let's go to the well  

Singer Jennifer Warnes drew deeply from a Hill Country well to create a loving, open-hearted album. But the story of The Well is also about old Austin, an artist's conviction, and friendships lost and found.
Stephen L. Clark

  Gene Tsao
    Jacob's Well, Wimberley, Texas

WIMBERLEY, TEXAS -- The winter sun is sublime this time of day, hanging lazy and low in a pale afternoon sky. So before we lose this delicate light, and the warmth that comes with it...let's make our way along this rough path to the water's edge and visit the natural spring known as Jacob's Well. You do have a little time, right?  It's just a short walk beyond this cluster of live oaks, down some rocky steps to the limestone banks of Cypress Creek. You'll love the delicate shadows of water against rock, the distant echo of a rushing stream, the stark beauty of the bare trees that frame this narrow fork of the Blanco River.


Jacob's Well

There's a beautiful story connected with this place -- about the power of music and nature and friendship, set in our very own back yard. It all began right here, at Jacob's Well.

Not so long ago, a California-based singer named Jennifer Warnes -- a two time Grammy winner, performer of three Oscar winning songs -- visited this spot for the first time. Her host was Wimberley resident Doyle Bramhall, a man who wrote a dozen songs for (or with) the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Together, Warnes and Bramhall stood right here, on a day much like this one, at the lip of this emerald pool where the water spills upward from the great underground river that is the Trinity Aquifer.

Jennifer Warnes loved the rugged, simple spirit of this natural place, as well as the open-hearted spirit of this new Texas friend who shared it with her. She was so moved, in fact, that she has recorded and released an album of new music -- The Well -- inspired by her first visit to Jacob's Well. Warnes describes this album as the most emotionally honest recording of her 30-year recording career.

"I feel I found something on this record I've been looking for for a long, long time," says Warnes, whose album consciously links the realm of nature with the landscape of an open heart. "When I'm in natural settings, my heart opens. And in any condition where the heart opens, there's more opportunity for getting to truth."

The Well is indeed a lovely, intimate musical statement. Yet the story behind the album, the spirit that brought about its creation, turns out to be as engaging as the music itself.

Deep down, the story behind The Well is about love and affirmation -- filled with fascinating little chapters involving an appreciation of the Hill Country, the legacy of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the intimate joys of an older, smaller Austin. It's about friendship lost and friendship found. It's about an artist's conviction and an unsung hero of Texas music. It's about mortality, and moving on. Most of all, it's about the mysterious ways in which things come round and round in the realm of nature.
Let's take a walk down to the water," sings Jennifer Warnes.
Let's go to the well. . . ."
Jennifer Warnes has a distinguished musical history -- and none of it, on first blush, seems to have to anything to do with Texas. She was raised in Southern California, not the Hill Country, and by her own admission Warnes' creative essence is far removed from the roadhouse blues and midnight whiskey.  
"I'm a white girl from Orange Country who doesn't smoke and doesn't drink," Warnes says with a laugh, talking via telephone from Los Angeles. She will never be mistaken for Lou Ann Barton's lost twin; there's nothing rough and tumble about her. .     
Yet Jennifer Warnes is fairly renowned within the realm of contemporary popular music. You may have heard her hit duet with Joe Cocker (Up Where We Belong) from the 1982 film An Officer and a Gentleman or It Goes Like it Goes from Norma Rae in 1979. Her masterpiece, however, is the 1986 album "Famous Blue Raincoat," a loving tribute to the darkly poetic music of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, with whom she has toured, written and performed since the early 1970s. .  
So where does Austin come in?
Well, just about everywhere . . . .

Warnes has lived here, off and on, for more than 20 years. She discovered our city, indirectly, through Cohen —  who had recruited a popular Austin jazz quintet known as Passenger to back him on his 1979 world tour. Warnes, who was singing back-up with Cohen at the time, fell in love with Passenger's bass player, Roscoe Beck, and moved to Austin at the end of the tour.

