“You don’t have to ask anyone if they are from Texas. If they are, they’ll let ya know. If they’re not, you don’t want to shame ‘em.” A typical Steve Fromholz witticism.
If you are not familiar with the Texas folk music scene, you may not have heard of Steve Fromholz, who passed away in a hunting accident on January 19th. Fromholz, revered in the Lone Star State for his wit and warmth, had an interesting life on the fringes of the music industry.
Fromholz attended the University of North Texas in the early-1960s, serving as a president of the Folk Music Club (fellow club members included Michael Martin Murphey and Ray Wylie Hubbard). In 1969 an unknown John Denver recorded the Fromholz tune “Yellow Cat” and that same year, as part of a duo called Frummox, Fromholz released the album Here to There. The album became best known for the Fromholz composition “The Texas Trilogy,” three songs meant to be played as one piece of work, that described a poverty stricken existence in Kopperl, Texas in the 1950s. (Lyle Lovett would later cover both “The Texas Trilogy” and the humorous Fromholz tune “Bears.”)
After Frommox split, Fromholz was a touring member of the Stephen Stills band Manassas in 1971. He quickly decided that not working for Stephen Stills was more enjoyable than doing so and quit later that year. An early 1970s album recorded for a Michael Nesmith company went unreleased after changes in management at Elektra Records. His biggest commercial success came in 1976 when Willie Nelson took the Fromholz composition “I’d Have to Be Crazy” to #11 on the country charts. (Fromholz sings backup vocals on the tune). Willie included that effort on his 1981 compilation Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be), which eventually sold over six million copies, no doubt bolstering the writer’s bank account. Fromholz would later introduce the song in performances by stating, “I’m going to play a medley of my hit. Thank you, Willie. Thank you, Jesus.”
Fromholz released two solo albums on Capitol Records in 1976 and 1977, but did not generate significant sales. Indulging in significant amounts of tequila and cocaine may not have benefited his career ambitions. In 1980, Jerry Jeff Walker covered his old West romanticism number “Man in the Big Hat” and Fromholz performed a Farm Aid gig in the mid-1980s. His life became a mixture of musical performances, plays, writing books, and serving as a west Texas wildnerness tour guide. He was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2003 and was named the Poet Laureate of the State of Texas in 2007. After a major stroke in 2003, Fromholz had to relearn his own material, but he bravely and painstakingly did so.
In the last few weeks, there have been memorial celebrations for Fromholz in both Austin and Dallas. I attended the celebration in Dallas and it became clear that Fromholz was a unique personality who had a gift to quickly connect with the people around him in a meaningful way. Not every entertainer is meant to work in large, impersonal arenas. Fromholz, described by one long time friend as a “traveling party” and a “cornucopia of fun,” developed sincere connections with intimate audiences and he will not be soon forgotten by serious Texas music fans. Give “The Texas Trilogy” if you haven’t heard it. Then listen to “Bears.” Finish your Fromholz sampler platter with “I Gave Her a Ring (She Gave Me a Finger).” I think that Steve would want you to walk away with a smile.
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