The Best of the Texas Century—Culture

December 1999By Comments

Painter of the Century

He was born in Missouri and lived the last fifty years of his long life (1898—1994) in Oklahoma, but Alexandre Hogue was Texas’ premier artist. Only six weeks old when his family moved to Denton, Hogue settled in Dallas in the twenties after pilgrimages to New York and Taos (he was also a regular on the Big Bend sketching expeditions led by Longhorn painter Frank Reaugh, Texas’ first distinctly Western artist). Writing for the enormously influential Southwest Review, Hogue declared independence for Texas artists, exhorting them to stop imitating European and East Coast fashions and instead establish their own identity. As the leader of a group of regionalist painters known as the Dallas Nine, Hogue proved a gifted practitioner of what he preached: His Drouth Stricken Area (1934), a viscerally sere vision of a small ranch vanishing into the Dust Bowl dunes, remains one of the century’s classic images. More than just a Depression-era icon (it appeared in Life magazine in 1937), Hogue’s painting prophesied the vast mid-century exodus of Texans from the land—and the transformation of Texas from a rural into an urban state. Runner-up: Robert Rauschenberg. Arguably the most influential artist anywhere during the last half of the century, he rates merely as runner-up because he fled his native Port Arthur as a twenty-year-old and never looked back, reinforcing the notion that Texas was a place protean geniuses needed to leave in the dust. Michael Ennis

Voice of the Century

The trilling style of Lydia Mendoza was beyond ethereal, so light and airy it earned her the title of La Alondra de la Frontera, the Lark of the Border. Her songs, many original, were sometimes loaded with scorn and spite, as was the case with her first hit record and signature piece, “Mal Hombre” (“Bad Man”), which, in its contempt for boorish male behavior, was half a century ahead of the women’s liberation movement. Her recording career—begun in 1928, when she was only twelve, in San Antonio—is so storied and extensive that it continues to cast a long shadow over those of many other Hispanic songstresses, including Kingsville’s Laura Canales, the queen of tejano music, and Corpus Christi’s Selena, whose tragic death in 1996 elevated her music and her image to iconic status. Neither of them could begin to match Mendoza’s voice or her status as the greatest Mexican American female performer ever to grace a stage. Runner-up: George Jones of Saratoga, whose uncanny ability to convey emotion by stretching out phrases through clenched teeth has blessed him with a long, albeit star-crossed, career. Joe Nick Patoski

Fictional Character of the Century

“The best way a man can live is by hard slugging, and the best way he can die is with his boots on.” That was the philosophy of writer Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, and it conveys the essence not only of his most famous character but also of the mythic tall Texan. A rogue warrior who rescues damsels in distress, avenges lost loves, and hacks his way through seemingly impossible battles, Conan exists in a fantasy frontier, but like any good cowboy, he lives by his own uncompromising code of honor. He embodied the fantasies of Howard, an isolated, emotionally disturbed man who lived most of his life in Cross Plains and who fancied himself a rough-and-ready adventurer (a favorite pastime was driving around the countryside, gun leveled, as he scanned the horizon for bushwhackers). Since Howard’s first Conan story appeared in Weird Tales in 1932, the superhero has inspired hordes of illustrators (notably Frank Frazetta), television and film producers, and other authors. The commercial success of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) made Howard’s character a household name. More recently, The Whole Wide World (1996), starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger, examined the writer’s troubled life. He killed himself in 1936 at the age of thirty, but today, thanks to a syndicated television show and Marvel Comics, Conan lives on. Runner-up: Old Yeller, pioneer pet extraordinaire, hero of Fred Gipson’s 1956 novel and the 1957 Disney film. Jennifer Olsen

