Only Willie Can Save Us Now

Remember when Texas was fun? Remember all that pride in our state? Unfortunately, Republicans started winning elections. To paraphrase decades of Austinites, "Texas: it's not like it used to be."

Only Willie Can Save Us Now
Willie. At his first 4th of July Picnic in Dripping Springs

There’s an old joke that used to be told at management conferences and leadership seminars before political correctness became such an overriding concern in the workplace. It goes something like this: The brain and the heart were having an argument over who was in charge of the body. The brain made the obvious point that it was the overriding decision maker for its host, as well as the control mechanism for all systems within that host. The heart scoffed and reminded the brain that it was the pump that kept oxygen and nutrients flowing to every system in the body, including the brain itself! The heart asserted that the blood not only carried life giving O2, it also carried carbon dioxide and other waste products to the lungs, kidneys and digestive system for removal from the body. The brain grew angry, telling the heart, “I am the computer that keeps this place running!” The heart exclaimed, “You would be nothing without my life force!” And before another word was said, the colon spoke up and said that it, not the heart or brain should be in charge. The heart and brain burst out laughing. “You?” Where do you get that??” asked the brain. The heart couldn’t stop laughing. “Yeah, are you kidding? YOU, in charge???” And they both laughed. 
So the colon just seized up. Closed down. Puckered up so that nothing moved. It wasn’t long before waste began backing up. Feces had no where to go. It leaked back out into the bloodstream. Waste traveled around the body into every system, every organ, including the brain. The heart and brain could barely function, they were drowning in the muck. They knew they could not survive much longer. “We give! We give! You can be in charge! You’re the boss!”

The moral of the story? Pretty obvious, isn’t it? You don’t have to be a brain or have a heart to be in charge. You just have to be an asshole. (Bah-dum-pum, right?)

This brings us to Texas. The GOP has dominated Texas since the 90s after decades of being a “Yellow Dog Democrat” state. The Dems have not won a statewide race since the 1994 Lieutenant gubernatorial election. Like most of the “solid south,” the change started in the 60s as LBJs Civil Rights Act in ’64 and the Voting Rights Act a year later became the law of the land. The Republican party transmogrified from the party of Lincoln to the Party of the Proud Boys. Even through the 80s, politicians like Phil Gramm and Rick Perry fled the Dems to shake hands with GOP donors. Hell, only this week, Dallas mayor Eric Johnson announced that he is switching parties and will serve as a Republican-affiliated mayor. Eric is term-limited, so it looks like his plan is to move up in state politics, eh? As a black politician crossing over to the Texas GOP, we wish him well. Go check in with Allen West for a preview of how that's gonna work out, Eric.

Texas had been transformed by FDR’s New Deal after the crushing Great Depression. Like most states, Texas was an ag-based, rural economy. And life wasn’t easy, the Depression only made it that much worse. Banks failed, taking life savings with them. The stock market crashed. A drought plagued Texas. Farmers saw crop prices fall by 60%. The migration to cities had accelerated, but U.S. unemployment rose to 28%. FDR’s New Deal stabilized the banks and put people to work at the WPA and the CCC. Unions grew in number and strength under the National Labor Relations Board. The Agricultural Adjustment Act restored farms and stabilized ag prices. And finally, FDR established Social Security. The economy, and importantly, the middle class recovered and grew.

When LBJ came along in the 60s, he not only fought for Civil Rights, but he added Medicare to complement Social Security. LBJ had grown up impoverished in rural Texas and would later teach school to Mexican immigrant children who were poorer than he had been. As hard-ass as he was in politics, he never forgot what it was like to grow up dirt poor.

Shortly after he was sworn in as president, (immediately following Kennedy’s assassination,) he promised a “War on Poverty.” LBJ expanded that theme when he ran for president in 1964. He wanted to build “The Great Society.” He would pass immigration reform and massively increase federal funding for education. Johnson pushed for healthcare reform, mainly through establishing Medicare and Medicaid. He would also press for a system of federally funded research hospitals.

