A Very Austin Christmas: The Making Of A Texas Tradition [Part Two]

A Country Christmas Album

Tonight in Austin there is somebody playing some music that is good as anybody on the planet, and chances are there will be about 20 people there. They will understand the craft and history and be able to express themselves with music the way the rest of us just dream about. I don’t really remember why I started recording the Christmas EP, but I think it had a lot to do with a local musician I saw play. His name was Slim Richey and he was one of those rare people, an Austin treasure.

When I told him I was thinking of recording some holiday tunes and asked if he would play on them, he readily agreed. And when I told him my vision was to have the recordings be in the vibe of Julie London’s classic “Cry Me A River,”  Slim told me why I had chosen him though I didn’t know it myself at the time. His guitar hero was Barney Kessell who played the guitar on that amazing recording. Slim’s style and guidance truly shaped the record - he wrote and performed the most beautiful arrangements for the songs we picked, and even helped me pick the musicians that gave that classic flavor that makes those recordings feel so good. I was trying to keep the EP low key enough to not get into trouble with Kelly’s record label, so I printed up a few and dropped em off at the local radio stations and they started they started playing it. We loved the picture our buddy Marty Butler did for the cover:

I shot Slim in Bruce’s backyard studio, along with the rest of the guys in the band. The Boars Nest, as I recall the studio being referred to, was really just a backyard shed crammed with amazing talent and a reel to reel recorder. Bruce was always avoiding the newer digital technology, so I followed his lead and shot on medium format film.
— Marty Butler from The Butler Bros
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We printed two or three thousand that first year, just selling it at Waterloo Records and them calling up when they needed more. We were just going to give it away, you know, at the Christmas shows as a thank you to everyone who came year after year. It had been a few years in, and we felt the need to acknowledge that and record it. We approached it in a really simple way - we were just recording some fun holiday music together, like a Christmas card. That first release felt great: a hyper local release in the community spirit of the holidays.

Kelly’s record label did, in fact, find out about our little EP. To our surprise, they weren’t mad about it at all - they wanted to release it nationwide! So, Rykodisc asked us to add a few songs to make it a full length record. The hunt for new songs began once again to round out our holiday repertoire. We ended up adding “Santa Looks A Lot Like Daddy,” that really depressing Louvin Brothers tune “Shut In At Christmas,” and a live recording of “Okie Christmas.”

Our sound engineer had recorded a couple shows one year including an especially good one where, for the very first time, I had played a Christmas song I had written. Titled “Oklahoma Christmas,” the song is a true story of my first trip to meet Kelly’s family in the tiny town of Sentinel, Oklahoma.

Kelly’s family has a long history in there - her mother and father were highschool sweethearts there and her family would gather there for the holidays every year. Her bringing me a long was a big deal to me, but the culture clash was way harder than I expected. Her very, very religious family was irritated by the PG swear words I was using, which were pretty much the religion in the household I grew up in, and they had me playing a losing game of Star Trek Monopoly. By the 4th or 5th time I had used the Lord’s name in vain, I figured I was done for. The song ended up fitting right in with our left of center holiday show and that live recording really captures a magic moment when we surprised the crowd with a song nobody had heard before. It’s not “Viva Terlingua,” but it’s really cool.

Another song was on the original EP but we chose to keep is one of my favorites - Kelly’s rendition of “In The Bleak Midwinter,” a song she had sung in her church. Being in Austin, the organist in her tiny little Methodist church was a chamber music virtuoso and classical music scholar Michelle Shumann.  So, sticking to the roots of the song, we got Michelle to play on the recording and local musical genius Eric Hokannen to write string arrangements. It really is a great little record with some truly inspired playing from many friends - a wonderful community coming together, the way it should be on the holidays.

A Very Austin Christmas: The Making of a Texas Holiday Tradition [Part One]

Party Like It’s 1999

1999 - What a year. It was such a crazy busy time - our little family booked a gig just so we could see each other. Charlie and Emily had gotten married in May. To think, the year before in 1998 we had all released records too - Kelly with “What I Deserve,” my big brother Charlie had released “Life Of The Party,” I had released “Wrapped,” and The Dixie Chicks with “Wide Open Spaces.” I actually didn’t know this year was so important to our careers until I started writing this piece. As I was going through searching for photos and videos from that first show, I realized that in that one year we all released the work that would define our careers.

