Feature: Wednesday, July 16, 2003
How Long is The Road

Steve Fromholz is coming back from a different kind of wilderness.

By Jeff Prince

The fingers were tentative as they picked out chords on a scuffed-up 1950 Martin acoustic guitar. The hands that have saddled horses, paddled canoes, and played countless tunes on stages around the country remain strong but not as confident and precise as they were a few months ago.

The powerful baritone voice — instantly recognizable by fans — slurs and stutters at times.

The mind that created songs such as “Bears,” “Texas Trilogy,” and “Man With The Big Hat” is sharp but altered. Between sleep and waking, something was lost. “There’s a little part back there that’s dead now,” he said, tapping the back of his head. “So it’s different.”

Friends and fans may not even know that a stroke changed Steven Fromholz’ life so dramatically this spring — there’s been little said of it in the press. Some of those who do know still worry about him, but Fromholz himself doesn’t seem troubled. He has no doubt he will return to the stage, the rivers, and the wilderness trails that he loves so much. It will just take time. “My job is to heal,” he said in late June. “That’s been my job for months now, just to get better. I’m going to get better and better and better. I am, day by day.”

Fromholz had given no interviews since the stroke, until he agreed to talk to Fort Worth Weekly. “He’s one of the most private persons I know,” said his sister, Angela Blair. “He hardly ever does interviews and I was surprised that he did this one. I think he felt ...it was time for people to know. You say ‘stroke’ and you picture someone crippled who can’t say a word. He wanted people to know that he would be back. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he will be back stronger than he ever was.”

Stronger than ever, but perhaps a different man than the one who went to sleep on the night of April 18.

April 19, Easter Eve, was all mapped out. Fromholz was planning to get up at 10 a.m., his usual time, drink coffee, putter around his sister’s house in Bosque County until early afternoon, and then drive 260 miles to Kerrville for a gig that night.

The next week he was expected in Stephenville to perform his distinctive repertoire of songs while scattershooting his sharp wit at Larry Joe Taylor’s Texas Music Festival. Beyond that, his schedule was packed. A Texas Music resurgence had returned Fromholz to the spotlight he enjoyed in the 1970s as a pioneering member of the Outlaw movement led by Willie Nelson and a shaggy bunch of Austin-based singer-songwriters.

Since 2001 he’s released two new c.d.’s — Live At Anderson Fair and A Guest In Your Heart — and a retrospective, The Anthology: 1969-1991. This year he re-released on c.d. the obscure but fascinating 1985 recording Cow Jazz and is preparing to re-release on c.d. two notable earlier albums, Frummox: Here to There and Rumor In My Own Time. A solid base of longtime fans and a growing number of young listeners enjoy his unique style of singing, songwriting, and storytelling. In March he had sold out MacHenry’s Upstairs and the Reata Restaurant rooftop in Fort Worth, and his last two appearances at Bass Performance Hall garnered enthusiastic reviews.

So life was good. Fromholz, 58, remained healthy and active despite a longtime penchant for beer, tequila, cigarettes, and carousing. For the past 23 years, in addition to the town gigs, he had also served as river guide, horse trail guide, and campfire sage for private adventure outfitters such as Far Flung Adventures and Texas River Expeditions.

But from the moment Fromholz opened his eyes on Easter Eve morning, his well-planned schedule was down the tubes and his active future in jeopardy. A robber had entered his bedroom the night before and stolen part of his life. “A stroke is a thief,” Fromholz said. “It steals your identity and your ego and self-confidence and all that stuff.”

When he awoke that morning he was unable to speak. “I got up to drink coffee, and all I could do was mumble, I couldn’t talk,” he said. “My sister said my face was drooping and my [left] hand was curled up. I didn’t feel bad or have a headache. It was kind of weird.”

Blair and a friend tried to take him to the doctor but Fromholz resisted. “He’d shake his head, no,” she recalled. “We’d gotten Steven in the living room in a chair and I was getting hysterical. My friend told him, ‘I’m afraid Angela is going to have a stroke if you don’t go to the hospital.’ Steven agreed to go to the hospital because he was worried about me. I guess this was just scary to him.”

Fromholz doesn’t recall being scared, just confused. “I was in denial,” he said. “It couldn’t happen to me. But it could and it did and it sucks big time! Strokes are weird things. Never have one — skip it, you wouldn’t like it.”

