Monday, August 16, 2010

The Gift of Texas Music

Saturday night I had the distinct pleasure to see a musician that I have followed for (rough calculation:) 28 years. Shake Russell is his name and he is known as the Texas Troubadour. Listening to him in concert with his Huge Little Band; Doug Floyd and Mike Roberts, touched the yearning I have had for about five or six years to hear real people playing real music on real instruments with real lyrics they wrote their own selves. These guys did not disappoint.

I’ll back up a bit and tell you the first time I was introduced to this brilliant songwriter’s work. I was in my second year of college, and a girl brought her guitar to an art class (why, I don’t know, perhaps just to show off) and while we were waiting to get into the drawing lab, she got out her guitar and sang a song, “Deep in the West”. Wow, there were profound lyrics, telling a sad story of a relationship that just isn’t working so well. She couldn’t have written that song. Turns out, I was right. I pried it out of her; some guy in Houston named Shake Russell.

A couple of years later, a roommate from Kentucky of all places introduced me to Shake’s voice and other songs. Along with Dana Cooper, they made music that got me through the early eighties. So many great memories are brought up when I hear that familiar voice.

Back to Saturday night; my sister and our friend picked me up and we made the trip to Galveston, anticipating the evening. They had both heard him before in Wimberley at the Cypress Creek Cafe. When we arrived at the venue, The Old Quarter Acoustic CafĂ©, we were transported back to 1974. The dimly lit, 1890’s circa building was a study in 70’s retro. Posters on the walls, exposed brick, high ceiling fans and a neon armadillo are but a few of the notable features of this classic throwback setting. There was a wall dedicated to the memory and music of Townes Van Zandt, the Texas songwriter. The entire scene was small, only enough room for a small stage, an antique bar and a few bistro tables along with about 50 to 75 spots for people. My sister said she was waiting for the Fire Marshall to pay a visit at any minute. Everywhere there was someplace to plug something in, there were several things plugged into it.

As the warm-up act, Joanna Gipson, sang, played harmonica and played her own music on her guitar, I began getting that old feeling of being in the presence of creativity and craftsmanship. Her personal anecdotes between songs, were delivered in a relaxed, semi-hippie style.

When the Shake Russell Trio took the stage, not 15 feet away from me, the ache to hear great live music was quelled. Just three guys with the instruments they love. The first song he did was “You’ve Got a Lover” which is the second song I had ever heard of his, the first one I heard him sing. The skill with which he played that black Ovation guitar, upside down, the way Doug’s mandolin and Mike’s bass filled up the sound was just the medicine I needed. The whole night was so enjoyable. Shake’s thanks for our applause at the end of each song seemed genuine and heartfelt. As one reviewer, Bruce Bryant, an independent film producer in Houston put it; “Shake’s music walks right up to you, says howdy and gives you a big hug. His tunes make you happy or sad or thoughtful, but above all - they make you feel. Nobody writes a better love song. I’ve been a huge fan for decades…”. This is an apt description of the prevailing spirit of the night.

At one point in the concert, toward the end of the first set, Shake was tuning his guitar for the 10th time, and he happened to look out the plate glass window at about three-quarters to the back of the stage. Outside on the sidewalk, he spied a ghost from the musical past. He motioned to the figure outside to come on in. It was an Elvis impersonator, in full white jumpsuit, black wig and chrome sunglasses. Shake offered to do a duet of “Viva Las Vegas”, but the King just waved and yukked it up for a couple of seconds, then left as quickly as he had arrived. Of course, when the door closed, Shake lowered his voice into the mike and intoned, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Elvis has left the building…” to an appreciative audience who recognized that it was a clean shot and he took it. Some straight lines you can wait your whole life for.

His songs and stories touch all of his fans in a special way, his warm, friendly vocals lead the listener to hear and feel the lyrics. For my parents’ 50th anniversary, I did a little video with old pictures and a corny narrative, and at the end used Shake’s classic song, “Two Silver Hearts”*. Through the entire project, when the song came up, I was close to tears every time. The story he tells is one of enduring love and simple contentment.

If ever you get a chance to see him live in concert, please capitalize on the opportunity, you will be delighted as I was, and who knows, you too may become a fan for the next “28 years”!

*I have no idea what some of these images have to do with the song, but the recording is the original that I heard so many years ago.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Yet Another Reason I Like Alvin

In today’s world, people are in their own little world, not wanting to be bothered by anyone else’s problems. When they want to be bothered, they listen to the news and blame themselves for their success, or the “global climate change” or BP’s misfortune in the Gulf and the “evils” of using petroleum to power society.

Today after a pilgrimage to WallyWorld for some new socks and stuff, I swung by the Dollar Tree store to see if they had anything I needed. Not really seeing anything I couldn’t do without, I made a cheerful exit.

There was a Chrysler parked in the space right in front of the door, and there was a black woman in her mid-30’s with a daughter and they looked ready to go. The only problem was, there was only a lonesome “click” coming from under the hood. As I passed, she hailed me and asked if it sounded like her battery was dead. I told her to give the starter another whirl, and it clicked and turned over, anemically, and then nothing.


I told her I didn’t have any jumper cables and inquired if there were anyone she could call. Her reply was that she had just moved here from Sweeny and had no one in the area. Dang. “Hang on, ma’am, I’ll see if there is anyone in the store that had cables.” “Oh, thank you!” she sang. I had noticed that there was an empty space next to her.

I went in, scanning the aisles for a likely candidate to help. Down the birthday card aisle, I spied a guy that had pulled up in a truck about three minutes earlier. “’Scuse me, there’s a lady stranded out front here and I was wondering if you had any jumper cables…” “Yeah, I do.” He said, and immediately and without reservation put the card down he was looking at and proceeded to the parking lot.

We went outside and there was a big Mercury parked in the space next to her. After asking him if we could use his battery to try and get her going on her way (to a birthday party for her daughter’s friend), we hooked ‘em up and waited for a bit. All the while, the original good Samaritan stood by and continued to assess and diagnose. The Merc had a loose terminal and we decided to try the original guy’s truck.

After no less than 20 minutes, we concluded that the starter must be on vacation at the very least. We pushed her car out to the lot where our hero attached his truck to her Sebring and proceeded down the road to her nearby apartment, with his young step-grandson driving the disabled auto.

To make a long, very hot and sweaty story short, I am impressed by the kindness and willingness to help a stranger in a new town, and I hope you guys are inspired as well. Watching the guy lay on the searing pavement to hook a tow chain to the disabled vehicle, and feeling the heat on my hands and knees as I searched for a tow hook as well, my belief was reinforced that small-town America is not gone forever. And our Alvin is still populated with enough country boys that will give of their own time and knowledge to help them that need it.