Oxford American, issue 87: Texas Music Issue (winter 2014)

oxford-american-texasThey’ve done it again. This is my favorite magazine.

Actually, lest you think me totally partisan, the Georgia Music Issue might have been even better. Let’s start with the included musical cds, which make this very fine magazine even more desirable. I’m really enjoying the Texas cd, which includes tracks by Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, Rick Trevino, The Texas Tornados, Bob Wills, Freddy Fender, Kimmie Rhodes with Willie Nelson, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark and Janis Joplin (whew). But I do notice that there’s not much here that bucks a traditional idea of Texas music – that is, country and Tejano. Contributions by Ornette Coleman and Spoon take a few steps off that path. But I thought the Georgia cd did a much better job of showing the wild variety available in a state prone to stereotypes. And it’s not because Texas doesn’t have the diversity available. Likewise, the text accompaniments to these musical tracks were a frank disappointment after reading the Georgia version. Rick Clark’s text is a just a little more basic, which is not to say I would have been let down, if only I hadn’t read that other one, in which each Georgia track was brought to life with storytelling unto itself that made me need to go back and listen again. Here, I’m listening again and again because the music is good, but not because a whole narrative world was opened to me. Perhaps tellingly, the write-up of the Texas cd is located at the back of the mag, not at the front.

But there’s something there, too: the cd and liner notes read a little better, feel a little fuller, after taking in the magazine as a whole. Joe Ely, Doug Sahm and others get attention in shorter articles, while features include Margaret Moser’s groupie diary (which I really enjoyed) and pieces on Guy Clark, Paul English (Willie’s drummer and bodyguard/door guy/gunslinger) and DJ Screw. The latter finally provided what I was looking for: a feeling that Texas music is as broad as its state lines suggest. I especially liked Amanda Petrusich’s commentary on the extreme localness of Screw’s reign – and here I am being partisan – in Houston’s rap scene, shortly before the internet blew the world wide open and, as she says, offered

more opportunity for cross-pollination, but less opportunity for the kind of place-specific identity-making that Screw wrought for Houston. The membranes are too permeable now.

Other highlights, for me, included the quirky perspective in Rachel Monroe’s “That Drifting Place,” where she examines Roy Orbison through the lens (excuse the pun) of his iconic dark glasses. “Texas Calling”, by Joe Ely as told to Alex Rawls, was a fun one to read: a bunch of recollections about playing with the Clash – with no real plot to hold them together, but it felt all the more like realistic recollecting that way. A very short piece of fiction by Bret Anthony Johnson provided an interesting departure – I don’t recall any fiction in the Georgia Music Issue. And I was thrilled to read Aaron Alford’s interview with Amanda Shires. She says,

When I bring people there [West Texas], they find it very odd, but they eventually love it. It’s unique in the way that it looks, and the people are so hospitable there, friendly. You have to be if you’re in a place that has a lot of prairie dogs.

Which is perfect, of course, and funny, and I can just hear it in her sweet drawl.

All in all? A different piece of work than the Georgia version was. Another very fine cd, more good writing, and again I learned a lot. Keep ’em coming.


Rating: 8 outlaws.

Texas


“Home.” – Chris Jenkins

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Header image: map of Northeast Houston in 1922, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

The After Party by Anton DiSclafani

The particular culture of 1950s Houston high society is the setting for this disturbing story of friendship and secrets.

after party

Anton DiSclafani’s The After Party opens in the 1950s in Texas in the world of the oil-rich. Narrator Cece has a loving marriage and a baby boy. Her best friend, Joan Fortier, lives the night life, although at 25 she is nearing the end of her prime in this glittering culture of money, power and conformity. In flashbacks, Cece reveals the way the Fortiers took her into their home and–almost–their hearts, and Joan’s mysterious vanishing acts.

Cece has always been deeply committed to serving the needs of Joan. She may rankle at being called a handmaiden, but she can’t help it: Joan has that effect on her. The girls have been best friends since kindergarten, and when Cece is left parentless as a teen, she moves into the Fortier estate, in the closed community of opulent River Oaks, an exclusive neighborhood in Houston.

