Wednesday, September 28, 2011

When the hippies and the rednecks met in Austin

This review ran a week or so ago in the San Antonio Express-News, but never showed up on their web site, so I'm posting it here for folks to read.--JO

Comic Cowboys and New Hicks
By Travis Stimeling
Oxford University Press, $35


Who has the right to wear the cowboy hat?

That symbol of all that is Texas is at the core of Travis Stimeling’s Cosmic Cowboys and News Hicks, which examines the Progressive Country music phenomena that first put on its Stetson in 1970s Austin.

Stimeling focuses on that moment when old-school country butted heads and commingled with long-haired rock ‘n’ roll via a convergence that was all about being at the right place at the right time: The drinking age was lowered to 18, marijuana possession became a misdemeanor instead of a felony, the University of Texas student population was growing and the ragtag Armadillo World Headquarters opened in an old armory near downtown.

But, perhaps most important, musicians like Willie Nelson, Michael Murphey and B.W. Stephenson, had burned out on the music industries in Los Angeles and Nashville and hightailed it to Texas.

“Many of the people I spoke with made a point of telling me that rent in Austin was so cheap that it made perfect sense to move there,” said Stimeling, a West Virginia-born professor of music at Milliken University in Decatur, Illinois, who grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker.

The book covers ground well trod already in Jan Reid’s 1974 The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (a new version came out in 2004), but Stimeling takes a different, more academic approach in his book that began as a dissertation in musicology.

“My book has the benefit of nearly four decades of hindsight, so I could be more objective in my approach to the scene,” Stimeling said.

The book’s strength is in its examination of the push and pull of the cosmic cowboys and a musical culture they rejected, embraced and transformed.

Stimeling goes in depth into how Alvin Crow and the band Asleep and the Wheel reached back to honor and revive Texas swing music that once had been a staple in dance halls across the state. And he gives props to Joe Gracey, who took over KOKE-FM and turned it into a progressive country haven. The station’s goat roper bumpersticker quickly became every bit as iconic then as a Lone Star longneck beer bottle.

Stimeling also shines when exploring how individual songs like Murphey’s “Cosmic Cowboy” cemented this new cultural identity. The song was born from Murphey’s playful nickname “Cosmic Bob” for Lost Gonzo Band member Bob Livingston, but resonated at a larger scale with fans.

“The cosmic cowboy sprang forth, therefore, from a bundle of cultural conflicts, including not only those resulting from the merger of the drug culture and the cowboy symbolism but also from the intersection of communal music making and the national music industry, the ongoing debate about civil rights and the invocation of rural romanticism in an American metropolis,” Stimeling writes.

If that sounds a bit highfaluting for a discussion of music, it perhaps is. And Austin wasn’t really the first locale for this musical debate. Country rock had already been cooking in Los Angeles and Capricorn Records was promoting acts like The Marshall Tucker Band in the true South.

But Austin seemingly produced a musical movement from the ground up without a corporate control that left it often messy, but ever interesting. Its mystique led us to the city’s modern-day, perhaps over-the-top slogan “Live Music Capital of the World.”

“What's really striking to me about Austin during the progressive country era is that the musicians who were involved in the scene explored so many different musical approaches, yet they all seemed to be genuinely concerned about how music might be used as a tool to understand the roots of Texan culture," Stimeling said.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Remember the Alamo (is on fire)!

Yes, as I type this there are reports that the set of the movie The Alamo near Dripping Springs, Texas (on the outskirts of Austin) is engulfed by a major brush fire is super dry Central Texas. This report says six structures have burned to the ground. In my memory there aren't more than six. Frankly it's a surprise that the buildings still exist this many years since the 2003 shoot. There was talk at one point of making it a tourist attraction. I know the set has been used for television commercials since.

Here's my report from the set during filming.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Note Bob Stoops’ Brother Should Have Sent, but Didn’t Dare*

My latest Austin Chronicle sports blog begins thus:

Dear Bob,

I love you like a brother, man. In fact we are brothers, aren’t we? That’s why it pains me to write this note. I’m proud of you, Bob. You do our Stoops family name proud. Your Oklahoma Sooners are No. 1 and we’re not, dammit.

Just kidding, bro, but I harbor no ill will for your 23-13 win over my boys at Florida State this past Saturday. You did it with pounding defense, the kind Dad taught us in his 30 years at Cardinal Moody High back in dear old Youngstown, Ohio (round on the ends and high in the middle!). Dad was all about the D. You’re all about the D. Heck, after growing up sharing a bedroom with you as an older brother, I had to be all about the D. Same with Mike. You two were terrors and taught me a lot. I was proud to bear the bruises of brotherhood. I’m proud to be the Seminoles’ defensive coordinator. I’m proud to be a Stoops.

