Texas Music: Its Roots, Its Evolution

Texas Music is diverse and vital as the state and its people. Updated 2 years ago
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Bob Wills

Bob Wills

Bob Wills.

By Jay Brakefield

Among the glories of Texas is its music, which is as diverse and vital as the state and its people. Woven into the musical fabric are country, blues, jazz, spirituals, gospel, rock 'n' roll, Tex-Mex, Cajun and the music of Czechs, Germans and other European immigrants.

These forms have not only coexisted, they have evolved and cross-pollinated as Texas has changed, becoming steadily more urban. Texas is the birthplace of Western swing, which incorporates elements of country, blues, pop, big-band jazz and Latin rhythms, and of conjunto, which combines traditional Mexican music with polkas and other European forms. Texas has nurtured zydeco, the music of French-speaking blacks, which has increasingly incorporated elements of rhythm and blues.

In Texas, you can catch a performance by Steve Jordan, who has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the button accordion. Or you can walk into a honky-tonk where a country singer in a cowboy hat is borrowing a verse from Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson about a woman who "may be in Ethiopia somewhere."

To many people, Texas music means country, so that seems an appropriate place to begin.

Country music

The white Americans who began to settle in Texas in the 1820s came primarily from elsewhere in the South, bringing with them the religious and secular music they had heard at home. Generally the music they listened to for entertainment and dancing was played on guitars, banjos and fiddles. Even here, the music was hardly a pure Anglo-Saxon strain. The banjo is apparently of African origin, and the fiddle has long had an identification with black as well as white musicians and was widely known as the devil's instrument – apparently because when a fiddle was playing, it was hard to keep still.

Distinctive regional characteristics developed in this transplanted music. Texas fiddlers generally use a relatively slow tempo and long, single-note bow strokes, permitting more variations on the melody. They tend to complement the rhythmic background provided by a guitar and possibly other instruments. Guitarists, too, developed their own style, using swinging rhythms and a greater variety of chords than the traditional I-IV-V progression that is standard in so much folk and dance music, black and white. These instrumental styles laid the groundwork for the Western swing and honky-tonk music of the 20th century.

These early Texas white musicians played primarily for dancing, often in people's homes. On a weekend night, furniture would be cleared out of several rooms for dancing to the music of local players. These were seldom professional musicians, but were usually fellow farmers who played as a sideline for a modest sum. Many also participated in fiddling contests, fierce competitions in which they honed their skills and enhanced their reputations. Often dancers moved to the music of just fiddle and guitar.

But sometimes musicians played in larger ensembles called string bands, which included instruments such as mandolin and banjo. In addition, particularly after the Civil War, Texans were exposed to musical entertainment through traveling tent and medicine shows, where they heard comedians (often in blackface) and popular songs of the day. And they heard the music of African-Americans, who sometimes performed for their masters on the plantation and sang to pass the time as they labored, both during and after slavery. Though most worship was segregated, many whites also had some exposure to African-American worship services, with their joyous interaction of preacher and congregation.

Whites and blacks alike throughout the South also had access to itinerant singing masters who taught a shape-note system, which uses symbols rather than standard musical notation, to indicate the pitch of the notes. At least one version, called "sacred harp" singing, is still heard in parts of rural Texas. And the Lone Star State, with its ranches and its cattle drives, had the tradition of cowboy music and dress, which certainly influenced the image of Texas country music and perhaps its sound as well.

Thus by the time the commercial music industry was born in the 1920s, the British folk songs that had formed the basis of early rural, white American music had already been cross-fertilized with a wide variety of music, black and white.

First country-music recording

Apparently, the first country musicians to record were fiddlers Alexander "Eck" Robertson of Amarillo and Henry Gilliland of Altus, Okla. Gilliland and Robertson, a legendary prize-winning performer, traveled to Virginia in June 1922 to play at a Civil War veterans' reunion. Then, probably on impulse, they went to New York and presented themselves at the Victor recording company – Robertson in a cowboy outfit, Gilliland in a Confederate uniform. They were granted an audition and allowed to record. The standout of the session was Robertson's recording of the dance tune "Sallie Gooden."

