Motel Cowboy Rides Platinum Pony
by Lindsey Eck
Originally appeared in Austin Songwriter, September 1996

Austin is home to a set of creative renegade country writers and performers who make the Nashville establishment rather uncomfortable and keep everybody else well entertained. Kelly Willis, Don Walser, Kinky Friedman, the Robisons, Lyle Lovett — have all spun music that is Lone Star authentic even as it skirts the edges of what is acceptable to Establishment formulas.

Add to this list Chris Wall, who dons both the comic and tragic masks with ease. I first encountered Chris' Austin-flavored country at Aquafest 95, where his act was clearly the main country attraction. By that time, “Trashy Women” was on the way to platinum success. We met at Austin's Waterloo Ice House–38th St. in August 1996 and taped this interview. Subsequently Wall released a live album which scored phenomenal success in the U.K.

Q Not everyone knows Chris Wall — yet — but everyone knows the Confederate Railroad version of “Trashy Women.” Can you tell us how that song came to be written, and how it came to be recorded?
A Yeah, I can … as far as the writing part of it goes. We were in L.A., and we were in a bar called the Crazy Horse, and this girl walked by that, uh was quite voluptuous and great looking, and she had her hair all piled up, and she had a leather jumpsuit with rivets and lots of studs and rivets and zippers. I just made the remark that that's the kind of girl for me. Someboday said, “Really?” and I said, “Yeah — I like my women just a little on the trashy side” and boy! all the song alarms went off. So I wrote it real quick after that.

Then they were performing it in the Famous Motel Cowboy Band that I was in in Jackson Hole, and Jerry Jeff heard it, and then he heard some other songs, and wanted me to come down here … he ended up recording three of them, including “Trashy Women,” and he had a minor hit with it in Florida. And Confederate Railroad at that time was David Allan Coe's backup band, and they heard it on the radio. And they really liked it. And afterward they told me they heard it, and they couldn't figure out what it was and the station was fading out, so they actually got on the shoulder, backed up so they could get the station again.

And then I met ’em when Jerry and David Allan Coe did a show together and they were doin’ it live and we got talkin’. And they recorded it — against their label’s objection. Hated the song, producer hated the song — everybody hated it except for the audience. On their album they had four singles that all did pretty well. And then — they weren’t going to release a fifth single, but the album wasn’t ready. The disk jockeys were just playing that anyway. So they went ahead and released it as a single — and it went through the roof. It really did phenomenally well. Yeah. They’d sold about 500,000 something albums and then in the 16 weeks that song was on the charts they sold another million … They’re nice guys too; I'm glad for ’em.

Q My next question was, did you make any money off the song?
A A bunch. Thirty percent of it went to Uncle Sam but, well, you know, yeah, it did very well.
Q How’d you get the idea for “Give Me Half of What Killed Elvis”?
A I was sittin’ in a barroom with a friend of mine, Pinto Bennett — he was the leader of the Famous Motel Cowboys … and the bartender said, “What do you want, Pinto, your usual?” And Pinto said, “No, tonight just give me about half of what killed Elvis.” So I took his line, just heard it in a bar, wrote the song.
Q How long does it take you to put together one of those?
A That one there was not long. The novelty ones are pretty easy. But the more serious, the better the song, the longer it takes. You know, I hear guys say that they write a song in 15 minutes or 20 minutes; I don’t totally buy that because — I mean, I’m not gonna call anybody a liar, but you may get a verse and a chorus in about 15 minutes but then … you polish it.

So much of songwriting is really kinda carpentry. It’s sawing a little off here and makin’ it fit, you know, rearranging stuff.

Q Do you hone a lot of stuff after you perform it before a live audience?
A Yeah. Usually they’re done; what happens with a live audience is they tell you which songs are good and which aren’t. And I try to figure out — not which ones they like but which ones I like … and they’ll nail it — through applause or requests or whatever. If you don’t have requests for it and no-one applauds then … gradually, you stop playing it. Unless it’s a song that you really believe, they’ve just got to hear on record, sitting in front of their CD player. That’s where it’s gonna get ’em. Rather than on a dance floor where sometimes you can’t hear the words.
Q Most of the dancehall circuit around here is bands covering Nashville Top 40. You do original tunes, and your stuff goes over great with an audience, but is it tough to get dancehall bookings in central Texas being an original country writer?
A Absolutely. There are places that simply won’t talk to you. … That is really difficult to do. Dale Watson fights the same thing and consequently plays in places that I think — they’re nice places but he should be playing to a much bigger audience, he’s so great. It’s true, many of my friends — Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison, Charlie Robison — try to find dancehall bookings.

