What a Disc!
The best Texas music-ever-on CD.
SINCE ITS ADVENT TEN YEARS AGO, the compact disc has become the preferred format for listening to recorded music. Despite a list price almost twice that of cassettes and cover art that pales compared with that of phonograph albums, the CD is popular for its superior reproduction of sound and its ability to cram an incredible amount of music onto a single platter. One consequence of the disc boom is a dramatic shift in the way record companies compile and market works of music, especially reissues—rereleases of previously recorded material. As it happens, many of those retro recordings are of Texas music, since our heritage boasts more styles, hybrids, and traditions than any other in America, and our musicians evoke a sense of place like no one else.
Which make for the best listening? To save you the hassle of figuring what is out, what is planned, what has been released on import labels only, and whether a greatest hits retrospective is preferable to an unembellished reissue of one particular piece, we’ve put together our guide to Texas music on CD. Because the availability of music varies, our list is restricted to domestic releases only, even though foreign labels do a far more thorough job of reviving lost or forgotten sides. And since Texas music is so hard to define because of all its cross-pollinated influences, we chucked the usual categories in favor of our own descriptions. We also included a wish list in anticipation of future reissues.
Keep in mind: This is only a sampler. It’s entirely possible that your taste differs from ours. Which is fine; Lord knows, there is plenty of Texas to choose from.
In the Beginning . . .
. . . THERE WAS JUST MUSIC AND PEOPLE PLAYING IT. Studios, managers, agents, marketing experts, and talent scouts bearing six-figure contracts were nowhere to be found. Then along came the piano roll, just in time for a young black composer from Texarkana named Scott Joplin to commit three of his tunes—“Maple Leaf Rag,” “Ole Miss Rag,” and “Magnetic Rag”—to posterity.
Claiming ragtime as a Texas invention is a bone of contention, since Joplin was working in Sedalia, Missouri, when he came into prominence. Regardless of where it was hatched, ragtime is Texas’ version of classical music: Formal and proper, with the music actually written down on paper before being performed, and largely intended for the edification of a well-heeled, seated parlor crowd. But Joplin’s ragtime was so loaded with idiosyncrasies, like a wandering trill here and an uplifting arpeggio there, that it must have set toes to tapping under all those petticoats and trousers.
Elite Syncopations (Biograph) is the best anthology of Joplin’s music, primarily for the three songs that Joplin actually played himself. His work is generally regarded as a nostalgia confection, the kind heard over the sound systems of all the best old-time ice cream shops. But it deserves to be taken more seriously, as the surprise twists, turns, and minor progressions of “A Real Slow Drag” aptly demonstrate.
“Hot Dogs,” on Blind Lemon Jefferson’s King of the Country Blues (Yazoo), suggests that Texas’ most celebrated street singer took up where Joplin left off—quirky tem- po shifts, chord changes, and all. At the same time, the song that precedes it, “Matchbox Blues,” drops all the gussied-up ruffles and flourishes, cutting to the bone with one of the first and finest recordings of raw down-on-the-farm blues.
Although nowhere near as earthy and as direct as Jefferson, the enigmatic Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Leadbelly, cut a considerably wider swath as a folk artist, a benefit of being discovered by John and Alan Lomax, the Texas scholars who secured Leadbelly’s release from Louisiana’s Angola prison and virtually created the musical folklore movement. Midnight Special (Rounder) consists of Leadbelly recordings that the Lomaxes made for the Library of Congress between 1934 and 1942, including sessions made inside Angola. The song list is impressive: two versions of the sentimentally timeless “Irene,” the coke addicts’ anthem “Take a Whiff On Me,” “The Midnight Special,” and “Frankie and Albert,” the two-timing saga that survives as “Frankie and Johnny.”
Also recommended: The six-CD boxed set Jimmie Rodgers: The Singing Brakeman (available by mail order; $120, plus $4 shipping, from Rediscover Music, 705 S. Washington Street, Naperville, IL 60540-6654, 800-232-7328) or the eight-volume series (Rounder) featuring Rodgers, America’s Blue Yodeler and the father of country music, who toured Texas extensively, sang about it (“T for Texas”), recorded in Dallas and San Antonio, and, at the peak of his career, moved to Kerrville for his health; Solo Flight, by Charlie Christian (VJC), the Oklahoman who rambled around Dallas while developing what is considered to be the first electronically amplified guitar sound and eventually joined the Benny Goodman Sextet; and the soon-to-be-released Grey Ghost (Spindletop), featuring 88-year-old Roosevelt T. Williams, who, eight decades after Scott Joplin, works his way through such standards as “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You,” infusing them with elements of barrelhouse piano, New Orleans jazz, hokum, blues, and yes, even a trace of ragtime.
