This, of course, did not stop the relentless churn of world—and Texas—politics. At Texas Monthly, we covered a good deal of the year’s biggest happenings and people—from the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton and a fascinating no-longer-cold case to the comeback of Tanya Tucker—but there was plenty left for other outlets. For those who might have looked away at first, we selected essential pieces of writing that other publications produced about our state this year. These articles inspired our awe, and then left us wishing we had been the ones to publish them.
Remember when state and national media turned out an endless number of stories about Donald Trump’s border wall? Something as ambitious as the former president’s pet project is underway in Texas and you and I are paying for it. Yet we hear little about the state’s border barriers from the media, or even their critics, in Texas.
The buoys and razor wire periodically get deserved attention, but it’s Greg Abbott’s wall that will have the most long-lasting effect on the Texas-Mexico border. As Justin Miller shows in this meticulous piece of reporting, the full scale of the centerpiece of the governor’s Operation Lone Star is just coming into view. Despite an inexplicable degree of secrecy from officials, Miller is able to nail down key facts: at the current rate, the eight-hundred-mile (!) Abbott wall could cost Texas taxpayers $20 billion over thirty years, making it one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in Texas history. Miller documents waste, inefficiency, cronyism, and mounting costs while highlighting the resentment brewing among landowners caught in the wall’s path. Whatever your views on border security, taxpayers of all political persuasions should be alarmed.
It’s heartening to see that the muckraking Texas Observer, which was on the verge of shuttering earlier this year, is sticking to its tradition of zigging while everyone else is zagging. – Forrest Wilder
“The Dungeons & Dragons Players of Death Row,” Keri Blakinger, New York Times Magazine and the Marshall Project & “The 5-Year Rehearsal: How Shakespeare Came to Marfa,” Allegra Hobbs, Big Bend Sentinel
Dungeons & Dragons aficionados craft vivid worlds and characters as they play their game. So, too, does reporter Keri Blakinger in her portrait of the men on death row at Allan B. Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, and their D&D exploits. Blakinger interweaves explanations of the role-playing game and the lengths the men had to go to in order to play—relying “on a variety of clandestine communications, including written messages called kites, passed from cell to cell,” she writes—with reporting on the restrictions of Texas’s death row and the stories of two players in particular, Tony Ford and Billy Wardlow. Her deft combination of their play with Wardlow’s fate as he attempts to appeal his sentence is captivating and, ultimately, devastating: “As the weeks crept along and the execution date remained firm,” Blakinger writes, “Wardlow and Ford realized they were trapped in a story line they were powerless to imagine their way out of.”
Even after five years of weekly rehearsals, the actors of a community performance in Marfa of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure still occasionally had to request lines in their one and only “final rehearsal.” This was not a performance, as Allegra Hobbs writes of the happening: “A performance would signal a kind of studied cleanness that is not the point of these gatherings.” For her Big Bend Sentinel feature on the play, Hobbs spoke with the cast members, including poet Eileen Myles, and the play’s director (who was somewhat reluctant to chat), to ascertain what the point of the gathering was. The result is a lovely portrait of art creating community. As Hobbs observes, “The act of doing, alone or observed, is already worthwhile in itself; it is an argument for art for art’s sake.” (And while Texas Monthly might not have gotten this story, we were lucky enough to instead get the writer.) – Anna Walsh
The Southern Baptist Church and other major evangelical denominations have historically valued the concept of separation of church and state; it’s regarded as a means to ensure personal freedom and allow for the exercise of religious beliefs in public. But with the rise of Christian nationalism across the country, the flip side of that freedom—that the state is prevented from establishing a preferred religion through promotion in government or schools—seems to be losing esteem, particularly in the Texas Legislature. As Texas Tribune’s Robert Downen reported this year, many state legislators are taking note from the likes of evangelical author and WallBuilders founder David Barton to bring religion—well, Christianity—into public schools. Downen’s comprehensive reporting offers a full accounting of how we got here, who’s behind the push, and where this trend could ultimately take the state. – Sandi Villarreal
History has a way of repeating itself. It should be no surprise, then, that even during the 2024 presidential contest, when no notable Texans were in the race, there would be some parallels with past cycles for Texans to sink their teeth into. This summer, when it became clear that Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s bid for the Republican nomination was crashing and burning, Philip Elliott was reminded of the demise of another past presidential hopeful: former Texas governor Rick Perry. Elliott wrote a story comparing the rise and fall of DeSantis and Perry, noting how they both became darlings of national Republican elites and received gobs of money and support from those focused on electability . . . only to crash and burn! (DeSantis hasn’t dropped out of the race yet, but recent polls show him running well behind former president Donald Trump and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley.)
