Friendly Advice on Just About Anything from the Hill Country’s Happiest Songwriter

By Al Barlow

(LSM June/July 2010/vol. 3 – issue 4)

Dear Al,
I have been writing songs for the better part of the last 20 years — ever since college. But nobody would ever know because I’ve never played a single one in public. I have no real desire to do play music for a living — I have a “normal” job that feeds the family, has full benefits, and that I also happen to be pretty good at and enjoy. Still, part of me has always wanted to at least try to perform in public, but a couple of things have always kept me in check: first, my wife, who loves me and has put up with a lot but has never really understood my “thing with that guitar,” and second, my own stage fright. I’m a pretty outgoing person in general, but I respect “real” songwriters so much that I just can’t imagine myself having the gall to think I could do what they do just because I can strum a guitar and string words together anymore than I’d presume myself capable of removing my own gall bladder just because I know how to use scissors. So my question to you, I guess, is this: How do I get over those reservations (wife included) and “just do it” — or am I better off just playing for the cats when the wife and kids are away? Oh, and if I ever do grow a pair and decide to play live, what’s the best open mic night in the Hill Country where I might be able to get away with it?
— Rob, Kyle, TX

Dear Fellow Songwriter, Rob,
You owe it to yourself — and your precious wife — to share your talent with others. If you write songs, you’ve been given a gift. Share it, and watch it grow. Cheatham Street Warehouse (in San Marcos) is a great place to start. As a matter of fact, that’s where I first began singing my songs in public. Kent Finlay runs the place and has been a great mentor and inspiration to generations of young and upcoming singer-songwriters. There are a lot of “Open Mic” venues in the Hill Country. Check your local listings for “Open Mic Nights” — and get your tail off of the couch and go share your music! You’ll be so glad you did! So will your little wife.

Dear Al,
Is “real” Texas chili with beans or without beans? I say ‘BEANS!’ But my friend says ‘NO!’ Can you settle this?
— Nancy Jo, Boerne

Dear Nancy Jo,
This is a topic that has been debated a long time in the beautiful Lone Star State. At the Terlingua International Chili Cookoff (held the first weekend in November every year), beans are not allowed in any competitor’s pot of chili, period. If a judge were to find a single bean in a bowl of chili, the whole batch would be disqualified. To my way of thinking, though, if you want to screw up a perfectly good pot of chili by adding beans to it — do it! Some of my dearest friends make theirs with added beans, and I’ll admit that the combination is quite tasty. Personally, I don’t add beans to mine, but this is Texas, by golly, and if a fellow wants beans in his chili, he aught to add them. It’s still chili.

Dear Al,
I just moved down to New Braunfels from Austin. I don’t miss Austin traffic, but I do miss all the great breakfast tacos. I know there’s gotta be some good ones here, too, but where? (Note: Whataburger Taquitos are good anywhere, but they don’t count!)
— Jerry, New Braunfels

Hey, Amigo Jerry,
Welcome to New Braunfels! You’ll find the best breakfast tacos in town at Hanna’s Kitchen on North Walnut Avenue, although The Monterrey on I-35 South makes mighty mean breakfast tacos, tambien!

Dear Al,
Put on your philosopher’s hat, because you’re gonna need it: What’s more Texan — sweet tea, or unsweet tea?
— Martin, Wimberley

Hello Martin,
Until I was about 12 or 13 years old, I thought ALL tea was supposed to be sweetened. It certainly used to be when I was growing up in East Texas. The first time I took a swallow of unsweetened tea, I thought somebody had forgotten to add the sugar to it. But nowadays, with all the artificial sweeteners and stuff, it’s most always served unsweetened, and then you just doctor up your own glass however you want it. I like it that way. I like the freedom to choose. You simply can’t get more Texan than that! Tell all my friends howdy for me in Wimberley!

Dear Al,
When is the best time to tube down the Comal to avoid a crowd?
— Marie, San Antonio

Sweet Marie,
Any time is a great time to float down the beautiful Comal River. It’s a constant 72 degrees year round. But if you want to avoid the crowds, I recommend floating the river on a pretty day in early spring or late fall. Most folks think the water is too cold to get in, but it really isn’t. It’s the exact same temperature as it was in July! But, Marie, please don’t let this information out. There’s liable to start being crowds gathering at the Comal River then, too!