Author Archives: rhythmnationsarah

The power of music wins and Twitter gets the credit.

In light of a yet another story that broke nationally due to the strength of Twitter, I found myself wondering why the power of a song and the artistry behind the music and lyrics didn’t get much focus. Being from Austin, Texas I was especially obsessed with the story this week about a PR firm that chose the unfortunate title of Strange Fruit for their business, then intentionally refused to change their name through an ongoing period of online nudges to right their insensitive wrong.

Despite all the things wrong with this story, I hope you understand my fascination with a situation involving so many layers of irony. A PR firm involved in a PR disaster over their own name?  Seeming blindness to the meaning of the name? Ignorance in thinking they can use the name at a point in our nation’s history that resembles the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s?? But those are the negative reasons this story spread so quickly. What about the reason the company ultimately shut down communication to change their name? A song performed by a pioneering musician with a social message powerful enough to destroy a business in Austin, Texas 75 years after it was first recorded.

Originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, the words of Strange Fruit were made known by American jazz icon Billie Holiday. The song has sold over a million copies and was deemed “Song of the Century” by Time Magazine in 1999. The New York Post’s Samuel Grafton in 1939 said it “reversed the usual relationship between a black entertainer and her white audience.”

Billie-Holiday-Meme-Card-14Evidently the public relations firm discounted previous notes made by tiny media outlets such as Time Magazine or New York Post.  They stated that their business used the phrase in a much different way, thus suggesting that the phrase’s original allusions to lynching in the South throughout the late 19th and early 20th century were metaphorical water under the bridge to a modern-day business deep in the heart of Texas – the state that lied to African-Americans about the effective date of slaves’ emancipation. Excuse me as I digress, getting lost in the outrage that Twitter users across the country felt as they spread the word about this epic PR mishap.

My point is that Grafton’s comment 75 years ago holds true today. Holiday’s performance of these lyrics forced a business to look at themselves in the light of not only those who were paying them but those who were owed an explanation. Instead of quoting the song, I leave you with another quote from Holiday’s New York Post review:  “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise.” For those of us who hope for a better country and world, music is one tool we can always use to instigate change. Please remember that and use it for the better.


Review of Joel Laviolette & Rattletree Marimba’s JOY

joycdAnything that offers itself as “dance medicine for the whole world” has my attention. Joel Laviolette & Rattletree Marimba’s recent EP release definitely comes out of the gate with that goal in mind with the title track, Joy. Emulating firecrackers on their giant self-built marimbas, Joy gets you up on your feet while somehow maintaining a circular trance feeling. The EP moves into a couple of cover songs that show the diversity of influences and styles on this group. My favorite track would have to be Something In Dande, which fully incorporates the African origins with Rattletree Marimba’s electronica side. This track does two of my favorite things: makes me feel a variety of feelings AND makes me dance a variety of dances (different tempos and styles.) Blood Red closes out the EP and could very well serve as the soundtrack to the next blockbuster science fiction movie or video game.

To learn more, catch Joel live with his other group Kupira Marimba at the Austin New Year celebration downtown on December 31 or take a class at Rattletree School of Marimba!

4 Questions with Producer Benjamin Hotchkiss

I’m starting a new segment called 4 Questions. I chose 4 in honor of my favorite time signature!

4 Questions with Benjamin Hotchkissbenjamin hotchkiss

Benjamin is a talented musician and producer, most famously known as the front man for Austin bands The Real Heroes and Skyrocket! He produced the third release for Sheboygan entitled Triple Fantasy.

1. What other projects have you contributed to as a producer?
Most recently I produced a 7″ single. It’s a cover of “She’s a Rainbow” by the Girls Rock Camp here in Austin.  All the proceeds go to benefit young girls who typically couldn’t afford to go to rock camp.  The  other albums I’ve produced were my own – The Real Heroes’ first three records.

