No state is more musical than Texas, whose very geography seems to hum. Almost every city reminds you of a song, and so it's easy to break into a medley of "San Antonio Rose," "El Paso," "Streets of Laredo," "Amarillo by Morning," "Galveston," and "La Grange" while checking out the ol' Rand McNally.
Some towns, meanwhile, remind you of the great musicians who couldn't wait to get out. Port Arthur conjures visions of Janis Joplin freaking out the rednecks, and it's impossible to see Wink on a map without imagining Roy Orbison slipping on his first pair of shades or Corsicana without hearing Lefty Frizzell's pure honky-tonk tenor cutting through the air of a rowdy roadhouse. Centerville? That's where the great gritty blues giant Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins is from. Tiny Winnie, meanwhile, is where a barber turned producer named Huey P. Meaux auditioned Beaumont's great Barbara Lynn between haircuts.
The wide-open spaces of rural Texas are reminiscent of what the best Lone Star songwriters, from Cindy Walker to Steve Earle to Jack Rhodes to T-Bone Burnett, have chosen to leave out of their songs.
A myth born of John Wayne movies and stoked by big hair, big cars, and loud proclamations has been made real by musical pioneers. Indeed, Texas is the biggest and the boldest when it comes to the songs and sounds it has created.
Texans were the first to record a country tune (Amarillo's Eck Robertson in 1922):, the first to play electric guitar on record (Eddie Durham of San Marcos in 1935):, the first to explore "free jazz," as Fort Worth alto sax player Ornette Coleman's idiosyncratic experimentations were dubbed in the late fifties.
The first national recording stars of blues and country were Texans. Before he froze to death on a Chicago street in 1929, Wortham's Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded nearly one hundred country blues tunes for Paramount Records. Vernon Dalhart, who took his name from two Texas towns he visited in his youth, was the first country singer to sell a million records, with "The Prisoner's Song" b/w "The Wreck of the Old '97" in 1925.
Lubbock's Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the first self-contained rock combo, writing, producing, and playing on their albums and inspiring a British Invasion a few years later. (The Beatles' name was in homage to the Crickets):. Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours plugged in and took the honky-tonk sound nationwide with "Walkin' the Floor over You" in 1941. The country's first blues guitar hero was T-Bone Walker of Oak Cliff; its first great electric jazz guitarist was Dallas native Charlie Christian.
In the gospel field, a trinity of Texans—Blind Willie Johnson, Washington Phillips, and Arizona Dranes—were putting religious lyrics to blues progressions years before "the Father of Gospel," Thomas A. Dorsey, first mixed spiritual lyrics with a sinful rhythm on 1928's "If You See My Savior."
Both boogie-woogie piano, originally known as the "fast Texas" style, and psychedelic rock had roots in the Lone Star State. George W. and Hersal Thomas, the brothers of blues great Sippie Wallace, laid the blueprint for boogie-woogie, while Austin's 13th Floor Elevators were making acid rock back when LSD was still legal.
Would bebop have happened when it did if sax player Henry "Buster" Smith hadn't been lured from Dallas to Kansas City in 1925 to join the Blue Devils? You may have heard of Smith's protégé: a kid named Charlie Parker. And while New Orleans piano player Jelly Roll Morton is credited as being the father of jazz, there's no denying that Scott Joplin of Texarkana provided the template with his syncopated ragtime compositions in the late nineteenth century.
Texas is where music is made for dancing, where the exuberant crowds have coaxed musicians to play louder, first out of necessity and later because the added power expanded the boundaries.
Money, independence, big noise, and dust—that's Texas, a land of opportunity within the land of opportunity. It's where the South ends and the West begins, and yet Texas remains independent of those regions.
Texas is a state of immigrants, with the melting pot stirred to the sounds of Cajun waltzes, polkas, honky-tonk, conjunto, funk, and jazz. The Hybrid State, Texas is where new variations were created when Hispanics played German music, blacks played country, farm boys played big-band jazz, and everyone played the blues.
Of course, Texas is not the only state that can boast incredible musical heroes. Mississippi had the Delta blues and Elvis Presley. Louisiana's incredible musical heritage includes everyone from Louis Armstrong to Jerry Lee Lewis to Leadbelly (who, it should be noted, moved to Texas as a young man):. Even Minnesota could warrant its own book of true heroes, with chapters on such divergent talents as Bob Dylan, Prince, and the Replacements.
But Texas stands out for its sheer number of musical pioneers, spanning several genres. The range is spectacular, and it seems that for every superstar like Ray Charles there's a Texan like Charles Brown of Bay City, who showed him the way.
How can a book chronicling "True Heroes of Texas Music" not include chapters on Buddy Holly, Bob Wills, Roky Erickson, and Lefty Frizzell?
Where's Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, the songster whose "Bulldoze Blues" was the basis for Canned Heat's smash "Goin' Up the Country"? Where's nascent blues diva Victoria Spivey or Lubbock's great family gospel group the Chuck Wagon Gang?
And where are the jazz artists—Jack Teagarden of Vernon, Dallas's David "Fathead" Newman, or Arnett Cobb and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson of Houston?
There's no way this book can be complete and still be portable.
The general focus here is on underappreciated artists, pioneers who haven't fully received their due. No one can put Holly or Wills in that group.
But sometimes even big names are underrated, which is why you'll find chapters on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena, two artists whose talents transcend nostalgic sugarcoating. Where dying young is a proven career booster, it also ends the creative process when there's so much more to come. In the cases of Vaughan and Selena, their deaths were especially tragic because their greatest gift was what they could do on a stage. You can listen to the records, but it's not the same.