Rock Star of the Century

He was born Charles Hardin Holley on September 7, 1936, in Lubbock, but the world knows him as Buddy Holly. His rock and roll band, the Crickets, was one of the first to pioneer the combo format of two guitars, bass, and drums. He wrote his own songs—which was unusual in the fifties—including a handful that were destined to become classics: “Not Fade Away,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Rave On,” and “Peggy Sue.” He had seven Top 40 hits. He was a major influence on the Beatles— in fact, their name paid homage to the Crickets. He made the Fender Stratocaster a cultural icon. He wore glasses onstage. He was killed in the first rock and roll plane crash, in 1959, at the dawn of an era that would have sounded very different had he never plugged in his Strat. He was 22 years old. Runner-up: Roy Orbison—also a West Texas boy (he grew up in Wink), also bespectacled, also dead too soon. Michael Hall

Photographer of the Century

Eugene O. Goldbeck took Texas-size photographs of the state, the country, and the world. The San Antonio native, born in 1892, first used a panoramic Cirkut camera for group shots at everything from beauty contests to river baptisms. He later recorded the likes of the Grand Canyon and the Great Pyramids—perfect subjects for his prints, which were often more than four feet long. He was also famous for “living design” pictures, especially a 1947 shot that used 21,765 men to recreate the Lackland Air Force Base insignia. The thousands of details in his photos continue to aid and amaze historians and nostalgia buffs today. Runner-up: Russell Lee, who made his name with images of the Great Depression and later documented daily life and social woes in mid-century Texas. Anne Dingus

TV Show of the century

For pure Texas-stereotypin’ pleasure, no series in the history of the small screen beats Dallas, the prime-time soap that aired from 1978 to 1991 and depicted the boom and bust years as the dramas they were, right down to the right-on characters. Tough-as-nails matriarch? Check. (Though surely even the dumbest Dallasite would have noticed when Donna Reed stepped in for Barbara Bel Geddes.) Devious wildcatter with wide brim and wider smile? Check. Venal, Napoleon-complex-suffering rival wildcatter? Check. Twice-divorced wildcatter’s wife with drinking problem? Check. Bubble-headed, bubble-chested blonde? Check. (She was played by an actress D-liciously named Charlene Tilton! Extra points!) Mythic ranch with colorful name? Check. And not a karate-chopping lawman in sight. Runner-up: Austin Stories, a perfect portrayal of nineties slacker life in the Capital City. Evan Smith

Arts Patron of the Century

Without a tempering adversity, heiress Ima Hogg might never have become the state’s leading supporter of the arts. Miss Ima, as she was always called, was eight years old in 1891 when her famously portly father, James Hogg, became the governor of Texas. After he left office, he went on to amass the beginnings of the Hogg family fortune. But he died relatively young, as did his wife, and their devoted daughter was devastated. She subsequently began a lifelong battle with depression. In 1907, after studying abroad, Miss Ima settled in Houston and taught piano, but public service was in her blood. In 1913 she almost single-handedly willed into existence the Houston Symphony Orchestra, an organization she lovingly dominated throughout her lifetime. Her personal experience with mental illness shaped her growing concern for fellow sufferers. In 1929 she helped found the Houston Child Guidance Clinic, which served as a model for similar family-counseling programs across the country. After her brother Will died unexpectedly in 1930, she established as a memorial the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas. She also developed a passion for collecting antiques, and became an expert on Early American furniture and decorative arts of all kinds. Eventually she refurbished several historic properties—notably Bayou Bend, her treasure-filled Houston home—and gave them to the citizens of Texas, so they would “think more about the things that make life worth living.” She died in 1975 at age 93. Runner-up: Fellow Houstonian Dominique de Menil, whose philanthropy went far beyond the Menil Collection of modern, African, and Byzantine art. Chester Rosson

