Half a century ago, Mary Hattersley went by the name Mary Butler, then a shy musician who learned to play the violin at six years old and the daughter of a choir professor at the University of New Mexico in Las Cruces.
At 20 she dropped out of college classical music courses at NMSU and ran off to San Francisco. Her adventures took her across the United States, all the way to New York, before she finally settled down in Austin, Texas in 1970.
Today, 50 years later, she’s known as just “Sweet Mary” Hattersley who has earned a reputation as an accomplished fiddler player. Her musical career spans decades of performances with celebrities of country, blues, jazz and rock and roll musicians and hall of famers. She also teaches Suzuki method fiddle lessons to children in Austin.
As a 70-year-old cancer survivor, Mary’s professional life continues to grow and her music – which has been released on both vinyl and CDs – has worn many different recording labels – without ever straying too far from her roots. Mary’s life changed forever once she stepped onto the stage of an Austin bar called “The Checkered Flag,” in 1970.
Eddie Wilson, the manager of The Armadillo World Headquarters saw her and the band, Greezy Wheels, perform and booked them to open for The Burrito Brothers. Before she played with the Greezy Wheels band, she earned her fiddle education by sitting in with Kenneth Threadgill and his Hootenanny Hoots. She went by the name Mary Egan at the time; the surname of her former common law husband.
Threadgill had a fiddler already, “Fiddlin’ Joe” Martin. He and Mary hit it off and Martin taught her the fiddle player’s national anthem, “The Orange Blossom Special,” written by Ervin T. Rouse. The song, performed at breakneck tempos with imitative qualities of a train whistle and wheels, became the vehicle to showcase Mary’s virtuosity. Martin, a Mississippi native, died in 1975 — years before Mary would teach that very same song to other famous musicians backstage before her own shows. However, Mary has never stopped paying Martins’ favor forward.
“He (Martin) was always very kind to me as I really didn’t know anything. Joe would just let me play along. I truly learned most of the country songs on stage. I never was a paid member of the Mr. Threadgill’s band. I was sitting in with him at Bevo’s when I met Cleve,” Mary says. “I didn’t know then how to lay out and wait my turn. I just played over everything. It always amazes me how nice everybody was to me.”
Even before becoming known as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin supported a tremendous number of music venues that catered to folk, or country and western, blues or jazz music in the 1970s. Mary played at nearly all of the locations, including Bevo’s, one of her favorite hangouts.
Mary often took additional impromptu lessons from Mance Lipscomb and Bill Neely, before they performed on stage at Threadgill’s bar and restaurant. Lipscomb, a great blues singer and guitar player and writer from Navasota, Texas earned a name for himself after blues researchers from Arhoolie Record company discovered him and published some albums. Lipscomb died in 1976 and worked much of his life as a tenant farmer and day laborer born into a family of Alabama slaves. Author Glen Alyn wrote a book about Lipscomb entitled I Say Me for a Parable. In the book Lipscomb talks about teaching “Sweet Mary” Egan-Hattersley how to play rhythm.
“Mance had that style of picking where he played his own bass line on the guitar with his thumb. He was legendary around here when I met him. He influenced all of us younger pickers,” Mary says.
Neely, the son of sharecroppers from Collin County, Texas showed Mary how to bridge the gap musically between traditional country and the blues. Neely, a regular performer on Wednesday nights at Threadgill’s, often shared the stage along with Lipscomb, Janis Joplin and Pete Seeger. He influenced Mary and other musicians such as Dan Del Santo, Alejandro Escovedo, and Nanci Griffith before Neely died in 1990. Mary says she became good at what she calls “following.” She learned to listen to key notes and rhythmic changes that other musicians performed on stage, in order to learn the songs that she did not know.
“I could learn what I needed to play by listening,” Mary says. “I could pick out of the air intuitively, what the other musicians were playing, following instinctively – you hear it in your head first, then you feel it, and then you play it.” She found the experience of performing fiddle on stage “electrically-charged,” she says.
Mary’s performances drew the attention of Cleve Hattersley, who would become her future husband.
“I didn’t think of it as a romantic bond that I had with Cleve,” Mary says. “I thought of it as an electric, magical thing, music. I had music theory lessons before I could speak and he liked that about me. I liked his creativity.”
