Alvin Crow

Alvin

Fiddler, bandleader, and singer/songwriter Alvin Crow began his career as a child prodigy who learned to play the violin at just four years old and began classical music training by the time he turned seven.  He entered the junior Oklahoma City Symphony at 12 and became an alternate violinist before his 14th birthday.

“By the time I was seven I was wearing white buck shoes, a red blazer, greasing my hair, and doin’ an Elvis. At nine I started learning guitar for the purpose of accompanying my singing, which tended towards roots country at the time — Jimmy Rogers, the Carter Family, Bill Monroe —  the western swing that I saw on TV in Oklahoma.”

As a young man, Crow’s fascination with music grew well beyond his capabilities; he learned to imitate the styles and song repertoires of country’s great bandleaders like Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers.

“So that is the vein I started in, as far as learning to sing and play. By the time I was 12, I had a rock and roll band,” Crow said. “At 12 or so, I was playing all the time, as a bandleader.”

Crow treasures a faded Kodac colored photo of his rock band performing in his family’s garage about 1964 when he was 14 years old.  Another earlier black and white blurry photo reveals Crow and his brother Rick practicing at a city orchestra rehearsal.

“I appear to be about ten, while Rick is about six or so,” Crow said.

Crow began playing in bars and honky tonks regularly at 20 years old, first in Amarillo and then later in Austin. He played at a dozen or more honky tonks in the late 1960s around Amarillo before moving to Austin permanently in 1971, a turning point in his musical journey.

Some of the Amarillo clubs in which he performed included: Rod’s Club, The Panhandle Barn Dance, the Playboy Club, the Clover Club, the Avalon, and the Aviatrix just to name a few. As a teenager he played bass in a country rock band called the Fuzzy Hog Brothers. Fiddle players were hard to find at the time in the Panhandle, so Crow gained experience as he played and sat in with a lot of bands.

After the Fuzzy Hog Brothers broke up, Crow started performing with just one of the band’s members, D.K. Little, in a duet. The two maintained a somewhat homeless and transient existence, living out of a car and traveling from town to town to play in road  houses and honky tonks.

“We travelled all over Texas in a ’64 Plymouth.  It was our home; we would see a small honky tonk, go in, and ask the bartender if we could set up in the corner — just the two of us — and play for ‘pass the hat,’” Crow said. “At first they would be dubious, but when we started with the Hank Williams they were usually very happy.”

Crow and Little liked the freedom of playing whatever they liked whenever and where ever the road took them.

“Being in a band was hard, so we enjoyed it (the duet.)  We wound up in Austin, where there was a plethora of folkie clubs,” Crow said.

Crow and Little moved to Austin in 1969 and lived here for about a year and a half.

“We played all over Austin at the little folk coffee houses that were popular at the time. We played Hank Williams at the time and it was unique. Everyone else in town was playing (Peter, Paul and Mary’s song) ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore.’ And we did well. We did real well.”

The Vietnam War interrupted the duet’s career when the US Navy recalled Little to service and Crow went back home to Amarillo alone.  Soon afterwards, Crow formed the Pleasant Valley Boys, a western swing band.

Another friend, Scott Nelson, found a job in Amarillo playing solo at a place called the Hole in the Mall and he asked Crow to join him in a duet. Crow played fiddle and mandolin and also sang. The dynamic changed once again when Nelson moved to Colorado, leaving the gig to Crow.

“So I started asking guys to come in and play with me and before too long, we had a band at the Hole. It was during this time that we were the first hippie country band playing for a very mixed crowd — not country rock, or folk rock, but an honest to God long-haired western swing band,” Crow said.

“Well before anyone else tried it, there were a couple of social hints that this could maybe work, like the (Byrds’ album released by Columbia in 1968) Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and (Bob) Dylan’s country stuff, but we were implementing it in very redneck dancehalls.”

They performed for two stereotypical groups of music lovers – the hippies and the rednecks, Crow said.

“Since we were the only real western swing band on the (Amarillo) Boulevard, the rednecks had to like us, which created some very interesting situations between the West Texas rednecks and the hippies. It got very popular.”

Crow’s band called themselves the Pleasant Valley Boys, after the neighborhood in Amarillo where most of them had lived.

“We continued to play our one night a week at the Hole. The owner of one of the larger honky tonks on the boulevard recruited us to become his house band, offering a decent wage for four, or five – I can’t remember — nights per week. We played there, at Rods’ Club, for about a year,” Crow said.

“I think it was five hours per night, five nights per week, giving me plenty of chances to implement my very large song list, including original songs.”

