Bobby Earl Smith – New tricks from an old dog
Back in a bygone era, when such distinctions were deemed important, Bobby Earl Smith was among the first musicians in Texas to make music that both rednecks and hippies could dance to while enjoying a cultural armistice of sorts down at the corner beer joint.
Well. It all seems so arbitrary and trivial now. After all, the last free-range hippie was captured in the mountains outside of Taos, New Mexico, five years ago, stuffed and mounted, and shipped off to the Smithsonian. And the last bathed-in-the-blood-of-the-lamb good ol’ boy moved out of his trailer park and onto the Upper West Side when his dot-com IPO made him an overnight millionaire.
But the music — rooted in rock ‘n’ roll’s urgency and the honky-tonk and western swing soundtracks that have filled Texas hardwood dancefloors for decades — has endured. And although he has released but two albums in twenty years, Bobby Earl Smith has never been far away from it.
Bobby Earl’s (if this Mr. Smith went to Washington, he would still be Bobby Earl) is not a name calculated to cause fans of Americana and Texas music to swivel their heads. Even in Austin, where he has lived for almost 30 years, he is better known by the company he’s kept: long, tall keyboard gymnast Marcia Ball; western swing standard-bearer Alvin Crow; West Texas songbird Kimmie Rhodes; the late, great Doug Sahm; and many others. Rear View Mirror, Smith’s new album, may not inflate his public profile to stratospheric heights.
But, as he says, that’s not the point.
“I really made this album for my kids,” said Bobby Earl, father of two grown sons, Eric and John Marc. Especially Eric, whose request that dad teach him to play the bass helped spark the record’s gestation. After that, “I had to put it out, and it was something I wanted to put out,” Dad said. “I thought it was a neat thing for father and son, for Eric and me.”
The recording sessions for Rear View Mirror reunited a lot of old friends and colleagues under the same studio roof: Marcia Ball and John X. Reed from Smith’s pioneering country rock group Freda & the Firedogs; Jimmie Dale Gilmore, with whom Smith had toured; co-producer Joe Gracey (Smith and Gracey are collectively known as the Jackalope Brothers); Johnny Gimble and Flaco Jimenez, musical mentors who helped lend Smith’s generation some much-needed legitimacy back in the 1970s.
Smith wasn’t exactly hell-bent on getting a stage under his feet when he hit town in 1967. He wasn’t even heck-bent. He’d been within shouting distance of a master’s degree in public administration up in Abilene, had worked for NASA in Houston, and had a standing offer from his dad, a successful attorney, to come back home to San Angelo to practice law. “I was trying to figure out what to do,” he admitted.
He wound up at the University of Texas law school, but didn’t find himself enormously enamored of that career track either. “I had an easygoing attitude about law school,” he said. By which he meant that he and his fellow students put in more time in the beer joints than the law library. And the beer joint they seemed to fetch up in most often was the Split Rail. To Bobby Earl, it felt like a slice of West Texas home.
“There were two guys, who went by the names of Barney Tall and Roger Beck, who made more music than any two guys I’d ever heard, the real old-fashioned kind of country music like I’d heard in San Angelo in the ’50s,” he recalled. One night, he continued, “One of girls at our table told Barney and Roger that one of us was a singer, and to my surprise they let me get up and sing.
“I’d started doing a few parties. You know, none of the law students had any money, so we’d get together and play Forty-Two and dominoes and hearts in our apartments, and I’d sing at those parties.”
Smith eventually received his law degree, but by then the stage had found its way under his feet. He played with Austin folk music patriarch Kenneth Threadgill, with a bluegrass band, and with a fledgling country-rock group called Dub & the Dusters.
Working seamy singles bars with names like Nero’s Nook, and NCO dances at the Air Force bases in Austin and San Antonio, Smith became versatile by necessity. Depending on the crowd and the mood, he might play songs by Hank Williams or the Allman Brothers or the Beatles or Merle Haggard — often back-to-back.
About the time he began to get a vague sense of a new synthesis beginning to form on the Austin musical landscape, Smith met a gangling Louisiana girl who would help him pull it all into focus. Dub & the Dusters were working one night in 1972 at the One Knite, a joint that was a textbook illustration of the kind of place your mother warned you about. “Dub & the Dusters had discovered marijuana,” Smith confessed. So when the Dusters’ drummer, Freddy Fletcher, met a girl on the set break who not only had pot but said she could sing, the band invited her up onstage.
“So,” Smith tells the tale, “here comes this long drink of water who gets up onstage, very nervous and shy. We sang ‘Me And Bobby McGee’, and as soon as she hit the first phrase, I got chills all up and down my arms, it was just amazing. I still feel that way when I hear her sing.”
