Interviews: Andy Wilkinson

Photo Sep 17, 12 45 12 AMby: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

Things often move at glacial speed in Lubbock, Texas. It feels as though they all come too late–and in some instances–never at all.

It’s the never-ending flat horizon line. You can see things coming or going for eternity. It’s the big country sky that stretches on and on and on. It’s the fields that surround the Hub City that create this sea of cotton rows.

Yet, for as desolate, barren–and more than anything else–isolated and cut off it can be, Lubbock’s been a well that continues to give us artists, painters, songwriters, singers, playwrights, guitar slingers, musical geniuses, poets, and characters. It’s always been this way.

When one stands out, it truly means they’ve done something remarkable. There’s no way else to put it, but Andy Wilkinson is one of those genuine artists who has continued that artist way of life out here on the plains.

You’re not going to meet someone who’s ever done anything in the art and music world of Lubbock who hasn’t heard of Andy Wilkinson. If they haven’t, be weary.

Wilkinson’s contributions to Lubbock, the Panhandle, and West Texas are much like that never-ending horizon line. They gone on forever. It’s songs, albums, poems, books, paintings, and plays that are West Texas through and through. The collective whole feels much more important and grand together than they do as individual pieces–and they’re pretty damn great individually.

Even so, you’ll never find a more humble and gracious artist. That in itself is also very much West Texas personified. It’s at the root of West Texas. 

You could say that an induction into something such as The West Texas Walk of Fame is a long time for Wilkinson. But we’re that’s here nor there at this point. It’s not a point of emphasis for Wilkinson.

Had this happened 10 years ago–or 10 years from now for that matter–Wilkinson would still be churning out some of the most genuine works of art from this part of the world. He’d still be writing, discovering, exploring, and sharing The Panhandle with the rest of us. 

I had the opportunity to speak with 2014 West Texas Walk of Fame inductee Andy Wilkinson for about an hour in his office at Texas Tech University last week. Had he let me, I would have stayed the remainder of the day asking him questions. I’m sure that’ll happen sometime in the future. 

This Friday evening starting at 6pm at the Lubbock Civic Center, Wilkinson, along with fellow 2014 inductees singer-songwriter Jay Boy Adams, radio personalities Lew Dee and Diane Dee, and actor-playwright Jaston Williams, will officially be honored by The West Texas Walk of Fame. This event is free. 

As mentioned before, read our interview with Wilkinson in which we speak about the Walk of Fame, Lubbock music and art, songwriting, and the creative process.

Related: Read on our interview with Jay Boy Adams here.

New Slang: First off, how’d you hear about the news about being inducted into the West Texas Walk of Fame? What were your initial thoughts?

Andy Wilkinson: Well, I got a letter. Course, I’ve been around since the very first induction and seen it grow. It’s one of those things that has two aspects to it. You’re very glad to be inducted into it. You’re very humbled. And then you also realize that there are lots of people who aren’t in who probably should. So you feel, it’s not a sense of guilt or something, but just a “Oh man, why isn’t X, Y, and Z also there ahead of me?” But of course, I won’t turn it down [laughs].

You know, there’s an awful lot of talk and we spend a lot of time on the subject of why there’s so much good music from this place. That’s a real interesting topic. Part of it I think is the culture of the place. They don’t kiss your rear end here just because you play music like they do in a lot of places. So in some ways, it makes you more resilient and makes you better at your craft. You’re just an ordinary person when you’re back home here in Lubbock.

On the other hand, when you are “ordinary back home” and aren’t thinking you’re that big of a deal, colleagues and towns’ people decide to honor you, I think in some ways, it’s a bigger thing.

NS: Yes. I’ve spoken with many people who have said their favorite shows have been in Lubbock and their absolute worst have as well.

