On Thursday morning, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (of all places) released the second single from its forthcoming Texas Wild, a compilation tribute album set to be released this fall. The song—like all of the songs on the record’s track list—is a cover of a Texas classic by a current Texas artist. In this case, Ryan Bingham (with backing from Dallas’s the Texas Gentlemen) takes on Toadies’s 1994 hit “Possum Kingdom.”
“Possum Kingdom,” of course, refers to the Dallas-based lake of the same name, and the song—a dark, moody guitar rocker that scored the band its only Top 40 hit and propelled its debut album to Platinum certification—occupies a special role in the heart of many a Texan. But does it deserve the same “Texas classic” status that the other tracks on the compilation—such as Doug Sahm’s “(Hey Baby) Que Paso,” Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” or Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name”—have clearly earned? And does Bingham do the song justice? Senior editors Emily McCullar and Dan Solomon discuss below.
Emily McCullar: I must admit, after I listened to this cover once, I was compelled to listen to the original one dozen times on repeat. That song rips so hard.
Dan Solomon: Let me start with this confession: I never liked the original “Possum Kingdom”! Maybe it’s because I hadn’t yet set foot in Texas when the song was released while I was in high school, but it was just kind of a mediocre alt-rock song with a try-hard chorus to my young ears. I was busy listening to The Crow soundtrack and trying to be goth, Emily!
It didn’t get better when I moved here years after the song’s radio life cycle elsewhere had expired, and it was somehow treated as a timeless classic by the people of the state. Like, imagine you move to Indiana and the most-played song everywhere you go is still “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran for some reason. It felt like that!
EM: This cover . . . well . . . we have to talk about the elephant in the room, which is that Ryan Bingham’s voice isn’t quite up to the task. He’s no Vaden Todd Lewis, and it’s uncomfortable to hear him strain to hit the high notes during all those key changes. That being said, I admire that he goes for it. This feels like a bunch of Texan music nerds performing a song they love as closely to the original as possible.
DS: I’m just gonna say that I actually like this cover. Maybe because I have no real attachment to the original, I just listen to this and hear an enthusiastic bro doing karaoke of his favorite nineties jam, and who among us . . . ? Just growl it out, buddy—I’m glad these boys are having fun singing the “do you wanna die” song! But that leads me to a question for you, famously a multigenerational Texan, which is: Is the “Possum Kingdom” affection a regional quirk that I can’t connect with because I got here too late? Are Toadies the Li’l Sebastian of the Lone Star State, beloved by locals but incomprehensible to outsiders? Or is the problem me, and I just need to let some love into my heart?
EM: Oh Dan, yes, there’s something wrong with you. You know very well that when Texans collectively like something it means it is objectively good. Think of this song as the H-E-B of mid-nineties alt rock! Be careful what you say!
It’s hard for me to judge the song outside of its Texanness. I was merely in elementary school when it came out, so I was aware of its ubiquitousness, but too young to be contrarian about it. In fact, I didn’t really have an opinion on the song until I was much older. My first love was a Dallas boy, and he had a lot of regional pride about Fort Worth’s Toadies. As an Austinite I felt that was so cute. We’ve got to let the North Texans have something! It wasn’t until a few years ago that I really became obsessed with the song. I put together a big playlist of Texas music, and I’d find myself losing my shit whenever what you so brilliantly refer to as “the ‘do you want to die’ song” came on.
Now, if I listen to this song once, I listen to it at least five times. It’s definitely a little bit lame, but it’s kind of like the song “You’re So Vain,” where it’s so popular you think it’s gotta be overhyped. The song’s a little bit melodramatic, which adds to the perception that it’s dumb. But then one day, you hear it anew, and you realize the song’s catchiness is actually a good thing. The melodrama is the fun part, because whispering “son of a gun” while serving face can spark a helluva lotta joy. Maybe everybody loves “Possum Kingdom” because it is silly and silly is good.
But back to the cover, which is growing on me. You can hear the joy in Bingham’s weathered voice. It does feel like a karaoke version, but the sort of performance I would stand up and scream for should I catch it at Ego’s one night. He’s backed by the Texas Gentlemen, and you can hear how much fun they’re having, too. That fiddle at the end! So angsty!
DS: Here’s a fun “Possum Kingdom” anecdote: Shortly after moving to Texas at eighteen, I wrote for a short-lived music-focused alt-weekly based in McAllen. Touring rock acts don’t come through the Valley all that often, because it’s geographically inconvenient to visit on a U.S. tour. So you might get one road show a month, maybe even less if it’s a slow stretch. The back-cover ad for the paper was usually sold to the promoter of whichever touring artist would next be performing in the area. The summer this alt-weekly was out there, Toadies were that band. The promoter was concerned, though, that advertising “Toadies” might not attract the widest possible audience, so they decided to broaden the ad, the copy from which I committed to memory and still recall these two-plus decades later. It read: “You Don’t Know the Name of the Song. You Don’t Know the Name of the Band. But When You Hear ‘Do You Wanna Die,’ You Know It’s Time to Party With Toadies!”
There’s an ignominy to that that actually does give me some affection for the song as something of a scrappy underdog, which seems more fitting than thinking of it as a classic that sits on the Mount Rushmore of Texas music. And Ryan Bingham here really seems to convey that scrappiness. Ultimately, nineties-dude alt-rock is a shouty genre; voices breaking as they reach for high notes they can’t possibly hit is one of the defining features. These fellas gotta sing! It’s in their hearts, even if their voices can’t reach it. I think maybe that’s what I really like about this cover—it recontextualizes “Possum Kingdom” for me as an old gem that is a million miles away from anything that would be a radio hit in 2023, but one that’s catchy and fun to sing-scream along to with your buddies. Flawed, imperfect, but passionate and self-consciously intense. You’re right, it is definitely silly, but the more straight-faced you are when you sing it, the more that silliness becomes transcendent. As a karaoke aficionado, I think the best performances are the ones where someone fully commits to a song that’s a little silly, and sings it with their whole heart. When you hear a song in that context, even one you don’t like can take on new meaning for you. I think that might be what’s happening for me with “Possum Kingdom” here, because I have listened to it eight times this morning.
EM: I am so happy for you, Dan, that you’ve found a new song you want to listen to multiple times. Anything that can bring the joy of a karaoke bar into a Monday–Friday workday is a hit song as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think this cover will come close to surpassing what I feel for the original, but I am so happy it exists. I am one of those Texans who is constantly worrying about the way this state is changing (tell me you live in Austin without telling me you live in Austin), but this is the sort of project that makes me feel like Texas—the best state in the Union; nay, the world!—is still itself, just updated. Here we have some Texans being passionate about something Texan that we love because it’s good but also because it’s Texan.
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