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Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air: Legends of West Texas Music
by Christopher Oglesby
Published by the University of Texas Press:
"As a whole, the interviews create a portrait not only of Lubbock's musicians and artists, but also of the musical community that has sustained them, including venues such as the legendary Cotton Club and the original Stubb's Barbecue. This kaleidoscopic portrait of the West Texas music scene gets to the heart of what it takes to create art in an isolated, often inhospitable environment. As Oglesby says, "Necessity is the mother of creation. Lubbock needed beauty, poetry, humor, and it needed to get up and shake its communal ass a bit or go mad from loneliness and boredom; so Lubbock created the amazing likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and Joe Ely."

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"Indeed, Oglesby's introduction of more than two dozen musicians who called Lubbock home should be required reading not only for music fans, but for Lubbock residents and anyone thinking about moving here. On these pages, music becomes a part of Lubbock's living history."
- William Kerns, Lubbock Avalanche Journal

Chris Oglesby Interviews
Cary Swinney
Chris' Home
Austin, TX; 4/21/00

Even though he was born in Lubbock, and even though he graduated from Texas Tech and has lived in Lubbock for over twenty years, and even though he has recorded two critically acclaimed albums right there in Lubbock, Cary Swinney doesn't really consider himself a "Lubbock musician."
Cary claims two hometowns: O'Donnell (pronounced with the stress on the 'OH') which is less than fifty miles south of Lubbock; and Perryton, up in the Panhandle.  
Cary didn't actually "live" in Lubbock until he began his freshman year at Tech, so he still feels a bit like a small-town outsider.

However, it was during his first semester at Texas Tech that Cary passed the acid test for any Lubbock resident. It seems that Cary and his freshman roommate, also from Perryton - which is in the rolling grasslands of the northern Panhandle - had never experienced a full-blown Lubbock style "cotton-patch-turn-over" dust storm.

On the day of that inevitable first dust storm, Cary returned to his dorm room, atop the high-rise dormitory Coleman Hall, to find his roommate pacing the room like a caged animal. He shouted to Cary, "No one should have to live like this!" The roommate didn't return for the Spring semester, warning Cary before he left Lubbock for Colorado that Cary was crazy for staying in Lubbock. 

And maybe he is crazy to stay in Lubbock, Cary thinks sometimes. He most likely was thinking that about the time a row of Lubbock cops tried to intimidate him off of a Lubbock stage for performing one of his more irreverant songs....
Of course, Cary wasn't entirely surprised then either. Cary understands why his act is not always taken in the best humor among some of his fellow Lubbockites.

If Cary Swinney's songs didn't get a rise out of a certain portion of the population, he isn't doing his job. I heard an old friend of his say following Cary's recent Good Friday rendition of "Jesus Christ is Coming to Town" (sung to the tune of the one about Santa Claus): "That boy just raised the bar on smart-ass."

Cary isn't really trying to piss anyone off; He just hates hypocrisy and feels compelled to rage about it in the lyrics of his music. And the battle against hypocrisy sometimes can be quite a daunting battle in Lubbock, Texas, my friends.

I hadn't really heard of Cary before I started writing a book about Lubbock music; I had been in Austin for a number of years...And Cary's never been overly enamored with the glamour of the Austin music scene. However, almost immediately upon commencing this project, I heard his name repeated with both respect and amazement by one artist after another. Cary is pretty much considered the premier singer-songwriter still living in Lubbock today. I first met Cary in the summer of '98. Richard Bowden suggested we get together.

Once I began talking with Cary, I realized it was going to be difficult to get either of us to ever shut up. Like many of us from West Texas, we're both big talkers. We had a few impromptu conversations over a period of a few months; but I was finally able to catch up with Cary over two April weekends. On the first weekend, I spent the weekend in Lubbock with Cary, his longtime girlfriend Bene' and her daughter Logan. 
  We were in town to see an event called "The Neanderthal Ball" hosted by Cary at Lubbock's Godbold Cultural Center. The Neanderthal Ball was a musical variety show, featuring such local talent as Cary, Richard Bowden, poet Paul Bullock, pianist Doug Smith, as well as one of the newest protégé's in the Lubbock music scene, a country-rocker named Wade Parks who covered such tunes as Billie Joe Shaver's "Callin' It an Evening" and Townes VanZandt's "White Freight Liner."
I imagine we'll hear a lot more from Wade in the future; He's the real deal.

The Ball was just that. Cary has a song called "Neanderthal Man." During the band's performance of that song, the audience witnessed a man in full Fred Flintstone Neanderthal garb do an impromptu Neanderthal dance all 'round the stage and the band, ending crouched underneath Doug Smith's grand piano. And that was just the beginning of the night! I can't even begin to describe the party that was going on in this place; One more incomparably wild Lubbock evening. And Cary thought it was just an average crowd. He said it was almost like a rehearsal for him.

