January Exchange: Texas Country Music (& Other Americana Stories)

Evan Felker of Turnpike Troubadours

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

Editor’s Note: Jeff Dennis is a singer-songwriter in Lubbock, Texas. As one of my good friends, we typically talk about music on a daily basis. While it’s commonly either through text message or on Monday Nights at The Blue Light, we’ve decided to make the exchanges of ideas and commentary into a monthly piece. Here’s our first official one. Follow Dennis on Twitter here.

Mooney: It’s 2017. That basically means for the last 20ish years, Red Dirt and Texas Country has been in the lexicon. I know. Most people are probably going to argue that The Great Divide, Robert Earl Keen, Bob Childers, Tom Skinner, Jerry Jeff Walker, etc all made records and music before then. And while true, I think we can all agree that the genres and scene weren’t really a bankable commodity until we were in a Post-Ragweed & Green world. This is going the long way around to get to saying, the last Galleywinter piece had some great points about the evolution of this scene–really how that first wave of folks are getting old. There really isn’t a pretty way to say it. Hell, it’s strange how even just 20 years ago, the difference between Texas Country and Red Dirt was tangible and more concrete. Now, people just use Texas Country as a catchall. In some cases, it’s like a more offensive and blander version of being called Americana. Anyways, Brad Beheler says the last true innovators of the scene were Turnpike and Bingham. I’d agree (you know, because the Cobb crew isn’t a part of this scene the way a lot of people desperately want it to be). Innovative. Who’ll be the next? Who’s actually doing it now?

Dennis: What Pat Green proved, followed soon after by Ragweed, was that Texas (& Red Dirt) music was a business model in and of itself. JJW, REK, & Great Divide built up their craft and then ultimately got signed and subsequently established themselves nationally. PG proved that you could sell 100,000 records out of the back of your van, and build up a following in Texas & surrounding states that was a good living (soon to be a better living than many label deals, which started to dry up around the same time). I think that movement was very exciting, as reflected in the Beheler piece. What Pat did was really turn Texas into a product that music fans bought in large numbers. You can still make a buck off writing the next “Texas” song, but it seems fewer artists are taking that route and more bands are playing the TX/OK circuit while working to avoid the explicit “Texas Country” label. I think bands like Shane Smith & the Saints, Strangetowne, John Baumann, & Grady Spencer & the Work have brought new ideas to the scene, yet they all go in their own direction. But perhaps that’s the world we live in–where the 22-year-olds grew up listening to about every genre and so they’re more likely to be drawn to something different rather than judging whether something is “Texas” enough for their tastes.

Mooney: That’s the beauty and the curse of the whole thing, isn’t it? Most see that “Texas Country” engulfed Red Dirt pretty early on. But what they might not realize is how Texas Country essentially swallowed up the all other smaller genre labels happening in and around Texas as well. Bands playing folk, blues, alt-country, rock & roll, etc all gradually became known as Texas Country–or they decided they’d rather take their chances known as “Americana.” And that’s where all the exciting material really does happen. It’s the on the fringes of “Texas Country” where all the fresh, cutting edge stuff is being made. It’s why the likes of Paul Cauthen, Red Shahan, Courtney Patton, Jonathan Tyler, Wilkerson, Jamie Wilson, Jonny Burke types (and the ones you listed) are cutting edge for one reason or another. They’re fringe characters who are only associated with the label of “Texas Country.” They’re not bound to label and haven’t let TC dictate what they’re going to do next. Those folks are getting outside of Texas and playing. Now, obviously part of why Turnpike, Bingham, Reckless Kelly, Hayes, Musgraves etc are more well-known nationally is because they’re talented, but it’s also because they didn’t get consumed with the Weekend Warrior Texas circuit. 

I’m rambling now. Question: We agree that chasing the easy buck of writing a Texas song has gotten cliché and lazy. Even still, I think it’s a bit of like a right of passage for some of these Texas songwriters–if Gary P. Nunn has “London Homesick Blues,” by god, I’ve gotta have one too. OK. So if that’s the Texas songwriter trope, but’s the Oklahoma songwriter trope?

This songwriter kills fascists.

