An Intro to Navasota Blues Legends

Back when I was the manager of  Blues Alley, blues "experts"  would come swaggering in with an attitude about Navasota being named the official "Blues Capital of Texas,"  sort of looking for a rumble about what they knew about the subject. I feel sorry for them now, because when I get through with them they had to tuck their tails and run! It's not me, its the facts, which usually convinced them they were inadequately informed, for they never heard such things before, and THOUGHT they were big blues fans...

But to be fair to these hapless visitors, much of my reasoning is geographical and cultural, and very historical, and blues people are not that into that. Blues people are into the music and especially the music that attracted them first. When it took them by the throat and slapped them around a little, and spoke into their soul, they couldn't have cared less about such extraneous things as social studies. Anyway, here is a more coherent version of what I would tell them...

Just look at the rivers. They were the pathways of early Texas... and provided the fertile valleys prime for the cotton culture that built Texas. The Brazos and Navasota River Valleys were the major arteries for the Texas plantation culture, and they come together right here at Navasota. Cotton meant slaves and slaves meant blues. The slaves learned the music here and after freedom took it all over the world...

My research has found over thirty blues recording artists born and bluzified in the Brazos Valley, between Waco and the Texas coast. Navasota is the epicenter of this region. The following are some of the musicians whose lives and careers were in part spent here...

As best as I can tell, this blind gospel singer was the first nationally known recording artist to bring the Texas blues tradition to Navasota...


Tary Owens

I had always heard about some guy who stole Mance Lipscomb’s guitar.  Recently at Blues Alley we acquired an electric guitar that was supposed to have belonged to Mance, and in researching it, Dr Michael Birnbaum reminded me about Tary Owens.

The story goes that Owens, a close friend of Janis Joplin’s, and Mance’s… who had devolved into a sad, drug-addicted musician who needed some dough, stole Mance’s brand new Gibson acoustic guitar. The handsome American icon had been given to him by the Gibson guitar company. When Mance saw that it was stolen, he turned Tary in, and friend or no friend, and he was arrested and put in the Grimes County Jail.

Owens was one of few persons to know whatever happened to that coveted instrument, that was probably sold for drugs. Then, in true Mance Lipscomb style, while Owens was boiling in his own stew, the gentle old soul took another guitar to his friend in jail. To show that there were no hard feelings, I guess.

Now that’s Christian forgiveness.

The rest was worked out but the guitar was gone, and Tary finally bottomed out years later, got out of drugs, and music, and just tried to learn to enjoy life as a sober, responsible, decent individual. Tary Owens had been a friend and advocate of some of the biggest names in Texas music. He had been there when the whole Texas Music phenomenon had started in Austin. He had hung out in San Francisco with all the hippies and music legends, and if he had kept a Rolodex, it would have sported the most impressive list of 60’s and 70’s musicians in America.

And even though he was burning his candle at both ends, and burning most bridges with his friends as a consequence of his addiction, he managed to help numerous Texas musicians to get gigs and recording contracts. He especially loved the blues, and probably for a reason. His friendships, his marriage and his self respect were in shambles. There was a trail of casualties in his wake, including him.

One day he discovered an exhibit about Texas blues at an Austin museum. There were pictures and songs by the very people he had helped to get established. Somebody had noticed his life’s work. He discovered in the exhibit that it was believed these blues men were dead, but Owens knew better. He went and found Roosevelt  Williams, known to blues lovers as the “Grey Ghost,” still alive and spry, and ironically, living almost across the freeway from the museum that featured his music. After several visits and some begging, the Ghost agreed to go see the museum.

Seeing the pictures, hearing the music, the old man seemed to come back to life. Eventually he and Owens agreed to do some more business. For the first time in his life, Owens would be an agent, drug free, pushing an artist… to really help him, and maybe himself, to try and work out some old demons.

Owens started Catfish Records with his son, and they began to produce blues. Roosevelt Sykes was brought back into the limelight in the twilight of his life. And then Owens began to find and capture other obscure artists that deserved a venue. He even came and performed at our own Navasota Bluesfest when it was just beginning. Mance had to be smiling down on that.

Anyway this whole story sat in my little blues museum at Blues Alley for almost a year. You see another blues enthusiast, Jack Ortmann, had dropped off a recent copy of Texas Music History Magazine… and it had a picture of Mance on the cover, and when I saw it was not actually an article about Mance, but some Austin music promoter, I just let it lie there. It was the story of Tary Owens.

Now I know Tary, or at least his memory, was trying to make contact.

But it did not happen until a local antique picker cleaned out his barn and found an old Harmony electric guitar he had acquired ten years ago... from the Lipscomb family,and he thought nobody would care until now... and one thing led to another.

And I did not read the article about Owens until after Dr. Birnbaum recently reminded me of the whole affair. The article went to great lengths to establish the image of the Tary Owens who had the strong finish in life. The memory of the old scoundrel who stole from his friends was superceded by a man who successfully reinvented himself. He is now deceased, but he had done a lot of good, in the end. And it is a strong finish that counts, right?

So I’m hunting on ebay as I often do, looking for something about Texas blues that I don’t have… and I find an album I have never heard of, never had seen. Some wanna-be named… give me a break, Frank Robinson. This is one blues guy that should have changed his name… but wait, THREE songs on the album are about something to do with NAVASOTA. Who made this thing?

