finished playing a set at a benefit show in Dripping Springs. I was sitting in the audience enjoying the next act and secretly pulled out my iPhone for a quick check of email and Facebook when I saw it. Darcie Fromholz had posted, “My father has passed. Stephen John Fromholz has passed. Please love your family.” The news hit me like a sledgehammer! That was it. Not how, when, where or why. I ran outside and called a few people. The facts trickled in. Steven Fromholz was gone. Just like that! Not from another stroke, like the one he suffered in 2007. Not from a cancer or other killer disease. But gone from an accidental gunshot wound out on a ranch near Eldorado, Texas …
“The man in the big hat is buying
Drink up while the drinkin’ is free
Drink up to the cowboys a dead and a dying
Drink to my compadres and me
Drink to my compadres and me.”
— (“Man With the Big Hat,” Fromholz)
I first met Steven in 1970 at a Dallas folk club called the Rubaiyat. Dark and smoky and full of musicians, the Rubaiyat was the place to play if you were a folkie in Texas. On any given night you might hear Mance Lipscomb, Michael Murphey, Three Faces West, Buckwheat Stevenson, a 20-year-old Alan Ramsey, or Frummox, the best folk duo around.
Murphey and I had arrived in Dallas for a show at the Rubaiyat that weekend. We had just come in from Colorado and were dog tired and bedraggled, but we drove straight to the club to see what was going on. On the little marquee outside was a crude hand-lettered sign that read, “Frummox Tonite!”
“You gotta hear these guys, Bob,” Murphey said. “They’re old friends of mine, they’re great! Wait ’til you hear ‘Texas Trilogy!’”
We barged in through the standing-room-only crowd and Frummox was already onstage: two guys with beards, a great vocal blend and stellar songs. Steven Fromholz and Dan McCrimmon. During the break, I met Steve and Dan and we talked music and laughed and told war stories and Fromholz made fun of me because I was from Lubbock. I liked him immediately. He was a big man with blue-gray eyes who sang and talked in a sonorous baritone — a really loud baritone! There was nothing soft about him and he was very, very sure of himself.
In the second set, Frummox played “Song for Steven Stills,” “Man With the Big Hat,” and the amazing folk epic, “Texas Trilogy.” I was a lifelong fan from then on.
“And cattle is their game
And Archer is the name
They give to the acres that they own
If the Brazos don’t run dry
And the newborn calves don’t die
Another year from Mary will have flown
Another year from Mary will have flown.”
— (“Texas Trilogy,” Fromholz)
We remained friends over the years and I played bass and sang on a couple of his albums: A Rumor in My Own Time and Frummox ll. His songs were mini novels, great poetry and images, sometimes with lightning-fast lyrics and playful internal rhymes …
“Everybody’s goin’ on the road
Take a bridge across the river wide
Everybody’s goin’ on the road, wide load
’Aint you glad you’re on the other side of the highway
I weigh less ’cause it eases my burden
Pick a day for certain it can lighten your load
You can take a lady or a dog if you wanna
But everybody’s goin’ on the road.”
— (“Everybody’s Goin’ On the Road,” Fromholz)
After Frummox played out, Steven toured with a bass player named Travis Holland who had played with both Jerry Jeff Walker and Murphey before I came on the scene. He was a brilliant dude who was rumored to have worked for the CIA in a former life. Travis was really bright and funny and twisted, which made him a perfect sidekick for Fromholz. On the way to gigs, Steven and Travis would scat and go back-and-forth with jokes, puns, and their own unique brand of poetic silliness, trying to one-up the other. They called themselves “Captain Duck & Duggy Uckling.”
“There will never be another,
Urination like the other.
Howling at the moon,
Two loons on the highway,
We stopped … to take a leak,
And do … the rest area … waltz.”
— (“Rest Area Waltz,” Fromholz)
In 1975, Steven and his wife, Janey, moved up to Gold Hill, Colo., a Wild West town on the side of a mountain. It was cold as a witch up there with streets of dirt. Only a few places had electricity and everyone used outhouses. If you have ever seen the Warren Beatty movie, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, you can get the idea.
Once, after a gig in Denver with Jerry Jeff, we visited Steven and Janey up in Gold Hill with plans to stay a few days. They had a funky little house with a coal-burning stove for heat. We would stoke the fire and sit around the stove and play guitars and sing. I would wake up at night and it’d be freezing and I’d dash out from under a mound of quilts and covers and throw some coal on the fire and dive back in and disappear. Fromholz and Janey were unaffected by the cold or me banging around and slept right through it. Jerry Jeff left the next day.
Steven had written a song for the first Frummox record called “Song for Steven Stills,” having never met him. By a strange coincidence it turned out that Stills lived just across the mountain from Gold Hill. The two Stevens were introduced, became friends, and Stills asked Fromholz to play in his new band, Manassas. Big time rock ’n’ roll! Stills later said, “Fromholz is just too big for the stage,” and he wasn’t invited back for the next leg of the tour. That was not particularly surprising since Fromholz tended to garner more than a sideman’s share of the response during stadium shows and insisted on calling Stills “Stubby.”
Steven hung out and played golf with Willie Nelson and gonzo writers like Bud Shrake and Turk Pipkin. He got into acting and did a few movie roles, like Outlaw Blues in 1977 with Peter Fonda, and even some plays, including Bobby Bridger’s mountain man epic, Seekers of the Fleece.
In the late ’80s, Fromholz went looking for a new adventure. Butch Hancock has a few words to say about Steven’s West Texas river guide sojourn down on the Rio Grande:
“Steve started music trips on the Rio Grande in the Big Bend with Far Flung Adventures. We both became river guides under the guise of ‘musicians seeking lucrative employment,’ and co-hosted New Year’s music trips on the border and on every other year in the state of Veracruz for about eight years or so … Fromholz was always ready and able to lead the charge … I’ve been blessed to be his amigo in song and raft and concert and rivers and deserts … Viva Fromholz!”
