Robert Earl Keen
Pick Texas Music
The Lone Star state sound is as unique as those who play it.
by Tom Flynn
Drug charges, divorce and bankruptcies. As the David Allan Coe song points out, Texas country music back in the ’70s, conjured up visions of long hair, whiskey rivers, fallen angels and Hill Country rebels without a cause. The personal lives of our heroes of yore seemed to gain more national exposure than the music they created. But through it all, loyal Texas listeners have kept alive the rough, unpolished style of music composed and played by writers and performers such as Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Waylon Jennings. It has played loudly and proudly from LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs for more than 30 years. While most radio stations prefer to play refined country music from Nashville, Texas country music is played constantly in smoky bars, classic cars and cowboy Cadillacs. Along the way, it has inspired a new line of talented young artists poised to bring national attention back to Texas country music. But the question remains: Can they?
By most accounts, the current godfather of Texas country music is Houston native Robert Earl Keen. For 20 years, Keen has been playing college campuses, dance halls, taverns, front porches and, more recently, to sold-out crowds at his Texas Uprising concerts, where he features the latest up-and-coming artists. He has succeeded in taking his style of music and his Texas Uprising show from capacity crowds in the Lone Star State to huge crowds in such unlikely places as California, Utah, Nashville and Washington, D.C. Following his lead, and their own hearts, are a slew of new artists trying to make it big. Making it big in the Texas country music scene in Houston in the mid-90s meant landing a gig at Blanco’s Bar and Grill on West Alabama. About eight or 10 years ago, Gary P. Nunn, of “I Want to Go Home With the Armadillo” fame, walked into Blanco’s and bet his paycheck on the fact that he could attract people to listen to his version of Texas country music. His success inspired Blanco’s management to change its venue from cover bands playing top 40 country to Texas country music. According to local lore, the Firehouse Saloon and other dance halls soon followed suit, and a resurgence of Texas country music began in Houston. Blanco’s is still featuring the Texas sound, but today’s big Texas country stars play to sold-out crowds at The Woodlands Pavilion and Rodeo Houston. While Gary P. Nunn was rocking the house at Blanco’s, Lyle Lovett brought national attention back to the Texas country music scene. Lovett, a long-time friend of Robert Earl Keen, was splashed across tabloids and featured in gossip columns nationwide when he married, and soon divorced, actress Julia Roberts. But Lovett’s brand of music, grass-roots country mixed with pop, jazz and big band sounds, never matched the popularity of his personal life. Texas music was once again famous, though most people didn’t know what Texas music was. So, will Texas country ever gain wide exposure for being what it is, a unique, unpolished style of music? KIKK 95.7 FM, “the station that sounds like Texas,” changed its radio format to feature Texas country music. A lineup of Nashville artists mixed with a healthy helping of local stars brought music from Cory Morrow, Roger Creager, Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, Jack Ingram and John Evans to new listeners. Local fans praised the station for the opportunity to hear their type of music on the radio. But the fans who raved about “the station that sounds like Texas” tuned in recently to that frequency and instead heard Smooth Jazz, The Wave filling the airwaves. KIKK and the Texas country music format it supported was off the air. Inside Houston recently put the question of the future of Texas country music to Roger Creager, one of the state’s most entertaining country music performers. Sitting at the Firehouse Saloon, cold beers on the table and his band setting up stage equipment in the background, this energetic performer stepped out of his stage persona and put on his business hat. His realistic view of the Texas country music revolution might explain the future of this genre for himself and other Texas artists. Creager is confident that Texas country music is on an upward trend. “I remember somebody sometime back saying to me that you’ll know when Texas country music is catching on because you can follow the money trail – sponsorships, signing record labels and signing bonuses, stuff like that.” Creager himself has earned an Anheuser Busch ZiegenBoch beer sponsorship. “Landing a sponsorship from ZiegenBoch and Anheuser Busch made me feel that, although I haven’t arrived yet, I’m getting there.” Creager is not the only one who has scored on the Texas country music money trail. Others include Cooder Graw, Pat Green, Cory Morrow, Robert Earl Keen and Charlie Robison. So how does the Texas country music movement gain national exposure? Creager says the whole movement probably won’t. “A whole movement does not rise together. I don’t think that’s even possible. It has to happen at the individual level. If you look back in the ’70s, Willie made it, Waylon made it, Merle Haggard did. But there were several others from that genre who didn’t. The Dixie Chicks used to be considered part of this genre, but they are not considered Texas country music now, they’re just country. I think that’s probably what’s going to happen. Charlie Robison signed with a major label, Columbia I guess, and they put a lot of money into videos. Record companies sign individual artists with the intent of selling millions of records. When that happens, that artist has made it,” says Creager. “You’ll have a few (Texas country music) individuals that get to that level, and they will change the sound of all country music. A little more raw. A little more edgy.” Creager’s method of ensuring he is one of those who make it to that level is by “creating the best music possible – and busting my ass.” His business message is clear, too. Don’t count on the Texas country music revolution to make you successful, he says. Take the steps to make yourself one of the successful Texas country stars. Whether or not Texas country music gains national exposure matters little to Houston fans. Access to the best Texas music artists is available here virtually every week. The Firehouse and Blanco’s consistently feature Texas musicians. The John Evans Band plays to loyal crowds every Thursday night at St. Pete’s Dancing Marlin downtown. Historic Gruene Hall, known for featuring Texas country music legends, is about two hours away. Each fall, Garden in the Heights features a different Texas musician weekly for three months. And rodeo time is here. Look for Texas country stars during rodeo performances and in the Hideout tent following the main show (Roger Creager is in the Hideout March 4). Local fairs, festivals and honky-tonks invest their entertainment dollars in Texas country musicians. All you have to do is get out of the house to experience the homespun music that’s changing the sound of country. ih