in memory of the music
Last week, Austin lost two men who were pivotal in shaping the city's musical identity. Drummer, singer, songwriter and musical mentor Doyle Bramhall died in Alpine on November 13, at age of 62. Disc jockey and producer Joe Gracey also passed away last Thursday in Houston; he had just turned 61. Each man left an indelible stamp on the soundtrack of Austin.
Gracey was one of the early champions of the “progressive country” or “redneck rock” fusion of country, rock, folk and blues that first put the city on the musical map in the mid-1970s. As a disc jockey at the felicitously named KOKE-FM, “Old Blue Eyes” (as Gracey dubbed himself) broadcast sets that might veer synchronistically from the Grateful Dead to Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills to the Allman Brothers Band to local favorites like Jerry Jeff Walker, Marcia Ball, B.W. Stevenson, Doug Sahm and Willie Nelson. He produced recordings by artists as diverse as Butch Hancock, the punk rock pioneers the Skunks and Alejandro Escovedo. He also booked the first season of a little television experiment called Austin City Limits and was a frequent emcee at Armadillo World Headquarters.
Bramhall was part of the exodus of Dallas blues musicians who made a trek to the Texas capital around 1970, along with Jimmie Vaughan and his younger brother Stevie Ray, Denny Freeman, Paul Ray and others. Together with the black blues musicians on the city’s East Side, they transformed and expanded Austin’s musical palette beyond the country-rock soundtrack that Gracey had helped pioneer.
Bramhall and the other sharp-dressed-men from Big D set up shop at Clifford Antone’s downtown blues joint and the funky and foreboding One Knite club (currently Stubbs BBQ) and set about remodeling the musical landscape.
“Doyle was the go-to drummer for any blues band wanting a bottom,” recalls writer Joe Nick Patoski. “Moreover, his vocal covers of ‘Georgia On My Mind’ and ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries’ are still talked about. I still get chills hearing Doyle sing, ‘…and Mona Lisa was a man’ on ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries.’”
Bramhall played and sang with Marcia Ball’s band for a time in the mid-1980s, but she formed an appreciation for him long before that.
“He was an incredibly influential drummer and singer,” says Ball. “His (blues) shuffle was the one on which most people who knew Texas music based their style.”
Bramhall was a pivotal part of the scene. He played with Jimmie Vaughan in the Chessmen, one of Dallas’ hottest bands; young Stevie took the guitar chair in Bramhall’s own group, the Nightcrawlers. When Stevie took off into the stratosphere, he took with him a fistful of songs that bore Bramhall’s imprint, including “Change It,” “The House Is Rockin’,” “Looking Out the Window” and the poignant “Wall of Denial,” and “Tightrope” both of which addressed both men’s struggles with addiction.
Along the way, Bramhall was a pivotal mentor to the young guitarist. “He was the first one who told me I was good,” Vaughan told a writer. Moreover, listening to Bramhall’s gravelly, soulful vocals, one can hear the original template of Stevie’s own singing.
“You can hear Stevie singing and almost hear Doyle’s voice, line for line,” says Ball. “It was a natural, right-feeling, perfect style.”
Bramhall’s legacy also lives on via three solo albums, the latest of which, Is It News, was released on the Yep Roc label in 2007. (And, of course, his son Doyle Bramhall II, is continuing the family musical tradition with his own illustrious career.)
Joe Gracey’s deep, mellifluous Fort Worth drawl was, in its way, as distinctive as Bramhall’s. But Gracey’s voice—his bread and butter—was cruelly taken away from him in 1977, following traumatic surgery for oral cancer. For the rest of his life, Gracey communicated—fluidly, at length and with considerable wit—via sign language and an endless procession of Magic Slate toys.
Gracey was a tastemaker, but he was also a champion of the up and comers in the fledgling Austin country-rock scene.
“Joe was the face and voice of KOKE-FM, the first progressive country station in the world, and the first institution to validate the music being created in Austin’s clubs,” said Patoski. “He also wrote the first rock music column for the Statesman…He was one of the first friends I made when I came to Austin, largely through the radio and his writing.”
“I think he’d like to be remembered as the person who was instrumental in helping Austin become the place that its musically,” says his wife, singer and songwriter Kimmie Rhodes on Saturday. The pair married in 1983 and have a daughter and two stepsons. “Insomuch as he was able to help the artists who were trying to make it here, he also educated the public about great music. And he didn’t care what kind of music it was, just great music.”
Following another round of cancer treatment, Rhodes and Gracey were on a long-deferred holiday to their second home in the south of France earlier this fall when Gracey fell ill once more. It was an idyllic time. “He was driving again, going to the market, visiting the winemaker next door, picking out colors to paint the shutters…Then it all just started going downhill,” says Rhodes. She flew Gracey back via air ambulance to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he died last Thursday.
Rhodes said on Sunday that a public memorial service and celebration will be held at 2 p.m. on December 4, at a location to be announced soon.
Among their many pursuits, Gracey and Smith became gourmet cooks, and Gracey submitted several stories to Saveur magazine.
In testament to Gracey’s unrelenting embrace of the richest possible life, gallery owner Steve Clark remarked, “If you can cook when you can’t taste, you’ve got some gear.”
“Gracey’s heart had ears,” said Bobby Earl Smith, who knew Gracey from the days when the disc jockey was riding high at KOKE and Smith was playing with Freda and the Firedogs and Western Swing fiddler Alvin Crow.
“He almost knew what we wanted to hear before we knew it,” said Smith. “Joe had that unique ability to connect with the listener and make him believe that that particular (radio) show was designed just for him. You had a real feeling of a personal connection with Joe when you heard him on the radio.”