A New York guy killed Texas Music. Yes, friends, the disintegration of this state’s edgy brand of country rock can be traced back to New York-born Texas-transplant Jerry Jeff Walker. He showed up in Austin in the early 1970s at about the same time Willie, Waylon, and the boys were establishing a genre referred to alternately as Outlaw, Cosmic Cowboy, Progressive Country, or just plain Texas Music. Walker was unique, a carefree roustabout who sang silly party songs about Sangria and getting by on getting by. He wrote beautiful tearjerkers, but that’s not what his young fans wanted. Willie and Waylon were for crying in your beer. Walker was for laughing while chugging the whole six-pack. His crowd wanted dumbed-down hell-raising anthems. For a while, Walker cranked them out obligingly but eventually grew to resent fans who only wanted to party and yell.
Robert Earl Keen Jr. followed in the 1980s, tapping into Walker’s party anthem vibe but with deeper writing (“Swerving in My Lane,” “The Road Goes on Forever”). The rowdies were inflamed. Keen, in turn, spawned Pat Green to cater to the peach-fuzz crowd in the 1990s. Keen’s writing was deeper, but Green had stage presence for days and a huge voice and personality. He forged a reputation the old-fashioned way, playing open-mic nights, music festival campfire circles, and small clubs around Texas. But unlike the early Outlaws, Green was a college kid at Texas Tech University. He had parents willing to front him money to make an album produced by Lloyd Maines (Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Charlie Robison). And Green was a marketing genius adept at securing corporate sponsors and marketing himself and selling product online. He sold so many CDs himself that a Nashville label felt comfortable investing in him in 2001. Green inspired a slew of imitators, many of whom mastered the online marketing but fell short on the songcraft. Walker, Keen, and Green prompted waves of singers and songwriters yearning to be the life of the party. Each new wave dumbed down the music and lyrics a little more. Then along from Oklahoma came Red Dirt, a similar type of rowdy country but with an even more Neanderthal approach.
Eventually, artists, their songs, their fans, and the scene devolved into an embarrassing, twangy idiocracy. New artists bought their way onto radio charts and overcame lack of talent by flexing their thumbs on social media and turning gigs into party events. Music became an afterthought. The number of hacks is far greater today than in yesteryear. But the percentage is probably the same. Back then, there were a hundred bands, and half of them sucked. Now there are a thousand bands. If half of them are merely imitative of one another’s lowest-common-denominator leanings, that’s 500 useless, unoriginal bands polluting the soundscape instead of 50 – and they all have social media and cheap recording equipment.
One of Walker’s earliest rowdy anthems was “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother,” released in 1973. Ray Wylie Hubbard wrote it from the perspective of a longhaired musician getting hassled by rednecks in a bar. Many years later, Hubbard wrote “Screw You, We’re From Texas” as a tongue-in-cheek ode to Outlaw artists. In that song, the characters displaying the redneckery are the longhaired musicians themselves.
I got on my cowboy boots, jeans, and Hawaiian shirt
Mirrored sunglasses and a mobile phone
I guess I look like some Port Aransas dope dealer who’s out on bail
Just trying to get home
But I ain’t in jail, and I got me a guitar, and I got a little band that’s
hotter than a rocket
Sometimes we’re sloppy
We’re always loud
Tonight we’re just ornery and locked in the pocket
So screw you, we’re from Texas
Screw you, we’re from Texas
Screw you, we’re from Texas
We’re from Texas, baby, so screw you
Predictably, the song became an anthem for the 2000s’ version of Outlaw fans, who embraced as their rallying cry the obnoxiousness alluded to in the song. Hubbard performed it in 2010 in Nashville and prefaced by saying that “the problem with irony is, not everybody gets it.”
Earlier this month in The Guardian, Steve Earle brutally disparaged today’s country music: “The best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by the women except for Chris Stapleton. He’s great. The guys just want to sing about getting fucked up. They’re just doing hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.”
Earle’s sentiments could just as easily apply to today’s Texas Music. And his thoughts are nothing new. In 1976, with Outlaw music beginning to gain attention outside of Texas, Fort Worth native and now-legendary blues singer Delbert McClinton was already scorning the posers he saw onstage and off. “Whenever a bunch of bullshit comes in, there’s a bunch of people that start playing bullshit music,” he told the original Texas Music magazine. “I’m sick and tired of somebody saying, ‘I’m a cowboy from Texas, gimme a longneck. I can’t drink nothing but longnecks.’ It’s like the hippie cult before that and the surfing cult before that.”
And that’s where the scene remains today –– a large mound of crap with flowers springing from the muck once in a while. With these thoughts in mind, I spoke with three Fort Worth singer-songwriters who have devoted their lives to Texas Music. The youngest, Joey Green, 34, recently relocated to Nashville to ply his songwriting trade. The oldest, Amos Staggs, just turned 70. He continues writing, recording, and playing live shows, often alongside Earl Musick, 69, who owns a recording studio, record label, and publishing company. – Jeff Prince
Weekly: What is the state of the union regarding Texas Music?
Joey Green: It was created to counter the culture of mainstream. For me, it was the very end of the Jerry Jeff phenomenon, and Pat Green revived it. Now it’s just a clusterfuck of bullshit.
Earl Musick: Quality seems to be put on the backburner. It’s, “I want to get to the top as fast as I can.” Payola. Buying your name. Getting on these charts. Getting airplay. If you got enough money, you can make a name for yourself.
