Play That Song Again: Music, Weather, and the Spoken Word—Austin Road Trip Diary, #1 of 2

Posted in Blogs, Music

December 24, 2014

As mentioned in a previous blog post here—for me, there’s always been an attraction to Texas music. When I was given a chance last summer to attend a conference for English teachers in Austin—ground zero of country, folk, and singer-songwriter music—I jumped at the chance. Let’s call it research for my own music and writing.

The first hint of something in the air: Dallas Cowboys jerseys (Mark Witten and DeMarcus Ware) in the security line at Sea-Tac Airport. Unlike my daughter and her boyfriend on a recent trip to California, I did not wear, nor pack, any Seahawks gear. I don’t want to provoke—although, in her defense, tweaking 49er fans in California does have a certain attraction.

It’s clear and sunny in Seattle on this late July day, and they’re predicting 100 degrees in Austin this afternoon. Cruising at 34,000 feet, Mount Rainier is looming outside my airplane window, and soon the Great Salt Lake is floating by slowly below us; the clouds change and bunch up as we get into southern Utah and closer to Albuquerque. Stacked up thunderheads, pillowy, mountainous, rise up from the heat radiating off the ground below us.

Is it my imagination? I can feel how hot it is in the brown landscape below us, even though I have no idea of the real temp out there. Behind the mass of clouds, a vast expanse of low-lying clouds spreads to the horizon. The world is so huge—I’m going 500 miles per hour drinking a Ginger Ale, looking out an airplane window. I open my airline peanuts, thinking about wagon trains, Lewis and Clark and how people have walked this barren landscape. The Austin-Bergstrom Airport rental parking lot checks in at a mean 103 degrees.

First morning: I have a pleasant walk of less than a mile planned from my hotel through the University of Texas campus to my workshop, but I’m assaulted as soon as I step out of the sliding door of the air-conditioned lobby. 7:20 in the AM, 81 degrees—“feels like 84!” says the smiling icon on my phone’s weather app. No, it FEELS like being wrapped in an oven-warmed, damp sweat sock, thank you very much. I ditch the pleasant walk idea and bolt for my air-conditioned rental car. There’s free parking and I don’t need to arrive sweat-soaked, I tell myself.

University of Texas Campus  (photo by Erik Christensen)

University of Texas Campus (photo by Erik Christensen)

The workshop itself is great—it’s for Advanced Placement Literature and Composition teachers but some of that Texas culture shines through; when a laptop-toting colleague asks about Wi-Fi passwords, we’re informed that there is Wi-Fi for purchase—that’s right, for PURCHASE—at the reasonable price of $4.99 per day.

For purchase!

Again, not wanting to flaunt my northwest-ness, I bite my tongue instead of telling them that free Wi-Fi is a God-given right in my part of the country. Heck, the oil-change Jiffy Lube has free Wi-Fi in western Washington. I decide not to say anything, but can’t help picturing governor Rick Perry saying, “Hey, we’re just not giving away the internets here. You should pay for it.”

And what about the Common Core State Standards that is in the education news almost daily in the northwest? Turns out Texas is one of the four states that has not adopted Common Core.

“There’s nothing common about Texas,” my instructor tells me. Check. Got it. Biting my tongue again.

On a funnier note, at the second session, my table partner and most others are putting on coats and sweatshirts against the air conditioning of the conference room. By now, we’ve talked and she knows I’m from the Seattle area. Do I detect an accusatory note in her voice when she says, “So?” and zips up her jacket. “You’re not cold?”

“Nah, I’m fine, “ I say. “Sorry.” Again, some decorum prevents me from saying that the air conditioning on this second day is a blessing from the gods after walking outside in heat and humidity that can only be classified as “dumpster fire.”

The first evening excursion is to the famed Continental Club to see Jon Dee Graham and Will Johnson. Jon Dee is one of my all-time favorite Texas songwriters; grown-up folk rock with a real literary bent to the lyrics, percussive, bluesy guitar work and funny between song banter. No wonder he’s been named Artist of the Year at the SXSW music festival, no surprise at his devoted following.