PERHAPS THE MOST COMPELLING of all of Texas’ musicmakers are the songsters, part of a tradition that dates back to cowboys’ spinning yarns around the campfire. One of the first to learn the old stories and songs was a University of Texas student from Panola County who fell under the influence of J. Frank Dobie and Alan Lomax. Tex Ritter, as he came to be known, was one of the first singing cowboys on record. His music survives on Tex Ritter: The Country Music Hall of Fame Series (MCA), a light-ly annotated sixteen-song anthology important for renditions of “Get Along Lit-tle Dogies,” “Ai Viva Tequila,” and “Singin’ in the Saddle.” Just as good is Don Edwards: Songs of the Trail (Warner Bros. Western), a collection of cowboy songs in the Ritter tradition by the present-day bard of the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Mance Lipscomb, a sharecropper from Navasota, sang largely for his neighbors’ and his own enjoyment until folklorist Mack McCormack stumbled onto him in 1960. Accompanied by a peculiar flat-picking guitar style, Lipscomb rolled through songs about work and leisure on Texas Songster (Arhoolie), which includes “Jack O’ Diamonds,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Ella Speed” (credited to Leadbelly), and “’Bout a Spoonful.”
Perhaps the best-known songster—and certainly the most re-corded, judging by CD reissues bearing his name—is Sam “Lightning” Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb’s city cousin from Houston and a disciple of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s. A keen observer of life, a poetic improviser, and a mean electric guitarist, Hopkins bridged the gap between country and city blues with wit, wisdom, and a sharp tongue. Listening to The Gold Star Sessions Volume One (Arhoolie)—re-corded in Houston in the late forties—is better than reading a biography. The 24 cuts are among his most unaffected recordings and talk about everything from his birth date and his trip to a zydeco dance (“Zolo Go”) to his experiences with cars, planes, and especially women. Texas Blues (Arhoolie) features sixties-vintage sessions embellished by bass and drums made after Hopkins was embraced by a white folk audience and displays a world- lier if somewhat less-endearing storyteller.
Today, the songster tradition is stronger than ever, carried on by a slew of singer-songwriters who emphasize lyrics over music. The godfather of this generation is Townes Van Zandt, a fallen angel of a folksinger whose influence is far greater than his record sales. Live & Obscure (Sugar Hill) is an excellent window on his hard-luck, achingly personal performing style. One of his few peers, equally unheralded by almost everyone but other songsters, is Guy Clark, whose Texas Cookin’ (Sugar Hill) celebrates native cuisine, shrimp boat captains, and other unlikely subjects. Lyle Lovett (MCA), Lyle Lovett’s debut album, follows in Van Zandt’s and Clark’s footsteps, lyrically speaking, with a considerably more adventurous, gypsylike musical tack. No songster-folkie has avoided the glare of the spotlight as studiously as Butch Hancock, whose Own & Own (Sugar Hill) reprises his finest work from the seventies, tackling dryland farms and tractors with the wry wit and keen eye of a modern-day Woody Guthrie.
Although several female songsters, notably Nanci Griffith (Last of the True Believers) and Michelle Shocked (Texas Campfire Tapes), have made their mark in recent years, the reigning queen of the genre is Lucinda Williams, whose latest, A Sweet Old World (Chameleon), hails the return of the prodigal Texas daughter with a confident reading of almost embarrassingly intimate compositions in a pretension-free, minimally maudlin presentation.
Jumpers and Jivers
THE BIG BAND SOUND that infatuated America beginning in the thirties spun off a regional variation known as western swing, which blended elements of jazz, western, blues, jump, fiddle breakdowns, and even Mexican rancheras into a lively, highly danceable stew distinguished by tight string-and-brass arrangements and wild solos. While every southwestern city large enough to support a radio station and a dance hall had a western swing band, only one made a national impact. Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys: Anthology 1935–1973 (Rhino) is a 32-song chronicle of that band’s career, from the days when the Playboys ruled the airwaves of Texas and Oklahoma to Wills’s last session; it covering the original versions of his hits (“New San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love”), popular standards of the era (“Corrine Corrina,” “St. Louis Blues”), and esoterica (“Big Beaver”). Many hard-core Wills fans prefer the various Tiffany Transcriptions (Kaleidoscope) of radio performances from 1946 to 1947 for their broadcast- quality sound, Herb Remington’s stellar steel playing, and the guitar work of Junior Barnard, a blues player influenced by Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker. Volume Four, “You’re From Texas,” consists wholly of songs with Texas themes.