With no serious Texan contenders in the race for the GOP nomination (former South Texas congressman Will Hurd levied a brief bid before dropping out), it can be hard to find Texas-centric angles into the presidential race. But this Time story was well-written and engaging enough for even casual political observers (along with us political wonks, too, of course). My first thought reading the piece was “there’s a Texas angle for everything!” My second thought? “Wow, I wish we had done something like this first!” – Alexandra Samuels
“Influential Texas Activist Jonathan Stickland Hosted White Supremacist Nick Fuentes at Office Near Fort Worth,” Robert Downen, Texas Tribune & Lauren McGaughy’s Ken Paxton coverage for the Dallas Morning News and KUT
In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman, is driven to ruin over his obsession with finding out the precise details of a rendezvous he partially overhears. I couldn’t help but feel a bit like Caul in the days after Robert Downen broke the news that right-wing activist Jonathan Stickland had hosted the neo-Nazi Nick Fuentes at his consulting firm, Pale Horse Strategies, in October. Downen’s reporting created a frenzy in the Texas GOP, as various factions denounced the meeting, and others who owe a lot to Stickland and his billionaire friends offered defenses of them. This public reaction was no doubt the story’s biggest impact—but the personal is also political, and the story sent me into a frenzy: spending hours conversing with colleagues about how Downen could have gotten the scoop and about what one does at a stakeout (do you play chess against yourself like another Hackman character?), and drawing diagrams to make sense of how certain pieces of intel could have been corroborated. It was a fun exercise, but mainly we were in awe of the reporting and how Downen’s dogged coverage on the extremism beat led him to such an important scoop. That’s to say nothing of the piece’s shockwaves: Stickland was removed as president of another right-wing group, Defend Texas Liberty, and some Republican officials returned money that the organization had contributed to them.
Not all accountability journalism has such immediate payoffs: for years Lauren McGaughy broke news on Ken Paxton’s (alleged) criminality—perhaps the most evergreen beat in state politics—before the Texas House impeached him this spring. When lawmakers finally started paying attention, McGaughy continued delivering scoop after scoop on the attorney general. More inspiring: once Paxton was acquitted by the Texas Senate, and the media circus that had come to Austin for the trial’s fireworks left town, she didn’t stop. This fall, McGaughy broke a blockbuster story on Paxton’s failure to disclose numerous million-dollar properties to the Texas Ethics Commission. Her work is a reminder of the power and persistence of the fourth estate—even as state lawmakers try to move on. – Ben Rowen
How do you make issues that saturate the news cycle, but also warrant continued coverage, feel fresh and relevant? It’s a question the news and politics team here at Texas Monthly often grapples with. Marfa Public Radio’s recent series, “So Far From Care,” accomplishes just that, taking on the issue of reproductive care post-Dobbs through the novel lens of rural isolation. “When Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, and more than a dozen states banned abortion, people around the country found themselves in the position Far West Texans have faced for decades,” host Annie Rosenthal says in the first episode. “If you want to terminate a pregnancy, either you make the long trip to get that care, or you make do.” The episodes range from stories about giving birth on the rural Texas-Mexico border to searching for childcare in a desert, all of which complicate the idea of “choice.” The series embodies my favorite kind of reporting: the kind that cracks open an issue and turns it into a sort of philosophical inquiry. – Sasha von Oldershausen
There’s so much to love about Claire Ballor’s story, which takes the reader through a shift at Dallas eatery Nick & Sam’s. What immediately stuck out to me was that it covers a routinely underappreciated part of the hospitality industry: wait staff. Chefs and owners tend to get all the press. When servers do, it’s usually for news stories on tipping culture or labor issues—not long profiles. Another thing I admire is the story’s attention to detail as Ballor writes about Benny, a server at the establishment for 24 years. From hands “patting mohaired shoulders” to “gangling carcasses of king crabs” in the kitchen, Ballor’s carefully constructed phrasing places you right in the restaurant.
From an editor’s standpoint, I think about how this story came to be. It obviously wasn’t the result of a press release or derivative of numerous other stories published on the same topic, so there must have been some insider knowledge that came from talking to people—old-fashioned journalism! – Kimya Kavehkar
Though he’s moved some of his most prominent businesses to our state in recent years and donned a (potentially backwards) cowboy hat, Texans are still getting a feel for Elon Musk. Many of us know him as the world’s richest man or the mercurial conspiracist who toppled Twitter. But in this story for the New Yorker, Ronan Farrow reveals Musk to be far more influential than many might have thought. Farrow reports how some U.S. government agencies have become dependent upon the tech mogul’s cooperation when it comes to space exploration, the future of electric transportation, and critical parts of the war in Ukraine. But as the scope of his influence has widened, Musk has become more combative and less predictable, baffling many of his longtime associates and presenting challenges for officials at every level of government.
