BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
January 8, 2015
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.
My first part of this diary was published in WLM on the auspicious date of Dec. 25 of last year and you can find it
if you’d like to catch it before continuing on now. (SUE!!! or rewrite this part …..)
Day four or five: I steer the car out west towards Fredericksburg—supposedly a quaint, historic town that’s getting some notoriety as a wine and foodie destination. OK, I’ll bite, but I’m really looking forward to taking the back roads out through the Texas hill country. Willie Nelson’s ranch is out here somewhere, I recall from some old issue of Rolling Stone.
Lots of scrub brush, gnarled oak trees, low water crossings and, as I daydream about how heavenly this road would be on a motorcycle, I start to keep score: two roadrunners, three longhorn steers and two anti-Obama signs. (“Gas was $1.84 when Obama was elected! Think about it!”) Yes, I’m thinking about it—how global commodities can’t really be affected by one guy, and why did you buy a full-size billboard, you over-simplifying, reductionist jerk?)
According to an article in the Austin Chronicle, everyone in Texas is either proud or insane, and possibly both. The Texas state motto should be just that—“Insanely proud and proudly insane.”
As a self-proclaimed smug northwesterner, I get it…I am so thankful to call Whidbey home and I brag on it constantly. I fully understand local pride, yet I ponder the proud/insane paradox the next day in class when two teachers mention they had to take a language test for teacher certification in Texas. Since they were from outside the United States, they had to prove themselves capable of writing and speaking English well enough to work in Red Rock School District.
Their country of origin? Canada.
My first question: you’re from Quebec, right? Dual language?
Nope, Abbotsford, BC and somewhere in Saskatchewan. That’s right, from a country where English is the official language, and they had to take a test. To check. Their English.
Another day into another sweltering night, and I’m out to hear more music. This time, a full-blown, noisy rock and roll show: Alejandro Escovedo, elder statesman of the Austin music scene. I wait in line in the heat outside the club, the modern skyline rising up in the distance, all neon and polished metal into the sky on the other side of the Congress Street Bridge. Alejandro, who recently played Benaroya Hall in Seattle, is again just another local—his name is printed in mismatched plastic letters on the Continental reader board. More musical lessons—heartfelt, polished music delivered with tons of confidence and soul. Not wanting to fight for a good spot on the main floor, I watch from the side of the stage. My band and I play lots of his songs at my shows, but I’m struck again at the simplicity and power of the five-piece rock band. This ain’t brain surgery, but the lyrics I’ve known for decades weave in and out of the twin guitars in a magical blend, and the room seems to lift. The encore? The Rolling Stones “Beast of Burden.” Pandemonium in the crowd.
Second to last night: Astros versus Toronto Blue Jays, Minute Maid Park in Houston, a few short hours to the east. Hmmm. What to do? Take the quicker interstate—direct line, or the smaller highway, more scenic and just a bit longer. No brainer—gimme the scenic route. Fueled up on migas and dark coffee, I’m off. I’m excited to visit an unfamiliar ballpark, and put it on my list of ballparks I’ve visited out of the 30 in the major leagues.
Two summers ago, while visiting Los Angeles, my daughter and I saw former Mariner knuckleballer R.A. Dickey pitch for the Mets on the day we happened to be at the park. Tonight’s starting pitcher? R. A. Dickey. What’re the odds? Never saw him pitch while playing for Seattle, but now I’ve seen him twice in other cities. Beautiful ballpark, a breezy and tolerable 80 degrees in the early evening as they open the retractable roof and a nice southern twist to the concessions and souvenirs. A Nolan Ryan brisket sandwich? Don’t mind if I do.
On the way back, under darkening skies, I flip on the radio, listen to some Zydeco—probably from Galveston or New Orleans—and, as I touch the “seek” button, I catch a Spanish-language cover of a song I recognize from Doug Sahm and the Texas Tornados. I almost drive off the highway as the song ends and an unfamiliar voice goes into a very familiar speech pattern: “FM 104.5! Mas musica! Mas emocion!” Holy cow, it’s the exact same deal as the Austin station, hundreds of miles away! Who knew? I had no idea screaming Mexican DJs were a radio staple in this part of the country. Love it.
As I check out at the desk of the hotel lobby, I’m blessed with one more phrase I’ll carry forever. Two suited business types, probably from some conference, are needling each other ahead of me in line. One flaunts a plaque, some sort of award from their business meeting. The other is not impressed:
“Man, put that away. You as country as a dozen brown eggs.”
On the way to the airport: LBJ Presidential Museum. It’s on the UT campus, but still too dang hot to walk it. Free parking, air-conditioned rental. Check.
I know my history and during the late ‘60s, I was a fat little kid with a baseball mitt and horn-rimmed glasses, vaguely aware of the current events and watching Walter Cronkite with my folks. I am struck right away by all the LBJ memorabilia and the duality of the time—he did so much for civil rights and social programs, yet sat on top of thousands, tens of thousands of deaths of young Americans as the Vietnam war escalated.
And maybe that’s the take-away from this musical, flat, parched, intriguing landscape: The duality. Traditional Hispanic music punctuated by hysterical DJs. Sweltering heat above the rolling hills and scenery to die for. Simple, folk-rock music, but of such depth and quality it wafts out from every open window on South Congress Street and Lamar Avenue. High intellect and educational innovation at the University of Texas, but you have to pay for an internet hook-up to check your email. The headquarters of our best president, or perhaps our worst one.
Roll to the airport, click on the radio, and here it one more time: “Mas! Mas musica! La musica de los Freddie Fender!” A magical place.
Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and prefers the green chili salsa to the red stuff.
Erik 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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