Texas has legends beyond the Alamo
I wasn’t surprised when I heard someone from Fort Worth was on The Voice, the NBC music competition show now in its 11th year. Nearly all reality shows include someone from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. As the fifth largest television market in the country, it’s smart business to include someone from here, so we can all cheer the hometown hero. It doesn’t always work, as the Real Housewives of Dallas failed to conjure up Texas-sized ratings despite a tornado of stereotypes, clichés, facelifts, Southern drawls and Western chic fashion.
Fort Worth’s done well by The Voice, with Season 7 giving us Luke Wade, who continues to build a solid career while maintaining a loyal fan base here.
I was only casually watching the program when they announced a performer with a familiar name: Austin Allsup. “Allsup?” I thought; surely it’s not…
But it was. Austin is the son of Tommy Allsup, a multi-instrumentalist who is a legend himself and has crossed harmonic paths with many a Texas music legend. Allsup’s biggest claim to fame is that he was the loser of a coin toss to see who would get a seat on the fateful plane ride with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper the night of Feb. 3, 1959, aka The Day the Music Died. He lost the coin toss to Richie Valens of La Bamba fame. Allsup, then the guitar player for Holly’s Crickets as well as the other bands on the bill, was sent to the bus and the rest has become as legendary as that little mission in San Antonio.
Aside from being a Cricket, Allsup has been involved with other Texas legends such as Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and Bob Wills. With Wills, Allsup produced and played on the Texas Swing legend’s final record, For the Last Time, recorded at Sumet-Burnet Studios in Dallas. Wills, by the way, lived in Fort Worth at the time.
And that was where Allsup’s name dredged up some memories for me. While that record was being recorded, I, soon to graduate from R. L. Paschal, was friends with this woman who was a little older than me and way more experienced in the ways of the world. A singer, she and I would get together late at night and go to this church that was always open and play the piano. I wasn’t very knowledgeable at the time, but in the dark, slightly spooky church, we would work out songs like Summertime, Hit the Road Jack and Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken, based on a Methodist hymn, so we had the music nearby in the pew.
She lived in Austin, but visited her parents here and she snuck me into Daddio’s in downtown Fort Worth where I got my first official look at Texas Swing in action (outside of some Hemphill Street bars near my home). Al Stricklin was the most famous of Wills’ piano players and I spent years trying to figure out some of the licks Stricklin played on piano, later spending hours watching him in various bars and a pizza parlor in Cleburne. It all looked so simple, but it was like a Zen koan – simple and complex at the same time.
The woman was friends with Allsup and some of the players on that last album. She recounted for me the drama of the making of the album. Wills, in ill health, only played on a few cuts. A stroke ended his participation in the album and some wanted to abandon the project. But Allsup pushed on, with some of the aces from Texas Playboys’ long history: Stricklin, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar; Eldon Shamblin on guitar and some special guests, including Merle Haggard, taking Western Swing forward and honoring their fallen leader.
The album produced by Allsup has since been regarded as a classic and helped stimulate the continued impact of Texas Swing far beyond the Lone Star State’s borders.
Texas music has its own legends, a bit like the Alamo and they are as important to our cultural history as that fabled battle. Buddy Holly’s fateful plane crash and Bob Wills’ gutsy last performance are receding into memory as those who were there inevitably disappear. We shouldn’t forget them.
So when Austin Allsup starts singing on The Voice, remember you’re cheering for a talented, rough-hewn singer, but also for a piece of Texas history. History you can dance to, that is.
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