That’s why it pains me to say this, Bob. My team would have taken the lead in the first half if Kenny Shaw could have held onto that ball. Heck, at this point I’m glad he can hold onto anything. Your boys Javon Harris and Tom Wort rammed their helmets into Shaw’s helmet and soon Kenny was looking like roadkill shaking on his back there in the end zone with his paws curled toward the heavens. He was back on the sidelines by the third quarter, thank the Lord above.

Read the rest here.

Oh,and it's worth noting that Stoops at his weekly post-game press conference honored Harris and Wort for their play against FSU. Nuf said.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Friday Night Lights: Book, movie, TV series, movie based on TV series?

Yes, there is still serious talk about a movie based on the Austin-shot TV series Friday Night Lights, which is based on the big-screen Friday Night Lights, which is based on the book Friday Night Lights, which is based on a real-life high school football team.

Read more about this latest development here, with details on the cast's reunion at the Emmy's after party celebrating the series' writing Emmy and Kyle Chandler's nod--held at a place fittingly called Dillon's.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The coach wins an Emmy!

Big congrats to Kyle Chandler for his upset win of an Emmy for his role as Coach Eric Taylor on television's Friday Night Lights. The show also got yet another writing Emmy. Alas, Connie Britton did not win best actress (but you can read more about her here). All the same, a fitting end for the beloved Austin-shot series.

What Chandler said:

"Let me thank the people of Austin, Texas, who welcomed us into their homes ... and brought the show to life."

I first met him on the set the first FNL season. You can read that piece from The Dallas Morning News here.

Our trip to Walton's Mountain aka Schuyler, VA

I wrote this travel piece after our trip this past summer to Schuyler, Virginia, to celebrate my wife's birthday. It ran Sunday in The Dallas Morning News. It's behind a pay wall, so here it is in full. The DMN web site also has about 15 of my photos; see them here. Enjoy.

By JOE O’CONNELL Special Contributor
Published: 16 September 2011 06:32 PM

SCHUYLER, Va. — Fiction collides with fact for fans of television’s The Waltons amid a gentle feud in this tiny community deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills.

An escaped sheep bleats from the middle of rural Rockfish River Road as we pull up to the Walton’s Mountain Country Store in search of the holy grail: series creator Earl Hamner’s childhood home, a two-story restored testament to the enduring power of John-Boy, Mary Ellen, Mama and Daddy, Grandpa and Grandma and all the kids.

The show is a nostalgic touchstone of an iconic and dirt-poor Depression-era Southern family of fantasy that was very much based on the true-life Hamner clan.

For $10 cash a person or $8 each for two or more, store owner Dave Pounds hands over a key so we can tour the boyhood home next door, which a local owner refurbished and opened to the public in 2010. Six steps lead up to the white wooden home, which is smaller than in the show but of the same austere style. The long kitchen table topped with a fake Bundt cake awaits a family supper, while upstairs in Hamner’s/John-Boy’s room a pair of spectacles rests next to a quill pen on a desk by the window.

Hamner’s novel Spencer’s Mountain was published in 1961 and spawned a film of the same name. The Homecoming, his 1970 novel also loosely based on Hamner’s family, was made into a television movie and spawned The Waltons, which ran on television from 1972-81.

“The average Waltons fan walking through the door has a very personal relationship to either the program or a cast member,” Pounds says.

Entering the door are Junior and Suzi Wiant of West Virginia. She’s a homemaker, and he’s a coal miner. A coal mine depicted in the television show was inspired by the Alberene soapstone quarry that was once the heart of Schuyler. The Wiants count the cantankerous grandmother as their favorite Walton.

“I just love that old woman,” Suzi Wiant says with a wide grin. “She’s so outspoken.”
The Wiants have already been down the road to the Walton’s Mountain Museum, which was once the town’s school. Hamner graduated from high school there in 1940. It was later an elementary and opened as a museum and community center in 1992 with the full support of Hamner.

Inside is a more elaborate re-creation of John-Boy’s room, the family kitchen, Ike Godsey’s store and the still used to make the Baldwin sisters’ “recipe” (moonshine). The Baldwins were inspired by real-life mother-and-daughter moonshiners in a nearby town.

“You’re a little bit late for the free samples,” museum director Leona Roberts jokes in a deep Virginia drawl. “You believed that story, didn’t you?”

The $7 admission fee buys access to a brief video about the making of the show, a look at town photos and Waltons collectibles, including miniature reproductions of the Waltons home and fan-painted pictures of the cast.

But Hamner’s early support for the museum has waned. In his 2006 memoir Generous Women, Hamner writes, “Unfortunately, because of an injury done to a member of my family, I no longer support the museum and am in no way associated with it.”

