18 January 2010

Texas Songwriter Vince Bell : One Man's Music

Vince Bell. Photo by David Byboth.

One Man's Music:
Three-Day Ride to the Kitchen

By Vince Bell / The Rag Blog / January 18, 2010
Legendary Texas singer/songwriter Vince Bell will be Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, Tuesday, January 12, 2-3 p.m. CDT, on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. For those outside the listening area, go here to stream the show.
[The following is Chapter IX of One Man's Music: The Life and Times of Texas Songwriter Vince Bell, by Vince Bell, published April 2009 by the University of North Texas Press as the third in the North Texas Lives of Musicians Series, following biographies of Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley.]

In late 1976 I decided on a move to Austin to work as a singer/songwriter for Moon Hill Management. It was just in time for the Progressive Country days, and I was booked all over Texas doing half-music, half-comedy shows wherever they would pay me. It seemed my songs could keep me in places I could barely negotiate on my own. With my unsophisticated voice like a high-school quarterback, every little bit helped. But after enough years of choir-boy vocals, Bob Dylan taught us in the ’60s that the voice didn’t have to matter as much as the message did.

Craig Hillis from Moon Hill picked me up outside the Greyhound bus station the day I moved to that capital town. With me was my bag with everything I had in the world. Right beside my bag was the guitar in the case with the grommets missing, the alligator linen covering all but gone. Craig liked the songs he had heard on the confusion of tapes made in the cabin off Lake Tahoe and was impressed when he saw the hard-livin’ acoustic come out of the frayed case. We became the closest of friends. After sleeping on a couple of couches, I rented a two-room grandmother house behind a funeral home on North Lamar. I was across the road from another popular radio station, KOKE, and no more than a couple of blocks from Moon Hill.

The routine each day was to walk or bike to the booking agent. I’d stand around, cup of coffee in hand, with road managers of several other acts and other artists funneling into meetings with the business manager, Larry Watkins, or the publisher, Tom White. My goal was always to find work. Sometimes if you didn’t squeak like a rusty gate, you didn’t work like a musician.

I had seen plenty of my home state on my own, but I probably saw more of Texas during the early Austin years than I ever cared to know was there. Some of it was in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Colorado. With nothing but me and the six-string, like sacrificial lambs, we would warm up for bands at the 500- to 1,500-seat concerts, then traipse off and do our own nights at smaller clubs.

I was billed at the Armadillo World Headquarters and all of the joints in the Austin and Houston areas at one time or another, and in clubs named Steamboat Springs in multiple locations, to Liberty Lunch and Gruene Hall. I was booked more than once at the Austin Opera House, the Texas Opry House, Hofheinz Pavilion, Auditorium Shores, the Special Events Center, Cullen Auditorium, Liberty Hall, and at 110-degree summer outdoor shows at racetracks all over the state from Fredericksburg to Nacogdoches. I performed more times than I can recall in Dallas and San Antonio. Was born in the one city and never had one good gig in the other until the next century.

It was always such a challenge to show up before the big, seven-piece band that was the main bill and duke it out with a front row filled with impatient entertainment shoppers. They never wanted anything to do with the opener because the opener was a no-name and probably wasn’t any good anyway. Nor did they care to wager their cover charge to find out. Nothing between me and that brain trust but six strings on a wooden box. Now that’s swingin’ without a net. I’d usually wax like a romantic about things I had no business trying to wax about in the first place. Live and learn.

This is where the comedy part of a one-man, one-guitar show could save your dusty butt. Steven Fromholz and I spent a decade together pulling that off in the least amusing places, like a tacky Central Texas fern bar for trendy chicks in a shopping mall next to a department store near an army base. Did I forget anything?

Lyle Lovett, Steven Fromholz, Vince Bell, and James Gilmer at Feb. 28, 2000, rehearsal for Austin City Limits. Photo from stevenfromholz.com.

