All material in this post © 2004 Cascade Blues Association
From Austin to Portland…and Points in Between
In its early incarnation, The Asylum Street Spankers hit the Austin music scene with a sudden frenzy that made them the darlings of the city. The band had an appeal which attracted a diverse audience that brought children to grandparents, Country music lovers to Heavy Metal freaks, and everybody in-between, to their shows. A portion of their show that garnered excitement was the simple introduction of the band’s members. Taking turns, they developed new names for each person nightly. And, sometimes these monikers stuck permanently. Greg Bayless for example, had a habit of wearing white overalls and a pork pie hat, giving him the resemblance of the character Mr. Haney from the television show “Green Acres.” One evening, a group of children saw him dressed like that and yelled at him, “Hey Pops! What’s up?” So, the band took to calling him “Pops” Bayless. When it came to his turn for introductions, he called them all something new, then came up with, “And, ladies and gentlemen, on the slide guitar, ‘The Original Snakeboy!'”
Just who is The Original Snakeboy? I didn’t ask and he didn’t offer, but it’s a name that has stuck with him since that introduction, perhaps sealed forever once publications such as “Texas Beat” and “High Times” stated that The Original Snakeboy played slide guitar for The Spankers. Even the Mayor of Austin sent two letters of appreciation to him addressed, “Dear Original Snakeboy,” which now hang, framed in honor, in his home. Can you imagine the look on a mailman’s face when he delivers something labeled for The Original Snakeboy?
It might be said that The Original Snakeboy entered this world to the sound of a guitar. Certainly it has been around him his entire life. Yet, time does not seem to play a factor, and to this day, it remains an obsession, almost, he might add, his whole purpose for existence.
His parents met while his father was in the Navy. He was also a professional musician by trade. So, it may have been fate that the couple met at a gig in Virginia. When his term in the service ended, they took up residence near Nashville, where he played guitar at the Grand Old Opry, even making some recordings. But, when you’re young, wishing to raise a family, making ends meet as a professional musician is not the easiest task to accomplish. So, he put his guitar aside and took employment with the Standard Oil Company, relocating to Louisiana.
The Original Snakeboy was born in Ruston, Louisiana, but grew up on the streets of New Orleans. A much safer place at that time than it is today, the city was alive with the sound of music. A reliable bus system, with a fare of just 20 cents, able to last all day, opened the doors of exploration for an impressionable youngster. He went everywhere on his own: to the Mardi Gras parades and to the French Quarter, where he heard a diverse range of music streaming from the clubs’ windows and doorways. There was Dixieland Jazz, R&B, Zydeco, Gospel and, of course, the Blues.
The music enchanted him, with the first person to hold his attention being his father. His father seldom played guitar around the home and it took coaxing from his son to bring out that old arch-top Gibson. The magic he created hypnotized the boy. But, even though there was a guitar in the house, and he did experiment at times trying to play it, there just wasn’t any serious intentions of pursuing it at that point. New Orleans was thriving with the sound of Jazz! So, Snakeboy spent his school years playing horns in the concert bands.
His parents divorced when he was still young and his mother remarried, and moved out to California. In 1966, Snakeboy made the move to the Bay Area himself, where he found employment after high school working in the electronics field in the booming Silicon Valley. But, this was tedious and boring work; definitely something he had no desire to continue.
Music was still an outlet, though, and San Francisco’s scene was exploding. Exposure to incredible talent was always at hand. You didn’t have to look in the newspaper to see who was in town; you just simply went to The Fillmore. It was always a given that promoter Bill Graham was offering superb and stunning talent. One of Snakeboy’s heroes seemed to open almost every show he attended at The Fillmore, Taj Mahal. Just breaking out as an artist in the Bay Area, his updated interpretations of Roots and Blues music struck a chord in Snakeboy’s mind that he just couldn’t shake. Graham always included other Blues giants along with his headliners. One show that Snakeboy recalls quite fondly opened with Taj Mahal, followed by Tower Of Power, closing with Aretha Franklin and special guest, Ray Charles. There was always somebody exciting at the venue. The list was endless and Snakeboy smiles as he remembers seeing acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jethro Tull, Rod Stewart & Small Faces, B.B. King, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Cream and his personal favorite, Lee Michaels, among many more.
