To My Ears

I've never had much to do with Texas music, but—thank goodness—Texas music has a lot to do with me.

April 2004By Comments

“HILLBILLY MUSIC.” THAT WAS MY mother’s judgment of one of the genres featured in this issue. I must have been an impressionable seven or eight, and she had caught me lingering on a country and western station on the radio in my room. She would have been no less distressed if I had gotten my hands on pornography. As a resident of Galveston, she regarded it as her purpose on earth to protect her children from the barbarian rituals of Houston, the capital of all things philistine, such as mowing the lawn in your undershirt, eating dinner at the kitchen table, and listening to country music.

Twenty years or so would pass before I could listen to “hillbilly music” without feeling as if I had taken up residence on a cultural skid row. My liberation came in the right place at the right time: Austin in the seventies. I was working in the Legislature and was one of a group of staffers who frequented a beer joint called the Split Rail, on the south side of the Colorado River. An old-timer named Kenneth Threadgill sang there—alas, it was well past the years when Janis Joplin, then a UT student from Port Arthur, sang with him—and I had never heard a voice like his: as smooth as if the sound had been whittled and sanded before it emerged into the room.

And yet, unschooled as I was in the music of my home state, I failed to appreciate what was going on all around me. Music was transforming Austin, and Austin's music was transforming Texas. Before the seventies, Texas was just a cliche to the rest of the country. A 1940 guidebook to the state by writers working for the federal Work Projects Administration talked of "spots as barrenly wild as Patagonia," "more cattle than human beings," "many a ranch whose area is better expressed in square miles than in acres." "The six-shooter still arbitrates many a dispute," the reader is told, and "juries are likely to be lenient as regards the resulting homicides if womenfolk are involved in the cause [or] if certain expletives are spoken unsmilingly." Another cliche, Texas oil millionaires, got its treatment in a 1961 book by English author John Bainbridge, The Super-Americans. Later in the decade, poor Lyndon Johnson tried to rally the country behind an unpopular war, but his Texas accent was as harmful to his cause as were his Vietnam policies.

The Austin-led country music revolution of the seventies, variously described by such adjectives as "outlaw," "redneck," or, more academically, "progressive," put Texas on the modern cultural map. Be careful what you wish for: The fruits of trendiness—the brief reign of Western attire as a fashion rage and the appearance of Dallas as a prime-time soap opera—popularized the old cliches more than they revealed the modern state. But it's nice to be noticed.

And it was about time. Always in the vanguard of musical innovation—Scott Joplin in ragtime, Blind Lemon Jefferson in the blues, Bob Wills in country music—Texas as a place has received less credit than have individual Texans. The Texas State Historical Association's Handbook of Texas, which takes particular delight in debunking myths, makes a rare foray into chauvinism when it cites a music historian named Gunther Schuller as saying that the Texas blues tradition is "probably much older than the New Orleans idiom that is generally thought to be the primary fountainhead of jazz." Maybe the reason for the lack of recognition is that for much of the twentieth century, Texas's leading citizens chased after high culture as a way of smoothing the state's worldwide reputation as the last frontier. In high-culture circles, the seminal musical event of pre-1970 Texas was not (to pick one milestone among many) the recording of "San Antonio Rose" by Bob Wills in 1938, the genesis of western swing, but the victory by a young Kilgore pianist named Van Cliburn in 1958 at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow.

This attitude explains my mother's scorn for "hillbilly" music. For doyennes of the high culture, the low culture was the enemy; the greater its vigor, the more obvious was the paucity of the high culture. Texas has been reluctant to celebrate the greatness of its indigenous talent. Blind Lemon Jefferson is among the most influential blues musicians of all time, but even while his records were snapped up by the thousands in the black neighborhoods of the urban North, he was relegated in Dallas to singing on Elm Street, with a tin cup for donations. In more recent times, Lubbock was slow to embrace the memory of native son Buddy Holly, and Port Arthur displayed equal ambivalence toward Janis Joplin.

