By Scott Cox
I just returned from Texas. Again. Look, if you're a fan of country music (the real kind, not the recycled '80s pop stuff that most country radio plays), then you should go, too. I recommend the third Sunday in May, when they have the Americana Music Jam. And this year was quite possibly the best trip yet.
First off, I went alone. That's awesome for several reasons. Flying is completely superior to driving to Texas. A 20-hour drive is nicely condensed into a three-hour airplane ride, and with no family along, it's cheaper. And when I landed in San Antonio, there were no wife and kids to wrangle, freeing my brain to concentrate on Blue Bell ice cream, which is available at the airport. Welcome to Texas.
My friends pulled up just as I cleared the front doors of the airport and, 20 minutes later, I was sitting down at a table at Mi Tierra restaurant. After a truly epic Mexican food experience, we hit the 35 headed north for New Braunfels.
Of course you're really not in Texas until you stop at Buccees (pronounced Buckees). It's the kind of place that can only exist in Texas. Think of it as a Circle K unbound by the principles of logic and proportion: 64 gas pumps, 90 kinds of jerky, a 70-foot-long bakery counter, fresh produce and an extensive selection of shotgun shells. It's like a Walmart that's been cleared of all the stuff I don't want. We topped off with $3.19 gas (at pump No. 55!), and swung by Tavern on the Gruene, my favorite ironically named bar in New Braunfels.
The bartender asked me where I was from, and I said Bakersfield. Then the requisite: "Do you know Merle?" Yes, quite well, actually. Then the beers came. Texans love Merle, and I love Texas beer. The trip was just getting better.
I woke up the next morning, thrilled that the humidity was very low for May in Hill Country. I had an appointment at the ranch of one Richard S. "Kinky" Friedman. He's been on my show a bunch of times, and, like a proper Texan, always invites me to visit the ranch. Schedules always kept me from making it out to Bandera to visit, but it was a huge priority on this trip. Kinky is my favorite songwriter/historian/philosopher/humorist/author/poli-tician, and it was time I finally saw the ranch. Plus, now he has his own tequila company. I won't say that it wasn't a factor in decision.
The house where I was staying was chock-full of musicians in town for the concert, but I couldn't stay. I needed a ride. A 100-mile ride. I could've rented a car, but I knew how to play the hand I'd been dealt. In a loud, steady voice, I announced: "I need a ride to Kinky Friedman's house."
Suddenly everyone came to life, and I had multiple volunteers. I didn't want to impose on Kinky, so I figured I should just take one guy. I chose my old pal John Boyd, as we'd done some traveling together before, and he was good at it. Not everyone is. That, and he had a new Toyota Sequoia Platinum Edition. I felt deeply that I deserved to travel in comfort.
We spent the whole day hanging out on Kinky's sprawling ranch, but that's for a later column. We had to get back to town in time to see Jerry Jeff Walker at Gruene Hall, so we hit the Sac and Pac for some gas and a pint of Blue Bell (coconut fudge), and made it back to Gruene just in time. Amazing day.
I woke up Sunday morning, took a shower, and retrieved my case of Kinky Friedman's Man in Black Tequila from the SUV. I left one bottle on the bar as a decoy (never let a houseful of musicians know you have a case of tequila).
We got to Gruene Hall, set up some gear, and walked to the adjacent Gristmill restaurant for breakfast. Word of my trip to Kinky's ranch got there before I did. I was well on my way to being a legend in Texas. But I'd have to revel in that later. It was showtime: 17 bands in 14 hours. Only in Texas.
And these were world-class bands. I saw Reckless Kelly, Cody Canada & The Departed, Jack Ingram, Terri Hendrix, James McMurtry, Ray Wylie Hubbard and all the rest. Bakersfield's own Monty Byrom was the lone representative from California, and I got to introduce him and his excellent new band, the Zen Road Pilots. That's right: I have been on stage at Gruene Hall. Better still, I got to hang out backstage with Robert Earl Keen. It was a fantastic day.
Then, the after party, which was conveniently held at the house where I was staying. We all ate barbecue, drank beer, and a bunch of the artists from the show brought their guitars and sang under the stars. Lots of Merle songs. That's pretty hard to beat, as ways to end a day go. It would've been perfect, but I left my hat on Jack Ingram's tour bus.
The next morning, I slept in, drank a bunch of coffee, and it was off to the studios of KNBT-FM, where I had to earn my keep by recording some concert promos for my pal Mattson Rainer, the program director. It seemed like a pretty good deal for me, considering all the free tickets, plus room and board. Actually, it was the coolest part of the trip, doing commercials for concerts for Willie Nelson, The Avett Brothers, ZZ Top and Robert Earl Keen.
Then it was off to San Antonio Airport for a quick pint of Blue Bell (blackberry cobbler), and then back on a stupid airplane that would take me back home. Rats.
Still, it was hard to complain: I'd had epic food and beverage, sat on Kinky Friedman's porch and heard his plan to be governor, been on stage at the mecca of country music, talked James McMurtry into playing Bakersfield, got mentioned in a Robert Earl Keen song, had a shot of tequila with Charlie Robison, hugged Terri Hendrix, exchanged jokes with Lloyd Maines, tuned guitars for Reckless Kelly and played cowbell with Cody Canada & The Departed.
And I came back with a nearly full case of Man in Black Tequila and tons of free merch. That will have to hold me over till next year. Good music is getting harder to find in Bakersfield, and California doesn't get Blue Bell ice cream or Kinky's tequila. So I highly recommend Texas Hill Country as a vacation destination.
Go. And it you run in to Jack Ingram, tell him I want my hat back.
-- Scott Cox hosts a radio show weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. on KERN-AM, 1180.