Cece is obsessively devoted; Joan is carelessly, selfishly wild; and River Oaks is chilling in its regimentation: “We all served the same pimiento sandwiches, from the same recipe, at luncheons.” DiSclafani’s (The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls) depictions are impeccable. Readers familiar with Houston will recognize landmarks like the legendary Shamrock Hotel, and note DiSclafani’s pitch-perfect rendering of River Oaks. The After Party is a puzzle with carefully modulated tension; Joan’s disappearances and carefree disdain for luxury perplex Cece, and the reader, until the final pages. Characterization, strong sense of place and the painful riddle of friendship form a novel that is vibrant, sensitive and suspenseful.


This review originally ran in the May 24, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 high dives.

Journey to Texas, 1833 by Detlef Dunt, trans. by Anders Saustrup, ed. by James C. Kearney & Geir Bentzen

Detlef Thomas Friedrich Jordt was born in the Holstein region of Germany in 1793, and in 1833 immigrated to Texas. He was motivated by a letter from an earlier immigrant, Friedrich Ernst. Although the two were not acquainted, the letter had circulated widely in the region, with an explicit message: that others should join Ernst in a land of promise and opportunity. Jordt’s own experience led him to publish in 1834 a book titled Reise nach Texas, under the pseudonym Detlef Dunt. The first English translation of this travelogue/travel guide was published in 2015 as Journey to Texas, 1833.

This is a varied and informative compilation, including not only Jordt’s original text but significant supplementary material. A translation of Reise nach Texas was found among the papers of the late Anders Saustrup, a recognized scholar of German immigration to Texas. James C. Kearney and Geir Bentzen then took on the project. Their introduction covers Jordt’s family history; the social, political and economic circumstances in Germany that pushed so many to emigrate; the significance of the Ernst letter; and commentary on Jordt’s writing. The translation of Reise nach Texas makes up a little more than half of the volume…

This is just a stub: my full review of Journey to Texas was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Concho River Review. You can subscribe or purchase a single issue by clicking that link.

I’d just like to add that this was an extra fun read for me personally, because I know quite well the area that’s covered in these pages. For many years my parents owned a ranch just a few miles from where Dunt/Jordt is believed to be buried. It felt a little like coming home.


Rating: 6 small towns I used to ride my bike through.

Texas

photo credit: Jimmy

photo credit: Jimmy


“I grew up dressing like normal kid most of the time. But by age 4 (I’m 3 or 4 in this photo) I was riding horses, helping with chores and shooting a .22 rifle with my Dad’s close supervision on a small ranch he worked on the weekends near Copperas Cove, TX… Esther’s Chaparral Ranch. I never had a security blanket or teddy bear, but I was inseparable from the straw hat in the photo. I wore it all the time. My white and adoptive cowboy Dad thought that was just fine. However, my biological and very Korean mother who lived with my adoptive parents and me could not stand that beat up, dirty hat. The day came when she’d had enough of her Korean son dressing like a ‘country boy.’ My straw hat was defenseless with my Dad at work. One afternoon he came home to find me in tears, inconsolable. My mother had thrown my hat in the trash. It was trash day and the garbage truck had come and gone. My father was angry and yelled at her like I’d never before witnessed. It didn’t make me feel better. I’d checked the steel trash can in the front yard myself. I knew it was gone.” – Jimmy

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Header image: map of Northeast Houston in 1922, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

movie: Heartworn Highways (1976)

heartworn highwaysOh, man, what a treat. This 1976 documentary showed at the Pickford a few weeks ago, and Husband and I really enjoyed it.

