Here to There: Remembering Steven Fromholz
Steven Fromholz, one of Texas’ finest songwriters and the poet laureate of Texas in 2007, died Jan. 19 at the Flying B Ranch near Eldorado, about 40 miles south of San Angelo, Texas. Fromholz, who lived in the area, was heading out to hunt feral hogs with his girlfriend when a rifle in a case but unzipped at the bottom was being transferred from one vehicle to another. He was 68.
We’re going to remember Fromholz’s life and music on Sunday, Feb. 9 during a special Roots & Branches (9-11am MT KGNU 88.5 FM or kgnu.org), when I’ll be joined by Dan McCrimmon, the other half of a group that called itself Frummox, which is where I first picked up on the Fromholz story.
I can’t remember exactly when or where I was when I picked up an album called Here to There by Frummox. I do recall that it was already in the bargain bin. 1970 or 1971. Weird name for a group, I thought. Frummox? The cover was enticing — a big fella, about two sizes larger than life, with a young Buffalo Bill beard and haircut standing on the prairie in front of a mountain range standing tall and proud looking off into the distance. It didn’t look real, though; the mountains looked like the Tetons, and the whole thing looked like it had been Photoshopped, though this was decades before Photoshop.
On the back, with the desert as background in an equally altered photo, was another fella in a jean jacket, beardless, bespectacled and looking in the opposite direction of the Buffalo Bill guy. For me, it was the first outlaw album, first real Texas album, but before Willie and Jerry Jeff made Outlaw a movement and put Austin on the map as a music destination.
The cover drew me in, but what sealed the deal for me was a title on the back. “Song for Stephen Stills (High Country Caravan).” If a guy who looked like that wrote a song to one of my favorite songwriters whose first solo album was currently lighting up my Circle of Sound stereo system, I was willing to spend a buck to find out what he sounded like.
Ah, what I got for that dollar. It began a lifelong appreciation for Here to There, one that continues today. The record is a little schizophrenic with no real cohesive sound, but I can’t think of a better album about life on the plains of Texas or Kansas that also manages to capture that high country caravan feel of Colorado, too. As a guy who discovered Frummox out on the Great Plains and later made his adopted home in Boulder, Colorado, the album means even more. There is a reason for Here to There’s dual identity, and a connection to my adopted hometown, or more specifically a tiny community called Gold Hill, eight miles west high in the foothills, where Steven Fromholz, the bearded guy, was living when Here to There was conceived. We’ll find out more about that story on Sunday morning.
So I didn’t know anything about Fromholz or Dan McCrimmon, the guy with glasses on the back cover, at the time. The first song, “The Man With the Big Hat,” has always been one of my favorite go-to Roots and Branches songs, for shows about Texas, or storytellers, or travel. It’s a killer riff, killer song, and few have ever heard it. Gil and I have learned, recorded and performed a rough version of it when we got hot on the song. I have played it on Roots & Branches several times, on various shows about cowboys or Texas or traveling.
The album begins with McCrimmon, sounding like he’s in a bar in Arizona on a sultry summer’s day, setting up the song, which is about meeting a larger-than-life fella in a bar who tells stories of being a cowboy on the plains, “working for Wells Fargo and the coming of the trains.” It is recorded perfectly, with a crack band and a steel guitar, which back then was just beginning to tickle my fancy after hearing Stephen Stills’ playing the steel on Judy Collins’ version of Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon” and catching the Flying Burrito Brothers live in Lincoln, Neb., with Sneaky Pete Kleinow giving me an intense lesson in the atmospherics of that fabulous instrument that boggled my little brain.
The first song on the second side is called “Texas Trilogy,” and it’s a three-song pastiche of life in a real little town in Texas called Kopperl along the Brazos River in Bosque County. Its imagery and poetry were probably among the reasons Fromholz was chosen Poet Laureate of Texas for the year 2007. (Here’s Fromholz’s own story of how the Trilogy came into being.) Lyle Lovett recorded a great version of the Trilogy. One song, “Texas Legend,” was fodder for this Missouri kid.
Elsewhere, the song named for Stills was a great one, too. Michael Murphey recorded “High Country Caravan” for the Flowing Free Forever album a few years later, in 1976. During that tour Murphey stopped in Kansas City, appearing at Memorial Hall. It was one of the first times I got to go backstage, where I found Murphey to be accommodating and friendly as hell. I told him that I was working on “High Country Caravan,” and he handed me his old Martin, which I think he said he got from his grandfather — it’s pictured on the inside cover of Flowing Free Forever — and told me to sing it and he’d sing harmony. One of my favorite memories of the early rockcritter days.
And Here to There was one of those albums that I kept finding in the dollar bins. I bought as many copies for 50 cents or a buck as I could find and distributed them to friends and tried to push the album to anybody who would listen. It was just one of those records that I thought everybody missed and it was my duty to change that. There have been many of those over the years.
I followed Fromholz’s career sporadically. Though we never saw him in the many years we went to Austin for SXSW, Gil and I went up to the Gold Hill Inn probably 15 years ago and caught Fromholz, who lived up there back in the Frummox days. So did Stephen Stills, whose music company was conspicuously called Gold Hill Music. Fromholz said that night that he added Stills’ name to get his attention. He did, too, and wound up playing in his band for awhile. He also played on Rick Roberts’ solo record that he recorded in Boulder before joining Firefall.
On that night up in Gold Hill, Fromholz had to perform another of his songs of which I am particularly fond, “Bears,” three times. Twice for the crowd and once more for one of the cooks, who didn’t get to hear it the first two times. He could have sang it again as far as I was concerned. He was gracious and accommodating as he told stories of his days in Gold Hill, as much raconteur as musician.
I have performed “Bears” in public many times, most notably in several towns around the state, when I would provide the opening act for a lecture tour developed and given by Billie through Sinapu titled “A Year in the Life of a Black Bear.” Love that last line: “They just don’t come no better than a bear.”
Sunday, we’ll remember the life of Steven Fromholz. Thanks to Dan McCrimmon for making this possible. He’s continued to play live, and he will on Sunday, and is a luthier in Littleton, Colorado. Check out his fine music and instruments here.