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Culture Slim Richey 1938-2015: Texas guitarist crossed the borders of jazz, bluegrass,...

Slim Richey 1938-2015: Texas guitarist crossed the borders of jazz, bluegrass, country and more

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Robert Francis
Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

Texas guitarist Slim Richey, whose 1977 album Jazz Grass, married bluegrass, country, jazz and blues, died Sunday after fighting lymphoma for several years. He was 77.

Richey owned a music store in Fort Worth for many years and used several Fort Worth musicians on the landmark album, including Sumter Bruton, guitarist for the Juke Jumpers and owner of Record Town.

In Austin, Richey played with the Jitterbug Vipers, the Dream Band and several others usually accompanied by his wife, upright bass player, Francie Meaux Jeaux.

Aside from helping jumpstart jazz-bluegrass crossover movement, Richey also helped launch the career of singer Kat Edmonson, an eclectic singer in her own right. Now based in New York, Edmonson has recorded several well-received albums and appeared on a variety of television shows.

Below is an updated story the Fort Worth Business Press published in 2007 about Richey.

When Slim Richey’s house in Driftwood, Texas caught fire in 2006 , he watched as a fireman ran out of the flaming structure carrying two guitars and a mandolin.

“He asked me if there were any more and I said, ‘No,’” said Richey. “He then went back up helped fight the fire. I didn’t know he knew who I was. I thought that was real nice.”

Such is the cosmic payback for the 77-year-old Richey, one of those little-known, but highly-respected musicians, who appears to be making a second, third or fourth comeback depending on who’s doing the counting.

Richey spent several years in Fort Worth running a retail music operation and recording several albums, including a seminal record that still resonates across cultural and musical barriers today: Jazz Grass, an album of mostly bluegrass musicians forsaking their mountain roots to play more harmonically-sophisticated, citified jazz.

Local guitarist extraordinaire and Record Town owner Sumter Bruton played on the sessions for the 1977 album.

“It was the first album like that,” he said. “There weren’t any banjo players tackling songs like Night in Tunisia and The Preacher back then. It blew people away. Still does.”

And, in true Spinal Tap fashion, it is huge in Japan.

“It’s always sold well there,” said Richey.

Now living in Driftwood and playing primarily around Austin with four different bands, Richey was in town in 2007 to play the Fort Worth Jazz Festival and the Django Reinhardt Fort Worth Festival at Arts Fifth Avenue.

At the Jazz Festival, Richey played with The Kat’s Meow, a trio featuring his wife, Francie Meaux Jeaux on bass, Richey on guitar and Kat Edmonson on vocals. Edmonson is a singer Richey found at a jam session. She sings in a big band, Joanie Sommers-style and, according to Richey, never sings the same way twice.

“She’s amazing for such a young woman,” he said in 2007.

Edmonson has since gone on to be a successful recording artist, with several albums and appearances on network shows like The Tonight Show and Late Night With David Letterman.

At the Django Reinhardt festival here, Richey played with Yo Gadjo!, a gypsy jazz group. He also plays with The Jitterbug Vipers, featuring Emily Gimble on vocals and the Slim Richey Dream Band, a jazz band.

Born in Atlanta, Texas, Richey heard an amalgam of music on the radio of the day, catching a little New Orleans jazz here, a little country there, some rhythm and blues on the side and a dollop of hillbilly music.

“I’d stay up late at night and see what was out there on the radio,” he said. “I’d pick up these Mexican stations and they’d be selling Holy Grail cloths and promoting R ‘n” B and first one thing and the other.”

When Richey heard the album of Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, he became smitten with jazz.

“I just thought that’s what I should be doing and I’d start drawing pictures of guitars and started playing for real,” he said.

Richey then attended the University of Oklahoma, where he studied a variety of subjects, but music was never far from his mind, or his fingers.

After abandoning music for a few years while in Seattle, Richey came to Fort Worth in the early 1970s and – for a year – taught algebra at Stripling Junior High before hearing the siren call of music once again.

Opening Warehouse Music on Fort Worth’s south side, Richey began selling guitars and musical equipment and making occasional records on the side on his Ridge Runner label. He also traveled to various bluegrass festivals around the country selling equipment and sitting in with bands. He noticed bluegrass musicians, while playing traditional bluegrass on stage, would ask Richey to show them jazz licks backstage.

“I guess that’s where the idea came from for Jazz Grass, much as I can figure,” he said.

In 1977, it all came together with Richey gathering T-Bone Walker devotee Bruton, Dobro player Dan Huckabee, fiddle player Ricky Skaggs, mandolin player Joe Carr, banjo player Alan Munde and others for the Jazz Grass sessions.

Bruton recalled it as a learning experience he’ll never forget.

“I learned so much just rehearsing for that album,” he said. “Slim’s got a unique style that blends just about everything, Western Swing, Wes Montgomery, Howard Roberts, blues and country, you name it.”

Richey remains enthused about music.

“I may be more interested in it that I was as a kid,” he said in 2007. “I still draw pictures of guitars, just like I did back then.”

Contact Francis at rfrancis@bizpress.net

To hear an excerpt from Jazz Grass: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGGIMH0-XuM

To hear Slim Richey backing Kat Edmonson:

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