David Rodriguez

TrackAlbum
Weary EyesThe True Cross
Ballad Of The Snow Leopard...The True Cross
The Third WorldLanding 92
Santa CruzForgiveness
Kingdom Of Your HeartThe New Friedens Angel
Proud HeartProud Heart
Simple ThingsProud Heart
The Other TexasProud Heart
De StratenmakerRacing Aimless
HurricaneA Winter Moon
Bonus Track
Everything It Ain’tRacing Aimless

David Rodriguez photo 1

 

 

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David Rodriguez playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

In any conversation about great Texan songwriters, there are certain names which always spring to mind. Among those, the first to be mentioned will usually be people like Townes Van Zandt (arguably the greatest of them all), Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lefty Frizzell, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Nanci Griffith, Terry Allen, Butch Hancock, Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely. One name that is unlikely to be raised in such a discussion (outside of Texas that is) would be David Rodriguez. However, I would contend that he fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those great artists.

Of these great songwriters, the group which formed around Van Zandt and Clark had some key characteristics in common. For instance, their influences tended to come primarily from folk, blues and country music. They were also primarily focused on writing ‘story’ songs, however abstract the narratives in them sometimes became. In this regard, several of them rank among the very best of the ‘craftsmen’ songwriters. Although this term is sometimes used as a half-baked compliment, it applies perfectly to the meticulous and finely honed approach they applied to their craft. Like the best craftsmen, their work also sometimes had a deceptive simplicity, which concealed the highly developed artistry and skill which had produced it. Rodriguez himself later told the author and musician, Craig Clifford, that, as with Townes, his work “drew from the forms and language usage of old ballads from the British Isles”. Both he and Townes also shared a common admiration for the works of “poets from Sir Walter Scott to Dylan Thomas”. This strong literary influence was central to their work, and they continually sought to apply the highest of poetic standards to their own work.

 

“When the South Wind blows in from the Gulf of Mexico”

So, who was David Rodriguez? He was born in January 1952 in Houston, Texas. On both his father’s and his mother’s side, the family had Mexican origins. Indeed, Rodriguez’s aunt, Eva Garza, was a well-known ranchera singer who had considerable success in the 1940s and 1950s.

(More on ranchera music here.)

He contracted polio as a child and the enforced immobility it caused led him to take up the guitar. While at school, he also became drawn towards folk music after discovering it through artists like the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He also developed a very distinctive intricate guitar style which remained a key feature of his work for the rest of his life. His growing interest in music inspired him to visit the many folk clubs then springing up in Houston. It also eventually drew him into the ambit of the emerging songwriters on the Texas scene like Townes and Guy Clark.

Rodriguez combined this growing interest in music, however, with an impressive academic performance at the law school at the University of Austin, Texas. He graduated from there in 1981 and went on to work as a criminal lawyer with one of the largest firms in the city. He combined this work with being the lead singer in a new-wave band, Z-Vue. For Rodriguez, new wave and folk were both types of music which were “accessible” to people who “did not have a lot of formal [musical] training”. They were open to such people “in terms of listening and playing, both”. While Rodriguez’s later solo music reverted to a much more folk-oriented style, there was a rough edge to it at times which may have been influenced by this period in his musical life.

As a lawyer, Rodriguez maintained a radical edge; he regularly represented poorer members of the Hispanic community, often without charge. He also gradually became involved in political campaigning and even came close to winning a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in 1991. He stood on a ‘left’ platform, which included support for ‘humane penal facilities’ and improved access to education for poorer children. He also backed stronger measures to protect the environment, including more stringent regulations over proposed building developments and the introduction of laws to prevent “the pollution of our drinking water”. Following his narrow defeat in that campaign, Rodriguez decided to concentrate his energies on his musical career and left his job as a lawyer. He had also been disillusioned by what he described as being “slimed pretty bad by the press”. He also felt unsupported by the local Democratic establishment who disliked him because he ran “out of the far-left wing: a grassroots sort of thing”.

 

“But I surely know the songs that suit me best”

Rodriguez’s concern with social justice issues – and his “savage indignation” at the unequal treatment of Mexican-Americans in his native state – were not confined to his role as a lawyer or as an aspirant politician. They were also key to his musical career, and they gave him a perspective which was quite different to that of most of his musical peers in Texas. Indeed, much of the power of his music derives from the tension between his attachment to the forms of ‘Americana’ music and his equivocal stance towards the myths that underlay it. As a result, while – like most of the great Texan songwriters – his work is deeply rooted in a sense of place, his attitudes towards his birthplace were more ambivalent than those of his peers (as we shall see, this conflicted attitude is perhaps best expressed in his classic song The Other Texas which I will discuss later in the piece).