"We lived in a little house on 39th street, two blocks from Shoal Creek," recalls Warnes, her voice warm in its reminiscence. "We were normal Austin 'kids', going to the original Whole Foods, swimming at Hippie Hollow. The Armadillo (World Headquarters) was still here. Kim Wilson (of The Fabulous Thunderbirds) was wearing a turban then. I remember playing a show at Liberty Lunch one night, the same night Stevie was doing a show at Antone's.

"I was just about as happy as I'd ever been in my life. Texas had totally taken over my imagination. I loved our little street with the cicadas in the trees. There was a magic that came over me —  partially from being in love, and partially from being in the right climate."  
"Roscoe and I used to swim in those backyard swimming holes when we were in love — and I mean, theres nothing like it," she says. "I thought of the experience as a Texas baptism: You're forever a Texan the moment you do it."  
Warnes was 32 years old when she moved to Austin, and she had already achieved more commercial success than all but two or three musicians living in town at that time. In addition to her work in television and theater —  she had been a regular cast member on CBS' Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour from 1967 to 1969 and starred in the Los Angeles stage production of Hair — Warnes released five solo albums in the 1970s and had a No. 1 pop single,  The Right Time of the Night, in 1977. It Goes Like it Goes, in fact, won the Oscar while she was living in Austin on 39th Street.  
None of this mattered too much, however, in the Austin music community of the time. There was no fawning over celebrity in those days. The integrity of the work, and the passion of the pursuit, was more important than "hits." So for all her success in pop music, Warnes often felt the outsider —  "invisible, like wallpaper" — during impassioned after-hour gatherings in which the classically schooled members of Passenger talked about the beauty of jazz and blues, sometimes in the company of young friends such as guitarist Eric Johnson or singer Eliza Gilkyson.    
"The big argument, in those days, was 'Which is the better band: Weather Report or the T-Birds?' says Warnes, recalling an Austin in which it was perfectly normal to mention the world's hottest jazz ensemble in the same sentence with the Antone's house band. "The guys in Passenger taught me that fame has nothing to do with being a great musician. They had a broad and authentic musical vocabulary — and I wanted to learn that language, too."  
As part of that education, Beck took Warnes to the clubs to hear the music of a friend, young guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, in 1979. "He plays too many notes," Warnes proclaimed at first. "And he can't sing." Vaughan was a raw talent then, fast and flashy, the louder the better. Yet Beck taught Warnes to listen for the nuance beneath the thunder. "Pay attention," he'd counsel her. "Listen harder."  

With Doyle Bramhall at Jack's Sugar Shack
But there was one musician, recalls Warnes, that the guys in Passenger talked about all the time: Doyle Bramhall. "They would say, 'Doyle sings better than that guy, he plays better than that guy. He has seeded every great (blues) band in town.' Quite frankly, it made me jealous . . . because I hadn't been there, hadn't been a part of it, hadn't seen him. It was like some club I'd never get into."

No one would have ever dreamed, then, that Jennifer Warnes would meet this elusive stranger named Doyle Bramhall 15 years later — and that this man, one of Stevie Ray Vaughan's dearest friends and collaborators, would be the one to take her to The Well.

Jennifer Warnes moved back to L.A. in 1981 —  but the spirit of Austin was never far from her heart. In her California home, Warnes hung a favorite oil painting by Sylvia Ewing, purchased in Llano, that depicts a simple road in the Texas Hill Country. "I still keep it on the mantel," she says, "to remind me what my soul feels like when it's the happiest."
Llano,Texas by Sylvia Ewing

