14 September 2011

MUSIC / John Wilson : Houston Folk Legend Don Sanders is 'Heavy Word User'

Singer-songwriter and storyteller:
Don Sanders
is still a 'Heavy Word User'

By John Wilson / The Rag Blog / September 14, 2011

Houston folk legend and children's entertainer Don Sanders will be Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, Friday, Sept. 16, from 2-3 p.m. (CST), on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, and streamed live here. To listen to earlier shows on Rag Radio, go to the Internet Archive.
I have often wondered how the angel of fame selects the musicians upon whom it bestows its gifts. I have no doubt Justin Bieber is a nice enough young man with a pleasant voice and engaging personality but does he really warrant the rewards flowing his way? And going back in time, what about such stars as Fabian in the 50s and the Archies in the 60s? It seems the fame angel is slightly tone deaf or at least blessed with a delicious sense of irony.

Of the artists with whom I have a personal relationship, Don Sanders is a case in point. He has yet to receive the adulation he so richly deserves. Granted, he is a featured artist with the Texas Commission on the Arts and an honorary board member of the Kerrville Folk Festival, but his music, which compares favorably with any of the recognized folk greats, still exists primarily as the soundtrack to the aging Houston folk crowd.

From the moment I first saw him perform in Houston in the early 70s, I knew he was the real deal. Lots of people agreed with me. He was profiled in depth in numerous articles -- from the Houston Chronicle and Houston Post to Texas Monthly and Rolling Stone. (Rolling Stone referred to Don as Houston's "spritely local folkie.") He was universally loved and respected by musicians of every stripe in Houston.

One of my favorite articles is by a young Lyle Lovett, writing for the Battalion at Texas A&M in 1978. (In a 1998 interview Lovett would refer to Don Sanders as a "big influence.")

Over a five year period from 1970 to 1975, Don wrote and performed a suite of songs that pretty much provided the soundtrack for that tumultuous and intensely musical period of Houston’s history. During this time Don expressed his commitment to social change by performing at countless peace rallies and Montrose street festivals, and was also involved with Pacifica's KPFT-FM in its early days, appearing as "Donnie Jo DJ."

Don's repertoire included such classics as "Third Eye," in which President Nixon and a parrot seek enlightenment; "Coffee Song" ("just waiting for my coffee to boil"), with its bubbling sound-effect chorus; "Roaches" (who are on the pathway down because they live with hippies); and "Heavy Word User," where he describes himself as a “greasy, sleazy information abuser.” There was ample evidence that Don had, as he claimed in the same song, “a jar of talent and the lid's unscrewed.”

Yet universal acceptance stayed away.

It wasn’t for lack of effort on Don’s part. During that period, pretty much on his own nickel, he produced a series of recordings (two LPs and one extended play 45) that highlighted the eclectic nature of his work, the strength of his writing, and the beauty of his voice and guitar work.

He was, however, swimming against the tide. The major labels had a lock on the music industry, and while local radio stations were willing to play local artists, getting exposure outside Houston, much less Texas, was really hard. It is much easier today to produce an album on the cheap, but doing it in the 70s was quite an undertaking.

When I broached the subject recently over lunch with Don he gave me a wane smile and said, “Big record companies really wanted an artist with a burning desire to succeed and make money. I had two problems, first I liked to experiment with different voices and ways of constructing songs.” Then he paused. “And, secondly at the time I just wanted to get laid.”

I didn’t really see the second part as a great impediment to fame, except that it might keep you from focusing on business, but the first could definitely cause problems, especially when it was coupled with the prevailing attitude of the day which focused on the idea of trying to avoid selling out your artistic vision for the chance at a quick buck.

Don Sanders in front of the Sam Houston statue in Houston's Hermann Park. Photo from the Houston Chronicle archives.

“Back around ’78,” said Don, “I was offered the opportunity to go to Nashville and write for Marty Robbins music. It was a pretty standard gig, they would pay a monthly draw and you had to write and pitch two songs a month, but I didn’t really want to write love songs so I turned them down.”

Still, Don kept on plugging through the rest of the decade and into the next, releasing the CD Tourist in 1984, until he decided to do something different. “I just got tired of the format, touring colleges and the bar circuit,” he said, “doing a fast song, slow song, and telling a story.”

It lead, almost naturally, to work in theater -- first at Houston's Main Street Theater and then later with Chocolate Bayou Theater, doing a one-man show of his songs and stories focusing on the troubles in Latin America that grew out of the story “Grunty Mind and the American Love Story” that appeared on the entire side two of one of his LPs.

He had some success touring through Texas. But again, the angel of fame played favorites.

“I just didn’t know how to get it into the larger theaters,” said Don. This once again proves that it’s not what you know but who you know.

In 1992 Don signed a deal with a manager who dealt in children’s music, and it was there that Don found the niche that he occupies to this day, performing for school children. His universally praised shows include:
  • Cuentos y Canciones: Latin American folk tales and songs in Spanish and English;
  • Gusher Times: based on the oral history project conducted at the University of Texas (Oral History of the Texas Oil Industry Collection, 1952-1958); and
  • Sourdough Cowboy: based on the oral history of the WPA workers and songs collected by the Lomax family.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he says “performing for children. You have to learn to compete with the distractions and the different developmental levels of the children. You surf the wave and you either stay on top or you get buried.”

So, in the end maybe the angel of fame knew what it was doing. I have to think that bringing the gift of music and song to school children is a pretty cool thing to do and may be of more lasting value than any of the things most of us will accomplish in our lives.

Of course what goes around comes around, and it was after a recent appearance at Houston's Anderson Fair with Sally Spring that Don and I started talking about re-releasing his vinyl work as a CD. (Incidentally, Don appears in For the Sake of the Song, the acclaimed 2010 documentary about Anderson Fair, the venerable Houston acoustic venue.) We embarked on the project and with the help of Rock Romano at Rock Romano’s Red Shack studio the songs were coaxed off their aging tapes and vinyl to be tweaked and mixed into digital format.

The new CD, Heavy Word User, which came out during the Kerrville Folk Festival, is available at Amazon, Itunes, CDBaby, and YourTexasMusic and recently was accepted by Pandora into the Music Genome Project. It is nice to hear songs by Dylan, the Band, Neil Young, Hoyt Axton and Townes Van Zandt, followed by a Don Sanders tune.

So, if the angel is still looking it has one last shot to help Don get this music to the larger audience it so richly deserves. Of course, if it continues to look away then Don still has the children and his digital music is out there and in the mix, standing shoulder to shoulder with the greats. Nice legacy.

[Music producer John Wilson, who is president of YourTexasMusic, was a music critic for the Houston Chronicle and a contributor to Space City!, Houston's late 60s/early 70s underground newspaper. He now lives in Johnson City, Texas.]

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