The Untold Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ Commercial
This year’s virtually pointless Cotton Bowl holds more significance in the world of television advertising than it does in sports, as it marks 25 years since the first “Don’t Mess with Texas” commercial aired on January 1st, 1986. You’ve probably seen the saying scrawled across some Hipster’s shirt, or as a sticker on some old pick-up’s bumper, or on a postcard thumb-tacked to corkboard in a hole-in-the-wall café in Bruges, Belgium. The logo is as simply designed as the State’s flag: a blue strip on top, a red strip on the bottom, and the now-famous warning in the middle. The slogan has come to symbolize what outsiders — and, I suppose, even Texans themselves — believe to be the mentality of the Lone Star State. Don’t mess with us. We carry guns, we promote the death penalty, we declared our independence once and we might do it again. During the warmongering George W. years, it had an even eerier meaning, like we Texans had been planning it all along. Haven’t ya’ll been payin’ attention?
In truth, “Don’t Mess With Texas” is an anti-littering campaign slogan that was dreamed up by Tim McClure, a local Texas Mad Man and one of the founders of the advertising agency GSD&M. The agency got its start in 1971 with Steve Gurasich, Roy Spence, Judy Trabulsi, and McClure, four creative, hard-working University of Texas graduates who decided to stay in their home state and build their own agency, from the ground up.
By the mid-80’s, GSD&M was an up-and-coming maverick agency in the creative nook of Austin, a major brand alternative to the “American-psychoed,” Manhattan-based J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy. While the agency’s prominence has faded slightly as of late, GSD&M was a five-hundred-pound advertising gorilla by the turn of the last century, with clients like Walmart, Mastercard, and AT&T. Back in 1985, however, GSD&M was still an underdog fighting for spot at the national table, with Coors and upstart Southwest Airlines as their biggest accounts, which is probably why the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) felt it could convince the partners to take on the State’s new anti-littering initiative. Surely a couple-million-dollar account from the State of Texas was worth their time and energy? In truth, it barely was, but the agency knew currying political favor in their home state was never a bad thing. And, of course, it was for a noble cause. Easy as it is to forget, in1985, the common American wasn’t trained to throw trash into garbage cans. You know that scene in the comedy Anchorman where all four of the main characters finish eating lunch in a San Diego park and throw their Styrofoam trash on the ground? They weren’t just being assholes for the sake of being funny. People did that, regularly, like smoking cigarettes indoors. TxDOT had taken notice of the littering epidemic because fewer bluebonnets were growing along the state highways due to all the empty Budweiser cans and Whataburger containers piling up on top of them. Let’s not forget the tax dollars it was costing to clean up this endless mess. TxDOT wanted a slogan and a series of commercials that would appeal to everybody, but primarily to a younger demographic, as they seemed to be the ones drinking beer, eating burgers, and chucking trash the most. As the story is taught in today’s University marketing classes and perpetuated through water-cooler ad agency re-tellings, McClure was on a morning stroll in the beautiful wooded hills outside his Westlake Hills bachelor pad when he thought of the slogan. It was the 11th hour before his team was supposed to present to TxDOT, and he’d had a couple long nights prior, scratching up legal pads, nothing clicking. In the morning gloaming, the outlines of cigarette butts and bottle caps were evident in the grass beneath the cedar and oak trees, ground into the dirt along the side of the road. The more McClure looked around, the more garbage he saw: pieces of plastic bags floating between branches, beer cans crushed into dead leaves, candy wrappers splayed over green grass. In this religiously quiet morning moment, the fury from all the careless litter and waste collapsed into a single, angry line: Don’t Mess With Texas. He raced home to write it down on a sticky pad he kept next to his new-fangled answering machine.
Mike Blair and Willie Nelson at the country legend’s “Don’t Mess With Texas” shoot.
TxDOT didn’t get it, of course, but McClure and his team did what they really do best: they sold it. Each spot would feature a different Texan musician, who would appeal to the younger demo, see? They’d each sing a rendition of the popular state song, “The Eyes of Texas,” and the commercial would end with them looking directly at the camera and saying the slogan, as seriously as possible.
Passionate, McClure wanted to go as big as possible right out the gate, to get the attention of every hip, red-blooded Texan male out there. They’d get guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan for the inaugural commercial, playing onstage alone in front of a huge Texas flag—a la Jimmy Hendrix and his famous rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. At that time, Vaughan was well on his way to becoming one of the biggest musicians in the world, having won “Entertainer of the Year” and “Instrumentalist of the Year” at the National Blues Awards in 1984. His record at the time, “Soul to Soul,” was rising and falling in the 30’s on the Billboard music charts, and would become his third gold album. He was touring internationally and already being called one of the greatest guitarists ever, living or dead.
Skeptically, the good ‘ol boys at TxDOT agreed, putting their trust in the creatives. The only stipulation was that the spot had to be ready to go to air by the next Cotton Bowl, being played between the Texas A&M Aggies and the Auburn Tigers on New Year’s Day, 1986. Three weeks away. Shortly after the TxDOT sign-off, McClure sat down with his creative director, Mike Blair. Blair was a jack-of-all-trades, a human Leatherman for GSD&M used to carrying agency accounts on his back. He still does to this very day, albeit at arm’s length. Blair would write the commercial, produce it, and oversee the music production. To direct and shoot, they knew just the guy: my Father.
