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Southern Rail: As luck would have it…

By Robert Filla


I was rolling through a wasteland—specifically, the vegetable department at my local market on a New Year’s Day morning shortly after all the vampires, zombies and drunks had sought refuge from the rising sun. It was an ungodly hour and the previous night of Eve frivolities continued to pierce my remaining brain cells, like shards of disrespectful glass. The shopping buggy that I shoved through the debris served as both a cart and as a walking aid. I was still a bit wobbly. But I had survived another year despite those pesky Mayans.

My goal was simple and a crudely scrawled note provided the needed instructions. It was a minimal list of possibly elusive goods that were required on this first day of 2013—the last viable head of cabbage, any overlooked can of black-eyed peas and some bloody mary mix. (In the South, on New Year’s Day, cabbage represents possible money prospects going into the new year while the peas promise good luck for the next 365 days. I hope I do not have to explain the bloody mary mixer.) And there would be a big batch of kinfolk back at the homestead later waiting for me to bring all that Southern superstition to the home table. And then I made a turn down the magazine aisle.

As an editor and motojournalist, one of my major duties is to read—a lot. Staying abreast of trends and industry developments is just part of the job. So I regularly scan the magazine racks to check for anything that may require my attention. And this day I received quite a surprise—a very recognizable face on the cover of a very familiar magazine.

My first feature article that ever graced the cover of THUNDER PRESS was a long time ago, 15 years or thereabouts. And it all came about quite by accident.

I was working as the main Southern contributor for THUNDER PRESS at a time when there was only two editions, East and West. I had been blessed with a monthly column called Texas HardTale where I honed my journalistic craft and developed the witty style that would eventually score me a full-time job as editor. But at the time I mainly freelanced and, in the process, covered a huge amount of Lone Star territory. One particular event that stands out in my memory was an invitation presented to me by a motorcycle club located in Austin. They had been contracted to help shoot a music video for Merle Haggard. Seems Merle had a new bride and wrote a song dedicated to her called Motorcycle Mama (apparently she rode a bike). And the club was kind enough to offer me an exclusive opportunity to report on the event. As if it couldn’t get any better, the video shoot was to be held outside of Austin in an Old West town owned by Willie Nelson—Luck, Texas, where the movie The Red Headed Stranger was filmed. It don’t get much better than that.

The day of the shoot, I met the club at some country motel where they had spent the night and followed them about 20 miles to Luck, which is located on Willie’s ranch. The video director gave the riders directions and told me to stay the hell out of the way. And what a great time we had, bikes riding up and down both sides of a dirt main street, clapboard buildings in the background and Merle standing right in the center with a guitar while motorcycles whizzed to his left and right. (A funny side note: They had to put Haggard up on an apple crate cause he’s so short he couldn’t be seen.)

At noon we broke for lunch in the town’s saloon/dance hall and I must say those music producers sure know how to put on the feed bag although there were a few items I simply could not identify. After eating, the bike club was told to line up their bikes outside the town’s church, on either side of the front walk. Part of the day’s production was to include a reenactment of the Haggards’ recent wedding. We all stuffed ourselves inside the church for the ceremony where we discovered who would play the role of minister—Ray Benson, lead singer for Asleep at the Wheel. Now Ray has to be at least 6′ 6″ tall. And standing at the front of the church with a cigar in one hand and a bible with pages flying out of it in the other, spouting hell and brimstone, he struck a most imposing figure. The scene ended with everyone outside next to their bikes, throwing rice as the happy couple strolled arm-in-arm down the corridor of Milwaukee iron. It was one of the most magical days of photography I can recall. And today I’d be hard pressed to locate a single negative or print.

I didn’t do anything with the article until several months later when the president of the MC called. He was pissed that I was sitting on the piece and “encouraged” me to submit it. I did, but without high expectations. To my surprise, I made cover. A Texas boy reporting on a country singer from a town owned by Willie Nelson made the cover of a California-based magazine—well, I guess anything is possible.

Since then I’ve been on a lot of THUNDER PRESS covers and each time is special. But on this New Year’s Day morning, looking down and discovering a copy in my local grocery store with me riding a white Victory Boardwalk on the front was somehow more special than all the others—please, allow me my vanity.

Editor’s note: THUNDER PRESS recently launched a newsstand presence in major markets across the country. Look for a copy next time you’re shopping.


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