An examination of the turbulent, transformative 1970s through the lens of central Texas’s counterculture, from the cosmic cowboys of the Armadillo World Headquarters to Américo Paredes and the performance folklore movement.
Series: Published in Cooperation with the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, Southern Methodist University
During the early 1970s, the nation’s turbulence was keenly reflected in Austin’s kaleidoscopic cultural movements, particularly in the city’s progressive country music scene. Capturing a pivotal chapter in American social history, Progressive Country maps the conflicted iconography of “the Texan” during the ’70s and its impact on the cultural politics of subsequent decades.
This richly textured tour spans the notion of the “cosmic cowboy,” the intellectual history of University of Texas folklore and historiography programs, and the complicated political history of late-twentieth-century Texas. Jason Mellard analyzes the complex relationship between Anglo-Texan masculinity and regional and national identities, drawing on cultural studies, American studies, and political science to trace the implications and representations of the multi-faceted personas that shaped the face of powerful social justice movements. From the death of Lyndon Johnson to Willie Nelson’s picnics, from the United Farm Workers’ marches on Austin to the spectacle of Texas Chic on the streets of New York City, Texas mattered in these years not simply as a place, but as a repository of longstanding American myths and symbols at a historic moment in which that mythology was being deeply contested.
Delivering a fresh take on the meaning and power of “the Texan” and its repercussions for American history, this detail-rich exploration reframes the implications of a populist moment that continues to inspire progressive change.
2014 Coral Horton Tullis Memorial Prize for Best Book on Texas History (TSHA)
Introduction. “Too Much Ain’t Enough,” or, The Texan in the Late Twentieth Century
1. The Empire of Texas: Lone Star Regionalism Sets the Stage, 1936–1968
2. Home with the Armadillo: Austin’s Progressive Country Music Scene
3. This New Cross Between Baba Ram Dass and Sam Bass: Cosmic Cowboydom and the 1970s
4. The Vanishing Texan: The Party of the Fathers Realigns
5. You a Real Cowboy? Texas Chic in the Late Seventies
“Too Much Ain’t Enough,” or, The Texan in the Late Twentieth Century
In March 1975, Atlantic Monthly devoted an entire issue to Texas. The magazine intended it to open a series highlighting American spaces for the coming bicentennial. However, apart from a shorter story on the Pacific Northwest months later, this issue on a single state stood alone. The editors chose Texas for its evocative, even polarizing, qualities, the sense of it as “a place that some who know . . . love to hate, and many who have been shaped by it hate to love.” In eighteen articles over one hundred pages, William Broyles, David Broder, T. R. Fehrenbach, John Graves, Molly Ivins, Barbara Jordan, Larry L. King, Larry McMurtry, Katherine Anne Porter, Al Reinert, Jack Valenti, Richard West, and others explored the notion of Texans’ perceived difference from the rest of the nation, tacking between its mythologized frontier past and its swaggering Sunbelt modernity. The juxtaposition of the two, in the national imagination and in the lives of Texas residents, made for intriguing moments in the 1970s. The process rendered Texas, and the notion of Texanness, an interpretive key to American culture and politics in the years following the end of the long post–World War II economic boom. This book uses that key to understand better the relationships between region and nation, place and identity, in the late twentieth century. One evening in December 1972, for example, two Texas singer–songwriters stood backstage at the Armadillo World Headquarters nightclub in Austin. They knew each other from their time together in Nashville, until one of them left, frustrated with his uncertain prospects as star material in Music City. The defector had recently moved to Austin. Soon thereafter, he called the Texan still in exile to let him know that he had “found something” down here, which is why they were backstage at the Armadillo. The two had played any number of dubious honky-tonks and dance halls across the country, but preparing to take the stage after a raucous country-rock act named Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and peering out at a screaming crowd of long-haired cosmic cowboys and peasant-bloused honky-tonk angels, Waylon Jennings just was not sure what to make of it all. He turned to his friend, visibly worried. “What the hell have you got me into, Willie?”
No wonder the currents coursing through that audience surprised Jennings. Texas in the 1970s portended, at various times, the boosterism of an energy-led Sunbelt future in Houston and Dallas, the activist democracy of a post-Anglo majority in San Antonio and Crystal City, the rise of a new creative class born of the counterculture in Austin, and, in a few exemplary moments, a full-blown cultural renaissance that enveloped the state as a whole. These developments dovetailed with an ongoing, statewide fascination with the very quality of Texanness and its purportedly special position within the 1970s United States. As Eddie Wilson, founder of the Armadillo World Headquarters, stated the case in introducing Willie Nelson during the televised Armadillo Country Music Review in 1973:
There’s a story going around the United States of America, going around about the same time that the government’s crumbling and that economics are falling apart and the prices are going up, and the story . . . is that there’s something weird going on in Austin, Texas. And what seems to be weird is the cowboys and the hippies are getting along better, probably, than anywhere in the world. And maybe it’s because the cowboys took a look at the hippies a couple of days ago and said, “They look more like my grandfather than I do.”
