Nick Travis

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When I got up today (in a Red Roof Inn in Cleveland) I found out that my friend and co-conspirator Nick Travis passed last night, 3 am at a hospital in Austin where he was being treated for diverticulitis, although the cause of death was not yet known.


This news comes as a shock. I saw Nick last just months ago, standing up to speak and MC the Million Musician March during South by Southwest on a cold windy day out in front of city hall. He was then as I will always remember him, funny, smart, manic eyes darting this way and that, perpetually smoking or quitting, railing against the things he saw as wrong, praising everything else.


I first saw Nick down on Sixth Street. It was during a period of wandering when I was wondering where I would land that I was pulled in by the hard blues of The Solid Senders. Nick was at home with the bass slung to his hip, cigarette on his lip, woven tam on his head, with a grin on his face. Over the years I got to play and travel with Nick some, and he was a never ending fount of stories that he told over break fest at 3am or while behind the wheel of the van or perched on a curb outside a gig. I am grateful for all of them, but even more I am grateful for the work that Nick did in the last decade for this country and the world as a whole. Nick was an unflinching critic of the Iraq war, and I remember marching with him, back before the obvious became obvious to everyone that our country was misguided. Still in the shadow of 9/11 he was a voice for values that make the hero different from the terrorist, no matter what their color or name. Nick loved life.


"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes "Awww!" Jack Kerouac, On the Road.


Nick Travis passed away suddenly this morning around 3 AM under hospital care for diverticulitis.  The cause of death is unknown at this time. 

Blog of darkness

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Circular stair fire escape to nowhere.

Last evening the band unloaded the van in a back alley in Grand Rapids
Michigan that cut between broken teeth brick buildings of a forgotten
century. While pushing a cart loaded with amplifiers and nursing my poisonous
sacroiliac I stopped and raised my head to gaze on an iron spiral stair case
that looked to be suspended in air, framed by the sharp edges of brick and
pipe that that led down to askew dumpsters and chained bicycles.
I leaned over the ramp rail to see it clearly, stretching my neck and,
at the same time bowing my head to see beneath a tangle of heavy black
telephone cables that must have looked out of place here once, but that now
had the feel of an old growth canopy, allowing few scraps of light. I
fallowed the spiraling fire escape as it scaled the side of one of the
taller buildings on the block, wondering how tall it must be. The wall it
was fixed to ( it must have been fixed to it somehow ) was plain where I
could see it, this being a wall facing where another multistory building
must have stood, a different shade of brick than on its facade.

I marveled at the feeling of suspension it produced in me, as it hardly appeared to
touch the bricks behind it, and leaned a little farther out and down,
gritting my teeth against my treasonous back to see where a door, all the
doors must be, but when I found them they, each one, was boarded up, naked
plywood of random shape and hue, with no clue of handle or knob and no window or opening of any kind. The staircase went to the top story (can it only be eight?) but
not to the roof, no iron creeper reaching the summit at all, just one last
wooden rectangle with no door.

Close to the Dirt

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Monday, overcast and raining, the trees are budding and even before the rain the street sweats. Spring waits behind the clouds. Austin being a vain city who always likes to brag to those who come for South by Southwest it's always perfect here.  Have you ever been here for SXSW? It's a big music festival that fills the town with people who pack the bars and clubs to see hundreds of bands who come from all over the world to play for next to nothing in the hope that they will be discovered and become the Next Big Thing. For a week music is the front page story in the paper and every public address system in Texas blares from any open space that can be found that is in reach of an extension cord. Not a bad way to celebrate spring, really. My only critique is that while the hotels, clubs, cabs, shops, restaurants and alcohol sellers all have a very profitable week the whole party gets paid by the musicians, who as I said before get paid about $100 bucks per band. And the local pickers get run out of their home gigs and lose their paycheck to the music pilgrims who might spend their whole nest egg to come and play to an empty room for 40 minutes. Don't get me wrong, it's a great party, but I wish some of the cash could trickle down to the players that make it happen.

