Bob Livingston’s Up the Flatland Stairs coaxes country counterculture into the 21st century.
In the beginning, Bob Livingston helped create progressive country music.
Even if the nickname “Cosmic Bob” doesn’t immediately ring a bell, fans of independent Texas music will likely know his voice: It is Livingston who humorously spells out M-O-T-H-E-R during Jerry Jeff Walker’s now-infamous rendition of “Redneck Mother” on 1973’s Viva Terlingua. Featuring a consortium of legends among its writing credits and contributing players, that seminal live album is often considered the bedrock of alternative country music.
But Livingston’s creative legacy branches further than his work as a founding member of the Lost Gonzo Band, which backed Walker that fateful day. As he puts it on his forthcoming ninth solo album, Up the Flatland Stairs, Livingston hasn’t unpacked in 40 years. Instead, he has toured the world with songs tucked tightly in his mind’s rucksack.
Now in his late 60s, Livingston finds his share of disappointment in life as a drifting musician; it’s hard to find a platform when radio stations lean toward mainstream pop, he admits. But beyond that hardship, Livingston embraces the identity of an indefatigable artist, a move that proves invaluable for the newest record. Due January 8 from indie label Howlin’ Dog Records, Up the Flatland Stairs brims with joyful energy. Its sharpest moments pair a young buck’s hopeful optimism with an experienced road dog’s philosophical sophistication.
This yin-and-yang dynamic emerges most vibrantly a quarter of the way into the album, where you’ll find the emotional core in a three-song stretch of standout tracks, “The Usual Thing,” “Can’t Get Enough of It,” and “Cowgirl’s Lullaby.”
With nimble poetics and striking visuals, “Can’t Get Enough of It” maintains a balance of mysticism and Hill Country realism that epitomizes Up the Flatland Stairs’ most significant theme: A musician’s loneliness, exhaustion, and poverty pale in comparison to the profound joys unveiled through the pursuit of art.
That resolution is first posited in “The Usual Thing,” memorable for many reasons, not least of all situational irony. The song is anything but usual on an independent Americana album. In fact, it’s downright odd. It opens with a pep talk from Siri — yes, the robotic personal assistant well known to users of Apple products, who is duly credited on the album notes.
Like an omniscient sage, Siri’s words are directed to “son” — whether that’s Livingston’s actual progeny or the next generation of singer-songwriters is open to interpretation — and she cautions against falling prey to self-pity and bitterness when faced with frustrations from the industry’s mainstream.
“It’s the pursuit of the dream that heals you,” she says, as the song launches into an up-tempo melody that draws inspiration from Livingston’s own musical forefathers, namely the Byrds and the Beatles, with an arrangement reminiscent of “Here Comes the Sun.”
The musical hat-tip feels appropriate. John Lennon reportedly chose his band’s name as a send-up of the Crickets, whose leader Buddy Holly came of age in Lubbock, the same dry West Texas town that fostered young Bob Livingston.
Lyrically, the song advocates a kind of subtle disruption that might well be Livingston’s artistic mantra.
“If you make something of it, they'll try to take you out of the picture,” he sings. “The only chance you really have is to make yourself a permanent fixture.”
That is precisely what Livingston has done over the last 40 years. He’s maintained a grueling touring schedule, appearing alongside friends like Walker, Michael Martin Murphey, Gary P. Nunn, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and other giants of the genre whose names sometimes appear bigger on club marquees. That’s possibly because Livingston is difficult to categorize for the genre’s party audiences, those rightly enamored with feel-good sing-alongs like “Sangria Wine” and “What I Like About Texas.”
Livingston’s different. He’s an affable storyteller onstage, and he’s fun. But his internal drummer has a distinctly Eastern beat. Livingston’s an Austin armadillo boy and an Ashram-visiting hippie rolled into one.
Seemingly contradictory, those identities make him an indisputably interesting artist. The remainder of Up the Flatland Stairs is filled with an unexpected stylistic mixture that just shouldn’t work: Western swing, standard radio country, retro rock, piano ballads, bluegrass, and rockabilly.
But, as with its predecessor Gypsy Alibi — which was named Album of the Year by the Texas Music Awards in 2011 — each facet of Up the Flatland Stairs glimmers as an authentic dimension of Livingston’s singular aesthetic. He’s cerebral and a little bit feral, evoking the kind of characters you’d spot shuffling through the Louvre in snakeskin boots or reciting lines from Kafka to a redbone coonhound.
Those folks are out there. Up the Flatland Stairs feels like a love letter to them.
Find out more about Bob Livingston at the artist’s website.