Blackjacks, primarily dormant, sat scattered random across the barren earth that held leafless black trees to a backdrop of grey clouds.
That was just the drive in.
Me and Abby; a pump jack outside of Archer City; The Royal Theater
"Cum awn! Grow up an' be sombody!" Joe called out in typical Texas twang, as he tossed the puck with the cracked blue top down the center of the shuffleboard in the back room of the VFW hall. This was the first person I encountered when we finally arrived in town. Yet he was quite representative of the kind of people we would come to make aquaintances with the rest of the day....
Archer City is best known as the location of a portrayal of a rather pitiful collection of hayseed do-nothings and Wichita Falls wannabes, emersed in a worldly way of life in Larry McMurtry's screenplay, "The Last Picture Show". Good rumor has it that he simply wrote about his hometown as he saw it. Clearly, familiarity must have bred contempt...
On this chilly January afternoon, I saw no star football players sneaking off behind their coaches back to engage in illicit sexual activity with his wife. I saw no hint of show-and-tell strip parties in the making. I simply saw life busy at work in a small town Texas.
I had come here to cast my talents before The Late Week Lazy Boys Supper Club. When I first heard about it, I conjured visions of good-ol'-boys with bottles of Cuervo Gold and Wild Turkey strewn liberally across tables, big cee-gars in jaws, spitoons, and tight skirted babes imported from the furthest reaches of the state... sort of an upscale version of Laredo's Boys Town.
As usual, I was wrong.
My favorite Dallas radio DJ, Abby Goldstein, had told me that it was one of the finest live venues in the state, if not the country ... that it had to be seen to be believed. But there were rules. You could only play solo, no accompaniment. You would share the stage with two other singer/songwriters. People listened, really listened. It reached mythical proportions in my mind. We sent off a press kit and forgot about it, save calling occasionally to see if it had been opened. There had been no response until one day a guy called and simply said, "How about January 15 at The Supper Club".
So there was Joe, kicking my butt at shuffleboard. I wondered if I was even in the right place. Joe assured me with a simple "Yep". I noticed three dilapidated chairs on a small corner stage in the next room of this decades old building and assumed that was the spot where all this magic would take place. I was admittedly sceptical. I began unpacking my guitars by the chair closest to the wall, (I had thoughts of blending right into that wall if the evening went south on me), when I heard this voice bark out, "What the hell do you think you're doing". I looked up to see a guy in the shadows of the room approaching me and started explaining, "Well, I'm, uh, I was, uh, setting up for this show tonight but if you think I shouldn't be doin'...
As he neared, I could see a smile creep across his face that told me he was the reason I was there.
The name Abby Abernathy had also reached mythical proportions in my mind. He sounded more like a movie star than a music promoter. I found out much later that night that he has in fact done his fair share of acting in the likes of the Big Apple. So there he stood. I clearly dwarfed him in size and unfortunately age. Yet strangely I somehow immediately saw in him, in the way he dressed and the way he carried himself, a person of taste, vision and class. Yet it was still sort of a disconnect, given the environment. Having dealt with one too many a "record industry executive" (now there's an oxymoron), I remained sceptical. We'd no sooner made introductions than an attractive girl comes in the side door toting an acoustic guitar, followed by a lanky guy toting a guitar case as well. They took the remaining two seats and we robotically started into our obligatory pre-game ritual of a sound-check while Abby manned the mixing board (a sound man as well?) It took but a few verses from each of these troubadors to realize that there are clearly some other singer-songwriters in this state that have eluded me.
My wife and I made our way to the accommodations that had been promised us just down the street. The Spur Hotel has a lobby reminiscent of the one in the original version of Sam Peckenpaw's "The Getaway", only this place had been meticulously restored from the ground up, with classic Texas touches throughout. The vintage hardwood check-in counter with stairs that wrapped around, enclosed the receptionist who answered my first question, "Man, who put this place back together?"
A hotel restorationist too! Mythology was quickly becoming reality and I was getting kind of ticked that this guy could do all of this. Kind of a mini Donald Trump in the middle of nowhere.
By the time we returned to the VFW hall, night had fallen and, like most small Texas towns, we couldn't see much since street lights are a premium. Therefore, it wasn't until we made our way inside the same place I had done a sound check just a couple of hours earlier that I finally 'got it'. I was indeed, once again, Lost in the Land of Texico. The room was now filled with dinner tables packed with people of all ages, chowing on some mean barbeque and fixings. Christmas lights surrounding the room and spot lights now illuminating the stage had transformed this otherwise ordinary VFW hall into one really cool place to be. Actually the place to be.
Tracie Lynn started out first. She is living proof that, by and large, Nashville still doesn't get it when it comes to female country artists with substance. Too much flash and fluff out there now, but not in Archer City that night. You could literally see it in the faces of all the spectators as she guided them through her first of many musical stories. They immediately embraced her with rousing applause. Max Stalling was the next to show his stuff. He was largely an unknown in January of 2000, save the confines of small local honky-tonk bars. He's since topped out the Americana charts coast to coast. That night I could see why. I finally began to see why this place was so special. I even pulled my chair away from the wall. It was now my turn, and yet I began to wonder if my music might not have enough 'country" in it for this crowd. I decided to test the waters quickly with "Nobody There To Love Me". Their enthusiastic response at the end of the song assured me I belonged right where I was sitting. For the next two and a half hours you could hear a pin drop while we took turns trading songs.
At our break, I had a chance to meet many of these people. Who were they? Where did they live? While many from the surrounding towns were regulars, I came to understand that people drive from all over the state for this show, with season ticket holders living as far away as Longview ... ten hours round-trip. They all came for one thing... The Music. They all said that if you wanted to hear the best that Texas has to offer month in and month out, this was the place to find it.
The evening continued back in the hotel lobby. It was there, just before sunup that I explained to Abby my affinity for college football, and thus followed my local team, SMU, to which he replied, "Sure, I played on SMU's 1982 Southwest Conference Championship team with Eric Dickerson and Craig James...." Now I was ticked. A jock as well.
Next thing he'd tell me, he's resurrecting The Royal Theater... that collapsed pile of bricks and stucco sitting at the end of the block where "The Last Picture Show" took place.
He is.... Or should I say now, he did.
On August 17, 2000 The Royal Theater opened in majestic fashion to hold, among other things, The Late Week Lazy Boys Supper Club. Our band had the pleasure of being invited to perform for the opening on their outdoor stage. Abby has built one truly amazing venue that will keep people coming back again and again. It is the kind of place that takes vision, taste and class to complete.
They got the right guy for the job.
I've been back to Archer City a few times now and I have a better picture of it, one that I really like. On my last visit, to shoot the photos for my new CD, Raise The Roof, I thought maybe I'd get even closer by picking the brain of a local. So I asked the Dairy Queen clerk what there was to do in town. She looked up and without any hesitation said, "Yer doin' it." I asked her about the music shows once a month and she just said, "I'd rather work."
"What do you spend you money on if there's nopthing to do?", I asked.
"Oh, I go to Wichita Falls for fun..."
For me, familiarity will never breed contempt, and while I look forward to future shows at the theater, I will never forget that magical night at the VFW hall, one of those rare gifts we as performers occasionally get to experience.
Oh, and by the way, who digs up the talent to perform at all these shows? Who scours the state finding music that the major record labels have missed, or foolishly passed by?
You got it....