Robertson did not record again until 1930, but in 1923, the two men performed two songs on Fort Worth radio station WBAP: "Sallie Gooden" and another song Robertson had recorded, "Arkansas Traveler." In doing so, as Bill Malone points out in Country Music U.S.A.," Robertson "may have been the first country performer to 'plug' his recordings on a radio broadcast." With another 1923 broadcast, WBAP apparently began the tradition of "barn dance" radio shows that helped to popularize country music in cities throughout the country where Southerners migrated in search of work.

According to Malone, the birth of the country music industry can be traced to the June 1923 recording of another rural musician, Fiddlin' John Carson of north Georgia. Polk Brockman, manager of the phonograph section of an Atlanta department store, persuaded Ralph Peer of Okeh Records to record Carson. When Peer was skeptical, Brockman offered to buy 500 copies of the unpressed recording, which included "The Little Old Cabin in the Lane" and "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow."

To Peer's surprise, the 500 copies sold quickly, though the record was, in Malone's words, "uncatalogued, unadvertised, unlabeled and for circulation solely in the Atlanta area." Okeh pressed more copies, added the record to the catalog and promoted it. That November, the label brought Carson to New York to record 12 more numbers and signed him to an exclusive contract.

First country-music star

The first true country music star was Jimmie Rodgers, "the singing brakeman." Rodgers was from Mississippi, but lived the last several years of his life in Texas, first in Kerrville, then in San Antonio. His eclectic style, which included elements of jazz, blues and pop as well as his famous "blue yodel," would have a profound influence on later country musicians.

Bob Wills and Western swing

Perhaps the most distinctive strain to emerge from Texas, Western swing, fused the music of the house dances with a number of other styles. Bob Wills, often called the father of Western swing, began as a boy playing for dances in the Panhandle. His father, John Wills, was a fiddler who played for dances and in contests. In fact, his chief rival was none other than "Eck" Robertson. Bob Wills apparently got his famous "Ah-hah" holler from his father, for a disgusted Robertson once remarked after losing a contest to the older Wills, "He didn't outfiddle me. That damned old man Wills outhollered me," according to Charles R. Townsend's biography of Wills, San Antonio Rose.

Bob Wills also loved black music and once rode a horse 50 miles to hear the legendary "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith. In 1929, Wills moved to Fort Worth, where he performed in blackface with a medicine show and teamed up with guitarist Herman Arnspiger and singer Milton Brown in a group first called the Wills Fiddle Band, then the Aladdin Laddies and the Light Crust Doughboys.

The Doughboys were the creature of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, a future Texas governor and U.S. senator who was then president and general manager of Burrus Mill in Fort Worth. He used the band to advertise his flour – and not, contrary to many reports, as a vehicle for his political career.

The Doughboys became very popular via their daily radio show on KFJZ in Fort Worth. But after a dispute with O'Daniel, Wills left to form his own band, the Texas Playboys, which, ironically, moved its base of operations to Tulsa, Okla.

Brown, too, left and formed his own band, Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, which remained in Fort Worth and performed regularly at the Crystal Springs Dance Pavilion, a dance hall on White Settlement Road. Brown died young after a 1936 car accident on Fort Worth's Jacksboro Highway. Some scholars believe his role in the formation of Western swing has been slighted, and that the group he put together was really the first Western swing band. It included steel guitarist Bob Dunn, who may have been the first to amplify the instrument and who played in a jazzy style far removed from the "weeping steel" of later tears-in-your-beer country music. Dunn, it is said, made the steel guitar sound like a trombone.

Some of Wills' early recordings feature black-dialect humor straight from his medicine-show days. But his music became increasingly sophisticated, and in his pre-World War II heyday in Tulsa, he fronted a large group that included both fiddles and horns and that could play anything from country dance tunes to big-band jazz. Wills never learned to play the "hot" fiddle style he loved, but hired musicians who could. He was a terrific performer, though, keeping up a constant line of patter ("There's a man after my own heart – with a razor") and inspiring his musicians to innovative solos.

The long career of another Texan is illustrative of the diversity of Texas music. Adolph Hofner, who became a bandleader in the 1930s, actively performed until the '90s. Growing up in the South Texas Czech community of Praha, he spoke Czech before he spoke English, and played a wide-ranging repertoire that included Wills-style Western swing with Czech lyrics, Cajun waltzes and such Tex-Mex staples as "El Rancho Grande." Hofner died in June 2000.

