The Backstory: In late 1975, Lone Star Brewing Co. marketing executives Jerry Retzloff and Barry Sullivan spoke with this reporter at length about the budding brew-mance between Texas musicians and Lone Star Beer.
The resulting feature appeared in the February 14, 1976 edition of Cash Box, then one of the music industry’s top three trade magazines (after Billboard and Record World). One of the first nationally published articles on the topic, it was also my final feature as a Cash Box associate editor.
Retzloff and I had met a few months earlier, at the third annual Willie Nelson Picnic outside Austin on July 4, 1975.
After arriving on the scene with a bunch of other music journos before the show started, I saw the Lone Star trucks adjacent to the backstage area and introduced myself to a few of the guys, saying I was interested in some info for my Cash Box review.
The guy in charge was Jerry Retzloff. He invited me to tag along with him and talk as he and his guys continued stocking the backstage coolers with cases of cold Lone Star.
A few minutes later, Nelson showed up backstage and Retzloff introduced me to him as well, saying they were old, old friends. Willie was as friendly as I’d heard, and gave Poodie the OK for me to be backstage.
To my eternal amazement, I watched most of the picnic from the wings, taking notes in a little notebook, kicking myself in the ass for not having some kind of camera.
But it was also good to be in the shade, not out in the brain-frying Texas sun with the thousands of half-drunk rednecks and half-stoned hippies in the audience.
And for years afterward, anytime I showed up at a Willie show – must have been a couple dozen times – Poodie got me backstage. And at some point, there’d usually be a few minutes to catch up and maybe swap caps with Willie. Poodie was a real-deal Texas character, an Austin icon. (He checked out in 2009.)
Less than two years before the 1975 picnic, in fall 1973, Reztloff had been named Lone Star’s district manager for south central Texas, based in Austin.
As a native of San Antonio, where the brewery was established in 1845, he wasn’t crazy about relocating to Austin. At first.
Retzloff soon heard and saw local hippie-redneck rock bands at local clubs drinking Lone Star onstage and name-checking the beer in songs.
Light bulbs went off. He reported what he saw and heard to Sullivan, the brewery’s marketing VP, who gave Retzloff free rein to develop a Texas music-related marketing strategy targeting young people, and start wrangling the fans’ favorite musicians into the Lone Star stable.
He let his beard and hair grow, lost the coat and tie. He got to know the musicians as well as the club owners in and around Austin and environs. For Retzloff, a true beer-lover and a lifelong fan of all kinds of music, from rock to blues to country to jazz, hanging out and drinking Lone Stars with the players was a tough gig.
The players liked him because he knew their music, was a fun-seeking people-person by nature, and was a true Texan, not a transplant.
Plus “Lone Star Jerry” always brought the beer.
Retzloff and Willie Nelson, a Texas native who’d recently fled Nashville and moved to Austin, were longtime friends even then. They had a private conversation about the connection brewing between the sounds and suds, and conspired to help each other reach the 21+ youth market in Texas to sell more records and beer.
It was a secret handshake agreement between friends, in which no money ever changed hands. But even in late 1975, at the time of this Cash Box interview and feature, Retzloff was still discretely keeping a lid on that little detail…
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The Original Story, February 14, 1976: The curious bridge that has developed between cowboy-hatted rednecks and longhaired counterculture-types in Texas has been under construction for the last few years.
A major foundation has been music. The building materials of progressive-minded Texas music have ranged from said cowboys looking for a little fire in their country music to rock ’n’ roll refugees looking for a little reality.
Just as every construction site has its usual complement of beer, Lone Star Beer has become an important lubricant among the many cultural forces at work building on diverse musical foundations in Texas.
By direct association with the expanding Texas music culture since late in 1973, Lone Star Beer sales have increased significantly; in 1975, the San Antonio-based brewery yielded its first net profit since 1969.
More than one factor brought about that association and subsequent black ink for “the National Beer of Texas.”
After love affairs with English rock ’n’ roll during the early ’60s and with Bay Area psychedelia later in that decade, Texas’ young people turned back to Texas and its diversely rooted lifestyles and music in the early ’70s.
A new Texas legend began to develop, and almost anything Texan in origin was embraced by Texas’ young people as part of that legend. Lone Star Beer, as indigenous to Texas as it could get by its name alone, was caught up in the culture that had developed with the music.
