Down by the Brazos
I’d heard stories for years about how Lyle Lovett had written for the Texas A&M student newspaper, The Battalion, during his college days in the late 1970s. Kathleen McElroy, another former Aggie I’d worked with at the Austin American-Statesman in the mid-1980s, had mentioned working with Lovett at The Battalion, and every once in awhile the subject would come up in interviews Lovett did with various publications over the years.
But it wasn’t until he released his new album, Step Inside This House, that I started getting actively curious about exactly what might be lurking in the archives on the A&M campus in College Station. Cover stories on Lovett in recent issues of The Austin Chronicle and Texas Monthly both had quoted Lyle as saying that back in his Aggie days, he had interviewed several of the artists whose songs he covers on Step Inside This House, a remarkable two-disc collection of tunes by 10 Texas songwriters who influenced Lovett in his early days.
Such historical documentation, it seemed, deserved to be revisited. So I called my old friend John Krajicek, now an instructor in the English department at Texas A&M, and asked if he might be able to track down these long-rumored old articles from The Battalion. A few days of legwork and several hours of poring over microfilm later, Krajicek found what we were looking for: Stories on Steve Fromholz, Eric Taylor, Michael Murphey and Willis Alan Ramsey, all penned by one Lyle Lovett in 1979.
While it’s important to take these pieces in the context in which they originally appeared, there are strands in each of them that help connect Lovett the collegiate journalism student to Lovett the seasoned and accomplished artist two decades later. They also offer some direct insight into what these particular songwriters meant to Lovett, and why their music has stayed with him over the years.
A footnote: The final article in this series has nothing to do with Texas songwriters, but it surfaced during the search and simply seemed too wonderful not to pass along.
Many thanks to Bob Wegener, General Manager of Student Publications at Texas A&M University, for granting us permission to reprint these articles; Vance Knowles at In Klein Productions for invaluable assistance in the process; and most of all to Lyle Lovett, for allowing us to give a new life to his old words and thus present an invaluable historical perspective on the origins of Step Inside This House.
January 25, 1979
The place was the same as it had been month after month for the last few years, the same perceptive audience, the same leaky ceiling. Drops of rain thumped as they hit a bucket offstage.
Eric Taylor was playing to a familiar crowd — a crowd that had already heard two sets and was waiting for another. He began a song, but was distracted by the erratic thumping of the rain. He must have wondered how anyone could tap along so miserably. Halfway through the first verse, he stopped and started laughing.
“Is that the rain?” he continued laughing. “I’m tryin’ to do the most serious song I’ve ever written and the elements are kickin’ my ass. It’s rainin’ on my song.”
“You got me that time, Eric,” a straining voice from the back of the room called abruptly.
“I got you a long time ago,” Taylor responded. “You old drunk, I’ve got 50 years to get as drunk as you.”
When Taylor began again, he didn’t seem to mind as the drunk sang along.
“In the end, life is a private act,” a biographical sketch starts out on the liner notes of a Townes Van Zandt album. “We do not know what it feels like when another man thinks his thoughts. Exactly how it seems to him as he trembles in the sweetness of his visions or the corruptions of his nightmares, no one will ever know. Thus, at a certain point, explanation stops. We see what we see, hear what we hear, read what we read, and are puzzled about the rest.”
Eric Taylor is an enigmatic performer. He has been recognized in folk circles for several years as one of the region’s premier singer-songwriters, yet he seems content to remain a local, staying out of the hectic market-yourself-and-make-it-big music business into which so many hopefuls find themselves trapped. Except for special concert situations, he prefers to stay in Houston and play his favorite acoustic music bars.
In concert, Taylor has opened shows for Leo Kottke, David Bromberg and Jerry Jeff Walker, and has shared billings with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Other credits include his playing the Kerrville Folk Festival — an annual event in which only a select group of the nation’s folk musicians are invited to participate — the past two years. He performed first as a New Folk songwriting contest winner and then as a headline act.
The restaurant was noisy and Taylor suggested going to his place for coffee. On the way he pointed out a neon sign that read, “Kennel-Town Pet Shop.”
“At night it says, ‘Kennel Town hop’,” he laughed.
At his place he pointed out an old Volkswagen bus with shot-out windows, courtesy of an avid fan.
Inside, he put some water on to boil and walked around the living room, giving the grand tour.
“These are my clowns,” he said, picking up the largest of the bunch and introducing it as Emmett, after Emmett Kelly. “And this is my James Dean picture. And this is my son,” he said, pointing to another picture.