Steven never had a “real” publisher that pushed his songs, but that didn’t keep his friends from loving recording them. Willie cut “I’d Have to be Crazy,” Jerry Jeff recorded “Man With the Big Hat” and “Dinosaur Blues,” Hoyt Axton sang “Everybody’s Goin’ On the Road,” and Lyle Lovett recorded “Bears” and “Texas Trilogy” — all big records for Fromholz.
In 2003, Fromholz was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. A month after the induction, he suffered a massive stroke and nearly died. I called him in the hospital to ask how he was doing. He was silent for a long time and all he said was, “Take your aspirin everyday. Take your aspirin! Everyday!” He spent the next three years learning to walk, talk, play guitar and sing again. Somewhere in there, I played some bittersweet shows with him. He had a hard time playing the guitar and remembering his old songs and he couldn’t quite stay in the groove, his lyrics would skip out of time with the music. There was a disconnect somewhere. Part of my old friend was gone, stolen by the stroke. Fromholz was still a songwriter, though, and he wrote new songs about his latest experiences. As near as I can remember, one of those new songs went like this:
“Do you know … who you are?
Do you know … why you’re here?
Do you know … your name?
I said ‘No’ … and fell back asleep.”
Fromholz was a poet in every since of the word and had amassed a considerable body of work. And in 2007, he was named Texas Poet Laureate, a ground-breaking move considering he was the first songwriter to be given the honor. It gave him a much-needed and well-deserved pat on the back and a lot of recognition outside the realm of the “Outlaw” music world that had adopted him.
Craig Hillis, one of Steven’s closest friends, and co-author with Bruce Jordan of the book Texas Trilogy: Life in a Small Texas Town, says it like this: “The State of Texas recognizing Steven as Poet Laureate was a significant affirmation for serious songwriters everywhere. I would say though, that only a select group of songwriters warrant the title ‘poet.’”
As Poet Laureate, Fromholz would make public appearances and sometimes play shows for schools and community organizations. A small book of just his “poems” was issued and distributed at these gatherings. He liked someone to play these gigs with him, so I got in on a few. We had a lot of fun and Steven’s sense of humor and self-assurance never failed him. “Texas Trilogy” would occasionally shine through:
“6 o’clock silence of a new day beginning
Is heard in a small Texas town …”
For the past several years, Steven had been living with his new sweetheart, Susan Buchholz, and he was one happy rascal. He didn’t play out much, but his faculties had returned with time. Susan owned a West Texas ranch near Eldorado and got him back in top form. The last few times I saw him, he looked better than ever: slim, fit, and suntanned. He’d become a gentleman rancher, dressed the part, and even Janey said he seemed happier than she’d ever seen him. He was outside a lot, rode horses, mended fences, and occasionally shot at feral hogs …
Hillis wrote this narrative on Steven’s tragic accidental death on behalf of the Fromholz family:
January 19, 2014: It was an odd and tragic hunting accident. Fromholz was transferring a rifle from one truck to another. Evidently, a feral pig infestation had been praying on the young goat population at the Flying B ranch, Steven’s residence. The weapon was in a case. The section of the gun case that encompassed the stock of the weapon was unzipped. He dropped the case, the gun came out of the case and as Fromholz instinctively reached out to grab it, the weapon discharged. It hit him in the right hand and the right eye. A devastating wound. I believe he was technically “brain dead” on the spot given the extent of the damage. He did however continue breathing and maintained a heartbeat on the ambulance ride to the regional hospital. The Schleicher County Sheriff’s Department said that his vital functions ceased about six or seven miles down the road from the ranch. Steven was pronounced dead at the hospital. Susan, his sweetheart and “fellow rancher” was on the scene and was with Steven on his final ride. The tragedy took place in the driveway area at their ranch.
Steven’s family, friends, and thousands of fans were left to wonder why it happened. We’ll never know, but I have a feeling that Fromholz is at peace with this odd turn of events. He died doing what he wanted to do, and, I might add, with his boots on.
Fromholz was buried at the Ft. McKavett Cemetary near San Angelo on Jan. 24. On Sunday, Feb. 3, a few hundred came out to the Palm Door in Austin to pay their last respects, to sing his songs, and to tell their personal stories about the man they loved. It was, by far, the best memorial I have ever been to. Janey and Steven’s daughters, Felicity and Darcie, were the hostesses of the affair. Steven’s old Frummox partner, Dan McCrimmon, was joined by a cast of dozens to celebrate Steven’s life in song, poetry, and remembrances: Ray Benson, Turk Pipkin, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Darden Smith, Fletcher Clark, W.C. Clark, Bill Oliver, Bobby Bridger, John Inmon, Craig Hillis, Chris Gage, Christine Albert, myself and, well … the list is too long to write here. Steven would have loved to have been there … and he was!
So, vaya con Dios, Steven. Fair weather, old friend. I miss you. You were a true poet and your friendship and songs meant a lot to me — to all of us. Say hello to the others for me. You just might have pulled it off and lived the life you wanted to, even on the twists and turns of your amazing creative road.
“I been blessed with a voice that can sing
A faith in the future and what it may bring
And change is the very most natural of things
And life is mostly attitude and timing
One of these days, well, I’ll disappear
You’ll look around and I won’t be here
Don’t worry, buddy, there’s nothing to fear
I’m just going where the rivers flow
You can find me in a rubbery boat
Down in Mexico
You can send me a note
Care of an old buffalo
Singin’ the dinosaur blues!”
— (“Dinosaur Blues,” Fromholz)