Broken Spoke is the quintessential Texas honkytonk, located in Austin, Texas.
I had been there once before since coming to Texas. It was then I met James White, the owner, who remembered me from a band I had been in for a minute called the Peachtree Cowboys. James told me that “I never forget a face!” and the legend and self-laudatory analysis seem to be true. On that particular evening, James whispered not to leave before midnight “cause the Red-Headed Stranger is dropping by!”. And Willie did. What a way to be baptized into the Lone Star culture.
A few years later, I was beginning my Fall semester of teaching at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. My class met on Thursday evening and Friday. My initial gathering of students was the typical introductory class, with syllabus and getting clear about expectations. I loved teaching there in the Fall as it gave me an excuse to go to a few Longhorn football games, a singular experience.
As class ended, I decided to go to the Spoke, to grab a late supper and “wet my whistle” as my grandfather would say.
Walking out of the still humid residual air into the air-conditioned relief of the bar, I saw James, who welcomed me with his inimitable Texas hospitality. After a brief exchange, I moved into the dance hall section of the Spoke, sitting to the side of the bandstand. The traditional five-piece band was playing the usual country music with a bit of Western twang. The lead singer had on a black Western style shirt, with pressed jeans, something I had grown accustomed to, along with the obligatory cowboy boots. He had a gravely baritone voice, carefully aged with smoke and bourbon. He looked older than the backing band, named Restless Kelly, I later learned. They were in full-tilt mode singing about the highway, problematic women, mama, the lure of the Western sky, and the obligatory topic, drinking. Yes, my mama tried to raise me better.
I had not changed clothes after class so I still had on my black clerical suit, along with my matching black clergy shirt. Black is my color. It is slimming. I had taken off my clerical white collar. No need to scare the horses when I walk into the bar.
I sat nursing my beer, a Shiner, listening to my initiation to this singer and band. After a time, the band took a break, the proverbial “pause for the cause” as my old friend, Elgin Wells. would say.
I noticed the singer walked straight from the bandstand to my table, standing posed in front of me. I will never forget what he said: “You are either a priest, or Johnny Cash.”
“Well, I ain’t Johnny Cash…though I could wish.”
And that’s how it started, a friendship that lasted almost twenty years.
The singer was Chris Wall, who grew up in California but had Montana roots. He had been “discovered” by the Texas troubadour, Jerry Jeff Walker, who brought him to Austin. Chris was the ubiquitous singer/songwriter who became famous by writing the song, “I Like My Women Just A Little On The Trashy Side”, or more simply “Trashy Women”. Jerry Jeff recorded it, but Confederate Railroad had their one-hit wonder with the song. It was the #1 juke box song in Texas (they keep up with such things) for a long time. That meant that Chris was well known across the state, good for a steak and a beer at any bar in the Lone Star.
On that night, he sat down and began to tell me his story. He was in a tough space and I guess he was looking for a priest…a honky tonk priest, and I just happened to fit the bill.
I won’t go into all we talked about that night as I closed the bar along with Chris and James. Chris wound up seeing me each time I came to Austin to teach my class, even sitting in my class one night. He drove up to Tyler, and joined me and my family for a Christmas concert by Michael Martin Murphey, for his inimitable Cowboy Christmas. We became close, like brothers, as more than a few folks thought we actually were when we were seen together.
After I left Texas, he gave me the honor of officiating at his marriage ceremony, held in a rented out bar.
I flew back from Atlanta to Austin, spending the evening before the wedding listening to the Cornell Hurd Band, talking with their pedal steel player, Herb Steiner, winding up with Kinky Friedman for the evening, along with his entourage.
I stayed at the San Jose Hotel, across from the Continental Club on Congress….where else?
The night of the ceremony was a classic Austin event. Bruce Robison was his Best Man and my Texas sweetheart, Kelly Willis, was the Maid of Honor. A zoo of Austin musicians joined us as Chris and his bride made vows and begin their marriage, celebrating with an Austin-style menagerie of friends. I felt completely “at home”.
After that night, we stayed in close contact, talking at length on the phone, discussing Chris’ frustration with his progress in the music industry, talking about existential philosophy, books we love and hate, the Dodgers and the Braves, his musings about religion, and more deeply, about God.
A while back, he returned to Montana, Livingston to be exact, the home of both of one of our favorite poets, Jim Harrison. Chris spoke of enjoying travelling the highways of Montana, taking in the gorgeous scenery we both loved. I was hoping to fly out to see him, along with my bamboo fly fishing pal, Glenn Brackett, but it was not to be.
Chris called me to tell me he would be moving back to Austin to begin advanced treatment on some cancer that had recurred. He did not sound hopeful when we talked but he never let on just how serious it was. We continued to talk every other month, but he would keep it light, on baseball and songs. He always asked about my musician son, Thomas, and how he was doing in Nashville. We tended to end up our calls with the sappy stuff that emerge when tough guys sense the end.
I got a call from Laurie last week that Chris had died in the ICU of St. David’s Hospital in Austin. She was crying, weeping as she left the message on my goddamn machine, and a note on Facebook to his fans gave me a bit more news of his passing. His page was filled with person after person who registered their love for this man, their sense of connection through his music, and how he had touched their life with his lyrics. It was a testimony to his legacy, even if late.
It’s not a pretty sight to see an old man cry. I’ve been doing a lot of that these days. Brue, Dusty, Chris….they sort of all piled up on me last week.
One of the things I will miss about Chris is the honesty we shared with one another. We shared a covenant to tell the truth, no matter the cost. I don’t have many of those friends. One of the tougher things we confessed to one another was the psychic cost we paid to do what we do, me as a priest, him as an artist.
I once talked to him how being a parish priest sometime felt to me like being a hired hand to do the dirty work. That I was really not part of the family, but a “hired hand”. Or in one particular parish, I told him that I felt like a “hired gun”, brought in to clean up the town, and to kill the bad guy, or in this case, girl. Chris felt somewhat the same way as he viewed his work in the field of commercial music. He worried about prostituting his artistic sensibility in order to please the demands of the market.
Out of our conversation, Chris wrote a song that I think captured his struggle and the hard work of wrestling with his own demons. I include the lyrics as a final salute to a great songwriter, but even better friend who journeyed with me into the depths of the soul.
The poet is not in today. He did not say where he’s going or how long he’s apt to stay. He mentioned that he didn’t have a worthwhile thing to say. No, the poet is not in today.
He’s burning up his passion writing greeting cards. His soul no longer glows in the dark. He’s concerned that God cannot see him anymore, so he’s gone to try and find the place where he first found his spark.
He’s tired of writing pretty words for pretty boys. Once made him feel like Cyrano. But now with every single lying rhyme he writes, his heart begins to feel a lot more like Pinocchio.
He said he’d go back to pounding nails, a job that’s got some dignity and class. He said with guys like you it’s always “heads or tails”, and you would not know a work of art if it bit you on the ass.
Oh, the poet is not in today. He did not say where he’s going or how long he’s apt to stay. He mentioned that he did not have a worthwhile thing to say. No, the poet is not in today.
Vaya con Dios, my poet friend and brother.