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Recorded August 10-12, 1972 at Robin Hood Studios, Tyler, Texas
Produced by Jerry Wexler
Recording Engineer - Robin Hood Brians
Mastered at Terra Nova Digital Audio by Joe Gracey and Jerry Tubb
Art by Micael Priest
Photos by Burton Wilson
Layout - Joe Gracey

Freda and the Firedogs:

Marcia Ball - piano and vocals
John X. Reed - guitar and harmony vocals
Bobby Earl Smith - bass and vocals
Steve McDaniels - drums
David Cook - steel guitar and rhythm guitar
For our amigo, Doug Sahm - Gracias and Adios

 

 

CD Liner Notes by Joe Nick Patoski

It was all young, so fresh, so totally cool.

It was really no big thing, just five young folks who put together a band to make music the way they'd always wanted to, doing their Sunday night regular gig at the Split Rail. From the beginning, there wasn't much in the way of expectations. Freda and the Firedogs were just glad to have a gig. The Split Rail was a sweet little dive on the south bank of Town Lake--downtown South Austin--where the Lone Star and Pearl were cold and came in longneck bottles, and there was never a cover. The band's take was whatever came back from passing the hat. There is no evidence they shook the world, other than the fact Marcia Ball aka Freda went on to carve out quite an impressive career as a blues singer and pianist with the WC Handy Awards and Grammy nominations to prove it. But they almost did.

For a couple of years beginning in the spring of 1972, they sure shook that little beer joint on South Lamar called the Split Rail, the very coolest music club in Austin, Texas. The sign posted behind the bandstand warned, "No Dancing, Standing Or Fighting" but no one paid attention to it. If you wanted to two-step you had to go outside because everyone was already standing up in this pressure cooker, elbow to elbow, and it was too dang crowded to fight.

They played what you'd call country, or western, rock and roll--not rock, powered by a lot of boogie-woogie, the kind that bleeds through all kinds of music in this neck of the woods. It was, in a time when experimentation of music was the norm, when everyone was doing something like you'd never heard before (something of a tradition in a town that had already turned out Janis Joplin and Roky Erickson, and whose club scene was dominated by yodeling tavern proprietor Kenneth Threadgill). And here was something familiar but different.

They were hardly the only country band in town. But they were the only ones who struck such a resonant chord. The right place, right band, right town, right time. The only ones who played the music straight. Laid back, loose, diffident, different. Under the radar. Just like Austin was back then. Sleepy, shady, low-key. Austin people who worked were usually thankful they were securely employed forever by state or the university; those who didn't work liked to cite the economic figures stating Austin had the lowest cost of living of the one hundred largest cities in the United States of America, which at the time was actually true. It was the one place in Texas where a male with long hair wouldn't get his ass-kicked--a free zone. Those conditions fostered a groovy little scene that begat the modern version of the Austin music scene. San Francisco's Summer of Love was five years gone. Some of the afterglow had shifted to Austin, but the counterculture had undergone a strange reinterpretation. A pearl-button, blue jean longhairs and longnecks ethic had been welded on to the existing free spirits and good dope vibe; a “Nowhere But Texas” vibe that started drawing people like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, and Asleep at the Wheel.

Despite port-a-signs in front of gas stations that declared "We Love Hippies," like the one in front of the U Totem at 38th and Lamar, the old guard hard core honky tonk kind of country listener was still having none of this cosmic cowboy crap being generated around the University. So while there were rock bands, and country bands, and blues bands, there wasn't in truth, a whole lot of mixing until that barrier dissolved about the same time Freda and the Firedogs started their residency at the Split Rail, and became the first "young hippie" band to get a gig at the Broken Spoke, the purest of all honky-tonks, which it still is. Here was a band that could do "Today I Started Loving You Again" and "Don't Come Home Drinking" with straight-faced sincerity and make "Stand By Your Man" sound honest, not histrionic, then turn around and rip into Buddy Holly with hot rod intensity, before downshifting to something like "EZ Rider." It was the kind of repertoire where hippies and rednecks found common ground.

Freda and the Firedogs was a made-up name. Freda was Marcia Mouton Ball, a shy raven haired piano player with a scary talent for rocking a house with a boogie-woogie rocket-fueled version of rhythm and blues that comes naturally in southwestern Louisiana, two hundred eighty five miles to the east. By day, she worked the stacks in the library at the University of Texas. She was named Freda because someone thought it would go good with Firedogs. One night at the One Knite, a storied dive at Eighth and Red River, in the seediest part of the state capital city, Marcia was introduced to Bobby Earl Smith, a law school graduate with naturally tall hair from San Angelo, two hundred miles west, who was playing music while his wife taught school. Over the course of a few gigs in March and April, David Cook, a cherubic steel guitarist, asked to sit in with his lap steel and never stepped off the stage and Steve McDaniels, a steady handed drummer working the club scene, volunteered to add his drum kit. A couple of guitarists started sitting in on a rotating basis and one of them, John Reed, a tow-headed rockabilly guitarslinger from Amarillo, four hundred miles to the northwest, stuck for good, rounding out the band.
Freda and the Firedogs created quite a buzz in a matter of weeks, mainly because they played their asses off wherever they could--in front of the students and street people lined up for the free vegetarian meals at the Methodist Church on the Drag on Fridays, at benefits in the Armadillo World Headquarters Beer Garden for the striking University of Texas bus drivers, at the Back Door in the heart of the Riverside Drive apartment ghetto, at the Longhorn Party Barn out by Lake Austin, at Soap Creek Saloon, the soulful roadhouse tucked in the hills of Westlake. The money got to be good enough, they quit their day jobs.

