Angels & Outlaws
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“Texas.” “Music.” Those words were mutually exclusive when this magazine began publishing 27 years ago. Today, the phrase is a buzzword, a radio format, a magazine title, and a lifestyle. More than any fine art or popular art, Texas music defines our sense of place. But what exactly is Texas music? Well, stand back.
The stereotype of Texas music may be Willie, Luckenbach, and Gary P. Nunn singing about going home to the Armadillo. But in reality, Texas music transcends cowboy hats, boots, and longnecks. How else can you explain the Gulf Coast’s Johnny Winter, the whitest black man you’ve ever heard wail the blues, coexisting with Dallas’ Charley Pride, the blackest white man to wrap his voice around a country lyric? And where does Randy Garibay, the Mexican American soul shouter fit in; or Dee Burleson, a San Antonio black man who sings in Spanish as the front man for Grupo Valiente; or Freddy Fender, the Chicano balladeer who sings country like it was the blues and the blues like it was country? Right in there with Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, who not only sing but “dance as good as [they] walk”; Fort Worth’s Kirk Franklin and H-Town’s Yolanda Adams, the undisputed king and queen of modern gospel music; and saxophonist Art Lewis, who was schooled in Houston playing behind every blues singer who came through town and now fronting a combo in El Paso clubs.
If that implies Texas music is nothing but a jumble of contradictions, blame it on being crazy from the heat. We don’t know any better. We just grab what we like and make it our own, and when we do, we stick out like a sore thumb, a refreshing contrast to the homogenization of American culture. Take tejano, a creation whose origins are polkas from German and Bohemian immigrants by Mexican Americans in Texas over the past century. Similarly, the Texas version of country music is infused with elements of folk, the blues, rock and roll (try the Derailers for starters), and jazz, best epitomized in another made-in-Texas original sound called western swing.
We’re a pretty accepting people who’ve learned to get along with fresh arrivals. Lately that means a lot of merengue and salsa, Hindi ballads, Vietnamese pop, Nigerian highlife, and Central American boleros. This absorption process becomes a ritual every March as bands from Japan, Australia, Holland, Mexico, and Denmark make their annual pilgrimage to the South by Southwest Music Festival, acting like Texas is the center of the musical universe, which for a week, at least, might really be true. The Texas Folklife Festival, Willie’s Picnic, the Conjunto Fest, the Czech polkathons, and the Houston International Festival also seem to be at the center of the musical universe. So do the scores of oprys staged every weekend across the state, the countless fiddlers contests and bluegrass picking sessions, and house dances held in private homes.
Texas music is also a sitar concert on the stage of a middle school in Sugar Land; the Greek syrtaki dancers down by the Houston Ship Channel; the unique mambo-cumbia beat fashioned by Fito Olivares, who has been updating Perez Prado in all his cummerbund resplendence for three decades now; Nick Villarreal singing a corrido about the escapades of Gloria Trevi, the Mexican Madonna, and her scheming manager; and Lil’ Brian Terry, the pride and joy of Barrett Station who is defining a whole new version of zydeco music by fusing the black urban contemporary beats of the Dirty South, as it is called, with time-proven Creole traditions.
We’re not the only ones who’ve noticed, either. When Arbitron took the first survey of radio stations on the Internet last fall, KFAN-FM in Johnson City, which calls itself Texas Rebel Radio, the home of the Texas Six-Pack — six Texas artists in a row — was found to have more online listeners around the world than any single station on the planet. KDAV-AM, an oldies station in Lubbock that features disc jockey Misty, who plays the same music she played on the air when Buddy Holly was still a teenager, has found a worldwide audience on the Internet too.
Texas music is Gabbanelli Accordions, made in Houston and played by Cajuns, Creoles, and Mexicans all over the world, and luthiers turning out guitars in Alpine, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. It’s the Dixie Chicks and George Strait filling arenas and the picker and singer down at the corner beer joint. It’s Ray Price, who started the whole country crossover movement when he invented the sophisticated countrypolitan style in the sixties (“Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Night Life”) and is doing it all over again with his recent release backed by a symphony of strings, and it’s Clay Blaker, the undisputed ruler of the Central Texas dance hall circuit when he’s not touring Germany or Austria.
