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Texas flood claims folk singer, but his music lives on

Al Grierson  

In this story:

Humble eloquence

Rainy night, rushing water

Til the Circle is Complete


( -- A poet died in Texas the other night, swept away in a flash flood after his pickup truck stalled in high water a couple miles from home in the rolling, dusty Hill Country.

Around central Texas, Al Grierson, 52, was known as the "Poet Laureate of Luckenbach," a reference to that afterthought of a hamlet made famous by singer-songwriter Waylon Jennings.

But the Canadian-born Grierson's reputation loomed much larger than a fanciful title in a town of 25. He was internationally lauded among folk singers and songwriters, and he was a regular at the world-renowned Kerrville Folk Festival in nearby Kerrville, Texas.

Singer-songwriter Anne Feeney of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is getting ready to record a couple of his songs next week. Feeney said Saturday the group Peter, Paul and Mary are currently performing a song she wrote. But she can think of five songs by her old friend Grierson that they should be playing today.

He was a man who could stare up at the ceiling and solve the mysteries of life, or write about 50-cent sneakers and $5 wine. He could play a thousand traditional songs, from work songs to British and Irish pub tunes, and compose a most romantic tribute to a woman he'd only just met.

While irked that Grierson chose Thursday to step out of his pickup and into the water -- "He knows better!" she fumed -- Feeney also sees poetic sense in the folk singer's death.

"I hope he had a moment to savor before it was over," she told "How many people get a chance to be swept away by the raw forces of nature? It's actually pretty astonishing."

Humble eloquence

Twice-divorced and a father of several children, Alan David Grierson was a lifelong wanderer who knew as much about philosophy, literature and history as many a college professor.

A former Buddhist monk, he lived in a red 1977 International Harvester school bus in a makeshift camp called Armadillo Farm outside Luckenbach, located about 80 miles west of Austin, Texas.

Except for his Guild guitar, possessions meant little to Grierson. But he was an inveterate e-mailer who ran his own Web site, Feeney said.

Clint Harding, who hosts the weekly "Blue Highways" radio and Web folk music program from St. Louis, Missouri, could see his old friend clearly Saturday as he described him for Grierson stood maybe 5 feet 8 inches, wore wire-rim glasses, sported a sweat-soaked hat on shoulder-length gray hair and had weather-worn skin that made him look older than his years.

"He looked like he'd just gotten off a train somewhere, but he was one of the most gentle people," Harding said. "As soon as you met him, you felt that he cared about you and he'd known you for a long time."

Among folk singers and writers, he inspired awe because he could write such perfect songs, Feeney said. He was a two-time finalist in the Napa Valley Music and Wine Festival's emerging songwriter showcase and a former guest on National Public Radio's "River City Folk" program.

In 1995, Grierson recorded his first album, "Things That Never Added Up to Me," followed last year by "A Candle for Durruti." Both frequent playlists on folk radio around the world.

Feeney said he referred to her as his "fairy godmother" because she often went around the nation touting his work. But Feeney said she was more than a friend. She admired his talent.

"He was such a truly humble man," she said. "He'd say, 'Oh, it's so great that you're singing my songs!' Can you imagine Cole Porter saying that? He really was just a deeply humble man with a tremendous vision."

He also was generous with his time. On the night the swirling waters carried him away, Grierson was headed home after performing at a school.

Rainy night, rushing water

The police reports from the Gillespie County, Texas, Sheriff's Department are quite simple.

About 5:45 p.m. Thursday, while on a rural road three miles from Luckenbach, Grierson's northbound pickup came to a section of high water. Heavy rains in central Texas have killed at least five people in recent days, and lingering showers are expected through Friday, said sheriff's Sgt. Jim Judd.

When Grierson tried to cross the water, the truck stalled. As Grierson stepped into the floods he was swept away.

Rescue teams searched without luck through the night, Judd said. Grierson's body was found at mid-morning Friday, about two miles from where he'd left the pickup.

A Gillespie County justice of the peace pronounced him dead at the scene.

Judd remembered seeing him around Gillespie County and knew he lived at the Armadillo Farm.

"We're small enough in population to where it doesn't take long for the deputies to know people," he said. "I recognized his vehicle and kinda knew who he was."

Judd also knew that Grierson was a singer. Matter of fact, he recalled that authorities found the man's guitar after Grierson disappeared. It was still in its case, sitting in the pickup.

Til the Circle is Complete

About that pickup -- Harding can't help but see the irony that Grierson died because of it. Friends helped him buy it after he very boldly sent out a computer message this year asking for their help when his old vehicle gave out in the spring.

It didn't cost much, but Grierson was proud of his wheels, Harding said.

"He was just starting to get some bookings, some opportunities where transportation would be necessary," he said.

Feeney last performed with Grierson a couple weeks ago in Austin. Even though he's gone, she said she takes comfort in knowing that he enjoyed every moment as if it were his last. Among friends and loved ones, he never left anything unsaid.

There's also the legacy of his music, Feeney said.

"Al will be around as long as people sing his songs," she said.

Grierson's memorial service will be put on by friends and fellow musicians this Wednesday at one of Al's favorite Austin hangouts, Artz Rib House, where mourners will be encouraged to sing songs, read poems, and tell stories.

Perhaps one of the songs sung at the service will be "Til the Circle is Complete," a favorite from Grierson's first album. Some like to play it at weddings, some like to play it at christenings and some like to play it at funerals.

To Harding and Feeney, it's as fitting a eulogy as any that could be written about the eclectic entertainer. In one section, Grierson sings of living and dying:

"May you set your shoes to dancing
in the hour of your death
and meet it with the courage it deserves.
May your shadow pass in pirouettes
of such amazing grace
that the tears of those who mourn you
disappear without a trace
In a smoke that shapes their sorrow
to the fading of your feet
In a ring around the rainbow
where the circle is complete."

From Baez and Seeger to Williams and White Jr.
August 4, 2000

A Web Site for Al Grierson
Al Grierson
Welcome to the Kerrville Folk Festival

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