By Chris Mosser
(LSM June/July 2010/vol. 3 – issue 4)
I love Texas, and I love music, so how very lucky for me to have a job that is dedicated in large measure to supporting and helping spread the music of Texas to ever wider audiences. Bluebonnets, barbecue, guitars, fiddles, football and cold beer are the very basis of the good life for me. I count my Texan heritage as one of my primary God-given blessings, and I remind my children constantly how lucky their little butts are to have been born here.
I try, though, to temper my passions with some modicum of reason. I love Texas, but I need to have a clear reason why. Having been born and raised here, as I was, is plenty for most, but I need reasons, concrete reasons. I interviewed Don Henley on the phone a few years ago, and being a Texas boy, I figured I could come at him with happy Texas claptrap, but he retorted with, “Well, let me start by saying that Texas is one of the most heavily polluted states in the country.” Don was green before green was cool, and this was a big fat bummer at the time, but it did make me rethink my prior mindset of blind Texas pride.
Lately, the things that make me love Texas are embodied in our music: authenticity based on a lack of pretense. Ideally, for me, the best Texas music is written by a “real” person on a “real” topic from a “real” perspective. On paper, this doesn’t mean that much, but my bet is that you know what I’m driving at here: no boundaries, and no bullshit. The Texas/Red Dirt music scene, on its surface, appears to be a gathering of tribes. There is a sense of family that is set forth by many of the people in the scene that is probably genuine enough in a lot of instances, and I’ve seen enough great big crowds howling along in unison to a live band — sometimes a band that’s brand new to me — to recognize the tribal value there, but I think that, just as you’ll find in any other situation of community, there are divisions and conflicts that bear some reflection and discussion.
For example: the boys from Oklahoma. The Bolands, Stoneys, and Canadas of the world remind us that Texas has no geographical patent on good quality stuff. However, there’s an element here in the Lone Star State who, while they’ve accepted the Okies into the fold, still harbor a certain resentment toward artists who are “not from here”. Sean McConnell is an example who has recently been debated in the Texas Music blogosphere: he’s a product of Nashville who met up with Texans there, who encouraged him to come ply his trade in Texas, probably because they recognized that somewhat intangible quality in his abilities that would make him likely to succeed here. Sean himself has expressed to me his surprise at the level of success he has experienced in Texas. But the fact is, his recorded music and live performance capabilities are absurdly good, and yes, they have that certain something that allows Sean to fit in. I have been troubled by people who would refer to Sean as a “carpetbagger” — an artist we would never have heard had he not started hanging out with Randy Rogers. The fact is that the music business in Texas or anywhere else is built of personal connections, and I would contend that Sean McConnell would likely have eventually hooked up with the Texas machine regardless of his point of origin, because he’s awesome and he fits, and if not, he’d have found another route to the national attention that I believe he’s headed for now. Are we going to run Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Benson and Junior Brown out of town too? And let’s not forget that Ryan Bingham is from Hobbs, N.M. Me, I like having these guys on our team. It’s really a pretty silly argument, and one that’s based on that aforementioned, passionate Texas pride that ain’t always backed up by the facts at hand.
Also lately in the trash blog scene is this discussion about how Austin is somehow separate from the rest of the state in terms of music. Now, I love my city and just about everything about it, including the great music you can find (and sometimes can’t avoid) in every nook and cranny here. If we Austin music types are snobs about our town, I personally think there’s pretty solid reality behind that snobbery. But, snobs are snobs, and it occurs to me that to the rest of the state, we might not appear to want to play nice. I tend to program my show based on what’s happening in Austin’s music venues; I use the nice people who book Austin’s clubs as kind of a filter, figuring that if a band has gotten past the guy who pays the band to fill his room, that band has either great quality or a big local draw going for them, and is therefore worth giving a listen to. When I leave this method behind and dive at random into the massive pile of CD’s from every corner of Texas that are shoveled into my mailbox every week, I find that this correlation generally holds. It does occasionally happen, but in my experience, it’s pretty unusual to find a truly great song from a Texas band that has not played in Austin. The really good bands come here, play here, and succeed here.
But the outside view appears to be that Austin is too crowded with bands for outsiders to make any money here, so they’re better off writing Austin off and playing everywhere else around the state where the competition for gigs is not so fierce. This makes decent economic sense, I guess — you go where the work is — but from my view as an Austin-based music professional, this is also a cop-out. If you have a truly great band, you WILL eventually find a place in Austin, but if you’re not, you’ll be wallowing in mediocrity along with all the other wannabes here, and believe me, we have more than our share.
The various Texas Music blogs provide an interesting glimpse into what makes the scene go, but on one particular blog, which shall remain plugless, I am struck by the meanness of it all. As I mentioned before, Texas music likes to portray itself as one big happy family, but give some of the people involved in this scene a chance to bag on each other from behind a veil of anonymity, and watch out. I like to take people for who they appear to be and generally assume that what they say and do is genuine, so it makes me feel somewhat naïve to discover what lurks in some of their cold little black, stony, thorny hearts. It’s kind of funny to read but it’s also disheartening. Just like fans of Texas college football teams running each other down, fans of certain bands and venues and towns seem to get just a little too much glee out of badmouthing other people who, just like them, are simply doing their best to do well playing music. I’ve made some great friends and have had a hell of a good time working with Texas music, and we all know that entertainment can be a mean business, but the meanness was usually kept from public display before the advent of the blogger. One can take it as mindless entertainment, which I try to do, but when I see someone I know and like being dragged through the mud by some anonymous troll who might be someone else I know and like, it makes me wonder who I can and can’t trust.
One final note this time: let’s all step back a second and refresh ourselves on the distinction between being an “outlaw” and being a retarded thug. The Texas/Red Dirt music community was showered with bad news after bad news over the last few weeks, much of which was due to apparently stupid people making some extraordinarily stupid choices. In the case of Ben and Brett Danaher’s brother Kelly, it was a jackass who decided he should bring a gun along (and a video camera too … what the hell?) as he walked over to a neighbor’s house to complain about noise. Up in Oklahoma, some dumbass took a look at the Jim Beam bottle he had snuck in to a Ragweed gig, and figured it would fly right nice — it did, right into Cody Canada’s face. At press time, nobody in this HUGE crowd had come forward with any idea who this person is, which, in my opinion, qualifies the lot of them for at least a shot glass-full out of the great big bucket of toxic karma the flinger earned himself that night. (Yes, you: Years from now, when your teenage daughter gets knocked up by her crack dealer, think back to all the fun you had that night at the Calf Fry.)
The word “outlaw,” when it comes to our music and the lifestyle that accompanies it, refers to the rebellious and self-reliant nature of our scene, but it seems to me that anyone who would fire a bottle at a stage performer, knock on a noisy neighbor’s door with a .45, or maybe walk into a rathole bar off I-35 with one is taking the badass act a little far. An outlaw is a person who does things his or her own way, but a person who allows someone else to get hurt by their outlaw act is really just a common criminal. Show a little solidarity people, and see if you can go awhile without jacking anybody up while you’re raising all that hell. It’s not chickenshit to show a little respect and common sense.
And pray, people … pray that they figure out a way to plug up that hole in the floor of the Gulf. See y’all next time.