AW: Yeah. No one gives you any slack here. They’re not unkind, but you can hear good music here anytime you want, so when you hear music that’s not so great, you just don’t pay attention to it. It’s also a nice place to try out new material. You can try out new material in Lubbock and look at the audience and tell if a song is going to work or not. That’s not true everywhere else. There’s some places where no matter what you do, everybody is excited and happy. Although nobody will want to admit it, this place has a really sophisticated listening audience. I think that’s a plus for us who are writing and creating material.

It’s a little different. Years ago when I was in a cover band and we were playing dances, that was quite a different thing. You were there as part of an event. When you’re a songwriter, you are the event. So it’s a little bit of a different focus.

NS: Yeah. I was speaking with Kenny Maines about that a little a while back. He was saying that before they really started doing Terry Allen songs, they were really a dancehall kind of band and they never really wrote original material until after then. That’s when Kenny really became inspired to start writing his own material.

AW: Oh yeah. Dancehall music really is a big deal in Texas. Always has been and I think it always will be. The Texas Country people are able to do what they do because of people like The Maines Brothers. They blazed the trail so you could do original music in front of a dancehall audience. In the 80s, in the cover band I was in, we’d slip in original material. If you didn’t say anything about it, people just didn’t care. Sometimes they’d ask where that came from and you’d tell them, but you still had to play a bunch of Willie, Waylon, and Merle.

NS: You as an artist, you really have a bunch of material–songs, albums, plays, books, poetry, you name it. You’ve gone down a bunch of different avenues in the art world. I’ve always wondered, when an artist really does have all these different things going, how do you decide what an idea should be?

AW: The idea decides. I got to do a nice interview with Terry Allen 15 years ago or so and I asked him the exact same question. I was happy to hear him say what I had already discovered worked for me. Some things need to be a song. Some things need to be a play. Some things need to be a painting. Some things need to be–though I’d never be a choreographer–some things might ought to be a dance [laughs]. I’ve found that exploring an idea in different ways, it gives you different opportunities.

The other thing is that if you get stuck just writing one thing, I think you can get stale. I find on songwriting, I really have to work at making sure I’m not imitating myself. You know? Which happens to all of us. When an artist becomes really famous, you’ll start listening to songs and saying “Wait…I’ve heard that before” and it’ll be one of theirs. We all fall into that rut. If you don’t have something to force you out of it, then it’s kind of a dangerous business.

I’ve been really lucky in playwriting. I fell into that. I never intended on writing a play. I got a chance to write a play and it was successful so therefore I was then emboldened to do more. In fact, in the induction, Jaston Williams who was one of the first people to encourage me to continue after I wrote that first play. I’m really excited that we’re going into the Walk at the same time.

NS: What’s been the strangest route an idea has taken? Have you ever thought of something as a song and then think it’s better off as a poem…then realize the idea needed to be expanded into a play? Something along those lines.

AW: I think all of them. They all have their own path. I teach songwriting here and when I first started teaching it, I was naive. I thought all I had to do was show them how I go about writing a song, bring in some songwriter friends, and then the students would learn from that. But, that’s far from the truth [laughs]. I had to really do some studying and examination of my own songwriting and I realized that, there’s not a formula by any stretch of the imagination and aren’t any rules, but there are principles. The first one is that art is a process, not a product. In fact, that holds true for damn near everything we do in life. The product is just something that happens. If you’re faithful to the process, the product takes care of itself.

So I realized when I was successful in a piece, it was because I didn’t abandon a notion early on what it ought to be, and I let it take me along. So I’ve had songs that started out as being about the environment and ended up being love songs and love songs that ended up being about the environment. I’ve had things that I thought would be a poem and realized that it was just too big for that. I’ve got to do something larger and it became a play. I wrote one poem that started a whole play.

After I got into it, I realized I had to have more to it. I needed more things like what actors bring to a play–which is very different from what a singer brings to a song. It’s different from what a poet brings to a poem. Then you get a director and a lighting designer, a costume designer, and a set designer and all of a sudden, you have this animal that you are only, well you may no longer even be the architect, you’re sort of the general contractor.

