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Outlaws as Oligarchs: Waylon and Willie Outsell ’Em All

Last month RCA’s Outlaws, an anthology of cuts by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter, outsold Bob Dylan’s Desire, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets, and various other pop heavyweights; it also outsold every country album on the market.

Irony flourishes in an industry of schemes. For more than 50 years, country music has had a thirst for the pop charts, a thirst that has been satisfied by such men as Vernon Dalhart in the 1920s, Gene Autry in the 1930s, Eddy Arnold in the 1940s, Elvis Presley in the 1950s, and Johnny Cash in the 1960s. But in recent years that thirst became a spectacle of gaudy desperation, as country music devolved shamelessly into Easy Listening. When Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” the classic middle-of-the-road country song, crossed over to the pop market, country music rushed to imitate its success. The ensuing kitsch did little but alienate much of the existing country market, and things got so bad, so hideously bland that Chet Atkins, one of the people guilty of changing the music to middle-of-the-road mush, did gentle penance by apologizing publicly for what he had done.

Enter Willie Nelson and his first Columbia album, Red Headed Stranger. Made at an out-of-the-way studio in Garland, Texas, at a cost of only $3000, Red Headed Stranger was all that country music had ceased to be: hard edges and inner graces. There were people at the company whose brains puked at the thought of releasing such a record, but Willie won out by agreeing to cut his next two albums in the accepted fashion if Red Headed Stranger failed to make money. The album was released in October 1975. It hit the top of the country charts, then it went high on the pop charts, as a single from the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (which Elton Britt had recorded in 1945), became the biggest crossover hit since “Behind Closed Doors.” And that’s how Willie Nelson, after 17 years of moiling against the country music industry’s grain, finally took the wheel.

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Willie and others whom the industry had considered freakish growths upon its Dresden-doll skin were now given credence and respect. Teeth went tight with wrath in 1970 when Kristofferson showed up in street clothes to accept his CMA award for “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” but at the 1975 awards ceremony similarly unorthodox behavior by Waylon Jennings was loudly applauded. The day of the outlaws had come.

There are true tales about many of the old-line country singers, tales of gunplay and whisky and dunes and dunes of Benzedrine and high-heeled caravans of open-mouthed girl-things, garish Iliads of honky-tonk excesses that are rarely encountered except in Don Siegel movies. But these men were never considered outlaws, for they never allowed their personal lives to tint their public images. You either stayed in the closet or you repented publicly, as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard did. If you fucked up, the consequences were grave, as Hank Williams discovered when he was thrown off the Opry. These were the grievous angels Gram Parsons spoke of.

Nothing those old-timers did pissed off the industry as Kristofferson had in 1970 with his sins against decorum. There he stood, the most successful songwriter of the season, and he just didn’t seem to give a fuck. This surly yanking at the paternal dewlap, this was outlawry of a kind that none of the old-timers would have dared. But you can’t throw someone off the Opry if he’s never cared about being on it. Within a year, Kris had become a star beyond reprehension. His “Me and Bobby McGee,” which had been a country hit for Roger Miller, became a pop hit for Janis Joplin in the summer of 1971, and when Kris’s second album, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, was released that same summer, it crossed over to the top of the pops.

Five years earlier that could not have happened, but by 1971 the cultural paradigm was changing. White suburban punkdom pushed aside its pretensions of social conscience as one would a copy of “Raised Skirts and Bare Buns” after jerking off. The ’60s were an embarrassing diary in the eyes of the ’70s, and Black Sabbath and Lou Reed were the sound of that diary burning. In a way, Kristofferson was also. Kids who a few years before had affected a vicarious identification with the culture of colored folk now began adopting the ways of the redneck eidos.

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When Willie Nelson started performing with younger, rock-bred people on their mutual Austin turf in 1972, the thrill of benediction was felt. Willie convinced his friends, such as Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, that these long-haired kids were a great country audience, and they too began performing for the kids. Austin became to country music of the ’70s what San Francisco was to rock of the ’60s, a college town turned secondary music capital, and in Michael Murphey’s “Cosmic Cowboy” the scene found its anthem. Willie and Waylon started making music as they had rarely done before; albums such as Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes and Willie’s Phases and Stages ooh’d and yelled with freedom.