This narrative of the coming together of the hippies and the cowboys (more commonly parsed as the hippies and the rednecks) took quick root and signified an attempted coming-to-terms with the oppositions of urban and rural, modern and traditional, and the politico-cultural valences of left and right in the 1970s. In all, the capital city of Austin provided some of the best illustrations for the decade’s substantive fascination with and attempted revision of “the Texan.”4 Artists, writers, and entrepreneurs there often fed the projection of a Texas chic for national audiences in a period of political and economic malaise, re-inventing the discursive possibilities of the bountiful frontier in an era otherwise marked by America’s discovery of its distinct limitations.
This study charts the contested iconography of “the Texan” and its relation to Texan identities in the latter half of the twentieth century, and situates that contestation as a defining aspect of the broader social and political contours of the state and nation in the 1970s. This is an exploration of the recent past, then, but its echoes carry strongly into the present. In his 2011 inaugural address, Governor Rick Perry predicted that historians would look on the twenty-first century as the “Texas century,” one in which small government, low taxes, minimal regulation, and the privatization of public services would lead the way out of America’s latest malaise. In doing so, he participated in a long tradition of deploying Texas as an ideological and symbolic marker, one resonant across the twentieth century as it surely will be across the twenty-first. As a set of symbols, Texas signified richly. It spoke to excessive appetites and boisterous behavior in the service of the pragmatic remnant of a frontier Americanism. In the early 1960s, journalist John Bainbridge focused on these qualities in labeling Texans the “Super-Americans” in a book of the same name. Country singer–songwriter Billy Joe Shaver of Waco updated the equation of American and Texan appetites in a different arena, singing in “Old Five and Dimers (Like Me)” in the 1970s that “too much ain’t enough.” On the one hand, this book extends Bainbridge’s argument and Shaver’s phrase concerning consumption, materialism, patriotism, and economic power in the Lone Star State. At the same time, this pursuit of more, of “too much,” was itself never quite enough for many Texans, and in the 1970s, a decade of fiscal limits and libidinal excess, “the Texan” overflowed its symbolic borders. Groups that seemed to stand outside the symbol’s charged circle—African Americans, Mexican Americans, and women of all races—challenged and expanded the public sense of Texanness, and new generations appropriated the state’s classic iconography. The old manner of being Texan took on new meanings. How, then, do we periodize these consistent invocations of “the Texan,” and why focus on the 1970s in doing so?
Popular memory lionizes the 1960s as a decade of substantive change. But those years should be more properly framed as vanguard, as it was in the 1970s that the shifts in the nation’s understanding and experience of race and gender difference, morality and cultural sensibility, and skeptical attitudes toward established authority and expertise rippled outside the coterie of activists, intellectuals, and politicians who defined the sixties agenda. As David Frum has written, for the “typical” American voter—say, the forty-seven-year-old white machinist’s wife from Dayton, Ohio—the 1960s may as well have been the 1940s. It was only in the next decade that she experienced divorce, discovered cappuccino, and cast her first Republican ballot. Similarly, it was in the 1970s, not the 1960s, in which Texas experienced its largest antiwar demonstrations, La Raza Unida defeated the Anglo political machines in the border counties, and long hair and drug references proved popular among the state’s country-western artists. And even as the sixties liberation ethos became more accessible and diffuse, new social movements among conservatives achieved increasing levels of organization, visibility, and viability. Taken together, the rise of a liberationist identity politics and the New Right’s growing activism, the continued commodification of the counterculture and the rising profile of the evangelicals, make the 1970s particularly compelling in terms of recent American history.
Change often arrived in unexpected forms and unlikely places, from the Armadillo World Headquarters to Michael Levy’s Texas Monthly, from the electoral victories of the “new politics” in municipal elections to the United Farm Workers organizing drives on the border, from chili cook-offs and festivals in Luckenbach to the progressive country music of Willie Nelson, Michael Murphey, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Revisions of traditional Texan iconography occurred amid tremendous regional change—Sunbelt suburbanization, oil-fueled prosperity in the midst of the energy crises, the ongoing partisan realignment of the solid Democratic South, and the revolutionary social movements for black, Chicano, and women’s rights. They also coincided with shifts in the stature of Texas on the national stage, embodied in the political careers of Lyndon Johnson, John Connally, Barbara Jordan, and George H. W. Bush, and crowned by the success in popular culture of outlaw country music, the film Urban Cowboy, and the prime-time soap opera Dallas.
The confluence of country-western performance, countercultural sensibilities, and an emphatic Anglo-Texan masculinity, in particular, runs against the most common generational and regional narratives of the 1960s. In particular, the locally celebrated subcultural union of the “hippies” and the “rednecks” in a storied space like Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters strikes the casual observer steeped in the Manichean worlds of Easy Rider or the New York City hard-hat riots as quite odd. And yet, this oddity, this inability to securely place the Texan 1970s in an easy generational or ideological narrative, makes these seemingly unlikely phenomena fit well with historians’ developing sense of a rather contrarian decade. How does Nixon’s silent majority square with Carter’s Southern centrism on the rapidly shifting political ground of Texas? What does country songwriter Willie Nelson’s transformation into a honky-tonk hippie signify as the counterculture became diffuse and omnipresent, as more men wore long hair and loudly colored business suits, and consumption driven by the quest for the authentic self came to dominate the mainstream? What did the raucous celebration of Anglo-Texan identity mean amid American defeat in Vietnam, stagflation, and Watergate, developments that cast a pall, a malaise, over the national mood? From the death of Lyndon Johnson to Willie Nelson’s picnics, from the Brown Berets in San Antonio to the spectacle of Texas chic on the streets of New York City, Texas mattered in these years not simply as a place but as a repository of long-standing American myths and symbols, and at a historical moment when that mythology was being deeply contested.
