Todd Jagger and JR Harrell talk about listening to border radio stations when they were kids, their own radio show, the joys of Texas swing, and their experience recording in Sun Studios with ghosts looking over their shoulder.
The Night of 100 Elvises
Transcript of Interview With The Border Blasters
Calvin Powers: I’m happy to have as my guest on the Taproot Podcast J.R. Harrell and Todd Jagger, better known as The Border Blasters. They are veterans of Texas music. I am glad to have them on the show. J.R. and Todd, welcome to the Taproot Podcast.
Todd Jagger: Hello, everybody.
JR Harrell: Howdy.
Calvin Powers: I understand, we were just talking a little bit ago; you guys had your own radio show for a while. One of you guys wanna tell me about that?
JR Harrell: Go ahead, Todd.
Todd Jagger: Sure. We did what was called the Border Blast Revue. We did that for five years on Marfa Public Radio. We just decided back in March of this year to take a little hiatus from doing this radio show. It’s a long ways from where both of us live, a little longer for me. We had a great time doing it. It was a weekly radio show where we played a lot of the same kind of music that you play on the Taproot Radio. It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of guests.
JR Harrell: Marfa is a destination. You get all kinds of artists that show up that you’d never believe.
Calvin Powers: That’s cool. We will link to that station in the [inaudible] page. Most of our listeners are based on the East Coast and the North Carolina area. A lot of people might not know what a Border Blaster is. One of you guys wanna kind of give us just a basic explanation about what that is?
Todd Jagger: Go for it, Jimmy.
JR Harrell: Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, there were these stations on the other side of the border in Mexico like in Monterrey and El Paso and Juarez.
Todd Jagger: And Acuna.
JR Harrell: In Acuna, absolutely. They were high-powered radio stations at 500,000 watts. At night they would turn the power up and blast al these different kinds of music. Of course, do all these big sales pitches for baby chicks and all kinds of operations you probably should never do. For me growing up when I was growing up in Austin, I heard that stuff on the radio when I was 6, 7, 8 years old. The first time I ever heard blues music and it just blew my mind.
Calvin Powers: That’s interesting. The first time you heard blues music was on a border blaster radio station?
JR Harrell: Yeah, probably it; I’d say either XEG or Radio Monterrey, which got me listening to WLS and KVLO and all the other stations that you could get at night that would be either the clear channel stations here it would get so clear at night you could hear all that different kind of music.
Todd Jagger: The most famous one was the one in Villa Acuna, Mexico which was started by Dr. Brinkley who was run out of the United States basically because he had this operation where he would fuse goat glands to male parts.
JR Harrell: That’s a big thought, ain’t it?
Todd Jagger: He started this station in Acuna and had his hospital in Del Rio, Texas. In order to get people to listen to the pitches for all the operations and the medicines, and the physic readers and all that stuff that they did where people would actually send money, they brought the musical artist from the United States that really couldn’t get mainstream recognition. That’s where the Carter Family got their start; that’s where Cowboy Slim Rinehart. It was this really weird conglomeration of blues, hillbilly, gospel.
Pretty soon in the ‘50s when these were very famous and you could pick these stations up in Europe, even Elvis and very mainstream artists, Hank Williams and all the big stars would make over to [inaudible] to the border radio in Monterrey and Acuna.
Calvin Powers: These were sort of the melting pot of all the different musical influences on your work, right?
Todd Jagger: Exactly, that’s where we take the name because we grew up listening to all those kind of weird different styles of everything from western swing to blues to gospel to straight country and hillbilly music. That’s what influenced our style of music.
JR Harrell: I have to add to that. Play and dances, we played in so many different parties and different little small shows where it’d be just me and Todd and people wanna dance. You think about just two people getting people to dance. Usually there’s a band or orchestra or something like that. That’s another little part of it too though is making wherever there’s kind of danceable. It makes you wanna ting-a-ling.
Todd Jagger: That’s the thing. All those styles of music, that’s what they had in common, is that they were very popular oriented, entertaining, danceable.
JR Harrell: Dancing is very infectious. Sometimes it only takes on couple. Nobody will be dancing and you’ll be just playing your tails off and nobody will get up. Finally maybe one couple gets up and then everybody’s up.
Calvin Powers: Let’s talk about your latest CD a little bit because given that background your latest CD really is kind of a different change of pace and different turn. It’s called The Sun Sessions. Why don’t you all kind of tell us a little bit how this CD came to exist?
Todd Jagger: Was it two or three years that we went to International Folk Alliance in Memphis?
JR Harrell: I think just two, Todd.
Todd Jagger: Two years, okay. When we were up there, we went around town a little bit. I called up Sun Studios when we were gonna go the next year and said, “I hear y’all are still a active studio.” They said, “Yep, we sure are.” I said, “How do you go about getting time?” He said, “You just book it.” So I did. I booked some time when we were gonna be there right before we left. We had nine showcase performances at the International Folk Alliance.
