By Theresa Parker
“Jak se mas,” I ask Alfred Vrazel. “Pomaly,” he says. “Slow.”
He may feel like he’s moving slowly these days at age 74, but his routine since he and the Vrazel’s Band retired in 2009 proves otherwise. A typical day for Alfred begins by rising about 6 or 7 a.m. (earlier in the summer) and having breakfast with his wife of 53 years, Bernice. She then heads into the computer room to manage paperwork for their farming and ranching enterprise. Alfred travels about a mile down the road to the farm shop where he meets his brother, Albert. The two still farm and ranch together. They spend the morning checking and feeding the cattle and also repairing farm equipment. Brothers Anton and Lawrence, who have retired from farming, usually stop by to visit and no doubt offer their two cents of advice. “We always clicked good together,” Alfred says of his brother partners in farming and music.
It’s busier during the summer as Alfred and Albert still raise corn and wheat. He reports good yields for both crops this past summer. Sometimes it’s so busy in the summer months, Alfred doesn’t even eat lunch and works until dark, but occasionally he tries to indulge in an afternoon nap when he can. “We don’t farm as much as we used to. We’re slowing down a little bit every year,” he says. Pomaly.
Alfred and Bernice are members of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Marak, and when the church needed someone to manage their parish hall, Bernice and her sister, Patsy Gaines, volunteered, which meant Alfred did, too. It was to be for one year and, “Seven years later, we’re still managing the hall booking weddings and reunions. It keeps us busy,” he says. Managing the church hall seems a natural fit since the Vrazel family managed the SPJST Hall in Buckholts from 1957-1971.
Still Time for Polka
Alfred also likes to spend time in his music room. He and Bernice just recently had the time to hang all the plaques Alfred and the band received over the years. He also now has time to listen to some of the Vrazel’s recordings. “We played in Washington, D.C., in 1976 for the bicentennial celebration. They recorded us, five days worth of music. Now, 38 years later, I just started listening to it,” he says, noting, “It sounds pretty good.” And, of course, he likes to pick up his button box and play a song or two every now and then. The sax too, but not as much.
One of the plaques Alfred hung on the wall was presented to him this past September in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was inducted into the International Polka Hall of Fame. He was honored for his role as a polka DJ for the past 59 years on KMIL in Cameron. What made it even more special was Alfred is the first Texan to be inducted into the hall, which is located in Chicago.
Alfred says he was apprehensive at first about going to Cleveland to accept the award. “They didn’t know much about our brand of polka in Texas and we didn’t know about them,” he says. But that feeling quickly passed as they all gathered to celebrate a common bond – polka. “They were very respectful of Texas polka and the ceremony was first class all the way.”
2015 Marks 60 Years On Air
The Vrazel’s Polka Show will celebrate 60 years on the air this coming summer. The show started as the Vrazel Polka Hour, a live broadcast with the Vrazel’s Band every Sunday on KMIL 1330 AM. The station had just come on the air and needed programming and the Vrazel’s were a young band just getting started and they needed publicity. The show was on the air from 1 to 2 p.m. then the band would head out to a gig. “Back then, they had Sunday night dances from 9 to midnight, so we had plenty of time to do the show and get to a dance,” Alfred recalls.
The band did the live show from 1955 to 1960. “The Sunday dances started being held earlier so we didn’t have time to do live radio performances. Plus, the recording of polka music on labels like TNT was starting to take off,” Alfred says. From 1960 to about 2000, Alfred did the broadcast live. Bernice, and later daughter, Cindy, would come to the station to take phone-in requests and sort through the mailed dedications the station received. Now the show is mostly pre-recorded.
The weekends have changed for Alfred and Bernice. “For over half a century, we had to be somewhere on Saturdays and Sundays. Now, we enjoy sitting on the couch on the weekend,” Alfred says. At the height of the Vrazel’s popularity, the band was performing 125 dates a year. “We’d play a dance in Dallas on Saturday night, then head to Corpus Christi to play with The Majeks the next day. We were a lot more sturdy back then,” Alfred says laughing.
