Story and photos by Donna Marie Miller
The South-by-Southwest Music Festival may have ended, but live music continues at venues all over town for us locals.
In Southwest Austin, a few older gray-haired musicians can still draw big crowds any night of the week—even if the majority of folks dancing qualify as senior citizens as old as 91.
The familiar saying “the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune” applies to the Sunset Valley Boys, musicians mostly 65 years old or older.
Their original steel player, Craig Park, has been recovering from a stroke he suffered 18 months ago.
Current steel player, Mark Erlewine, 65, owns Erlewine Guitars, a custom design shop that often repairs Willie Nelson’s “trigger” at 4402 Burnet Road. Erlewine joined the band last New Year’s Eve.
Other original members of the band include: attorney Polk Shelton, 71, who plays rhythm guitar and sings lead vocals, 65 year-old semi-retired business man Ken Simpson, on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Gordon Fowler, 71, on lead guitar.
The Sunset Valley Boys also includes Charlie Irwin, 66, who plays bass—he also performs with four or five other local bands, including Bill Kirchen and Commander Cody. Sherman Lindsay, 66, who plays drums, works for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department by day. Referred to as “the punk kid in the band,” 35-year-old fiddler player Mark Seale works a day job as a tech with Xerox.
The band has three regular gigs. They perform the third Wednesday of the month in the dining room of the Broken Spoke, 3201 S. Lamar, from 6 to 8 p.m. They also play down the street at Baker St. Pub and Grill, formerly the Alligator Grill, at 3003 S. Lamar, the first Saturday of every month from 3 to 5 p.m. They play at the South Austin Senior Activity Center, 3911 Manchaca Road, the third Friday of every month from 7:30 to 10 p.m.
They also play frequent gigs at: Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 8925 off 8707 FM Road 812, VFW Post 8456 in Geronimo, Texas about 10 miles east of San Marcos at 6808 State HWY 123, and Sons of Hermann Hall at 9611 Decker Lake Road. They have also played a few special occasions at the Elks Lodge at 700 Dawson Road, off Barton Springs Road in Austin.
Fowler has been an accomplished artist for 40 years; he formerly served as an adjunct art professor at the University of Texas at Austin and currently teaches at Austin Museum of Art School on Laguna Gloria campus. Fowler’s wife is the well-known rhythm and blues singer Marcia Ball, and his father is Wick Fowler, the founder of “2-Alarm Chili.”
“So we make enough money to keep the wolves away from the door. We’re very very fortunate to be able to do what we like to do. It’s not about money, it’s about freedom and not having to answer to anybody and doing what you love to do,” Fowler said.
Fowler and Shelton as kids played in one of Austin’s earliest rock and roll bands in the late 1950s through the early 1960s, the Nite Lites, as teenagers. They played rhythm and blues and rock and roll—mostly cover songs during a time when only country bands performed at honky tonks in town.
“We started playing in high school and we played in honky tonks. We played out on the lake, at the Lake Austin Inn, where we were the house band. We played at the Jade Room, on San Jacinto and the old New Orlean’s Club that once was on Red River Street where Symphony Square is now. We played dances and frat parties. We played a couple of rough places, like Pac’s Lounge. It was rougher than hell. It was a place we knew we shouldn’t have been in. That was right next to where the Armadillo World Headquarters opened ten years later. Of course, this was 10 years before that.”
He and band members played for $20 each to play gigs during the “Teen Canteen” day summer camps once offered around town by the City of Austin.
“That was fun, we played all over town doing that. Twenty dollars back in the day—in the 1960s—was a lot of money. You fill your car up with gas for $2, cigarettes were .25 cents a pack, and beer was about $1.10 for a six-pack. So we sometimes had $20 or $30 in our pockets. We thought we were rich,” Fowler said.
“Polk was left handed and couldn’t find a left-handed guitar because they were more expensive and harder to find. So we bought him a right-handed one and taught him to play,” Fowler said.
After high school at 22 years old, the U.S. Army drafted him, but Fowler joined the Marines instead. He served two years and a 13-month tour of Vietnam. Over there, he continued to play guitar as a hobby during his free time when he wasn’t chasing stories on the battlefields as a writer. He suffered injuries twice in the line of duty.
“This is the first band that I’ve played in since way back—just after high school,” Fowler said. “If I had been smart I could have been in special services in the Marines and just played music the whole time I served. Instead, I ended up being a writer for the military. I thought it would be a safe job, but it wasn’t. We had to serve in combat the whole time with a notebook in our pockets.”
As a Marine stationed in Vietnam, Fowler wrote feature stories for the publication Stars and Stripes and sent press releases to soldiers’ hometown newspapers.
