Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in Austin, Texas. (Kathy Parsons )
If there’s anything better than fixing food you love for people you love, it’s having them sing songs you love for you when you’re done. That’s a roundabout way of explaining how I got two-thirds of the Flatlanders to play for me on my birthday.
The story starts long, long ago in a place far, far away (well, back in the 1970s in Lubbock, Texas). It seems like several lifetimes ago, but back then I was a sportswriter at the local newspaper. It’s kind of odd to say anyone is lucky to be in Lubbock at any time, but I certainly was lucky enough to be there at a magical moment when the local music scene -- always thriving -- was absolutely amazing.
For various reasons, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock were all living or spending significant amounts of time there. In addition, musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughn and George Thorogood were regulars at small clubs in the area. (At the center of it all was a little barbecue joint called Stubb’s.)
I badgered my bosses to let me write a weekly column about the scene (signing a contract that I would write it for free, on my own time and wouldn’t use their typewriters to do it; I was blogging before the Internet was even invented!). A few of my columns from that period have been collected on this website devoted to Lubbock music.
The payoff for me was getting to know a lot of wonderful people and having some amazing experiences I still have a hard time fathoming today. I ate ribs with Muddy Waters, saw Ray Charles sit in on a jam session at a 50-seat barbecue joint, and visited Buddy Holly’s grave on a drunken late-night sightseeing tour with the Clash.
But the times I remember best were the more private moments. My wife and I were some of the few people in that crowd who had a house with extra room, so we became kind of the Motel 5½ for a lot of itinerant musicians who were passing through, including the toughest little wisp of a singer-songwriter named Lucinda Williams, artist and musician Terry Allen, and the late great songwriter Walter Hyatt.
Though I was at best a beginning cook, I’d usually fix dinner and afterward everybody would sit around with guitars playing and singing. Those were amazing times and we made friends that have lasted until this day.
One of my oldest and dearest friends from that circle is Gilmore. In fact, he’s my daughter’s godfather. In those days, of course, no one ever expected all those great albums, much less the Grammy nomination. And certainly no one anticipated him achieving big screen immortality (he’s probably more familiar to anyone under 30 as Smokey in "The Big Lebowski").
In fact, the last time I visited Austin, Texas, several years ago, he picked me up at the airport. I called him when I got off the plane and he asked where to find me. "Uh, right now I’m standing under a billboard-sized picture of you just outside my gate," I told him. The experience was hugely pleasing and yet a little unnerving at the same time.
We never get enough time to visit. Connecting with musicians when they’re on tour is always chancy. Between load-out, soundcheck, selling and signing, and breaking down the stage, you’re lucky to get more than a couple of minutes.
So when I was invited to Austin this week to moderate a panel at South by Southwest, I jumped at the chance (er, mainly, of course, because the subject matter was so compelling!). We could stay with Jimmie and his wife, Janet, and have time to actually talk. Even better, it would be over my wife's and my birthdays.
But of course the most important question was: What to cook? I wanted to give them some big flavors (everything’s big in Texas, right?). But it had to be vegetarian. So something from Yotam Ottolenghi’s "Plenty" seemed a natural (I also gave them a copy of the book, probably the sixth or seventh I’ve bought for other people; if you don’t have one, get it). Of everything I’ve cooked from that book, his spin on Moroccan carrot salad may be my favorite. So that was on the menu.
Because no one in Austin is ever on time, we needed something for the more-prompt to snack on -- bruschetta with goat cheese and tapenade. And because I’m still crazy about kale salads (I know, they’re so 24 hours ago), I fixed one of those -- with quinoa and chopped walnuts.
I always have a hard time figuring main courses for vegetarian meals, but a big bowl of soup seemed like a good idea -- black beans with smoky chipotle and assorted garnishes for people to play with ("it’s an interactive soup," someone joked).
That seemed like a lot of food, so for dessert I made a salad of navel, Cara Cara and blood oranges, with a simple syrup scented with a mix of cloves, allspice and cinnamon, and served it with sugar cookies from the store.