Dennis: Such a great question. I think Oklahoma songwriters get a certificate from the estate of Woody Guthrie that charges them with not writing cliché songs, or else we’d have “Red Dirt, Red State, Redneck” and “I Fought the Law (and Lawton PD won).” Maybe Oklahomans resent Texan’s grandiose ideas about their state? Or maybe they just decided as long as everyone gets to write a verse to “Boys from Oklahoma,” that would suffice. Of course, there are plenty of songs about Oklahoma, but there is a warmth to their mention in a John Moreland, John Fullbright, or Turnpike song that feels less cheap than your typical Texas song. What differs about those three is of course, Fullbright & Moreland didn’t use the Texas scene as a vehicle to notoriety, whereas Turnpike did, and has arguably changed the scene more than any band the past 10 years. Geographically, the major venues in Oklahoma are not more than a few hours apart, compared to some absurdly long distances in Texas that I’m sure your cousin has posted about in a Facebook meme. Whereas just about every city in Texas has a “Texas country” venue, the Folk/Americana scene doesn’t have much critical mass beyond Austin/Dallas/Houston/(Marfa). Most Austin Americana artists never play Lubbock or other smaller cities, and it’s really hard for a Lubbock band to get a show in Austin. And if you finally do get that gig at North Austin Discount Tire, no one comes out. I think it’s easier for an artist in OKC or Tulsa to focus on those larger urban areas and work the Midwest and Nashville (plus Austin), whereas in Texas there’s a $300 gig to be found in every town above 10,000 people. You take the money and play what they want to hear instead of trying to win over those crowds with your sad experimental Americana.

Mooney: I think the Woody Guthrie thing is the real root of Oklahoma’s songwriting integrity. The Woody and Bob Wills lineage is something they covet and take pride in. Which, you’d think Texans would take pride in the Woody and Wills (God I hope no one writes a song with that as the title) heritage just as much as Oklahomans since both have Texas ties. What you get though is only a few mentions of Woody’s New Year’s resolutions and Bob Wills Day every year. On the OK side, there’s the Woody Guthrie Folk Fest and what not. 

Now this is going to sound like Texan exceptionalism at its’ finest. But I think it may play into why this is. Texas just has too many great classic songwriters. It’s Willie, Guy, Townes, Kristofferson, Shaver, etc. They transcend Texas. They’re, in many ways, larger than life personas. Oklahoma songwriters on the other hand, they feel more like the common man. They’re small town and closer to the bone. I think the Fullbright, McClure, Boland, Canada, Felker, Moreland, Millsap, Bryon White, etc of the world cling onto their own a little tighter than a lot of the bigger Texan stars do to their heroes.

Dennis: Texceptionalism: “we’re the biggest (Alaska doesn’t count), and the best, and we’d never live anywhere else (and have never been anywhere else)” mentality. Turns out there’s a huge music market for telling people how great Texas is. And even Guy, Willie, Waylon, etc, sang about Texas. Yet, Texas Country sort of took a turn when it started singing songs about people singing songs about Texas (“Ol’ Guy Clark can be like a coat from the cold”). I’m sure there’s bad music in Oklahoma, and maybe those people just don’t hit our radar as much. There’s seven times more people in Texas than in Oklahoma and so many more venues. Maybe it just feels like we’re overloaded with guys singing about drinking Lone Star while watching the Cowboys in their Nocona boots because of proximity.

So are the worst elements of “Texas Country” just another form of bro country?

Mooney: Exactly. People don’t want to admit that Texas Country contributed to Bro Country just as much as the Nashville machine did. It’s mainly because–in a strange, bizzaro world way–Bro Country is a form of Outlaw Country. Kind of like how Nu Metal (Korn, Limp Bizkit) wouldn’t have come along without Grunge. Kevin Fowler and Granger Smith have more than dabbled in Bro Country.

I said it back when Guy passed away last year. Guy Clark wrote songs about Texas without ever pandering to the idea of songs about Texas being a commodity. I get that everyone isn’t a Guy Clark–or even wants to be for that matter–but that’s really the whole point, isn’t it? All the most successful Oklahoma guys deep down wish they could be the modern Woody, Wills, Leon, Childers, or McClure. The most successful Texas guys all just want to copy REK’s singalong anthems and tattered rasp.

