By Lee Nichols
SEPTEMBER 14, 1998:
"Sometimes, I get in a hurry and think I'm running out of time, but that's silly. ... In age, Walker and Murphey are my peers, roughly, but I've still got to catch up and qualify, I guess." -- Steven Fromholz
It shouldn't be too surprising to hear Steven Fromholz say something like that these days. After all, he is 53 years old and he's still never really been a "success," at least not to the same degree as Jerry Jeff Walker or Michael Martin Murphey, two of his best-known peers from what Fromholz refers to as "The Great Progressive Country Scare of the Seventies."
But that isn't what he's saying these days; rather, it's what he told journalist Jan Reid back in 1973 in Reid's book on Austin's "outlaw country" scene, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. Then only 28, Fromholz seemed to fancy himself a grizzled old veteran of the music world. And with good reason; by then, he had already been through enough battles for Reid to label him "the most luckless musician alive."
No, these days Fromholz doesn't seem nearly as beaten up as he did a quarter-century ago. Perhaps time gives most people a chance to re-appraise their goals and decide what they want out of life. It has certainly allowed Fromholz to realize what so many musicians never seem to grasp: that true "success" in the music business is something a lot more basic than getting rich and famous.
"I haven't had a day job since 1969," Fromholz says with justifiable pride over a cup of coffee at Ruta Maya. "And I don't intend to get a day job. I'm a professional entertainer. I'm going from this interview to a rehearsal for Larry King's play The Night Hank Williams Died that we open at the Paramount September 17 for a two-week run.
"When I finish that play at the end of September, I'll go out to Blaine's Pub in San Angelo and play two nights out there for a bunch of old hippie rednecks. Then I'll go to Big Bend and I'll spend two to three weeks down there working on the river for Far Flung Adventures, doing a music trip down there and rowing boats. And then I'll go to Houston and play a gig down there ...
"I do this for a living."
In other words, despite former radio host Paul Pryor's joke that "the difference between Steve Fromholz and Elvis is that some people think Elvis is still alive," Fromholz is actually looking pretty good. He makes a living as an artist, is happily married, and has two great daughters (the second of which just went off to college). And oh yeah -- did we mention that there are four Fromholz covers on the new Lyle Lovett album? Well, there's that, too.
That's one more marker of success that not many musicians can claim -- a legacy. Fromholz's decades of toiling away in cafes and bars and in his songwriter's notebook has left a mark on a younger generation of songwriters. In between albums that didn't get released, albums that did get released but didn't go anywhere, and a tour with Stephen Stills that left a bad taste in his mouth, Fromholz has managed to write a classic or two or three. At least one of them has been widely heard by the public: Willie Nelson took "I'd Have to Be Crazy" to Number Two on the country charts in 1976 and kept it there for several weeks. The others are classics to students of Texas songwriting, hungrily absorbed by a young Lovett, among others.
Lovett's new album, Step Inside This House, is all covers -- an homage to his favorite Texas songwriters. Fromholz's work is placed alongside those of Murphey, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Walter Hyatt, Willis Alan Ramsey, Robert Earl Keen, Eric Taylor, Vince Bell, Craig Calvert, and David Rodriguez.
"While we were banging and booming in the mid-Seventies," says Fromholz, "when we were all on the road all the time, and everybody was making lots of money and doing crazy things, Lyle and Robert Earl and that age group of people were listening to what we were doing and paying attention and learning their craft and their trade as songwriters and entertainers -- just as I learned mine from watching Tom Paxton and the Kingston Trio and all that stuff when I was a kid. Those were the songs I learned.
"The songs Robert Earl and Lyle learned were my songs, and Guy Clark songs, and Townes Van Zandt songs, and Michael Murphey songs -- the songs that Lyle has recorded. It's a very logical progression for singer-songwriters of our ilk, and I think they learned a lot from us, as we learned from the guys who preceded us.
"Like Lyle told me when he came to town in May to have our picture taken for the album's artwork, he says, 'Steven, I didn't have to learn any of these songs for this album. I've been doing them since I began to learn to play.'
