Veteran Austin musician records new album
By NICK WINCHESTER
TEXAS — Bobby Earl Smith, a West Texas native and the cofounder of the 1970s Austin band, Freda and the Firedogs, which presaged the redneck rock movement in Texas, has released a new album, “Calling Me Calling You.”
The record, which he worked on alongside his son Eric, features 12 tracks whose lyrics cover the issues important to him: “feeding the hungry, gun safety, climate change, and taking care of the refugees in our midst.”
Something said of Bobby Earl is that he was among the first generation of musicians able to create a space shared by both rednecks and hippies. The cultural gap his brand of Country and Western bridged was something completely new around Austin in the early seventies, according to Joe Nick Patoski, the Austin-based music writer and host of Marfa Public Radio’s Texas Music: Hour of Power show, who wrote the liner notes for Bobby Earl’s new album.
Bobby Earl, born in San Angelo, a place he says “prides itself on being the sheep and wool capital of the world,” spent much of his youth attending church services, evening Bible study and Sunday School. “Church all the time,” he says, “or so it seems in my memory.”
Bobby Earl’s total immersion, however, wasn’t into the church but into music. He moved to Austin for law school but admits to “spending more time in the Split Rail on South Lamar, a legendary watering hole, than in the law library.” He got into the local music scene, playing in a bluegrass group as well as various country bands. He graduated and passed the bar in 1970, but by then had started playing music full time.
Not long after, Bobby Earl formed Freda and the Firedogs with Marcia Ball, whose later solo records received Grammy nominations. The group, which also featured John X. Reed, Steve McDaniels and David Cook, he says, were able to draw fans from a strangely diverse mix of “students, bikers, Mexicans, hippies, hillbillies and old-time country music fans.”
Freda and the Firedogs played their last show at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic in 1974, and over the ensuing ten years, Bobby Earl played alongside and recorded with plenty of well-known Austin musicians, including Terlingua local Butch Hancock, Alvin Crow of Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys; Joe Gracey and Kimmie Rhodes, who Bobby Earl formed Kimmie Rhodes and the Jackalope Brothers, all who worked on “Calling Me Calling You.” Bobby Earl says he’s fortunate to have played with many other fine bands such as Dub and the Dusters, The Ant Hill Mob and The Bob Smith Combo.
In the new album’s liner notes, Patoski goes back to 1972 when music business legend Jerry Wexler visited Austin to record Freda and the Firedogs. Atlantic Records liked what they heard of the recordings but an artistic and contractual disagreement blew the deal. Wexler ended up signing Willie Nelson and producing “Shotgun Willie” (Atlantic, 1973).
In 2002, some 30 years after the original Wexler recording, Plug Music finally released the long-lost album, which the Austin Chronicle called “One of the greatest albums in Austin music history.”
In 1984, with a law degree that had laid dormant for a decade and a half, Bobby Earl decided to enter into law and practice as a criminal defense attorney in a career that spanned over 30 years. During this time, he’s keen to point out, he never stopped playing music and found time to record two albums, “Rear View Mirror” (Muleshoe, 2001) and “Turn Row Blues” (Muleshoe, 2005).
Patoski, in the liner notes, writes “listening to Bobby Earl is like putting on my favorite pair of boots, the ones whose soles feel like they were form-fitted to each foot, and whose leather’s so aged and worn, the boot stack flops over like a piece of suede. Or sitting around the table for family supper on Sundays. Or patting the head of your favorite dog who knows you better than any human does.”
Bobby Earl no doubt lived a life most varied; one that saw him strut the line of both music and the criminal justice system. But it is to music that he returns to over again for it is music that makes him happy.
Testament to this are the sweet words he chose to sign off his liner notes with: “I am truly a lucky man to be able to record with such fine pickers and to be able to release this little album to share with you, the listener.”
The album is available to purchase in both physical form and to download at www.cdbaby.com, to download at ITunes and Amazon, and, is available to stream on Spotify. Or, go to www.bobbyearlsmithmusic.com to hear three free tracks.