One of the few available domestic samplers of western swing, OKeh Western Swing (Columbia Special Products), features seven Wills tracks and songs by such significants as the Light Crust Doughboys (“Knocky, Knocky”), Adolf Hofner (“Gulf Coast Special”), future governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel (“There’ll Be Some Changes Made”), the Swift Jewel Cowboys, and the Crystal Springs Ramblers. Hank Thompson: The Country Music Hall of Fame Series (MCA) traces the career of the Waco swingster. Asleep at the Wheel (Epic), a reissue of the 1974 album by the latest conservators of western swing, captures the classic version of the Wheel, including the work of chanteuse Chris O’Connell and droll lyricist LeRoy Preston, as well as Ray Benson’s trademark crooning. A more mainstream take on big-band swing is heard on Vernon-born Jack Teagarden’s That’s a Serious Thing (Bluebird), which covers the manic trombonist’s sessions with Louis Armstrong and Bud Freeman.
What Bob Wills was to the fiddle in big bands, T-Bone Walker was to the guitar. The Oak Cliff native grew up under the influence of Blind Lemon Jefferson and cavorted with Charlie Christian; Walker was the man who put the guitar out front as a horn-backed lead ensemble piece, taking it off the street and defining sophisticated guitar blues in the process. The Complete Recordings of T-Bone Walker, 1940–1954 (available by mail order; $90, plus $4 shipping, from Mosaic Records, 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06092) is the ideal means to appreciate Walker and his impact on artists from B. B. King to Jimi Hendrix. An alternative is The Complete Imperial Recordings (EMI) boxed set that captures T-Bone at his peak, beginning in 1950, playing such fast and furious jump instrumentals as “The Hustle Is On” and “Strollin’ With Bones” and singing pensively and circumspectly on his best-known hit, “Call It Stormy Monday.”
Also recommended: Truckin’ With Albert Collins (MCA), on which the Houston guitar man carries on the T-Bone sound, stripping it down and dir- tying it up; and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: The Original Peacock Recordings (Rounder), a frenzied compilation from the one contemporary of T-Bone’s who could hold his own in a cutting contest while tossing in a dose of blues fiddling.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN JIMMIE RODGERS, Bob Wills, and early country pioneers Vernon Dalhart and Eck Robertson lies the heart of Texas honky-tonk, the western half of the country-western equation that made Nashville famous. Though the sound has been an integral part of the Texas music tradition since the rugs were rolled up at the first house dance, it did not come into its own until the fifties, when the jukebox became popular. A constant since then has been George Jones, whose Best of George Jones 1955–1967 (Rhino) is a tribute to the art of stretching a monosyllabic phrase into a miniseries while keeping one’s molars clenched. Old “Possum” continues to crank out hits as predictably as the change of seasons, yet it is his first sides for Starday Records in Beaumont and the early Mercury recordings that set the standard for any male country singer aspiring to stardom. To wit: The southeast Texan simply knows how to evoke without apologizing for his accent. His trailblazing efforts—“Why, Baby, Why,” “The Race Is On,” and “White Lightning”—are so excitable that they verge on rockabilly, while ballads like “Tender Years” will pull tears out of listeners’ eyes even if they’re not paying attention to the lyrics.
Critics charged that Ernest Tubb couldn’t sing worth a lick—and he certainly wasn’t the most accomplished picker to come down the pike— but as a bandleader, singer, songwriter, and human dance machine (two-step and waltz division), he was the total entertainer. Ernest Tubb: Live 1965 (Rhino) is preferable to other collections because honky-tonks were the setting of most of Tubb’s tales about dancing, cheating, drinking, and moaning the blues. All that’s missing is the classic “Waltz Across Texas” and not being able to see Tubb flip his guitar over at the end of the performance, revealing the message “Thanks” taped on the back. As a one-time fiddler in Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys and a contemporary of Ernest Tubb’s, Tyler native Johnny Gimble embodies the Texas honky-tonk tradition. Johnny Gimble’s Texas Honky-Tonk Hits (CMH) concentrates on recordings from the forties and fifties and more recent tracks cut with his own Texas Swing Pioneers. The material includes obscure, forgotten gems like “Fort Worth Hambone Blues”; Ted Daffan’s “Truck Driver’s Blues,” the first musical paean to truckers; “Divorce Me C.O.D.”; “Where Honky Tonk Angels Spread Their Wings”; and twenty other slices of the wild side of life.
