On a fall evening in Brady, a town with about 5,300 people tucked in the Texas Hill Country, Tracy Pitcox helms the control board at the local station KNEL-FM 95.3, airing his Hillbilly Hits radio program. Barely an hour into the four-hour show—which reaches five Central Texas counties on its FM frequency and is livestreamed on the internet on Thursdays beginning at 6 p.m.—Pitcox has already fielded requests for twenty songs. Some arrive by phone, others by web; they come from down the street and as far away as Australia.
Calling from Birmingham, Alabama, one couple asks Pitcox to play something by the late Grand Ole Opry stalwart Jack Greene. “I booked him quite a bit down here in Texas,” the deejay tells me, as he cues up a little-known single that Greene released in 1970, “The Whole World Comes to Me.” A little later, another listener (this one from Brady) requests a Buck Owens tune, and Pitcox plucks out the musician’s 1969 hit “Big in Vegas”—a simple, plaintive song about a long-struggling singer who’s still yearning to see his name in lights in Las Vegas, even though, he admits, “I guess I don’t have what it takes.” After punching up a promotional spot for Hillbilly Hits featuring the vocalist Wanda Jackson, the deejay conducts a live phone interview with Jody Miller, who had a successful career as a country-pop singer in the sixties and seventies, and landed a hit with “Queen of the House.” Pitcox asks the 78-year-old Miller, calling in from her hometown of Blanchard, Oklahoma, about the date she’ll soon be performing at a ranch in Llano County. “I hope no coyotes get me,” she cracks. A little later, after spinning Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn’s 1967 duet “Sweet Thang,” Pitcox takes a call on his cellphone from Johnny Bush, the Texas music legend who wrote Willie Nelson’s iconic “Whiskey River,” to ask about the availability of a bass player Pitcox knows.
Sturdy and youthful-looking, clad in shorts and a T-shirt, the 49-year-old deejay has overseen the program every week since 1989. The show he started as a teenager more than thirty years ago continues to be a world away from the sounds whirring on contemporary country radio: it focuses exclusively on playing listener requests for traditional country songs by the likes of George Jones, Patsy Cline, and Bob Wills. For the show, Pitcox frequently digs into his massive catalog of 3,000 CDs, several thousand 45 rpm records and MP3s, and more than 10,000 vinyl records to “find more obscure stuff,” he says. “Maybe something they’ve never heard before.”
KNEL, which also has an AM frequency that frequently plays pop and rock oldies, is located on South Blackburn Street about a block from Brady’s tidy town square. Anchored by the sandstone McCulloch County Courthouse built at the turn of the twentieth century, the square is flanked by restaurants, antiques and furniture stores, and the refurbished Palace Theater. The radio station’s front door typically remains unlocked while Pitcox is on air, in case visitors want to swing by—though no one’s been dropping in lately because of social distancing measures. On the fall evening of my visit, someone bursts through KNEL’s front door, bearing a big Ziploc bag full of homemade Almond Roca-like candy. It’s Connie Edmiston, 65, a Brady local who often volunteers for Pitcox’s accompanying country music events by hawking merchandise, plus overseeing concession and silent auction sales. Today, she’s made sweets for Tony Booth, a country singer from Houston who loves the stuff, and who will be performing in San Angelo the following day. “It’s for you guys, too,” she says of the hard toffee, then leaves the studio.
Since Pitcox started the radio show in the late eighties, a handful of enterprises in Brady—a place that calls itself the “Heart of Texas,” because it’s the closest incorporated town to the state’s geographic center—have sprouted from the deejay’s passion for traditional country music. The little town boasts the Heart of Texas Country Music Association, an organization that now has more than one thousand members; the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum, established in 2000, that townspeople helped both crowdfund and build; the Heart of Texas Records label, founded in 1998 to release country music; Heart of Texas Talent, a booking agency that started in 1991; and the 31-year-old Heart of Texas Country Music Festival, a nine-day annual gathering that’s usually held in March. Locals such as Edmiston—many of them retirees with extra time on their hands—volunteer year-round to staff the museum, help out at the shows Pitcox promotes, and send out the association’s monthly newsletter, which includes features about Heart of Texas recording artists and listings for upcoming performances.