Staring plainly if numbly at the overwhelming success of Willie’s Red Headed Stranger, the country music corpus could no longer ignore the weird beast that had grown within its stomach, so it accepted it as it has always accepted success. Industry people looked back on Kristofferson without anger and told anyone who would listen that they knew Willie way back when and what a good old boy he was.

These guys are oligarchs now, not outlaws, and to consider them outlaws in 1976 is silly except as nostalgia. A battle was fought and the good guys won, it’s as simple as that. The effects of the victory are many and glorious. Willie Nelson, the William Carlos Williams of neon, hadn’t had a Top Ten country record since 1962, and now he’s the most popular country singer in America. Waylon Jennings, who had always had hits but had never really let loose, is now making the best country music the world has heard since the ’50s. Tompall Glaser, the most innovative and knowing country artist of recent years, is finally getting some of the recognition due him. And, perhaps most important, a lot of the older artists who had been seduced into a more middle-of-the-road sound are easing back toward the source. George Jones told me last month that his next album will be done without orchestral frills or any other sweetening, and I think when he and producer Billy Sherrill make that album, more people will become aware of what George Jones is: the greatest singer alive.

But the romance that has replaced the reality of the outlaws is starting to give off an ominous, electric odor. An outlaw establishment threatens. Texas Music, a slick Dallas monthly which published its first issue this month, will not publish any negative comments about the outlaws, a policy that reeks of the ways of such established fluff-rags as Country Song Roundup and Music City News. During the early months of 1976, industry people cased out Austin, and it is more than probable that a less manicured extension of the music establishment will be seeping into Texas before too long. I shuddered when RCA mailed out plastic, made-in-Korea vests with the Waylon logo stenciled on their backs. Will personae of outlawry be affected like so many Nudie suits? Will new teeth gnash when Ernest Tubb shows up in suit and tie to accept his award of recognition from the Outlaw Music Association?

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It’s depressing to hear kids in Austin, kids supposedly swept away with interest in western swing, tell about how great the Light Crust Doughboys were. The Light Crust Doughboys were an awful band, sort of like the Archies of western swing, and none of those kids have ever heard a Light Crust Doughboys record or they’d know it. The mystique for them is more important than the music. They say they love western swing, but sitting totally ignored in a Houston apartment, playing his fiddle for an audience of furniture and wallpaper, is 61-year-old Cliff Bruner, the greatest western swing veteran alive.

Some came out of the outlaw scuffle empty-handed. Bobby Bare tried his best to fit in with the desperados, but made the mistake of loading his pistols with Shel Silverstein songs. Billy Joe Shaver, one of the most gifted songwriters involved in the scene, went berserk with his own image and his recent music resembles a large, bragging saddle sore. Tom T. Hall, in the midst of it all, went and recorded a song that included the line, “I love little baby ducks.” David Allan Coe, the Joey Gallo of Country Music, remains an acquired taste, like Carstairs and Coke.

Willie, Waylon, Tompall, and the others who fought and won the war against blandness love country music as much as Hank Williams did, and they make country music better than Hank did. That’s why I hope they don’t end up heading down the wrong highway, or find themselves like John Lee Hooker, totemized on a stage before a mass of ceremonially appreciative trails.

Besides, there is work still to be done. I suggest that all pardoned outlaws unite to wreak God’s will: Amnesty for Jerry Lee Lewis!

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The Young

Pioneering vets of the thriving Austin, TX music scene, flannel-clad rock ‘n’ roll geekoids The Young are Matador Records’ latest discovery and its just-dropped Chrome Cactus bleeds teeth-sharp and moody, fuzz-drenched earworm-worthy desert jams. Led by hook-centric, moping savant Han Zimmerman, The Young lay on the infectiously coiled stoner highway driving songs thick on its sophomore effort, recalling ZZ Top, Television, Meat Puppets and Dead Moon on a hallucinogenic bender. Weed clouded, psych anthems for sulking indie rockers never felt so good.

Thu., Sept. 11, 8:30 p.m., 2014

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Power Trip

You’ve heard it once and you’ll hear it again: Power Trip is metal for punk fans, hardcore for metalheads. Frontman Riley Gale’s brash vocal howlers channel a young Lemmy of Motorhead with the ferocity of early SSD Records bands. While their recordings are ace (try listening to “Manifest Decimation” without breaking into head-bangs, we dare ya) their true power is found in their live show. It gets violent; you have been warned. The Dallas genre-bending punks will be joined by Austin heavyweights Mammoth Grinder, New Brunswick’s Razorheads and Brooklyn hardcore staples AJAX. If you like it loud, you’ll get it loud.