It was also during this time, things in Austin began to heat up musically at the old Armadillo World Headquarters. So the Pleasant Valley Boys along with Crow considered a move to Austin.

“There were two bands that were playing country oriented music to hippies, though we were still the only long-haired band that played regularly in honky tonks. The Byrds might have made some sorta country records, but they were a far cry from being a real honky tonk band,” Crow said.

Marcia Ball, then known as Frieda and the Firedogs, as well as the Greezy Wheels band drew the hippie crowds with an amalgamated sound that incorporated rock, country, swing and blues. As a result, the Austin club owners booked them often.

“They did not play for the rednecks in Austin, but played at the hippie venues – we were doing both (in Amarillo.) So we took a band vote and headed to Austin,” Crow said.

The move financially strapped members of the Pleasant Valley Boys and a few of the musicians missed their families, friends, and regular paying gigs at familiar Amarillo venues.

“Once we got to Austin, we had gigs, but not for much money. So some of the members went back to Amarillo to play in a country house band at the Outsider Lounge.

Crow reorganized with a new band and a new name, the Neon Angels.

“Most of guys I had in that band originally came from rock and roll bands. I somehow convinced them to think country music was cool, because they didn’t think it was. It was very polarized. The hippies liked The Doors and the rednecks liked Hank Williams,” Crow said.

The Neon Angels played Tuesday nights at the One Knight Only in Austin. At the time, the One Knight Only featured acoustic acts, mostly soloists. But the Neon Angels, Joe Ely, “Blind George” McClain, Cody Hubach, Kenneth Threadgill, and Bill Neely each performed only one night per week at the One Knight.

Afterwards, the One Knight would become a blues venue for the likes of Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn, Angela Streihi, and many others, but at the time, it struggled as a folk club, with mostly non-traditional musical folk acts. Meanwhile, other clubs in town followed the trend at The Hungry Horse, Bevo’s, West Side Tap Room, the Vulcan, the Hole in the Wall, Shakey’s Pizza, and The Split Rail.

The musical tastes remained polarized between hippies who liked rock and roll and rednecks that liked classic country music. A new genre of music, referred to as “progressive country”  sprouted up in Austin.

“There were many people around Austin then that fit the handle of ‘progressive country.’ It was sorta’ accurate, but it was not accurate at all for me, or for Freida and the Firedogs. We thrived within that atmosphere, but the sound that emerged, that became known as progressive country was not in our bag at all,” Crow said.

B.W. Stevenson, Rusty Weir, Ray Wylie Hubbard,  Jerry Jeff Walker, and Steve Fromholtz forged the sound currently referred to now as popular country music, he said.

“As far as I know, Rusty (Weir) really started that sound. Rusty is the true pioneer in that kind of sound. It provided not a musical format for me, but an atmosphere that I was able to use to open new crowds to real country music,” Crow said.

Late at night, after his gigs at the Broken Spoke, Crow and the dance hall’s owner, James White met up in the kitchen where the two would sit “cookin’ up songs.” Crow also did a lot of re-mastering of White’s tunes while he wrote songs of his own using a personal writing and playing technique. For both Crow and White, getting into the mood to write a song makes all the difference.

“One must first ‘suit up.’ That means, take some notes, have some ideas, drink a bunch of coffee, get a paper and pencil, in a quiet place, and sit down and do it,” Crow said.

“James (White) would bring me his ideas on paper and I would work through them, give them structure and cohesiveness.  James White lives and breathes in three quarter time — meaning, almost everything he gives me, he has (written) in the form of a waltz. I often change the rhythm to something else, but his songs virtually all come to me as waltzes.”

Crow has become somewhat of an expert at writing music and lyrics, but he also recalls more than 600 songs, which he considers the “classics of country music” from memory and performs them regularly on stage.

For a few years every Tuesday night, White sat in with Crow’s band to sing classic songs as part of their “Hard Core Country” show.

“We would go through a somewhat historical presentation of country music – Roy Acuff, and Bob Wills, and Hank Williams,” Crow said.

White said people began to call Crow “Mr. Juxebox,” because he has a broad working knowledge of some 600 melodies off the classics of country song list. At times when he can only remember a line or two of the lyrics, he improvises.

In the 1990s, Crow received a Texas Folk life Resource Grant from the National Foundation for the Arts to provide lectures around the state to public school children about the history of western swing fiddling.

“This was a residency program. I would go to a small town and have a solid week of bookings to play and talk about country music and mostly how the fiddle is involved,” Crow said.

He has lectured in churches, schools, retirement homes, and hospitals, he said.