The whole thing got so out of hand so fast that pretty soon real stars were wanting to hang out with the band at the Split Rail on Sundays too. Doug Sahm had scored international hits out of San Antonio in the mid sixties but then he decided to end a lengthy exile in San Francisco by moving back to Austin where something was starting to happen. Pretty soon, Dr. John showed up in full voodoo regalia and threw glitter around the Rail. Doug Clifford of Creedence Clearwater Revival dropped by. Tony Joe White was spotted peeking through the window, but was too intimidated by the all rowdy yahoos to come inside.

Then a real player showed up. Jerry Wexler was and is a music business legend, having discovered Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Professor Longhair, and a slew of soulful million-selling acts. He was already on to Austin, having signed both Sahm and Willie Nelson to Atlantic Records. But Freda and the Firedogs intrigued him like no other band.
So he made them a proposition: come up to Robin Hood Brians' funky egg-crate rigged little 12 track studio up in Tyler, the Rose City of Texas, and cut some tracks. So they did, hunkering down for three days in August of 1972 (the same year another little old band from Texas called ZZ Top made their first recordings at the very same place). It was a laid-back, straight-ahead recording session all things considered. Wexler brought his Immaculate Funk style of production—let the band find the groove and let the tape roll. Robin Hood's mom would cruise through dressed in her bathrobe, checking on the scene (she lived in the house the studio was built behind). Everyone went out and ate Chinese.

Atlantic liked what Wexler sent them. A go-ahead was given to release the demo “as is.” A contract was sent in the mail. But the band hemmed and hawed. They wanted artistic control. They wanted more money, more points--all the things bands were supposed to demand, weren't they? Townsend Miller, the Austin American Statesman music columnist and one of the band’s earliest and most fervent champions who prowled the clubs at night after his day job as stockbroker, urged them in print to sign the deal. Several times. But the misgivings and doubts lingered so long that by the time Freda and the Firedogs finally did decide to go ahead and jump off the cliff and sign the deal, it was too late. Atlantic soon deemed Jerry Wexler's Texas experiment a bust.
The band continued for almost another two years. There were regular out-of-town gigs in Lubbock, Dallas, and Houston and festivals like the Cosmic Cowboy Reunion at Hofheinz Arena in Houston, shows when the band backed Sahm, gigs when Willie showed up to sit in and sing, and one very strange trip to Michigan. Then John Reed got drafted by the Army. It all ended in a flaming blaze of glory at Willie Nelson's Second Annual Fourth of July Picnic at a racetrack near Bryan, Texas, with two guys parachuting into the crowd and cars literally on fire as Marcia waved her cowboy hat and yodeled "Cowboy Sweetheart."

Marcia Ball has gone on to carve out a stellar career as a rhythm and blues solo artist and bandleader, recording more than a dozen albums, touring relentlessly, and winning WC Handy Blues Awards and earning Grammy nominations in the process. Reed performs and records with the Texana Dames, Tommy X Hancock, Alvin Crow, and the Nortons and has burnished a rep as the city's finest guitarslinger. Smith, post Freda, played with Alvin Crow, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. In 1980 he recorded with Kimmie Rhodes and Joe Gracey on “Kimmie Rhodes and the Jackalope Brothers,” his last session until the solo album "Rear View Mirror,” released in 2000 to international acclaim.
McDaniels is pursuing an interest in the Latin sound. Cook is making music in Florida.

"You really fucked up by not signing the contract, " Jerry Wexler told Bobby Earl Smith over the phone a couple years ago. The original Freda and the Firedog tapes had long ago burned up in a fire in Atlantic's vaults. The only existing copy was in Jerry Wexler's library, which he happily offered, even though he couldn't help reminding Smith what could've been.

Who knows what would have, could have been? I sure don't. But what I do know is that this recording--is it a demo? is it a polished album?--captures a band, a producer, a place and a time like nothing else could. Close your eyes, let your mind wander back thirty years and listen to what we all missed.

Joe Nick Patoski
Senior Editor, Texas Monthly
2002

 


Freda & the Firedogs, c/o Bobby Earl Smith, 1108 Nueces, Austin, TX 78701
© 2002 Plug Music, All Rights Reserved

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