SXSW: At Scoot Inn, a ‘backstage’ peek at life of a legendary roadie

There were two things happening at the eastern fringe of SXSW on Friday afternoon.

In the sun-splashed dirt courtyard of the Scoot Inn beer garden, the Brooklyn Bowl Family Reunion was in the final stretch of a three-day run — Erika Wennerstrom’s enormous voice on “Extraordinary Love” was swamping the place like a tsunami, drowning out pockets of disinterest.

But inside Scoot Inn proper — what was on this afternoon the “Roadie Lounge” — the star of the afternoon was a legend on a different level. Ben Dorcy, who maintained his title of “oldest living roadie” by working until the week he died at the age of 92 last September, was being celebrated with sneak peeks at a documentary 13 years in the making.

Every now and then Amy Nelson, daughter of Ben’s longtime employer Willie, would try to bring the two events together, speaking to the outside crowd of the virtues of “Lovey” — as Dorcy was known to those close to him. But still, a separation remained: The show and … backstage.

For an event honoring the original roadie, it was only natural.

Erika Wennerstrom plays during The Brooklyn Bowl Family Reunion at Scoot Inn during SXSW Fri., March 16, 2018 JAMES GREGG/AMERICAN-STATESMAN.

It was fitting that the Scoot Inn would host — it is one of the few Austin bars old enough to encompass the legacy of Dorcy, who was born in 1925, two years before the first jukebox. After serving as gardener and valet to John Wayne, Dorcy would hit the road for 65 years with the giants of country music.

Inside the dark and cool interior of the historic bar, the first 15 minutes of the documentary: “Lovey: King of the Roadies” began with Dorcy aboard Willie’s bus, sharing a joint with his old boss and recounting stories of misbehavior and wild times. It is a professional and polished film of music legends sharing what is legendary to them. Among the many icons on screen, we don’t lose sight of who the star of this show is. There’s Dorcy, shuffling along on his cane, his countenance weathered to sharp angles. In portraits, his eyes are inscrutable. In snapshots with friends, they are alive with joy.

RELATED: Remembering Ben Dorcy, ‘King of the Roadies’ and a Texas legend

“He took care of all these stars with this star power,” Amy Nelson said. “And he had that same kind of star power. He could have been an actor, too. He was hanging around all these amazing people and he chose to serve them.”

Amy Nelson — there on Friday alongside her co-producers of the film, David Anderson and Lana Nelson — co-directed the film with her cousin Trevor Doyle Nelson. Her love for the man who was part of the Willie Nelson Family band, and by extension, her own family, was apparent in her conversation … and also in the years she has spent on the film.

All along, she pictured Dorcy at events like these and on the red carpet at the premiere. “It was hard to keep working on (the documentary) after he was gone,” she said. But Austin’s High Brew Coffee stepped in at that moment to help push the project forward.

Now Amy Nelson says the film is nearly complete and she hopes to have details like publishing and licensing complete in time for the fall film festival season.

Ben Dorcy got his start in the music business working for Hank Thompson, but also was connected to Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash.

Inside the Scoot Inn, Dorcy’s fellow roadies are lined up for free custom earplugs being given out this afternoon by MusiCares. Those not on barstools having their ears peered into are watching the screen as Jamey Johnson sings a cover of “Night Life.” Toward the end of the clip, Dorcy is shown in the plaza of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, when a fellow in a Batman costume sidles up to him. “Where are the drugs going?” he asks. Is it a real moment or a setup? Either way, Dorcy’s reaction is authentic: “Get away from me!” he snarls.

The room erupts in laughter. These pros know, the meek don’t survive 65 years on the road.

RELATED: The Year in Willie, a look back at Nelson’s busy 2017

Dorcy was connected to Willie for many of those years, but he also worked with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Ray Price, George Jones and Waylon Jennings, among others.

In his later years, Dorcy was connected to a similar run of “Texas music” artists: Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Kevin Fowler, Josh Abbott, Cody Canada and, particularly, Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen.

As it turns out, it’s no accident that Dorcy stayed on the road with the younger generation — those artists and their roadies worked together to take care of the man who had no living relatives.

“All of these fellow roadies were becoming like his sons,” Amy Nelson said. “They would network and figure out where Ben was going and where he going to work and where he was going to spend the holidays and how they were going to pay his rent.”

“It was amazing to see this brotherhood and how they came together to take care of their fellow roadie.”

It was in this spirit that Joel Schoepf (former roadie who now works for John T. Floore Country Store) and John Selman (Willie Nelson stage manager) created the Live Like Lovey foundation, to help benefit other roadies who need financial assistance.