But all that is far from my mind as I take stock of this last weekend.  The band played down at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos on Friday, One of Texas's great sounding rooms (when the train isn't passing just a few feet beyond the wall, although that does sound really cool). On Saturday night, Ian and I drove up I-35 to Dallas to play at the Uptown Theatre in Grand Prairie doing a song swap with Darrel Scott and my buddy Jon Dee Graham that kept us all in stitches till the end when Jon Dee led us into the crowd to sing "Dreaming of Mohammed Ali". All of us left the theatre bouncing on the balls of our feet.

Home at 3 am, up in the morning to head out to visit my friend Don Ford, and his family, south of Austin to pick a little music and pick a little greens in the garden. Don has run farms of all sorts for years, but still plants a plot with a hoe "to keep close to the ground". I'm chewing on some broccoli from his patch right now, but my daughter didn't even wait tell we got it home, just walking down the turn-row pulling greens off the plants and stuffing her face. I hope whoever wins the Next Big Thing crown has some way to keep their feet in the dirt, partly for their sake, and partly for ours, as there seems to be a strong connection between the earth and what I have come to know as good music. Colin Brooks, guitar player and songwriter who holds up his end of the Band of Heathens said the same to me, on some farm in Europe that had been invaded by drunken festival patrons. It's something about the scale of the seasons, the stooping to touch and take from the ground, the faith in the land rewarded that gives soul to man, and through music that soul is shared and celebrated. Happy spring everybody, we made it another year.

Sausage, Justice, and the Music Industry.

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It is snowy outside, spring in Texas. In a day or two the snow will be gone and forgotten, but let's enjoy it while it is here. Nice to sit by the glow of the laptop and count my blessings for a moment. My wife reminds me that being thankful for what you have is practical health you can do yourself.


I have had my day in court, but I don't know what will come of it yet. Long time fans and supporters might already know some of my history with the Antone's record label but I will bring you, dear reader, up to speed.


I signed a recording contract in my mid twenties after a hard won but successful climb out of Austin's cheapest and sleaziest club scene with Antone's Records, a record label started by Clifford Antone. Clifford also started the club that still bears his name, the center of the Austin blues scene that helped launch Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, Sue Foley and many others. Clifford also brought many blues greats, some from retirement, down to Austin and informed the new Cosmic Cowboy psychedelic movement, giving it something to live up to. Austin Mayor Will Wynn was quoted as saying, "One of the primary reasons Austin is known as the Live Music Capital is because of Clifford Antone." He was a friend of mine, always supportive of musicians, even feeding and housing older players because he felt that he owed something to the music that had given his life meaning.


But the record label was not really his - it left his hands after he was busted for moving pot, becoming one of several labels under the name of Texas Music Group, who set a new low for the shameful mistreatment of its talent. 


Almost 15 years have passed since signing with them (a contract I signed without a lawyer, make sure you get a lawyer, kids) and still I have no clear idea of what I did or didn't sell or the real money that is still owed to me. Although I fulfilled my contract, years went by with no royalty statements, and no money. Even after my records were being sold on iTunes I was told nothing, let alone paid.


 If you have been a part of the Austin music business you may know that my story is not that unique. Don Walser, one of Texas's greatest country singers and one of the best yodelers anywhere ever, sold thousands and thousands of recordings, but even while Walser languished on his death bed the label didn't pay him money they owed him for the use of the music and skills Don had spent a life time developing.


Late in 2008 the Walser estate brought a lawsuit accusing Antone's, Texas Music Group Inc. and Texas Clef Entertainment with fraud, among other things, naming Randy Clendenen, Heinz Geissler and James Heldt. The day before the Walser camp was supposed to depose the label's investor James Heldt, the named labels declared chapter 11 bankruptcy. That put a hold on the Walser case so they couldn't move forward. But it also made the labels publicly declare a list of everyone they owe money to in court, including me.


When Antone's declared chapter 11, I found that I had friends who wanted to help, friends with skills. Chris Castle is an attorney who has testified on copyright law in front of Congress as well as being a drummer who plays a little slide guitar. He began talking with another attorney friend Catherine Robb and my manager Nikki Rowling, and they hatched a plan to bring the light of day to my long business nightmare. He, Catherine and Nikki found other artists who had past relations with and questions for Antone's and Texas Music Group (questions like, "where is my money?") and help put together a mob to bring the torches and pitchforks. Another talented lawyer, Amy Mitchell, also stepped up to take on the massive amount of work a case like this requires. All these guys have been working on this for over a year now, giving fearlessly of their time with no pay.


All of this generosity displayed by lawyers is the most surreal thing that has ever happened to me, perhaps even trumping the time I had Hey Good Lookin' sung to me by a class of blind students.  I know that there was never any way I could have paid to bring this case to trial, and that my day in court was a gift given me by Chris, Catherine, Amy, Nikki, and Ian (my tour manager, who crunched data for the case) and more, not to mention all the other artists who had every reason to try to put the whole mess as far behind them as possible.


As of right now the Court's decision is not yet in, but in some of the most important ways of the human spirit, the decision isn't the most important thing. No matter what the Judge rules, I am relieved to see that those who would take advantage of artists - who cannot afford to defend themselves - have been brought to light in a public court. I am grateful for all of the help I have received, and thankful for the friends I have. Sometimes you get the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with good people and speak the truth, and that is what matters most.


The Fate of the Cactus Cafe

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     One of the first times I played music in Austin was right outside of the Cactus Cafe. I was new to Austin, just a 21 year old kid playing guitar on the street, but the Cactus had already spawned a bubble handful of Texas music legends.  I saved the quarters that I was thrown for busking on Guadalupe and used them to pay the cover charge to get into the Cactus to see John Hammond, Bill Monroe, Rory Block, and many others. Next to me on the drag I watched David Garza with Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom gather crowds that chased the band into the Cactus.  A few years later my band The Asylum Street Spankers played a weekly daytime gig with the doors open to the spring air, students just a year or three younger than me spilling in and out of the spring air.


     As the years past, I found myself at the Cactus time and time again, always nourished by the talent of the musicians and also impressed and grateful for the quiet, attentive and educated audience. I have talked to many other touring musicians and find that the Cactus is known for its great sound, great ears, and great history. For me, even though I was not a UT student, this was one of the most important elements to my professional education. This was a room dedicated to Song, a place people went to bask in poetry and melody, be healed, understood, and made whole.  As much as Antone's, Austin's blues throne room was where I learned about The Late Night Voodoo Sex Ritual, Cactus was where The Story was told, where guitars became conch shells and the mystery was taught. Townes Van Zandt's songs still hold potent medicine, more than any of the books of the Bible for this mystic.


     I was in the van crossing Texas on the way to a gig when I first heard of the proposed closing of the Cactus, and after the first wave of sadness a familiar despair set in, this was not the first club I have seen close, nor the first home I have lost. And I wondered of the battle of Art vs. Cash, and the sad history of that long war. So I went to the Town Hall Meeting that UT President Bill Powers called to address the budget cuts that include the axing of The Cafe.


     I got there early, one of the first in the room and watched it fill up. Mostly older than student age, I recognized more that a few Austin pickers, making eye contact from across the room with brave smiles and bright eyes and talked with those who were close by.


     Soon Bill Powers opened the conversation, this was the first time I had seen him speak, and he spoke as someone used to having to defend policy to crowds, not as one who enjoyed it, more that this was a necessary evil, that his job requires him to stand in pillory and take a few soggy vegetables in the face to appease the masses.  In fact as he was questioned by the crowd he made it clear that he did not intend on requesting that the Union readdress their choice, and this was an empty exercise.  It also became unclear if the club was being closed to save money (and not that much money, 66K is the number quoted to keep the doors open a year, about an eighth of Powers UT salary) or to be reopened as a venue that Powers characterized as being responsive to UT students wants and needs.


     Anyone can play at the Cactus, by the way, all you have to do is show up early enough on a Monday night and sign up for the open mike. But I wonder what might take the Cactus's place, and I wonder who would benefit. I also wonder if this is about somebody on the Union Board who thinks they can do it better, and I think of all the others I have known that thought they could open a club, put on a show, and be the next big thing. I think that is a noble struggle, but it is always easier to talk about it from offstage, than to pull it off under the lights once the show starts. It is much more than a good sounding room and a PA.  I don't know the rules of the Student Union, but I have seen musical events in several of its many rooms, sometimes while the Cactus had shows going, sometimes not, but it seems that if someone wants to provide their version of "what the students want" they could do so without erasing this storied room.


     Although I feel righteous about all of this, I have no illusions about what my assertions of the importance of art and song on quality of life are worth to those who might decide (or have already decided ) the fate of the Cactus Cafe. It is the nature of song to be chased from the gleam of gold and by natural wisdom it grows best where it is needed most, away from such important things as money in inhuman amounts, and is best nurtured by those who afford little time for worldly concerns.




I am at Momo's

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I am at Momo's, a club that has music 7 days a week, watching the David Jimenez Trio and thinking of a thing a friend said years ago, "What luxury that people can get so good at making music."  Behind me, watching the door is my friend Nathan Singleton, a songwriter who leads the band The Sideshow Tragedy. We talked between bands about art, music, travel and money, "shop" as it were. Although he is making more money now playing his tunes than ever before he still works the door a few days a month to make it work.  His talent is undeniable, if you have ears, but his style is harsh as well as beautiful, like the Clash and Lead Belly at the same time. Nothing like it on the radio today, when even the rock bands are polished with a computer till all evidence of a human hand is erased. Give me my music with all the scars, sweat and sweet fuckups that mean more than all the perfect ones and zeros ever will.

January 10, 1990

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January 10th, 1990, I put all my belongings in a rented U-Haul trailer and drove south on I-35 from Kansas City, Kansas.  I was alone in the cab, the speed limited by the internal limiter to 55 miles an hour, but I was on my way. In retrospect, that was the start of my adult life. Kansas City was home, filled with friends and family and had been kind enough to me that I could have stayed. Rent was cheap there, my folks were always supportive, but I had something to find.


The first night in Austin I slept on a friends floor, found a room to rent the next day and started going out every night, diving into the music scene that was always roaring and spitting up and down 6th street then. I have a picture of me then, playing on the street on a borrowed guitar across from the University of Texas on the main drag. Still in the shoes I came to town in. So much has changed sense that day which I can still recall, but I am still here playing for the passer by, looking for a song which will catch a hook in your heart long enough to coax some change from your pocket. To remember that one song you thought you would never hear again, or reveal that tune you always new had to be there, somewhere...


Twenty Years. Love, loss, peace, war, oceans under the bridge, over the bridge but still, I am here. This town has changed so much, the Austin I moved to perfectly remembered for me by Richard Linklater's Slacker.  Now, Austin fights to keep its home grown soul against the corrosive glitz of cash. And music fights to be heard over cars stopped in traffic, work cranes lifting prefab apartments over prefab apartments, the chirp of cell phones, and the sound of deaf progress.


What happens next? What shape does our life take now? What will it sound like? What do we want it to sound like? As we go forward what will we take with us this time? I want to know what you think, as I understand that this music is something that only matters if it is of use to your heart, helps you in hard times, keeps you warm in winter and cool on fire. I want to know what makes you rewind that song twenty times in a row, what songs you wake up singing first thing in the morn, what you want to be singing that has yet to be written.


I am close to making a tech leap. Some have asked me to Twitter, to keep this conversation on music active, let you know what is under my hands while we try to keep this thing in the air. Further updates as the situation warrants.


The Last Blog of 2009

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It's Monday after Christmas and I am once again to be found at Austin's Saxon Pub. The wife and babe are still making rounds touching family around Texas, but this leg of our Yule tour I have been left at home as there is no room for boys at my wife's grandmother's house. To explain, in true Texas settler fashion, all the girls sleep in the bed. So here I am.