Richard Kooris was rising to the height of his own career as a nationally recognized director-cameraman and, with my mother Laura, he owned the largest film and television production studio in Austin. McClure and Blair had worked with him on a number of spots in the past, and they had all become close friends, despite the often abusive and rocky relationships between commercial agencies and production companies. They went to each other’s parties, ate dinner together at all the new places, and ran with the same bohemian Austin crowd. McClure had even taken to calling their three-year-old son “Scientist,” as, when asked, the toddler said he wanted to be “an archeopaleontologist” when he grew up. I loved dinosaurs. The mid-80’s had been big for my father. He had spent a portion of it as the director of photography on Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (which is only slightly better then the Michael Bay remake) and another portion of it directing the infamous “Pancho & Lefty” country music video with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, which won an American Music Award the same year Michael Jackson’s John Landis-directed video for “Thriller” somehow won nothing. He’d also co-directed and photographed the hit music videos for “Cold Shot” and “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” with Stevie Ray Vaughan, making him the perfect candidate to kick-off the “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign. While they wouldn’t be shooting until the final weeks of December due to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s touring schedule, the production was simple, barely even a day. It was all one set-up, entirely inside a stage. Start close, a smoky mist clearing to reveal Stevie Ray Vaughan holding his Stratocaster, easing into the first few notes of “The Eyes of Texas” in his own electric style. The eyes of Texas are upon you, all the live-long day. Pull back. Stevie would continue to play his rendition of the classic University of Texas fight song set to the tune of “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”, majestically fingering the frets, standing all our short-hairs on end. Close on Stevie’s severely-shaped mug just as the final riff ends. He looks up from beneath his trademark black gaucho hat and says (you guessed it), “Don’t Mess with Texas.” We pull back to reveal the fifty-foot wide Texas State flag, filling the frame behind him, an iconic musician protecting an iconic state. They’d be wrapped after the first meal, which was nice, considering it was the holidays and all. The commercial’s war plan would break down like this: McClure would arrive at Stevie’s house outside Austin at 9 in the morning. This was being done for two reasons. Openly, they wanted to give Stevie the rock star treatment he had come to expect. Considering this was a public service campaign, Stevie was only receiving scale and free promotion for his time. If he walked on them, the inaugural commercial for “Don’t Mess With Texas” was dead, as was the entire campaign, most likely. So McClure and Blair knew they had to handle their famous, principal talent as delicately and kindly as possible. Richard Kooris and Willie Nelson during the “Pancho & Lefty” music video shoot.
The other, more important reason was to make sure Stevie actually showed up. Not only had he been building a solid celebrity reputation for being callous with other people’s time, he was also reaching the epicenter of the scorching, white hot flame of his own cocaine and alcohol addiction. For insurance purposes, McClure would be Stevie Ray Vaughan’s chauffeur. McClure would ferry Stevie to a recording studio in downtown Austin where he would lay down the playback track for “The Eyes of Texas.” Once that was recorded they would head to the stage where my father and his production crew would have everything lit, the stage atmosphere smoked and the camera ready to roll. As soon as the shoot wrapped, the film would have to be flown to Dallas to be developed and transferred. Then the transfer master would be brought back to Austin to be edited in a couple days before it would be delivered to air during the Cotton Bowl. It was a relatively tight time frame with little to no room for error—or delay. So at nine in the morning on the day of the shoot, McClure knocks on the door to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s house for an inordinate amount of time. Stevie’s girl friend finally answers, saying Stevie was asleep in the living room. She leads McClure inside where, sure enough, he finds Stevie passed-out on the couch, buck-naked. While McClure wouldn’t go into much more detail here, someone rouses the rock star so that he is conscious enough to at least get dressed before plopping back down on the couch. He tells McClure he wants to watch a movie. Sure thing, Stevie. By this point, two hours have passed at the recording studio where Blair is waiting, his small talk with the buzz-cut from TxDOT running on fumes. McClure calls telling Blair they are halfway through a bad Burt Reynold’s movie and that it was probably going to be another hour before they are down there, at best. Blair breaks the news to the buzz cut, who is not happy. An hour or so later, Stevie jumps into one of his cars and tells McClure to follow him to his own studio, where he plans to pick out the perfect Stratocaster guitar for the commercial. So much for chauffeuring. McClure follows to him to the studio where there is a treasure trove of guitars all lined up along the wall, watching as Stevie carefully plays each one. Sound good, Stevie? By three in the afternoon, Stevie rolls up to the recording studio (he’d settled finally on “Yellow,” his yellow Stratocaster), an exhausted McClure in tow. The buzz cut is long gone, sternly wishing Blair “the best of luck” out his window before driving away. In the recording studio finally, Stevie asks how to play “The Eyes of Texas.” Blair picks it out for him and Stevie looks at him with a wry smile and plays a beautiful, minute-and-a-half quintessential Stevie Ray Vaughan version of “The Eyes of Texas.” It’s electrifying, epic and perfect—except for the fact that the riff can only be twenty-four seconds, so that he can say his line and the spot won’t run over thirty seconds total. Stevie immediately declares Blair doesn’t like him and excuses himself to the recording studio’s bathroom, to blow cocaine.