Kelly had left behind chasing Nashville charts and major labels and figured she would just record the songs she had already written before leaving music for good and doing something else. Well, that record was “What I Deserve” where she found her voice and her audience and ultimately would never be able to leave music after that point even though she’s tried a few times. Charlie’s “Life Of The Party” had the songs Bar Light, My Hometown, and Loving Country on it which made him a Texas music icon.

My record “Wrapped” had what would become Country radio hits for others - “Angry All The Time” eventually recorded by Tim McGraw & Faith Hill as well as “Wrapped” and “Desperately” both released by George Strait. And The Dixie Chicks? Well they were already remaking Country radio in their image even though they were just getting going. Oh, what might have been. Though we didn’t know it at the time, all those releases that came out in the calendar year of 1998 would change our lives.

It seemed a million miles from Bandera, Texas, but in 1999 our noses were to the grindstone. We were on the road all the time. No kids, no nothing. Somebody booked a gig for us to all get together, maybe Rusty Andrews from the Mucky Duck in Houston, in a little listening room that has been a home in Houston since the beginning and continues to be. To me and Kelly’s utter surprise, our new in-laws Emily Robison and Martie Maguire of The Dixie Chicks offered to play with us as a secret. It would end up being one of the hundreds of shows around the holidays that we would play, and was the start of something for Kelly and I that I still have a hard time believing. Life sure will do that to you.

 

Baby, It’s Cold Out There      

So we had this gig booked in Houston with our little family so we could all see each other. Charlie, Kelly and I, well, we never really rehearsed or practiced.  The Austin club world Charlie and I came up in was very organic and improvisational. You just didn’t figure Willie and Jerry Jeff practiced much so neither did you. But Martie and Emily were different! The minute they were on the show they called wanting the song list and rehearsal times. They were and are such pros - seeing them with Beyonce on TV at the CMA’s the other night I was really proud.

None of that happens by accident. In 1999, they were the same as now - complete pros. So when they called I told them, “Sure,” hung up, and figured we’d better get started finding some rehearsals and some songs.

Kelly remembers that Charlie decided we were NOT gonna do any dorky Christmas songs despite the December date of the show. He brought in a few bluegrass covers we could sprinkle in with our own tunes, things like Stanley Brothers, etc. This idea is something that has stuck with us all these years with us looking for lesser known holiday or winter themed tunes or otherwise just feels right for some other reason (there is SO much stuff out there). It’s led us to songs from Tom Petty, the Zombies, Roger Miller, Louvin Brothers, Charles Brown and many more that have continued to make the show feel just as cool as we could imagine!

     That first show in Houston was really so much fun! A part of what made that night so special was something that happened as an afterthought. As I recall, I had a Ray Charles CD that I was listening to that had a duet with Betty Carter of the old songbook classic Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

The structure and delivery of the tune just blew me away. We actually took some real time to learn it - there are a lot of lyrics and I learned some jazzy chords to be able to play it a little. We didn’t even know if we would play it, but we had gone so far as to bring a snare drum that Charlie could stir along on and after the show went so well we were called out for an encore. And that was when we performed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the first time. I’m sure Kelly and I were reading lyrics, but in our memory the crowd went nuts. We got offstage and Charlie commented “Wow, that was great!” so we did it again at the other show in Ft Worth and it was a show stopper again. I remember talking to some folks after the show and they asked me if I had written the song! That really surprised me, but I guess in 1999 not that many people knew about it. It has been recorded a million times since, but it was and continues to be a special thing for us. We even found some old photos from that night - man do we look young!

Years later a fan brought me a recording he had bootlegged from the Fort Worth show that first year. We certainly thought that would be the only Christmas shows we would ever do, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.

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A Tradition Was Born

       There are a million events trying to separate you from your hard earned dollars under the guise of good old fashioned holiday fun. I can’t remember if I was skeptical when Rusty asked us to reprise the Robison family Christmas the next year, but I personally have made it known that I feel like the last person on the planet to be part of an annual Christmas show.  If I am known for anything it is super sad Country songs - what I would see as the antithesis of the idealized fare that usually constitutes commercial holiday experience. Just not my bag. And yet, we agreed to do the Houston show again and I guess our agent at the time booked a few more around Texas. We grabbed our brother-in-law, John “Lunchmeat” Ludwick back from the first year, who has been with us every year since, and hit the road!

