Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air: Legends
of West Texas Music
"Indeed, Oglesby's introduction of more
than two dozen musicians who called Lubbock home should be required
reading not only for music fans, but for Lubbock residents and
anyone thinking about moving here. On these pages, music becomes
a part of Lubbock's living history."
Chris Oglesby Interviews
Chris: Butch, I'm glad to finally track you down. You've been out on the road a lot, real busy with The Flatlanders. When y'all first started playing together again, I was at that show where y'all played together in Lubbock for the first time in twenty-nine years as "The Flatlanders." That night, you told a story that I'd like you to start out with; about driving the tractor out in the cotton fields, and how that inspired you to start thinking about rhythm and time.
Butch: You bet. My dad was in the earth moving business around Lubbock, doing bench leveling and terracing for farmers. So he would have me out there after school sometimes and on weekends and then usually all summer driving tractors for him. The good thing about it was that we got to travel to different farms all around a fifty or sixty mile radius of Lubbock, so it wasn't like I was on the same farm every morning, from morning to night.
Chris: They're not too different, though. [Laughs]
Butch: Welllll That's the amazing thing about it! After doing that for a few months - and I remember specifically contemplating it one time - that all that whole huge expanse out there, there is somebody, each farmer, who has been over every single square inch of his farm; usually on a tractor, sometimes even on foot - like back to cotton pickin' days. Some human being has been out there, and they KNOW every bit of dirt out there on their section or quarter section of land. They know the subtle differences in the density of the dirt; sometimes it's real sandy and the tractor bogs down a little; or sometimes it's harder ploughing through the harder, drier dirt.
That was what made what would have been an otherwise boring task; It became really intensely interesting, watching for the real subtle differences in what from a distance might appear to be a real plain landscape.
Chris: Now, that's something I think that a lot people reading that who live in cities I mean, that would drive them crazy - that sort of job. Tell me how that experience moved you towards thinking about "creating" or "music" I think you had told a story about the rhythm of the tractor?
Butch: Oh Yea. Definitely. I took a harmonica out there
one time and figgered out that the key of G was that second gear
on this ol' tractor. Somewhat exaggerating the speed-up and slow-down,
you could play any tune you wanted to with the tractor.
Chris: When you're saying "IT," are you talking about everything in your environment?
Butch: I'm thinking about "anything that anybody
goes through." I think the rhythms of the city are amazing
things, and of different cities are amazing things. Sure, you
get programmed with that. In a city you get programmed with the
hustle, the quick changes, the sudden total reverses of sounds
and the spaces you're working through.
Chris: Yes! I've been there, and I know exactly what you're saying
Butch: It's amazing! And I think, "Well, that's gotta be there in our West Texas music." There's gotta be something in it.
Chris: There definitely is. And I think what people point out as the unique thing about West Texas is the number of people that have stuck with not just music but art or any sort of trying to manifest those waves that you're talking about in an exterior, artistic way There's a lot of people that have stuck with that, coming from a community that - naturally - prides itself on hard, manual labor, like working on a tractor. I think that's the phenomenon that a lot of people think is interesting. But if there is a commonality to this number of people in that area, back to Bob Wills and Buddy Holly - who had a definite rhythm that really changed the way a lot of people were listening to rhythms - And there definitely has been over the years now manifestly a success among a number of people in your group of Joe and Jimmie, etc., who people have found favor with that kind of sound. What do you think is common with the vibrations that are coming out of Lubbock, with all these different, unique artists? They're all people that you would say about, "Well, that's great, but what radio station would you play that on?" What would you think is the common factor in these vibrations of all these people from out there in Lubbock?
Chris: Right. We've all heard that.
Butch: I was talking to Townes VanZandt one time and he said - just
in the middle of some other long bunch of conversation - he just
kind of threw this in; he said, "All
you West Texas guys, you got that High Plains Air in your sound.
I can't tell whether it's exactly in your voices or in the general
sense of the music or what."
But he said, "There's just
something about that West Texas plains air, the Wind."
Chris: I guess the wind really is perhaps the only omnipresent environmental thing out there, other than the sky, and the fact that the weather is always gonna change.
Butch: And it's gotta have something to do also with the fact that we got a Hemisphere of Sky! Everywhere else, that hemisphere is broken up by trees and mountains and hills; even if they're distant, you don't get the full 180 degree frame of vision.
Chris: Well, is it that the lack of that environmental stimulation opens you up to some sort of "deeper" vibrations?
Butch: I don't think there's any lack of stimulation.