Songwriting Royalty

Dennis: (Did you mean to say Granger has Dibbled in Bro Country?)

Honestly that speaks to a key point of music. It’s to entertain people and to fulfill them in some way they seek. People don’t go out on Friday night looking to hear “The Randall Knife.” They generally go out to let loose and have a good time, and so bands generally meet them where they are. The people we’ve discussed who push the envelope can broaden the musical horizons of the mainstream, but that just moves the boundaries. And I think that’s what makes it hard to predict the next big thing. Who knew the intro to Baumann’s “Bay City Blues” would resonate so much on radio? I would have told you ahead of time that it was just too far out there for Texas radio. Some of us get addicted to trying to find that next game changer, because after they change things, it’s never the same. You can only read Bukowski the first time once. The beauty of the game changer is, they can’t just be weird for the sake of weird, because novelty acts typically don’t change things. It’s part calculation of stepping a foot outside the mainstream, part luck, and a whole lot of work to convince people what you’re doing is worthwhile. To me, that’s why when everyone agrees on who is going to be the next Isbell, Sturgill, or Stapleton, it’s probably the case that person isn’t going to be the next one. Now everyone has influences, but Turnpike wasn’t the next Bingham, they were just the Turnpike Troubadours. If you think you’re the next Turnpike, turn around and go the other direction.

Mooney: Agreed. There’s not an algorithm to predict who is “next.” It’s kind of like evolution, right? Like somehow we went down this path: Jerry Jeff Walker–>Robert Earl Keen–>Pat Green–>Randy Rogers Band –>Some Kid, Somewhere. I’m sure there’s some steps missing in there if you want to get technical. And it doesn’t mean they didn’t find other influences along the way. But one way or another, that’s an evolutionary pattern. It doesn’t mean Rogers is ripping anyone off. It just means, in a way, we’ve seen this before. I don’t think you can say that about a Turnpike. That’s the original model. But now, you’re seeing a class of bands who you could say are the Turnpike 2.0s in Shane Smith & Flatland. (Note: With Jerry Jeff, it also branched out into a Todd Snider path. Jonny Burke seems to be the next evolutionary step down that way.)

There’s really only one major problem with this though. You can get a few steps away from the innovating pioneer and it can be a lost cause. Easiest example of that is the vocal techniques in the line of Jerry Jeff to RRB. JJW and REK naturally sound that way because they’re not traditionally great singers. What happens a few years from now when some kid is trying to do his Randy Rogers impression and just sounds like a nasally yelper because he’s faking it? I guess what I’m saying is, at some point, our T. Rex is going to end up a chicken.

The Great Gonzo

Dennis: So now we’ve stumbled upon something most people in the TX/OK scene don’t talk a lot about–and that is the fact that part of what makes it a scene for the common man/woman is you don’t have to have a Nashville caliber voice. A select few, perhaps Jason Boland or Randall King, have the vocal tone/range of a Nashville vocalist, but otherwise, most of the vocalists are distinct and have developed their own vocal style, often not one with the technical capabilities of a trained singer. My family listened to Conway Twitty, Glen Campbell, up to George Strait. To them, any voice that didn’t meet those standards wasn’t good music. In fact, they often claimed not to be able to understand the words of said artists. Having limits on vocal range can lead to different innovations. I remember hearing that Townes supposedly said, re: people covering his songs that Don Williams, e.g., can sing his songs however he wants, but Townes himself would sing them how they were supposed to sound (wish I had a source for that). This is also why your incredibly talented high school friend who moved to Nashville never made it big. In a city filled to the brim with the best voices in the country, singing other people’s songs, you’re up against a thousand others doing the same thing. In TX/OK, we get people with a personally tailored sound. Even if Pat Green or Randy Rogers isn’t the greatest singer ever, they found a way to connect with people, which ties back to an earlier point. Music is about connecting with your audience, and a lot of guys in Texas have found a way to make a living playing original music, independent of record labels, because they figured out how to connect with people using the skills they have.

