THE BEER SERIES: Part Six | The fall of Pearl

The fan site falstaffbrewing.com has a history page, which is as awesomely informative as it is design-challenged. One of the entries is as follows:

1926 Polish immigrant Paul Kalmanovitz arrives penniless in America....(uh-oh)

They’re speaking for Falstaff, but it rings true for all of us.
 
Paul Kalmanovitz would work his way up from penniless in short order. By the early 1970s, he had purchased Lucky Lager in California and formed the General Brewing Co. under the parent S&P Corp. By 1975, Kalmanovitz had gained control of Falstaff. He bought Pearl Brewing Co. in 1977.
 
What did that mean for Pearl? Here’s a line from his Wikipedia page: "Kalmanovitz acquired an ailing brewery, fired the corporate personnel, reduced budgets, sold off equipment, stopped plant maintenance, and eliminated product quality control. Kalmanovitz established a standard with Falstaff that was repeated as he purchased Stroh's, National Bohemian, Olympia, Pearl, and Pabst."
 
(He wasn’t completely miserly: It’s known that he offered to put up $15 million for a “Statue of Justice” – meant to be a companion piece to the “Statue of Liberty” – off the coast of San Francisco.)
 
In a bit of good news, Pearl was brewing Jax Beer at this time. They had purchased the brew and the label in 1974 and the Southern favorite would enjoy a decade-long run as an actual Texas beer.
 
At this point, information becomes very scarce: Pearl Brewing Co. continues as a subsidiary of S&P Corp., though exactly how Pearl was changed by the new owner is not known. One thing we know for sure is that in 1985, Pearl (as part of S&P Corp.) purchased Pabst, which had fallen on hard times. Some sites report it was a hostile takeover.
 
Now do you remember how in the newspaper wars of the 1990s, the San Antonio Light’s parent company actually bought out the rival San Antonio Express-News … and then closed the Light?
 
Well, that’s how the Pearl/Pabst thing played out. Pearl bought Pabst, then kept the Pabst name. We still had Pearl beer (or what it had become), but we didn’t have a Pearl Brewing Company. (Sadly, this move also meant the end of the line for Jax Beer. Its run was over.)
 
Kalmanovitz died 2 years later, but his company operated under the precedent he set: Over the next dozen years or so, Pabst would close breweries, end production of historic beers and generally piss all over history. In one bitter example, Pabst contracted out production to Stroh’s in 1996 and closed down the Pabst brewery, ending a 152-year run in Milwaukee.
 
But the San Antonio brewery was still operational, and when Pabst bought out Stroh’s in 1999, Lone Star was included in the deal. There was great excitement that it would be brewed in San Antonio again, albeit at the Pearl Brewery.
 
That didn’t last long. Losing the battle to Bud and Miller and Coors, Pabst decided to shutter all of their breweries and become a “virtual brewer” – brewing by contract with other brewers. Pearl and Pearl Light would be brewed at the Miller brewery in Fort Worth.
 
The historic Pearl Brewery was shut down in 2001. San Antonio residents were not happy, though the complex was not torn down. It was rehabilitated into an upscale mix of shops and residences.
 
Pearl is in the same leaky boat as Lone Star – a once-proud regional beer kept afloat at the whim of a company now based in Chicago. But where Lone Star is standing on the prow, doing its best to look bold, Pearl is all but forgotten. Next time things get hard, I’d expect Pearl to be bobbing with the jetsam in the wake.
 
It’s a sad end for Texas’ most historic beer.

Up next: The happy story of Shiner

Pearl as it looked in 1967, before the beginning of the end.

And in 1973.

Pearl Cream Ale? Sure, in 1970.

This is how Jax looked when Pearl revived it.

Generic beer was one of the touches of the Kalmanovitz empire.

Yes, Pearl brewed Billy Beer.

And a Texas Pride knockoff called Country Tavern.

And a German beer knockoff.

And, sigh, even JR Ewing beer.

Here's Texas Pride as you might remember it, if you were very broke in the 1990s and wanted something more Texas than Natural Light.

Pearl, as it looked in 1984.

THE BEER SERIES: Part Seven | The little brewery in Shiner

The very nice coffee table book “Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer” weaves a tale that is straight out of an old black-and-white movie:
 
The portly Kosmos Spoetzl is born in Bavaria and trained in the ways of beer. He was a soldier and a world traveler. A would-be Renaissance man like Southern Select’s Frantz Hector Brogniez, but on the other end of the spectrum. If Brogniez fit in with Houston’s high society, Spoetzl in Shiner was given to wearing his hat jauntily, passing out nickels to children and leaving cold beers on fenceposts for farmers.
 
Kosmos (who came to Shiner after stops in Cairo, Canada and San Francisco) drove a Model T through the countryside, talking up his beer with the common folk. At the brewery, which he cobbled into existence and somehow weathered 15 years of Prohibition, he would tell employees to “drink all the beer you want, just don’t get yourself drunk.”
 
When the beloved brewmaster’s big heart finally gave out, it was his feisty daughter who saw the brewery through the 1950s and 60s, carrying on her father’s work.
 
It all seems too scripted, but it apparently happened just that way.
 
