Last week’s Song of the Week, Hawaii ’78, considered the relationship between man and the land. Inspired by that, this week I would like to take another musical look at the interrelationship of humans, their environment and economy in a song – actually three songs – by Steve Fromholz.
Steve’s family moved frequently during his early years, as his father was an Army officer. His parents divorced when he was 10 years old, and Steve and his brother lived for several extended periods with his maternal grandmother in Bosque County, Texas. His older sister was married to a rancher and lived nearby. The time he spent there during the early to mid-1950s formed the background for his Texas Trilogy.
The first recording that Steve Fromholz released was as half of a duet called Frummox. The other member was Colorado native Dan McCrimmon. Dan was a friend of a friend of mine, and because of that connection I saw them play a few times in the Denver area in 1969 and 1970. The album, called Here to There, has become a cult classic of sorts. It is a wonderful album and I would recommend listening to the whole thing if possible. Besides the “Texas Trilogy,” it contains great songs from Steve like “Man with the Big Hat” and “Song for Stephen Stills”; and from Dan, such as “Kansas Legend” and “Weaving Is the Property of Few These Days.”
That was the only album by Frummox. Dan released a couple of pleasant solo albums and traveled throughout Alaska as part of the Poets in the Schools program funded by the Natikonal Endowment for the Arts. For many years now he has been a superb guitar maker (luthier) working from his shop in the Denver area.
Steve Fromholz had more success in the music business. He was a guitarist and backup singer for Stephen Stills and Rick Roberts and recorded several solo albums. His songs have been recorded by – and he performed with – the likes of Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Denver, Hoyt Axton and others. Steve was creating the “Texas music scene” that flourishes in the Austin area before any of the Texas “outlaws” were even in town. “Texas Trilogy” has been the inspiration for at least two books, including one written by Fromholz.
Steve was also known for his social activism. When the government threatened to arrest homeless people living in Austin, he led a group in a peaceful “sleep in,” with campfires, on the steps of the Texas State Capitol. In 1993, he organized a peaceful “mooning” of a Ku Klux Klan gathering that was copied by other anti-Klan activists throughout the country. Steve was also a river guide around the Big Bend area,he led trips through the Grand Canyon, and he organized trail rides from Texas into Mexico.
In 2003, Steve was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame. A month later, he suffered a massive stroke. It took him three years to learn to once again walk, talk, play guitar and sing, but he did those things. Four years to the day after the stroke, the Legislature named him Poet Laureate of the State of Texas. He was an active performer and writer up to January 19, 2014, when he was killed in a hunting accident at age 68.
Bosque County is a little bit Southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth and a bit Northwest of Waco. When Fromhoz was living in the small town of Kopperl – which has never had a population of more than 329, and the whole county has never had as many as 20,000 people – the area was quite rural with many ranching families. Its economy was essentially dying as the population was migrating to the cities and suburbs throughout the US. Rail transportation was being replaced by major highways and places like Kopperl began to die as those highways bypassed them. The “Texas Trilogy,” which is made up of songs entitled “Daybreak,” “Trainride” and “Bosque County Romance,” captures what must have been the feeling of that era better than any other work with which I am familiar.
Daybreak (from Texas Trilogy)
By Steven Fromholz
Six o’clock silence of a new day beginning
Is heard in a small Texas town
Like a signal from nowhere the people who live there
They’re up and they’re moving around
‘Cause there’s bacon to fry and there’s biscuits to bake
On the stove that the salvation army won’t take
You open the windows and you turn on the fan
‘Cause it’s hotter than hell when the sun hits the land
Now Walter and Fanny well they own the grocery
That sells most all that you need
They’ve been up and working since early this morning
They’ve got the whole village to feed
They put out fresh eggs, they throw bad ones away
That rotted because of the heat yesterday
The store’s all dark so you can’t see the flies
That settle on ’round steak and last Monday’s pies
And Sleepy Hill’s drugstore and the cafe they’re open
The coffee is bubbling hot
‘Cause the folks that ain’t working gonna sit there ’til sundown
And talk about what they ain’t got
Someone just threw a clutch in the old pickup truck
It seems like they’re riding on a streak of bad luck
The doctor bills came and the well has gone dry
Seems their grown kids don’t care whether they live or die
Hell, I can remember when Kopperl, Texas was a good place for a man to live
and raise a family. ‘Course that was before the cotton gin closed down.
Has it been that long ago? Seems like only yesterday ole Steve Hughes
lost his arm in that infernal machine and walked all the way home to bleed to death.
The new highway helped some when they dammed up the Brazos to build Lake Whitney.
Brought some fishermen down from Dallas and Ft. Worth.
Town sure has been quiet though since they closed down the depot and built
that new trestle out West of town. You know the train just don’t stop here anymore.
No, the train just don’t stop here anymore.
© UNIVERSAL MUSIC PUBLISHING GROUP
(The YouTube video above shows the lyrics to all three songs, so I am not including them all here).