BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
Oct. 30, 2013
It was 10:30 at night, and I was sitting in a small deli/café in Frederick, Md. about an hour north of Washington, D.C. In town for a conference, I rode with my good friend Matt (who had recently moved back east) in his pickup truck to see Slaid Cleaves, a legendary Texas singer-songwriter. Matt had made the acquaintance of Michael Jarrett, who was the opening act at the show, so he wanted to see him, as well. I, as always, loved the idea of a road trip to hear some good music.
Michael did a nice first set of dusty, windblown folk songs, with plenty of storytelling mixed in, and Slaid’s first set with Michael O’Connor on guitar and Eleanor Whitmore on mandolin and fiddle was magical — country, folk, minor-key murder ballads, even a Woody Guthrie sing-along.
During a break, opening act Michael — renewing his friendship with Matt — and Eleanor came to our table to sit and talk. Matt and I had been plowing through local East Coast beers, and Eleanor had a wine glass about the size of a small bucket. In short, it was a pretty loose, red-cheeked affair; the kind where enough alcohol is present to make everyone sound like a philosophy major.
Caught up in the moment, filled with malted beverages and minor-key folk songs, I asked Michael a personal, probing question, something I would never do in other circumstances with someone I had just met.
“OK, Michael. I love your music, but here’s the deal: What is it about Texas?”
I told him how in the past 10 years or so, I’d been haunted by, and obsessed with, the music of Texas singer-songwriters ─ Townes Van Zandt, Alejandro Escovedo, John Dee Graham, James McMurtry, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and Robert Earl Keen. Plenty of room in my heart for the older generation as well: Willie Nelson, Billie Joe Shaver, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
Michael stared at me blankly across the table, though he was clearly thinking about my question as he brushed his long hair away from his face.
“So is it,” I continued, waving with my drink in my hand for emphasis, “the heat and the weather? What makes Texas music so much better and more soulful? The landscape, or the ‘sense of place’? The influence of Mexican music?”
Michael continued thinking. I continued to pepper him with questions and brilliant observations: “I’ve always thought,” I said, “that it was a mix of the Tex-Mex stuff, and all the German immigration into Texas at the start of the last century.”
Ok, now I was clearly just showing off. As an ill-informed, wannabe musicologist, I knew about German immigration and music into southern Texas; that’s why there are accordions and trumpets in Mariachi bands. How many beers have I had?
Michael put his drink down, took a deep breath, and leaned forward. Eleanor raised her eyebrows — clearly I had made a bad first impression. Michael said, “Well …”
Michael’s from Austin, so “well” had about four syllables, drawn out and thoughtful. I clearly remember thinking, Holy s*#!**, this is it — I’m really gonna find out. The secret to Texas music… I don’t believe it! This is great!
Michael leaned in, and said, “The secret is… boredom.”
Silence at the table. Eleanor laughed.
“But, no, Michael …” I stammered. “What about the heat, uh… landscape… German influence… Mariachi…”
“No, no.” He interrupted me. “Dude, it’s boredom. Nothin’ better to do in Texas.”
Ah, well. Burst that little bubble, I’d say.
The beauty of music is its ability to be both high art and low art at the same time. On one level it’s an essential human element. On another, it’s folk music played by working-class people in road houses and biker bars. What was a significant cultural inquiry for me was just the local entertainment for Michael. Or, like native Texan James McMurtry says on his “Live in Aught-Three” CD, “I used to think I was an artist. Come to find out, I’m a beer salesman.”
“It’s ok, though,” he says. “It’s a good job.”
So, what is it about Texas?
It’s nothing, and everything. It could be Liverpool, Seattle, Muscle Shoals, New York or Asbury Park. It could be the guy playing at your local bar. It’s part justifying God’s ways to man ─ as Milton said in 1667 ─ and part beer-drizzled coyote howl of lust and loneliness.
It’s Texas. And it’s everywhere.
Erik Christensen teaches English at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry, and prefers flour to corn tortillas.
Erik Christensen Band plays at Front Street Grill in Coupeville from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec.11, and at Bloom’ Winery in Langley from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Feb. Info on Christensen’s other band, Jacobs Road, can be found at www.jacobsrd.com.