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June 08, 2004


I'm a huge, although half-educated, fan of the Austin-based branch of the alternative country-music scene. I suspect lots of people would enjoy this music as much as I do, but it isn't as well-known as it deserves to be.

The Texas alt-country world got its start back in the '60s when a group of hippie and local musicians who didn't want to go the glitzy Nashville route created their own scene. By comparison to commercial c&w, their music is rootsy, loose, personal, literate, and open to incorporating folk and rock elements. The gods of this scene, IMHO, are Townes Van Zandt (this CD here is priceless), Guy Clark (I love this CD here), and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (this here is tiptop).

Currently on my CD player's endless-repeat is the music of someone I'm relatively new to, James McMurtry. I love the two CDs of his that I've listened to so far. (They're buyable here and here.) McMurtry, who's the son of the novelist Larry McMurtry, is a firstclass singer/songwriter: pungent and funky, and harder-rocking than most of the alt-country crowd. He writes tunes that are catchy but that don't shy from the sour and the bleak, and he leads a loose-limbed, bluesy and lowdown band. The way he brings together the regional, the embittered, and the ruefully triumphant reminds me of the Welsh folk-rocker Richard Thompson.

McMurtry's also one terrific lyricist. Like some of the others in the alt-country scene, McMurtry is such a good writer that he can make you think that the current literary world should just kiss your ass. His words are defiant, rocky, eloquent, and drily funny, and they're set to lonesome-highway music that makes you want to get drunk and make a fool of yourself. What's not to like? I can't resist typing out a few examples:

It's a small town
Can't sell you no beer
It's a small town, son
May I ask what you're doin' here?


And my judgment may be shakey
And my shoes are soaking through
'Cause the weeds are wet
And I haven't yet
Made any sense of you.


I wrecked the El Camino
Would have been DWI
Just walked off and left it
Layin' on its side.

Troopers found it in the morning
Said it's purely luck I wasn't killed
I probably oughta quit my drinking
But I don't believe I will.


Mama used to roll her hair
Back before the central air
And sit outside and watch the stars at night.

She'd tell me to make a wish.
I'd wish we both could fly.
Don't think she's seen the sky
Since we got the satellite dish.


For knowledgeable (and fun to read) commentary and info, be sure to check in with The Fat Guy, here. Here's an Amazon Customer's Guide by someone who's listened to a lot more of the music than I have.

posted by Michael at June 8, 2004


Certainly, others will be along soon to point out everyone you left off the list, so I ain't gonna say a word.

Posted by: j.c. on June 8, 2004 7:27 PM

Ever heard Willis Alan Ramsey's one-and-only album, Michael, recorded back in '72? He's less well-known than the other Texas "outlaw" singer-songwriters because he dropped out of the music business shortly thereafter--relocating to Ireland to study Celtic (!) music--although a number of fellow outlaws went on to cover songs from his record: "Goodbye to Old Missoula" (Jimmy Dale Gilmore), "Northeast Texas Women" (Jerry Jeff Walker), "Satin Sheets" (Waylon Jennings). And the teenage Lyle Lovett idolized him, so much that he eventually lured him out of retirement to cowrite a couple of his own best songs: "North Dakota" and "That's Right (You're Not From Texas." Anyway, Willis Alan Ramsey is a great, great album, every bit the equal of the best of Clark and Van Zandt, and in some ways even more eclectic in style--there are some jazzy touches on it that put you in mind of folk-rockers like Tim Buckley or Van Morrison. Also, word is that Ramsey is finally about to release a follow-up sometime soon...

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on June 8, 2004 9:07 PM

Although she's not a member of this clique, I've been listening to Loretta Lynn's new album, VAN LEAR ROSE, a lot. It's produced by Jack White, of White Stripes fame, and has a nice, stripped-down, rocky feel. Her voice still shines, especially on "Miss Being Mrs.," a lament for her late husband, Doolittle. Overall, the songwriting is top-notch, and the production compliments that backwoodsy, coal-miner's-daughter, tone of hers fabulously.

"Portland, Oregon, and sloe gin fizz / If that ain't love, than tell me what is."

Posted by: Dick on June 9, 2004 10:28 AM

WILLIS ALAN RAMSEY - I thought I was the only admirer! We have the original album and spin it almost every weekend on the patio with some Corona and limes. He was recently playing live in Fredricksburg and we were not able to catch him. Sniff.

