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Fiddler David Varnado Reels in Awards

In 2017, David Varnado of Local 433 (Austin, TX) received a string of awards that included an Academy of Country Music award for Fiddle Player of the Year (for which he was also nominated in 2001), the Legend Award from the American Fiddlers Association (AFA), and Fiddler of the Year from the Texas Country Music Association. In the meantime, he was inducted into the Museum of the Gulf Coast in his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. Since then, he says humbly, “Everything has taken off.” In 2018, he took home the prestigious Johnny Gimble Fiddle Award.

Third-generation fiddler David Varnado of Local 433 (Austin, TX) recently received the Johnny Gimble Fiddle Award from the Country Music Artists’s Association of Texas.

A third-generation fiddler, Varnado knew at five years old what he was destined to do. Looking over his father’s shoulder, he says, “I’d see where he was laying his fingers. That’s how I learned to play.”

A recipient of the Honorable Musician award from the State of Texas (also in 2017) Varnado is an in-demand session musician who also plays mandolin and acoustic guitar. Though versed in reading music, these days Varnado mostly plays by ear. He’s done a lot of studio work, but admits, “I’m most fulfilled by live performance.”

Varnado’s entrée into the fiddling world wasn’t country, but Cajun music. “I cut my teeth on Cajun French music as a little kid. It’s my culture. My mom and dad are from South Louisiana. It’s happy music. I think it has everything to do with the lifestyle—the sound is exciting.” Years later, in October 2016, Varnado received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cajun Music Association.

His dad happened to be good friends with Rufus Thibodeaux, the “king of the Cajun fiddle players,” who played for Bob Wills, Neil Young, and Grand Ole Opry star Jimmy C. Newman. Thibodeaux became Varnado’s mentor and taught him from age 12 to 17. He and his father would make the two-hour drive to Lafayette every Friday. The young Varnado would play Friday and Saturday night gigs with Thibodeaux and study with him during the day. It was creative, advanced fiddle music, with emphasis on Cajun and Texas swing. He learned country and Cajun stylings, while sharpening his harmony-playing skills.

Thibodeaux introduced him to Nashville when Varnado was 16 years old, where he joined Local 257. Around the same time, he met Johnny Gimble, who Varnado still considers: “The greatest western swing fiddle player to walk the face of this earth.” With Gimble, he quickly mastered techniques in advanced finger noting, bowing, and sustaining a rhythmic lift, and learned how to back up a singer in a swing band.

From 1989 to 1991, Varnado lived in Japan performing in the play, One Reel. He had an apartment in Tokyo and went back and forth to Texas. The show eventually played in Lafayette and Crowley, Louisiana. In 1991, Grammy award-nominated Cajun accordionist Jo-El Sonnier called Varnado. “He wanted to know if I wanted to do the Nashville Now show with Ralph Emery.”

About three years later, his friends in George Strait’s band (Ace in the Hole of Local 433) encouraged him to move to Austin. Varnado explains that Nashville seems to have become more of a hub for rock ‘n’ roll. He says, a lot of what they call country is actually Southern rock, which he likes a lot. But, it’s not authentic country music. For that, he says, “Listen to Mark Chesnutt, Randy Travis [of Local 257], Marty Robbins, Vern Gosdin, or Gene Watson [of Local 65-699 (Houston, TX)].”

A longtime supporter of the union, Varnado says, “My dad was an iron worker and welder. I’ve watched him fight for union work and wages. You get great wages with the union. I’ve done The Jay Leno Show and Conan. You couldn’t get on those shows unless you were union. I’ve always liked being part of the musicians union because it brings people together as one. If something goes wrong, I call my union office and they’ll fight for me. They’re going to make sure I get my money.”

Among his most memorable experiences was performing with the late Chris LeDoux—a prolific songwriter, musician, and world champion bareback rider, to boot—whom Varnado says was one of the most generous people he’s known.

It was the late Johnny Paycheck who introduced Varnado to traditional honky-tonk. “He put me on the map and got me noticed at the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve played a lot of fiddle, a lot of fiddle kickoffs. I loved doing the late shows, but it was playing the Grand Ole Opry that made me feel like I made it. It’s to the musician what Hollywood is to an actor,” he says.

Since then, he’s played the Opry numerous times, notably with Ty England and Loretta Lynn of Local 257. Between gigs in Austin and Nashville, Varnado stays busy. In addition, he’s performing with George Dearborne with whom he last performed at age 16. “I’ve come full circle,” Varnado says.

Recently he committed to working with award-winning coproducer and engineer Don E. Meehan of Local 802 (New York City) on a solo CD, which will include vocals, instrumentals, and traditional country and western fare. It looks like the much-celebrated sideman may now take a turn at center stage.

joe ely

After Years on the Road, Joe Ely Takes a Literary Turn

joe ely

Writer, musician, and longtime Local 433 (Austin, TX) musician Joe Ely says the solidarity and protections of the AFM are important to him. He’s been inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame, was named 2016 Texas State Musician, and most recently was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

Joe Ely of Local 433 (Austin, TX) was recently inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters, which he says came as a shock, something he never saw coming. But it’s storytelling, after all, and no one tells a story like Ely. He’s been writing songs since he was a kid growing up in Amarillo, and later, in Lubbock. Ely says, “I was always listening to things, background noise, the wind blowing a branch against a screen window.”

Ely has kept journals for years and often sketches to have a visual. He recalls Tom T. Hall once telling him, “Some people can travel all around the world and not see a single thing, others can travel around the block and see the whole world.” “That made me continue to keep writing down observations and eventually building them into a form,” says Ely. The University of Texas eventually published some of the journals as raw material titled Bonfire of Roadmaps.