His doctor at the Houston Veterans Affairs Medical Center “said it could take a year to get fully over it,” Fromholz said. “It was a big stroke. They say I’m a miracle. A lot of people have my stroke and never walk again, or they die.”

Three months later, his speech still slurs a bit, he tires easily, and he hasn’t found the confidence to play his guitar and sing at the same time, even in the solitude of his own home. But in four hours of interviewing over two days, he was alert, witty, mending, and determined to return as good as new.

Affability has always been Fromholz’ trademark. Many of his songs, such as “Dimmy Jean’s Poor Puke Sauce Linkages,” contain humor and irony, his stage patter is hilarious, and he’s approachable off-stage. But he typically doesn’t reveal much of himself or his feelings beyond his music. A tough Texan with rural roots and four decades of road experience, he keeps his cards close to the vest and hesitates to get deep or show vulnerability. Particularly now, at one of the most vulnerable periods in his life.

“C’mon in,” Fromholz said in his clipped manner. He was standing in the doorway of his Sugar Land home on the outskirts of Houston in late June, barefooted, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and looking fatigued. Inside, the modest and comfortable brick home, bore few traces of his music career, other than two platinum records framed and hanging on the living room wall. The backyard, seen through a sliding glass door, was lush with St. Augustine grass and a gigantic old willow tree.

I was a little worried. During our phone conversation the previous day, Fromholz had been abrupt and void of humor. Now here he was in person, still terse and without a trace of his trademark drollness. I wondered if the stroke had stolen his wit or made it difficult to verbalize.

We sat down on facing couches with a tape recorder between us, and I looked for a way to break the ice. “Well, I guess we should start this interview with the logical question,” I said. “Did you ever sleep with Rita Coolidge?”

He burst out laughing, and that loud, long bellow removed any doubt about his sense of humor’s survival. (Rita was a hottie during the Outlaw era — a beautiful pop star married to a movie star —and would have been nowhere near Fromholz’ orbit.)

Fromholz didn’t exactly pour out his heart after that, but he did talk openly about his career and the stroke that has temporarily derailed it. As he spoke, the left side of his face sometimes sagged, his tongue didn’t always cooperate; he stuttered on a few words and slurred some others. “I’m not drooling or dragging,” he said several times, yet he frequently wiped his mouth as if fearing that he was. He wasn’t.

I have spoken with Fromholz several times over the past 20 years. On this day, I noticed his eyes lacked their usual spark. I asked him to let me know if he became tired. After only 45 minutes, he took me up on it. “Let’s call it then, I’m done,” he said.

At 10:30 the next morning, I arrived unannounced at his doorstep and found him looking 10 years younger. His eyes twinkled, he spoke with more clarity, and he flashed his wit often. “Yesterday, the interview wore me out,” he said. “That’s new to me. I’m not used to getting tired that easy. It’s no damn fun.”

Fatigue is one of many symptoms that accompany strokes. Fromholz’ rehabilitation includes an afternoon nap, and my arrival the day before came at a time when his body was demanding rest. After a good night’s sleep, he was a new person.

In some respects, Fromholz seemed an unlikely candidate for a stroke. He is not yet 60 and he’s one of the most active and outdoorsy of the old-guard singer-songwriters. “I’ve been healthy as a hog for years and years,” he said.

Since 1980, he has been a river guide and horseman leading groups on wilderness adventures. He has maintained his weight by shunning fast food, even when on tour. Cocaine was a staple in the old days but no more. More recently, he’s cut back on booze and quit smoking marijuana altogether.

“I don’t need all that armor,” he said. “It’s all just armor, you know. I used to think if I had a bottle of tequila, I had to drink it all. I don’t.”

If his life up to April 19 hadn’t prevented a stroke, at least it helped him deal with it, and its aftermath. Trained in first aid, he knew not to panic. Many stroke victims become so frazzled they have another stroke within 48 hours. Fromholz remained cool but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t worried. A stroke had disabled his mother at age 62.

“She never got her speech back and it totally debilitated her,” Blair said. “A stroke was both mine and Steven’s worst nightmare. Mother lived 20 years after having a stroke, severely handicapped. That really has an effect on your mind. It’s very definitely a genetic thing.”