“We wrote our stories on a typewriter when we could find them, but sometimes we wrote them on the back of a cardboard box that once held C-rations, using a pencil to write with. We’d write our story on the cardboard and send them back to headquarters by helicopter once it landed. We would hand the cardboard to the ‘crew chief’—the guy who sat at the helicopter door with a machine gun. We would ask the crew chief to file the story for us in Da Nang. It was rare, but we did it,” Fowler said.
Fowler’s love for playing music had never left him, not since he first plucked strings on an old $10 beat up guitar in the second grade. When he turned 12, his father bought him a nicer instrument, an electric Gibson. A few years after that, he bought himself a Fender guitar.
“Back then I liked rock and roll, but it was just getting started in Texas. Chuck Berry came out with ‘Johnny Be Good’ in 1955 when I was in the sixth grade, so we got interested in that early rock and roll. Basically, nobody wanted to be in an old hillbilly band and that’s basically all Austin had back then,” Fowler said.
“Now we’re playing all that old country stuff. It’s vintage country music played by some vintage guys too—except for our fiddler, a ‘punk kid’ who keeps us young.”
The “Boys” play mostly Merle Haggard and George Jones tunes and other country songs made popular before the 1960s. They will perform music by Chuck Berry too, upon request.
“Those old folks love to dance. We enjoy playing those senior places because they dance every dance,” Simpson said. “We’ll play private parties too, as long as they’re inside. For our age, we don’t like to play outside in the cold and the heat.”
The Sunset Valley Boys performed their first gig together as a band at Evangeline’s Café in April of 2006. A band member who at the time lived in Sunset Valley, came up with the moniker, though the group has gained a following and a name for itself in Southwest Austin by performing solid gold standard hits.
“The first time we played in Evangeline’s we probably had 75 people squeezed in that little building and from that day forward the crowd just got bigger and bigger,” Simpson said. “We had no room for dancing, so we just outgrew the Evangeline Café.”
Seniors who come to see the Sunset Valley Boys come to dance; they come early and they stay late, he said.
“We still have folks who are 91 who come and dance every dance, from jitterbug to polkas, Two-Steps, and shuffles,” Simpson said. “Some of that old Johnny River stuff, they’ll get out there and jitterbug, but if we play too many fast ones in a row, they come up and tell us ‘Don’t play so many fast ones,’ and they don’t beat around the bush. They’re all fun shows and none of them are late-night shows. Everyone gets to go home early.”
The latest the band has played was 12:30 a.m. last New Year’s Eve at the Son’s of Hermann Hall’s bash.
Every one of the band members have separate careers by day, or work jobs before 5 p.m. and nobody talks about retiring any time soon.
Shelton and Fowler attended Eanes Elementary together since the second grade and have played together since attending O’Henry Middle School.
Afterwards, Fowler moved to San Angelo for a short time and Shelton attended Austin High School before his folks sent him to Kemper Military School in Boonville, MO.
“We all did that—we all left and came back to Austin. I came back in 1961 and attended UT,” Shelton said.
As a student at the University of Texas, Shelton played psychedelic rock on weekends, sitting in at the Orleans Club with Roky Erickson and his band, the 13th Floor Elevators.
Shelton left Austin again in 1965 to attend St. Mary’s Law School in San Antonio. Meanwhile, he performed at the Pearl Pavilion at the Hemisphere Fair there.
“When I came back to Austin in 1970, it seemed the whole world had changed,” Shelton said.
He became a criminal defense lawyer by day and a country singer and performer by night in Austin. Playing music has helped remove the dark images that remain in his thoughts at night after working all day long with criminals.
“Dang near everybody I know deals in darkness all day, every day,” Shelton said. “This is my therapy. This helps me. If I gave this up, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Shelton grew up listening to folk and blues musician Huddle William Ledbetter known as “Lead Belly,” a virtuoso who once played multiple instruments including a 12-string guitar.
“My father had this enormous collection of 78s, from jazz, to Lead Belly and big band stuff. As kids, we watched the ‘Peter Gunn TV Show’ and listened to music like its theme song arranged by Henry Mancini. So that stuff influenced me.”
His parents named him after James Polk, the 11th president of the United States, who helped acquire more than 800,000 square miles of the western territories, but he tells everyone that they named him after James Polk Street in Austin.
Shelton performed at Saxon Pub as a soloist and later had a trio band that played happy hours there from 1996 through 2000.
“I came on just before Rusty Wier, and I always picked up Rusty’s crowd because they began coming in during my set, so that was good. It was an early happy hour crowd for the day drinkers,” Shelton said. “Rusty came in about 7 o’clock and he had a good band with quite a following.”