Catfish Records.

About this time, I am not just forgiving Tary, I’m talking to him. You son of a___!

And then I realize I already had another of his albums, the one he produced called the Milagro Redemption something or other… it has songs by one of our favorites at the Navasota Bluesfest, Orange Jefferson.

Hello Tary, its nice to meet you... you son of a… I’m gonna’ hug you real hard when I meet you in heaven.

Thanks for not giving up on yourself.

Now, if you could just lead us to that Gibson….

Mance Lipscomb

There are be over a thousand people out at the Grimes County Expo Center (the fairgrounds) each second weekend in August celebrating Mance Lipscomb and the blues music he loved and made famous. He enjoys a great deal more popularity now than he did when he was available to play in person around here for ranch barbecues. He developed a unique style, where he played bass, rhythm and lead all at once, and it is said that he knew over three hundred songs, of all kinds.

His legacy was lasting because he kept on playing when only a few were listening. That's an important thing for aspiring musicians to know. Thanks to Chris Strachwitz and Mack McCormick, old Mance was found, recorded, packaged and unveiled to the world. We are deeply endebted to them. And Thanks Mance, for teaching us what Faith looks like.

Even in the sunset of his career Mance managed to impress lots of young musicians who truly loved him. Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, Bob Dylan, Steve Miller, Eric Clapton and many others looked to him as a living link between American rock and roll and its mother, Southern blues. When veteran Texas musicians come to Navasota, they invariably will recall their associations with Mance. George Ensle speaks affectionately of this Texas blues legend, and the golden days in Austin when he opened for him. Later he was inspired to write a song partly based on men like Mance Lipscomnb, who quietly made a mark on our culture. Ray Wylie Hubbard told of driving Mance to a gig in Oklahoma, upon the invitation of a friend, which involved a trek down to Navasota to pick him up, and long hours on the road in arms reach of the gentle, unpretentious soul, who made a friend for life.

This photo and others you will be seeing have recently been discovered, never before published. The love and talent that went into making these photographs betray a great deal of respect and reverence for Mance Lipscomb. Found in a box in a garage sale in Bryan, they may be the most beautiful portraits ever made of a Texas bluesman. Providentially, the fellow who found them knew who to bring them to! Yes, copies are available.


 Joe Tex AKA Joseph Hazziez

Joe Tex is undoubtedly the most famous singer to ever call Navasota home. Born Joseph Arrington, He followed an uncanny path blazed by dancer Alvin Ailey. Both were born in Rogers, Texas, both went to New York to gain fame, and both lived in Navasota for awhile.

Joe was born in 1935, and he did not stay in Rogers long. Old time Navasota residents remember his easy personality, contagious sense of humor and down to earth accessibility. They sketch mostly warm memories of him at local barbecues, hauling watermelons and making small talk downtown.

And yet there was the unknowable Joe. He was all over the place. As likable as he was, there were plenty of rumors to fan the local beauty parlors. Joe Tex just went right on. He was one of a kind. He was what he was.

Joe was singing early, winning talent contests as he drew upon his Country Blues heritage, crafting a unique 60's Rock & Roll/ Soul/ R&B style that sounded like preaching to music. He had several huge hits, and made music history in several ways. The most important contribution he made to American music was his fearless shifting between talking and laughing and singing as natural as if he could entertain during conversation or converse while entertaining. Joe Tex also sang boldly about male - female relationships, and often included sound advice to his audience, as if he were doing mass musical marriage counseling. Everyone remembers his strange and somehow endearing sermon/song “Skinny Legs and All” that blasted, “Who’ll take the woman with the skinny legs?” But Joe was full of surprises, recording a Country album, which actually brought considerable acclaim. His biggest hit, “I Gotcha” was recorded in 1971.

After spending some time in Baytown, Joe bought a ranch in Grimes County, where he tried to return to his rural roots and learn more about God. He became a Muslim. After a short sabbatical, he emerged energized and inspired, cranking out his smash disco hit, Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman). Joe had a way of surprising all of us, even his Muslim brethren. His talent went from R&B to Rock to Country to Disco. Writing and recording several hits during his heyday, Joe Tex built his style around just being himself and having fun while sharing his country charm and wisdom. But many music historians point to his style as the launching pad for Rap music. For sure, he is one of the most underestimated R&B entertainers of the 60's and 70's. John Morthland of Texas Monthly Magazine generously offered that Joe Tex was "by far Texas' greatest contributor to soul music." Joe Tex died of heart failure in 1981. No other Texas entertainer has covered as much ground, or done it with as much originality or prowess.

For his diversity and entertainment prowess, that stretched across decades and stubborn racial barriers, Joe Tex, aka Joseph Hazziez is # 2 in my "Top Ten in Texas"

Future articles will include early local musicians that influenced Mance Lipscomb, such as Robert Tim, Hamp Walker, A. C. Sims, and Richard Dean, and those who came later, like "Guitar" Curtis Colter, L. C. "Lightnin' Junior" Williams, and a few other blues artists from within a thirty mile radius of Navasota: L. C. Robinson, Angelina Robinson, Blind Arvella Gray, Thomas Shaw and Buster Pickens.

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