Amos Staggs: You go to these companies. They have a menu and say, “Do you want to be in the Top 10?” Uh, yeah. “How long do you want to be there?” Oh, this long. “Well, that costs this much.” Those people who run those machines, I know them. They came from Nashville. They worked in the machine in Nashville and came here and opened a machine just like it on a smaller financial scale. The same thing goes on in Nashville, but you better not show up there at some record company … if you don’t have a couple million dollars in your pocket.
Green: The saddest part about the scene is it’s not even about the music anymore. It’s how many internet radio stations there are, how many paper spins can I get? I got to pay this much money to get on this chart. Everybody is playing a game in a system that was built to disregard the system. Now it’s become its own system, its own little Nashville. We can blame program directors, radio promoters, and talent buyers in Texas for that. It’s creating a scene where the bullshit rises to the top.
Musick: It’s been going this way for about 10 years.
Staggs: A package of Kool-Aid is pretty good when you mix it with a quart of water. But you mix it with 50 gallons of water, and it gets pretty diluted. The Kool-Aid was red, then pink, and now it looks almost clear.
Green: When it started out for me, the way to get around forking out your own money was to sign a distribution deal with either Smith Music [Group], Winding Road Music, or somebody along those lines. It’s a 60-40 deal – you get 60, they get 40 – which is not a bad deal. The radio promotion was in-house. But if they pushed a single, and it didn’t hit, they shelved you just like a major label would. Hiring your own radio promo guy could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $4,500, depending on the clout of the radio guy. The top guys … charge $8,000 to $10,000 for each song, for the life of the single, which is about 22 weeks. You want the guy who is going to get you in front of radio program directors who will open the envelope and know it’s decent shit – or he is getting all the free golf and Starbucks he wants to play these artists on this promoter’s label. Then he’ll book you a radio tour, which will cost you about $2,000 [in travel expenses]. You go visit all these radio stations. Half the time they don’t even know you’re coming. That’s when you know you are getting screwed by your radio promoter. I paid a guy $4,500 … from Nashville. He got us to No. 90 on [a Texas radio chart] which is a made-up chart. If you buy a click ad on that chart, every time somebody clicks it, it counts as a spin for you. If you wanted to sit at home and not even go play, you could just sit there and click, and it counts as spins. It doesn’t make any sense. There are guys who have had No. 1 after No. 1 song on that chart, but they can’t draw flies [to gigs] because they are paper spins. You can go from a $500 band to a $3,500 band with two songs on the chart and enough money behind you.
Staggs: Real kind of left the room. The kind of songs we are writing and the kind of songs I hear on the current Texas Music scene don’t have much to do with one another. There are people hell-bent on being a star as long as Daddy’s well holds out. You can buy airtime and a bus and all that, but you can’t buy talent or charisma. Otherwise it’s just smoke and mirrors.
Weekly: Can a talented performer make it today without getting in the machine and paying the right people?
Green: It would almost be impossible now for there not to be someone else’s hand in the pot. Good luck not having to pay somebody. I love Cody Jinks’ stuff. I’ve always thought he was great. But he could still be bartending at While Elephant Saloon if the right person didn’t think that way. He hooked up with the right manager up in Nashville, a guy that used to work for Kid Rock, and he knew just what to do with Cody at the right time. Cody Jinks is a prime example of somebody who found the right management company and took him out of Texas to even make him big in Texas.
Musick: Maren [Morris’] parents bought her enough recognition that her talent got a chance to take over. She is talented.
Staggs: My hat is off to anybody who will load up, leave the house, and get out there and take a swing at it. It’s not easy to do. It’s easier if you are traveling in a Prevost [recreational vehicle] than a minivan. But it’s hard. It’s always been hard.
Green: Austin Allsup [the Fort Worth artist who made the Top 10 on The Voice but still has trouble drawing local crowds] doesn’t appeal to the lets-get-rowdy-and-purposely-ignorant crowd. It ain’t party-drinking songs. He doesn’t wear a backwards ballcap. He doesn’t say, “Let’s get high and make noise!” He used to. We were all kids once.
Weekly: What changes have you seen as a studio owner, Earl?
Musick: There has been a ton of studio fall-off because anybody can buy a computer, a piece of software, and a $60 microphone and make a record. You don’t have to have studios anymore. That’s fine with me. I’ve got to really like somebody’s music to fool with it, because it takes up so much of my time.
Staggs: Earl and I used to send cassette tapes by the boxloads to different places. That’s what we’re still doing.
Green: We had [radio] success with “Natchitoches Blues.” Without that, I’d probably still be playing every gig for $500 or $600. That’s your ceiling unless you can get that one song that people relate to and latch on to. I didn’t even pay anyone for that song. I sent it out myself with handwritten notes and had program directors calling me. That was a cool, organic thing that happened.
Weekly: How tough is it to make a living at Texas Music?
Green: [Paying radio promoters] is just one cylinder, and you’re in a V8. You’ve got to have a publicist, a booking agent to follow up and pursue leads in towns, a manager to connect everybody, a webmaster. You are looking at an overhead of $6,000 a month to even be legitimate. You’ve still got to travel and pay a band. You’re trying to keep all of that going and the quality of your gigs up, and nobody wants to pay you. They say, “We’ll give you the door.” Some venues take good care of you. Some don’t. I’ve scaled down to a trio – me, bass, and drums – to keep my overhead low. This is my job. I’m printing t-shirts on the side to pay for things. Even now, saving up $1,000 to try and get into a studio is like an act of Congress. It costs a lot of money to even try to do this.