Everybody sees in 360 degrees, including behind their heads;
I mean, that's the maximum. I mean, "spherically;"
We can look down and up and around and behind. So there's an
equal amount of space surrounding everybody; whether it's crowded-in
space or expanded space doesn't make any difference; 'Cause we're
all looking at the universe from a single point - each person
is - whether you're crammed into a city or out on the Plains
or out on the Ocean. The Ocean, I guess, is the closest thing
to the flatness we have out there, but then you get these giant
waves and storms out there.
Chris: Yea. It always makes me feel like I'm under the ocean.
Butch: [Laughs] Yea, there's a little bit of apprehension
there. Well, and that's a fact; There's also the apprehension
of, "What's nearby." And in Lubbock, it's a little
stranger because there really isn't anything nearby. You gotta
go a long ways to get passed that horizon and on out there. And
on the ocean the apprehension is that anything can happen at
any time, the ocean could change. And in the mountains, you're
always going around a curve and being surprised by the newness
Chris: It's hard not to notice it; the way the shadows
Butch: Some time in high school, I think they were
expecting us to come up with some theory about, "What we
were gonna be in our lives;" What profession we wanted to
go into. The only thing that appealed to me at the time was "architect,"
as far as the idea of a profession. I didn't think of music as
a profession; I just thought music was music [Laughs] And still
I truly believe that if you really want to do something - like a great idea for a profession or a creative thing to follow, a passion that you want to follow in life - then what you need to study is go study something else. Because in doing so, you're gonna' be testing this new thing and measuring it up against whatever your passion is. It's like binocular vision, suddenly, You've got a whole 'nother set of ideas and ways and means of accomplishing a thing over here and a different feel, and that does correspond to your chosen one and gives you patterning and ideas of ways to expand and to build and construct.
So studying architecture was a perfect thing for how to build songs. Instead of building a building, you're simply building a song. You put together all these totally weird, unrelated things that make a coherent, useful, hopefully "beautiful" - whatever that may mean - whole. Like in songwriting, there's gotta' be melody, rhythm, and the basic elements of design: "balance," "emphasis," "surprise," "sequencing," and "color" - See? "Color" can take on both the literal meaning of color as well as the metaphorical meaning of color. So I learned an immense amount of things studying architecture that have served me in songwriting and in all other things. They're just two examples of what we're here for, which is discovering what the universe is up to and what our place in it might be.
Chris: I had seen in an article recently in connection
with y'all's current Flatlanders tour, one of y'all had said
something about how music was "just something we did while
trying to find out other things." Many of the artists who
have come out of Lubbock have manifested that in a lot of different
Butch: That whole Lubbock environment is a very surreal environment because nothing really looks like it belongs there, because - in effect - it doesn't. Everything out there is imported. Everything! Because there's not even any of that old buffalo grass left hardly, and most of the dirt probably blew in from the next state. So literally, EVERYTHING out there is an applied object. The only REAL things out there are the flatness and the sky.
And then, being raised in the Twentieth Century, the third basic element is The Road. I did a series of little Super-8 movies in cars across Texas, just doing single frame exposures so that when you speed it up and project it at a normal speed it looks like you're going faster. I did about seven or eight of 'em, and learned an amazing bunch of stuff about the whole idea of scale. The first one I did was "Thirty miles from Clarendon to Claude." It played back at a rough speed of about three hundred miles an hour, which is pretty smooth. Everything would still be pretty smooth; there'd be a few little jerky movements here and there. The next one I did was like from Clarendon to Lubbock, which is 145 miles, with and equivalent speed of about 1200 miles an hour, and THAT'S when some amazing things would start to happen; Like the telephone poles would start to wiggle along the side of the road. I'd wait until they were in the same place in the windshield each time before I would snap a picture, so it would make them stand still, then I could kinda control which direction they went. So suddenly the utility poles became an organism, a whole thing, rather than just a line of poles. Because they weren't all perfectly straight up and down, they became this vibrating thing. They would wiggle around and jump up over the crossroads and stuff like that. I began to see that things that were close to the car would disappear first as you got faster and faster; they would blur quicker. So the very fastest one I did, which was about 250 miles in about 29 seconds - which is roughly the speed of a satellite going over, 16,000 miles and hour or something like that - there's still an incredible amount of information that gets conveyed in that, but the things that remain are the earth, which is bouncing around with the hills and variations in elevation there's the Earth, the Sky, and the Road. The road is always out there in front of you pointing the way. That became a real powerful subconscious pattern for all of my cosmology of living in America; y'know, having cars and traveling down the road. There's the great metaphor of "The Road of Life" and all that. I think that's been a real powerful thing for all of us.
Chris: This "rocketing through America," picking up this information at rapid speed?