The following weekend was Good Friday & Easter. Cary was in Austin to do a Texas Independence Day radio show on John Aielli's Eklektikos on KUT. After the show, I met Cary for lunch at a local macrobiotic organic kitchen. I thought I'd give Cary the taste of a meal he definitely couldn't get in Lubbock. 

Cary was to play that evening at Jovita's in South Austin near my home. So we spent the Good Friday afternoon talking at my place about Lubbock music. At last, we finally got a chance to get an interview on tape. Here is a transcript of that conversation. However, the only problem I have when getting material from Cary is limiting the quantity. Both Cary and I have plenty to say about Lubbock.

Chris: So Cary, you’ve had the experience of being on John Aielli's interview show on KUT, now, and we went and had lunch at Casa de Luz. We’re sitting here in South Austin. And it’s just obvious…You were talkin’ about how you love visitin’ Austin but you’re not exactly sure you would want to live here.

You’re obviously a "Lubbock Guy." You’re living in Lubbock now, performing your music there. And I guess, the first thing: Talk to me about being a musician in Lubbock.

A lot of the other people I’ve talked to have moved away from Lubbock. You’re working as a musician, living in Lubbock. So how do you feel about your work and your words and being a performer still there - working and writing in Lubbock?

Cary: Well, I haven’t really thought about it very much. Except for the fact that…like y’know…When you turn on the news in Lubbock and you hear what the news is in Lubbock, and you look at the attitudes toward things; You do kind of feel like the…not "the enemy" but… You feel like you might be a little bit more on the "liberal’ side than a lot of the people that are around you are. And then you come to Austin, and you realize that you’re not "liberal" at all! Whatever that term means.

Because, as I had said to you earlier: In Austin, it seems like everybody is striving so hard to be "Different" that they all end up looking and being "the Same." So they haven’t really accomplished anything.

Chris: Too many tattoos? I think there’s too much piercing goin’ on…

Cary: You know, like that place we ate at today (Casa de Luz). I enjoyed the place, and it was good and all that stuff. But I couldn’t help but kinda’ look around at the people that were there were all "like-minded." Naturally they would be…

But playin’ music in Lubbock is kinda’ funny because people out in Lubbock like to talk, and they like to visit. They like to just talk about anything. You can talk about "black-eyed peas" to somebody for an hour if you’re not careful. If you get off on some subject like that, then you may be in it for awhile.

Chris: Like we’ve been doin’ for the last three hours? [Laughs]

Cary: Yea. But I always feel good about goin’ back to Lubbock if I’ve been gone for awhile. It makes me feel good to go back home; ‘Cause, there is an "underground sub-culture" in Lubbock that exists, and it’s always existed.
Everyone that’s ever played any music in Lubbock, in the bars and local stuff, they become aware of this sub-culture pretty quickly.

Chris: You kinda’ jumped to someplace where I was gonna’ go. Tell me about how you got started playin’ music. Tell me about that first time you got up on on that backporch stage.

Cary: Of course, the first time I ever played I sang "Harper Valley P.T.A." at Dale, Texas, when I was eight years old. My dad played the guitar and I sang, holdin’ the microphone and everything.

Chris: Perfect, for you, too! Classic debut song!

Cary: But what happened was: I ran into a guy named Paul Bullock, and I become friends with him. Paul had invited me out to this house north of town that belonged to…I guess you’d call ‘em "old hippies." But that’s really not a very good term ‘cause they’re really older than the hippies would have been. I mean, I don’t know what you would consider them. They were more or less just "countrified free-thinkers," y’know what I mean? And still are.

Chris: And who are these guys? What’s their names?

Cary: Mike and Jack Burk. So I went out there that night to this party, and when I pulled up with Paul there was a band playin’ on the front porch. But as I got out of the car, I felt kind of like a stranger because I noticed all these there were all these people, this semi-circle of people around this old white stucco house, listening to this music. I kinda’ look to my left and I notice, "There’s Jesse Taylor." And on stage was Richard Bowden. And I knew who all these people were. They didn’t know me but I knew who they were, y’know… ‘Cause I’d been watchin’ Richard Bowden play with The Maines Brothers for years. I say that: "watchin’ it." I didn’t really go to any Maines Brothers shows. But I was aware of who he was, though. And I damn sure knew who Jesse Taylor was.

So I thought, "What the hell is goin’ on here?" You have long-hairs and you have professor-types standing next to this run down stucco house out in a cotton field…You know what I’m sayin’? All of a sudden, there was a piece of Lubbock that I never even knew existed.