It would be years before Cleve and Mary would end up a couple; as they still had some things to learn about themselves and about the type of music that they wanted to play.
“Looking back now, I realize Cleve and his sister, Lissa, and even I were all Yankees, really. We didn’t know anything about country music. Prior to that we were all aligned with The Grateful Dead, (and Austinites) Roky Erickson and The 13th Floor Elevators,” Mary says. “We used to call ourselves the Greezy Wheels ‘skiffle’ band – a term used in the 1930s that means ‘casual.’ There was a lot of folk, with old-timey gospel, and string instruments including mandolin, that we used to play. It was the mixture that made us who we were.”
The Greezy Wheels at the time also included: lead vocal and guitar player Pat Pankratz, Mike Pugh on bass, and Tony Lair on drums. Cleve’s sister, Lissa Hattersley also sang with the band.
“Lissa (Cleve’s sister,) of course was not old enough to be performing in the bars,” Mary says. “She was only 17, very soon to be 18. She was a little shy too, so we had to get her a little tipsy to get her up there on stage to sing with us.”
The Greezy Wheels then became the unofficial house band at the Armadillo World Headquarters, playing there more often than any other group.
“We opened for ‘the Boss,’ Bruce Springsteen at the Armadillo World Headquarters when he was doing his first tour of the United States. He had just played Houston and a bunch of people followed him down here to Austin. He was young and nobody really knew who he was,” Mary says.
Their band mirrored the changes occurring in the 70s – a blurring of lines both socially and musically in the world. The Greezy Wheels opened for other regular acts at the Armadillo World Headquarters at the time, including Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball, Alvin Crow, and the Asleep at the Wheel band. The performers drew a mixture of audiences from all walks of life and ages.
Greezy Wheels also opened for Doug Sahm, of San Antonio. Sahm, had led a rock band, The Sir Douglas Quintet, in the 1960s and 70s. Sahm earned acclaim as a protégé for having played on stage at the age of 11 with Hank Williams Sr. during one of the star’s last performances.
“Doug (Sahm) was the favorite of everybody, everybody’s friend,” Mary says. “Doug was the sort of person we all looked up to. He had been in the band, the Sir Douglass Quintet, but when he and I started playing at Threadgill’s (bar and restaurant) it was Doug who taught me to play the old country standards.”
Mary participated in some wild jam sessions with all types of famous musicians on stage at the old Austin Armadillo World Headquarters.
“I remember those nights in the 70s, when there wasn’t any air-conditioning, but there was plenty of music in the air – in the beer gardens in Austin and on the stages, and along the back alley walls,” Mary says. “The 1970s were divided among those groups of people who had long hair and those who didn’t. There were the traditional country and western singers and the blues singers and the rock and rollers. But when we performed together, we were all friends who played music.”
The Greezy Wheels opened the show the first night that Willie Nelson performed at Austin’s old Armadillo World Headquarters.
“It was a risky thing that Willie did; he didn’t know if he could cross over country into western music with the hippies, but it worked,” Mary says.
Fiddler Mary Egan became a familiar name in the progressive country world; her name appears on the back of a number of record albums in the 70s. Jerry Jeff Walker invited Mary to play on two of his albums: Jerry Jeff Walker in 1972 and then Viva Terlingua! recorded in Luckenbach, Texas in 1973.
“We use bales of hay around us as sound walls and around the drums while we recorded,” Mary says.
Later, Walker, and the rest of his band returned to Terlingua to perform some tracks off the album live, including “I want to go home to the Armadillo,’ written by Gary P. Nunn. Sound engineers later mixed two of the live cuts from the Terlingua performance with those recorded earlier in Luckenbach. After they released the album, it went gold.
Soon afterwards, Mary Egan-Hattersley returned to Austin to play with the Greezy Wheels band. One night while waiting back stage to perform at the Armadillo World Headquarters, she saw French virtuoso violinist and jazz composer Jean-Luc Ponty. He asked Mary to teach him to play “The Orange Blossom Special” and she did.
“It was just a few notes, but he picked it right up,” Mary says. “Then Ponty went on stage and played it with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.”
In the early 1970s, The Greezy Wheels often also played at The Bottom Line and The Lone Star Café, the premiere country and western music venue, in New York City. Well-knowns like Willie Nelson, Kinky Friedman, Roy Orbison, Delbert McClinton, Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm and Jerry Jeff Walker all played there.
