West Texas Waltz (Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, accordion)

This is kind of a ringer, since I haven’t filmed a live video to go with it, but “West Texas Waltz” was the only song I ever performed on diatonic accordion, which kind of required a band, and for a moment I had the band… so I’m posting that version. I recorded it for my Street Corner Cowboy cassette, with my regular partners Washtub Robbie Phillips on one-string wombat bass, Peter Keane on guitar and “yee-hah,” and — for this project only, because he was recording and co-producing, Orrin Starr on mandolin. The photo in the video is from my only live show with that line-up, the cassette release party at Club Passim, which also included Mark Earley and Cormac McCarthy. A good bunch, and I get nostalgic listening to this.

I’ve written in previous posts about the band I had with Robbie, Peter, and Mark, also called the Street Corner Cowboys, and about Joe Ely, who was a huge influence on my musical taste and remains one of my favorite performers, and about Butch Hancock, who wrote this along with a bunch of other great songs.

As for the accordion… I was captivated by the records Flaco Jimenez put out on the Arhoolie label, got a taste for Cajun and zydeco when I hitched through Louisiana in 1986, and got heavily into norteño when that trip continued into Mexico. I learned a few songs from Flaco’s albums for that trip, playing them on guitar, and didn’t really think about picking up an accordion until I was living in Antwerp a few years later. At that point I was making a good living on the cafe terraces, and Hohner accordions were significantly cheaper in Europe than in the US, and I met a local musician who agreed to give me lessons, so I picked up a Corona II — the three-row diatonic instrument Flaco played–and drove my neighbors crazy for the next few months.

My teacher was Geert van den Elsacker, a terrific musician and composer with a deep knowledge of traditional Flemish accordion styles — his main instrument, pictured on this lesson book, was the two-row diatonic — and French musette, which he played on a chromatic button instrument that looked fiendishly complicated, and when I was studying with him he was in the process of learning to play bandoneon and the Argentine tango repertoire. It was an education just being around him, and he was very patient with me — and I wish I could steer you towards his own performances, but he was tragically killed a year or so later in a stupid accident, hit by a car while bicycling through town.

I enjoyed playing the accordion, but was only comfortable with waltzes, so my repertoire was basically limited to  “Goodnight Irene,” Utah Phillips’s “Goodnight Loving Trail,” and this song,” As I wrote in the post about Utah’s song, I was frequently babysitting Vera Singelyn’s son Liam, then about six months old, and had discovered that waltzes worked perfectly as lullabies, and Liam was also the only person who enjoyed my accordion playing — though he kept trying to push the buttons with his toes — so that worked out fine.

None of which has much to do with the song… but honestly, all I have to say about the song itself is that I’ve tried to break myself of the habit of singing southern songs with a southern accent, because that’s not how I normally talk, but I still have to sing this with at least a partial Texas twang, because the rhymes demand it — for example, “horse” and “waltz” — which is kind of a stretch even for Texans, but they come a lot closer than Cantabridgians, and it’s the capper of my favorite verse.