NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Texas Is a Musical Treasure Chest

Lone Star State Has a Rich History That Continues

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

In many ways, Texas is its own world. Musically, it has certainly been its own universe. I was born and raised in Fort Worth, and the first performer I recall seeing as a child was Bob Wills, the Western swing pioneer, and he and his Texas Playboys were hitting the note from the back of a flatbed truck downtown. The second and third were blues great Jimmy Reed and the teenaged up-and-coming blues and soul shouter Delbert McClinton, both in the same smoky dive. People like that were all around and music was just part of your life. You didn’t take it for granted, but you recognized that music was in many ways central to life.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Texas music history is in many ways the history of a vast amount of American popular music. It encompasses the Western swing of Bob Wills and Milton Brown, the jazz of Ornette Coleman, Jack Teagarden, David “Fathead” Newman and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson; the blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King; the folk lyricism of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell; the songwriting genius of Cindy Walker and Leon Payne, the immeasurable contribution of rock pioneers Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, the country innovators Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and Billy Joe Shaver; the phenomenon that was Janis Joplin, the guitar genius of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the wizardry of innovative guitarist Eric Johnson, the country-rock-blues of the savant Doug Sahm, the psychedelic pioneering of the 13th Floor Elevators, the conjunto magic of Flaco Jiminez, and the vocal elegance of Tejano’s Lydia Mendoza and Selena.

Texans have traditionally been fierce individualists, and that shows in their musical independence. And I love seeing that in today’s crop of younger musicians and singers and bands. I know that when I was growing up, for a boy to make it in the world, he needed to pick up either a football or a guitar. Failing that, he just might as well pick up a wrench or a hammer for a living. A certain mental toughness was always required.

Music is not in the water in Texas. It’s in the sky. In the Big Sky heritage, to be more precise, where the land rolls on forever and the world seems limitless. There was always an almost mystical sense of space and freedom under that big sky.

It was part of my irresponsible early youth and I certainly hope that no one lives like this today, but my friends and I often measured Texas distances in the number of bottles of frosty cold Pearl or Lone Star that it would take to get from here to there. How far from Austin to Houston? Oh, about four beers apiece. Houston to Dallas? That’d be about a six-pack each. Houston to El Paso? Amount varies according to user. A lot. To this day, I couldn’t tell you the exact distances in miles.

Rich L.A. twits who moved to the Hill Country around Austin to buy second homes used to sport bumper stickers reading “I Wasn’t Born In Texas But I Got Here As Soon As I Could.” Twits. They’re lucky they still have bumpers on their SUVs.

The “GTT” tradition is an old one, though. The first instances of GTT, as far as I can tell, were found in the 19th century, most predominantly on houses in the Midwest and South, particularly in Tennessee, which was a fellow musical state and one which supplied many fighters for the Texas War of Independence.

“GTT” were large letters usually painted on or carved into the doors of abandoned houses. They stood for “Gone to Texas,” and they signaled to friends that the inhabitants had lit out for what they hoped would be a better life in Texas. Many of them found it. In many instances, they took their music with them and found even more of it waiting for them.

When I went to school, Texas history was taught, and it still is. They should just throw a little music history in there with it. I’ve noticed that musicians who know, and appreciate, music history, often want to improve upon it. And they often do.