Marty Stuart's American Odyssey Does Houston

This appeared in the Houston Press Blog - April 11, 2008

Marty Stuart is definitely one of the more interesting also-rans of Travis Tritt-era popular country. He only had a couple of real hits - "Hillbilly Rock" and "Little Things" both reached No. 8 in 1990 - but he's got a great pedigree. He was married to Cindy Cash, and was a good pal of her father, one Johnny Cash. Stuart wasn't afraid of rock and roll when Nashville took that to mean Jerry Lee Lewis, not Don Henley, and remains a true believer in a town that has almost completely forgotten how to shake, rattle and roll.

Since the turn of the century, Stuart has released some stirring gospel records (2005's Souls' Chapel), but hasn't troubled the charts much; 1996's "Honky Tonkin's What I Do Best" was his last hit, edging the country top 25 at No. 23. This has freed him up for plenty of Grand Ole Opry appearances and his own XM Radio show, Marty Stuart's American Odyssey, where he and his crew of good-natured bumpkins spend an hour spinning the music of one U.S. city per episode. Today, all day, he just happens to be in Houston. It's running until midnight on XM channel 2, but alternating with his hour on Florida, so be patient if the first thing you hear is Gloria Estefan. With songs like these in the queue, it'll be worth the wait...

Johnny Winter, "Highway 61": Bob Dylan never wrote a song called "Highway 59," which is too bad because there's a lot of words that rhyme with 'nine': shine, fine, line, sign, pine, wine... Winter and "Frankenstein" brother Edgar, who grew up in swampy Port Arthur (also hometown to Janis Joplin and UGK), pioneered power-chord arena rock well before Alice Cooper came along.

Foil: "Marty, do you remember the first time you came to Houston, Texas?"

Marty: "Yes, it was with my Cub Scout troop... We started playing around places like Rockefeller's..."

Marty and Jethro (or whoever) start talking about Gilley's: "I worked with the Johnson administration... Howard Johnson... One night some celebrities from Hollywood were visiting, and it was my job to make sure the celebrities got everything they want." The conversation inevitably shifts to the mechanical bull. "What's the longest you ever stayed on there?" Marty wonders. "After that night with Miss Raquel Welch, I stayed on there 22 minutes."

Eventually Stuart starts asking the tough questions. "Are you the man who burned Gilley's down?" "Unfortunately."

Katie Lee, "The Katie Lee": Soulful R&B shaker with generous saxophone and easy-to-read lyrics like "Shake shake shake... aw, you're doing fine." Apparently Katie Lee is from Houston, and is a dude. In the singer's defense, though, Katie Lee also seems to be a woman who enjoyed dancing down front quite a bit.

Ernest Tubb, "Another Story, Another Time, Another Place": Stuart's conception of Houston apparently extends almost all the way to Dallas (Ellis County, if you're counting). Not like listening to E.T. is torture or anything.

Walter Cronkite: Acknowledged by Marty as "Houston's own..." No sound bites of Dan Rather losing his shit, though, which is disappointing.

Bill Monroe, "Ya'll Come": Not sure what Mr. "Blue Moon of Kentucky" has to do with Houston - I'm sure he played here once or twice, at least - but it appears to be the music for a bit.

"The Skinny With Cousin Kenny": Mock newscast hipping listeners to the Red Krayola, which turns out to be surprisingly... hip. Kenny reports the Houston psych pioneers were "often tagged as hippies, which they most certainly were not." Founder and chief creative engine Mayo Thompson wrote songs "rather atypical of noise-rock." Quoting Pitchfork now: "A band that has no idea how to play its instruments... this was a band that was [once] paid $10 to stop playing."

Red Krayola, "Fairest of All": People insist on seeing us as cowboys and horses with a few millionaires and shitty presidents thrown in, so Texas seldom gets the credit it deserves as the most twisted state in the union. Psych! Even back in the '60s, folks like Krayola founder/frontman Mayo Thompson were subverting Houston's status quo, and bands like the Grateful Dead and Velvet Underground felt the queasy vibrations. Forty years later, if the indie-rock flavor of the week isn't copying the 13th Floor Elevators, it's because one of their sicker friends turned them onto Red Krayola. But the Flaming Lips, Of Montreal or Black Mountain could have recorded this song yesterday. They probably did.

