Rusty Wier was one of the few musical heroes I had as a child that I got to actually befriend as an adult. Anytime I was around him, it was surreal. As if I was starring in a Truman Show style movie set amid the backdrop of Texas Music royalty. Even in the zenith of the early 2000’s Texas Music boom, Rusty stood out. Part Bad Blake, part Billy Joe Shaver, part Elvis. The man was the greatest entertainer that has ever set foot on a stage in this realm of music. Throughout the beat-up van twilight of his career playing to audiences a fraction of what they used to be and to large crowds at LJT who only knew 1-2 songs, but would be won over by the third song of the set. Rusty moved forward. The live show was always the best way to see him. Much like modern stalwarts of entertainment Shinyribs and Josh Weathers, Rusty Wier was better in person. No matter how great the studio project was, it could never measure up to the man with the thump of a live band and pop of a PA behind him. Jokes, whoops, kicks, notes and more jokes kept his experience fresh. For nearly 18 months straight, my buddies and I would load up to hit up Saxon Pub each Wednesday night for the Rusty Wier experience. The show was basically the same set each week, but somehow he always kept it fresh. As Rusty would amble from stage stool to barstool after his set, without fail folks would approach and ask about buying a cd or something. He rarely had them on him. Most of his music was long out of print and long out of his legal control due to some typically cliched bad music business contracts of the 1970s and 80s. He had shirts and even “Rusty rags” (small hand towels with his logo just like the ones he used onstage), but not much recorded music to offer.
One album that you could find relatively easily was Black Hat Saloon. Rusty had a few in his garage and there were a few at record stores and Amazon even had a small inventory of the album. Released on Columbia Records in 1976 at the height of Eagles/Fleetwod Mac mania and a year into Willie’s post Red Headed Stranger peak, BHS was a revelation. Equal parts California and Texas. Rusty Wier was feeling free. He’d been knocking around the clubs and bars of Texas and was expanding his base and style. The record was produced by Glen Spreen who’d worked with Rusty some before and was famous for orchestrating the string arrangements on projects by Elvis and Dan Fogleberg. Monster LA session player Waddy Wachtel shows up on just about everything that has 6 strings and the era’s groove is found throughout.
The template is set with the album opener and title track as Wier sings of the bawdy yet staid life of a booming mining town.
Yet, it’s the second track “The Devil Lives in Dallas” that truly shows what Wier was going for with this project. The track changes time signatures and vibes halfway through and switches from straight up Texas honkytonk to jazz-rock swing thing with Spreen’s strings all over it. This freewheeling desire and ambition to go wherever the music and song took them is what makes this album a classic.
Wier and company slow the pace and become philosophically introspective on “Silly Rhymes” a jarring affirmation about the power of friendship, good times and the healing nature humans hold over each other.
“The Coast of Colorado” is a love song that talks of watching the world fall apart with your love by your side as California literally falls into the Pacific Ocean. However, it’s the overarching theme of Hollywood stealing Susan away from him that drives the emotional narrative.
“Tell Me Truly Julie” and “Me and Daisy On the Run” are two songs penned solo by Wier and they each contain the qualities that made Wier special. Sly, flirty, honest, funny and rockin’. Twin guitars blaze all over in a manner which was becoming of the company Wier kept at the time. Among his peers and fans were the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Daniels Band. Wier managed to keep one toe in Austin and a whole leg in southern rock…all while enjoying a California alt-country existence that had him pulling in the best parts of the Burrito Brothers, Eagles et al.
It’s somewhat fitting that Black Hat Saloon is one of the more widely avaialble of the Rusty catalog. I’m lucky enough to have my mother’s original vinyl copy. I also own it on cd. It’s now available on digital outlets such as Spotify. It’s high time the latest generation dig into the Rusty catalog. The man raised enough hell to make a hit song out of a joke called “I Heard You’ve Been Layin’ My Old Lady” and will forever be known for his good times anthem “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance?”, but he was so much more. He’s not just a cool statue backstage at LJT. He’s a vast catalog of the type of Texas Music that formed the foundation upon which we all stand. And, Black Hat Saloon is a good place for anyone unfamiliar to start.