South by South Austin
Cornell Hurd and his longtime guitar-playing cohort Paul Skelton are lunching on Cajun food at Hoody's in Oak Hill, on the southwest edge of Austin. They aren't sure how they ended up there, but they're trying to figure it out, tracing the long and sordid line that brought them to Austin. The restaurant is one of those typical Austin establishments, the kind of place that tourists come to when they want to experience what the so-called "Live Music Capitol of the World" has to offer. The walls are covered with posters of blues greats and Austin music legends such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli, and Lou Ann Barton. One plywood wall by the door is covered in autographs of the many local musical celebrities who eat there.
Hurd and Skelton reminisce about their youths, growing up near San Jose, California, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, before it was known as Silicon Valley, when everything from surf music to psychedelia was part of the rock-and-roll mix. They recall such earlier Hurd-led outfits as The El Rancho Cowboys and Cornell Hurd's Mondo Hot Pants Orchestra, which eventually mutated into The Cornell Hurd Band.
"I had this vision that what I wanted to do was have an act that you could go into the club, and you could bill yourself as three different bands," Hurd remembers. "And you would change clothes and play completely different material. One of those bands was a real country band, like the El Rancho Cowboys. One of them was a '20s swing band kind of thing -- that was the Mondo Hot Pants Orchestra. I never really put this concept together, and I forgot what the third one was."
The Cornell Hurd Band
Sons of Hermann Hall
Perhaps the third one, and all of the above and more, is the latter-day, nine-piece Cornell Hurd Band. Although the group enjoys the kind of left-field popularity best described as a cult following, it is probably the finest -- and certainly the most entertaining -- honky-tonk and Western swing band in the Lone Star State. With a lineage that goes back to the days of the very first "alternative country" movement of the late '60s, the band's membership is a unique mix of primarily middle-aged (but still youthful) men and two young women whose sound slices through many decades. Everything from the country swing of Bob Wills and Adolf Hofner to classic '40s and '50s C&W to the later hippie country of Commander Cody and the early Asleep at the Wheel and a whole lot more is fair game.
But where sharp-dressed cats like The Derailers and handsome young bucks like Bruce and Charlie Robison and pretty things like Kelly Willis are currently anointed by the hipsters, The Cornell Hurd Band makes music that is more substantive, smart, and accomplished, as well as truly cool. Hurd is a bandleader in the classic form, drawing on the traditions of everyone from West Coast cowboy-swing wildman Spade Cooley to Lenny Bruce in his relentlessly sly stage patter; he's also written one of the best collections of ex-wife songs in the country tradition.
Backing him up are at least three players of genuine instrumental brilliance, including Skelton, who can quote everything from gypsy jazzer Django Reinhardt to the theme from The Flintstones on his fretboard. Steel guitarist Herb Steiner has a résumé that includes such names as Linda Ronstadt, Michael Martin Murphey, and Alvin Crow; and Vanessa Gordon, a native of South Africa, is a classically trained fiddler. Following close behind in their expertise are pianist Cody Nicolas, guitarist Blackie White, and drummer Karen Biller (dubbed "the Venus of the Traps" by Hurd). It's a band that can inject strains from every point on the serious and silly timelines of music into material that keeps the dance floor hopping and has a tightness, savvy, and sheer entertainment factor that is unrivaled anywhere in Texas.
Yet at the same time, this monstrously talented and amusing outfit is a tribute to the adage "Don't give up your day job." Among their professional pursuits: executive headhunter and former private eye (Hurd), noted visual artist (White, known in the art world as Guy Juke), restaurateur and unofficial "Mayor of South Austin" (rubboard player Danny Young), deputy director for the state agency that regulates security guards and private detectives (Nicolas), and expert guitar builder (Skelton, who works for Collings Guitars, perhaps the world's finest six-string luthiers). But if there were any justice in the musical world, The Cornell Hurd Band would be selling albums and touring America with the same popularity that acts who are far less musical and enjoyable somehow manage to find.
Instead, they put out discs on their own Behemoth Records that match the band's stage shows in entertainment value for your hard-earned dollar. Their last two albums, Texas Fruit Shack and At Large, contain a whopping 21 and 24 tracks, respectively. The guest stars on the albums include Texas music legend Johnny Bush, Bill Kirchen, Wayne "The Train" Hancock, Asleep at the Wheel veterans Floyd Domino and Lucky Oceans, accordionist Ponty Bone, and Austin roots talents Justin Trevino and The Texana Dames. The material within mixes Hurd's cheeky originals with songs from the likes of Tom T. Hall, Duke Ellington, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wanda Jackson, Marty Robbins, Jimmie Rodgers, and others.
The Hurd Band's annual "South by South Austin" party, held Saturdays at Young's Texicalli Grille during South by Southwest, is one of the high points of the annual South By Southwest music conference, featuring guest stars like Kirchen, Bush, and Doug Sahm, among many others. So why is The Cornell Hurd Band not as celebrated or successful as it deserves to be? No doubt because the band's average age is well past today's country music prime, and they are hardly pretty boys -- although the women, Gordon and Biller, are both as beautiful as they are talented. ("My band looks like the cast of a B Western," jokes Hurd.) And finally, they happen to make music for the sheer joy of doing so, and not with any commercial or financial goals in mind.
