(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
You wouldn’t know it if all you do is listen to radio, but Texas continues to be a major music center, even apart from the South by Southwest Music Festival. You might notice it when Pat Green gets on the radio with a hit or Jack Ingram finally breaks through, but otherwise the drumbeats for Texas music in the major media mix are largely unheard.
I suspect that’s partly due to the structure — or lack of it — of the Texas music monolith over the years. That’s because there hasn’t been one. State government runs a Texas Music Office, including a Web site, but that’s not the same thing as an actual industry presence. Over the years, there’ve been many indie labels and countless other assaults on the big time that have not endured. Of the 575 Texas record labels the governor’s office lists, only Compadre Records and New West (which actually is run out of Los Angeles) come to mind as having any kind of national profile.
I know when I lived in Austin in the ’70s, I went to many a meeting where everyone would spin grand tales about creating terrific Texas record labels and building great studios and dynamic agencies and talking about how Austin would kick Nashville’s ass big time.
Then, usually at about 3:30 in the afternoon, someone would roll a joint. After a few minutes of toking, we would all decide to head out to the beer garden or to the lake, or both, and then that would evolve into club-hopping all night. And so all the grandiose record industry plans were forgotten ’til the next brainstorming session. Life was simply too good there to waste it on unimportant stuff.
But the music was great. And it still is.
Texas’ musical legacy is truly mind-blowing. Just listing some of the names is awe-inspiring (and if you don’t know these people, you should): Bob Wills, T-Bone Walker, Ornette Coleman, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Bobby Fuller Four, 13th Floor Elevators, Roky Erikson, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Flaco Jiminez, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Janis Joplin, Doug Sahm, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, ZZ Top, Boz Scaggs, Joe Ely, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Winter, Butthole Surfers, Freddie King, Cindy Walker, George Jones, Freddy Fender, Alejandro Escovedo, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Billy Joe Shaver, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Vaughan, Selena, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and a whole bunch more.
Texas music continues to flourish. In country music alone, the likes of Green, Ingram, Zona Jones, Randy Rogers, Charlie Robison, Bruce Robison, Max Stalling, the Eli Young Band, Hayes Carll, Reckless Kelly and a host of others carry on a proud tradition
A new book takes a look at some of Texas’ best artists over recent decades. The author, Michael Corcoran, comes with a bit of an odd Texas pedigree. He moved to Austin in 1984 from Hawaii and instantly fell in love with the music. I first noticed his writing in inflammatory columns in the Austin Chronicle, such as the column titled “Austin Music Sucks,” in which he blasted the local scene’s chauvinism. His readership got really stirred up. So I liked that.
When he moved on to the Dallas Morning News, readers there were especially chuffed at his characterization of Brooks & Dunn as “Loggins & Oates.” He eventually moved on to his current gig as music critic for the Austin American-Statesman and became fascinated with researching Texas music history.
And that is displayed in his book All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (University of Texas Press). The book looks at 32 Texas music figures, some obscure, some well-known. The latter include Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Ernest Tubb. Tales about the well-known are always welcome, but some of the obscure cited here are people well worth knowing about.
The great Harry Choates, who died in the Austin jail at age 29, was “to Cajun music what Bob Wills was to Western Swing.” Rebert Harris was Sam Cooke’s mentor. Arizona Dranes created what came to be known as “the gospel beat.” Lydia Mendoza was the first queen of Tejano music, long before Selena. The Geto Boys pioneered Houston hip-hop and created what became the Dirty South movement. The great songwriter Blaze Foley was the “derelict in duct tape shoes” of Lucinda Williams’ song, “Drunken Angel.” He was murdered at age 39.
Ella Mae Morse was a genuine star in the ’40s and had Capitol Records’ first million-seller with “Cow Cow Boogie” in 1942. She discovered Nat “King” Cole for Capitol. When Morse appeared on the same Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 as Elvis Presley, Elvis told Morse that he had learned to sing from listening to her records. People who heard her records couldn’t believe she was white. When Sammy Davis Jr. met her, he said, “Ella, baby, I thought you were one of us!” She replied, “I am.”