Somebody forgot to tell Jeff Hughes he was supposed to help lead the revolution.
When Hughes arrived on the scene in Austin, Texas in 1982 from his native Beaumont, it was as a feckless college student with a license to chill. “I was coming to UT [the University of Texas] to study sittin’ on the West Mall,” he said with a laugh years later. “Hangin’ Out 101.”
But then Hughes, like myriad young Austinites before him, discovered the live music scene that permeates the city’s cultural fabric. By his own admission, Hughes had never seen a live act before in his life, but he caught the roots-rocking LeRoi Brothers on a real good night — which was about as good as it got in those days — and he was hooked.
There it began and there it might have stayed. Had things taken another turn, Hughes might have remained just another anonymous face in a barroom crowd and today be making his living as an engineer, his ostensible major at UT.
But life is a funny old dog and Hughes, whether he knew it or not, was about to become a general in an emerging honky-tonk army. Though he had fooled around on the guitar since he was 12 and had struck up a friendship with local Austin luminaries such as Monte Warden (Of Whoa! Trigger and later the Wagoneers) and Ted Roddy (of Teddy & the Talltops and later the Naughty Ones), he didn’t entertain any ideas of setting foot onstage himself…
…Until one night he did.
That April night in 1987, when Hughes and his newly-commissioned band, Chaparral, launched into a 12-song set for 20 paying customers at the Ritz Theater on Sixth Street, is as good a date as any to mark the beginning of an Austin country music revolution that’s still going strong a decade later.
At the time, the city’s music scene was going through one of the periods of stasis that characterize the ebb and flow of any creative community. The pop/punk-flavored, songwriter-driven “New Sincerity” movement was foundering on the shoals of commercial indifference. The local blues scene had catapulted its brightest stars, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, out of the local clubs and onto the road. The local country scene was watching the rise of nascent stars Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, while mourning the death of one of the city’s Depression-era musical icons, Kenneth Threadgill.
There was, in other words, a vacuum. One by one, over the next few years, a new generation of performers stepped forward to fill it. And, in large part, most of them passed through the revolving door that was Jeff Hughes’ band.
What Hughes and his compadres did was simply to get people back out on the dance floor. Not to slam, nor to mosh, nor simply to shake bootie — but to jitterbug and shuffle and two-step and waltz. It didn’t happen overnight, but one day folks woke up to find that touch dancing to a rocking country band was the hottest gig in town.
“I started out as a dancer at Monte’s and Teddy’s shows,” Hughes said. “[So] the way I hear rhythms probably has a lot to do with the way I write. I always felt really lucky that everybody would dance to the songs I wrote.”
Like the garrets and backstreet cafes where all good revolutions are fomented, the fledgling dance scene came to have its own hotbeds. Though the Broken Spoke, the city’s quintessential beer joint, was slow to catch on, Chaparral and their contemporaries found kindred spirits at the late, lamented Henry’s Bar & Grill, the Continental Club, the Hole in the Wall and the Black Cat Lounge. For a couple years around 1991, Chaparral dead-solid owned Wednesday nights at the Black Cat.
And why not? Hughes’ ensembles boasted some of the best musicians in town, including songwriting brothers Bruce and Charlie Robison, guitar virtuoso Casper Rawls, A-list honky-tonk drummer Lisa Pankratz, bassist John Ludwick, and many others. Almost by default, Chaparral became the flagship band for the entire alt-country dance scene. Fueled by Hughes’ growing prowess as a songwriter and the diverse talents of the musicians who backed him onstage, Chaparral was the band you pointed to when someone asked you where all these folks with nose rings and Doc Martens suddenly learned how to swing dance.
