Roxy Gordon: 1945 to 2000
Last June I embarked on one of the more insane road trips I’ve pulled off in my 34 years, leaving the annual Twangfest weekend in St. Louis early Saturday morning and hightailing it down to the Texas Hill Country for the last night of the Kerrville Folk Festival. Mickey Newbury, the greatest songwriter I’d never actually seen play, was scheduled to perform on Sunday; it was a thousand-mile drive from St. Louis, a long haul but easy enough to do in a couple days (though I’d have only one day to drive another thousand miles from Kerrville back to Nashville, where I was due to fly back to Seattle on Tuesday morning).
Turned out Mickey didn’t show; he’s had a pretty serious lung condition for awhile now, and apparently it had flared up enough that weekend to prevent him from making the trip. As it turned out, I got my chance to see Newbury a few months later down in Alabama. The Texas trip, however, became invaluable for an entirely different reason. After stopping along the way to visit friends in Tulsa and Dallas, I decided to take a bit of a western detour on the way down to Kerrville via the tiny town of Talpa, home to a fellow I’d gotten to know over the past couple years named Roxy Gordon.
In the fall of 1997, a box arrived at my house in Seattle filled with a half-dozen or so copies of Picking Up The Tempo, a publication put out by Roxy and his wife Judy for a few years in the mid-’70s. Flipping through those faded, aged pages from a quarter-century past, it was inevitable to sense the strong connection with someone who had been down this road before. Also enclosed in the package was Smaller Circles, Roxy’s latest CD (he was also a songwriter and poet with a small handful of records and volumes to his credit).
Roxy and I talked on the phone a few weeks later, and stayed in touch off-and-on over the next couple years by phone and e-mail. We’d talked about having him do a piece on Kris Kristofferson tied into the release of The Austin Sessions, which was originally supposed to come out in 1998 on Guardian Records before that label disappeared. I remember telling Roxy we’d decided to hold off on the story until Kristofferson’s album surfaced somewhere else. He left me a message, dripping with the dry, wise wit that personified his character, asking: “Where in the world do you get that because Kris Kristofferson’s label fell through, that you can’t do the article on him?”
Cutting through all the bullshit, he was right, of course. Too much of the business of music journalism anymore is geared toward tour schedules and release dates. Perhaps this underscored the difference between the heyday of Picking Up The Tempo and the world in which No Depression exists. Even so, Roxy ultimately accepted our concerns of timeliness, and when Atlantic finally picked up Kristofferson’s record for release in the fall of ’99, Roxy agreed to write the piece for us (it appeared in ND #24, Nov.-Dec. 1999).
We’d corresponded recently about having him do something else for us, but all that was lost when, on February 9, an e-mail arrived from Judy Gordon with the news that Roxy had died two days earlier.
He’d been rather ill when I’d visited the previous June, which turned out to be the only time I ever met him. He was in a wheelchair, stricken with some sort of disease that doctors had been unable to diagnose. Last time I’d talked to him, though, he said the condition had disappeared as mysteriously as it has arrived.
Looking back, though, it does seem there were signs of what was to come. A weekly column he wrote for his county newspaper, and which Judy was sending out to a handful of folks via e-mail, seems in hindsight to reveal Roxy’s sense of the end being near. I remember one column that began with the declaration, “I am tired,” and continued with a litany of things making him feel that way. A mutual acquaintance, Richard Dobson, noticed this as well; “Now that I think about it,” Dobson wrote in the most recent edition of his newsletter Don Ricardo’s Life & Times, “I believe hints of Roxy’s demise had been appearing in his columns for the Coleman paper, one about an old elephant coming home to die.”
One day another package arrived in the mail from Roxy — this one containing a bunch of back-issues of Omaha Rainbow, yet another magazine from years ago that covered similar musical ground to Picking Up The Tempo and No Depression. This one was based in England; Roxy was one of its primary writers, with articles on Butch Hancock, Willie Nelson, Ian Tyson and others. I wonder now if Roxy sent these to me partly because he wanted them to have a home with someone who would appreciate them.
If so, he was right. While folks around me on the flight to Nashville this weekend read the airline magazine tucked into the seat pocket, I was poring through twenty-year-old issues of Omaha Rainbow, reading Roxy’s prose and remembering what had drawn me so much to his writing in the first place.
Roxy didn’t so much write about his subjects as he wove them into the bigger picture. The piece on Butch Hancock is a prime example. It’s broken into four parts, one of which a song-by-song overview of Butch’s debut album West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes (which had just been released at that time, in 1978). The other three parts, however, ponder Indian mysticism, recount a road trip to Lubbock for a concert by Tommy Hancock, and offer a cultural and geographical tour of West Texas. All of which, in the broader sense, revealed the context that shaped West Texas Waltzes. “Instead of looking at West Texas,” Roxy observed of Butch’s album, “it’s like being in West Texas and looking around.”
The real revelation came from Roxy’s ruminations on Butch’s song “Texas Air”. Earlier, Roxy had described Tommy Hancock exhorting the audience at the Lubbock show to take part in a Mexican Hat Dance: “You can do it,” Tommy had insisted. “You think you’re white people, but people are always reincarnated into the same area where they lived before. There didn’t used to be anybody here but Mexicans and Indians. You’re not white.” In turn, Roxy responded to a Hancock lyric, “Leave my spirit on the prairie,” with the following thoughts:
My God, I used to be afraid of dying….I dreaded the cessation of this particular consciousness I considered myself. I don’t think that way much anymore. For a while now I’ve been leading myself into disbelief of death. Tommy Hancock, in seriousness or jest, may have given me a final hint when he did his riff about reincarnation. Maybe, indeed, I’ve always lived on these prairies, and maybe I will, for centuries to come.