By Michael Corcoran
The ranking of Texas songs is not a new idea. I think the first person who took on the task held back on “Crazy Arms” by Ray Price because they wanted to see if that shuffle beat had legs. Texas Monthly has taken a swipe at this list. So have the Dallas Morning News, Austin American Statesman, Austin Chronicle and Dallas Observer. I know, because I wrote those last four. They change each time, if only slightly, because sometimes you love “El Paso” more than any song and sometimes it sounds like the music at a Bordertown-themed amusement park. (“Where the danger is real!”)
An eligible song is one recorded by a Texan or having the state, or a location therein, as a subject. So, “Dust My Broom,” recorded in San Antonio in 1936 by Robert Johnson, is not a Texas record. But “T For Texas,” recorded in New Jersey by fellow Mississippi native Jimmie Rodgers, is.
This particular list was intended for my new and improved version of All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music, which is coming out in Spring 2017. But after I added 18 new chapters on such badasses as Barbara Lynn, King Curtis, Bobbie Nelson, Nick Curran, Illinois Jacquet, Ray Price and so on, something had to go. Either that or add spinner wheels and a handle because this thing is getting almost too big to carry. So I pulled the list out of the book for posting online instead, which of course allows it to feature something they didn’t have back in the early years of Texas recordings rankings: music to go with the words!
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1. “LA GRANGE” by ZZ Top (1973)
A classic-rock eternal that never fails to bring out the air guitars. It’s impossible to experience sadness while “La Grange,” produced by the band’s manager Bill Ham in Memphis, is blasting on the radio. Who cares if they stole the riff from John Lee Hooker? It’s a song about a cathouse in Fayette County. And Marvin Zindler couldn’t do a thing about it. A genius, who maybe loved money too much, Ham produced ZZ in the manner of a firing squad, where only one rifle has live ammunition, so nobody knows who killed. He’d record only one member of the band at a time, but they’d all be playing like it was them.
2. “HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY” by George Jones (1980)
This “morbid son of a bitch” (Jones’ initial reaction) is generally regarded as the greatest country single of all time, the record that made an East Texas hayseed country music’s Sinatra. Like Frankie, George was “washed-up” before he hit his stride in 1980 with this Billy Braddock/Curly Putnam heart-tugger. “Possum” died in April 2013 at age 81, leaving this epitaph in song.
3. “DARK WAS THE NIGHT (COLD WAS THE GROUND)” by Blind Willie Johnson (1927)
The Negro experience in America as a moaning instrumental, this was recorded in a warehouse in Dallas by an itinerant blind man from Marlin. The hum is from the fields and from the church. The guitar is from God. This otherworldly music left the galaxy several years ago, hurdling to the edge of space aboard the Voyager I flying time capsule.
4. “THAT’LL BE THE DAY” by Buddy Holly and the Crickets (1957)
Perhaps the most influential single in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Holly’s first smash hit provided the model for the gtr-gtr-bs-drms format that would rule pop music for decades. And he wrote it himself (after hearing John Wayne utter the phrase in The Searchers), something pop acts didn’t do back then. Since Holly recorded the song first in Nashville for Decca, the initial credit for this Brunswick release was “The Crickets.” Holly’s name was added after the band realized Brunswick was a subsidiary of Decca.
5. “MAL HOMBRE” by Lydia Mendoza (1936)
A young Mexican woman with a 12-string guitar in San Antonio created a worldwide anthem with a melodramatic song about a bad man. Women didn’t perform solo back then, but Mendoza stepped out of her family band for this one, whose lyrics she found on a bubble gum wrapper.
6. “I FOUGHT THE LAW” by the Bobby Fuller Four (1965)
Written by Sonny Curtis (who would later pen The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme) and originally recorded by the post-Buddy Holly Crickets in 1960, the definitive version was by these guitar-rockers from El Paso. “Wait, didn’t the Clash do ‘I Fought the Law’?” They tried.