2. You’ve known the members of Sheboygan for years as a fellow musician, but what did you feel you could contribute to their sound as producer of Triple Fantasy?
I think the first factor in my getting hired was that I responded in an enthusiastic way to some of the new songs when they played them live, “Needle Hits the Groove”  specifically.  I knew that I could produce that song well.  It sounded refreshing and had a complete lack of pretense with a sexy rock and roll message.  It reminded me of the Raspberries. I went on and on after a gig to them and I think I was speaking their language.  The previous record they had done was an “everything and  the kitchen sink” affair, and being smart artists, they decided that the next record should be different.  So what I’m good at is leaving more space,  figuring out what’s needed and  getting rid of what could become tiresome over time. I look for warmth if there is any to be found. Records are produced so “loud” these days that they literally tire your ears out.  I was hoping that when you heard this record you wouldn’t even know when it was made.  You can’t MAKE a record timeless.  But there are psychological things you can avoid in the recording and mixing process that to me seem trendy. Plus, I knew it would go smoothly to a certain extent as, like you said these guys are friends of mine and we drift in the same circles of musical taste.  So when somebody made a reference to a certain tone, like say the bass tone from Wings’ highly under-appreciated “Wild Life” album, I knew exactly what they meant.
3. What was the experience of producing Sheboygan, a band with multiple songwriters and rotating lead singers?
I have to admit it was a bit scary.  They really do have three distinct voices and songwriting styles. And when was the last time you heard a great band with three equal singers?  It’s a tall order for the general public to be able to latch on equally to three different leads on the same record.   Also, they don’t really write the songs together.  They throw in ideas for each other’s songs, but ultimately the writer gets his way. End result is a more distinct sound for each writer.  It does seem like they all tried to pull from the same playbook as far as the kinds of songs they brought forward.  Cory was pretty adamant about keeping the record to a limited palette using only stuff they could do live.  As the songs emerged in the studio I would constantly be looking for pairings.  One song to compliment another.  I had to do a huge amount of fake song orders to get it right.  Burned a lot of discs.  Because I have to listen to the whole thing before I can sign off on it.  I think when most people are doing the sequencing they just kind of play the end of one song, and then listen to the beginning of the next to see if it has a good feel. Not me I have to sit through the whole 45 minutes or whatever to make sure that I don’t get bored and that it has a cohesive flow.   If I get bored, then the audience will be.  Having said all that, I think it came out great.  I was actually excited by the challenge of making these three guys stand equally next to one another and not have the listener think about it too much.  Nobody that I have played the record for has had any comment whatsoever on the variances in style or voice.  They just like it.  Big Star did it.  Now Sheboygan has done it.
4. Do you feel limits to the musical advice you give a band during recording?
Great Question!  It seems that there are two different approaches to being a producer.  One approach is to take a band and try to make it your own,  to join the band in a way and guide them toward what you would like to hear.  Brian Eno would be a quality example of this kind of producer. He puts the band through all sorts of paces and experimentations, plays instruments, adds voices, edits it his way.  So that’s what you sign up for with him.  The other producer tries to find the best realization of what he or she thinks the band is all about. I think I’m in the latter camp. Todd Rundgren is a good example of this kind of producer. He’s worked on every pop album you’ve ever heard and you wouldn’t necessarily know it until you checked the credits. I’d like to be in that camp.  I prefer to get out of the way and let the band play.  Give them the best possible environment to get where they’re going.  Give them a thumbs up or down if they ask for it.  Always have an idea at the ready in case they can’t get the song from point A to point B. Tell them when it’s boring. I feel like I have more confidence, meaning I’m way more opinionated about  helping people vocally and lyrically.  I like to make the singer internalize the moment they wrote the song, if possible.  I’m looking for the chill on the back of my neck.  If the vocal doesn’t give me the chill, then I know it’s not truly great yet. I don’t want to waste anybody’s time with a technically perfect vocal.

Review of Sheboygan’s Triple Fantasy

Hello friends! This is my first review of an album and I’m close friends with this band, so it was hard to be subjective. But it’s a great record, so please buy it!

Sheboygan’s Triple Fantasy kicks it up a notch from their last release, 2008’s It’s Okay sheboygan triple fantasySay Yes. First of all, the three original members are contributing to the writing of the album, which consists of 14 tracks of all self-written music. Secondly, they’ve added a second guitarist, Paul English, of Real Heroes and Skyrocket! fame. Thirdly, they have released it on LP so that proves that they’re hard core music fans themselves.

Needle Hits the Groove, by Sheboygan, Wisconsin native Cory Glaeser, is the perfect launch to Triple Fantasy – it showcases the vocal harmonies the group is known for and will get you on your feet and dancing, possibly even to reenact a school dance scene from Happy Days. It has the retro vibe that the band has always evoked, being influenced by the Beatles and Beach Boys among others. Trap Doors by Gray Parsons keeps the rocking going and Come Back Around by Chris Gebhard leaves you in suspense.

My favorite song by Gray Parsons on this album is Crossbows at the Ready. His skills and experience as a percussionist really translates into the complexity of this song. It moves smoothly into the next track, 1000 Eyes, also written by Parsons.

I’m going to go with Fragile as my favorite track by Chris Gebhard. Gebhard’s pure vocals combined with Glaeser’s bass line give away the fact that the two have known each other for years.

It’s a toss-up between Minutes Last Forever and Things We Lost in the Fire for my favorite song by Cory Glaeser. Minutes Last Forever provides an element of mystery to the album and transitions perfectly into Gebhard’s Dying Sun. However, Things We Lost in the Fire is a great finale to this long-awaited third release (2nd full length) by Sheboygan.

My first CD project with Texas Folklife

I’m very happy to announce a project I’ve been working on for the past year with Texas Folklife: Accordion Kings & Queens Live!

