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John Spong writes primarily about popular culture. John was nominated for a National Magazine Award for his December 2009 story celebrating Texas dance halls, “Step Right Up,” and twice won the Texas Institute of Letters’ O. Henry Award for Magazine Journalism—for “Holding Garmsir” (January 2009), about a month he spent with a U.S. Marine platoon fighting in Afghanistan, and for “The Good Book and the Bad Book” (September 2006), about a censorship battle at an elite private school in Austin. He is the author of A Book on the Making of Lonesome Dove, and his stories have been collected in Best Food Writing 2012 and The Best American Sports Writing 2009, among others. He lives in Austin with his wife, Julie Blakeslee, and their two boys, Willie Mo and Leon.

Articles by John Spong

willie nelson landlord
Willie Nelson, Landlord

Oct 8, 2020 By John Spong

Most Willie Nelson fans know at least a little about his idyllic Hill Country world headquarters, home to his ranch, his golf course, his recording studio, and his Old West movie set, Luck, Texas. But lesser known in the lore is Willie World’s gritty urban prototype, a sprawling…

The Shot Not Heard Round the World

Jun 9, 2016 By John Spong

Elmo Henderson’s entire life story can be summed up in a single moment: when he stepped into the ring in San Antonio one night in 1972 and knocked out Muhammad Ali. At least that’s the way he tells it. And tells it.

Bloom of the Century

Feb 24, 2016 By John Spong

Big Bend roared back to life last year after spring rains unleashed a bounty of ocotillos, bluebonnets, and yuccas. Thankfully, photographer James H. Evans was there to capture it in living color.

The Will of God

Nov 18, 2015 By John Spong

I always knew that the work my dad did as an Episcopal priest and grief counselor was important. But I didn’t understand how important until the birth of my son.

Urban Cowboy Turns 35

May 14, 2015 By John Spong

It was part musical, part dance movie, and part love story, and in June 1980 it unleashed an unprecedented fervor for country music, Western wear, and, yes, mechanical bulls. More than three decades later, the film’s stars (including John Travolta, Debra Winger, Mickey Gilley, and Johnny Lee) and many Gilley’s regulars recall the movie that made America fall in love with Texas.

The Media Guide

Mar 23, 2015 By Texas Monthly and John Spong

To gain pop culture literacy, you could spend a long weekend taking in works produced for the big screen (Giant, Dazed and Confused) and the small box (Lonesome Dove, Friday Night Lights). But the quicker route would be an afternoon surfing YouTube. Search for the terms below, but don’t blame us if you end up falling down a Van Cliburn rabbit hole.

Retzloff, photographed at the Wittliff Collections, in San Marcos, on September 17, 2014.
Bottle Rocket

Oct 21, 2014 By John Spong

Lone Star was just a brew for dads and cowboys, until Jerry Retzloff helped turn it into the coolest beer in the country.

The Last Ride of King George

May 16, 2014 By John Spong

After a career that’s spanned more than thirty years, George Strait is wrapping up his 48-stop farewell tour this month. For those of us whose lives he has captured so inimitably in song, country music will never be the same.

On Tour With the Sex Pistols

Jan 29, 2014 By John Spong

In 1978 Punk magazine sent photographer Roberta Bayley to Texas to chronicle the band’s tour through the South. Her photos of the two Texas shows capture the surreal collision of two radically different cultures.

A Homecoming at Fort Bliss

Jun 19, 2013 By John Spong

Soldiers and their families wait desperately—and courageously—for the moment when they will be reunited. And when, for the lucky ones, it finally comes, it does not disappoint.

The Long Return

Jun 10, 2013 By John Spong

After more than a decade of combat, Texas soldiers are finally coming back for good. But the real journey home still lies ahead.

All Grown Up

Jan 23, 2013 By John Spong

Austin is booming with jobs, condos, festivals, traffic, hipsters, joggers, and high-concept dive bars (anyone for Lone Star and seared foie gras?). Does that mean it’s no longer Austin?

Ted or Alive

Jan 21, 2013 By John Spong

In the late seventies, Ted Nugent (a.k.a. “the Nuge” or “Uncle Ted”) had the country’s biggest hard-rock touring act—a wild-ass blend of in-your-face energy, obscene language, and a well-placed loincloth. Now he’s the country’s biggest gun rights advocate—and all that’s changed is the loincloth.

That ’70s Show

Jan 21, 2013 By John Spong

Forty years ago, Willie, Waylon, Jerry Jeff, and a whole host of Texas misfits grew their hair long, snubbed Nashville, and brought the hippies and rednecks together. The birth of outlaw country changed country music forever.

Sketchy Characters

Jan 21, 2013 By John Spong

Before cameras were allowed in courtrooms, artist Gary Myrick and his assortment of colored pencils provided Texas television audiences with a vivid look at the state’s high-profile legal proceedings against figures like T. Cullen Davis, Henry Lee Lucas, and Charles Harrelson.