Authors: Mike Blakely
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Dedicated to the memory of
two great American songwriters:
Floyd Tillman (1914â2003)
Steven Fromholz (1945â2014)
For sharing their stories of the music business and the honky-tonk trail, I am indebted to Floyd Tillman and Steven Fromholz, and to the coauthors of two of my previous books, Willie Nelson and Kenny Rogers. Special thanks to Alex Harvey for his keen insight on songwriting.
For the detailed accounts from his career as a twentieth-century Texas Ranger, I express my gratitude to Joaquin Jackson.
I also owe a debt to several friends who served in Vietnam and who recounted their personal wartime experiences. In particular, I thank cowboy, soldier, rancher, teacher, and coach Wayne Neely for allowing me to fictionalize many details from his real-life Vietnam service.
Austin, Texas 1975
Creed Mason shut the guitar case on his Fender Stratocaster and secured the latches. Feeling the sweat-drenched satin plastered to his skin, he unbuttoned the flashy purple shirt, took it off, and reached for the stack of clean white towels placed there for band members.
Backstage smelled of stale beer and sweat, whiskey and perfume, smoke from store-bought cigarettes and hand-rolled joints. He could still hear the hum of the crowd filing out of the Armadillo World Headquarters, the hottest music venue in Austin, Texas. Laughter erupted among the musicians backstage, punctuated by profanity, the clinking of bottles, the squeals of starstruck women, and someone banging on an acoustic guitar.
He toweled off and reached for the spare denim shirt he had brought along with him, but before he could put it on, he heard her voice behind him.
“Damn, Creed, what happened to you there?” A well-known, oft-used Austin groupie, she called herself Shine.
He winced a little at the intrusion of her cool fingers touching the scar on his lower back. He pulled the shirt on before she could see the much-worse exit-wound scar in front. “Shot in 'Nam,” he said, buttoning up the shirt as he turned to face her.
“Ohâ¦” She stared glassy-eyed, beautiful even if she was wasted. “Great show tonight.” She smiled, long blond hair falling all over her tie-dyed tank top.
“Thanks, Shine.” He was relieved to see Willie approaching. “Excuse me. Gotta get paid.” He grabbed the brim of his felt Silver Belly Stetson and slapped it onto his head with familiarity, simultaneously raking his brown hair back behind his ears. The hat fit so well that he could scarcely feel it on his head. An East Texas version of the cowboy hat, he had seen its like worn by cattlemen, farmers, loggers, and deputy sheriffs when he was growing up in the Piney Woods near the Louisiana border. He sidestepped Shine to greet the night's headliner.
Willie, a respected Texas songwriter, had turned his back on Nashville and had taken Austin by storm lately. He had called and asked Creed to sit in with him tonight on the Armadillo World Headquarters stage. He handed over a wad of bills. “Wish it was more. You played my ass off.”
Creed chuckled. “I appreciate the gig, Willie. Call me anytime.”
“When you goin' back to Nashville?” Willie handed him a smoking joint.
Creed pretended to take a polite drag and handed it back. “Don't know. Feel like I've been blackballed there.”
Willie's laughter came out in smoke. “Join the club. Hey, come on back to the bus later.”
Creed held up the folding money Willie had just handed to him. “Thanks, but you just staked me to a poker game south of town. I better get down there if I want in on the action.”
“Wish I could go with you, but I'm too damn popular here.” He flashed a smile. “Good luck, Creed.”
Someone pulled Willie aside, and Creed grabbed his guitar case handle.
, he thought. He could sure use some of that. He was overdue, in fact. Maybe, just maybeâstarting with the great gig tonightâhis luck was going to change.
Creed was respected among the Austin musicians as a true talent, and as a guy who had had his brush with the big time, having taken a hit record to number eight on the country music charts. That was eight years ago, and a lot had happened since. Mostly hard luck.
Born William Mason, the eldest son in a large family, he had demonstrated precocious skills with musical instruments as early as the age of five. His father, an East Texas logger and guitar picker, had encouraged him. Later, his father would be quoted in the
Music City News
, saying, “Billâor Creed as y'all call himâwas so good that none of his younger brothers or sisters would even try to play a musical instrument. They just couldn't keep up with him.”