Mon., July 28, 8 p.m., 2014

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Two Indie Directors are Profiled in the Tidy Double Play

Gabe Klinger’s Double Play is a tidy documentary about two creative brains: directors James Benning and Richard Linklater. Benning, the elder of the two, shoots austerely beautiful experimental films that force the audience to, say, stare at seagulls swooshing across a mirrored pond. (The irony of people needing to huddle indoors to appreciate nature isn’t lost on him.) Back when Linklater was just another wannabe Austin artist — albeit, more ambitious than most — he was one of Benning’s biggest fans.

In 1988, the year before he made Slacker, Linklater launched the Austin Film Society and short-listed Benning, then a stranger, as one of his dream guests. Now decades into their friendship, Benning has flown back to Texas for a visit, and Klinger tags behind the two men as they try to pin down what draws them together. One surprising answer: baseball. As bored, suburban children, both were way more passionate about making it in the major leagues than making it in Hollywood.

Admits Linklater, “Delusion is important in sports and in arts. No matter how good you are, you have to think you’re a little better than you are.” It’s less interesting watching them do what they both feel they have to do — talk about their craft — especially as both give off the prickly energy of artists who would rather create than explain. They’re more comfortable asking one another questions, even though the answers are shrugged off humbly. Linklater, in particular, cannot take a compliment.

When Benning says he admired how Before Sunrise pared down the narrative romance, he demurs that compared to Benning’s art pieces, his own films are still manipulative, just “disguised better, perhaps.”

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Despite the Air Sex, Love & Air Sex Has Actual Depth

Let’s stipulate right at the top that air sex isn’t a “thing.” Appending the phrase “except in Austin, Texas,” doesn’t make it any less painfully contrived than Bud Light Lime or the superstardom of Shia LaBeouf.

And the fact that the world’s most annoying emcee declares, right there onstage in the smooch-com Love & Air Sex, that he makes up the rules as he goes along doesn’t help to establish air sex’s legitimacy as a sport.

But obviously, the film’s story happens against the backdrop of the “World Championships” of air sex at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, a city that updated its wardrobe in 1995 and said, “Clothing solved!”

After chasing their life ambitions to separate coasts, Stan (Michael Stahl-David) and Cathy (Ashley Bell) break up, despite mutual lingering affection. They find themselves in Austin on the same weekend, each struggling with whether or not to reconnect as they embark on their own separate bar-crawling adventures.

What’s remarkable is that despite the sweaty overdetermination of the film’s dude-bro interactions and the whole prefabricated concept of performance air sex, the love story has actual depth and sadness.

Stahl-David and Bell come correct with appealing, sensitive performances and chemistry that never evaporates, even though they’re only seen together in a single flashback.

As Jeff, Stan’s best friend, Zach Cregger is funny and kind of like what Ryan Reynolds would be if he had a soul. It’s also remarkable that the screenwriters have both the good taste to craft such a sensitive, heartbreakingly genuine love story and really hideous taste in nightlife pursuits.

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Gary Clark Jr.

Whether heralded as the next great bluesman or a soul and rock extraordinaire, Gary Clark, Jr. has put in the work to achieve such accolades. Although the 29 year-old has only one nationally available full-length to his name, last year’s excellent Blak and Blu, he duked it out on the stages of Austin, Texas, way before he became a go-to guest guitarist for people like Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder. Tonight, he’ll enjoy a little of the success he’s reaped so far.

Thu., Nov. 14, 8 p.m., 2013

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Andrew Bujalski Talks Computer Chess

“When Beeswax came out in 2009, I felt like there was a sense in the world of, ‘Well, that’s another one of the same from him,'” writer-director Andrew Bujalski says by telephone. “That frustrated me. I wanted to shake everybody by the collar and say, ‘No, can’t you see that it’s completely different?’ And now that everybody’s saying that Computer Chess is completely different from anything I’ve done before, I want to shake them all by the collar and say, ‘No, no, can’t you see it’s the same?'”

