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.

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