This was all from a Texas born president, (formerly a Texas Congressman and a Senator.) That’s not to say that LBJ was universally loved or without controversy. While Trump falsely claims that his reelection was “stolen” and “corrupt,” there is very little doubt that LBJ stuffed a ballot box or two to beat former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson for his Senate seat. Fellow Outlaw James Moore has studied and written extensively on this.War In many circles, Johnson is only remembered for ramping up the Vietnam war. Because of how he handled the war, he would do more to damage the trust of the American people regarding their elected leaders than almost any other politician. He knew, for example, that the war was an unwinnable mess. “I know we oughtn’t to be there. But I can’t get out," Johnson told Eugene McCarthy. “I won’t be the architect of surrender.” He refused to be the first American president to “lose” a war. The hawks disliked him because he wouldn’t press the war to victory, the left hated him because he expanded the war into a quagmire. Deep Southern (racist) Democrats were also furious about the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. As he confided to journalist Bill Moyers (then one of his top aides,) “I think we may have lost the south for your lifetime – and mine.”

For Texans, LBJ was certainly a mixed bag. Protests of the Vietnam War would signal the start of the modern culture wars. On the other hand, LBJ brought home the bacon. Texans received more than they could dream of in federally funded projects. LBJ nabbed NASA for Houston/Clear Lake (as Vice President to Kennedy) and the space program went into overdrive when he was president. Medical and research dollars, military bases, dams, roads, bridges... there were always plenty of pork barrel projects for Texas.

Like the rest of America, Texans struggled with each other over the early culture wars, mainly civil rights and women’s rights. The Vietnam protests certainly drove a stake through many communities.

But overall, the tide was turning toward the left. Blacks were beginning to win some battles in the search for equality. Women were fighting and winning a few battles of their own - finding work beyond just typing, nursing, or teaching. Young people were finding their own voice. That devil's music, rock'n'roll commanded the radio. Life was fun.

The famous Woodstock concert took place in 1969 on Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, New York. Just 4 years later, in 1973, Willie Nelson held his first 4th of July picnic where 40,000 fans showed up to see him and pals: Doug Sahm, Waylon Jennings, Leon Russell, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, Charlie Rich, John Prine, Kenneth Threadgill and Tom T. Hall. A little over a month later, Jerry Jeff Walker and his Lost Gonzo band met up in a dusty ghost town named "Luckenbach" and recorded the Texas classic lp, "Viva Terlingua." Texas Outlaw Country music was born.

One of the key features worth remembering: Those 4th of July Willie picnics brought the state together - all walks of life showed up to party at those hot, dusty picnics. The hippies, the rednecks... Cold Lonestar longnecks were raised high, and the hippies showed the country boys how to roll a joint. It was all peace and love and Willie Nelson. As Robert Earl Keen described it in some stage banter when he talked about going to the second Willie picnic (where his car caught on fire in the parking lot,)

". . . it was back in the days of free love and wonderful, happy, shiny people. Everything was fun. Nothing was scary or dangerous. And we went there and had a wonderful time in the Willie way...”

Remember the school secretary, "Grace" in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"? When she described Ferris, she could have been talking about Willie and his following:

Oh, he's very popular Ed. The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, d*ckheads--they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude.
-Actress Edie McClurg as "Grace" in Ferris Bueller's Day OFf

Austin became the center of the Texas universe. Righteous dudes were plentiful. Politics were what happened quietly, off under that granite dome. Life and the pursuit of happiness was what was going on everywhere else. Who can forget their first baptism in the ice-cold waters of Barton Springs? The party was happening on 6th Street and Stevie Ray was wailing on his guitar over at Antone's. There was Shady Grove to grab a Frito Pie or a Hippie Chick Sandwich on your way back from the Springs. Las Manitas served up a plate of Migas for your morning-after.

Tuition at the great university was less than a couple hundred bucks per semester. Grab a roommate or five and share an old funky house for a hundred bucks or so per roomie (not including utilities.) If Barton Springs was too cold, head for the Lake, maybe spend some nekkid time at Hippie Hollow.

