The 100 Best Texas Songs
LET’S BACK UP FOR A SECOND. Before you pore over our picks for the best Texas songs, you’ll probably want to know about the methodology behind the list, starting with how we define a Texas song. No easy task, that. If you consider that everything from blues to conjunto to jazz to R&B to rock and roll has been made here, the meaning of that phrase can be as expansive as the state itself. That’s fine with us.
Rather than limiting ourselves to songs that are about Texas, we defined a Texas song as any song performed by a Texas artist. Who qualified? Anyone who was born here, even if he or she left the state while still in diapers. As for the non-natives, they needed to have spent a good part of their career inside the state lines, and their songs had to be a product of their time here or related in some way to the state. Okay, so what do we mean by “song”? The word is a bit misleading; in fact, we included the best recordings of songs, from 78’s to singles to album tracks.
For the purposes of our list, we chose to rank only the top forty (don’t forget that the radio format of the same name began in Texas). The remaining sixty are alphabetized, a decision that eliminated the prolonged—and fruitless—debate over whether, say, George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning” should be number 86 or number 87.
To generate the list, we contacted twenty outside experts—writers, editors, and deejays with an array of tastes—and asked them to send their thirty favorites per our guidelines. Their responses, combined with our own lists, brought us to some consensus, but we still had more than four hundred songs. So the two of us whittled them down by asking ourselves a few more questions: Was the song inherently Texan, either in style or in subject matter? Was it a big enough hit to become a part of the vernacular? Did it stand the test of time? But this was never about scientific method; it was about music. Choosing the best was a subjective process, and sometimes we went on gut feeling.
The result is a list that reflects everything great about Texas music, from turn-of-the-century pop to nineties rap. Some of our choices should surprise and delight you, and some of our inclusions and omissions will cause you to groan. That’s also fine with us. Few countries can boast such an amazing and diverse legacy, and one reason is that Texans are passionate about music. So get riled up if you have to, and have fun. We sure did.
Sir Douglas Quintet
“She’s About a Mover”
If anything, the song sounds more audacious now than it did when it first shot to number thirteen on the national charts in 1965, at the height of the British Invasion. First, you’ve got that two-step rhythm—always common in regional Tex-Mex, country, and Cajun-zydeco but not in rock and roll, not then or now. Then you’ve got those maniacal dit-dit-dit-dits from organ jockey Augie Meyers; he claims he owned the first Vox in the nation, which supposedly provided the English vibe, but the way he used it mainly served to make a direct connection with Tex-Mex accordion. Finally, there’s Doug Sahm’s great, and always underappreciated, rock vocals—hard and fast, with a Little Richard-like intensity, but also still melodic—and his delightfully cockeyed lyrics and title. Which make more sense, actually, if you know that the song was originally called “She’s a Body Mover,” an offhand comment Sahm had made about a girl dirty-dancing at one of his shows. But what’s most amazing is that a giddier and less-worldly rock audience back then actually bought manager-producer Huey P. Meaux’s hype that this racially mixed group (white and brown) was the newest sensation from England. That ruse lasted only until the heavily accented musicians first opened their mouths in public for any purpose except singing—yet the song endures. And the reason is that sound. You could say that it couldn’t possibly have come from nowhar else but Texas, but even that’s a little vague; “She’s About a Mover” couldn’t possibly have come from nowhar else but San Antone.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
“New San Antonio Rose”
The King of Western Swing’s all-time best-seller is also a great example of his particular genius: If a more conventional big band had cut this, it would have been considered a pop record. When Waco’s Playboys recorded “San Antonio Rose” as an instrumental, in 1938, country fiddle and steel took the leads. When Wills added lyrics and cut the new version nearly two years later, he kept nothing but the original, traditional melody; the song was all reeds and brass, like any other big-band swing record of the day. The music was upbeat and happy, while Tommy Duncan’s vocals mourned a loss he just couldn’t shake (“Moon in all your splendor/Known only to my heart/Call back my rose/Rose of San Antone”). And dancers knew exactly what this meant, because nobody made feeling bad feel better than these guys.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets
“That’ll Be the Day”
Where all the bravado came from is anybody’s guess. Even by 1957 standards, this Lubbock teen looked, well, like a geek. But there was no denying the song Holly and his band, the Crickets, rolled out from Norman Petty’s Clovis, New Mexico, studio onto the national stage. “That’ll Be the Day” borrowed its title from the catchphrase of John Wayne’s character in The Searchers and boasted a swagger worthy of the Duke. “You say you’re gonna leave,” Holly taunts. “You know it’s a lie ’cause/That’ll be the day when I die.” Musically, with pounding drums and precision studio guitar and vocal work, its innovations weren’t confined to it being a rock and roll recording. “Day” kicked off what would prove to be an enduring body of work. Unfortunately, Holly had an all too short eighteen months left.