Texas music is Lee Roy Matocha, SPJST halls, and Brave Combo, who have been redefining the meaning of polka for almost thirty years now. It’s Flaco Jimenez, an international star in his own right, who still hangs out with his barrio buds and plays the cantinas on weekends, and it’s his brother Santiago, who has dedicated his life to preserving the music of their father, Don Santiago.
It’s Jim Cullum’s Dixieland on the River Walk in San Antonio and Pete Mayes’s every-now-and-then homecoming on the east side of Galveston Bay at Double Bayou, the historic juke joint and African American settlement.
Texas music is sitting under a shade tree at the Quiet Valley Ranch outside Kerrville in May to play songs or listen to them, wondering if the person strumming the guitar will be the next Michelle Shocked, whose performance captured on a crude tape recording by an Englishman catapulted her to fame and fortune. It’s the Saturday dance at Club 21 in Uhland and at the Stampede in Big Spring.
Texas music is Bob Wills Day in Turkey on the last Saturday in April and Frankie McWhorter fiddling at a platform dance on an open-air floor in the tiny Panhandle settlement of Lipscomb, reviving a Panhandle social custom of a century ago. It’s Saturday dances and Sunday church services and pachangas whenever there’s a good reason to throw one. It’s live bands at the Austin airport, where Texas music pipes out of the sound system, and Los Skarnales of Houston appropriating a classic Jamaican sound by way of England and making the tune its own by revving it up and putting Spanish lyrics on top. It’s sitting on the porch of the Terlingua store to sing songs and watch the play of light on Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains every sunset.
Texas music is Austin City Limits and, on a more local scale, The All You Can Eat Texas Music Cafe from Waco, Humble Time, live from the store in Freiheit, and Tee Bruce spinning the Cajun platters on KLVI every week. It’s heard around campfires at cowboy poetry gatherings where Don Edwards and Red Steagall make our Western heritage come alive and at dances where Tom Morrell, Alvin Crow, and Asleep at the Wheel make swing swing as it always has.
Finally, what is Texas music? The answer lies somewhere between Joe Thibodeaux in far east Texas near Louisiana and Tom Russell in far west Texas near New Mexico.
For 35 years Thibodeaux has owned and operated the Rodair Club, a weathered gray wood beer joint and dance hall on the flat plains west of Port Arthur. The Rodair has been a landmark on the highway near the Rodair gully on the way to Fannett since the previous owner, Johnny Land, opened the cajun music club back in the early fifties. The music is the same as it always has been: cajun music, as performed with fiddles, accordions, drums, and guitars — a sound as much a part of the southeast Texas landscape as the humidity, rice, and barbecued crab. The club is such an institution that some folks make the drive from Dallas at least once a month. Mostly, though, the audience is the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of couples who met and wooed on the ancient dance floor.
Tom Russell is a songster, a singer-songwriter whose lyrical imagery evokes the American West. His adobe house in Canutillo is some fifty yards from Texas’ extreme western border with New Mexico. He was born in Los Angeles (“the Rootless Capital of the World”) and honed his craft in Austin in the early seventies before he moved on to San Francisco and New York. Joe Ely’s cover of Russell’s “Gallo del Cielo” helped Russell build up a following that takes him to cowboy poetry gatherings and to Europe at least three times a year. After relocating three years ago from Brooklyn to this desert farming community by the banks of the Rio Grande, he has put down roots in a setting that begs for music.
“There are so many strange and wonderful things there,” Russell says with a trace of awe. “The Spanish first crossed into what is now the United States between this little house and the mountains. I’m the alcalde of the canal here,” meaning he’s in charge of the flow of water to the farmland surrounding his place, a practice that has been going on since Pueblo Indians lived on this acreage.
His friends think he’s nuts living in a place so unhip, so far from everywhere else. He laughs. I laugh. I’ve been hearing the same thing said about all of Texas for the past quarter century. Texas music taught Russell and me different. It’s so uncool, it transcends cool. The sounds made in response to that reality are like those you’ll hear nowhere else on earth. For that, we should all celebrate.