The Art of Nature: Bill Oliver
Austin singer/songwriter Bill Oliver, better known in music and environmental circles as Mr. Habitat, writes and performs songs with messages of environmental stewardship for all who will listen. We highlight Bill's life and work in our occasional feature, The Art of Nature.
UTTS: S2E16: The Art of Nature: Bill Oliver
[MUS—ALL ABOUT A FACE]
You probably chose your career path. But for some people, the path chooses them. That’s how it was for Austin singer/songwriter Bill Oliver. Better known in music and environmental circles as Mr. Habitat.
[BILL OLIVER] With the Otter Space Band, we sing tree huggin’ songs: Barton Spring Eternal; Have to Have a Habitat—and we’ve been doing that sort of thing for 25 years.
Combining his passions of music and the environment was easier than choosing between them.
[BILL OLIVER] As young as I could remember, I was torn between Chuck Berry and Smokey Bear. Couldn’t make a decision, so I didn’t. So, I just pursued both, and eventually, they came together.
During the 1990s, I worked at a commercial music radio station in Austin. Local and Texas singer/songwriters dominated the playlist. We also aligned ourselves with the zeitgeist of the day, which at the time was environmental awareness and stewardship.
One of my favorite jobs at the station involved producing a daily one-minute feature called Earth Update, which offered listeners easy-to-follow tips for living a more environmentally mindful life.
During those years, I met a diverse group of people in Austin and Central Texas whose vocations and avocations involved keeping the planet healthy…one of those folks was Bill Oliver.
On this podcast I’ll introduce you to Bill and share a bit about how the confluence of the natural world, the Mississippi River and Mark Twain … shaped his music and his life.
Stay with us.
From Texas Parks and Wildlife…this is Under the Texas Sky …a podcast about nature…and people… and the connection they share…I’m Cecilia Nasti.
Nature is magnetic; for some people, it becomes their true north, their life’s path and purpose. Creative people seem especially tuned into that energy. And it’s these folks we feature on our occasional segment called The Art of Nature. This time around, we visit with Austin
singer/songwriter… and activist… Bill Oliver.
[MUS—MY DRUMMER AND ME]
Leaning gracefully into middle age, Bill is tall, robust and energetic. He’s a friendly and charming man with soulful eyes that beam from beneath generous, expressive eyebrows. His mop of wavy salt and pepper hair seems perpetually windblown even when covered with his signature white skipper’s cap.
Were a walrus type moustache to sprout above his toothsome grin, he’d come as close as anyone I know to evoking the visage of Mark Twain—which is apropos—as Twain was a constant companion during Oliver’s teenage years growing up in the then new Briargrove Subdivision of Houston.
[BILL OLIVER] [It was] flatter than it could be. And little trees—brand new trees about an inch wide—held up with, you know, little ropes. That was the wilderness. But down at the end of that street was the Briargrove Ditch. If I had all day, I could walk down to Buffalo Bayou. And I spent a lot of time in the Briargrove Ditch; it had snakes and turtles and some fish, and it was funky. And I took Mark Twain, and I took my first guitar down there. [INSERT BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS] And I learned to play The Battle of New Orleans. And I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn down there at the Briargrove Ditch. And by the time I got to my second year of college—sort of—UT Arlington, they kept giving us Mark Twain to read and I couldn’t take it anymore. I was already imprinted. I was born in St. Louis for heaven’s sake, and I was already there.
[MUS—DEEP IN THE SWAMP]
When the summer of 1968 rolled around, Bill Oliver had had enough of university and embarked on a Huckleberry Finn type adventure of his own.
[PADDLING RAFT/WATER LAPPING]
[BILL OLIVER] Went to the Mississippi River with a homemade raft, and I spent the summer of ’68 drifting the Mississippi River to the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana, to the intercoastal waterway, up the Trinity River…up the Trinity River halfway to Dallas. It’s the longest all water approach to Dallas ever attempted [laughs]. Anyway, so that was it. That trip really did it. And after that it was hitchhiking and music—then back to the water. We’re still on that raft...
By the end of that summer, Bill knew what he wanted: a life of meaning, making music with an environmental message and living on his own terms.
[BILL OLIVER—] I was a slacker from the beginning…south Austin, living in Travis Heights on a three-and-a-half-acre fire ant ranch for fifty dollars a month…the Armadillo years… And, I’ve kind of kept that. I’ve had plenty of free time, and haven’t had to work for anybody except myself, pretty much. Had plenty of river time when I wanted it. And time to wait for songs to come around…and do things that lots of people say: “Oh, I would give anything to do that, but I’ve got a job!” You know, so, I’ve had those opportunities. That lifestyle has been very important. And it’s come with meeting a lot of great folks. You know, hanging out at Kerrville Folks Festival, and hanging out with Audubon-ers, and activists. Lots of activists. It’s very important. Marching, and being at rallies.
I spoke with Bill in early spring at a place called The Yard, which does its part to keep Austin weird. It’s a seemingly disorganized three-acre site that’s off the beaten path, yet still in the heart of South Austin. The Yard is industrial in nature and ringed by a collection of buildings pieced together with old lumber and corrugated steel; a few shipping containers find refuge there, too. In total, these random structures provide storage, workshops and studios for an eclectic group of tradespeople, artists and artisans.
The Union Pacific tracks run behind and parallel to a weedy, weathered fence about ten feet from the back of a bespoke building, which serves as Bill’s studio office. It’s there that he stores the props and supplies he uses in his performances and at the Annual Mother Earth Day Festival, where they celebrate the Barton Creek watershed, in Austin’s Zilker Park.
[BILL] Hey, here comes a train!
