Joe Gracey – Making a New Road

Joe GraceyJoe Gracey was one of the writers of the Austin Sun Music Column beginning around 1975. And, like other music columnist for the Sun, Gracey had a generous background in the music industry, from the early age of 12 years old.

Joe Gracey was born at an early age in Ft. Worth, Texas (“Where the West Begins”) on November 14, 1950. He began playing in garage bands at 12, had a pirate radio station at 13, and was working in commercial radio at 15. In high school he played rock & roll bass in pickup bands with other Ft. Worth guys like T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton. (Bruton’s parents owned the great record store where all Ft. Worth musicians hung out and got their real educations.) At 14 he hung around the recording studios where T-Bone and Major Bill Smith were working, and was bitten by the recording bug. He got a 2-track machine and began taping anything that would sit still long enough.

He worked in Top 40 radio from 1965 to 1972 in Ft. Worth and Austin. In 1969 he became music director at KXOL-FM under Program Director/songwriter Lawton Williams (“Fraulein”) who had installed a “Countrypolitan” format at the urging of Chet Atkins. It was during this time that Gracey was exposed to the music of Willie Nelson and the whole range of great country music of the 50’s and 60’s. This format was an early attempt to bring country music to an urban, more female, younger audience.

While earning a degree in American Studies from the University of Texas, Gracey began working in FM free-form radio. Here he became the first rock DJ to play Willie Nelson’s music when Atlantic Records sent him the first pre-release copy of the Shotgun Willie album. He was also the radio advertising producer and voice of the Armadillo World Headquarters. In 1972 Gracey, Armadillo head honcho Eddie Wilson, Willie Nelson, and others concocted the idea of a “progressive country” radio format and approached the management of KOKE-FM with it. However, KOKE-FM decided to hire a different Program Director and Gracey later joined the station, to become its highest-rated disc jockey. In 1974 KOKE-FM received the “Trendsetter of the Year” award from Billboard Magazine for its Progressive Country format. In 1975 Gracey assumed the Program Director’s role, and stayed there until 1977.

It was during this period (1972-1975) that Gracey was the rock music columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. In this role, he urged his readers to pay attention to progressive country artists like Willie and Waylon (he called Willie ‘the Dylan of country writers’) and in one column he challenged the local television media to offer an outlet to the burgeoning Austin music scene. The gauntlet was taken up by Bill Arhos, the manager of KLRU-TV, who hired him to be the talent coordinator for the first season of Austin City Limits. In this capacity, Gracey put together the reunion of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys (who went on to have a successful second career), the pairing of Ry Cooder with Flaco Jimenez, and the first network television exposure for Clifton Chenier, Townes Van Zandt, Asleep at the Wheel, and Marcia Ball.

After he left the Statesman, he continued to write articles for Picking Up the Tempo, in which he explored Conjunto music, Black Creole, Western Swing, and various aspects of Texan culture. It was at this time that Gracey wrote a music column for The Austin Sun.

In 1977 Gracey left KOKE-FM and began to work with Alvin Crow, doing radio and media promotion. It was also at this time that he began to think about a musical career of his own, opening for Alvin with his brother Bill as “The Gracey Brothers” on the road for two years. Legendary Nashville producer and label owner Jack Clement and Gracey had become friends and Clement was discussing recording Joe for his label.

In 1978 Gracey discovered he had cancer and had surgery to remove his larynx. Because of his association with Jack Clement, Gracey had become more interested in recording (again) and had begun to consider producing and engineering. In 1978 he set up Electric Graceyland Studios and Jackalope/Rude Records.

In 1977, Gracey was stricken with oral cancer and underwent a series of painful surgeries at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston that would cost him the ability to speak and sing, but saved his life. He married, had a family and built a career producing and playing music. He was cancer-free until 2009, when a small lesion appeared in his mouth and was successfully treated, again at M.D. Anderson.

Then he was diagnosed with metastatic cancer of the esophagus in January, a development “that pretty much throwed me from my hoss,” as he wrote in his “Letter from Graceyland” blog. “But as I have said before, you do what you must do to survive.”