For the sake of the song

Mooney: Excellent point. This is a semi-connected observation. We’ve talked about these “Watershed Years” for some folks. I’ve thrown out that basically each year, a band or artist has a breakthrough. Once they’ve broken through, it goes to the whole “You’re only able to read Bukowski the first time once” thing. You’ve graduated to another level. You’re not watersheding twice–You may innovate more than once, but you’re not having to constantly break on through more than really that first time. (There’s other ways to get to that level, but I’m not going to go through that now.) Typically, it’s a record that does it for you. We’ll go with:

2010: Ryan Bingham Crazy Heart mainly, Junky Star
2011: Hayes Carll KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories)
2012: Turnpike Troubadours Goodbye Normal Street & John Fullbright From The Ground Up
2013: Jason Isbell Southeastern & Kacey Musgraves Same Trailer Different Park
2014: Sturgill Simpson Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
2015: Chris Stapleton Traveller
2016: Lori McKenna The Bird & the Rifle and Margo Price Medwest Farmer’s Daughter

Those folks all, for the most part tapped into and perfected whatever specific thing they did well in those years. And for the most part, they all have transcendent vocals. They may not be right on par with Whitley, Strait, Campbell, Dolly, etc but they are, for the most part, within a few steps. Question: How much of their success is tied to them having Top 40 Nashville-Lite voices? Is that just a prerequisite one must have to achieve success with the masses?

Dennis: Personally, I see a mix of both pure & cultivated vocalists in that list. Hayes Carll has maximized the utility of his voice, whereas Sturgill seems to have all the tools of the best vocalists, but his challenge was figuring out how to rein it in. Neither one would be interesting to me if they were singing “Huntin, Fishin’ & Loving Everyday” (Side note: It annoys me that Luke Bryan abbreviates this is as “HFE”), but “Beaumont” and “Pan Bowl” can damn near bring me to tears. Still. 

Men & Vintage Neon Signs

Mooney: That’s probably the right answer. They’re all playing with loaded decks. We’ve already said it a handful of times–that it’s difficult to next to impossible to foresee who the next innovator and/or Watershed Year winner. But staying on the sidelines isn’t really fun. Speculating and predicting is where the fun is. Who’s your Starting Five when it comes to “Most Likely to be the next innovator and/or Watershed Year winner?”

Picks have to currently meet two out of the three following qualifiers: Less than 20K Facebook likes, less than 10K on Twitter, and/or less than 50K plays on Spotify.

I’m going in no particular order: 1) John Moreland, 2) Red Shahan, 3) Paul Cauthen, 4) Colter Wall, 5) Kaitlin Butts five years from now.

Moreland is about as safe a pick as there is out there. Right now, he’s in that Isbell Here We Rest spot. Red and Cauthen are both guys I’ve been high on for about ever. If asked five years ago, they’d have both been on my list then too. Wall kind of has that movie boost in the same way Bingham got with Crazy Heart. And Butts, her first record is filled with Musgraves-esque quirks, but I think she’s finding her own path soon enough.

Course, we’ll both be wrong and it’ll end up being some virtually unknown chopping wood in Eastern Oklahoma or Western Arkansas. 

Dennis: Or one of us will end up being the guy who predicted a 2016 Cubs World Series in his 1993 year book.

So it seems we’re talking watershed beyond the Texas/Red Dirt scene (which is an entirely different prediction), and I’m going to purposely try not to duplicate yours (except Moreland). Further, your watershed list is a mix of people we knew about for 10 years before their breakout (Isbell) and people who rocketed up very quickly (Sturgill). Should I include Sam Outlaw just to see if I catch a mouthful of fire from a certain Houston music writer? Probably not. I still don’t get California country post-Dwight. I’m not including any bands here, because if I do, they will break up within a year.

1) John Baumann, 2) Lydia Loveless, 3) Cory Branan, 4) Parker Millsap, 5) John Moreland

I have one artist I would love to predict publicly, but this person is so new they don’t have a record out yet, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to mention them. I’m letting New Slang know who it is, just one name, and that’s my Hail Mary pass.

And our collective pick: Someone backed by and/or connected to The Texas Gentlemen.

Mooney: So that’s either Quaker City Night Hawks, Kirby Brown, Cauthen, Jonathan Tyler, Larry Gee, K. Phillips, Dovetail, Wesley Geiger, The Misteries, Rise & Shine, Bad Mountain, and/or Kris Kristofferson.

Texas Gentlemen