Liner Notes by Joe Nick Patoski
It was all
young, so fresh, so totally cool.
It was really no big thing, just five young folks who put together
a band to make music the way they'd always wanted to, doing their
Sunday night regular gig at the Split Rail. From the beginning,
there wasn't much in the way of expectations. Freda and the Firedogs
were just glad to have a gig. The Split Rail was a sweet little
dive on the south bank of Town Lake--downtown South Austin--where
the Lone Star and Pearl were cold and came in longneck bottles,
and there was never a cover. The band's take was whatever came
back from passing the hat. There is no evidence they shook the
world, other than the fact Marcia Ball aka Freda went on to carve
out quite an impressive career as a blues singer and pianist with
the WC Handy Awards and Grammy nominations to prove it. But they
For a couple of years beginning in the spring of 1972, they sure
shook that little beer joint on South Lamar called the Split Rail,
the very coolest music club in Austin, Texas. The sign posted
behind the bandstand warned, "No Dancing, Standing Or Fighting"
but no one paid attention to it. If you wanted to two-step you
had to go outside because everyone was already standing up in
this pressure cooker, elbow to elbow, and it was too dang crowded
They played what you'd call country, or western, rock and roll--not
rock, powered by a lot of boogie-woogie, the kind that bleeds
through all kinds of music in this neck of the woods. It was,
in a time when experimentation of music was the norm, when everyone
was doing something like you'd never heard before (something of
a tradition in a town that had already turned out Janis Joplin
and Roky Erickson, and whose club scene was dominated by yodeling
tavern proprietor Kenneth Threadgill). And here was something
familiar but different.
They were hardly the only country band in town. But they were
the only ones who struck such a resonant chord. The right place,
right band, right town, right time. The only ones who played the
music straight. Laid back, loose, diffident, different. Under
the radar. Just like Austin was back then. Sleepy, shady, low-key.
Austin people who worked were usually thankful they were securely
employed forever by state or the university; those who didn't
work liked to cite the economic figures stating Austin had the
lowest cost of living of the one hundred largest cities in the
United States of America, which at the time was actually true.
It was the one place in Texas where a male with long hair wouldn't
get his ass-kicked--a free zone. Those conditions fostered a groovy
little scene that begat the modern version of the Austin music
scene. San Francisco's Summer of Love was five years gone. Some
of the afterglow had shifted to Austin, but the counterculture
had undergone a strange reinterpretation. A pearl-button, blue
jean longhairs and longnecks ethic had been welded on to the existing
free spirits and good dope vibe; a “Nowhere But Texas”
vibe that started drawing people like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff
Walker, Doug Sahm, and Asleep at the Wheel.
Despite port-a-signs in front of gas stations that declared "We
Love Hippies," like the one in front of the U Totem at 38th
and Lamar, the old guard hard core honky tonk kind of country
listener was still having none of this cosmic cowboy crap being
generated around the University. So while there were rock bands,
and country bands, and blues bands, there wasn't in truth, a whole
lot of mixing until that barrier dissolved about the same time
Freda and the Firedogs started their residency at the Split Rail,
and became the first "young hippie" band to get a gig
at the Broken Spoke, the purest of all honky-tonks, which it still
is. Here was a band that could do "Today I Started Loving
You Again" and "Don't Come Home Drinking" with
straight-faced sincerity and make "Stand By Your Man"
sound honest, not histrionic, then turn around and rip into Buddy
Holly with hot rod intensity, before downshifting to something
like "EZ Rider." It was the kind of repertoire where
hippies and rednecks found common ground.
Freda and the Firedogs was a made-up name. Freda was Marcia Mouton
Ball, a shy raven haired piano player with a scary talent for
rocking a house with a boogie-woogie rocket-fueled version of
rhythm and blues that comes naturally in southwestern Louisiana,
two hundred eighty five miles to the east. By day, she worked
the stacks in the library at the University of Texas. She was
named Freda because someone thought it would go good with Firedogs.
One night at the One Knite, a storied dive at Eighth and Red River,
in the seediest part of the state capital city, Marcia was introduced
to Bobby Earl Smith, a law school graduate with naturally tall
hair from San Angelo, two hundred miles west, who was playing
music while his wife taught school. Over the course of a few gigs
in March and April, David Cook, a cherubic steel guitarist, asked
to sit in with his lap steel and never stepped off the stage and
Steve McDaniels, a steady handed drummer working the club scene,
volunteered to add his drum kit. A couple of guitarists started
sitting in on a rotating basis and one of them, John Reed, a tow-headed
rockabilly guitarslinger from Amarillo, four hundred miles to
the northwest, stuck for good, rounding out the band.