Broadcaster of the Century

He entered the national spotlight in the late forties as a play-by-play announcer covering baseball games on his father’s Dallas-based Liberty Radio Network, responding to action reported via telegraph by rapping a pencil on a baseball bat to imitate the sound of a bat hitting a ball. So precise and vivid was Gordon McLendon’s re-creation that more fans tuned into his dramatizations than listened to the authorized live broadcasts, and in the early fifties baseball owners took legal action to shut him down. A few years later he was breaking the rules again, this time on KLIF, the family’s flagship station, by playing the best-selling records in town around the clock and interspersing the songs—most of which were a newfangled sound called rock and roll—with news, contests, and clever patter from disc jockeys. The concept became known as Top 40, and KLIF’s attempt to be all things to all people made it the most entertaining show in town. If the music didn’t grab the audience, then McLendon’s publicity stunts—such as tossing $1,000 in small bills from the top of a Dallas hotel—certainly did. He went on to introduce innovations such as on-air classified advertising and the all-news format, and he used his stations in Dallas, Houston (KILT), and San Antonio (KTSA) as a bully pulpit for his conservative point of view. Through it all, McLendon made sure his radio stations always sounded bigger than life, as anyone who ever heard a live, on-the-scene report from “KLIF Mobile News Unit #18” understood: There weren’t eighteen news units combing the streets of Dallas at that moment, just two station wagons whose owner had painted big numbers on their sides and never let his listeners’ imagination flag. Runner-up: Radio’s Henry Guerra of San Antonio, for his booming voice and deep knowledge of his city’s rich past. Joe Nick Patoski

Bluesman of the Century

Despite his flashy nickname, Lightnin’ Hopkins didn’t play faster than everybody else. He didn’t invent a new style, either, or make a lot of money, or record a lot of hits. What he did was play country blues—raw as rotgut, real as rent, and as heartbreaking and hilarious as the world around him. Born on March 15, 1912, in Centerville, Lightnin’ (real name: Sam) took the dark solemnity of early blues and fired it with his own singular spark to create music that was both universal and uniquely personal. He sang about life itself—work, women, fighting, gambling—and even transmuted the news of the day into poetry (“Happy Blues for John Glenn”) through his gift for spontaneous storytelling and his wildly unpredictable guitar playing. With his cocked-back fedora, ever-present shades, and gold-toothed grin, he was everybody’s favorite uncle, the one who couldn’t quite do right and had the stories to prove it. He was also the walking embodiment of the blues—his life and art were so mixed up that one was impossible without the other. Fortunately for Texas, Lightnin’ Hopkins was a supreme practitioner of both. Runner-up: Mance Lipscomb (his name was short for “Emancipation”); more of a “songster”—his word—than a bluesman, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of folk music and influenced countless musicians. John Ratliff

Actor of the Century

You knew a girl like her in high school: freckles and strawberry blond hair, fair skin, and a good personality. But Sissy Spacek also had ambition, talent to burn, and a drive to succeed that propelled her from tiny Quitman to a Best Actress Oscar. Born Mary Elizabeth Spacek on Christmas Day, 1949, she had a typical Texas upbringing. In high school she was a majorette, a member of 4-H, and homecoming queen. At eighteen she headed to New York, where she appeared as an extra in Andy Warhol’s Trash and cut a record under the name Rainbo. In 1972 she landed her first real role, as an orphan sold into prostitution in Prime Cut. Her big break came in 1973’s Badlands, an art-house film written, directed, and produced by Texas auteur Terrence Malick; she played Holly Sargis, an emotionally flat-lined teenager who follows Martin Sheen’s killer Kit on a shooting spree through the Midwest. Three years later her steely performance in Brian de Palma’s Carrie earned her the first of five Oscar nominations and helped that film achieve cult status as the definitive teen flick about an outcast’s revenge. She was also effective in Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977)—but sitting through it is like watching rust accumulate. And in 1980 Spacek won the Oscar for her pitch-perfect impersonation of Loretta Lynn in the classic biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. Although her Texas roles have not been numerous, the best is her portrait of a young mother in Raggedy Man (1981), written by Austinite Bill Wittliff and directed by her husband, Jack Fisk. In her most recent work, David Lynch’s The Straight Story, she contributes an affecting performance as the farmer’s speech-impaired daughter. Heading into her fourth professional decade, Spacek continues to shine as the best actor to have ever emerged from Texas. Runner-up: Tommy Lee Jones of San Saba, whose most memorable portrayal was Captain Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove and who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in the schlocky hit The Fugitive. Don Graham

