Saturday, January 19, 2013

Freda and the Alamo

My favorite table at the Alamo Lounge was up against the west wall, just under a small framed Freda and the Firedogs poster. It was the late 70s in Austin, Texas. The Alamo Lounge was the bar on the ground-floor corner of the old Alamo Hotel on West 6th Street, and I wanted that poster. 

To me, the Firedogs poster represented the beginning of the progressive-country music explosion in Austin, and the artwork was by Micael Priest, my favorite Armadillo World Headquarters poster artist.  In the early 70s, Freda and the Firedogs were an important part of the beginnings of a new music scene in Austin; a longhaired, country-rock, cosmic cowboy sound that was just getting cranked up. Described by the press at the time as “freaks” and “hippies” the Firedogs moved confidently into country music with their own style that incorporated rock “n” roll, folk, blues and Cajun elements.  The band consisted of Marcia Ball, John X. Reed, Steve McDaniels, David Cook, and Bobby Earl Smith.

Freda and the Firedogs by Micael Priest, 1974

Freda and the Firedogs played gigs in the local bars and honky-tonks like the Split Rail, Dry Creek Cafe, and Soap Creek Saloon, as well as opening for Freddie King at Armadillo World Headquarters and frequently backing up Doug Sahm. They were the first “hippie” band to play the legendary Broken Spoke on South Lamar. When big-time music promoter for Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, came to town he wanted to sign them as well as Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, but the Firedogs decided against signing with Atlantic and the band broke up after the second Willie Nelson Forth of July Picnic in 1974.

Freda and the Firedogs, Dry Creek Cafe 1972, photo by Burton Wilson

Although Freda and the Firedogs were no longer together by time I found the Alamo Lounge, the individual band members, including Marcia Ball, who had been dubbed “Freda” because it sounded good with “Firedogs,” were still playing music around Austin and The Alamo Lounge was rockin’ with music almost every night. I looked at that poster covetously each time I came in, examining the screws that held it to the wall and wondering if it would fit under my coat, but I left it there – not out of a sense of honor, but out of fear of getting thrown out of the coolest music venue in Austin.

The bar at the old Alamo Hotel, 6th and Guadalupe, had been renamed the Alamo Lounge in the early 1970s. The hotel was a funky old 1920s, five-story brick building, full of dusty old hangers-on, and down-and-outers including Sam Houston Johnson, LBJ’s black-sheep brother.  It had seen better days of politicians, conventions, businessmen, and travelers but now it was pretty rough around the edges and so were its tenants. They say that Tom Waits stayed there once, and later on Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard filmed part of their video for “Pancho and Lefty” in the hotel and lounge. 

Alamo Hotel postcard c. 1940s

The heyday of the old hotel was long past, but the Alamo Lounge gained a new life in the decade after 1972. The room was long and narrow with a beautiful old wooden bar and a small stage at one end.  The tables and chairs were worn and scuffed and there were a lot of memories of one sort or another hung on the walls. At night the room pulsed with sound as musicians like Townes Van Zant, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Bill Neeley, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, and Steve Earle played on the tiny stage for pass-the-hat money. 

I remember one particular evening at the Alamo when a newcomer to Austin, Mandy Mercier, was playing fiddle and accompanying Blaze Foley. Listening to that lively young woman tearing up that fiddle made me forget all about the Freda poster.  Mandy Mercier is still playing amazing fiddle music, but sadly, Blaze Foley went to his rest in his duct tape-covered coffin a few years later.  The the Alamo Lounge closed its doors in 1981 and the Alamo hotel was bulldozed in 1984 to make way for a parking lot, and later, another bland Austin high-rise.   The furnishings of the hotel were sold at auction, but I never saw the poster again.

Marcia Ball continued to play music around town, singing and playing that boogie-woogie, bluesy piano – keeping time with one long leg crossed over the other. She went on to a highly successful career that has included more than a dozen albums as well as Grammy nominations.  As the years went by, I would ask younger folks in the audience if they remembered Freda and the Firedogs. “No?” I’d say, “Well. that’s Freda, right there. Yep, Freda and the Firedogs!”

It’s been a bit over thirty years since I sat in the Alamo Lounge under the Freda poster, but at the Austin Book and Paper show last weekend I was fortunate to find and purchase an original 1974 Firedogs poster.   There’s Marcia – big glasses and too-tall cowboy hat – and there’s Micael Priest’s signature, almost lost in his classic cross-hatching.  “Freda and the Firedogs.  Every Sunday at the Texas Opry House, behind the Terrace.” 

After I got the poster safely home, I wanted to email a few old friends, especially my brother-in-law Joe Specht, our family’s very own music historian, and tell them about my find.  But I wanted to have my facts straight, so I googled Freda and the Firedogs and found that Bobby Earl Smith, Firedog bass player and vocalist, is now an Austin attorney as well as a recording artist, and he maintains a Firedogs website at:

You can order a Freda and the Firedogs CD consisting of the 12 original cuts the band made on a demo tape for Jerry Wexler in 1972.   The website has a terrific history of the band written by Joe Nick Patoski, as well as photos, poster art and reviews.  The music cuts cover traditional country tunes like Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” and on to Taj Majal’s arrangement of “EZ Rider,” and a couple of original tunes by Bobby Earl Smith.

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

Recorded August 10-12, 1972, 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, Photos by Burton Wilson, Art by Micael Priest, Layout by Joe Gracey

The CD is a reasonable $15. Be sure to ask Bobby Earl about his own CD, “Turn Row Blues” – “9 new original songs and four old favorites,” and featuring James Burton, Lloyd Maines, John X. Reed, Casper Rawls, Freddie Krc, Eric Smith, Warren Hood and Bobby Earl Smith.

The longed-for poster will soon be on my wall, and the original sound of Freda and the Firedogs floats to me through the air from 1972; life is good – go out and hear some music you will remember. 

Note:  There was a brief reunion of the band with all the original musicians at Soap Creek Saloon in 1979, for the recording of an LP, "Live from the Old Soap Creek Saloon Austin, Texas," (Big Wheel Records) with special guest Sir Doug Sahm, but finding a copy of that LP will be a lot tougher than finding a Firedogs poster.

Wanta hear some '72 Freda and the Firedogs?

Or Marcia Ball a little more recently?

More about Micael Priest:

The “Pancho and Lefty” Video with images from the interior of the Alamo Hotel and the Alamo Lounge:

A good 2002 essay by Nancy Meredith about some of the eccentric tenents of the Alamo:

Site with 1981 Alamo Lounge photos by Dana Kolflat:

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