The man who first saw the role Lone Star Beer was to play in the Texas [music] scene was Jerry Retzloff, who, as the brewery’s Austin-based central Texas sales manager, is the catalyst between the musicians and the brewery.
“I was in an Austin club [the Armadillo World Headquarters] sometime late in 1973, and [house band] Greezy Wheels was onstage doing their set,” Retzloff said. “In the lyrics of a couple of their songs they talked about Lone Star Beer as being part of the scene, and the audience really responded to it.
“Later, I found that the club, which normally would sell about 50 percent Lone Star and 50 percent another beer, was selling 75 percent Lone Star when the band was playing. It returned to 50 percent when they weren’t,” he said.
At other clubs offering progressive-minded Texas music, Retzloff noticed a similar pattern of lyric and beer.
“It appeared that the best way to increase our market share was to work on-premises at the clubs,” he said. “No other beer works on premises. We have found that by relating to beer as a personal thing rather than strictly a commodity we are able to maintain a personal relationship with the clubs, the artists and the audiences. Lone Star is part of the people and their culture because of that. It’s an old Indian trick – when something’s rolling, you don’t try to stop it.”
More than anyone or anything, Retzloff helped give a direction to Lone Star Beer’s involvement with Texas music and its growing importance with the people there.
His love for the music has made it easy to communicate with those who make it; he started collecting records as a youngster in the late 1940s and ’50s. He made his way backstage to meet the performers when they played in San Antonio and began lasting friendships with many of them.
“It was just in my blood,” Retzloff said. “In those days I listened to a lot of blues – Bo Diddley, Joe Turner, Jimmy Reed – but I got into just about everything else, too.”
Retzloff’s childhood home in San Antonio was two miles from the Lone Star brewery, which was a source of local pride and status. He had grown up wanting to work there one day, and the opportunity arose in 1963 when the Texas employment department referred him to a tax bookkeeping position.
Between 1965 and 1971 Retzloff also attended college part-time and received his B.A. in marketing, which allowed him to grow with the company. After a two-year stint as Lone Star’s manager for the West Texas area, he was assigned to manage the central Texas sales district based in Austin in September 1973. It was shortly thereafter that Retzloff caught Greezy Wheels’ set at the Armadillo.
After witnessing the development of a new kind of hybrid country-oriented music and how younger audiences were beginning to see Lone Star Beer as hip, not square, Retzloff passed the word to Barry Sullivan, Lone Star Brewing Co.’s marketing vice president.
Retzloff continued visiting with the performers and laid the groundwork for working relationships between the performers and Lone Star.
Then, according to Sullivan, “It all came together for us at Willie Nelson’s second annual Fourth of July Picnic in 1974. Jerry had been working with Willie on the picnic’s preparation, and Lone Star was the unofficial (but sentimental) beer of the three-day concert.
“Jerry had been telling us Texas music was the way to change our cowpoke image among young people, and we went with it,” Sullivan said.
[Click here for a photo gallery from the 1974 Picnic.]
Murphey had written “Cosmic Cowboy” [with the lyric about skinny-dippin’ and Lone Star sippin’] as more of a satirical send-up of the burgeoning longhaired redneck rock scene than a plan for a cultural revolution.
But it mattered not to the thousands of people attending the festival. Lone Star Beer, according to Sullivan, at that point was solidly identified with this new music.
Lone Star moved to catch up with its new-found youthful image. First, the brewery renamed its basic 12-ounce returnable bottle the “longneck.” The longneck was the basic package served in the clubs and bars where the seeds of Texas music had been growing and was quickly adopted by club audiences.
Jim Franklin, a noted Texas artist and the man credited with creating “armadillo art,” painted a series of posters titled “A Tribute to the Longneck Bottle” for Lone Star. One, titled “Schooner in a Longneck,” depicts teams of armadillos pulling an oversized longneck bottle with a Conestoga sealed inside.
Prints of three different posters have been distributed Texas-wide so far. A fourth, the last in the series, is due February 15.
Next, the brewery produced a series of Lone Star Beer radio commercials written and performed by Texas musicians. Leonard Arnold, lead guitar player for the Filler Bros. (Texas singer-writer Rusty Wier’s backing band), wrote a one-minute song titled “Long Live Longnecks and Lone Star Beer,” and Wier’s band recorded it.
The first commercial was extremely successful, and Wier found himself being asked to perform the song as part of his set. Fellow musicians B.W. Stevenson and Steve Fromholz subsequently produced Lone Star Beer spots that were equally popular.
