No state is more musical than Texas, whose very geography seems to hum. Cities remind you of songs and so it’s easy to break into a medley of “San Antonio Rose,” “El Paso,” “Streets Of Laredo,” “Amarillo By Morning,” “Galveston,” “La Grange” and “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer To You)” while checking out the ol’ Rand McNally.
Some towns, meanwhile, remind you of the great musicians who couldn’t wait to get out. Port Arthur conjures visions of Janis Joplin freaking out the rednecks and it’s impossible to see Wink on a map without imagining Roy Orbison slipping on his first pair of shades or Corsicana without hearing Lefty Frizzell’s pure honky tonk tenor cutting through the air of a rowdy roadhouse. Centerville? That’s where the great gritty blues giant Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins is from. Baytown gave the world Chitlin’ Circuit kingpin Joe Tex, a virtuoso of the mike stand, “skinny legs and all.”
Certain burgs stand for the greats who never left. Temple = Little Joe Hernandez, Navasota is where Mance Lipscomb lived and died, Long John Hunter was the border blues lord of El Paso and Juarez, while Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters made their small history in Taylor.
The wide open spaces of rural Texas are reminiscent of what the best Lone Star songwriters, from Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Elliott Smith and Cindy Walker to Steve Earle, Jack Rhodes, Guy Clark, Kasey Musgraves, Sonny Throckmorton and many more have chosen to leave out of their songs.
A myth born of John Wayne movies and stoked by big hair, big cars and loud proclamations, has been made real by musical pioneers. Texans were the first to record a country tune (Amarillo’s Eck Robertson in 1922), the first to play electric guitar on record (Eddie Durham of San Marcos in 1935), the first to explore “free jazz,” as Fort Worth alto sax player Ornette Coleman’s idiocyncratic experimentations were dubbed in the late ’50s.
The original national recording stars of blues and country were Texans. Before he froze to death on a Chicago street in 1929, Wortham’s Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded nearly 100 country blues tunes for Paramount Records. Vernon Dalhart, who took his name from two Texas towns he visited in his youth, was the first country singer to sell a million records, with “The Prisoner’s Song” b/w “The Wreck of the Old ‘97” in 1925.
Lubbock’s Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the first self-contained rock combo to write and co-produce their hits, inspiring a British Invasion a few years later. (The Beatles name was in homage to the Crickets). Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours plugged in a guitar and took the honky tonk sound nationwide with “Walkin’ the Floor Over You” in 1941, six years before the debut of Hank Williams. The country’s first blues guitar hero was T-Bone Walker of Oak Cliff; it’s first great electric jazz guitarist was Bonham native Charlie Christian.
In the gospel field, a trinity of Texans — Blind Willie Johnson, Washington Phillips and Arizona Dranes — were putting religious lyrics to blues progressions before “the father of gospel” Thomas A. Dorsey first mixed spiritual lyrics with a secular rhythm.
Both boogie woogie piano, originally known as the “fast Texas” style, and psychedelic rock originated in the Lone Star State. George W. and Hersal Thomas, the brothers of Houston-raised blues great Sippie Wallace, popularized boogie woogie in the early ’20s, while Austin’s 13th Floor Elevators were making acid rock back when LSD was still legal.
Would bebop have happened when and where it did if sax player Henry “Buster” Smith wasn’t lured from Dallas to Kansas City in 1925 to join the Blue Devils? You may have heard of Smith’s protege Charlie Parker. And while New Orleans is rightfully designated the birthplace of jazz, there’s no denying that Scott Joplin of Texarkana provided the template with his syncopated ragtime compositions in the late 19th century.
Texas is where music is made for dancing, where the rowdy, exuberant crowds have coaxed musicians to play louder, first out of necessity and later because the added power expanded the boundaries. The frontier mentality has always rewarded those who go just a little further.
Money, independence, big noise and dirt: that’s Texas, a land of opportunity within the land of opportunity. It’s where the South ends and the West begins and yet Texas remains independent of those regions.
Texas is a state of immigrants, with a geography as diverse as its people. Mexicans brought Spanish guitars to the picking fields, the Czechs and Germans brought accordions to their dancehalls and the sons and daughters of slaves brought the rhythm that screamed to be free. To the musical gumbo, add the Cajuns settling in East Texas, and the church folk with rock n’ roll in their soul. This is the first state to have a sizable population of both African-Americans and Mexican-Americans, so both cultures made a huge imprint on the music. And cowboy movies, popular with all races and ages, gave Texas a lot to live up to. This is where blacks played country, farm boys played big band jazz, Hispanics played rock ’n’ roll and everyone played the blues.
The size of the dancehalls required bands to go larger, with drums and electric guitar. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys set a high standard when they barnstormed in the ‘30s and ‘40s, replacing the horns of Big Band with fiddles and steel guitar. They swung a big beat and after that you had to come with force or the crowd would talk right over you. You had to get them on the dancefloor. That defines Texas music as well as anything.
Of course, Texas is not the only state which can boast incredible musical heroes. Mississippi had the Delta blues and Elvis Presley — and everything else is gravy. Louisiana’s incredible musical heritage includes everyone from Louis Armstrong to Jerry Lee Lewis to Lightnin’ Slim and his brother-in-law, Slim Harpo. Even Minnesota could warrant it’s own book of true heroes, with chapters on such unique talents as Bob Dylan, Prince, Husker Du and the Replacements.
But Texas stands out for its sheer number of musical pioneers, spanning several genres. The range is spectacular and it seems that for every superstar like Fats Domino or Ray Charles or Prince, there are Texans like jump blues pioneer Amos Milburn of Houston, blues/jazz pianist Charles Brown of Texas City, or Sly Stone of Denton and his cousin Larry Graham of Beaumont, who showed them the way.
And with Houston native Beyonce Knowles and, more recently, Post Malone of Grapevine ruling the pop music marketplace, the Lone Star continues to shine in the musical galaxy. Like football, music has mattered here forever, going from pasttime to tradition. Born as a diversion, then growing up to something that people do for a living, music is just a way of life in Texas.