Like a lot of people, I prefer to remember the John Nova Lomax of the past, instead of more recent times, when he fell victim to the terrible disease that had plagued him for years and killed him on May 22 at 53. His work here at Texas Monthly encompassed the period from 2015 to 2019, but from the time he first started as a journalist in Houston in 2001, he was unstoppable, writing authoritatively for the Houston Press, Houstonia, and Texas Highways, as well as Spin, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and LA Weekly. There were two books, one on Houston dive bars and another on murder and mayhem in the same city. And this doesn’t count his myriad musings in his (literally) peripatetic Sole of Houston blog, and on Facebook and in his Substack. Death was the only thing that could stop John Lomax from telling stories.
Yes, he had a shabby handsomeness that drew people in, but talking was his great gift. And sharing—whatever he saw, thought, or felt. John was the kind of guy for whom the term “shoot the shit” was invented—someone who, over a long lunch or dinner, or even a stroll, could impart the best Houston history, whether it was some great musical gig (the farewell concert at Fitzgerald’s, the famously fire-trappy Heights club); sports (the haplessness of the Texans); food (his investigation of the origins of chile con queso); language (“you guys” was no replacement for “y’all”), and even the possums who snuck into his sofa cushions and snacked on the cat food on his back porch. (One, he wrote, “sounded like a wolverine tearing into a big bag of Fritos.”)
John’s warm, deep voice made our Talk Like a Texan series a hit—the oral history of our ever-simmering demographic stew had a host who could be wryly skeptical and deeply affectionate simultaneously. (His take on mangled Spanish was my favorite, in which he pondered why some say Wa-da-LU-peh and others Guadaloop.) Lomax—and that’s what those who knew him best called him—was one of those writers who, if he was interested in something, could make you interested in it too. Some writers have good ideas but can’t execute; some writers are good enough with words but lack the singularity of vision that makes readers want to follow them anywhere. Lomax had both. He could even convert photos of Houston’s abandoned couches into local icons.
Pedigrees are generally eschewed in Houston, but John Nova had one that explains his wide-ranging tastes and perceptions. He was descended from generations of folklorists and writers, people who understood the importance of the seemingly ordinary, of tradition, of the small things that can tell you so much if you are willing to just pay attention. Lomax’s great-grandfather was the famous folklorist John Avery Lomax, author of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, published in 1910. With his son Alan, John Avery wrote myriad books and created the Library of Congress’s Library of Recorded Sound, which contained over 17,000 songs. His grandfather John Avery Lomax Jr. was a land developer and professional singer who founded the Houston Folklore & Music Society and managed the career of Lightnin’ Hopkins. John Nova’s grandmother Bess Lomax Hawes was a songwriter (she wrote a hit for the Kingston Trio) and directed the folk grant program for the National Endowment for the Arts. The couple received the Presidential Medal of Arts. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, John Nova’s father, John Lomax III, was an early founder and writer for the underground newspaper Space City! before moving on to Nashville, where he became the manager for the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle who, in turn, became surrogate big brothers to the young John Nova.
John seemed to most enjoy finding the meaning in minutia—the street couch series comes to mind. But when he went all in, he was a memoirist who could challenge the likes of Mary Karr. It’s no wonder that the harrowing family story he wrote for Houstonia in 2013 is now zooming across the internet. “Of Unknown Origin” tells of his mother, Julia Taylor, who, he wrote, had “ a laugh as festive as New Orleans jazz, a smile as bright as Las Vegas neon.” She was, also, an addict—drugs, alcohol, etc.—who made her son a partner in crime as early as third grade, when she taught him to shoplift; who set his childhood room on fire; and who died while trying to run across Interstate 40. “This woman who gave me life, with whom I shared everything from an addictive personality to short legs and nearsightedness, was a stranger to me,” he wrote. “Which meant that I must be a stranger to me too.”
He was never a stranger to all who met him, but many of us understood that there was always something picking at him beneath his sunny exterior, and as time went on even that veneer darkened as he began losing the family and friends who kept him in place to alcohol and all the chaos that came with addiction. First slowly, and then very fast, John dropped the connection with his beautiful wife, Kelly, his much-loved children, John Henry and Harriet Rose, his many loyal friends, and, finally, himself, the stranger he was never quite able to know or accept. “I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to understand the motivations of those who would perpetrate crimes against themselves and others,” he wrote in “Of Unknown Origin,” but the mysteries eluded him when, maybe, they could have saved him. The last time I talked with John he was living in his car on the beach near Galveston. He told me he was doing great. But then came the series of GoFundMe posts that chronicled his hospitalization, his pending recovery, his worsening infections, and then, finally, the news that there was nothing more to be done.
I think I can speak for so many friends and acquaintances when I say we all wanted so much more for him. Maybe fame and fortune, sure, because his talents warranted it, but more than that the peace and quiet that might have settled his mind and heart, so that we could have had more time with him, more time in which he could show us what we needed to see and told us what he so wanted us to know.