Sometimes life can be pretty far out, throwing a curveball at you when you least expect it. Such is the case with Billy Stoner and his sort of new old self-titled album, which is finally being released on New York label Team Love Records nearly forty years after being recorded. At the age of 72 and living back in his hometown of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, Billy is a long way from the freewheeling party scene of the 70’s. He also thought the album he recorded during those good times would going to see the light of day. But, life can be funny sometimes. The album was rediscovered despite never getting a proper release, and now the world gets to hear Billy Stoner’s impressive collection of tunes that give us a taste of the burgeoning sound today known around the world as outlaw country. Here’s the story of how it all happened.
Austin, Texas in the 70’s was a far cry from the cosmopolitan, condo-littered tech hub it is today. Back then the sleepy town wasn’t known for much other than being the capital of Texas and home to the University of Texas, whose student body made up a bulk of the population. The liberal oasis smack dab in the middle of the biggest red state had always embraced the liberal mindset and a free flow of art and ideas. Music, of course, played a huge role in this.
“Austin was so magical. Back in Austin in the early 70’s music was just flying’ out of there and everybody was playing with everybody. All the bands would jam, it was like all one band around Austin at that time”, says Billy Stoner, fondly reminiscing.
What started as a small folk scene in the early 60’s, drawing the likes of talented characters like Janis Joplin and Townes Van Zandt, eventually morphed into something far more electrifying. Groups like the 13th Floor Elevators and Shiva’s Headband were pioneering a new sound that would eventually become known as psychedelic rock. The city’s love for rock and folk, as well as country music (this was Texas after all), paved the way for what would soon be called progressive country.
Plum Nelly were making outlaw country before there was a name for it and certainly before Willie came to town, turning the eyes of the world on Austin’s music scene and the strange coalescing relationship between the long-haired hippies and rednecks. Billy Stoner and Plum Nelly were a regular presence in a scene that included artists like Townes Van Zandt and Doug Sahm. Though their time was short-lived – splitting after just two years – they made a big impression and were always gigging at joints like the Soap Creek Saloon and the Armadillo World Headquarters.
“We opened up for just about everybody that came through – Burrito Brothers, Willie, Waylon, Kris, Leon Russell – we played with them and opened shows with them,” says Billy.
When Willie Nelson did finally make it to Austin to lay down roots and escape the stifling dredge of Music Row, the world began to realize that something special was happening in the sleepy little college town.
“I’ll never forget when Willie came to the Armadillo and all the hippies didn’t know who the hell he was. He played there and a bunch of cowboys showed up. In Austin back then you could get beat up for having long hair – the cowboys and the hippies were mortal enemies – but they came to the Armadillo and pretty soon this whole outlaw thing happened. The rednecks started smoking pot and the hippies started drinking Lone Star and wearing cowboy boots. It was just a huge event, just mind blowing, and everybody got along,” reflects Billy.
With Plum Nelly playing regularly and the newfound spotlight on Austin, and with many of his friends landing record deals, Billy figured he was well suited to be the next big thing. Enlisting the crack players that made up Arlo Guthrie’s band along with his good friend Jemima James to sing harmonies, Billy retreated to Longview Farm in Massachusetts and cut an album. It may have been recorded in New England, but this ragtag collection of songs embodied everything about Austin at that time. With a penchant for writing catchy tunes that reflected his hippie lifestyle, Billy had tapped into what’s now known as progressive or outlaw country. He pulled no punches and proved to be a clever lyricist with a sense of humor that spoke to the laid back grooviness of Austin. Billy wrote honestly about his own life, whether it was “Lookout Mountain” about his hometown or his tribute to his time in Austin “If You Want the Candy”. His music was in a similar vein as colorful songwriters like Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and Terry Allen, who were also making their mark at the time.
Masters in hand and feeling good about the possibility of getting signed to a major label or, even better, having Willie Nelson cover one of the songs, Billy returned to Austin to raise a little dough and finish producing the album. Around this time he was also dabbling in “nefarious activities”, which mostly means peddling pot. His activities also informed his music. You can get a pretty good idea of what he was up to by listening to a song like “River Gang”, which tells the story of some guys involved in the “import business”.
“The River Gang were pot smoking university students. They were bringing small amounts into the university area – that’s how I got to know them – pretty soon they were doing more and more and had truckloads going all around. I was truly an outlaw,” says Billy.
One night while working at the Austin Opry House, Billy was approached by a fella asking him if he could “do this or that” and promising him he would “make a lot of money.” Not suspecting anything out of the ordinary, he cheerfully obliged the request. This was a bad move and suddenly it felt like half of Austin’s music scene – agents, promoters, musicians, club owners – had been swept up in a sting.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Billy had a solid solo debut in the can and had enough of a reputation to garner attention with its release. But, even with the outlaw label flying high, not even Willie wanted to throw in his hat with a felon. The judge didn’t give a damn about his prospects and sentenced him to minimum security prison, where he would spend three years.
“My plan was to press [the album] and get it released. And also to push it to my friends, like Willie and others, and hope that they would [cover a song]. When I got busted I was working for Willie at the Opry House, so we had to split company. He said, ‘Billy, I’m sorry but we can’t be seen together’ because they were trying to get him too. That just put a stop to everything. I was gonna be a big star but it just never happened,” says Billy.
Being in prison wasn’t a total waste of time for Billy. While there he was surrounded by “great pickers,” many of whom were friends from the Austin music scene. They started a band called the Austin Fall Stars and, with the warden’s blessing, played at county fairs, rodeos, March of Dimes, telethons, senior citizens, and VA hospitals. But even though prison wasn’t all bad for Billy, it pretty much killed his dream of releasing his album.
“My masters went on the shelf, which was about 1980, and that’s where they stayed,” he says.
By the time Billy got out of prison, Austin’s vibrant scene had changed. He kept up with music when he could but his album was largely forgotten. Eventually he left Austin and returned home to Lookout Mountain to be close to family. Music fell by the wayside as Billy worked as a trucker, never getting any closure on what could have happened had he released that album.
Then one day he got a call from his good friend Jemima James, a talented singer and songwriter in her own right. Like Billy, she never completely forgot about the album and now – with the resurgence of vinyl and boutique labels hunting down long lost musical treasures – she had a label interested in giving the album a proper release. After 40 years Billy’s friend and onetime musical compadre rediscovered him and explained her idea.
“I was thrilled. I’m probably the most surprised person in the world. I had basically gone into seclusion when I moved back to Lookout Mountain about 1990. I never pursued music after that and it was basically just part of my history,” says Billy.
Though Billy isn’t looking to hit the stage anytime soon, he is over the moon at the idea that anybody would be interested in hearing his album, especially after so many decades have passed.
“It’s just funny how life is. It’s always been my dream to have this album and here it is. Maybe good things just happen when they’re supposed to happen.”