Lone superstar state: How Texas became America’s last great musical mecca

Cast your eye over this year’s Grammy nominations and an astounding number of artists hail from the region. But why is it such a hotbed of musical innovation? And what, if anything, binds them together? Alli Patton buckles up to find out

Thursday 18 November 2021 15:16 GMT
Bottom left clockwise: Megan Thee Stallion, Black Pumas, Solange, Jazzmeia Horn, Disko Cowboy
Bottom left clockwise: Megan Thee Stallion, Black Pumas, Solange, Jazzmeia Horn, Disko Cowboy (Getty/Press)

Don’t mess with Texas,” goes the well-worn American proverb. You can apply it to many things, but it is especially true when it comes to the state’s music. The cowboy hat-wearing, spur-sporting enigma is a land of myths, misconceptions and mysteries. Nestled in the belly of the United States, it’s where the open road blurs into the horizon, along with the line between the sultry south and wild west; past and present; legend and ghost.

When it comes to Texas’s music the cliched images of cowboys, cattle, and six-shooters blur, as well. But look at this year’s Grammys and you get a real sense of the broad sweep of Texan artists, proving there is more to the state’s music than just a twang. Looking back at the 2021 Grammy nominations, Houston native Beyoncé became the most-decorated female artist in the awards’ history this year. And at the same time, a further 22 Texan acts muscled up to one another, including rappers Megan Thee Stallion and Post Malone, jazz musician Norah Jones, country’s finest, Miranda Lambert, and bearded boogie-rockers ZZ Top. There was also a nod to Texas icon Selena, who was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Surely, there must be something in the BBQ sauce.

“We’re incredibly diverse, we’re very independent, and we’re very tradition-based,” explains Brendan Anthony, director of the Texas Music Office, on how the Lone Star State keeps its musical heritage alive. He gives Texas’s history of immigration as a reason it remains a music mecca. “We’re a state that is populated by people who’ve come here from all over the world for hundreds of years,” Anthony says. In that time, Texas has absorbed those myriad cultures – Spanish, Mexican, French, German, eastern European – into its social and cultural fabric, creating a unique musical patchwork quilt from its storied past.

But just because it’s bound up in tradition, doesn’t mean that Texan music must conform to a stereotype. “There’s a large misconception that because Texas has been gerrymandered into perpetual red-stateness that it is very conservative and monocultural,” says Greg Gonzalez, bassist for the nine-piece Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma (who shares his name with the Greg Gonzalez of fellow nonconformist, Texas-formed band Cigarettes After Sex). “Nothing could be farther from the truth: it is made up of many different geographies, economies, and communities.” He agrees with Anthony that Texas’s rich – and perhaps often-overlooked – cultural heritage has been absorbed into the state’s musical makeup: according to the 2020 census, 42.5 per cent of Texans are white (with 39.7 per cent being non-Hispanic white), 11.8 per cent are Black or African-American and 5.4 per cent are Asian. “You can hear that in the music we create and then you can also hear these really interesting fusions,” Anthony says.

Tejano music (also known as “Tex-Mex music”) paints this evolution perfectly – it’s a style of music native to Texas but that draws on Mexican folk and European polka and waltz rhythms. Another example is western Swing, an oft-thrown around genre that has become known as the “Texas Sound” – but even that can’t be pinned down to one style, being as it is a stew of country, blues, jazz and Latin.

Adrian Quesada of the Austin-based band Black Pumas spent the first half of his life in Laredo, a town on the Texas-Mexico border. “Because I grew up like that, between a border and two cultures, I don’t really hear a lot of borders in music,” he says. He cites Selena, the biggest name in Tejano music to come out of Texas, as the perfect example. “If you put on a Selena song, it’s just as Texas as Beyoncé to me,” Quesada says.

With all this borderless genre-blurring, what is that quality that makes a song so quintessentially and tangibly Texan, then? Anthony says that it’s more about an attitude.

“It derives from an independent streak that Texans typically have,” says Anthony. Whether it’s a song about love, loss, or laundry, a Texan artist will perform it with grit, independence and a do-it-yourself spirit. For instance, while many female musicians of the Sixties guided their career toward the softer side of rock with folk music, Texas-born Janis Joplin broke the mould with her trademark rough-around-the-edges wail reminiscent of Black blues singer Bessie Smith. She blazed a trail for women in rock with her unconventional sound and by refusing to stick to the status quo.

So too did The Chicks (formerly Dixie Chicks) who were country music’s sweethearts until they stepped up and publicly criticised the then-president (and fellow Texan) George W Bush in 2003. When the group drew death threats amid the backlash, they set them to a tune with their song “Not Ready to Make Nice.” “It’s too late to make it right, I probably wouldn’t if I could ‘cause I’m mad as hell, can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should,” belts lead singer Natalie Maines. The song opened listeners up to another side of the group – a side of strength, tenacity, and unwillingness to back down. The Texas side.