They don’t finish recording the playback track until nearly seven in the evening, which is about the time they were originally scheduled to be finished shooting the entire commercial. This is primarily due to Stevie’s propensity to launch into his own, fantastic guitar solos and his regular trips to the bathroom for key bumps. Upon leaving the recording studio, Stevie says he’ll meet everyone at the stage and, before Blair can protest, Stevie has wheeled away into the Central Texas winter night. Blair isn’t surprised when Stevie doesn’t show up at the studio within the next hour, while my father and the rest of the production crew eat their second meal of the day and try to calculate how much GSD&M is now paying them all in overtime.
Where in Austin is Stevie Ray Vaughan? Blair puts calls out all over the city and finally, tracks Stevie down at the infamous Continental Club, where he is drinking, sniffing and hopping on and off stage, adding to the lore of legendary live music that makes Austin what it is today. He is kind enough to call Blair around midnight, when he is finally enroute to the shoot. This gives them all just enough time to fill the enormous room with a haze of smoke, light it perfectly and get into position, so that Stevie can walk right in, play the riff a few times and leave, releasing them all.
When Stevie arrives, he and the make-up girl instantly hit it off and, with another wry smile at Blair, he explains he can’t play in a room filled with smoke, despite the fact that he himself smokes and plays nightly in smoke filled clubs and concert venues. So while Stevie is partying down in make-up, the crew spends the next hour and a half clearing the smoke from inside the stage.
The air finally clear, Stevie comes back out on stage, sits down and follows direction without complaint. He nails each take perfectly and my Father calls wrap within forty-five minutes. Due to the fact that they are virtually a day behind schedule already, my Father realizes there’s no time to wait on shipping the film up to Dallas, that they’ll have to deliver it themselves. He hops a plane two hours later with the negative under his arm, spends the day making sure the film is processed and transferred correctly and returns that night with the transfer master, having been awake for 42 hours straight, still a personal record.
But it wasn’t over yet. Part of the deal with Stevie was that he got to see the final cut of the commercial before it went to air. Three days later my Father, Blair and the spot’s editor met him and his entourage in an editing suite at 501 Studios. Stevie was wearing a full Indian Chieftain’s War bonnet, with an array of beautiful feathers, flowing all the way to the floor. They played the commercial for him. He watched it silently a couple of times before finally telling them they couldn’t run it. According to Stevie, one finger on one string on one fret of the guitar didn’t match up with the music that was playing over it. They checked every other take they had done and Stevie said he’d missed the note, each time. My Father and the editor pleaded with him, saying no one would notice it, that they’d been watching it for three days straight and they hadn’t noticed. Still wearing the Indian War Bonnet, Stevie stared at them, particularly at Blair, and said flatly, my fans will know.
They argued, pleaded, negotiated for hours but Stevie wouldn’t budge. Finally, at wit’s end, Blair pulled Stevie’s personal guitar tuner aside, a massive, tatted Hell’s Angel doppleganger, and asked him of he could help. Talk to him for me. The guitar tuner shrugged and stepped outside with Stevie for a cigarette. Five minutes later, Stevie walked back in and reaffixed his Indian War Bonnet. Run it, was all he said and then left.
As planned, the inaugural “Don’t Mess With Texas” commercial aired during the Cotton Bowl, capturing the attention of millions watching it across the state. It was an instant success. It would be presumptuous to believe that the experience Stevie went through when shooting the commercial had any effect on him, because there’s no way to really know what was going on inside his head at the time amidst the cocaine, whiskey and fame. But it’s interesting to note that nine months later, right around the time “Don’t Mess With Texas” was actually beginning to clean up state roadways and really make people start paying attention, Stevie passed out onstage in Germany, a public overdose which would send him to rehab. As we know, the brilliant musician would spend the next four years conquering his addiction while still churning out hit after hit, up until his tragic death in a helicopter crash in the late summer of 1990. While there’s no way to draw a true connection between a clean-up campaign and a troubled genius cleaning himself up a short time later, it’s a fine legend.
GSD&M went on to do 28 more commercials through 1998, when Omnicom bought the agency and they parted ways with TxDOT. My Father directed and shot 19 of them and Blair wrote and produced 27 of them, with musicians like Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Jeff Walker, Joe Ely and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, all of whom were both on time and incredibly cooperative. McClure’s latest brainchild is a bottled water company called H2Orange, which shapes it’s bottles like the University of Texas tower and has raised closed to a million dollars in scholarship money for the school. He still calls me Scientist.
Top photo: Richard Kooris shoots Stevie Ray Vaughn during the music video for “Couldn’t Stand the Weather.”