The role that Texas musicians have played in creating a particularly American idiom of popular music, from country to blues, jazz, and rock, is impossible to overestimate. Neither country and western nor the blues originated in Texas, but both genres of roots music have been indelibly shaped by talented Texans. The state ranks alongside Tennessee or Louisiana for contributions to the Americana music scene, and the number of individual music greats that Texas has spawned is astonishing. They've come from such big cities as Houston, Austin, and Dallas, of course, but most remarkable is how many have rolled out of Lubbock. The barren lands of West Texas have proved incredibly fertile for the creation of homespun music. Texas has spawned so many musicians that a museum honoring their contributions to pop culture is in the works, most likely to be housed in Houston.
Most listeners think of country music when they think of Texas sounds, and the state was certainly instrumental in the form's early development, a product of cowboy songs and folk contributions from new immigrants. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who emerged from Lubbock in the 1920s, introduced Western swing (or Texas swing), a combustible mix of hillbilly tunes, fiddle music, jazz, polka, cowboy ballads, and Mexican ranchero music. Texas artists such as George Jones in the 1950s popularized honky-tonk, characterized by steel guitars, fiddles, and plaintive vocals. Jones, one of country's finest voices, became a balladeer and top-10 hit maker. Like Kenny Rogers of Conroe, Texas, he was more closely identified with Nashville than with Texas.
With characteristic independence, Texas musicians developed their own kind of country. Progressive and outlaw country fused hard-core honky-tonk, folk, rock, and blues. With country music reaching a national audience in the 1970s with the blandly orchestrated Nashville sound, a gang of Texas outlaws, led by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker (not a native Texan but closely identified with the scene), and Kris Kristofferson seized the stage with a gritty, maverick rejection of the slicker country being produced in Nashville. Waylon and Willie's "Luckenbach, Texas," a song about a town with two dozen people, became a state anthem. Nelson, the braided, bandanna-wearing iconoclast of Texas country, has evolved into one of Texas's most beloved contemporary figures. He began his career as a songwriter of hits for Patsy Cline ("Crazy") and others before positioning himself as a cult artist and finally a crossover country star, daring to dabble in all genres, from traditional country and ballads ("Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain") to potent country poetry and even reggae. Nelson is currently as into alternative fuels (marketing a biodiesel fuel called "BioWillie," which is available in eight states, including 16 locations in Texas) as he is in exploring new musical genres.
Other Texas singer-songwriters, such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, less prone to the outlaw lifestyle but still resolutely independent, mined a territory of lyrical country-folk music. These unjustly overlooked artists laid the foundation for the current generation of Texas songwriters, including Lyle Lovett, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Steve Earle, musicians as at home in country as they are in rock, gospel, and the blues. Western swing has undergone a couple of rounds of revival, in the 1970s and again in the early 1990s. Asleep at the Wheel, a multipiece band that has gone through innumerable lineup changes, has been present for both. Current stars among Texas singer-songwriters with a touch of twang include Nanci Griffith, Michelle Shocked, and Kelly Willis. Expanding the horizons of Texas music are Dallas-area rockabilly bar-burners Reverend Horton Heat and Texas polka aficionados Brave Combo, originally from Denton.
Texas blues began with such legendary figures as Blind Lemmon Jefferson (whose "Black Snake Moan" struck quite a chord in the 1920s) and Blind Willie Johnson, both of whom played the area around Deep Ellum in Dallas. Robert Johnson may have been from Mississippi, but he made his only known recordings in Dallas and San Antonio in the 1930s. Sam "Lightning" Hawkins, of Houston, created a blistering blues guitar style that influenced generations of rockers. Other notable Houston blues musicians include B. B. King, Albert Collins, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.
Port Arthur's Janis Joplin's raw vocals and blues-inflected rock (not to mention her heroin overdose and posthumous hit, "Me and Bobby McGee") made her an icon of the 1960s. Stevie Ray Vaughan, an incendiary guitar wizard from south Dallas, also became a blues-rock star before his light went out prematurely in a helicopter crash in 1990. Austin club regulars Angela Strehli, Lou Ann Barton, and Toni Price continue the Texas blues tradition.