7. “YOU’RE GONNA MISS ME” by 13th Floor Elevators (1966)
Psychedelia is born as the region rocks to a new soul shouter named Roky Erickson. This Erickson-penned garage rocker was originally recorded by his high school band the Spades, but when Roky hooked up with a folk band from Corpus named the Lingsmen, all under the spell of trippy guru Tommy Hall, the song came out in waves. Recorded at Walt Andrus’ studio in Houston, “Miss Me” reached a higher consciousness than it’s chart peak of No. 55.
8. “ME AND BOBBY McGEE by Janis Joplin (1970)
This Kris Kristofferson song about a hitchhiking couple finding love and then distance on the road was really the story of Janis, whose adventures ended in sadness. The song was recorded four days before Joplin died of a heroin overdose and topped the charts — Joplin’s only No. 1 — four months later, while the counterculture was also reeling from the excess-riddled bodies of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. As a swan song this ranks with “Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding.
9. “MIND PLAYIN’ TRICKS ON ME” by Geto Boys (1991)
Pouring their paranoia over a slinky Isaac Hayes sample, the Geto Boys took gangsta rap to a headier space than on their earlier LPs. Scarface, Bushwick and Willie D had been gripping it on the other level for years in H-Town, but this track put the Deep South (later “Dirty South”) sound on the worldwide radar.
10. “EL PASO” by Marty Robbins (1959)
Quite a “gunfighter ballad” by singer/writer Robbins, giving a musical movie plot in 4 minutes and 38 seconds, and with Grady Martin’s Spanish guitar, you can almost feel the spirit of border town love. “Out in the West Texas town of El Paso / I fell in love with a Mexican girl,” Robbins starts off this perfect song, with backing vocals by Tompall & the Glaser Brothers. “El Paso” would be replaced at the top of the pop charts (it was also No. 1 country) by “Running Bear” from Johnny Preston, the Cajun who grew up in Port Arthur, as far away from El Paso as you can get (834 miles) and still be in Texas.
11. “ONLY THE LONELY” by Roy Orbison (1960)
This West Texas master of operatic pop set the stage for his solitary man persona with this majestic hit. “There goes my baby/There goes my heart,” he croons, as the drums snap a cold cadence. Orbison’s first hit on Monument Records, after failing at Sun, made a huge impact in the years between Elvis and the Beatles.
12. “HONKY TONK HEROES” by Waylon Jennings (1973)
This revved-up version of the Billy Joe Shaver song proved Waylon to be the Elvis Presley of country music, a forceful vocalist who made every song he touched his own. The album of the same name joins Shotgun Willie and Jerry Jeff Walker’s ¡Viva Terlingua! as the three LPs from ’73 that changed country music for the better. (Update: it’s changed back.)
13. “CRAZY ARMS” by Ray Price (1956)
Ray Price saw the landscape of Southern music change before his eyes when Elvis Presley opened for him in Memphis is 1955. By the next year, many established country acts were leaning more towards rockabilly, but not Price. Instead, he invented a new dancehall rhythm, the 4/4 country shuffle, with this song and kept Texas honky tonk vital. The “Ray Price Beat” still rules the counter-clockwise dancers.
14. “HE’LL HAVE TO GO” by Jim Reeves (1959)
The velvet singer from Panola County achieved a rarity with this song, which helped usher in the pop/country era with its vocal harmonies by the Anita Kerr Singers and Floyd Cramer’s piano. Not only was this No. 1 on the country chart for 14 weeks, but it hit No. 2 on Billboard pop and No. 13 on the R&B singles chart! It was later a hit in South Africa, where Reeves re-recorded it in Afrikaans, the country’s official language, of Dutch origin. Piloting a single-engine airplane from Arkansas to Nashville in 1964, “Gentleman Jim” got caught in bad weather and crashed, dying instantly. “He’ll Have to Go” songwriter Joe Allison, of McKinney, went on to head Liberty Records, where he signed Willie Nelson to his first record deal in 1961.