But as Hurd stresses, "I can never overstate that, if you don't enjoy doing this with the people you're doing it with..."
"You'd better stay home," interjects Skelton.
Yes, The Cornell Hurd Band does it for the original reason many people started playing rock and roll, at least in the days of yore before it became a career choice rather than rebellion from convention -- the sheer fun of it. Proof of that can be found in the fact that three of the current members -- Young, White, and Gordon -- all started with the group by sitting in.
What keeps them there are a number of special qualities they feel the experience offers them. White -- who has played with Jo Carol Pierce, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock -- says that The Cornell Hurd Band is "by far my favorite of anything I've played in. And by far the best. It's good music, and they play it well." But for him it's also "the humor, and the wit, and the mind of the band" that help win his loyalty. White also asserts that being in the band "keeps our inner child alive. It also molds character, kind of like being in the Boy Scouts. I'm a better person for being in the band."
"The style of music that the band plays is what I enjoy playing, which is a lot of old-time Western swing, which there is precious little going on around," says Steiner. "There's also straight-ahead country, which I also love doing. So it's the style of music that keeps me there, and the fact that I have a palette with which I can occasionally influence some arrangements to do things that I've always wanted to do, but was always in a commercial situation and couldn't do what I wanted to do. It's fun, and there's also a creativity to the situation."
Biller also enjoys the musical freedom, as well as a certain love they've found together. "Cornell is real good about letting everybody stretch out and letting everybody be in the spotlight at some point. That's why everybody sings or does a feature tune at some point. That's why people stay in the band for so long," she notes.
"It's more like being in a family. Everybody's great to each other, and everybody likes each other. We're not like we're getting rich or anything, by far. I'm sure there are other gigs that pay better. But you don't have this camaraderie type of feeling, like a family."
Hurd spent time leading his previous bands on the California scene in the '70s, as well as touring the country. After a hiatus from music in the early '80s, he landed in Florida and put The Cornell Hurd Band back together when he found himself living near his childhood pal and longtime bassist Frank Roeber (who returned to Florida a few years back but is still a member in absentia).
Eventually, Hurd knew he needed to relocate from the Sunshine State to make the music he wanted to. "I was at that age in my late 30s, and I said, man, if I am going to do showbiz, I am going to do the thing that I want to do. I am no longer going to worry about anything other than playing the kind of music I want to do. There was only one place to do it, as far as I was concerned. We talked about Nashville, Los Angeles, New York City, and Austin, and it was never really a contest."
Since hitting Austin in the early 1990s, The Cornell Hurd Band has released five excellent CDs, which of late have not gotten the local media attention enjoyed by lesser Austin acts. "It certainly isn't a money gig," notes Steiner, "but it is a fun gig."
"We're not bound for glory, unless tastes change," adds White. "But I think we're good enough."
So in the end, it all comes down to the music and the pleasure they have in making it and in sharing one another's company. "Honest to God, we take nothing serious but the music. Period," Young notes. "If we become big stars, that's immaterial. We just love playing this style of music. And we just love playing it with Cornell. It is fun. Just play the music well and have fun in between."
"I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to depend on music for a living," asserts Hurd.
"I don't know if I'd want to," adds Skelton. "I don't know what I'd do if I did music for a living. What would I do all day if I didn't have a job? Sit around all day? Mow my lawn? I don't think so. I need something to do."
Hurd cites an observation he once heard said by Cyndi Lauper, of all people, to justify the motivation he operates under and shares with his group. "She said, 'Do not ever do this for the money. If you do this for the money, you will be so unhappy. You have to do it because you want to more than anything.'"
Skelton agrees that fame and fortune are, in the end, not the goal. "I can't understand that motive. If music is your primary purpose, you just do that, even if you are playing for your dogs."
And even though The Cornell Hurd Band doesn't always get its just due, there are some places where it does get the reinforcement from audiences that also help make it all worthwhile. And the one city where that happens most is right here in Dallas. "From the first time I played there with the band at the Three Teardrops, I could see that people in Dallas seem to get it," Young observes. "They seem to understand what we're doing here. Don't ask me why. I don't have an explanation for it. But more than anywhere else, they seem to get what we are doing."
It still sometimes rankles Hurd to be making such quality music without enjoying the bigger buzz that often surrounds so many other acts in the Austin music scene, bands that haven't anywhere near the heritage of Hurd's band and that will be long gone while Hurd and his group are still keeping at it. But then there are those small, special moments of recognition, such as when he and Skelton are handed Sharpies during our meal at Hoody's and asked to add their autographs to the restaurant's wall of fame.
"People say music is your hobby, and I bristle at that," Hurd concludes. "It's a part of your personality, your psyche, your identity. It's a personality disorder. I like playing with good musicians. I like playing for people."
However, he adds, "I like loading equipment less and less as I get older." But if that's what it takes, you can rest assured that Cornell Hurd will be lugging amps until he can no longer lift one.
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