The Czech stops here
Eastern Europe gets a Texas taste of country music via TV tapings
People once journeyed miles by covered wagon and horseback to hear Will Rogers, John Phillip Sousa and William Jennings Bryan at the Chautauqua Auditorium in Waxahachie, Texas, 35 miles south of Dallas. For two weeks in July, the adjoining Getzendaner Park would become a tent city where entire families camped out to hear itinerant preachers, scientists, educators, politicians, Shakespearean actors, and musicians.
Then radio came along, and movies and television. We became more isolated, and our culture was never the same.
Now, the Internet weaves new wagon trails around the world, reminding us that we live on a small planet where our neighbors are not necessarily the people next door. We are becoming tribal again, based on common interests rather than geography. Many of us like real country music because it is part of our roots. We grew up with it, or returned to it as we matured. For others, the resonance comes from elsewhere.
One of the tribal outposts for country music is the Czech Republic, a post-Communist nation of 10 million in the center of Europe that resonates with the romantic notions of independence and freedom. Czechs will get more of what they want soon via TV Prima, which in mid-May will begin airing performances of classic country music taped recently at the historic Chautauqua Auditorium and other Texas sites.
On a recent spring Saturday in Waxahachie, people left their pickups and Mustangs on the lawn and sat inside the wooden, tent-like building. In the dusty, 10-sided room, wood-slat floors, walls, ceiling and long movable pews contrasted with high-tech video monitors and soundboards. More than 20 ceiling fans spun lazily above; twin neon Lone Star signs accented the stage.
The musicians on this day were Bill Kirchen, James Hand, Roger Wallace, and Eleven Hundred Springs. Kirchen, best-known for his long tenure as lead guitarist with Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, performed “Hot Rod Lincoln”, Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues”, and other rockin’ oldies in his 40-minute set. Fast-rising Austin songwriter Wallace delivered traditional country and rockabilly tunes taken from his Hillbilly Heights album. Eleven Hundred Springs, from Dallas, shared traditional-style country originals with the edgy attitude of long-haired hippie freaks (to use their own description). James Hand lives near the Czech stronghold of West, in Central Texas, and remains one of the great, if obscure, talents making traditional honky-tonk music.
Other artists who have been taped for the series include Texans Gary P. Nunn, Mark David Manders, Ed Burleson, Tommy Alverson, and the Derailers; the Star Room Boys from Athens, Georgia; the Ex-Husbands, based in Nashville; and Diamond Jim Richmond and his group of ex-Tennessee Hat Banders.
Katerina Prajznerova, who is doing the introductory voice-overs for the series, says American country has long been popular in the Czech Republic, despite the old Communist government’s efforts “to suppress anything western, anything with an undercurrent of individual independence or difference against the mainstream, officially approved culture.” The Communist government toppled in 1989; today, Country Radio (http://www.ecn.cz/country) is the highest-rated station in the Czech Republic, with 290,000 listeners.
“Part of the reason why I believe Czech people will like to hear contemporary Texas country is because of the same thing that attracts Americans,” Prajznerova said. “It’s down to earth, and you can sing it yourself at a campfire. It talks to you about common life, about what’s right around you. And there is some romance, some pain, loneliness and dreams; it’s human.”
Producer of the series is John Bailey, a real estate consultant who has worked extensively in the Czech Republic and was the owner of the short-lived but popular Three Teardrops Tavern in Dallas. “Country Radio in Prague plays a lot of classic country music, plus folks like Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, the Mavericks, and Dwight Yoakam,” Bailey said. “They don’t seem to care much for the typical Nashville pop music sound.”
Bailey also hopes to market the series in Germany, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, and other countries where he finds sufficient interest. “I want to bring it back to the USA as well, concentrating on independent commercial broadcast stations in the Southwest and California,” he said.
The City of Waxahachie touts its Chautauqua Auditorium, built in 1902, as the sole national survivor of the auditoriums from a movement founded in 1874 in Chautauqua, New York, that had its heyday in the early 1920s. Coincidentally, during much of that same period, immigrants from the “old countries” planted their musical roots in Texas: the folk traditions of England, Ireland, and Scotland; music from Latin and African countries; and certainly from Europe, where polkas and waltzes originated.
The Czech influence in Texas came mostly from the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia (now in the Czech Republic and Slovakia). Adolph Hofner gained lasting, if not universal, fame by pouring traditional Czech music into the popular western swing mix. We would have to stretch our imaginations to connect that music directly to what emanated from the Chautauqua stage in Waxahachie, but the roots are there, inevitably intertwined with the small-town dancehall traditions of the region.