MICHAEL H. PRICE: Backwater Texana and a music-biznis digression
The songwriter and guitar-builder Greg Jackson, a key music-making cohort of mine since 1981, has taken the occasional hand in the comics racket, as well, as a consequence of the affiliation. Greg is the life-model, for example, for the character of Jackson Walker in Timothy Truman’s Scout books, and Greg supplied the lap-steel guitar riffs for a funnybook-soundtrack recording that accompanies a chapter of the Prowler series, first as an Eva-Tone Soundsheet insert and eventually as a digital file.
Greg and I have a rambunctious Texas Plains upbringing in common, too – our hometown areas sit within half-an-hour’s drive from one another, and we attended West Texas Suitcase University during the late 1960s and had many of the same musical accompanists – although we never met until after both of us had resettled in North Central Texas. A steady influence overall has been the work of the Oklahoma-to-Texas balladeer Woody Guthrie, whose rough-hewn autobiography of the 1940s, Bound for Glory, once inspired Greg and me to begin thinking about a composite memoir. Guthrie’s equally rough-hewn cartoons had suggested that a comic-book composite memoir might suit the Jackson-Price agenda just fine: Call it Rebound for Glory.
A worthy thought, but the music-making imperative has taken prior claim to such an extent that what stories Greg and I have managed to tell together have all turned out to be songs. Postmodern folkie-scare material, for the most part, but with nods all along to a shared family-band tradition. Our first album of Texas Panhandle ballads – ballards, as Greg calls ’em – arrived in 2006 under the title Mortal Coils, with as emphatic a nod to Aldous Huxley and Mr. Shakespeare as to Woody Guthrie.
The origins of some such material predate Greg’s and my efforts by a good many years, including quite a bit of resurrected ancestral material from the 1930s – 1950s. We’ll be taking the Mortal Coils songbook out for an in-person jaunt on September 5, 2007, at Granbury, Texas. The plan is to vary the program to include some recitations of neo-Texana by my longtime newspaper publisher, Rich Connor, with whom I work at The Business Press of Fort Worth, in Texas, and the daily Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (not far, incidentally, from Tim Truman’s turf). The spoken word and the gargled lyric have quite a bit in common, in this instance.
Did I say “predate” – ?? Back in 1934, the silent symphony of a Southwestern dawn inspired two music-making brothers to begin a long-in-the-making song called “Mornin’ on the Desert.” One of the authors, Manny Jackson, eventually became the father of Greg Jackson, a like-minded soul who eventually would retool the verses into a coffeehouse ballad.
“I can smell the sagebrush smoke,” reads one stanza, lamenting the inexorable spread of urbanization: “I hate to see it burnin’, but the land, they say, must be broke.” Greg Jackson’s decisive version of “Mornin’ on the Desert” retains much of the vision of his father, and of Manny Jackson’s brother Paul Jackson: “The air is like a wine … It seems that all Creation has been made for me and mine…” The piece, long a staple of Greg’s folk-singing repertoire, has figured since the 1980s in Greg’s and my collaborative efforts. We preserved “Mornin’ on the Desert” on Greg’s 1989 solo album, Faraway Friends of Mine, and gave it a fresh veneer for the Mortal Coils sessions.
Greg and I identified a kindred spirit in 1993 when Rich Connor produced a newspaper essay called “Symphony of Morning in West Texas.” Connor wrote: “Morning doesn’t come any earlier, out along the flatlands …, than it does anywhere else. It only seems as if it does … You stalk the morning here, … waiting with coyote-like stealth.”
I had pondered recording a recitation of that Connor column back when Greg and I were preparing Mortal Coils – an ideal complement to “Mornin’ on the Desert.” Best-laid plans and all that, of course, and I left the idea hanging. I did, however, make a point of including “Symphony of Morning” while editing and illustrating a newly published Business Press anthology called Richard Lawrence Connor: The Texas Collection. Close enough to a full-circle connection, there.
If you’re ever down in Texas, look us up – if I may swipe a line from Phil Harris. And no time like the present: Connor and Jackson and I will finally merge our outlooks on West Texas at 4:30 p.m. Sept. 5 in a program for Tarleton State University’s Langdon Weekend arts-and-letters festival. The venue is the Texas Nutt House Restaurant, on the Town Square in Granbury.
Connor’s Texas Collection will supply the readings. The book’s concentration of Texas lore conveys the perceptions of a Maine-born journalist in the gradual process of settling into the oil-and-cattle country.
Greg Jackson’s and my Texas-bred outlook informs our songwriting ventures with the tense contradictions of nostalgia (what with our being transplants from the windswept Panhandle region) and cynicism (what with our being willing transplants from the wind-swept Panhandle region). The bucolic serenity of “Mornin’ on the Desert” gives way to the caustic outlook of “High Texas Wind,” a composition of Greg’s kinsman David Quisenberry, which in turn yields to the fond homesickness of Greg’s “Grandma’s Front Porch.”
With the Mortal Coils song-cycle, Greg and I were wondering, in essence, how Woody Guthrie might have carried on, had he lived into the turbulent present day. The Jackson-Price material descends in a skewed tangent from Guthrie’s famous Dust Bowl Ballads collection of the Depression era – itself something of a turbulent time.
Langdon Weekend coincides with the publication of a new volume of The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas, which contains some additional thoughts along these lines from Yrs. Trly., with a digression or two into the two-fisted artistic lives of some pulp-fiction champs including West Texas’ Robert E. Howard.
The Langdon Weekend tariff ranges from $10-per-event to $60 overall. The reservations phone is 254-968-9281. The Web address is www.tarleton.edu/~langdonreview/
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com.