If this small-town hospitality—and Pitcox’s enthusiasm for retro country and its old guard—makes Brady seem like a throwback town that time forgot, in some ways it is. Over the past three decades, Pitcox has helped transform the McCulloch County seat into a down-home Valhalla for the country sounds he loves: specifically, the honky-tonk, shuffle-beat grooves that prevailed on country airwaves from the forties through the seventies. That means loud, twangy, stripped-down instrumentation marked by prominent fiddles and steel guitars, along with emotional, straightforward lyrics about drinkin’, cheatin’, hard work, tough times, hope, and heartache. Many Texan artists are mainstays of this genre, including Willie Nelson, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Hank Thompson, and Floyd Tillman.
This strain of country music is important, its champions say, not only because it’s part of the nation’s heritage, but also because it can be likened to the “roots” of the genre’s ever-sprouting tree. “Once those roots are gone,” Pitcox says, “the tree dies.”
Over the years, Pitcox has even persuaded country music entertainers to move to Brady, including Darrell McCall, Justin Trevino, and “Pretty Miss” Norma Jean, who preceded Dolly Parton as the resident singer on The Porter Wagoner Show, a nationally syndicated country-music program that aired from 1960 to 1981. Heather Myles, a California-born honky-tonk singer-songwriter who has collaborated with the likes of Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam, moved to Brady shortly after attending the town’s country music festival in 2007. “I went, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is like a time warp. I feel like I’m back in the sixties,’ ” Myles recalls. “All the people were dancing to traditional country music, two-step … And everybody’s, ‘Thank you.’ ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘No ma’am.’ Very courteous. And I thought, ‘This is cool. This is really a refreshing step back in time.’ And the music was fantastic.”
Named for Peter R. Brady, who helped survey the area in 1847, the town of Brady was incorporated in 1906. Situated on the Edwards Plateau on the western edge of the Hill Country, Brady has long been known as a farming and ranching community that raises cattle, hogs, poultry, sheep, and goats. Its World Championship BBQ Goat Cook-Off, held every Labor Day, is said to be the biggest in the state. Pitcox, who was born and raised in Brady, describes his hometown as “a very conservative” place filled with “hard-working people.” (According to the Texas Secretary of State, more than 82 percent of McCulloch County residents voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and nearly 83 percent of residents are white.)
As with many small Texas towns, Brady’s population has declined over the decades—it had nearly six thousand residents in 1990—and its median household income of about $43,000 lags behind the statewide median of more than $59,000. The closing of several sand plants in the area recently hasn’t helped. For decades, the local sand—a coarse strain known as Brady Brown—has been mined and hauled by truck to oil-and-gas operations in the Permian Basin and elsewhere, where it was often used in the hydraulic fracking process. Squeezed by costs after oil prices crashed in 2014, energy companies decided to get their sand instead from West Texas mines closer to their operations. “That took 20 percent of the jobs in the county,” says Tony Groves, Brady’s mayor. “And 60 to 65 percent of McCulloch County lives in the city limits of Brady.”
Groves hopes that something like, say, a new Buc-ee’s or a Love’s Travel Stop will help pick up the slack eventually. He’s also quick to applaud Pitcox for his country music entrepreneurship. “It’s kind of an anchor point, in the fact that it’s been here for a long time,” Groves says of the museum and the annual festival. “I think the draw that [Pitcox gets has] a very significant impact.”