Despite all of the exposure to this wealth of live talent, it almost seems funny that the single most significant experience that made him want to become a musician came from a song on the radio. A friend was visiting one day and while standing in the kitchen Snakeboy heard an eerie style of music emanating from the radio in the next room. He immediately rushed in and shouted, “What’s that!” “That’s slide guitar, man,” his buddy told him. “That’s Duane Allman.” The song was “Statesboro Blues” from the “Live At The Fillmore East” album.
That was all it took. He was immediately hooked. A passion for learning to play this music consumed him. He began searching books and music stores within a 50-mile radius for anything he could find on slide guitar. He listened to recordings by Bukka White, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, as well as The Allman Brothers, constantly. Books on the technique were quite rare and inquiries for people who could teach him were unsuccessful. Snakeboy was going to have to do this on his own.
Living in a city like San Francisco did not offer much of an opportunity to escape from the outside world to study his passion. So, he moved to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, seeking refuge in the beautiful landscape of the Na Pali Coast. He hiked into the wilderness where he knew he could concentrate without the distractions of people knocking at his door or the phone constantly ringing. For the next several months, he gave his total focus directly to learning to play slide guitar.
Eventually, he returned to the Bay Area from his self-imposed exile, ready to show the world what he could do. But, he was now told musical tastes had changed. Nobody wanted to hear slide guitar anymore; it was a dead art form. But, that attitude was short-lived as Southern Rock began to pound the airwaves, ablaze with slide guitar leading the way. And, because Snakeboy could easily play this sound, he was all of a sudden in demand to join local bands. He loved the electricity and the sustain of the guitar. Now other guitarists were coming to him for lessons on how to play the slide.
While playing with these new bands, Snakeboy was fortunate enough to do some performing outside of the Bay Area. He developed a wanderlust that was compounded by his growing distaste for the congestion of the large city. It had worn its welcome and he knew he had to get away.
It was the early-1980s as he began his journeys, and one of his first stops was a short visit to Portland. Though he only spent a few weeks in the city, he obtained a small glimpse of the local Blues scene of the time. He remembers meeting a few people during that visit, including Robert Cray and Curtis Salgado, who were working together at the time. Another was harmonica man, Paul deLay, who impressed Snakeboy so much he made a point to catch at least two of his shows at The White Eagle. Snakeboy admits that he did not give Portland much time as a potential new home, but his experiences with the city’s musicians did not altogether come to an end. He ran into Salgado a few years later on the road, who was now leading his own band. The playing of the guitarist in that band knocked him out. That was Lloyd Jones; the band, In Yo’ Face.
A friend in Houston called Snakeboy, offering up the chance to do some studio work, so he made the trip to Texas. There was some studio work and a few gigs, but nothing that amounted to anything spectacular. He considered Houston a large, ugly, sprawling city and it certainly did not appeal to him. He decided all he wanted to do was leave Texas, but before he did, he’d visit his sister who was living in Austin.
He arrived in Austin on a Sunday night, checking into a motel, since his sister had kids and he lived the late-night schedule. Thumbing through the newspaper, he found an ad for the W.C. Clark Blues Revue at The Back Room for no cover that night. He hadn’t heard of Clark before, but he figured it couldn’t be all that bad. What he found was one of Texas’ finest Bluesmen, who sang like an angel and had an unbelievable back-up band. Clark, he discovered, was an honestly nice person and when Clark heard that Snakeboy could play slide, he invited him to come sit in at The Continental Club that coming Tuesday night. All of a sudden, Snakeboy knew he was going to be in Austin at least through Tuesday.
While in Houston, he’d heard about a group of dynamic session musicians who played under the aptly named title, The Austin All Stars. Their Monday night shows at The Steamboat were legendary. National touring acts who came through Austin often ended the night jamming with The All Stars. So, Monday night he decided to check them out and he took along his guitar. They were monster players; some of the best he’d ever seen in his life. They invited him to sit in and to his surprise, they told him that he could join up with them if he liked. Snakeboy declined, explaining that he was only in town for a couple days.
