Jason Mellard looks at Progressive Country

November 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

procountrymellardI asked Jason Mellard, author of the new book Progressive Country: How the 1970s Transformed the Texan in Popular Culture to assemble a playlist that would represent the scope of his book. He did that and more, giving great insight into the book and a lot of fantastic music!

Progressive Country is a book that begins and ends with the sounds of 1970s roots music. In between, it also attempts to capture the rapid change Texas underwent as it tried to digest the social revolutions of the Sixties and the economic revolution of the Sun Belt boom. The songs help tell the story.

Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, “Armadillo Stomp”

The Austin venue the Armadillo World Headquarters first sparked my interest in the subject. Here is where, as the city’s mythology would have it, the hippies and rednecks made their peace amidst the strains of progressive country music. This track opens a live album recorded by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, released in 1974 as Live from Deep in the Heart of Texas. Though originally from Michigan, Commander Cody helped to jump-start Austin’s western swing revival championed by affiliated acts such as Asleep at the Wheel.

Shiva’s Headband, “Armadillo Homesick Blues”

The Armadillo would not have existed, though, had it not been for seed money from Shiva’s Headband. This unheralded group bridged the transition from Austin’s psychedelic rock past to its progressive country future through Spencer Perskin’s fiddle. That fiddle isn’t exactly highlighted here, but what this song from Take Me to the Mountains does do is mark the moment when young Anglo-Texans who had been in exile in the Bay Area in the late 60s decided to come home and make a go of music-making in the Texas capital.

Willie Nelson, “Medley”

Shiva’s contributions might be news to folks outside Austin, but Willie Nelson’s association with the place is an indelible piece of Americana music lore. This is the opening track to Nelson’s Yesterday’s Wine of 1971, a concept album that shows Willie was well on his way to weird before he left Nashville. As Michael Streissguth’s recent book Outlaw shows, the Austin-Nashville contrast made in the 1970s, claiming that the former was hip and the latter square, fails to appreciate that a new generation was on the rise in Tennessee even as Willie was on his way out the door to Texas.

Michael Murphey, “Cosmic Cowboy, pt. 1”

I spend a good deal of time in the book hashing out the “cosmic cowboy” style associated with Austin’s country-rockers. I want to be clear that just about no one went around claiming to be a cosmic cowboy, just as very few artists ever identified the music they made as progressive country. These categories served the purposes of journalists, the industry, and, later, historians like myself as a shorthand for a historical moment and sensibility. Indeed, Murphey recoiled at the thought that this title song from his 1973 album might have started a movement. Nevertheless, I argue that the term describes the moment quite well—longhair and longnecks, boots and cowboy hats, and stimulants formerly outside the bounds of proper country etiquette.

The Flatlanders, “Bhagavan Decreed”

For my money, there are few songs as “progressive country” as the Flatlanders’ “Bhagavan Decreed.” Lubbockites Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore blended traditional twang with countercultural sentiment in a way that would make the Flying Burrito Brothers green with envy. The final lines always get me, too, as a great evocation of Seventies’ utopianism butting up against the decade’s malaise, stirred in with its just-having-a-good-time vibe: “You say one day soon we will all stand as brothers/Till then I guess we’ll just stand around.”

Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band, “Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother)”

I’m not the first to seize on Walker and the Gonzos’ Viva Terlingua (1973) as the perfect expression of the Austin sound. Barry Shank managed to give it some love in his punk history Dissonant Identities even as he dismissed much of the rest of progressive country. More recently, Travis Stimeling in Cosmic Cowboys and New Hicks wrote extensively about how the album’s purposefully spontaneous recording in the Hill Country hamlet of Luckenbach was meant to capture the raw and immediate nature of Walker’s live performance. All of the album’s tracks speak to the Texas Seventies in their own way, but this one in particular, by Ray Wylie Hubbard, helps get at the affinities and tensions between the counterculture and traditional Texans. It is a bit of a parody of a parody, too, an “Okie from Muskogee” with tongue even more firmly embedded in cheek.

Guy Clark, “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”

Issues of nostalgia and the passing of generations, the same sense of loss captured in McMurtry’s Last Picture Show, reverberate through the music in the book. This Guy Clark song first appeared in Walker’s 1973 version. Clark himself recorded it on his debut album Old No. 1 (1975).

Freda and the Firedogs, “Stand by Your Man”

This was a scene largely dominated by male artists. Women played prominent roles in Willie Nelson’s band, Asleep at the Wheel, and Greezy Wheels. They stepped out front as vocalists on the blues scene. As agents, managers, and staff, they held together the venues where bands played. However, progressive country in Austin seemed poised to produce few women stars. Marcia Ball, however, was the exception to the rule with her band Freda and the Firedogs. This album, produced by Jerry Wexler when Atlantic was experimenting with new country sounds, was not released until 2002. Ball’s rendition of “Stand by Your Man” paid tribute to a classic country tune, but in its own way was as much of a parody as anything Walker or Kinky Friedman ever performed. Local lore has it that Freda and the Firedogs drew a strong audience among the city’s women’s movement who took ironic delight in this particular number.

Tortilla Factory, “Malagueña”

This is not just a book about country music in Austin. It is a book about the changing nature of Texas culture, politics, and identity in the midst of a complicated decade. Country by no means defined how Texas sounded in those years, and I try to bring rock and blues and jazz and música tejana into earshot to give a sense of that wider story. In particular, the style that Manuel Peña has written so compellingly about, la Onda Chicana, is worth putting in the queue. Here’s a funkified South Texas take on a Latin standard with Tortilla Factory’s “Malagueña” of 1973.

Freddie King, “Woke Up This Morning”

Blues took the Armadillo stage nearly as often as country did. Among the venue’s nicknames was “the house that Freddie King built,” as the bluesman King was one of the first national acts to play there with some regularity. He recorded his Larger than Life album at the Armadillo during his time with Leon Russell’s Shelter Records.

David Allan Coe, “Longhaired Redneck”

The meeting of the hippies and the rednecks was not always quite so easy or salutary as the city’s mythology would have you believe. David Allen Coe gets this, and “Longhaired Redneck” captures a certain tension in the Texas scene.

Doug Sahm, “Can’t Hide a Redneck underneath that Hippy Hair” Sahm’s song from Texas Rock for Country Rollers pairs nicely with Coe’s.

Waylon Jennings, “Don’t You Think this Outlaw Bit (Has Done Got out of Hand)”

The latter part of the book also deals with the “outlaw” movement. The Texans’ declaration of independence from Nashville also led to an embrace of the scene’s swaggering macho elements. Jennings understood that his desire to work outside the Nashville studio system did not mean that he had to be a literal outlaw, but apparently law enforcement were not always in on the joke.

Eric Banister


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