There have been several attempts to eradicate all traces of honky-tonk from what is currently known as country music. But every time it appears to be down for the count, someone comes along to revive the genre and put the twang back in C&W. The latest hero is a handsome, one-time heavy metal dabbler named George Strait, whose sound and look spawned a subgenre known as the Hat Acts, setting the scene for the arrival of Garth Brooks. Ocean Front Property (MCA), Strait’s breakthrough album from 1987, is the definitive Hat Act CD: smooth vocals with a Texas accent, an ensemble sound inspired by Bob Wills, rife with fiddle and pedal steel runs that are neither too raw nor too slick, and a passel of excellent songs, notably Whitey Shafer’s instant classic “All My Exes Live in Texas.”
Also recommended: Essential Ray Price (Columbia), the greatest hits of the honey-dripping vocalist who created the “countrypolitan” sound by replacing fiddles with lush string arrangements; Floyd Tillman: The Country Music Hall of Fame Series (MCA), featuring most of the big songs from honky-tonk’s most prolific “cheatin’ ” composer; Lefty Frizzell: American Originals (Columbia), from the paragon of the white Texas jukebox sound; Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s After Awhile (Elektra), featuring a voice as histrionic and as antique as Jimmie Rodgers’ welded onto a transcendental hillbilly sensibility; and Al Dean and the All Stars’ Kick’n (Kik-R), an all-instrumental survey of Texas dance hall favorites highlighted by “Cotton Eyed Joe,” a version so inextricably tied to Texas that it is has replaced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch of Texas Rangers home games.
Black and Bronze
THE BLACK EQUIVALENT OF HONKY-TONK is juke joint music, a low-down, guitar-driven sound made for the dancing and listening pleasure of nightclub patrons that endures today. The standard by which all juke joint guitar is measured is Freddie King, a native of the East Texas town of Gilmer who spent much of his younger days on the south side of Chicago before settling in Dallas. King’s showpiece, Freddy [sic] King: Just Pickin’ (Modern Blues), is actually one CD containing two albums: Let’s Hide Away and Dance Away With Freddy King, released in 1961, and Freddy King Gives You a Bonanza of Instrumentals, issued in 1965. For every young Texas kid who has fancied himself a blues guitarist over the past thirty years, learning the songs on both records was the equivalent of school: If you mastered 8 of the 24 rocking instrumentals, you were ready to front your own band. Noteworthy are the 12 tracks featuring the rhythm sax of San Antonio’s Clifford Scott, the honker who put the honk in Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk,” and the inclusion of “Remington’s Ride,” a loping shuffle composed by western swing steel guitarist Herb Remington of Dallas.
In the early seventies, rock pianist Leon Russell “discovered” King and issued three albums on his Shelter label. Though those albums lack the tough edge of King’s earlier work and make a few too many concessions to the rock sound, they demonstrate King’s considerable vocal prowess. Texas Cannonball and Woman Across the River (both unavailable on CD) are more than competent works, but Getting Ready … (Shelter) is clearly the best.
At the same time that King was cutting his instrumentals, Houston nightclub impresario and promoter Don Robey was in his prime. Back in the late forties, Robey rose to national prominence with his Duke and Peacock record labels, the first black-owned imprints in the music industry. Although he recorded all kinds of music in the early years (including Little Richard’s first tracks), by the late fifties and early sixties the Duke-Peacock sound had been honed into a polished version of the blues as defined by house-band conductor Joe Scott and several distinguished vocalists, including Bobby Blue Bland, Junior Parker, O. V. Wright, and Big Mama Thornton.
While Bland’s Two Steps from the Blues (MCA) remains the quintessential Duke-Peacock record, as well the finest recording ever made in the state of Texas, several compilations set for release this November merit attention: Bland’s double CD, I Pity the Fool: The Duke Recordings, Volume One (MCA), containing 44 tracks from the silky growler; Parker’s Junior’s Blues (MCA), from the most underrated vocalist in the Robey camp; The Soul of O. V. Wright (MCA), by the unsung hero of the Duke stable; Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog: The Peacock Records (MCA), from the defiant wailer who inspired Janis Joplin; and two samplers of the Robey sound, The Best of Duke-Peacock Blues (MCA), featuring Parker’s “Driving Wheel” and Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light,” and Duke-Peacock’s Greatest Hits (MCA), a 16-song collection including Johnny Ace’s romance-inspiring “Pledging My Love,” Marie Adams’ “I’m Gonna Play the Honky Tonks,” and Thornton’s reading of “Hound Dog,” which packs more grit and emotion than Elvis’ subsequent version.