15. “REMINGTON RIDE” by Freddie King (1968)
This guitar giant from Gilmer used to say he played for the city and the country — and here’s your proof. The great Western swing steel guitarist Herb Remington wrote and performed the song in 1949 with the Hank Penny band, but after Freddie you can’t listen to the original. “Hide Away” is King’s biggest instrumental hit, and “Going Down” the most enduring classic, but this one features his most spectacular playing, with six solos in 5:44!
16. “BLUE EYES CRYIN’ IN THE RAIN” by Willie Nelson (1975)
An early look at Willie’s interpretive genius, as he lifts those beautiful Fred Rose lyrics (“Love is like a dying ember/ Only memories remain/ Through the ages I’ll remember/ Blue eyes crying in the rain.”) It’s 2:17 that anchors a concept album (Red Headed Stranger), a sign of Stardust to come.
17. “IF YOU’VE GOT THE MONEY I’VE GOT THE TIME” by Lefty Frizzell (1950)
This was the first recording by the Corsicana country boy with the jazz vocal phrasing, made at Jim Beck’s studio in Dallas, and it went right to No. 1. Lefty, Beck and the gang (with Madge Suttee on piano) made several more hit recordings on Ross Avenue, and it looked like Dallas was going to be a recording hub to rival Nashville, but that dream died when Beck (who co-wrote “If You’ve Got the Money” with Frizzell) was pronounced dead on May 3, 1956 after accidentally inhaling cleaning solvent at his studio.
18. “TIGHTEN UP” by Archie Bell and the Drells (1968)
This song should be credited also to the TSU Toronados, a group of Texas Southern students who recorded the instrumental hook days before Bell and the Drells stepped inside the studio. When Archie said to “now make it mellow,” it already was. Despite the credit discrepancy, this is just a classic, late ‘60s, Southern black college dance jam.
19. “SEE THAT MY GRAVE IS KEPT CLEAN” by Blind Lemon Jefferson (1927)
This native of the Mexia area was the first national star of country blues, beating all those Mississippi Delta guys from the fields to the record stores in 1925. By the end of 1929 he was dead, though nearly 80 recordings (including the Beatles-covered “Matchbox Blues”) live on. His “guide boys” around Deep Ellum included Lead Belly and T-Bone Walker, but who was leading who?
20. “WALKIN’ THE FLOOR OVER YOU” by Ernest Tubb (1941)
The money was in the jukebox, but nobody would play the standard country music at night because it was drowned out by the crowd. They wanted to dance, so Tubb had the innovation of using an electric guitar to match his piercing nasal tone and cut through the sonic haze. And that there is how honky tonk-music was born. Jimmie Rodgers brought blues to country in the ‘20s and Tubb wrapped Rodgers in Texas twang in ’41.
21. “SAY MY NAME” by Destiny’s Child (2000)
The first great single of the millennium, this hit from the Houston group’s second album also announced Beyonce as an artist in control, with her syncopated rap-style creating a new way to swing. This first collab with producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins is also one of the first radio songs to reference the cellphone culture that would come to dominate social interaction.
22. “DALLAS” by Joe Ely (1981)
“Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night” is as great an opening line as there is (by Jimmie Gilmore), and Joe Ely keeps up the intrigue with his heel-grinding delivery. “Dallas is a jewel, Dallas is a beautiful sight,” he sings, but then there’s danger beyond the glitz. If we were to give this slot to another Flatlander, it might go to “West Texas Waltz” by Butch Hancock or Gilmore’s “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown.” The trio from Lubbock dips from a deep well of songs.
23. “AMARILLO BY MORNING” by George Strait (1982)
This fiddle-woven tune about the long drive home from a rodeo was a fixture on the Texas/Oklahoma country nightclub scene for 10 years (by co-writer Terry Stafford, produced by Earl Poole Ball) before this kid from Pearsall (originally Poteet) covered it on his breakout LP Strait From the Heart.