A silent auction at the Scoot Inn on Friday, featuring items ranging from Willie-signed bandanas to original Jerry Garcia art, helped raise funds for the roundation. Looming over the auction was a huge framed movie poster for the “Lovey: KIng of the Roadies” documentary.

Before he died in September, Dorcy did see a cut of the hour and 40 minute film about his life. His judgment?

“He loved it,” Amy Nelson said. “After 20 minutes, he was like ‘I like it.’ And when it was over he said, ‘I love it.’”

“Thank God.”

15 years gone: Remembering Waylon Jennings

Country music legend Waylon Jennings died 15 years ago this week following a long battle with diabetes-related ailments.

These days, his legacy might often fall under the shadow of his longtime friend Willie Nelson, but it should not be that way. His fierce musical independence deserves its own spotlight — whether you remember him as the critically acclaimed young Nashville rebel who spurred change on Music Row, the cocaine-fueled outlaw who swaggered through the mid-to-late ’70s, or the reflective family man who emerged in the 1980s (even making an appearance in the Sesame Street movie “Follow That Bird”).

Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings at KLRU studio during the taping of the Willie Nelson 60th birthday special in 1993. Photo by Sung Park, American-Statesman
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings at KLRU studio during the taping of the Willie Nelson 60th birthday special in 1993. Photo by Sung Park, American-Statesman

Here are five quotes from his 1996 autobiography, “Waylon” …

ON GROWING UP IN LITTLEFIELD, TEXAS: “It’s so flat your dog could rn off and you could watch him go for three days. They say you can stand in Littlefield and count the people in Levelland, twenty miles away.”

ON LIVING WITH JOHNNY CASH: “It was like a sitcom; we were the original Odd Couple. I was supposed to clean up, and John was the one doing the cooking. If I’d be in one room polishing, he’d be in the other making a mess. Making himself a mess.”

ON HARD LIVING: “I took pills by the fitful. I’d start with a Desoxyn or two, and some little White Crosses, and wash the whole mess down with an Alka-Seltzer to kick it in the ass. … I knew they would kill some people, but they didn’t kill me. I thought I was invincible.”

ON HIS FIRST FOURTH OF JULY PICNIC WITH WILLIE: “Nobody has a clue about what they’re doing, when they’re going on, who’s in charge. Nobody can figure how to control it. Nobody wants to. Somebody steals the money and we don’t get paid. But there, right as rain, is Willie, beaming up at me. He knows it is the beginning of something. ‘We hot, ain’t we?’ he says.”

ON SOBERING UP AND FAMILY: “I was sitting with Shooter in a restaurant booth. He was on the inside, and he got his coloring book out. He was all of five years old. He put his left arm through my right, and we sat there for about an hour while he colored. Shooter hand’t ever done that before. I’d never been able to sit so still for so long with him. I wasn’t about to move my arm.”

Waylon Jennings in 1976. American-Statesman file photo
Waylon Jennings in 1976. American-Statesman file photo

And just for good measure …

 

40 years gone: Blues legend Freddie King was a giant at Armadillo WHQ

This mural of Freddie King was painted by Jim Franklin and once hung in the Armadillo World Headquarters.
This mural of Freddie King was painted by Jim Franklin and once hung in the Armadillo World Headquarters.

If you’re young enough to imagine the Armadillo World Headquarters — rather than remember it — there are probably just a few names you have associated with it. Willie Nelson, for sure. Maybe Commander Cody. Perhaps whoever is on the poster you bought at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar last year.

But one fellow who is terribly under-recognized today is late blues guitar legend Freddie King. In the 1970s he was known to call the Armadillo World Headquarters “the House That Freddie Built” — and he wasn’t the only one.

King, who died 40 years ago today in Dallas, was a frequent performer at Austin’s 1970s landmark, showing off skills learned from legends such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in nightclubs on the South Side of Chicago and passing the magic along to Texas disciples such as Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan.

In a 1996 story on the 20th anniversary of King’s death, Statesman music Michael Corcoran described King’s pioneering and powerful blues style:

Although T-Bone Walker practically invented this rawhide style of electric blues, it was King who revved it up for the rock crowd by hoeing the turf between Walker and B.B. King. Moving from Texas to Chicago with his family at age 16 (then back to Texas in his 30s), Freddie King merged the most vibrant characteristics of both regional styles and became the biggest guitar hero of the mid-’60s British blues revivalists, who included Eric Clapton, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack and Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac.

A true Texas music legend, King was honored by Gov. Ann Richards, who declared Sept. 3, 1993 as “Freddie King Day.” A decade later, Rolling Stone ranked King 15th in its list of the 100 greatest guitarists. Nearly another decade later, King was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Read Michael Corcoran’s full-length article about King here.