Just on the corner from my office there is a nice little restaurant (8-0's) which has live music on the patio every Wednesday evening. Also sponsored by The Ranch radio 95.9 (it's on the web too). Tonight is Dale Watson - great Texas outlaw music and more to the roots of country music. The next few weeks lineup is awesome too: Johnny Bush, Gary P. Nunn, Roger Creager, Chris Knight, Max Stalling, The Derailers, Eleven Hundred Springs, RUSTY WEIR, and Bruce Robinson. All concerts free, just have to buy your beer. Come on down, and I will buy you one, Michael!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on June 9, 2004 10:48 AM

Hey, thanks for the shout-out! I guess I need to get to writing on some of the latest stuff. Here's one for yall -- the Flatlanders latest album, "More a Legend than a Band." I downloaded it at MusicMatch for 10 simoleans. The Flatlanders are three Texas giants: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock from (guess where?) West Texas. Gorgeous stuff. This album has a re-do of Jimmie Dale's "Dallas" which is just golden. Plus, you get to hear a Permian Basin take on the Cajun classic "Jolie Blon." Heh.

For any fans located in N. Texas, please go check out the Mrs.' site,, for all the latest haps in that scene. She wanders into the durn hippie rock stuff, but it's all Texas, so that's semi-forgiven.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 9, 2004 11:14 AM

Boy, I sure screwed that up. Sorry. Can you fix it, sir?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 9, 2004 11:15 AM

Can't resist sharing my favorite McMurtry lyric: "that circus music's got to be hell on the ice cream man."

Posted by: Dente on June 9, 2004 1:12 PM

Good lord, so much listening to catch up with. Many thanks for coaching and recommendations. I'm heading over toe Amazon to place some orders pronto.

Fun to see how much people love this music, isn't it? Hey, maybe I'm completely wrong about it being under-known.

Oh, I just remembered ... A good movie documentary about the scene got issued recently on DVD, called Heartworn Highway. I saw it years ago as a movie, and it was swell -- Townes, Guy, many others. I hear the DVD has a lot of footage and songs that they couldn't fit into the theatrical movie.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 9, 2004 1:17 PM

Not Austin (I live there however) but Uncle Tupelo/Wilco need to be on everyone's radar.

Posted by: ZEKE on June 10, 2004 12:23 PM

check out bloodshot records.... lots of great stuff

Posted by: Dave on June 10, 2004 7:37 PM

M. Blowhard - " I'm heading over toe Amazon to place some orders pronto." A) is that a toe-tapping pun I missed or your first-ever typo? B) Amazon? AMAZON!!! Dear god, man, do you not live in NYC? Could you not just... I don't know, go downtown? Doesn't that city have a club or two? (And don't go on about the Blue Note.) Weren't you in Washington Square just last week? Amazon.

Dear god. Have the wife teach you to two-step and waltz across any state you happen to be in.

What's next on your agenda? Tejano? Conjunto? A good long look at the myriad influences that moved Ray Wiley Hubbard?

And as to underknown, why don't you count up how many soundtracks feature T-Bone Burnett? Why don't you ask yourself who the Dixie Chicks are aping?

Oh! I need a bucket of longnecks. Amazon. AMAZON!!

That is just not right.

If you must. If you just must buy music without having seen a show, then I'll make one little teeny suggestion: Bob McDill. He's the guy alt-country singer-singwriters secretly idolize.

Sorry. The idea of learning about something by ordering a crate of CDs just gets me riled up.

Posted by: j.c. on June 10, 2004 7:57 PM

Ha-fuckin'-rumph! "Downtown" NYC clubs to learn country? Sorry...wrong on so damn many levels that I can't even begin to ennumerate them. There was precisely one band worthy of the label (and they would buck at it) from NYC, name of the Hangdogs, and they've split the scene, and we pray they will be reunited one day.

We don't ask ourselves who the Dixie Chicks are aping since they have moved on to rock. They are likely aping the Stripes or the Strokes or whatever flash-in-the-pan is happening right this moment. What a ridiculous statement. The Dixie Chicks...good gravy. There's not a bigger bunch of dollar-chasers extant today. My god. T-Bone Burnett is a sweetheart of all the rock dudes who want some twang. Makes the cut, but only barely, and he'd tell you the same thing. Soundtracks...good Christ in Heaven.

Go and look at who the great Bob McDill has had sing his songs: Shenandoah, Earle Thomas Conley, Dan Seals, Perry frickin' Como. You want a songwriter to seek out? Billy Joe Shaver. There's a songwriter. Ask Waylon Jennings...Billy Joe only put Waylon on the damn map, and Waylon started the whole damn thing. McDill, McNashville. Aye god, Pea-eye!

You stick with my crate of CDs and you'll learn something (I don't know much, but I know you can't learn country in bloody NYC). Better yet, hie yerself on down here, and we'll do a tour. That'll learn you better than any G--D--- downtown NYC club. O, for the love of all that is holy!

I must go rest now.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on June 10, 2004 8:49 PM

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