The chapters on SRV and the Butthole Surfers, both originally published in the Austin Chronicle in 1986, were the start of this book, although I didn't know it at the time. When I first moved to Austin, from Honolulu, I had never even heard of Ella Mae Morse or Blind Willie Johnson or Billy Joe Shaver. I pronounced Roky Erickson's first name with a long "o" and didn't know that Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas of "She's about a Mover" were one and the same.
But I fell in love with Austin's music scene the first night in town. It was April 1, 1984, and I went out for a walk, to check out my new South Austin neighborhood. I happened upon the Continental Club, where a handwritten sign said the Butthole Surfers were playing. Cover was three dollars.
I wasn't prepared for the psychedelic juggernaut of a Butthole Surfers set. With twin drummers pounding out primitive jungle beats, while singer Gibby Haynes and guitarist Paul Leary, the Jagger/Richards of musical debauchery, raged menacingly all over the stage, the music pinned me to the wall for over an hour.
My first week in Austin, I saw the great blues belter Lou Ann Barton, Tejano dance band Little Joe y Johnny y La Familia, hardcore punk band the Offenders, and the "King of White Trash," Dino Lee.
I met people like Keith Ferguson, the former Fabulous T-Bird bassist who filed his albums under three categories: Mexican, Negro, and Other. I ran into kids like Charlie and Will Sexton, who had been practically raised in live music venues.
Having grown up on military bases and then spent my young adulthood in the cover band wasteland of Oahu, I had never lived in a place where music figured so heavily in the quality of life equation. I had found true paradise.
I started covering music for the Austin Chronicle and wrote a gossip column called "Don't You Start Me Talking," which gleefully butchered local music sacred cows. One diatribe disguised as a column announced "Austin Music Sucks," a reaction to the local chauvinism and its attendant self-importance. In 1985, after my first year in town, readers of the Chronicle voted me "The Worst Thing to Happen to Austin Music." That's cool. I dish. I take.
After four years in "the velvet rut," I took off for San Francisco, the home of many a bored ex-Austinite, then settled in Chicago, where love took me, and the char dogs from the Wiener Circle kept me, for just over three years.
But I kept coming back to Texas, not missing a single South by Southwest music festival. I took any writing assignment that would take me to Texas, even a Spin cover story on Bon Jovi.
I moved back for good in 1992, taking a job as country music critic at the Dallas Morning News. Oh, how the mainstream country music fans hated me (and how the morning call-in shows loved that):.
I dismissed Brooks and Dunn as "Loggins and Oates," wrote that Billy Ray Cyrus looked like Mel Gibson with a ferret crawling up the back of his neck, referred to Mary Chapin Carpenter as "Mary Blatant Carpetbagger."
Country radio hosts called me "Michael Cockroach." And then it got nasty.
Given the state of mainstream country music at the time, I jumped at the chance to turn historian, writing about Lefty Frizzell and Willie Nelson and Ray Price. I mean, who would you rather research: Diamond Rio or Ernest Tubb?
There was a collective exhale from the kicker crowd when I moved into the pop music critic chair. With a broader range of styles to cover, my ears started endorsing the theory that Texas music just hits harder and resonates deeper than the sounds from elsewhere. On my watch, the Geto Boys were the ultimate gangsta rappers and Stevie Ray Vaughan the best blues guitarist ever. Ronnie Dawson blew all the other vintage rockers away, and Junior Brown made pretenders out of all the other honky-tonk throwbacks.
In 1995 I returned to where my affinity for Texas music began, taking a job as music critic for the Austin American-Statesman. The bulk of this book comes from pieces that ran in the Statesman. Some took several weeks to research and write. (And rewrite.): Others, such as the obits on Floyd Tillman and Townes Van Zandt, were done on deadline in an afternoon and later polished. Some of these chapters were based on interviews with dozens of sources. Others came solely from personal experience or were meditations on a beloved subject.
In revisiting these newspaper articles and finessing them into book-worthy form, I started thinking about just how much my interests have shifted since my days as a caustic gossip columnist for an alternative weekly. Back then a big day was getting off a zinger, like comparing the lyrics "I wanna go home with the armadillo" with a certain famous singer's dating habits. Nowadays, my favorite part of the job is driving to small Texas towns and knocking on doors in black neighborhoods looking for people who knew this long-gone blind gospel singer or that old street-corner songster.
You just get bit by the bug, is how it happens. For me, the obsessed rock 'n' roll detective side started, in earnest, while researching a story on Rebert Harris, the original lead singer for the Soul Stirrers. It was 2000, and I was amazed to discover, while reading liner notes on a new gospel compilation, that the man who practically invented the gospel quartet style (and therefore its offsprings, soul music and doo-wop): was still alive, living in Chicago. I had been almost sure he was dead.
I flew into action. I just had to track down Sam Cooke's mentor. But two hours of phone calls, to anyone resembling a gospel music authority, did not yield a contact to Mr. Harris, who was eighty-three at the time.
I gave 4-1-1 a shot and was stunned when the operator read back a phone number for a Rebert Harris of Chicago.
"Is this the home of Rebert Harris?" I asked anxiously when a woman picked up the phone. "Rebert Harris of the Soul Stirrers?" Yes, she said again. I told her I was writing a story about the legendary gospel quartet and I wondered if I could speak to Mr. Harris. "Re-bert!" she yelled as my temples pulsed. "You can only talk to him for a minute," she told me. "He's been sick."
I talked to the legend briefly that afternoon, then called some of my friends. "I'm going up to Chicago to interview Rebert Harris!" I told them, unable to contain myself. "Who?" they all asked.
"Who?" The word that launched this book.