This book maps the messy ground of the 1970s in Texas along several paths, but it also oversteps that chronology and geography to accomplish a larger goal. Fundamentally, it explores how the idea of Texas operated in the cultural politics of the latter half of the twentieth century and in the frames of local, regional, and national imaginaries. Figures of Anglo-Texan masculinity have traditionally embodied this idea of Texas. Invocations of “the Texan” in popular discourse tend to find representation, in the first instance, in some variant of the white cowboy, wheeler-dealer, or oilman despite the Mexican origins of Texas ranching, the role of women in the settling of the state, and the significance of cotton production, which occupied a larger portion of laborers (men and women, Anglo, African American, Mexican American, and Mexican) through much of the state’s history than did either cattle or oil. I focus, then, on tracing the cultural operation of Anglo-Texan masculinity, but I do so not in the interest of re-inscribing the dominance of these representations. In fact, by demonstrating the plasticity and historicity of this body of symbols, I hope to accomplish quite the opposite.
One of my key interests lies in exploring moments in which actors invoked the symbolic weight of Anglo-Texan masculinity for progressive political ends. Anglo-Texan men who attempted to expand on, amplify, or alter these symbols responded to the unfolding identity politics of the 1970s. During that decade, as civil rights and feminist movements challenged dominant notions of the representative Texan, icons of Anglo-Texan masculinity—the cowboy, the oilman, the wheeler-dealer—came in for a dizzying round of both celebration and critique. Participants in the scene around the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin did so, in part, to fracture the relationship between such symbols and the exercise of reactionary state power, a task in uneasy tension with the scene’s obvious affection for these symbols and their bearers. To the extent that such re-inventions succeeded, they did so due to the scene’s dialogic relation with the civil rights and feminist movements. To the extent that they failed, they did so due to the tendency to re-inscribe the symbols as insular and exclusive reactions to, rather than dialogues with, the decade’s expansive identity politics. These two trends competed vigorously with each other in the tastes and fashions of late twentieth-century Texas.
Three Men in Texas: Shrake, Barnes, and Franklin
Understanding the operation of “the Texan” requires examination of the shifting political economy and partisan alignments of the Lone Star State in the middle and later decades of the twentieth century. I will attend to these matters, but most of the work here will be cultural. Literature, film, journalism, art, and popular music had long traced the contours of the figurative Texan. However, its cultural propagation did not simply involve images on a screen or text in a magazine. Rather, I frame Texanness as, in part, a performance, a set of strategies and gestures, some conscious, some not, by which individuals enacted “the Texan.” It is often necessary to draw the line between Texans—individuals who live within the political boundaries of the Lone Star State—and “Texans”—those brash creatures of the imagination who perpetuate the state’s mythologies. Such Texans and “Texans” often lead parallel but distinctly separate lives. At other times, though, the two intersect in instructive ways. Anglo-Texan masculinity had signified for the American nation and developed a performative dimension long before Willie and Waylon’s 1972 backstage encounter. It dated from the first Anglo American incursions into the territory in the early nineteenth century, but its performance in the 1970s carried specific significances that help to explain the historical period and national mood. Reckoning those requires a glimpse back to the late 1960s, and to the kinds of performances carried out on the stages of everyday life. Illustrative moments from the lives of three young Anglo-Texan men—Bud Shrake, Ben Barnes, and Jim Franklin—help to make the point.
Few knew the resonances of the performative Texan in the 1970s as did Edwin “Bud” Shrake. A friend, associate, or acquaintance of such Lone Star notables as Billy Lee Brammer, Gary Cartwright, Willie Nelson, Ann Richards, and Jack Ruby, Shrake’s journalism for Sports Illustrated, Harper’s, and Texas Monthly placed him in fitting situations from which to recount the changing cultural politics of his time. In one such instance, in the spring of 1967, Muhammad Ali had flown to Houston to refuse induction into the armed forces, and, as he often did when he came to Texas, requested that Shrake pick him up at the airport. Shrake rented a Cadillac convertible for the occasion, thinking a leisurely open-air drive through the streets of Houston would do Ali good. Instead, Ali immediately urged Shrake to take him “where the trouble was”—that is, to the site of ongoing protests over police brutality wracking the traditionally black Texas Southern University in the city’s Third Ward. The protestors reacted wildly to Ali, but the nationalist spirit on campus also meant that the Anglo-Texan Shrake came in for verbal abuse as he tried to drive the Cadillac into the heart of the protest. Finally, Ali got up, stood on the car, and shouted to the assembled, “Leave this honky alone! He’s my personal chauffeur!” The rest of the afternoon passed without incident, and Shrake had gained a glimpse of a new racial politics, a reordering of traditional notions of authority, identity, race, and nation that, while perhaps not so total as Ali voiced it, made for a changing cultural and political landscape in Texas in which nonwhite voices spoke back to Anglo power.
