Ask me if I knew Hondo Crouch, and you might get a half-straight answer or a half-crooked one.
I don’t believe there was ever a man, woman, or child who knew Hondo a hundred percent or from gizzard to craw.
He was the clown prince of Luckenbach, the inimitable Hill Country Imagineer, and a genuine enigma if there ever was one.
Although many never knew it, Hondo Crouch was one of the greatest showmen this world has ever known. Hondo was also an accomplished writer.
I cried the morning Hondo died of a heart attack. That was September 27, 1976. Tex Schofield called with the bad news. Hondo was only 59. He was my friend and beer drinking buddy who fired my imagination every time I got around him.
Hondo never appeared in a photograph looking bad. There was no such thing as a bad photo of John Russell (Hondo) Crouch. His silvery white hair and beard did not denote advanced age with Crouch, nor did his other “old man” trappings. Hondo wore jeans stuffed into the high tops of cowboy boots, and sweat-stained moderate brim western hats that looked like they had been laying out in a sheep pen.
Hondo Crouch was an all-American swimmer at the University of Texas who never wanted to grow up. And he never did. His skin glowed with apparent health and his blue eyes twinkled with mischief. Hondo was the Hill Country raconteur who whittled and carved on wood, played pranks on friends and strangers alike, and turned a broken-down Central Texas general store and beer joint with separate dance hall into the town of Luckenbach, a magical place which inspired the Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings hit song Luckenbach Texas.
The song will forever remain a part of the Hondo Crouch and Luckenbach legend, right along with Crouch soliloquies like Luckenbach Moon and Luckenbach Daylight. By the light of a campfire and moonlight, Hondo would regale his audience with a goose bump raising Luckenbach Moon dissertation that would stay with them for the rest of their natural lives. I could never forget a “moon that makes haunted houses uglier and ugly girls prettier.” Nor “a moon that makes little animals see farther and feel closer together.”
I met Hondo Crouch in 1967 at the first World Championship Chili Cookoff in the West Texas ghost town of Terlingua. It was a hokeyed-up contest between New York author H. Allen Smith and Texas journalist Wick Fowler to see which contestant cooked the best chili.
The chili, of course, had nothing to do with this great display of insanity and self-grandiosity by some of the world’s most shameless narcissists. We were there along with a defrocked Catholic priest, a Hollywood starlet who ran half-naked through the old silver mining town’s main drag, two wetback whores (known today as illegal immigrant ladies of ill-repute) from the Mexican border town of Ojinaga, Mexico, a bull rider, chili chefs with handles like Allegani Janie Schoefield and Yeller Dog Marsh, and Luckenbach founder, mayor, and grand pooh-bah Hondo Crouch.
I will never forget that windy raw morning in Terlingua. A cold norther with plenty of snap was whistling through the Chisos Mountains of the Texas Big Bend when I first laid eyes on Hondo Crouch. People were gathered around fires for warmth and everyone I saw was wearing coats or jackets. Everyone but Hondo.
Crouch was wearing cowboy boots, his trademark short-brimmed felt with grease creases and goat barn stains, and a set of old-timey long johns with the classic trap door seat flap for emergency dumps.
Crouch may have been chewing tobacco that morning. I am sure that he was drinking a Schlitz beer from a can.
I’m not sure which of us started the introduction. I do know that we seemed to click. Hondo had some bacon fried and he was frying an egg when I walked up.
He asked me if I would care for an egg or a cold beer. I settled for the beer.
The legend of Hondo Crouch and Luckenbach has been told and retold through the years. John Russell Crouch was “the swimming cowboy” from Hondo, Texas. At the University of Texas where he earned all-American honors as a swimmer, Crouch met his bride-to-be, Helen Ruth (Shatzie) Stieler, daughter of Adolph Stieler, once labeled the goat king of the world by Life Magazine and the American Sheep and Goat Raisers Magazine.
In 1942, Stieler owned 38,000 goats, 20,000 sheep, and 1,000 cattle grazing on 90,000 acres in Kendall, Kimble, Kerr, Gillespie, Blanco, and San Saba counties.
The headquarters has always been Stieler Hill on the Stieler ranch between Comfort and Fredericksburg where Stieler’s daughter and other members of her family live today.
So the swimming cowboy from Hondo, Texas adopted to the nickname Hondo with little trouble. He never did fit well in the big money ranching world he married into.
For a time, Hondo worked in his father-in-law’s Comfort Wool and Mohair Company, but his heart was never in it. While Adolph Stieler made his fortune with hard work and natural skills of a stockman, Hondo never seemed to get serious about anything more than what appeared to be his own brand of tomfoolery.
In her book Hondo My Father, daughter Becky Crouch Patterson describes her father as “a mystery, a frustrating puzzle.”
I recall one lazy summer afternoon when I was hanging out and drinking beer with Hondo at Luckenbach. With no warning, Hondo grabbed my arm and said, “Come on. I want to show you some fun.”