We did our last show and hopped in a cab and went over and took the little tour of Sun Studios. I had three hours of studio time booked and went in there and just knocked them out one after the other; got a rough mix, bought a t-shirt and went home.
Calvin Powers: It’s like to rough mix with your souvenir you took home, huh?
Todd Jagger: It was.
JR Harrell: Yeah, exactly.
Todd Jagger: It was.
JR Harrell: It was almost surreal because you go through the museum part of it and there’s Howlin’ Wolf and Jackie Brenston and Ike Turner, just one thing after the other with all these guys who started it out in ’50, 1951. You get that before you go in the studio and then you get in the studio and these huge posters of Elvis and Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.
Calvin Powers: There’s no pressure at all.
JR Harrell: No, you’re just dwarfed by all the posters. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. It has all the old feel. We got to use all the old microphones. It was amazing experience.
Calvin Powers: I’m sorry. Go head.
Todd Jagger: No, I was gonna say, like he said, it was an amazing experience because you’re standing and like you said, no pressure at all because you’re standing there underneath snapshots that are blown up to three foot of people like Howlin’ Wolf and Roy Orbison standing where you’re standing and creating all this iconic music that is basically part of our DNA. I look over and I’m singing into a mic and there’s a picture with Bono standing there singing into the same mic. He’s singing into a mic that Elvis was using. It was a little intimidating to be quite honest.
JR Harrell: We had played so much that week, which was really a good part of it. We’d done so many showcases. We had to be involved with all the things we were doing that week that to be able to do that time was really way good.
Todd Jagger: Even the engineer, it was quite a [inaudible]. Had we to do this over again we might’ve brought a few friends over there because it was basically just us and the engineer in the whole building. Everything else was shutdown. There was nobody else anywhere around.
JR Harrell: Us and the ghost.
Todd Jagger: We even said, “Are there ghosts here?” He says, “You bet there are.” Then he proceeded to tell us stories about things going weird in the studio. He said, it was about halfway through the session and we were listening, getting a playback on something and he said, “Y’all are doing real good. I’ve had name people come in here and just not be able to get it. They’re so intimidated by standing in this room that it just affects them.” We felt pretty good about that.
Calvin Powers: Let’s give people a taste of that CD. Let people hear what came out of that three-hour session. What should we [inaudible] first from the CD?
Todd Jagger: How about let’s do Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody? How does that sound?
JR Harrell: That’s a good one.
Calvin Powers: Tell us the story. Tell us the story behind that one.
Todd Jagger: This was John Prine’s song. Jimmy, you’re the one that brought this to the bands.
JR Harrell: Oddly enough, we ended up kind of running with it. We heard it maybe three or four times and wrote it down and then forgot that version, which is really kind of the most way when we take a cover song we kind of listen to it once or twice and try to forget it and then do it the way how we’re gonna do it. That’s kind of what happened. We got our groove going on it and for months I kept thinking it needs a tuba. We happened to know a friend who is this wonderful double base player and tuba player.
We happened to run into him after we’d done the session and I said, “Will you play tuba on this?” He said, “But of course.” We had to do a couple of songs with tuba. That kind of took us to another place too.
Calvin Powers: I was wondering about that because Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody covered John Prine off of the The Border Blasters CD the Sun Sessions.
Considering the fact that you had just three hours to lay down, what is it, ten tracks and you’re in this historic studio with legends of music surrounding you, at least their ghost are; how is it that you manage to make a CD where the music feels so relaxed and easy going and just back porch style? How did you manage to do that?
Todd Jagger: That’s just our style, actually.
JR Harrell: We’re unconscious most of the time.
Todd Jagger: It really is. This was a lot easier for us then trying to do a studio type album where you’re worried about a lot of multiple takes and over dubs and whatever. We just decided this is what we’re gonna do, we’ve got a little short span and quite honestly, that’s the way music used to be done. Elvis would walk into Sun Studios and say, “You know what? I wanna cut this 45.” They weren’t worried about a yearlong album project or anything like that. They were coming in and they were laying down the tracks.
JR Harrell: Twenty-five bucks you got your 45 [inaudible].
Todd Jagger: That was kind of the spirit in which we approached this was going in there and laying it down, words and all. There’s little things in there that we had a producer standing over us or somebody like that and they said, “You know, let’s polish that a little bit.” That’s not the way music outta be in my opinion. I think it’s nice to have it be real with all the blemishes left on.
