If you make music in the Texas Coastal Bend, Corpus Christi, Flour Bluff, Port Aransas, Rockport and on south to Alice, Kingsville, Riviera and Falfurrias, you need to know a few things. Among those things is you’d better play “Jolie Blon” in shrimpers’ bars, “Pride and Joy” and “Red House” in biker bars, “Hideaway” and “Crosscut Saw” in blues bars, “Las Nubes” at a Tejano wedding reception, “Born to Lose” and “Whiskey River” in country bars, “Stardust” at the country club and “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” everywhere.
The Texas Coastal Bend is where Michael O’Connor cut his teeth – literally and musically. It’s where he honed his guitar licks while paying close attention to the people around him, the people who were to find their way into his original songs. It’s where he earned a star on the South Texas Music Walk of Fame.
“My parents were both married to other people when I was born,” O’Connor said. “My grandparents raised me in Corpus.”
Like a lot of his peers, O’Connor graduated from high school and punched into work at an oil refinery. Unlike a lot of his peers, O’Connor was quickly building his music reputation, leading, fronting and playing guitar in Silent Slim & the Locomotives. After a year of refinery work and odd jobs, O’Connor jumped into the music whirl full time.
“I really got my chops together down there,” he said. “In South Texas you have to play country, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, Spanish songs, maybe even jazz. That was good for me. South Texas was a big influence – but I had to get out.”
By the late ‘80s, word of O’Connor’s guitar prowess had spread to San Antonio, Austin, Houston and beyond. For much of the ‘90s, he did a sort of Texas musician shuffle, bouncing among Corpus Christi, Austin and Wimberley. He left Corpus Christi for good in ’98 while keeping his gigs in the Coastal Bend and around Texas, working in those Gulf Coast bars and in joints including the Austin Outhouse and in storied venues such as Gruene Hall in Central Texas.
“When I moved to Wimberley in 1998, I reinvented myself. Blues ate my brain up for awhile,” O’Connor said, laughing.
In ’99, O’Connor went to work with Ray Wylie Hubbard via a recommendation from stringed instrument wizard/top-flight producer Lloyd Maines. Maines told Hubbard, “He plays on his feet.” O’Connor got the gig – with no audition.
O’Connor became a first-call sideman, touring and recording with Texas singing songwriters including Ray Wylie Hubbard, Susan Gibson, Slaid Cleaves, Terri Hendrix and Shelley King as well as across the entire USA, Canada and Europe.
O’Connor didn’t mothball his electric guitar, his Gibson 355, but he did concentrate on playing a Martin acoustic. He also found his songwriting voice, keeping his sideman gigs while honing his writing chops. O’Connor populated his songs with tales, true and tall, about rakes, rounders, losers, loners and lovers – most of them star-crossed, some unlucky, some just plain mean.
￼His new CD, “Bloodshot Vagabond,” his fourth as a leader, features songs including “Rigged Game,” “Run Wild,” “Bad Blood,” “Switchblade Heart,” “Old New Year’s Eve” and “Candy” with protagonists who run the gamut from people who scratch for every little bit they own to a bad-ass girlfriend with an equally bad-ass dog to a legendary stripper.
“My stuff is real personal, I guess,” O’Connor said. “Hubbard was so great about asking me what I was working on. He talked to me about removing fear and doubt when writing songs and concentrating on the small things. With Ray, I was playing rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar but the whole time he was talking to me about writing songs. Traveling with Ray and with Slaid I also learned what it meant to do a show.”
Now based in Denver, O’Connor is pulling away from the sideman trip, but not slamming those doors behind him.
“At one time I was in eight bands,” he said, laughing. “I had something to prove when I was younger. Now it’s more important to me to play my gigs.”
He didn’t trample his Texas roots. “Bloodshot Vagabond” was recorded in Houston with producer/bassist Jack Saunders and drummer Rick Richards. The songs, most penned by O’Connor, some co-written with Adam Carroll and with fellow top-flight accompanist Jeff Plankenhorn, are gritty and greasy, so is the music; an amalgam of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and acoustic music with a drill-bit backbone.
“Jack and I never really had a plan,” O’Connor said about recording “Bloodshot Vagabond.” “I trust him. He trusts me. And with Rick and Jack, I sure don’t tell them what to play. We don’t waste a lot of time, but it’s real fun working with them.”
“When it comes to writing songs I’ve never been disciplined,” O’Connor said. “But I’ve got a pile of thoughts, poems and short stories. One of the most important things I learned from Ray Wylie Hubbard is you never second-guess inspiration, but it’s always okay to rewrite. Working with Susan Gibson and Slaid, and co-writing with Adam Carroll I learned you have to work at it. I learned I have to be tough on the song to see if it stands up.”
O’Connor stands up. So does “Bloodshot Vagabond.” Even the shrimpers would dig it – as long as O’Connor didn’t forget to play “Jolie Blon” once or twice.