Ponty Bone: King Of Feel-Good Music

by C.J. Schoenrock
Photo By Vance Payne
In "Cruising Paradise," playwright, actor, and musician Sam Shepard writes:

    "I slip Ponty Bone and the Squeezetones into the tape deck and roll  up the tinted window... Things are turned around now... Cruising to the Squeezetones, I set the cruise control dead on 70... I love this open road."

Cruising to the Squeezetones... to where? to there. where’s there? it’s here. If it sounds Zen, it’s probably Ponty Bone. Not that he’s a Buddhist, you understand... this just sums up his philosophy of life. Life is to be met on its own terms. Then it’s to be lived and loved and shared with your friends, wherever you are/wherever they are. It’s an open road.  That’s the message of his music. Consider the lyrics to one of Ponty’s favorite original compositions, "Easy As Pie:"

    "It’s easy as pie to skip a few pages when you’re leafin’ through the book of life, But when the angels come to fetch you, I just hope that they catch you Dancin’ and romancin’... It’s easy as pie. Keep dancin’ and romancin’...It’s easy as pie."

I met folk-rocker Ponty Bone in the early '70s.  He was in his backyard in Slaton, Texas, singing the happy blues with his accordion slung over one shoulder–alternating between flipping burgers on the grill and squeezing out tunes for his friends.

There were others making music there that day–Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock.  Jesse Taylor was probably there, too... He usually was.   They all had their guitars, the badge of a Lubbock singer/songwriter.  But these present-day music icons were not who I remembered when I went home after meeting them all.  It was Ponty Bone and his accordion who stole the show for me; it 's Ponty and his accordion who have been stealing the show for me ever since. I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one.

All these Lubbock musicians have since released albums, made appearances on television and film, brought down the houses in the U.S. and Europe, and been heaped with accolades and awards from around the planet. Jimmie has been nominated twice for major Grammy Awards, Joe has become a true rock icon, revered by   musicians as carrying on Buddy Holly's torch of West Texas rock and roll, Jesse is considered the best blues rock guitarist in the world by people like Eric Clapton, and Butch is known as the Poet Laureate of West Texas. They are all musician’s musicians.  But on that particular day in Slaton, they were all young and hungry and learning, and Ponty Bone was feeding them.

Ponty was the venerable maestro of folk/blues/rock among this stellar group of singer/songwriters from Lubbock.  He was a bit older, had a family, some stability. In the mid-'60s, Ponty had moved to Phoenix, halfway between Lubbock and L.A., and their home had been a way-station for these struggling young musicians as they travelled back and forth, chasing fame and fortune... and the romance of music. (There was no major Austin music scene to move to because they hadn't all moved down there yet to build it.)   In Phoenix, Ponty was the first to have his own full-time band, New Moan Hey, and in 1968, he and then-wife Sarah, the lead singer, released an LP, Blues Harvest, and a 45 single.

They had regional success, but Ponty saw the vicissitudes of the music business and, in order to keep little ones fed, the need to have a day job.  His best gig was as a draftsman, so he moved back to Lubbock. Thus, we find him in the early ’70s, flipping burgers, singing the blues, and writing songs like Flat Town Boogie.

Ponty grew up in San Antonio.  His dad had him playing the accordion at five, but he rebelled to play trumpet in the high-school marching band, graduating in 1957.  Moving to Houston and hanging curtains for a living by day, he listened to   Lightnin' Hopkins play the clubs by night.  He was in Houston in 1959, the day The Music died. He still remembers that day.

"I loved Buddy Holly," Ponty reflects about the influence on him and his music. "I felt like Buddy Holly and I would have had an awful lot in common." He is probably right. Peggy Sue likes Ponty a lot.   And because there is dancing in her genes, she also loves his music. When she first heard his latest CD, Dig Us On The Road Somewhere! her toes started tapping. By the third Squeezetones’ tune, Peggy Sue was up on her feet, dancing around the Lubbock Magazine office.   Ponty Bone has that effect on people.

When Ponty came to Texas Tech in 1959, a career in music had not yet ocurred to him. His passion at the time was art. He enrolled in architecture (a classmate of John Denver) but later switched his major to painting.  He was good enough to actually sell some of his work. "There are some Ponty Bone originals floating around out there in Lubbock and Dallas," he acknowledges.

He fell in with a group I call the Philosopher-Gamblers.  These hard-luck young men, like Lubbock itself and all it spawns, were an eclectic group. They liked to play poker, but there was no money to be made off each other; so they brought in unsuspecting young fraternity men for "a  friendly game." While they worked at bilking the frat brothers out of dad's money, the philosopher-gamblers would discuss art and literature, Nietzsche and Camus, Buckminster Fuller’s latest marvels... or football and the price of beer.

In 1964, Ponty met Jimmie Dale Gilmore through Bob Hamer, one of the philosopher-gamblers.  "They wouldn’t let me play poker because I wasn’t good enough," Jimmie recounts, "but they let me sit in the corner and play my guitar and sing."