“Sometimes it would be lectures and sometimes just music.  Civic groups were a biggie. I would be booked solid every day for a week, while staying in a house, usually provided by the town. It was fun,” he said.

Crow hardly ever carried notes with him when he traveled in the professional speakers’ circuit and lecture series, he said.

“I mean I would just get up and talk. And I did that quite a while,” Crow said. “I grew up in country music. To me it’s not somethin’ you can read necessarily in a book – although I did read some of it in books. I read a lot. But most of it comes from the people I know or knew from personal experience.”

Learning to play country music at such an early age in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Amarillo and Austin, he relished his opportunities to meet the greatest stars of country music.

“I met these musicians and some of the legends when I was a kid and when I was a teenager, or even later on – like the Playboys, Bob Wills’ band,” Crow said.

White said The Playboys drew one of the biggest crowds ever at the Broken Spoke in 1975 after Wills passed away.

“None of those Texas Playboys would play with each other after Bob Wills passed away,” White said. “So Alvin Crow and Bobby Earl Smith, and Joe Gracey got together with the Austin City Limits and they said ‘well, you know we can afford to bring this talent, The Texas Playboys – all the original Playboys that we can back together in Austin on one stage and record that and put it on TV.”

Crow asked for White’s help financially in getting the Playboys to Austin from Turkey, Texas.

“A lot of those (Playboy) players worked for service stations or garages and couldn’t afford to take off work and they darn sure couldn’t afford no hotel rooms and everything,” White said. “So here at the Broken Spoke we were able to charge a cover charge of $5 per person – which was a good coverage charge during those days. We got 500 people who together turned over $2,500; so that financed the Playboys’ plane fares.”

White said the Texas Playboys signed more autographs that night at the Broken Spoke than they ever had before.

“People were literally sittin’ on the floor back there,” White said. “It was a great night. And we had a poster with Alvin Crow’s bus out front along with Bob Wills’ bus in front of the Broken Spoke. I’ve got one of those posters back in the ‘Tourist Trap’ room. They’re a collector’s item today.”

Over the years, both Crow and White have remained good friends with the living original members of The Texas Playboys.

In his early life Bob Wills served as Crow’s model and today the former student pays the favor forward often, by serving as a mentor to other musicians.

“He’s very good at teachin’ people either how to play an instrument or singin’. He’s helped a lot of musicians and up and comings to help them either get jobs out here or to further their music,” White said.

Crow said that he and White take an interest in “real country music as opposed to NOT  real country music.”

“We’re people who are interested in that and see the difference and delineation between the modern pop country and even the new country music that’s produced in a more country manner,” Crow said.

While Crow may have come a long way since he began playing at the Broken Spoke, he has never forgotten the influence  the venue has had on his career.

“My earliest recollection of the Broken Spoke goes back to when I moved here the second time in 1971. The Broken Spoke wasn’t any place I thought I would play even though I loved it.  I can remember showing the place to my parents right after I moved here. In the light of day, it had swingin’ flaps over the windows and it didn’t have air-conditioning. Real similar to how Guene Hall is now. So I played all over town for maybe about two years before I got my first job playing here,” Crow said.

“There was kind of a gap between the hippie bands and the redneck bands at the time and I was kind of straddlin’ the middle. So there was that that was goin’ on here in Austin. It probably got better here in Austin than it did other places, largely because of the mixin’ up of the two – the cowboy and the hippie cultures.”

Crow recalls that musician Bobby Earle recommended his band to White one day.

“Or maybe I got a gig here because Marcia Ball had just played here and done real well. She was another band called Frieda and the Firedogs at the time. She had gotten a gig playing a benefit of some sort for Lloyd Doggettt – a political deal. I think James realized that these hippies and rednecks could actually mingle.”

He has also never forgotten how he began his career in Amarillo playing in clubs on Amarillo Boulevard and at the now defunct Texas Moon Palace.

“The thing that occurred between the hippies and the cowboys actually began in Amarillo. I don’t know that it happened anywhere before we were doin’ it. We were sort of a hippie western swing band,” Crow said. “At the time, those place we played live were on Amarillo Boulevard. It was a very vibrant place for music and here we were some guys with long hair and things were very polarized in Amarillo. We became pretty good and pretty well known, so the rednecks bunch had to sort of accept us. The way it worked was, the rednecks wanted to hear Bob Wills and we were about the only band playing Bob Wills in Amarillo at the time. They had to come see us.”

From one side of Amarillo Boulevard to the other, Crow recalls about 12 and 15 different places to play like the Broken Spoke, he said.

“However, when they put in I-40 things changed, but Amarillo was a great place to learn and to practice country music.”