Another problem shared by stoke victims is depression, an emotion that Fromholz has seldom allowed in his life. His fans know him as light and funny on stage, his friends recognize the same traits when the spotlights are off.

“I never said, ‘Why me?’ or got angry at God,” he said. “Why not me? I never said, ‘This ain’t fair,’ because life ain’t fair. The fair is in Dallas in September. Life is life and sometimes it can suck but that’s all right too. This is the largest suckage factor I’ve ever been involved in — 10 on the suck scale.”

One of his closest friends is singer-songwriter Larry Joe Taylor, who asks him to perform, emcee, and just hang out at Taylor’s four-day music festival each year because Fromholz keeps things loose.

During the making of Taylor’s most recent album, he asked Fromholz to hang around the recording studio, not so much for his musical contributions as for his personality. “You get in the studio and there can be some intense moments and Steven is able to keep it light for everybody,” he said. “It’s nice to have Fromholz around. He’s just a great guy. There’s not anybody as a songwriter that I would look up to as much as Steve Fromholz either.”

Three days after Fromholz’ stroke, Taylor went to visit him at a Waco hospital and was saddened to see his old buddy with a grim look. “It was pretty devastating for everybody at that time,” Taylor said. “It was almost unbearable to see him like that. He was in pretty bad shape right after the stroke, communication-wise, and he wasn’t walking and he was real tired. It just wasn’t Steve. You could tell he wasn’t talking good and he didn’t want to talk. I tried to make him laugh a couple of times and he kind of did but not really.”

The following day, Taylor’s festival began with a concert by Jerry Jeff Walker, who dedicated songs and stories to Fromholz. Raffle tickets were sold over the next few days, and the festival raised more than $3,000 to help with medical bills. Later, musician friends such as Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett established the Steven Fromholz Medical Assistance Fund at Liberty Bank in Austin. Benefit concerts were held across the state, including MacHenry’s Upstairs in Fort Worth and Poor David’s Pub in Dallas. (Fund information is available at Fromholz’ website: stevenfromholz.com).

A catastrophic insurance policy helped Fromholz cover his initial hospital stay, but the money didn’t last. The life of a wandering troubadour and wilderness adventurer has its rewards, but large reserves of cash are not among them. He gets royalties here and there but Fromholz, like his late buddy Townes Van Zandt, is a songwriter’s songwriter, meaning he is respected among peers for penning smart and meaningful tunes, even if they are not crafted with a formulaic process for commercial success. Fromholz needs to perform and sell c.d.’s to keep money coming in, and he has been shackled in that regard since April. The fund is buying him time to recover.

“The generosity has been incredible,” he said. “The love and well-wishers have been incredible. I don’t have to go back to work right now. I’m able to take a little time off, which I need to have.”

The support helps in a spiritual way as much as it does financially, he said. “It’s hard to describe how good it makes you feel,” he said. “The outpouring of love was incredible around the world. It was all so easy for so long. It came so naturally for me. And now I’m working back to a level of performance that satisfies me. I can’t be impatient. The worst thing I can try to do is come back too soon. I’ve got time, thank God, I’ve got time.”

Fromholz is eager to recover and is getting close, but he doubts he’ll ever be the same. Part of him died that day, and he sometimes slips into third-person when discussing his stroke. “It’s kind of scary to see who comes back, to see the guy who comes back and starts playing,” he said. “It aint’ the same guy and that’s a fact.

“It was a good life, and it still is, just a different life.”

Texas has spawned tons of musicians, including some of the most brilliant in modern history — Bob Wills, Buddy Holly, Freddie King, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Waylon Jennings, and so on. Nobody loves Texas more than Texans. The state has inspired more songs than probably any other in the union.

So it’s no small feat to have penned what many people consider the best song ever written about the Lone Star State. “Texas Trilogy” is poetic, elegant, and dazzling in scope while remaining as simple as the Kopperl farmers who inspired Fromholz to write it in 1967. Kirk Dooley’s Book of Texas Best, published in 1988, named “Texas Trilogy” as the best song ever written about Texas, hardly breaking news to anyone who has heard the epic ballad.