Pitcox’s family has been in Brady for generations. He believes his great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Horace Franklin Sheppard, was born in Williamson County and moved to the area in the 1890s. The vast majority of his relatives, including dozens of cousins and uncles and aunts, have lived there ever since. His grandfather, who co-owned a taxi business in town with his wife, had an outsize influence on young Tracy’s musical tastes. “As a kid in rural Texas, one thing you do is ride around on dirt roads and listen to music,” Pitcox says one morning over eggs, bacon, and sausage. “Granddad would listen to Stonewall Jackson and Mel Tillis and Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb and people like that, so I had a great love and appreciation for that kind of music.” His parents were big on George Jones, too: Pitcox specifically recalls hearing Jones’s 1959 hit “White Lightning” playing in his house growing up, partly because he ran around trying to imitate the sputtering “fshhhh!” sound that Jones makes several times in the song after downing a slug of corn liquor.
As a young man growing up in the seventies and eighties, Pitcox was the vice president of the Texas Future Farmers of America (FFA) Association, and raised and showed hogs. In high school he was transfixed by all-night country-music deejays, like Bill Mack of WBAP-AM in Fort Worth, and began working as a part-time announcer at KNEL when he was just fifteen. A fortuitous trip he took in February 1989 to Fort Worth, for a livestock show with the FFA, ended up setting him on his career path.
Late one night during his stay in Cowtown, he phoned Mack, then on air at WBAP. Mack invited him to come hang out with him during his program. Pitcox excitedly accepted, then took a cab from his hotel to the station, where he spent several hours watching Mack work. When it was time to leave, though, none of the cab companies he phoned would agree to pick him up, because a bad ice storm had suddenly hit the city. Mack put out a plea for help for his young friend over the air, and several local cab drivers called in and offered to give Pitcox a ride. The one who eventually did refused to take Pitcox’s money for the fare, and said he was doing it for his friend Bill Mack. “It impressed me so much,” Pitcox says. “How powerful that was, that you could actually have friends over the radio. I knew that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
Pitcox started Hillbilly Hits that same year with Brady resident Darrell Cowen, a retired truck driver and rodeo cowboy. Cowen, now 65, recalls working a second job as a janitor at KNEL when its new program director said, “I’m going to make some changes. What would you like to see?” “I said, ‘I’d love to see an old traditional country music show,’” Cowen remembers. “Just give the show to Tracy, and I’ll help him.’”
The request program took off, and the station formed the Hillbilly Hits Fan Club to promote it. Over time, the fan club, which started out selling tickets to events, ballooned into a full-blown country music association. The annual birthday party for Hillbilly Hits eventually gave rise to the March music festival, which financially supports the museum. (Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s festival was rescheduled for August 2020.) The festival celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last year, selling nearly four thousand tickets to shows and dances featuring performances by the likes of Johnny Rodriguez. The traditional country music scene in Brady skews older and white—a reflection of both an aging fan base and the town’s demographics—though younger people have attended Heart of Texas events, too.
The association spawned Pitcox’s “fan tours,” in which he takes busloads of KNEL listeners to shows in Branson, Missouri, and Nashville, often stopping along the way at sites important to Texas country music history—the gravesite of Jim Reeves just outside Carthage, for example, and the statue of Lefty Frizzell in Corsicana, where the late musician was born. Pitcox also became a talent agent through the country music association, and he started booking dates for classic country artists. He first booked shows for Johnnie Wright and his wife Kitty Wells, who had a hit in 1952 with her song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Pitcox had met the couple on a trip to Branson, and arranged for them in the early nineties to perform at the high school auditorium in Brady. But, because “I didn’t know anything about promoting,” he says, only about three hundred people showed up for the show. That generated receipts of $2,500—or $500 less than the fee they’d agreed on.
Although his father wrote a check to cover the difference, Pitcox says, Wright and Wells refused to accept it. At breakfast the morning after the concert, he recalls, “Johnnie said, ‘This is the first time you’ve promoted a show, isn’t it? … Kitty and I were talking, and we want you to have [the check] back. … We just ask you to do one thing.’” “What’s that?” Pitcox asked. “Just book us again sometime,” Wright said. Pitcox has since gone on to book performances for artists including Oklahoma honky-tonker Jean Shepard, a longtime member of the Grand Ole Opry, Dion Pride—the son of Dallas’s Charley Pride, country music’s biggest African American star—and younger artists with a retro bent, like Amber Digby, Myra Rolen, and Jack Phillips, a fourteen-year-old fiddler and steel guitarist from the Sulphur Springs area.
