Livingston connects countries, continents with guitar
There’s a great quote about Bob Livington that pretty much says it all about the man and the musician:
“Bob Livingston tugged on his cowboy hat, stuffed his jeans into his boots, hooked on his guitar strap and came onstage in Madras, India. ‘I’m here to play country music,’ he said to the audience. What country? That’s the question.”
— Mike Zwerin, International Herald Tribune
Livingston is arguably best known as a member of Austin’s legendary Lost Gonzo Band with Jerry Jeff Walker and was inducted into the Texas Music Legends Hall of Fame in 2016. But he and that guitar have played all over the world — India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Africa, Vietnam and the Middle East — as a “music ambassador” for the U.S. State Department. He’s also been named “Ambassador of Goodwill” by the state of Texas and “Austin’s International Music Ambassador” by the city of Austin.
It all started, he says, launching comfortably into the story, in 1986, when his wife and children were spending a lot of time in India. But then he backtracks. “I got interested in the culture because George Harrison played the sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood,’” he corrects. “I was the only kid in Lubbock with a Ravi Shankar album.”
But in 1986, Livingston met a Fulbright scholar working in India. He explained that “if you can convince the State Department you’re an expert,” Livingston might get work during his visit. “So I sent a telegram to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, saying I was a musician from Texas, I had my guitar with me, and I had this idea for shows.” He auditioned in Madras with John Inman — also a member of the Lost Gonzo Band — improvising about the “history of American folk and country music” and its roots in Europe as they went along. When the public affairs staffer pulled a banjo out from behind his desk, Livingston knew he had a job.
Although he clearly loved the work and the travel, Livingston admits to some sketchy moments. He was in Bangladesh during the revolution in 1992, and a group of Americans needed to be evacuated. “Tell ‘em Livingston is having a heart attack and call an ambulance,” someone suggested. They all climbed in and got out of the hot spot.
There was also a recent trip to Pakistan when a bombing threatened to cancel a performance. Livingston just suggested everyone move inside, and “we ended up playing to as many people as we could pack in.”
“We’ve got video of it all, and one day we’ll put it together for a documentary,” he says. “People all over the world, including the Middle East, are all good people. They are like us, interested in music and their families and food.”
Nowadays, Livingston says, he plays mostly in the United States, but one thing continues to be the same about his travels. He prefers to interact with his audience, whether it’s playing folk festivals, “house” or “listening room” concerts or staying with host families along the way.
“At my stage of the game, these are our bread and butter,” he says of the focused gigs versus playing bars. “All you have to do is bring your guitar, walk in, plug in and make friends.”
He will admit that with a new record coming out next month — on boutique label Howlin’ Dog Records — he’d like to go to Europe.
“Jerry Jeff hated to go anywhere that didn’t have ESPN — and he hated the little beds in Europe,” Livingston says with a laugh. “So we never made the connection over there as much as we should have. I want it to be a regular thing.”
Two NWA Concerts
WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Aug. 18
WHERE — Artist Retreat Center in Bella Vista
COST — $15
INFO — 268-6463 or ArtistRetreatCenter.com
WHEN — 7 p.m. Aug. 19
WHERE — The Historic Ozark Mountain Smokehouse in Fayetteville
COST — $15
INFO — 409-1224