By Mike Ethan Messick
The early to mid-1990s were a time of recalibration and resurgence for what it meant to be a Texas musician. Outlaw veterans like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker had become heroes to a whole wave of Texas kids who’d just gotten old enough to sneak into a bar (or pick up a guitar), and more obscure legends like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Billy Joe Shaver were in the midst of inspiring comebacks. Alternative rock and indie filmmaking were on the rise, with the burgeoning internet giving regular folks a place to swap opinions and stick it to the mainstream by sticking up for, among other things, a brand new breed of independent country (or at least country-ish) artists. Some made a big deal out of bucking the system, while others were content to let the music speak for itself. If you were born too late or showed up late to the party, here’s a rundown of 15 essential albums from the early days of the modern “Texas Country” (and “Red Dirt”) music scene.
- Robert Earl Keen, 2 Live Dinner, 1996
Sort of the godfather of the scene (reluctantly so, it sometimes seemed), Robert Earl Keen had already established himself as a leading light of the countrified edge of modern singer-songwriter music by the mid-1990s. His early records have held up well, but heard out of context they don’t necessarily reveal how Keen turned country-folk into barnstorming party music for a generation: No. 2 Live Dinner does, ripping through outlaw broadsides (“Sonora’s Death Row,” “The Road Goes on Forever”), Western swing (“When the Bluebonnets Bloom”) and borderline punk (“Amarillo Highway”) with nerve, wit, chops and abandon. Even the sparest ballads (“I’m Comin’ Home,” “Rolling By”) hit hard; such is the potency of the cherry-picked best of Keen’s catalog.
- Pat Green, Dancehall Dreamer, 1995
If Robert Earl Keen was the George Strait of this thing, then Pat Green was its Garth Brooks: wildly charismatic and crowd-pleasing, tempered with regular-guy charm and some real heart under the bombast. The ball started rolling with this modest affair, a dusty and engaging debut that borrows from Walt Wilkins and Keen himself (as many eventually would), engages in some goofball patter about two-day-old burritos and Lone Star Beer in one’s cereal, and successfully hits a deeper nerve when it has to (“One For the Road” and the wistful title track).
- Charlie Robison, Life of the Party, 1998
Not to belabor the mainstream country comparisons, but if Keen = Strait and Pat = Garth, then Charlie Robison was the Dwight Yoakam-esque wild card, overlapping the scene without seeming fully part of it, winning over crowds without the usual glad-handing because he was just that damn good at it. “My Hometown” was the wise-assed anthem everyone knew the words to, but this album was aces from front to back, squeezing a surprising range of wit and emotion out of Robison’s dry twang.
- Roger Creager, Having Fun All Wrong, 1998
A Houston cover-band frontman who knew a turning tide when he saw one, Roger Creager kicked up a wave within a wave. Not too far behind Green/Ingram/Morrow, Creager penned a few of his own alongside a couple of borrowed tunes and put out a killer debut. With road-tested vocal and instrumental chops that put him a few steps ahead of his peers, Creager was as close to a guaranteed venue-packer as anyone else in the state once anthems like “Fun All Wrong” and “The Everclear Song” caught on; his success seemed to expand the scene itself, emboldening a whole second wave of talents like Bleu Edmondson, Dub Miller, and Brandon Rhyder to throw their hats into the ring.
- Cross Canadian Ragweed, Live & Loud at the Wormy Dog Saloon, 1999
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the modern college-cowboy idea of “Texas country” became joined at the hip to “Red Dirt,” but Cody Canada & co. had a lot to do with it. A scrappy, oddly-named little roots-rock outfit from Stillwater, Okla., their shit-kicking good-time vibe was captured better on this cover-spiked live album than it was on their first couple of studio efforts. “Boys From Oklahoma” and “Carney Man” turned into keg-party sing-alongs for the ages, “The President Song” seemed eerily prescient of the eventual rise of Donald Trump, and those Jerry Reed and Neil Young covers still sound like a million bucks.
- Jack Ingram, Livin’ or Dyin’, 1997
Despite having jumped into the game a bit earlier, for a time Ingram didn’t pack them in quite as heavily as some of his young rivals. Part of this was because he was also among the first to focus on blazing some Nashville-label inroads, which ironically led to making a record that was about as Texas as one could ever hope. Covering Guy Clark and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, dueting with Steve Earle (who also produced) and Jerry Jeff Walker, and bringing some swaggeringly good songs of his own to the project, Ingram made a dream album that still holds up nicely.
