By Cheney Slocum and Jamie Oberg
It’s 2:00 on a Wednesday. Hank Card, Conrad Deisler and Bruce Jones sit in a small, corner room of Jones’ house in South Austin tuning guitars and chatting about the fancy coffee machine in the kitchen. The walls are lined with old records, performance posters, and even an African fishing spear that was given to Jones years before. He turns off the Duke Ellington that has been flowing through the speakers and the men look at each other.
This room, in this house, is an artistic haven. And it is a rehearsal space for the Austin Lounge Lizards.
With their folk-style music, with heavy bluegrass and country influences, the Austin Lounge Lizards have been crooning hits for the politically aware for over thirty years. They have won an impressive five Austin Music Awards, been featured in the Michael Moore film Sicko and even been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.
The Lizards were born by happenstance when Card and Deisler, both history majors, met at Princeton in 1976.
“We were hanging around with [Hank’s] old girlfriend from Oklahoma City one night and we wrote a song and decided to record it, and I discovered that Hank sang really well, and had a good instinct for harmony singing,” Deisler said.
The pair, both heavily influenced by George Jones and Frank Zappa, began songwriting and eventually played a few gigs at the university.
“We had a sort of, progressive country they called it, band at the time. We played Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie [Nelson], that kind of stuff,” Card said.
Upon graduation, they headed their separate ways. Eventually though, they would meet up again in Austin in 1980.
“We both moved back here and just started playing on the front porch,” Card said. “Then we met Tom Pittman through a friend and just started playing for pitchers of beer on the drag.”
Initially, the trio performed primarily covers while developing the more humorous, political content they are now known for. Among their song list are gems entitled “Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Drugs,” “Shallow End of the Gene Pool,” and “Gingrich the Newt.”
“We were playing about a quarter of our own songs, and about that many were funny,” Card said. “We were doing a lot of cover songs, but we found that people enjoyed our funny stuff better so we just kind of gravitated toward that and started writing more.”
Their original material was a hit.
“In 1984 a friend of our suggested we make an album which was weird to us because we were like, ‘Why? We play bars,’” Card said. “But he was right and it was a good album and then in 1985 we got a call from some people in California who had heard it and wanted us to come out there and play. So then it was like ‘Oh, maybe now we’re a real band.’”
About thirty minutes into the rehearsal, a woman walks through the front door and makes herself comfortable in her spot in the tiny practice room. She’s Darcie Deaville, the token female in the ensemble who plays fiddle, mandolin, and provides her voice for vocals.
Up until original Lizard Tom Pittman retired in 2011, the band was a five-piece harmony. While Card, Deisler and Pittman remained constants, the other two positions in the ensemble had various musicians step up to complete the group, which Boston Globe once dubbed “America’s pre-eminent Country Weirdos.” After Pittman’s retirement, the Lizards decided that he wouldn’t be replaced on the banjo, and have continued instead as a four-piece harmony.
“We’ve had something like 19 different members,” Card said. “We’ve run through a lot of bass players and mandolin fiddle players.”
Deaville and Jones are the newest members, but you couldn’t tell when watching the band perform. During rehearsal, the group performs songs from a variety of their 10 albums (“but one’s an EP”), without a hitch.
In addition to their obvious musical abilities, all of the members of the band are accomplished songwriters. Bruce Jones, the bass player, even won first place in the 2008 “Singer-Songwriter” category of the ASG song contest for his tune “I Miss You.” But Card is the main songwriter for the Lizards, “unless you don’t like their songs, in which case he is not.”
And some people don’t. In the audio clip below, Deisler and Card discuss one of their most memorable interactions with a fan who reacted to one of their songs in a unique manner:
While all the Lizards’ songs are now humorous, and many are politically motivated, Deisler says that the band’s songs most often are born of creative spurts in “lyrical moments.”
“Sometimes when we’re touring around and Hank and I are sharing a rental car, we’ll be listening to those satellite country stations and they’ll be playing one of those old songs, some of which are too corny to abide and that will give us an idea,” Deisler said. “The world is a big playroom.”
In addition to personal pieces, the Lizards’ unique style of songwriting has attracted the attention of more than just bar-dwelling fans and festival attendees; it has won over consumer advocacy groups.
In the early 2000s, the Lizards were commissioned by the Consumer’s Union, to write three songs for the socially conscious. The Consumer’s Union would give the band a topic, and they would all work together to write a song.
“The first one we did was ‘The Drugs I Need’ and it was an aid the Consumer’s Union had at the time to try and make the legislation more transparent about the pharmaceutical companies and the money they spent to develop drugs and the prices,” Deisler explained.
The Consumer’s Union would typically also turn these songs into cartoon videos, which they would spread to further the message of their political purposes.
According to the band’s Facebook page, a national consumer-advocacy group has commissioned another hit from the Lizards aimed at car manufacturer’s reckless retail habits.
“Origi-lizards Hank Card and Conrad Deisler are already in the final stages of fine-tuning the song, which urges the automotive industry to “Turn It Over Again” – referring to a new leaf, as well as one company’s recent high-profile ignition-switch issues,” details the page.
But getting this song out to the band’s many fans may prove to be more difficult.
Now, in a time where aspiring artists are seemingly forced to resort to reality competitions or YouTube videos to attempt to have their voices heard, Card said that getting records played on the radio, even local niche stations, is shockingly more difficult than when the band first began in the early 1980s.
“There used to be more independent radio stations, now it’s so corporate that it’s hard,” Card said. “If you can break into the corporate playlist that’s great, but if not it’s very difficult.”
Card credits local deejays like Larry Monroe, a former beloved KUT and KDRP deejay who died earlier this year, with the band’s ability to make it to the air waves at all.
“The best way for us is if there is an individual DJ that still plays you on whatever radio station. Instead of sending it to the station, send it to that DJ and he’ll play it,” Card said. “Sometimes we’ll send it to the station and they never see it, but if you can target someone like Larry Monroe you have a chance.”
While the band may not have as much support from local deejays, they maintain the adoration of fans nationwide and in Canada. They just returned from a four-stop tour in California.
“It seems like the strongest turnout has been in Northern California for a long time,” Deisler said. “We’ve done really well in Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Davis, Sacramento, Reno, etc. So we’ll keep going there.”
Card said that he hopes fans of the Lizards continue to be amused and uplifted by the music he helps create.
“We had one guy come up to us who had been in a chronic depression for five years. And he came up to us and said ‘This was the first time I’ve laughed in five years’ and that was really nice to hear,” Card said. “I want [our fans] to come out feeling better than they came in.”
Some members are nearing their 60s, but it is clear in the record-lined rehearsal room that the Austin Lounge Lizards are here to stay. They still tour, play local gigs, and even sometimes will treat the lawyer friends from Card’s day job to a performance.
Card and Deisler are even working on new songs.
“As far as I’m concerned, retirement would just be going around to festivals and playing music,” Deisler explains. “So you can’t really retire from this.”