“With the commercials, we want to recreate, if only for a minute, that energy we felt in the clubs,” Sullivan said. “The artists were directly involved with the progressive country-oriented music, and therefore credible with the people.
“We also took advantage of the fact that most advertising agencies and most breweries advertise on TV during the summer,” he said.
“When they switched their advertising load to television in the summer, Lone Star went on the radio. Between May and September, Lone Star was the only beer being advertised on the radio,” Sullivan said.
“No one tried to knock down by competitive activity what we were doing. It gave us a tremendous vacuum in which to operate,” he said.
Jimmy Buffett, Navasota and Calico have recorded Lone Star Beer commercials, and Freddy Fender and Los Unicos have both done spots for the Spanish-speaking market.
For television, Lone Star hired ShelterVision to prepare a series of six hour-long “Lone Star Cross Country Music Specials,” including stereo sound to be simulcast on FM stations.
Each special was broadcast [regionally by ABC] in 10 (and later 12) ADIs – or areas of dominating influence – which included San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston and other areas.
Shot in Austin and hosted by Willie Nelson, the series featured Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Jeff Walker, Rusty Wier, Jimmy Buffett, Ray Wylie Hubbard, B.W. Stevenson, Tracy Nelson, Willis Allan Ramsey, Steve Fromholz, Larry Hosserford, Kenneth Threadgill, and Nelson and his band. The first five specials were well-received all over Texas last year; the sixth and final episode will air in March.
The concept for the TV specials was the same as the radio spots – authenticity.
“We wanted to make it possible for people all over Texas to see what they were a part of, so we just put it out there as honestly as we could,” Sullivan said.
“Through my relationship with Jerry and the artists and with my sons (early 20s) I had become sensitive to advertisements that condescended to the people it was designed to reach,” he said. “The people we’re aiming at are not fooled by that kind of highly commercial approach.”
For the “Lone Star Cross Country Music Specials,” Sullivan said, “Bob Livingston and Gary P. Nunn, currently members of The Lost Gonzo Band, co-wrote a 2:13 piece that was the basic song used in our radio commercials. We advertised in each area a week prior to the airdate, using spots on progressive rock, Top 40 and progressive country stations aimed directly toward the 18-24 age group. Additionally, commercials were made up for country-western, black and Mexican stations.”
As much as Lone Star Beer advertised on the radio, the TV specials had no commercial interruptions.
“We wanted nothing to get in the way of doing it right,” Sullivan said. “The televised specials had no Lone Star opening or closing, When the camera played to the audience during the filming, anywhere you looked you saw people drinking Lone Star. The artists onstage were drinking Lone Star. The only advertising we used was visual.
“Jerry reviewed the guest artists with Willie because as host he could best figure which artists would be best-suited for each show,” he said. “And it was funky. It wasn’t network quality in terms of a ‘Hee Haw’ for example, but it was what we wanted. The feeling was that you were sitting right there as you watched it on the screen and listened to it on the stereo. It was not hype, and everybody involved has been glad to be a part of it.”
As Lone Star Beer’s image and popularity increased, the demand for Lone Star accessories has boomed. There are Lone Star belt buckle-bottle openers, tie tacks and pins, patches, more than 60 different Lone Star t-shirt designs, Lone Star cups, glasses, pitchers and a Lone Star hat made by Texas Hatters. The latest thing to emerge is a Lone Star denim vest.
Interestingly, Lone Star realizes no profit from these ventures.
“A couple of years ago if you put Lone Star Beer on a t-shirt it wouldn’t sell. Now t-shirt manufacturers are calling us and asking us if they can design and produce some, because they are getting requests for Lone Star t-shirts,” Sullivan said.
“We told them to go ahead but to avoid hurting the image, so they designed and produced their own t-shirts for their own customers,” he said. “The only – and most important – thing we get from those deals is increased visibility, to spread the word around.”
Founded in 1845, the Lone Star brewery was purchased in 1940 by Harry Jersig; its capacity was 38,000 barrels in those days when wet towns were outnumbered by dry towns in south-central Texas.
Jersig kept profits flowing back into the brewery; there was a construction crew on the premises for 19 years straight, and Lone Star’s present output capacity in 1.2 million barrels.
Over the years, the brewery’s growth had been stable but for the last five years, Lone Star had been losing sales an average of five percent a year. But in 1975, the brewery had a sales increase of two percent.