In the early 1990s, Rodriguez began to develop a reputation around his native state as an excellent live performer. This led to his being voted Best Texas Songwriter in the magazine, Third Coast Music, for each of the three years between 1992 and 1994. Given the sheer quality of many of the songwriters then performing in the state, this was extremely high praise indeed.

His first two albums, The True Cross and Landing 92 were essentially based around his live shows at the time. The first of these was recorded at the Chicago House in Austin in May 1990 and was originally released on cassette as Man Against Beast. By the time he made those early albums, Rodriguez had long been a fully-formed artist with a distinctive poetic voice of his own. Indeed, The True Cross ranks – along with the much later Proud Heart – as perhaps the finest album he made in his career.

My first choice from it, Weary Eyes, is a keenly observed portrayal of the rough and ready nightlife on the East Side of Houston. The second pick, Ballad Of The Snow Leopard And The Tanqueray Cowboy, is probably Rodriguez’s best-known song. This is largely a result of Lyle Lovett’s cover version of it on his tribute album to other Texas songwriters, Step Into This House. While Lovett’s rendition is excellent (a live performance by Lyle can be seen here), in my opinion Rodriguez’s original remains the definitive one. By any standards, it is a beautifully crafted song where the music and lyrics are woven together so intimately that it achieves a level of excellence that only the very best songwriters can match. Even Bob Dylan would be proud of lines like this, for example:

But I’m a poet
And I’m bound to walk the line
Between the real and the sublime
And give the muses back their own

Its rather odd title comes from the fact that Rodriguez proposed to his first wife outside the snow leopard’s cage at the zoo in Houston, Texas. If ‘Snow Leopard’ is one of his most personal songs, my next choice The Third World, is one of his most incisive political ones. It is also a vehicle for some of his most deft and intricate guitar playing.

If I had more space, I would also have included The True Cross from the same album. The lyrics of that song include some of Rodriguez’s most pointed commentary on what he saw as the failings of American foreign policy. There is also a cynical and abrasive edge to the song, which adds weight to its anti-war message.

The next pick, Santa Cruz, is another brilliantly pointed ballad which opens with some of Rodriguez’s most keenly observed and atmospheric lines:

So many saints in this heathen’s land
More martyrs than they got mothers
More captains than deck hands

 

“Was in a bar in Holland – how he got there I don’t know”

My remaining selections come from the recordings which David Rodriguez made after his move to Holland in 1994. The reasons why he left the USA at that time are not entirely clear. It has been suggested – for example – that he had made powerful enemies there through his political work and that this led him to relocate to Europe. Other possible explanations that have been put forward are that he was facing tax problems in his home country or that he preferred Holland because it was easier to access health care services there (he suffered for most of his life from post-polio syndrome). There have also been suggestions that the political system in the Netherlands may have been far more congenial to him than the American one. Also – like another great and neglected songwriter, Adrian Borland – Holland provided him with a very supportive group of friends and an audience which clearly respected his work. Both of these fine songwriters had achieved only limited commercial success and critical appreciation in their homelands. In this respect, the warm reception they received in the Netherlands may have partly compensated for the lack of recognition back home. Whatever the reasons for the move, Rodriguez spent the remainder of his life living outside the USA.

Kingdom Of Your Heart – my first choice from this period in Rodriguez’s life – is one of his finest love songs. On it, he also displays a Nick Drake-esque rhythmic precision on guitar. I have chosen the rendition of it from the extended version of Rodriguez’s 1994 album, The Friedens Angel, which is available on Bandcamp. The extended version goes under the title, The New Friedens Angel, and includes bonus tracks which were recorded in Terschelling in The Netherlands in 1999. ‘Kingdom’ is one of these.

The next three selections come from the classic album, Proud Heart, which Rodriquez released in 2006. It was recorded with a backing group made up of excellent Dutch musicians including Ad van Meurs on dobro, lap steel and guitar and Theo Wijdeven on bass. The songs on the album are also consistently excellent and it was very difficult to decide which ones to exclude from this list. In the end, however, my choice was based on selecting those tracks which gave a good representation of the qualities of the album as a whole.

Of the selections, Proud Heart and Simple Things are both superbly crafted songs which show a vulnerability that had not always been apparent in Rodriguez’s music up to that point …

 

The final choice from the record, The Other Texas, is perhaps Rodriguez’s best depiction of his conflicted relationship with his birthplace. It shows the deep love he had for the landscape there – She’s got lowlands just like Holland/ She’s got mountains just like Spain/ All the sunshine of the summer/ Western winds and Eastern rains – with his continued anger at the social and racial injustices – You’ll see children with no future/ That’s the Texas that I know – that continued to exist there.