Roscoe Beck, Warnes' companion and new musical mentor, moved West with her in '81 — and he was instrumental in the production of Warnes next solo records: Famous Blue Raincoat in 1986 and The Hunter in 1994. In the meantime, Warnes continued to work in film -- recording hit themes for movies such as Ragtime and Dirty Dancing.  As a leading session singer, Warnes sang with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Harry Belafonte, Jackson Browne. She continued to collaborate with Leonard Cohen —  and even shared her love of Austin with him.    
"Roscoe and I took Leonard to hear Stevie (Ray Vaughan) one night at the Hollywood Bowl, and Leonard was silent for a good half-hour after the show," recalls Warnes. "We were walking in silence to the car. And finally Leonard said: 'I understand what the blues is now.'"  
"I said, 'What is it you understand?' And he said: 'It's just talking to your baby.' In other words: It's intimate. It's as close to the truth as possible."  
When Warnes' recorded Famous Blue Raincoat, Vaughan flew to Los Angeles to play lead guitar on the first track, First We Take Manhattan. Later, he appeared in the music video of the song. After Vaughan's death in 1990, Warnes memorialized him in True Emotion, a song (co-written with Austinite John Fannin and Passenger's Bill Ginn) which would later appear on The Hunter.  
"Stevie is a particular perfume, a particular essence. Some people don't get it," says Warnes. "But anyone who saw Stevie on a regular basis, live, understood exactly what he was conveying. The gift that Stevie gave to us . . . . that flashlight he was carrying . . . . was part of that thing I found in Austin that brought me alive. And everyone I hung out with at the time was affected in the same way."  
And so it was, in 1994 — shortly after her personal and creative breakup with Roscoe Beck — that the gift came to Jennifer Warnes again.  

Doyle Bramhall

She was driving one day on the streets of Hollywood, with music on the radio. Suddenly: A Stevie Ray Vaughan song, Too Sorry, that she'd never heard before. At least it sure sounded like Stevie. The guitar line was unmistakable. Excited, Warnes telephoned an old friend in Austin: "How could I have missed this Stevie song?"

"That's not Stevie," they told her. "It's Doyle Bramhall. . . . with Stevie playing guitar."

Jennifer Warnes remembered Doyle's name from those late-night conversations with Passenger in the 1970s. And though Warnes had never met the man, she'd finally become acquainted with his story.

In short: Doyle Bramhall was one of Vaughan's closest friends. They had known each other since they were kids in South Dallas in the 1960s. Actually, Bramhall was a little older. So as a teenager, he ran with Stevie's older brother, Jimmie, and played with the elder Vaughan in some of his very first bands. Doyle was a smoky-voiced singer, and a drummer too, and he was infatuated with soul and blues. He loved Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland, Freddie King. . . .

As the years passed and Stevie matured, Doyle and the younger Vaughan began to bond as musicians — and even played together in a band called the Nightcrawlers in the 1970s. Stevie openly admired Doyle's husky singing style and used it as a model as he worked to polish himself as a singer. After Vaughan was "discovered" in 1982,  Bramhall wrote several songs that Stevie recorded on his early albums, including Lookin' Out the Window and Change It.  
Vaughan and Bramhall bonded in the most touching way, however, in the late 1980s —  when the two friends overcame separate battles with substance abuse and then wrote songs together about the beauty of a life beyond drugs and alcohol. On Stevie's final two albums (1989's In Step and 1990's Family Style) Vaughan and Bramhall collaborated on seven songs, including The House is Rockin', Hard to Be, Wall of Denial, and Tightrope. A final song, Life By the Drop (which appeared on the posthumous The Sky is Crying) was one of Stevie's favorites, co-written by Bramhall and wife Barbara Logan.  
Jennifer Warnes knew all of this —  but she had never heard Bramhall's voice until that afternoon drive in Hollywood. She immediately sought out Bramhall's newly released Bird Nest on the Ground album and popped it into her CD player.  
"It stayed in there for a full year," says Warnes, her voice still rich with excitement. "I even played it in the car, for Leonard Cohen, on our way to Jackson Browne's 50th birthday party.  I listened to it at home all the time.  
"I would even sing along with it —  and I would just hate my voice, because (I came to realize) no matter how hard I studied, I wasn't going to be . . . . that, unless I moved out of L.A. and started drinking and smoking and singing in blues bars and ruined my health. There was no way I could know those secrets — secrets about phrasing, secrets about tone —  that come from living that life."  
When Doyle Bramhall and his band played a live show at Jack's Sugar Shack in Los Angeles later that year, Jennifer Warnes was there. She enjoyed the show so much, in fact, that she came the next night, too.  The two musicians met backstage, had a picture taken together. Warnes was astounded that Bramhall knew her work. The theme from Norma Rae, he told her, was one of his favorite songs.  
"Jennifer has the purest voice of anyone I've ever heard; she's like an angel," Bramhall says today. "I knew of her, of course, because of Stevie. But I also remembered her distinctly as the 'Hippie Girl' on the Smothers Brothers show."  
Warnes and Bramhall couldn't have been more unalike: Her voice shimmered with sunlight, and he was all about barlight. "Yet we liked each other," says Warnes, "because he had what I could never have and I had what he could never have."  
In the months that followed, the two singers exchanged FAXes and began a musical dialogue. Inspired by the gritty honesty of Bird Nest and eager to try something new, Warnes floated the question: "Why not try to write a song together?" Back in the Hill Country. . . .  
On the very first hour of their very first day together in Wimberley, Doyle Bramhall and Jennifer Warnes took the short walk to the water's edge, to visit the artesian spring known as Jacob's Well. It seemed a fitting prelude to the work that lay ahead: to feel the air, to connect with the essence of the place. It was late afternoon. No one else was there. Water bubbled to the top of the dark blue pool in clear, glassy sheets.  
"We stood there on that little wall (that skirts the well), with those Texas skies and those trees. You know what that can do to you," recalls Warnes. "Doyle talked a little bit about Stevie. He's such an open-hearted, gentle person —  and that person revealed himself to me by the water. And it really triggered a lot of feelings in me because I've had experience with sudden death, too. My fiancé had died, tragically, when I was only 24. . . ."

