Executive editor Skip Hollandsworth talks about Pat Green and this month's cover story, "With Envy."
WHEN I FIRST HEARD ABOUT PAT GREEN in late 1998—Pam Minick, the former rodeo queen who is the marketing director of the cavernous Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth, told me there was this new kid drawing big audiences at their club—I could not imagine that he was ever going to be someone to write about. I assumed that he was just one more young hopeful country musician who sang songs about living in Texas—hardly a novel concept in the canon of country music. But this past October as I was sitting at lunch with a group of other editors from this magazine, I launched into one of my speeches about how the new generation of Texans, age thirty and under, don’t care about Texas. They were too homogenized, I pronounced. They were conditioned on the basic diet of cable television and standard pop music that made them no different from anyone else their ages in other parts of the country. They didn’t have any sense of the Texas myth, I said. Just as significantly, they didn’t even care about learning about the myth. My bombast really began to rev up. Hell, I said, this new generation will never care enough about Texas to buy our magazine. We’re going to go out of business.
Then Mike Hall, another Texas Monthly editor and an Austin musician himself, finally interrupted my dribble and said, “Obviously, you haven’t heard about this Pat Green phenomenon.”
And so off I went to my first Pat Green concert, and I realized I was witnessing a real cultural event—and it was taking place, as I explain in the story, among a young group of people who I thought would never like music about living in Texas. What was amazing to me was how gigantic Green had become without mainstream media support or (until recently) a national record label deal. Nearly 200,000 people went to see him perform at concerts in Texas between the months of February and April. During that period, he had 52,000-plus come see him perform at the Astrodome, and he sold out a show at Billy Bob’s in just over thirty minutes, which Pam Minick told me was the fastest sell-out since Garth Brooks played the venue. I also learned that since 1995, Green had sold more than 255,000 self-produced, independently distributed albums, an amazing number considering that almost all those sales have come from within Texas.
After hearing him last fall and watching him perform at another show or two, I called the editor of Texas Monthly, Evan Smith, and said, “You know, Mike Hall is right. This is a real phenomenon.” Evan said, “Great, can’t wait to read the story.” Back then, he wasn’t thinking it was a story he would put on the cover. Neither was I. What’s more, I had a plateful of other stories I was working on, and I was constantly putting the Pat Green story aside for a month here and there. But Green kept coming up in conversations. I could see the momentum for him continuing to build. In October, his first major-label album, Three Days, entered Billboard’s country chart at number seven. Two of his videos from that album began getting played on Country Music Television. Even though he still remained little known for most Texans over the age of forty, he was gaining a groundswell of support. Although we usually go with the big music sensations for cover stories—after all, Texas is already full of such huge country music stars as George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, Lyle Lovett, and Willie Nelson—Evan rolled the dice and said, “Let’s see what happens putting a rising young star on the cover.”
Green doesn’t put on a country persona. He doesn’t live on a ranch or a farm, he doesn’t sing in a twangy voice, and he doesn’t use steel guitars. He also doesn’t sing about divorce or being in debt or midlife questions the way older musicians do. Pat sings about what he knows, which is being young (he’s now thirty years old), going on weekend road trips, falling in love for the first time, occasionally getting a little too drunk, and learning to discover your identity in places like old Texas dance halls. The music critics for newspapers have not been impressed—I think people will be amazed if they read the magazine story just how nasty the comments have been—but they cannot deny that Pat Green is tapping into something. He’s teaching a new generation about the joys of living the freewheeling Texas life. And, in fact, by telling others that they listen to Pat Green, the people from this new generation feel like they are part of a special tribe. They are branded. They stand out. They are no longer just kids living the homogenized urban life, raised on Britney Spears or rap or alternative rock. Green himself says that perhaps by listening to his music, they learn it’s more fun than anything else to say you are a Texan.
Critics say his worst trait as a musician is that he doesn’t write about anything that helps us understand or appreciate the complexities or mysteries of life. He hasn’t yet written lyrics that capture someone’s angst or unhappiness. His music itself has a rollicking similarity to it. He doesn’t yet have the big break out hit. But I think he will eventually win over the critics. Many of them have told me his music gets better and better. (He first picked up a guitar his freshman year in college, a little more than ten years ago.) Perhaps the best trait about Green is that he recognizes his own limitations, and he is open about what he has to do to improve his music, which is rare among ego-sensitive musicians. He also says as he gets older, he’ll write about deeper things. But for now, he writes about the joy he feels embracing the life that a lot of young people in Texas live.
I hadn’t written about a popular musician in a long time, and I forgot how prickly this world is. Texas has a long history of legendary singer-songwriters—many of them, like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, remain extremely obscure except to devoted music followers. Young upstarts are looked upon suspiciously. That’s why even among longtime Texas country musicians, you hear grumbling about Green’s Jimmy Buffet—like music. But Green, astonishingly, lets the criticism drip right off his back.
Who knows what will happen now? If you haven’t seen him, Green will be on the Late Show With David Letterman on July 10th—a significant feat in itself. But there’s always a chance, despite predictions that he could be the next Garth, that his act will never translate across the Red River and that he’ll go back to playing Texas honky-tonks. If that happens, he says, that’s just fine with him. At least he gave it a shot. It is hard not to like Pat Green.