Interview: Chuck Hawthorne on Austin, Veterans, and Moving Forward

Interviews

Chuck Hawthorne calls me exactly on time.  Even driving in the rain between gigs, the 21-year veteran of the Marine Corps’s discipline wins out.  We quickly agree to talk after Chuck has arrived in DC.

Chuck calls me about 40 minutes later.  He’s just gotten into DC from Chester, Maryland, on Kent Island, the largest in the Chesapeake Bay, where he played the Macum Creek House Concert Series.  Chuck is in DC for two gigs: Paul Eckert’s Lucky Penny House Concert series and a show at Hill Country BBQ.

I ask Chuck how his tour is going.  “Really well,” he says. “Started off in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, went through the South, played in South Carolina, Richmond, Virginia. Just kind of started working the way north into Philly, and as far north as Massachusetts.”  I follow up by asking about the high points of the tour. He first answers, “It’s the second time I’ve played up there in Bondsville, Massachusetts, that house concert show. I played there two years ago, and those are really special folks.”  Then he tells me, “But it was neat to get to play New York City. Libby Koch, my girlfriend, she flew in for that New York show, so that was really special, to get to play New York and have her come and play that show with me.”

Chuck has been with Libby for three years.  He met Libby, who is from Houston, at Folk Alliance in Kansas City, Missouri four years ago.  Sometimes, they tour together, and after Chuck finishes this current solo tour, he’ll be going on a duo tour with Libby.

Born in Amarillo Texas, Chuck Hawthorne grew up listening to country music.  “It was mostly country music in our home,” he told me, “guys like Cal Smith and Loretta Lynn.”  “[The] first record I ever remember putting on a record player was Tom T. Hall’s Sneaky Snake,” he said, laughing.  “Tom T. Hall was huge, I really enjoyed the way he told stories in songs.”  Hank Snow was an influence, as was Johnny Cash: “I was listening to Johnny Cash before it was cool again to listen to Johnny Cash.”  Laughing, he added “I had a Beach Boys record, and some Ventures records, so there was a little bit of stuff out from California that invaded our home.”

As a teenager, Chuck discovered Nanci Griffith.  “Back when Country Music Television was starting,” Chuck recalled, “just like MTV, if you had a video, you could get on CMT, and she had had some live performance videos taken.  I was just enamored with Nanci Griffith. Nanci really introduced me to a whole lot of the folk or underground artists,” like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Chuck started playing music at a young age.  At “five or six years old, my sister taught me to play what they call a Magnus organ.”  Chuck described the Magnus organ as “kind of a toy instrument, made out of Bakelite.” He received a keyboard for Christmas one year during his teens, and transitioned to playing that.

It was in the Marines, which he joined after high school, that Chuck learned to play the guitar. He was 19, and serving aboard the U.S.S. Iwo Jima. “These Force Reconnaissance Marines we working with had brought guitars,” he said, “and I got guitar lessons from them and kind of picked it up.”

When I see Chuck in the music space at the DC location of Hill Country BBQ, I can easily picture him having been a Marine.  Though his beard has gone white, Chuck is tall and powerfully built, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested. I suspect he’s still quite strong.

“Anywhere the Marines would send me,” Chuck told me,  “I’d play the little bars, or little open mics, wherever I was at, all over the world.”  He first got on stage in 1995, while he was living in Austin and studying for his history degree at the University of Texas through a commissioning programs.  He and another marine in the program, Mike Mendieta, “picked up guitars and just started playing parties and campfires and stuff like that together.” “By hook or crook,” he says, “I just fell into that music scene there in Austin.”

“Before I knew it,” Chuck said, “I hooked up with this cat named Shawn T. Pabst, who was in the country scene down there in Austin.”  Chuck’s friendship with Shawn led to him playing on stage for the first time, at the famed Austin venue The Broken Spoke.  A renowned dance hall, The Broken Spoke has hosted “all kinds of country music stars, big country music stars, international country music stars,” Chuck told me. “He got me up on stage,” Chuck said, “and I was well aware of where I was at and I was just nervous as all get out.  I couldn’t even tell you what I played.” Laughing, he told me, “played probably three or four songs and got the hell off that stage as quick as I could.”