As a Historic Texas Beer, Shiner never had the bombast of Lone Star or the flair of Pearl, but … Shiner is still here, still Texas-owned (the San Antonio-based Gambrinus Co.), still produced in its historic brewery and still quietly doing its thing.
 
(And that thing would be brewing multiple specialty beers to please the connoisseur, Shiner Premium to please the traditionalists and Shiner Bock to be that one beer that everyone can compromise on.)
 
Getting a relatively late start as the Shiner Brewing Association in 1909, the young brewery struggled until Kosmos Spoetzl came along in 1915 and co-leased the operation along with Oswald Petzold.
 
Kosmos had attended brewmaster school in Germany (where they apparently have such things) and had worked at the Pyramid Brewery in Egypt. He bought the operation outright not too long before Prohibition made things hard on him. Sources say he got along selling near-beer and ice – but just like every other Texas brewery that didn’t just give up in 1918, the rumors were that he kept on quietly producing beer, too.
 
Shiner Bock was introduced in 1913, but was a seasonal beer for the next 60 years. Post-Prohibition, Texas Export was the flagship beer, becoming Texas Special by the 1940s.
 
Mrs. Celie — the feisty Spoetzl daughter who took over in 1950 — finally decided to sell in 1966. It took only two years for former Lone Star brewmaster Bill Bigler to sell it again to a New Braunfels dynamite maker.
 
In the early 1970s, with the future of the little brewery very much in doubt, the flagship beer was changed from Special Export (I know that doesn’t jive with Texas Special – perhaps the terms were interchangeable? My sources are not clear. We need an expert to weigh in) to Shiner Premium. The change in formula and name didn’t sit well with old-timers and traditionalists who didn’t care for the lighter beer.
 
A couple of photos in “Shine On” show the Armadillo World Headquarters beer garden with a sign advertising Shiner at 35 cents a cup or $1.50 a pitcher (the cheapest option), as well as another shot of Doug Sahm and Jerry Garcia with most of a six-pack of Shiner cans (empty, I presume) between them.
 
In a move that probably kept the brewery afloat, Spoetzl started brewing Shiner Bock full-time in 1978. It was Austin’s thirst for the darker beer that prompted the move. How grim were things? The little brewery had plenty of leftover capacity to brew Gilley’s beer by contract for a short time after “Urban Cowboy” made the country Texas-crazy.
 
Carlos Alvarez and his Gambrinus Co. purchased the brewery in 1989 and made two moves: Shifted production from 75% Premium and 25% Bock to the other way around. And he raised prices. Substantially.
 
(If you ever wandered into a Texas bar in the early ‘90s and wondered why in the hell Shiner was priced as an “import” – now you know.)
 
Carlos had a knack for promotion, as well. In the first few years, sales nearly doubled. That’s not a bad turnaround. It was 1993 when the specialty beers started emerging from the overhauled brewery: Kosmos Reserve was first.

Perhaps the surest sign of success came in 1995 when Budweiser decided to invent Ziegenbock — a not-too-subtle stab at Shiner Bock’s market share.

There's no mystery as to Shiner's health today. Walk into any H-E-B or Spec's and you can choose from an impressive array of styles, from the newly relabeled Shiner Premium (which spent the last decade or so as Shiner Blonde) to the brand new Shiner White Wing.

Up next: What does it all mean for the thirsty Texan?

An assortment of historical Shiner bottles.

A Shiner "Texas Special" label from 1951. Taverntrove.com

A Texas Tap label from 1968. Taverntrove.com

Shiner also brewed Gilley's beer after the "Urban Cowboy" craze took hold.

A "Texas Special" stubbie bottle.

Vintage Shiner memorabilia like this is hard to find and expensive. In part, because Shiner just floods the market with all manner of new stuff available at the brewery and online.

A Shiner Premium can.

And an old-school Shiner Bock can.

Here's how Premium is looking these days.

And Bock, too.

THE BEER SERIES: Part Eight | Time for a cold one

Two weeks of beer blogs and the few of you who have made it this far deserve a drink.
 
I hesitate to offer any sort of ranking of importance of Texas’ historic beers, because that lends itself to too many nerdy questions over what counts and qualifies. But I’m going to anyway, just because I can’t resist a list.
 
Your Top 9 Historic Texas Beers
 
9. Honorary Texas beer Falstaff, brewed for decades in El Paso and Galveston.
8. Honorary Texas beer Jax, brewed in nearby New Orleans and later for a bit over a decade in San Antonio.
7. Mitchell’s. Even if the pride of El Paso couldn’t settle on a name.
6. Bluebonnet. Only lasted 11 years, but has no real historic competitors in the Metroplex area.
5. Grand Prize. Howard Hughes did it right: Start with a ton of money and a stolen brewmaster, make yours the biggest beer in Texas, then shut it down when the end comes.
4. Southern Select. The Sam Houston of Texas beers.
3. Lone Star. It had a great run, but that was decades ago. Now it’s sliding down the list.
2. Shiner. I took the liberty of considering Shiner Premium and Shiner Bock to be one entry. Twenty years ago, Shiner would have been on the bottom half of the list. Now it has just about overtaken …
1. Pearl. Sheer history keeps it at the top for a bit longer, probably until they quit making it.