No regional variation of blues and rhythm and blues rivals the raw energy or exotic appeal of zydeco, the accordion-driven dance music of French-speaking Creoles residing between Houston and New Orleans. And no zydeco act could hold a candle to Clifton Chenier, the undisputed master of the genre. Although Chenier named his backup group the Red Hot Lou-isiana Band, he claimed Houston as a place of residence and a favored re-cording site. Clifton Chenier: 60 Minutes With the King of Zydeco (Arhoolie) vividly illustrates zydeco’s appeal, which continues to grow while most other ethnic blues have become extinct. Clifton’s giant-sized accordion riffs, spurred on by brother Cleveland Chenier’s rhythm scratches on his metal rub board, and a driving, rocking band capture the excitement of a dance with none of the usual constraints typical of a studio recording.
Also recommended: Frankie Lee Sims: Lucy Mae Blues (Speciality), revealing more than has ever been known about this largely obscure Dallas electric guitar great from the fifties; Charles Brown’s One More for the Road (Alligator), the album that revived the Beaumont crooner’s career; I Believe I’m Gonna Make It: The Best of Joe Tex (Rhino), chronicling the life of the man who was the epitome of sixties-vintage Texas soul; George Coleman: Bongo Joe (Arhoolie), a piece of late-sixties Texas street blues by this San Antonio denizen who improvised lyrics while pounding on customized forty-gallon oil drums; Best of Delbert McClinton (Curb), which lacks the punch of his ABC recordings while nonetheless demonstrating how at least one white boy can sing the blues; guitarist T. D. Bell and pianist Erbie Bowser’s It’s About Time (Spindletop), on which a couple of unsung East Austin blues greats make their belated album debut; and Antone’s Women (Antone’s), featuring two generations of blues women. The current Antone’s crop, led by vocalists Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, newcomer Toni Price, and guitar phenom Sue Foley, is impressive. But the presence of Barbara Lynn, the world’s greatest (and perhaps only) left-handed female blues guitarist, and Miss Lavelle White, who rubbed off more than a little on Barton, makes this project fly.
Honkers and Hepcats
FROM BUSTER SMITH TO KIRK WHALUM, whose swagger and bite make his contemporary brand of jazz-pop palatable, the Texas tenor saxophone tradition has been the essential ingredient of native jazz and rhythm and blues. Smith, unfortunately, hasn’t made it to CD yet, but fans of the fat and sassy brass sound have plenty to tide them over. James Clay’s Cookin’ at the Continental (Antilles), featuring recording sessions made last year, isn’t necessarily the greatest recording by this Dallas giant, who chucked a promising career in New York thirty years ago to raise his family back home. But Cookin’ is significant because it reunites Clay with David “Fathead” Newman, another Dallas tenor who has carved out an illustrious jazz and R&B career, and for introducing into the equation the trumpet of Waco prodigy Roy Hargrove. Their brass barrages on “Sister Sadie” and the testifying standard “Moanin’ ” are top rank.
Newman and Clay blow their horns on home turf on 1986’s Return to the Wide Open Spaces (Amazing), a live recording from the Caravan of Dreams that united them with New Orleans’ Ellis Marsalis and homeboy Cornell Dupree, the backbone-slipping, string-popping guitar behind the hits of Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, King Curtis, and other Atlantic label soul acts in the sixties. The group pays tribute to Buster Smith with “Buster’s Tune,” while Newman soars on flute on his own “13th Floor.” “Two Bones & A Pick,” a full-blown rave-up of T-Bone Walker, dances around the gray area dividing Texas-style jazz and rhythm and blues.
Although an alto sax player, the Texas horn with the greatest impact on the outside world is Fort Worth’s Ornette Coleman, who, as a young man, fell under the influence of Buster Smith when Coleman still blew jump and blues in the local joints. By 1954, the 24-year-old Coleman had established himself as a force on the Los Angeles jazz scene, where he hooked up with an Oklahoma cornet player named Don Cherry. Their subsequent collaborations culminated in The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic), recorded in 1959 in Los Angeles. Picking up where bebop left off, Coleman’s discordant, unpredictable phrasing presaged the experimental, avant-garde artistic style that he dubbed “harmolodic” and that eventually left even Coltrane, Monk, and Parker in the dust. While his newer material strikes many ears as indecipherable, the melody and vaguely familiar progressions on this reissue make the selections, particularly “Lonely Woman” and “Peace,” easy to digest.
Proof that Arnett Cobb had the beefiest, mellowest, and bluesiest tenor of the Texas school can be found on Live at Sandy’s (Muse), a 1978 recording on which the Houston wild man is joined by fellow home-state hornmen Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Buddy Tate. Cobb’s Show Time (Fantasy), a recording of a 1987 concert celebrating his sixty-ninth birthday, is also worth noting for its brawny, straight-in-the-pocket honks. When Cobb struts his stuff on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” he swings, gets down, and sounds sanctified all at once.