"I knew he was doing 'Bears' [from Fromholz's first album for Capitol Records, Rumor in My Own Time, in 1976] on the road in his show some time ago," says Fromholz. "Then I started hearing rumors that Lyle had cut 'Texas Trilogy.'"
"TexasTrilogy"--comprised of "Daybreak," "Train Ride," and "Bosque County Romance" -- isn't merely Fromholz's most ambitious work, it's also his most enduring. Taking the seemingly mundane world of small-town farm life, the song elevates it into an epic. It's a tale filled with the drama and heartbreak of just living life, enough so that Fromholz would later co-author a play based upon it.
"Texas Trilogy" is also linked to the earliest days of Fromholz's professional career, when the Temple-born musician was hanging out in Colorado. He had landed there in 1968, after leaving North Texas State and doing time in the Navy, and among the cadre of songwriters with whom he associated, Fromholz hooked up with one Dan McCrimmon to form a duo called Frummox, a move which took him from jug bands to a serious career.
The pair recorded a quirky and thoroughly enjoyable album in 1970, titled Here to There. Although it was released on Probe, a subsidiary of the then-major label ABC, the platter is a collector's item today -- the victim of badly timed record-label shuffling, although it might soon be available on CD, as part of a coffeetable book of photos of Bosque County by Fromholz's longtime friend and fellow musician Craig Hillis and Bruce Jordan. Almost 30 years later, Fromholz is not modest about the album, and rightly so.
"The Frummox record had such a great influence on so many young folksingers and songwriters," says Fromholz, proudly. "It's still a one-of-a-kind album. It seems to endure and not lose the essence of what Frummox was -- that pure Western folk music, Texas/Colorado sound that Dan and I had. People seem to love that record. I had a person bring me an 8-track tape of it to sign about two weeks ago when I was up in Granbury, Texas.
"A lot of folks learned all those songs off that record. They learned 'Man With the Big Hat,' they learned 'Trilogy,' they learned 'Lovin' Mind' from Dan McCrimmon. And Lyle was one of those people -- and it made a difference."
The duo was short-lived, however, and a year after Here to There's release, McCrimmon and Fromholz began heading in different musical directions. Fromholz's path led him on the road with his friend Stephen Stills, to whom a song on Here to There is dedicated. That association also was short-lived, beginning in June 1971 and ending by November. In a chapter from Reid's book titled "Just a Waltz," devoted entirely to Fromholz, the songwriter told the author, "What I saw, I didn't like after I'd spent some time with it. I didn't like the ego hassles, and I didn't like the craziness -- it wasn't my kind of craziness. I'm as crazy as anybody else, but it wasn't my kind of shot. I was heavily into cocaine and I was getting real sick. ... My skin was turning green."
That association ended, Fromholz quickly found himself in another high-profile situation -- in cahoots with Michael Nesmith, the one Monkee who was actually a musician. At that time, Nesmith, who was really more at home with twang than pop, was having what might be considered the earliest vision of today's so-called No Depression mini-industry of alternative country, which he intended to kick-start with his Countryside label. Austin fit right into the former Monkees' game plan, with both its musicians and KOKE radio (which was pioneering a progressive country format), and he snatched Fromholz right up.
The pairing produced Fromholz's first solo album, How Long Is the Road to Kentucky, and with Countryside's distribution deal with Elektra, the ball seemed ready to roll. But two days before the album's scheduled release, Elektra had a major reshuffling of management, and the new regime had no use for progressive country. The album, the label, and $20,000 of investment disappeared into a black hole. To date, How Long... has still never seen the light of day. With two strikes against him, Fromholz made his way to Austin for permanent residence in 1974.