But they are still making Pearl and Pearl Light. It's only available in 12-packs of cans. Of course I went and bought a 12-pack a few months ago.

It was disappointing. Not bad, just without any real taste at all. I can't imagine that it's the same beer created by Germans in the 1880s — I don't believe they would have washed their children with something this watery. I'd love to have someone at the Miller plant in Fort Worth defend its honor, but until then I'm going to bet that Pearl is now just Miller's cut-rate beer in different packaging.

Maybe, maybe each 12-pack gets a hard stare from a portrait of Tommy Lee Jones as it heads for distribution, but that's as much Texas flavor as it gets, I'm sure.

(Wikipedia says that Country Club Malt Liquor — Pearl's half-brother from the marriage with Goetz — is also still available, but only in 40-ounce bottles. Sadly, the convenience stores that I frequent don't have much of a selection of 40s, but I will keep looking.)

Also, a word of warning to would-be hipsters drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon or Lone Star or any of a dozen regional brands in hopes that it's ironic or that you're sticking it to the man. In truth, you're backing a northern corporate giant that has bought up (sometimes in hostile takeovers) all these once-proud beers, is brewing them as cheaply as possible and is mining your ignorance to line their pockets.

Disappointing, hunh? I didn't know either.

If you want to stick it to the man, support your local craft brewer or the craft brewer in the locality you'd like to be (BIg Bend Brewing, I've got my eye on you).

And if you want to show your Texas pride (sadly, not literally, since that longtime Pearl beer is history), then buy a six-pack of Shiner. History, of course, shows us there's no guarantee on the future. But right now, Shiner is doing it right.

 There, that's it. It's a good thing, too. All this has made me very thirsty.

The beer garden at the Armadillo World Headquarters.


Bonus reading:

Check out http://magnoliaballroom.com/louis-aulbach-history.html for an expansive look at the history of Houston Ice & Brewing and an interesting discussion of how the advent of artificial ice technology in the 1870s made cold beer possible in Houston – and pause for a minute, as this site suggests, to think about how good a cold beer must have been in Houston prior to the invention of air conditioning.

Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer is a coffee table book, long on prose and short on precision — but if you’re not on a research mission, it’s a fine and attractive diversion. I bought mine online from the Goodwill in San Antonio for $7, so it's totally worth a look.

In Houston Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Bayou City, Ronnie Crocker gives a pretty nice history of the Southern Select and Grand Prize era of Houston and Galveston brewing before an obligatory nod to Budweiser and then diving into where his real interests obviously lie: the rise of the craft brewing industry and its aficionados. Much of the second half of the book is all but a love letter to the Saint Arnold Brewing Co.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF THE SERIES

10 things I learned at Willie's Picnic: 2013

Let's take it chronologically:

1. The Hotel Texas is probably the worst-reviewed hotel I've ever stayed at 6 times. But they pretty much outdid themselves this year when they told me their credit card machine was broken and demanded cash rightthefucknow (I'm guessing they were mad I made my reservation before they upped the prices for the Picnic and wanted to get out of the Visa fees). Also charming: The sole remaining key to the room was broken, so they had to let me in and out of the room with the master key every time I showed up at the front desk.

2. The Twitter experiment was a bust except for a single tweet from 11 p.m. on July 3: "Longhorn Salion. I yes I Jesus. I the walrus." If I knew what I had meant to say at that point, it would probably open up some deep universal secret. This also provides a little insight into how successful I was at getting lit up, pre-Picnic. Offering my services as a Flaming Dr Pepper adviser during dinner at Cattleman's was probably a mistake.

3. I'd been in the "Will Call" line to pick up my media credentials for almost half an hour when I decided to cheat just a little bit. I called up the Billy Bob's Texas official that I've been in contact with over most of the past decade and said "Heyyyyyy ... I've been standing in this line for a loooooong time. And that's OK. I just wanted to be sure I was in the right spot to pick up my media pass."

She said yes, but she would double-check. Five minutes later I get a call. "I"m sending a blonde in a golf cart to pick you up." From there, I got a free ride to backstage where the official was waiting with my media pass.

I kinda felt like a VIP. I guess that's the idea, but this doesn't usually happen to me. I could get used to it. Made it in just in time to catch Ray Wylie Hubbard do his "let's give them the four songs they want" set.

4. At a fairly inexplicable 2 p.m. show Kris Kristofferson sounded terrible, forgot words to his songs and tried to do the same song twice. It was a far piece from the evening show that was the highlight of the 2010 Picnic. Johnny Bush was alone in seeming ageless. Billy Joe Shaver seemed tired, but didn't hold back.

5. Ray Price had to cancel the day before, so I was left with a simple choice: Jamey Johnson and then Leon Russell outside or David Allan Coe inside Billy Bob's. Well, in my story for the paper I had urged everyone to show some love for Leon, who has always been underappreciated as a Picnic pioneer. Outside it was.

Jamey continued his Picnic tradition of setting his excellent 45 rpm songs at 33 1/3 rpm and letting the afternoon heat suck the life out of them. Leon? He was awesome. He limped to the stage in all white, like Santa Claus at a formal, sat down and blazed away for 25 minutes straight. He even said something! A small crack about how hot it was.