And it wasn't just Austin. The vibe was everywhere. Maybe not the nekkid hippies, but it was a great state to live in. Do you remember your first trip to the mythical Alamo? Did you go to Hemisphere? San Antonio was a world unto itself, completely different from Austin just a little over an hour's drive to the south. Grab a few tacos and a Margarita along the RiverWalk.

The state boasted about its great highways and solid infrastructure. Beyond U.T., you could get an excellent, affordable college education in a dozen or so Texas University System schools. The diverse geography of this massive state made every road trip unique. There was a well-maintained state park or five to experience all manner of landscapes. In a (long) days travel, you can go from the piney woods of East Texas the the mountain desert of Big Bend. Or travel from the salty Gulf Coast to the Great Plains of the panhandle. And everywhere, people were friendly. The urban centers had every modern convenience you could think of. There were rural towns that barely had a city-limits sign much less a stoplight. Folks everywhere were (generally) friendly. When I visited my rural family members, it was great to experience a different way of life. Sure, my paternal grandfather drove me to the barbershop and tried to get me to get a haircut when I grew my hair out in high school, but other than that... (He was the mayor of Sinton, TX for a decade or so. I'm sure he didn't cotton to having a long-haired grandson.)

No one had to pay for a multi-million dollar state PR campaign on Texas Pride. It was as natural as the spring water seeping into the Comal River. It was almost silly how proud we were. The talented and entertaining music group, "The Austin Lounge Lizards" came up with a tune that pretty much sums it up:

By God we're so darn proud to be from Texas - yahoo!
Even of our pride we're proud and we're proud of that pride, too
Our pride about our home state is the proudest pride indeed
And we're proud to be Americans, until we can secede...

"One more stupid song about Texas."

You know where this is going. Slowly, the pushback against us longhairs (and women, and city slickers, and libruhls) began. The wildcatters that had hit it big (and managed to keep their wealth) got tired of paying taxes for schools and parks and the poors. Farmers whose daddy's farms and ranches had been saved by FDR and got electricity via LBJ's efforts with the Pedernales Electric Cooperative were loathe to help anyone else.

After losing for decades to New Deal Democrats, the GOP developed a long-term strategy to take it back. They would appeal to that sense that my PawPaw had... long-haired city kids were out of line and did not possess real Texas values. Except, unlike my PawPaw, who let it ride and took me back to the house, it was decided that them urban-dwellers and dumbocrats needed to go. You know the story by heart: a few evangelical "Christians" looking for power threw in with the GOP to disown non-Republicans. They claimed the real patriotism and the real Christianity. Though Roe vs. Wade had become the law of the land (and for a great majority of the population was uncontroversial) evangelicals labeled abortion as infanticide. This was a calculated choice. Roe passed in 1973. At the time, Falwell, Dobson, and the rest considered it a "Catholic Issue." It wasn't until '78 that they began to mention it. When framed as baby-murder, they found that they had a hook to mobilize their base. (Hint: they were looking for political cover for their segregated private schools and universities. A simple "freedom of religion" slogan wasn't very motivating. "Baby killing democrats" seemed to work.)

Guns, and framing guns as a "second amendment issue" also proved to be a real crowd pleaser. My (other, paternal) grandfather had been a competition sharpshooter as a kid. As an adult, he hunted along the Gulf Coast, the hill country, and even in Mexico. It was a thrill as a young lad to get to go hunting with Grandad. And ne'er a mention of using that bird gun or the bolt-action deer rifle as a way to defend us against a tyrannical government. He had been a lifetime member of the NRA. On trips to visit him as a college kid in the late 70s and then in the early 80s as a young adult, I watched his mail transform from a pile of NRA safety messages into defending-your-home warnings. Usually, they came from Congressman (and later Senator) Phil Gramm. Slowly there was mention of protecting the American Way with that gun, etc. etc. Grandad was a flag-flyer before that was a GOP calling card. He died before the culture wars fully formed, but with that kind of mail and his basic American pride, there is no doubt in my mind he would have been radicalized.