And as all wives have to make adjustments to their schedules as their husbands retire, Bernice says it’s taken some getting used to having Alfred home on the weekends. “When Alfred was on the road with the band, I had the choice of either going to the dance or staying home to do what I wanted, like shopping. Now, he’s underfoot all the time. But I have to admit, he’s good at steering the Wal-Mart cart,” Bernice says, laughing.
Alfred still goes into the radio station to record his Sunday show, where he has his own recording studio, usually on Thursdays or when it works best around his farming gig. Most of the music is on his laptop, but he also uses a turn table, cassette and CD players. He plays a lot of music by the Texas bands, but also features some music by the out-of-state bands and now gets the bulk of his requests through email. The Internet has broadened his listening audience. People from all over the world can tune in to the show at kmil.com. “It makes me wish I was young and starting the band again. Back when we started, we had to put posters out to advertise our dances. Now, within a few minutes, the whole state knows everything.”
He says he was nervous as heck doing that first radio show. “But as the Sundays went by, I got more relaxed. Just like playing a dance, once you pick up your instrument, tune up, count off one two three, here we go, you get into the music and the nervousness goes away,” he says.
He has always done the show in English, interjecting Czech when announcing song titles. “I knew if I switched to Czech, I’d lose some of the audience,” he says. “It’s a shame really, because Czech is a very expressive, beautiful language.”
Listen at kmil.com
Alfred’s show has expanded to two hours and 15 minutes on Sundays from 12:15 to 2:30 p.m. on KMIL Cameron, which is now 105.1 FM. He has had some of the same sponsors for many years, such as SPJST, Slovacek Sausage and the oldest – Anderle Lumber Company in Cameron. He credits the success of the program to the loyal listeners who enjoy the music and many who he connects with on a farming level.
“I have always tried to be myself. Anything you do, it’s important to be yourself. I come from humble beginnings, picking cotton and pulling corn. On the polka show, I talk about farming. When we played at dances at Lodge 88 and Bill Mraz, many of the people there had settled in Houston from farming communities in the Praha-Shiner area. I would sometime ask, ‘How many people here have picked cotton?’ Always lots of hands went up.”
Alfred is usually a regular at jams these days and he has sat in with the Red Ravens a few times last year. He and Bernice also like to attend dances to, well, dance. He doesn’t always bring his accordion but if asked, he’ll pick up one of the band’s and join in on a song or two. “I enjoy playing. Now I don’t have to worry about being a bandleader. I don’t have to set up the sound system. It’s great,” he says.
Alfred’s favorite polka is The Bandleader Polka, which he plays to open his radio show. Favorite waltz is At the Spring. And he likes classic country such as Ray Price and Merle Haggard. “Classic country is just good dance music. It fits polka bands real well. Back in the ‘50s we wanted to incorporate something to entice more young people to come to the dances. We were one of the first polka bands to have electric bass and play country tunes,” he says.
When asked how many times he has played A Ja Sam, he just laughs and says, “A whole lot. It’s the standard polka.”
No Fans Like Polka Fans
Alfred says the outlook for polka is good. “We have a lot of young bands coming up. The music is going to stay a long time. Mollie B has done a lot to bring polka to the forefront on a national level,” he says. “Now, we just need more of the young people to come to the dances. Back when we started playing, whole families would go to dances. Now, there’s so much going on, it’s hard to get families together at a dance. However, there are a number of places that do a good job of pulling in the young folks.”
It all starts with the love of the music, he says. “No other form of music has an audience like polka. They are so loyal and appreciative. We never got rich, but we made a lot of friends, and to the end that’s what counts. In the Vrazel Band, Anton and I had a great group. Good musicians, good Christian people, and I hope it showed on stage.”
So is Alfred expecting another pomaly year in 2015? “It will be hard to top last year when I got that phone call telling me I had been chosen for the hall of fame. It really caught me by surprise,” he says. He and Bernice would like to go to Chicago this year to visit the International Polka Music Hall of Fame Museum to “see what’s what” and check out his plaque, which, thanks to Alfred and Bernice, also has a copy of the Texas Polka News October 2014 issue next to it, that carried the story about the induction ceremony. The couple also hope to spend more time with their daughter, Cindy, and grandchildren, Matthew and Jessica.
He plans to continue the radio show, farming and ranching and to Polka On! “Let’s keep supporting the music, bands and dance halls. Let’s keep it going.”