Movie of the Century

Giant, the longest, biggest, and most bombastic film ever made about Texas, is also arguably the best. But in the early fifties nobody in Texas would have tolerated such superlatives. Texans hated Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel—one reviewer called it a “gargantuan hunk of monstrous, ill informed, hokum-laden hocus-pocus,” and a Beaumont man warned a Hollywood columnist, “If you make and show that damn picture, we’ll shoot the screen full of holes.” Mindful of the state’s chauvinism, Warner Bros. launched a campaign to win Texans over, and did such a good job that the citizens of Marfa, where Giant was shot in 1955, still cherish the experience. The movie itself, released the following year, was an instant box-office success. Viewed today, it seems modern and prophetic in its depiction of a multicultural Texas. The film is first of all both a celebration of Texas’ ranching tradition and an indictment of its macho patriarchy. Wealthy rancher Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) marries Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), an educated young woman from Maryland, and their marriage, a sturdy but at times contentious relationship, endures. The clash between ranching and oil is pretty predictable, but the really modern themes of Giant are those of sexism and racism. The gender roles cut both ways: Leslie refuses to take a back seat to the good ol’ boys, and her son, played by a nerdy Dennis Hopper, refuses to follow in his father’s bootsteps, becoming a do-gooder doctor instead. But the most powerful issue of Giant is its exposé of the racism in Texas culture, climaxed by a rousing scene in which Bick finally acknowledges the mixed-race identity of his grandson and suffers a tremendous beating. The film’s last image is of Bick and Leslie’s two grandchildren, one Anglo, one Mexican American, smiling side by side in a playpen. Giant went on to figure in, among other things, one section of Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place; Kevin Costner’s road flick Fandango; and Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett’s song “This Old Porch.” It’s not a stretch to call Giant the national movie of Texas. Runner-up: The Last Picture Show. Peter Bogdanovich’s black-and-white classic recreates Larry McMurtry’s ode to the libido of his hometown, Archer City, with an outstanding cast that includes Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, and Ben Johnson.Don Graham

Cultural Triumph of the Century

Strangely enough, Texas’ finest cultural moment took place six thousand miles away. Van Cliburn’s win at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow was doubly astonishing: Not only had an American prevailed, despite the ongoing chill of the Cold War, but the winner was a Texan, straight out of the mythic West. Radio Moscow called Cliburn “the American Sputnik—developed in secret.” Cliburn played with astonishing power and showmanship, pouring on the Texas charm. The Soviet minister of culture nervously approached the new Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, with a question: Would it be possible to give the best player the prize, even if he was an American? With Khrushchev’s approval, the triumph of Vanya, as the Russian crowds were calling him, was complete. Back home, it led to the founding of the nation’s highest-profile musical contest, the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth. For the first time, Texas had earned a spot on the map of cultural affairs. Runner-up: The Texas International Pop Festival, staged in Lewisville in 1969, two weeks after Woodstock; by attracting more than 120,000 to hear prodigal daughter Janis Joplin and a cast of hundreds, it set the stage for ZZ Top’s Barndance in Austin and Willie Nelson’s picnics all over the state. Chester Rosson

Play of the Century

There’s no denying that Texas has a macho image. But it took two guys in skirts, pantyhose, and wigs to explain our state to the rest of the world. Greater Tuna —written by comic co-stars Jaston Williams and Joe Sears and their director, Ed Howard—premiered in 1981; three years later it had become the most-produced play in the U.S. The sequels to the outrageous comedy about a fictitious Texas town—A Tuna Christmas in 1989 and Red, White & Tuna in 1998—also smashed box-office records. Audiences can’t resist the array of characters (some huggable, others slappable) in tiny Tuna, where the motto at the local radio station, OKKK, is “If you can find someplace you like better than Tuna…move!” Now Bertha Bumiller, Arles Struvie, Petey Fisk, and Aunt Pearl, among other Tunaites, have developed a cultlike following. Williams and Sears, who offstage look like average Joes (or Jastons), play all 28 characters. Runner-up: Preston Jones’s seventies Texas trilogy—Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, and The Oldest Living Graduate—which drew raves at the Dallas Theater Center and Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. Eileen Schwartz