When actress Mary McDonough — Erin Walton on the show — tub-thumped her memoir Lessons From the Mountain in May, she did it at the store, which also sells signed copies of Hamner’s books.

Pounds five years ago took over operation of the store in what was once a shed where a teenage Hamner wrote. But he says of the museum, “They hate me. They absolutely hate me.”

Roberts puts the museum’s attitude toward the store bluntly: “We were here first. They were supposed to be a bed-and-breakfast, and they’re not from here.”

Indeed, the Walton’s Mountain Country Store lists itself as a bed-and-breakfast perfect for the ultimate Waltons fan, but my repeated calls and emails seeking a reservation for my wife’s birthday were unanswered.

Instead, we stayed two miles away at the White Pig, a B&B and animal sanctuary that takes its name from the first of the owner’s assortment of rescued potbellied pigs, which join a former racehorse and a gentle pony on a beautiful 170-acre spread. The breakfast is vegan, and guests are asked not to eat meat on the premises during their stays.

Confession: We drove into Schuyler from Richmond without having eaten dinner, and our only option was Ike’s, a combo convenience store and fast-food joint on the spot that once housed the inspiration for the television show’s Ike Godsey’s General Store. The grill was closed, but they gifted me with a few delicious last pieces of fried chicken. I guiltily stowed the bones in our rental car’s trunk rather than sully the White Pig with my carnivorous ways.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

SHOT IN TEXAS: Texan Nick Krause gets breakout role in film with Oscar buzz


Special to The Dallas Morning News
Twitter: @joemoconnell

It was a surreal moment for young Texan Nick Krause as he stepped on the red carpet for The Descendants during the Toronto International Film Festival last week.

Krause, 19, portrays Sid, a goofy beach bum friend to George Clooney’s on-screen daughter in the film. The Hawaii-set and -filmed tale of a father in crisis, directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways), is already getting Oscar buzz.

He was 17 when the film began a four-month Oahu shoot, so he brought along his agent, Denton native and University of North Texas grad Liz Lyons Atherton. She also happens to be his mother.

Atherton woke him at 5 a.m. to make an audition tape that led to a meeting with Payne. Krause figured the laid-back character Sid would be a Cheetos fan and gifted Payne with a small bag of them. He got the part.

“The audition process had taken months, and we weren’t sure if Nick was still even in the running,” Atherton said. “We set up a Hawaiian shrine by the phones, hoping the call would come. When it did, not only did we celebrate, I’m sure the neighbors are still talking about the screams.”

He’s not the only actor in the family. His sister, Kate Krause, played Tabby Garrity for three seasons on Austin-shot Friday Night Lights, and two older brothers dabbled in acting when they were young.

It marks a major leap for Nick Krause from small roles in films such as How to Eat Fried Worms. Atherton believes it was his involvement in Richard Linklater’s ongoing 12-year independent project, Boyhood, that piqued Payne’s interest.

On the set of The Descendants, Krause said, Clooney lived up to his jokester reputation, amusing film extras by using his cellphone to play the sound of gas being passed.

“He’s a very cool guy,” Krause said. “He’s super professional but down-to-earth. One minute he’s joking around with extras and hanging out with crew. Five minutes later, he’s in character and on time.”

Krause also scored a role in the Dallas-shot Good Christian Belles television pilot but was written out of the series when it moved to Los Angeles, where he is now living and riding this wave wherever it takes him.

“It’s really about sticking with it,” he said. “When you get turned down at your first audition, you just have to forget it and keep going.”

Atherton, who 15 years ago bought an existing Central Texas talent agency that counted her other sons as clients, worries that Krause will have a hard time furthering his career in Texas.

“I think we are at risk of losing film and TV as an integral part of our economic fabric: Plain and simple, our incentive program is not competitive enough,” she said. “I recently spoke at length with a high-profile producer friend of mine who is presently packaging his next film — a film centered on a Texas theme — and he will likely film in Louisiana. Why? Because it just makes more business sense.”

Film studios get haunted

Filming wrapped this month in North Texas on The Ghost of Goodnight Lane . The horror tale starring Billy Zane (Titanic) claims to be based on reality, in the tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The kicker is this new film is about ghosts purported to haunt Alin Bijan’s Media World Studios; most of the film was shot in the studios themselves. The studio’s ghosts have been said to move heavy equipment and once slapped someone’s face. Also in the cast are Lacey Chabert ( Mean Girls), Danielle Harris (Halloween), Matt Dallas (Kyle XY) and Richard Tyson (Black Hawk Down). J.D. Sanders’ FTG Media Group served as executive producer on the film. Check out a production blog at

Joe O’Connell is an Austin-based freelance writer.