The Heart of Texas Country Music Museum, which Pitcox helped found, both celebrates the genre’s entertainers and immortalizes its history. Erecting the museum, a 1,200 square foot space on Brady’s main drag, was a nearly two-year-long effort that relied on the community’s time and resources. First, Brady real estate investor Billy Jackson donated a vacant lot for the museum in memory of Peggy, his late wife. A local builder, Harry Mitchell, then volunteered to put up the facility for free, under certain conditions. “I told Tracy, ‘If we can raise $20,000 for the materials, I’ll build the building,’” says Mitchell, now 75. Around town, people held bake sales and yard sales and sold T-shirts to make up the difference. “You can’t imagine how they’d raise money, but they did,” Mitchell says. Why did the community respond so enthusiastically? “Tracy has such a passion—and you just feed off of that,” says Sue Mitchell, Harry’s wife. After fund-raising for a year and a half, the townspeople raised $50,000 to bring the museum to life.
The museum typically attracts about 2,500 visitors a year. (After being closed for several weeks following shelter-in-place orders, it reopened on May 1 at 50 percent capacity.) Some people discover the museum by happenstance—often after spotting “Big Blue,” a refurbished tour bus once owned by Jim Reeves that’s parked out front. Since many people have been quarantining at home following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Pitcox has been hosting a one-hour Facebook Live show with Justin Trevino every Saturday at 4 p.m. at the museum. There they chat about traditional country music and discuss exhibits from the museum, and Trevino often performs songs.
Free for visitors, the museum houses instruments, show costumes, posters, and other ephemera—donated by the artists themselves or their families—from more than 125 classic country stars. A gold rhinestone-encrusted dress worn by Rose Maddox and suits made for Ray Price by Nudie Cohn (the famed Hollywood tailor) stand in the permanent collection. Another exhibit holds Floyd Tillman’s guitar, Johnny Horton’s fishing hat, and a five-foot-tall, guitar-shaped mailbox from Webb Pierce’s “Wandering Acres” home in Nashville. There’s also a rare vinyl recording of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Cowhand’s Last Ride,” as well as a five-foot-long metal piece from the Piper Comanche airplane that took the lives of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins in the 1963 plane crash outside of Camden, Tennessee.
After its opening twenty years ago, the museum has been expanded twice. In March of 2019, the widow of country star Hank Thompson, Ann Thompson Womack, donated $55,000 (with her now-husband, Ray Womack) to buy an empty lot next door to the facility so it can be expanded for a third time if necessary. Chances are, it will be.
Over three decades, Pitcox has also sold dozens of entertainers and fans on the merits of living in Brady. He first convinced Darrell McCall and his wife, Mona, a country artist in her own right, to relocate to the small town from the Nashville area in 2005. An Ohio native and longtime pal of musician Johnny Paycheck, McCall, now eighty, played bass and sang harmony for Ray Price and Faron Young, among others, and cowrote “Eleven Roses,” a song for Hank Williams Jr.
The McCalls first met Pitcox when he was just sixteen or seventeen. They say he showed up with a “little tape recorder” and asked for an interview with Darrell during a show at the London Dance Hall, in Kimble County. The couple wound up moving to Brady because, Darrell says, that’s “where more of our music” was. Pitcox had been recording albums and booking shows for the couple, and they were tired of having to drive so frequently between Texas and Tennessee. In addition, says Mona, “Tracy had been ‘pulling.’ He was saying, ‘You need to come to Brady, Texas.’ … He’s just an encourager.” The McCalls still book their show dates through Pitcox’s Heart of Texas Talent agency and record albums for his Heart of Texas Records label.