24. “BEFORE THE NEXT TEARDROP FALLS” by Freddy Fender (1975)
Born Baldemar Huerta, Fender made his pop breakthrough with this No. 1 bi-lingual smash that topped not only country but pop charts. Produced by Huey P. Meaux, who insisted Fender sing a country ballad when he just wanted to do rock and soul.
25. “DOWN THE ROAD APIECE” by Amos Milburn (1946)
Discovered by Lola Anne Cullum (wife of a prominent black dentist in Houston), who got him signed to Aladdin fresh out of the Navy, this boogie-woogie piano master was the hero of a New Orleans teenager named Antoine Domino, who even sang scrunched over as Milburn did. This track, written by Don Raye (“Bugle Woogie Bugle Boy”), didn’t have as much success as later hits like “Chicken Shack Boogie” or “Bad Bad Whiskey,” but it established Milburn as the hottest piano man in R&B.
26. “BY AND BY, Pts 1 & 2” by the Soul Stirrers (1950)
Before the Soul Stirrers busted out of Trinity, Texas in the ’30s, gospel quartets stood in a row and sang barbershop harmonies. But leader R.H. Harris brought a hard sound to religious songs and helped lay the foundation for soul music. This vocal duel between Harris and Paul Foster was the swan song of the Golden Age, as Harris dropped out soon after to be replaced by a teenager named Sam Cooke. The Stirrers became even more popular, but Cooke could never match the intensity of this number.
27. “WOMAN BE WISE” by Sippie Wallace (1925)
The Texas Nightingale, raised in Houston in a musical family which included boogie-woogie pioneers George W. and Hersal Thomas, recorded dozens of salty blues songs in the 1920s before giving her voice to the Lord. The model for Bonnie Raitt’s sassiness came from this gutbucket number about keeping good love to yourself. One of Sippie’s final performances was with Raitt at Manor Downs in 1986. Wallace died later that year at age 88.
28. “SHE’S ABOUT A MOVER” by the Sir Douglas Quintet (1965)
Originally titled “She’s a Body Mover,” this song is a raucous patchwork of Ray Charles soul, West Side San Antonio groove and hippie innocence. Producer Meaux dressed the Quintet like Brits, but there was no mistaking where this chunk o’ fun came from (especially since some of the members were clearly Latino.)
29. “YOU’LL LOSE A GOOD THING” by Barbara Lynn (1962)
This left-handed guitarist from Beaumont straddled the border between Texas and Louisiana with this Top Tenner that shook up a stale national music scene. Written while Lynn was a student at Hebert High in Beaumont, it was recorded at Cosimo Matassa’s studio in the French Quarter with producer Huey P. Meaux and a New Orleans band.
30. “HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley (1968)
This song of small town hypocrisy, written by Tom T. Hall, became the hit of the year by this singer from Anson, Texas. With the track’s universal appeal, Riley became the first female artist to top both the pop and country singles charts with the same song. In the ’70s, she became a born-again Christian, with the repertoire to match, but no audience was going to let her get out of there without singing “Harper Valley.”
31. “CORPUS CHRISTI BAY” by Robert Earl Keen (1993)
It’s that place where you always fall back into bad habits, and Keen tells the story like he’s Raymond Carver with a guitar. If you meet someone who says they’re big Robert Earl Keen fans, ask them their favorite REK song. If they answer anything besides “Corpus Christi Bay,” proceed in friendship with caution.
32. “GALVESTON” by Glen Campbell (1969)
Jimmy Webb’s subtle anti-war song about a soldier who just wants to go home was recently named No. 8 on CMT’s list of the 100 Greatest Songs In Country Music. The city with the seawall certainly can’t complain about the song they got.
