SINCE ITS ADVENT TEN YEARS AGO, the compact disc has become the preferred format for listening to recorded music. Despite a list price almost twice that of cassettes and cover art that pales compared with that of phonograph albums, the CD is popular for its superior reproduction of sound and its ability to cram an incredible amount of music onto a single platter. One consequence of the disc boom is a dramatic shift in the way record companies compile and market works of music, especially reissues—rereleases of previously recorded material. As it happens, many of those retro recordings are of Texas music, since our heritage boasts more styles, hybrids, and traditions than any other in America, and our musicians evoke a sense of place like no one else.
Which make for the best listening? To save you the hassle of figuring what is out, what is planned, what has been released on import labels only, and whether a greatest hits retrospective is preferable to an unembellished reissue of one particular piece, we’ve put together our guide to Texas music on CD. Because the availability of music varies, our list is restricted to domestic releases only, even though foreign labels do a far more thorough job of reviving lost or forgotten sides. And since Texas music is so hard to define because of all its cross-pollinated influences, we chucked the usual categories in favor of our own descriptions. We also included a wish list in anticipation of future reissues.
Keep in mind: This is only a sampler. It’s entirely possible that your taste differs from ours. Which is fine; Lord knows, there is plenty of Texas to choose from.
In the Beginning …
… THERE WAS JUST MUSIC AND PEOPLE PLAYING IT. Studios, managers, agents, marketing experts, and talent scouts bearing six-figure contracts were nowhere to be found. Then along came the piano roll, just in time for a young black composer from Texarkana named Scott Joplin to commit three of his tunes—“Maple Leaf Rag,” “Ole Miss Rag,” and “Magnetic Rag”—to posterity.
Claiming ragtime as a Texas invention is a bone of contention, since Joplin was working in Sedalia, Missouri, when he came into prominence. Regardless of where it was hatched, ragtime is Texas’ version of classical music: Formal and proper, with the music actually written down on paper before being performed, and largely intended for the edification of a well-heeled, seated parlor crowd. But Joplin’s ragtime was so loaded with idiosyncrasies, like a wandering trill here and an uplifting arpeggio there, that it must have set toes to tapping under all those petticoats and trousers.
Elite Syncopations (Biograph) is the best anthology of Joplin’s music, primarily for the three songs that Joplin actually played himself. His work is generally regarded as a nostalgia confection, the kind heard over the sound systems of all the best old-time ice cream shops. But it deserves to be taken more seriously, as the surprise twists, turns, and minor progressions of “A Real Slow Drag” aptly demonstrate.
“Hot Dogs,” on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s King of the Country Blues (Yazoo), suggests that Texas’ most celebrated street singer took up where Joplin left off—quirky tem- po shifts, chord changes, and all. At the same time, the song that precedes it, “Matchbox Blues,” drops all the gussied-up ruffles and flourishes, cutting to the bone with one of the first and finest recordings of raw down-on-the-farm blues.
Although nowhere near as earthy and as direct as Jefferson, the enigmatic Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, cut a considerably wider swath as a folk artist, a benefit of being discovered by John and Alan Lomax, the Texas scholars who secured Leadbelly’s release from Louisiana’s Angola prison and virtually created the musical folklore movement. Midnight Special (Rounder) consists of Leadbelly recordings that the Lomaxes made for the Library of Congress between 1934 and 1942, including sessions made inside Angola. The song list is impressive: two versions of the sentimentally timeless “Irene,” the coke addicts’ anthem “Take a Whiff On Me,” “The Midnight Special,” and “Frankie and Albert,” the two-timing saga that survives as “Frankie and Johnny.”
Also recommended: The six- CD boxed set Jimmie Rodgers: The Singing Brakeman (available by mail order; $120, plus $4 shipping, from Rediscover Music, 705 S. Washington Street, Naperville, IL 60540-6654, 800-232-7328) or the eight-volume series (Rounder) featuring Rodgers, America’s Blue Yodeler and the father of country music, who toured Texas extensively, sang about it (“T for Texas”), recorded in Dallas and San Antonio, and, at the peak of his career, moved to Kerrville for his health; Solo Flight, by Charlie Christian ( VJC), the Oklahoman who rambled around Dallas while developing what is considered to be the first electronically amplified guitar sound and eventually joined the Benny Goodman Sextet; and the soon-to-be-released Grey Ghost (Spindletop), featuring 88-year-old Roosevelt T. Williams, who, eight decades after Scott Joplin, works his way through such standards as “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You,” infusing them with elements of barrelhouse piano, New Orleans jazz, hokum, blues, and yes, even a trace of ragtime.
PERHAPS THE MOST COMPELLING of all of Texas’ musicmakers are the songsters, part of a tradition that dates back to cowboys’ spinning yarns around the campfire. One of the first to learn the old stories and songs was a University of Texas student from Panola County who fell under the influence of J. Frank Dobie and Alan Lomax. Tex Ritter, as he came to be known, was one of the first singing cowboys on record. His music survives on Tex Ritter: The Country Music Hall of Fame Series ( MCA), a light-ly annotated sixteen-song anthology important for renditions of “Get Along Lit-tle Dogies,” “Ai Viva Tequila,” and “Singin’ in the Saddle.” Just as good is Don Edwards: Songs of the Trail (Warner Bros. Western), a collection of cowboy songs in the Ritter tradition by the present-day bard of the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Mance Lipscomb, a sharecropper from Navasota, sang largely for his neighbors’ and his own enjoyment