Crow never gave up his fight to bring the two fan groups – the hippies and the rednecks – together in one place, when he moved from Amarillo to Austin.

“Often the night ended in massive fights – as bad as you can imagine. But then it kind of got to where it wasn’t quite so bad. Then we picked up and came to Austin,” Crow said.

“Then there wasn’t much going on – there wasn’t the melding of the cowboys and the hippies. There were hippies over at the Armadillo (World Headquarters) and the rednecks out here at the Broken Spoke. So I looked at that and thought, somehow those two have to come together, ‘cause I knew they could. I’d seen it before in Amarillo – there is nothing more redneck than Amarillo Boulevard in Amarillo – at those places that had the chicken wire on the front.”

By the middle of the 1970s gigs were easy to come by in Central Texas for Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys. They made a good living, playing a lot of private parties – so many that at times keeping track of the band’s bookings challenged Crow’s scheduling. One day in 1975 at a private party in San Marcos, Crow realized the band would not finish playing a party gig in time to start playing their evening performance at the Broken Spoke.

“It was early in the day. I called James (White) up trying to figure out how I could play both gigs. I wanted to play the party earlier – which was a good payin’ gig and the Broken Spoke on I guess a Saturday night,” Crow said.

“So, I knew about this little band in San Marcos called the Ace in the Hole band. George Strait was the lead singer and I liked him a lot and I knew James would too. Strait’s vocals kinda ran along a good track for country music as far as I was concerned. So I thought, if we could get George Strait to play for the first hour or so, we could go in and finish the night at the Broken Spoke.”

White said that night marked Strait’s first performance followed by dozens of others that spanned seven years at the Broken Spoke, until the star became too expensive to book anymore.

In the 1980s, Crow and White took their “Hard Core Country” show to Washington D.C. It was about the time that U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson partnered with a C.I.A. operative known as “Operation Cyclone,” to organize and support Muslim rebel fighting during the Soviet War in Afghanistan, he was paying Crow and White and the rest of the Pleasant Valley Boys to perform on Capitol Hill.

“Wilson took us there. We stayed for about a week — played two shows, I think one was the Texas Ball,” Crow said.

Later, George Crile III wrote a non-fiction book in 2003 about the largest covert military operation in history; Aaron Sorkin adapted it for film and Mike Nichols directed it. The movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, made in 2007 starred Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and was nominated for five Gold Globe awards.

Both James White and his wife, Annetta White went to Washington, D.C. at Wilson’s invitation.

“James got to get up and sing his songs and give his ‘B.S.’ speeches. It was a blast for us,” Crow said. “Charlie (Wilson) was great. I am an avid reader and am interested in politics, so I grilled Charlie as much as a could about his involvement with the mujahadeen and the CIA. He was fairly open about it.  He was going to Afghanistan a lot then. We stayed up late, drank too much, and talked about everything we could think of – from  Hank Williams to the CIA.”

One of the greatest accomplishments of Crow’s career he attributes to a single compliment.

Betty Wills, Bob Wills’ widow, told the media “Crow plays fiddle more like Bob Wills than anybody,” he said.

Bob Wills inspired Crow, who as a youngster growing up in Oklahoma immersed himself in the midst of country music. Wills often performed just a block from Crow’s house in Oklahoma City, he said. Often, Crow would spy on the band and learn his music lessons vicariously by watching.

“Bob Wills and Hank Thompson were it for me. The idea of (becoming) a fiddle-playing bandleader was probably derived from my fascination with Bob Wills. Who wouldn’t be? Bob and Hank Thompson were incredibly popular and played in the honky tonks close to my house a lot,” Crow said.

“I would go behind the building and watch the bands between the boards on the exterior walls.  I would stand behind the wall and peek through, making me right behind the drummer, who was only a few feet on the other side of the wall from me. I thought Bob Wills’ band was the loudest and most powerful thing I had ever seen — ditto for Hank Thompson.”

In Austin in the 1970s, as a 20-something year-old, Crow caroused the same neighborhoods in town as Willie Nelson, whose father “Pop” Nelson, owned “Willie’s Pool Hall” down the street from the Broken Spoke on South Lamar Boulevard.

“Willie bought Pop a pool hall for him to play in, as Pop had a band at the time,” Crow said.

Another of Crow’s mentors, Jesse Ashlock, played fiddle in Pop Nelson’s band.

“Jesse taught me a lot of what I know about he fiddle. Jesse lived in Austin for about two years before he passed away. He was quite a guy, and my hero,” Crow said.

