For a facsimile of this interview as it appeared in Kerrville Kronikle no. 24 (PDF, 2.6 Mb), click on the magazine icon below.
Q: You were born in Texas, but when and where? Describe your hometown. Did you only live there, or did your family move around?
A: Waco, 1943. It was a pretty intense year, right in the middle of U.S. involvement in WWII. By the luck of the draw, I was born in this normally bland, deathly-quiet town. At the time, it had about 60,000 mostly conservative inhabitants. Waco, also called The Heart of Texas, is the original home of Dr Pepper, Baylor University, and more recently the infamous late David Koresh of the Branch Davidians. And in case youre wonderingno, I did not know that guy nor any members of his cult!
But Waco isnt really my hometown, or if it is, its only one of three. Ill explain: My first seven years our family (Im the second of five children) lived on a large, beautiful farm in the rolling hills just outside of Crawford (pop. 400). Crawford is 18 miles west of Waco and 7 miles north of McGregor (pop. 5000). If you draw a line connecting these three towns, what you get is an almost perfect little isosceles triangle with a perimeter of 43 miles. This is important, because although my first seven years were mostly stable, everything changed when I turned eight, and for the next five years we moved more times than I want to count, but only back and forth in this triangular pattern connecting Waco, Crawford, and McGregor. Humorously now, I call this unsettling chapter of my childhood Nomadic Wanderings Within the Isosceles Triangle. The incredibly complicated and colorful story of why my parents moved us around so much would make one helluva fine novel. I might try to write it someday, but not now (chuckle). Give me another question.
Q: What else do you recall of your early childhood growing up in Texas?
A: My memory goes all the way back to age two, the year my uncle came home from the war. He was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and spent nine months in a POW camp in Holland. He was listed as missing in action all that time and my parents feared him dead. I didnt understand all this till later, of course, but I do recall very clearly the dramatic moment my mother received his letter that said he was alive and coming home. I had never seen her laugh and cry all at the same time, and this was my first vivid, up-close shot of what was really going on in the world outside.
From that time on, I think I began to notice a lot of sharp contrasts all around me. Of things particularly Texan, I remember hot, motionless summer days interrupted by the shrill buzzing of cicadas; at night the cool, wet sounds that came from the creek below our house, like the high-pitched choruses of small frogs accompanying one giant bullfrog soloing in deep bass tones; all the delicious sensations that came with an autumnal weather phenomenon that we in central Texas call a blue norther: warm wavy oceans of wildflowers in the spring, and every few winters a huge amount of snow (or so we thought) that fell suddenly and then melted to mud the next day.
I also have contrasting memories of things not so natural, like a time when neighbors still helped neighbors thresh wheat and build haystacks, a custom soon replaced by huge rolling machines that did it all; crank telephones that quickly gave way to the fancy dial type; Dick and Jane in Mrs. Richardsons first grade class, and My Weekly Reader, which told of the coming of Halleys Comet and futuristic electric automobiles; nickel bags of popcorn at the movies and films in black and white that are now collectors items: Flash Gordon, Boris Karloff, Abbott & Costello, and fantastic newsreels of current events in faraway places.
We made frequent trips, when I was very young, to a nearby tiny general store that carried everything one needed to sustain a simple life on the farm, contrasted by occasional car trips to Dallas, where everything to me seemed extremely large, shiny, fast-moving, and marvelously abundant.
I remember vividly the old-style country funerals in which the deceased person lay in state in his own home, and small children, such as I, were lifted up by their parents to look into the coffin. Maybe a day or two later someone would throw a huge lawn party where everyone you knew was there and looked much more alive than they ever did at church, especially the children, who seemed on these festive occasions to run wild. Sometimes at these parties I would suddenly start feeling like an alien and would plead with my parents to take me home. (I didnt know then that my real home was on Neptune!)
Q: What about your teenage years?
A: Oh god, another novel to condense! McGregor in those days (late 50s and early 60s) was just like that town in American Graffiti. Teenagers all over the place hotrodding up and down Main Street and around the Dairy Queen. On the jukebox, all that great Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly rock n roll. I was in the middle of all the typical stuff, but I felt more like an observer. I was so serious about my Classical music that I was afraid to let it be known that I was really nuts about the Platters and Elvis Presley. In a way, as a teenager, I led a double life. My parents, who had divorced when I was eight, re-married and divorced each other again when I was thirteen. Through my teen years, my home and personal life was a wreck and highly unorthodox, but I kept it all to myself. Our house, with five very active kids, was always noisy, but I escaped as often as I could to my books and my sanctuary the piano. I got really good at playing Bach and Mozart, etc., and swore to my closest friends that one day I would play Carnegie Hall. At school and in public, though, I was the all-American girlvery visible as church pianist, homecoming princess, class officer, and drum major of the McGregor High Band. Even so, I felt alone and desperate half the time, like the day when I was seventeen that I sped off down an icy road in my 52 Ford, lost control of it and rolled the thing three times. No one else witnessed the accident, but the car was demolished beyond recognition and I had walked away without a scratch. Its a miracle I made it out of my teen years alive.
