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Rodney Moag


Austin's own western swingin', yodel singin', morse-codin', on the roadin', book writin', out-of sightin', college teachin', language speakin', fiddle playin', radio deejayin', pickin' singin', always grinnin', college professor

by Rush Evans
November, 2005

When I arrive at Rod Moag's house, the inexplicable sound of long and short electrical beeps is booming through speakers placed throughout the house. In the era of cell phones and e-mail, Moag is sending a Morse code message to a friend half a world away.

A short time later, he is sitting in his living room, enthusiastically telling me about his friend, Earl, a retired bus driver and fellow ham-radio buff. "(Earl) was telling me how he came to the ham radio, through the CB craze. He had a CB radio and said, "I wasn't too happy with the CB. I found out you had to do Morse code in order to get a ham license. I looked at that and said, I don't see why I can't learn that!" I like that attitude!

Moag doesn't see why he can't learn new things, either. And there's quite a lot that he does see, despite a lifetime of sightlessness, which he would never allow to hinder his diverse and lofty ambitions.

Doc Watson, it turns out, is not the only blind bluegrass practitioner. And Ralph Stanley, PhD, whose soundtrack music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? gave bluegrass a new jolt of popularity a few years ago, is not the only bluegrass musician with such a distinguished academic title. Rodney Moag, PhD, had been exploring his passion for the rural roots of American music long before earning his doctorate in linguistics, his other great passion, in 1973.

But his story doesn't start there. When I warn him of my untamed interviewing style, bouncing from subject to subject, he smiles. "Life is not linear," he says.


Moag grew up in rural New York State in Covington, a township so small it didn't even appear on the map, and according to Moag, they "had more cows than people." He had been born in 1936 with congenital glaucoma, and was operated on at four months. The operation had saved partial vision in his left eye, which he retained until his retina gave out at age seven.

He attended a special school for the blind that was close to home, so he was able to maintain a quality family life. His parents instilled in him a sense of independence and optimism that would render his blindness utterly irrelevant. It's what Moag calls his "country values."

Moag took advantage of the schoolís music program in the third grade by taking piano, which provided a foundation for understanding music theory. By learning to read music in Braille with his fingers, he would have to memorize each piece to free up his hands for playing his instrument.

By high school, Moag had moved on to the guitar, and heíd even started his own band, The Old Time Hay-balers. They mostly played school assemblies, but that was just enough exposure to get work on a weekly Saturday afternoon program on a radio station fifty miles away.

Playing on the radio was heady stuff for a kid who had been drawing inspiration from the country music he heard from faraway Nashville, whose WSM-AM station would bring the stars of the Grand Ole Opry to life through the magic of the airwaves.

Moag soon found another way to be part of that magic, beyond the thrill of playing music live on the radio. As an announcer, he was able to share his love for great country music, and when the genre's entertainers would make their way up to his part of the country, heíd get to attend their shows and even conduct interviews with his heroes.

He still speaks with excitement of those moments he spent with country music's innovators. Jean Shepard, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Ernest Tubb were among those he interviewed for his radio show, but it was his time with country crooner Jim Reeves that brings back the most special memory. "He sang a song called "I Wish I Had A Girl Like You, Mother." I asked him where heíd gotten the song. He said, "I'll write the words out for you.í I thought it was one of those well-meaning things that probably wouldn't come to pass. My buddy came to see me the next day, and he said, "I went to the Jim Reeves show last night and Reeves announced (from the stage that) there was a fellow from the radio station named Rod that had interviewed him. He'd written out the words to the song and he said if thereís anybody that knew him could they please take the words to him."

Forty years later, Moag still plays the song each year around Mother's Day, along with a song of his own with a similar sentiment. Echoing the warmth in the music of that more innocent time, the song would surely have meant as much to the late Reeves, had Moag been given the chance to return the favor:

"Your son cannot see,
he will need special care
but where others had pity,
Mama had strength to spare.
I will make him independent,
with a spirit that's strong
so he can serve himself and
others as he travels along
Through a lifetime of trials,
her heart never changed
Daily counting her blessings,
Mama never complained."


It's a Texas-hot Saturday afternoon on the square in Georgetown, and the Old Time Fiddlin' Fair is in full western swing. Families are checking out the arts-and-crafts tables and the old-time music on every corner. This is precisely what towns with squares were made for.

With spirited exuberance, Rod Moag takes the stage by the Williamson County Courthouse with his fellow members of Texas Grass. They consider themselves an old-school bluegrass band (hence the name), but theyíre really just as comfortable with gospel, folk, and Bob Wills swing.