What is surprising is seeing him out on the deck having a cigarette in the still-warm evening before the show. Instinctively, I raise my hand, and he waves back. “Hey, man!” he says. And, I just stroll in and buy a Shiner Bock and find an empty barstool. I’ve marked his Seattle dates on my calendar months ahead of time and waited in line on the sidewalk outside Ballard’s Tractor Tavern. I’m on his turf now, there’s a modest crowd, and he’s just one of the neighborhood musicians. Amazing.

South Congress Street, Austin  (photo by Erik Christensen)

South Congress Street, Austin (photo by Erik Christensen)

Opening act Will Johnson is a revelation—I’ve never heard of him, but his songs are very compelling, his guitar work really sparse and tasteful and his voice can rattle the walls. For an acoustic show, he’s peeling paint off the walls of the small club. It’s effortless looking and more remarkable that this rich, resonant sound is coming out of the scruffy, skinny guy in jeans and a truckers hat. He’s about 5’7” and maybe weighing a buck-thirty.

More than any musical lessons or specific songs or licks to pick up, my takeaway is this: you have to be GOOD to play in this town, Bubba. There are amazing musicians falling out of every doorway and the level of songwriting and musicianship here is incredible. Also, you need to get out there and perform; there are tons of venues in Austin and solid musicians lay it out there every night of the week.

Third day: Recommendation from the teacher workshop: Chuy’s Mexican Grill. Three words: jalapeno queso dip. Dear Lord.

And speaking of music, the voices, the accents, the lilting way people talk…it’s in the air. At Matt’s Mexican Grill (another dinner recommendation that lived up to the hype) an elderly gentleman, a regular at the bar, greeted a familiar waitress with, “Darlin’, I jest drove one hunnert and eighty-fahv miles to see your purty face.” Oh, this guy’s magic, I think. He is a 62 year-old embodiment of the wise old cracker stereotype.

I try to eavesdrop on his conversation without being rude and it’s difficult in this noisy restaurant. I make out something about catching red snapper on a fishing trip—“we wur goin’ to git some o’ that rid snapper; come to find, you can only kip two apiece.” I could listen to this guy spin yarns all day.

I was worried that writing about the accents would be inappropriate or seem like I’m making fun…I’m not, honest. I love the musicality and the twists of phrase in the spoken word down here. Besides, at least it wasn’t as bad as a story I heard about a visitor to Texas being asked, “Do you want ass in yer drink?”
“Uh, excuse me?” he replied.
“Ass. Do you want ass in your drink?”
Awkward pause. “Umm…if you say so.”
He was brought a soda with ice in it. “Oh, ICE. Ok.”
“Thet’s wut I said: Ass… I—C—E— Ass.”

Leaving the restaurant in my trusty rental, I engage in a ritual I do in every unfamiliar city: spin the dial and find some weird local radio! 107.1 FM is presenting traditional Mexican music—mariachi, corridas, Tex-Mex and big band. It seems to be pretty modern and smoothed-over, stylized versions, kind of the difference between El Cazador in Oak Harbor—a fine establishment in it’s own right, but not very gritty and perhaps less than authentic—and a family spot in Culiacan.

The Road to Houston  (photo by Erik Christensen)

The Road to Houston (photo by Erik Christensen)

I enjoy the music, but am blown away as the between-songs announcer is right out of the monster truck commercials: screaming, dramatic, and completely over the top: “Mas! Mas Musica! Mas Noches Extremis! Mas! Mas! MAAAAAAS!” Then, back to the safe, slick music. Throughout my time in Texas, I could switch on the car radio, and it was an instant Mariachi party—accordions, castanets, and chirping trumpets right out of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Then, hysterical screaming announcements for some upcoming event. “Un traffic mix! De la 107.1! Mas Suerte! Mas!”

(Erik’s Austin road trip diary will continue in his next blog update on Whidbey Life Magazine!)

Erik teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and prefers the green chili salsa to the red stuff.

He plays with the Jacobs Road Band on New Year’s Eve at the Oak Harbor Tavern in Oak Harbor and the Erik Christensen Band plays at Blooms in Bayview from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 25.


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