Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Ballad of the La Grange Chicken Ranch

Quick: Name the first song ever written about the famous La Grange Chicken Ranch. Did you answer "La Grange" by ZZ Top? You're not alone--but you're also wrong. If you answered any of the songs from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas soundtrack, you're also wrong. No, the first song (to my knowledge, at any rate) written about that brothel of yore was "The Ballad of the La Grange Chicken Ranch," penned by a 16-year-old guitarist named Ron Rose circa 1968-69. Being a youngster at the time, Rose didn't share it too widely, but in the 1970s the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters teamed with Rose's band at the time, Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys, to release it as a 45 single. Rose went on to enjoy top 40 success with the group Toby Beau.

I discovered "The Ballad of the La Grange Chicken Ranch" during research for Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch, but there wasn't much opportunity to discuss it in the book beyond a passing reference. Fortunately, Rose, who currently lives in San Antonio where he plays regular gigs with the BFR Band, agreed to an interview with me to discuss the origins of this song and an interesting period of the Texas music scene. For those curious to listen to this song, a portion of it can be heard as the soundtrack to my book trailer posted at the end of the interview.

Blaschke: You were a part of Man Mountain and the Green Slime Boys. Can you tell me how that band came together?

Rose: Basically, I had sung a little bit with a guy in high school my senior year. We got together with acoustic guitars just sitting around, playing and singing songs. Then I met a guy at San Antonio College, which is a junior college here in San Antonio. He was interested in acoustic instruments. The first guy, David, had a higher voice and this guy had a lower voice, so immediately I thought, “Three part harmony.” I introduced them to each other and we started as a trio in 1972.

Then we were working a night club a few months later and the steel player, dobro player—that’s the dobro featured on the single—he showed up at this club we were playing one night and sat in. We just went through the roof with this guy, so we added him to the band after a few rehearsals. By the time we did the live performance at Victoria, Texas, on the town square—that is the recording—we had added a drummer. That was a period of about two years, from inception to fruition, if you will. In fact, that performance was what they called the “Third First Armadillo Confab and Exposition,” which I guess is the equivalent of a county fair. But it was done in Victoria on the town square. Willie Nelson was the big headliner on the show. Greasy Wheels was on the show. There were some other notables whose names escape me.

By that time of the recording, it was that version of the band’s last performance. Over the next few months, I developed a new band using the same name but different musicians. Anyway, that was what we affectionately refer to as the original incarnation: David Hill was the guitar player, high voice. Don Cass started out when we were a trio on acoustic guitar, but went to bass. He’s actually a very good bass player. Low harmony voice. Jimmy Fuller, dobro and pedal steel electric guitar. And Jimmy Rose—no relation—was the drummer.

Blaschke: So you guys were a Central Texas band through-and-through?

Rose: We were based out of San Antonio. I had a brother living in Austin. His name was Dub. He got me names and phone numbers of the guys at Armadillo World Headquarters. He said, “Man, you ought to get a gig there! It’s right up your alley. It’s your kind of music and they book nationally-known acts, yadda yadda.” So that came to pass. And that’s how we wound up doing the Victoria show. It was one of many, many shows that we did either at or for the Armadillo World Headquarters produced the show that that recording was of.

Blaschke: What’s the story behind the band name?

Rose: My dad bought 80 acres near Fayetteville in 1959, as a weekend place. We spent a lot of time out there, growing up. We had a two-acre, spring-fed stock tank. It was pretty deep, had good bass and perch fishing with slimy green moss covering the bottom. On a hot summer day, one form of refreshment would be swimming in that tank. My brothers and I, and quite often our tagalong friends from the big city, would traipse back up to the house after swimming, with a fair share of that green slime attached. My mother met us at the back door, denying entry to the "green slime boys" until they rinsed off with the hose.

Popular bluegrass bands of the day were Ralph & Carter Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, etc. My band dabbled in bluegrass—not strictly a bluegrass band, but we played some. Being in Central Texas with no mountains, but wanting to pay homage, I decided to switch it around a bit. Man Mountain (a big guy) and the Green Slime Boys. You get the idea. It was all tongue-in-cheek, but the name stuck (like dried slime). There was a popular restaurant/bar in Austin that wouldn't book us unless we dropped the "slime" part of the name. We never played there.

Blaschke: “The Ballad of the La Grange Chicken Ranch” has a distinct sound. There are bluegrass elements but a lot of other stuff is going on. I can honestly say I have not heard another song quite like it!

Rose: (Laughing) I’m going to take that as a compliment whether it’s meant to be or not!

