River City Soul
Inside the fading white wood house on Belmont Street in the heart of San Antonio’s East Side, Vernon “Spot” Barnett is keeping one eye on his 98-year-old father. The old man is slowly moving around the dark living room, his feet shuffling across the worn wood floors. He was shot several months ago in a wicked home invasion, but somehow survived. Today the old man’s sturdy handshake is like that of a man who is 80 years younger.
Barnett smiles as his father walks by.
Out the dusty front window, you can see something else that tested the Barnett family—the charred remains of Spot’s own home, still standing after it caught fire a few years ago, forcing him to move in with his dad across the street.
Every day, Spot peers from his father’s front door toward a place where a thousand memories—precious photographs and totems from a life given to music—went up in smoke. These are no ordinary memories. Spot has spent half a century helping build one of the most vibrant regional music scenes in the country.
His father settles into a small chair.
“That’s the man who’s responsible for it all,” Spot says with a wave of his hand and a small grin.
Barnett could be talking about his own role in the San Antonio music scene. The tenor sax player, 74, remains an elegant ambassador for a tribe of musicians who play a righteous blend of country blues, urban blues, R&B, country and western, German polkas, Mexican ballads and even free jazz. The sound is defined by its brash insistence on jumping across racial, ethnic and musical boundaries.
Barnett and his San Antonio colleagues have been living witnesses, participants and guiding forces—they were white, black and brown musicians who mingled in ways that were not happening as often anywhere else in Texas.
Spot Barnett would stare down from stages and see swaying crowds, the rolling amoebas of revelers from different sides of the tracks. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was the most important bandleader in San Antonio—the link to his famous East Side mentor, Clifford Scott. Barnett was so good that he was scooped up by Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ike and Tina Turner. He toured the world as a player and musical director—until he decided he wanted to be back home.
Today, he and a handful of others remain the perfect prisms through which to measure the evolution of that only-in-San Antonio musical environment. It has more than a few similarities to that of New Orleans—with artists drawing on specific, immediate, regional musical influences … with artists-cum-historians passing down phrases, sounds and songs uncorked decades ago on the nearby streets … with food and religion and neighborhood fidelities serving key roles. “We’re talking about a language, and it has to have a way to sustain itself,” says Barnett. “It is both an art and a science.”
San Antonio found a way to sustain its musical language—it is still spoken in tucked-away parts of the city. Go to Santa’s Place on the East Side, go to old VFW halls. Look for the floating aggregation known as The West Side Horns. Look for Ernie Garibay, Jack Barber and the other stellar musicians when they have impromptu, barely advertised gigs. Chitlin’ circuit blues, two-step verities, shuffles, rancheras, plaintive soul serenades, all of it swirling like smoke, like South Texas incense, and all of it luring dreamers and lovers onto dark dance floors somewhere in San Antonio.
Part of the sound, as in New Orleans, is defined by the polyglot nature of the place. San Antonio was for years more diverse, even international, than Dallas, Austin and arguably even Houston. “San Antonio avoided a lot of the racial tension and segregation problems that beset a lot of other urban areas. That’s not to say there wasn’t segregation, but music promoters such as Don Albert and Johnny Phillips welcomed all races into their places,” says Jim Beal, the San Antonio Express-News music writer.
One of Texas’ great musicologists, Chuck Nevitt in Dallas, adds that the product is what you get when “you add the vibrant Mexican music heritage with a heaping helping of classic R&B.” San Antonio, he says, proved “how putting some really good things together into the same dish works to make it a national treasure.”
Back in his living room, Spot Barnett remembers the ingredients of those rich musical dishes. How he used to talk to Doug Sahm’s mother, telling her it was OK that a professional black musician was taking her 14-year-old white son to play a gig. How he was glad to see the legendary Rocky Morales and the other Mexican-American players coming from the West Side to jam. How they were all from different sides of town—but were like-minded musical alchemists, making sounds that hadn’t been possible before, making music that transcended racial boundaries.
As Barnett reminisces, a San Antonio friend of his, the brilliant Texas editorial cartoonist John Branch, is on a nearby couch listening. Branch, who also reviewed jazz and blues records for the San Antonio newspaper, has grown close to the tight-knit musicians tied to Barnett. Branch remembers attending a show by the Texas Tornados, the “supergroup” that once featured Sahm, Flaco Jimenez, Freddy Fender and Augie Meyers. “I was struck by the way Doug Sahm introduced himself and his superstar bandmates—not by their hit records or awards they had won—but by the San Antonio high schools they had attended. I remember thinking at the time that it was somewhat provincial. It’s since become clear to me that this laid-back, unassuming attitude plays a large role in the ‘big city with a small town atmosphere’ vibe which makes San Antonio a unique place,” says Branch.
Today Branch has brought Barnett some CDs of old concerts Barnett played in. The sax man smiles at the memories he’s holding. He calls them “the goodies.”
He grew tired of touring and came home many years ago. Now, when he walks the East Side, he is often hailed like royalty—even while he knows that there are new generations, new kinds of music, and that not everyone remembers him. He knows not everyone might remember how radical it was for musicians to mix and match in the deep heart of Texas in the 1950s and 1960s.
New Orleans, Detroit, Memphis—all get instant recognition for their history-making, paradigm-shifting “sound.” Barnett and many others wonder why San Antonio isn’t mentioned in the same breath. The answer is complex, but a lot of it has to do with the economics.
The city didn’t have ties to national record labels. The studios and local record companies were smaller, less able to market and distribute San Antonio talent. The music was everywhere, every night, but the San Antonio musicians often had to hit the road for good-paying gigs, or they would relocate to other cities to get steady session work. There was something else that settled over San Antonio: “The Vietnam-era draft took a disproportionate number of Latino boys, many who never came back,” Barnett says.
Fate and circumstance conspired, perhaps, to keep San Antonio from earning its rightful reputation as one of America’s musical treasures.
For a second, Spot Barnett grows quiet, trying to think of a way to explain his city’s ultimate gift. He says some might call the bedrock of the sound “the blues,” but that is too easy. It’s more than that. It’s about neighborhoods, about people willing to go to a part of town that once seemed out of reach. East Side, West Side, South Side. Artists like Barnett and the others were always willing to vault any perceived walls and bring their guitar cases, sax cases and dancing shoes. It was about musicians, consciously and intuitively, knowing that they were breaking rules by playing together.
“This thing is bigger than all of us … and it always will be,” says Barnett.