Composer of the Century

In 1907 Scott Joplin arrived in New York, hailed as the King of Ragtime. Young ladies seated at parlor pianos across the country were delighting their friends with the sophisticated syncopation of “Maple Leaf Rag,” which was on its way to selling a million copies in sheet music. But the Texarkana native who once earned his living as a piano player in brothels and saloons had come to the big city with greater ambitions. Then in his late thirties, he had written an opera, Treemonisha, about a black female Moses, and he was determined to find investors who would help him produce his magnum opus on the stage. But New York broke Joplin’s heart: Treemonisha never made it into the limelight. Suffering from the effects of tertiary syphilis, he died in a Manhattan mental institution in 1917. Not until 1975, after a ragtime revival, did his opera receive a full-fledged professional production and reveal its hidden glories. Appropriately, a Texas company, Houston Grand Opera, took on the labor of love. The next year, Scott Joplin won a posthumous Pulitzer prize. Runner-up: Carlisle Floyd, a Texan since 1976, whose tenth opera, Cold Sassy Tree, will premiere with Houston Grand Opera in 2000. Chester Rosson

Dance of the Century

It’ll fill a dance floor faster than you can say howdy-do. From the rousing fiddle intro to the dancers’ vocal high jinks, the cotton-eyed Joe is a moving experience for any true Texan. Understanding the dance’s appeal is a three-step process. First, there’s the lively music, an Irish air that was already popular during the Civil War. Then there’s the relatively easy choreography, honed by decades of folk-dancing fanatics. Finally, there’s the naughty thrill of the bandleader’s repeated mid-song call: “What you say?”—to which the dancers respond, at the top of their lungs, Bullshit!” To Texans, though, the cotton-eyed Joe is more than just fast music, fancy footwork, and dirty words. Given its enduring appeal, its indomitable spirit, and its feisty individualism, it is nothing less than a metaphor for the state of Texas itself, that great, grand, glorious bastion of—what you say? Runner-up: the Texas two-step, a staple for twirling twinkle-toes in Western nightclubs worldwide. Anne Dingus

Artistic Subject of the Century

Thanks to the bluebonnet landscape, the state flower adorns the entire state all year. Texans are equally fond of its official-symbol status and its intense and mesmerizing hue. Wealthier residents might acquire an original canvas by, say, Porfirio Salinas, Jr., a bluebonnet specialist (LBJ was a fan); regular folks settle for color snapshots of the kiddos posing by the roadside in endless fields of blue. Reproductions of such scenes also decorate plates, postcards, tea towels, T-shirts, gift wrap, rugs, you name it. In the century to come, will the bluebonnet landscape still capture Texas hearts? Azure as shootin’. Runner-up: the Virgin of Guadalupe, who, with her full-body halo, graces church windows, barrio murals, and even human skin. Anne Dingus

Jazz Artist of the Century

Ornette Coleman changed the way people played and listened to jazz. Born in Fort Worth in 1930, the saxophonist had early roots in bebop and toured in rhythm-and-blues bands before settling in Los Angeles in the fifties. There he began developing the concept of free jazz with a handful of sympathetic musicians. Free jazz lacked conventional chord changes and, to some listeners, such basic qualities as melody and harmony; instead, soloists worked off the mood of each piece, improvising freely. It represented the first real advancement in the genre since Charlie Parker’s bop breakthroughs. Coleman arrived professionally in 1959 when he took his quartet to New York’s Five Spot, where his radical music won a few followers but enraged most jazz critics, musicians, and fans. In the late seventies he redefined his theory of music as “harmolodics,” meaning that melody, harmony, and rhythm all carried equal importance. But Coleman has blazed a largely lonely trail. Today the New York resident struggles to get his music recorded and, because American promoters balk at his high fees, he plays mostly in Europe. Yet his music seldom fails to surprise and delight. Runner-up: Herschel Evans of Denton, who blew sax in the original Count Basie Orchestra in the late thirties and defined the bluesy, wide-open style that came to be known as Texas tenor. John Morthland