This is a live CD recorded, engineered and mastered by the oldest recording studio in the country, SugarHill Recording Studios. I got to work with one of the nation’s most skilled engineers Andy Bradley to mix and master the songs that were recorded at Texas Folklife’s 23rd Annual Accordion Kings & Queens on June 2, 2012 in Houston, TX.

As all of my music community friends know, this is not a cheap endeavor and Texas Folklife exists on a combination of donations, grants and in-kind contributions. We are doing a Kickstarter campaign to cover some of the expenses and hope to exceed our goal as this is only about 1/3 of what it cost to produce the project. The profits made from CD sales will go to fund the program itself.

For the past several years, I’ve had great fun producing events but to help produce a CD was an experience I could’ve only dreamed up! This is a quality product and I hope you’ll contribute what you can to make it happen:


Evaluating Our Arts Footprint

Published in Americans for the Arts Blog, April 2013

Which city carries the nickname “the Violet Crown?” What about Austin, TX Sunset“Live Music Capital of the World?” Now it may be ringing bells…or strumming guitars, I should say. Austin, Texas is my home and has been for 12 years. It’s true that I’m one of the University of Texas alums who remained after graduating, despised by those born or have lived here for over 25 years and have seen the population double. However, my roots were growing here before I was born.

My parents moved here in 1969 and my brother was born in Austin in the summer of ‘71. My father worked at the Vulcan Gas Company, and consequently I grew up listening to 50’s blues, 60’s soul and 70’s rock. Though raised on the Gulf Coast, I knew I wanted to live in Austin before my 6th birthday. Enough about me, let’s flash-forward.

Austin has experienced a diverse history of politics, social change, and a lot of music. But where are we now, in this amazing Century #21?

With hundreds of thousands of visitors coming each year for events such as Austin City Limits Music Festival and SXSW Music, Film & Interactive Festival, we need to find the balance of celebrating the history, promoting the local talent and embracing the changes this city has undergone.

Incorporating the past, present, and future into one’s work is often key in the arts and community life.

For instance, at Texas Folklife our mission is to preserve, promote, and present the cultures of Texas. This approach is similar to the “Three R’s” environmental campaign started in the 1980s. If a slogan isn’t broken, let’s not fix it and I find it fitting being that Austin is one of the first cities in Texas to ban plastic bags at retail stores. So with that, here are three things that can be done to make Austin an even better place as it grows and evolves:

Reduce: Consider partnering with similar performance groups or organizations to get your ideas out there. Cross-genre collaborations are another great approach.

New ventures are exciting but they can still be unique while under the umbrella or better yet, fiscal sponsorship of an established non-profit organization or arts collective. I believe in quality over quantity, for the most part. Although most music venues per capita was the statistic that gave Austin the “Live Music Capital” moniker, having live music at every establishment can be overwhelming for the customer and the owners. The City of Austin Music Division is working to develop a code of ethics for venues. I’ve also considered becoming a consultant to coffee shops and restaurants who may want music in their business but don’t know how to manage it. I do not mean we need to reduce the amount of great art in our city, only to educate and empower newcomers.

Reuse: Make sure you are spotlighting the talent available around you as well as inviting in visiting artists. Collaborations are important in this step too.

When the musicians and other artists who live here cannot find work or feel excluded from popular Austin events, we need to lend them a hand by presenting them more and patronizing their shows. Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, Austin Creative Alliance, and Austin Music People are among several orgs that work to take care of Austin artists in a variety of ways including business management and advocacy.

Recycle: Learn the history of Austin – and go deeper than the fun facts.

Many know that Stevie Ray Vaughan lived in Austin during his rise to fame. Maybe you’ve even said a prayer to the music gods while kneeling next to his statue. But do you know the names of his early bands in Austin and what clubs he frequented? Who were his influences and did they too play in Austin clubs?

If the commodity of Austin, Texas is live music and other arts and cultures, we need to reduce or at least evaluate our footprint, so to speak, by recycling ideas, learning and growing in a way that won’t tear down what made this city what it is. Change is inevitable but devolution is not. Tying the past, present and future together is what will bring Austin to the next level as far as quality of life for its citizens and popularity with visitors.