We should know better. One does not have to be an expert on Texas music (and I don't pretend to be) to know how deeply embedded music is in our history. Start with independence: "The Yellow Rose of Texas" is thought to pay homage to Emily West, a black woman whom legend credits with having a dalliance with Santa Anna as the Battle of San Jacinto began, thereby enabling the rebel Texans to take the Mexican army by surprise. The same tune reappears after the Civil War, sung by Democrats marching on the old capitol to oust the hated Republican governor E. J. Davis and bring an end to Reconstruction. The end of the cattle-drive era, brought about by the widespread use of barbed wire in the 1880's, was commemorated by a ditty that went, "I'm going to leave old Texas now/For they've got no use for the Longhorn cow/ They've plowed and fenced my cattle range/ And the people there are all so strange." In the twentieth century the cowboy songs of Tioga-born Gene Autry paralleled the Depression-era decline of cotton and presaged the loosening of the state's historic ties to the old South in favor of Western myths. In a roundabout way, Texas music of that era would play a role in the ascendancy of the first truly Texan president. During the thirties, a flour company executive named W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel became the announcer for a popular radio program that featured a band called the Light Crust Doughboys; later he formed his own band and announced something else—his candidacy for governor. He was elected in 1938 and went on to defeat LBJ in a 1941 special election for U.S. senator. Johnson thought that O'Daniel had stolen the election, and when he ran again for the Senate, in 1948, against Coke Stevenson, he successfully employed the same tactic that O'Daniel had used against him.

I love this rich musical heritage, even though I've only been on the fringes of it. In all the time since my Split Rail days, I'm sure I could count on fewer than ten fingers the number of live performances I've seen. I never made it to the barnlike Armadillo World Headquarters, ground zero for progressive country music in Austin, during its too brief ten-year existence. Nevertheless, I felt a sense of loss when it closed at the end of 1980 to make way for a high-rise office building. The Armadillo had been more than a concert hall; it and the music it gave rise to redefined Austin in ways that I didn't fully understand until I heard Ray Benson explain it a couple of years ago. One of the founding members of a still popular band called Asleep at the Wheel, Benson said that in the early seventies, as the music scene was beginning to develop, the band often would find itself needing a piece of equipment, or he personally would need something, say, for his car. Inevitably, it wasn't in stock here; it always had to be ordered from San Antonio. "Austin was an it's-on-the-bus-from-San-Antonio town," he said. "Then, all of a sudden you could get anything you wanted right here."

I thought of that story recently when I happened to pick up a book called The Rise of the Creative Class, by a Carnegie Mellon University economics professor named Richard Florida. His theory, greatly simplified, is that "creativity is essential to how we work today" and that creative people constitute a new social class, whose members tend to cluster in places that value individuality, self-expression, and diversity of all sorts. Though the creative class is not dominant numerically, it is dominant economically; those engaged in creative pursuits, Florida says, earn nearly twice as much as members of the working class or the service class.

The lesson of Ray Benson and the lesson of Richard Florida are the same. Austin ceased to be an its-on-the-bus-from-San-Antonio town because it became a creative capital, thanks to music and, of course, high-tech. Notwithstanding the demise of the Armadillo, Austin ranks second nationally on Florida's creative index behind only the San Francisco Bay area. The creative index measures four factors: the creative class's share of the workforce, innovation (based on patents issued per capita), the extent of the high-tech industry in the community, and the acceptance of ethnic and lifestyle diversity. If that high placement is surprising, even more so is the presence of two other Texas cities in the top ten, alongside the likes of Boston, San Diego, and Seattle, and ahead of L.A.: Houston is seventh, Dallas tenth. Yes, Houston and Dallas are generally thought of as business centers rather than creative centers, but a characteristic of both cities is that it doesn't matter where you were from or what you did back home. The only thing that matters is what you do here. Creativity comes in many forms, but the one thing all share is that they place a premium on what people do, as opposed to who they are.

If my mother were around, I would reopen our conversation about hillbilly music, and here is what I would say: Even though I have had little contact with the Austin music scene, I have no doubt that it has enriched my life. It puts energy into the air that I draw from. It makes Austin a desirable place for others to come to. It keeps the city young and ever changing. Music, and the university, and the hills, and the Capitol, and the springs, and the techies reinforce each other. Oh, and while we're on the subject, what's so bad about eating dinner at the kitchen table anyway?

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