Any Texan can have a career. But few can make a career out of being a Texan. It’s a short list, and there’s no room at the top, where—for almost three decades—the number one position has been occupied by Bob Phillips, the state’s very own Charles Kuralt. Phillips is the host of Texas Country Reporter, a weekly paean to the pull of the two-lane blacktop and that great natural resource, the small-town character, and the show’s title is synonymous with his name.
Other Texans have earned their livelihood mining the lode of Texas folklore, including newspaper columnist Frank X. Tolbert of Dallas, best known for his expertise in chili-ology, and Houston’s Ray Miller, who hosted the state’s first televised travelogue, The Eyes of Texas. Phillips shares with his predecessors many things: a love of history, a fondness for small towns, and a strong streak of Texas pride. But he adds something extra. “It’s all about passion,” he says. “Somebody could be welding widgets, and he would make a story if he was passionate about it.” What makes the TV show special, though, is not his subjects’ passion but Phillips’ own. He is as crazy about being the Texas Country Reporter as they are about skipping stones, making syrup, repairing accordions, or painting pictures on toilet seats.
On a saunalike day in mid-August, the fifty-year-old Phillips has arrived in the fetching burg of Jefferson to film a segment for the show’s thirtieth season. His destination is Beauty and the Book—the nation’s only combination beauty salon and bookstore, according to owner Kathy Patrick. Tall and talkative, Patrick easily exceeds Phillips’ minimum-passion requirement; she also heads up the Pulpwood Queens of East Texas, a tiara-wearing, RC Cola-slurping book club that has lured more than eighty authors to this remote corner of the state for readings and signings. With what he calls his fellow “back-roads hooligans”—senior producer Jason Anderson, production manager Martin Perry, and photographer Gene Bryant—Phillips fearlessly enters Patrick’s bastion of femininity, which is full of oddities such as Andy Warhol dolls and a lipstick-shaped piñata. Two walls of shelves display current best-sellers, children’s classics, and the work of Texas authors.
As Patrick and various friends—who are there to provide moral support and vie for bit parts—chatter in delight, Phillips and company scope out the salon. Everyone is immediately on a first-name basis, and the teasing isn’t just hair-related. (“Did you