BOOKS & THE CULTURE From Korea to Kerrville Rod Kennedy’s Tale of Politics, Fast Cars, and Folk Music BY MARK SMITH MUSIC FROM THE HEART: The Fifty-Year Chronicle of His Life in By Rod Kennedy. Eakin Press, 1998. errverts” as the doggedly loyal veter ans of the Kerrville Folk Festival affec tionately refer to themselves will find both more and ess than they might reasonably expect in this strange and meticulous diary of the lord of the Quiet Valley Ranch, Rod Kennedy. More, because the book is intensely detailed and, especially in the earlier chapters, provides a chronicle of the sometimes joyful, often painful coming of age of Austin between the late 1940s and the late 1990s. Less, because in the plethora of details that defines this book, we seldom get close to the true Rod Kennedy, his motives, his interests, or indeed, what any of this all means. Kennedy starts his tale in his childhood and provides plenty of his customary detail about what was playing on the radio in those years. The ancient history continues through the Korean War years, when our hero seemed to spend about an equivalent amount of time hanging with the likes of Claudette Colbert and Lana Turner as he did in the trenches, where he saw some artillery combat. How is it that he came to dance with Marilyn Monroe, or was a personal guest of Gene Kelly? Probably great stories there, but we’ll never know. We do get a memorable picture of a swashbuckling and impossibly young Rod in grimfaced battle mode, a massive peacemaker strapped to his chest and cutlined simply, “Near the Panmunjon Peace Corridor, February 1953.” \(By the way, this book is chockablock with photographs usually one to three on each page a full third of which seem to be of either Carolyn Hester, A Rod Kennedy in Korea The narrative commences in earnest in Chapter Four, once Rod has returned from the war, cleared the University of Texas, and set himself scrub-faced and weteared on a path to be a promoter of the arts in the hamlet of Austin, Texas, back in the halcyon days of the late 1950s. I mean way back before MoPac, or the upper deck of I.H. 35; before Barton Creek Mall, Highland Mall, even Hancock Center; when “central Austin” meant downtown and the University and the near East Side. Kennedy has provided a sketch of those long-ago days, with details so unwittingly poignant that, for me, it all came back in a flood. Rod brings to life ghosts of the lost world names like Hub Bechtol, Harry Aikin, Charlie Goodnight, and Bonner McLane even afternoon children’s TV personalities “Uncle Jay” and “Packer Jack.” These chapters are the best of the book, for they transcend the minutiae of the Kerrville play lists, and they speak, however unintentionally, of a bygone Austin. They also hint at the role Kennedy played in changing the city, for better and worse. The opening gambit of Kennedy’s career was as the owner of KHFI-FM, a classical music station where the late, great Leonard Masters spun the platters. Masters’ smooth baritone became a fixture of the Austin airwaves, and was especially linked to KMFA, the classical station later founded by Kennedy and associates. Despite his early preoccupation with classical music and jazz, before long Rod began promoting musical and cultural events beginning with York folk-scene warbler Carolyn Hester. In what seems to have been his first concert promotion, Kennedy managed Hester’s Austin debut in May 1962, thus establishing a collaboration that has lasted to this day. In a stark reminder of the extent of growth of the fabled Austin music scene, Hester’s two-day gig at the Austin Civic Theater Playhouse was the cause of such a fuss that the mayor declared May 8, 1962, “Carolyn Hester Day.” ROD THE BOOSTER The reader will be struck by the far-ranging activities in which Kennedy participated in the early years, most of which involved enthusiastic boosterism for both of the twin pillars of civic responsibility: the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party. For the former, the most significant and nostalgic event was the Austin Aqua Festival. This annual event, which only recently gasped its last breath after years of losing money, was born in 1962. Kennedy accurately captures the underlying purpose of the Festival: The original motivation for developing a city-wide festival was to create a massive schedule of activities that would attract attention to Austin and celebrate its water resources. It was a chamber of commerce approach to sell the public, near and far, on a new and more enticing image of Austin. There you have it. The beginning of the end for Austin, which was once, believe it or not, known as “The Friendly City.” The words “near and far” should send a chill NOVEMBER 6, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23
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