The new politics affected Texans far from Houston’s Third Ward. To a considerable extent, the meanings “the Texan” carried in the late 1960s derived from the floundering presidency of Texan-in-Chief Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson had glad-handed and boy-howdied his way through five years in office following Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, enacted a dizzying array of domestic reforms, and crashed against the debacle of Vietnam. During the last week of August 1968, a frayed Democratic Party gathered for its nominating convention in Chicago. It had been only six months since the Tet Offensive nixed the plausibility of victory in Vietnam, five since Johnson stated he would not run for re-election, four since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., two since Robert Kennedy had been murdered in Los Angeles, and mere days since the Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia. Tensions ran high as protestors and police battled in the streets, and the ideological differences among the Democrats began to look irreconcilable. Vietnam towered over everything else and intertwined with the issue of how the party should handle its unpopular sitting president and the delegation from his home state of Texas. Party liberals had placed a motion on the floor that the Johnson loyalists from Texas be refused entry outright. Southern conservatives threatened, in turn, to place LBJ acolyte John Connally in nomination for president.
To forestall the Connally revolt, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s preferred candidate over the antiwar Eugene McCarthy, unsuccessfully sought to name Ben Barnes, the thirty-year-old Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and another LBJ protégé, as floor leader for the Texas delegation. Most delegates and activists treated Barnes, like much of the Texas delegation, as an LBJ surrogate personally responsible for the Vietnam War. At one point, protestors swarmed the cars carrying Barnes and the other Texas delegates back to their rooms at the Conrad Hilton. As Barnes remembered the incident, his aide Nick Kralj then “reacted in true, if unexpected, Texas style. He pushed his way out of the car and whipped out a pistol he’d brought with him from home. ‘Everybody move back!’ he shouted, holding the gun high above his head. ‘This car is moving through!’ I’ll tell you what, those people parted like the Red Sea. From the looks on their faces, I don’t believe they’d seen anything like that before.” Now, by 1968, we can rest assured that such a crowd had indeed seen on a movie screen, or at least imagined, a Texan with a gun before, and the image would not have been entirely unexpected. Barnes gave a wide-eyed recounting of the 1968 protests in his 2006 memoir, but Texans back home already knew something of the divisive new political and cultural landscape that the Speaker of the Texas House encountered in Chicago.
Austin artist Jim Franklin was one young Texan who had begun to sense and interpret these shifts. In the summer of 1970, Franklin sat in the audience during jury selection for a high-profile trial in Los Angeles. Charles Manson surely looked guilty to those assembled, but Franklin thought this was the frame-up job of a vindictive establishment jealous of countercultural freedoms. Reporting for the Austin underground newspaper The Rag, Franklin stared daggers at the district attorney and fantasized how that “DA could run for President on the Ant[i]-acid ticket with all the hippie-killer-freak bullshit.” The difference of opinion between Franklin and the herd may have been due in part to his distractions during jury selection, as he sketched the Texas-themed designs for which he would soon become renowned as the creative spirit of the Armadillo World Headquarters. Upon completing the drawings, Franklin passed them to a Manson Family attorney, Paul Fitzgerald, to let Manson know that he had allies on the outside. One drawing of which he was particularly proud pictured two armadillos in a rather indelicate position with the caption, “These armadillos are balling for you, Charlie!” The counterculture had been so maligned in Franklin’s home state that he could not quite imagine Manson’s guilt. And yet, even as Franklin was writing these words, the venue that would launch the Texas counterculture into a mainstream phenomenon was opening its doors for the first time, testing the waters of Austin’s new acceptance of seventies hippiedom. The Armadillo World Headquarters, with Franklin as artist-in-residence and emcee, would soon command attention where the sixties counterculture in Texas had only drawn scorn.
In each of these examples, Anglo-Texan men confronted the transformation of American life in the late 1960s: surrounded by perceived hostiles, besieged as if in a new Alamo. Shrake, a young journalist, learned something of the new terrain of cultural nationalism in identity politics; Barnes, a Johnson protégé, faced off with the spirit of protest against and disregard for the authority of politicians; Franklin, the countercultural artist, exhibited suspicion of the gathering forces of law and order. Each considered himself the repository of the “true Texas style”: Shrake and his Cadillac, Barnes and his gunslinger, Franklin and his armadillos. These examples indicate the shifting terrain on which Anglo-Texan masculinity would operate in the coming decade of the 1970s. In triangulating the three moments, one might easily project forward into that backstage scene at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1972 with Willie and Waylon, two country-western artists performing for a deeply Texas-inflected counterculture.
In just such moments, individuals perform “the Texan.” Leigh Clemons has explored the subject well in Branding Texas: Performing Culture in the Lone Star State, arguing that “Texan cultural identity is a complex set of performances that creates and maintains the idea of the state as a distinct entity and as a site of identity for its inhabitants.” Such notions of performance and performativity will play a role here, by which I suggest both the conventional performance of musical artists in concert and on recordings, but also the ways in which individuals perform roles in everyday social interactions. This mythic expression of Anglo-Texan masculinity, then, possessed an experiential dimension, an element of creative performance that Anglo-Texan men tended to internalize. Some individuals, sympathetic to the 1970s currents of cultural and political liberation, worked to refigure, retool, and reform the traditional iconography and identity of “the Texan.” The long-haired, antiwar Shrake hardly would have been spending time with Ali had he felt otherwise. Others retreated into the image’s swagger, making it a reactive pose of what musicologist Travis Stimeling has termed the “three Texas nationalist ideals: masculinity, colonization and ownership of indigenous peoples, and a rhetoric of Texan exceptionalism.” Kralj’s confrontation with the Chicago protestors in “true Texas style” leaned toward this second category.