6. Never found out why Lukas Nelson canceled, but I heard just enough of Micah Nelson's latest band (Insects vs. Robots) to really, really miss Lukas. I'd been tromping in and out of the Billy Bob's offices, filing reports that nobody read. But they gave me free access to everywhere, let me leave the computer in the office (after 4 Picnics of carrying it in a backpack with me ... small progress). Once again, Billy Bob's was a first-class operation.

7. My first Ryan Bingham show. Was damn surprised to learn that other people love "Southside of Heaven" as much as I do. That album -- "Mescalito" -- has such as West Texas vibe to it. Terribly not used to watching and appreciating artists younger than I am. But I reckon I have to get there. Options will get limited quickly.

8. Because my other choices are asshats like Justin Moore. This guy has an elevated platform built on the stage so he can rise mysteriously into view -- cowboy hat visible from Dallas -- before a row of pulsing lights and thumping music. Then he goes on to tell us all what a real country musician he is. After opening with a song about how Obama can't take his guns, of course. To see Justin  juxtaposed with Bingham only serves to expose what a joke Justin is. All talk, all flash, all cliche, all hat and no badass jams.

9. After filing another report during the second half of Moore's disaster, I used Gary Allan's 75 minutes to take the computer back to the hotel (yes, they had to let me into my room) and then have a sit-down dinner at Riscky's before hoofing it back for Willie's closing set. This all felt very weird. But I wasn't going to suffer another $8 corndog just to listen to Gary Allan and make my feet hurt a little more.

10. Willie? He sounded rough before he got warmed up, but hit his groove and coasted to a sing-along gospel-heavy close. It was a fitting end to this Picnic and -- probably -- to all the Picnics. I know I wasn't there for the first 20 years of this tradition, but I've been around long enough to say it really lost something over the past decade when Willie could no longer come out and jam with his guests (and no blame here, of course – I understand he's 80).

What has kept the Picnic together over this past decade has been its core group: Ray Price, Leon Russell, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Johnny Bush, Asleep at the Wheel. And, to a lesser extent, Kristofferson and Coe. Let's face it, though. The core group is geting old. The Picnic is getting old. And this year, it was awfully noticeable.

I was pleased that we had one more big, outdoor event. One more "Whiskey River." One more "Redneck Mother," "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Live Forever." I had a good time. But maybe we should say 40 is enough. I know it's not up to me, but I'd rather give it up than watch it morph into something else, with someone else.

I heard from a few sources that Willie feels the same. But you never know.

Only one thing is certain: My calendar will be clear for July 3-4 next year.

Just in case.

The 20 most bad-ass songs in my iTunes library

I'm a late-comer to the iTunes / iPod revolution — in spite of my buddy Bret telling me a decade ago how cool it was. What can I say? I been wrong before.

I totally get it now. I can think of a song, buy it in 20 seconds for $1, have it on my iPod in another 2 minutes and be driving down the road listening to it in my car 5 minutes after that. But I'm a slow-adopting, slow-moving technology outlaw. Most of my narrow, but deep, song library is still on CDs. I probably have more songs on vinyl than in my iTunes library.

But in the spirit of a totally unnecessary writing exercise, I got to thinking the other day (sparked by listening to "Copperhead Road," of course): "What are the most bad-ass songs in my iTunes collection?" Not the best, mind you. Not even my favorites. But the most bad-ass.

Here goes.

20.  "Ride Me Down Easy," Billy Joe Shaver, "Unshaven."
I'm a sucker for live albums, I guess. But I never understood why this album isn't worshipped by every music critic from El Paso to Atlanta.

19. "Casting my Lasso," Don Walser, "Texas Legend."
I always wanted to pair Don Walser with Monte Montgomery and have the big feller and the guitar wizard compete yodel-for-guitar solo. The goddamn ultimate call-and-response. It would have been awesome.

18. "The Ecstasy of the Gold," Ennio Morricone, "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly."
I loved the movie long before that Nike commercial — you know the one — but I'm not too proud to say the commercial moved me, too.

17. "The Randall Knife," Guy Clark, "Dublin Blues."
No, wait, I hate commercials. Fucking Taco Cabana commercials.

16. "We Can't Make it Here," James McMurtry, "Childish Things."
A protest song that absolutely should galvanize every American with truth that transcends politics … I mean if such a thing were possible for most people.

15. "My Cup Runneth Over," Johnny Bush, "Bush Country."
The other day on the radio I heard a Justin Trevino song where he apparently had invited his mentor, Johnny Bush, to sing backup. That's like asking Fred Astaire to be a backup dancer in your touring show. Like asking Daniel Day-Lewis to be an extra in your movie. Like asking Johnny Gimble to play second fiddle. This song is Johnny Bush at the height of his powers. But even all these years later, he still can't help but eclipse poor Justin.

14. Carmina Burana: "O Fortuna," London Philharmonic Orchestra
Seriously, listen to this. Then RIGHT after it's over, play ZZ Top's "I Gotsta Get Paid." It's meant to be.