Q: What sparked your interest in music and at what age?
A: I was sparked by many things, but one particular event stands out in my memory: When I was about four years old, my mother took me to see the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein the night he played Waco Hall. We sat no more than ten feet from the stage. My eyes and ears must have been wide open because I still remember, as if it were today, the sight and sound of his hands meeting the keys of the huge Steinway Grand. I was completely captivated and I began to crave to play like that.
There was always music in my home when I was very little: my mother singing German songs, my father whistling out of tune, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys on the radio, and my favorite Schubert symphony (No. 8) on the record player. I loved it all. I cant remember a time when I wasnt intensely interested in music and language, so it must be in my genes. My maternal grandfather played the organ, sang beautifully, and loved to play with words. My mother sang and played violin and sometimes a bit of barrelhouse piano. When I was just a toddler we had an old upright piano, and they say as soon as I was able to climb onto the piano stool and stay there without falling off, I began to pick out little tunes. When I was three my mother sold this pianomy favorite toyso that, as she said, I wouldnt learn to play by ear. But I did anywaywith my imagination and the wide windowsill in our parlor that became my make-believe piano. Those were great sounds my ten little fingers made on that windowsill, and I recall being confused and frustrated when on our neighbors real piano my playing never sounded that good. My mother must have finally seen my desire and decided when I was five to buy another piano and get me to a teacher. Her name was Mrs. Bennett, the only piano teacher within 20 miles of our house, and she was wonderful!. I loved the lessons and learned to read music, but secretly I kept right on playing by ear as well. Mrs. Bennetts elaborate recitalsthe ones she threw for her 10 to 15 pupils on the stage of Crawford High School auditoriumgave me my first taste of great music being performed in a show-business atmosphere, footlights and all! She liked and taught all kinds of music. Her son Maurice would play some fantastic Chopin polonaise and then someone would accompany me on piano as I walked daintily to and fro across the stage singing In My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown. A classical concert and vaudeville all mixed together, these were not ordinary recitals! I continued to study piano through my high-school years in McGregor. Winnie Isbill, who was a friend of Van Cliburns mother, was my real mentor and saw to it that I won a place in the statewide Young Artists Series each year I entered. My high-school band and choral director was very encouraging, too. And there was my grandfather Paul Hintze who offered to send me to live with relatives in Germany and study music there, but my mother wouldnt let me go because, she claimed, she would miss me too much. So immediately after high school I ran away from hometo Houston where I worked for a year as a secretary before finally putting myself into college at Baylor University, back in Waco. I continued my study of music and piano through my sophomore year (1964) until I disastrously failed to win a concerto competition held in Amarillo. Ill spare you the details, but I was so shaken by the experience that I changed my major to English and history and vowed to myself never to play piano again. I took my B.A degree in 1966 and by 1968 I was married and the mother of a little girl we named Dorion. In 1970 I taught school in the Rio Grande Valley, where I began to yearn again for a pianoI literally hadnt touched or gone near one for seven solid years!
Once I re-united with my piano, things began to change rapidly for me. It was still too painful to resurrect my Bach and Beethoven, so I began to improvise with blues and pop stuff. It was 1971 and for several years I had been listening more closely to people like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Paul Simon, and The Band. I was crazy about Joe Cocker and really liked the piano styles of Leon Russell and Chris Stainton of Mad Dogs and Englishmen. I thought Grace Slick had the strongest and classiest rock vocal Id ever heard and I still think so today. I listened to everything I could get my hands on and spent hours playing along with favorite records that had or could use a piano part. The upshot of it all was that I suddenly didnt want to teach English anymore, I declined the offer to renew my teaching contract, and moved to Austin. I came here, in 1972, simply because I liked the town and still do. I didnt know I was about to begin my professional career as a singer/songwriter, but one thing led to another and within a year thats what happened. Fate, timing, and a ton of hard work. Mostly the latter.
This unabridged, pre-publication version of the interview was conducted by Arthur Wood via e-mail, 1830 May 1997. Used by kind permission of Arthur Wood.