RIP Joe Gracey, Texas Music Legend and Passionate Cook and Eater
Joe Gracey was quite possibly the most passionate and original food writer you've never heard of. That's fair enough, because he wasn't really a food writer at all — he was a musician and music producer by trade. But he was also a guy who thought nothing of driving two hours for his favorite barbecue, made his own sausage, and once spent three days with his wife sampling boudin all over Cajun country — an adventure he chronicled on Letter from Graceyland, a blog he started in mid-2007, which he described as "Musings on food, cooking, travel, music, and life its own self from Joe Gracey, Jr., music producer, food and travel writer, cancer survivor, frequent contributor to Saveur magazine, musician, gourmand, and borderless bon vivant."
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1950, Gracey (left, in Day of the Dead garb for a play) grew up to be a major figure in the lively and diverse Texas music scene. He played in a garage band as a kid and kept performing musically, off and on, for the rest of his life (bass was his main instrument). But his impact came in other areas: As a popular, deep-voiced DJ on Austin's KOKE-FM (all too appropriately named for that era) and the rock music columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, he was an early champion of "outlaw country" music and helped blur the line between country and rock (he is said to have been the first DJ to play his friend Willie Nelson on rock radio). As talent coordinator for the first season of Austin City Limits in 1976, he reunited Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, brought Ry Cooder and the great Tejano accordianist Flaco Jimenez together, and booked the TV debuts of performers like Clifton Chenier, Townes Van Zandt, and Asleep at the Wheel. (The American-Statesmen would later describe Gracey as "a seminal figure in the development of Austin's eclectic music scene.") (Photo courtesy of Bob Sherman)
Gracey, whose radio sign-off was, "Drink lots of water, stay off your feet, and come when you can," much later wrote in his blog that in those years, "Austin was basking in its new air of hipness — we elected a hippie mayor, we skinny-dipped at Barton Springs and Lake Travis, good Mexican weed was cheap, and the Pearl and Shiner and Lone Star beer was cold. Sir Doug Sahm called Austin 'Groover’s Paradise', and it was. It was a heady time to live here and I was riding the groove as hard as I could."
The ride took a dramatic detour for Gracey in 1978, when he learned that a bump he'd noticed on his tongue, and neglected, was malignant. He underwent a series of operations and radiation treatments and came out cured — but without a tongue or a larynx. He reminisced in his blog that on one occasion, he was walking around with big red squares on his jaws to guide the positioning of the radiation machines, and "when Stevie Ray Vaughn and Bobby Earl Smith [another Texas musician] saw me, they went upstairs at the Rome Inn and got red markers and drew big red boxes on their faces in solidarity with me after some asshole at the bar made fun of me."