After World War II, tastes changed, and Wills and other band leaders could no longer afford to carry large orchestras. Wills remained active until a 1973 stroke ended his career, but his later music was more country, more fiddle-oriented, and he spent much of his time performing in Las Vegas.

Honky-tonk and outlaw country music
Even before the war, a new wind was blowing through country music, a rougher, amplified sound played by small combos for dancing in urban honky-tonks. This sound was exemplified by the 1941 hit "Walking the Floor Over You" by Ernest Tubb, who had begun his career as a Jimmie Rodgers imitator.

Other Texas musicians had great success with this style, as well, including Corsicana-born Lefty Frizzell and Ray Price, who later changed his approach to the pop crooning favored by singers such as Tennessee's Eddy Arnold and fellow Texan Jim Reeves.

Honky-tonk, whose greatest star was Alabama-born Hank Williams, became virtually synonymous with country music through the mid-1950s, when it was knocked from its perch by another form of music that, ironically, it had helped to create: rock 'n' roll. The Nashville-based country music industry responded in the 1960s with music that crossed over into the mainstream and seemed to many like nothing more than country-flavored pop.

Texans Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were key players in the 1970s "outlaw country" movement, a fusion of country and rock that rebelled against Nashville's blandness. Nelson moved from Nashville to Austin and helped spawn that city's "progressive country" sound.

Today, as fads come and go, fans continue to support performers such as Nelson, Jennings and East Texan George Jones, whose way with a sad song has gained him a reputation as the greatest country singer around.

In addition, there's a neo-honky-tonk movement that includes such performers as Austin's Junior Brown, inventor of the "guit-steel," a combination of standard and steel guitars. Groups such as Asleep At The Wheel and Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys keep traditional Western swing alive. Other bands fuse honky-tonk with punk rock in big-city clubs, proving that country can go anywhere.

Blues, Jazz and Gospel

Some of the Southerners who settled in Texas brought their slaves with them. The singing of African-Americans as they worked long, hot hours on farms and plantations became a part of the larger culture. Black musicians sometimes played for whites, who listened or danced. And the minstrel show, consisting of musical and comedy numbers, became very popular after the Civil War. Both white and black minstrel troupes performed in blackface.

Roots of the blues
Black music in Texas, as elsewhere, retained some African characteristics, such as the use of polyrhythms, call-and-response patterns of singing and playing and the use of bent or slurred tones known as "blue notes." The field hollers and work songs of slavery were African also in that they were often sung by people working together and reflected a collective effort and consciousness.

But after Emancipation, a new individual consciousness was reflected in the music called the blues, often played by a lone man accompanying himself on a guitar.

No one really knows where or when the blues began, but it was widespread through the South and much of Texas by the turn of the 20th century. Generally a performer would sing a line, repeat it, then close the stanza with a rhyming line that often contained an ironic twist. Though this 12-bar form became the most common, eight- and 16-bar blues also existed.

Recordings of older musicians from the 1920s provide evidence of what early blues and other late-19th-century forms were like. Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, born in Gladewater about 1875, recorded when he was in his 50s, singing and playing the guitar and a wind instrument called the quills, or panpipes. One of his songs, "Fishing Blues," has been recorded by, among others, the 1960s rock band the Lovin' Spoonful.

Another such songster – one whose repertoire ranged from blues to ballads, dance tunes and religious songs – was Mance Lipscomb. The son of a country fiddler, he was born near Navasota in 1895. After working most of his life as a sharecropper, he was discovered by the folk-music crowd in the 1960s and enjoyed considerable popularity in the last years of his life.

Leadbelly and Blind Lemon
Also a significant figure was Huddie Ledbetter. "Leadbelly," as he was popularly known, was born in 1889 on the Louisiana side of Caddo Lake, which lies on the border of northeast Texas and northwest Louisiana. Leadbelly spent much of his life in Texas, in and out of prison.

Through the efforts of Texas folklorists John and Alan Lomax, Leadbelly left a rich legacy of recordings that, like Lipscomb's, cover a wide range of styles. He is best known for popularizing "Good Night, Irene," which, with somewhat sanitized lyrics, has become a pop standard.