13. "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," Merle Haggard, "If I Could Only Fly."
"Watching while some old friends do a line / Holding back the want to in my own addicted mind / Wishing it was a still a thing even I could do / Wishing all these old things were new."
Every would-be Nashville outlaw out there today might as well hand in their professionally battered cowboy hat right the fuck now. None of y'all can ever touch this level of bad-ass.

12. "For Whom The Bell Tolls," Metallica, "Ride The Lightning."
"Take a look to the sky / just before you die / it's the last time you will"
If you didn't do some air drums right after reading that line, you haven't heard the song. Or you're rolling your eyes at us stupid boys.

11. "The Messenger," Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Loco Gringo's Lament."
I bought a Rilke book. It hasn't changed my life yet. But I'm still holding out hope.

10. "King of Rock," Run-DMC, "King of Rock."
People my age, there's something: It surrounds us, flows through us, binds our galaxy together. No, not that "Star Wars" was the first significant movie we saw in the theater, but the fact that we grew up in the 1980s. You can take the most hard-core 1970s Cosmic Cowboy / Redneck Rock enthusiast (yours truly, for example) and play a scratchy cassette recording of "Rock Me Amadeus," and we CAN'T FUCKING TURN IT OFF. It's a sickness. The '80s are us. We are the '80s. It's incurable.

The other day I was walking through a hallway by the snack bar at work and I heard "Eye of the Tiger." I stopped. I looked. After awhile I found that somebody had left a small radio playing. But for a minute … for a minute I actually had to consider the idea that the "Eye of the Tiger" was playing in my head, completely unbidden, like some sort of "I Love the '80s Tourette's" or something. Jesus.

9. "Agua Dulce," Rusty Weir, "Don't It Make You Want to Dance."
Rusty Weir came out to Blaine's Picnic in San Angelo one year. He opened with an ambling verse of "Don't it Make You Wanna Dance" and stopped. He told us that was how he recorded the song originally. Then he said "this is how Jerry Jeff does it" and … we all learned a lot that day. San Angelo was a town on the rise with its own music scene, its own annual picnic and a growing sense of pride. But one old feller whom we hardly knew of could smile benignly at all that and then tell us, in so many words, "this is cute, but take a listen to how we invented this shit in Austin 30 years ago."

Rusty Weir blew us all away. Wish I could remember more of the show.

8. "Does my Ring Burn Your Finger," Solomon Burke, "Nashville."
For the No-Soul Simmons version of the song, take a listen to Charley Pride's "Does my Ring Hurt Your Finger." No, it's not the same song, just the same idea. Charley is beginning to suspect his sweetums isn't on the up-and-up. Solomon is beginning to feel guilty for burying that cheating bitch in a shallow grave.

7. "Copperhead Road," Steve Earle, "Just an American Boy."
I dig this version. Is it bad-ass in spite of the 2-minute mandolin intro? Or it it more bad-ass because of the mandolin? Remember what Ray Wylie Hubbard said about bluegrass: "In music, Ralph Stanley has killed more people than Ice-T."

6. "I Washed my Hands in Muddy Water," Stonewall Jackson, "Greatest Hits."
I'm always mystified by (and impressed by) the old-school country songs that stand the test of time. Ernest Tubb's "Waltz Across Texas" will be cool 1,000 years from now. "Too Old to Cut the Mustard" was cornball crap when he cut it. Did he know at the time? Stonewall cut "I Washed my Hands …" in 1965. Which is damn near a half-century ago. And it's still cooler than most anything you'll hear today.

5. "The Highland Street Incident," Todd Snider, "The Devil You Know."
So Todd Snider gets mugged outside a bar. He's having trouble writing a song about it … until he decides to write from the perspective of the hoodlums. I hate to compare eras. There's not going to be another Johnny Cash, not another Willie or Kris. But if he lives that long, I think Todd Snider is going to be one hell of an old man artist, with a catalog of impossibly original and significant songs. I worry about the guy, though. I hear success is hard to handle.

4. "Dead Flowers," Townes Van Zandt, "Abnormal."
OK, confession time. When I got to be friends with Bret, he set about improving my knowledge of classic rock, which was so pitiful that I can hardly admit to it. He was with me when I heard Townes do "Dead Flowers" the first time and I remarked that it was a hell of a Van Zandt song. He never stopped giving me shit over that. Of course it's a Rolling Stones original. And I've learned enough about the Stones to admit that they are one of the world's greatest rock and roll institutions (and if you listen to "Country Honk," you get the idea they could have been a great country band). And I was a fool for not knowing about them, even if I came of age in the '80s when they were pretty low-flying.

Still, Bret never understood properly, that when I said this was a great Townes song, I was paying the Stones the highest compliment I could, in terms of songwriting. Like Billy Joe Shaver doing an incredibly rare cover of Haggard's "Rambling Fever," I believe that Townes Van Zandt was a natural fit for "Dead Flowers."

3. Lonesome, On'ry and Mean," Waylon Jennings, "Greatest Hits"
This song swaggers through my iTunes library liked a coked-up West Texan on a three-bender. Balls like watermelons. '80s songs scatter like spooked deer. Shannon's songs get the vapors. Even the songs on this list, give or take one or two, still give this song a wary eye and a wide berth.