He invited me into his battered old pickup truck and away we went down Ranch Road 1376. Hondo stepped on the gas and we were soon hitting 40, 50, 60, and then 70 on the rolling ranch road hills. It was almost scary as the rattletrap pickup topped what must be the highest hill on that stretch of road.
Hondo suddenly killed the engine.
We were coasting fast. Down the big hill and up a smaller one before the truck started to lose momentum.
As the truck slowed, Hondo put one of his booted feet on the dash. He was totally relaxed and grinning like a possum as the vehicle finally came to a creeping stop.
“We just covered a whole mile and several yards running in Mexican overdrive,” Hondo said. “It saves gas and it sure is a lot of fun.”
Hondo wrote over 600 columns for the Comfort News under the made up title Cedar Creek Clippings and the pseudonym Peter Cedarstacker. With Hondo’s permission, I reproduced a number of the columns in Action Magaine. They were parodies or satires of the life and times of country folk from that area, including a family of fictitious cedar choppers and their grubby little boy Jay Elbie.
“And when it was cold and nasty,” Peter Cedarstacker wrote, “little Jay Elbie’s nose kept sticking together.” Or when “Uncle Undo died in a red ant nest” it was really bad.
A month before Hondo died, Bob Hope appeared at a benefit at the Nimitz Hotel in Fredericksburg. In the middle of Hope’s talk, Hondo walked onto the stage and handed Hope a note which brought tears of mirth to the world renown comedian’s eyes.
The note read: “Your fly is open.”
Representing what he facetiously referred to as the Luckenbach Chamber of Commerce, Hondo then presented Hope with an ax handle in lieu of a golf club with this forgettable punchline: “Sorry it doesn’t have a head on it. You see, it’s hard to get a head in Luckenbach.”
Humorist and radio personality John Henry Faulk saw in Hondo what I always saw–a keen mind working behind a facade of country boy bullshit.
“He would act as if he was just an old tobacco chewing country boy who didn’t know nothing,” Faulk said, “but he was actually very intelligent and well informed. He took the character he played seriously–too seriously I always felt, because he never stepped out of character. It became real to him.”
Always the entertainer, Hondo played guitar and sang Tex-Mex ballads in South Texas Spanish that endeared him to crowds and professional musicians. Hondo was very close to Jerry Jeff Walker, a frequent visitor to Luckenbach who recorded his live “Viva Terlingua” album with the Lost Gonzo Band in the Luckenbach dance hall. And for reasons I never knew, Hondo turned down an invitation to appear with Walker at a Carnegie Hall performance. Hondo was booked to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when he died.
Jerry Jeff Walker was a familiar figure around Luckenbach. I know that Hondo was a father figure for Jerry Jeff. Walker loved Crouch and Hondo showed signs that he felt the same.
We used to sit at picnic tables behind the Luckenbach store, drinking and listening as Jerry Jeff crafted songs. I was there when Walker wrote his song Night Riders Lament. We drank and argued and cussed each other that evening and night about nothing until neither of us could stand on two feet. I think one of us had a bottle of mescal. Walker and I were bowed up at each other and too drunk to even get up from the picnic table bench when Hondo came walking out of the store.
“Well, well,” Hondo said. “I can see that this is really gonna be a bloody one. Now both of you need to crawl over to your trucks and sleep it off. We will have no fist fights at Luckenbach.”
I awakened in my truck the next morning, hungover and dog sick. There was dried vomit in my beard and a pounding in my skull like a blacksmith’s hammer meeting cold rebar on an anvil. Dried vomit really stinks. Only a real alcoholic would take another drink of alcohol after a night like that, yet here we were that afternoon. Me and Jerry Jeff. Slugging down one beer after another to calm the shakes, and without any memory of what the hell we were arguing about the night before. As Hondo Crouch would put it, probably just a big old nuthin.
Nobody really knew what made Hondo tick, but he had theatrics in his blood. The world was Hondo’s stage, but he did make more formal appearances. He appeared on the TV series To Tell The Truth as the humorist owner of a Texas Town the size of a flyspeck, and he had a film performance in Pony Express which was in the can when he died.
Hondo was the leader of a theater troupe known as The Crazy Comfort Bunch. They played in villages like Comfort, Waring, and Grapetown, and Hondo was the star of a homemade movie that Rex Foster produced. Title of the film was Blank Dank. It featured Hondo playing all seven roles.
“I never got on a stage,” Hondo was fond of saying. “Stages just seemed to get under me.”
Luckenbach was always a waiting stage for Hondo, although his self-deprecating manner suggested otherwise. Luckenbach’s population was listed as 3. The town had one parking meter that didn’t work. A mail box on a pole was designated for “air mail.” Every promotion Hondo hatched up was a spoof of somebody or something, although Crouch’s motto was “Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach.”
The first Great World’s Fair at Luckenbach drew a crowd. So did the chili cookoff for women only, a day of celebration to welcome the return of the dirt daubers, and the non-buy centennial which featured a bad taste award.
