virtualubbock - Essay from The Art of Paul Milosevich

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"Honky Tonk Visions"
by Elizabeth Skidmore Sasser
Why do music and art flourish on the flat cotton patch of the South Plains? Butch Hancock, described as one of the best songwriters in America in the folk-poet tradition, and who is also a photographer and former architecture student, replies with an answer that is as good as any. He explains that "all of the winds from the North Pole come across Kansas until they hit the Yellow House Canyon and then they spill out in every direction sending all of the ideas for music [and art] swirling around.' Paul Milosevich, in the 1970s, was in the right place at the right time to be blown about by the blue northers into a head-on collision with a remarkable group of young musicians, many of whom were also writers and artists.

    …One of the few night spots for dancing in Lubbock during the fifties and sixties was the Cotton Club. The club’s later days (in the late seventies) were associated with Tommy Hancock, billed (among many titles) as Tommy Hancock and the Supernatural Family Band. Hancock is referred to affectionately as "Lubbock's original hippie." The no-longer-existent dance hall was commemorated by Milosevich with a watercolor of the old sign left standing to blow in the wind above the bare ground.…


For decades, Lubbock, the self styled "Hub of the Plains" drew musicians to its center; these musicians then fanned out over the country watching the cotton gins disappear in their rearview mirrors. The early generation included such names as Plainview singer Jimmy Dean, the late Roy Orbison from Wink, producer Norman Petty from Clovis, Texas Tech architectural student John Deutchendorf -- better known as John Denver, Littlefield's Waylon Jennings, Mac Davis, and many others. The list comes full circle with the mention of that founding father of rock 'n roll, Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

    It is with the new generation, however, that this chapter is concerned. This goes back directly to the Flatlanders, a Lubbock band of the early 1970s that brought together Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tony Pearson, and Joe Ely. Other well -knowns include Ponti Bone, Davis McClarty, Jesse Taylor, who are, or were, members of Ely's band.
The roster continues with the Maines Brothers, the Nelsons, Jim Eppler, who was often painted and sketched by his friend Milosevich, Terry Allen, as well known as an artist as a musician, and Jo Harvey Allen, actress and writer.

The time was ripe not only for new sounds and rhythms but also for Milosevich’s West Texas realism and its empathy with the obvious and the overlooked. It carried the right message and created a link between the painter and the music people. Milosevich says he met Joe Ely "officially" at Fat Dawg's and

[I listened] to his music at the Cotton Club, Main Street Saloon; wherever he and his band played I was there with a sketch pad. I did Joe’s first album cover, a charcoal portrait. [I] began it about 8 in the morning, and he took it to California that afternoon. The original got lost out there, but we were fortunate to have taken good photos of it and made prints.…

Recalling another encounter, Milosevich says, "I met Terry Allen over the phone." The story goes like this: Terry Allen and Jo Harvey graduated from Monterey HighSchool in the Hub City and were married. They left the South Plains as quickly as possible, heading for the West Coast. 'Terry said in an interview, "I convinced myself when I was growing up that I hated Lubbock; I made it a scapegoat for everything that was wrong. . . You never see your hometown until you go away"
It was during a holiday visit to Lubbock that Allen received the call from Milosevich. The artist had heard that Allen was in the process of recording some new material and suggested to Terry that he might want to get in touch with Joe Ely, Lloyd Maines, and the Caldwell Recording Studio while he was in town. Later, Allen told Milosevich that he drove around the block a hundred times trying to make up his mind what to do. He didn’t want anything to do with Lubbock, but he had a hunch that he should follow up on Paul's suggestion. The result was the two-record set Lubbock: on Everything.

Terry Allen’s attitude towards Lubbock has changed in the last few years. He admits:

There is something about West Texas that gets stuck in the bones. That something is never felt stronger than when a native is several thousand miles from home. Maybe a chip was planted long before cowchips were outmoded by the computer. The tendency is for West Texans who develop a case of nostalgia to come loping home by air or pickup. You go back, exasperating as it may seem, because you want to go back and you know damn well there's nothing there except your memories and your friends and the flat land and the wind; that's enough. It makes you know who you are and stiffens your back for going away again.…

Terry Allen’s song "Amarillo Highway" leads south to Lubbock. Terry says that as long as it's possible to get out in a car on a starlit night, on a straight road with the radio turned up high, no one should ever need a psychiatrist.
Butch Hancock's poetry bites through the dryness and unbroken bowl of the sky to speak up for dirt roads and cattle guards, for trucks and tractors:

This old road is hard as pavement.
Tractors and trailers have sure packed it down,
There's deep ruts and big bumps
from here to the city.
This old road's tough but it sure gets around.

Trucks, pickups, cars, and the sun overhead are signs and symbols that set wheels in motion and circles spinning. One of Butch's songs says, "This old world spins like a minor miracle." Woody Guthrie's "Car Car Song" is one of the "modern lullabies" Ely has recently recorded for his daughter. It is no mystery why David Byrne chose to open and end the film True Stories with frames of a red convertible parked on a road that stretched from nowhere to nowhere. Both beginning and ending are left open ended to reach out to infinity: "Enlightenment doesn’t care how you get there!"

...Another [Paul] Milosevich painting, this time of a truck, was a pivotal point of an exhibition hosted in the fall of 1984 by The Museum, Texas Tech University. Future Akins, interim curator of art, was one of the forces behind the idea of bringing together artists and musicians in an unexpected three-dimensional, multimedia, foot stompin’ tribute to West Texas music.…
[Milosevich] painted a West Texas ranch hand sitting in the back of a pickup and strumming a guitar. Its title, Nothin'Else to Do, became the name given to the exhibition. During the ‘fifties and ‘sixties in Lubbock, "nothin’ else to do' meant hangin’ out at the Hi-de-Ho Drive-in, listenin’ to the radio, or gettin’ together with like-minded friends to do some pickin’ on the guitar or banjo, playin’ the harmonica or maybe the saw or washboard, perhaps formin’ a jug band.
An eloquent tribute to Milosevich's painting was written by Mikal Gilmore:

For me, one of the more memorable depictions of [the] push-pull between freedom and flight (the tension at the heart of so much West Texas music) was... a painting by Paul Milosevich of a young cowhand sitting on the rear end of a pickup ...
a look of intense yearning on his face as he stares over the illimitable Texas flatlands... dreaming a way out of his fateful indolence. Stationed just in front of the painting was an honest-to-goodness 1957 salmon pink Cadillac with charcoal blue upholstery ... Taken together, the painting and the car told a timeless, virtually mythic story of longing and attainment.

The Cadillac's pink fins pointed towards the heart of the exhibition, a tribute to C.B. Stubblefield of the famous Stubb’s BBQ, and another of Milosevich's friends. From 1969, when the small place on East Broadway was opened, it was a haven to almost every musician worth his beer, whether from Lubbock or just passing through. Stubb's Sunday Night Jam Sessions offered a platform, a bit cramped in size but big in soul, to those on their way up and those on their way down. A musician could always count on Stubb's words of encouragement offered with humor and hot ribs and cold beer. A few years ago, when Stubblefield was approached by the Internal Revenue Service, rumor has it, he responded to their charges of failure to file income tax returns with the severe logic, "I never made any money, why should I pay taxes?"

One of the legendary events that took place at Stubb's will challenge generations of folklorists. This is The Great East Broadway Onion Championship of 1978. It inspired a Tom T. Hall song by the same name which appeared in the album, Places Where I've Done Time. It was also the subject of a black-and-white painting by Milosevich and Jim Eppler. According to the painter, it all began one evening when Hall, Paul, Jim Eppler, and "a guy named Al" were sitting around drinking beer and talking. Hall had never met Stubb; to remedy this they drove out to East Broadway. When they got there, Joe Ely was shooting pool in the back room, and before anyone could say "eight ball," Tom T was in the game. "Smoke was hangin’ low and thick"; as play accelerated, it got hotter and hotter, and later and later. Joe's girl friend Sharon, who is now his wife, was tired and disgusted, so she pounced on the cue ball and carried it off. Refusing to be discouraged, Ely reached into a bag of Stubb's onions, took out a big one, and put it down on the felt to the disbelief of the kibitzers standing around roaring with laughter. He announced that he was going to play with a broom handle, which he did. Milosevich explains that this "cue stick" really sliced up and punctured an onion pretty badly, which meant that the onion had to be replaced from time to time. When the game ended, the table looked like a green hamburger covered with chopped onions before the catsup is added. Tears were streaming from the competitors' eyes as they battled on, until finally Tom T. was declared the winner of the championship title. Magnanimously, Joe Ely offered a rematch the following year, but Hall said, "No. There are a lot of good onion players out there, and they deserve a shot at the title, too' " In Milosevich's and Eppler's painting, Tom is grinning on the left. Ely is easily identifiable by the broomstick he holds. In the background, Jim Eppler and the painter, drinking beer, are back to back with profiles facing in opposite directions like the Roman god Janus.

In 1984, when Stubblefield locked the door of his barbeque parlor for the last time before moving to Austin, Future Akins and Clyde Jones, the University Museum director, were on hand to salvage as much of the history-making memorabilia as possible and to organize the mementoes into a three-dimensional display for the Nothin’ Else to Do exhibition. The tribute to Stubb occupied a display area where the booths and posters were arranged. Gazing down upon the old piano was a deer's head, glass eyes staring through dark glasses. Hanging on a wall, the famous sign announced "There will be no BAD talk or LOUD talk in this PLACE," and another placard carried the instructions "Equal time for all musicians. No more than 2 guitars at a time. Thank You."
Milosevich says, "Now on East Broadway, where Stubb's little joint was, there's just a bare concrete slab with a lot of good vibes still hovering above it. Recently, Stubb stood on that slab, looking around East Broadway, and then returned his gaze to the bare concrete. He laughed, "It's like looking at the bottom of a good cup of coffee!"
Nothin’ Else to Do helped pave the way for the Texas Tech Museum’s response to the state's sesquicentennial anniversary in 1986. Gary Edson, Museum director, and Future Akins, at that time curator of art, planned an unusual recognition of the musicians and artists who had tapped the vital forces of the South Plains. A review of the exhibition in Artspace Magazine describes that background:

In the last decade, chunks of Texas have been seized by metroplexamania and stamped by the boots of office cowboys working-out on mechanical bulls. Driving along West Texas roads, however, a nostalgia for simpler times is still stirred by songs drifting from jukeboxes in cafes and truck stops. The songs wail with memories of warm hearts, cold lips, 90 proof whiskey, and unrequited love. The neon glowing in the blackness, the music, and rubbin’ elbows inspired Honky Tonk Visions.

Honky Tonk Visions invited live performances by musicians and art inspired by the honky-tonk theme. Among those participating, Terry Allen built a three-dimensional environment that was a tribute to old friends and memories.
A white wooden bed was the focal point. All over the amorous piece of furniture there were words from favorite love songs inscribed in multicolored paints and markers by Lubbock musicians and high school buddies. The museum staff gasped one afternoon to see members of the Maines Brothers Band piling from their bus and running into the gallery so each could write a few lines. ... On the night that Honky Tonk Visions opened, the bed was suspended within a room enclosed by solid walls on two sides and a screen mesh defining the remaining side. Pierced by emotions, the bed was penetrated by knives, swords, hatchets, and machetes. . . Every ill-fated lover suffering from love, deserted by love, abandoned in the mournful words of country and western music, once slept here...

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