In an Aug. 29 American-Statesman profile of Gracey, Smith talked about his friend’s determination: “When we were on the road with the band and we took a wrong turn someplace, he never wanted to turn back. He would always say, ‘Let’s just go on. Make a new road.'”

In late September, Gracey and Rhodes took a break from his chemotherapy and radiation treatments to spend time at their second home in France, a renovated former stable, visiting with family and friends and watching the fall wine harvest. Tests showed his cancer had retreated.

“He drove again for the first time in a year,” Rhodes wrote in an email. “He bought a grill and made fajitas for friends who came to visit from Spain. He had a good time. He won.”

He produced many Austin acts at Electric Graceyland, including Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Skunks, Diamond Joe Siddons, Harvey “Tex” Thomas, and R.C. Banks. In 1979 T.J. McFarland brought him a girl who wanted to be a singer and had written a few songs who turned out to be Kimmie Rhodes.

This magical association led to the production of many Kimmie Rhodes albums, a major publishing deal, and a marriage. Kimmie and Joe had a daughter, Jole Morgan Goodnight Gracey, and Kimmie has two sons Gabe and Jeremie Rhodes. Gabe, played guitar in their band.

In addition to Kimmie’s records, Joe Gracey had worked on hundreds of recording projects since 1979, including Alejandro Escovedo w/Rank & File, Joe King Carrasco, Butch Hancock, Butch’s Dixie’s Bar and Bus Stop TV show, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Freda and the Firedogs, Alvin Crow, The Leroi Brothers, Wes McGhee, Calvin Russell, Fred de Fred, Dick Rivers, Jean Louis Mahjun, Arkey Blue, Sue Foley, Asleep at the Wheel, Ray Campi, John Emory, Live at the Continental, The Hole in the Wall Anniversary CD, The Skunks, a Willie Nelson enhanced CD-ROM for Microsoft, and many others.

His recent recording projects include Willie Nelson and Ray Price’s new Lost Highway CD, “Run that by Me One More Time”, as well as new Kimmie Rhodes “Picture in a Frame” CD, a new Calvin Russell CD, mixes of a Willie & Merle Haggard TV special, the Willie Nelson’s “Me and the Drummer” CD, and Willie Nelson’s album for Island Records, “Spirit”. His most recent venture was with Willie is, where MP3 files of the Kimmie/Willie recordings for “Picture in a Frame” can be purchased and downloaded.

Joe’s recipe for Tex-Mex Enchiladas appeared in Saveur magazine, followed by a Saveur “Fare” article on Joe and Kimmie’s henhouse adventures. He currently has several more articles and features waiting to be published by Saveur. Joe and Kimmie also enjoyed teaching cooking classes at Central Market, working together on cookbooks, and pursuing their culinary adventures all around the world.

In his book, “The Incredible Rise of Redneck Rock,” author Jan Reid called Gracey a visionary who “played a compelling mix of Texas musicians, the Allman Brothers, Hank Williams Jr.” from a playlist that “was brash, seamless and almost all Southern: Listen up here, this was the direction country music was going, and Nashville better listen up and pay attention.”

Recently, Gracey fell ill again and the couple flew back to Houston and the hospital. On Thursday morning, November 17, 2011, Gracey passed away in Houston, Texas, finally succumbing to the disease that took his voice decades ago.

Gracey, husband of Kimmie Rhodes, father, disc jockey who brought progressive country music to the forefront and the first to play Willie Nelson on the radio, KOKE Radio program director, talent coordinator for Austin City Limits, music producer, writer (Austin American Statesman where he was the rock music columnist, and the Austin Sun) the voice for Armadillo World Headquarters radio ads, music producer and engineer, bass guitar player, chef, author and one class act of a human being, had turned 61 on Monday.

“To me, his heart resonated to the ears of Austin,” said his longtime friend, Austin attorney and musician Bobby Earl Smith. “He could make you feel like he was playing that song for you.”

Survivors include his wife, his daughter Jole, and stepsons Gabe and Jeremie Rhodes.

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