We were not expecting such a departure from the documentary as I know it, which tends to splice in interviews, voice-overs, text captions to identify players, and the like. Instead, this was just 90 minutes of footage strung together. Which is not to say that it wasn’t artful; transitions felt natural and it was edited, of course, but there was no guide to the experience, which is different from what I’d imagined. So we were just bystanders to the action: Larry Jon Wilson records “Ohoopee River Bottomland” in the studio; Townes van Zandt takes the camera on a tour of his home in Austin and chats with Seymour Washington; David Allen Coe road-trips to the Tennessee State Pen and performs there; Gamble Rogers gives an outstanding spoken-word performance between songs at a bar; Charlie Daniels plays a high school gym; a teenaged-looking Steve Earle sings around a table with Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and others. As you can just imagine, it’s all very atmospheric, alternately very funny and touching. Guy Clark’s “Texas Cooking” really got to me.

I had no idea Townes van Zandt was such a riot, and now I want to see Be Here to Love Me. This was great. If you’re a fan of “outlaw country” or regional flavor, check it out.


Rating: 8 holes.

Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door: A Big Bend Memoir by Etta Koch with June Cooper Price

lizards burrosThanks to Fil for another hit. (Still don’t give me any more books, though, I tell you I’m swamped.) Reading this memoir about a place I love was engaging, amusing and comforting.

Etta Lindeman was born in Ohio in 1904. She was an active youngster but sickly in her young adulthood, when she married Peter Koch. One recommendation to help her breathing troubles was to move to a warm, dry climate. This, combined with Peter’s professional ambitions, took them on a trip cross-country that was to wind up in Arizona, where they would settle and continue to raise their three daughters. Peter was a newspaper photographer who wanted to make nature films and travel the country giving accompanying lectures; the National Parks Service helped by engaging him to promote several parks, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and eventually… Big Bend. The Kochs drove their 23-foot trailer (“Porky the Road Hog”) from Ohio to the Smokies, through Louisiana, where Peter filmed the wetlands’ water birds, and into Big Bend through Marathon, Texas. As Etta relates in this journal-like memoir, her family’s adjustment to the West Texas desert near the Mexican border was not without challenges. She was initially leery: “Texas had always been for me a movie set… A place of flimsy barrooms people by six-footers with six-shooters.” But eventually it wins their hearts and they settle permanently. The three Koch daughters have remained in Texas. The eldest, June, is co-author here, having done her own research, pulled together her mother’s papers and a first draft and seen them through to publication.

Etta’s voice is charming. She is not a professional writer, and her prose is perhaps not artful; I think of the term “outsider art” – but surprisingly lovely in moments, too. I liked her evocative descriptions, and these lines:

Nearby is a weeping juniper that is so strange. At first I thought the tree was wilting and perhaps ready to die but was told it is a dejected tree by nature.

Her style is mostly reportorial, but with a brisk, conversational tone. The chapters generally cover episodes or events: the surprise birthday party Pete throws her; a trip to Hot Springs; Pete’s trip down the Santa Elena canyon in a homemade boat. She has a sense of humor, too, a sense of fun (despite describing herself as the scaredy-cat of this active family). My favorite part must have been the final chapter, “Kaufman’s Draw,” which describes an adventure driving across the desert: it reminded me of Abbey’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” that story in The Journey Home that I loved so much.

I found the Big Bend I know and love in this book, although earlier, cleaner. When Etta writes,

I didn’t know the sky was so big… so blue… but as we traveled west I discovered that although the earth grew whiter and vegetation sparser, the sky grew more intense, more brilliantly blue.

I recognize this precisely. I have yet to find the scientific explanation for it, but the light out there is different: sharper, brighter.

Lizards on the Mantel, Burros at the Door is also a fine primary source on the work of community building, which is part of what it means to pioneer or homestead: as the Park Service’s settlement (in the Basin of the Chisos Mountains) grows in population, Etta – who had home-schooled her children since arriving in Big Bend – teamed up with other wives and mothers to provide schooling and cultural activities. The community puts on dances, has potluck dinners and cooperates in living and raising kids in such a remote spot.

Simply told but with unmistakable personality, this first-person account of roughing it in far West Texas won my heart. It will get extra points with readers who love the place, like I do, but there is certainly something here for everyone who likes history, memoir, and the romance of simple living.


Rating: 7 murals.
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