CDs our reviewers can’t live without.
Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, Waltz Across Texas (Bear Family)
At the start of the sixties Ernest Tubb’s grip on the country Top Ten was slipping. To compensate, he put together a “hot” band that allowed him to play clubs and dance halls as well as concerts; that’s the group documented in this 1999 six-CD box set that covers the years 1961 to 1966. Tubb’s trademark vocal style, starting songs a quarter-tone flat and then going flatter—that could be your neighbor up there singing—had deepened and grown warmer and more magnanimous. Those folksy, almost conversational, vocals were dramatized by pickers who jazzed up the original Tubb sound without altering its core. Leon Rhodes’s boppish guitar solos seem to float as steel player Buddy Charleton swung; the interplay between them was as simple and as powerful as a glass of cold water in the desert. Drummer Jack Greene and rhythm guitarist Cal Smith both sang well enough to become stars themselves. The music crackled and soared; there were no backup chorus singers or string sections mucking up the sound, and out front, Ernest Tubb sang stripped down country poems like “Thanks / Thanks a lot / I got a broken heart / That’s all I got.” The sound sliced through the era like a hot knife through butter. by John Morthland
Blind Willie Johnson, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (Columbia/Legacy)
Thirty recordings and one photograph are all that is left of Blind Willie Johnson, the itinerant musician who hailed from the same expanse of East Texas farmland as blues giants Lightnin’ Hopkins and Blind Lemon Jefferson. But Johnson was no bluesman. He sang not of his destitute life—which he surely had—but of his devout faith in God. No other gospel singer has approached Johnson’s raw intensity; his fierce growl and feather-touch precision on the slide guitar were a formidable combination. Johnson’s exact birthplace and date are uncertain, but he grew up in Marlin, where tragedy struck his short life early. Blinded at age seven by a vengeful stepmother, he learned his musical craft on street corners. Columbia’s “race record” division did a fine job of periodically recording—though apparently not that good a job of compensating—Johnson between 1927 and 1930, and his 78’s sold well until the Depression. With no chronicle of his developmental years, Johnson’s full-blown assurance on these spare efforts makes his talent seem monumental. His voice alternates between an even tone and a savage croak, his expressive guitar lines often complete his sentences. Among the many marvels, the initial session (the first six songs) has been much revered and imitated. Johnson’s wordless treatment of the crucifixion hymn “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” may be the most chilling piece of music ever recorded. by Jeff McCord
Doug Sahm, San Antonio Rock: The Harlem Recordings, 1957–1961 (Norton)
Way back before Doug Sahm became Sir Douglas in the sixties, he was a teen sensation in San Antonio, fronting bands like the Dell Kings, the Mar-Kays, and the Pharaohs and honing his rhythm and blues and rock and roll chops for a string of local labels like Harlem, Satin, Cobra, and Warrior. The musician and the period get their well-deserved props with the recently released San Antonio Rock: The Harlem Recordings, 1957-1961, eighteen smoking tracks culled from old singles including local hits like the frenetic “Crazy Daisy,” a pleadingly sincere “Why Why Why,” and the made-for-belly-rubbing crooner “Just a Moment”—each song filthy with distorted guitars, fat horn charts, and wailing vocals. But just as much insight can be gleaned from the tracks in which Sahm plays a support role, most notably the blazing “Rock-Tick-Tock,” by the unsung rockabilly Jimmy Dee, and “Sweet Meats,” in which Sahm backs up his blues mentor, Spot Barnett. It may be a coming-of-age snapshot of a person and a place that will never pass this way again, but it sure sounds fresh to me. by Joe Nick Patoski