Conjunto Artist of the Century

Narciso Martínez was not the first Tex-Mex accordionist to enter a recording studio, but no one else’s albums have ever matched the impact of his first twenty recordings, all made in 1936. Played hard and fast, singles like “La Chicharronera” quickly earned him the nickname El Huracán del Valle—the Hurricane of the Valley—among rural, working-class Tejanos. But they also sold well in cosmopolitan Mexico City and in Basque communities on the West Coast; marketed under the name Louisiana Pete, they succeeded with Cajuns, and they pleased Polish Americans as the work of the Polski Kwartet. Martínez was born in 1911 in Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, and his family moved to Texas that same year. While still a teenager, he began playing at dances and other social events. At that time, the pairing of the accordion with the bajo sexto, a bass-like twelve-string Mexican guitar, already defined conjunto music (known south of the border as norteño). But while other Tex-Mex accordionists had traditionally supplied their own bass chords, Martínez left that to Santiago Almeida, who accompanied him on the bajo. Thus he freed himself to play high, careening runs on the treble end of his instrument. Runner-up: accordionist Santiago Jimenez of San Antonio, a contemporary who rivaled Martínez in popularity but favored a slower, softer sound and who founded a dynasty that includes two of his sons, traditionalist Santiago Junior and experimentalist Flaco. John Morthland

Guitarist of the Century

T-Bone Walker was the first American guitar hero. He was born Aaron Thibeaux Walker in Linden on May 28, 1910; his family moved to Dallas when he was two. He learned acoustic blues from the great Blind Lemon Jefferson, whom Walker would lead around the streets of Oak Cliff in the twenties. By the mid-thirties, after he had moved to Los Angeles, Walker was playing early-model electric guitars, bending the strings to produce an almost human screaming and crying. Soon Walker and his various bands had created something entirely new: the sexy, shuffling sound of electric urban blues. Walker was also a showman, playing the guitar behind his head or doing the splits while he riffed. More was going on here than just guitar playing. Chuck Berry’s trademark riffs? B. B. King’s lapidary lines? Walker was the source. In retrospect, as pop music has proven to be as much about style as it is about sound, it’s clear that the first electric bluesman was also the first rock star. Runner-up: colorful Stevie Ray Vaughan, the hard-living, fast-playing guitar-slinger who grew up not far from Walker’s Oak Cliff home and who died in a 1990 helicopter crash. Michael Hall

Record Label of the Century

Until the founding of Motown Records, Don Robey’s Duke-Peacock combine was arguably the nation’s largest black-owned record company. Born in Houston in 1903, Robey owned the Bronze Peacock Dinner Club, one of the classier rooms on the black touring circuit. In 1949 he launched Peacock Records from his record store on Lyon Avenue to spotlight his favorite nightclub performer, bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (who later left Peacock after a bitter falling-out over Robey’s strong-arm tactics, which became notorious). The label survived largely on the talents of gospel groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Original Five Blind Boys of Mississippi until 1953, when Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton gave Peacock its first number one rhythm-and-blues hit with “Hound Dog” (later covered by Elvis). Robey also acquired—some say took over—Duke Records of Memphis to get Johnny Ace, a crooner with crossover potential who, on Christmas Day in 1954, fatally shot himself in a backstage accident at the Houston City Auditorium. Fortunately for Robey, the Duke purchase also included Bobby “Blue” Bland, whose “Farther Up the Road” in 1957 was the first of countless soul-blues hits produced by Joe Scott, Robey’s musical brains. Together with his partner, Evelyn Johnson—who expanded the business into booking, management, and song publishing—Robey helped usher what was once termed “race music” into the mainstream. He died in 1975. Runner-up: Pappy Daily’s D Records, also of Houston, which began in 1958, produced early sides by George Jones and Willie Nelson, and lasted long enough to release George Strait’s first records in the seventies. John Morthland