Thinking about what to do for a string of holiday shows made wonder where the songs would come from.  I think that second year we very much wanted an excuse to sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” again. We wanted to try to avoid beating fans over the head with the same five Christmas songs you seem to hear everywhere you go, something we’ve maintained throughout the years pulling inspiration from many different places.

I had done a tour with a wonderful songwriter and poet from Knoxville named RB Morris, just us two in a van for a month, and what I remembered most is a song he would play every night called A Winter’s Tale. He’s one of those songwriters that’s really a poet in their own right, and I knew I wanted to include this song in our set - a beautiful image of the holidays.

I don’t remember too much about that year, but we cobbled together a show Kelly and I, and a tradition for us was born. In January of 2001, our first child was born, and somehow something began to slowly make sense to me. My family’s holidays, like many in the 70’s that weathered horrible divorces and multiple awkward and forced holidays, I found that I had no holiday traditions. As the new millennium started, by total accident, Kelly and I started our own tradition of family, music, and the holidays.

When Clint Black Replied To Me On Twitter

I’m still figuring out Twitter a little bit. It doesn’t come naturally to me in the same way it does to my kids, but I like using it all the same. So, when I sent out a tweet asking for song requests a few weeks back and Clint Black responded, I had to call my resident millenial at the office and ask, “What does this mean? How do I respond? Is this as big a deal as I think it is??” and she explained to me the beauty of Twitter in that everyone becomes accessible in a way that was never possible pre-Internet.

Let me backtrack a little bit here and say I am a huge Clint Black fan. When I got back into country music in the 80’s it was Clint, Randy Travis, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Foster and Lloyd that were the big reasons why I fell into playing and writing songs. Me and my brother Charlie fell hard. Their songs were great and the records were deep. After we made this connection over Twitter, I went to see Clint play in Austin. And man, is he talented. He’s really got it all. He can sing, play lead guitar, blow the harp incredibly, and is just an amazing well-rounded musician.

So this unique combination of fandom for Clint Black, this crazy connection over Twitter, and a profound respect for both Clint’s taste and in general the tradition of country music and great songs led to a lightbulb going off in my brain. I had this great idea to ask Clint to challenge me to cover a great country song, one that he would choose. He started throwing out all kinds of ideas (Waylon, Mac Davis, etc.), of course all of them great suggestions, but there was one that really stuck with me - George Jones’s “Still Doin’ Time.” In 1981, I would have been a freshman in high school. It seems I just took it for granted that George Jones was making big hit records then - this song, “Still Doin Time,” was a #1 hit. So I went into the studio the next day and recorded the tune. It was a great experience to sing it, about two minutes of perfection. I still don’t know how they did that back then, made such impactful songs fit in two minutes.

And well, I had such an amazing experience putting this challenge together that I figured I ought to do it again with some more fellow musicians. Randy Rogers came out to the studio and agreed to do a little song challenge that we’re putting together now, and I already have a list a mile long of people I’d like to challenge each other to cover one of these great timeless songs. That is one of the coolest things about country music - this shared history of great singers and the best work of the last bastion of the professional songwriter, Nashville. We’re calling it “The Country Cover Song Challenge” and will be putting out a new one the first Thursday of every month. Follow us on Twitter @thenextwaltz to see who’s challenging who next and chime in with your own requests! Thank you to Clint Black for kicking off this challenge with such a great song. Watch below!

Was It Really Better Back Then?

How many country musicians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Ten - one to do it and nine to talk about how much better the old one was. I have learned the hard way that fetishizing the styles of the past can really be a distraction.

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We use this old recording console built in the late 70’s out at the studio. There is really no arguing that it sounds great. There is also no arguing that the music that has been made using this particular model of console, the MCI 500 series, has less to do with the electronics in it than the creative artistic explosion that was AC/DC or Elton John. But a tool is a tool. It can be a great thing that helps you achieve something you couldn’t have even imagined without it, and in that way it heavily affects the creative process.

Technology has had an undeniable influence on modern music. Beginning with recording onto a phonograph, then on to amplification, then on to radio and pushing rapid changes ever since, technological developments have drastically changed the way we write, play, record, and listen to music over the last few decades. Musicians have more or less embraced the newest technology of the time. Mechanical recording to electronic.  Amplified instruments to electronic synthesizers. Multitrack tape recorders to Pro Tools. Big rooms and live recordings to isolation booths. All the way up to sound manipulation and sampling of this very moment in time, the kids these days play Ableton instead of guitar and if that isn’t proof of embracing technological change than I’m not quite sure what is.