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”
With one spare, simple, acoustic ballad, Nelson established the mid-seventies “outlaw” movement and took country music back from the Nashville hacks. Successful as a songwriter but stymied as an artist, Willie fled Music City for his native Texas in 1971, intent on making his own music on Red Headed Stranger, which was so out of step with prevailing sounds that his label first dismissed it as a bunch of demos it didn’t want to release. The bloody song cycle about murder, revenge, and redemption in the Old West was tempered by this sweetly sentimental single. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” like the rest of the album, was as full of wide-open space as West Texas itself. Those spaces proved to be the silence heard ’round the world.
Archie Bell and the Drells
Has there ever been a greater party record? With a snake of a bass line, syncopated guitar, and Bell’s immortal intro, this 1968 gem begins. “Hi, everybody! I’m Archie Bell and the Drells, of Houston, Texas.” (He did have a band.) “We just thought of a new dance called the Tighten Up.” And then, just to be sure you got it, “This is the music we tighten up with.” Bell yells entrance cues like a sideline coach. “Now make it mellow!” he shouts, as a horn coda takes everything down—for two bars. The band comes back full-bore, Bell now singing among the horns; there’s clapping, shouting. On it goes, never deviating from the same cheesy riff, for two minutes and thirty seconds of joyous abandon.
Bobby Fuller Four
“I Fought the Law”
In which four tuff and tender guys from El Paso provide a bridge from path-breaking fifties rock and roll to mind-blowing sixties rock. Fuller yoked Buddy Holly’s Tex-Mex grooves to a rockabilly attack, an eclectic guitar flash, and vocal harmonies that owed much to the Beatles and early folk rock; he wrapped it in contemporary production and engineering that was all presence. Since the punk-rock era, Fuller’s only top ten hit, released in 1966, just before his untimely and mysterious death, has come to be seen as a rebel classic, and rightfully so. The rat-tat-tat of the rhythm section is as unnerving as the overdubbed gunshots at the beginning of the song; there’s been very little else in white pop music with such propulsive thrust.
Blind Willie Johnson
“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”
Vamping for half a minute on slide guitar lines so expressive they sound like a language, Johnson breaks into a wordless moan that’s as chilling as anything ever heard in music. For its intensity and stark sadness, his 1927 recording of the eighteenth-century crucifixion hymn stands like a beacon among the thirty recordings he left behind. But don’t call it the blues. In Johnson’s day, blues was the devil’s music, and the Marlin singer was a man of God. He mastered his stunning bottleneck guitar technique (he used a pocket knife) on the streets, and his voluminous croak rang over the din of the crowd. But Johnson brings it down to a near whisper for “Dark.” It’s as though he can’t bear to sing the words.
“Stormy Monday Blues”
What do Jethro Tull and Manfred Mann have in common with Albert, Freddie, and B. B. King? They are among the hundreds who have recorded the 1947 anthem of the world’s most influential electric blues guitarist, Linden’s T-Bone Walker. With his fluid and far-reaching single-note guitar lines, Walker recalls another major talent, Charlie Christian. Christian and Walker knew each other and even shared a guitar tutor. Both had a taste for speed, but it was Walker’s relaxed, after-hours sides that best suited his smooth vocal style. As the most famous of these, “Stormy Monday Blues” settles into a resigned helplessness that’s hard to let go of. Just as it’s difficult to overstate Walker’s importance, it’s impossible to conceive of the modern blues without his unforgettable couplet: “They call it stormy Monday/But Tuesday’s just as bad.”
Little Joe y la Familia
Fronting various bands, Temple’s Little Joe Hernandez had been riding near the top of the Tex-Mex circuit for close to two decades when he cut Para la Gente (“For the People”) in 1972 , the album that best gave voice to the emerging Brown Pride movement. Its version of this Mexican standard (“The Clouds”) is a hard-swinging, big-band ranchera; the lyrics tell of a drunken, despairing youth watching clouds drift by and hoping for rain, because rain brings new life. That attitude mirrored both current Chicano disillusionment and the faith to rise above it, and the song quickly spread through the Southwest to become the anthem of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers—and probably the first true great example in the modern style eventually dubbed tejano.
“Me and Bobby McGee”
In a neat bit of gender switching, Joplin turned Kris Kristofferson’s wistful tale of two lives intersecting into one of powerful longing. It wasn’t her choice of pronouns but her well-lived-in voice that transformed the song. Port Arthur-born, Joplin would become the finest white blues singer of her generation. Though she at first tended to elevate everything into a screech, by 1971, when she recorded “McGee” for her album Pearl, she had a newfound maturity on display, constantly lifting lines (“Windshield wipers slappin’ time”) and reigning them back in (“Holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine”). It made moments of found emotion, like the bitterness that springs from “. . . nothin’, that’s all that Bobby left me” all the more powerful and authentic. “Me and Bobby McGee” would be Joplin’s first number one single, but she would not live to see its release.
Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
Though the drummer couldn’t find the beat with a GPS, the Farfisa-fueled band churns out a boogie rhythm on this 1965 Tex-Mex rock classic, which Dallas’s Domingo Samudio, the self-proclaimed Sam the Sham, transforms into magic. “Watch it now! Watch it!” Sam warns, as if to caution the thousands of future bar bands who’d be amending their set lists to make room for the song—which, in case you were wondering, is about Samudio’s cat.
“Deep in the Heart of Texas”
Singing cowboys were strictly a Hollywood creation—real cowboys dressed functionally and sang work songs in crude voices—but at least Tinseltown had the sense to make this native Texan, raised on a farm near Tioga, tallest in the saddle. And Alvino Rey may have been the first of many to record this sing-along, clap-along love song to the state, but Autry’s version, from the 1942 movie Heart of the Rio Grande, is the best known because, simply, it’s the best.
The Thirteenth Floor Elevators
“You’re Gonna Miss Me”
God, what a scream. Roky Erickson’s paint peeler, which opens this minor hit and major milestone from Austin’s Elevators, takes a place on the honor roll of instantly identifiable moments in rock and roll. It was 1966; the Grateful Dead had yet to release an album. Psychedelic music and, not coincidentally, LSD were just starting to take hold when these acid-rock pioneers made the scene. But even devoid of its trippy atmospherics, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” would work as high-dosage rock.
“Only the Lonely”
Orbison began his career as a rockabilly singer on Sun Records, but it wasn’t until he signed with Monument Records, in 1960, that he discovered what to do with his near-operatic range. “Only the Lonely” was the first of many memorable hits for the Vernon singer, and it perfectly encapsulated his style; blending elements of rock, doo-wop, and rockabilly to a lush vocal and string pop arrangement, which builds Bolero-like to the inevitable big finish.
“Waltz Across Texas”
Dwight Yoakam didn’t invent honky-tonk music, nor did Buck Owens or even Merle Haggard. Blame a Jimmie Rodgers devotee from Crisp whom his friends called E.T. Tubb didn’t have much of a voice, but his ebullient charm made up for it. A quarter century and fifty-odd hits into his career, he penned this 1965 tune that professes an unabashed love as big as his home state. To this day, Texas bands don’t go to the dance hall without it.
“Mind Playin Tricks on Me”
Nothing else in Texas rap compares to this 1991 B-movie vision of urban paranoia from Houston’s Fifth Ward. The so-called “hard” beats are actually better described as “deliberate,” and rapper Scarface’s keyboardlike guitar writhes through his stream-of-consciousness imagery, which is unforgivingly brutal. He claims these hallucinatory visions were the feelings he had as a teenager, when he spent two years in a mental hospital. Offensive? Doubtless to some, but also, like a good low-budget action flick, “Mind Playin Tricks on Me” is so over the top that it quickly turns surreal.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Gilmore and his band of Lubbock unknowns, the Flatlanders (Joe Ely and Butch Hancock), played spare acoustic backing, including a musical saw, that emphasized his Texas warble. Not quite country or rock, it conjured the Plains so completely that you could taste the dust. His 1972 yin-yang paean to Dallas is direct and honest. The city might be beautiful at a distance, but she’s also a “woman who will walk on you when you’re down.”
Bobby “Blue” Bland
“Farther Up the Road”
In some ways, the stomping up-tempo shuffle that first made him a star is atypical Bland; after all, slower songs gave the quintessential sexy-blues smoothie more room to “work” a lyric. Though Bland was Memphis-bred, he was based in Houston for most of his tenure with Duke Records. His personal vocal style is finally beginning to emerge on this 1957 track, while his uptown band is inventing the soul-blues sound. Even today, it’s the one tune that any new Texas blues band has to know.
As Fort Worth’s Ornette Coleman is one of music’s most important and innovative composer-performers, singling out any one piece of his might seem impossible. Yet this haunting 1959 beauty clearly resonates the loudest. Its appeal lies not only in the angular melodic lines but also in the marvel of its performance. Bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and Coleman find a weightless rhythm and float through the mournful tune without ever bumping into one another.
Navasota’s gift to soul music—and the genre’s most unsung hero—had uncommon common sense. A pre-rap rapper whose soothing voice had just enough rough edges, he got his singular countrified sound by recording in Nashville with salt-and-pepper bands. His slyly humorous, down-home philosophizing (“Show me a man that’s got a good woman/I’ll show you a man that goes to work hummin’”) was tinged with the knowledge that to err is human, and celebrations like this snappy, rhythmically shifting 1967 affirmation of the do-right couple gave soul a whole new dimension. Joe Tex knew.
“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”
Fender was one of the first in the Valley to pick up on rock and roll, and this 1960 plaint (he re-recorded it as a country song in the seventies) is easily the greatest Gulf Coast triplet to come out of Texas. The band plays with a swampy, swaying undertow while Fender’s sweet, choked-up tenor milks the lyric for every last drop of desolation. No wonder that though nearly everything else in this style now seems a period piece, “Wasted Days” still sounds both urgent and eternal.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”
Couchman’s Blind Lemon Jefferson was an originator of country blues and the first successful male blues performer. And thanks to his intricate and complex guitar work, which was a huge influence on the emerging music that came to be known as jazz, he is owed a lot of musical debts. The father of Texas blues recorded almost one hundred songs throughout the twenties, but it’s this simple and earnest plea that defines his remarkable and tragically short life.