It was the amplification of these issues by Fox News and AM radio blowhards that sealed the deal. (Save us, Rush, from the Femi-Nazis!) The just-retired Rupurt Murdoch and the late Roger Aisles knew how to stoke the fire, and they knew the power of their broadcast fuel. Along with dozens of "think tanks" and conservative foundations, they tweaked every message and shared every fear and outrage-inducing message.

And slowly, our beloved Texas became an ugly place.

Our state is not all that unique in this. But you know Texas. We have to do it bigger. And nastier. And meaner. With more guns and fewer and fewer abortions. And watch out! The Mexicans are coming!

I’m not a whiner. Well, I’m mostly not a whiner. Errr, I try to keep my whining down to a minimum. (In the modern world, whining seems to be such a competitive sport. It’s a race I don’t want to run.) I try to laugh to keep from xanax'ing. But lately, after the sham Paxton "trial," the threat of endless special sessions to privatize public education, and the recent hostile takeover of the Houston Independent School District by the state, it's tough to muster a smile.

It was always tiresome to hear the moans of Austinites forever whining, "This isn't like Austin used to be." (How many Austinites does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but it will never be like changing a light bulb used to be.")

Fight or flight? I get frustrated with those "I'm going to leave this state" people. But, you know, lately, it's a thought that creeps into my own conscience.
Looking through those "Best Places to Retire" lists, and Texas is dropping, fast. But how can I leave this place that I love? That is such a huge part of me? (Cue the "Fiddler on the Roof" soundtrack... "Far from the Home I Love.")

I won't rehash the Paxton trial. Outlaw Jim Moore did a good job of recapping the whole ugly impeachment and trial.

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas | Texas Outlaw Writers
The notion that the trial would approach a level of judicial legitimacy ended when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the senate’s presiding officer, accepted $3 million from a pro-Paxton group, the Defend Texas Liberty PAC. The organization’s goal? Pushing Texas policies to the right edge of the flat earth.

Icing on the Outlaws Paxton coverage came from Roger, who reminded us just how strong the GOP tribe is, and how vicious and stupid they can be on social media. (Again, propaganda works. Fox, Hannity, AM radio, right-wing podcasts... they've all turned (most of) Texas conservatives into bitter warriors.

Down is the New Up | Texas Outlaw Writers
Only partially about our Ken Paxton. It’s really about where we are.

But I digest.

When Trump came down that escalator, many of us laughed... nervously. Because we'd seen what was happening deep down in the party. In many ways, it was super simple to rile up the racism, xenophobia, and sexism lying dormant in the faithful. And win with it.

And let's be clear. It's easy to ignore the fact that the "glory days" of Texas were not happy times at all in the black or Hispanic communities. Texas' fixation with masculinity was not easy on women, and the LGBT community was underground until only very, very recently. Texas was never some European social democracy with country music.

The pendulum is swinging so hard back to the right that it may flip us all over. Even the handful of Republicans who still have some sense of honor and decency buried somewhere are shocked and disgusted. Dade Phelan, the Speaker of the House, along with more than just a handful of Republicans, (and the few Dems that can get elected in Texas,) were attacked within seconds of the impeachment "trial" being gaveled to a close. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blasted Phelan and the House members, calling for an official audit on how much money was spent on the impeachment and demanding a constitutional amendment to change the impeachment process itself. Patrick never mentioned the 3 million dollars he received from the far-right Defend Texas Liberty PAC a couple of days before the trial began. Jonathan Strickland who heads that PAC , tweeted that the group would “lead the charge to fire all the pathetic losers” behind Paxton’s “sham” impeachment.

Phelan answered back, "To be clear, Patrick attacked the House for standing up against corruption. His tirade disrespects the Constitutional impeachment process afforded to us by the founders of this great state. The inescapable conclusion is that today’s outcome appears to have been orchestrated from the start, cheating the people of Texas of justice."