"The business was booming down here, and I was commuting between here and Colorado at least 4,000 miles a month," recalls Fromholz. "I was on the road all the time. My wife Janey wanted to go back to school, and we decided to come down to Texas. And my business was down here. The business of Frummox had been in Colorado, the Midwest, and some of Texas. But after 1972, the business just boomed down here. There was lots and lots of work to do; there weren't near as many musicians as there are now. ... This was the place to be. I was writing good songs, working as much as I wanted to, and the Capitol Records thing was about to happen."
Austin was indeed booming in the early Seventies. Musicians began flocking to town, a sound began to develop, and music journalists like Reid began taking notice. Somewhere along the way, one of them groped for a moniker for this sound, and "progressive country" was born. Fromholz still derides the description by calling it "The Great Progressive Country Scare of the Seventies."
"Because it was a bunch of bullshit," states Fromholz. "'Progressive country'? I don't know a musician in the business today to whom I give any credence, to whom I acknowledge any class, who ever claimed or admitted to be a 'progressive country musician.' Nobody did. I never did. Many of us were called 'outlaws,' and that's probably more the case than 'progressive country.' I always blame some guy from Rolling Stone. Maybe it was Chet Flippo, for god's sake, I don't know. But it was something somebody made up because they didn't know what was going on.
"What happened was all these guys who were drinking tequila and all these guys who were smoking pot said, 'Here,' and they swapped. And it took. That's what happened. And the rednecks who used to hate the hippies and the hippies who were afraid of the rednecks kind of melded and became this hybrid. My favorite example is the bouncers at the old Armadillo. They were these great big, burly goddamed rednecks, who had hair down to their waists, and they were drinking beer and smoking pot, and they were just as kind as they could be, but if you came in there and screwed up, they'd bounce you out the door with that red neck of theirs.
"It was a very interesting blend, and to watch these folks out in front of you was even weirder, and even better, 'cause in those days, the audiences you played for were all these different kinds of people. You had rednecks, you had hippies, and they were all there for one reason: They loved to get loaded and listen to music and we were doing something they all liked. It was kind of crazy. No one had ever done something like [that]. Frankly, no one gave a shit. All the players said, 'Let's go play,' not, 'Let's go make a bunch of money.'
"And there was lots and lots of outdoor shows. In the early Seventies, especially, before Willie really began to have his picnics, when they were the Dripping Springs Reunions, those years, there was lots of outdoor shows; Nacogdoches, Texas, the old Jackrabbit Jubilees out near Odessa, Texas back in the mid-Seventies. These were just gatherings of crazy people who came to get crazy in a pretty safe place and just listen to music."
It was during this period that Fromholz finally saw one of his solo albums get proper release on a major label. In 1976, Capitol Records came out with Rumor in My Own Time, the album which Fromholz is most proud of. On it were more of the tunes that would become staples of Fromholz's repertoire, including "Dear Darcy" -- a lament for one of his daughters, who was living with his ex-wife -- "Bears," and "I'd Have to Be Crazy." The LP had some fine players, including bluegrass banjoist Doug Dillard, harmonica player John Sebastian, Jerry Jeff Walker's Lost Gonzo Band, and steel player Red Rhodes.
"I really enjoyed that one," says Fromholz. "It was crazy doing it, but we were working all the time and making lots of money."
The album didn't provide any commercial breakthrough, however, which may have prompted Capitol's missteps on the next one, 1977's Frolicking in the Myth. Fromholz always refers to a later album on Willie Nelson's Lone Star label, Just Playing Along, as "Uncle Wiggly Goes to Nashville." He calls Frolicking... "Uncle Wiggly Goes to L.A. and Snorts All the Cocaine in America."
"My company wanted to go Hollywood and wanted [me] to do something that I wasn't," explains Fromholz. "I fired the bass player after the first note he played. Joe Renzetti was my producer. He's a nice guy, but very Hollywood, and not right for me. It's not my favorite piece of work. I wish I could have that one back."