What is arguably the tallest manmade structure at The Yard is a tower—about 15 feet tall—pieced together with reclaimed stage beams from the old Armadillo World Headquarters where countless musical legends performed, and plywood from a John Hartford gig from the 1980s. Don’t ask. The viewing platform gives anyone who ascends the staircase a clear view of the site… and passing trains.
Bill calls his creation a “flying Riverboat”. Waving proudly from atop the “vessel” are two flags: An Earth Flag Bill received from his girlfriend and bandmate Virginia Palmer, and an American Flag that he received from U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett, which flew over the Capital building in Washington, D.C.
So, many days a week, an open ore train goes by full of white gravel. And I think it’s the train Kent Finlay’s talking about, “There Goes the Hill Country: The hills at Cowgap are rugged and awesome, but you have to have fill dirt when you’re building a road. The hills at Cowgap that weathered the ages were hauled off the map at twelve dollars a load…”
The Texas Hill Country, with its myriad crystal springs and cool, flowing waters… and the Rio Grande River that serves as the lifeblood of South Texas and Northern Mexico… as well other water sources, habitat and wildlife, remain top of mind for Bill Oliver.
Most of what he does in life, as well as in the songs that he writes and performs, he does to draw attention to the value and fragility of these resources… and to Texans’ responsibility to conserve and protect them. Some messages are just easier to hear when shared in song.
[MUS—WHEN I LOOK IN THE SKY]
This is Under the Texas sky…a podcast about nature…and people…and the connection they share. I’m Cecilia Nasti.
Singer, songwriter and activist, Bill Oliver, combined his lifelong love of music and environmentalism into a career that brings the message of stewardship to the public.
[MUS—HAVE TO HAVE A HABITAT]
Bill regularly takes his musical message to the youngest among us. He says children are in tune with their instincts. They don’t hesitate to question suspect concepts and to do so without regard for adult discomfort. Children lack guile and unbegrudgingly change their minds when presented with deeper truths.
[BILL OLIVER] When you’re closer to the ground, to the flowers, maybe you identify with them more. But I always identified with the kids. And had an easy time with them; half my act is wiggling my eyebrows and being kind of, you know a little silly, a little goofy. And I can do that with some adults [laughs]. If they have that spark still there…
Yet, Bill told me that even the kiddos like serious songs…
[BILL OLIVER] That is for sure. A ballad or two that connects with them in a 30-minute program makes it a much, much stronger [program]. They love that Rio Grande Valley song….
[MUS—RIO GRANDE VALLEY]
[BILL OLIVER] … I sang that with a group of kids, fifth graders, that live in the Valley. They learned the whole six-minute song and sang it with me like 20 times. We had a little tour down there in the 90s. And, I always mess up a word or two and they get every word right. And just all those eyes will look over at me: “You did it again, Mr. Oliver!”
[CECILIA] What kinds of questions do kids ask?
[BILL] Well, they can be real blunt ones. They can be right up there. I heard of a plastics lobbyist that was trying to convince these kids that, uh, their plastic was okay because it broke down faster. And the kids say: ‘And then what? And then what?’ And he says, ‘Well, it just broke down fast,’… ‘…Into smaller pieces, right?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Which makes it easier for them to be eaten by the birds, right?! [laughs]
Oliver says an innate affinity for nature in tandem with a highly sensitive adult-nonsense-detector, makes children passionate protectors of our wild things and wild places.
[MUS—STRANGE BLUE WORLD]
At the time I met him in the spring of 1990, Bill was involved in the Save Our Springs Alliance, a loose coalition of citizens that spawned a movement by the same name. The Save Our Springs movement became a drive to oppose the 4,000 acre "Barton Creek PUD" development, proposed to be built along the ecologically fragile Barton Creek Watershed. That movement lead to the Save Our Springs Ordinance.
An all-night city council meeting on June 7, 1990 brought together a diverse group of citizens speaking passionately about protecting the area, which became a turning point for their efforts.
The SOS Ordinance—as it came to be known—limits development along Barton Creek and the other creeks draining to, or crossing, the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone. It became law by a citizen’s initiative.
And in 1992, a who’s who of Austin’s music-makers and others gathered to record a tribute to the SOS Ordinance victory in August of that year. The song, written by Bill Oliver and called Barton Springs Eternal, became not only one of his best-known compositions, but also a kind of anthem for the protection of all fragile ecosystems.
[MUS—BARTON SPRINGS ETERNAL EDIT]
[JERRY JEFF WALKER] How many times we read and weep…Barton Springs eternal. Watch development as it creeps up…Barton Springs eternal…
[BILL OLIVER] This piecemeal progress and grand demise has been “malled” and galled and condo-ized; we don’t want no consolation prize. We want Barton Springs Eternal…
[CHORUS] Barton Springs Eternal…[repeats]
The success of the Barton Springs Alliance did not end all challenges facing that ecosystem—and so the work continues. As it does for other Texas communities, and communities worldwide, which confront the ongoing challenges of balancing growth with environmental protections.
In Texas, as long as those struggles persist, you can bet Bill Oliver will, too; be it water, walls, wildlife or weather, he’ll be at the forefront empowering us to make a difference…large or small…but always with a catchy tune.
[MUS—PLEASE DON’T LEAVE THE WATER RUNNING--EDIT]
[MUS—ORBIT YOUR SOUL]
And so, we come to the end of another podcast. Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife and is available at UndertheTexasSky.org or wherever you get your podcasts.
We record at The Block House in Austin, Texas. Joel Block does our sound design.
Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing provide distribution and web help.
I’m your producer and host, Cecilia Nasti, reminding you that life’s better outside when you’re Under the Texas Sky.
[BILL OLIVER] …half my act is wiggling my eyebrows and being kind of, you know a little silly, a little goofy…
Join us again next time for Under the Texas Sky.