Texas has produced its share of rock-'n'-roll pioneers, too. Lubbock's Buddy Holly, the bespectacled proto-rocker who with his band, the Crickets, influenced Elvis, the Beatles, and countless new-wavers with tunes like "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be the Day," went down in a 1959 plane crash after just a couple of years at the top. Roy Orbison, from Vernon, Texas, began his career in rockabilly, but his high, haunting voice propelled a number of memorable mainstream hits in the 1960s, like "Only the Lonely" and "In Dreams." ZZ Top, from Houston, started out in swaggering blues-rock territory, singing about "Tush" and "LaGrange" before their belly-length beards and songs like "Legs" and "Tube Steak Boogie" made them MTV darlings. Current Texas faves on the alternative scene include the intellectual pop of Spoon (from Austin); the dusty, Neil Young-like Centro-Matic (Denton); the trippy, post-rock instrumentalists Explosions in the Sky (Midland), whose music is the soundtrack to the football-oriented TV show Friday Night Lights and the epic film Australia; and the costumed, unwieldy collective The Polyphonic Spree (Dallas).
With its Latino roots and large Hispanic population, Texas has given rise to yet another genre that reflects cross-cultural fertilization, Tex-Mex border sounds. Conjunto, norteña, and Tejano are all slightly different takes on this definitive Tex-Mex style, anchored by the accordion and 12-string Mexican guitar. The megastar Selena (Corpus Christi) brought Tejano to national Latino audiences before her death (she was murdered by the founder of her fan club), and reached a wider audience through films and books about her life. Flaco Jiménez is the leading conjunto proponent today. Another cross-cultural musical phenomenon in Texas is zydeco, a Creole stew that combines Afro-Caribbean, blues, and Cajun rhythms, and is especially popular in the Houston and Galveston areas (as well as Louisiana). Los Lonely Boys, three Mexican-American brothers from San Angelo, had a huge hit in 2004 with "Heaven" and their radio-friendly brand of Latino-tinged blues pop, which some have labeled "Texican."
In large part, Texas has proved such fecund musical ground because of its strong tradition of live performance. For a couple of decades now, Austin has immodestly declared itself the "Live Music Capital of the World," and its rollicking clubs have presented nightly diverse lineups of homegrown and imported live music acts. From Armadillo World Headquarters to Club Foot and Liberty Lunch, Austin has embraced a disproportionate share of legendary, beloved, and now-defunct live music venues. Gilley's and Billy Bob's, two huge, slick honky-tonks still going strong in Houston and Fort Worth, are important national showcases for traditional country and redneck rock bands, while classic small-town Texas dance halls such as Gruene Hall (in Gruene, pronounced "green," located south of Austin, smack in the middle of New Braunfels) keep the flame burning. Dancing to country music is a true Texas art, and while the popularity of individual dances -- the Two-Step, Cotton-Eyed Joe, and line dancing (a kind of kickers' aerobics) -- rises and falls with the latest hits, in Texas they have amazing staying power. The dance floors of local honky-tonks pack in young Billy Ray Cyrus look-alikes and single rodeo queens in tight jeans as well as nimble older folks boot-scootin' like there's no tomorrow.
For rock and alternative music lovers, two of the biggest music festivals in the country are held annually in Austin: South by Southwest (S*SW), in March, and the outdoors Austin City Limits Festival (cruelly held in Sept, at the tail end of the brutal Central Texas summer).
Texas -- with its larger-than-life characters and mythic representation of the Southwest -- has featured very prominently in film, both popular blockbusters and serious art films. Foremost among them, of course, were Westerns starring John Wayne, many of which were placed in Texas, including The Alamo, Red River, and Three Texas Steers. John Ford's 1956 The Searchers -- also starring Wayne -- is generally considered one of the greatest Westerns ever filmed. Giant (also from 1956) is expansive like Texas itself, set on a massive ranch location under a huge sky with Rock Hudson as a ranch baron who wins over Elizabeth Taylor. In 1969's Easy Rider, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper take a motorcycle road trip through Texas and meet up with Jack Nicholson. More recent, mainstream movies include Terms of Endearment, an Oscar winner based on Larry McMurtry's book, set in Houston and starring Jack Nicholson (as a former astronaut), Debra Winger, and Shirley McLaine; The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, with Dolly Parton as a madam running the Chicken Ranch (which sold neither chickens nor eggs) in a small Texas town; Urban Cowboy, more or less Saturday Night Fever relocated from NYC to Houston's honky-tonks, complete with John Travolta in a 10-gallon hat; and the football-themed Friday Night Lights, based on the book by H. G. Bissinger. The art film category is well represented by No Country for Old Men, the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers film based on the violent Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name; The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich's film (based on another McMurtry novel) about high-school seniors in Anarene, a nowheresville Texas town; Tender Mercies, Bruce Bereford's 1983 movie starring Robert Duvall as a drifter and former country singer who finds redemption in the hands of a widow on the Texas plains; Paris, Texas, about another Texas drifter (played by Harry Dean Stanton), though this time made by a German, Wim Wenders; and Days of Heaven, by the Texan Terrence Malick, about a steel worker who flees to the wheat fields of Texas and finds conflict and tragedy when confronted by a wealthy landowner. If that's all too bleak and grown-up, how about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Richard Linklater's homages to Austin, Slacker and Dazed and Confused?
