Beto O’Rourke’s time as a musician is one of the more well-trodden parts of his bio. And it makes sense. As O’Rourke worked to introduce himself to 28 million Texans who had scarcely heard of the young congressman from a corner of the state that had never elected anyone to statewide office before, the punk rock was an easy shorthand for “not your daddy’s Senate hopeful.”
That could be why Texas musicians have lined up behind O’Rourke in a way that we’ve rarely seen with previous candidates. During her 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Wendy Davis was also a rising national star, but Willie Nelson never played a major public rally to drive support for her candidacy (but he did perform at a private fundraiser on her behalf). And it’s not just Willie—at events around the state, heavy hitters are performing at rallies in Austin, Houston, and Dallas for (and with!) the candidate.
Willie’s event in Austin this Saturday kicks off the lineup of performances. He’ll be joined by Bridges, his sons in Lukas and Micah, Carrie Rodriguez, Tameca Jones, and Joe Ely—as well as O’Rourke himself, who’ll be speaking in a pre-headliner slot at 10 p.m. From there, O’Rourke will be co-headlining a festival in Dallas on October 7, where he’ll be joined by indie rockers Spoon, the Polyphonic Spree, Sparta, and more. The following day, in Houston, Bun B and former Texans running back Arian Foster are hosting a voter registration drive and concert at which Bun, Shakey Graves, Willie D, the Ton Tons, and others will be performing. (There’s no word yet if O’Rourke will make an appearance at that event.)
Sparta frontman Jim Ward, formerly of the legendary El Paso indie rock band At The Drive-In, has a deeper relationship with O’Rourke than most of the other artists who’ve signed on to support his candidacy. Part of O’Rourke’s oft-told punk rock background includes his time in an El Paso band called Foss; his bandmates were musician Arlo Klahr and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, who went on to co-found At The Drive-In with Ward. I spoke with Ward in El Paso last year, relatively early on in O’Rourke’s campaign, about their history together.
“When I was a freshman at El Paso High, the older punk rock kids looked out for me,” Ward told me. “Arlo Klahr gave me Nevermind in a walkman and said ‘Go sit on the stairs and listen to this right now, this is going to change everything.'” Ward recalled going to watch Foss practice, and getting to know O’Rourke through the small punk scene in El Paso in the early nineties. “We became friends—I would have dinner at his house. There are people you can have a beer with and know that you can have a beer and be yourself.”
At the time, long before Willie or anyone else had stepped forward, Ward said that he wanted to leverage his platform as a musician to help O’Rourke’s campaign. So it was unsurprising when Sparta, a project that Ward only brought back in late 2017 after a years-long hiatus, was announced as one of the acts performing in Dallas. He explained last year that he was talking with musician friends from around the state, in a variety of genres, with the intention of building out resources that could help what was then a little-known congressman running a very difficult race to reach an audience.
“I’m putting together a coalition of Texas musicians that I want to be at the disposal at his campaign,” Ward said. “I told Beto, I’m going to build you an army of musicians. These are my peers, these are my contemporaries. We’re all down. We’re not going to tell you how to use us—if you don’t, cool. But if you need us to do something, let us know. I can draw a couple hundred people in a lot of little cities in Texas.” Ward’s plan to assemble an army didn’t exactly come to fruition—he wasn’t involved in setting up the shows around the state—but he spent time earlier this year with O’Rourke at events in West Texas, and promoted his campaign at Sparta shows in small South Texas towns in the spring.
O’Rourke, of course, has come to hone an ability to draw a lot of people in a number of Texas cities during the course of his campaign. At the moment, he’s probably a bigger draw—at least in Houston, Austin, or Dallas—than Sparta, Shakey Graves, or Spoon. (But probably not bigger than Willie Nelson or Leon Bridges.) And it’s not a surprise to see entertainers get behind him, either—Texas musicians, from songwriter and frequent candidate Kinky Friedman to Michigan transplant and former Sid Miller campaign treasurer Ted Nugent have jumped into the political fray with varying degrees of success in recent years.
Ward has seen and done a lot in the music business. He’s toured all over the world, with artists like Pearl Jam and Coldplay, and he says he sees a lot of what makes great musicians connect with audiences in the way that O’Rourke speaks to a crowd too. “I honestly believe that Beto is the real deal. He’s special. I don’t know why, but he has the spark,” he says. “When he speaks, I feel like he’s talking to me, the same way that when you go see U2, there are 40,000 people, but you feel like Bono is speaking to you, because that’s how good he is.”