After moving to the Dallas area around 1912, Leadbelly found his primary instrument, the 12-string guitar, and learned much about the blues from Blind Lemon Jefferson, who later became the first country blues recording star. Born in the farm community of Couchman 70 miles south of Dallas in 1893, the young Jefferson walked the roads around his home, playing for money on the streets and in the cafes and joints of the surrounding towns. He spent time in Mexia, where the local strip of black businesses was known as the Beat, playing both alone and in a string band with other musicians.

Bob Wills, born in 1905, spent the first eight years of his life in nearby Kosse, and it's possible that he heard the young Jefferson and other musicians such as Marlin's Blind Willie Johnson, who played slide guitar and sang in a powerful, gravelly voice in a style called "gospel blues" or "holy blues." Figures such as Johnson demonstrate that church music and the blues were more closely linked than the latter's designation as "the devil's music" would indicate.

Lemon Jefferson married a Mexia woman in 1927, but he also spent a lot of time in Dallas, playing up and down the Central railroad track in the Deep Ellum section that was the heart of that city's black community life.

Jefferson was certainly not the only such musician in the area. Blind Willie Johnson was in Dallas about the same time and made his first records there. And there were strolling string bands that played a wide repertoire ranging from blues to pop tunes. One such group, the Dallas String Band, included bass player Marco Washington, stepfather of future bluesman Aaron "T-Bone" Walker.

Jefferson attracted the attention of a Paramount record scout, thanks to the efforts of a local record-store and shine-stand owner named R.T. Ashford. From 1926 until 1929, Jefferson made regular trips to Chicago to record and achieved considerably popularity in the "race" market – records marketed exclusively to African-Americans. In addition to blues, he recorded a few spirituals under the name Deacon L.J. Bates.

Blind Lemon Jefferson died in Chicago in December 1929. Apparently he froze to death, though the circumstances of his death have never been fully explained. But his brief career exerted considerable influence on many performers who followed. One of his songs, "Matchbox Blues," was recorded years later by both rockabilly star Carl Perkins and the Beatles. He was buried in Wortham, and a marker erected years later pays tribute to him and his influence.

Jefferson's success opened the door to a flood of country blues recordings by a number of artists, including Texan "Little Hat" Jones, Alger "Texas" Alexander and J.T. "Funny Papa" Smith. Blind Lemon's dexterous guitar style featured single-string runs and unconventional phrasing – what one musician called "suspended time."

This style was a major influence on T-Bone Walker and other blues players who, starting in the mid-'30s, played the new electric guitar. Amplification allowed the instrument, once consigned to the rhythm section of a large band, to become a solo instrument. Walker's style of playing lead guitar in a call-and-response pattern with an orchestra came to define a whole school of post-World War II blues, though he didn't really achieve star status until he moved to the West Coast in the 1940s.

An earthier strain of blues was exemplified by Sam "Lightnin' " Hopkins of Centerville, who was a child when he met Jefferson at a church picnic. Hopkins spent most of his life in Houston, playing an amplified version of the down-home East Texas music he had grown up with.

Piano bluesmen
Texas had a strong tradition of piano blues, too, hard-hitting music with strong elements of ragtime, the music popularized by composers such as Texarkana-born Scott Joplin. Texas piano blues developed in the rough lumber and turpentine camps of East Texas and in the honky-tonks of Dallas' Deep Ellum and Houston's Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards, in places with names like Mud Alley and The Vamp.

Robert Shaw, a member of the "Santa Fe" group of pianists named for the railroad, survived into old age running a barbecue business and grocery store in Austin, and, like Mance Lipscomb, had a late second career playing for white fans.

Another link to the past was Dallas pianist and singer "Whistlin' " Alex Moore, who continued to perform up to the time of his death in 1989, at age 89.

Cajun and country influences
Louisiana-born musicians, such as Clarence Garlow and Clifton Chenier, performed extensively in Texas and developed modern zydeco, a lively fusion of Cajun and rhythm and blues. Some scholars trace this development to Frenchtown, a section of Houston's black Fifth Ward.

An urban strain of blues and gospel was recorded beginning in the '50s at nightclub owner Don Robey's Peacock studios in Houston. Robey recorded such artists as Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, who plays both guitar and fiddle and mixes blues with country music; smooth-voiced Memphis blues balladeer Bobby "Blue" Bland; and Alabama-born Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, whose recording of "Hound Dog" inspired Elvis Presley.

