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."

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.

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Rob Patterson

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