-by Judy Zoch
Robin Sylar rarely steps outside of his obscurity, but when he does, he is noticed. Robin has been playing music for a long time and puts on a fun show. He takes his blues roots and plants them with his unique mixture of styles. He brings in audience participation by allowing them on stage to play instruments with him, and takes them in a line as he walks through the club and into the parking lot. The audience has a blast!
Robin and I sat together over tea and coffee to talk about his career. Our conversation opened with a discussion about a mutual friend.
So, how long have you known Wes Race?
I met Wes, probably sometime in the '70s. He was living in Wichita
[Kansas]. We kept in touch over the years. He would come here and visit
every once in a whie because he liked DFW and Austin, the whole Texas I
thing. He had worked with Alligator Records.
Wes got out of that and I guess he wanted to free lance on his own.
He's lways been drawn to the people that are off the main highway.
Maybe because of
that, he and I always got along well. He helped me get something off the ground.
One day he decided we'd make a record. He would be the Race Records
label. That's how that first CD was made. He attempted to shop it to
larger labels. Richard Chalk over in Dallas decided he would take it,
and he changed the label from Race Records to his label, TopCat. It
got, surprisingly, pretty favorable reception. Nothing changed in my
Let’s talk about you. Where are you from?
I grew up in Dallas. I got out of high school. Well, for most
people, the next step up is, you're going to college. Which, I
attempted to do. I went through all the motions. Standing in line a
lot. I was already involved in the music thing and I knew that's what I
wanted to be doing.
Were you involved in school or just outside of school?
High School? Oh yeah. I did what any local band at that time in the
Dallas area was; playing at school dances and private parties. At that
time they had these things called teen clubs. Teen club meant that
there was no alcohol. You could get in if you were under whatever the
drinking age was. These were like copy bands.
Where you playing guitar?
Yeah. I occasionally played bass, but most of the time it was guitar. I
could do either one. A lot of times I was playing in more than one
band. It wasn’t all that hard because none of them worked consistently.
But anyway, one day while standing in line registering for some college
courses, I walked out of line and got in the car and moved to Austin.
How long were you in Austin?
First time around, about two years; ’69-‘71 or ’72. By the end of
the ‘60s there was a whole lot going on in Austin musically. There were
Texas bands that were sort of achieving new ground, in a new world that
wanted new bands to come along and be creative. Austin seemed to be the
place that was thriving with a lot of that, and this was drawing a lot
of people from everywhere. The big migration was from Dallas. A lot of
them, well known now, where originally from Dallas. That’s where all of
us probably got more involved in the blues. In ’72, I ended up moving
to Los Angeles.
Did you have your own band at that time?
Some of the time. And then I would play with other people. Again,
you had this freedom to work with a lot of bands. There was a notorious
bar there at the time called the Vulcan Gas Company. It was very
notorious in the psychedelic era of music of the '60s, It was like a
psychedelic hippie nightclub. A lot of people played there. Johnny
Winter, Janis Joplin, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Freddie King.
Like I said, people from Dallas had moved to Austin. I knew these guys
from Dallas already. Now they were living in Austin playing. Jimmie
Vaugham, Paul Ray, Doyle Bramhll.
Then, one day I met Uncle John Turner and Tommy Shannon. They had just
come back from New York. They had been playing with Johnny Winter and
came back to Austin. They came to my apartment the next day, and we
talked about, 'Let's play music or something’.
Krackerjack - Austin, TX 1972
So, we drove up to Dallas and we got this band together called
Krackerjack. That was Uncle John, Tommy Shannon and Bruce Bowland. Of
course all of us were blues oriented, but we were more of a blues/rock
kind of a band. We played all over the state; we didn't go very far.
Slowly, but surely, people moved on and went their separate ways.
I went out to Los Angeles and began playing with James Harman. That was
a full blown, all out blues band. He's a harmonica player, front man. I
was living in Hermosa Beach. Up and down all along the coast were all
these beach towns that were real small. There were all these bars. We
were playing the beach clubs. Long Beach, Newport Beach, Redondo Beach,
Hermosa, Manhattan, Venice, Balboa. I did that for a couple of years.
Something was drawing me back to Texas. I came back to Austin one night
and showed up at a place that I knew my friends were playing. They were
calling themselves Blackbird. In walks Uncle John. He had just come
from Houston and I'd just come from Los Angeles. We looked at the
stage, we looked at each other. After the gig was over we all met up
over at Tommy Shannon's house and we had a new band. This was now the
2nd or 3rd version of Krackerjack. This was the version that had Stevie
Vaughan. We proceeded to play again in Austin. Maybe six months, Stevie
left to play with Paul Ray & The Cobras.
At some point in the mid '70s things just kind of went down hill. A lot
of the places we were playing closed or changed their format.
I went back to Los Angeles. This time I got hooked up with these guys
called Canned Heat. They had their big success back a while ago; but
they were still able to play pretty good bookings and tours. Anyway, I
got hooked up with them and did that for a year, a year and a half. We
mostly went on two-week tours that would take us out. Eventually that
kind of ran it's course.