And Paxton his-own-bad-self? He wants revenge. He'll be campaigning against his detractors, raising money to defeat them, and endorsing even further right-wingnuts. "Geeez," I ask myself. "How much further right can we go?" And then I tell myself to shut the hell up lest we find out.

The worst and most depressing quote I read after the "trial," was from Paxton's political advisor, Nick Maddux. And yet it's something that these politicians know too well and you should take to heart:

“For all the bluster in the media, all the commentary about Ken hurting the ticket and ‘we could lose the AG spot’ — no. He ran less than 1% behind Dan Patrick, who got a lot more money and a lot less money spent against him. And that's not attacking Dan, the point is he ran with the party line.” -Houston Chroncle

Yup. Republicans unleashed the ugly beast within the state (and nation,) and now they either have to follow or get out of the way. "Lead" is not in their skill set. Certainly not "lead with integrity."

BTW, this isn't my first column longing for Willie to deliver salvation. I don't apologize. Dolly Parton is busy in Tennessee, and Snoop Dogg is working on the national stage against Trump.

Snoop Dogg was doing good work nationally. Not sure that many Texas Republicans would give him a fair hearing.

Maybe Willie can save us. But frankly, I have my doubts. He's getting up there, and honestly, he's looking a little feeble. Jerry Jeff is gone. Waylon left us years ago. The recent passing of Jimmy Buffett was a punch in the gut. (Yes, he's an honorary Texan. Jerry Jeff himself put Jimmy in Key West, and then gave him the red carpet treatment in Texas where he frequently performed. JB wrote Margaritaville, hungover at Lung’s Cocina del Sur on Anderson Lane in Austin.

C'mon Willie. Bring us some joy, some kindness, and play that song I like. (And take your vitamins, dammit. And go easy on that Willie Weed.) We need you now more than ever.

Some additional reading. Check out these stories, links:

Today's cool internet find. A radar-type map/counter that tracks bird migration by county. Are the hummers passing through? How many?

BirdCast - Bird migration forecasts in real-time
When, where, and how far will birds migrate? How many birds passed last night? Our tools help you explore the answers to these and many other questions about bird migration.

Read more about the 50th anniversary of the recording and release of "Viva Terlingua," the one that put "Texas Outlaw Country Music" on the map. Luckenbach was never the same.

Half-century later, ‘Viva Terlingua’ stands the test of time at Wittliff Collections exhibit
Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua gets an exhibit at the Wittliff Collections

I wrote a piece on Jimmy Buffett's passing last week or so. I keep finding more and more tributes and stories about what a decent human he was (in addition to his popularity as a musician and his ability to build up a billion $ empire based on one song.) Here's a nice piece from Outlaw friend (and former co-worker at KHOU) Adela Gonzales White. Adela's husband is "Sunny Jim," a trop rock singer in his own right. And of course, Jimmy B. was their North Star.

That Day We Met Jimmy Buffett in Cayman
It was more than 25 years ago, but I clearly remember my first impression of Jimmy Buffett when we met him on Grand Cayman. It was Christmas Day 1996. James and I were at the beach with the girls for sunset, a Christmas tradition, when one of the Hyatt managers told us Jimmy, who was booked at the r…

There was also a really cute story on one of the Facebook Buffett fan groups:

(ain't this a great photo? Saw it in several places after Mr., Buffett passed.)

A tiny bit of hope. Evangelicals, like the Texas GOP, are divided on these power moves by Abbott regarding the privatization of education. And apparently, a few of them are tired of playing hard-core politics.

Editorial: Religious freedom calls for rejecting Abbott’s ‘ask’
Baptists, who have championed religious freedom and separation of church and state more than 400 years, should reject Abbott’s latest “ask.”

The Texas Outlaw Writers newsletter is reader-supported.
Be sure and subscribe to receive our stories weekly.
If you can, we'd love it if you'd become a paid subscriber.