Talk Music: Tommy Elskes takes bitter with the better
Forget the hipsters, the hippies and the haters – Tommy Elskes is in a league of his own.
Raised in Albuquerque, N.M., and now headquartered in Austin, Elskes’ tantalizing combo of delta blues, Americana folk, country, pop and rock – and even a little zydeco – make your feet tap and your hips sway.
His music has been recorded by Lyle Lovett and has been featured on Top 10 lists across South Texas radio.
Elskes, 60, caught up with Get Out to talk about his musical start, how he nearly lost his fretting arm and how after 10 years in recovery, he’s taking full advantage of all life has to offer.
You started with a boys’ choir in New Mexico. What sorts of bands came out of that?
I sang in the Methodist Church choir when I was a little boy in Albuquerque. Then I was invited to sing with the Albuquerque Boys’ Choir ... until I turned into a juvenile delinquent and got too old for that.
I started playing in garage bands – horrible, horrible garage bands. I started the first in seventh grade; I was 13.
We probably knew like six songs. We’d play them over and over because nobody cared. We were playing stuff like “Satisfaction” and “Louie Louie” and anything else with three chords.
I would hate to have to hear anything we did back then.
I started playing as a duo with a friend of mine in bars when I was 16. From then on, it just took on a life of it’s own. I ended up in Austin in 1976 and played around town with a bunch of people doing different stuff until 1994, when I left and went to Colorado for five or six years. Went to New Orleans for a year and back to Austin, and that’s when all the shit fell down on me in 2001 and 2002.
I spent a lot of time in late ’70s and early ’80s with my band, Kiwi. We did a lot of openers for Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins, BB King, Willie and all the people down here in Austin. We broke up in ’81, and that’s when I started working as a freelancer doing vocals for people and commercials.
I love listening to your music – whether it’s “Breaux Bridge” or “Too Fat to Fly” – and I have to know whether you consider yourself more of a singer or more of a guitarist?
Personally, I never thought of myself as a guitarist. I always thought of myself as a singer, someone who is a performer. I always figured I did good enough guitar to accompany myself.
In the last year or so, my guitar playing has come a long ways. I suppose at some point, I’m going to have to consider myself a guitar player, too. That’s kind of hard for me to get my mind around.
So it all started 50 years ago. How does it compare now from then?
I just turned 60 last month. So far, I can’t complain. I’m probably in better shape than I was 10 years ago.
Actually, about 12 years ago, my wife at the time had gotten encephalitis a few years earlier. She ended up losing her mind over the course of about five years.
In August of 2002, she shot me and killed herself.
She shot me in the left arm – my chord playing arm – and I thought I was going to lose it. I talked the doctors into saving it. It’s taken 10 years, but last year, it quit hurting me all the time.
Now, I can play better than I ever have.
It took a long time to recover. They ended up having to replace all the bone in that arm with steel and then went back and replaced that with my hip.
Six months after that, I got kidney cancer, and they had to take a kidney out. But since coming back from all that, everything’s been great.
That’s quite a story.
You got to take the bitter with the better. You can’t let your life get you down.
Right up until the end, I just can’t see giving into anything like that. I promised myself when it happened that I was going to make a comeback. It took a year almost before I could really hold a guitar.
Carolyn Wonderland, she’s the most awesome guitar player, singer, songwriter I’ve ever met. ... About eight weeks after I got my cast off, she showed up at my house with a lap steel and a Dobro. She just showed up out of nowhere with $5,000 worth of guitars to see if I could play them. If I couldn’t hold a guitar, maybe I could play with a guitar on my lap.
I spent the last 10 years relearning how to play guitar from scratch.
And through that, you kept your art alive, albeit through a different medium. What can you tell me about your fish?
I was looking for something kind of benign to do. I decided that instead of doing bad things, I would do good things.
As a little kid, I messed around with drawing and stuff, geometric stuff. All of a sudden, I got an idea from some Indian pots that I’d seen out in southern New Mexico from a tribe that’s long extinct. I took those fish that were on there and started messing with them. They were morphing along as I did it.
I ended up drawing fish with sharpies. I wanted to do folk art with the cheapest tools I could get, true to the roots of folk art. I started drawing fish. It turned out that everybody liked them, so I had a bunch of postcards printed with fish on them, then I did some large ones that are framed that have gotten into a couple little galleries. I did that for a year or two before I could really play again.
Let’s back up – while you were doing the commercials and songs for TV, even through your recovery, how did you keep up with your writing ability?
I started writing songs when I was about 15 or 16. I’m not real prolific. I’ll go two or three years and not write anything. Then in two or three months, I’ll write a half dozen or dozen songs and end up keeping half of those, maybe.
I wrote a half dozen or so right in the three or four years right after I got shot. Now, I’ve been on another dry spell.
Just in the past couple of months, I’ve started feeling the itch to really write some lyrics.
For me, that’s always the hard part. I generally need something real bad or real good to force me to write.
I’m not a songwriter that sits down and goes over things and writes and rewrites. Generally, when I write a song, it comes out of me in about 30 minutes. It’s like “Alien” – it bursts out of my chest with blood and stuff.
That sounds painful.
A lot of times, it really is.
It’s mysterious to me. I still don’t know how it happens.
I always start with the music, and then the lyrics come along later.
What are you working on for 2014?
This is the year I’m planning on getting back into mainstream and get back into performing like I used to. This might be the year I put a band together.
Before this last year or so, I wasn’t really confident about my guitar playing. My arm hurt me so bad all the time. That doctor was going to take it off at the elbow. I told him he couldn’t give me any morphine until he promised to fixed it. He took a shot at it, but he said it would hurt me for the rest of my life.
I’ve never been a pill guy, so I started drinking a bottle of booze a day. I did that until the day before Christmas two years ago. Suddenly, it occurred to me that I’d been seeing this woman who was a masseuse, and she finally made my arm quit hurting. At which point, I decided that drinking a bottle of booze a day was not medication anymore; it was just a bad habit. It’s been a real good change.
It sounds like you’re on a good path.
I left Austin in 1994, never really to return until about 2008 or 2009. It’s funny because you leave town for that long, the DJs are all different; the kids don’t know you. It’s like starting all over as far as getting myself out there.
Lucky for me, all my old friends who I played with in town years ago have all been incredibly helpful. They’re helping me get gigs, introducing me to people I did not know. Things are starting to open up a little bit for me here, and I’m happy as a clam.
It’s funny because I always had a good voice, but now, after I quit drinking, my vocals have gotten better. I think I have a pretty good handle on what’s going on with me. Now, if I can just gain that new audience that I really need to make stuff happen.