Editor's note: This story has been updated with details about Livingston's latest album release and upcoming local tour dates.
The man was adamant: Eastern and western musicians couldn't play together -- not harmoniously, at least.
"It won't work," he insisted. "You just play your song, and I'll play mine."
It was in India, sometime in the late 1980s, and Bob Livingston had found himself stonewalled by a headstrong collaborator. It wasn't the first time the Austin-based singer-songwriter had experienced creative differences.
A founding member of the Lost Gonzo Band -- the progressive country outfit that rose to fame backing artists like Jerry Jeff Walker and Michael Martin Murphey during Austin's indie music boom in the 1970s -- Livingston has, since 1986, toured the world as a music ambassador for the U.S. State Department. What began as an opportunity to fill space between paying gigs back home has evolved into a multi-decade passion that has taken him to more than 30 countries in the Middle East, Africa and East Asia.
Currently, the globe-trotting songwriter is keeping a full tour schedule stateside, with upcoming tour dates in support of his forthcoming ninth solo album, Up the Flatland Stairs. The new record follows Gypsy Alibi, which was named Album of the Year at the 2011 Texas Music Awards.
Updated, Feb. 5, 2017: Initial copies of Up The Flatland Stairs were released in September; you can purchase a digital download or CD here. A larger CD release is planned for early 2018. You can catch Livingston at Poor David's Pub on Feb. 9 and Fort Worth Live on Feb. 10.
But, back to India.
Interest in Eastern culture had drawn Livingston's family to the country and, during hiatuses from recording and touring in Texas, he often stayed there with his wife, Iris, an artist, and young sons Tucker and Trevor. In 1986, he heard about the State Department program through a friend and prepared a presentation on western music history, which featured traditional and contemporary folk and country songs.
Livingston's first international gigs featured fellow Lost Gonzo John Inmon, but when Inmon decided to return to the U.S., Livingston pitched a new idea: He could tour solo, playing with local musicians at each show.
That meant he'd meet new temporary band members at his hotel and rehearse for a few hours just before a performance in their hometown. It was with one such musician that he encountered resistance that day in the late '80s.
"And, so what I started playing was ... let me grab my guitar. You'll know exactly what it is," Livingston said during a recent phone call. On the other end of the line, he began strumming the unmistakable opening to Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away."
"The guy said, 'Oh, you mean that beat? I know that beat,' " Livingston recalled with a laugh. "Bo Diddly and Buddy Holly used it, but it turns out to be, like, a primal beat in all cultures, and [any time I'd play it] it would completely change the scene."
Holly's song became a mantra for Livingston's international tours. Its chorus, which he altered slightly to emphasize universality, reverberated through the schools, libraries, civic centers and private homes where he played: Love is real, not fade away.
Livingston has continued playing it around the world, most recently on a February trip to Pakistan. Back home, he reinforces his travels' international spirit through Cowboys & Indians, an Austin-based band featuring multicultural artists and influences that presents similar educational performances in Texas. They call their sound "country and eastern."
His son, Tucker, who now lives full-time in India as a musician's apprentice, joined Livingston on State Department tours in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In his early 20s at the time, Tucker found himself skeptical of the tours' sincerity and purpose. The State Department has an obvious motive in presenting America in a positive light, he reasoned. He found himself drawn by the allure of travel and adventure but worried he might feel disingenuous on stage. He wondered if he was embarking on something more colonialist in its mission than mutual.
"I wanted [local musicians and audiences] to see that I was like them," Tucker Livingston said recently via Skype. "But, I don't think I expected to see that they were so much like me. I could jam with these guys. We were the same."
The Livingstons captured hundreds of hours of video from their tours that they hope to have professionally edited and preserved. Tucker is acutely aware they were among the last Americans who traveled freely and safely through Syria and Yemen and in areas now restricted or too dangerous for recreational travel.
He hopes their video footage of those places can be used to further educate viewers around the world about commonality.
"I just think sometimes," Tucker said, "Maybe some of the people we met will say, 'God, this world is in an uproar, but I remember that father and son from Texas, and they were all right.' "
CORRECTION, 9:39 a.m., May 2, 2017: An earlier version of this story stated that the Livingston family traveled to India in the 1980s for spiritual reasons. Tucker clarifies that wording does not accurately reflect his beliefs. We apologize and deeply regret the error.
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