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Guy Clark’s first—and best—album, Old No. 1. Clark was 34 when it came out, and by then he’d left Texas, eventually settling in Nashville, where it was recorded. Old No. 1 has aged well, more so than most of the outlaw country records of that era, partly because of the cast of musicians (Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Gimble) but mostly because of the songwriting. Despite its dated production, it’s a classic, held together by a cycle of songs chronicling the arc of Clark’s life and the characters that inhabited it, and the tracks were so rich that others fashioned them into their own: Jerry Jeff Walker with “LA Freeway,” Vince Gill with “Rita Ballou,” Johnny Cash with “Texas, 1947.” Texas Cookin’, his second album, boasts as its title song Clark’s second most famous food song after “Home Grown Tomatoes.” The rest of the album fades in the shadow of Old No. 1, save for the fiddle-driven hoedown “Virginia’s Real” and the brilliant sing-speak narrative of “The Last Gunfighter Ballad.” Both of Clark’s albums were re-released on this single CD in 1998; it’s a must-have for any Texas music library. by Luann Williams
Jon Dee Graham, Escape From Monster Island (Freedom Records)
Jon Dee Graham may not be a household name or even pack ‘em in at his weekly gig at the Continental Club in Austin, but his 1997 release, Escape From Monster Island, has clearly made him one of the state’s singer-songwriters that other singer-songwriters envy the most. Originally, his peers appreciated his selfless, low-key charm: With the Skunks in the seventies and the True Believers in the eighties (and later working with John Doe and Kelly Willis), Graham dutifully played the role of the quiet sideman. All told, it took him nearly twenty years to step out of the shadows with this collection of dark but deceptively hopeful narratives sung through a smoker’s cough and dedicated to the distance between him and his five-year-old son in California. Graham’s conviction and rugged eloquence shine: “Soonday” pleads “Don’t grow up so goddamn fast / wait a little while till I get home”; “Wave Goodbye” asserts “We thought you were so strong / but I think now we thought wrong.” Bummed out? Don’t be. Songs this universal wind up being nothing short of infectious, and the belated arrival of an artist this honest is worth celebrating then, now, and for years to come. by Andy Langer
My musical canon.
by Mike Shea
How big is Texas’ contribution to the world of music? Big enough to overwhelm Dallasite Rick Koster’s attempt to contain the sprawl between two covers; his Texas Music (St. Martin’s, 1998) falls short of its ambition. Which raises the question: Can any one book possibly hope to encompass Lefty Frizzell, the Butthole Surfers, and Van Cliburn? Perhaps not, but the following is a roundup of books that any music maven should own.
The Life and Legend of Leadbelly (Harper Collins, 1992). Folk-song collector John A. Lomax discovered Leadbelly in Louisiana’s Angola prison and masterminded the singer-guitarist’s 1935 introduction to the world (via New York), and their names have been linked ever since. This biographical tour de force by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell pulsates with the confident energy that characterized the singer’s performances as the writers trace the volatile folk artist from his East Texas upbringing to his 1949 death in New York’s Bellevue Hospital. They take no shortcuts when presenting the complex life of the man who not only composed “Goodnight, Irene” but also committed murder.
Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John A. Lomax (University of Illinois Press, 1996). Lomax receives reverential, if bloodless, treatment in Nolan Porterfield’s bio. It is a thorough—though at times stodgy—examination of the avowed Texian’s lifelong devotion to unearthing and preserving the people’s music.
Rave On: The Biography of Buddy Holly (Simon and Schuster, 1996). The world cried out, “Who capped Holly’s teeth?” and noted biographer Philip Norman came to the rescue with this painstakingly researched book that glows with the warmth of a fan’s enthusiasm but betrays a singular intelligence.
Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin (Metropolitan Books, 1999). A mere eleven years after Holly’s fatal plane crash, another Texas rock icon went to the great beyond—but the cultural landscape had changed beyond recognition as evidenced by Alice Echols’ revisionist bio. Echols peels away Joplin’s tough-mama caricature to reveal a desperate brilliance. The posthumous psychoanalysis is buttressed by fresh interviews that show Janis’ intelligence and talent were exceeded only by her insecurity.
Texan Jazz (University of Texas Press, 1996). Dave Oliphant claims the definitive (well, the only) treatise on the pervasive influence of Texas’ sons and daughters on the jazz world. His crisp, near-scholarly style wisely avoids simple-headed romanticism of his subject. And the interchange of jazz players from project to project seems downright . . . promiscuous.