The song starts with a haunting acoustic guitar playing in A-minor, quickly joined by Fromholz’ deep baritone voice wrapping around words filled with alliterative insight: “Six o’clock silence of a new day beginning is heard in a small Texas town. ...”

Some fans are surprised to learn that Fromholz wrote the trilogy — “Daybreak,” “Trainride,” and “Bosque County Romance” — in one sitting over about a two-hour period. “I sang it that night at a club called The Drinking Gourd in ‘Frisco on a Thursday night to a full house,” he said. “When I finished singing, it was just total silence, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I blew it.’ Then the room just erupted, and I thought, ‘Oh, I got it right.’ I’d never written anything like that. It was huge. It went on forever, and it still does. It’s held up real well. It still means something.”

Other songs have also come quickly to the troubadour — some of them perhaps less cerebral. He penned “I Gave Her A Ring (She Gave Me The Finger)” on stage in Terlingua, making up the song on the spot in front of a live audience. After a little rewriting, in 2001 he recorded the tune, which received radio airplay and become another staple at his live shows.

Some songs take months or years to write. He’s content to wait. Not once has he set out to knock off a commercial song or followed a format designed to meet anybody’s demands other than his own. That tactic has spawned some intelligent, but not commercial, material and earned the respect of his peers. His biggest commercial success was “I’d Have To Be Crazy,” recorded by Willie Nelson in 1976. The song reached the Number 2 spot on the country charts, and the album Sound In Your Mind went platinum. Nelson included the song on a subsequent greatest hits album, which also went platinum.

Fromholz’ life, like his writing, evolved in a somewhat happenstance manner. He was born in Temple in 1945. His father traveled a lot and moved the family with him, but many of Fromholz’ childhood memories revolved around his mother’s hometown of Kopperl, in Bosque County, about an hour’s drive south of Fort Worth. He attended Denton High School and the University of North Texas.

“You ever seen American Graffiti?” he said. “That was Denton in 1962 and it was perfect. It was great to be there in those days.”

At UNT he met fledgling songwriter Michael Murphey (who would go on to record a slew of brilliant songs such as “Geronimo’s Cadillac” and “Wildfire”). “We were on the cold green bean circuit, the luncheons for all the Kiwanis Clubs and Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs,” he said.

A draft notice came in 1965; Fromholz signed up for the U.S. Navy and was stationed in San Francisco. There he was, a country boy musician smack dab in the biggest hippie scene in the country. He spent his liberty time performing in clubs and coffeehouses — buzz cut and all, he was drawn to the lifestyle. He left the Navy in 1968 with an honorable discharge after a Navy psychiatrist told him, “Fromholz, you could exist best on the fringe of society,” he recalled.

He headed for the folk music scene in Denver and formed a duo with Dan McCrimmon. They called themselves Frummox, which was a nickname given to Fromholz — a derivative of his name and a lummox, or a big oaf. Their first album Here To There in 1969 contained some of Fromholz’ best early works, including “Texas Trilogy” and “Man With the Big Hat.” But the record label folded shortly after the album was produced, limiting its distribution.

The duo split in 1971 and Fromholz became an unlikely member of Stephen Stills’ rock band Manassas, playing rhythm guitar and singing harmony. He lasted six months. In the past, Fromholz has blamed his short tenure on too much cocaine and rock-and-roll excess. “We did 25 cities in 50 days, we had private airplanes, big hotels, limousines, the whole experience, and it was all new to me,” he said.

Still, he’s vague about the adventure. During our interview, after my third or fourth inquiry about why he would leave such a plum gig, a weary Fromholz blurted out, “He’s an asshole,” and started laughing.

“You don’t work with Stephen, you work for Stephen, and that was very apparent,” Fromholz said. “It was his way or the highway so I took the highway. There was a lot of fear around Stills, and I don’t deal with fear; ain’t got time for that.”

Next, Fromholz hooked up with Michael Nesmith, the former Monkees member who had started his own alt-country label called Countryside, in association with Elektra. They produced Fromholz’ first solo album, How Long Is The Road To Kentucky, and anticipated a hungry audience and large sales figures. Instead, a management turnover at Elektra ended the association with Countryside, and the album was never released. For Fromholz, it was another lesson about the music business.