Two new friends stood at the well and considered lost love, lost dreams, the presence of mortality. They spoke in a language familiar to any of us who have taken those tentative, vulnerable steps beyond our own youth — and understood the vulnerable nature of life there.

Bramhall and his wife had moved to Wimberley in the aftermath of Vaughan's death —  honoring a pact Doyle had made in life with Stevie, to live his dream in the presence of nature. Still, he had long grieved his friend's death and, despite the release of his own album, wondered if he would ever be able to write music so intimately with anyone again. This new experience with Warnes: It would certainly evoke some beautiful memories, and some painful memories.

Central Texas sky
Dave Joern

Jacob's Well
photo courtesy David Baker, WVWA

Warnes had come to Wimberley thinking about the past, too. Earlier that day, she had wept while standing in front of her old house on 39th Street — overcome by the beauty of vivid memories and the recognition that those times were lost to her forever. From there, she had driven to Town Lake and walked along Auditorium Shores, "to remember Stevie Ray Vaughan."

"So there we are, Doyle and I, standing at Jacob's Well," recalls Warnes. "And we talked about a point in midlife where the choice is to either glorify the past or move forward. . . . So we said, 'Why not kiss the past goodbye, and leap into the artistic company of a few.' Let's forge forward, and not make any music that has anything to do with resuscitation.

"We spent the next two or three days (writing and playing music) at the Dancing Waters Inn. "Doyle would come over from his house in Wimberley. Doyle's wife would visit sometimes, too -- she was very supportive. We'd light a fire. I would play him tapes, and he would play me tapes. We talked about life. We made a commitment to create something, musically — and it was just a matter of digging around in each other's hearts and memories, talking about the things that move you. It's a very, very sacred place."

Together, Bramhall and Warnes wrote several songs — including the the title cut for the album that would one day become The Well. Jacob's Well became the symbol of an open heart to them. It represented hope, an eagerness to grow, the wellspring of creativity. It was the power of the past building something new for the future. It was honesty.  
"I really never thought I could ever write with anyone again, after Stevie died," says Bramhall, who visited Austin last week to work on new songs in the studio. "But Jennifer was so eager, so ready to challenge me. We were both doing a lot of soul searching at that time . . . and we both realized that we had a lot to give. It was a special experience. You know how it is in the country, at night, when the sky is so bright? She couldn't get over how beautiful it was — you know, coming from L.A., where it's a big deal just to see a star."  

A diver exploring the well
photo courtesy David Baker, WVWA
Inspired, Jennifer Warnes jetted home to California "pregnant with creative glory" and ready to build an entire album around her Texas experience. Much to her dismay, Private Music —  her record label —  was horrified by the notion, especially when it was suggested that Warnes might want to experiment with blues or Lone Star R & B textures.

"Forget about Texas," she was told. It would be better, the executives said, to follow their plan — which was to have her record a new record backed by a string quartet.