Ironically, Fromholz had better luck with someone else performing his music: In 1976, the king of hippie country, Willie Nelson (or "Nellie Wilson," as Fromholz is wont to call him) put Fromholz's "I'd Have to Be Crazy" on The Sound in Your Mind. Nelson was at the height of his powers then; the previous year, Red Headed Stranger and the single "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" on Columbia Records had elevated him from Big Star to Mega Huge Superstar. He had the hands of Midas, and everything he touched turned to platinum. "I'd Have to Be Crazy" climbed to the next-to-best spot on the charts and stayed there, never quite making that jump to Number One.
"Stayed there for the longest time," says Fromholz. "It was like the hurricane hanging over the East Coast, like Bonnie. That's the only record I've ever had any chart action on at all."
When Fromholz first cut the song in Dallas for his Rumor album, Nelson's longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael was hanging out with the band, and liked the song so much that he took a tape of it and woke Nelson up in the middle of the night saying, "You gotta hear this. You gotta cut it."
"They cut it at Jupiter Sound in Garland [a Dallas suburb]," remembers Fromholz. "I was in town and went over there to cut it with them -- they wanted me to be there. And Willie couldn't remember the damn chorus, the little bridge part, so he said, 'Sing it to me.' So I sang it to him."
In an unusual move, Fromholz's vocals were left on the tape, Fromholz singing a verse and Nelson singing it back to him. "I had someone ask me, 'Is that Ray Charles singing with Willie?' 'No, that's me!'" Fromholz laughs.
Many of Nelson's non-Austin fans might also have wondered who that was singing along, and why.
"That's what Columbia wanted to know," says Fromholz. "The folks at Columbia did not like the record at all. They liked the song, but they didn't like what Willie had done with it. So they went back in and cut it, tried taking my voice out and all this stuff, and Willie wouldn't have it. Willie said, 'No, this is what's going to come out.' And it came out, but I think it was record company punishment that it was never Number One. But it was Number Two forever, man. It stayed up at Number Two and didn't move."
As will happen with any great scene, "progressive country" eventually ate itself. One of the problems (as always) was that the corporate world moved in, interested (as always) much more in image and profits than creativity. Outlaw Country turned into a joke, a box into which anything remotely resembling the original thing could be stuffed.
"Back when we were all in the 'Great Progressive Country Scare,' and after that, Rusty Wier had the best Southern rock band I ever heard, and that includes Lynyrd Skynyrd or any other band you want to throw in there. He had a band called the Filler Brothers. This was a big band, eight or nine pieces, and they kicked some serious ass. That rock & roll music would tear a house down. And he was marketed wrong. The folks in California wanted him to be a progressive country star. What bullshit. There were none."
The other problem was cocaine. Fromholz says that the early days saw a close-knit family of musicians form, grooving on the good vibes of passing joints. Then cocaine moved in and things changed.
"Too much money and too much spare time in those days," states Fromholz. "And we were all making pretty good loot. When cocaine became prevalent amongst all of us, the scene got rough. Cocaine can piss you off, especially when it's all gone or you can't buy any more. The scene just got rough and angry. And not necessarily just some of the players; the whole scene, all the people involved -- the road people. The dealers came in. The sense of direction that the music gave us was lost, and cocaine became a direction. We did lots and lots and lots. Damn near everybody did.
"It killed some people -- cocaine and whiskey. Cocaine killed Johnny Vandiver and his girlfriend. Johnny Vandiver was in the Dallas County Jug Band with us, one of the happiest guys I ever knew, and a great, great finger-picking white boy Southern blues player. I mean not just a good one, but a great one. Johnny and his girlfriend were involved in some kind of a coke deal that went bad, and it must have been a pretty big one, because they were just cut apart by automatic weapons.
"That was really a drag," he says darkly.
"Cocaine is a dangerous drug. I'm not one not to tell anybody not to do anything or to do anything, but I come from an era when drug testing was something entirely different than it is today. And I tested all of them, pretty much, but never poked no needles in my body. That always just scared the shit out of me. Cocaine's fun, I guess, compared to that. Spooky. I don't like needles from doctors. I don't like needles from dentists."