You Can’t Change It

Originally posted January 2012 on “On the Road with Texas Folklife”
Doyle Bramhall 1949-2011
We’ve lost a lot of legendary blues artists in the past year: Pinetop Perkins, Willie “Big Eye” Smith, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, and just last week – the great Etta James and the producer who discovered her, Johnny Otis. The blues is something that is near and dear to my heart, so with every one of these losses comes an indescribable pain as the living history of this music seems to be fading away.
I started writing this blog last November when I got the news about the passing of blues drummer Doyle Bramhall. This shocked and saddened me, most of all, because he was not at the age at which one might expect this to happen – the same age as my parents. I’ve been a Doyle Bramhall fan since childhood, as Family Style by the Vaughan Brothers’ and many of the Antone’s Anniversary anthology records were constantly playing around my house. The crack of the snare drum and beautiful Texas drawl in his singing were unmistakable. I grew up hearing my father’s stories about watching Doyle play at the Studio Club in Dallas and then in the late ‘60s at the Vulcan Gas Company in Austin. In 2004, I met Clifford Antone, who quickly became my good friend (as he did with anyone he met) and collaborator. No one spoke more highly of Doyle Bramhall than Clifford. He owed a lot of his club’s success to people like Doyle, Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan who were with him since 1970 – 5 years before the opening of Antone’s Night Club.
Photo by Sarah Rucker; Antone’s November 21, 2011
On November 21, Antone’s Night Club hosted a tribute to Bramhall. If anyone thinks it is strange to go listen to live music or visit a night club as part of the mourning process – think again. As a fan, this was very therapeutic to hear and see his closest friends playing together in his honor.  The band was lead by legendary guitarist Jimmie Vaughan and included Denny Freeman, Paul Ray and many others. It was the history of Austin music and Dallas music, for that matter, all on one stage. It made me realize how lucky we are in this city, state and country to have such quality music being created all around us.
On a personal note, I’ve also been privileged to become friends with Bramhall’s daughter, Georgia, owner of Honeycomb Hair Boutique in Austin. The last time I visited Georgia at her salon, an interesting thing happened both when I arrived and left the building. As I was pulling into the parking spot at 501 Studios, “The House is Rockin’” by Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of Vaughan’s biggest songs which was co-written by Bramhall, came on the radio. When I left a couple hours later, “Georgia” by Ray Charles came on my car radio, the song it has been said gave Georgia her namesake. Call me crazy, but that’s all I need to believe in angels.
Doyle Bramhall, II performing “Change It” last July at Antone’s

Dreams Come True: Episode 1

Prologue: this is a flasback blog from a few years ago. However, I felt it was only right to publish this as my first post since it was, indeed, my first ever blog writing attempt.

Dreams Come True

by Sarah Rucker

Not only is it the name of a record by Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball and Angela Strehli (1990, Antone’s Records,) but it’s my motto these days. In the Fall of 2009 my dream of meeting the great blues and R&B artist Barbara Lynn came true.

As a bit of background information on why this was one of my dreams, I grew up listening to the music of my parents’ childhood and teenage years: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, the Ronettes, and many other greats of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Flash forward to 2004 when I was attending UT-Austin and decided to enroll in the one elective that didn’t count toward my degree plan: Blues and Social Change taught by the late blues club owner, Clifford Antone. It wasn’t until taking this class that I realized exactly what I wanted to do “when I grew up” – help promote musicians and artists that deserve to be known world wide. I went on to become an assistant to Mr. Antone, helping with his college courses and conducting research for a book project. These two years provided me with the knowledge and passion to begin my career in the arts.

However, this story begins when the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C. called Texas Folklife for recommendations for their 2009 Homegrown Concert Series. At the top of my list was legendary guitarist and Texas native, Barbara Lynn. About a month later, we received another phone call to let us know that the American Folklife Center’s featured artist for Texas this year would be none other than Miss Barbara Lynn and that Texas Folklife would be the presenting organization. I was equally excited to be given the reigns to the production duties.

On September 21st, I traveled to Beaumont, photo by Sarah Rucker, 2009Texas to Ms. Lynn’s house to conduct an oral history interview.  I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Lynn, her mother, one of her daughters and one of her grandsons. Ms. Lynn welcomed me into her home and chatted with me for a couple hours. Her warm spirit was as amazing as her talent as a musician. I returned to Austin to continue preparations for our trip to D.C.

The staff of Texas Folklife was to meet Ms. Lynn and her band mates in D.C. for the program which was taking place on November 18. That morning we also were able to meet Thea Austen, Public Events Coordinator for the American Folklife Center, whom I’d talked on the phone with many times over the past few months. We were honored to met with some Texas political delagates and see the  U.S. Senate offices. We then traveled on to the Library of Congress where the Homegrown Concert would take place. The Coolidge Auditorium was beautiful and a crowd much larger than we expected for the D.C. lunch hour came out for Barbara Lynn’s show. Ms. Austen gave the band and our staff a private tour of the Library of Congress and on we went to prepare for Miss Lynn’s next show. As my co-workers and I entered the Kennedy Center to meet up with the band, I heard a docent say, “That must be her entourage.” What an honor!

The grandeur of the Kennedy Center added to the nervousness of speaking onstage, but I introduced “the Empress of Gulf Coast Soal” for the second time then joined the crowd of over 300 people to enjoy the show. As I sat back and listened to the songs I’d been listening to for years, I mentally checked off one of the things on my bucket list.