The next time Texas balladeer Steven Fromholz performs here, you might be snapping your fingers rather than applauding.“I will be dressing all in black and wearing a beret at all my gigs in the next year,” he said, with his tongue in its usual spot: firmly planted in cheek.
Tomorrow (Thursday, April 19), he is heading to the state capitol in Austin, where Gov. Rick Perry will designate Fromholz as poet laureate of Texas for 2007. Unlike previous honorees, he’s not a poet. He’s a singer-songwriter — and an incessant wisecracker. When asked if he enjoys poetry, Fromholz said, “I like chicken, turkey, duck, pea hens, guinea fowl — I love poultry, always have.”
Last year, Red Steagall was the first honoree to be better known for songwriting than verse. He gained acclaim in the 1970s for honkytonk tunes such as “Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music.” Still, he’s widely known as a cowboy poet. Fromholz, on the other hand, has no poetry background, although his songs can be insightful, structured, and literate. “Texas Trilogy” is poetry put to music, and the song has been hailed as the best ever written about the Lone Star State:
Six o’clock silence of a new day beginning
Is heard in a small Texas town
Like a signal from nowhere the people who live there
Are up and moving around
’Cause there’s bacon to fry and there’s biscuits to bake
On a stove that the Salvation Army won’t take
And you open the windows and turn on the fan
‘Cause it’s hotter than hell when the sun hits the land
His most poem-like effort is probably “Song for Stephen Stills” from the 1969 Frummox album: “The crystal gay softness unbroken by sunlight / And rainbows have died for the day / A pine-needle pillow of dreamed-upon memories / Walked over winds blown away.” But his only genuine brush with poetry occurred back in the late 1960s, and it had nothing to do with his writing it. He was living in Colorado and sharing gigs with a rough bunch of tattooed, volatile beatnik poets from Chicago. “These guys were dangerous customers, junkie boys,” he said. “They loved my trilogy a lot for some reason. I’d do a set, they’d do a set. It was quite unusual to work with them, but I got paid, so I loved it.”
While excited about his latest brush with the world of rhyme and meter, Fromholz is fuzzy on details. “I have no idea what being poet laureate entails or requires of me,” he said. And he doesn’t know what awaits him at the capitol tomorrow, or whether he’ll get a plaque or a key to the city or “a Laurel and Hardy handshake,” but he can’t wait to find out, he said. “I’m so proud and happy,” he said. “I’m a true son of Texas, and it fills me with pride.” As it turns out, the designation is an honor without strings. Being the state’s top poet “carries with it no obligations or requirements,” according to the Handbook of Texas Online. The selecting committee chooses poets whose work “can be understood by the average reader.” That certainly includes the man who wrote “I Gave Her a Ring (She Gave Me the Finger).”
His new designation isn’t quite as illustrious as the position he had been promised by unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman: Director of Parks and Wildlife. But Fromholz isn’t complaining, considering how his life took an irreversible turn in 2003 when he suffered a stroke and was temporarily unable to play guitar or sing. He’s back on the circuit, but he’s had to alter his stage act, and he’s playing fewer dates. “Four years ago on April 19, I was in a hospital and couldn’t walk or talk,” he said. “Now I’m going to be in Austin on the 19th being named poet laureate. It’s quite a trip. I’m blessed.” So. Has he ever written a poem? “Not on purpose.”
That’s about to change. Fromholz has just begun working on his first non-musical poem, tentatively titled “Sorry, Joyce,” a reference to Joyce Kilmer’s classic line, “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.” When asked if he knew any poems by heart, Fromholz spouted a risqué and politically incorrect limerick. The next day, the songwriter, who turns 62 in June and is about to become a grandfather, picked up the phone and asked that the limerick not be printed in this article.
Is he getting wiser in his old age? “I hope so,” he said.
Fri w/Reckless Kelly, Roger Creager, Deryl Dodd, Ed Burleson, and many more at the Larry Joe Taylor Music Festival and Chili Cookoff at Melody Mountain Ranch just north of Stephenville on FM 3025. Visit LarryJoeTaylor.com or call 254-968-8505.