Freda and the Firedogs created quite a buzz in a matter of weeks,
mainly because they played their asses off wherever they could--in
front of the students and street people lined up for the free
vegetarian meals at the Methodist Church on the Drag on Fridays,
at benefits in the Armadillo World Headquarters Beer Garden for
the striking University of Texas bus drivers, at the Back Door
in the heart of the Riverside Drive apartment ghetto, at the Longhorn
Party Barn out by Lake Austin, at Soap Creek Saloon, the soulful
roadhouse tucked in the hills of Westlake. The money got to be
good enough, they quit their day jobs.
The whole thing got so out of hand so fast that pretty soon real
stars were wanting to hang out with the band at the Split Rail
on Sundays too. Doug Sahm had scored international hits out of
San Antonio in the mid sixties but then he decided to end a lengthy
exile in San Francisco by moving back to Austin where something
was starting to happen. Pretty soon, Dr. John showed up in full
voodoo regalia and threw glitter around the Rail. Doug Clifford
of Creedence Clearwater Revival dropped by. Tony Joe White was
spotted peeking through the window, but was too intimidated by
the all rowdy yahoos to come inside.
Then a real player showed up. Jerry Wexler was and is a music
business legend, having discovered Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles,
Professor Longhair, and a slew of soulful million-selling acts.
He was already on to Austin, having signed both Sahm and Willie
Nelson to Atlantic Records. But Freda and the Firedogs intrigued
him like no other band.
So he made them a proposition: come up to Robin Hood Brians' funky
egg-crate rigged little 12 track studio up in Tyler, the Rose
City of Texas, and cut some tracks. So they did, hunkering down
for three days in August of 1972 (the same year another little
old band from Texas called ZZ Top made their first recordings
at the very same place). It was a laid-back, straight-ahead recording
session all things considered. Wexler brought his Immaculate Funk
style of production—let the band find the groove and let
the tape roll. Robin Hood's mom would cruise through dressed in
her bathrobe, checking on the scene (she lived in the house the
studio was built behind). Everyone went out and ate Chinese.
Atlantic liked what Wexler sent them. A go-ahead was given to
release the demo “as is.” A contract was sent in the
mail. But the band hemmed and hawed. They wanted artistic control.
They wanted more money, more points--all the things bands were
supposed to demand, weren't they? Townsend Miller, the Austin
American Statesman music columnist and one of the band’s
earliest and most fervent champions who prowled the clubs at night
after his day job as stockbroker, urged them in print to sign
the deal. Several times. But the misgivings and doubts lingered
so long that by the time Freda and the Firedogs finally did decide
to go ahead and jump off the cliff and sign the deal, it was too
late. Atlantic soon deemed Jerry Wexler's Texas experiment a bust.
The band continued for almost another two years. There were regular
out-of-town gigs in Lubbock, Dallas, and Houston and festivals
like the Cosmic Cowboy Reunion at Hofheinz Arena in Houston, shows
when the band backed Sahm, gigs when Willie showed up to sit in
and sing, and one very strange trip to Michigan. Then John Reed
got drafted by the Army. It all ended in a flaming blaze of glory
at Willie Nelson's Second Annual Fourth of July Picnic at a racetrack
near Bryan, Texas, with two guys parachuting into the crowd and
cars literally on fire as Marcia waved her cowboy hat and yodeled
Marcia Ball has gone on to carve out a stellar career as a rhythm
and blues solo artist and bandleader, recording more than a dozen
albums, touring relentlessly, and winning WC Handy Blues Awards
and earning Grammy nominations in the process. Reed performs and
records with the Texana Dames, Tommy X Hancock, Alvin Crow, and
the Nortons and has burnished a rep as the city's finest guitarslinger.
Smith, post Freda, played with Alvin Crow, Jimmie Dale Gilmore,
and Butch Hancock. In 1980 he recorded with Kimmie Rhodes and
Joe Gracey on “Kimmie Rhodes and the Jackalope Brothers,”
his last session until the solo album "Rear View Mirror,”
released in 2000 to international acclaim.
McDaniels is pursuing an interest in the Latin sound. Cook is
making music in Florida.
"You really fucked up by not signing the contract, "
Jerry Wexler told Bobby Earl Smith over the phone a couple years
ago. The original Freda and the Firedog tapes had long ago burned
up in a fire in Atlantic's vaults. The only existing copy was
in Jerry Wexler's library, which he happily offered, even though
he couldn't help reminding Smith what could've been.
Who knows what would have, could have been? I sure don't. But
what I do know is that this recording--is it a demo? is it a polished
album?--captures a band, a producer, a place and a time like nothing
else could. Close your eyes, let your mind wander back thirty
years and listen to what we all missed.
Joe Nick Patoski
Senior Editor, Texas Monthly