They also played the same festivals as Friedman and his Texas Jewboys and Frieda and the Firedogs (now known as the Marcia Ball band.) The Greezy Wheels band coast-to-coast became one of the brightest stars in the progressive country western and blues-blended musical universe.
They became the first band from Austin to sign with a major label; the same company that distributed records by The Rolling Stones, London Records published their album, Jus Love Dem ‘Ol Greezy Wheels, followed by their second, Radio Radials.
“London Records put us (The Greezy Wheels) up in Bogalusa, Mississippi in a wonderful recording studio out in the middle of nowhere. We all lived in the house and recorded there,” Mary says. “I remember the smell from the paper mill. There was this paper mill in the same town and if you’ve ever been near a paper mill, you’d know, they stink. They smell like Brussels sprouts. So the smell was part of the deal, a funny part of our experience.”
After finishing their first album, the Greezy Wheels hit the road in an antique Flexible Flyer bus.
“I made curtains for it (The Flyer.) Inside we could set up a card table and there were places to lay down our instruments and store our equipment,” Mary says. “But then we ended up having too much equipment for the bus. Things got crowded.”
With Cleve and Tony Airoldi, the Greezy Wheels now had three guitarists, including Pankgratz, as well as a mandolin player; a drummer, plus a new conga player, Madril Wilson, and of course, Mary on fiddle and Lissa, on vocals. The group disbanded in 1978.
It took 25 years for the Hattersleys to get the Greezy Wheels rolling again. In 2001 Mary and Cleve, and his sister, Lissa, reunited the Greezy Wheels to release the CDs: Millennium Greezy, HipPOP, and StringTheory. Then Cleve and Mary also released a duo CD entitled, Totally. The Hattersleys returned to the spotlight by joining The Band’s drummer, Levon Helm, at his “Midnight Ramble” at The Barn in Woodstock, New York regularly beginning in 2009. Helm died in 2012.
Last year Mary and the Greezy Wheels released their album, Gone Greezy, on their own label, MaHatMa Records, earning them a spot in the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2012 and their hometown’s top ten list of albums recognized by The Austin Chronicle. Currently, their newest album, Kitty Cat Jesus, which released this past May, features two hit songs: “I Cry Myself to Sleep,” and “I’ll Get Away With It.” Both have received lots of radio station airplay.
Other current Greezy Wheels members include: lead vocalist Lissa Hattersley and other band members: vocalist Penny Jo Pullus, drummer Johnny Bush, bassist Brad Houser, and trombone and harp player, Matt Hubbard. Both Bush and Houser previously played with Edie Brickell and The New Bohemians in the 1980s. Hubbard also performs with Willie Nelson.
Mary recalls that Cleve told her once that as a little boy he had always dreamed of becoming Roy Rogers.
“I had always wanted to be Dale Evans,” Mary says. “Dale had a tomboy element to her, but she was very feminine. I still put on my Dale Evans boots and dresses to wear whenever I perform.”
Evans still serves as Mary’s role model. Mary never forgot the song that Evans wrote and sang with Rogers, entitled “Happy Trails to You.” RCA Victor Records released the song in 1952 as a 78-rpm and then a 45-rpm vinyl single. Later the song became the theme for the television show, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
“I always wanted to be part of a pair like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans,” Mary says. “Cleve and I think of ourselves today as a dynamic duo.”
This past June marked the couple’s 39th anniversary, as common law husband and wife, legally registered in Travis County. Cleve is 66 and Mary just celebrated her 70th birthday June 8, 2013. Doctors diagnosed her with vulvar cancer and removed all her affected tissue July 2, 2013.
“They found out I had it right when we were in the middle of my (Blazing Bows) summer fiddle camp. I decided we would do camp anyway. The doctors went in and found the cancer all in one place and got it out. The surgery went well. There’s nothing else required,” she says.
Some might consider that the Greezy Wheels time has passed, but the band’s fan base reveals that their sound as always, remains one roll ahead of its time. Once referred to as “progressive country” 40 years ago, the Greezy Wheels’ sound today represents an amalgamation of country and western, blues, gospel and jazz.
This interview story ran in the June 2014 issue of Fiddler magazine. http://www.fiddle.com