     On stage is Matt the Electrician, Scrappy Jud, Sela and John Green and a bass player who has yet to be named. Bob Schneider, who normally holds court here on Monday is absent, but his band is still on the bill so it's "anything can happen night". Sela comes by with the tip jar and smiles hello as the band drops deep into a reggae favored groove with Scrappy's fingers dancing over all. All four of the players I named I have known for over ten years, first saw Scrappy in 90, my first year in Austin. On January 10 I will have lived here for 20 years. Even with all that time this has been a year of firsts.


     The Christmas shows we did with Carolyn Wonderland were the first time she and I worked together that wasn't either her or me sitting in with each others band. But not, Goddess willing, the last, as it was great. Christmas music is something that we all share and we all get sick of it at some point. Luckily, we had our shows early in the season while few but the hardest hearts were armored to the old songs. Between Carolyn and me we found some songs that pushed the boundaries of the usual and the band (a mix of both hers and mine) sounded holy. Check out our version of Happy Xmas (War Is Over) on iTunes. All the money goes to help the families at Ft. Hood.


      I hope you got what you wanted for Christmas, and I can say that without secretly hoping you didn't because we did! We got to play at Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble in Woodstock New York! Our trip to NYC turned into walk in the woods where the big bears play.


My buddy, Cary Wallum, brought Kris Kristofferson and while we were all on stage singing 'The Weight', he turned to me and complemented one of the songs we sang in our set. I could have wet my pants! Levon (not singing but never playing better) held up Rob Hooper's hand after the last song and I have never seen Rob look younger. The Ramble's music director and guitar player is Larry Campbell and he is my master now. I have seen a lot of guitar in my time but I have never seen anyone better and it was the same, tune after tune, electric, acoustic, fiddle all musical and perfect. Like a week of steak dinners. And all the people were as open and full of music as they should be. Amen.

Levon Helm Tribute

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I'm at the Saxon Pub (sexy pad for the super bad) witnessing Deadman, a young band of very serious young men who reference Springsteen, Van Morison and The Bad in the same song. Three guitars, Hammond B3, drums and bass ring out in the not half-filled club on a Tuesday night. I wonder if this is an Austin thing, but I have stumbled on to unexpected musical oases all over the world that never make the news, and I'm glad to be here. I have not been prowling the club crawl in the Texas capital very much of late and there is not a face on stage that I can put a name to, but the music is loud, heartfelt and strong and it makes me smile and breathe just a little bit deeper than when before I walked in.

Next week I travel to NYC to play a show honoring Levon Helm's lifetime of song and here is evidence that he has not spent it in vain. Here is evidence of his and the rest of The Band's footprint, not just in sound or even in elements of style that owe nothing to the era of MTV but rather to the same indefinable thrift store spirit that will never be about a big payday or glossy two page spread, but rather to a feeling of being on the border of something bigger than all of us. That thing is Spirit, the thing that Madison Ave has always chased, that every truck commercial or CMT video has aped, that Rumi chanted about, that Picasso tried to catch in thicker and thicker layers of paint.

Blogging at 1:13 AM

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We just left Sam's Burger Joint in San Antonio. It is 1:13 AM. Ian is at the wheel for the drive back to Austin. I am stretched out as much as one can on the bench seat of Skeletour, our Ford van, shirt still wet with sweat from a wondrous gig filled with inspiration and transcendent grit.

Only a few hours to run home and grab a few hours of sleep and a shower before I am up at 7 AM to be on TV to talk about Pocket Full of Soul, a documentary about harmonicas and the people who love them. I was interviewed for the film and if you like what I do you will really enjoy it. It was made with love of music. And love of music is what I am here to talk about. Sometimes I forget, and the little pains fill my head, the day to day drudgery of busy work and station keeping cloud my eyes. But all that is the illusion, the reality is music is humans at their best, beauty for beauty's sake shared. It doesn't matter what type, or even how well it's done, what matters is the joy and intent of sharing what it is that we find good with others. I'm glad to be able to play for people, and I hope that I always feel this way.

Sent from my iPhone, don't YOU wish you had an iPhone? Heh, heh, heh...