ZZ Top, La Grange": I certainly hope every self-respecting Texan has a "La Grange" story by now, so here's mine: There was a pinball machine at Hole in the Wall, the bar adjoining the UT campus favored by musicians and journalism-school slackers. The machine was called The Getaway, based on the untouchable Steve McQueen chase flick. (Alec Baldwin is much better on 30 Rock.) Once or twice an hour, while we were having our Daily Texan story meetings in the back room, it would switch on and the first few bars of "La Grange" would play out of these crap Seventies amusement-device speakers. The song still sounded awesome.

Barbara Lynn, "Until Then (I'll Suffer)": It's too bad the Gulf Coast never had someone like Berry Gordy to put it all together, because the talent around here back then could have given Motown a run for its money and then some. The closest we had was Huey Meaux, who definitely strung some hits together but got, shall we say, sidetracked. A decade or two later, Houston moguls J. Prince and Michael "5,000" Watts made up for this several times over.

Archie Bell & the Drells, "Tighten Up": The most Houston succession of notes ever. They're just so... optimistic. Hence NASA, Exxon, the Astrodome, MetroRail... This kind of buoyancy can only come from people who haven't had their championship dreams repeatedly crushed in the postseason. It makes perfect sense: when Bell and his pals cut this song, nobody save the onetime AFL champions Oilers had even come close.

"Boom Boom with Brother Bryan": Another skit, supposedly originating from the Johnson Space Center, that somehow segues into a biographical sketch of Kenny Rogers. Born in Houston, 1937. Played bass in Bobby Doyle 3, Kirby Stone 4. In early '77, hit big with "Lucille." "I didn't know there was so much more to Kenny Rogers than chicken." Nevertheless, responsible for one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes ever, the one where Kramer and Newman get addicted to his chicken. Kenny needs a park named after him here or something.

Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, "Ruby (Don't Take Your Love to Town)": Summer 1969. Nashville Skyline, anyone? Kenny "Lady" Rogers singing about "that crazy Asian war"? There must have been something in Buffalo Bayou in the '60s; even the big hits sound spooky and unstable. Where is the First Edition when people start looking for the roots of country-rock? Not far behind the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo.

Houston Medley: Hank Williams Jr. / The Gatlin Brothers Band / Rodney Crowell / Steve Earle / Dean Martin: Could be a lot worse. Notes: Houston is hands down Bocephus' favorite city in "Texas Women"... Rodney Crowell, who audaciously titled one of his albums The Houston Kid, is probably hit for hit, pound for pound, the best songwriter the city ever produced... Larry Gatlin played football for U of H and caught a touchdown pass in their 100-6 1968 Astrodome humiliation of Tulsa... Steve Earle, who lived here for a while after getting bored with high school in San Antonio, never got so ****** up he confused "Hillbilly Highway" with "Telephone Road"... Thanks to Lee Hazlewood, Dean Martin sang about "Houston," but Dino's pals Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby preferred to croon and hold court at Galveston's purported mobster hangout the Balinese Room.

Johnny Guitar Watson, "Real Mother For Ya": Like Earth, Wind & Fire without all the horns and hippie shit. Greasy funk strong enough to make Rick James set down the pipe.

Air Break: Marty and friends haven't quite done all their homework: playing in the background is "Houston's own Janis Joplin..."

Lightnin' Hopkins, "Mojo Hand": Had he not played acoustic guitar and been about 30 years too old to have his **** cast in plaster, Lightnin' Hopkins could have been as big as Hendrix. Marty says, "Cousin Kenny turned me onto that record."

"The Gospel According to Handsome Harry": Harry: "What is the gospel in Houston, Texas?" Marty: "Time." Harry: "Time is a thief, brought to us by Houston's own Mickey Newberry... some say he was the first real outlaw. I know for a fact he sported a few tattoos."

Solomon Burke, "Time is a Thief": Funeral-parade gospel-soul, sung by one of the best in the business. Written by Newbury - not bad for a white boy.

Conclusion: No Townes Van Zandt, no T-Bone Walker, not even Beyonce. Well worth tuning in for all the same.

By Chris Gray

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