Texas has perhaps the most compelling music legacy in the country, and many of the state’s artists have become influential figures in popular music history. Texans have contributed essential volumes to the world’s music catalog by introducing and refining styles such as rhythm and blues, Western swing, Tejano, country, and rock. The state’s musical giants are recognizable by a single name—Buddy, Janis, Willie, Selena, and Beyonce—and each have influenced generations of future musicians while getting plenty of boots scootin’ and toes tappin’ in the process.
Texas’s documented musical history begins with its initial wave of settlers in the late 1800s. A fascinating mix of cultures, including German, African American, Czechoslovakian, Mexican, and Anglo, resulted in an equally intriguing blend of musical styles. The best-known types of music in the U.S. South—blues and country—evolved into new and intriguing genres when accompanied by a Texas twist. Appalachian “fiddle music” migrated westward with pioneers and merged with distinctly Texan influences such as yodeling, accordions, and 12-string guitar, resulting in unique styles such as Western swing, conjunto, and rockabilly.
One of Texas’s most influential musicians was Blind Lemon Jefferson, who introduced his signature country blues in the 1920s with his raw, potent track “Black Snake Moan.” Borrowing the flamenco-influenced guitar work he heard from Mexican migrant workers, Jefferson’s fast fingers and ear for melody inspired fellow Texas blues legends Huddy “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Their work paved the way for generations of Texas blues heroes, including Albert Collins, Freddy King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Buddy Guy. Legendary Austinite Stevie Ray Vaughan led a blues revival in the 1980s with his soulful guitar wizardry, scoring national hits with albums “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” and “In Step” before he was tragically killed in a 1990 helicopter crash at the age of 35.
A wholly distinct sound from Texas is conjunto music (a.k.a. Tejano, Tex-Mex, norteño), which combines accordion and 12-string guitar to produce lively dance melodies with South Texas soul. The style originated with Texas and Mexican working-class musicians who adopted the accordion and the polka from 19th-century German settlers. Conjunto music was popular along the Rio Grande and throughout Latin America for decades before artists began reaching larger audiences in the late 1960s. The genre’s best-known artist is Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez, who has performed with renowned acts such as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, and Carlos Santana.
Although country music has its true origins in Anglo-based folk balladry, Texans took the style and made it their own. Several of country music’s offshoots are Texas products, including Western swing, honkytonk, and outlaw country. Bob Wills pioneered the jazz-based Western swing style of music in the 1920s, and Ernest Tubb’s walking bass lines were a crucial component of 1940s honkytonk country. In the late 1960s, Austin became the laid-back capital of outlaw country in response to the slick, produced material coming out of Nashville. A raw and loose version of country music emanated from the city’s storied Armadillo World Headquarters, which regularly featured legendary outlaws like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Overall, Texas’s contributors to country music reads like a track listing from the style’s greatest hits: Gene Autry, Buck Owens, George Jones, Kenny Rogers, Larry Gatlin, Barbara Mandrell, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, George Strait, Mark Chestnutt, Lyle Lovett, and Pat Green (and that’s just volume one).
Rock n’ roll also received a big ol’ Texas brand on it during its formative years. Lubbock’s Buddy Holly and the Crickets refined the country-blues style into a distinct rockabilly sound, which influenced the Beatles in ways far beyond their insect-inspired name. Another West Texan, Roy Orbison, made an impact in Memphis with a smoother approach to rockabilly. Port Arthur’s Janis Joplin wowed Austin with her bluesy swagger in the late 1960s before moving to San Francisco, where she played a major role in solidifying the city’s psychedelic sound. In the 1970s, Texas contributed to the future classic rock scene with artists such as the Steve Miller Band, ZZ Top, and Don Henley (of The Eagles).
During the past 20 years, Texans continued to make their marks on myriad musical styles. Selena Quintanilla-Perez (1971–1995), known simply as Selena, led a surge in the Latino music scene’s popularity in the early 1990s with her dancy pop tunes that drew thousands of converts to her spirited shows. The Dixie Chicks rose from relative obscurity to become one of the world’s most popular country music acts with a sound inspired by traditional country, folk, and bluegrass. Their 1998 album “Wide Open Spaces” sold 12 million copies, becoming the best-selling album in country music history from a duo or group. Other significant Texas contributions to contemporary music in the early 21st century were Houston acts Destiny’s Child (rhythm and blues) and Paul Wall (rap), along with alternative rock bands from Austin such as Spoon and . . . Trail of Dead.
© Andy Rhodes from Moon Texas, 6th Edition