Kimmie Rhodes – Lady Luck
More to the point, she explains, “It’s really good to have reached the point in my life and my career where I can put my next record on my website [www.kimmierhodes.com]; I don’t spend one minute of any day worrying if I have a label so that I can put a record out. Now I can record it, I can press it, I can promote it — I’ve figured out how to do that, with the help of a lot of other people around me. I didn’t necessarily plan for it to be that way, but I was forced to accept it and now I’ve lived with it that way for so long that I’ve gotten to like it.”
Among the “other people” central to Rhodes’ enforced autonomy is the man she calls “my angel,” Joe Gracey. His legacy in Austin is wide and deep. In the mid-1970s, Gracey, along with general manager Ken Moyer and fellow disc jockey Rusty Bell, helped pioneer the “progressive country” format on the felicitously named KOKE-FM (older heads can still remember Willie Nelson warbling, “I was driving down the highway/With KOKE-FM turned on…” in one of the station’s liners).
As a DJ, Gracey was one of the most familiar voices in the city. But throat cancer silenced that voice. Today, Gracey communicates mainly by use of those little kiddie-toy slates, the kind where you write with a stylus on cellophane, then pull it up to make a fresh “page.” He’s probably gone through thousands of them.
Gracey segued into the production and engineering side of the music business, working on projects by everyone from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Butch Hancock. He met Kimmie not long after she came to Austin in 1979. Gracey had a little production facility called Electric Graceyland in the basement of the KOKE-FM building. He was looking for a woman who could sing harmony. Well, voila, etc.
Along with steel guitarist Bobby Earl Smith, they formed Kimmie Rhodes & the Jackalope Brothers and began playing out and recording demos. Somewhere along the way, propinquity did its thing, and the two got married and began a personal and professional collaboration that still endures two decades and change later.
“Some people just show up at the right place and the right time,” Kimmie says as she takes another sip of iced coffee. “They get your jokes, you know what I mean? He was just a constant, like my mother, and he’s just been supportive and been there, and helped me and encouraged me. If I had to name one person who was my biggest fan, it would be him. He’s just walked the road with me. It’s not all that easy to put up with an artist for twenty years.”
There must have been some reciprocity along in there, a visitor suggests. She laughs merrily. “There’s been some putting up with him, too! But that would be his interview, not mine.”
Gracey, along with Willie Nelson’s oldest daughter, Lana, catalyzed the first encounter between Rhodes and Nelson. One day along about 1981, Gracey and Rhodes found themselves out at Pedernales Studio and its adjacent golf course. They were looking for a place to record Rhodes’ first album (which would be released as Kimmie Rhodes & the Jackalope Brothers on Gracey’s independent label). Gracey had known Nelson for years, but the trip to Spicewood was mostly a lark; the plush studio was well beyond their means.
Rhodes picks up the tale many years later:
” …So we looked at the studio and were leaving, and we ran into Lana in the parking lot. And she said, ‘Have you all seen Daddy?’ We said no, and she said, ‘Let’s go out and find Daddy.’
“We’d been joking around earlier about who our record distributor was going to be, and we decided it was God.
“…And I remember it so vividly — I walked out on the golf course and Willie was there, and they introduced me. And he immediately turned his attention to me, and he was looking at me with those eyes. And he said, ‘How long have you been singing?’ And I said, ‘All my life.’ And he said, ‘Do you write songs?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ It’s amazing I can remember this so vividly!
“And he said, ‘Who’s your distributor?’ And Lana said, ‘Tell him,’ so I said, ‘God,’ and we all died laughing.
“But then he said, ‘Why don’t you come out here and make a record?’ And I said OK. I was so thrilled at that moment because I didn’t know how I was going to do anything, I just knew that I was. I had the intent and the desire and the people to help me, and it was building and always headed that way. So within a couple of weeks we were out there and cut the first record, and that was a huge break.”
Flash forward twenty-odd years. By now, Rhodes had sung on Nelson’s albums (particularly the 1995 Justice Records release Just One Love), and he had sung on hers (1996’s West Texas Heaven and last year’s Love Me Like A Song). A professional camaraderie and a friendship had been nurtured. A duet project seemed, if not inevitable, at least possible.
Typically, at least in Rhodes’ cosmos, the project came together with almost improvisational speed. Other artists might spend years scheming to arrange a session with Willie; Picture In A Frame had its genesis in a conversation on New Year’s Eve of 2002, and on January 2, the two laid down the tracks.
“The record came about as a result of wanting some MP3 files to sell online,” Kimmie explains. “Gracey had been talking to Willie about experimenting with selling MP3 files on the Luck website [www.lucktexas.com] that Gracey had designed. We needed something that belonged to just the two of us, so that we didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission.” (Nelson and Rhodes share co-producer credit on the cover).
Gracey elaborated a bit, via e-mail. “Willie had all this stuff he’s done, and he wanted a way to get it out there to people without having to do the traditional label route. I’m about to turn a whole raft of this stuff into MP3 files and sell them online for a dollar a holler, just to make it available to people in a very simple, direct fashion.
“Kimmie and Willie had been talking about doing a record together, so it seemed like the right time to cut an album and test the new MP3 website at the same time. Willie said, ‘Well, what about tomorrow?’ So we did.”