An open letter to Ray Wylie Hubbard, from a fan who missed his 70th birthday

Here's Ray Wylie Hubbard at his birthday show at the Paramount a few years back. Photo by Tammy Perez.
Here’s Ray Wylie Hubbard at his birthday show at the Paramount a few years back. Photo by Tammy Perez.

 

Dear Ray Wylie Hubbard,

Sorry I didn’t make your birthday show here in Austin last weekend, I was taking the kids to visit their grandparents in East Texas. I spent my weekend just southwest of the first liquor store across the Gregg County line and just northeast of the Starrville Church of the Living God. I’m betting you know the feeling.

And sorry I didn’t get around to wishing you a happy 70th birthday last week, when, you know, it would have been timely. I had a rough week. I mean, my Aggie football team went from playoff contender to completely tits up. Yeah, and there was that other thing, too …

But, hey, happy birthday! Big 7-0! Like most journalists, I’m a sucker for big round numbers.

You might not remember me, but we go way back. It’s been almost 23 years since I worked an evening — fortified by youth and bourbon — checking wristbands at the doors of the Luckenbach dancehall. You’d be amazed at what some people would do to avoid a $5 cover charge (like trying to work dancehall security when you’re 5’7”). I didn’t know anything ’bout you except, well, you know. But I learned a lot that night. I was a fan right away.

A few years later I saw you in Bryan, playing a show so small that you joked with the handful of folks in the audience, “we’re gonna play what we want, because we think we can take you.”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to mention how a Luckenbach Willie Fourth of July Picnic interview with you was interrupted by a knee-high Lucas … and how I saw the same kid on stage with you at a Picnic in Fort Worth a decade later. I must have told that story every year since. But I will say that I’ve heard every “Redneck Mother” you’ve sang at the Picnic since 1995 and enjoyed every one.

(Secret handshake time: I know, no matter what Bob Livingston says, that “E” is for “Ethel.”)

And there’s no way I’m going to re-hash that story about how I dropped by your house one time with the Mayor of Luckenbach and though you weren’t there, I ended up saving a mouse from your swimming pool. Not going to mention it. (Seriously! Ray Wylie’s swimming pool! The Fountain of Groove!)

Our visits slowed down a bit once I started acquiring children. But I have all of your albums. I even paid for them! Substantially, in a few cases involving vinyl and eBay.

And I don’t miss a chance to put “Snake Farm” as my daughter’s favorite song on the paperwork for her parochial preschool. I’m sure they love that. (But I did have to take “Texas is a State of Mind” off an iPod playlist some years back when I overheard my then-preschool-age son singing softly to himself “ … we got cowboys out the ass.” He’s nine now. He turned out OK. He says “hi.”)

Enough about us, though. Here is my birthday wish — and request — for you: Let’s make your 70s a hell of a decade. I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but I need you around. Not just around, but busy doing great things.

When it seems like I don’t have enough, I need someone to remind me about keeping my “gratitude higher than my expectations.” When it seems like I can’t, I need someone to remind me about Rilke and “our fears are our dragons.”

As I push on toward 50, feeling the effects of my excesses, it damn sure doesn’t hurt to see someone who has turned sobriety into high-quality creativity — and is still getting better. And we all need someone to inspire and instruct the younger Texas singer-songwriters. Just saying.

And sometimes I just need that little bit of guitar groove in the middle of “All Loose Things.” Or to stand in a field and yell “It’s a reptile house!”

You probably don’t need my encouragement on any of this. But 2016 has made me a little jumpy. Figure it won’t hurt none.

Probably won’t get out until income tax refund comes in. I’m as busted as an Edsel. But Willie and God willing, I’ll see you at least once next year.

Best wishes,

Dave Thomas

(P.S. For your next book, I’d recommend not letting your wife write the last bit. I mean, it was a great book, but I came away thinking “yeah, that Ray Wylie did some crazy stuff, but Judy Hubbard? Man she is a badass!” Totally stole the show, I’m thinking.)

Taking Willie Nelson’s Picnic back, decade by decade

Fireworks explode above the audience at Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic in 2015 at Circuit of the Americas. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman
Fireworks explode above the audience at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in 2015 at Circuit of the Americas. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

In less than a week, the 2016 Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic will make its second appearance at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, with Brantley Gilbert, Lee Ann Womack and Margo Price joining traditional performers such as Kris Kristofferson, Leon Russell and Jamey Johnson — the most recent regular.

