Top Ten Texas Recordings
ere in Austin, O. Henry's “City of the Violet Crown,” we carry our mantra like change in our pockets. We stencil it, official-like, on our signs. It's printed on our cigarettes, heel-ground all down the Red River sidewalks. “Live Music Capital of the World.” We've compiled a decent roster: Spoon, Single Frame, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray. But I don't buy tickets. I buy records. Here's a list of ten pioneering Lone Star recording sessions (that apparently don't involve outlaw country).
10. Brutal Juice, Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult (Pedernales, 1995)
The working title was Everything's Coming Up Toilets until the Juice happened upon the putrefying remnants of a slain man in Pace Bend Park, about 30 miles west of my hometown of Austin. “Body’s Mutilation Makes Identification Difficult,” trumpeted the headline in the Austin American-Statesman; inspired, the band dropped the possessive and the new title was born. The album itself has since been trumpeted by benighted kingmakers as a harrowing, grinningly intricate rock epic. At the time, though, un-Green Day-like sales were the dread angel’s bowl, and the band dissipated within the year. One hell of a record.
09. Narciso Martinez and Santiago Almeida, “La Chicharronera” (San Benito, 1936)
Martinez grew up in the Rio Grande valley listening to four-piece stringed bands called orquestas típicas. However, he was drawn to the accordion, and as an adult spent time among the Czech and German immigrants in the mid-state Hill Country, learning instrumental techniques. With bajo sexto player Almeida, Martinez developed the conjunto style, a working-class mix of Bavarian polka and Mexican ranch songs. “La Chicharronera” (“The Crackling”) was their first single in this style, and Martinez remained both a pioneer and ambassador of conjunto until his death in 1992. Often referred to simply as tejano music, it is an essentially joyous form that has proven remarkably durable, although its influence has eroded with the increasing influence of transplanted Mexican nationals.
08. Lift to Experience, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (Argyle, 2001)
Ensconsed as I am in Austin, Texas’ national reputation is easily cast out of mind. My Travis County was the only—the only—one in the state to vote against this year’s constitutional gay marriage ban. We’re a big ol’ college town, a hippie bastion from way back when. Hell, most of the decade’s newcomer influx is Californian transplants, a sort of reverse-Joad play. Anyway, we’re too busy with our heads up our asses to throw more than a few sanctimonious signs against the quaint conservatism statewide, embedded like limestone in the general geology. We’d be better served tossing a hallelujah Josh Pearson’s way. In one two-album stroke, Lift to Experience distilled a volatile ‘shine from eschatological angst, prairie mythos, and Leslie cabinet magic. The 4AD aesthetic meets the Marfa Lights; heck, call it bootgazer.
07. John Lomax, “Home on the Range” (San Antonio, 1910)
Actually, the credit belongs to a black saloonkeeper in San Antonio, whose rendition of “Home,” penned by Brewster Higley in 1873, was recorded on an Edison cylinder and transcribed for Lomax’s book Cowboy Songs and Other Ballads. The book was a national hit, setting “Home on the Range” firmly in the American consciousness as the unofficial anthem of the Texas plains. From this success, Lomax would eventually birth the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song, and work with the gentleman at number 4.
06. The Big Boys/The Dicks, Live at Raul’s Club (Austin, 1980)
Not necessarily either band’s peak, but the point is punk. The Sex Pistols’ 1978 gig at Randy’s Rodeo (in San Antone) is generally accepted as the Big Bang of Texas punk. The Pistols shocked a lot of hands into action nationwide; but whether it was something in the mescaline or the general hippie fog over Austin during the 1970s and ‘80s, Lone Star hardcore was a different breed than the coastal varieties. The Dicks and the Big Boys were prime examples, each featuring an openly gay—and immensely entertaining—frontman (Gary Floyd and Randy “Biscuit” Turner, respectively) within a subculture that paraded a rigid definition of masculinity. While the Dicks tended toward bullet train screeds against racism and militarism (much like fellow Austinites MDC, of “John Wayne Was a Nazi” fame), the Big Boys mixed a heady potion of funk, punk, and inclusion. “Go start your own band,” Turner’d yell at the end of shows, but few takers could equal the ass-wigglin’ fury of “Spit,” “Red/Green,” or the Boys’ cover of Kool and the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging,” complete with horns. The Chili Peppers are obvious followers, and sister band Minutemen were kindred spirits. Mudhoney used to close shows with the Dicks’ “Hate the Police”. A Dischord-heavy collection shouldn’t be missing this.