Moag takes the mike for an obscure Wills songs, in which his blind manís visual ability is made clearly apparent once again: "When I look down the track and hear the whistle blowin', my ramblin' heart wonít be still / Then I know so well that I got to be goiní when the train pulls over the hill."

His band mates follow his lead through the jumping bluegrass tunes, between which Moag seems to be reaching for his wallet. "I'm the only one up here that can read the list behind him without turning around," he jokes, speaking of the Braille set list stashed in his back pocket.

With smooth transition, he switches from fiddle to mandolin to guitar, from singing to yodeling, all of which precedes a transition of another sort, which is a show highlight for any Texas Grass appearance.

Having shared his music with people all over the globe, Moag will now share a little bit of those people with his Central Texas audience. After a brief explanation of his worldly travels, he imagines Texas Troubadour Ernest Tubb as a sophisticated Brit. "I'm walking the flo-uh, o-vah yooo," he sings in thick British accent, before seamlessly moving into "Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms" with a clipped, razor-sharp German pronunciation. "Wabash Cannonball" gets a Spanish-flavored Mexican treatment, while "Footprints In The Snow" is imagined as Japanese. The Kingston Trio's folk classic, "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley" is sung as though The Simpsons' Indian character, Apu, were singing to his Kwik-E-Mart customers. This accent is the one for which the singing professor has a more than passing affinity.Speaking in tongues

After high school, Moag began pursuing a communications degree at Syracuse University. His radio experience had led him to that scholastic path, but other forms of communication would soon pique his interest. "I got real interested in the various foreign students that I met. Iíd studied Spanish in high school. You know, a lot of people who take foreign languages, they wouldnít try and use it when they meet somebody on the street. Well, somehow I wasn't quite that way. I always used language as another way to reach people."

He was soon learning Spanish, German, and Russian. And with the help of a Braille book, he taught himself Italian, with which he became comfortable enough to spend a semester in Florence.

His language obsession then took another interesting turn. "I'd made friends with some Indian students while I was at Syracuse, and theyíd taught me a few of the bad words in their language. I liked Indian food. India was more accessible and more interesting. I got a fellowship and studied Hindi at the University of Wisconsin."

But to learn Hindi properly, one must get to India. So after just a year at Wisconsin, he applied for a Fulbright scholarship and was on his way overseas.

While there, he took on a few more skills, those of a husband and a father. The next move took the family back to the United States, for a chance to direct his varied communications skills into a new career path. "It seemed like language teaching was certainly something I could do," so the chance to teach Hindi at the University of Missouri would occupy the first half of the nineteen-seventies.


"Well, it's a great big Thursday morning howdy to everybody; glad to have you tuned in," Moag says as he takes the airwaves of KOOP-FM just as he does each week for his Country Swinginí Rockabilly Jamboree. Just like the other announcers on the community-supported station, he carries CDs and LPs from home to share with the radio audience.

The Jamboree is just a broadcast version of a classroom, as Moag plays and discusses the songs that represent yet another language that he is uniquely qualified to teach.

This week, he's featuring music appropriate for Veterans Day, honoring the military experience and those who lived it. The classic country songs reflect the charm of another musical era, one in which the swaggering jingoism of a Toby Keith song could never have been conceived.

All the songs for today's show have been carefully chosen from Moag's collection to represent various aspects of a service person's life.

Among the tracks are a Bob Wills topical rarity from the end of World War II, "Stars And Stripes On Iwo Jima Isle;" a Bailes Brothers tearjerker titled "Searching for a Soldier's Grave;" and a Hoosier Hot Shots howler called "She's Got a Great Big Army of Friends (Since She Lives By The Navy Yard)."

Moag shares interesting facts about the songs along the way, as he swings wide with music from the nineteen-forties to the nineties.

One interesting story of military service is found in a song by Cowboy Copas, a country music legend who perished in the same plane crash as Patsy Cline. The soldier in the song finds true love in a foreign land with a "Filipino Baby," representing a wandering spirit similar to that of the disc jockey in the booth.


Teaching in Missouri was fulfilling, but Moag still had a musician's gypsy soul, and there was a visiting professorship available in yet another fascinating, faraway place. "I said, "Fiji? There are Indians in Fiji!" I did a little research and found that very little had been written about the Indians in Fiji, and virtually nothing about their language."

By that time, he had a second wife, a second set of kids (step), and a second hemisphere in which to teach, at the University of the South Pacific. The music stayed with him wherever he went, though it rarely had time to take root. And there were other projects for an ambitious language professor.

Next stop, the University of Michigan, to teach a particular Indian tongue, and to literally write its textbook. The language was Malayalam. Ever the linguist, Moag is quick to point out that the word Malayalam is ìthe longest palindrome in the English languageî (a word that reads the same forward and backward).