The path of self-abuse that either threatened to or did destroy many of Fromholz's peers doesn't seem to hang over his life in the least these days. Steven Fromholz enjoys being Steven Fromholz. Although he'll gladly reel off the entire history of Austin in the Seventies, he has plenty to talk about in 1998, and clearly doesn't want to get derailed from the many enjoyable outlets of creative expression that he enjoys today. For one, Fromholz began acting as far back as the Sixties, and about a decade ago, he began pursuing it seriously.
"I've always been a ham," he chuckles. "I've always enjoyed being onstage one way or another. I did a little acting in high school, and I liked it."
Some other early experience came through McCrimmon's management of a Catholic girls school theatre, and in 1977, Fromholz got a part in Outlaw Blues, a movie shot in and based on the Austin scene, starring Peter Fonda and Susan Saint James, as well as Sammy Allred, Bud Shrake, and others.
"It's a Progressive Country Scare movie -- it's a bunch of bullshit," laughs Fromholz.
Over the next decade, Fromholz continued making music, releasing albums at regular intervals, including 1978's Just Playing Along, on Willie Nelson's label, as well as a couple of albums on his own Felicity Records label (named after his second daughter), Frummox II (1982) and Love Songs (1987).
The following year, 1988, Fromholz went back to acting, appearing in Secrets of the Fleece, Bobby Bridger's "mountain man play," which was forced to leave its Wyoming stage because of massive forest fires and relocate in Austin at the Live Oak Theatre. There, Fromholz got to know Greater Tuna's Joe Sears and then the Live Oak Theatre's Don Toner. That began 10 plays' worth of association with Live Oak, including Bosque County, Texas, the "Texas Trilogy"-based production which Fromholz co-authored with Toner.
"I really like it," says Fromholz of the transition from music to acting. "My strong suit is live performing. I like the immediate gratification, and I like the ensemble work. If you're an acting company, there's a trust that grows between the actors and the director. I like that feeling."
Fromholz describes a scene in Larry King's play The Night Hank Williams Died that pairs him with fellow actor Jill Parker-Jones:
"It's like singing a duet with Barbra Streisand. It fills me up. I seem to need it."
Fromholz's work with Far Flung Adventures in Big Bend also opened his eyes to other possibilities in life. Like his songwriting colleague Butch Hancock [see "God's Own Clothesline," Vol. 17, No. 36], Fromholz has been providing both rowing and singing for Far Flung's river rafting trips since 1980.
"That changed my life," Fromholz says, a common sentiment for those who have experienced the stunning grandeur of Big Bend's mountains, canyons, sprawling desert, and star-filled skies. "The people I met down there were incredible, and I fell in love with the place and the people and the act of this boating thing...
"I spend lots and lots of time on the rivers. It has helped me very well in the songs I've been writing the last three or four years, 'cause I was out doing some things. I wasn't spending as much time playing, but I was out there learning things, growing as a human being, stretching it, looking at my own envelope, seeing where it went. I've been places in small boats in Mexico and in Copper Canyon that folks can't imagine, and I couldn't imagine until I went and did it. That changed my life. It probably saved my life.
"I'll take a drink with you, you know, and you spend enough time in saloons and ballrooms, you take too many drinks with too many people and you get a funny Dracula kind of tan. Well, I haven't got that. I spend lots of time in sunshine."
Though not sporting a studio tan, either, Fromholz has laid down tracks for a new album, which he hopes to release in January.
"We've got 14 tracks down, and 10 of those are new songs," he reveals. "Almost all of them have been written wholly or partially in the desert, in Terlingua or on the river. It's been very good for my writing. My friend Allen Damron has a little house down there in Terlingua, and there ain't no phone, no pool, no pets. It gives me time to spend selfishly with my art."
Is it everything he had hoped for when he started in this journey? Is it enough not to be the big star?
Back in '73 Fromholz told Reid, "In 12 years, I'll be 40, and I'd like to have it together by then. I want to be able to sit back and clip coupons, be easy on myself."
It's pretty obvious Steven Fromholz has done a sight better than that.
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