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Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air: Legends of West Texas Music
by Christopher Oglesby
Published by the University of Texas Press:
"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."

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"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."
- William Kerns, Lubbock Avalanche Journal

by Christopher Oglesby
March, 2006

I returned home from vacationing in San Francisco with my wife to find an e-mail from Jay Boy Adams: "Jesse Taylor passed away last evening. I know no details but will pass them on when I get them." This sad news did not come as a big surprise. Jesse "Guitar" Taylor had been longsuffering from that old-rock-n-rollers' disease hepatitis C; his liver was damaged from years of living the high life on the road. He had already given up all public appearances and had been on hospice watch. Jesse Taylor would be missed by all lovers of Texas roadhouse rock-n-roll. His guitar prowess had wowed the likes of Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Strummer of the Clash, and inspired the following generation of Texas guitar slingers including Charlie Sexton, Ian Moore, David Holt, and David Grissom.

The son of a single mother by an itinerant country-western musician, Jesse had grown up in Lubbock, Texas, wild and free. He associated with motorcycle gangsters, bootleggers, artists, and hoboes, as well as rock-n-roll musicians, the ultimate West Texas outlaws. He hitchhiked and hopped freight trains across the southwest, a habit he never outgrew. Jesse once hopped a train on the MoPac line running through downtown Austin during the break of a live performance, leaving the audience bewildered, and didn't get off until the train reached San Antonio.
Even in his dwindling last days, Jesse Taylor had a fighter's physique with huge tattooed biceps. He wore his hair slicked back and a goatee beard. Jesse Taylor had been a Golden Gloves boxing champion and looked like the kind of ornery redneck one would avoid in truck stops and honkytonks anywhere in the American southwest. However, his fearsome appearance and wild ways belied his pure heart. All who knew Jesse Taylor knew his childlike humility, generosity, and his capacity for love. It is not exaggeration to say that Jesse Taylor was perhaps the kindest man many of his friends have ever known. Many people are surprised to learn he was a voracious reader and was well-versed in the works of Herman Hesse, Henry Miller, and esoteric philosophy. When his health finally forced him to lay down his guitar that last year of his life, he picked up a brush and proved he was a talented painter.

Jay Boy once told me that, when he first moved to Lubbock in the early 70s, he asked a friend named Tom, "Who's the best guitar player in town?" Tom said without question it was Jesse Taylor and offered to take Jay Boy to meet him. They arrived at a vacant lot set up as a makeshift boxing ring, with rubber hoses for ropes and a bare 60 watt bulb hanging from an extension cord strung overhead. In the ring were two men absolutely beating the shit out of each other. Confused by the scene, Jay asked, "Where's this Jesse fella?" Tom pointed to the monster in the ring who was doing the most beating and said, "That's Jesse Taylor!" Jesse dominated; the other fighter was a bloody mess as the fight ended. Jay Boy, who rightly considered himself quite a picker, thought, "God almighty! Is this what I've got to look forward to, playing music in Lubbock? I hope when he finds out I'm a guitar player, he's not gonna beat the shit out of me." Jesse climbed out of the ring, went to the cooler and popped open a beer, and said in a soft-spoken voice, "Hi Tom. How're you doing?" His pleasant demeanor rivaled a Baptist preacher at a southern Sunday social. Tom introduced Jay Boy to Jesse as another guitar man and this scary looking hoodlum greeted Jay Boy with the friendliness and openness for which he was so well known. They remained good friends for over thirty years.

