- Patrick Beach AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
This could have turned out differently if Freddy Fletcher had made a career change as he intended.
The year was 1984 and Fletcher was living in Nashville, Tenn., "living in Nashville and working with Guy Clark and Billy Joe Shaver and a bunch of Texas writers, doing a lot of studio work, and (I) kind of started getting burned out on the road and (didn't know) how long I could do all that."
As it happened, he had a friend who had some artesian wells, and he thought it would be cool to go into the bottled water business. Then he came home to visit family for the holidays, and his uncle told him about a studio that was going out of business, selling equipment for a dime on the dollar.
"There went the bottled water business," said Fletcher, sitting in the W Hotel next to the new ACL Live at The Moody Theater, the new venue home to "Austin City Limits" tapings and a regular concert venue. "I moved back to Austin, and it was the best move I ever made. It was a whole new chapter."
And in a not-so-roundabout way, it led to the reason Fletcher is sitting in the W, part of the Block 21 development led by Stratus Properties and Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund. Fletcher, 57, and uncle Willie Nelson are partners in the new $40 million ACL Live, and Fletcher will oversee production on dates the venue isn't hosting an "ACL" taping.
"You know, I have to give Freddy full credit for this project," Nelson said. "He and I are really close, and we've had a lot of fun playing golf and music, but this project is all Freddy, him and Beau (Armstrong, the chairman and CEO of Stratus Properties). I always thought it was a great idea and I hoped he'd pull it off — but I had no idea he could."
"It's like birthing a baby," Fletcher said. "It's been long and challenging. There's just no time off. Which is OK. I like to work."
Fletcher long ago found studio work more satisfying than sitting behind a drum set in road bands. That first studio he outfitted with fire sale prices became Arlyn, attached to the old Austin Opera House, which Nelson owned until 1989. In many respects, the new venue is a belated realization of what nephew and uncle had in mind for that place: a highly adaptable performance and recording space. Best of all, it was designed to be exactly what it is rather than crammed into a structure that was something else back in the day.
Fletcher and wife Lisa also own Pedernales Studio, which Nelson picked up in the early '70s. Those two spaces are among the area's best for recording, but they've got nothing on the new place, which has state-of-the-art everything: sound, production, readily accessible bars, dressing rooms with plasma TVs and showers and a formidable freight elevator.
"You could put a Suburban in that thing," Fletcher said. Indeed, you probably had smaller apartments in college. And if acts don't want to be seen in the lobby of the W, there's a private high-speed elevator adjacent to the one for freight that can take people to the floor their hotel rooms are on. No seat is more than 75 or so feet from the stage.
Oh, and bars. Not cups of free beer on tables outside the studio, but actual bars, five on the lower level including the patio. Fletcher said in his research he toured facilities across the country and the top three complaints were hassles with load-in (problem solved; there's bus parking on the street), bars and bathrooms.
"You don't want anybody waiting for a drink," he said.
And there's one spot, a place upstairs to get a breath of fresh air, that Fletcher jokingly suggests is intended for one person's comfort.
"We call it 'Willie's porch,'" he said with a grin.
Fletcher said his paramount concern throughout the planning, development and construction was not to be known as the guy who messed up the estimable legacy of the show — especially since Nelson is so passionate about the show and has such a long relationship with it.
"I think Willie is pretty smart," said Kevin Connor, a content developer for South by Southwest and Saturday jock on KUT-FM. "He picks family to do business for a reason. Freddy's a good businessman, although this is not just a business venture but a legacy statement. It's important to Freddy to get it all right as far as the quality of the venue and the quality of the sound.
"When it opens, people are going to go, 'Wow, this isn't your normal big hall in Austin.'\u2009"
"I guess that's kind of the unspoken truth," said Colleen Fischer, director of booking for ACL Live. "We know this venue is going to live in music history, like the Ryman (the former Grand Old Opry House in Nashville) or something like that. Everyone has that feeling."
Friendly, focused and remarkably calm given the circumstances, Fletcher acknowledged he feels a certain sense of duty to get it right.
"That's been a big concern of mine," he said. "That's why I've been so hands-on."
With his broad experience in most every aspect of the music business, it's hard to think of a better person for the job. Fletcher's mother is "Sister Bobbie" Nelson, who's backed her brother on piano since elementary school. Fletcher, too, grew up in Clifton, in and around music, playing clarinet, picking up drums in fifth grade (he still plays in Titty Bingo, although you're much more likely these days to see a bumper sticker for that band than a gig listing) and carefully navigating a little mild inter-family animosity. Like the great bottled water scare story, you might have heard this tale before but it's worth repeating:
"The Fletchers could not stand the Nelsons," he said. "The Fletchers were politicians and ranchers. My grandfather was a county commissioner in Hillsboro, kind of a respectable guy. And the Nelsons were no-account musicians. Mom and Willie played in church. My dad (Bud) got them out of church into beer joints and things. And the Fletchers always blamed it on the Nelsons, but the truth of it is my dad kind of corrupted them."
Corrupt enterprise or not, Fletcher found himself gigging with his mom, playing big band music in clubs and at Air Force bases.
"I always loved rock 'n' roll and everything else, but I was making really good money for a kid," Fletcher said. "I started playing professionally in junior high school with her."
Over the years, Fletcher drummed for Shaver and others, worked with Nelo and offered Los Lonely Boys free studio time in exchange for a share of future royalties. That turned out to be a shrewd move because the band's debut sold seven figures.
But unless Fletcher is producing, he hasn't had much time to spend behind the board the past few years. Willie Nelson, partner Armstrong and Fletcher have been talking about this idea that's slowly taken shape for much too long.
"Freddy is going to be doing the production component, which fits right into his wheelhouse," Armstrong said. "That's his business. He's got all the pieces to make it work."
And one more thing will have to happen to make it official, make it work, make it home for Fletcher: performances Feb. 13 and 14 by his uncle, who performed for the first aired episode of "ACL."
"Willie is blessing the studio," Fletcher said. "In our mind, that's the christening."
It seems nobody involved knew how big this thing would get.
"Austin and I have been together a long time. I told Freddy I appreciated their calling the hotel the W," Nelson said with a laugh. "That was over the top."
It seems there's nobody in the business he doesn't know, few if any areas of the business he hasn't worked in. What ties it all together, what makes this series of adventures a collective whole for this man of whom an alarming number of people say, "He really is that nice"?
"The music is the common denominator," he said.
"Music makes people happy, and if you're lucky enough that you can do that for a living, you'd better count your blessings."