That’s a whole ‘nother order of working. We singer-songwriter people, we’re used to getting up and doing our own thing in front of people, and we’re it. We’re the band, artist, writer, producer, front man. We’re the whole thing. You develop, it’s not smugness, but this self-reliance, that can limit your creativity. When you’re willing and able to invite others into it, you wind up getting a piece of work that’s bigger and better than anything you ever imagined it could be. That’s a fun thing too. Sometimes you come to something that you realize is larger than one person can do.

I’ve got one piece I wrote as a play that really should be a film. So now I’m thinking about how I would go about as an unknown in the film business. How can I get this idea developed into a film? Because it needs more images. A play works so well because it’s real people on stage. Two people kiss on stage and it’s a big deal. People kiss in the movies and it’s nothing. We’re so used to that. So a scene that’d be very effective on stage, it might not be very effective on film. On the other hand, on film, people can change their facial expressions. A tear can roll out of one eye and it’s a big deal. On stage, no body sees it except maybe the front row [laughs].

Terry Allen is a great example. One of the first things he ever recorded was Juarez. And he’s been recording that over and over. Not the song, but the idea. The idea, it’s just coming back. And every time it comes back, it comes back in a new form. He does something else with it. I really admire that. Not just the tenacity, but the ability to mine an idea for all the little things that are in it and that soon become very big things.

NS: Yes. It’s very much so. Lubbock (On Everything), that’s probably the greatest Lubbock album of all time and everything, right? But I get a sense that Juarez is what he’s most proud of. He does keep going back and finding new aspects to dissect.

AW: Yeah. His latest record Bottom of the World, I think it’s probably his best since Lubbock (On Everything)–though, Pedal Steal, to me, is just a really killer piece. But Bottom of the World, is essentially Juarez brought to the present. I like that a lot. I’ve a fair amount of that when it comes to the history to this part of the world. I’ve been interested in that for a long time. People like Terry–and Jo Harvey with waitresses and everything that’s come out of that–those people impress me. They’re great models on how the rest of us should work.

NS: That’s another aspect of you as well. You’re not just an artist, but also, in a lot of ways, a historian and a preserver of what’s come out of this area. Old cowboy poetry and songs. Where did that really start for you? When did you really start finding the interest?

AW: I have a personal connection to the history and that helped a lot. My distant uncle, five generations back, is Charlie Goodnight. I’ve written a lot about him. I grew up listening to my grandmother and great-grandmother who spent their summers as little girls at his ranch. I listened to them talk about him and of course, I didn’t pay any attention to it until I got older. Then when I was in junior high and high school, two of my best friends were Byron Price, who later ran the Panhandle Plains Museum, then the Cowboy Hall of Fame, then the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, and now is the Director of the Charles Russell Center and University of Oklahoma Press, and then Jim Pflueger, who was at the Panhandle Plains with Byron, the Quarterhorse Museum, and then just retired from the Ranching Heritage Center. Those two guys, just brilliant historians. So by the time I was in junior high school, I was immersed in history by just hanging out with my buddies.

The other part of this, is just laziness [laughs]. You cannot invent plots, characters, and stories that can compare to the real thing. I’ve said this often; if I change a story, a character, or plot, it’s to dumb it down to people will believe it [laughs]. If you give them the real thing, they’ll think you made it up.

Some of my writing heroes, they used that approach a lot. I’m a big fan of Ernest Hemingway as a prose writer. He said, among many other things about writing, he famously said “any man’s life told truly is a novel.” I take that to mean, that any story we come across, that has that in it. My friend Paul Milosevich, repeats the quote, “the more particular a thing is, the more general it is.” So if you paint one little rock, you’ve painted every little rock. If you’ve written about one working person’s life, it applies to every working person’s life. It doesn’t matter past or present, what culture, gender, race–whatever the case. I think those things are very important to us. 

I guess the third thing would be an obligation. If no body else is going to do it, I’m going to do it. 

NS: I was actually going to if you felt that way. 

