La Grange is a tiny town in Texas, not far from Austin. It’s the county seat of Fayette County, named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette, and the town itself is named for Lafayette’s castle in France. There’s a whole lot more to tell about this little dot on the map in the Colorado River Valley – including its claim to fame as the sixth hottest town in Texas. But let’s get on to the good stuff.
The Chicken Ranch really did raise chickens and sell eggs. And other things.
‘The Chicken Ranch’ (aka, Miss Edna’s Boarding House) was probably the oldest ‘establishment’ in Texas. Plain and simple, it was a genteel cathouse. For over a century, it performed a service to gentlemen from oil field workers to high ranking government officials. Fathers brought their sons to the Ranch as a rite of passage to manhood. And Miss Edna made sure her patrons strictly adhered to her policy of ‘no drinking, no cussing’.
Even though the operation was illegal, it was tolerated. Miss Edna provided regular medical care for her well-behaved girls. They spent their money with local merchants. And to fund a new hospital, Miss Edna made the first (and largest) donation. The Chicken Ranch was the basis for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, both the movie and the musical.
ZZ Top really did write a song about a cathouse.
Since the guys of ZZ Top were Texans born and raised, writing a song about the Chicken Ranch was a natural thing to do. Based on “Boogie Chillen”, by John Lee Hooker, there are only 2 chords in the whole thing, and a minimum of lyrics. Guitarist Billy Gibbons told Rolling Stone, “The simplicity of that song was part of the magic.” The break coming out of the solo came from another black bluesman, Robert Johnson. Gibbons dissected the notes of what Johnson had done as a shuffle.
In a 1995 Guitar World interview, Gibbons revealed how he got the distinctive guitar sound for ‘La Grange’.
“That is straight guitar into amp, a 1955 Strat with a stop-tailpiece through a 1969 Marshall Super Lead 100. That fuzz sound in the lead and in the front and back end of the composition is just pure tube distortion. Pickup-setting differentials account for the different tones. The opening part was played on what we used to call ‘the mystery setting’ in the dark days before the existence of the five-way toggle switch, when finding that perfect ‘tweener required dedication.”
‘La Grange’ was released in 1973 on ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres album. It zoomed to the top of the charts and became the band’s first Top 10 hit. A few months later it also attracted the unwelcome attention of one Marvin Zindler, a TV reporter from Houston.
Marvin’s crusade for decency and personal fame
Zindler latched onto the Chicken Ranch and made it his personal crusade to get the place shut down. He created such a stink that finally the governor of Texas had no choice but to comply. There was bad feeling in the town of La Grange over Zindler’s actions.
In fact, the sheriff of Fayette County later attacked Zindler, leaving him with fractured ribs and a snatched toupee. The sheriff was said to have waved the toupee in the air as if it were a prized enemy scalp, before throwing it in the street.
La Grange town residents and their long memories
As you may imagine, such goings-on didn’t endear ZZ Top to the townsfolk. I’m guessing that they held Gibbons responsible for the publicity that came from ‘that song’.
ZZ Top wasn’t allowed to play in La Grange until 2015, over 40 years after the song’s release. Lo and behold, they were invited to play the Fayette County Fair that year. Usually the fair draws around 6000 people, but that concert brought 35,000 ticket buyers.
Said Billy Gibbons, “It was a grand, grand evening.”
There’s scads more juicy info, and now La Grange (the town) welcomes visitors curious about the Chicken Ranch. Read more on the Yesterday’s America official website. And if I do say so myself, you can buy a better looking t-shirt here! 😉
ZZ Top, 1973
Rumor spreadin’ a-’round in that Texas town
’bout that shack outside La Grange
And you know what I’m talkin’ about
Just let me know if you wanna go
To that home out on the range
They gotta lotta nice girls ah
A-how how how how
Ah have mercy