Back in the mid-aughts, Amazon.com released lists of books and music “uniquely popular” in certain markets, and it made for fascinating reading. Books about the Enron debacle sold particularly well in Houston, which was no surprise, but who knew the people of Galveston had the best music taste in the Houston area?
Amazon stopped publishing that data long ago, but recently Spotify has picked up the mantle. Every two weeks the music-streaming behemoth publishes lists of 100 of “the most distinctively popular songs in [town] relative to the rest of the world.”
To clarify a bit, artists such as Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Selena Gomez, and Wiz Khalifa almost certainly outsell the “distinctively popular” artists in sheer numbers, but Spotify’s lists spotlight the unique peculiarities of many markets. In other words, they tell us what sets Mesquite apart from Waco, El Paso from Houston, Humble from Lubbock. And in taking a look at its most recent Texas map, there were only a few surprises. Yup, that’s right. With only a couple of notable exceptions, Spotify tends to confirm every stereotype Texans have about each other.
But before we get to the list, a note: I am just working with what Spotify gave me here, and I am as puzzled as you are about the places the streaming service left out. Why do they have data for Lubbock but not Amarillo? Or Carrollton but not Corpus Christi? There are a few such examples.
That said, here we go, beginning with the Live Music Capital of the World:
Paraphrasing Waylon, it don’t matter who’s in Austin, Bob Schneider is still the king, as evidenced by his top two finish here with “Honeypot” and “40 Dogs.”
By and large, Austin’s list is more stylistically eclectic than most Texas cities, though very white and Anglo. There’s a mere sprinkling of H-Town rappers and a trio of songs by NPR-beloved vintage soulster Leon Bridges to break up the melanin-challenged parade, but there’s no Spanish-language music at all. Still, within those parameters, there’s more variety here than elsewhere, with a tendency toward artists favored by both NPR and Pitchfork not seen elsewhere in Texas. Yeah, the same beer ‘n brisket-yee-haw Texas country artists such as Randy Rogers, Josh Abbott Band, and Turnpike Troubadours popular almost everywhere else in the state do surprisingly well for such a hipster hotbed (leading one wag to surmise that Spotify’s list draws heavily from Cedar Park, Round Rock and San Marcos). But there are also indie popsters the bird and the bee (“Young and Dumb”) and Phantogram (“Black Out Days”), and a few nods to bands like Houndmouth, Jamestown Revival, Ghostland Observatory, and Spoon. Austin is also the only place in Texas where you find such heavy representation of such C&W critical darlings as Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Hayes Carll, and Ryan Bingham. And some things never change: just as there was in my abbreviated career at UT, Austin still adores King George: “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” “The Chair,” and “Amarillo By Morning” all make the cut.
San Antonio astonishes with dominance of Texas country on its chart. Randy Rogers and Josh Abbott take up six of the seven top positions. But not number one: that belongs to one of the most infectious and fun songs we heard in compiling this article: the hypnotic, guitar-driven cumbia “El Baile de Gorila,” whose singer is a boy who sounds no older than eight. Heading down the charts, there is not as much Latin music as you would expect and much more country than you would.
Dallas-Fort Worth and some Metroplex ‘burbs
Dallas is under the sway of Abbottmania. The tourist-bureau friendly, rowdy Texas country of the Josh Abbott Band scores three of the top four slots, and with a couple of norteño exceptions, music in a similar vein by the like of Randy Rogers, Cody Johnson, the embattled Stoney LaRue, and Turnpike Troubadors dominate the top end of the chart. Abbott’s lyrics take the geographical place name-checking of artists like Pat Green and Cory Morrow to whole new levels.
In “She’s Like Texas” and the Green duet “My Texas,” the top two songs on the Dallas list, manages to work in nods to “bluebonnets in the summer,” “the Padre Island sun,” “the hills that surround Austin,” “the Dallas sky,” “the trees in Nacogdoches,” “cotton in the fall,” “the weather out in Lubbock,” “Enchanted Rock,” “cold Shiner down in Luckenbach,” “the River Walk,” “the ‘Ol Frio,” “Red Dirt music on your radio,” “Cooper’s down in Llano,” “the Houston rodeo,” and “a Pat Green show.”
