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: First I want to thank you, Lesley Sawyer, for inviting me out to your show at the Cactus Theater in Lubbock last weekend. That was a great band you had together. Let's start with you telling me about the band you played with that night.
Lesley: Brian McRae put the band together. I had asked Brian and Curtis [Peoples] to play, and of course I asked Ashley [Howell] to sing. I had already booked them, then Brian asked me if I wanted him to find the other players. Brian got Mike Bernal and Joel Smith. I already knew them from around but I had never played with them before. And of course, Richard Bowden; we booked him sort of on a whim because Richard is busy all the time and he lives in Austin. We weren't even sure if Richard would be able to come for the show but he did and of course he is always good. He always plays beautifully. Brian set up rehearsals for this show and we rehearsed pretty hard for this one. In the past, we did not always have time so a show might have been somewhat thrown together.
Chris: What is your history with the Cactus Theater? Have you done a number of shows where you are the headliner there with a band?
Lesley: I have been singing in several different shows like the Nostalgia Nights for Don Caldwell over the years. Most recently, Don has been booking me for my own showcase shows. Over the years, I have booked different players but I have always had Brian and Curtis and always had Ashley. You can never know how many tickets you are going to sell, so I always try to make it sort of a variety show where everyone gets to perform their own original music. Some people like that and some don't; we actually did get a few complaints. I think they usually go pretty well.
Chris: Ashley Howell was the one person on that stage I am least familiar with; please tell me about your history with Ashley.
Lesley: I met Ashley ten years -or so- ago when she was a student at South Plains College. Jay Lemon had booked her and I in the studio to do back up vocals; that was the first time I ever met Ashley. I thought, wow, she has a really great voice. And I knew she was on crutches but I never even realized while we were recording that she does not have any legs or an arm. That is how amazing she is; you don't even notice it when you first meet her. It's not like you are looking for it. Over the years, we knew a lot of the same people and would run into each other on occasion. We were both into holistic herbals and vitamins and worked together at Market Street for awhile but that was really more of a hobby at that time. I started to invite her to sing at some of my gigs.
Chris: Now I would like to find out more about you and how you got to Lubbock, and how you started meeting these people. I have heard you mention on occasion about growing up near the Indian reservation. Please tell me about your family background, your heritage, and how you grew up, how you came to be interested in music, and how you got to Lubbock eventually. It's okay if it's a long story.
Lesley: My dad is from Earth; he is originally from
Earth, Texas, and that is where he was raised. My mother grew
up in Quemado, New Mexico in Catron County. She is Indian, mostly
Indian; I think there is a little bit of Spanish in there, too.
Anyway, they met, got together and I was born in Muleshoe, Texas.
We all moved to Quemado, New Mexico when I was about two years
old to be close to my mom's family. Dad worked for the Forest
Service in law enforcement. I have ten brothers and sisters,
including halves and steps. I am the youngest of my mom's kids
and the oldest of my dad's.
Chris: At this point, was music just a fun pastime for you? Did you have some idea that you wanted to be a professional musician or were you still just interested in psychology?
Lesley: I wanted to be a professional. I have always thought that I would keep working at it. But it looks like the music business is all about networking and chance in so many aspects. There are some people that eat, sleep, and breathe music; they go to sleep and wake up thinking about music. I am not like that. I mean, music will be on my mind but I am not obsessive about it in that way. I wish I could make a profession out of music, and I would be happy if I could. But I am not going to live and die for music. To me, it can really become an empty existence. Cary Swinney and I have had this conversation before: If you only do one thing all the time, your perspective never changes.
Chris: Okay, how did you get back to Lubbock from Oregon, to the place where you are now?
Lesley: I moved back and forth between Oregon and Texas, basically just trying to figure out where I would be happy. I also went through a kind of ugly divorce in Oregon. I wanted to be near my grandparents. I got a nanny job in Lubbock but I did not intentionally come back to do music. It was more sort of a transitional recovery period. I had every intention of being here for a little while and then go back to Portland. It has not turned out that way. Some of my family is out there and I would love to be closer to family. My grandparents have passed away.
Chris: What are you doing now that is keeping you in Lubbock?
Lesley: I am finishing my Bachelors Degree in social work at LCU [Lubbock Christian University]. They have a really good program in social work and criminal justice. I figure I need to finish my education. I like school and I like studying. I hate how much it costs. But it keeps me busy. I have been trying to do the music for so long that I became broke. It was like beating a dead horse until you are so in debt that you actually have to get a real job.
Chris: For how many years, would you say, have you been pursuing music as your main vocation?
Lesley: At least fifteen years or longer. I have always had a day job. I have tried to do music exclusively but it never works out that way. I have never been able to quit my day job.