“If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time”
Frizzell had already paid his musical and civic dues (he did a bit of hard time) when a studio owner heard him in a Texas club, leading to his signing with Columbia. “Money” was recorded in 1950 and launched a hit-making decade for the Corsicana singer. Frizzell, with his elongated crooning style (“I’ve go-awt the tii-ime”), attracted a wide audience to his honky-tonk and became a huge influence on almost every country singer to follow.
“The Midnight Special”
Folk song collector John Lomax came across 45-year-old Huddie Ledbetter in Louisiana’s Angola prison in 1933, but it was during the songwriter’s first prison term, in Sugar Land, more than a decade earlier, that Leadbelly heard this traditional tune and completely made it his own. He even included the names of the real-life lawmen who had put him there. The Houston to San Antonio train would roll through each night at midnight, and the prisoners all imagined it to be their ticket home.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today”
The greatest voice in country (and maybe all of popular music) was all but written off by 1980, as the Saratoga-born singer’s tumultuous personal life had almost consumed his stellar two-decade career. The last thing anyone expected was a comeback, but “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was pure Jones pathos. It’s all setup; we’re two minutes in before we realize the real reason the song’s subject finally got over the woman who walked out on him. He died.
Charlie Christian (with Benny Goodman)
Few if any artists were more important to their instrument than Dallas’s Christian was to the electric guitar. He wasn’t the first, but he played with an invention no one had imagined before (and some would say since). Swing bandleaders routinely “appropriated” tunes from their sidemen. Goodman’s most blatant theft from Christian was “Flying Home,” but 1940’s “Breakfast Feud” played like an orchestrated Christian riff, artfully blazing new melodic paths with effortless grace.
Townes Van Zandt
“Pancho and Lefty”
His best-known tune (released in 1972) tells of an ill-fated meeting. Now Lefty wears his “skin like iron,” and Pancho . . . well, “the dust that Pancho bit down south/Ended up in Lefty’s mouth.” Such literate tragedy could only come from a haunted heart, and Fort Worth’s Van Zandt was an outrageously talented songwriter with a body of work gripped by melancholy. In the end, he poured so much of himself into his songs that there was almost nothing left but a shell.
“Blue Yodel #1 (T for Texas)”
Though this was released in 1927, two years before he moved to Kerrville hoping that benign weather would cure his tuberculosis, Rodgers’s million-seller (10,000 qualified as a major hit at the time) suggests that he may not have been a native Texan, but he got here as soon as he could; besides, he’d spent much time in the state during his hoboing days. His savvy, utterly natural fusion of rural string band, blues, and pop ushered in the era of modern country music, and soulful “blue yodels” became his staple.
Illinois Jacquet (with Lionel Hampton)
Jacquet was only nineteen when he first entered a recording studio with Lionel Hampton’s 1942 band and played the solo that would define his more than sixty years on the stage. Jacquet’s surefire cockiness kicked “Flying Home” to an entirely new level. At his solo’s peak, the Houston-raised saxophonist blows a brash single note twelve times in a row, then he does it again. Audiences fed off his frenzy. Jazz became more dangerous, raw, fun. And Jacquet’s still at it.
Big Sandy songster Thomas, who was also known as Ragtime Texas, was already in his fifties when he cut his remarkable late-twenties recordings. He had a singular style that included a booming voice and an expert use of quills, which accentuated his fast, rhythmic high-string strumming. He incorporated vaudeville, ragtime, and a touch of the blues, nowhere more effectively than on “Railroadin’ Some,” a single-chord state tour that mimes a conductor’s station calls while the quill train whistle blows.
“My Blue Heaven”
Though it wasn’t among his one-hundred-plus original compositions, the Gainesville crooner’s 1927 hit was so soothing that it sold about 12 million copies, making it America’s best-selling record until Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” fifteen years later; it helped him become one of the most popular night club entertainers of the Depression era. And though he spent his entire career up north, his radio-friendly tenor and his mellow phrasing retained just enough Texas grit to make him a seldom-credited influence on Floyd Tillman and other honky-tonk trailblazers.
A master of improvisational, stream-of-consciousness blues, Houston’s Third Ward street poet was the bridge between acoustic and electric, rural and urban. With his quirky guitar and his dry, bemused vocals, he could—and did—write and sing about nearly anything; he’s also perhaps the most recorded bluesman ever (he cut this song twice, in ’60 and ’69). Yet in his entire free-ranging repertoire, there’s something about this melodic slice of Louisiana black magic, most of its lines adapted from other songs, that remains irresistibly pure Lightnin’.
“Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio”
Here’s two Jimenezes in one. Don Santiago Jimenez, one of the San Antonio architects of pre-war conjunto, wrote and originally recorded this betrayed lover’s blue and bitter ranchera in 1937. Nearly fifty years later, in 1986, his son Flaco revived it with his own modern but tradition-based brand of brown bounce and bop. It was the title song of an album that won Jimenez a Grammy and solidified his standing as the lone conjunto accordionist known to the non-Tex-Mex audience.
Sunny and the Sunglows
“Talk to Me”
While San Antonio was incubating a stunningly diverse and accomplished rock and R&B underground in the late fifties and early sixties, orquesta still ruled. Then Sunny Ozuna and his group (which eventually morphed into the Sunliners) revived this 1958 Little Willie John ballad. The strings—and all of Sunny’s lead—are sugary and sentimental but also silky and sincere. A teen make-out classic, “Talk to Me” finally took the San Antonio sound way up the pop charts in 1963.
The Perryville native turned Nashville upside down in 1956 when he introduced the Texas dance hall sound to conventional country, replacing the standard 2-4 beat, double-stop fiddle, and vocal choruses with a 4-4 featuring drums and heavy bass, single-string fiddle, and high harmony over his own swelling lead vocals, which verged on the croon he’d later adapt. And steel player Ralph Mooney’s opening line (“Now blue ain’t the word for the way that I feel”) helped get everyone’s attention fast.
“Okie Dokie Stomp”
It was T-Bone Walker’s virtuosity that drove Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown to the soaring heights he has reached on the guitar. Club owner Don Robey was so knocked out by the Orange-raised string-bender that he launched his seminal Peacock label just to record him. Like Walker, Gatemouth’s talent transcends the blues. The hard-swinging 1954 recording of “Okie Dokie Stomp” takes off like a bullet and never slows down. It perfectly captured Gatemouth’s fiery eclecticism.
Tillman’s characteristic jazzy electric-guitar chording and his slip-sliding, behind-the-beat vocals had already helped make him one of the fathers of honky-tonk country when this song came along in 1949 to seal the deal. A product of the San Antonio and Houston scenes, Tillman cast aside country’s usual euphemisms to write and sing about extramarital love and sex with no apologies, no moralizing, no excuses. And thus was born the modern cheating song. He was such a maverick that he still doesn’t get proper credit.
“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”
What, not one of her affecting love songs, like “Como la Flor”? Well, no offense to them, but Selena cut her share of novelties too. And if you’ve ever heard this one—a sort of serious love song with an addictive novelty hook—while zoning out on the beach, you might have recognized the 1994 track for what it is: one of the ultimate Texas summer songs, transcending language barriers with its good clean goofy sense of fun.
With its 1939 debut, the Trinity group ushered in modern gospel-quartet vocalizing. Where religious singing had prized precise technique over emotion, this record rides on composer Rebert Harris’s thrilling, trilling leads and bluesy moans and slurs, as well as on his unprecedented “delayed time.” The pure tonalities of the background singers fills out the a cappella sound, and the song itself has a contemporary lyric. All this elevated the quartet style from spiritual entertainment to sanctified “church-wrecking.”
“You’ll Lose a Good Thing”
The Creole singer-guitarist from Beaumont took this top ten at a time (1962) when girl-group music, almost exclusively a northern form, ruled. But if Lynn’s voice suggests just enough of that genre’s youthful innocence to sneak her into the mainstream, everything else—the lyrics, the band, her delivery—offers the angry defiance, wisdom, and resolve of the blues. Not coincidentally, this is the third Huey P. Meaux production (after the Sir Douglas Quintet and Sunny) to make our top forty.
The Best of the Rest
Asleep at the Wheel: “Miles and Miles of Texas” The Austin-based band’s 1976 track is sing-as-you-swing evidence that size does matter.
Gene Autry: “The Yellow Rose of Texas” The Singing Cowboy’s 1933 definitive upbeat version of the pre-Civil War classic glosses over the racial controversy. A huge hit, 22 years before Mitch Miller got his mitts on it.
Bells of Joy: “Let’s Talk About Jesus” Lead singer A. C. Littlefield’s creamy, countrified tenor made this Austin quartet’s 1951 debut that rarest of gospel beasts: the secular crossover.
The Big Bopper: “Chantilly Lace” Jape Richardson, a Beaumont-raised deejay, was also a songwriter (“White Lightnin’,” “Runnin’ Bear”) but is remembered for his hilarious 1958 “Chantilly Lace,” which lasciviously declared to the world, “Oh, baby, that’s what I like.”
Charles Brown: “Driftin’ Blues” With an urbane sophistication unmatched in the blues world, Brown’s near-perfect “Driftin’ Blues,” from 1946, launched a long career for the Texas City pianist-vocalist and was a big influence on those to follow. Just ask Ray Charles.
Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies: “Beautiful Texas” Fort Worth’s Brown was the true father of western swing, and though he may have recorded better songs, his clear, supple voice and relaxed, straightforward delivery make this easily the best of the many readings of the unofficial state song.