At about that time, a music scene was developing in Austin. Rusty Wier and Jerry Jeff Walker were there, and then Nelson showed up in 1972. Fromholz arrived in 1974, shopped his songs, played gigs, and landed a recording deal with a major label, Capitol Records. Finally, his first solo album was released, the thoroughly enjoyable Rumor In My Own Time, which made him a minor star in the national Outlaw explosion. “Texas Trilogy” amazed everyone who heard it, although some radio stations wouldn’t play a song that lasted almost 15 minutes. Then, Nelson recorded “I’d Have To Be Crazy” and Fromholz had his first commercial hit, even though the song defied the norm with lines such as, “Been days when it pleased me to be on my knees following ants as they crawl ‘cross the ground.”

“It was too weird for No. 1,” he said of the song that sat at Number 2 on the charts for weeks.

The Outlaw scene offered plenty of cocaine and excess but in a different way than Fromholz had found in Manassas. “The Austin scene was crazy but there was lots of love around and we were all friends,” he said. “We kind of looked out for each other.”

All these years later, they still do.

Worried friends began visiting Fromholz in the hospital within a few days of his stroke. At first, he was tired and distant. But the wily old personality quickly returned. Legendary songwriter Billy Joe Shaver entered the hospital room, unsure what to expect, and was relieved when Fromholz hollered, “Billy Joe, gimme three!” The reference was to Shaver’s right hand, which is missing two fingers.

“He was up and moving and kicking and joking with the nurses,” Shaver said. “He’s tough. He was already up and exercising and trying to get himself well.”

After a nine-day hospital stay, Fromholz went home to Sugar Land. He had an adverse reaction to some medicine, which caused excessive itching and scratching. He took it in stride, and, as usual, made it into a joke. His sister said he was scratching and staring at the sky one day, and when she asked what he was looking at, Fromholz, wondering how many things could go wrong at one time, said, “I’m just waiting for the locusts.”

As the weeks roll by, his motor skills have begun returning. His days are filled with rehabilitation and rest. He rises at 10, eats a healthy breakfast with juice, Cheerios, and muffins. He responds to e-mails and runs errands. Playing guitar and talking are important elements of his rehab process. A long walk follows an afternoon nap. “The only real hard part has been the talking, you know, not getting in a hurry, pronouncing the words and getting them right,” he said. “The physical stuff came back pretty quickly. I was real lucky, blessed by God almighty.”

He makes regulars trips to the VA hospital in Houston, and his time there has given him a new cause. He praises the doctors and the care he receives but he has been concerned and touched by the plight of many disabled veterans.

“The VA does the best they can but a lot of those guys have nothing, including legs,” he said. “They deserve better, they deserve not to be forgotten. A lot of those guys gave all they could and more than they should have. They deserve help and I’d like to bring some kind of consciousness into that. Some of those guys got no place to go and they’ll be there until they die and they are ignored. I’d like to do concerts and raise money and take it there and give it to the guys individually, and say, ‘Here’s some money for you.’ The VA doesn’t give them spending money and a lot of these guys are destitute.”

He has tentative plans to return to the stage in limited engagements beginning in mid-August. He and Taylor will perform in Stephenville on Sept. 28, and he’ll perform a set on Oct. 9 at Tommy Alverson’s Family Gathering in Glen Rose. The following day he’ll open for Willie Nelson at Beaumont Ranch. Until the August gig, he’ll continue to rehab, recuperate, and pray that his stage debut will satisfy his fans and himself. Contemplating his return, Fromholz’ conversation reveals many of the emotions he is feeling — confidence, hope, doubt, and fear.

“I’ll be back by then I think,” he said. “If I don’t feel sure, I won’t go. I’m not going to embarrass myself by getting up in front of a bunch of folks and not being there. I’ve been here too long. I’ll come back 100 percent, but that guy that was there before is gone. It’s a total rebuilding process.

“Your ego, entertaining, getting up and working a stage — it’s confidence. It’s always been very easy for me and now it’s not. It’s hard. And kind of scary,” he said. “It’s going to be different than it was — I know that — because I am different.

“A stroke will give you pause. It’s a matter of getting back on the bicycle after a bad wreck. This was a bad wreck, but I feel like I’ll come back and play again. I want to. But only time will tell, and that’s a fact.”

Surely there’s a song or six in all of that, for the new version of Steve Fromholz.

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