AW: Wallace Stegner said “No place is a place until it’s had a poet.” I think that’s really true. I’m not the first poet from this place by any stretch, but I’m one of them [laughs]. We have an obligation to keep a place alive through our work. The Aboriginals of Australia have this idea of the song line. The map of Australia can be reconstructed by these songs that are kept alive in different parts of the country. Singers in each part take up the mantle of that song. They believe that the world was sung into existence and if you quit singing the song, well, it quits existing. Now I’m not quite sure I’m to that point, but I do think believe that the poetry of a place–and I mean poetry in the classical sense–if it’s not kept up for a place, then you don’t have a place. 

This is where I grew up. I traveled around a lot and lived in other places, but have come back to here and I really do like the flat land, the big sky, the people–most of who I don’t agree politically [laughs]–but they’re wonderful people. It’s also, for a writer, a golden place. Like my grandmother, like my great-grandmother, there’s still people who were connected to that early recorded history. Not the 12, 000 years of people coming through Lubbock Lake and all that, but at least the recorded history. It’s all still very fresh. You know, we just had our centennial as a city. This is still a young place. So I think for those of us who are writing, especially those things that are rooted in history, you’re still on the cutting edge of it. That’s an asset.

NS: When you’re going back and finding and listening to these old field recordings and finding these old versions of songs, a lot of times, you’re putting different versions together and making them your own. You and Andy Hedges–

AW: Yes, he’s really the champ at that. 

NS: Well, explain a little bit of that process–because that’s very different from writing something yourself. 

AW: Oh yeah. In some ways, it’s a lot easier. One of the things I recognized, not only in my own work, but when I’m working with my students, is that it’s not very easy to realize when you’ve done something well. You almost always realize it when you’ve written something that doesn’t work or that’s substandard. But the brilliant pieces, you either take them for granted or you don’t quite appreciate how good they are until much, much later. 

Well, with an old song, the good part jumps out. Plus, the good parts have stood the test of time. That filter has eliminated a lot of the junk. So when you get this word or phrase or melody that’s made it all that time, you bet there’s something to it. 

Another thing is looking at the different versions. Now, not all the best versions survive. Usually they get watered down. One of the great things about Andy Hedges is that he spends a lot of time looking up those old parts. But then, we’ve given ourselves permission to use them how we see fit. I think that’s really the folk tradition. 

I came of age during the folk revival and we had what we called the folk nazis [laughs]. They hated Bob Dylan because he was either stealing or writing his own stuff. They felt you had to do it as it was. And if it was a song whose authorship was known, it wasn’t a folk song. Well, I think that’s crap. Not only that, as a folk song gets repeated, they change and they take on a different color from a different part of the country. 

One of the great fun things is to come across these different versions and watch how a song changes. Like how a song starts out as a young sailor cut down in his prime in Scotland, then becomes “The unfortunate Rake” in England, and then ultimately becomes the “Saint James Infirmary Blues” in the Delta, a black blues song, and a cowboy’s lament in “The Streets of Laredo” in cowboy country. The same song has gone through all those changes. You look at that, particularly in a scholarly point of view, we have this direct evidence of a culture moving and changing and mixing with other cultures and other cultural elements. To me, that’s really exciting.

We have this one song that we do, where we take the verses from a cowboy version and for the choruses, we use what we think of as a blues version of the same song. You put them together and you realize they’re part of the same thing. You hear it. 

NS: I’d like to think that one of the greatest jobs ever was going out and finding people to do those field recordings. Do you feel that’s what you would have been out doing when that became a popular thing?

AW: In a lot of ways, I’m doing that now. I’m not going out and doing the recording of the music so much. I mean, you’re recording this right now with your iPhone. Anybody can record. What cost hundreds of thousands dollars 30 years ago, now for 600 bucks and GarageBand you can do it. So it’s easy to record, but getting to visit with people and getting to interview them, to me, that’s kind of the modern version of the field recording. I love them. I listen to them every chance I get. I much prefer–though I do get to do produced music and get to work with really talented people like Kenny and Lloyd Maines, Andy Hedges, Alan Crossland, and folks like that–still the recordings that move me the most are those original Lomax recordings. 