Shelton said he doesn’t ever remember performing at Donn’s Depot, 1600 W. 5th Street, but he did play there too, more than 16 years ago back when he drank alcohol. The bar’s proprietor Donn Adelmann has been a friend for years.
“I don’t remember playing there as much as I drank there. I thought Donn’s Depot was a savings bank, you know? And I went to get my 401K out and Donn said ‘Polk, you done drank it up.’ Donn didn’t know that I was spending my savings there. I’ve since been sober 16 years. I just thought musicians drank until I became a lawyer.”
Shelton is also a songwriter, who in 1975 became a finalist at Kerrville’s Country and Western Jamboree, with judges that included Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. He also sang on the soundtracks for two videos: “Exploring Entertainment” in 1998 and “Front Porch Music” in 2000.
He seldom performs his originals today, but chooses instead to sing cover songs to please local audiences.
“People always want to hear something else, something they know. I did a few of my originals back in the 1990s. I don’t do anything of mine here. People won’t dance to them,” Shelton said. “They dance around here [Broken Spoke] in the dining room and they really dance a lot at Baker St. when we play there.”
He said that he enjoys playing and singing close to his audience. The band has a regular following, wherever they perform.
“When you play at the Broken Spoke, there’s no tellin’ who’ll show up,” Fowler said. “Those who do show up regularly, we know their names.”
He and his wife, Barbara Shelton, have been married 33 years. They have three daughters and one grand daughter.
Simpson didn’t start playing music professionally before 15 years ago. He had a couple of businesses that he ran and sold before he semi-retired and started playing in a “hobbyists’’ band at the former Acapulco Restaurant in the HEB center at the ‘Y’ off US 290 West in 2002. The band didn’t have a name until it became a steady hobby for a few musicians.
“We originally were (practicing) in Sunset Valley, in a guy’s house. We started playing at the Acapulco Restaurant on Sundays. People started showing up,” Simpson said. “We kind of got started by mistake.”
First Fowler showed up, then Shelton. Soon, they started booking gigs wherever they could.
“I learned how to play the guitar, then I injured my hand and I couldn’t play the guitar anymore, so somebody asked if I could sing and I’ve been singing ever since. I finally figured out how to pick with my injured hand,” Simpson said. “I play rhythm guitar, but Polk is a much better rhythm guitar player than I am.”
Simpson became interested in playing country music while attending William B. Travis High School. He graduated in 1966 and then joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He later joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Reserve and discharged honorably in 1973 before starting his own business, Midway Welding and Iron, off East First Street. He sold the building and the company in 1988 to become an associate with Joe Bush Ironworks. He semi-retired in 2001.
He didn’t play guitar at all during his military years. When he started working in the steel business, he picked up his instrument again from time-to-time.
“These days we do a couple of George Strait songs from the ‘80s, but we don’t get much newer than that,” Simpson said. “Sometimes when we play the senior citizen centers, we’ll play ‘Boot Scootin’ Boogie,’ by Brooks & Dunn. That’s about as new as we get, but we go all the way back musically to Jimmy Rogers. Polk knows all the songs we play and who played them and when.”
Erlewine has owned his guitar shop 45 years and performed for 20 years musically— from the 1960s through the 1980s—before taking a 16-year hiatus in the 1990s.
“When I had a child I gave up the night life. I spent 16 years raising him and stayed out of the bars. He’s 20 now and in the US. Air Force. So my wife, Dianne, talked me into playing. She kept asking: ‘Why don’t you play steel anymore?’” Erlewine said.
When Erlewine moved his guitar shop here from Ann Arbor, MI in 1974, he immediately found gigs playing at Armadillo World Headquarters with the Reynolds Sisters and also with The New Oso Band.
He played with Kenneth Threadgill in his band in the late 1970s and continued through the ‘80s. Erlewine also played for nearly 20 years with Al Dressen and his Sunset Riders at the Broken Spoke and other places in town. Dressen had another band, the Super Swing Review, that Erlewine played in too at dance halls all over Texas.
Off stage and while away from his custom guitar shop, Erlewine enjoyed a recording career as well.
“I even got to record on one of ZZ Top’s albums, El Loco, in 1981, and I got a gold record for it that hangs in my shop,” Erlewine said. “I’ve also made a lot of guitars for famous people like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Mark Knopfler of the Dire Straits band. Keith Urban just ordered a guitar that I’m building for him. I’m excited about that.”
Erlewine likes the music and the “low pressure” gigs that Sunset Valley Boys play.
“I like all the guys in the Sunset Valley Boys band and we always have a good time,” Erlewine said.