That Tuesday night at The Continental Club, Clark told him to come onstage immediately. Expecting to play only a couple of songs, it turned into an all-night guest spot. During a break a woman named Vickie Morbay asked him if he’d ever heard of Marcia Ball before. She told him to go down to A.J.’s Midtown (later to be renamed Antone’s) on Wednesday and tell the bass player she said to let him sit in. It was worth the try he thought, what did he have to lose by staying another night. So, he met Marcia Ball and spent Wednesday playing with her incredible band. In turn, she directed him to Angela Strehli and Denny Freeman on Thursday, another evening of sitting in with amazing artists.
Despite the success he seemed to be having in Austin, Snakeboy still had no intention of staying in Texas. Friday would be his last night, so he decided to go out one more time before he left. His brother-in-law mentioned a young hot-shot guitar slinger playing at The Steamboat that night who was receiving a bit of local notoriety named Stevie Ray Vaughan. So, he planned on going to see the guitarist; he’d have a quick beer, then return early to get a good night’s sleep.
Arriving at The Steamboat, he found a line, but many in the crowd seemed upset about the $4 cover charge. He almost walked away. Thinking, if this guy wasn’t worth $4, why bother? He went in anyway. Now we’re talking about Stevie Ray Vaughan! By the time the first couple of songs had ended, Snakeboy wanted to place his keys, wallet, car title, everything he owned on the stage in front of him. He wanted to find the people who’d complained in line and slap them. He met Vaughan, finding yet another extremely friendly individual. Against his original plans he spent the whole night. Not only that, he returned the next night, too.
Saturday night, Vaughan let Snakeboy play his guitar. He invited him to come onstage, but dead set on leaving town, he politely declined. Before he could leave though, Vaughan handed him a string wrapper with his phone number written on it. He said, “Stop by the house anytime and let’s play sometime.” That night, he couldn’t sleep. It’d only been a week and he’d met and played with the most amazing Blues people he’d ever known. The thought came to him, “I thought I was a Bluesman until I met Stevie. Then I realized I owned a guitar and I know a few licks, but that’s the extent of it. When somebody the caliber of Stevie Ray Vaughan asks you to drop by and play, you just don’t leave town.” Snakeboy called Austin home for the next 18 years.
He took the gig with The Austin All Stars. During his tenure with the group, he was able to share the stage with many illustrious artists such as Al Kooper and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Following a few months with them, he also developed his own band, Coupe De Ville. The members were all Little Feat fans, so the group adapted that same type of sound. Fairly popular around Austin, Coupe De Ville opened numerous shows for The Neville Brothers and even did a short stint working as Dr. John’s touring band. A friend of theirs who was building a studio in South Austin allowed the band to use the space as a rehearsal hall. Testing the new studio’s system, they put together a demo disc, which now is known as being the very first recording ever done at the famous Riverside Sound; the same studio where Stevie Ray Vaughan would later mix “Texas Flood.”
Austin was exploding as a musical mecca. There was so much talent and so much creativity, you couldn’t help but be inspired by it. If there was any trouble coming up with new material, all you needed to do was go out on the town. In an evening’s time, you’d have at least a dozen new ideas to explore. Everybody was welcoming. If you didn’t have a gig and felt like playing, somebody was always willing to let you sit in.
Following Coupe De Ville, Snakeboy formed another band called The Nomads. They were also quite successful, but he was looking for a new sound that just hadn’t caught him yet. A friend introduced him to a new player in town who could play slide guitar just like Snakeboy and was also a great harmonica player as well. Guy Forsyth and Snakeboy seemed to hit it off right from the start. He started playing in Forsyth’s electric band, but both had a desire to play acoustic guitar, too. They’d open shows playing acoustically, then gradually bring on the rest of the band as the sound became more electric. The group held a regular Sunday night gig at Antone’s and set an all-time record playing the same night at the club for four consecutive years. They also participated in Antone’s yearly Anniversary Party, an event that draws a literal who’s who of the Blues world. Snakeboy remembers looking across the stage during this event and seeing that he was jamming with Luther Tucker and Sunnyland Slim. All he could think was, “I hope somebody is getting a picture of this, so tomorrow I can believe I was here.”