Marcia Ball, the aforementioned tall girl, became “Freda,” the country-rocking chanteuse of Freda & the Firedogs, which arose after Dub & the Dusters imploded. The Firedogs, thanks to their gigs at the Broken Spoke, Armadillo World Headquarters, and especially their regular Sunday slot at the Split Rail, became one of the town’s favorite bands, and among the first to chip away at the musical and societal walls separating Austin’s longhairs and cedar choppers.
“We had an immediate following,” Smith asserted. “Every Sunday night at the Split Rail — it was a magic gig people still talk about…whole Mexican families, bikers, students, hippies, rednecks. You could play any kind of music for these people if you played it good and played it with soul.” That artistic aesthetic, it should be added, still guides Smith today.
When things happened for the Firedogs, they happened fast. The band formed in January, and by August they were in the studio cutting with legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who was making one of his periodic talent raids into Texas.
It wasn’t Wexler’s fault that the deal fell apart. “We thought we were sophisticated,” Smith said ruefully. “We’d been reading Rolling Stone, and we wanted creative control, big points, a big advance, and other perks, and we delayed too long. It was a major missed opportunity — hell, the guy went from Aretha Franklin to Freda…”
Doug Sahm, who had introduced the band to Wexler, put them in touch with another larger-than-life producer, Huey Meaux, the “Crazy Cajun.” But the Meaux sessions were a bust, too. Two years after the band formed, things fell apart, as things will do.
Ball, of course, got in touch with her Louisiana/Gulf Coast roots and went on to bigger things. And Smith landed on his feet too, as a member of Alvin Crow’s Pleasant Valley Boys. Crow was (and is) a western swing bandleader who has been so popular in Austin for decades that he hardly ever has to leave town. But in the mid-’70s, western swing was hot, Crow had a major-label deal with Polydor, and the Pleasant Valley Boys were criss-crossing the country in an ancient bus that Bob Wills might have bunked in. By the time the ’70s became the ’80s, Smith had burned out his case of white-line fever.
“We busted our ass in that old Flex bus for four years, all over the country,” he says. “I started realizing I wasn’t cut out for the road. My kids starting to grow up, and we had gone to 2 a.m. closing time in the clubs in Austin. One morning after a gig, Eric asked me to get up and play, and I told him, ‘No, Daddy’s too tired.’ And I heard a voice telling me, ‘Listen to what you’re saying.'”
Smith found a new home, behind the producer’s board with another West Texan, Joe Gracey. Together, as the Jackalope Brothers, they recorded Kimmie Rhodes, the Skunks (one of Austin’s first and best punk bands), and even Double Trouble, which featured Stevie Ray Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton.
Along in there, Smith also managed to assemble his first album, Muleshoe — Dry Creek Inn. The song “Muleshoe”, along with period tunes such as “Contrabandistas” and “Rock Your Baby To Sleep”, would resurface on Rear View Mirror. He still picked up an occasional tour with a West Texas compadre such as Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, or Gary P. Nunn. But by 1985, he recounts, “I was broke, tired of the road, and I had a family to support.” So he put down the bass guitar and dusted off that nearly forgotten law degree, and set about building a practice as an attorney specializing in criminal law in Austin.
And that, mostly, was the status quo for Bobby Earl Smith.
Until his son asked him for bass lessons.
“I started playing him folk songs and some country songs I’d grown up with. I was ashamed I’d let myself get so rusty, but he didn’t know the difference.” Bobby Earl says. Then, “Kimmie and Joe invited me out to play some gigs, do some sit-ins…and I had that feeling I had when I first heard Marcia. That ‘want-to’ is in my blood again, but I’m not having to earn a living making $25 to $50 a night in the bars. I take my hat off to the musicians who do that.”
Though Bobby Earl still puts on his lawyer suit each morning, his musical peers don’t regard him as having strayed too far from the fold. And they don’t talk as though much time has passed, even if by objective measurement they have been transformed into parents, mortgage-holders and, well, grown-ups.
“The line of continuity between what we did in Freda & the Firedogs and what Bobby Earl is doing now is very strong,” said Marcia Ball, who chipped in background vocals on Rear View Mirror. “He initiated me into the pleasures of ‘real’ country music — music done in a real way — and his vision back then remains intact today. That’s what he’s done with his new record.”
Sometimes, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past. Bobby Earl says he’s talked to Jerry Wexler about putting out the vintage Freda & the Firedogs sessions as an independent release. Meanwhile, the music on Rear View Mirror, despite the retrospective title, sounds fresh, lively and damn near timeless.
And Bobby Earl Smith sounds excited about making it again.