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Disko Cowboy, who makes country disco music mashups and has a modern urban cowboy lifestyle brand called Vinyl Ranch, best describes the state as “Planet Texas”. By this, he means the state has its own culture with its own universe of thought. It’s an ethos of, “I’m going to do it my own way,” the Houston-based DJ explains. “You can love it or hate it, but these artists are going to do what they want how they want.”

That sentiment is mirrored in a recent Texas Monthly interview with singer-songwriter Charley Crockett, in which he reflects on his success. “Maybe the reason that I got lucky is because I really stayed true to myself,” he said. “You know, I’ll have 10 records out by the end of this year. [They’ve] all been done my way.’” In a 2008 interview from the same publication, rapper Bun B of the legendary Texas hip-hop duo UGK said: “The fact that everything that UGK has achieved they’ve achieved by their own standards. We’ve never compromised ourselves just to gain a few more sales and make a little bit more money. We’ve always tried to maintain the integrity of not just the group but us as individuals and as artists.”

Texas is also uniquely bound in its political tensions, especially between left and right. Most recently its citizens have united over the state’s draconian abortion laws. Austin-born Latin-folk singer-songwriter Gina Chavez explains: “We’re a place of duality, struggle, a place of perseverance and hope, a place built and sustained by immigrant labour but too afraid to admit it.” An artist on the front lines fighting for the rights of women and trans people everywhere, perseverance and strength are major themes in Chavez’s music, as in her feminist anthem “She Persisted”.

Unlike other states, Texas’s music industry is structured in a way that supports and champions its artists from the grassroots up. “Texas is such a big place, with lots of opportunities to play – at least that was true before Covid – that artists can make a living without leaving the state,” explains Lloyd Maines, a country music record producer and life-long Texan. It allows for more small businesses to flourish around independent music. Artists are able to reach fans by meeting them face-to-face and by building concentric touring circles that are often based out of the artists’ old stomping grounds. Since the scene is self-sustaining and not as heavily dependent on national radio time or streaming, artists can build touring markets more easily. Those opportunities may not be as abundant when compared to what is considered accessible and commercially viable in major cultural hubs like New York and Los Angeles, and Adrian Quesada admits that by staying in Texas, his career has progressed at a slower rate. “But I also think, on the other hand, it felt like the payoff was better,” he says.

Black Pumas Portrait Session
Black Pumas Portrait Session (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press)

And that independent ethos rarely tips over into selfishness. The Texas music scene comes with a sense of camaraderie and support. The trademark hospitality of the bordering southern states has melted into the Texas culture and reared its head in what is typically regarded as a cutthroat industry. “[Being Texan] means feeling like a part of a community, treating your bandmates and partners as family, and being true to your word,” says Gonzalez. “I think the outspokenness and emphasis on honesty, the aversion to fancy, non-plain-talking comes through in the music, lyrics, and attitudes of Texas musicians.”

Tradition – something in which Texas music is heavily based – is a big reason for the staunch pride that comes with the territory. For Texans and southern communities as a whole, there is no shame in celebrating where you’re from – quite the opposite. As his persona suggests, “the iconography of Texas is very much braided into everything that I do,” says Disko Cowboy. Some Texan artists use iconography the rest of the world is already familiar with, or like Disko Cowboy, they attempt to correct or readdress the misconceptions about the state being a strictly conservative, one-note place.

Others, like the R&B singer Solange, use their art to resurface parts of history that most people have either forgotten or chosen to erase. In a 2019 Texas Monthly article, a review of Solange’s homage to her birthplace, When I Get Home, observed: “The album honours Black culture in Houston, but also looks beyond it to the traditions of rural Texas.” Having gone back to Texas – to her roots – in order to work on the album, the musician offered listeners an exploration of her hometown, an intimate look into her experiences, her upbringing, and the cultural traditions from the city that informed her art. “I know that, at any given time in my life, I can come back here to Houston, to Third Ward, and have these anchors that really lift me up. So that’s what I did,” Solange told Vogue that same year. She also found a way to lift up the more forgotten aspects of Black history in Texas. Using the album and its accompanying film, Solange highlighted the Black cowboy and explored the overlooked cultural traditions of the often whitewashed western culture.

Filming Cranes in the Sky (Solange) from A Seat at the Table, 2021
Filming Cranes in the Sky (Solange) from A Seat at the Table, 2021 (Carlota Guerrero)

Dallas-born jazz artist Jazzmeia Horn is another musician who pays homage to her roots and looks to reassert the Texan links between genres. Her songs celebrate the gospel traditions of her upbringing and, as an artist, she holds tight to the foundations the Black church in Texas gave her, which she says has been hugely influential on the development of other musical styles. “There are a lot of churches in the Black communities in Texas. This has a very hard pull on the way we play jazz music as African-Americans,” she explains.

So there you have it: Texas has more musical innovation than you can shake a stick at. It’s wholly unique, and that spirit will always be embedded in the music it exports. The time is well overdue for it to be recognised for the diverse music mecca it really is.

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