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