Well, here I am in Austin again, this civilized city in the middle of Texas, a city that --- what with its many universities, art galleries, sophisticated shops, and devotion to music, a city about the size of Ottawa that has 150 clubs offering live music most nights of the week --- seems oddly not to match the image of Texas that Texans like to propagate. I come here, as readers may already know, because my son, Ben, who lives and works here, does a lot of flying, and whenever he has a surplus of points gained from his peregrinations, he buys me a ticket to come down and observe the scene.
Being a travellin’ kind of man all my life, I accept these gifts with alacrity, and the most enjoyable thing about these jaunts is that Ben takes me around as he goes about his work here, and introduces me to all his friends, most of whom are musicians, hundreds of whom live and perform in Austin the year round.
As readers may know, I have seen and heard some wonderful bands in Austin, and names that might be familiar to readers of this blog would be the Canadian guitar virtuoso Redd Volkert, who played with Merle Haggard for years; the almost crippled but magnificent keyboardist and rock and roll singer Earl Poole-Ball, whose song Livin’ in a Cheap Hotel is one of my favorites, (and whose line from that song, Trying not to compare myself with the company I keep tops my list of rock and roll philosophies); the superbly-named slide guitarist Cindy Cashdollar; the sparkling young violinist Warren Hood who has picked up where his father, a local legend, left off; a great band of international renown called the Hot Club of Cowtown headed by a magnificent violinist-singer Elana James; another local institution, the Blues Specialists, who have played a gig at the Continental club every Friday night for the last 25 years or more; the world-class trumpeter Ephraim Owens, who plays upstairs most Tuesday nights; and, it hardly needs to be mentioned, the remarkable entertainer, Dale Watson, a veritable repository of every country song ever written, so far as one can tell.
Well, last night was my first on this brief visit, and we went down to the Continental (a club I have many times described as the world’s greatest night-club, a grungy, dim, not too spotless club whose walls attest to its many decades of activity in delighting its customers) where at 10 pm Dale Watson took the stage as always. The last time I saw this man he played his regular Christmas Day gig , singing non-stop for four hours, hardly pausing for breath, but always talking to his audience as he related to them in a way that last night I began to think is probably unique. He played until the early hours of the morning at that time, and the next day was back at work at 2 pm, hosting the fabulous musical spoof, chickenshit bingo, at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.
I realized last night that quite certainly I have never before seen or heard an entertainer who so much revels in just entertaining the people who flock to hear him, week after week.
He will talk with the customers dancing just in front of him about their boots, ask where they bought them, compare the various cowboy-boot shops of Austin, and when he finds one customer who can’t remember where she bought her boots, he thunders the question, “What, you can’t remember where you bought your boots?” as if she had confessed she knew where the closest hydrogen bomb was stored, but had forgotten it for the moment. And then, picking up on the fact some girls crowding the stage are from Nebraska, he falls into a sort of jingle that he sounds as if he is making up, about dancing, and its rhythms. Within minutes, and a couple of swigs of the local beer later, he launches into a story about a character called Shoeshine Charlie who used to have a shoe-cleaning stall outside, but is no longer there, although he waited long enough for Dale to make up a song about him, which he now performs. When that is over he launches into a mock-denunciation of his band, threatening one of them to terminate him if he doesn't get rid of that moustache. Then he looks up and says, "Sorry, folks, just trying an imitation of Buddy Rich...always liked Buddy and his rants..." Or words to that effect.
In fact, the guy seemed so much at home on the stage working his audience that I began to wonder what kind of private life he could possibly have, since all his energy must be absorbed by his concentration on being an entertainer.
That thought reminded me of an occasion when I met the divorced ex-wife of a famous radical preacher who had made an international name for himself as the defender of the poor and downtrodden: she said he had been so much in love with humanity that for his family he had little, if any love left over.
Okay, folks, that’s if for the moment. You may not have heard of Dale Watson --- I never heard of him until I came here --- but Ben tells me he goes over big in Europe, where he plays to audiences of 2,000 and up, and is regarded, with his endless fund of colorful, mischievous, funny and sometimes passionate songs, as a real representative of the cowboy-inspired, country music for which the United States is famous, and has been ever since the formative days of the motion picture industry. Of course, in Austin, they will argue that James Hand (a real cowboy, living on a real ranch) is the real thing.
But they will still flock to Ginny’s on Sunday afternoon, as Dale and his band play at one end of the long skinny house, while chickenshit bingo is played to the wild encouragement of the patrons who have invested $2 each for the 44 (or is it 48?) tickets on the bingo square over which a chicken is released, and urged to drop its load on their particular ticket. Another great Austin institution. That, unfortunately, this time around I am going to miss out on.