- Jason Boland & the Stragglers, Pearl Snaps, 1999
Among the first to permanently blur the line between Texas and “Red Dirt” country, Boland was blessed with a baritone twang that sounded wearily mature at an early age, a hot-picking band, and a songwriting gift that sounded more genuinely ’70s Outlaw instead of a frat-rock interpretation of such. The clever romp of a title track both noted and oddly solidified what sort of shirt was expected both onstage and in the crowd at your typical show; other songs like “Proud Souls” and “Backslider’s Blues” settled for just breaking your heart.
- Cory Morrow, The Man That I’ve Been, 1998
Slightly overshadowed but a big draw and significant artist in his own right (especially at the time), Cory Morrow solidified his sound with this crowd-pleasing set that introduced his signature tunes “Nashville Blues” and “Big City Stripper.” With Lloyd Maines (who produced well over half of the records on this list), he also revamped his previously recorded “Texas Time Travellin’” and “Drink One More Round” with a sound better suited to increasingly receptive regional radio.
- Adam Carroll, South of Town, 1998
A funny, charming, and winsome winner on its own terms, Adam Carroll’s mostly-acoustic 1998 debut also hinted at a deep well of subtler songwriting talents bubbling under the frat-friendly surface of late-90s Texas country. Quietly evocative numbers like “Cole” and “Red Bandana Blues” broke through to thousands of fans and served as a gateway drug of sorts to get to plenty of other good stuff on the folkier side of the Texas music spectrum (Mark Jungers, Terri Hendrix, Susan Gibson, Max Stalling, et. al).
- Chris Knight, Chris Knight, 1998
He’s not from Texas or even Oklahoma, never lived here and never pretended he did, but if there’s a true outsider that belongs in the mix it’s Chris Knight. Possibly the grittiest Nashville songwriter of his time, Knight spot-welded rural/outlaw narratives to a killer country-rock pulse stubbornly unlike any of his mainstream peers and gave all the aspiring young renegades in Texas a more contemporary touchstone than the collectively beloved Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, or even Steve Earle. “It Ain’t Easy Being Me” might have been the most-covered song between Amarillo and Corpus for about a five-year stretch.
- Kevin Fowler, Beer, Bait & Ammo, 2000
Produced on a shoestring budget that made most of these other indie-country joints seem relatively extravagant, converted former metal guitarist Kevin Fowler yee-hawed his way through jokey yet catchy numbers like the title track and “100% Texan.” There was also some genuine country heartbreak between the lines (“Penny For Your Thoughts,” “If These Old Walls Could Talk”) and shades of everything from Bob Wills to Gary Stewart to Larry the Cable Guy. Bigger things were yet to come.
- Reckless Kelly, The Day, 2000
These twang-rock transplants from the great Northwest probably had a better song-for-song album with their debut, Millican, but The Day introduced an all-important signature song known as “Crazy Eddie’s Last Hurrah.” It might have lost a little luster after a couple decades of open-mic and bar-band covers, but it’s hard to overstate what a gust of adrenaline that song (and worthy cohorts like “Hard Fight to Win” and “Floodwater”) felt like at the time.
- Bruce Robison, Wrapped, 1997
It’s not clear if Bruce Robison ever meant to be anything other than an evocative writer of catchy, truthful songs, but either way his fate caught up to his talent: no less a Texas legend than George Strait eventually made hits out of this album’s title track and “Desperately,” and superstar power couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill had a smash with the devastating “Angry All the Time.” The Texas country equivalent of Carole King’s Tapestry, it also had Bruce’s wife Kelly Willis and brother Charlie Robison on board to underline just how deeply invested in the music this clever, mature, and painfully honest writer really was.
- Cooder Graw, Cooder Graw, 1999
Mostly a bunch of middle-aged Panhandle part-timers, Matt Martindale & co. ensured a little diversity in their own way: not every Texas country breakout had to be a twentysomething upstart from the Hill Country, especially if they could rip out tunes like “Llano Estacado” and “Dirty Little Hometown Girl” with well-honed honky-tonk conviction. Somewhat forgotten today, CG was among the greatest live bands in the genre during their well-travelled peak.
- Randy Rogers Band, Rollercoaster, 2004
If any album signaled a break from one mini-generation to the next, this watershed 2004 effort was the one. Once the fiddle-spiked, whiskey-voiced precociousness of Rollercoaster sunk in, things were never quite the same: suddenly there was another killer live band that could draw Pat Green-sized crowds, another Texas act big enough to kick down a few doors in Nashville and inspire the next round of slightly younger talent. Most importantly, it’s a great record, even if it never meant to be the end of an era.