33. “TREAT HER RIGHT” by Roy Head and the Traits (1965)
Formed from San Marcos High classmates, the Traits reached No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart with this horn-driven rock/soul workout, but were leapfrogged by the Beatles for the top spot when “Yesterday” replaced “Help!” There may have been a little riff larceny involved, as “Treat Her” takes the chords from 1964’s “You Really Got Me,” but it was released on Don Robey’s Back Beat label, which wasn’t big on paying others. Rumor had Robey snatching the rights from producer Meaux with the barrel of a gun.
34. “BLUE YODEL (T FOR TEXAS)” by Jimmie Rodgers (1928)
Also known as “Blue Yodel #1,” this tune was recorded by “The Singing Brakeman” at Trinity Baptist Church in Camden, New Jersey, and did so well that Rodgers used royalty money to build a house in Kerrville in 1929. Having contracted tuberculosis a couple years earlier, he moved to Texas for the climate and lived here until he died in 1933.
35. “AY TE DEJO EN SAN ANTONIO” by Don Santiago Jimenez Sr. (1942)
One of the trinity of early Mexican-American accordion masters (along with Valerio Longoria and Narciso Martinez), Jimenez popularized the tololoche contrabass and cat-quick right hand accordion runs on this polka, which Los Lobos covered on their first EP. Jimenez Sr., Flaco’s father, was working as a janitor in Dallas when Les Blank’s 1976 documentary Chulas Fronteras resurrected his career and instigated a move back to San Antonio.
36. “PANCHO AND LEFTY” by Townes Van Zandt (1972)
Van Zandt’s most famous song, about betrayal and burial in Mexico, came to him out-of-the-blue, he’s said. Asked what it was about, his answer was that he’s still trying to find out. Forget the story, which was partially inspired by Pancho Villa; the song contains some of Van Zandt’s finest poetry (“He wore his gun outside his pants / For all the honest world to feel”) and an unforgettable chorus that starts “All the Federales say / They could’ve had him anyway.” The best cover was by Emmylou Harris.
37. “WILD SIDE OF LIFE” by Hank Thompson (1952)
First recorded by Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters from Taylor, this became a huge hit for Waco-born honky tonker Thompson, topping the Billboard country single chart for 15 straight weeks. Even the answer song, Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” made it to No. 1. Credited to songwriters Arlie Carter and William Warren, the melody is a straight rip from Roy Acuff’s “Great Speckled Bird,” which probably came from somewhere else.
38. “DRIFTIN’ BLUES” by Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers featuring Charles Brown (1946)
Before “Stormy Monday” there was this slow burner, written in high school in Galveston by Charles Brown, which came to define post-war lounge blues out of Los Angeles. Brown was the link between Nat King Cole and Ray Charles and had the hottest R&B record of the year. The Blazers, with Austin native Johnny Moore on guitar and Eddie Williams on bass, sold the rights of “Driftin’ Blues” to Philo label owner Eddie Meisner for $800.
39. “FADED LOVE” by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (1950)
A distillation of all that is pure Western swing, this adaptation of the 1850s ballad “Darling Nelly Gray” stands in for any number of Wills tunes. But we’ll cite this one as the only Texas Playboys hit with Johnny Gimble on fiddle. Country radio’s love for Western swing faded not long after this song reached No. 8 on Billboard. It was truly the end of an era. Lefty and Hanks, Williams and Snow, were taking over.
40. “LOST HIGHWAY” by Leon Payne (1948)
Written on the side of the road by this graduate of Austin’s school for the blind, “Lost Highway” has inspired a record label, a TV series and one of Hank Williams’ most enduring performances. Also, Dylan sang the tune with Joan Baez in an informal scene in the documentary Don’t Look Back. Payne also wrote “I Love You Because” and “Blue Side of Lonesome,” posthumous Jim Reeves hits, as well as the oddity “Psycho,” which Elvis Costello used to perform live.
41. “IS ANYBODY GOIN’ TO SAN ANTONE” by Charley Pride (1970).