Myth and Symbol in the Malaise Decade
For most Texans, though, the reality proved more complex than such either/or, progressive/reactionary binaries. The changing representations and experiences of Anglo-Texan masculinity go far toward explaining the shifting terrain of race, gender, class, region, and nation at work in the 1970s. The year 1968 saw the collapsed presidency of a mid-century liberal in the guise of a crude Texas wheeler-dealer; the year 1980 witnessed the ascension of another president, born of the Hollywood imagination and frequently pictured on horseback, riding in to right liberalism’s troubling malaise. The years between witnessed strange feats of alchemy whereby it seemed that the wounds opened by the social upheavals of the 1960s, the violence of Vietnam and Mississippi and Chicago, partially healed through the long-standing American mythos of the cowboy.
This myth signified nationally and internationally, but also locally, as it did much to determine the texture of Anglo-Texan identities. Two books appeared in 1968 that supplement the experiences of young Anglo-Texan men like Barnes, Shrake, and Franklin: Larry McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas and T. R. Fehrenbach’s epic Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans. In the first of these, McMurtry continued grappling with the Texas myth in the modern age as he had in the novels Horseman, Pass By (1961) and The Last Picture Show (1966). McMurtry crowed over the creative possibilities of the present, seeing in late 1960s Texas a “stage of metamorphosis when [the state] is most fertile with conflict, when rural and soil traditions are competing most desperately with urban traditions—competing for the allegiance of the young.” Simultaneously, he evinced nostalgia for that frontier world he feared lost. This notion of a passing agrarian order provides a narrative key not only to the discourse of America and the American West (from James Fenimore Cooper and Frederick Jackson Turner to Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx), but also to the historic consciousness of Western civilization writ large. For McMurtry, in 1968, this tipping point was at hand for his home state, and he chose as a primary theme for this book of essays the idea that “The God Abandons Texas,” by which he meant the rural way of life and, for him, its paragon, the Anglo-Texan man on horseback. As McMurtry stated the problem, “The god who abandoned Antony was Hercules—what is the name of the god who now abandons Texas? Sometimes I see him as Old Man Goodnight, or as Teddy Blue, or as my Uncle Johnny . . . but the one thing that is sure is that he was a horseman, and a god of the country. His home was the frontier, and his mythos celebrates those masculine ideals appropriate to a frontier.” For McMurtry, this essence pervaded the state’s existence, fused its identities and landscapes in the guise of white men engaged in the conquest and taming of a territory. Modernization, to McMurtry, heralded a disenchantment—the secularization and dispersal of the patriarchal gods who suffused the land.
T. R. Fehrenbach’s classic Lone Star also appeared in 1968. Historians had long rendered the state’s past in hagiographic terms, and Fehrenbach’s work, even amid the upheavals of 1968, provided that school’s apotheosis. It is a work rigorously researched with a narrative exhaustively told, but nevertheless anchored in an imperial vision of the heroic white man conquering the Texas frontier. Fehrenbach did not step into this thicket unaware of the myths that shadow historical scholarship on the state. After all, he wrote, “all nations have their national myths, and Texas became enough of a nation within a nation to formulate its own. Many of Texas’ legends, historically unproven and even historically insupportable, are fondly held and fiercely defended. This is not unique to Texas. The American nation has its own mythology. This book was not written to destroy myths but so far as possible to cut through them to the reality underneath.” Ostensibly, historians do just this kind of work, cutting through myths to the material “reality underneath,” but even a cursory knowledge of historiography begs the formulation of surface mythology and substratum reality that Fehrenbach purported.
Other Texans had employed this sense of the American West before Fehrenbach. Indeed, it provided a seminal notion for the Myth and Symbol School, one of the founding movements of the interdisciplinary field of American Studies in the 1940s and 1950s. Dealing with a set of loaded historical signifiers similar to those Fehrenbach noted, Dallas-born Henry Nash Smith defined myth in the introduction to Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth as “an intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into an image.” Smith’s myth, then, invoked rationality limned with affect, seeming to interpret the material world through an emotional lens. Smith clarified his interpretation of the relation between myth and reality, though: “I do not mean to raise the question whether such products of the imagination accurately reflect empirical fact. They exist on a different plane. But as I have tried to show, they sometimes exert a decided influence on practical affairs.” Such notions of mythology and mythmaking figure largely in this study. To ask whether “the Texan” is real misses the contextual signification and experiential depth of the notion’s countless deployments—from mass-mediated films in the international marketplace to local social relations and performances—and the real effects these cultural products engender. The lives of Texans thus intersect at various points with the myth of Texas, and “the Texan” has indeed often exerted a “decided influence on practical affairs.”
