ZZ Top is far more than just a band where the guy named Beard is clean-shaven, and the other guys were bizarrely hirsute. As well, they’re more than just a band with seductive music videos. Ultimately, they’re sonically the link between how all of country’s disparate roads unified to develop the genre’s most lucrative pop sound.
In its entirety, the state of Texas is roughly half as big as the Appalachian Mountain area. This should impact any conversation about the essential importance of ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Frank Beard, and Dusty Hill to expanding country music’s reach deep into the rock and pop worlds. Thinking about the impact of combining Texas, as one state representing roughly half of country music’s ancestral birth region, perfectly frames the possibility of their impact.
ZZ Top’s international star-making turn resulted from the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger being a fan of the Houston country trio’s 1971-released debut, ZZ Top’s First Album. On the record, Gibbons, Beard, and Hill played their cover of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” a song that largely pays homage to the bluesy, funky Muscle Shoals, Alabama-style rock and roll boogie that was related to the FAME Studios responsible for Aretha Franklin’s single “Respect,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Etta James’ (later Janis Joplin-covered) “Tell Mama,” and Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” The New York Times once referred to the Muscle Shoals sound as “indigenous American music, a distinctly Southern amalgamation of rhythm & blues, soul, and country music.”
Jagger’s interest in the trio led to them playing three shows as The Stones’ openers in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1972.
“Everybody on the planet wanted to land three shows with The Rolling Stones in Hawaii, and somehow it was ZZ Top. We were so glad,” noted Billy Gibbons to rock historian Eddie Trunk in a 2019 interview. “We flew over, we took the stage – early on, we had our little cowboy hats and our cowboy boots – took the stage, the lights came up… everybody gasped. They said, ’Oh my god, they’re a country band!’ [Laughs] So, I turn around to Frank [Beard, drums], and I said, ’We need to hit it, fellows.’ So, we did.”
How ZZ Top’s ability to carry Texas’ take on the mainstream’s acceptance of blues, soul, and country music occurs is fascinating and explains much of the modern era of how Texas — as a state-as-inspiration — in general, influenced country music’s entrenchment in pop music, to this day.
The progression of country music from Appalachian folk music twisted with Black and indigenous call-and-response roots to Southern-fried rock is a fascinating four-decade evolution. However, expanding those roots into Texas — as not an American state, but rather a multi-ethnic, genre-agnostic polyglot of sound, style, and influences — highlights how things get wild, strange and weird, but eventually sound uniquely fantastic.
The blues’ expansion past the Mississippi Delta into Texas involves the first generation of wholly free African-Americans, at the onset of the Great Depression, risking it all and moving from the Midwest to the South to work in oilfields, ranches, and lumber camps, but bringing their guitars along for the ride. That blends with soul music dovetailing with the explosion of rock and roll as a genre in the early 1950s, nationwide. However, when country music gets involved, the sound soars over the top.
ZZ Top’s roots from playing the bar scene in Houston, Texas, are important to the conversation. Texas, as previously noted, is enormous. Between 1970-1980, the state’s population jumped from 10-15 million people; thus, its sheer size (and related diverse population) began to impact its music profoundly. College-age hippies liked the electrified blues-rock of Janis Joplin and Willie Nelson’s smooth yet rambunctious outlaw country style. Tejano artists like Freddy Fender brought the intricate melodies familiar to that genre. Also, R & B stood separate but equal to these sounds. For a group like ZZ top to satisfy crowds comprising all these people by nimbly discovering the through lines that could unify that — and their interests, simultaneously — opened a door.
But what about country music? ZZ Top’s mix of those previously-mentioned styles dovetailed incredibly with the genre’s soaring popularity in the 1970s and how the popularity impacted popular music. It’s an inarguable point that when Texas’ take on country got involved, the most sustainable road ahead for country music as a pop style emerged.
Disco marries with country music on songs like Kentucky quintet Exile’s 1978 one-hit-wonder “Kiss You All Over.” Soul blends with country music for Kenny Rogers’ Lionel Richie-penned “Lady” in 1980 and expanded for him into Dolly Parton and Sheena Easton duets on “Islands In The Stream” and “We’ve Got Tonight” in 1983. Though all of those accomplishments are impressive, between 1973-1990, ZZ Top sold 20 million albums in the United States alone. This included three Billboard Hot 100 chart top-20 singles and 11 top-10 Billboard Mainstream Rock chart singles. So if looking for the artists most responsible for birthing what’s become pop’s most sustainable country style, it’s ZZ Top.
ZZ Top’s 1983-released album Eliminator sold 10 million-plus copies in the United States and contained their timelessly beloved hits “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs.” It’s in legendary journalist Robert Christgau’s review of the album that how ZZ Top evolved country music becomes apparent and defines the genre’s pop music future — that’s still evolving in ZZ Top’s image — as well:
“Arena-rockers who never forgot heavy metal was once white blues, they took a long vacation and resurfaced as a fine white blues band starring a guitarist who always sounds like himself. Now, with [hit music] b.p.m.s speeding the groove, they’ve motivated back toward metal again–boogie in overdrive, a funny car that’s half platinum and half plutonium. The videos make you smile, the record runs you over. That’s the pleasure of it.”