By Gilbert Garcia
Maybe because Jerry Stevens' roots are in other forms of music, he's always resented the tendency to place reggae on the margins of most music scenes.
"I've been upset about the isolation of reggae," says Stevens, founder of the Austin roots-reggae band Root 1. "A lot of times in the past, there'd be just one club in a particular town that would book it, and that would be the only place you could go to hear it. I really love the trend that lots of little clubs are starting to have it. Blues always got to play every- where, and I wanted it for reggae too."
Arguably Austin's most ardent reggae ambassador over the last two decades, Stevens makes for a somewhat unlikely champion of the form. An Irish-American baby boomer from Maryland, he spent years playing folk and jazz on the Austin club scene after moving there in 1969. But even as a kid, he was planting the seeds for his future in roots riddims.
"I was a teenager in the '60s, and I grew up right on the edge of the D.C. line and there was a lot of soul music on the radio," he recalls. "Also, I heard all the pre-reggae hits and always loved anything that sounded like that. I was really into doo-wop and that was a strong precursor to reggae. As Bob Marley gained popularity, I picked up all his stuff immediately."
For many years, Stevens was merely a fan of the form, building his own reputation as a solo favorite at the annual Kerrville Folk Festival. In the early '80s, his interest in reggae "started to blossom," and he joined the seminal Austin reggae band Pressure. From there, he moved on to the Killer Bees, a group that defined - some might say by default - Austin reggae for years, inevitably dominating Austin Chronicle music polls and opening for every Jamaican giant who came to town.
Even as he gained respect from the masters, Stevens longed to showcase more of his material by putting together a band that he could front. In 1990, he formed Root 1 with the intention of incorporating his jazz and folk influences into a reggae context.
"I've always thought that reggae rhythms were very accommodating to other styles and cultural feels, and I think I've been guilty of pushing the envelope because of that attitude I had," he says. "I felt that if you wanted to express yourself in some other way within this music, you should go ahead. I've probably pushed the envelope hardest by bringing the violin into it. I've tried to express my folk roots in Irish culture, so I've dropped some Irish tunes onto the music. And `musical cohort` Mikey Wong says, 'Hey man, that sounds like it should be there.'"
Over the course of the '90s, Root 1 rode reggae's ups and downs of popular favor with a revolving-door lineup that featured Stevens at the center. In 1996, however, he opened the band up by bringing in Wong and Bassie Liburd, two longtime friends and skilled reggae musicians. Wong, the son of a noted
The band's fifth album, 2003's Love Dub and Guitars (their second release since Wong and Liburd came aboard) demonstrated the strength of the multi-songwriter approach, earning the group inclusion on Austin radio station KAZI's "Best of 2003" list.
As proponents of a traditional style embodied by Marley, Burning Spear and other '70s icons, Root 1 is in a slightly unsettling position. They're watching reggae become more ubiquitous in American pop music, but it's in the form of dancehall, a slick successor to the socially conscious anthems of their heroes. For Stevens, however, dancehall's popularity has never been a cause for concern.
"I try to see the good in anything," he says. "I love roots reggae, and I think there's been a big resurgence of roots reggae in the past six years or so, but dancehall never bothered me. I always liked it. I don't go for violence or extreme sexual lyrics too much, but I love the music. I love any form of reggae." •
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