Justin Trevino, the label’s producer, is a well-known musician around town, too. The Brownsville-born singer-songwriter, who’s played bass for McCall and sung harmony in Johnny Bush’s band, has also recorded solo albums—his signature song is 1998’s “Texas Honkytonk”—and produced more than fifty albums for Pitcox’s record label. He and Sissy, his wife, had been living near San Marcos in an aging mobile home with a recording studio in it when the KNEL deejay began trying to lure them to McCulloch County.
Trevino, who’d been producing records for Pitcox for ten years, hesitated at first. “I wasn’t too eager to do it, because I really liked the locale of San Marcos,” he recalls. “We could be in Austin or San Antonio, either one, in thirty minutes. On the other hand, we lived in a mobile home … and those days in Brady, you could buy a house for about half of what that same house would cost you anywhere else in the state of Texas.” When Pitcox showed Trevino an old stone house behind the country music museum that he wanted to convert into a recording studio for him, Justin and Sissy decided to make the move. The couple bought a home in Brady in 2008, and the Heart of Texas Records studio opened the following year, with Trevino as producer and engineer. Trevino says that the Brady community embraced him “with open arms.”
Blind since birth, Trevino says he makes records at the studio with “an analog console and a dedicated digital recorder that records on a computer hard drive, but it operates like a tape machine. So you’ve got a rewind and a fast-forward and play, record, stop, pause—all the same controls you’d have on a tape machine. That allows me to use it without being able to see it.”
California honky-tonker Heather Myles, 57, moved to Brady in 2009, after meeting Pitcox and other townspeople. Besides being a respected singer-songwriter, Myles had some experience doing real estate renovations, and she converted the recording studio. When she first saw the stone house, she says, she envisioned “something you’d see on Sixteenth [Avenue] in Nashville.” She plunged into the reconstruction with Trevino’s help, punching holes into a cardboard blueprint so he could feel and advise her on how the studio should be laid out.
Myles convinced RFD-TV—a pay-television channel focusing on rural interests—to let her produce a program on the channel that would feature performances by artists like Trevino and the McCalls. Today, Myles says the TruCountry show, which splits its filming schedule between Brady and Hamilton, is in its tenth season and ranks among RFD’s top ten country-music programs. In 2014, Myles also ponied up $50,000 to buy a dilapidated old Brady hotel where lore holds that Bonnie and Clyde once stayed. The three-story Hotel Brady, which opened on the town square in 1923, was about to be razed when the entertainer came along with a plan to restore it. She says she was encouraged by her friend Willie Nelson, who “kind of gave me a pat on the shoulder and said, ‘Go for it, kid.’” Since then, she’s pumped half a million dollars more into revamping the red-brick building, which she renamed the Trucountry Inn and opened to the public in 2017. She’s renovated twelve rooms so far, and once it’s completed she hopes the hotel’s event space will become another filming location for the RFD-TV show.
In addition to Trevino and the McCalls, another Brady resident who’s appeared on Myles’s TruCountry program is Norma Jean—or “Pretty Miss,” as she’s sometimes called around town. Norma Jean, 82, had more than a dozen Top 40 country singles in the sixties, including hits like “Let’s Go All the Way” and “Heaven Help the Working Girl.” Living in a large house in Branson decades after Wagoner’s program ended, Norma Jean began working with Heart of Texas Records and Pitcox’s talent agency and, with his encouragement, decided to move to Brady in 2013. She bought a home near the town’s water tower, and Pitcox and three friends drove to Branson to help her make the move with a couple of U-Haul trucks. “It’s a little house, my favorite place I’ve ever lived,” she says. “It’s so easy bein’ here for me. When you get this age and you live alone and had four husbands but they’re all dead …” she adds, chuckling softly.
“At first I was a fan of the music,” Pitcox says. “Then I became a bigger fan of the people who created the music.”