But we are not done yet. There are also no fewer than three sunsets: one in Abilene, the Hill Country, and El Paso, and also reeling in a trout in Port A, hearing the words to “Corpus Christi Bay,” and taking in the fireworks on PK. (That’s Possum Kingdom.)
Not to mention hiking through Big Bend, having your hair blown back by a Lubbock wind, and going “somewhere where they call you friend,” and a host of other Texas-centric “musts.”
If you haven’t done those things, Abbott insists “you ain’t met My Texas yet.”
Wow. One noted Austin songwriter compared Abbott’s writing style to a recitation of his Facebook friend’s status updates. And geez Louise, I consider myself a pretty good Texan and I’ve only done/seen/experienced a handful of those things. I guess I need to hand in my Texan card.
Abbott also rules the ‘burbs of Euless and Garland, and he stakes out three of the top six slots in Fort Worth as well. Cowtown’s chart-topper is country artist Parker McCollum (also popular in Plano), who has a bit of a Hayes Carll quaver to his prematurely rough-and-ready tenor, and whose “Meet You in the Middle” is mercifully free of Texas atlas-recitations. (Fort Worth also shows a more marked tendency toward norteño, with songs by young Geru y su Legion and La Reunion Nortena both cracking the top ten.) Bluesy and slighty psychedelic William Clark Green’s Americana-influenced spin on Texas country holds it down in Carrollton; he was something of a revelation to me. (And one of many young Texas artists deep under the sway of spiritual grandfather Steve Earle.)
Elsewhere, the Metroplex sports more stylistic diversity, most notably in Mesquite, where accordion and Español holds down eight of the top ten slots. After that there’s a mix of Texas hip-hop (Mr. Pookie’s “Crook for Life” and Z-Ro’s “Happy Alone” leading the way) and then more norteño and lots of South Park Mexican. Mesquite is no country for Texas country.
Heading south down I-45…
Houston and its suburbs
H-Town’s list is dominated by rap, mostly by artists who came of age in the great boom the city’s scene enjoyed about ten years ago.
Leading the pack there’s “Chuuch,” the bizarre-on-paper but kinda killer-in-reality “conversation” between Northside legend Slim Thug and Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen.
Following that there’s Z-Ro’s street anthem freestyle “Mo City Don” (and if you’ve never been in a club and seen the patrons chant along when the DJ gives that one a spin, you ain’t seen my Texas yet, OK, Abbott?), and then a few works by deceased titans such as Fat Pat (“Tops Drop”), DJ Screw, and Big Moe. Texas country doesn’t arrive until number ten, in the form of two songs by Randy Rogers, and after that’s there’s a mix of C&W, norteño, Tejano, Central American cumbia, and lots and lots and lots of hip-hop, most of old: Lil’ Keke, UGK, Lil’ Flip, Paul Wall, and Lil’ Troy, to name a few.
The northeast suburb of Humble is easily the most African-American Texas market Spotify measured; the Piney Woods ‘burb is ripe for black cowboy trail-ride culture. There the soul-blues (a.k.a. “grown-folks music”) cheating anthem “My Sidepiece” by the Louisiana Blues Brothas.
Two Z-Ro tunes follow, and then there’s more grown-folks music, in Tucka’s “Don’t Make Me Beg,” and the genre is also represented by another Tucka song and a fourth local hit by T.K. Soul. “Haterz,” a duet between young zydeco star Keith Frank and razor-voiced Baton Rouge rap legend Lil’ Boosie is another trail-ride campfire hit.
The rest of the list is a mix of country, H-Town hip-hop, and a sprinkling of norteño. It’s hands-down one of the most interesting and unique charts in Texas, spotlighting innovations and traditions way off the mainstream radar.
