The death of a person floods the fields of one’s mind with memories, some good, some painful, some jarring. But fortunately for me, I find I have a tendency to focus on the good.
James White died last week in Austin, Texas. He was the lovable owner of the infamous Broken Spoke, a honky-tonk bar set in the urban landscape of the Capitol city of Texas. He and his wife, Annetta, played host to local Texans looking for a time travel trip back to the good “old days” of the proverbial Texas roadhouse, with Lone Star beer, country music with a Texas twang, and two-step dancing on dance floor.
Several friends of mine who had gone to the University of Texas (Hook ’em) decided to introduce me to the pleasures of a Texas roadhouse, even though Patrick Swayze or Sam Elliott were nowhere in sight.
There is a front area that has a place to sit and eat, separate from the long dance hall with an incredibly low ceiling. James was leaning against the bar, his leather vest on and cowboy hat in place, a picture that repeated itself almost every time I visited The Spoke.
On this particular night on my initiation into life at The Broken Spoke, James turned to greet my two Longhorn friends, looked at me, and his face lit up, surprisingly.
“Peachtree Cowboys! What year was that, again?”
I could not believe it. It had been fifteen years since I had been associated with a group, The Peachtree Cowboys. Originally, the Peachtree Cowboys had been a bluegrass band with two hot pickers along with a fiddle player. Everyone knows that Bluegrass is the royal highway to making lots of money in the music business…..NOT.
After they had slowed down their mercurial rise in the charts, they basically disappeared, known to only a few aficionados in the Atlanta area. They had experienced a death that is the fate of most bands.
But it was the strange time of the rise of The Urban Cowboy, and it had led two of the former members to resurrect the legend. They recruited a seminary friend of mine who was a decent country vocalist. This friend, Jerry, knew of my musical background so he asked if I could fill-in as the drummer at a local festival they had booked. Being an idiot, I said “yes”, knowing that anybody can play drums, especially a 4-4 time, or waltz, which comprises about 97.5% of all country songs.
So, I borrowed Jeff Durham’s crystal clear set of Ludwig drums, dragged them up to North Georgia for a festival to play with a band that I had not rehearsed with……I had unfortunately done that many times.
It was, as I imagined, a pretty easy gig. A basic 4-4 beat, along with the waltz time for the lovers on the dance floor. I did not know most of the songs, but could fake my way through going light on the high-hat and snare, with no flourishes, throwing in crash cymbal at the conclusion of the song. The Peachtree Cowboys were all about featuring the virtuoso talent of these bluegrass refugees. My mission was to merely stay out of the way, to lay down a basic beat.
And I did so, with one major flaw. I was unfamiliar with Good Hearted Woman in Love with a Good-Timing Man, so I was surprised when the song shifted into a double-time near the end. I recovered quickly enough and did not screw the pooch, as they say.
After the gig, we were breaking down and the two old guys both came up to me and told me that I was the best drummer they had ever heard. It did not take me a New York minute or a East Point second to realize that they dug me not getting in their way. Everything is contextual.
We wound up playing a number of other festivals and a few clubs where there was some definite boot-scootin’ and a neon moon. I went so far as to buying a black set of Gretsch drums at Pro Percussion, later to be put to better use by my young son, Thomas, under the tutelage musician of Ken “Nardo” Murray, a Texas session drummer for Dolly Parton. But eventually, the urban cowboy fad faded, leaving the Peachtree Cowboys as a forgotten but treasured memory of my circuitous journey.
That why it surprised to to hear the reference by James White. I mean, I don’t even think my mama remembered my short tenure with the Cowboys. But James had quite a memory, particularly of people, face and bands, hopefully not miss-cast drummers. I am thankful he was nice enough to not mention my remarkable performance of Good-Hearted Woman.
The Broken Spoke became my Austin “go-to” when I was visiting in what I consider the greatest city on the planet. Midway through my sojourn in Texas, I was hired as an adjunct professor to teach the faith development theory that I had worked on with Jim Fowler at Emory. It was the wonderful Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest that brought me in to teach this specialized subject of the psychology of religion. They gave me an apartment on campus so that I could drive my K-5 Blazer down from East Texas to the hill country to teach.