Freedom Sound (Pacific Jazz), the 1961 recording debut of a smooth little combo out of Houston’s Texas Southern University known as the Jazz Crusaders, reflects a less experimental but certainly more accessible mind-set than that of the North Texas school of jazz players. Saxophonist Wilton Felder’s tight interplay and harmonies with trombone player Wayne Henderson, wedded to the unabashedly bluesy inflections of guitarist Roy Gaines and pianist Joe Sample, was a precursor to what later became known as funk—a softer, beat-heavy approach to mainstream jazz.
Also recommended: Crossings (Gal-axy), a 1977 recording on which Red Garland, Texas’ most distinctive jazz pianist, does some of his most inspired soloing, pushed by Ron Carter’s fluid bass; and Herb Ellis’ Roll Call (Justice), a fresh nineties perspective from the dean of Texas jazz guitar.
Cosmic Cowboys and the Flying W’s
PERHAPS THE STRANGEST SYNTHESIS of them all was the brief early seventies aberration known as the Cosmic Cowboy. He was a weird breed— raised on country and western but smitten with this new-fangled hippie deal, a nowhere-but-Texas interpretation of the counterculture revolution five years after San Francisco’s Summer of Love turned to fall. When cosmic cowboydom—or progressive country, as it was also known—came into full bloom in Austin, the torchbearers were two handsome Dallas folkies in cowboy hats: Michael Murphey, whose Geronimo’s Cadillac (not available on CD) included “(I Just Wanna Be a) Cosmic Cowboy,” and Willis Alan Ramsey, who never made a follow-up to his excellent Willis Alan Ramsey (Shelter) debut. Time, though, has shunted the impact of both artists to the rear, in favor of Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band, whose ¡Viva Terlingua! (MCA) is a live-in-Luckenbach opus that produced some genuine anthems, specifically Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” (better known as the “Goin’ Home With the Armadillo” song) and Ray Wiley Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck.”
Less recognized as a progressive country landmark is Kinky Friedman’s Sold American (Vanguard), one of the era’s few remnants that still holds up. Friedman used the conventional country sound of his Texas Jewboy band as an unlikely vehicle for foisting outrage on an unsuspecting public; he skewers his own religion (“Ride ’Em Jewboy”), intolerance (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”), mass murder (“The Ballad of Charles Whitman”), and feminists (“Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed”).
The cosmic cowboy craze also embraced two native sons—Waylon Jennings, a bruising honky-tonker from Littlefield, and Willie Nelson, an accomplished songwriter from Abbott—and boosted their status from mere Nashville renegades to outlaw mega-stars. Whereas Waylon’s subsequent work was highly inconsistent, Willie used progressive country as an excuse to expand his musical horizons through a string of unconventional thematic albums. The linchpin was Red Headed Stranger (Columbia), a high-concept song cycle about an Old West cowboy, his woman, and his horse recorded in a Dallas studio with an acoustic guitar and little embellishment. Stranger defied every tenet of the prevailing Nashville philosophy and proceeded to put Willie at the top of pop album charts, an unprecedented feat for a “country” act. Willie’s considerable composing skills are accurately assessed on Willie Nelson: Nite Life, Greatest Hits & Rare Tracks, 1959—1971 (Rhino), which features “Mr. Record Man,” “Hello Walls,” and other originals made famous by other artists.
The Kids Are All Right
THE BIRTH OF ROCK AND ROLL coincided with an explosion of teenagers’ forming combos all across the state. The collision of country and western and rhythm and blues was a natural for Texas kids who absorbed both sounds via the radio and dance venues. Nowhere is this raw energy better evidenced than on Buddy Holly: From the Original Master Tapes (MCA). Created in the vacuum of West Texas, Holly leads his group through nitro-fueled rockabilly (“Rock Around With Ollie Vee” and “Rave On”), bluesy ballads (“Reminiscing,” featuring King Curtis on sax), and pure pop bordering on schmaltz (“It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”), a portent of what Holly might have sounded like had he reached middle age.
A West Texas contemporary of Holly’s, Wink’s Roy Orbison, was in on the bottom floor of the rock and roll movement by virtue of his earliest recordings at the Sun Studios in Memphis, where he ran with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. That experience paid off once Orbison developed his voice—his operatic range could stop a train or jump start a romance. Roy Orbison For the Lonely: 18 Greatest Hits (Rhino) and the more thorough four-CD set, The Legends: Roy Orbison (CBS Special Products), capture the full drama of Orbison’s impassioned singing, surrounded by bombastic production values that rivaled Phil Spector. “Crying,” “It’s Over,” and “Pretty Woman” transcend the rock idiom and survive as timeless music.