Texas jazz
In jazz, Texas exemplified the swinging, blues-based Southwestern style, very different from the stately polyphony of early New Orleans jazz bands. In the 1920s, black bands such as the Clouds of Joy in Dallas and the Troy Floyd Orchestra in San Antonio performed in white hotels, sweetening their sound somewhat for these audiences.

A rougher music was played for black audiences in places such as Dallas' Tip Top dance hall, which San Antonio band leader Don Albert called the rattiest place he'd ever seen.

It was apparently in the Tip Top in 1925 that Dallas clarinetist and alto sax player Henry "Buster" Smith was hired by the Blue Devils, a top Oklahoma City-based "territory" band, one that played a regular circuit through the South and Midwest. Smith, though little known to the general public, went on to become a significant figure. Along with other Texas musicians, he became a part of the exciting Kansas City jazz scene of the 1930s. He helped to create Count Basie's theme song, "One O'Clock Jump," and was a strong influence on Charlie Parker, generally regarded as the father of be-bop, the harmonically advanced music that stood jazz on its ear in the 1940s and '50s.

Other major jazz figures from Texas included trombonist Jack Teagarden, born in Vernon, and a whole school of saxophonists – called the "Texas Tenors" because of their full, distinctive sound – that included Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. The Houston-born Jacquet received the fifth annual Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence on Nov. 13, 2000, joining past winners Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Benny Carter and John Lewis.

Texas-born musicians played a major role in the development of the electric guitar. In addition to T-Bone Walker, these innovators included Eddie Durham, who played with Buster Smith in the Blue Devils, and Charlie Christian, of Benny Goodman's band.

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic and controversial jazz musician to come out of Texas is alto sax player Ornette Coleman, who began in Fort Worth rhythm-and-blues bands and went on to invent a radically new music called free jazz, with his own theory of collective improvisation, called "harmolodics." Such developments indicate the power and complexity beneath the apparently simple music with roots in slavery.


Until the mid-19th century, Mexican Texans, or Tejanos, seem to have danced primarily to music imported from Spain or Mexico, played on violins and various wind instruments, with rhythm provided by guitars and sometimes by a drum. Other European forms gained popularity after being played at the court of Maximilian, who ruled Mexico during the 1860s with the backing of the French army.

The most significant innovation, however, was the introduction of the diatonic button accordion by German and Czech immigrants. Tejano musicians were reported playing this instrument by the 1870s.

Tejanos also listened to the music of guitarreros, singing guitarists who performed corridos, songs that told stories and carried news, often in cantinas and at social gatherings.

Lydia Mendoza and family
Mexican-Americans in Texas were entertained, too, by performers such as the Mendoza family of San Antonio, who toured with variedades – variety shows staged in tents and theaters. The family sang and performed comedy skits.

One of the Mendoza daughters, Lydia, became the first Tejano recording star when she was recorded in 1934 in a San Antonio hotel room playing her 12-string guitar and singing "Mal Hombre," whose lyrics she had learned from a bubble-gum wrapper. She became very popular not only in Texas, but throughout Latin America, during her long career, singing folk-based songs that often speak passionately of romantic longings.

Evolution of Tejano music
For dancing, two basic styles developed: conjunto (literally "ensemble") music and the music of the orquestas, or orchestras, outgrowths of the earlier string and wind groups.

Two major figures in the creation of conjunto, Narciso Martínez and Pedro Ayala, were born in northern Mexico in 1911. Many regard Martínez, a native of the border town of Reynosa, as the father of this style and of the very similar norteño style of northern Mexico. He is often credited with being first to combine the instruments that came to define the sound: the button accordion and the bajo sexto, a type of 12-string guitar.

Bruno "El Azote" Villarreal is thought to have made the first conjunto records, in 1928. Narciso Martínez first recorded in 1935 or 1936, with bajo player Santiago Almeida, for the Blue Bird Label at San Antonio's Blue Bonnet Hotel.

Martínez, who lived near San Benito in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, became known as "El Huracan de Valle" – the Hurricane of the Valley. He was never able to support himself with his music. In the 1970s, he worked at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, feeding the animals. In 1983, he received the National Heritage Award, the nation's highest honor for folk musicians.

