Allen Wayne Damron
A review written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange
When it comes to Texas music, there are two Renaissance men: Willie Nelson and Allen Damron. Unlike Willie, Damron's never made the cover of People magazine, and probably never earned enough in a year to interest the IRS. But like the red-headed stranger, he's a lifer - a balladeer who's plied his trade through the decades and is still at the top of his form. He's mentored singers like Jerry Jeff Walker and Ray Wylie Hubbard, and co-founded the Kerrville Folk Festival.
Most important, though, is that both singers have proved Texas music knows no borders, with Willie's forays into jazz standards, and Damron's albums devoted to Ireland and Mexico.
Damron's latest is another side trip into a genre: this time the booming subculture of cowboy poetry. Thirteen of the cuts are self-penned poems, recited in a South Texas burr. Most of them relate to the album's twelve tunes, a mix of what Damron calls old-time and new-time cowboy songs.
It becomes clear early on, though, that this is more than a side trip for Damron. It feels like an album he's been wanting to make all his life, which becomes clearest when he's telling tales about his rancher daddy, Jack. In Holding Pen, one of the best tracks, he relates in rhyme his dad's near-fatal encounter with a one-ton brahma bull. It's a cautionary fable about workplace accidents, with the refrain, "If I can't get it with a broomstick, friend/ It just won't get got."
Another clue to how personally he takes the subject is the selection of songs penned by his pals. You can spot them at any Texas music gathering, because they're wearing a "St. Damron's Medal," cast from silver he recovered while diving a shipwreck. Compadres like Bill Ward, Tim Henderson and Jim Daniel are among the Lone Star State's finest uncelebrated balladeers. Other songs come from Steve Fromholz, Utah Philips and Pat Garvey, along with traditional tunes like Sarie Peaks and Strawberry Roan.
Ward's lilting Cowboys in Dallas makes a perfect opener, setting a boy's fantasies about cowboys against the modern-day prairie of glass and steel. "Though I know I can't be one/ I'd still like to see one/ Maybe ride by his side for awhile."
Which is just what we get to do for the rest of the album. This is cowboying at the turn of the millennium, mercifully short on wistful elegies for the Old West. Henderson's Bleach Blondes and Broncos turns the standard rodeo song on its head by introducing an aging bull rider, arthritis and all:
|The bigger they are, the harder you fall. |
And I'll tell you, an old man falls hardest of all...
It's your sixtieth birthday, and you've been through four wives,
And it's Jim Beam and Geritol keeps you alive.
Several pieces celebrate characters who get left out of traditional Westerns, like Emiliano, a "vaquero" who recites poems about "la mujer" he left across the border, and Slim, who leaves the ranch for awhile to work the oilrigs. Ridin' Drag is a tribute to cowboys of color, in which Allen notes,
|Now, there's no black or brown or yella |
Or white to earn your pay.
When you're ridin' drag, boys,
Everybody's skin is gray.
Like the seasoned showman he is, Damron keeps a deft pace, skipping back and forth from old to new, and tragic to comic. Appliances and Ode to a Gnarly Footed Bathtub depict a cowpoke's uneasy relationship with civilization and personal hygiene, while "Ridin' Pumpjacks" tells a slapstick tale of two boys who try to tip the wrong cow.
As things wind down, the theme turns from age to mortality. Three old-timers sit around a campfire composing their own obits. Then the album climaxes with Damron and Henderson's Gringo Pistolero, a blood-and-guts gunslinger epic from Big Bend country that would do Marty Robbins proud.
The production, done at Ward's studio in Houston, is as down-to-earth as the material. Unfortunately, there's no listing of players, a defect I hope Damron will remedy in future pressings. The effect is to focus on the singer and his obvious love for the life, the land and the language. And the singer does a pretty good job of summing up his own enterprise. "If nothing else," goes the album's concluding line, "it can be said, 'A good time was had by all.'"
Edited by Roberta B. Schwartz