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.

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

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week