By the mid-sixties, rock and roll took on a life of its own, an entrenched paragon of youth and rebellion that even adults began to accept as mainstream. Then along came psychedelia—rock music fueled by mind-altering drugs. While this movement didn’t come into prominence until the late sixties in San Francisco, Texas’ 13th Floor Elevators laid the groundwork in 1965 on their self-titled debut for Houston’s International Artists label. Unfortunately, legal claims have stymied efforts to reissue that record, so post-Elevator recordings by vocalist Roky Erickson must suffice. Erickson’s You’re Gonna Miss Me (Restless) reprises the Elevators’ big hit of the same name with a credible live version, as well as studio renderings of the rest of Erickson’s bizarre, demon-infested repertoire, backed by a band that traded out the Elevators’ electric jug for an electric autoharp.
The British Invasion inspired an entire generation of imitators who tried to look and talk like Englishmen as well as sound like them. The first but not the only Texas group to do so successfully was the Sir Douglas Quintet, whose signature back beat on their hit “She’s About a Mover” actually borrowed more from the Tex-Mex sounds of their native San Antonio than from the Brits. The Best of Doug Sahm & The Sir Douglas Quintet 1968—1975 (Mercury) features recordings largely made during the group’s northern California exile, including their third hit “Mendocino,” T-Bone’s “Papa Ain’t Salty,” the chip-kicker hoedown “Be Real,” and “At the Crossroads,” the best song ever written about Texas from a distance.
Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills (Columbia), featuring Janis Joplin, symbolized the San Francisco sound that put the progressive in rock. The band, history has borne out, was incidental: The show was Janis, who blossomed into full flower as the quintessential blues mama on this recording. Just listen to “Ball and Chain.”
The boogie beat that Big Brother locked on to was both streamlined and stripped down by the time members of a three-piece band called ZZ Top tackled it in the early seventies. Tres Hombres (Warner Brothers), their breakthrough album, freezes them in transition from a blues-rock club band to an arena act that eventually became a parody of itself. The appeal here is regionally specific lyrics set to boogie riffs borrowed from blues legends like Slim Harpo and John Lee Hooker, ultimately yielding songs like “La Grange,” a macho saga about the notorious brothel. A more thorough assessment of ZZ Top, easily the most popular Texas band of all time, as well as one of the biggest groups in the world (if record sales and concert tickets are the barometer), can be gleaned from The ZZ Top Six Pack (Warner Bros.), consisting of the group’s classic recordings up through El Loco, which presaged its transition to MTV mainstay.
The country-fried tour de force of Texas boogie (country division) is Joe Ely’s Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (MCA), the 1981 release by the champ of the roadhouse tradition. It blends accordion, pedal steel, Hammond B-3, and electric guitar into a driven dance sound that has lost none of its excitement in the past decade, while positing beautiful wordplay like “Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night?”
The importance of blues within the realm of rock was never more obvious than on Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather (Epic), the second album by the prodigious guitarist. He was already on his way to mega-rock status, but Vaughan’s heart and fingers were still in the joints, manifested by his ominous reading of “Tin Pan Alley,” on which you can almost hear the guitar cutting flesh like a knife; a frenzied jump original, “Scuttle Buttin’”; and the only interpretation of a Jimi Hendrix song that literally twangs.
Also recommended: The Best of the Bobby Fuller Four (Rhino), which picks up where Holly left off with “I Fought the Law” (Fuller’s one big hit) and seventeen other three-chord tales of cars and girls; Pharoahization! The Best of Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs (Rhino), a slice of organ-driven party rock with wonderfully stupid lyrics, including “Wooly Bully” and “Ring Dang Doo”; Progressive Blues Experiment (One Way), the live-at-the-Vulcan-Gas-Company recording of Johnny Winter that started the white blues-rock guitar movement; the Vaughan Brothers’ Family Style (Epic), a humorous, pluralistic overview of rock, jazz, blues, and guitar sounds from the fifties through the eighties by the best modern guitar players in the state; the Butthole Surfers’ Locust Abortion (Touch and Go), a shining example of rugged individualism taken to the extreme, borrowing unequally from the 13th Floor Elevators, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Dada, and Marcel Duchamp—as irritating and as confrontational as electronically generated noise can get; and the equally disturbing We Can’t Be Stopped (Rap A Lot), from the Geto Boys, Houston’s (and Texas’) most notorious rappers.
