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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
you like what you just read?
author Christopher Oglesby
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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