The e-mails from Jesse's friends and extended spiritual family started pouring in from around the world, sharing information and memories. News of the memorial services came from Conni Hancock. There would be a viewing, with no service, here in Austin on Thursday night; the funeral service and burial would be back home in Lubbock on Saturday afternoon, likely with musical performances by friends.
Now, I am forty years old and I had never before seen a dead body. Can you believe that? For some lucky reason, I had lived into midlife without knowing many people who had passed away, and the ones who had died all did so in manners not conducive to an open casket. My mother had suffered from multiple sclerosis and donated her body to the Texas Tech University Medical School; my friend Todd had jumped off a twenty-something story building in Malaysia leaving little to view; my grandparents all had died in times and places which prevented me from attending the services. I was amazed at my ignorance regarding mourning rituals. So on Thursday night, I left my home in south Austin in order to pay my respects along with many others who had been taken to high heaven on the electric strings of Jesse Taylor's custom black Newman guitar.
Richard Bowden and Colin Gilmore were the first familiar faces I saw when I arrived at Walden-Cook Funeral Home on North Lamar. I was nervous and had no idea what I was doing. Where is the body? Is there a line somewhere? Do I need to sign in? I asked Richard if I could stick with them. "I've never been to one of these things. What do I do?" Richard replied, "I don't know either. Sure, follow us."
Fiddler Richard Bowden had been friends with Jesse since his days in Lubbock playing with Lloyd Maines in the Maines Brothers Band and Terry Allen's Panhandle Mystery Band. Colin Gilmore had been practically raised by Jesse Taylor's mother, Martha Fain. Colin's dad, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, had been friends with Jesse since they were young trouble-makers in Lubbock and Ms. Fain would shelter them from the cops. Fatherhood didn't immediately straighten out Jimmie Dale's wild-hairs so Colin spent most of his childhood years under the care of Jesse Taylor's mother, while his dad and Jesse were out on the town creating the legend the Flatlanders, Lubbock's most renowned group of musicians since Buddy Holly and the Crickets. "I've lost my first best friend," Colin said to me in shock. I had the feeling that many people that evening felt they had lost their best friend. I mean, I could actually feel the power of that love surrounding us; it was heavy and almost made it hard to breath.
As we made our way through the crowded funeral home, I saw many of Austin's music royalty, come to pay respects to the guitar king of a town filled with kings. Ray Bensen was impossible to miss, towering over everyone in his boots and cowboy hat; David Holt in shades; Charlene Hancock, matriarch of the Supernatural Family Band, who gave Jesse his first professional job playing electric guitar. John X Reed, a fellow west Texan and perhaps one of the few who could claim to be Jesse Taylor's guitar peer, was admiring a board of photos and memorabilia which was being put together in front of our eyes, as people arrived with additions to the board.

Then I noticed another room in the back of the funeral home. Conni Hancock, Charlene's daughter and leader of south Austin's Texana Dames, was standing host alongside Clifford Antone, who looked absolutely regal in his black blues suit. I could see the guest book in front of Conni and Clifford, and I knew I wanted to sign it. Maybe this was vanity; there were going to be a lot of famous names in that book. Regardless, I wanted to memorialize that I was part of this powerful event. As I entered the room, I felt the energy amped up even more. It was as if Jesse's spirit filled that room as large as the sound of his guitar in a Texas saloon; it was that loud. When I say loud, I don't mean audible, but high-volume vibrations filled the room just as thick, nonetheless. I came close to hyperventilating.

Now, as I turned to sign the book, I realized that Conni and Clifford were standing watch over the body. There to my right was the open coffin, surrounded by flowers. Standing in front of the coffin was Jesse's Newman guitar, the one with red dice for the volume and tone dials and dice inlays on the fret board. That guitar had been custom made in 1981 to fit Jesse's hands, and it was rush delivered to him backstage just before the Ely Band was to open a show for the Rolling Stones. Newman was a friend of Jesse's and felt it important that he have it for that gig. In the excitement of receiving the new instrument, goofing around backstage, it turns out that Keith Richards was actually the first person to play that guitar.
A young musician was kneeling in prayer near the guitar and others were passing by to view the body. I had never seen a dead body before, and this one had belonged to one of the most vibrant people I've ever known. My nerves began to get the better of me. I approached Conni Hancock. "I've never been to one of these things; what do I do?" Conni's angelic eyes were filled with sympathy. She put her arm around me and said, "Sweetie, just stand here next to me until the spirit moves you to do something else." And then she asked me, "Are you skeered?" No, I wasn't scared; it seems to me that a dead body is the last thing anybody should be afraid of. I was simply stymied and confused. My feet wouldn't move any closer to the open casket just yet.
As Conni's attention turned to greeting other visitors, the spirit did move me. With my palms together at my heart, I stepped forward. What I saw reminded me of one of the wax statues I had seen in the window at the San Francisco Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf. It looked like a perfect replica of Jesse "Guitar" Taylor asleep, which is a sight very few people ever beheld and therefore odd enough. Jesse did not spend a great deal of his life sleeping. Also, his skin didn't look the right color, but I didn't know if that was the typical color of a lifeless embalmed face or if it was a result of Jesse's liver problems. The body did look peaceful and inert, and this wasn't right. Where did all of that unbridled energy go?
I had done what I came to do; I had paid my respects and participated in one of life's common rituals which I previously had managed to avoid. As I passed Clifford Antone on my way out of the viewing room, I put my hand on Clifford's shoulder and said simply, "Thank you." Clifford turned his saintly face to me, smiled and silently shook my hand, as if to say, "Nothing to thank me for, but peace to you brother." It was perfect.

The vestibule was more crowded now. Many folks were admiring Jesse's paintings which were displayed on easels. I began to swoon. I had to sit down. What had overcome me? I hadn't been shocked at seeing the corpse, but I felt that I might faint. I sat down away from the chattering crowd, on a comfortable couch near the entrance to the funeral home. As I caught my breath and was contemplating the scene, a large white-haired man took a seat nearby. "You must be a picker, too," he said to me, mistaking my long hair and leather jacket for band insignia. I assured him that I was not a musician; I play bass guitar around the house but would never pass an audition for anyone's band. No, I told him, I'm a writer. I was completing the final edits on my book about musicians from Lubbock. Jesse had been one of the first artists featured in the book who took an interest and had been an enthusiastic supporter. "It's about time somebody writes this book," Jesse had told me. "No one seems to recognize what all us musicians from Lubbock have accomplished." With publication only weeks away, I was devastated that Jesse had not lived to see the final product.
The man introduced himself as Larry Telford, a keyboardist turned music producer, owner of Telford Digital recording studio in Austin. "A book on Lubbock musicians? That ought to be interesting. You know, probably the greatest gig I ever played was in Lubbock, playing with Jesse and the Joe Ely Band at a New Year's Eve party. That was the most amazing performance I've ever been involved in." This piqued my interest. When was that, I asked? "Oh, it would have been about more than twenty years ago now. It was in a building as big as a warehouse with a huge dance floor."
"I was at that show!" I exclaimed. It was New Year's Eve '84-'85. The party was in the building which had formerly housed the legendary dance club Coldwater Country. In the mid-80s that property went through several owners and name changes and the club was called Cowboys that year; later it would be known as the Midnight Rodeo. The building no longer stands but at the time it had the biggest, best dance floor in Lubbock, with a pair of mirrored boots spinning over the center. I told Larry, "I've always felt like that may have been the coolest New Year party ever, the most fun place on earth that night. But I was a freshman at Texas Tech at the time, just turned legal; the drinking age was nineteen. I may have discounted that as just the excitement of a teenager on his first big night on the town. So it's fascinating to me that someone from the other end, who was up on stage, felt the same way about that show."
Larry nodded knowingly. "It was, man. It was the coolest place on earth that night. That show was amazing. Bobby Keys was playing with us -- you know, he was the saxophone player for the Rolling Stones -- and Lloyd Maines playing alongside Jesse; that show was incredible. I'll never forget it because I had to drive to Joplin immediately after the show and spent the entire drive trying to figure out how that New Year's Eve seemed to be the greatest night ever. It was amazing."
I felt vindicated that my memory of that awesome night was more than just childish naïveté. Incidents like that are exactly why I was writing a book about the amazing paradox which is Lubbock music.

The funeral home was filling with more mourners. I had done all I knew to do there, so it was time for me to leave. On my way out, I stopped to greet Charlene Hancock. "Please tell Conni thanks for me. She helped me," I said. "This was my first time to see a dead body, and I swooned." Charlene held me close and looked deep into my eyes. She was listening so I shared what occurred to me, "I think I was overwhelmed by all the love these people have for Jesse. Can't you feel it all around? I almost lost my breath."
Charlene nodded and smiled wisely. "You see now that the body is really just a shell, like they say." She went on, "I remember when my daddy passed. He was old and we knew he would go soon, so we had been checking on him every hour or so. When my sister came out of his room and told us he had passed, I went in to see and, sure enough, I could see that he was not in his body anymore. But then I could feel him completely filling the room. He had passed out of his body but his energy surrounded me stronger then ever. That energy is what you're feeling. It is real. How could all that energy just go away?"
Charlene asked if I was going to Lubbock for the funeral service. I told her I was thinking about it; my wife and I couldn't leave until Saturday morning so we'd have to get up real early Saturday to make it to Lubbock for the service. "I hope we see you there," Charlene said. "It will be worth it."