2. "Dagger Through The Heart," Sinead O'Connor, "Just Because I'm a Woman."
OK, this takes a little explanation. This song was on one of Shannon's CDs, a Dolly Parton tribute CD. I don't listen to Sinead O'Connor on a regular basis, but a good song is a good song. Dolly is a bit of a vamp for my taste, but you'd be a damn fool to confuse that with her songwriting skills, which are as sharp as a skinnin' knife.

Dolly's version, is of course, all Dolly. Full of warbling and hand-wringing. It's the song of a woman who is fixin' to pack up to go to mama's and will take some convincing to come back to her no-good husband. Sinead O'Connor's version feels completely different. There's a tinge of madness to her breathlessness. You can't tell whether it's going to be homicide or suicide, but there's a pretty fair chance that someone is getting their ass stabbed to death tonight.

1. "Hurt," Johnny Cash, "American IV: The Man Comes Around."
I hate to be laughed at. After that I hate to lose. After that, I hate to be predictable. But, yeah … Johnny Cash, "Hurt," that video ,,, what the hell are you going to say?


The gun owner's approach to gun control

Anheuser-Busch – the enormous beer company that gives us Budweiser – participates in all manner of social responsibility programs.

From fighting underage drinking to pushing for designated drivers and responsible drinking to helping alcoholics, the company sets aside some of its money to urge potential consumers to not buy its product yet, to consume less of its product now or, sometimes, to not give them any money at all.

The company might do this out of the goodness of their corporate heart, but I don’t think so. Anheuser-Busch, which survived Prohibition, knows full well it is in their best long-term financial interest to have fewer drunk teenagers, fewer drunk drivers and fewer full-on drunks.

When M.A.D.D. raises hell about the wide-mouth quart bottle (to use a mid-1990s example), Anheuser-Busch doesn’t remind us what a bunch of hard drinkers the founding fathers were and cry out “ … from our cold, dead fingers!” The wide-mouth quart bottle goes away quietly, but the beer keeps flowing.

You can see where I’m going with this, I hope: The NRA and gun rights supporters need to abandon the tired old clichés, the uselessly horseshit arguments and stop pretending that the world is not changing.

The NRA needs to lead the way on gun control. About the time of Columbine or Virginia Tech or Aurora or – for God’s sake, right fucking now – the NRA needs to say “Hell, yes, there is a problem and if you liberals would stop dragging your feet, we’re going to find a way to fix it.”

Let’s pause a moment here for some background, of course. I am politically independent, from a deeply conservative background, a gun owner and when I first heard someone had shot a bunch of children in an elementary school, my very first thought was “I hope they kill that motherfucker.”

Trust me, I am not writing from an imaginary wonderland of peace and flowers and rainbow butterflies.

But I also know damn well that ours is no longer a rural society at heart, lilly-white and peopled by hard-working, patriarchal types who ceaselessly instill safety and responsibility in their sons while using their guns as tools for honest tasks.

The world is changing. Kids today know much more of guns (through video games) and much less about guns – that is until their violent pixel-fueled fantasies meet up with the gun tucked back in grandpa’s closet.

It’s not that way with me, of course. Theoretically, I think I should have all the guns I want. I was raised right. My children will be educated firmly, thoroughly and I hope to hell beyond the reach of peer pressure. But you can’t legislate sense and there’s more than one fellow I know who has more guns than brains. The serious question: What the hell do you do about that?

I don’t have the answers.* But I do know the NRA is being plenty damn foolish to circle the wagons ever tighter, again, and say that more guns is the answer. That restrictions should never be imposed.

If the NRA wants to protect Americans’ rights to own guns, they should be at the forefront of the gun control discussion. And — just to let everyone know that they are serious — the first thing they should do is demand an end to civilian use of assault rifles.

Yes. The NRA should call for it. Jesus, talk about disarming (so to speak) your critics.

It’s a symbolic act, of course. Assault rifles won’t go away. They’ll still emerge in the hands of criminals and nutcases. But it has to be done. The line has been crossed – everybody pause here to imagine 20 kids gunned down in their elementary school – and America ain’t going back. This is reality. Don’t pretend the world isn’t changing.

Give up the assault rifles to keep your Glocks and your semi-automatic shotguns (which, shhhhh, are nearly as deadly). And if you really, really want to shoot an assault rifle, join the Army. If you are as bad-ass as you think you are, you’ll get to shoot things even bigger and badder.

(Yes, I have fired an assault rifle. It was fun. But I’m a far piece from having the kind of land or money where I could argue for owning one of my own, even without the, you know, dead-kid baggage. Also: let's dismiss the ridiculous stand that this is a political issue. If my father, who describes himself as somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun, can call for an end to assault rifle ownership, then, maybe just this once, we can rise above the right vs. left argument and work together on this.)

And don’t worry, NRA, about having already made your statement. A truly strong leader can admit he’s made a mistake, and drive on with confidence. Sure, the less-secure people who rely on volume and bombast might look at someone who re-thinks their position and call it flip-flopping. But I prefer to call it by its real name: Education.

