Texas Crossroads: The Gillette Brothers

On Thursday evening, March 20, Dr. Gene Young stepped before his 6:00 p.m. Texas Crossroads class in Evans Complex classroom 105 and introduced the internationally-renowned Gillette Brothers from Lovelady, Texas. As he turned the stage over to the Guy and Pipp Gillette, he informed the audience, “Ok folks, these guys are as good as it gets.” For the next hour and a half, students and several guests were treated to these accomplished musicians who skillfully promote the revitalization of cowboy music and poetry through their music. The rich history and culture of the American cowboy and life in the west during the 19th century is deftly incorporated into every part of their music and humorous yarns. The Texas Crossroads class, created and taught by Dr. Young, is an interdisciplinary study of intersections between literatures, science, culture and politics of the “Crossroads” area of Texas.

The Gillette Brothers were invited to perform to promote the legacy and significance of the cowboy life, values, and practices, along with ranch work, western lifestyle, landscapes of the American West and humorous cowboy anecdotes. Dr. Young described their musical style and presentation as comprising “a vitality, a live dedication to the performance of acoustic music. They are first class entertainment.” Byran Woolley, Texas journalist and novelist, in his liner notes on their most recently released CD explains, “The Gillette brothers are more than mere performers of music, too. They’re scholars. They know the history of their every song and can trace its roots among the ancient sailors and warriors of the British Isles, or lonely Texas drovers, or field hands, or Blues singers, or Gospel shouters or honkey-tonk wailers.”

Ironically, Guy and Pipp grew up in Yonkers, New York. Their mother was from the small East Texas town of Lovelady. Her father had bought land in Lovelady in 1912 and she grew up there until she went to a fashion school in New York and ended up performing on Broadway. She met and married a young New York photographer, Guy Gillette, and returned home to Lovelady every summer with her two sons. In New York they were exposed to a variety of live music, from Duke Ellington to New York Broadway shows, and the Beatles, but it was their summers spent in Texas with their maternal grandfather, Hoyt Porter, that made a life-long impression on them. He put them to work during the summer months riding horses and rounding strays with his other ranch hands. After high school they formed a rock band group, The Roadrunners, whose lead singer was a little known actress at the time, Diane Keaton. Eventually they settled into music that promoted the “story-telling” legacy of American music of the 19th century. Cowboy musicians are the driving force that keeps the historical music available for future generations. Guy and Pipp shared with students how the 19th Century western and Civil War music is important in history in preserving the activities of a particular period of time and encapsulating that period into the universal language of music.

In 1983 the brothers returned to settle in Lovelady after inheriting their grandfather’s ranch. In nearby Crockett, Texas, next to the town depot, a building on Camp Street that their grandfather had built and rented out to a variety of businesses over the years, was dilapidated and in need of restoration. The brothers renovated the building in the late 1990’s and turned it into the Camp Street Cafe, a music venue dedicated to providing musicians an opportunity to perform from as far away as Europe or from the Piney Woods of East Texas. Across the street from the Camp Street Cafe is a statue honoring the legendary blues musician Sam “Lightin” Hopkins. Hopkins would play for tips in the building during the 1940s. Many of the performers who play at the Camp Street Cafe come for the opportunity to play in the same building where “Lightin” played. Celebrated Texas musicians Michael Martin Murphy and Tish Hinojosa are just two of the many musical talents that have graced the Camp Street Cafe’s stage.

Recipients of the 1998 and 2003 Will Rogers Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Advancement of Contemporary Cowboy Music-Best Duo/Group by The Academy of Western Artists, Guy and Pipp have been recognized and honored many times. They also received the National Cowboy Symposium’s American Cowboy Culture Chuck Wagon Award. Their sixth album was recently released and is a continuation of their commitment to traditional cowboy music with an occasional original composition. When the Gillette Brothers concluded their concert, Dr. Young thanked the musicians for performing and then informed his class, “Well, the rest of the semester will be downhill from here”.

As the Gillette Brothers headed back to Lovelady, Dr. Young’s class returned to the required reading of Larry McMurty’s novel, Lonesome Dove. I guess the class will remain in the Wild West, at least within the pages of McMurty’s classic until they can make it up to Crockett on a Saturday night to hear the Gillette Brothers on stage playing guitar, banjo and bones, while safeguarding the legacy of those cowboys who came before, forging the Crossroads of Texas.

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