Chris: So if someone from MCA or Sony offered you a contract, how would you react to that? I mean, what are you looking for when it comes to success in music?
Lesley: Nowadays, it means quality work. I would always want to be able to pick out who I work with, and that would definitely be Brian and Alan [Crossland]. Then I could be happy with what I was creating.
Chris: So you would be happy if someone threw a lot of money at you as long as you got to do whatever you want? Would that be the ultimate success: Someone saying to you, I want to give you a blank check for you to make the most kickass album you can make without all the hassle?
Lesley: Yes. In a perfect world, that would be perfect.
Chris: You frequently credit many of the men in your life who have helped your career. Tell me about your work relationships.
Lesley: Over the years I was moving back and forth
and when I came back to Lubbock I was working at the Cactus Theater with Kenny
Maines. Oh, that reminds me. On a side note, when
I was twenty-one years old when I first came to Lubbock, I actually
recorded with the Maines Brothers Band.
I sang a version of their song "Break the Fall," and
all the Maines Brothers played on that record. That gave me the
bug and made me really love recording. I tell everyone now that
it was all downhill from there. I thought I had my life set up
and then I caught the music bug. Up until then, I had been recording
jingles and getting paid pretty well for just thirty minutes
of work. I was the Feist Girl. I was also the "Lubbock:
it's-for-you-it's-for-me" Girl. I was recording at Broadway
Studios for Craig Alderson,
Moyers was the studio engineer. That's how I got to know
the Maines Brothers. Many years later, I became friends with
Lloyd and Kenny and Andy Wilkinson, working on a whole different
type of music based on cowboy poetry and storytelling. Before
I started working with them, I was pretty disgusted with the
whole music scene. Music on the radio seemed like it was bad
in those days, and everybody seemed to have such unhealthy egos.
I was wanting to get out of the music business. Then I met Andy
and started working with Lloyd and Kenny and also Donnie Allison. That was about the time
I started actually working with Alan Crossland.
Chris: Yes, certainly. "Shop locally."
Lesley: Yes, that is what I meant to say; "Shop locally." A lot of people get frustrated with me because I may insist on using local talent too much, because there is a lot of really good talent out there to take advantage of. But I have to go with my gut, I guess.
Chris: Do you have the luxury of feeling spoiled that way in Lubbock? I mean, do you find that you don't have to go very far to find top quality musicians to work with?
Lesley: Yes. I think I would be crazy not to utilize this great local talent. We have such a good working relationship among most of the musicians around here; sort of that "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" type of thing but even more respectful than that. It's more like we admire each other and we work hard for each other. It's not just a gig or a job all the time; it's more like, "Hey, I really want to make this sound good for you." If you have a good friend who is very talented and who plays very well, who offers their time, you know they are really going to put their heart into it. That is the way I feel about it.
Chris: Do you feel that experience is unique to west Texas for you? Or do you feel that you would have that same experience back on the west coast?
Lesley: I am sure people have those types of communities
everywhere, whether it be the west coast or anywhere else. But
I think we do have a pretty special circle of people here in
Lubbock. Doug Smith one time said, we all circle the wagons when
a project starts up and we all jump into it together. It is really
a nice feeling. I have never experienced that myself anywhere
Chris: Tell me some more about Clif Magness, how you met him, and what your work relationship has been with him. He is originally from Lubbock, isn't that right?
Lesley: Yes. I met Clif in 1993 when I was in a jazzy
kind of horn band, and we played for Clif's high school class
reunion here in town. He still had family here in Lubbock. He
came up to me and started talking about the music. He looked
real L.A. and I thought he was just hitting on me when he was
telling me about how he really is a big producer and all this.
I blew him off and was almost kind of rude to him. He kept talking
to me and saying, "Really, I swear I'm a producer. You can
ask anybody." We did know a lot of the same people, such
as Don Caldwell, so I did my homework and I was blown away. I
found out that he actually did what he said he did: he is a producer
who has written many hit songs and worked with all these great
artists. He had written some songs which he wanted me to record.
When I found out he was legit, I called and apologized to him.
He thought it was funny and said everything was cool so we kept
in touch. He came to Lubbock to see his grandmother, and we booked
some time at Broadway Studios. I recorded two of Clif's songs.
They were more pop songs. They weren't big hits or anything.
One was called "I Know I Want Your Love" and the other
one he wrote with Burt Bacharach's wife called "Better Tell
My Heart." I flew out to L.A. later that year and we recorded
some more tunes. He has a studio built in his house, and when
I went out there I still did not understand that he is sort of
a bigwig until I walked into his studio and he had all these
gold records all over the wall, with Quincy Jones, Celine Dion,
Barbra Streisand; of course, Barbra Streisand was my idol at
one point in time. Then I started getting really nervous when
I realized that Clif Magness was not just messing around.