Johnny Bush: “Whiskey River” Houston native Bush’s huge, throbbing tenor—they didn’t call him the Country Caruso for nothing—gave the master of dance hall heartbreak his biggest hit in 1972, even if it did later become better known as Willie Nelson’s theme.
Goree Carter: “Rock Awhile” The title describes the music on this obscure 1949 Houston blues tune; in fact, some critics consider it one of the first rock and roll records ever. No argument here.
Clifton Chenier: “I’m on the Wonder” The King of Zydeco, who spent most of his peak years in Houston, goes even farther out than usual on this 1974 slow blues track with a curious title phrase. It features his best band ever (John Hart on tenor sax, Buck Senegal on guitar, Cleveland Chenier on rubboard) augmented by a pair of white rockers; guest Elvin Bishop plays some slide guitar that’s at once lustrous and dirty behind Clifton’s backwoods vocals and accordion.
Harry Choates: “Jole Blon” The so-called Louisiana national anthem belongs here because the doomed Choates may have been born in the Bayou State, but he lived in Texas his entire career, and this is the agonized version that put the traditional song on the commercial map. His music is the fullest flowering of the unlikely Cajun-western swing hybrid sound that flourished around the state line.
Guy Clark: “Desperados Waiting for a Train” An elderly wildcatter became a mentor to, and was immortalized by, Clark in “Desperados.” The tune was a standout among standouts from the Monahans songwriter’s acclaimed 1975 debut.
Conjunto Bernal: “Mi Unico Camino” With their expert arrangements of staccato, twin chromatic accordions, and upbeat bajo sexto, Kingsville’s Bernal brothers brought the conjunto sound into the modern world in the late fifties. But it was the stirring lyrics (“There is a sorrow cleft like a dagger into my thoughts”) and haunting, innovative three-part harmonies that probably turned this desolate memory of rejection into their signature song.
Jimmy Dee and the Offbeats: “Henrietta” Reportedly from San Antonio, Dee (real name: De Fore) released this unforgettable chugging swamp rocker in 1957, along with a couple of other singles, before vanishing into the obscurity from which he came.
Steve Earle: “Billy Austin” Earle has rocked harder, but the Schertz-raised singer never made a more powerful record. Unsentimental and moving, this stark 1990 death row portrait asks, “Who are you to say for sure?”
Joe Ely: “Honky Tonk Masquerade” There’d never been anything quite like that first Ely band out of Lubbock, the Flatlanders, which rendered obsolete such labels as country, rock, or country-rock. The knowing title song of his 1978 sophomore album confirms just how comfortable he was with one foot in the country bar, one in the rock roadhouse, and, er, one more in the coffeehouse.
Roky Erickson: “Starry Eyes” This shiny, tuneful, folk-rockish paean to unattainable young love was produced by Doug Sahm. That Erickson was fresh out of the Texas state mental hospital in 1975 when he wrote and recorded it only makes its dreamworld innocence that much more poignant.
Alejandro Escovedo: “Paradise” A condemned man awaits the gallows as the evocative first song from Austinite Escovedo’s 1992 solo debut opens. “Paradise” set the tone for Escovedo’s future work—vivid imagery wrapped in dramatic musical flourishes.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds: “She’s Tuff” Always a notch above the bevy of white blues revivalists, Austin’s T-Birds were a formidable live act, and this 1979 version of the Jerry McCain tune got all their strengths down on record too.
Butch Hancock: “If You Were a Bluebird” With so many sharp and incisive songs under his belt, the prolific Hancock sports an embarrassment of riches. The iconic Lubbock songwriter’s heartfelt and poetic 1981 love letter should be kept in a vault.
Roy Head: “Treat Her Right” Early (1965) proof that a white boy from Three Rivers and San Marcos could do the blue-eyed soul bit as well as the Righteous Brothers or any of those Muscle Shoals guys. Head even upped the ante by giving it garage-band trappings. Hey! Hey! Hey!
Buddy Holly and the Crickets: “Not Fade Away” Holly’s lighter, brighter adaptation of Bo Diddley’s marauding beat was released on a single only as a B-side (in 1957). But it’s one of his most imaginative vocals, and since the Rolling Stones revived it in 1964, it’s become a standard, a self-fulfilling prophesy that has stood the test of time as well as anything he did.
Lightnin’ Hopkins: “Short Haired Woman” One of Hopkins’s earliest, 1947’s “Short Haired Woman,” with its refrain “I don’t want no woman/If her hair it ain’t no longer than mine,” is hard country blues, with Hopkins’s trademark grit and sly sense of humor already on display.
Ray Wylie Hubbard: “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” The Dallas-raised Hubbard could continue his eclectic work for a hundred more albums and he’d still be known for 1978’s “Redneck Mother” (first recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1973). This dead-on parody lays waste to a certain subset (and their mamas—a master stroke, that).