Films are increasingly being filmed in Texas. Austin has emerged as the "Third Coast" alternative to Los Angeles and New York City as a filmmaker's haven. Texas filmmakers include legendary director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Badlands, The New World) and young moviemakers creating an Austin school of sorts: Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, School of Rock, Fast Food Nation) and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Spy Kids). Several well-known actors make their homes in Austin, too, including Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock.
Surely the most famous television series set in Texas was the long-running nighttime soap Dallas, which gave rise to the national mantra "Who shot J.R.?" and made people across the globe believe that Texans had oil rigs in their backyards. Lonesome Dove, based on the novel by Texan Larry McMurtry, was a hugely successful miniseries in 1989, featuring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones and filmed at several Texas ranches. Walker, Texas Ranger starred Chuck Norris in a Western police drama, with plenty of martial arts and a partner who was a former Dallas Cowboy. More recently, the critically acclaimed series adapted from the book and film of the same name, Friday Night Lights, beautifully explored a small West Texas town where the weekly ritual, the high school's football games, are an obsession (the show is shot in Austin). King of the Hill, an animated series from Mike Judge, an Austinite by way of Garland, is set in the fictional small Texas town of Arlen. PBS's Austin City Limits is a legendary, long-running, live-music program featuring diverse artists from all over the country and globe.
Fans of James Michener will appreciate his historical novel Texas. Although wordy and a bit tedious, Michener was an excellent storyteller as well as historian, and his book (exhaustively) brings the state and its people to life. (It's a big state, but couldn't he have done it in fewer than 1,344 pages?) Two authors who share a "Mc" in their surnames dominate the subject of contemporary fiction set in Texas: Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy. These two writers are much more than an introduction to both the real and mythical Texas. The contributions of McMurtry (born in Wichita Falls, and educated at North Texas State and Rice universities) to the Texas canon are many. Lonesome Dove (1985) won the Pultizer Prize for its depiction of ex-Texas Rangers on a cattle drive. Other significant works by McMurtry about or set in Texas, many delving into the lives of cowboys and ranchers, include Leaving Cheyenne; Terms of Endearment; The Last Picture Show; Horseman, Pass By; In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas; and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. Cormac McCarthy, who is not a Texan, is also a Pulitzer Prize winner; his works of the past 25 years have been some of the best-received in American literature. The Western and Southern Gothic themes, and depiction of brutal violence, hone in on weighty matters of life and death, and McCarthy is frequently compared to William Faulkner. His masterworks are Blood Meridian (concerning the 19th-c. travels of "the kid," largely in Texas, and often cited as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th c.) and All the Pretty Horses (about a young cowboy and his friend from West Texas who venture to Mexico). McCarthy's No Country for Old Men is also set in southwestern Texas, along the Mexico border. Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole is set in the Panhandle. Texas author Sandra Cisneros's short stories, such as Women Hollering Cree, are powerful and critically acclaimed. The Gates of the Alamo, by Stephen Harrigan, is a gripping, fictionalized version of Texas's most famous battle. Among fiction and nonfiction with somewhat more mass appeal are Friday Night Lights, for many readers one of the finest sports books written, chronicling the football obsession of a small West Texas town; and Semi-Tough, a novel by Dan Jenkins about two Fort Worth football studs, one of the funniest. Jenkins's Baja Oklahoma offers a funny, poignant, and somewhat raunchy look at what we might call classic modern Texans, at least the Fort Worth trailer-trash variety.
Even readers who don't cook will enjoy The Only Texas Cookbook, by Linda West Eckhardt. Interspersed among its 300 recipes -- including classics such as Fuzzy's Fantastic South Texas Road Meat Chili and Bad Hombre Eggs -- are numerous humorous anecdotes on food-related subjects. Those who savor biting political humor -- and don't mind seeing every Texas Republican mercilessly skewered -- will thoroughly enjoy any book of essays by the late newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, who is credited with bestowing the nickname "Dubya" on George W. Bush.
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