By contrast, De Stratenmaker from his 2011 album Racing Aimless is a beautifully mellow and sharply observed depiction of a night-time scene from his adopted home in Holland

Like some of John Prine’s songs, it also has a deceptive simplicity and its subtleties and layers of meaning only become apparent with repeated listening. The final choice, Hurricane, has been well described by Craig Clifford as being one of Rodriguez’s “most personal songs about his roots in Houston and Mexico, his family history, and his father’s death”. It also features some of his most beautifully evocative and poetic lines:

And we laid him low in the same old southern grasslands
In his very own piece of this Texas coastal plain
Where you can almost smell the ocean
It’s just twenty miles away

Although Rodriguez recorded the song several times, I have chosen the version from the live album, A Winter Moon, first released in 2007. In my opinion, the grittier and more lived-in quality of Rodriguez’s voice on this version gives a new edge and an added resonance to the song. As it demonstrates, David Rodriguez was a hugely talented songwriter. His combination of crystal sharp intelligence, innate musicality and an intense commitment to social justice gave him a profoundly compelling voice. This selection then is meant merely as an introduction to the wider riches to be found in his work.

Will conclude with two videos – the first showing David in a very intimate performance singing a song dedicated to his son (the title of the song comes from a Rembrandt painting of his son):

The second features David’s daughter, Carrie – a fine musician in her own right who occasionally performed with her father in her early days as a violinist – singing one of his songs, When I Heard Gypsy Davy Sing

 

Bonus Track

One of those musicians who frequently expressed an admiration for David Rodriguez’s work was another great Texan songwriter, Butch Hancock. Indeed, Hancock once told The Austin American Statesman that ever since he had first heard him, Rodriguez “had been one of … [his] favourite Austin people. To me, he is an incredible talent. He’s a great writer and he’s got his own style that has just so much character to it.” To me, Everything It Ain’t has got something of the quality of a fine Hancock song, particularly in its combination of witty wordplay and emotional depth.

 

Footnote

I would like to thank Craig Clifford and David Lewis for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this piece. Their help is very much appreciated. Craig, and another of David’s friends Maggie Rochelle, also gave me the benefit of their personal knowledge of David Rodriguez’s life and musical career. Along with his own excellent writings on Rodriguez’s music (including this fine piece) and the first chapter in a book he co-edited with Craig D. Hillis, “Pickers & Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas” (see link below), Craig has also recorded a tribute album to David, Proud Hearts And Hurricanes – with his nephew Kyle Derr and Craig’s The Accidental Band – which can be heard here. The physical CD can be purchased direct from Craig and you’ll find his contact email here.

 

David Rodriguez & Lucinda Williams – Deportees

 

Davy Rodriguez and Z-Vue live in 1983

 

David Rodríguez with Louie Guerrero and Carrie Rodríguez on CapZeyeZ (Austin TX) 1993 – first song The Friedens Angel

 

David Roland Rodriguez (1952 –2015)

In Memoriam – FolkForum.nl
(in Dutch – but can be translated with Google Translate)

 

David Rodriguez (Wikipedia)

David Rodriguez Bandcamp

David Rodriguez at Discogs

David Rodriguez & The Rhythm Chiefs – ‘Snow Leopard’ (live 2012)

David Rodriguez – Ballad Of The Western Colonies (live 1981)

David Rodriguez political flyer

Houston Folk Music Archive: David Roland Rodriguez

Brad Tyer interview (Houston Press 1994)

David Rodriguez: Too Weird for Kerrville
A Remembrance by Craig Clifford for LoneStarMusic magazine (2016)

“Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas”
Craig Clifford & Craig D. Hillis (Texas A&M University Press 2016)

Craig Clifford official website

David Rodriguez biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Terry Allen, Adrian Borland, Guy Clark, Nick Drake, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Lefty Frizzell, Nanci Griffith, Woody Guthrie, Butch Hancock, Waylon Jennings, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Pete Seeger, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams

TopperPost #977

4 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Aug 12, 2021

    The strength of a Toppermost like this is that it demonstrates just how diverse the music of Texas is. From ZZ Top, to Stevie Ray Vaughan, to the above mentioned singer-songwriters. And then you can add David Rodriguez, who doesn’t sound quite like anyone else, but fits right in the paradigm.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Aug 13, 2021

    A very sad day for Texan music today with the death of Nanci Griffith – who started out on the same circuit as David Rodriguez.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Aug 20, 2021

    Excellent Toppermost Andrew; it’s up there with your best. Like several others I suspect, I first encountered David Rodriguez indirectly via Lyle Lovett’s “Step Inside This House”. I did a little exploration but nowhere near enough judging by this fine document.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Aug 21, 2021

    Dave, thanks for the kind words. Also discovered David’s work through Lyle. In the usual way with Texan songwriters, discovering one inevitably leads to finding several others. Something in the water there, I think.

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