The changes in technology may have changed the way we make or listen to music, however, what will remain is that honest expression of the self that will become a part of the story of that moment of our time here on this planet. Technology of the time will be marketed as a panacea and then will slowly give way to the next big thing. But how does the music change, really?

One of the things that drive me CRAZY in popular country music nowadays are what I call the endless laundry list songs, a list of indicators of your hometown bonafides - daisy dukes, Jesus, armed forces, etc. But, as David Allan Coe reminded us in “You Don’t Have to Call Me Darlin,’” that has been going on forever in country music. Even some of these songs going all the way back to the 50’s allude to a previous era that seems somehow better no matter how freakin’ dirt poor they were. Jamie O’Hara wrote in the song “Grandpa (Tell Me About The Good Old Days)” made famous by the Judds:

Everything is changing fast,
They call it progress…
But I just don’t know.
— Jamie O'Hara

I don’t know either. But I do believe old is getting younger all the time. No getting around it. And I know that in the same way that people will always pine after times that have long since passed, country music will continue to take really complex situations, and, in a simple way, express them very effectively in a way you can really feel it.

Kelly Willis’s new song, Flower On TheVine, is about as far from a cryin’ love and leavin’ song as you can get. I doubt anyone knows the ways time is continually measuring and our culture is stacking us up against the other like a woman does. I do know that another thing that doesn’t change is women and girls will remain much more emotionally complex and sophisticated than boys and men. Rather, my wife of 20 years and my daughter of 13 are way beyond the four boys in the house. It is not even close. As a parent, the fascinating thing with my daughter is that I would say that since she was two years old. I could give you a dozen examples of how my two year old baby girl was already more complex.

And while the complexities of life continue to grow and change with technology and culture and new generations, the truth of the matter is that our humanity remains the same. Was it really better back then? There’s no way of knowing for sure. If you are the kind who embraces the future, happy birthday, it’s already here! If you love the past, take comfort in Faulkner, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

The Original "Going Viral" In Music

Being from a pre-Internet generation, “going viral” has always been an interesting phenomenon to me. When I decided to hire on a talented millennial to help develop the business strategy for my country music company, The Next Waltz, I hadn’t realized just how much learning I had to do when it came to digital marketing. The more we discussed things the more I recognized some of these modern patterns as something that’s actually been around for a whole lot longer than even me (which may be shocking to some of our millennial readers, but I assure you it’s true). If you take a look back in history you’ll see it - The Beatles, Woodstock, even all the way back to Minstrel shows where many of the most famous American songs that every child seems to know come from. “Virality” is actually as old as time itself even though the form of communication has changed from word of mouth to the lightning speed of the Internet.

One time my sister-in-law, Emily from the Dixie Chicks, asked me what I was working on with The Next Waltz, and “low fi” and “cutting edge” were among the adjectives I used. She was suspicious of the two words being used to describe the same thing, and at the time I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Looking back on it now, I think the album Viva Terlingua by Jerry Jeff Walker was a huge reason behind my word choice.

It all goes back to my hometown of Bandera, Texas which I love.  When I was a kid, the legends of The Stompede were still circulated, a huge town wide party through the 40’s and 50’s that I’m sorry I missed when my family moved there in ‘70. It was discontinued when a clergyman went into the Purple Cow Bar and, after telling folks they were going to hell, they threw him through the plate glass window. But before drunk driving was taboo, it was the destination for nightlife.  All the touring bands played the Cabaret,  Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar was (and is) something to check off your Texas bucket list (trust me),  and Dude’s from all over the world came to ride half dead trail horses and wear western clothes for a week.  My mother worked at the Mayan Ranch through part of the 70’s, and in the ghost town bar while the beer was flowing, the one song I always remember them singing was “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.”  

Country music is low fi and rough and ragged and beautiful.

There is a certain kind of good time down here in the Texas Hill Country.  I think you have to look at the Germans and Latinos and how they liked to blow off steam after a hard week at work - dancehalls and beer.  Shorthand for that world, for a generation, was Jerry Jeff Walker,  Patron Saint of the Texas Good Time. Jerry Jeff is still a street singer at heart, and when you get him talking he lights up the room and it’s like his gravitational pull is multiplied as people gather round to hear his stories.