Shawn also gave Chuck his first taste of recording.  “Shawn eventually ended up cutting that song as a duet with me,” he said.   “This is how nice of a guy he was: he got me in the studio, cut the song, did the duet with me, and then issued a special edition of his CD that had that song as a ghost track on it.”  These days, Shawn lives in Missoula, Montana, but he co-wrote the song “Ovando” on Chuck’s album, Silver Line.

Chuck lives in Austin, Texas now.  To be precise, he lives in the suburb of Manor, which he says has “basically become east Austin.”   “Inside the city limits,” Chuck says, “the prices are high.” I lived in Austin in from August 2003 to November 2004. The 650 sq ft apartment I rented for roughly $700 (plus utilities) now rents for $1100 (three-story walk-up, no dishwasher).  Phenomenal growth drives price increases in Austin. When I moved to Austin, the city had a population of about 692,000, and it’s estimated to have exceeded 950,000 last year. As Chuck said, the cost of living is “an issue for artists,” but he was pessimistic, saying it’s “happening everywhere you go.”

I learn that this evening’s performance is a special one for Chuck.  Much of the audience consists of Marines with whom Chuck served. While they all know Chuck, they mostly don’t know each other.  I feel privileged to see these veterans gather in support of one of their friends and compatriots, and to watch them connect with one another.

In 21 years as a Marine, Chuck spent time in Australia, Japan, the Mediterranean, the Marshall Islands, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq, Panama, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia,  and Malaysia, as well as half a dozen states. Chuck’s travels through Marines afforded him a number of other unconventional opportunities to play music, all before he ever became a professional.  Around 2002, he was in Townsville, Queensland, Australia. “They had this old saloon set up,” Chuck said, “made to look like an old American western saloon. I mean the real deal. It had these barn doors in the back that opened up into a rodeo arena.”

Chuck tells the story:

Me and my marine buddies bellied up to the bar.  A big, thick guy comes walking up, looks us up and down, and says, “You mates marines?”  I figured, “Oh boy, we’re in trouble.” I looked at him in the eye and said, “Yes sir, we are.”  He mumbles something to the barmaid, and up comes three shots of Bundaberg rum, one for each of us.  Each of us shoots down that Bundaberg rum and he thumps his chest and says, “Keeps the cold out!” And that’s what he said each time we took a shot of that Bundaberg rum.  And if you were drinking with him, you were going to drink Bundaberg rum.

We get to telling stories, and he points to this old Aboriginal cowboy that was in the back, all by himself, corner of the bar.  He must’ve been in his 70s. He told me, and I can’t remember the year, and I don’t remember what rodeo association he was talking about, I doubt it was the PRCA, but he said he was like the 1960-something world rodeo champion, this old Aboriginal cowboy.  I said, well by God, he ain’t gonna drink alone if I’m in the bar.

I grabbed me a beer and one for him and my guitar, and went over there, and I sat down.  I played American cowboy songs to that Aboriginal cowboy and I don’t think he understood a word that I was saying, and I sure didn’t understand anything he was saying, but we were communicating just fine, if you know what I mean, through music.  That was a real special evening.

In 2011, Chuck retired from the Marines after 21 years of service with the rank of Major. Settling at first in St. Louis, he spent a year in the insurance business, but found that it wasn’t to his liking. Moving back to Austin, Chuck had gotten “tired of people asking me what I was doing on the job front.”  Chuck “spread out about 20 years worth of songs” on his kitchen table, and he decided to tell the next person that asked “I’ve got a job: I’m a songwriter.”

Despite getting an early taste of the stage, Chuck told me that he “didn’t really want to be a performer.”  He’d “been writing songs for quite a while,” he said, but “it really hadn’t taken off. I was submitting my songs to everybody that would take an unsolicited submission, and I was entering song contests, and trying, and trying, and trying to get my foot in the door, mainly from a pure songwriter’s standpoint.  But that had never gone anywhere.