05. Buddy Holly, “”Love Me”/”Don’t Come Back Knockin’”/”Moonlight Baby"/”I Guess I Was Just a Fool”) (Lubbock, 1955)
Recorded for Decca Records, this set of originals (all but one written or co-written by Holly) achieved the desired effect, and Holly earned a one-way pass to Nashville. While Decca tried to force him into a country mold, eventually releasing him from his contract, Holly absorbed much from recording and touring. Upon returning to Lubbock, he formed the Crickets and cut a slew of quirky, punchy singles (in New Mexico, to be accurate). His hiccup and glasses are his enduring trademarks, but his meld of country and r’n’r, as well as his ability to write his own hits—a rarity in those days—were studied and replicated by a host of pupils, most famously the Beatles (who nicked the insect-name trope, too).
04. Leadbelly, “Governor Pat Neff” (Bowie County, 1925)
“If I had you Governor Neff, like you got me/I'd wake up in the morning and set you free,” claimed Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and despite gaining office on a “no pardons” platform, the guv was so moved by Leadbelly’s song, he sprung its author seven years into a 20-year sentence. Good friends with Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly nevertheless remained unrecorded until his recidivism flared up in 1930, landing him in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison for attempted homicide. John Lomax, traveling the South with his son Alan, dropped by Angola in July 1933 and was impressed by the prisoner with the brutal playing style and 500-song repertoire. Over the course of several visits, Leadbelly cut a number of sides, including a platter with “Goodnight Irene” (what would come to be his signature tune) and a retooled version of “Neff” addressed to Louisiana Governor OK Allen. The Lomaxes duly delivered the release petition; whether the song or Lead’s good behavior did the trick, he was released, moving to New York City, where he cut a number of classic blues (“Gallows Pole,” “They Hung Him on a Cross,” “The Midnight Special” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”) before succumbing to ALS in 1949. His output, much of which were adaptations of traditional tunes, was raided by white rock groups like Cream, Led Zep, and CCR in the 1960s, although Nirvana, the White Stripes, and British Sea Power (!) have all attempted renditions in recent years.
03. Washington Phillips, “Take Your Burden to the Lord” b/w “Lift Him Up, That’s All” (Dallas, 1928)
What’s he building in here? Eighty years out, we don’t even know the tools: possibly a Dolceola, maybe a fretless zither, or a Phonoharp. Perhaps it was his own creation, crafted to roll a gossamer flood of watery plucks, gently floating the arks of his streetcorner sermons. He sang plaintively and slyly about denominational foolishness, the fate of deceased saints, and playing-card debauchery, placing his firm stamp on a nascent gospel style in 18 celestial cuts. Phillips had an affecting, rough tenor, with an innate sense for translating spoken admonitions into gospel glory. “Take Your Burden to the Lord” was his big seller in ’28, selling 8,000 units before the Great Depression soured the sales of race records. Ry Cooder covered “Denomination Blues” in ’71, and both Gillian Welch and Palace Brothers have capably interpreted the angelic, falsetto’d “I Had a Good Father and Mother,” but Phillips is still due his support, like any apostle of the Lord.
02. Daniel Johnston, Retired Boxer (Austin, 1984)
This was the cassette Johnston handed to Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black under the guise of a gift. From there, Johnston’s prodigious, boombox-recorded output made the rounds of Austin’s cognoscenti, leading to his winning “Best Folk Act” in that year’s Austin awards poll. Since his nasal yelp and block-chording, not to mention the undeniably shitty sound quality of his cassettes, are willfully unconventional, his was a controversial pick. But those who got it really got it: the sweet, outsider perspective; the adolescent cosmology, even the peculiar washes of his keyboard via Sanyo tape became a tunnel into a remarkable man’s mind. This wasn’t Johnston’s personal soundtrack so much as his head turned inside out, violently contradictory impulses escaping like a winged eyeball in one of his drawings. Someone once said that listening to Johnston, one can hear the whole symphony. And it’s true: to call this outsider music is to debase the communal resonance in such doggedly idiosyncratic work.
01. Robert Johnson, “From Four Till Late” b/w “Hellhound On My Trail” (Dallas, 1937)
Could it be anyone else? The terrible daddy of the blues, Johnson unaccompanied could sound like two guitars and the shadow of death. Dead at 27, the Mississippi native left a towering vision of both hell and heartache, driven home by a beguiling playing style that depended on irregular meter, a boogie-woogie low-string line, and absolute control. Vocally, his froggy croon was at times seductive, haunted, playful, and ice-cold. This single, culled from his final recording session, is a neat primer to Johnson’s ethos. “From Four Till Late” is a rueful, laid-back blues about a trifler. “A woman is like a dresser,” he muses, “some man always ramblin' through its drawers.” But “Hellhound” is the show-stopper: an epic slouch from doom, Johnson shooting game at his lady with an eye to the hills. Wailing into the wind, the bluesman checks the signs: “I can tell the wind is risin'/ Leaves tremblin' on the tree/Hmm hmm mmm mmm/All I need's my little sweet woman/ And to keep my company…” Indispensable. Keep a copy in your glovebox, and one above the doorframe.