Other famous performers who played in Crow’s band, include: Jimmy Day, Willie Nelson’s steel guitarist since 1967 and Junior Brown, who played with him at two or three different times.

“Jimmy (Day) is a legend, for sure. He pretty much wrote the book on a certain style of steel guitar playing,” Crow said. “I met Junior (Brown) when he was playin’ at Castle Creek with a band from Denver called Dusty Drapes and the Chaps, or somethin’ like that. I thought he was very good,” Crow said.

Eventually, Crow learned Brown’s phone number and he called him up in Denver.

“A couple of years later, I called him to see if he was interested in moving to Austin and playing steel guitar for me. He said ‘yes’ and he played in my band as a steel player for a couple of years.”

Brown later quit the band for a time, but Crow rehired him again.

“He was a regular — twice in the band, on different instruments,” Crow said. “I recognized junior immediately as a giant talent and am very proud of his success. Jimmy Day was already the great Jimmy Day by the time I knew him. What can one say about the master —  he had the best touch, the best tone, of any and all steel players.”

Crow’s former harmonica player, Roger Crabtree, played with Waylon Jennings and performed most of the harmonica work that later became the signature sound for both Jennings and for Willie Nelson on many of their albums.

Currently Crow regularly performs with Pete Mitchell, one of Ernest Tubb’s former guitar players who once played with the Texas Troubadours.

“Ernest (Tubb) only had the best. Jimmy Day was in Ernest’s band also. Pete (Mitchell) is the Jimi Hendrix of country music — that guy can do stuff with a guitar that no one else can do,” Crow said.

Crow played with Doug Sahm, who played garage rock with the once popular rock band, Sir Douglas Quintet, in the late 1960s before starting the Texas Tornados.

“Doug played in my band under a fake name a lot. Doug was a child prodigy steel player and actually played steel with Hank Williams at his last honky tonk gig at the Skyline Ballroom in Austin. Doug had not played steel in 20 years when I talked him into dragging that antique from under his bed. Turned out, he was still very good on it,” Crow said.

“He enjoyed it so much, that when he was not on tour with his own band, he would come and be my steel player and sit on the end of the stage and play with no microphone – just so he wouldn’t have to sing or talk. He just wanted to play steel; he called himself ‘Wayne Douglas’ on these gigs and would deny that he was Doug Sahm if anyone asked.”

Crow owns some of the only known photographs of an adult Sahm playing steel guitar.

“Except for the few that I have, there are tons of him playing as ‘Little Doug Sahm,’ when he was about nine — but none — except these, as an adult. He didn’t just mess around with it, he played the livin’ hell out of it,” Crow said.

“Doug and I had very similar backgrounds and tastes. Very few people can understand what it is like to be a professional, successful musician from an early age — it is a very odd and dysfunctional experience, and Doug is the only person I have ever known that really understands what it is like, and he felt the same about me. We understood each other on a level that no one else ever has, nor will.”

Both Crow and Sahm shared an obsession for baseball as well. Sahm died in 1999.

“When I wasn’t doin’ music, I was playin’ or practicing baseball. Doug was more of an obsessive fan, while I considered myself an obsessive player. Later, I played on teams that Doug coached.”

Sahm supported Crow’s plan to become a bandleader in Amarillo after Little was recalled to service by the US Navy to fight in Vietnam.

“I always used guitar when I led a band and usually played the fiddle while someone else was singing or leading the band. (Up until Sahm’s suggested it,) the idea of me serving the kind of role that Bob Wills played in his bands had never really crossed my mind.”

Crow first discovered in Amarillo the power that a fiddle player may possess over a West Texas or Oklahoma dance crowd. Today he unleashes that power at least twice a month on stage during in his performances as bandleader of the Pleasant Valley Boys at the Broken Spoke in Austin.

“I knew about bluegrass and I knew about several kinds of fiddle, but what I didn’t know was the relationship a plugged in fiddle can have with a large dance hall full of people,” Crow said.

These days, Crow devotes as much of his time to interests other music. Baseball, breeding Pitt Bull dogs and running represent his three favorites. As a runner, Crow averages about 10 miles daily in the city. This summer he usually ran during the hottest part of the days when the Central Texas thermostat reached peaks above 105  degrees. So far he has clocked about 100,000 miles on foot along the Hill Country’s roadways; often his preferred mode of travel is barefoot.

      Discography:

1976 Alvin Crow Welcome to Texas – TRP records

1977 Alvin Crow with the Pleasant Valley Boys – Polydor Records

1977 Alvin Crow High Riding – Polydor

1988 Alvin Crow Sings Pure Country — Broken Spoke Records

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: