When Joe Ely met Waylon Jennings, and more notes from the Country Music Hall of Fame
NASHVILLE — Sunday marked the conclusion of a whirlwind four-day weekend at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to celebrate the opening of “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s,” a new Austin-centric exhibit that will remain on display for nearly three years.
A preview reception on Thursday was followed by Friday’s sold-out all-star concert in the facility’s 800-capacity CMA Theater. The weekend brought more special programming in the smaller Ford Theater, including songwriter sessions with Joe Ely (on Saturday) and Bobby Earl Smith with guests Kimmie Rhodes and Marcia Ball (on Sunday), plus a panel and a two-hour screening from “They Called Us Outlaws,” a multi-part in-progress documentary by Austin filmmaker Eric Geadelmann.
Perhaps best of all was “Home With the Armadillo,” a panel about Austin’s iconic 1970s venue Armadillo World Headquarters. Founder Eddie Wilson, now owner of Threadgill’s, took part in a lively discussion with poster artist Jim Franklin, whose armadillo-themed artwork helped make the venue world-famous, and lawyer Mike Tolleson, a key figure on the Armadillo’s operations team. Journalist Joe Nick Patoski walked the fine line of letting their stories flow while keeping the discussion on-point, and troubadour Gary P. Nunn provided a perfect benediction at the end with his classic song “London Homesick Blues” ( the original handwritten lyrics for which are part of the museum display).
A few more notes from the weekend:
• Ball’s appearance with Smith and Rhodes on Sunday afternoon was a last-minute but ideal addition to the songwriters session. Ball and Smith were the key figures in early-1970s Austin country band Freda & the Firedogs; Smith’s shirt from that band (with a vintage Pearl beer logo) is in the exhibit. Ball happened to be playing Sunday night at City Winery Nashville; her plane arrived at 10:45 a.m., allowing just enough time for her to race over to the Hall of Fame, where staff had a grand piano waiting for her onstage at the Ford Theater.
• The night before at City Winery — an increasingly influential chain of wine-based restaurant and live music spots with locations in New York, Chicago and elsewhere — Michael Martin Murphey teamed with Nunn, his long-ago bandmate in early-’70s Austin, his son Ryan Murphey and special guest Lee Roy Parnell for an acoustic set in the venue’s intimate lounge bar. Nunn sang “London Homesick Blues” again, along with deeper cuts from his repertoire, while Murphey delighted the crowd with signature tunes such as “Wildfire,” “Cosmic Cowboy” and “Alleys of Austin.” All three of those songs, and many more, will be on “Austinology,” a new Murphey record coming this fall with guest vocalists including Jerry Jeff Walker, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, and a rather well-known fellow named Willie Nelson.
• Return visits to the “Outlaws & Armadillos” exhibit every afternoon during the weekend continued to provide rewards with treasures I hadn’t spotted the first time through. I’d seen Susanna Clark’s painting that adorned the cover of Guy Clark’s debut album “Old No. 1” initially, but somehow I’d missed her masterfully minimal work that got reproduced more than 5 million times as the cover of Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album. And Sunday, Bobby Earl Smith pointed out the test-pressing of a late-1970s Double Trouble album that was never released but featured guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan paired with firebrand Austin blues singer Lou Ann Barton.
• Best of all, though, was a story relating to a giant Raeanne Rubenstein photo of Waylon Jennings hanging at the exit of the exhibit that was taken at the iconic New York City venue Max’s Kansas City in 1973. You won’t find this story in the exhibit, but Joe Ely tells us he was there that night. Ely, who was living in New York in the winter of 1972-73, knew Waylon was also from the Texas Panhandle, so he figured he’d go check out the show and maybe say hello. Waylon was onstage when he arrived, so Ely took a seat next to a woman near the stage as Waylon performed. During the set break, Waylon came over and sternly informed the young Mr. Ely: “You’re in my seat, hoss.” He’d sat down next to Jessi Colter. Fast-forward 45 years, and it was Ely and Colter who were the featured artists on Thursday’s press-preview tour of the exhibit.