As a songwriter turned novelist, it was difficult for Ely not to keep the words to a minimum. “Instead of a line in a song, it’d have to be three pages in a book. It was the first thing I had to overcome,” he says. Like Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy—of whom Ely is a fan—he draws on the landscape to deliver the emotional depth of his characters. In his autobiographical novel, Reverb (2014), he writes of Lubbock in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a gritty world, but Ely digs into the story of young working-class men, usually in trouble, driving barren roads, living with the threat of going to war.

It’s easy to imagine the narrative running through his life. Ely left home at 16, went to Fort Worth and joined a band. From there, he went to Houston and Los Angeles. “My daddy died a few years before that and I was not doing good in school. I just didn’t see any future in Lubbock. I was playing in bands. I was kind of the sole breadwinner in the family. I’d play till midnight or one in the morning and try to go to school the next day. After school, I washed dishes at an old fried chicken place. I didn’t see an end,” he says.

In the mid-1960s Ely would periodically return to Texas to appear before the draft board, which at the time, he remembers, was drafting about 50,000 kids a month. “I’d always come back and regroup and go somewhere else, from one coast to the other,” he says. In New York City, he ended up joining a theater troupe and going to Europe. “That’s how I started traveling and collecting songs, during that era.”

In the summer of 1971, back in Lubbock, Ely teamed up with friends Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to form the country-folk group, The Flatlanders. The band toured extensively, headlining small shows and opening for bigger acts. Among these, remarkably, was the punk rock group The Clash. (In fact, Joe Strummer was supposed to record with Ely’s band, but died before it happened—one of Ely’s greatest disappointments.)

Such offbeat arrangements are not unusual for Ely, who once made a record with German opera conductor Eberhard Schoener. Ely says, “He had the first Moog synthesizer, which he bought from John Lennon—who hated it. We worked with that synthesizer and two acoustic guitars and did an experimental piece. A couple of years later, I bought an Apple computer and started working on songs as an experiment. He kind of inspired me.” 

Ely has always been something of an artistic maverick, seamlessly moving between country music and rock and roll. In the 1970s and 1980s, especially, he championed the progressive country scene in Austin. “At a young age, I discovered Woodie Guthrie, who lived in Amarillo for a good part of his life. In my teenage years and early 20s, I just happened to run across some of the songwriters who would influence me for the rest of my life,” he says.

Ely has played with mandolinist Chris Thile of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) on A Prairie Home Companion and with Bruce Springsteen of Locals 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 399 (Asbury Park, NJ), James McMurtry, The Chieftains, Tom Petty of Local 47, and John Mellencamp. With Guy Clarke, Lyle Lovett of Local 257, and John Hiatt he formed a group that played 40-50 shows a year for about 20 years. “We’d go all over the states, a different city every day. We’d all sit on stage together in a guitar pull, where one person does a song and passes it on to the next.”

On his albums, Ely likes to incorporate cover songs, especially ones he feels have not gotten their due. When he was working on Letter to Laredo, he was just about finished with the record when he went to Europe for a few gigs. “I was in a bar in Norway and heard a song on the jukebox about a guy who crossed over into the US with a fighting rooster and went up and down the coast of Texas and California trying to win enough money to buy back the land that Pancho Villa stole from his family,” he says, explaining that the song eventually made its way onto the album.

A member of the AFM since 1972—when the first Flatlanders’ record came out in Nashville—Ely says the union is an important part of being able to make a living, especially as a traveling musician. That solidarity informs his work. The Flatlanders song, “Borderless Love,” (2009) about the fence on the US-Mexico border, is even more relevant amid today’s political tumult so the band has reintroduced it to live sets.

“I think you take from what’s been and give to what will be,” says Ely, who now lives in Austin and works with a number of young musicians there. Just after the 2015 release of the more literary and deeply personal Panhandle Rambler, he was inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame and was named the 2016 Texas State Musician, an honor previously bestowed on Willie Nelson of Local 433 and Lyle Lovett.

Along with 25 albums to his credit, the 70-year-old Ely has about five books of poetry written, which he hopes to compile into a single collection. He’s led symposiums for Texas Tech University; he recently conducted a solo acoustic tour in the Midwest; and for the next couple of months, he will tour Texas and California. “I like to mix it up. Playing with a band full time can be restrictive. You’re always herding people. I prefer to go out, me and the guitar and a bag of stories.”

Nelson to Be Honored with Gershwin Prize

Nelson to Be Honored with Gershwin PrizeLibrarian of Congress James Billington announced that Local 433 (Austin, TX) Willie Nelson will be the next recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular music. The Gershwin prize honors a living music artist’s lifetime achievement in promoting song to enhance cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations. He will be recognized for the honor in Washington, DC, in November.

“Willie Nelson is a musical explorer, redrawing the boundaries of country music throughout his career,” says Billington. “A master communicator, the sincerity and universally appealing message of his lyrics place him in a category of his own, while still remaining grounded in his country-music roots. His achievements as a songwriter and performer are legendary. Like America itself, he has absorbed and assimilated diverse stylistic influences into his stories and songs. He has helped make country music one of the most universally beloved forms of American artistic expression.”

Nelson has written numerous country-music standards, and has made 200-plus recordings that cross many genres. He is also a noted author, actor, and activist, who continues to thrive in a career that has spanned six decades.

Previous winners of the Gershwin Prize for Popular music include Local 802 (New York City) members Paul Simon and Carole King, Local 5 (Detroit, MI) member Stevie Wonder; and the songwriting duo Burt Bacharach of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and the late Hal David.