If you’ve been keeping close track of your Picnic history, you’ll know that years ending in “6” have produced some unusual Picnics. If you haven’t been keeping close track, that’s what I’m here for. Let’s take it back …

2006: Fort Worth Stockyards

Willie Nelson plays with the band Harmonic Tribe at his Fourth of July Picnic on Tuesday, July 4, 2006 in Fort Worth. Photo by Jeffery Washington, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Willie Nelson plays with the band Harmonic Tribe at his Fourth of July Picnic on Tuesday, July 4, 2006 in Fort Worth. Photo by Jeffery Washington, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

With the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band proving to be less of draw than 2005’s Bob Dylan, this Tuesday Picnic drew fewer than 12,000. But that just made everything a lot more comfortable for those who showed up. There was a Nelson, a Haggard and a Jennings on the bill, but they were Paula Nelson, Noel Haggard and Shooter Jennings. Waylon’s son, making his Picnic debut a decade after his father’s final Picnic appearance, stole the show in the mid-afternoon. Another Outlaw offspring, Lucas Hubbard, son of Ray Wylie, stole the show right back that evening, playing blistering guitar for his dad. Yes, the Picnic has reached that age.

The day began with a stifling combination of heat and humidity, but an intense rain shower (that shut down both stages for at least half an hour) cleared that up, only to leave the North Forty a muddy mess.

1996: Luckenbach

Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic brought out thousands of heat-seeking country fans jamming the small rural town of Luckenbach, Texas. These fans were fortunate enough to have front row seats as Willie takes to the stage in the annual day long event. Photo by Tom Lankes, American-Statesman
Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic brought out thousands of heat-seeking country fans jamming the small rural town of Luckenbach, Texas. These fans were fortunate enough to have front row seats as Willie takes to the stage in the annual day long event. Photo by Tom Lankes, American-Statesman

At the tail end of one of the hottest Picnics in the last dozen years, Waylon Jennings finally showed up on stage. He wasn’t in the best shape and he only did a handful of songs, but – after what seemed to be a fair amount of negotiating with Willie – Waylon did perform “Luckenbach, Texas” in his one and only trip to the tiny town, and it was a magical moment.

A drought that year had turned the picnic site into a dustbowl and the heat was fierce. But 12,000 showed up anyway and drank enough water that by 5 p.m., concessionaires had run out. They didn’t slack on the beer either … by one count, more than 55,000 beers were sold.

1986: Farm Aid 2 at Manor Downs

After the success of the first Farm Aid, Willie made plans the next year to hold it at Memorial Stadium on the University of Texas campus, but organizers could not secure liability insurance for the stadium. (There was also a significant concern on the part of some would-be picnickers about the prohibition of beer consumption at the stadium.) The concert was moved in late June to Southpark Meadows and – after more insurance wrangling – a week later to the Manor Downs racetrack. Despite all that, Farm Aid II drew a crowd of 40,000, though only $1.3 million dollars were raised for family farmers.

More than 80 performers played over the course of 18 hours (starting at 7 a.m.), ranging from a song each for some of the local artists to a scheduled 21 minutes for Willie at the end of the show. Celebrities on hand included Don Johnson (at the height of his “Miami Vice” fame) and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

1976: Gonzales

Willie Nelson joins Doug Sahm on stage at Willie's 1976 Picnic. Photo by Ed Malcik, American-Statesman
Willie Nelson joins Doug Sahm on stage at Willie’s 1976 Picnic. Photo by Ed Malcik, American-Statesman

Willie, not letting the lingering disputes from the Liberty Hill fiasco get to him, planned another three-day Picnic. This one, July 2-4, would be held on the Sterling Kelley ranch about 7 miles east of Gonzales. That wasn’t far enough away for many of Gonzales’ residents. A group that non-ironically named itself CLOD – Citizens for Law, Order and Decency – quickly formed and by late May the county had denied a three-day permit and Willie had called off the Picnic. But a month before July 4, Willie changed his mind. By mid-June the county optimistically agreed to a one-day show and by late June, Willie said he was going to have a three-day show anyway, now starting on the afternoon of July 3.

Reports wavered between expected crowds of 100,000 and 200,000 but attendance only reached “more than 80,000” (still the largest Picnic). Early arrivals found the site to be perilously short on water outlets and bathroom facilities and the concert ended when a downpour on the morning of July 5 shorted out the PA system – before Waylon or Willie had performed their shows. In between, one person drowned and injuries ranged from stabbings to snake bites. More than 140 were arrested – four for kidnapping – and at least three rapes were reported. Willie would later be sued by two injured picnickers, the owner of the ambulance service and the owner of the ranch.

The Gonzales County authorities were concerned enough about drugs to pick their battles: “If an officer sees someone smoking a marijuana cigarette, he won’t arrest him,” deputy sheriff Don Kincaid told the Statesman before the picnic. “But if someone is making a sale or has heroin, he or she will be taken in.”

(Just in case you needed to see Willie Nelson sharing the stage with Vince Neil. I guess the rest of Motley Crue couldn’t make it …)