Turning to another cultural theorist elaborates Smith’s parsing of myth. In his 1957 work Mythologies, French critic Roland Barthes in part summed up the meaning of myth by concluding that “wine is objectively good, and at the same time, the goodness of wine is a myth. The mythologist gets out of this as best as he can: he deals with the goodness of wine, not with wine itself.” However, what does it mean to deal with the idea of Texas, rather than Texas itself? Though paramount for the semiotician, cultural history might trace this relation between, on the one hand, the material spaces of and social relations that occur within the boundaries of the state of Texas and, on the other, the vast mythologies woven around, and partially motivating, material conditions. Robert Dorman described just such a relation in addressing the mutual constitution of myth and social life in his work on American regionalism: “Myths are not ‘fairy tales,’ make-believe constructs debunked by ‘true’ life. They are instead ordered, value-laden symbols and narratives, communally shared and transmitted, that interpret an irrational world and provide guideposts for action within it. Myths have concrete existence in history, but only in partially realized, problematized form.”
The mythic “Texan” and the inhabitants within the political borders of the state of Texas cannot always be easily separated, and, rather than focus on one or the other, I intend to trace the lived consequences of mythmaking, the ritual performance of mythic types, and the inscription of cultural geographies in identity formation. We are back, then, to Barthes’s dilemma—not denying that there is some relationship between the empirical world (wine) and the myths woven around it (wine’s goodness), but to say that the relationship is sometimes best left in suspension for the purposes of cultural analysis. Or, at least, we can hew to Smith’s fusion of concept and emotion or Dorman’s concrete existence of myth in history to get at the consequences of myth in the material world.
It is just this sort of talk that Houston’s “king of the wildcatters” Glenn McCarthy sought to defuse while performing for journalists. McCarthy proved an attractive magnet for caricatures of the Texan nouveau riche in the mid-twentieth century. Born to humble circumstances in an East Texas oil town in 1907, McCarthy had won and lost several fortunes in the search for new fields. Famed for his garish tastes, affinity for bourbon, and extravagant footprint on the Houston cityscape, McCarthy so embodied Texas oil wealth that he served as the model for the fictionalized Jett Rink of Edna Ferber’s Giant, immortalized on screen by James Dean. McCarthy courted this attention and played his part well. While at an oil field, say, with a writer for Time, McCarthy would stoop down, “rub his hands in thick crude oil and mutter: ‘This is oil.’” For all the mythic representations of the state in film, literature, and music, McCarthy grounded the discussion in the material substratum, but then again, he performed his gesture toward materiality for a national journalistic audience. While McCarthy’s empirical, material attention to oil brings us out of the realm of myth, his projection on the screen as Jett Rink/James Dean in Giant returns us to it.
McCarthy’s gesture reminds us, too, that mythmaking is always implicated in material relations and political economy, in the process often naturalizing structures of inequality. The Anglo-Texan propagation of the state’s mythos portrays it as an essentialist category that floats above social relations, but myth is, in fact, relational, dialectical, and affected by constructions and assertions of difference—racial, ethnic, and gendered. Indeed, the Anglo-masculine elite’s deployment of a unitary mythic sense of “the Texan” to elide the state’s ethnoracial diversity is always enmeshed in the exercise of and resistance to power. The borderlands of Texas, with its peoples of diverse racial, ethnic, and national histories, belie the essentialisms of the United States and Mexico, South and West, nation and region, black and white. Myth’s “decided influence on practical affairs” in this context has typically involved attempts to foreclose alternate visions to the state’s Anglo-dominated social relations. For every T. R. Fehrenbach, though, there exists an Américo Paredes, a theorist engaged in the critique of the Anglo-Texan myth and the elaboration of a divergent public memory of the state’s history. This study treats the later decades of the twentieth century as a particular opening whereby this contestation over the state’s history and identities came to the fore with unprecedented consequence.
In 1968 the looming presence of Lyndon Johnson often outstripped the most garish of oil millionaires or the most radical of social justice activists in national perceptions of “the Texan.” Just as “the Texan” operated in the center of the American national myth as late as the 1960s, so did a Texan stand near the center of the decade’s political turmoil. Through the presence of LBJ and his adoption of a civil rights agenda that upended the partisan loyalties of the white South, a story of political realignment joins itself to this moment of cultural and social transformation in which African Americans, Mexican Americans, women, and other traditionally disfranchised groups fought for, and gained, greater access to the public sphere. Mythic notions complicated political realities. Feminism not only brought into focus the subjugated status of women but also interrogated the nature of masculinity. Black and Chicano nationalism sparked new interest in white ethnicity and, eventually, the normative construction of whiteness itself. Finally, the regional resurgence of the Sunbelt brought attention to the newest version of the New South in ways that simultaneously ratified national narratives of progress and rattled the political economy of the New Deal and Great Society.
Public discourse has long trumpeted the pivotal nature of 1968 on a global scale, but most accounts tend to focus on the near, rather than the far, side of that divide, re-inforcing a slide-show version of the sixties that elevates the decade’s significance far above the years that surround it. The year 1968 represents, in this view, the explosive culmination of all-that-came-before, while the following decade involved a long and painful declension in which real, progressive change was somehow evaded. As opposed to the talk of revolution or reckoning in the 1960s, individuals from Christopher Lasch to Tom Wolfe to Jimmy Carter developed a seventies vocabulary around malaise, superficiality, narcissism, and retreat from the grand historical march that ended in the streets of Paris, Prague, and Chicago. The following years provided a stark contrast for some in that, as the title of one of the seventies’ first published histories proclaimed, “It seemed like nothing happened.”
