The Improbable Rise Of Redneck Rock
Back in 1998, Lyle Lovett recorded Step Inside This House, covering songs by Willis Alan Ramsey, Steven Fromholz, Michael Martin Murphey and other members of the Texas singer-songwriter fraternity. The original 1974 edition of The Improbable Rise Of Redneck Rock is essentially the book version of that album. In fact, Lovett even admits his first exposure to most of the artists he covered on the double-disc release had been reading about them in Reid’s book a quarter-century earlier.
An idiosyncratic, almost noir-ish portrayal of the early-’70s music scene in Austin, Improbable Rise is a fascinating snapshot of a place and an era. I first encountered the original version in 1984 at the University of Texas, while writing a master’s thesis about the Armadillo World Headquarters (the funky concert hall that had been the home base of “progressive country” in Austin). The book was a researcher’s godsend, framing portraits of individual artists within a bigger picture showing the cosmic-cowboy scene as an extension of Austin’s bohemian tradition.
This new edition adds more photographs and 100 pages of text to update some aspects of the story, with brief profiles of Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, the Dixie Chicks and other inheritors of Austin’s proto-insurgent country tradition. Reid also did some tweaking on the original chapters, but mostly allowed them to stand as they were first published.
A few unfortunate factual glitches survive, wrong dates here and there, and it’s certainly possible to quibble with some of Reid’s omissions (Alejandro Escovedo’s name appears only once). But many of the profiles remain definitive, especially the chapter on then-wunderkind Ramsey, portrayed at a time when his career held much promise (the world still awaits Ramsey’s follow-up to his classic 1972 debut). The Kinky Friedman chapter makes a wonderful period piece, and Reid caught Willie Nelson right before he became a megastar with 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. And if Fromholz, B.W. Stevenson and Bobby Bridger never made the larger impact Reid implied they someday would, they were worthy contenders whose inclusion here gives a more complete picture.
When Improbable Rise first came out, many of Reid’s subjects were less than thrilled with how they came across. A priceless highlight of this edition is a transcript of a recorded phone conversation between Armadillo owner Eddie Wilson and Murphey, who appeared on the original edition’s cover against his will. Wilson declares of Reid, “The asshole that wrote that book is a groupie.”
But time has a habit of softening disputes, or at least making it hard to remember what you were mad about in the first place. Reid’s new chapters find the author reconciling with most of his subjects, even Murphey and Wilson.
As for Austin, it has changed a great deal from the days when it was a “groover’s paradise” with the lowest cost of living in America. Yet a vestige of the old Austin remains. Nowadays Eddie Wilson runs Threadgill’s restaurant near the site of the Armadillo, featuring a beer garden that presents live music with a vibe reminiscent of Austin’s Armadillo period — down-home, unpretentious and funky.
“The life in Austin, and it’s not bad,” Reid writes. As long as this book is around, echoes of that earlier time will linger.