Listen to Austin 360 Radio

40 years later, a musical dream starts to come true

Tim Basham
Tim Basham plays guitar with his late father, Hal, in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1978. Basham spent much of the 1970s playing in bars and dance halls from Texas to California.

"We all gonna bust loose one of these days," Ray Wylie Hubbard declares in his song "Loose." It would have been a fitting soundtrack to a time I spent driving around Austin with Hubbard a year ago this week. On that day, and the few before it, the Texas legend had persuaded me to go into the studio and record my songs, something that has led to my own "busting loose" next week with the release of my first CD in Austin. Last year's turning point, however, had really begun decades earlier when an ace in the hole and an old ghost helped show me the way.

Almost 40 years ago, in what seems like another lifetime, I was a working musician. That journey began after meeting keyboardist Ronnie Huckaby, who was dating my cousin Kathy. (Huckaby later served as the piano player and arranger for George Strait's Ace In the Hole Band.) I was 17 with a plan to go to college and study medicine when, on Thanksgiving Day, Ronnie taught me a couple of songs on Aunt Janice's piano. Though not as dramatic as Robert Johnson's crossroads conference with the devil, for this little high-schooler it was a life-changing moment that would lead to a decade of paying dues in bars and dance halls from Texas to California.

My first real gig occurred while attending Del Mar Music College in Corpus Christi when a unique bunch of misfits formed the Buford Street Band, named after an old house a few of us shared. When I left that group, I had expected things would only get bigger and better. Little did I know that 40 years later I'd be trying to find some semblance of that raw, stripped down, 1970s Texas sound we pumped out each night from a set list that was reflective of our audience: rednecks and hippies. As we finished Hank Thompson's "Wild Side of Life" we would jump into Van Morrison's "Blue Money" and follow that with some ZZ Top. All the while, our diverse fan base would negotiate a middle ground, sometimes with fists and beer bottles. For me, still a teenager, it was a rite of passage that would serve me well in the world of music.

After Buford, I found myself in a variety of musical incarnations, mostly cover bands with that occasional brush with greatness. My goal at that age was to write a hit song. (Being naïve was one of my strongest traits.) A walk through the infamous Paramount Studios archway to see Michael Ochs was one of those "almost" moments. Ochs, who would go on to be a well-known rock archivist, was interested in using one of my songs in a major film. Sadly, the song got squashed in the politics of Hollywood. Eventually the road and its accompanying distractions took its toll. By the time I hit 28, my thoughts turned to marriage and family and business-building, pretty much in that order. I returned to Austin and left the music behind. Or so I thought.

About a year ago, with the kids almost grown and the ink on the divorce papers drying, I began to think about those tunes I never wrote and that album I never made. The great singer-songwriter Sam Baker told me about Kevin Welch's songwriting workshop that he puts on periodically at his house in Wimberley. By chance, Kevin would be running one that very weekend and would be joined by Ray Wylie Hubbard, an outlaw music legend I first saw perform in Denton back in 1976 with his band the Cowboy Twinkies. Hubbard's barroom anthem "Redneck Mother" had quickly become a classic. I got the last workshop spot available, packed my bag and drove out for a head-changing weekend. My goal was to just get confirmation about my songwriting. Would somebody out there be interested in recording one of my songs? Or should I shelve this dream that I hadn't even restarted?

After a first night's dinner at Hubbard's home, prepared by his wife, Judy, who not only can cook but also runs the business side of his career and record label, we retired to Welch's house of inspiration. Kevin's music has been covered by the likes of Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless.

The next day began with Hubbard giving us a talk that could best be described as "Zen and the Art of Fingerpicking," telling us, "I think on the days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations I have really good days" — a gem of sage advice that he would later put in his song "Mother Blues" from his new album "The Grifter's Hymnal."

Soon we were doing one-on-ones with our masters. Hubbard was sitting right in front of me saying, "OK, let's see what you got." To make it more intimidating, I had never considered myself to be much of a guitarist, and all I had was an old 12 string that I had received in a trade. So, with trembling hands, I got through my song "In Austin." What happened next can be described only as another personal music moment. As I held my breath, Hubbard said, "OK, here's what you do. Write three or four more songs, get in touch with a good producer — I recommend Lloyd Maines (producer of the Dixie Chicks) — and go in the studio and record an EP."

I sat there, numb. I could only think to ask, "What about the song? Should I change anything?"

"The song's fine," he said. "Don't change a thing."

By now I was waiting for someone to yell, "April fools!" Me? Making my own record? At my age? Hubbard asked me what it was that I wanted out of this song — something that I unashamedly consider to be my love letter to Austin, the city where my children were born, the city I've called home for the past 28 years. No one had ever asked me what I wanted out of it.

I had written the song 15 years earlier after hearing a happy hour performance from Roosevelt T. Williams, aka the Grey Ghost, at the Continental Club. I dropped by often to listen to his barrelhouse blues on the piano while chatting with club owner Steve Wertheimer. Williams would remember me and play my requests. One night I realized how lucky I was — being able to hear this amazing musician who had been playing during the early days of jazz. I went home, pulled my seldom-used guitar out of the back of the closet and wrote the song.

When I answered Ray's question I could hear the voice of that same naïve kid who walked onto the Paramount lot so many years ago. "I just want people to feel what I felt when I wrote it," I replied. Ray simply grinned and said, "Well, all right!" before showing me an effective picking exercise.

As he suggested, I went home from the workshop and wrote four more songs. Lloyd Maines was willing and encouraging but unavailable as producer for this now-eager recording artist. But in Brian Standefer I found a co-producer who became the perfect complement to my vision as well as to my insecurities, and we recorded the EP at his Screen Door Studio in Buda with help from local music talents Dony Wynn, Will Sexton, Kevin McKinney, Bukka Allen and Dennis Ludiker.

Still, I reflect back to last year's weekend, remembering that Hubbard did think of something that he insisted I change. Within days I found myself riding shotgun with Hubbard as we searched for the perfect guitar. I may put that in a song for my full-length album.

Other projects

When he's not playing music, Tim Basham writes about music, and film, for Paste Magazine. Some of the songs from his EP ‘In Austin' (releasing Friday) will appear this summer in a documentary about the late Gov. Ann Richards. Go to www.timbasham.com to hear Basham's song ‘In Austin' and other music and for information about live performances.

For more on Kevin Welch's songwriting workshops, go to www.kevinwelch.com/workshops.php.