Waylon Jennings: “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” Jennings’s early West-Tex-Mexifications of the Johnny Cash beat peaked with this rocking snarl from 1968, one of the most authoritative tracks ever by one of country’s most authoritative singers.
Santiago Jimenez Sr.: “Viva Seguin” The original Flaco (“Skinny One”) had a softer, smoother style than his conjunto-pioneer peers, and this unhurried 1942 polka is one of the genre’s hardy perennials, recorded by everyone from solo accordionistas to orquestas.
Scott Joplin: “Maple Leaf Rag” Ragtime was the harmonic antecedent to jazz, and its greatest composer was Bowie City’s Joplin. His melodic wizardry is on display in all his pieces, but 1899’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was his, and ragtime’s, most enduring.
Esteban “Steve” Jordan: “Kranke” Jordan earned the title Jimi Hendrix of the Accordion for the way he, like Hendrix, redefined his instrument. An amazingly eclectic Valley artist who brought all kinds of new influences to conjunto, he’s also a party-hardy sort of guy, and this spirited, Afro-Cuban-flavored romp (which he cut in 1975 and again in 1979) is just the thing to keep the good times rolling.
Freddie King: “Hide Away” Nothing showcased the Texas-Chicago blues connection like Gilmer guitarist Freddie King’s 1961 “Hide Away,” which liberally borrowed from other sources and, in so doing, created a new blues standard.
Latin Breed: “El Tejano Enamorado” With their sophisticated, sax-heavy arrangements and jubilant vocal style, this ten-piece San Antonio band’s polka-ranchera fusions helped usher in the modern tejano era in the early seventies. Along with Little Joe’s “Las Nubes,” this is one of that era’s undisputed highlights.
Mance Lipscomb: “Tom Moore’s Farm” So notorious was employer Tom Moore that Navasota songster-sharecropper Lipscomb first issued his 1960 recording anonymously. The song illustrated his hardships and his encyclopedic musical mind.
Scotty McKay Quintet: “Train Kept A Rollin’” Fort Worth’s McKay morphed this Johnny Burnette hit from rockabilly to incendiary rock in 1967, obliterating a similar attempt by the Yardbirds two years earlier. Oddly, McKay always claimed that the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page played the blistering guitar solo on his version.
Lydia Mendoza: “Mal Hombre” For her 1934 solo recording debut (“Cold-Hearted Man”), the mother of Tex-Mex took the words she’d memorized off a gum wrapper in Monterrey eight years earlier. At age eighteen, she put them to music and sang them like a woman scorned. The Houston native thus earned the title the Lark of the Border.
Amos Milburn: “Chicken Shack Boogie” Houston powerhouse pianist Milburn made irresistible good-time music, celebrating drinking, carousing, and carrying on. His first hit, 1948’s “Chicken Shack Boogie,” typifies his effortless-sounding R&B style.
Roger Miller: “King of the Road” Though Miller had written hits for others, the Fort Worth singer was known for novelties like “Dang Me” until this finger-popping 1965 smash about a “man of means by no means” came along.
Ella Mae Morse: “Cow Cow Boogie” Fronting the Freddie Slack Orchestra, this saucy seventeen-year-old stylist from Mansfield and Paris had a sense of rhythm that verged on shocking for someone working in the white mainstream in 1942. But she may be the only white, mainstream boogie-woogie performer of that time who doesn’t, in retrospect, sound campy.
Moon Mullican: “Well Oh Well” Oddly, the hillbilly piano pounder from the Piney Woods, one of the least-recognized fathers of rock and roll, scored most of his hits on saccharine ballads. But this wild 1950 ride is perhaps the most dynamic and exciting of the up-tempo barrelhouse boogie and blues he’s best remembered for today.
Bill Neely: “Never Left the Lone Star State” Written in the forties, recorded in 1985, and unreleased until 2002, “Never Left” is the ultimate Texas travelogue (a.k.a. “Texas Map Song”) from the ultimate Jimmie Rodgers throwback, a Depression-era native of North Texas’s blackland farms who moved to Austin mid-century to become the homespun father of the town’s folk and singer-songwriter scenes.
Willie Nelson: “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” In lesser hands, his 1979 song might seem irredeemably hokey, but Nelson pulls off this slow-dance heartbreaker with his usual aplomb. Nashville would drown this in strings; Willie lets his guitar do the talking.
Nightcaps: “Wine Wine Wine” Texas’s white-boy blues scene begins here, in 1959, with a Dallas quintet that had a convincingly loose, loping feel on this jivey blues-and-rock standard. They inspired everyone from their homeboys Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan to ZZ Top, over in Houston.
Joe Patek Orchestra: “The Shiner Song” John Patek started the orchestra in the twenties, but it was his son Joe, who played clarinet and sax and eventually took over as bandleader, who overhauled the traditional “Farewell to Prague” in 1949 and named the results after their hometown. It’s still Texas Czech polka’s most enduring anthem.
