Bands on Bands is a recurring feature on the 35 Denton blog that will highlight musician interviews written by none other than our own local musicians. Throughout this series we aspire to help you learn more about some of your favorite musicians playing the festival this year as well as introduce you to new and upcoming acts.
Interview by Isaac Hoskins
How did you get involved with the Wronglers?
There is a festival every year out in San Francisco called the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It is very high quality and it is free. The whole festival is funded by one person, Warren Hellman, who passed away a couple of years ago. He worked as a private equity investor and he endowed the festival for a number of years beyond his death. I have performed there every year except the first one and I became really close friends with Warren because of our shared love of a certain kind of oldtimey music. Warren played the banjo and had a little band called the Wronglers. In 2010 we got together and made a record and in the summer of 2011 did a little tour, which had been his lifelong dream. And that’s the story of how I came to be part of the Wronglers.
I’ve noticed that you’ve been teaching songwriting as a means of helping others discover themselves. Can you tell me about how that works? What goes in to that?
For the last 20 years I have taught one week each summer at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies (in upstate New York.) In the course of the week we break into small groups and each cowrite a song. We have periodic group discussions about the process as it unfolds, and I sort of direct and facilitate the conversation. So in effect it is really the class teaching the class.
Is that what you mean by saying you have learned more than your students have learned from you?
It’s an old cliché that the teacher learns more than the student. The reason it’s a cliché is because it’s true; I found out by experience. When you are conducting something like that and you are in the leading position, it makes you notice things that you normally do instinctively without giving it a lot of thought. You have to think through it and articulate it. It caused me to deliberately examine what my own processes are.
You spent a good amount of time as a young man living in a spiritual community in Denver. Can you tell me how that came to be and what you took away from that situation?
I had been interested in oriental philosophy for years. I met some people that were students of this young guru and I was curious enough about it to go and check it out. I became a student, began practicing meditation and went to see him a lot at the big festivals and events the group had. I was deeply involved in it for several years, during the 70’s.
How much do you think you took away from that and are the philosophies still pertinent in how you live your life today?
Very important, but it’s really impossible to pick any one thing and say that is what causes someone to think one way or another. There are so many things that add up to that. But this was a major part of my life and I retain my interest in it. I’ve been studying Tibetan Buddhism in recent years and that evolved from my connection with Prem Rawat. He was called Maharaji, which means “Master of Raj Yoga.”.
One of the things I admire most about you as a person, as a songwriter, and as an entertainer is the humility that is unmatched most especially amongst those in your profession. How much of that can you attribute to your time in places like Omega Institute, living in Denver and growing up in Lubbock?
It’s a combination of many factors. I was pretty shy in my temperament as a child; I really got into music because of the depths of my love for music, not really for the desire to be on stage. I love performing and I get a lot out of performing, but that was not the original motivation behind it.
It would be impossible to overstate how much influence they all had on me. In certain ways we all helped form each other. When Butch, Joe, and I first got together we were all mutual fans of each other. When we started really hanging out together each of us brought a pretty wide knowledge of a repertoire that the others didn’t have. So we were able learn a ton from each other, which was enriching for all of us.
Do you remember any sort of competitive drive between you all in addition to the constructive aspect?
Among our group of friends there was remarkably very little of that. I mean, always there is a fun type of rivalry, but we were all very deeply supportive of each other. Any accomplishment from any one of us seemed to be for all of us. We tended to bring out the best in each other. It wasn’t a matter of trying to defeat each other.
In what ways do you think that you may have influenced the artists that I mentioned previously as well as anyone else around the Lubbock scene at that time?
Butch and I were more versed in folk and country music than Joe had been when he was younger, and Joe was really steeped in rock and roll. We had slightly different backgrounds, but we nearly always loved the different stuff the others brought us. We had similar taste and between the three of us we had a huge range of stuff we could bring to the mix.
I’ve been amazed by it myself. It seems like that was a really a level of quality of creativity and musicianship that is amazing.
Are you all pretty close in age?
Butch and I are very close to the same age and have been friends since we werein 7th grade. Joe is a couple years younger than us. Joe was either 17 or 18 and I was 19 or 20 when we first started hanging out. The three of us started playing together and living together in the early 70’s. Joe and I had already done some traveling around and playing duet things.
Terry was older than Butch and me. He was already a songwriter when he was in high school and that was a huge inspiration to me. He went to California to study art and I didn’t see him for a number of years. Joe and Butch got to know Terry a little later on. Terry was by then teaching art but he came back to Lubbock to make a record (at Caldwell Studios.) That is when he and Joe got to be good friends. He had a very big influence on all of us.
