The Secret History of Texas Music

This state has been shaped by its songs. And as these 25 tales show, the stories behind them—like how a Fort Worth street vendor helped launch Willie’s career, or how Selena’s biggest hit was almost called “Itty Bitty Bubbles”—are often as great as the songs themselves.

July 2015By

It’s not that hard to write a song, really. Children do it all the time, humming tunes and making up words. So do countless songwriters in Nashville: melody, verse, chorus. Maybe a bridge. The world is absolutely cluttered with tales told in song, most under four minutes long.

But what about a great song, one you can’t get out of your head, with verses that seem to be written about your own life and a melody that makes your heart feel as though it’s literally aching? A song you wake up mumbling, sing out loud when it comes on the car radio, mouth the words to when you hear it at the grocery store—then laugh when you see the person in line next to you doing the same thing? Great songs haunt us and arouse us; they make us think and feel in a way that no other art can, taking us to places we long to go every time we hear them. These are not the songs being churned out by staff songwriters. They’re something else entirely.

So where do these great songs come from? The short answer—acquired after interviews with the writers of some of the state’s best-loved songs, the ones being sung at this very moment in cars and grocery stores all over creation—is that many of them began as happy accidents, spurred by a curious headline, a chance comment, a strange encounter. This happenstance led to a riff or a melody, maybe from an old blues ballad or a nursery rhyme twisted by memory. Then came a narrative, something about the girlfriend of a guy on the touch-football team or the fry cook who’s about to go fight in Iraq. Some of the songs, as the writers like to say, practically wrote themselves. Others were slaved over until the words and music were just right, the heart working with the head and the tune working with the lyrics to create a classic, a song that will live forever.

From nothingness to immortality, these are the secret histories behind 25 great Texas songs. The stories, whether told by Willie Nelson or Augie Meyers, Kacey Musgraves or the Butthole Surfers, are as funny and weird, as heartfelt and tragic, as the songs themselves and may even change how you hear them. You might find yourself, for example, giving a shout-out to the TSU Tornadoes or Scarface’s grandmother. And you’ll definitely never listen to Gladys Knight again without thinking of Farrah Fawcett.

  1. “Tighten Up” (1968)Written by: Archie Bell, Billy Butler Recorded by: Archie Bell and the Drells
  2. “Merry Go ’Round” (2012)Written by: Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne Recorded by: Kasey Musgraves
  3. “Midnight Plane to Houston” (1972)Written by: Jim Weatherly   Recorded by: Gladys Knight & the Pips
  4. “La Grange” (1973)Written by: Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard Recorded by: ZZ Top
  5. “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” (2006)Written by: Patty Griffin Recorded by: Kelly Clarkson with Jeff Beck
  6. “The Front Porch Song”/ “This Old Porch” (1984)Written by: Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett Recorded by: Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett
  7. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (1991)Written by: Scarface, Willie D, Bushwick Bill Recorded by: the Geto Boys
  8. “Pretty Paper” (1963)Written by: Willie Nelson Recorded by: Roy Orbison
  9. “Bubbles in My Beer” (1947)Written by: Tommy Duncan, Cindy Walker, Bob Wills Recorded by: George Jones
  10. “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” (1962)Written by: Barbara Lynn Ozen, Huey P. Meaux  Recorded by: Barbara Lynn
  11. “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” (1960)Written by: Freddy Fender Recorded by: Freddy Fender
  12. “Redneck Mother” (1973)Written by: Ray Wylie Hubbard Recorded by: Jerry Jeff Walker
  13. “I Summon You” (2005)Written by: Britt Daniel Recorded by: Spoon
  14. “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” (1994)Written by: Selena Quintanilla Perez, Pete Astudillo Recorded by: Selena
  15. “New San Antonio Rose” (1940)Written by: Bob Wills  Recorded by: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
  16. “Travelin’ Soldier” (1996)Written by: Bruce Robison Recorded by: the Dixie Chicks
  17. “Pepper” (1996)Written by: Butthole surfers Recorded by: Butthole Surfers
  18. “Hey Baby, Que Paso?” (1990)Written by: Augie meyers Recorded by: the Texas Tornados
  19. “Life by the Drop” (1991)Written by: Doyle Bramhall, Barbara Logan Recorded by: Stevie Ray Vaughan
  20. “Lonely Woman” (1959)Written by: Ornette Coleman Recorded by: Ornette Coleman
  21. “The Way” (1998)Written by: Tony Scalzo Recorded by: Fastball
  22. “Tom Moore’s Farm” (1930’s)Written by: Yank Thornton, Mance Lipscomb Recorded by: Mance Lipscomb
  23. “L.A. Freeway” (1972)Written by: Guy Clark Recorded by: Jerry Jeff Walker
  24. “Last Kiss” (1961)Written by: Wayne Cochran  Recorded by: J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers 
  25. “London Homesick Blues” (1973)Written by: Gary P. Nunn Recorded by: Gary P. Nunn with Jerry Jeff Walker

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