And yet, even in 1982, historian Peter Carroll intended the emphasis of his title to fall on the “seemed” rather than the “nothing happened.” Beneath the headlines, he argued, “a quiet, almost subliminal revolution was altering the cultural landscape.” While the Revolution never came to pass as the radicals of 1968 hoped, myriad revolutions nevertheless transpired, and Carroll took as his subject the “dialogue between established values and the emerging alternatives” that he saw as the central narrative of the seventies. Carroll’s initial attempts to establish the significance of the decade, however, did not resonate at the time, and the historical revaluation of the decade began in earnest only at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Authors as varied as Beth Bailey, Sam Binkley, Jefferson Cowie, Alice Echols, David Farber, David Frum, Andreas Killen, Bruce Schulman, Natasha Zaretsky, and Julian Zelizer have since re-framed the 1970s as a key turning point in the nation’s history. Bruce Schulman has argued that in “race relations, religion, family life, politics, and popular culture, the 1970s marked the most significant watershed of modern history.” The year 1973 alone, Andreas Killen has noted, witnessed the end of American combat involvement in Vietnam, the eruption of the Watergate scandal, and the oil embargo. “Any one of these events alone would have challenged America’s image of itself; together they shook the national psyche to its very core.” This is the historians’ new view of the 1970s, and one that has a timely basis for those who see it as an immediately usable past.
If this self-examination involved image or psyche alone, the mythologies would not have been so sorely tested, but the crises that Schulman and Killen indicate reached to the deepest levels of political economy. Cultural geographer David Harvey, like Frum, Schulman, and Killen, regards the 1970s as a turning point in world history. Harvey sees these years as marked by an acceleration in the shift from the regime of Fordist production to that of flexible accumulation, from the New Deal compromise among big business, big labor, and big government to the postmodern ethos of short-term employment, niche production, corporate authority, and the more fluid global migration of laborers and capital. The disconcerting experience of the old order fading led contemporary observers to predict the fall of American empire. New York City’s experience of the seventies, and that experience’s projection in cinema and popular music, speaks to this discourse. Fewer spaces offered greater contrast with the petroleum-driven prosperity of the Texan corner of the Sunbelt. In contrast to the nation at large, the oil crisis engineered by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries had an uneven, but typically positive, effect on the Texas economy.
The material conditions of global production and consumption had a decided influence on the national life of “the Texan.” The figure’s swagger across the 1970s malaise owed to the divergent Texan and American experiences of the decade, rooted in the history of the oil industry. In the broadly shared American affluence of the 1960s, Texas oil, for decades a primary symbol of American wealth, first came up against its limits, facing greater foreign competition, on the one hand, and the increased expense derived from extracting oil as domestic reserves shrank, on the other. In the 1970s, these fortunes reversed, with the larger American economy facing the limits of international competition and higher fuel prices and Texas oil rebounding in the same environment.
The popularity of the performative dimension of Texanness at times could seem to close this gap between Rust Belt stagnation and Sunbelt prosperity. Among its other attributes, the postmodern turn in the 1970s introduced throughout the United States a new, flexible orientation toward the self as an ongoing project of improvement and expression. By decade’s end, New Yorkers or Pennsylvanians could escape industrial malaise through the blustery representations of Texans in the music of Waylon Jennings, the televised J. R. Ewing of Dallas, or John Travolta’s mechanical-bull–riding in the film Urban Cowboy. Indeed, such representations created a space for these individuals to play, or perhaps become, “Texan” through the consumption and conspicuous display of the proper regalia. This flexible orientation toward and performativity of the self is just one of the arenas in which the conservative valences of “the Texan” collided and melded with the mainstreaming of the counterculture. In Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s, sociologist Sam Binkley argues that countercultural notions of authenticity drove shifting patterns of consumption and their relation to self-presentation in the 1970s in ways that demand both macroeconomic and microsocial consideration. Economic and structural arguments, in Binkley’s words, “while supplying us with overarching explanations of change on a massive scale, tempt us to read historical events as simple deterministic effects of these changing economic currents. The loosening of the self . . . must be grasped on a smaller scale, in the thin cultural slices in which people encountered it in their everyday lives.” Lifestyle consumption in the interest of projecting an authentic identity that diverges from the mainstream makes for much in these “thin cultural slices.” I aim to dissect such moments, focusing on youth subcultures, Texas-based intellectuals, popular music venues, and local journalism in addition to the mass-mediated images of literature, television, and cinema that dictated Texas iconography on a global scale.