The initial accordion-bajo lineup was complemented by the addition of the tololoche, or upright bass. This development is variously credited to Pedro Ayala and to San Antonio accordionist, songwriter and singer Santiago Jiménez Sr., known as "El Flaco" – the skinny one.

In the 1940s, a new group of conjunto stars, including Valerio Longoria and Tony de la Rosa, further changed the music. Drums were added, and electric bass replaced the upright acoustic instrument.

Vocals were added to a music that had been almost exclusively instrumental. The lyrics, like those of country and blues, deal with the heartaches and trials of everyday life and are often imbued with lo ranchero – a longing for a simpler, rural life.

The foundation of conjunto is the polka, but bands play a variety of styles, including the waltz, mazurka and huapango – a fast, rhythmic dance named for the town near Veracruz where it originated.

Further innovations were made in the 1950s by another seminal group, El Conjunto Bernal, led by accordionist Paulino Bernal and his brother bajo sexto player Eloy Bernal. The group employed two- and three-part harmonies. Paulino Bernal used his instrument's full range, playing chromatic models with four or five rows of buttons.

The button accordion has a distinctive sound, quite different from that of the more expensive piano accordion. Most models have from one to three rows of buttons. Like the air holes of a harmonica, each button plays two notes, one pushed, one pulled. In addition, two reeds sound each note, about a quarter-tone apart, providing a slight dissonance and the instrument's characteristically sweet sound. And playing two adjacent buttons together almost always produces what guitarist Ry Cooder calls "a pleasant third interval." The first such accordions were relatively primitive models with one row of buttons, but these evolved into a more versatile three-row model.

Conjunto became the music of the working people, those who labored on farms or migrated to the cities, where they often had to support themselves with low-paying jobs. The dance music of the more affluent Mexican-Texans was played by the orquestas. These often played the same songs as the conjuntos, but in more complex arrangements for a full band that included wind instruments seldom employed in conjunto. In The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music," Manuel Peña writes, "In the hands of such noted leaders as Beto Villa and Balde González, orquesta came of age among tejanos beginning in the 1940s. Furthermore, aspiring to be more 'sophisticated,' it turned to both the instrumentation and the repertory of American dance bands of the Glenn Miller-Tommy Dorsey type ..."

In the 1950s, the conjunto and orquesta forms began a convergence that would result in a new music known as Tejano. The very popular orquesta leader Beto Villa added accordion on some recordings and took Narciso Martínez along on short tours.

A younger bandleader, Isidro López of Bishop, Texas, made the breakthrough. As writer Ramiro Burr says, "He had recorded with conjuntos, and a mariachi, creating what he called 'Texachi.' Then he incorporated two accordions into his orchestra, which was unheard of at that time. In later recordings, like 'Mala Cara' and 'Macho Rock 'n' Roll,' López fused the rhythms of early rock into his Tex-Mex blend."

That fusion of urban and rural forms didn't come to be known as Tejano until the early 1980s. Before that, it went under a variety of names, including Mexican music, música de orquesta, música alegre, la Onda Chicana, Tex-Mex funk and brown soul.

Popular performers in the 1960s included Alfonso Ramos, Roy Montelongo, Freddie Martínez and Little Joe (Hernández) and the Latinaires. The Sunglows of San Antonio had a string of English-language hits such as "Talk to Me" and "Rags to Riches," and lead singer Sunny Ozuna appeared on American Bandstand. The group then had a series of Spanish-language hits.

A new wave of performers emerged in the 1980s: La Sombra, Mazz, Pio Treviño & Magic, Patsy Torres and La Mafia. These groups employed rock-show theatrics such as flashy costumes and sophisticated light and sound systems. Electronic synthesizers were added to the horn-driven hot dance mix.

The economic downturn of the mid-1980s may have delayed the Tejano boom, but it exploded full force in the early 1990s. Tejano FM stations from Texas to California enjoyed high ratings. The music was played in huge urban nightclubs, arenas and even stadiums. Album sales by artists such as Selena, La Mafia, Mazz and Emilio soared past 300,000 units.

According to Ramiro Burr, the boom had inevitably peaked by March 1995, when the hugely popular singer Selena was gunned down at a Corpus Christi motel by the former manager of her fan club. Her death shortly before her 24th birthday sparked a wave of even larger popularity that, for a time, masked the flattening of the Tejano market.