Blaschke: Oh it is! It’s great!

Rose: It was probably one of, if not the first song I ever wrote. My daddy bought 80 acres outside of La Grange, between La Grange and Fayetteville, in Park, Texas. We were living in Houston when my daddy bought those 80 acres place in 1959, so I spent a lot of weekends out there burning brush and clearing pastures and doing things that city kids don’t normally get to do, unless their daddy’s brave enough to risk the G.I. Bill—not that it was a bad thing. Turned out to be a great thing. I had three brothers, so he had four boys to try to wear out every weekend so they’d stay in line during the week. Anyway, that’s sort of how Ron Rose came to know about Fayette County at all, much less Fayetteville, La Grange, Round Top, Columbus, Schulenburg, all those little burgs around there.

By the time I was a teenager I began learning about the Chicken Ranch. The worst kept secret in the county was the Chicken Ranch and my brothers and I would drive by on the sly to have a look and wonder about what might be going on inside. I never had the nerve to spend any money there, but I had friends who did. “The Ballad of the La Grange Chicken Ranch” was probably the first song I ever wrote, at about 16. Afraid I'd get in trouble, I never played it for anyone until I was 19. That was the musings of a teenager with a little bit of talent for the five-string. And that’s about the beginning and end of it.

That was a fun song and once I played it for the guys, it became a regular part of the repertoire. As I like to say from the stage, it sold under a million. I think we printed maybe a thousand copies of that single, or pressed a thousand copies, as the terminology would go. The artwork was done by Michael Priest out of Austin. He did a lot of the poster artwork for the Armadillo World Headquarters. The band broke up after the Victoria gig, I was able to get my hands on the tape and press the record. It was August 1973 that [Texas Governor] Dolph Briscoe shut down the Chicken Ranch, and that’s how the cover art was inspired. That’s Dolph holding the keys. All of these things kind of came together in a timely fashion.

Blaschke: What was the audience reaction to the song?

Rose: Well, we got a good response always. It was at the beginning of what Steve Fromholz used to call the great progressive country scare that descended upon Austin and parts there ’round. It fit right into that genre, you know, talking about things Texas. There’s a resurgence of that kind of stuff now, they call it Americana or Texas music, but it’s really kind of—to my mind—a continuation of that sort of feel. Probably Willie Nelson was responsible for it as much as anything, but it became okay to sing about things that you really knew about, or that were locally generated. You know from your experience writing this book, you do your research about things you’re already interested in, or already know something about, or that you already have a clue about. It makes it easier to create the whatever it is—in your case, the book, in my case, the songs—so that was the idea.

To answer your question, it was well-received, particularly as it got to be more and more known. It got some airplay in Houston, on radio stations in Austin, you know, the progressive country stations, the country rock stations in San Antonio. It was never a chart buster, but it was a door opener. I was able to book dates out of the area and for that matter out of state, somewhat. Never the tour dream you always want to shoot for, but we played Lubbock several times. We played Corpus Christi some, we played Houston, we played Tucson, Arizona. We played Evergreen, Colorado, once. You know, just hit and miss, pretty much working a 100-mile radius of San Antonio. Most often around San Antonio, second most around Austin. It was more subsistence than living. Any musician who’s dreaming of driving a new Porche is dreaming!

Blaschke: You’re in San Antonio now—do you play regular gigs?

Rose: Yeah. I have a band called the BFR Band, and the BFR stands for the three vocalists’ last names: (Phil) Bepko, (Chuck) Fletcher and Rose. We’ve worked together since like ’81. So, a long time. And yes, we do play. Not real often, but pretty regularly, three-to-four times a month. We sing a lot of harmony and still do that song. Certainly, it’s a novelty tune, but a lot of our fans recognize it from over the years.

Blaschke: Is any of your old music available anywhere? MP3 downloads or CD Baby?

Rose: Not at this point. I have a world of editing to do with old tape, and the thing about old tape is just that—it’s old tape and needs to be preserved for one more recording dumped onto digital so you don’t lose any more quality. I’d love to do that with a lot of the stuff I’ve got recorded from those times, and of course later, but time and money are always the defining factors. At this point no, it’s not available any way, shape or form, but that’s subject to change and I sincerely hope it does. I listen to some of these things and think “You know, that’s no half bad.” It’s amazing what you can do with a Teac four-track in your living room, even back in those days!

Now Playing: Sting Brand New Day
Chicken Ranch Central

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Bill! I really wanted to get this out, but the book wasn't really an appropriate place.

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