As usual, Farrow’s reporting for this piece is breathtakingly broad and full of scoops. He has a knack for identifying investigative topics that singlehandedly shift public discourse around multiple issues at once. As Musk’s influence in Texas grows, many of those conversations are suddenly very relevant to us here. – Peter Holley
The best way to tell a story of statewide political or cultural shifts is often by narrowing your scope, homing in on a more localized story that sheds light on the bigger picture. This is something Rachel Monroe’s piece on the gay rodeo in Denton, Texas, does very well. When Monroe, the New Yorker’s Texas correspondent, arrives in Denton for an exhibition put on by the Texas Gay Rodeo Association, nearly everyone she encounters has no idea the event is happening—or that it even exists. The event is poorly advertised, she notes, but this is on purpose. In a hyperconservative climate increasingly hostile to LGBTQ Texans—at the time of Monroe’s writing, the Legislature was considering a slate of bills targeting the community—organizers wanted to keep the rodeo, which features a country drag show, shrouded in some degree of secrecy. That encroaching hostility from lawmakers also imbued the gay rodeo with new significance as a safe haven for cowboys across the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity, who are proudly reclaiming rural signifiers more often associated with conservative America. As one returning participant puts it: “People think, O.K., you’re country—you’re a white, conservative, small-minded person. And that’s just not how it is.” – Allegra Hobbs
Much ink has been spilled over the nation’s fentanyl crisis—the synthetic opioid is responsible for some 70,000 fatal overdoses every year, including around 5,000 in Texas alone. But the New Yorker’s Rachel Monroe makes the epidemic personal in this searing report from Kyle, a fast-growing town of 50,000, half an hour’s drive south of Austin. The drug has hit Kyle’s teenagers especially hard, with residents younger than eighteen accounting for nearly 40 percent of the fentanyl overdoses recorded by the Hays County Sheriff’s Office in 2022. Children as young as eleven have overdosed in classrooms, in school bathrooms, and in school parking lots—often after taking counterfeit pills they believed to be Xanax or Percocet. Monroe’s interviews with the parents of overdose victims make clear the many challenges faced by Texas teenagers, from lack of treatment options (the state ranks last in access to mental health care, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America) to a punitive law-enforcement approach that has kept fentanyl test strips illegal. This troubling story should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the scope of our teenage overdose problem. – Michael Hardy
Journalist Michael Corcoran has written about Texas music for decades, and for the last few years he’s been focusing on Austin, publishing on his Substack deep dives into the city’s secret musical history. Corcoran goes way beyond Willie, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the Armadillo World Headquarters, writing about clubs such as the One Knite on Red River and bands including Dolores and the Bluebonnet Boys. (A lot of this will show up in his 2024 book, Austin Music Is a Scene Not a Sound.)
My favorite story of his this year wasn’t about a musician, it was about a go-go dancer named Maggie Cowart, a scenester and, as Corcoran calls her, an “it” girl—a woman who caught the temper of the times in buzzing sixties Austin. Cowart was a beautiful blonde from East Texas who was paid to wear a short skirt and shimmy at venues such as Swingers A-Go-Go, Club Saracen, and Le Lollipop. She was so popular, Corcoran writes, that clubs would advertise her name bolder than the bands.
Corcoran has always been a relentless reporter, and here he finds fascinating details of Cowart’s life as a groovy Austin Zelig: chatting with Bob Dylan before he gave a press conference at the Villa Capri Motor Hotel ahead of his first Texas gig (at Municipal Auditorium), laughing with a young Jimmie Vaughan, dancing to Don Henley’s band Felicity, becoming subject of the song “Everybody’s Girl (Dance, Maggie, Dance).” Cowart made it big and small—photographed in a “Girls of Texas” feature in Playboy and appearing on the cover of an obscure 1966 Texas magazine called Nightbeat. She was close friends with Farrah Fawcett and Darrell Royal’s daughter Marian, who died in a terrible 1973 car crash. For Cowart, that was the end of an era—Austin was no longer the sweet place it had been. “Dancing had always made her feel good,” Corcoran writes, “no matter what was going on in her life. But not then. It was time to move on.”
