A native of Tyler and Houston currently living in Switzerland, Richard Dobson has been described as the Hemingway of Texas music. A contemporary of Townes Van Zandt and a favorite of John Prine, Dobson was a key figure in the group of Texans who coalesced in Austin in the early ‘70s and gave birth to the Texas singer-songwriter genre, but ended up peddling their wares in Nashville to make a living. Unlike Guy Clark and Steve Earle, who settled in Nashville and immersed themselves in that scene, University of St. Thomas and Georgetown graduate Dobson never really settled anywhere. Perhaps because he never had a “hit,” Dobson seemed to exist in a state of constant motion, gigging all he could, living the life, barely getting by. When he ran out of gigs and money, he often fell back to the Gulf Coast, where he worked on shrimp boats and drilling rigs (his “Roughneck Occupation” may be the finest oilfield song ever written).
But an important list of artists covered Dobson songs. “The Ballad of Robin Wintersmith” became a staple of Nanci Griffith’s repertoire. David Allan Coe’s version of “Piece of Wood and Steel” was a centerpiece of the 1974 chart-busting Outlaw Country classic Once Upon a Rhyme… Guy Clark used Dobson’s “Old Friends” as the title track to his 1988 album. So eventually some mailbox money began to arrive, but Dobson continued his Sal Paradise life as a traveling beat poet with a guitar. Dobson could never have been a Nashville pretty boy, and his work at all times embodies the traits we now automatically ascribe to “real” Texas music: unaffected delivery, lyrical realism, more grit than gloss.
In 1998, Dobson published The Gulf Coast Boys, a chronicle of the life and hard times of the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys (Townes Van Zandt, Rex Bell and Mickey White, along with their psycho drinking buddy Johnny Guess, who is portrayed in the book as “JJ Wanker”). An existential dharma bum’s look at the birth (and afterbirth) of what we now refer to as Texas music, the book received serious critical acclaim….
While Richard Dobson never attained the cachet and visibility that Van Zandt has achieved, when they carve the Texas singer-songwriter equivalent of Mount Rushmore, Richard Dobson will be right there with Van Zandt, Clark and Earle.
Houston Press / Music / March 31, 2005 / Richard Dobson
By William Michael Smith