"At first," Jimmie continues, "they didn’t like the songs I knew, and I had to learn the ones they wanted to hear."  Bob and Ponty   taught him. Ponty wasn’t very good at poker, either,  so he picked up his accordion and began   playing with Jimmie.  Ponty  soon met Joe, Jesse, Butch, Angela, and all the other Lubbock musicians who later travelled the road between Lubbock and L.A.

After he had returned to Lubbock from Phoenix, Ponty played around town for parties, goat roasts, and weddings (a blues/rock Here Comes The Bride always makes a nice statement). He played some with Tommy Hancock.  It was a magical time in Lubbock, with Tommy's Cotton Club jumping, the Flatlanders beginning to form, musicians in and out of Lubbock constantly. Every party was a private concert by the people who were destined to become some of the world's greatest musicians.

In 1973, I left for a teaching stint in North Carolina. At that time, jam boxes were new (it was the heyday of the 8-track), but I bought one and  took with me one lone cassette tape... the tape of my going away party at which Ponty Bone and his accordion presided.  Yes, it had the bad fiddle and guitar, the washboard, the spoons, the washtub bass, the blues harp, and even a couple of kazoos to distract an ear, but anyone should have been able to hear through the cacophony of sounds to the pure tunes of the accordion.

I would listen to that tape and could just feel Ponty’s fingers fly sensuously over the keys, subtly tickling the ivories in ways no piano player could.   I shared my tape with my new friends and was laughed out of the room when I steadfastly maintained that someday Ponty Bone was going to be famous.

I came back home to Lubbock eventually (as we all do), and the night Ponty appeared on Austin City Limits for the first time, I was sure to call them up and gloat.   I continue to do so whenever I can. I was particularly gratified to call on the night he appeared with Jimmie on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

As Joe began to put together his original Joe Ely Band, he asked Ponty to be a part of it in 1976. Ponty agreed, quit his day job, and has never looked  back.    He moved to Austin in 1980, playing with Joe until early 1983 when the   band disbanded. There was constant critical acclaim in the national and international press for Ponty and his masterful presentation of hard rock/country/punk accordion when they toured with The Clash and opened for The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty.

Ponty Bone single handedly introduced accordions into rock music and reintroduced them back into contemporary folk music. Newsweek reported in 1978 that Ponty Bone’s "accordion playing is a revelation of how hip this instrument can sound." Rolling Stone and Spin magazines joined in that sentiment several times.   By the late '80s, there was a proliferation of rock and country accordionists.   Ponty had made the accordion not just acceptable, but hot.

In 1982, before the original Joe Ely Band broke up, Robert Marquam, Ely's drummer and Ponty’s roommate on the road (since deceased), helped Ponty start his own group, so they’d have gigs in between the Ely tours. Thus was born Ponty Bone and The Squeezetones.

The Squeezetones have been through many incarnations, from their first lineup with Ponty, Robert, Ely bass player Mike Robberson, all from Lubbock,  and John X. Reed (lead guitarist from Amarillo who John Conquest of Third Coast Music says is the last living human who can play true Texas rock and roll...but he needs to hear The Texas Bel-Airs and George Tomsco of The Fireballs). The current line-up of The Squeezetones (with Spencer Jarmon on lead guitar, Cliff Hargrove on bass, and Justin Hess on drums) has been together continuously since 1993. They have developed an extraordinary, tight sound.   They're great.

In 1992, Austin's La Zona Rosa hosted a Squeeztones reunion, with more than 70 people invited–the guest list reading like a "Who’s Who" of the Austin music scene. It included Lubbockites Jesse Taylor,  Randy (R.C.) Banks, saxophonist Smokey Joe Miller, and the Texana Dames (Charlene Condray Hancock and her daughters Conni Hancock and Traci Lamar).  Lubbock Gen-Xer David Holt, now with Storeyville, has also played Squeezetone gigs on lead guitar.  Plenty of people from other parts of the world have joined them, too, including famed British country rocker, Wes McGhee, (with whom Ponty has toured in Great Britain) and the legendary Ronnie Lane (of Small Faces and The Faces, with Rod Stewart) who was the inspiration for The Keepers.

People ask whether Ponty Bone and The Squeezetones are Cajun, zydeco, tejano, country, folk, rock, or blues. The music is all those... and more.  I’ve heard Ponty play everything from bluegrass to classical. When he plays and sings his original songs, it’s sometimes hard to tell what it is. But it’s always accessible. It’s always right there to be danced to, swayed with, smiled at or cried happily over.  It’s just easier to call his music folk rock.

Like all the other Lubbock singer/songwriters, music stores never know which bin to put him in. It might cost him some gigs or a record deal, but Ponty is adamant. "I’m not gonna tell 'em I’m just zydeco or tejano or blues, but I refuse to say there’s not an accordion in the band. As the folk genre changes, I find my music fitting in better with the folk rock category." Or perhaps the folk rock category is just finally catching up with Ponty Bone and the Squeezetones’  music.