Chris: I can understand that you thought you were doing something for love and not for money.
Lesley: I think so. But it backfired, oh my god! But Clif and I are still friends and I know that if something were to come up where he could help me, I know he will. But right now he knows that I still am uncomfortable with the egomaniacal aspect of the music business and what it can turn us into. And now I am so old. One producer in California told me that if I couldn't make the little boys' dicks hard then I couldn't make it in the music business. I told Clif that and he got really mad. But that's my California story.
Chris: We have kind of skirted around this issue so far, but I wonder if you would like to talk about your spiritual or religious background and how that relates to your music? Terry Allen and Cary Swinney are two people who might not be considered very religious themselves but as songwriters they tend to touch on religious issues a lot. Earlier we were talking about your album "Dirt" and you mentioned how the lyrics of those songs are very important to you. And I like it that you are shopping locally for your songwriters; those two Lubbock-related artists are very dominant on that record. But Terry Allen and Cary Swinney are also probably two of the more controversial lyric writers among those who have come from Lubbock. It was interesting to sit in the audience with many of the grey-haired regular clientele of the Cactus Theater and listening to songs like Terry Allen's "The Doll."
Lesley: A lot of the times, to me, if the song doesn't
have any meaning, any weight, then it is a waste of my time.
I do like to perform fun, light-hearted songs some times and
that is all fine. That's why I throw in songs like "Brand
New Key" to kind of break up the heaviness. That said, first
of all, Cary Swinney and Terry Allen are two of the nicest guys
you are ever gonna meet. And they are smart; I really enjoy talking
Chris: One thing that impresses me with Cary Swinney and his grasp on reality is that he will tell you how things really are, and then almost always punctuates it with saying "but then again what do I know? I'm probably wrong." Have you ever noticed that?
Lesley: Exactly. Cary is humble. He doesn't fight with people. As soon as he's finished with his bit he is ready to laugh and have a good time. Recently I was talking to a friend of mine about him, and my friend said he loves Cary Swinney but that Cary runs a lot of the crowd off with his controversial comments. And I told him that the people who walk out in the middle of one of Cary Swinney's songs are not listening to what he is really trying to say or they don't understand it. Like the song "Fat Girl in an Ice Cream Store;" Cary got to where he couldn't perform that song any more because people were getting mad at him for making fun of fat girls. But if you listen to the words, you see that it is a very sad song and it is very true. So I thought maybe I should record it because if it comes from a girl, then maybe people will actually listen to it and they will understand that you are not picking on anybody well, except for the skinny girls maybe.
Chris: I would like to talk some more about Kenny Maines, because I know there was a big part of your career when you were performing a combo with Kenny. The first several times I saw you perform, it was you and Kenny Maines together on stage. We've mentioned how you met and recorded with the Maines Brothers but surely Kenny deserves a little bit more credit in relation to your career than we have given him yet. So please tell me about your professional relationship with Kenny Maines.
Lesley: Kenny and I started working together mostly through Andy Wilkinson's "A Cowboy's Gift" and performances at the Cactus Theater. Around Christmas time one year, Kenny had several little gigs at private parties so he booked me and his son Brian Maines to perform with him. That's how we started playing together as a duo, and sometimes a trio whenever Brian could come along. People like that show so we just kept doing it and booked a lot of gigs. Then I started getting back into school and Kenny wanted to go back and play Las Vegas; and, well, I hate Vegas. It's all that ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, I can't handle it. Maybe I'm a bit autistic but there is no way in hell I could spend a week in Vegas. We did play together for some time, and Kenny helped me a lot with my harmonies, singing with him and his son Brian. I have always been pretty good at harmony and like it but Kenny has such a serious work ethic and there was such constant repetition working on those harmonies, especially bluegrass harmonies because those were hard for me at first. Kenny is very structured in his approach to music, which was good for me. That is compared to working with Brian McRae who is real laid back and more fluid. I play more guitar when I am performing with Brian McRae because I know if I screw up then Brian doesn't try to fix it; he makes me fix it and that is good for me, too. Kenny has always been like a big brother to me. I think sometimes we fight like brother and sister, too, but they are both a lot of fun for me to play with.
Chris: Tell me some more about working with Brian McRae. I have been seeing comments lately about how Brian McRae may be the best kept secret in Lubbock. I think that may have a certain amount to do with the fact that Brian is so cool that it is hard to get a lot of words out of him. Can you talk for Brian a bit and tell us about how cool he is?
