Steven Fromholz has an angel (and a pink flamingo) on his shoulder. (Photo by Jeff Prince)
Sat at MacHenry’s, 7618 Camp Bowie West, FW. 817-377-0202.
Honkytonk hero Steven Fromholz is overcoming his stroke the old-fashioned way — by writing new songs.
By JEFF PRINCE
Music from a finger-picked guitar in open-E tuning drifted through the trailer’s thin walls, creating a pleasant greeting as a reporter’s pickup rolled to a stop in the gravel driveway next to the flower garden with the pink flamingos. Hmm, this was supposed to be the dwelling of Outlaw pioneer Steven Fromholz. The music sounded nothing like the Texas flat-picker with the booming baritone. Sure enough, the guy who opened the door went by the name of Sweet Tea, a genial old cuss who regularly sits barefoot in his jammies, singing with no teeth, wearing a rakish fedora, and telling stories like a slightly touched philosopher monk. “It’s theater — just being somebody else for a while,” Fromholz said, describing his new alter ego.
Six months ago, the 59-year-old singer-songwriter and his new bride moved into this trailer on Larry Joe Taylor’s Melody Mountain Ranch. Most mornings, he finds himself on a couch in his pajamas, teaching himself how to play the guitar again and penning new songs to replace the old ones that a stroke ripped from his mind. A weak left hand and damaged motor skills forced the songwriter to change his style of playing. His new songs — eight in the past year — sound more contemporary, all open-chorded and dissonant, with lyrics relying on simple messages of love and faith. Gone for now and perhaps forever is the chord-churning left hand, the slap-happy right hand, and the tongue-twisting wordplay found in “Bears” and “Dimmy Jean’s Poor Puke Sauce Linkages.”
“I had to retrain my left hand,” Fromholz said, picking up his battle-scarred 1950 Martin D-28. “Let me play you something.”
The last time Fort Worth Weekly visited Fromholz, two years ago, he wasn’t so eager (“How Long Is The Road?” July 16, 2003). He was coming off the stroke and hadn’t yet conjured the nerve to play and sing. Later, he played a few concerts with difficulty. Crowds were supportive, but a melancholy emanated from both sides of the stage. It wasn’t the old Fromholz, and everyone knew it.
“I found out my rhythm was bad, and I couldn’t play at all,” he said. “I was just trying to get through the songs and fucking them up mostly. I was terrified of getting up there. I had no self-confidence.”
His trademark sense of humor saved him, pushing him to accept life’s latest folly. “I can’t go back and be who I was before the stroke, so I’m not going to worry about it,” he said. “A lot of people want to hear the old songs, but I can’t play them, and I can’t help it.”
Longtime dental problems were exacerbated by the attack, and his choppers were pulled in August. Singing in the mornings without the new dentures, he refers to himself as Sweet Tea. (He’s considering developing a stage act with the character, whom he envisions as an aging war veteran and former drug smuggler with a knack for humor and hyperbole.)
The real Fromholz is working to polish 20 songs before he’ll venture out solo again. He hopes to have a show ready by September and wants to play a couple of gigs a month. “I don’t want to tour again,” he said. “I don’t want to be the honkytonk hero again.” His set list is currently 14 songs long — six old ones that he can still play, including the tune that Willie Nelson pushed to platinum, “I’d Have To Be Crazy,” and eight new ones. On the morning Fromholz had agreed to open up to the Weekly again, he managed for the first time since his stroke to play “The Man With The Big Hat” without flubbing chords or words. The song first appeared on 1969’s Frummox, and Fromholz had played it thousands of times during his career. Now, it’s easier to write and remember a new song than to re-learn one written before he fell ill.
Until the solo set is tight, he is working with fellow singer-songwriters Vince Bell, Eric Taylor, and Tommy Elskes, all of them talented musicians who have suffered one physical breakdown or another, prompting the acerbic Fromholz to dub them The Flatliners, a name he came up with at Kerrville Folk Festival last year. “It just crossed my mind,” he said. “What’s left of it.”
Critics and fans have been enthusiastic. The Houston Chronicle’s Michael D. Clark lauded the veteran group after a two-night gig at Anderson Fair in February. “It’s a damn good show,” Fromholz said. “We sit there and swap songs, and we’re awful damn funny. I know I am.”
On cue, he picked up his guitar — dentures in this time — and sang a new song called “Don’t Be Afraid To Pray.” It was gorgeous, performed well by any standard but especially for a man whom doctors have called a walking miracle.
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