Young Bill Mason started his first band in the eighth grade. By the time he was in high school, he was performing at dances most Friday and Saturday nights. Playing for a high school prom at a nearby town, Bill Mason met a strikingly gorgeous senior named Jo Ann Houston. She asked if she could sing a song with the band. The song she chose was, of course, “Crazy,” the Patsy Cline hit.
“You know how many chick singers it takes to sing âCrazy'?” he had asked her.
“No, how many?” she had replied.
“Apparently every damn one of 'em.”
Jo Ann Houston had placed her hands on her hips and smirked at the young band leader. “Just give me the microphone, hotshot,” she said in her Piney Woods twang, “because you ain't never heard nobody sing âCrazy' like me. Not even Patsy.”
Taking the stage, Jo Ann did not disappoint Bill Mason, or the audience. After that night, she became the guest girl singer for the band, and took to the honky-tonks and dance halls as if she had been born performing. One night, coming home from a gig, she asked Bill to pull the car over on a dirt road in the woods. She didn't have to coax much to lure him into the backseat.
After that, Bill began to work in more songs for her to sing, including some duets for the two of them to sing together. They found that they had a natural charisma onstage. Mostly it was Jo Ann putting on a show, and Bill following her lead, but he liked the way she drew attention to his guitar picking. They evolved from a band that played background music for dancers, to a stage show that fans liked to watch as much as listen to. Jo Ann was definitely an eyeful onstage, and dressed the partâscantilyâemploying all of her assets to her best advantage. They changed the name of the act to Mason-Houston, and left for Nashville soon after they both graduated from high school, though the rest of the band members refused to go.
The competition in Music City stunned Bill, but he learned quickly from some great guitarists, and became recognized as a raw talent, especially in tandem with Jo Ann. He found employment fixing diesels, having worked summers at his uncle's diesel shop. Jo Ann tended bar. Barely able to pay the rent and buy groceries, they were nonetheless ambitious and confident. Lovemaking in the tiny apartment was raucous and almost as frequent as their nightly rehearsals.
In Nashville, Bill met some great songwriters, including a fellow Texan named Willieâthe guy who had written that Patsy Cline hit “Crazy.” Inspired, Bill began to write songs and came up with an upbeat duet for himself and Jo Ann called “Written in the Dust.” They made a demo and shopped it around town to the artists-and-repertoire executives at the major recording labels. The year was 1966, the top act in country music was Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and there were some two dozen record labels in town. Just three weeks after cutting the demo for “Written in the Dust,” after a high-energy showcase in a Printer's Alley nightclub, one of the A&R execs they had met approached Bill and Jo Ann.
“I had to make sure your live show stood up to the demo,” he said. “I like what I see here. I want you two in my office at nine o'clock tomorrow morning to sign a development deal.”
Bill and Jo Ann signed hastily, before they could even think about securing representation from lawyers or agents. Years later, Bill would hear rumors that Jo Ann had cinched the deal the same way she had secured her place in Bill's band in East Texasâin the A&R guy's backseat, down a dirt road outside of Nashville. There would be a lot of rumors like that about Jo Ann.
The label chose the rest of the songs for the first album and rushed the LP into production. “Written in the Dust” was slated as the single, much to Bill's gratification. Publicity photos were shot, promo material written by marketing staffers, tour dates booked. A week before the street date for the release of the single, A&R invited Bill and Jo Ann to the label office to see their new album cover.
“Wow,” Bill said, truly impressed by the cover photo. “Jo Ann, you look killer, baby.”
“You got a
goin' on, too, hotshot.” She always called him “hotshot.”
Bill stared at the cover a little longer, now taking in the only two words of text: “Dixie Creed.”
“I don't get the title,” he said. “We didn't cut a song called âDixie Creed.' And where's âMason-Houston' gonna go?”
The A&R exec flashed a straight-toothed smile. “It's self-titled. The new name for the act is Dixie Creed. We changed your name to Creed Mason, and Jo Ann's name to Dixie Houston.”
“Whoa, now,” Bill argued. “My folks named me William Mason. Not
. Who names a kid Creed?”
“Be realistic,” the suit said. “How are we going to market Bill and Jo Ann? We're letting you keep your last names.”