Chris: Okay. Well, how did you end up there at this party?

Cary: I had lived in Lubbock for quite some time and was just playin’ my guitar at home basically. This woulda’ been 1988. I went to school and got my degree and got a job and did everything like I was supposed to do before I ever met any of these people.

What happened that night was...Richard Bowden just made a comment to me. They had a pick-up truck pulled up next to that porch, and Richard was settin’ there with his fiddle. He wasn’t playin’ it; He was just settin’ there - I guess - just lookin’ at me play.

And then all of a sudden I start hearing this music! And he’s playin’ the fiddle all of a sudden!

I was coaxed up there by Paul Bullock. Of course he said, "We’ve got this songwriter here. He’s really good, and I’ve heard ‘em," and all of this stuff. So they get me on stage - that porch - and nobody clapped. They had all just looked at me like, "Well, who is this jack-ass?"
Then I did my first song, and Richard kinda played in on it - which helped me because they all know and love Richard; This "sub-culture" of Lubbock all know and love Richard Bowden.
So by Richard kinda’ saying to everyone with his playing, "I’m gonna’ accept what this guy is doing," that was my way of getting into the deal.

Richard asked me after the song; He said "Did you write that?"
And I said, "Yes."
And then He said, "Have you written anything else?"
And I said, "Oh Shit. I’ve got a lot of ol’ songs, if you just wanta’ hear another one."

So we did another one. And that’s how I started.

Chris: So it was Richard Bowden we can thank for that.

So you had written these songs before, but it had not really occurred to you to perform before or…?

Cary: No. I had performed some. I mean, I used to occasionally go down to the "jams" but they were just were boring to me. I mean, jams are fun I guess for somebody. But I never found them to be that much fun.

Chris: What "jams"?

Cary: The Main Street Saloon Jams…Back in, say, the early ‘80s. I used to get out occasionally and play my guitar every now and then. But it was always like somebody was watching the clock, y’know. Whoever was hosting the jam, it was his show. And basically, you got your two songs and then went on. Even if your two songs were any good, they didn’t care; They were all interested in their own trip, y’know.
So that didn’t work for me, and I quit doin’ that. I pretty much was just playin’ around the house when I met Paul.

Then I met Richard, and I was also encouraged by Jack and Mike Burk.
‘Cause Jack can be very, uh…If you’re not careful with Jack…He doesn’t cut you any slack. I mean, you’re either…He’s not gonna’ bullshit you and tell you that you’re good if you’re not good. As a matter of fact, he’ll give you a rash of shit about it.

Chris: So what's Jack Burk's story?

Cary: Jack’s just a kid that was raised…Well, he’s not a kid any more. Hell, he’s 50-something years old. But he’s a "farm-boy," a "cotton farm boy" from Grassland, Texas.
To me, in some odd way, he’s "a step ahead of the game." That’s why you can’t pull any bullshit on ‘im. Because…

You see people that get all involved in thse "deep conversations," and they’re all so consumed with themselves. But really and truly, whatever, they’re talking about…When you get right down to the fucking right-down, it’s all trivial bullshit, just like anything else.

Y’know, you see some guy on stage - like myself - and he’s pourin’ it out and he’s trying all he can. And that’s good; You like it. It’s artistic and all that stuff.
But at the same time, there’s something trivial about it.
You see it and you accept it, and you’re glad that the guy’s doin’ a great job, and you’re with ‘im and you’re for ‘im and you’re pullin’ for ‘im…the art part of it. You get wrapped up in it. And sometimes you stay wrapped up in it but other times you look at somebody, and all of sudden your mind drifts for just a moment and then you think, "Where in the fuck are we?"

Chris: Well, where the fuck are we right now? We’re talking about Jack Burk…

Cary: Yea! [Laughs] Jack has the ability to see, or taught me some things - he didn’t do it intentionally - But in some odd way, he taught me to see a different side of things.

I was probably a little more of a conservative person before I met Jack Burk. He opened my eyes to some things.

Chris: Tell me about that.

Cary: Jack opened my eyes to…He made me aware of just how phony the newscasters all are. He made me aware for the first time, y’know, that what you see on television is mostly just horseshit. It’s all just crap, y’know. Even whatever the hell Tom Brokaw has to say is just being fed him. Whoever owns the station is either a "Republican" or a "Democrat" or whatever he is, and that’s what feeds the ideas for the station.

I had never really thought about that. I guess I was just such a young man that I just accepted things as being "the Gospel Truth." I never really questioned it.

Well, I can’t say that…I questioned authority since I was a little bitty kid…

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