My son just sent me a recording of three young teenage girls in Georgia (Russia), singing in their language on an iPhone. They’re holding an iPhone and it’s like a selfie recording of them walking down the road and it’s just killer. I think that’s a remarkable thing. In fact, if I could figure out a way to record my own material in that way and make it that fresh, I’d do everything that way. 

NS: You’ve mentioned teaching your songwriting class. A lot of people who I’ve spoken with, any time you’ve been brought up, they’ve spoke about how underrated you are as a songwriter–but more importantly, maybe under-appreciated of an influence you’ve been on their own songwriting. Daniel Fluitt, Kenneth O’Meara, William Clark Green, they’ve all mentioned that. Most recently, Benton Leachman. It’s maybe not in a direct influence on what they write, but how they write. 

AW: That’s really nice to hear. You know, the last thing you want to do as a songwriting teacher is to teach people the way you write. It’s bad enough to have one of you. There’s no need to have ten of them [laughs]. But, all the people you mentioned and our friend Amanda Shires–one of the things I’m most proud of her isn’t her great singing or great fiddle playing, but her songwriting is just blowing through the roof. Daniel, his songwriting, I’ve just loved it since I first met him. Kenneth, just terrific. William Clark Green, terrific. Benton, terrific. But those people, they were going to be good songwriters regardless of me. I promise you of that. 

I say to my students that I can’t teach them how to write a good song, but I can teach you how to write a better song. Talking about this idea of it being a process. By going back and not settling for something and find a way to step back from your songs–which is a very hard thing to do–but when you’re stuck or you can’t move forward, start doing some polishing. I think those are the things that are most important and too seldom taught. Too many people are looking at the song structure disour or the tips and tricks. Those are OK–the workshop kind of things–but the principles are far more important. Having the luxury have Texas Tech letting me have the whole semester where we have 14 weeks, which is not enough, but it’s still a whole lot better than doing a workshop. 

NS: I think that’s something that bugs me the most with writers. That thing where they grow content with the song being finished so quickly. OK, now onto the next.

AW: Yeah. People say to me, “I wrote this last night,” and I’ll say–and I’m really tacky about it–“I can tell [laughs.]” Or “This came out in 15 minutes.” Yeah, I can tell that it did. Now go back to work on it. 

Let me mention one other thing about those writers we were just speaking about. Something that’s a characteristic of all of them is that they’re great readers, great listeners, and all have great work ethics. I’ve never seen anybody work harder at their craft than Amanda Shires…unless it’s Andy Hedges…or maybe it’s William Clark Green [laughs]. Any of those people. They work hard at what they do and they’re devout to their reading and listening. 

Kids who are least impressive in my class are the ones who only listen to one kind of music. They only listen to country or only to rap or to gospel or anything. It’s a sad thing. I try really hard to get them to go out and listen to things. It’s amazing what you learn. The last three weeks, I’ve been listening to calypso, mento, and maja music from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. I don’t know what it’s going to do, but I would like to do something that I don’t do much of and that’s to write some happy songs. 

Those people were writing about sex, politics, current events, oppression, and things yet would do it in a way that made you want to get out and dance and get a rum and cola. It’s happy music, but they’re not dodging the bullet. It’s not silly happy music. That’s impressive. I’m not sure how they’ve pulled it off. I’m still trying to learn. It’s not like I’m going to be a calypso singer. That’s not going to happen, but I’m sure there’s something in that, that I can learn from and apply to my own work. 

NS: That’s one of my big things. It just feels like you’re limiting yourself. If you’re only listening to one or two specific genres, you’re really missing out on all these other wonderful things. And you mentioned reading. Those people do read. They’re into novels and biographies, and magazines and articles. That’s something Kenneth and I will talk about; what we’re reading. Sometimes it amazes me how much he can digest reading. How he finds the time [laughs].

