Robert Francis: Texas rocked Christmas in 1983

An Austin Rhythm and Blues Christmas

It’s difficult to remember that there was a day when Texas – and Texas music – was pretty much a regional thing. There was Outlaw Country, which spawned the popularity of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the recently passed Jerry Jeff Walker, but it was still fairly niche in the music world.

Austin was a sleepy little town of under 400,000 then and no one could imagine it would bulk up on steroids to more than 2 million by 2020 with more to come. And Austin’s music scene was a fairly well-kept secret. Oh sure, there had been Janis Joplin but she had to head to California to find fame, and there was Roky Erickson who with his weird, unpredictable 13th Floor Elevators was a hero to many, but mostly unknown.

So when Stevie Ray Vaughn exploded on the scene, first on a David Bowie album, then with an album on his own, suddenly Austin’s musical vibe was exposed to the world for the vibrant scene it remains to this day.

And Christmas had a lot to do with it. In 1983 the aforementioned Vaughn released his Texas-blues drenched debut, but also seeing release was An Austin Rhythm and Blues Christmas. The record showcased some of Austin’s best bands tackling a variety of Christmas tunes, from a rocked up Winter Wonderland to a new version of a holiday song by a Texas artist, Charles Brown, called Please Come Home for Christmas. Brown, a piano player from the Texas coast who was admired and imitated by Ray Charles, had also written Merry Christmas Baby, a blues holiday standard that was recorded by Elvis.

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For a young 20-something living in Fort Worth, the record was a glimpse of what was happening down in Austin and it gave us a certain pride as fellow Texans and musicians. These guys and gals – maybe especially the gals – were serious as a heart attack about music. But they weren’t above having some fun along the way.

The original record’s cover gave you a good indication what was inside. A Black Santa Claus, a smile on his face, is bringing a bag of goodies. Goodies in this case being a couple of electric guitars, just what every boy wants.

First up on the record was Angela Strehli and a version of a song that was relatively unknown at the time, Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, originally by Mabel Scott. Strehli took no prisoners: “Well look here Jack, there’s something down the track. He’s got rhythm in his feet but nothing in the sack,” she roared with swaggering Texas confidence. All right. This was Christmas, Lone Star style.

The rest of the album was full of similar Texas blues bravado. There is the Flying Thunderbirds with the aforementioned Rockin’ Winter Wonderland who took the song about as far from Dean Martin as an AA meeting. I spent weeks trying to figure out how they turned that song into a rocker. That song was one of Fort Worth’s first connections on the album. The drummer for the Thunderbirds at the time was Mike Buck, who grew up in Fort Worth and had played on Juke Jumper Jim Colgrove’s seminal Panther City Blues album (more about that some other time).

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The other big Fort Worth connection on the album is Lou Ann Barton, who gives a sly sexiness to Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. She also tackles Please Come Home for Christmas, a 6/8 ballad-style holiday song of longing that the Eagles had also recorded, as a one-off Christmas single in 1978. Don Henley of the Eagles, of course, was from North Texas.

Somewhere in the course of marriages, breakups and assorted moves, I lost my original copy of the album. I had a re-release that padded the album with a version of Blue Christmas by Willie. The album was originally released by a small local label, but was eventually released by Epic Records. You can find a CD version on Amazon for $900. $900!? I’d love to relive my early 20s Texas music euphoria, but I think I’ll try the MP3 version for the more reasonable $8.99. I’m not trying to say the album is perfect anyway. Some of the songs don’t hold up. But as an antidote to the overplaying of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, it might be worth $900.

At some point, the Austin music scene was a victim of its own success. When Rolling Stone magazine discovered Austin’s music scene, they dubbed it emblematic of the “New Sincerity,” an attempt to name the Austin music scene that made most Texans vomit copious amounts of tequila, lime and nachos. And now the music scene there is as much a part of the Chamber of Commerce as a bank.

So if the album shows up at a reasonable price, particularly with its charming original cover art, pick it up and remember the days when Austin was still a small town that had kept just enough weirdness to be interesting and had something gritty and real to prove to the world. Merry Christmas Baby indeed.