No one would finance the record Jennifer Warnes wanted to make. But she never gave up on the idea — even as she proceeded to cut demos at her own expense with Texas musicians. She never gave up on the idea, even though she "wasted" a year recording a string quartet record that was never released.

Ultimately, her devotion to the music inspired by Jacob's Well cost Warnes her manager, her record label and key allies in the music industry. Throughout 1995 and 1996, she rented a house in Austin — just a block or two from Barton Springs — to be close to nature, to stay strong, to keep her dream alive. Yet the album, and the spirit of its creation, languished.

Finally, in the late 1990s, an Emmy-winning music composer named Martin Davich — who writes the music for the television show ER — approached Warnes with the idea of working together on a self-produced album. As a starting point, Davich listened to Warnes' demo tapes from Texas and thought The Well — the first song written at Jacob's Well — should be the musical and metaphorical centerpiece of an entire album.  
And so it was that The Well was finally released, independently,  in the final months of 2001. Both Doyle Bramhall and his son — guitar slinger Doyle Bramhall II, formerly of the Arc Angels — appear on the album. One of the highlights: A Warnes-Bramhall duet of the Eddy Arnold-Cindy Walker country-soul standard You Don't Know Me, in which Warnes sings high harmony above and around Bramhall's gritty melody. Bramhall describes the vocal pairing as "used 30-weight motor oil meets unfiltered lavender honey."  
As an album, The Well isn't at all bluesy in a Texas roadhouse sense. Rather, it explores a bluesy spirit in a tender, melancholy voice. The album is quiet. It is enticingly intimate. Very delicately, it honors the connection between nature and honesty that grew from Jacob's Well — celebrating "innocent wonder, in the face of thunder. . ."  
"I'm proud to have come to a place (in life, and on this recording)  where I don't have to hide so much," says Warnes, whose album has so impressed the famed Celtic ensemble The Chieftains that they have invited her to join the band as a guest vocalist and sing selections from "The Well" on a leg of their European tour. "When you're young —  when you're afraid and unsure, afraid that you may be criticized, or when you don't know yourself — bright people tend to hide.  
"Once death becomes real, and the shortness of life becomes real, the thing that's left is: 'What in the world are you hiding for? This is who you are — whether others may like it or not.' And in song, that's a place to stand."  
Gene Tsao
The winter light is fleeting. The evening sun is slipping faster now, and there's a chill in the long shadows along Cypress Creek. From the limestone ledge, we can see vivid reflections of the bare pecan trees and deepening blue sky in Jacob's Well -- a scene constantly refracted by the quavering, imperfect circles of water that spill skyward from the aquifer below.  
The light casts the shadow of wobbly water against the limestone rocks. A full moon rises.  
There's a special power here at Jacob's Well -- but it has nothing to do with largeness of scale. There are no big mountains here, no jaw-dropping vistas. It's a mixture of ruggedness and delicacy that draws us to this place, the mystery of the hidden river, the energy of the water that flows just beneath the surface of what we can see.  
The music on The Well is a lot like this place. It does not grab us by the lapels. Rather, it charms us slowly, subtly, mysteriously. In the end, the triumph of The Well is mainly in the beauty of its making — created form love, and friendship, and in the spirit of an open heart. It was not conceptualized by a manager, shaped by the record company, tested in market surveys. Who will remember it 10 years from now? Well, Jennifer Warnes and Doyle Bramhall certainly will, because they devoted themselves to making this music for the purest and simplest reasons. It was in their nature. . . .
Jacob's Well, 1926
photo courtesy David Baker, WVWA

The sun is gone now, but there's still light left in the sky. A young deer has emerged from the wood and is feeding at the edge of the river. His nose glistens moist in the silver light. "The wild world is speaking," sings Jennifer Warnes. "Let's go to the well."
--Brad Buchholz, American-Statesman Staff
Copyright © 2002 Austin American-Statesman

David Baker
Executive Director
WVWA ,Wimberley Valley Watershed Association
1405 Mt. Sharp Rd.
Wimberley, TX. 78676
512-847-9391 phone
512-847-1582 fax

Sampling water at Jacob's Well
photo courtesy David Baker, WVWA

Dan Misiaszek

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