The longneck bottle, which had been losing [market share by] approximately 500,000 cases during those five years, showed an 800,000-case increase in 1975, or a plus-1.3 million case swing from the five-year trend line.
Considering the longneck is Lone Star’s primary profit package, profits have increased proportionately. In 1974, after-tax sales amounted to $29,782,000, and for the first 11 months of 1975, the sales were $32,826000. The figures for December are not yet available.
The climate for Lone Star’s continued expansion is good. Last fall, Lone Star and WMAQ, Chicago’s NBC-owned-and-operated country station, completed advertising agreements and Lone Star is now a regular advertiser. Lone Star’s Chicago business is done on a gross profit operation – whatever they sell is invested back in the market via WMAQ advertising.
“We’re starting to get a lot of calls from places in New Jersey, Washington, Southern California, San Francisco, Kansas, Iowa and Atlanta, wherever this music is starting to pick up,” Sullivan said.
“We’ll go into those pockets and maybe ship them a [train] carload or a truckload,” he said. “We just want to keep the beer fresh. And as this Bicentennial celebration rolls around, people begin to introspect about some of the things that made this country great – for instance the development of the West and what the West meant to those who settled it.
“Texas is kind of the west to everybody, and I think we’ve got a chance by our name alone of being part of the energy that comes out of Texas’ lifestyle,” Sullivan said.
“There’s a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that while California attracted young people in the ’60s, Texas is now taking that on her shoulders,” he said. “If that were to happen, we would want to be a part of what they think Texas to be.
“People outside Texas have an opinion that Texas is wide open, and ecologically a better place than Los Angeles or New York, and they’re right,” Sullivan said. “We’re positioning ourselves to roll with the music if and when it takes on national significance.”
When asked about other styles of music, Sullivan made it clear that Lone Star’s interest was getting involved with music of all kinds.
“ZZ Top out of Houston called and asked what they could do with us, and we do have other people not normally associated with progressive country,” he said. “What we want to do is move totally into music. Willie’s last album (“Red-Headed Stranger”) was not progressive – ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain’ was not progressive. I think he wants to move sideways, and likewise, we want to involve ourselves sideways.”
Through the symbiotic identification of Lone Star Beer and Texas music, many elements have benefited. The relationships have provided increased exposure for each other, causing increases in record and beer sales.
While the liaison may ultimately benefit the bankbooks of artists and breweries alike, the spirit of camaraderie found by Retzloff and the Texas musicians more than anything else has created a warm climate for mutual friendship and cooperation.
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Jerry and Stephen caught up nearly 40 years later at The Wittliff Collection’s “Armadillo Rising” event at the Alkek Library, Texas State University, San Marcos, on April 19, 2015, and a day later at the Retzloff family’s River House in nearby Gruene, Texas.
Santa Clarita journalist Stephen K. Peeples began his career writing about rock ‘n’ roll, Texas music and pop culture for Cash Box, the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, the L.A Free Press, Circus, Picking Up the Tempo, Modern Recording, Performance, Rocky Mountain Musical Express, Rock Around the World and other publications from 1975-1977. He is a Grammy-nominated record producer (“Monterey International Pop Festival,” MIPF/Rhino, 1992), a veteran record industry media relations executive (Capitol Records, Elektra/Asylum Records, Westwood One, Rhino Entertainment, 1977-1998) and website content manager (Warner New Media, 1998-2001). Peeples was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for the Westwood One Radio Network from 1988-1990. He was music and entertainment features writer/columnist for the Santa Clarita Valley Signal (2004-2011), and The Signal’s award-winning online editor (2007-2011). He wrote news and features for Santa Clarita’s KHTS-AM 1220 News (www.hometownstation.com) and SCVNews.com (2011-2016), and hosted, wrote and co-produced the WAVE-nominated “House Blend” music and interview show on SCV community TV station SCVTV (2010-2015). Peeples was also Vice President/New Media & Editorial with Los Angeles-based multimedia pop culture company Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. (2010-2016). In 2015, pursuing his other passion, animals, he co-founded Pet Me Happy Treats and created an all-natural treat for dogs. For more information, email skp (at) stephenkpeeples.com or visit http://www.stephenkpeeples.com.
Article: Lone Star Beer: Texas Music and Texas Beer Join Forces (1976)
Category: News and Reviews, Blasts from the Past
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Article Source: StephenKPeeples.com