It was the late eighties, and the published professor was commuting to teach summer classes at yet another distinguished university on the edge of the Texas Hill Country.


It's Saturday night in Texas, and Moagís other band, Texas A La Moag, is all set to play at Ross' Old Austin Cafe. Ross' is in far North Austin on Lamar Boulevard, just a few hundred yards from an Eckerd Drugs, which occupies a rather hallowed piece of ground. The old Skyline Club had been there, the dance hall on the Dallas Highway (then far outside of Austin) at which Hank Williams had played his last-ever gig, just days before dying in the back of his Cadillac on New Year's Day 1953.

"Hank wrote a lot of sad songs and I believe that this is the saddest that he wrote," says Moag right before "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy." Where Texas Grass excels at western swing and gospel in a bluegrass setting, Texas A La Moag immerses itself more into a classic country state of mind.

Moag and his friends may be channeling a bit of Hank tonight, but without a Williams-styled case of the "Lovesick Blues." The band plays a string of tearjerkers, but they're having great fun doing it. In fact, whenever Moag gets to play music live, it's a joyful occasion.

Along with songs paying tribute to the late Johnny Cash ("Give My Love To Rose" and "I Still Miss Someone"), Moag sings an upbeat country boogie number called "I Canít Tame Wild Women, But I Can Make Tame Women Wild." He didnít write it, but the professor in him canít resist contributing a new verse, giving the song a slightly academic touch: "I knew that librarian was kind of nervous / When she took me to the stacks to receive full service."


In 1988, he got his dream job of a full-time teaching position on the forty acres of the University of Texas at Austin. By this time, the single-again professor was teaching Malayalam exclusively. Most of his students were the children of immigrants from Kerala, the Indian state where Malayalam is spoken. These were second generation Americans taking it as a heritage language. He was also teaching graduate students who would use it as a tool for their research.

Moag had some research of his own to take care of. He was now in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, and he needed to find its musical soul. It wasnít hard to do.

He started going to bluegrass jam sessions around town, and he quickly learned that he was not the only player who held a very professional day job. He found a musical compadre in Don Walser, God's own yodeler and National Guardsman.

Walser's sense of country purism was right in line with Moag's, so Don's Pure Texas Band helped Moag put together his first solo album, The Pickin' Singin' Professor, in 1995 (which opened, not coincidentally, with the 1964 Willis Brothers country hit, "Give Me Forty Acres").

More CDs would follow, including Ah-Haaa! Goes Grass: A Bluegrass Tribute to Bob Wills and this year's A Salute To The Heroes Of Western Swing, both tributes to the artists who have served as cornerstones of Moag's own careeróand to his own sizable musical archive.


Moag is showing me his vast collection of albums and CDs shelved throughout the house. When the subject of Bob Wills records arises (a subject dear to us both), he walks right to them. With a Braille Writer, he has created little cards that serve as markers for each piece of the collection.

I point out that the music collector in the room with vision has a disorganized collection, and I can't help but comment on the irony of the blind guy having easier access to his own discs. "Well, for you it's easier to find them if they're out of order," he says.

As we talk about how music has touched us both personally, I ask if he sees his own musical career as a calling, one with a sense of purpose to reach people.

"I feel like I'm supposed to be doing this. I'll tell you one illustrative story: Texas Grass played at the Bonham Hoedown up in Northeast Texas. We played our set and a lady came up to me and said, ëI want to thank you for that song you played, "Rose Of My Heart." I just lost my husband of fifty-four years a few weeks ago. He was my rose."

Touched by the memory of that moment, Moag has to briefly pause before finishing the point. "Every once in awhile this happens where you really touch somebody with something you do. You know you've done something that's meant something to somebody.

"It happens more often in the music, but it also happens with the teaching. In the seminar that I teach about Indians living oversees, I had one Indian student who, after he'd submitted his final paper, sent me an e-mail and said, ëI have to tell you that it was this class that helped me find myself, find my identity. All kinds of drugs and a hundred plus women, none of that did it. Your class helped me find out who I am."

We find our way back to talking about the records, because life is not linear. When I ask him if any of his recordings has ever appeared on our beloved vinyl format, he tells me of a band he had in Wisconsin in the late sixties called The Bluegrass Hoppers, with whom he recorded a nationally distributed album.

As an avid record collector myself, I ask if I can see the album. With ease and pride, Rodney Moag quickly produces the Bluegrass Hoppers album that heís never seen. The blind professor hands me the record, smiles and says, "It's got a neat picture on it."

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