I make the case that you didn’t have to travel to Bandera, you didn’t have to be at the Vulcan Gas Company, Soap Creek Saloon, or Armadillo World Headquarters, to get that easy going vibe that I always associate with the best of Austin just like how nowadays the power of the Internet can transport you around the globe. You just have to put on Viva Terlingua and it is all there in the grooves. Over the years Jerry Jeff has had a lot of recording concepts - this place or that, dancehalls, beaches, etc. - but this one time it all came together. The sound, the songs, the vibe, the band and the artist. He had this one magical moment of ingenuity - a cutting edge idea paired with the perfect circumstances. There are so many variables to consider if you obsess over why The Rooftop Sessions, or Monterey Pop, or Woodstock, or Mad Dogs and Englishman, or Viva Terlingua sound so incredible, but I think it boils down to one thing. There was something in the air.

There’s no doubt that Jerry Jeff Walker, along with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, was instrumental in introducing the world to some of the greatest songwriters of the era. Through those three artists, I discovered Chuck Pyle, Willis Alan Ramsey, Neil Young, Jesse Winchester, Gram Parsons, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark (a short story writer disguised as a Texas songwriter spending his working life in Nashville fighting the good fight) to name a few. Many of them will always be connected by Texas, by their friendship, by their time, and by the music which inspires our Spotify playlist.

And that was the original "cutting edge," the original "going viral" - a recording made in a unique way that happened to capture not only the sounds but also the spirit, the energy, the something that was in the air that day paired with never ending sharing by whatever means available in a word-of-mouth tale, a radio show, a CD, and now the Internet.

Featured Artist: Jerry Jeff Walker

Written by Stephen L. Betts (Rolling Stone Country)

In the below exclusive clip from the series, Walker performs a moving version of Rodney Crowell's "Song for the Life," recorded by the former for his 1977 LP A Man Must Carry On. Crowell recorded the song that year as well with Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Nicolette Larson backing him, and it has since been cut by others, including Johnny Cash, Alison Krauss and Waylon Jennings. In 1995, Alan Jackson's cover of the tune was a Top Ten hit.

In the accompanying biopic for the series' first episode, Walker shares details of the writing of "Mr. Bojangles," which he recorded in 1968 and which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a massive Top Ten pop hit with three years later. "I wanted to find internal rhymes. I'd heard about them but I didn't know what they were," he recalls, strumming the guitar and singing the song's original, long-discarded lyrics, while musing about the tune's phenomenal success. "Because I put internal rhymes in a song about a dancer, it kind of double-compounded it," he notes.

Jerry Jeff Walker doesn’t release much music anymore, but every time he does the Texas legend reminds us just what an amazing career he’s had.
— Wide Open Country

Walking Among Heroes: An Update

He scares the shit out of me!
— Bruce Robison on working with hero Jerry Jeff Walker

It can be an intimidating thing not only to meet but also work with someone you've looked up to for the majority of your life. Surely filled with admiration, self-doubt, and excitement as they sat down to talk about some of the most iconic songs and moments in American music, Bruce handled working with his hero like the pro he is. Casually discussing the opening lines of Mr. Bojangles, the perfect storm that caused the incredible success of Viva Terlingua, and the personal moments of settling down in Texas, Jerry Jeff Walker lit up the room with his unimaginable tale leaving everyone deep in thought as the session came to a close.

As production begins to ramp up and the launch date grows near, it can almost feel like a dream to have legends, friends, and up-and-comers alike stopping by the studio one by one to tell their story. Once just an idea to tell the story of country music has now become the reality of being on the brink of sharing the songs and videos that have brought it to life.

For those who are just joining the story now, it's been about a year's work in progress to reach this point. The progression of the studio and the idea could almost be a full length feature in itself from inception to construction to tough days troubleshooting the original equipment from the 70s to finding the perfect team and musicians to convincing artists to take a chance with us on this crazy idea. But here we are now, and we can't be more excited to get to the "share these mind-blowing stories and heartfelt songs with the world" phase. We're on a mission to create an online platform that truly represents the sense of tradition, family, and community of country music that we all know and love through great people, great songs, and great stories, and we'd be honored if you'd join us for the ride in celebrating this music and culture. 

Subscribe to our newsletter here to access exclusive content and updates, and we'll send you a free download of our first song on our launch date. Join The Next Waltz family! 

Written by Lauren Trahan