Buck Owens: “Act Naturally” Owens suffered a lot of false starts before this self-effacing 1963 chart-topper launched his career. “Act Naturally” delivered the Sherman-born singer’s country-pop Bakersfield sound to the rest of the country and, eventually, to the Fab Four.
Jeannie C. Riley: “Harper Valley PTA” The Anson country singer’s sexy but righteous unmasking of small-town double standards (“Then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit/Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites”) was one of the biggest phenomena of the sixties.
Rondels: “If You Really Want Me To I’ll Go” Despite his apprenticeship in the only white band working Fort Worth’s hard-knocks Jaxbeer Highway R&B scene, bandleader Delbert McClinton enjoyed his first brush with fame with this out-of-character little pop-country-folk ballad from 1965. It was later revived by both Doug Sahm and Waylon Jennings; how much more Texan can it get?
Clifford Scott: “Honky Tonk” Though released under bandleader Bill Doggett’s name, this is San Antonio composer-tenor saxman Scott’s record all the way. It’s also the smokiest, scorchingest bar-band R&B instrumental ever.
Ray Sharpe: “Linda Lu” Usually pegged as black rockabilly, the Fort Worth singer-guitarist’s 1959 hit might be the sexiest thing to come out of a Texas roadhouse.
Billy Joe Shaver: “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” Everyone from Elvis Presley to Waylon Jennings knew about the talent of Corsicana songwriter Shaver. His 1973 debut, which included this endearing biographical track, told the rest of the world.
Sir Douglas Quintet: “At the Crossroads” Doug Sahm pulled all his influences into his music, and he pours them out on this memorable 1969 ballad, known for the lines “But you just can’t live in Texas/If you don’t have lots of soul.”
Sly and the Family Stone: “Family Affair” No one mixed it up like Dallas-born Sylvester Stewart (Sly) and his interracial band. Soul and rock lived with strident politics and hippie sentiments, all of which made you dance to the music. “Family Affair” was their last great single, from 1971.
George Strait: “Amarillo by Morning” The spiffiest of modern Texas swing/honky-tonk singers is known for his love songs. But this 1982 rodeo ballad puts you right there in the pickup truck, next to the broken-down cowboy pushing on to the next county fair competition. Compared with that, love songs are easy.
Jack Teagarden: “Basin Street Blues” A double threat as both a superb vocalist and trombonist, Vernon’s Teagarden somehow missed the limelight. His 1929 “Basin Street Blues” remains definitive, which, for such an oft-recorded tune, says a lot.
Hank Thompson: “Wild Side of Life” Honky-tonk country meets western swing and fills up the dance floor on this 1952 megahit. The Waco star took its melody from the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” and its lyrics from any Saturday night in a Texas bar.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton: “Hound Dog” Houston-based R&B belter Thornton growled the words to “Hound Dog” over swamp-funk backing. It was a huge hit for her in 1953 but it was eclipsed three years later by a version from a Mississippi kid named Elvis.
Ernest Tubb: “Walkin’ the Floor Over You” You’ll not find a simpler sound than that unveiled on the Texas Troubadour’s first massive hit, from 1941. Nor a more pleasing one, nor one easier to identify with. E.T. was the icon next door.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: “Texas Flood” With one dirty, dramatic slow blues track that gave him all the space he needed to rip it up, the Austin guitar hero of the eighties anoints himself. He’s respectful of the black original but eager to show what he can do too; unlike so many of his peers who got themselves lost in the blues, he never forgot he was a white interpreter.
Jerry Jeff Walker and Gary P. Nunn: “London Homesick Blues” Walker helped make his band mate Nunn’s 1973 tune (with Nunn on vocals) part of the vernacular before Austin City Limits dubbed it its theme song. Recorded, home with the armadillo, in Luckenbach.
T-Bone Walker: “West Side Baby” Walker’s precise, cleanly articulated licks and exquisite tone are timeless, and this slow burner from 1947 is all late-night atmosphere, leavened with a dash of humor.
Sippie Wallace: “Woman Be Wise” Houston’s Wallace started out early enough to have Louis Armstrong as a sideman, but this spunky 1966 recording, made after she was lured from retirement, endeared her to the emerging folk scene and made her a hero to a new generation.
Lucinda Williams: “Side of the Road” A Hope Diamond in the jewel box of then-Austinite Williams’s breakthrough album (1988’s Lucinda Williams), “Side of the Road” yearns for self, identity—”I want to know the touch of my own skin”—and momentary peace and solitude.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: “Faded Love” Originally a fiddle instrumental, “Faded Love” hit it big when Wills added sadly wistful lyrics for this 1950 recording, ending a year-long drought and establishing yet another country signpost.
ZZ Top: “La Grange” Before Burt Reynolds ever heard of it, the Chicken Ranch was immortalized in 1973 by Houston’s ZZ Top, who took (yes, took) a John Lee Hooker riff and set it to their sleaze-boogie motif. Funny, rocking, and undeniable.