IT'S THE TIME OF YEAR WHEN EVERYBODY'S supposed to be buying box sets like ZZ Top's four-CD retrospective, Chrome, Smoke & BBQ, as Christmas presents and critics are supposed to be preparing their top-ten lists. I'll avoid both. Instead, I want to tell you about the state's most underrated or under-recognized CDs this year—the best Texas music of 2003 that you've probably not heard of because it was released by the artists directly or by small independent labels. In either case, there was little or no money for promotion, and the Internet was usually the chief means of distribution (many of these will be impossible to find in most stores). But Lone Star musicians being an industrious lot, there are hundreds of indie bands to choose from, so I've narrowed the field down further by limiting myself to the rootsy stuff. I like my Texas music to sound like Texas. So go ahead and get the ZZ Top box if you must, but while you're at it, check out this baker's dozen of stocking stuffers.
Among country cognoscenti, the biggest buzz of late is the shuffle, a small-combo kissing cousin of western swing that's frequently as infectious. Ray Price's tricky four-four beat was popularized by his "Crazy Arms" in 1956 and then held sway in Nashville for well over a decade before fading, but around here it's back with a vengeance. The top young practitioners are Fort Worth's Jake Hooker and the Outsiders and Martindale's Justin Trevino. On Live/Set One ( southlandrecords.com), the 27-year-old Hooker's voice cuts and throbs with a sure rhythmic sense (perhaps because in addition to playing bass on his own records, he's also a drummer). He's unbeatable on Price's thrusting "I'll Be There" and Darrell McCall's wrenching slow ballad "Just Move Your Fingers." On his own album, Hooker's fiddle player, Bobby Flores, displays a high, smooth voice that marks him as more of a crooner. With considerable overdubbing, his Just for the Record ( bobbyflores.com) has less of an organic feel than Hooker's. Still, "Spicher Waltz," which features not the usual twin fiddles but a trio of them, is an elegant variation on Fritz Kreisler's 1910 classical tune, and the version of Don Gibson's "Oh, Lonesome Me" flat-out skedaddles. Both men rely too heavily on Price's catalog and could use some originals, though that hardly matters on the dance floor, where shuffles are best heard.
Trevino, meanwhile, didn't release an album this year, but he's the bassist and occasional lead singer on the Cornell Hurd Band 's Live at Jovita's/Don't Quit Your Night Job ( cornellhurdband.com). Though Hurd does the bulk of the singing, there are actually four leads, at least as many superb soloists, and guest performers galore in what's usually a ten-piece country band that includes a baritone sax and a rubboard. The band also blends together shuffles, swing, honky-tonk ballads, and countrified rock and R&B with ingenuity and good humor. For my money, their shows thus capture the spirit and scope of the original, revue-style western swing bands better than those of any other modernists. And while Hurd does resurrect his share of chestnuts, he also writes everything from deadpan novelties ("Rubboard Playing Man") to stirring weepers ("I Cry, Then I Drink, Then I Cry") and barroom stomps ("I Don't Care What It Is That You Did When You Lived in Fort Worth"). Fiddler Howard Kalish, a frequent Hurd guest, is best known for his fifteen-year tenure with Don Walser's Pure Texas Band, which ended early this year. On his swinging solo debut, What the Hey ( howardkalishmusic.com), he's backed by his former bandmates and by Austin A-listers like pianist Floyd Domino. Kalish is not shy about bearing down on his bow, but he prefers a light touch, with phrasing that's almost conversational. Since this is basically a picker's album, it figures that the instrumentals are the hottest—the title song stays right on the edge but never quite swings out of control—but Kalish's cheeky original songs ("I Just Want You for a Friend") surprise and delight.
Though he too played for Walser, pedal steel whiz Bert Rivera logged many more years with Hank Thompson's Brazos Valley Boys. On his all-instrumental Eclectia (bertrivera.com), that pedigree is confirmed with tracks like the full-bodied arrangement of Thompson's "We've Gone Too Far." But it's his lush, delicate readings of fare like "Godfather Medley" and "Ave Maria" that enable the album to live up to its title. Tom Morrell and the Time Warp Tophands are probably the state's jazziest western swingers. The Dallas band's all-instrumental Stylin' (westernswing.net) owes as much to Django Reinhardt as anyone, with the leader and his lap steel pointing the way on slow, sensuous, late-night standards like "Begin the Beguine" and "The Nearness of You," as well as Texas twang like "Steel Guitar Rag."
Houston is one of the last places in the nation where blues remains indigenous to African American communities. Still, they usually don't make albums anymore like Lil Joe Washington 's Houston Guitar Blues ( dialtone.home.texas.net). The 64-year-old Washington, who recorded briefly in the sixties, has an anarchistic sense of timing that makes for a wholly original style despite echoes of Third Ward guitar-slingers Albert Collins and Joe Hughes. On "Unfinished Business," his guitar verges on dissonance while his raw voice verges on bleating, and he sounds like he's making the song up as he goes along. The whole album burns with barely mediated energy and emotion. West-Texas-via-Beaumont bluesman Long John Hunter 's nineties resurgence was too short-lived for a man of his talents and charm. His return on One Foot in Texas ( docbluesrecords.com) features support from an unexpected co-star: his younger brother Tom "Blues Man" Hunter, who had never left Beaumont or recorded under his own name before now. But Tom's Gulf Coast variants on B. B. King-style guitar prove as idiosyncratic as John's, and he has the same country-boy humor. Together, they cut some rollicking Texas-Louisiana grooves on