Am I pissing in the wind? Almost certainly. I’ll bet you know somebody who works for a company that is cannibalizing itself from within, sacrificing its credibility, even its economic future to bring in a few extra nickels today. With that kind of attitude prevalent in the U.S., who would expect the NRA to embrace a short-term defeat in order to gain a longer-term win?

But there’s one thing I’m pretty sure of: There will come a time when the NRA wishes to hell they were driving the gun control bus, instead of getting run over by it.

-- Dave Thomas

* No, I don’t have answers, but I have opinions. Who wants to hear ‘em?

10 things about this year's Fourth of July Picnic

1.      I got to be on stage at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic. It was a small Picnic. It was the secondary stage. It was during soundcheck, not a performance. But it was damn cool. I took a few notes, chatted with a roadie, got a picture of Ray Wylie and Lucas Hubbard. The only other time I came close to the stage at a Picnic was in Luckenbach in 1995 or 1996. I went around the corner and there was the stairs to the stage. The only thing separating me from glory was a security guy who looked to be particularly upset that he had narrowly lost a Conan the Barbarian lookalike contest. I didn’t try it.

2.      Interviewing Willie was cool, of course. I mentioned that this was my 13th Picnic and that I had interviewed him before and he just said “Well, I’m glad we’re both still here.” A very polite way of saying “Yes, you and a thousand other assholes.” I was prepared, kept it businesslike and Willie was nice, but not inclined to elaborate in his answers. They had planned to pair my interview with some TV fellow, but he was late and I didn’t have to share. Good.

3.      I missed “Whispering Bill” Anderson. Damn. This is mostly because the laptop I was given to take to the event was pretty much shit dipped in molasses. Trying to file my blog reports, which I’m sure nobody read, took forever.

4.      I was told there were 4,000 people. I heard that it was 3,000, maybe 3,200 at best. This wasn’t really a Picnic in any sense but the marketing. It was just a very nice concert at Billy Bob’s.

5.      Why was it not a Picnic? It’s July 5th and I’m not sunburned. I’m not sore. I didn’t wake up exhausted. My feet don’t ache, my back doesn’t hurt. Hell, I think I had a seat in the shade for every outdoor set until Billy Joe Shaver took the stage late in the afternoon.

6.      If Lukas Nelson is going to keep whipping his head around like that, he needs to grow his hair longer or cut it short. Right now he looks like he’s trying to shake off an angry varmint that is attacking his head. The phrase epileptic muppet did occur to me. Also, I guess I’m supposed to be impressed that he can play his guitar with his teeth, but the only thing that goes through my head is “Jesus, that’s just asking for an emergency trip to the dentist.”

7.      Paul English walked right in front of me. Twice. Going from backstage to the T-shirt vendor. If you’ve read enough about Willie Nelson, you’ve read about what a badass Paul English was. After rain threatened to collapse the roof of the stage back in ’75 (or ’76, I don’t recall off the top of my head), Paul pulled out his pistol and shot a couple holes in it to allow for a little drainage. Even when I interviewed Willie in 1995, Paul was still a scary presence. Now, after a stroke, he appears every bit as old as he is. I wish him the best.

8.      In case you were wondering: $4 for a longneck inside, $6 for a 16-ounce can outside. And Willie’s merchandise folks were selling CDs for $25 a piece. Can you believe that shit? Who is going to buy a CD for $25?

9.      The folks at Billy Bob’s Texas were really cool to me. I got to sit at a table in an office to curse at my molasses-shit laptop and file reports. I constantly expected to get harangued by some security guard about “who are you? You can’t be here,” but I eventually came to recognize that my media pass was actually pretty valuable.

10.   Will there be a 40th Picnic? If Willie lives that long, it looks like it. Should there be a 40th Picnic? Yes, but it should be the last. Where should it be? It should be at Zilker Park. Am I going? Yes.

What would Davy Crockett think?

The boy can recognize Willie and Waylon, by voice and by sight. He knows all the words to “Pancho and Lefty” and sings “Whiskey River” by request. He knows armadillos and cowboys, farms and barns, old pickup trucks and “Go Spurs Go.”

As a 5-year-old, Buddy makes a pretty damn good Texan. But there’s always something overlooked.

I found it in the corner convenience store, while I was buying a bag of ice and a beer, Buddy in tow.

I’m approaching the register when he sidles up suspiciously close to me and says “Daddy, what’s that?”

Behind me is a display of children’s cheap pop guns and cheaper coonskin hats. I’m not sure why. The junction of Manchaca and Slaughter in far South Austin ain’t much of a tourist trap, unless you’re on a world tour of most annoying intersections.

Buddy doesn’t have much interest in guns yet. This is by design. Plenty of time for that. But the coonskin hats have his full attention.

“Why son, that’s a coonskin hat,” I say. “Do you want one?”

I couldn’t buy one, of course. His enormous noggin would require me to special-order an adult-size hat. But I can tell by the look in his eyes that I can get away with the question. “Do you want one?”

“No.”

He puts his hand in mine.

“Does it bite?”

I’m laughing now, trying to pay for the ice and beer without having a full-on comic breakdown. It’s a legitimate question. To me the coonskin hat is Davy Crockett, the Alamo, Fess Parker, old books and childhood memories. To the boy, the rack of fur and tails is easily just so many varmints, huddled together, and full of unknown intent.