Calvin Powers: Since you guys are veterans of so many musical styles from that era, I wanna talk a little bit about Texas Swing for a second. For folks who live and breathe in Austin or whatnot, they’re well familiar with it. A lot of times outside of the area people only think of the very stereotypical honky tonkin’ two-step. You guys, at least in my opinion, you’ve got a couple of tracks on this CD that are at least what I think you would call a Texas Swing. I was wondering if you could kind of tell us about that style of music.
Todd Jagger: What I would say about it is there again, we hear that growing up, I did on the radio. My dad had Hank Williams records and Bob Wills and Tex Woody and Ernest Tubb and we listened to that. Ernest Tubb primarily with Bob Wills, they were such purveyors of the honky tonk swing style Adolf Hofner to really give it [inaudible] more local runs. Milton Brown before Bob Wills. Milton Brown was an incredible influence on everybody because he saw the melting pot. Leah Jordan saw the melting pot.
That’s what it was, bringing all these styles that everybody got to hear and put their spin on it. Bob Wills did that really well. Asleep at the Wheel has carried different heights as Ray Benson does. They interpret it that way.
JR Harrell: That was all about dance. It’s still all about dancing.
Todd Jagger: I would contend that the Western swing that we’re thinking of and certainly what you’re thinking of also has a lot less to do with what people would call Western swing today. The stuff back then was really kind of hillbilly.
JR Harrell: It was jazz. They listened to [inaudible] and Moody. They listened to Linda Reinheart, that’s who they listened to. They all pulled from that. Grapenny was a total influence of Jesse Ashlock. Look where Sweeny and Cotton Collins where were Cotton Collins [inaudible] for the player. Cotton, the same thing. They were the jazz part of it and made it swing.
Todd Jagger: They were all drunk too.
Calvin Powers: That would make anything swing, I guess. Let’s play another track from the CD the Sun Sessions. Maybe one that’s got a little bit of that swing feel to it. What should we play next?
JR Harrell: Moonlight in Ojinaga.
Todd Jagger: Yeah, there you go, let’s do Moonlight in Ojinaga.
Calvin Powers: How’d you come up with that one? What is Ojinaga?
JR Harrell: You say it better than I do. I could never say it right, Todd.
Todd Jagger: Only when you’re singing it, right?
JR Harrell: I could do it. I sing Spanish pretty well.
Todd Jagger: Ojinaga is a little border town about 88 miles away from where we live out in West Texas.
JR Harrell: Right across from Presidio, Texas.
Todd Jagger: Often the hottest spot in the country. This is just one that basically is done in the Western Swing style in every sense of the word and that is basically an adaptation of songs that probably evolved. We put our own spin on it.
JR Harrell: Stole it fair and square.
Todd Jagger: Yeah, that’s where I was going with it, stole it fair and square. When we do it live we typically have what we call the Ojinaga horns, which is basically us pretending to do trumpet and trombone with our mouth. We decided that was not acceptable on the recording.
JR Harrell: Thank goodness.
Todd Jagger: Moonlight in Ojinaga.
Calvin Powers: When you guys are on the road these days, I know you travel a lot and I know you’re kind of aiming for that dance crowd, what is your favorite kind of place to play? If you could pick your favorite venues, what would that venue look like?
Todd Jagger: I think for us, places where people both listen and depending on whether or not we’ve got the full band with us then. We like people to dance but we also like folks to listen.
JR Harrell: We’re kind of getting spoiled now on house concert kind of situations or these coffee house things where you play to church or the smoke free, alcohol free thing, which goes from 8:00-10:00, which is kind of nice and everybody’s always really nice and the sound’s good. We get spoiled with those.
Todd Jagger: We love playing acoustic without any amplifications. The house concerts are a wonderful way to do that and it’s also a really great way to really get to know your fans and to talk to them and interact with them and have a good time and have them listen to the songs.
JR Harrell: A crowd of 20 people instead of 200, it’s really a nice switch.
Calvin Powers: I know out in our area the house concert thing is really booming. There’s several house concert series that are really taken off. Now some of the music venues are actually designing house concert like nights at the nightclub. They’ll bring in old couches and try to create a living room type setting there at the club and they’ll limit ticket sales to like 45 people.
JR Harrell: People actually listening, isn’t that interesting? Sometimes it takes a little prodding or it’s making them experience what it is and not just be a party time and actually sit and listen to somebody.
Todd Jagger: One of our personal big influences was a band around Austin in the ‘70s and ‘80s called Uncle Walt’s Band. Do you know those guys?
Calvin Powers: No, I don’t. Tell us about them.
Todd Jagger: Go find them. Two of them aren’t with us anymore. They both passed tragically. David Ball who’s kind of making the circuit in the country store now is the third member. Uncle Walt’s was an acoustic trio; two guitars and David Ball on the upright bass. Champ Hood playing guitar and Walter Hyatt playing the other guitar.
JR Harrell: I believe they were all up from your area. They were up from North Carolina, South Carolina area.