I came back to Dallas about '78. I went to a club on Greenville Avenue,
St. Christopher's. I saw Stevie Vaughan and LouAnn [Barton], this guy
playing drums, Freddie Pharaoh, Jackie Newhouse and WC Clark. At that
time they were called Triple Threat. Stevie had just left Paul Ray.
They did a kind of a thing where a third of the time LouAnn would be
up. A third of the time, WC would be up and a third of the time Stevie
would be up.
Anyway, in walks Doyle Bramhall. Then Alex Napier walks in. Bass player
that had played with Paul Ray. Here again, there were three of us,
guitar player, drummer and bass player. We have a band. Let's go. So
that was called The Millionaire's. We played around DFW. We lived here,
in Dallas, for a year, a year and a half. We traveled and things were
going pretty well. We played in Lubbbock and on Greenville Avenue.
Greenville Avenue had shifted from being like a street of dives crummy
places to a sort of musical gold mine. Whereas Lemmon Avenue had been
the popular place. Lemmon Avenue or Cedar Springs in clubs like Mother
Blues and Gerdies.
After the ‘80s, I didn’t’ do a whole lot. I’d quit. Can’t count on it.
It’s inconsistent. I'd quit every other month then something would come
up and I'd get back in it again.
Later, in about' 88, Doyle decided he wanted to pursue the Doyle
Bramhall project rather than playing in other bands. He was living in
Fort Worth, I was living in Dallas, so we got that going. There again
it was a time that there happened to be work available. There was Doyle
and myself. Its started out with Jim Milan playing bass. He left and we
got with this guy named Mike Judge who went off and created the cartoon
called Beavis & Butthead. Then he went on to do King of the Hill.
We continued on and Doyle got a record deal with Antone's and made Bird
Nest On The Ground. I think that was Antone's biggest selling record
that they had, at least up until that point.
How long have you had your Robin Sylar Band?
Well, I had always done that, in between all of these other
things. In those little spaces when we had time off, I would go out and
do deals here and there. Fill in the blanks. My other thing was guitar
lessons. I started doing that because people would see me playing
somewhere and come up and, ask me if I taught lessons. At first my
thought was, l don't want to. But it kept happening so I eventually
started giving these guitar lessons. Of course, I didn't know what I
was doing at first. Later on as it got more involved, it came to where
was teaching anywhere from ten year olds, kids that don't know how to
tune their guitars, to anybody. Like musicians already playing in
Doyle pretty much decided that he needed to take some time off. He stopped playing.
I had some health problems at that time that just came out of nowhere.
Without making a big deal out of it, I had a stroke in '97. The kind
that splits you in half and one side of your body works fine and the
other side shuts down. It took me about three years before I got back
the use of the right side of my body. literally lost the use of the
arm, the hand, the whole deal, the right side of the brain, the
eyesight. My speech was affected. Anyway, there is really no treating a
stroke, I was lucky when I recovered. So, I got back, not 100% of my
agility or dexterity, I cam back 80-85%.
One day I thought, "Well, I wonder if 1 can do this music thing?" I had
already written that off. So, I started kind of slow and I got to going
around with people and trying to do it again. In some cases I had to
learn a different way. I started playing around with whoever, where
ever. At that point I was just overjoyed that I could function again.
Then at some point I got back and had some things I wanted to do, so
I slowly tried to develop that. Of course the idea was to do a CD and I
get anyone interested. Like I said earlier, Wes [Race] came along. Even
though that got pretty well received, nothing really much changed as
far as my activity. I still couldn't get a job anywhere. I mostly got
back into the guitar-teaching thing. That became my job. My paycheck.
Then it came time to do a second CD. So, we did that and that is where
we are now. Still, nothing has changed.
Robin said that one thing he has always wanted to say in an
interview is that the credits his influences to the local neighborhood
guys that he played with during his high school days, like Jimmie
Vaughan and (the late) Seab Meador.
“Back then, we didn’t’ have VCRs and CDs. You had a guitar and a record and that’s it. You did the best you could”
Robin’s appreciation of the local talent is evident on his most recent
CD, Tricked Out. He asked some of the locals that he respects to record
live with him. Artists he recorded with on Tricked Out are: Bobby
Baronawski, Kevin Shermerhorn, Marc Wilson, Homer Henderson, Jonny
Mack, James Hinkle, Wes Race, Eric Matthew and Beer Belly Slim. Robin
plays a lot of the instruments himself on the studio cots.
He said that this release has moved much quicker than the first one and
that he believes for the most part, it’s due to the internet making it
possible as well as the distributors. He said that after a period of
about 10 days after the release, it had already reached more places
than he had imagined.
Robin is an insightful, creative person, like most of us,
surviving this rat race. He would much rather be enjoying his life
appreciating what’s really important; the clean country life “with the
trees, raccoons, deer…” I truly hope that something his dream of living
that simple life comes true.