Today, the scene is both wider and deeper than at the turn of the decade. It has spun off full-fledged stars in the form of the willowy Kelly Willis and the idiosyncratic Junior Brown. Songwriters such as the Robison brothers, Dale Watson and Monte Warden double as accomplished performers. More mainstream country artists such as Chris Wall, Libbi Bosworth, Kimmie Rhodes and High Noon keep the music grounded in the traditions of classic Nashville, upstart Bakersfield and postwar Texas honky-tonk. Kick-ass bands like the Derailers and the Cornell Hurd Band have arisen to share band-of-the-year accolades with Chaparral. Timeless veterans such as Alvin Crow and his Pleasant Valley Boys and Asleep At The Wheel persevere decade after decade, in the eternal quest for the perfect two-step. The movement has even acquired a patriarch in the form of Don Walser, the rotund sixty-something grandfather whose stratospheric cowboy yodels have earned him the affectionate sobriquet, “the Pavorotti of the Plains.”
Ironically, just as the burgeoning dance scene was really beginning to pick up creative steam and mainstream acceptance, Hughes seemed to abdicate his throne. For a three-year period from 1992–95, Hughes pursued a publishing/artist’s development deal with Nashville’s SBK Records (now EMI Productions). Though it was an opportunity Hughes wanted to pursue for the sake of his own growth, the constant sojourns to Music City meant that Chaparral languished in limbo. In the meantime, Hughes learned some real-world lessons, not all of them pleasant.
“It was a step up on the career ladder,” he acknowledged. “But I learned exactly what Nashville does, and that is country radio, pretty hard and fast. As an artist, I don’t really fit into that mold, so I turned my sights to writing songs that somebody might want to cut. I gave that a shot and ended up with one single out of the deal with Brother Phelps. And they got tired of touring about three weeks after my song came out on the radio, and they got dropped. The same old story.”
Although he dismisses much of commercial country radio as “crap,” Hughes still counts his Nashville tenure as valuable. “I know where I want to be [musically] and I know Austin is the place to do it,” he says. “What I want to do is take what I’ve learned about Nashville and how to do it, and get smart about it and do it here.”
The first step is Chaparral, Hughes’ brand-new release on Boar’s Nest Records, his old buddy Bruce Robison’s homegrown independent label. Astonishingly, it is Hughes’ first album, despite his decade of experience as a performer.
It’s also his first step onto the scene as a self-contained artist. All of the album’s songs were written by Hughes, and though the title is a tribute to his bandmates, many of whom appear on the album, it is as Jeff Hughes that he wants to carve out the next phase of his career.
Well, a rose by any other name… Wherever it is filed in the record store racks, Chaparral is one of the most vibrant, melodic, listenable country albums to come down the pike this year. The melodies are supple and muscular, the best of the writing nearly cinematic (“Our vows were written at low tide in the sand/She walks away, the waves crash down again,” Hughes sings in “The Waltz”, with Kelly Willis on backing vocals and sometime BoDean Michael Ramos on piano).
From the wistful “All My Love” to the big-leg beat of “Finer Lovin’” to the call-and-response of the bouncy, good-natured closing cut, “Lazy Good For Nothin’ “, one comes away from Chaparral with a clearer understanding of how Hughes and Co. kept the dance floor filled all those years.
And they still do. Chaparral (aka Jeff Hughes, depending on how the club ads run) is still a going concern, and on a recent Wednesday night the band was holding forth for an appreciative midnight crowd at the Continental Club.
Though they kicked off with the vintage honky-tonk shuffle “Pop A Top”, the balance of the band’s set drew largely from the album, which reprises much of Hughes’ most popular original material over the years. Typically, the lineup consisted of Hughes and some of the best players in town (currently the rhythm section of John Ludwick and ex-Loggins & Messina drummer Merel Bergante, along with steel guitarist Mike Hardwick (who produced Chaparral) and a new guitarist, Austin blues/country veteran David Murray).
On the dark, tiny dance floor, women are dipping their male dancing partners…the band transforms R.E.M.’s “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” into a brisk country shuffle…the female bartender swirls by, dancing with a waitress…Hughes grins, ends one song and kicks off another one, his place in the world — for this moment at least — secured.
Chaparral, the dictionaries will tell you, is a synonym for the road runner. But it isn’t Jeff Hughes that’s raising the proverbial cloud of cartoon dust: It’s the revolving multitude of dancers he helped inspire.