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Book Review: The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock by Jan Reid

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Austin in the 70’s has the same sort of cache as New York at roughly the same time period. It just doesn’t have that special association with as many people. I think it should though.

Jan Reid, who was starting what would be a long career as a writer, happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture the scene as it was starting to blossom. Reading this book in it’s initial publication would have been like reading a guidebook to a fun place to live. Reading it now it’s an interesting historical document, something we’ll inevitably weigh by our knowledge of everything that’s happened since.

B.W. Stevenson and Bobby Bridger get a lot of page time but aren’t the most well known performers today. Willis Allan Ramsey remains the enigma he started out as, with his one legendary album. Willie was still something of an unknown quantity at the time and Jerry Jeff Walker was still, putting it kindly, a train wreck. These two men are now probably most equated with the whole cosmic cowboy thing that happened back then, but at the time of writing they were both testing the limits of the world they inhabited. Willie blew up and became the American icon he was born to be (and probably always was), where Jerry Jeff became more of a regional hero who paved the way, spiritually and logistically, for Texas Music.

I have to say, the profile that intrigued me most was Michael Martin Murphey. I grew up knowing cowboy singing, family values, folk music Michael Martin Murphey. Hippie Murphey the Cosmic Cowboy was a surprise (even though I have a bunch of his old pre-Western records). Despite all the hippie lingo being thrown around and talk about drugs and politics, there’s a very clear and surprising intellectual consistency in his words in actions. Michael Martin Murphey, the hippie getting burnt out on counter-culture and Michael Martin Murphey the hardcore cowboy are the same guy, the same line of thought played out to it’s logical conclusion. This is a guy who never took his eyes off the ball and followed his muse all the way.

Kinky Friedman gets a bad rap in the book for being unabashedly careerist in his attitude toward his music. In that milieu, it’s understandable, maaaaaaaan. In today’s economy though, where everyone has a side gig, or a blog (ahem) or both, it just seems natural. Kinky, is of course, still out hustling, writing books and running for office, somehow managing to seem both more and less ambitious than ever.

The hippie talk can get kinda thick and incomprehensible, but then again, twenty years from now the hip hop argot of say, Kendrick Lamar, might be equally dense. Our culture moves at such a quick pace that pop culture works like this tend to date themselves quickly. It’s also interesting to see everyone try and figure out how to build the infrastructure to make Austin a musical capital like Nashville. Now it seems like a foregone conclusion that Austin is going to be the Live Music Capital of the World, but at the time of writing the Armadillo was barely hanging on and there was only one recording studio of note in the city.

I’m biased towards thinking this is all fascinating and awesome, but I think there’s a broader interest here in seeing a lot of the culture than eventually becomes part and parcel of the Austin brand in its nascent stage. You also get the pleasure of people complaining that “Armadillo Homesick Blues” (the ACL theme song) is a one note joke and nothing special. Ideally, this would come with a soundtrack so you wouldn’t have to dig through your records to compile the whole thing. Reading about Austin’s musical past is fun, but like the saying goes, it’s sorta like dancing about architecture. But what architecture, and what dancing.

 

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About Seth

Bury my heart in West Texas.

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