Though the 1990s boom couldn't be sustained, Tejano music remains popular and can be seen as part of the national and worldwide surge in interest in all things Latin.

Today, old and new forms coexist in Mexican-American music in Texas. Mariachi bands are popular, though this appears to be a style imported to Texas rather than true Tex-Mex music. Little Joe Hernández and Sunny Ozuna are still musically active. Santiago Jiménez's sons carry on his work. Santiago Jr. plays much in his father's style. His better-known brother, Leonardo "Flaco" Jiménez, has played with Ry Cooder and other rockers and for several years teamed up with the late Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers and Freddy Fender in the Texas Tornados, whose repertoire spanned virtually the music of all Texans – black, white and brown.

Rock 'n' roll and beyond

To some extent, rock 'n' roll is a synthesis of all that went before in popular music, and Texas has played a strong role in its development. Buddy Holly's 1958 appearances in England inspired, among others, the young John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton.

One English rock group, The Hollies, even took the name of the Lubbock musician, who called one of his early groups the Western Bop Band.

Southeast Texans Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter and the Vaughan brothers of Dallas – Jimmie and the late Stevie Ray – grew up steeped in the blues. Among Doug Sahm's major influences growing up in San Antonio were Bob Wills, T-Bone Walker and the Tex-Mex music that was all around him.

Texas seems to have spawned the first psychedelic band, Austin's Thirteenth Floor Elevators, as well as Roy Orbison and Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the popular Dixie Chicks. One of the Chicks, Natalie Maines, is the daughter of Lloyd Maines, a record producer and pedal steel player who has often played and recorded with Ely.

Today, all these forms of music continue to exist and interact, as new immigrant groups add influences. And discoveries are still being made in older forms. In 1994, Dallas folklorist Alan Govenar, through his Documentary Arts organization, recorded not only Alfred "Snuff" Johnson of Austin playing spirituals and black cowboy blues, but also 95-year-old black songster John T. Samples of Kilgore. Govenar has also recorded Vietnamese musicians playing traditional music and found younger Vietnamese Texans playing rock 'n' roll.

Texas Monthly magazine's May 2000 Texas music issue included a profile of Mexican-American rapper Carlos Coy, "a product of his environment, Houston's South Side, the same neighborhood that turned out underground mixer DJ Screw, rapper Lil' Keke and Scarface."

As Texas evolves, so does its music, and the possibilities seem endless.

— written for the Texas Almanac 1996–1997. It has been expanded and updated for the Texas Almanac website. Jay Brakefield is co-author with Alan Govenar of  Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged (University of North Texas Press, 1998), a study of the Dallas neighborhood known for its contributions to blues and jazz.



All Music Guide: The best CDs, albums & tapes, ed. by Michael Erlewine; Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco, 1994.

Finding Her Voice: The Saga of Women in Country Music by Mary A. Burwack and Robert K. Oermann; Crown Publishers Inc., New York, 1993.

Lydia Mendoza, A Family Autobiography, compiled and introduced by Chris Strachwitz, with James Nicolopulos; Arte Publico Press, Houston, 1993.

Meeting the Blues by Alan Govenar; Taylor Publishing, Dallas, 1985.

Milton Brown and the Founding of Western Swing by Cary Ginell; University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, London; 1994.

Nothing But the Blues: the Music and the Musicians, edited by Lawrence Cohn; Abbeville Press, New York, London, Paris; 1993.

San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills by Charles R. Townsend; University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, London; 1976.

Tell me a story, sing me a song: A Texas Chronicle by William A. Owens; University of Texas Press, Austin, 1983.

The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music by Manuel H. Peña; The University of Texas Press, Austin, 1985.

Texas Rhythm, Texas Rhyme: A Pictorial History of Texas Music by Larry Willoughby; Texas Monthly Press, Austin, 1984.



A great deal of historic material is available on major record labels. In addition, two small labels specializing in folk and ethnic music are of particular interest. For information, write:


Arhoolie Records
10341 San Pablo Ave.
El Cerrito, CA 94530


On the Web: www.arhoolie.com


Documentary Arts Inc.
P.O. Box 140244
Dallas, TX 75214


On the Web: www.docarts.com


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