At the Great World’s Fair at Luckenbach, Hondo was introduced as mayor. He wore a black wig, a top hat, and a buffalo hide coat for the occasion. Events at the fair included armadillo races, tobacco spitting, chicken flying, and cow chip throwing. Special guests who were invited included Eizabeth Taylor and the Prince of Wales. Of their absence, Hondo said “I guess they decided to stay home.”
Hondo attracted people like a magnet picks up horse shoe nails. Hardly ever did I see Hondo when he didn’t have a beer in his hand, yet I never saw a drunken Crouch. If a cowboy hobo could look dapper, that was Hondo. He had every situation under total control, and I never saw Hondo upset, rattled, or out-of-step until that black day at Luckenbach when the British Broadcasting Corporation people rolled into the tiny town. The great Luckenbach catastrophe was about to happen, the one harrowing day that saw Hondo Crouch completely lose his composure and ability to even express himself.
The BBC, I was soon to learn, wanted to film a mini-documentary on Luckenbach. The scenario had already been set with Hondo having a major role in the planning. I don’t know how he hooked up with the BBC, but he obviously did. In London with the main office we were soon to learn.
“We are going on British TV,” Hondo said in a telephone call to my office in San Antonio. “I want you here for the filming. We start at first light tomorrow.”
Hondo was geared up for this one. The excitement in his voice was electric. He had already selected the players. I must have been about the last one contacted. I had never seen Hondo excited about anything before, but this British television thing had him all but vibrating in his boots.
Our British film debut would include Hondo, Jerry Jeff, syndicated cowboy cartoonist Ace Reid of Kerrville, magazine publisher and Hondo crony Sam Kindrick, and Luckenbach fixture and gadfly Rusty Cox, probably the biggest Jerry Jeff Walker groupie who ever lived.
The British film crew arrived in Luckenbach at the crack of dawn. They included a redheaded, freckled, and slightly dumpy female reporter and two male sound camera techies. The techies called the woman reporter “Birdy.”
It soon became obvious to most of the parties on hand that Birdy was in charge. Most of the parties included everyone but cowboy cartoonist Ace Reid, who was driven from Kerrville to Luckenbach by someone in a really sorry looking station wagon. The first indication that we were in for a horribly miserable day came when Ace tried to exit the station wagon. He was typically skunk drunk, even at that early hour, and he missed while attempting his first step from the vehicle. Ace had a half-empty pint bottle of whiskey in his hand when he went sprawling head-first across the Luckenbach store parking lot, a stream of barn yard obscenities pouring from his mouth. I recall some broken whiskey bottle glass, a couple of empty beer bottles, a wad of rusty baling wire, an old copy of the Goat Gap Gazette, and other trash spilling out of the wagon with Ace.
This was the British Broadcasting Corporation’s welcome to Luckenbach, Texas.
Then came the real fun as Birdy outlined our main screen scene for the BBC. She had prepared a largely unrehearsed scenario that had Walker picking and singing with the rest of us telling quaint Texas tales as we laughed and joshed with Hondo and one another around the Luckenbach Store bar area.
Birdy wanted a couple of trial runs prior to the actual filming.
I sensed trouble as our cast of characters gathered around Walker. At this point, Jerry Jeff started acting like Jerry Jeff.
“We can’t rehearse this stuff,” Walker told Birdy. “We are not actors.”
Birdy needed a guitar player who could sing Texas ballads.
She beseeched Hondo for help.
Her British accent sounded like a foreign tongue in these prickly circumstances.
“Come on, Jerry Jeff.” Hondo was all but begging. “Let’s hear something.”
“Come on Jerry Jeff,” pleaded Rusty Cox. Rusty could see his one chance for TV stardom evaporating before his eyes. He was clearly distraught.
“Fuck this British TV business,” Walker said. “Who wants to be on British TV?”
Everything was going downhill at this point. Nobody knew what to do or say. We had moved out of the store when Birdy chirped bravely in her strange little British accent.
“What is this?”
She had plucked a strand of Spanish moss from the lower limb of a Luckenbach live oak tree.
Poor little Birdy. She was desperately trying to keep some form of dialogue alive.
“That there’s Spanish moss, lady,” drawled Ace Reid.”
“Oh, my,” said Birdy. “What is it for?”
“Well, ma’am,” Ace said, “the Comanche Indian squaws used to poke it up their pussies when they was menstruating.”
Birdy paled and looked like she might faint away.
Hondo made a sound like a mortally wounded little animal. Then he said, “Aww Ace, aww no.” Hondo was bent over like he might have drank poison.
Birdy was headed for their rented car. The Brit camera crew was packing their equipment. No British TV for us.
Jerry Jeff said, “Fuck it,” and headed home to Austin.
Hondo was not the “Clown Prince of Luckenbach” on this black day. He looked to me like he was going to cry and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.
I felt like crying myself just watching him.