But that’s the great thing about Austin, I mean, you can find some places to play. There’s a place in Dallas and a place in Houston and a place in Bryan, you know, and so you make a tour. And you fill in with a few fat parties and keep the band paid, keep us working, and allow us to relaly kind of practice on the fly. But it’s hard. I mean, audiences have a right to what they ask for, so you can’t fault anybody for it, but I really believe if they could hear Dale on the radio, whatever they would request his stuff as much as any Allan Jackson song or anything else. Hopefully that’s true of all of us.

Q Many of your lyrics border on a parody of country music. Yet you’re authentically country in your approach. Do you think that helps the audience feel, “He’s laughing with us, not at us?”
A Hopefully. I think that it all depends. You know, Ray Wylie Hubbard says, the problem with irony is the really dumb motherfuckers don’t get it. … You know if somebody thinks you’re making fun of ’em, but I’m not doin’ that. I think it’s a fairly clear-cut parody when it is. Hopefully it is.
Q Do you think it helps that there’s an element of self-parody — that your persona admits to liking women others would find trashy or owning up to the desire for an entourage or half of Graceland?
A … In both songs — you try to write a line, a verse that’ll get you out of the building without getting shot. Basically it’s your out verse, you know, I need a woman that’s as tacky as me, … There was more in that song [“Trashy Women”] than I — it was such a joke and women like it so much I was amazed. I mean, you can’t even say bimbo in any context, whether you’re making fun of yourself or not. The hackles go up, and we’ve become such a hypersensitive people. So there’s a danger there. So now I just poke fun at Okies.
Q I understand you’re a sort of protégé of Jerry Jeff Walker. Is that a good way to put it?
A Well, yeah, protégé, for want of a better term.
Q Or was he a mentor to you?
A He brought me down here. We were gonna write songs together but it’s real hard to do with Jerry. He’s real busy and he’s real strong-willed even about his own music, and I mean that in the sense that he has a clear vision of what he’s trying to do. Which makes it difficult for him to cowrite with anybody.

I’m kind of the same way. I know pretty much what I want. … In the end we never wrote a song together. But he sure taught me a lot about live performance and just watching how he deals with the crowd, which can be real friendly one night; it was kinda hostile the other night but it’s kind of interesting. Four years. Believe me. Real interesting. …

Opened a lot of shows for him. And his wife was our manager. And it was a great experience, I mean, just kind of getting clubbed into Austin. … And I hope people don’t see it as a clone thing; I know some people do; if you really listen to it my music is very different. …

Q Did you cross paths with another Walker protégé, David Bromberg?
A … I bought one of his old guitars. I actually met David in New York City, and he came down to play with Jerry Jeff on Austin City Limits. And what a guitar playin’ — musician. Just phenomenal. …
Q So you’ve got a couple of CDs coming out. Is that exciting?
A Yeah. You just get drowned in what happens when you’re making ’em yourself. You listen to ’em so much, you just get so sick of ’em — you’ll never listen to them again. And that’s happened. I’ve never listened to any of my CDs after they’ve been finished. Just ’cause they’re finished. Plus we play them so much live, so if I have some weird need to hear them, I mean I do it every Friday and Saturday night anyway.

It’s exciting, it’s fun, uh, it’s a little discouraging on the small independent kind of thing because you’re aware from the get-go of the limited kind of airplay you can expect, you now, form mostly the KUTs and the public radio stations and KFAN out in Fredericksburg. There are a few of them. But that’s a little discouraging, and you know you’re not going to get the distribution. But I think if you set realistic goals as far as what the albums are gonna do, that that can be a happy thing. If you think you’re gonna have the one independent album that goes through the roof that everyone talks about forever, then you’re probably in for a big disappointment ’cause I don’t think that album’s been made yet. …

If we can keep playin’ live and makin’ some money doin’ that, and if we can build a reputation there, then that’s what it’s all about.

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