The West Texas Wind Words & Music by Steve Gillette & Charles John Quarto
Normally in mid-May I would be preparing to spend eighteen days on the Quiet Valley Ranch in the Texas Hill Country for the Kerrville Folk Festival. These being the days of the pandemic, a time for sheltering in place and avoiding gatherings of people, regrettably, sadly, the festival is postponed.
I'll miss so many aspects of it; the concerts are wonderful, great musical performances every night. Each new group of songwriters in the New Folk competition is inspiring, and taking part as master of ceremonies has been one of my roles at Kerrville for several years. But most of all I will miss the small circles of music with close friends; twilight at Crow's Nest, sessions at Camp Cuisine and Camp Coho, my camp mates at Energy Tree, even meals at the staff kitchen and a hundred other chance encounters with nature and songs.
Texas is a big state. The enormity of that understatement is a hint of how much is to be found there and explored. We've driven all over it so many times through the years, and it never fails to have a transforming effect on consciousness. So much history, mythology, and just plain awesome geography stretching out to the horizon for days.
When Rod Kennedy invited me to Kerrville, it was a double revelation. First as I have mentioned, it reaffirmed for me that the extended community of the folk music revival still existed, although that fact had been hidden from me by my immersion in the music industry of Los Angeles. The forest for the trees, so to speak.
And second, the atmosphere of the Texas Hill Country was so inspirative that I was overawed by the oaks and the limestone purity of the air. There are dramatic skies and awe-inspiring thunderheads moving down through the canyon, not to mention the music of the campfire circles connecting so deeply with my own yearnings for a meaningful balance of craft and performance. It's turned out that the circle is the ideal listening environment and the best test of good songwriting.
I won't begin to name the world-class writers who've sat across the circle since the days and nights of that first festival for fear of leaving out so many who deserve to be named. Suffice to say that there was more than ample inspiration and example for a songwriter to rededicate himself to the music with a newly discovered passion and a renewed sense of why he pursued it in the first place.
Some were heroes of the pop charts in their turn, and some were just wonderful in their own ways. It was the campfire moment which was the real eternal now that songwriters have always endeavored to conjure. The qualities of a good song were suddenly self-evident in a way that demanded to be honored going forward.
So Texas has become an odyssey of geography and human interaction in a way that bared the soul. Hard to extricate the moon and the escarpment from the journey. Charles John Quarto and I both observed and attempted to characterize that mystery separately and together, and several songs contain some of the results.
Charles was helpful in getting me invited to play and teach that first year. He was a long time veteran of the festival and had a history of collaboration with so many of the heavy hitters of the Texas songwriters, what they call the 'Big Dog' songwriters in Nashville. He introduced me to aspects of the Texas mystique that I might have missed.
In this song we purposely focused on Palo Duro Canyon, not far from Amarillo, a scene much like sites around Santa Fe and Taos, and a good setting for an exploration of Native lore and a haunted past. We invoked some language from tribal shamanic traditions, somewhat self-conscious as to whether we really had license to speak about such things, but trusting that our non-verbal, musical and shamanic intentionality would allow us to bring something of that nature to the listener. The images in the video are chosen with that in mind as well.
An hechecero or hechezero is a healer, a sorcerer or medicine man or woman. The root hechar in Spanish means to make or to cast as in a charm or spell. Hecho means it is done, and hechos are acts or accomplishments. The idea of being visited by a wise presence from another time is central to our message.
Palo Duro Canyon is a canyon system of the Caprock Escarpment in the Texas Panhandle. It is the second-largest canyon in the United States after Arizona's Grand Canyon. The name comes from the Spanish meaning "hard wood" and petrified wood is found there.
The canyon was formed by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, which winds along the Llano Estacado of West Texas and precipitously runs off the escarpment creating geological wonders as it carves into the bedrock.
The Apaches found it a good home with ample water and game, but were eventually driven out by Comanches and Kiowas, who had attained horses from the Spanish traders, called Comancheros. Georgia O'Keeffe lived in Amarillo and made many paintings in the Canyon. She wrote: "It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color."
In our song we have invoked many of the same major / minor harmony ideas discussed in previous articles. Attempting to express a sense of mystery, we explored the overlay of a variety of scale elements. The use of a diminished chord does a lot to touch on that emotional curiosity as well. Also the use of the iv minor chord is central to the mood of this song.
I do the song in the key of C, so the iv minor is F minor. The B diminished chord is the normal chord built on the seventh degree of the key, but really is rarely used. I would encourage the writer to experiment with diminished chords; they can do amazing things. They can stretch between otherwise incompatible chords and can bring a line to a pause at a meaningful point and then resolve to just about anything you want.
The big dramatic move in the song is for the bridge. Those who have been following this blog will not be surprised. That's where the song goes to an A major chord. Many times these choices are based on random experimentation, but if I had to justify the appearance of this chord in the song, it would be in its relationship to the d minor chord that follows it. The A major is the dominant in the key of d minor, and so leads the ear to the d minor in an affirming way.
It's as if we want to give the feeling of a change in key, but with the d minor we have not strayed very far from the C key center, since the d minor is the ii chord of the C scale.
The bridge really is in the key of d minor, and the chords are all consistent with this; g minor, F and A7 are all found in the key of d minor. The only time when we depart from that expectation is at the end of the bridge when we go through the B flat major chord with a G in the bass to the A major chord which is the normal V chord of the key of d minor. But rather than go back to our second home in the key of d minor, the song leaps up to the F as we lift into a new section unlike the verse or the bridge, but bringing the song back into the key of C; using the F and the f minor for color again as before.
It's easier to see it on the piano, but there is a descending bass line that walks down through the chords landing at the root of the A chord. This is something that would be good to take up in an article devoted to these considerations. Again, for me it's more of an experimental and intuitive process than an adherence to formula. Still, something to explore.
Here's my new video of the song, with audio from my CD, "Texas & Tennessee."
"The West Texas Wind" - Audio from "Texas & Tennessee." Video by Steve
The CD "Texas & Tennessee," is available here.
The songbook with the sheet music for "The West Texas Wind" and 46 other songs is available here.
Here are the lyrics the way we sing it.
Something in the West Texas wind, Making music with the fences Makes that compass needle spin, Out where the mysteries begin. Something slippin' by that just won't keep. Ghosts of the Rio Grande, That'll steal you from your sleep. Out in the West Texas wind. Canyon Palo Duro, carved out of the rain Echos of Vaqueros forever to remain. Drawn down from Durango in a fire-colored sky Like an ancient hechecero with instructions for the night. Sometimes I come out here like I was meeting an old friend Something in the West Texas wind. Canyon Palo Duro, carved out of the rain Echos of Vaqueros forever to remain. Drawn down from Durango in a fire-colored sky Like and ancient hechecero with instructions for the night. Sometimes I come out here like I was meeting an old friend Something in the West Texas wind. Something in the West Texas wind.
© 1998 Compass Rose Music / Starry Garden, BMI