The 36-year-old Boston native is speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, about his new film, which opens July 17 at Film Forum after well-received festival screenings at Sundance and Berlin. The early 1980s-set movie, sprung from “the deepest, darkest depths” of Bujalski’s subconscious, unfolds over the course of a weekend-long conference where computer programmers, technicians, academics, and corporate representatives gather at a hotel to witness new developments in artificial intelligence through the form of program-aided chess games. Many of the pasty male attendees grow unnerved by the neighboring presence of a smilingly sexual co-ed Encounter group. Then, as the weekend continues, reality short-circuits: Cats inexplicably invade elevators, people fall into movement loops, and a computer asks for the definitions of “soul” and “love.”

At first Computer Chess seems different from Bujalski’s previous works. Like his second film, Mutual Appreciation (2005)—whose lo-fi, dialogue-driven love triangle between bourgeois young Americans helped unofficially crown Bujalski king of the film movement that came to be called “mumblecore”—his fourth feature unfolds in black-and-white. Yet unlike the naturalistic, 16mm look of Mutual or of Bujalski’s two-color character studies (Funny Ha Ha [2002] and Beeswax), Computer Chess plays out in flat, blurry video whose streaking, trick-laden imagery creates a ghosting effect. Throughout, the film’s shape-shifting gives it the sense of not only being about the recent past, but of being embedded in it.

A closer look reveals that Computer Chess‘s warped period indulgence (“There was no imperative to be tasteful here”) fits consistently into Bujalski’s career. As in the past, he left his generally new-to-film actors largely responsible for creating their characters. With his first three films Bujalski pulled “a pretty specific trick” of writing scripts with relatively unknown lead actors in mind, then working with them and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky to shape the films around their performances. Bujalski says he demanded not perfection—”An actor who tries to always be perfect is probably going to be a disaster”—but autonomy, never feeling satisfied until they were behaving freely.

This time the ensemble interacts with a distinct leading actor: technology. The film was shot with antiquated Sony AVC-3260 video cameras—to Bujalski’s knowledge, the first time that they have been used to film an entire feature—and characters are seen holding such cameras onscreen. The way Bujalski, Grunsky, and their crew experimented with Computer Chess‘s look (“The crazier the ideas we were throwing at each other, the better”) echo the work of the film’s technician characters to discover the capacities of their tools’ artificial intelligence; their mutual inability to predict the results of their efforts follow the difficulties that all Bujalski’s protagonists face in understanding how other live beings think and behave.

“I’ve always told stories about how people do and don’t relate to each other,” Bujalski says. Computer Chess, like his earlier films, is a movie in which people search for the formulas for building successful relationships while looking for others to help them crack the codes. His earlier characters struggling to put their feelings into words have led to techies using computers to stab at defining emotions. Bujalski says that he identifies with the character of Computer Chess‘s youngest, most naive programmer, played by the actor Patrick Riester (“To some extent I am or was that kid”), who, in dealing with computers as well as with the Encounter group, sees both his mind and heart challenged. Bujalski finds free will mysterious, elusive, and attractive. “I don’t know what drives people,” he says. “But I’ve always been more interested in the questions than in the answers.”

He has been asking himself more questions since his first child was born the year before Computer Chess‘s filming commenced. Bujalski compares his own situation to that of his mother, a visual artist who voluntarily drifted into more stable career pursuits after his birth. “As I’ve had to think more pragmatically about how to pay the mortgage each month, I’ve thought, ‘Well, God, maybe I could walk away from filmmaking,'” he says. “But I don’t want to walk away yet. I feel like I’m still messed up enough to fuel the necessary ego to stand on a soapbox and demand to be heard. The creation gets more challenging, but the desire is still there.”

He pauses, then adds, “So, yeah, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on around here.”

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Pazz & Jop: A Trip Through Fiona’s Wheelhouse

“You’re imaginary!”

Fiona Apple stood onstage last spring at Stubb’s in Austin, during her Wednesday-night South by Southwest set, and assessed the crowd between songs. She looked more muscular, her hair darker and wilder than the last time I’d seen her, when I was 19, and she was only a couple years older. Then, she was promoting 1999’s When the Pawn, the follow-up to her 1996 debut, Tidal, both of which placed the singer in the headlines and margins of the pop-culture conversation. The fans back then were not so imaginary: The high school friend I attended the concert with threw her bra onstage.