AW: Oh yeah. Especially with the family and as much as he’s working right now. Kenneth is a bright, bright guy. The other thing is–and this is something Terry Allen talks about a lot–they have a great sense of curiosity. How does this work? Why does this do this? I hardly ever read fiction. I like to read science and philosophy. It’s something for me that’s applicable. I’m writing a novel right now, but I don’t necessarily want to read one right now. I’m writing a novel right now because it’s the best way to get this particular idea addressed that I’m working on. But when I read for pleasure, I like to read philosophy. It makes you sit back and think. Curiosity is important. Curious people make great scientists, great artists. Benjamin Franklin, now there’s a model for us all. I mean, what did he not do?

NS: A true renaissance man. Who do you think that model is for West Texas art? If you had the ability to only say one person. 

AW: If you had to pick just one, it has to be Terry. But there are a lot of other people who fit that mold. He happens to be the most successful and most known. I think in many ways, he’s the most accessible because he does so much work. Terry is, I guess he’s 71, and he’s still hard-working as ever.

I’ll tell you another guy who’s not from West Texas, but he reinvents himself time to time is Michael Martin Murphey. He wrote one of the of most brilliant albums of music ever with Geronimo’s Cadillac. He does over 300 dates a year. Now that’s work [laughs]. I treat him as being West Texan.

Another guy–who should be in the Walk of Fame before me–who’s from here and is a renaissance person, though people typically think of him as a side man and a musician, is  Bob Livingston. He’s remarkable. Still working hard. He has a talent, that I don’t know if there’s a name, but I used this last night in a conversation with a friend who knows him as well. We described him as a glue. You want to put a band together, get Bob. He has a way of getting it to come together. 

Another person who I think is terrifically underrated, but it’s because he’s so focused on what he does, and that’s Lloyd Maines. I think 30 to 50 years from now, his name is going to be right up there with Buddy, Waylon, Mac, and Joe. Another renaissance person is Butch Hancock. Butch is a bright thinker. Joe also. He’s gotten more into art. Butch and Joe and have participants or co-conspirators with Terry and Jo Harvey. 

So I think it’s more likely that a musician from Lubbock is doing something else along with it than the other way around. You couldn’t scratch any of these people off the list. Even the ones like William Clark Green. I haven’t seen him do anything else, but I bet he can [laughs]. 

That’s because of this place. They don’t pigeonhole you like they do maybe in other places. 

NS: What are you currently working on? You mentioned a novel.

AW: Yeah, I’m working on a novel. I need to get another album out. It’s been a couple of years since the last one. I’ve got a bunch of songs I need to get recorded. My son Ian, who does music with me now, and daughter Emily, who does as well, we have been doing some things together, and it’s really one of the most fun things. Working with Andy Hedges, Amanda Shires, and Daniel Fluitt, it’s so rewarding for me. It’s so much fun. It’s just as much fun for me as sitting with Kenny and Lloyd and Terry. It’s fun getting to work with new, fresh people. And then when it’s your own kids, it’s off the charts. So we’re thinking about how we’d like to do a project. 

One of the difficulties now, the economics of it are really dicey to spend a bunch of money in a studio. You have to be playing a lot to pay off a record. Online sales won’t do it. Mail order won’t do it. You’ve got to be out playing in front of an audience. Because of the amount of work I’m doing here at the University, I don’t have the time to do the gigs. Plus my kids, grew up with me doing music, so they smartly know to have a day job. So it’d be impossible for us to tour enough to really do a record. We’re really trying to figure out what we should do. We love working with Alan out in Acuff. 

Then, I need to get a book out about the creative process and teaching. The envisioning the process and being able to step back and do objective analysis. It’s not how to create. None of us need a lesson in how to create; we’re born creative. But you can learn process. You can get better. 

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One response to “Interviews: Andy Wilkinson

  1. Pingback: Interviews: Jay Boy Adams | New Slang·

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