When I got home, I called Cary Swinney up in Lubbock to tell him we were thinking about coming for the funeral. I got his machine but left a message. Soon, Cary returned my call. "You got wind down there?" he said. I wasn't sure what he meant; did I get wind of Jesse's death? Cary replied, "I mean, it's windy as hell up here. You know how Lubbock gets in March. You can hardly see across the street with all the dust blowing. The funeral is going to be at the Resthaven chapel and that place is not very big. I imagine there'll be too many people there to fit. If it spills out into the cemetery, this blowing dust could make things ugly." Like many folks in Lubbock, Cary is obsessed with weather.
However, this was a funeral I didn't want to miss. I had missed Stubb's funeral and always regretted it. Jesse Taylor played guitar and sang with Joe Ely and Terry Allen at that one. Who knows who all might show up? Would Billie Joe Shaver make it? Or gubernatorial candidate Kinky Freidman? There were going to be a lot of interesting people at this funeral, and Cary agreed that it could turn into a big party. Most of Lubbock's all-time champion partiers would be in attendance from all corners of the globe, and no one ever had more fun than Jesse Taylor did. His life would be remembered properly, that is for sure. Cary said that his girlfriend was out of town so we were welcome to stay at his place after the festivities; I said we probably would do that.
Then I told Cary how I just had my first look at a dead body. "Hell, I've seen dozens of dead bodies," he replied. "How could you live half your life in Lubbock and never view an open casket?" He then proceeded to tell me about his first open casket experience.
Cary Swinney was five years old and living in O'Donnell. The service was at the Church of Christ for his great aunt Elsie, who had made popcorn balls for him just the week before. His mom lifted him up, like to get a drink of water, and held him not twelve inches away from her deceased aunt's face. Cary remembers asking his mother, "What happens to her now?" Right there in church, she replied, "I don't know. I think she turns to dirt." Cary has always appreciated her honesty in simply admitting she didn't know all the answers.

My wife and I managed to wake up in time to get out the door by five o'clock Saturday morning. We can get from our place in south Austin to Loop 289 in Lubbock in five and half hours, if we only stop for gas in Winters, between Coleman and Sweetwater. The funeral was at one o'clock that afternoon, so we would have time to shower, change clothes, and get some coffee and a taco on the way to the cemetery.
Central Texas was in a drought so the heavy fog that morning was unexpected. We had just turned north on Highway 71 towards Brady, where the road becomes two lanes again. Surrounded by the morning haze, in the light of the rising sun we saw three deer standing in the middle of the road. Travel back and forth from Austin to Lubbock for over twenty years and the odds are this is gonna happen eventually. Nothing I could do but decelerate without losing control and honk. Why is it that deer and squirrels always run toward your car when you honk? Momma deer pretty much exploded as she hit my driver's side headlight. I went off the road for awhile but was able to control the vehicle and get back on the asphalt. The car was running fine, but we stopped to check the damage. The headlights were all gone. It didn't look like much serious damage but we couldn't drive through numerous Texas counties with no headlights and expect to go unstopped. It had just turned 6:00 a.m. and I couldn't help but feel some guilt as we turned around to limp back to Austin; Jesse Taylor wouldn't have let busted headlights stop him from going anywhere.

We made it back to Austin before 8:00 a.m. Around ten o'clock I called Cary Swinney since he was the only one expecting us. I explained what happened, why we wouldn't be able to make it, and asked would he please relay my regrets to the crowd that the forces of nature had conspired against me.
Swinney said he'd pass along our regards. As we said our goodbyes, he added, "Since you are up so early and your plans have fallen through, y'all ought to take advantage of the day and do something you've never done before." That was good positive thinking, I agreed, but I confessed we were already exhausted from the excitement and that we'd probably just hang around the house and rest.

Later, as I finished my coffee, I laughed out loud and noted to my wife, "Cary said we should do something we have never done before this weekend. Hell, I've already done two things I've never done before in my life: look at a dead body and kill a deer."

Then I did something I had done hundreds of times before; I cranked up the volume on Jesse Taylor's smokin' solo on "Long Snake Moan" from Joe Ely's 1980 album Live Shots.

go to Jesse Taylor memorial page

Do you like what you just read?
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

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