Last spring, Apple was back in our arms again, with her first album in seven years. All of her albums have been personal, confessional readings of a sort, and her fans devoted listeners. Over the past 15 years, many of us, myself included, have matured from pained, shy teenagers to more confident thirtysomethings along with her. That can’t be said of many pop stars, who often outgrow their fan bases, or vice versa, as trends come and go.

Her critics have never been imaginary, either. Back in September, Apple was arrested and jailed in the Texas border town of Sierra Blanca for hash possession. Many media outlets rolled out the tired “Fiona Apple is crazy” argument that began around the time of her 1997 MTV Music Awards “This world is bullshit” acceptance speech. Apple addressed fans at shows after her release, and the press chose to print several of her more obtuse quotes on the situation out of context to further the crazy conversation. A bizarre, misogynistic follow-up letter from the Hudspeth County sheriff’s Public Affairs Office asserted that “two weeks ago, nobody in the country cared about what you had to say—now that you’ve been arrested, it appears your entire career has been jump-started.”

By her own admission, though, “crazy” has been a refrain on Apple’s previous three albums, the last being 2005’s Extraordinary Machine. Last year’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is mostly free of the accusation, despite the slightly wild-eyed title. It’s almost exclusively her and a piano, accompanied by percussionist Charley Drayton, who used things like Velcro, gravel, and “thighs” as instruments. Also, the imagery is more vivid and aware; she shows us werewolves, volcanoes, and knives, all things potentially deadly, as well as analogies for desire, which might be the crux of the album.

Unlike the younger pop stars of 2012, like Grimes or Rihanna, who are playing with a more progressive, future-tense version of feminism, power, and ownership, Apple is still working in the present. She is not selling a rebellious image or mentality, or mining the Tumblr crowd for page views, just sharing an emotional weight. With little pre-promotion, just a devoted fan base hungry for new material, she released one of the most well-received albums of the year.

Apple once again wrestles with the idea of mind as machine, but The Idler Wheel‘s rambly title is just the skeleton. Here, Apple’s voice is the main instrument that gives it pulse and breath, often growing from cadenced whisper to heaving scream within a few lines. Right from opener “Every Single Night,” we understand this is a machine of her design, and the domestic dream state of the song is spelled out via poetic physical imagery: “The rib is a shell/And the heart is a yolk/And I just made a meal for us both to choke on.” Throughout the album, I am reminded of a line from a Nikki Giovanni poem: “It seems no matter how/I try I become more difficult to hold/I am not an easy woman to want.”

Over the years, Apple has learned how to deal with the media, and she is good at doing a bit of improv. That comes across in The Idler Wheel‘s confidence. “I just want to feel everything,” she sings on “Every Single Night,” elongating six words to 12. She’s cataloging her mental state, putting it all out there to set the scene. Shouldn’t we, as artists, but moreover sentient beings, want to feel everything? Like Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?”

There are now four albums documenting the work of these conditions. The Idler Wheel is Apple versus her mind, doing a dance. Sometimes she steps on her own toes. We may be imaginary. She’s only human.

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Robert Earl Keen

According to a lyric on Ready for Confetti, Texas-based country singer Robert Earl Keen’s latest album, “Real cowboys say the party never ends and the road goes on and on.” Maybe he’s just trying to make himself out to be a real cowboy, but the line reads more like Keen’s mantra. In recent years, the graying twangster has made touring a ritual, and he hasn’t lost his sense of humor. For his recent Christmas shows in Austin, he and his band wore wild, ostentatious, almost Halloween-like costumes, and he recently held his own beard contest online. Good thing this “real cowboy” doesn’t have any real cattle to tend to; he’s too busy partying. With Andrea Davidson.

Wed., Jan. 23, 8 p.m., 2013

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UNSIGNED HYPE

Located in a transformed former
candy factory under the Bruckner 
Expressway, the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective has spent the past few years moving minds and bodies with art and rhymes about the struggles faced by the area’s residents. This weekend, they embark 
on their most ambitious project yet: South by South Bronx, their answer to Austin’s South by Southwest music and film festival. Tonight, they host free workshops on everything from the 
history of DJing (hosted by scratch-inventor Grandmaster Caz) to surviving the police state. Tomorrow afternoon, they follow up with a concert featuring Sadat X, Mysonne, and YC the Cynic, 
and a panel discussion with two hip-hop pioneers from the borough: Afrika 
Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc.

Fri., Dec. 14, 4 p.m., 2012