This work treats the subject of Texas within such international, national, regional, and local frames, but it also focuses in particular on the city of Austin, the capital of the Sunbelt South’s largest state. Austin is not always the physical locale in which this study takes place, but its primary actors pass through Austin at notable junctures and consider their time there significant. The social networks generated by their frequent passage make the city particularly illustrative of the social, political, and cultural trends reconstituting “the Texan.” Austin’s place in popular music history, too, motivates this focus. In the years 1970–1980, various performers, critics, producers, and audiences positioned Austin as an alternate node of music production to New York, Los Angeles, and, especially, Nashville. “Cosmic cowboys” and “hippie–rednecks” studded cultural–political discourse in the city. Such subcultural narratives operated in the transcendence of opposites, the subversion of the “generation gap” that seared the 1960s. The seventies vogue for country music nationally fused populist nostalgia for supposedly simpler times with the countercultural preoccupation with authenticity and the natural, making Austin’s progressive country music scene primed for national exposure. This is not to give short shrift to the length and breadth of the expansive Lone Star State. Dallas’s ostentatious orientation to the generation of wealth may have had a greater symbolic purchase for Americans during the decade’s economic doldrums; Houston was on its way to becoming a Sunbelt megalopolis rivaled only by Los Angeles; and San Antonio and El Paso pointed the way to the democratic politics of a majority–minority America. These other stories come into view in the following pages, but Austin remains the study’s anchor. My hope is that a cultural history of the Texan 1970s, though a bit Austincentric, may help to open a space for more specific narratives concerning these other locales.
Looking Ahead with Joe Buck in the Rearview Mirror
With a close reading of the Austin scene as its guiding spirit, this study ranges afield to many other spaces in which Texas signifies. Looming large among these is New York City, a place with a high profile in national narratives of the 1970s. In 1969, the John Schlesinger film Midnight Cowboy depicted the city on the brink of the decade. Jon Voight portrayed the lead character, Joe Buck, a Texan who moved to New York to become a gigolo.36 Mass-mediated cultural product though he is, Joe Buck stands at that same nexus of old and new, provincial and metropolitan, rural and urban, frontier and nation, that snared Bud Shrake, Ben Barnes, and Jim Franklin. In New York, he affects an elaborate cowboy guise that in part deflects from his identity through burlesque as much as it advertises his true Texan origins. When an artist at a Warholite party inquires of Joe whether he’s really a cowboy, he answers, “Well, I tell you the truth, now, I ain’t a f’real cowboy, but I am one hell of a stud.” Thus Joe Buck performs “the Texan,” the frontiersman, the rugged individual, the hypermasculine man alone in the world, all the while denying the alienating effects of that isolation and his desire for union with his male companion Ratso, played as a prototypical New Yorker by Dustin Hoffman. The film ends with Ratso dying as the pair moves south to Florida, the Sunbelt dream wilting the New York hustler. From whence does Joe Buck come, and where does he go in the years that follow? This is yet another of our starting places.
This study contextualizes the representations, performances, and experiences of Anglo-Texan masculinity in the 1970s, tacking between a national setting of malaise and the state’s popular celebration of “the Texan.” The book does not analyze the Texan 1970s in exhaustive or definitive fashion, but instead proceeds through the analysis of evocative examples to make some sense of the whole. As a way of introduction, chapter 1 analyzes the period between the Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936 and Lyndon Johnson’s political demise in 1968, when the symbols associated with Texas in the modern United States received their full articulation: the cowboy, the braggart, the nouveau-riche oilman, the wheeler-dealer. It then documents the social justice movements that African Americans and Mexican Americans waged against this Anglo establishment in Texas during the same period. These movements would largely define the cultural politics of the 1970s, and it is necessary to frame their expansion of who counts in the public sphere as “Texan.”
The success of these movements opened a space for some Anglo-Texans to adopt and adapt the state’s traditional iconography to create new resonances for the stereotypical Texan. Chapters 2 and 3 address this progressive re-visioning of “the Texan” in the countercultural scene of Austin, with its “cosmic cowboys” who grew their hair long, opposed the Vietnam War, and attended country-western benefits for striking workers. In the process, such figures negotiated between the normative representations of the Anglo-Texan and the challenges to them by professing allegiance to a modern, inclusive polity nevertheless rooted in the agrarian conservatism of the cowboy figure. Next, chapter 4 analyzes texts in which Anglo-Texan men invoked themes of fathers and sons, the agrarian and the industrial, and Texas as nation and empire to make sense of their subject position in the 1970s. Further, it pushes these concerns into a sociocultural interpretation of partisan realignment to understand how the political monopoly of the Democratic “party of the fathers” began to unravel. Chapter 5 concludes the book by looking to the late 1970s and early 1980s phenomenon of “Texas chic,” whereby an unreconstructed vision of “the Texan” again found a national audience through such productions as Urban Cowboy and Dallas, eclipsing the earlier attempted revisions of the cowboy figure.
T. R. Fehrenbach wrote Lone Star to fill a perceived absence of “modern general histories” of the state. In like fashion, I write this study to fulfill the continuing need for cultural histories of modern Texas. The recent close of yet another contentious presidential administration in which Anglo-Texan identities continued to signify, used as a cipher by observers to explain the character and actions of George W. Bush, begs such examination.38 Bush shadows this work nearly as much as its other avatars, Lyndon Johnson and Willie Nelson, but he will not enter again explicitly until the conclusion. Instead, the work begins far from him with the prehistories of Joe Buck, Lyndon Johnson, Ben Barnes, Jim Franklin, Waylon Jennings, Larry McMurtry, Bud Shrake, Willie Nelson, and T. R. Fehrenbach in the Texas centennial year of 1936, in Dallas rather than Austin.