Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Legend of Fritts Botwell

I've never considered myself a fan of country and western music. And this is despite my upbringing in Texas, where the twang of a pedal steel guitar and the sonorous drawl of a country love song were hard to avoid. In 1975, the film "Nashville" was made by Robert Altman, and it proceeded to dig into the background and the underground of the making and selling of country music (and to take a dig at Jimmy Carter, the non-candidate candidate for president). It was fun story-telling for Altman and for Hollywood stars such as Lily Tomlin, Henry Gibson and others, but for me it defined the intersection of the genuine and the cheesy that has made country music so frustrating for me to listen to. Country music for me was Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" (which Johnny Carson proceeded to warble late one night before falling off a wooden horse) and Jerry Reed, who made a hit out of "Amos Moses" in 1971 and proceeded to make a career out of rewriting it in several different versions before becoming a TV miniseries mainstay.

At the same time, I spent a lot of late evenings my freshman year listening to a bluegrass show on WTBS that came on prior to "The Ghetto", which filled the midnight hours with good soul and funk in the days before disco fever. I knew enough about country and bluegrass to win a few pizzas by answering the station's call-in contest questions. There were some good bluegrass bands out there - the Country Gentlemen, the Holy Modal Rounders (well, okay, the Rounders were not your normal bluegrass band, unless you listened to KFAT in Gilroy, California, in 1980) - and some good slices of Americana out there, such as "Six Days on the Road", which was a genuine, authentic truck-driving tune by Dave Dudley (recast by Sawyer Brown more recently), to which C.W. McCall's "Convoy", which was a much bigger hit and started the CB craze in 1976, could not hold a candle.

In 1975, a whole new brand of music came out of Texas that would redefine country music for at least a decade. Willie Nelson released "The Red-Headed Stranger", a collection of spare ballads that featured Willie, his guitar and his voice, with his backing band somewhere off in the distant background. These were pure songs of lovin', fightin' and heartache, and they were the first wave of what would be known as outlaw country, a sound that merged the short-haired Nashville sensibilities of Nelson and Waylon Jennings with the long-haired, alternative stylings of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and others who took their trips on LSD. Waylon, Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker came to represent the outlaw sound and to make country cool enough for Woodstock-size festivals. Little watering holes in Texas named Luckenbach and Terlingua would become famous as cowboy hangouts (long before Michael Dell built his first PC in an Austin garage).

Into this milieu wandered David Allan Coe, straight out of prison. He was made to be an outlaw musician - he was  a big, bad hombre, and he had a habit of both name-dropping and telling people who he was and wasn't. He established his brand with a Steve Goodman song called "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" that was described as "the perfect country and western song". It was on the Nashville charts about the time that Fritts Botwell, who was not Johnny Cash or Charlie Pride or Willie Nelson, arrived.

Fritts Botwell was destined to become the savior of the MIT Undergraduate Association spring concert series, as chronicled in a series of Stickles cartoons. Every Spring, the UA became concert promoters, bringing famous and not so famous bands to the MIT campus (the Grateful Dead had played a free concert on the MIT Student Center steps back in the '60s). The year before I got to Tech, a little band from Boston named Aerosmith had played the Rockwell Cage, although the results were regarded as somewhat disastrous, since all the urchins in Cambridge showed up in force, to consume beer and puke on the dirt floor. The concerts thereafter had been less than stellar successes, despite the fact that a graduate of the Class of '69, Tom Scholz, would go on to form a little band called Boston. With all the talent that resided within a 25-mile radius of 77 Mass Avenue, the UA just couldn't make money promoting concerts.
Part of the problem was the UA couldn't afford any big headliners, and those musicians they could afford were not very well known. It would be at least two years before new wave music would take hold on college campuses, thus providing schools like MIT with a steady source of bands that were obscure to everyone else in the world but college students. So it was up to Pud's friend Ross to hit upon the idea of bringing in a country musician.
Jim Croce was a easy-listening balladeer who burst on the scene in 1972 with "You Don't Mess Around With Jim", about a bar-room brawler who picked one too many fights, and followed it up in 1973 with an even bigger hit called "Bad, Bad, Leeroy Brown", about a bar-room brawler who picked one too many fights. Had he not died in a plane crash in late 1973, no fern bar could have contained him. As it was, he would go on to have a string of hits after his death (including "Time in a Bottle", which was about a bar-room brawler, that's not right), becoming almost as legendary a posthumous performer as Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur (although Tupac's not dead; he's just living in New Zealand).
Arkadelphia is a little town in Arkansas, not far from Hope - or the I-30 Interstate. It became something of a running joke in our family, for reasons known only to my youngest brother.
I don't recall if any of these comic strips ever saw the light of day or the page of a newspaper (I cranked out a lot of material in 1976, when these strips were drawn, and thursday only published once or twice a week, depending on the ad revenues). I'm not even sure if MIT's students are still in the concert promotion business. But country music is still with us. It has bounced back and forth between the sublime (Joe Ely, Steve Earle), the ridiculous (Lee Greenwood, Toby Keith) and the Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett).

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