Lesley: Yes, Brain McRae is one of Lubbock's best kept secrets. Brian is very humble. A lot of people think he is arrogant because he doesn't talk to them. Brian told me recently that he feels like he gets a bad rap because he doesn't like to prattle and small-talk. Well, I hate that, too. I understand what he is saying. So people seem to automatically label him as conceited or some kind of asshole because he doesn't engage in small-talk. I told Brian, that is their problem, not yours. That said, Brian McRae is a great player and he has a great mind, especially musically. There are so many songs that I have written and I would try to get someone else to help me and they don't understand. But as soon as I talked with Brian about them I finished so may of them, because he understands. Like I will say, I want this to sound like smoke or make it sound like water. And he will say, okay I can do that.
Chris: It seems like Brian can play just about any instrument and is an amazing musician. But also he does have a producer's mind. I know that Brian co-produces much of the work going on over at Alan Crossland's studio. Can you comment on working with Brian and Alan as producers?
Lesley: When Brian is leading something he is in his element. He loves to be the leader. Not because he thinks he is the chief or the boss but he feels like that is his gift and what he is good at. And Brian is very good at it, if people will let him. What some people in the past may have taken for arrogance is really just confidence and ability. Especially male performers - and I don't mean to sound sexist; there are plenty of little divas running around, too - they may get ticked off at Brian because he is not going to brown-nose anybody. If someone is out of tune, Brian is going to tell them, that kind of stuff. Alan is the same way with criticism but they are both diplomatic about it. If they criticize something I am doing, it will be in a way that I can handle it. I will weigh what they have to say, then I might say, well maybe you are right but I am going to do it my way anyway. At that point, Alan and Brian will just say okay. Then it will either be my funeral or later on they will admit that it did work out alright. Brian and Alan don't want to put their names on something that is bad. If they can fix it, then they want to fix it, of course. On the other hand, because we are friends they want me to do the best I can do. If I picked a song or put together an arrangement that is really not going to work, then Brian will tell me and he'll fix it. What both Brain and Alan will do is keep some of my idea but they make it better. And I have no problem with that; in fact, I welcome it.
Chris: Now you have this one album "Dirt" which everyone encouraged you to make and you worked with all these great guys to produce. On a scale of one to ten, how do you feel about it in terms of personal satisfaction? Is this the record you wanted to make, the best you could possibly imagine?
Lesley: Probably I would give it a seven or an eight. Because it was my first project, I really didn't know what I was doing. I love the project; I love what we did and think everybody did a great job. But there are issues like I should have sung this song in another key, things like that, which I might do differently. I would like to do another album someday but we have to try to sell this one first. Although, it hasn't been too bad because I am not even touring and I have been selling them fairly well.
Chris: Do you know if it is being played on the radio anywhere?
Lesley: I do not know. Don Caldwell once told me my taste was way too obscure for the common folk, so most likely I wasn't going very far. I take that as helpful and not as telling me that I suck; he was just saying that I might need to branch out. I guess my point might be is that I do not know if anyone will ever play my music on the radio. It is not pop music. Now, some of the stuff we have been working on lately might have some potential radio play in the future because it's a little bit more upbeat.
Chris: Okay, what is the future for Lesley Sawyer?
Lesley: In a perfect world I have been teaching school during the year and I really like it and I like the kids, so it would be nice if I could tour in the summer time and then teach these kids during the school year. But the future is so random and unpredictable these days. I don't like to think too much any more about what music will or will not do for me. I know that frustrates Brian and Alan because they think this last show was the best show I have had and that things will only get better from here. But my apprehension now is that I am older. I am not twenty-something anymore and that is what the market requires: twenty-year old hotties with boob jobs. Well, that is not going to happen with me. I know that it is all marketing as much as anything else. As far as making quality music with my friends and having a good time, I would love to continue doing that. I would love to do that every day, if I could. But you do have to be a realist. Especially after all these years of trying and it doesn't seem to work, then God is trying to tell you something, right?
Chris: Briefly tell me about how you came to teaching and what you do?
Lesley: I have always taken care of kids. I have been a nanny and I have been a coach. And I've always volunteered for social work. Carrie Crossland, Alan's wife, teaches special needs children in Slaton, and she needed a teacher's aide and knew I needed a better job while I was in school, as well as I am in debt up to my eyeballs with all this music stuff. She recommended me for a job working with special needs kids and I got it and I love it.
Chris: Is there anything else which I did not know to ask you but that you would like to say about being a musician in west Texas? This is your last chance to tell me something that you wish I might have asked you.
I love the music I am doing today and the musicians I am working
with now. I have enjoyed it the past; I don't want to pooh-pooh
any of my experiences in the past. I have learned a lot and grown
a lot. I wish all of us could become successful in everything
at this age now, because hopefully we work better now. That being
said, I love everything I am doing now in my life. When you asked
before what I want for the future I would love to do music full-time
and then I could volunteer doing the rest of what I like. If
that doesn't work out, I hope we can continue what we are doing
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