Empire of Culture
AT THE END OF JANUARY IT WAS announced that Texas Monthly had been purchased by Emmis Broadcasting of Indianapolis. Although Emmis owns primarily radio stations, it also owns three magazines in addition to Texas Monthly and may buy more. The company is changing its name to Emmis Communications to reflect the broadening of its interests.
Our new owners are not Texan and do not profess to know anything about the state except that they believe in this magazine. They intend to let Texas Monthly continue on the path it is following. The current staff of the magazine remains unchanged. For readers, any changes that come from the new ownership will fall somewhere between negligible and nonexistent.
At the same time, after operating independently for 25 years, Texas Monthly now joins the long list of Texas companies that are owned outside the state. Many a Texas banking empire has disappeared into the folds of a national bank. Local department stores long ago became part of national chains. The newspapers in our major cities are all owned by outside interests except for the Dallas Morning News. And even such indigenous products as Pace picante sauce are no longer locally owned.
There were various reasons for selling the magazine, but the main one was that companies that own and publish a single magazine have mostly fallen by the wayside. The magazine is as healthy financially as it has ever been, but becoming part of a larger organization was the surest way to guarantee survival in the long run. Since there were no magazine companies in Texas large enough, selling Texas Monthly meant selling to outside owners. All of which has made me ask once again the question the magazine tries to answer with each issue: What is Texas?
Time changes everything, so it’s no surprise that Texas has changed in the 25 years and two months that has been the life of the magazine. It would be foolish to deny that in some ways Texas is becoming more like every place else. We embrace Starbucks and Barnes and Noble and Sam’s Club as eagerly as the rest of the country. Such cultural levelers have been invading Texas since the beginning in one form or another, and we have always resisted total surrender. But there have also been internal changes. We think about Texas differently than we used to. While Texans still travel about the state almost obsessively, we are less interested in local politics and business in other parts of the state than we once were. In my neighborhood I see copies of the Austin American-Statesman and the New York Times on lawns in the morning rather than the Statesman and, say, the Dallas Morning News or the Houston Chronicle, as used to be common. I can see the effects in my job. In years past we would run a feature story on the mayor of Dallas, for example, or the controller of Houston. Today such stories are shorter and placed in other parts of the magazine. People in Houston are interested in what’s going on in Texas and people in Dallas are interested in what’s going on in Texas, but that’s not the same thing as saying people in Dallas are interested in the intricate details of what’s going on in Houston. There used to be a grand rivalry between Houston and Dallas. We even had a cover story on the subject in 1978. Now I think such a cover story would fall flat. The two cities are so different and pursue such different paths that they have a hard time working up a good argument.
Our economy is quite robust today, and one reason is that it is not uniform, as it once was. For most of this century, the economy relied primarily on energy, and the OPEC embargo, the fluctuations in the price of oil, and other vagaries of that world affected all of Texas. Now it’s difficult to imagine any single event that would affect us all uniformly. For instance, consistent overproduction of microchips would have little effect on Dallas’ economy, but it could seriously hurt Austin’s. A protracted glut of oil on the market would hurt Houston, although not so badly as in the eighties, but the oversupply wouldn’t squeeze San Antonio or Fort Worth.
But while the unifying force of our economy has waned, the unifying force of our culture has intensified. Today Texas is unified by culture. I’m not saying that Texas has only one culture. In fact, there are many different cultures that combine into a Texas culture. But there is a general spectrum of manners, dress, music, food, speech, architecture, and even morals that is the same from Amarillo to Brownsville and from Orange to El Paso and is recognizably Texan and only Texan. And the forces that affect Texas most profoundly are the forces that enhance this culture. We have evolved from a state unified primarily by our economy to one unified primarily by our culture.
Texas Monthly’s first issue appeared in February 1973. It was a moment when Texas was beginning a great change, and the main causes of the change seemed clear at the time. The OPEC embargo was about to send the price of oil straight up and begin the biggest economic boom in Texas history. Shell Oil had relocated from New York to Houston, the first of many corporate relocations that continue to this day. The Houston Galleria had opened, showing that there was an eager market in Texas for sophisticated fashion and design. The Sharpstown scandal was the beginning of the end of Democratic party domination of state politics. The Dallas Times Herald had been bought by the Times Mirror Company, which owned the Los Angeles Times. Bank holding companies, then still locally owned, were gobbling up independent banks in small towns across the state. At the end of 1971, serving liquor by the drink had become legal, and Southwest Airlines’ first flights had left the ground. Another important event from the era was not much noticed at the time: In late 1971 Willie Nelson moved back to Texas from Nashville and settled in Austin (see “Willie at 65,”).
The striking thing about these events today is that what seemed the most momentous at the time have the least continuing influence today. OPEC has fallen apart because it turns out there is plenty of oil after all. Sharpstown is rarely mentioned; Texas politics would surely have changed without it, as politics have changed throughout the South and West. The bank holding companies staggered and were themselves bought before they could fall. And yet liquor by the drink, Southwest Airlines, and Willie Nelson not only have lasted these 25 years but also continue to powerfully affect the state. In the end, the events that shaped the culture of Texas have proved more lasting and important than the forces that affected business or politics.
When Southwest Airlines began flying in 1971, the institutions of the state, whether great or small, whether business, political, or artistic, were available to people throughout Texas as never before. An hour or so in the air will get you to any city in Texas and its attractions, which facilitates business, certainly, but the airline is a cohesive force that extends well beyond business into every aspect of our culture.
Liquor by the drink started at the same time. It makes everyone uncomfortable and a little disappointed in humanity to say that civilization follows whiskey, but it’s true. The remarkable proliferation of restaurants, resort hotels, and clubs offering every sort of entertainment is because of liquor by the drink, since such establishments make most of their money from selling drinks. It didn’t make these things happen by its presence, but its absence would have prevented them. Without liquor by the drink, Texas would have been doomed as a backwater, an also-ran, defeated by our own pride and obstinacy. As clearly as we can see this today, we should remember that this measure passed a statewide vote by only one percent. And Willie proved that you can become a national cultural icon and a Texas cultural icon and live in Texas, all at the same time.
I know it sounds odd to say that Texas culture got kick-started by airplanes, booze, and singing, but I believe it did. We look around Texas today and see Austin heralded as the Live Music Capital of the World, and as I write this, we are preparing for South by Southwest, a music festival of international importance that, by the way, is a huge economic bonanza for Austin. Every year listings of the best restaurants and best new restaurants in America routinely include establishments in Dallas and Houston. We see Texas as a leading tourist destination and the site of major conventions, including the national political conventions. We see elite companies moving to Texas or, better yet, being founded and developed here. And the reason is that they like the way life is lived here. They like the culture. Those are all indications that Texas has achieved a kind of cultural sophistication and recognition that it had always longed for. Business, politics, our history—these do not dominate the state today; rather, they all serve its culture.