“Frogboltz,” as we all called him in lighter moments, was my closest friend in music during these late ’70s Austin years. Steven was already a legend, and I was very proud when we were first booked together. As a writer of music and lyrics he was one of the finest. We became very compatible on and off stage. We shared meals, we shared tequila, we shared friends, and sometimes we even drove to the dates together, laughing and burning along the way. I babysat his daughter Felicity when I needed a couple of extra bucks. Steven was urbane, very eloquent, graceful, and capable as a performer. Out on the mirage of the mesquite plains there was no one bigger-hearted.

“It was the ‘Great Progressive Country Scare’ of the mid-’70s,” says Steven,
“where the hippie met the redneck over a cold beer with a joint. That was the fan base we played to. You took those long-haired hippie weirdos, and you had the rednecks, and they got together—they all liked Willie Nelson and they all liked to drink a cold beer—and you ended up with a bunch of great big, broad-shouldered, long-haired, kick-ass hippies.

“We were on the road all the time, playing music, drinking whiskey, and smoking pot. I had had a hit with my song ‘I’d Have to Be Crazy’ on Willie’s album and it was rockin’ and rollin.’ When I wasn’t out playing with the band, I did a lot of work with Vince, all over Texas, because I really loved his music. We were young—hell, I was barely 30, and Vince was 26, 27. We all wanted to play, and we played everything we knew and made up shit, too. As Willie said, ‘If we hadn’t been able to play music, we’d all be stealing cars, all be hoodlums in jail. We’re all too lazy to work.’

“Moon Hill was managing everyone in town. They had me under contract, Michael Murphy, Asleep at the Wheel. They put Vince and me together on dates all over the circuit: Austin, Houston, the Pink Flamingo in Wichita Falls, The Irish Pub in Pueblo, Colorado, the old Poor David’s in Dallas. Those were the halcyon days, and it didn’t get any better than Poor David’s. Wall-to-wall people. Wall-to-wall women, what a view—God almighty! You couldn’t move in the room, people were sitting on the floor. Smokey. And we’d just kill them. Me and VB would just kill them. We used to tear that place down.

“We made some great music, too. One of the best songs I’ve ever heard is Vince’s ‘Sun & Moon & Stars.’ We used to get together, usually drunker than hell in the motel room after the gig, and I’d make Vince sing that song. It’s what friends are all about, and it’s said so well in that song.”
Vince, in the day.

Those were years when the weekend days were Monday and Tuesday ’cause we were probably playing and then driving the old pickup back from somewhere between Shreveport and El Paso on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Those musicians’ off-days were the laundry days, when Steven and I would sit against the same dirty window in the same rundown, un-air-conditioned Laundromat at 29th and Guadalupe in Austin. Fromholz could really fold those contour sheets.

Then there were the better times. Prior to my own gigs in Evergreen, Winter Park, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Delbert McClinton and I did a date at a joint called The Hungry Farmer in Boulder. I was the solo opener for him and his band. The next morning he invited me to his motel room to play a few of my songs. While I tuned to an A440 tuning fork, we talked like Texans far from home. He confided that he once showed “one a’ them Beatles” some licks on the harmonica. I was fascinated to hear him. No doubt, that was Lennon.

I played him a song. At least a little surprised, he said, “Just a minute, I got to go put a shirt on.”

What a great guy, I thought.

So I played him another.

Vince Bell's songs have been performed and recorded by such diverse talents as Little Feat, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, and he has had a ballet set to his work. His song "Sun & Moon & Stars" is featured on Lyle Lovett's new CD, Natural Forces.

Vince has released five critically acclaimed CDs, and is the author of an autobiography, One Man's Music: The Life and Times of Texas Songwriter Vince Bell, chronicling his amazing comeback after a devastating car accident in 1982. From the autobiography he wrote a 50-minute, one-man play -- One Man's Music: A Monologue with Song -- which includes six of his songs. Simultaneously he released his fifth CD, One Man's Music: The Songs.

Vince Bell returns to Austin to perform his new play four times as part of the FronteraFest 2010 Long Fringe at the Blue Theater at 916 Springdale in East Austin. Performances are as follows:

Saturday, January 23 at 8:00 p.m.
Monday, January 25 at 7:00 p.m.
Tuesday, January 26 at 9:00 p.m.
Saturday matinee, January 30 at 2:15 p.m.

For show time and ticket information, go to hydeparktheatre.org
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