“No, son, it doesn’t bite.” I’m really having a good time with this now. “Are you sure you don’t want one?”

“No.” He’s extra sure.

The cashier is laughing now.

“Why son, what would Davy Crockett think?” I’m playing to the audience.

“Can we go home?” Buddy is a pro at the diversionary question.

I’m laughing so hard the cashier is starting to look at me strangely. Buddy finally steps out from beneath the counter – in the direction of the door.

“Aw, he’s so cute,” she says. Her own diversionary statement, it seems, against this barrel of monkeys I have become.

We get back in the car.

“Son, we’re going to have to go to the Alamo.”

“OK.”

“And learn about Davy Crockett.”

“Right.”

“And get a coonskin hat.”

“No.”

We’ll get there. I’ll try not to traumatize him on the way.

Guadalupe Peak

Bret's proposal 2 years ago was simple enough: We need to hike to the top of the highest point in Texas and drink a beer. I was so out of shape at the time it was purely hypothetical.
Then, last December, after finding out the she was pregnant, Shannon had a great idea for a Christmas present for me: "I'm going to buy you an airplane ticket to El Paso so you can go visit Bret."

I had a better idea. With 4 months of preparation, we would follow through on Bret's plan.

After 8 weeks of progress and 8 weeks of regress in my 16-week preparations for hiking to the top of Guadalupe Peak, the only real question left was: Would I stay sober enough in El Paso on Friday to make my best effort at it on Saturday?

That question was answered before I even hit the Mountain Time Zone. Sitting on the plane with two large mugs of airport beer in my belly and another beer in my hand, I was looking down on the clouds, hardly thinking of the pain it would take to reach a (natural) high the next day.

We didn't go nuts of course. I am 40 years old. I drank conservatively enough considering it was a Dave and Bret reunion and we both turned in by 10:30 p.m.

I awoke Saturday morning at 6:30, took a shower. Bret himself even cooked breakfast, which was fine and we were headed east into the rising sun.

After our arrival at Guadalupe Mountains State Park, I threw on my pack (snapped this self-portrait) and threw myself on the trail. I did not apply any sunscreen which I had purchased for the trip and I did not stretch my old muscles, not even my particularly cranky calves.

I am an idiot.

I hadn't gone 200 yards of my 4.2-mile uphill trek before I was out of breath. At 400 yards my calves were as flexible as lumps of rock. I hadn't gone a quarter-mile and I was sure enough that I would never make it a mile, much less to the top.

It was only because I did not want to disappoint Bret (I was already sorely disappointed in myself) that I pushed on. Hiking sometimes as few as 3 or 4 steps at a time before pausing to regroup, I moved uphill bit by bit.

(Bret, I will point out, was very patient and encouraging, but never condescending. After 18 years, he knows me well enough. He would hike ahead and wait, knowing that I had to sort this through for myself.)

After we reached the top of the first mile, things evened out a bit. There were flat spots, small inclines and still the occasional steep part, but miles 2 and 3 were much easier. After awhile I finally caught my breath, just in time for my legs to start cramping up. This is the price I would pay for drinking the day before. And not stretching.

I had read on the Internet that the bridge marked mile 3 and the beginning of the last mile. Someone else had pointed out that it's the first mile and the last mile that's the hardest part of the ascent (which is, you know, 50 percent of it).

It is also from the bridge that you can finally see the true summit and that the people on the Internet are right on this one. It looks hard and looks are not deceiving.
I recall looking at my watch at some point and thinking that I should easily finish my ascent within 3 hours of starting. But it took 3.5 hours.

But I made it. Somehow I hauled my 250-pound carcass to the peak. In the picture above, I am the highest man in Texas, with the possible exception of Willie Nelson.

That beer was among the best I ever had. Followed by some of the best beef jerky and one of the finest granola bars I ever had.

The view from the top was pretty good. And it was all downhill from here right? I mean, we should make it down in like 2 hours.

The first mile down offered some rough terrain, and I was a bit stove up after 30 minutes at the top, but I was in good spirits. We hit the bridge relatively quickly and mile 2 went pretty fast as well. By mile 3, however, my legs were getting tired. This is something I did not expect. I'm overweight, but have solid muscle under there. I knew I was in for a long day, aerobically, given my complete lack of preparation, but I expected for my strength to help me endure the long hike.

By the last mile, which featured plenty of loose rock and (for me), knee-high steps down, my leg muscles had pretty much turned to jelly. I was whipped and I could not trust my legs to keep my upright if I were to slip or stumble. I had to slow down much to my chagrin and to Bret's.

I finally stumbled into the parking lot 2.5 hours after I left the peak. The roundtrip was 6.5 hours, on the bottom side of the 6-8 hours that many say the hike will take.

Personally I don't see how anyone could do it any slower than I did, unless they are botanists or birdwatchers. On the other hand, I never once stopped on the way up or down. I did, however, pause to catch my breath or give myself a pep talk about 10,000 times.
All in all, it was a really groovy excursion, even given my shame at failing to prepare in any way whatsoever. I'm pretty sure that I'm going to do it again at some point.

And now, of course, I have a very firm grasp of what not to do.