February 2010 Archives

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.




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This page is an archive of entries from February 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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