I did not know how much I did not know about Austin, until this week when I heard author and long-time Austin scene-maker Joe Nick Patoski talking about his book about Austin, with Nate on Let It Roll.
Judging from the two-hour chat, about the book “Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers, and Geeks Who Transformed the Capital of Texas," Joe Nick may know more about Austin than I know about anything.
Listening to him fire off anecdote after anecdote about Austin’s growth from a medium-sized college town and seat of state government to the fastest-growing metro area in the U.S. for eight years running, I realized my understanding of Austin was foggy at best.
Out of that fog came the image of a lone figure, walking into town in 1970 with his trusty guitar “Trigger” in one hand, his stash of Colombian Primo in the other and his long red hair flowing behind him in the direction of Nashville, from which he’d departed after his house burned down.
The artistic soil in which this Red-Headed Stranger planted himself was so fertile and friendly that he stayed, grew into the entertainment megastar he still is 50 years hence, and scores of other great musicians followed.
That longhaired, twangy dude was and is Willie Hugh Nelson, and he and Austin are still going strong, Willie a megastar who I predict will soon become the world’s most famous longhaired 90-year-old and Austin so universally hip that only people like Robert Plant can afford to live there.
Rock on, Joe Nick!
That Chess Records existed at all is a testament to the people who came together to make it happen, at the 20th Century’s midpoint on Chicago’s South Side.
That Chess Records made world-changing music that continues to reverberate across the airwaves and in millions of earbuds, well, I don’t know what to say beyond quoting those two sages of long hair and banging heads, whose first response to greatness in their midst was to yell, “WE’RE NOT WORTHY! WE’RE NOT WORTHY!”
The pair (Wayne and Garth, from “Wayne’s World”) bowed when they yelled it, and I’m inclined to do same whenever I think of the unlikely pairing of Leonard and Phil Chess, two Jewish immigrants from imperial Russia’s Pale of Settlement, and the handful of immensely talented artists — including Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — some of whom arrived in Chicago displaced from what was for them the most hostile region on Earth (see: Mississippi Delta).
I ain't ashamed to admit that I did fall to my my knees the first time I visited 2120 South Michigan Avenue, where the humble two-story building there once housed the groundbreaking record label.
I knew the backstory already by then — and I learned more about it during the day I spent there, at what is now Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven, a museum run by the family of Chess Records’ legendary producer, songwriter and bass player.
But Chess Records’ singular importance to the popular music that followed really popped for me this week when I listened to Let It Roll, in which Nate interviews author Nadine Cohodas about her book “Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records."
I listened to the episode twice, and by the second time through I had remembered how unworthy I truly am.
I knew Gram Parsons hung out with The Rolling Stones for an extended period during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
I also knew that Gram taught Keith Richards the difference between the “Bakersfield” style of country music and the “Nashville” style.
But that ain’t all Gram did for Keith, his pardner Mick and their motley-yet-seductively-cool gang, especially when, in early 1971, all those cats convened down yonder in the south of France, in a villa called Nellcote overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean beyond.
I came to this realization this week whilst listening to Nate interview author David N. Meyer about his book, “Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music,” in the newest episode of Let It Roll, an episode that kicked off the podcast’s 10th season this week.
Next time I listen to Exile on Main Street, I’ll think about that longhaired boy from Waycross who survived the ravages of his parents’ alcoholism only to succumb to a drug overdose himself, but only after imparting his monumental synthesis of various American musical forms to all who would listen.
Mick and Keith were listening, you better believe, and you can hear what they did with wot they heard on the one and only double album they ever produced in the studio, “Exile on Main Street.”
And then the Rollin’ Stones never produced anything that sounded like that record, ever again.
Nor did he have to put his pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. A guy like him probably had someone set up that part of his wardrobe the way firemen do with their gear, just jump in them britches and your feet will go right in the boots.
Maybe he even had his own Batpole.
The dude sure as hell deserved one, at least in his late teens and early 20s when he made hit records the way Superman leaps tall buildings.
You can hear about all of Spector’s musical heroics if you listen to the re-cast Let It Roll episode in which Nate interviews Spector biographer Mick Brown about his book “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector.”
‘Tis a two-hour episode, and I recommend taking it an hour at a time, with a break in between in order to fully contemplate the musical greatness that was Spector’s. Heck, spend five minutes in the middle listening to “Instant Karma” or “To Know Him Is To Love Him.”)
That’s how I’m blogging about it, so stay tuned for my take on the fall of the man who built the wall (of sound).
Ed Legge (@freebirdyeller) is a life-long musician, long-time journalist and sometime corporate dweeb who’s writing a book about originating rock ‘n’ roll’s most absurd tradition.