Spring, Humble’s northside near-neighbor, is split 60-40 between country and H-Town rap in its top ten. “Color in You,” a happy-clappy pop Americana male-female duet by Copperlily, leads the way. It’s a song you could easily hear on the show Nashville. The rest of the top ten is split between rap and Texas country.
The latter holds sway in Katy, where deep-voiced Cody Johnson, who bubbles under the north Texas charts, is the king, holding down three of the top four slots. Katy likes its country tried and true: Its list features more Keen, Robison, Reckless Kelly, and Strait than most.
Before we leave the sprawl of mega-Houston, let’s take in College Station, where, as will surprise few of you, country music occupies each and every one of the 100 slots on Spotify’s chart. And a Granger Smith song called “We Bleed Maroon” topping said chart will surprise even fewer of you, especially once you read such lyrics as: “So put a penny on ol’ Sully / And wish me some luck. / And yell Farmers Fight / When our boys are backed up. / Throw your arms around each other / and sing Hullabaloo/’Cause that’s what we do when we bleed maroon.”
So, Aggieland loves Aggieland and Texas, in that order, as if we didn’t know that.
Heading up the Brazos…
Again, this is no surprise — Jesus music is big. Real big. The top three come are ethereal, vaguely Enya-esque worship tunes from the city’s Antioch Community Church.
Those are followed by three more Penny and Sparrow songs, whose lead singer Andy Baxter once had this to say: “Our big hope is to hang out with God and write music that helps people do the same. We hope we get to provide the soundtrack for thousands of blind dates with Christ.” Three more Christian songs follow, before we get to the same Texas Praise songs by Josh Abbott so revered in Dallas. So, Waco loves Jesus and Texas, again, in that order. Alrighty then, let’s hit up the wide open spaces…
It’s always been an outlier, from Buddy Holly to the Flatlanders to today, where yes, though Texas country takes the first three positions, it’s stuff you don’t get anywhere else. Like Flatland Cavalry’s “Summertime Love,” and John Edward Baumann’s pleasant and amusing longing for wealth from the skies in “Wind Farmer.” (Third place is “Victory Bells,” a seemingly unaccountable selection from the Josh Abbott catalogue, until you realize it is to Texas Tech what “We Bleed Maroon” is to A&M).
After that it gets more surprising, with three selections from Tejano-trained, Spanglish AJ Castillo, a genre-bending, innovative accordionist whose cumbia-drenched, electro-pop breakthroughs on old styles reminds me of some of the more adventurous club music coming out of Tijuana in the mid-2000s. Seriously, check out “Llorar y Llorar” and “Enloquecer.” Traditionalists will hate me for saying this, but if Tejano has a long-term future he is it, at least as far as I can hear from these Spotify lists. So maybe he’s the Buddy Holly of Tejano?
Last, we come to the far reaches of the state, El Paso del Norte.
And as you might expect, they’ve got stuff going out there you don’t hear much of in Waco and College Station. Three top ten slots belong to the cumbia-driven band Sonora Skandalo. “Costumbre” is my pick of the three.
Banda, that madcap horn-driven Germanic-origin “circus music” from western Mexico, is stronger in El Paso than anywhere else in Texas.
As are Spanish-language translations of Christian popsters Hillsong United: a group called Hillsong Young and Free’s Depeche Mode-soundalike praise music is huge here.
And then, strangely, in the top ten, not one, but two C&W warhorses in Brooks and Dunn’s “Neon Moon” and George Strait’s “The Chair.” And not far below that, Portland electronica critical darlings Starfucker (“German Love” and “Atlantis”), attitudinal club pop in Yulema’s “Lowkey Flex,” the rock en Español of Los Enanitos Verdes, and on and on. It’s a whole ‘nother word out there, as different from Dallas as Glasgow is from Havana.
And rejoice! In all this diversity and all these oddities and terms of sheer talent, we beat two colors of crap out of Oklahoma.