After my first evening of teaching on a Thursday night, I took off for The Spoke considering it a reward for my long drive and my compressed class. I still had on my black clerical suit and clergy shirt, but I took off my white clerical collar in the parking lot….no need to scare the horses.
After being greeted by James. I took a seat at a table on the left, ordered a draft beer. The band that night was Chris Wall and Reckless Kelly. I had heard of Chris and his infamous Texas juke box classic, I Like My Women Just a Little on the Trashy Side. Chris is a superb performer who surrounds himself with talented musicians. I was enjoying the new songs to my ear, one in particular, Give Me Half of What Killed Elvis, typical of his clever and wonderfully dark sense of humor. It was a good night to be in Texas. Having recently found the grave of my great grandmother McBrayer buried outside of Mart, Texas, near Waco, I had the blessing of feeling and claiming my roots as a Texan. Such is my remarkable gift of rationalizing.
As the band took its regular break, Chris came off stage and moseyed, not walked or sashayed, to my table. He looked me over carefully, a lonely solitary man, dressed in black.
Chris quipped, “You’re either a priest or Johnny Cash.” Perfect.
“Well, I’m not Johnny Cash.” was my brilliant reply.
Chris sat down, and we began a twenty-five year relationship that included his visit to Tyler, my family’s attendance at The Spoke for his birthday party, and my officiating at his wedding in Austin. We still talk on occasion, reviewing the craziness of this country, the emerging music career of my son, Thomas, and our love of literature. Chris and I shared a love of James and his enterprise of The Spoke, and now we share the grief of another of our friends moving on across death’s deep river.
James White is memorable for many reasons. Building an honest to God roadhouse on the outskirts of Austin was a worthy endeavor. But protecting and promoting the Texas tradition, even when yuppified folks like me to to invade and domesticate the spirit of a gathering place, that is a hero’s quest. James lived his life well, focused on this “one thing” as Covey and Curley admonish. I’m glad to have known him, been graced by his friendship, and prompted in my memory to celebrate his personal vision for The Broken Spoke.
What is the vision that drives your life? It could be a family, a love, a passion? If your in the hill country of Texas, it might be a honky tonk. It matters less as to what it is than how much you are invested it its development.
Individual friends remind us, upon reflection, particularly at the end of a particular and peculiar life, just what their vision, or mission, was. In the case of James, it’s easy to identify his “one thing” and a smile comes to my face, maybe even a grin. As a priest, I have been forced to offer summaries of peoples’ lives when they die, which may have formed my habit of such activity, of trying to discern the “one thing”.
I would suggest that it’s a good thing to reflect on such questions “this side” of the grave. What would people who observed your life say was your vision, your mission? What are you devoted to? Is that satisfying to you, give you a good feeling of centered being? And if it is, keep on keeping on. But if not, and I am assuming by you reading this you are on “this side” of life, you can change course. You have the distinctive human capacity to change course, alter the direction, re-center your focus.
Sometimes, one needs some help in seeing reality, seeing oneself. A therapist, a coach, a spiritual director, or a good friend who can tell you the truth….all can be good companions on the journey to self-awareness and change, even transformation.
Think of people in your life who embody a certain vision or spirit. What do they do that makes it easy to distinguish what drives their life? What “lane” have they chosen to spend their energy and time on?
And then, apply the question to yourself. Where are you being “spent”? And, are you pleased with the answer? If not, why not make a decision to change course? If not a drastic course change, how about a commitment to invest more time and energy in a particular project in this next period of time. Sharing that commitment, that decision with someone who will hold you accountable can be just the leverage you need. Or, it might be a smart move to find a trained professional who will assist you in this life change and can be just the ticket. What do want to do with this life you have been given? How will you be a good steward of this rich gift called a life?
James White died, leaving a legacy of joy, community, and celebration. What will be your legacy? asked the former Peachtree Cowboy.