A few weeks after he’d declared himself a songwriter, Chuck was on his way back home to Austin from visiting friends in St. Louis.  He was catching a connecting flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport when he spied another man carrying a guitar. He struck up a conversation, and it turned out to be Juno-award winning singer-songwriter Ray Bonneville.  “I didn’t know who he was at first,” Chuck told me, but “I had read about him…in the No Depression magazine.”  Ray told Chuck to send him some of his songs.  “I’d heard that story before,” Chuck said, “and it usually hadn’t gone anywhere.  But the next day I did, and 30 minutes later he emails me back and says, ‘Let’s meet for coffee to discuss your record.  I’m going to start your second career.’”

Chuck was suspicious.  “I thought it was a scam at first.”  It was no scam, though. Ray produced his record and “brought in just a ton of talent and people that I’d admired for years” to help out.  This wealth of talent included Grammy-nominated folk singer Eliza Gilkyson on vocals, Rick Richards, “who’s worked with everybody in Austin, most notably Ray Wylie Hubbard,” on drums, George Strait’s fiddle player, Gene Elders, and guitarist Gurf Morlix, known for his work with Blaze Foley and Lucinda Williams.  [For more on Eliza Gilkyson, click one of these bolded words.]

Gurf, Chuck said with a laugh, is “a great guy, but he doesn’t suffer fools.  He’s absolutely a genius.” Chuck told me that, early in his career, Gurf was in Warren Zevon’s band, and he is responsible for the famous lick on “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”  I said to Chuck, “It’s not every day someone wakes up and decides they’re going to take the name ‘Gurf Morlix.’” Chuck replied that Blaze Foley gave him that name, although I’ve heard from Rod Picott that it came to him in a dream.

I asked Chuck about what he’s listening to these days.  The first album he mentioned, and he admitted “I haven’t even heard the entire record,” was Mary Gauthier’s Rifles and Rosary Beads, on which every song is co-written by a veteran. [For our review, click one of these words in bold.]  “I’m really excited about that,” Chuck said. “It’s a passionate subject for me, what we’re doing with our veterans to help those folks out.”

Generally speaking, Chuck told me, he listens to music “folks I know and get to play with.”  He specifically mentioned “Adam Carroll and Chris Carroll and Tommy Lewis and Matt Harlan, a lot of that Texas crowd.”  “I became a big Mary Bragg fan,” he added.  “She’s out of Nashville, but she just won the Songwriter’s Serenade Competition down here.  There’s a young gal down in San Antonio named Rachel Laven who, despite her young age, is starting to write someone really good songs.  Charlie Roth, out of Minnesota — he’s like the quintessential folk traveling troubadour. He could’ve hung out with Woody Guthrie and fit right in.”

I asked Chuck to share his “thoughts and feelings on the situation with our veterans, and how the country is doing with our treatment of them.”  He replied, “It’s almost cliche to beat up the VA [Veterans Administration],” however, “The VA’s just a big institution,” and “Anytime you get involved in a big institution, sometimes it gets hard to manage, so I try not to beat up the VA too much.” “To keep things positive,” he said, “what I’ve noticed is, and this is something that the Vietnam veterans did not have the luxury of, or really any veterans before this war, is…that civilians are stepping up with nonprofit organizations to help fill the gap. I work with four or five veterans service organization, that really have alternative methods of dealing with the problems that veterans have — everything from job placement to housing to what’s going on in their spirits; they’re fighting demons and PTSD, and the huge suicide problem that we have.”

Chuck works with several organizations that help veterans.  Two, SongwritingWithSoldiers and Soldiers, Songs, and Voices pair veterans with professional songwriters to help them expremselves as part of their healing process.  Horses for Heroes brings veterans to a New Mexico ranch to work with horses.  Camp Hope, in Houston, is a residential recovery program for veterans with PTSD.

Chuck and I briefly spoke about his service.  “I don’t want the article to focus on that,” he “A lot of veterans would tell you,” he did share, that “it’s usually the children that get wrapped up in it [combat] that probably affects them the most.  It can happen anywhere, but the urban fighting is where you see a lot of that…Working with veterans, that’s a common theme that I hear, over and over again.”

I don’t want to end on that note, because it wouldn’t be true to the man.  Chuck Hawthorne is a man moving forward with his life, focus on his career and his music, doing what he loves.  The future looks bright for him.  Look for his music and tour dates, here.    https://www.chuckhawthorne.com/

 

 

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