 The recent nomination of Ponty Bone and The Squeezetones for the Kerrville Music Awards’ 1997 Band of the Year is indicative of this fit.  The nominations for this most prestigious of folk music awards come from professionals in the folk music industry throughout the United States. The featured band at last year’s awards ceremonies, they have played to adoring throngs for years at the Kerrville Folk Festival. In recent years, the Squeezetones have played invitationals at Canada's renowned Edmonton Folk Festival, the Blues Festival in Amsterdam, and music festivals in France, Great Britain, and Mexico.

The press and music critics give  rave reviews for their albums Dig Us On The Road, Somewhere! (1996, Real World CD), My, My, Look At This (1987, Amazing Records), and Easy As Pie (1986, Amazing Records).  Ponty also keeps his fingers in the pie with other bands. Whereas the accordion and the original tunes by Ponty are front and center with The Squeezetones, he plays sideman for the rock group, The Keepers, and the popular band with no name, made up of Jesse Taylor, John Reed and Ponty Bone.  Ponty continues to get consistent accolades for his session work.  In the Austin music industry, he is on everybody who is anybody’s albums.

Ponty’s stellar performances have won countless nominations, awards, and polls in Austin throughout the years. He is acclaimed for his musicianship, his singing and songwriting, and his showmanship. Most importantly, I think, Ponty Bone is best known and loved for making people feel extraordinarily good–which is what music at its best does the best.

Ponty’s music is uplifting, inspiring, and just flat fun. It is almost    impossible to feel down after hearing the  Squeezetones. Their performances are at once informal and high energy. Ponty plays a lot of private parties for corporations, weddings, and fundraising events. For a time, he was shipping in crawfish to the clubs he played, especially in Canada, where they had never tasted the succulent Cajun delicacy. That’s Ponty... always thinking about what would make the experience better, easier, more pleasurable, more fun.

His involvement with every benefit concert known to mankind is legendary.   In Lubbock, he helped make a reality the West Texas Musicians’ Homecoming Gospel Sing, launching the C.B. "Stubb" Stubblefield "Feed the World" Memorial Fund to Breedlove Dehydrated Foods in his good friend’s memory.  In Austin, he is on the entertainment board for Musicians for M.S., to fight against multiple sclerosis, helps raise money for groups for victims of violent crimes and a battered women's center, and he is a regular at the Mardi Gras fundraiser for the Children’s Miracle Network at Scott and White Hospital.  Recently, he  was MC for the Save Barton Springs fundraiser  And he is always nice, no matter how busy, no matter what his own problems. Need a friendly smile and a cup of encouragement?  Ponty Bone is the man to see.

Ponty  never wanted an electronic keyboard, even though everyone told him he could market himself better if he would. But he liked the sound of an acoustic accordion, so he held fast. He thinks his stubborness may have cost him some attention, particularly by labels who thought he wasn’t up with the times.  No, he’s simply a purist.  But now... watch out. There seems to be a marriage made in heaven in the works.  Look for his new midi-accordion. He can play his squeezebox in the same old way–full open acoustic–but also add other synthesized sounds behind it.   "People say, ‘Man, you’re sounding good!’ and they don’t know that they heard a sax playing along. It’s wonderful," Ponty admits.

Ponty determined early on that he wanted to make the accordion accessible to people. "I work at being a little less excellent and a little more bluesy," he quips. The accessibility factor is why he allows his strap to fall off his shoulder as his eyes close and he plays a slow, blues riff. Next time you watch that strap fall, just see if it doesn’t make you want to grab the nearest accordion and play along. Like other maestros, Ponty Bone makes the difficult appear easy and the impossible a reality.

On his more than 15-year-stint here in West Texas, Ponty reflects, "Lubbock is the place that nurtured me musically and yet, gave me a lot of material for blues songs." Regardless of his birthplace, like folk giant Woodie Guthrie, Ponty Bone came of age as a  musician here in West Texas–and his soul is pure Lubbock.   In fact, Ponty has given us all the quintessential test of whether we are true Lubbockites.

At the West Texas Musicians’ Homecoming Bar-B-Que Music Fest last September, Ponty Bone and the Squeezetones were rocking out on Sunday night in front of Great Scott’s Bar-B-Que on FM1585. We were all still having fun after a weekend of more Lubbock music than a human being  can stand.

As the last group at the Homecoming to play that night, The Squeezetones were on.  Ponty’s accordion and Spencer's  lead guitar were taking rock and roll to a new level when the the law came by to tell us to turn down the volume, even though we were sitting next to a cotton field, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  But Scotty said, "Yes, sir,"  Ponty just nodded amiably and smiled, and the deputy, satisfied that he’d done his duty (even though absolutely nothing had changed), drove off happily.  Ponty kept on playing, shook  his head and laughed as if, after 20 years of being gone, it was coming back to him what Lubbock is all about. The music just got louder and he laughed harder till the song was over. He stood there, grinning and shaking his head while the audience was on its feet, yelling for more.

"Ahhh," he chuckled, "Don’t you just hate Lubbock?"   "YES!!!!" the crowd screamed. "And don’t you just love Lubbock?" he laughed.  "YESSSS!!!!!!!"  the crowed roared. Ponty grinned and then declared.  "If you can answer ‘yes’ to both questions, then you’re a true Lubbockite."

 

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