A black man with an Afro singing country music during the Vietnam War would seem just a novelty, but the voice of the Mississippi native who’s lived in Dallas since the ’70s, just naturally fit this huge bounce of a country hit. This was Pride’s third consecutive No. 1, but it’s the one best remembered today. Doug Sahm did great versions in 1973 and then in ’91 with the Texas Tornados, playing up the barrio rhythm.
42. “BLUES IN A BOTTLE” by Prince Albert Hunt (1928)
Fantastic fiddle blues from Terrell, Texas. This pioneer of Western Swing was shot to death in 1931 by a jealous husband, whose wife had been dancing with Hunt. An adaptation of “Stingaree Blues,” which was written in 1920 by Clinton A. Kemp, a black man from Galveston, this song was recorded as an instrumental by King Oliver in 1930 and as the title track of a 1961 LP by Lightnin’ Hopkins.
43. “COWBOYS FROM HELL” by Pantera (1990). Phil Anselmo was Pantera’s Natalie Maines, the new singer who turned around a moderately popular Dallas band. This was the title track that established Anselmo and the Abbott brothers, Vinnie and Dimebag Darrell, as the new savage princes of groove metal.
44. “SINCE I MET YOU BABY” by Ivory Joe Hunter (1956). Though this Kirbyville native, sometimes billed “The Happiest Man Alive,” had several earlier R&B hits, this was the only one to cross over to the pop charts. Sonny James had a smash cover in 1969 and Freddy Fender recorded perhaps the definitive version in the ’70s, but let’s give it up to the creator of the blues tune that met rock ’n’ roll with elegance, not fury.
45. “LET’S TALK ABOUT JESUS” by Bells of Joy (1951)
Don Robey added a beat to gospel music, instructing the drummer to follow a red light that flashed to the rhythm of a heartbeat, and sold half a million singles from this Austin group. Written by KVET DJ Lavada Durst, who gave credit to Ira Littlefield of the Bells because Durst was a blues musician, this record inspired the record that inspired Ray Charles to put secular lyrics to a gospel beat on “I Got a Woman.”
46. “HONKY-TONK MAN” by Johnny Horton (1956)
Best-known today as the single that launched Dwight Yoakam’s career, it was originally recorded by this Tyler native, who would go on to greater success with historical songs such as “Battle of New Orleans” and “North to Alaska.” Horton was killed by a drunken driver in Milano, Texas in 1960 after playing the Skyline Club in Austin. In an eery coincidence, his widow Billie Jean was married to Hank Williams when Hank played his final public concert at the Skyline eight years earlier.
47. “DESPERADO” by the Eagles (1974)
Sung by Don Henley of Gilmer, this record was not a success when it came out as the title track of the band’s second album, but this many years later it’s recognized as the band’s greatest moment. The first song co-written by Henley and Glenn Frey, “Desperado” featured a string section conducted by Henley’s former bandmate in Shiloh, Jim Ed Norman.
48. “LIVE FOREVER” by Shaver (1993)
Guitarist son Eddy came up with the melody and Billy Joe wrote the words in his head on a long drive home, when he started thinking that his songs (which include so many great ones which could’ve also been included here) would outlive him. When Eddy died of a drug overdose on the last day of 2000, the song grew wings.
49. “POSSUM KINGDOM” by Toadies (1994)
I’m not gonna lie, this track made Nirvana sound like the Monkees. With Todd Lewis caterwauling like a demon, this was music to drag a lake by. A big, fucking kick in the ass to anyone who thought Texas music was just country and blues.
50. “LONDON HOMESICK BLUES” by Gary P. Nunn (1973)
While in London in 1972, playing bass on Michael Murphey’s Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir, this Brownsfieldian wrote a song about missing his “home with the armadillo” — namely Austin — and ended up giving Austin City Limits a theme song for 28 seasons. The song first appeared on Jerry Jeff Walker’s landmark ¡Viva Terlingua! LP, recorded live in Luckenbach in 1973.