Todd Jagger: Yep, they were. They were from –
JR Harrell: – Greensboro.
Todd Jagger: Something like that.
JR Harrell: Greensboro, wasn’t it?
Todd Jagger: yeah, Greensboro, I believe it was.
Calvin Powers: Now I’m gonna be on a mission to look them up. Thanks for the pointer.
JR Harrell: They were incredible and such performers.
Todd Jagger: You are gonna love them. Getting back to the whole point of that was that they had a thing, of course this was all before pick ups on your acoustic guitar, anything like that so they worked with all mics. When the crowds got a little loud in the places, they would just turn their PA down a little bit. They really forced people to listen to them, which I thought was always very interesting and a neat way of doing it. You can do that in a bar if you’ve got the huevos to turn your PA down when the crowd gets hot, gets loud.
JR Harrell: Now everybody plugs in, of course. To play an acoustic music but they have to plug in, what’s wrong with that picture?
Calvin Powers: Let’s play one more track from the Sun Sessions CD. What should we play for the [inaudible]?
JR Harrell: The Next Life, Todd.
Todd Jagger: All right, let’s play The Next Life. In about ten days, I guess, we’re gonna be back in Austin for the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance Conference, which takes place every year in Austin, Texas. It’s a really neat event. It’s kind of like Folk Alliance in Memphis only smaller, 200 or 300 of your closest friends. Every year when you go do your registration and get your packet, there’s a little fish bowl on the registration counter and it’s got things that look like fortunes from fortune cookies in there.
You reach in there and you pick it up and it’s your song assignment. These little things on there and they can be just total off the wall stuff or who knows what they’re gonna be. I don’t know how these people come up with it. By the time you pick that thing out of there on Thursday evening or Friday morning or whenever it is, people perform their songs that they’ve written on Sunday morning during brunch. You gotta write and come up with a song by that time.
JR Harrell: It’s amazing.
Todd Jagger: It is absolutely amazing.
JR Harrell: People are the most creative you could imagine.
Todd Jagger: I’m blown away by the level of talent of the people there.
JR Harrell: You talk about with a gun to your head, that’s it.
Todd Jagger: This particular song was my song assignment.
JR Harrell: We had the gun to Todd’s head as I recall or was it the [inaudible]?
Todd Jagger: I don’t know.
Calvin Powers: What was the phrase?
Todd Jagger: The phrase was how would you do things different in your next life. Basically, I just blew off the thing thinking that, “I can’t do this. I’m not much of a song writer,” etc. Literally, Sunday morning about an hour before we were to go to the brunch and we weren’t gonna perform anything because neither of us wrote a song. I was in the shower and it just kind of came to me and I keep a diver’s slate in the shower to write down ideas.
For all you songwriters or writers, that’s my tip for the day is go to your local dive shop and pick up a diver’s slate and you can keep it in the shower. I wrote down two verses in the chorus and got out of the shower and Jimmy helped me with the music part of it and we went there and performed it literally with wet hair.
Calvin Powers: That’s hilarious.
Todd Jagger: Everybody loved it. I forgot who it was. One of the other songwriters came up and said, “That’s a keeper, boys.” It has been a keeper. Here it is. I always say I dedicate this one to my momma and you can decide which one it is whether it is my momma or my momma.
Calvin Powers: All right, In the Next Life. What’s on the calendar next for the Border Blasters?
Todd Jagger: We’re doing the Folk Alliance Conference next week. Then we’ll be going back out to West Texas for a little bit and we have got some local gigs around there. We’ll go back to Austin in October to do Threadgill’s. We should have some other stuff around there that weekend. I’m not exactly sure what’s firmed up at this point. I need to talk to our booking agent and see what she’s got lined up for us. After that we’re not real sure. We’re just really looking forward to coming to your house and playing for you and 20 of your favorite friends.
Calvin Powers: If you make a trip to North Carolina I’ll round up 20 of my neighbors and we’ll do a house concert, that’d be great.
Todd Jagger: What part of North Carolina are you in?
Calvin Powers: Chapel Hill in Carrboro.
Todd Jagger: Our good friend Tom Pittman, the [inaudible], just moved to Nashville.
Calvin Powers: Listen, thanks for sharing your stories today. Most importantly, thanks for sharing your feel good music with us. We look forward to hearing much more in the future.
Todd Jagger: Calvin, thank you. We really appreciate it.
JR Harrell: Thanks for having us. We enjoyed it.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 26 minutes
The Taproot Radio Podcast is copyright 2011 by Taproot Media. The music and interviews in this episode are used with permission of the artists. The Taproot Theme music is called “Meltdown Man” by Derek K. Miller of Penmachine.com. The episode as a whole is copyright 2011 by Taproot Media.
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