You’ve been playing shows for more than 30 years now?
Oh, way more than that! I had been playing a lot before the Flatlanders got together. Our first record was in 1972 – that is 43 years ago. So it’s closer to 50 than 30!
It seems to me that some of the most vivid and funny stories that entertainers have are of gigs that had either been doomed from the start or had slowly become nightmares, do you have any of those that you’d like to share?
Haha! Let’s see, there have been some odd things through the years. Four or five years ago the Flatlanders were playing one night in Terlingua and all of a sudden the power went out. We just kept playing acoustically and pretty soon people brought some candles and we just went on with the show. Finally someone turned the generator on and we went back into the loud electric stuff. I remember another time that was kind of similar. Joe used to host an annual gathering called the Tornado Jam in Lubbock. It was a big thing, and oddly enough was eventually banned by the city council. We went out to the Cotton Club and I think there was a Monterey High School reunion going on. The Maines’ brothers were there, Lloyd was there – I can’t even remember who all was there but it was many of the best musicians in Lubbock. At one point we were all on stage – Joe, Linda Ronstadt, Terry Allen, Butch & I a whole slew of people. In the middle of a song we were all doing together the owner of the club turned the power off. He said the city curfew was at midnight. It was really strange to me, because it was out in the country and I don’t know if they even enforced the law out there. Maybe because it was a high school dance or something.
Another thing that has made an impression upon my image of you as an artist is, at least it seems, you’ve always done exactly what you wanted to do and exactly how you wanted to do it. Is there any truth to that assumption?
I never did try to fit in with whatever the flavor of the month was, and I think that is pretty much something that has been true of our whole gang. It goes with that original thing we were talking about, doing it for the love of the music. There is a really funny quote from Joe that I’ve told several times, “between the three of us there wasn’t a thimble full of ambition.” And I said, “and between the three of us, there was a towering lack of ambition.” As we got older we threw ourselves in to it more seriously because we had to. You can’t just go on blind luck – although we did have a lot of blind luck. Even just knowing each other was great good fortune.
Did you ever have a moment where you woke up and said, “It’s a little too late to grow up now, I better make a living of this.”
Oh yes. During the 70’s when I was in Denver I was not pursuing my music career. But I finally realized that it was the only one I really wanted and I moved back to Austin. Lucky for me Butch and Joe had been keeping my career alive (by recording my songs.)
I know that you spent some time in California but as far as your career goes it seems that you’ve called Texas home for the majority of it. What kept you from moving to New York City, Los Angeles, or Nashville?
I like all of those places and I have lots of friends there but there is something about Texas that holds me. Most of my recordings have been done in Nashville, some in L.A and San Francisco, and I have had a big following in New York and Chicago for many years. But my family and most of my closest friends are from Texas. It’s always the place to come back to – it is home.
I would be remiss in not asking: what advice you might have for an aspiring singer/songwriter in his early thirties?
A friend of mine who is part of our circle, who has been gone for many years, T.J. McFlarland, said to one of his clients, “If you write 100 songs, they can’t all be bad.” I thought that was the greatest advice I ever heard. The trick is to keep on doing it. That’s the advice that I have for anybody really.
Have you been bowling since you’ve filmed the Big Lebowski?
Occasionally. I enjoy bowling, but I haven’t done it very much since I was younger. During the filming they had a pro on hand to give us lessons and my bowling improved immensely. But, you have to stay in practice and I don’t very well . I can definitely bowl better now than I could before the Big Lebowski.
Whenever you go bowling, do people ever yell “over the line, Smokey?”
Oh, I don’t have to be bowling. People do that all the time.
What was going through your head when the Coen brothers told you that John Goodman would be pulling a gun on you in a bowling alley?
Well, it was in the script, so it wasn’t a surprise. The weirdest part was that I thought they were going to ask me to do music, which is what I know how to do. When I found out that they wanted me to play a part in it, I was taken by total surprise. I’m not an actor; I’m not trained for that. I told them that, “gosh, I don’t know – I would love to but I don’t know if I can.” They told me they would coach me, and they would make it happen. And they did.
Isaac Hoskins is a singer and a songwriter from Denton, Texas. Isaac has released one solo album and one with a roots rock project called The Heelers, he plans to release another solo record in the summer of 2015.
While you are here, check out Brent Best & friends covering Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s song, Another Colorado as part of our video cover series. Be sure to head to our Main Stage at 6:15 pm on Sunday, March 15 to catch Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s set.