1. For George Strait, the road doesn’t go on forever
I was tooling around Austin in 1981, enjoying the free-love vibe and listening to the radio, when I first heard George Strait. His voice came out of my little dashboard speaker so strong and clear I ran two lights and a stop sign. The song he was singing was called “Unwound.” It was distinct, precise, and to the point. My new hero told me how to handle a relationship gone bad: “She kicked me out of the house, and tonight I’m whiskey-bound.” It was so refreshing. And it sounded fantastic.
Country music of the late seventies and early eighties had the appeal of cold canned soup. With few exceptions, the songs were lame and the singers unremarkable. Think children’s books sung to pop melodies by failed actors. When “Unwound” hit the radio, country music came back to life. The follow-up single, “Down and Out,” was even better. Strait delivered the goods wrapped in some rough and rowdy advice on how to deal with heartbreak: “I’m down at the bar, out of my mind.” Tough luck, girl. You’ll never get him back now.
Over the years Strait’s message mellowed but the music soared. (Full disclosure: he covered a couple of my songs.) He has 59 number one hits to his credit, more than anyone in any genre. And on January 18, in Lubbock, he’ll begin his farewell tour, the Cowboy Rides Away. He’s not retiring—he’s already got another album in the works—he’s just slowing things down a bit. And as he travels from Salt Lake City to Grand Forks to his hometown of San Antonio, I’m sure a lot of old memories will come flooding back to him and his fans. Me, I’ll just remember the day George Strait saved country music. —Robert Earl Keen
2. SCOOT’S HONOR
Think of him as this year’s answer to Jessica Chastain, the actress who turned up in 2011 in half a dozen movies, seemingly out of the blue, and is now the toast of Hollywood. For the Dallas-born Scoot McNairy, 32, the path to sudden sensation took a decade. After dropping out of the Art Institute of Dallas in the early aughts, he moved to Los Angeles and toiled in commercials and bit parts on TV. But now he finds himself regularly working with the film industry elite: alongside Matt Damon in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land; opposite Brad Pitt in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly; and sparring with Ben Affleck in Argo. (He has three more movies coming up this year, co-starring with the likes of Michael Fassbender, Julianne Moore, and Liam Neeson.) As for why McNairy finally hit pay dirt, it could be that intriguingly Faulkneresque moniker—a nickname bestowed because as a boy he liked to scoot around on his backside. Most likely, it’s his knack for stealing a scene without seeming greedy (note the jolt of comic energy he brings to the otherwise tepid Killing Them Softly, playing a hapless thief). Best news of all: this rising Texas star hasn’t forgotten his roots. He’s recently taken up residence in the rural town of Brenham. —Christopher Kelly
3. FIDDLE ME THIS
Carrie Rodriguez’s new album, Give Me All You Got (Ninth Street Opus), is the Austin-born singer-violinist’s first collection of original material since 2008. During that period she has released a covers album and a duets EP and logged time in other people’s bands. But Rodriguez wasn’t retreating to her original role as a side person. She was woodshedding. Give Me All You Got boasts her strongest set of songs to date, alternating between moody rock and roots-influenced pop, all of it concisely arranged and constructed. Rodriguez is more emboldened than the young fiddler who surprised so many when she first stepped out of the shadows a decade ago. And while her voice isn’t as sharp as her playing, she uses it to good effect. Only rave-ups like “Devil in Mind” feel forced; medium-tempo gems such as “Tragic,” “Lake Harriet,” and “Sad Joy,” which foreground a sense of longing, are where Rodriguez finds her real strength. —Jeff McCord
A hijacked plane circles Dallas for twenty years, its passengers making a life of sorts for themselves in the confines of economy class. A man in a Houston suburb buys a unicorn, “cheap,” from a “Chinaman” and finds his shabby life upended. An avatar in a first-person-shooter video game achieves self-awareness and, much like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, does battle with the same swamp monsters and robots over and over and over. These are a few of the conceits found in Austin writer Manuel Gonzales’s debut collection, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Riverhead), due out January 10. Gonzales, who was born and raised in Fort Worth, has a talent for taking a seemingly silly idea and subjecting it to a deadpan and unsparing sensibility. If this puts you in mind of another Texas writer, the late Donald Barthelme, you wouldn’t be off base. Gonzales is less formally daring than Barthelme, and he allows sentiment to bob closer to the surface, but many of his stories could have stepped out of Great Days or Come Back, Dr. Caligari, if not for the twenty-first-century cultural references. Zombies, which appear in two pieces, seem to be a particular favorite. “All of Me,” one of Gonzales’s funniest stories, poses the question, What would a zombie do if it was afflicted with the sort of angst and existential despair that plague Anne Rice’s or Stephenie Meyer’s vampires? Answer: eat his beloved’s face, even as he longs for her tender caress.
5. The One-Question Interview: Brooke Rollins
After the shellacking they got in the November elections, Republicans around the country are calling for the party to take a more moderate approach. In Texas, the state of play is a little different. Brooke Rollins is the president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based think tank that advocates for small government and free markets. —Erica Grieder
Q: Looking at the upcoming legislative session, do you think there’s a looming fissure between the far right and the moderate right?
A: [laughing] Hold on to your horses, because it’s going to be a little bit of a circus! I only mean that in a positive way. I think it is very positive that we have a lot of disagreement among ourselves, even among conservatives, even among Libertarians. As Ronald Reagan’s happy warrior, I really do believe that at the end of the day, we all just want a better Texas. I don’t cast any aspersions on people who want to raise taxes. I just happen to believe—and I believe history has played this out pretty well over thousands of years—that a limited government is better for all the people. I think most people, especially in the Republican party, believe in that basic premise. It’s incumbent on me and others like me to be able to make that case to the public. Will there continue to be a divide? I’m quite sure there will be, but I believe ultimately what we’re trying to do is continue to prove that freedom works and that the rest of the country shouldn’t give up hope.