Justin Trevino – Honky-tonk hero
Justin Trevino was onstage, singing about yet another contender in the Broken Hearts Futurity: “There’s no one to talk to/No one to care/There’s just two empty glasses/And one empty chair…”
Simultaneously, a muted TV mounted over the bar to Trevino’s immediate right was showing some ghastly National Geographic documentary about mummies and the unearthing thereof. Gaping skulls, disinterred corpses, and dismembered bones draped with dessicated bits of flesh capered across the screen…it was all too honky-tonk gothic for words. Flannery O’Connor or even Johnny (“Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill”) Paycheck would have taken one look at the macabre juxtaposition and gone, like, “Whoa, dude.”
Trevino, playing bass and singing lead in his distinctive tenor voice, wasn’t cognizant of the black comedic juxtaposition; he has been blind since birth. He finished the sad song and promptly moved on to another one: “You must think I look bad with a smile/You haven’t let me wear one in such a long, long while…”
The small crowd at Ginny’s Little Longhorn, the North Austin beer joint where Trevino was playing on this mild November night, whooped with approbation when he finished. Vintage songs about drinking, cheating and broken hearts — preferably combining all three in a sort of Breakdown Trifecta — are the emotional balm of choice at Ginny’s, where most of the crowd looks about half-past forty. By and large, they drink not socially, but rather like they are trying to put the day (or maybe the year) behind them as quickly as possible.
Ginny’s as a whole is a sort of living example — sort of like colonial Williamsburg — of life before lite beer, “No Smoking” signs and wussified country music. There is a jar of pickled eggs and another of pickled sausage (two of the Four Basic Beer Joint Food Groups) on the bar. Happy Hour starts at 9 a.m., with $1.50 beer specials (not a huge discount, as beer goes for about two bucks at showtime). Those for whom beer is merely a prelude for serious drinking can bring in their quarts of Scotch or Canadian whisky and buy set-ups, the better to complement musical sentiments such as, “Help me drink her memory to this lonely room,” or, “One is lonely/Two’s a marriage/Three’s a crowd.”
Trevino and his band play at Ginny’s roughly every other Tuesday, and he and the place seem made for each other. Both, in their way, pay homage to an era and a style of country music that is coming to seem increasingly anachronistic and remote.
In Trevino’s case, he lives and breathes the Texas Shuffle, that swinging beat made popular by honky-tonk veterans such as Johnny Bush, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, Hank Thompson, Floyd Tillman, Faron Young and others. With its hastening, anticipatory rhythm that seems to propel the music (and dancing couples) at a headlong pace, the shuffle was the ideal mechanism to cut through barroom chatter, keeping the dance floor filled and the drinks moving. It was and remains an exhilarating sound.
Trevino lives shuffles, breathes them, and, for all anyone this side of his wife Cissy knows, dreams them, too. He knows their distinctive minutiae the way a cartographer knows a piece of geography.
Asked before his set to describe a Texas-style shuffle for a benighted soul who has never heard one, Trevino took a deep breath and assumed something like a professorial tone. (Trevino was sitting in his van in back of the saloon as he spoke. The reporter beside him turned on the overhead light to make sure his tape recorder was working properly, and apologized for breaking the mood before realizing the light was irrelevant to Trevino. In his performer’s context, Trevino seems to treat his handicap almost as an afterthought.)
“Well…there’s the walking bass, and the drums are playing something like a swing beat, but with an added note between the one and the two and between the three and the four…” He tapped the jaunty rhythm out on the dashboard by way of illustration. “And the piano player, if you’re lucky enough to have one, doubles the bass line with his left hand and plays the upbeats with his right hand, right along with the high hat [cymbal].
“Plus, pedal steel guitar, and either one, two or three fiddles, and maybe a lead guitar player playing an occasional fill,” he continued. “One of the things for me that separates the Texas shuffle from the West Coast shuffle is that we tend to be more fiddle and steel heavy in our lead sections, whereas on the West Coast they are a little more geared toward lead guitar instead of fiddle.”
Here endeth the lecture. “It’s a lot easier to show somebody by sitting them down and having them listen to it instead of trying to describe it in words,” Trevino said with an infectious smile. “It’s an undeniable beat, though.