Butch: There's that. There's the real highways that we travel, what we learn and how we learn to identify landmarks and destinations and directions and get our bearings in that "map." And then there's our inner world, which takes on similar kinds of things. Sometimes we're going too fast to notice the details of our inner workings; sometimes we slow down and we think, "Ah Yes!" And we can see the very basic elements that make up our travels.
Chris: This is getting away from Lubbock, but last year, I had been wanting for a long time to visit and went out to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Have you ever been out there?
Butch: Oh Yea.
Chris: After reading as much as I could and finding out about anything that anybody has learned about the community of people that lived out there, it seems to me that a lot of what they were doing with their architecture was making an effort to know exactly where they were in both Time and Space. That seemed to be very important to those people - that they always know exactly where they were in the cycle of time and in relation to everything around them, whether they could see it over the hill or not. That knowledge of location in Space and Time seems to have been very important to that culture. That struck me on a sub-conscious level as something that I could relate to being from Lubbock. Because when you wake up in Lubbock one morning and the sun is coming up right down at the end of your East-West grid street, but later on in the Summer you realize that it's moved over, not coming up right down at the end of the street, and you have that grid template where that actually means something to you It's totally a human construct out there but it gives you an ability to relate yourself to the bigger circle outside those human constructs.
Butch: I think that's a built in desire, something that human beings are always gonna' be doing no matter what.
Chris: Seeking their place?
Butch: Seeking that thing that you're describing. It's seeking to understand what those motions are and make a general sense out them; find out what things are gonna' be consistent and what are the variations; and "Why are these variations?;" and "Why do these variations have a repeating pattern?"
Chris: Yes. "Where can you go with those variations?"
Butch: I drew a cartoon one time about the first caveman who was looking at the sunset and goes, "Dang! Look at it go down over here! But it came up over there!" It was like "the first discovery." Or "It 's coming up over here? I saw it go down over there last night?" Well, now you're all "Well, yea. Okay."
But slowly, slowly, slowly, we try to make more consistent sense. At first, you notice the immediate variations, and then as you get enough data you begin to say, "Oh! These things are repeating! The sun does come up every day!" This is one of the first things we notice, "that there is day and then there is night." Oh, okay. Great! Then after awhile you begin to notice that the angle of the sun has changed, our shadows get longer after midday. What's going on here? Then you get to watching the moon and the stars and those things. Pretty soon you develop a pattern It's like, "Oh! I get it! It's gonna' keep doing this pattern! That means I can predict when the moon is going to be eaten away. Yes! Now it's gonna' get bigger; now it's gonna' get smaller."
We're simply developing a more general idea of our universe. Buckminster Fuller called it, "Generalized Principles;" That's what we're seeking to understand. The great thing that human beings have is this mind that can ascertain these principles that are at work.
Chris: And it seems to be useful for us to do that? Do you think it's been useful for us to be gaining this knowledge faster and faster and faster in America today, like you said?
Butch: But the general principles are getting simpler
and simpler. Because that's what they are: The most simple things.
Chris: Yes. They're very functional words, too. They can move things around, and move ideas around, make a bridge stand up.
Butch: So every time we perceive a system at work, we notice that it's always in relationship to other systems. Like the system of the English language - We've noticed that we repeat the words and hopefully the meanings get conveyed back and forth; We can kinda verify a little bit of that. And then sometimes we're totally surprised that the other person had no clue whatsoever of what we've been talking to him about for four years. It's kind of a floating, changing kind of thing; it's slow to change, but it does change. The meanings change. When we were kids, there were different meanings for certain words. And there's new words entering the language all the time.
So everything is transforming, but we can begin to see the patterns that it's making and we can make some very amazing generalization about language, for example, which allows us to understand other languages. Obviously, all we're doing with language is trying to describe everything we can describe, which is all anybody else is trying to do, no matter what language they're using.
So there's all of that, and you get into songs
started out writing songs, I was describing exactly what I was
seeing settin' up there on the tractor:
Do you like the interviews you have been reading on virtualubbock?
Buy the book by author Christopher Oglesby
Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air:
Legends of West Texas Music
"As a whole, the interviews create a portrait not only of Lubbock's musicians and artists, but also of the musical community that has sustained them, including venues such as the legendary Cotton Club and the original Stubb's Barbecue. This kaleidoscopic portrait of the West Texas music scene gets to the heart of what it takes to create art in an isolated, often inhospitable environment. As Oglesby says, "Necessity is the mother of creation. Lubbock needed beauty, poetry, humor, and it needed to get up and shake its communal ass a bit or go mad from loneliness and boredom; so Lubbock created the amazing likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and Joe Ely." - University of Texas Press
2007 Chris Oglesby
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