Up From the Border
BEGINNING IN THE MID-THIRTIES, promoters and entrepreneurs recognized a sizable audience in South Texas for Spanish language music. Most of this was Mexican in origin, but as Hispanics fanned throughout the state, they soaked up the sounds of Czechs, Bohemians, Anglos, and blacks around them. Out of this mishmash came the last great American folk music, variously known as norteño, conjunto, tejano, and Tex-Mex. Tejano Roots/Raices Tejanas: The Roots of Tejano and Conjunto Music (Arhoolie) and Tejano Roots: The Women (Arhoolie) trace its development from the early accordion combos of Narcisco Martinez, Tony De La Rosa, and Conjunto Bernal to the orchestras of Beto Villa and Isidro Lopez, the birdlike trills of Lydia Mendoza, and the rock and blues incantations of a young Freddy Fender. The women’s album, with its emphasis on amazing duetists who are little known outside of South Texas, is particularly enlightening. 20 Tex–Mex Corridos Famosos (Hacienda) focuses on Tex-Mex’s true-tales tradition, with artists like Valerio Longoria, Flaco Jimenez, Texas Revolution, and Los Terribles del Norte commenting on illegal immigration, tequila, dope, all sorts of smuggling, earthquakes, and jailbreaks. The best example of how far-out the Brown Sound can get is Steve Jordan 20 Golden Hits (Hacienda), an eighties-vintage look at the Hendrix of the accordion, who manages to sneak an inordinate amount of jazz phrasing into dance hall fare.
By the seventies, tejano continued to display a duality defined by the orquesta sound of Little Joe y La Familia and the simpler, stripped-down accordion sound typified by the Jimenez family of San Antonio. Little Joe y La Familia: Live for Schlitz (Freddie), from 1979, shows why Temple’s Little Joe remains the maestro of tejano, mixing country influences into an urbane big band sound steeped in rhythm and blues with a bouncing polka beat as its underpinning.
Los Texas Tornados (Reprise) is the all-Spanish version of the debut album by the Tex-Mex supergroup that includes Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, and Flaco Jimenez, who collectively have done more to popularize the sound around the world than anyone else. The bonuses here are Fender’s rendition of Butch Hancock’s “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me” and the Meyers standout “(Hey Baby) Que Paso.” Also recommended: La Mafia’s Estas Tocando Fuego 20 (Discos Sony), the latest from the hottest of the tejano big bands; Selena y Los Dinos: 16 Super Exitos Originales (Capitol/EMI Latin), by the heiress to the Lydia Mendoza legacy; Unsung Highways (Capitol/EMI Latin), this year’s hit album by Emilio Navaira, the George Strait of tejano; and 16 Exitos Originales (Discos Gil), which includes “Juana la Cubana,” a huge international hit for Houston’s Fito Olivares. Its mesmerizing tropical beat underscores the popularity of the cumbia, not the polka, on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.
JAMES CLAY AND DAVID “fat-head” Newman’s The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces (Fantasy/OJC); The Nightcaps’ Wine, Wine, Wine (Vandan); Best of King Curtis (Atlantic, available only on Ace import); Don Walser’s Pure Texas (Bear Family import only); 13th Floor Elevators (International Artists); something by Pee Wee Crayton; Kenny and the Kasuals’ Live at the Studio Club (Mark); something by Buster Smith; a Texas rockabilly compilation including Gene Summers, Johnny Carroll, Mac Davis, Ronnie Dawson, Groovy Joe Poovey, Sid King and His Five Strings, Ray Campi, Link Davis, Rudy “Tutti” Grazell, and Alvis Wayne; a various-artists Texas garage bands compilation including the Five Americans, the Sparkles, Mouse and the Traps, the Undertakers, Countdown 5, Zachary Thaks, Roy Head, Bad Seeds, Kit and the Outlaws, the Jades, the Briks, and the Chessmen; something by Johnny Moore & the Three Blazers (with Oscar Moore); the Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s Rock-It to Stardom (Amazing); Michael Murphey’s Geronimo’s Cadillac (A&M); The Boogie Kings Live at the Bamboo Hut (Montel Michelle); Willie Nelson’s Yesterday’s Wine (RCA); Terry Allen’s Lubbock (on everything) (Special Delivery/Topic import); the Traits’ One More Time (TNT); Bubble Puppy’s Gathering of Promises (International Artists); the Moving Sidewalks’ Flash (Tantera); and Magpie Records’ piano compilations, a sixteen-volume series of American piano music, half of the volumes featuring such notable Texans as Alex Moore, Bobby Cadillac, Peck Kelly, and Mercy Dee Walton.