Today, Cowart lives in East Texas, a grandmother and a born-again Christian. We all have past lives, but some are more colorful than others. Corcoran has a nose for a good story, whether it’s an obscure Texas blues musician who made history or an obscure Austin go-go dancer who personified an era. – Michael Hall
It is a natural state of affairs that pipelines are hidden from view. They are buried underground, after all. Texas pipelines, however, are more concealed than most. State law shrouds pipeline companies’ financial affairs in secrecy. So imagine my pleasure to read Bloomberg’s deeply reported investigation into Energy Transfer, one of our state’s largest pipeline operators, and how it profited during the Texas blackout of 2021. One person quoted in the story calls the company’s behavior “mercenary,” but that seems too charitable. (The story references gas pipelines owned by Enterprise Products; Texas Monthly’s chairman is also chairman of the managing partner of Enterprise Products Partners L.P., a midstream energy company with interests that include pipelines and storage facilities.)
The reporters, Rachel Adams-Heard and Naureen Malik, both longtime energy writers, have done the impossible. Or at least the very difficult. They brought pipelines up from the underground, allowing readers to understand and examine the market and political forces at work during the blackouts. And if this weren’t enough, the article goes a long way to explaining why we’re all paying more for natural gas and electricity since the grid failed. Here’s a hint: It’s not the work of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. The hand is quite visible and it belongs to Energy Transfer’s executives and traders. – Russell Gold
The fact that I happen to have been born and raised in Temple and grew up eating barbecue at the very spot in which tiny Tanglefoot Brewing is now housed would probably have been enough for me to be jealous of this Texas Highways story. (Tanglefoot, by the way, was one of Temple’s early nicknames.) On top of that, I also possess a special affinity for the wares of Texas’s craft brewers. But the real reason I wish we’d published a story on Tanglefoot is because brewery owner Andy Martinec has chosen to make his mark in a precariously crowded industry by leaning hard into a particular segment of the community he serves. Central Texas is home to a large population of Czech descendants and the Bohemian heritage there remains strong. So of course a brewery operation focusing solely on Czech lagers makes sense!
I have no sour grapes here, though. Just happy hops (sorry) that the word about this little brewery focusing on Czech lagers for the Czech community (and all lovers of quality beer) in my once-dry hometown of Temple is getting out. Cheers! – David Courtney
Have you heard that spiders are in trouble? Probably not. While the plight of such charismatic critters as polar bears, bald eagles, and tigers gets ample media attention, it’s harder to muster empathy and research dollars for an animal that many of us actively fear. While scientists are in agreement that the number and diversity of spiders is declining across the globe, good data is hard to come by—again, in part because most folks don’t care. (This is certainly true in Texas, home to several endangered cave spiders and spider-adjacent creatures threatened by development.)
With dry humor and telling anecdotes, writer Betsy Mason argues that at-risk arachnids need a little PR help. In one section that stands out, Mason spoke with Bria Marty, a Corpus Christi–based ecology grad student who ran a spider study for her master’s thesis at Texas State University. Marty found that enlisting subjects to learn about spiders and catalog them on iNaturalist, a crowdsourced platform, led to more positive attitudes about the creatures. Citizen science projects like that one just might help save the spiders. – Rose Cahalan
A few weeks before Christmas in 1981, Margy Palm, a thirty-year-old San Antonio married mother of two, was kidnapped at gunpoint in a Kmart parking lot by a serial killer named Stephen Morin. Morin, who was arrested the next day and was executed in Huntsville in 1985, isn’t one of the more famous American murderers, even though he was suspected of killing and torturing more than thirty women in Texas and other states. After living with the trauma for 42 years, Palm, who escaped after eight hours, tells her story for the first time to writer Julie Miller—in a remarkably intimate and compelling way. The details are chilling: How she thought she was going to die every time he sang along to his favorite song, “Ride Like the Wind” by Christopher Cross. How she somehow found the courage to place her hands on him and try to cast out the devil. And, most of all, how she “became friends with a serial killer.” – Kathy Blackwell
In Casey Gerald’s profile of Erykah Badu—built from a phone call that lasted “three hours and 54 minutes and 22 seconds” and a concert at Dallas’s American Airlines Center—the singular Texan musician admits that her biggest hope, and her biggest fear, is to be seen. Precisely because she has an unshakeable belief and fascination with who she is—more accurately, who she is becoming—Badu always seems to have something new to say, even if what she says sometimes baffles or disturbs.
A great artist like Badu never ceases to evoke new interpretations—you can listen and relisten to her and understand something fresh about the world or yourself each time. Only a writer as gifted as Gerald, whose astonishingly beautiful prose has appeared in this magazine, could bring Badu’s light to the page and, possibly, convert the as yet unconverted. – Josh Alvarez
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