Book of the Century

As a young writer, Larry McMurtry was a habitual Texas-basher—he once called the state “a country literate America hopes to hear no more about”—and he deplored its “religious allegiance” to the myth of the cowboy. Yet his most ambitious and affecting work is the ultimate Texas cowboy novel, and it riveted literate America. Published in 1985, the 830-page Lonesome Dove follows the fortunes of a band of Texas traildrivers who, en route to Montana, do battle with desperadoes, Indians, the elements, and their own deep-seated emotions. The book single-handedly revived the western genre (and subsequently the television miniseries), and lassoed its author a Pulitzer prize. Runner-up: Texas History Movies. The cartoon paperback, distributed free by Magnolia Petroleum beginning in 1928, taught generations of schoolkids about both Texas pride and Texas prejudice. Anne Dingus

Venue of the Century

The idea of the Armadillo World Headquarters would have been inconceivable in the dreamy sixties and out of place in the go-go eighties. But the decade in between was perfect, as Austin struggled to find its musical and cultural identity. The building itself was nothing special—a former National Guard armory run by (gasp!) hippies. Adorning the walls were counterculture icons like cartoonist Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers; on the west wall hung Jim Franklin’s huge painting of Texas bluesman Freddie King playing the guitar with an armadillo bursting from his heart. Perhaps the club’s defining moment came in the summer of 1972, when country star Willie Nelson, who had just moved back from Nashville, played a wild homecoming concert. Nelson was a troublemaker: He wore a beard, wrote concept albums, and smoked pot. Under the heady lights of the ’Dillo, though, he looked like some kind of shabby prophet. All of a sudden Austin had found its symbol and the progressive-country movement its star, and the crowd—an odd mix of freaks and rednecks—realized they had more in common than they ever knew. Runner-up: Gilley’s in Pasadena, the “world’s largest honky-tonk”—for a while—and the setting of Urban Cowboy (1980). Michael Hall

Song of the Century

Where there’s a Wills, there’s a way with words and music. Western swing king Bob Wills penned many a pretty song, but none tops “San Antonio Rose.” Its fiddle-infused melody, written in 1938, has made it a staple in the repertoire of every self-respecting Texas dance band, and the romantic imagery (“Lips so sweet and tender, like petals falling apart”) elevates it to the love song hall of fame. Finally, the evocation of a moonlit Alamo taps directly into Texas’ collective memory, the shared mythology that still underpins our culture today. Runner-up: “Streets of Laredo,” an old ballad about an English soldier that morphed into the greatest cowboy song ever written (lament division). Anne Dingus

Writer of the Century

He had eyebrows like wind-tossed drifts of Panhandle snow…and an unabashed hatred for that kind of gushy prose. The son of ranchers, cantankerous J. Frank Dobie harassed fellow Texans into dumping highfalutin romantic themes and tackling something more modern and muscular: their own state. (His own eighteen books examined such subjects as Longhorns, conquistadores, and cowboy life.) After persuading his reluctant colleagues at the University of Texas that regional books were worthy of study, he developed his famous course on Life and Literature of the Southwest; he also helped establish the Texas Institute of Letters (which obligingly presented him with its first best-book award). Today Dobie is often dismissed as a folklorist, but he dominated the state’s literary scene for three decades; without him the phrase “Texas letters” might still mean the postal kind. Runner-up: Katherine Anne Porter, whose ragtag Texas childhood inspired “Noon Wine” and other impeccable works. Anne Dingus

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