Richard Dobson collection reveals formative years of ‘Hemingway of Texas music’
A new archive in Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center has set out to document Houston’s lively folk scene of the 1960s to 1980s. This summer, the Houston Folk Music Archive added the Richard J. Dobson collection, which charts the Houston and Tyler native’s development as a singer-songwriter.
The archive was the brainchild of Norie Guthrie, an archivist and special collections librarian at Fondren. Other bands and artists in the archive include Wheatfield and St. Elmo’s Fire, Linda Lowe and Don Sanders. “We are preserving a part of Houston’s history,” Guthrie said. “Anybody who’s wanting to do research about the Houston music scene from a specific time period, there’s a lot to draw from.”
Currently living in Switzerland, Dobson has been described as “the Hemingway of Texas music” by the Houston Press. A contemporary of Townes Van Zandt and a favorite of John Prine, he was a key figure in the group of Texans who coalesced in Austin and Houston in the early ‘70s and gave birth to the Texas singer-songwriter genre, but ended up pursuing their craft in Nashville to make a living.
From 1971 and continuing into the next three decades, University of St. Thomas graduate Dobson made both Nashville and the Gulf Coast of Texas his home. While in Nashville, he participated in the outlaw country scene with fellow singer-songwriters Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell and “Skinny” Dennis Sanchez, among others. In the Houston-Galveston area, he continued honing his song craft and releasing albums, all the while working on shrimping boats and off-shore oil-drilling rigs to make money to record and book studio time. His song “Roughneck Occupation” memorializes work in the oilfield. Dobson has released 23 albums.
Guthrie tracked Dobson down while we he was visiting Houston and at Anderson Fair, the folk and acoustic music venue situated just off Montrose Boulevard, tucked away behind Texas Art Supply. “We had of recording him (Dobson) at KTRU (Rice Radio) in 1980. I shared the recording with him on a USB (flash drive) and he said that he had a suitcase. He went to his other home (in the Hill Country) and he got this thing out of storage and it was literally a suitcase.”
The Woodson collection contains materials from that suitcase: Dobson’s business files, correspondence up until the mid-’90s, including with Lucinda Williams and Nanci Griffith, for whom Dobson wrote Griffith’s staple, “The Ballad of Robin Wintersmith,” journals and notebooks, records, CDs and more.
“Richard Dobson’s materials are interesting from a songwriter’s perspective and working through that craft,” Guthrie said. “Also, some of his journals are actually about him working on oil rigs and shrimping boats. That’s not necessarily a voice that you hear a lot of or that we would normally get. He describes that kind of life within the journals.”
For more information about the Richard J. Dobson collection, see http://archives.library.rice.edu/repositories/2/resources/1052. For more information about the Houston Folk Music Archive, go to https://woodsononline.wordpress.com/tag/houston-folk-music-archive and visit the archive’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/houstonfolkmusicarchive.