But, the short acoustic sets was not enough for Guy and Snakeboy. A group of friends got together once at local Punk Rocker, Wammo’s home and listened to a pile of 78 records they’d picked up at an estate sale. The music was all from the early 1900s, filled with double entendres about sex and drugs. Then and there, they all decided they would form a band and play this music. They made a date to meet at the University of Texas, since they didn’t have a space large enough to practice at. Setting up on the college’s sidewalk, the group really didn’t know the numbers they were attempting to play, but they drew a crowd who loved what they heard and began throwing money into their instrument cases. This eventually attracted the attention of the campus police who broke up the scene. Word was out and it wasn’t long before they were invited to play a gig.
Guy Forsyth called the band The Asylum Street Spankers, named after Guadalupe Street’s original name when the University campus had been a mental asylum. And, the band thought it was rather funny that the initials spelled A-S-S. The raucous material and all acoustic format soon made The Spankers a much in-demand outfit. But, the members all had gigs of their own, so they could only play together one day a week. The popularity soared. They even received an invitation to headline the Austin Acoustic Music Festival, one of the city’s premier events. There was no advertising, it all came through word of mouth.
One day Snakeboy came up with the idea to have signs held up during their performance, with instructions for the fans to do such things as “Applause” or “Give Us All Your Money.” One sign read, “Ladies Spanked Free.” It was just a joke, but when the sign was presented for the first time, a young lady stepped up to the stage, dropped her pants to her ankles and stuck her bare back side in the band’s direction. Banjo player Greg Bayless looked at Snakeboy and said, “You’re a genius, man!”
Despite the success he was enjoying in Austin, after 18 years, Snakeboy was fed up with the weather. Hot weather just led to even hotter, which in turn led to “Oh my God can it get any hotter?” He loved his friends and partners, but he had to get away from the heat and the wanderlust returned. So, he headed east, to Asheville, North Carolina, a gorgeous locale known for it’s trees and proximity to The Appalachin, Blue Ridge and Smokey Mountains.
His mother and sister were also living in Asheville now, so he had visited before, but to his amazement, while thumbing through a copy of “Guitar Player” magazine, he found an advertisement for The First Annual National Slide Guitar Festival, to be held in Asheville! And, some of his acoustic heroes, like Bob Brozman, Corey Harris and Steve James were scheduled to play. Plus, there was also a slide guitar contest. Snakeboy entered the contest, playing a 1960s National Folk Star model. He didn’t win that year, but as runner-up, he received a poster of National’s nickel-plated Style One Tri-Cone, the Holy Grail of guitars. His playing also had impressed National’s president, McGregor Gaines and vice president, Don Young, who told him with his style of playing he should be using one of their Tri-Cones. Snakeboy agreed, but he didn’t have $3,000 to purchase his dream guitar. Don Young gave him his card and said to call him sometime.
Snakeboy hung that poster at the foot of his bed. It was the first and last thing he saw everyday. One morning he called Don Young, who asked him what he was up to? “I’m looking at it, man,” was his response. “What’s that,” inquired Young. “The nickel-plated Tri-Cone. I’m looking at that poster,” Snakeboy replied. “You’ve got it bad,” said Young. Their conversation continued and then Young said to him, “We’re going to build you one.” Snakeboy was dumbfounded. He answered, “You’re not going to believe what I just thought I heard you say.” But, it was true. After giving the dimensions he preferred for his playing and coming to an agreement on the terms, Snakeboy received his new Tri-Cone 12 days later.
It was like discovering the slide guitar all over again. He buried himself in concentration, once again breaking all communications with the outside world to study this new instrument. He couldn’t keep it down. After playing for hours he’d set it on its stand, then look at it and have to start playing all over. This went on for a year, when the National Slide Guitar Festival came up again. This time it was held in Gray, Tennessee. Rather modest regarding this competition, Snakeboy claims that he was lucky that nobody played as well as him that day, as he won the title.
