LET’S BACK UP FOR A SECOND. Before you pore over our picks for the best Texas songs, you’ll probably want to know about the methodology behind the list, starting with how we define a Texas song. No easy task, that. If you consider that everything from blues to conjunto to jazz to R&B to rock and roll has been made here, the meaning of that phrase can be as expansive as the state itself. That’s fine with us.
Rather than limiting ourselves to songs that are about Texas, we defined a Texas song as any song performed by a Texas artist. Who qualified? Anyone who was born here, even if he or she left the state while still in diapers. As for the non-natives, they needed to have spent a good part of their career inside the state lines, and their songs had to be a product of their time here or related in some way to the state. Okay, so what do we mean by “song”? The word is a bit misleading; in fact, we included the best recordings of songs, from 78’s to singles to album tracks.
For the purposes of our list, we chose to rank only the top forty (don’t forget that the radio format of the same name began in Texas). The remaining sixty are alphabetized, a decision that eliminated the prolonged—and fruitless—debate over whether, say, George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning” should be number 86 or number 87.
To generate the list, we contacted twenty outside experts—writers, editors, and deejays with an array of tastes—and asked them to send their thirty favorites per our guidelines. Their responses, combined with our own lists, brought us to some consensus, but we still had more than four hundred songs. So the two of us whittled them down by asking ourselves a few more questions: Was the song inherently Texan, either in style or in subject matter? Was it a big enough hit to become a part of the vernacular? Did it stand the test of time? But this was never about scientific method; it was about music. Choosing the best was a subjective process, and sometimes we went on gut feeling.
The result is a list that reflects everything great about Texas music, from turn-of-the-century pop to nineties rap. Some of our choices should surprise and delight you, and some of our inclusions and omissions will cause you to groan. That’s also fine with us. Few countries can boast such an amazing and diverse legacy, and one reason is that Texans are passionate about music. So get riled up if you have to, and have fun. We sure did.
Sir Douglas Quintet
“She’s About a Mover”
If anything, the song sounds more audacious now than it did when it first shot to number thirteen on the national charts in 1965, at the height of the British Invasion. First, you’ve got that two-step rhythm—always common in regional Tex-Mex, country, and Cajun-zydeco but not in rock and roll, not then or now. Then you’ve got those maniacal dit-dit-dit-dits from organ jockey Augie Meyers; he claims he owned the first Vox in the nation, which supposedly provided the English vibe, but the way he used it mainly served to make a direct connection with Tex-Mex accordion. Finally, there’s Doug Sahm’s great, and always underappreciated, rock vocals—hard and fast, with a Little Richard-like intensity, but also still melodic—and his delightfully cockeyed lyrics and title. Which make more sense, actually, if you know that the song was originally called “She’s a Body Mover,” an offhand comment Sahm had made about a girl dirty-dancing at one of his shows. But what’s most amazing is that a giddier and less-worldly rock audience back then actually bought manager-producer Huey P. Meaux’s hype that this racially mixed group (white and brown) was the newest sensation from England. That ruse lasted only until the heavily accented musicians first opened their mouths in public for any purpose except singing—yet the song endures. And the reason is that sound. You could say that it couldn’t possibly have come from nowhar else but Texas, but even that’s a little vague; “She’s About a Mover” couldn’t possibly have come from nowhar else but San Antone.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
“New San Antonio Rose”
The King of Western Swing’s all-time best-seller is also a great example of his particular genius: If a more conventional big band had cut this, it would have been considered a pop record. When Waco’s Playboys recorded “San Antonio Rose” as an instrumental, in 1938, country fiddle and steel took the leads. When Wills added lyrics and cut the new version nearly two years later, he kept nothing but the original, traditional melody; the song was all reeds and brass, like any other big-band swing record of the day. The music was upbeat and happy, while Tommy Duncan’s vocals mourned a loss he just couldn’t shake (“Moon in all your splendor/Known only to my heart/Call back my rose/Rose of San Antone”). And dancers knew exactly what this meant, because nobody made feeling bad feel better than these guys.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets
“That’ll Be the Day”
Where all the bravado came from is anybody’s guess. Even by 1957 standards, this Lubbock teen looked, well, like a geek. But there was no denying the song Holly and his band, the Crickets, rolled out from Norman Petty’s Clovis, New Mexico, studio onto the national stage. “That’ll Be the Day” borrowed its title from the catchphrase of John Wayne’s character in The Searchers and boasted a swagger worthy of the Duke. “You say you’re gonna leave,” Holly taunts. “You know it’s a lie ’cause/That’ll be the day when I die.” Musically, with pounding drums and precision studio guitar and vocal work, its innovations weren’t confined to it being a rock and roll recording. “Day” kicked off what would prove to be an enduring body of work. Unfortunately, Holly had an all too short eighteen months left.
“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”