National Guitar approached him not too long after and told him they were putting together a compilation disc of different musicians using their instruments. Snakeboy didn’t have anything recorded at the time, so he went to a nearby studio where he spoke with a gentleman named Van Atkins. Atkins asked to hear him play a bit and agreed to cut some tracks with him. Little did Snakeboy know at the time, but Van Atkins was one of the most successful engineers in the country; nominated for a Grammy five years in a row for his work with the local Gospel and Bluegrass scene. And, they recorded at Crossroads Studio, famous for being one of the country’s finest studios. They laid tracks to 13 numbers, all done in either the first or second take. National selected the instrumental original entitled “Spooky Lou” for their release. Now Snakeboy also had a complete album’s worth of material, so he decided to release his own CD.
That disc, “Playing With Fire,” was released independently and received quite a bit of critical acclaim from national and international Blues publications, including five-star reviews from “Delta Snake Blues Revue,” “Guitar World,” “Roots Town” and “Blues Matters.” (The latter two are English periodicals). The praise also drew attention from festivals, as he started accepting invitations from around the world.
Asheville, North Carolina is one of the capitols for Bluegrass music in the country. But, when it comes to Blues, work was scarce. Snakeboy found himself longing for a city that had a stronger Blues scene. Trying to decide on where he should head next, memories of Portland ran through his mind. The musicians he’d encountered there had thrilled him, though he wasn’t sure if they’d still be around so many years later. But, he’d heard that the Blues community was strong in Portland, so he decided to drive across the country to find out. The fact that it had agreeable weather didn’t hurt, either.
Arriving in Portland a few days later (October 2003), he picked up a newspaper and much to his surprise he found the names of Curtis Salgado, Paul deLay and Lloyd Jones. They were all still around! In fact, Paul was performing at a neighborhood benefit at The Longhorn, so that was the first place he went in town. He got reacquainted with Paul and became fast friends with his bass player, Dave Kahl. Kahl told him, “Hey, you need to check out this guitarist playing over at The Stein Haus; this guy named Lloyd Jones.” Snakeboy replied, “Lloyd Jones, I know Lloyd. Thank God, Lloyd ‘Have Mercy’ Jones is still in town!”
Another person who Snakeboy was familiar with in Portland was Terry Currier. He had discussions previously with Currier via e-mail about the possibility of Burnside Distribution carrying the “Playing With Fire” CD in its catalog. The two connected and an agreement was made. He did not know Currier very well, so he asked Lloyd Jones for his impression. “Trust him,” was all Lloyd said. That was enough for Snakeboy.
After living in Portland for several months, Snakeboy feels that he made the right decision to move to Oregon. He has received very good reception from the local fans and he has found an attitude in the musicians much like that of Austin’s back in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s open-armed and welcoming. “There’s so many world-class players here,” he states. “It’s just, ‘come out and play.’ I love it. I feel real lucky to be here.”
And, though he has worked primarily as a solo musician the past few years, the talent in Portland is bringing back ideas of forming a new band. He has the desire to interact with the new friends he has here, who have given him fresh ideas to look in new directions. He’ll continue with the solo gigs, but working in a small band will also open more venues his way. Plus, it’ll give the fortunate fans in Portland more opportunities to catch this wonderful artist at work.
“It’s fantastic how he can reinvent himself and have so much energy for a new frontier in his 50s. A time in life when many would slow down,” remarks national recording artist Catfish Keith, a long-time friend of Snakeboy’s. “He keeps getting better and better. It’s inspiring and should bring out the kid in us all. He has the expression of hard-earned wisdom and the feeling of a lifetime of experience coupled with an almost teenaged enthusiasm. Right on, Snakeboy!”
Right on, indeed!
– Greg Johnson
© 2004 Cascade Blues Association
Greg, I hope you don’t mind that I am putting this on Snakeboy’s Blog.
It’s such an amazing interview!!! And I’m always paranoid that it will get lost on the CBA site some point down the line.
Thanks for such a great job my dear friend 🙂
With much appreciation & love,
Photo courtesy of Greg Johnson.
CBA Meeting March 2004