Moseying: Living La Vida Llanero
West Texas is where music styles began
October 15, 2003
Musicians channel the collective soul of humankind, distilling time, place and society into crystalline aural magic that expresses the deepest emotions, (conscious, subconscious, and unconscious) of us all. Musical genres reflect particular groupings of people, normally. Here on the Llano Estacado, however, sometimes genres are hybridized and new forms of music arise. The beginnings of western swing and what was originally called western bop, for example, are deeply intertwined within the economic and natural landscape of west Texas.
That's some high-falutin' talk, but forgive me, for the words came to me at two in the morning, while zipping down the highway with the radio my only company -- I'd given a program 150 miles from Midland on a weeknight, and Deborah was home, fast asleep. I was tired beyond belief, my eyelids almost too heavy for safety, and I'd rolled down the windows so the noise of the air buffeting in and out of the little truck would be irritating enough to keep me awake. I cranked up the radio so I could hear it.
I was up on the divide between the Concho and Colorado River headwaters, north of Stiles. I had picked up stations from far beyond -- west Texans know that in the wee hours radio stations from Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Dallas, or Laredo can be heard. Maybe it is because we live up on the giant mesa of the Llano Estacado, higher than anything for a thousand miles to the east, I suppose. It might have something to do with the theory that the "heavier" humid air of the early morning hours carries radio signals further than any other time of day, too. I don't know where the station was coming from that I was listening to, but it was unlike any I had ever heard. Maybe the folks at the West Texas Music Hall of Fame (www.westexmusichof.com) had put the show together (but when asked, they said no,) but I never learned anything about the station, its producers or their location. I learned a lot about music in west Texas in the next thirty minutes, before the signal faded. The next day I bought "The Handbook of Texas Music," and started researching on the Internet. I found the following website, www.txstate.edu/ctmh (The Center for Texas Music History) featuring the Journal of Texas Music History. I sent Director Gary Hartman (originally from Odessa) an email, and two days later had two different issues with west Texas stories show up in the mailbox.
I know, you're wanting to know what western bop is, right? Norman Petty probably coined the phrase in 1954. You know who Mr. Petty was, don't you? He owned a studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where a bespectacled young man from near Lubbock cut his first million selling single there in 1957. His business card read "Buddy Holly, Western Bop." Bop was a "new and cool" word at the time, derived from Charlie Parker's bebop jazz, and signified music with a sexy hot beat that horribly irritated the bluenoses of the time. Roy Orbison, over in Wink, billed himself as a western bop musician, too.
In January 1955, Elvis Presley did a gig in Midland, and the billing read "King of Western Bop." Elvis was performing for the Louisiana Hayride Radio Show in Shreveport, Louisiana on the weekends, and traveling Texas for all of 1955. "I got my start in west Texas," Elvis once said. The June '55 Billboard Magazine reported, "west Texas is his hottest selling territory."
Turkey, Texas is not on the Llano Estacado, but right underneath it, just to the east, and right down the road from Quitaque. Bob Wills was only ten in 1915 the first time he fiddled at a dance in Turkey, filling for his drunken daddy, who also the son of a fiddler. Before he moved to the Big "D" in 1929, he'd already mixed blues, jazz, bluegrass, old-time country, Mexican and folk rhythms into the sound of Western Swing he first made famous with the Light Crust Doughboys. He had learned blues and jazz as he picked cotton with black field hands. He even once rode a horse fifty miles to Lubbock just to hear blues great Bessie Smith. He learned Mexican rhythms from Hispanic field hands in the same cotton patches. Not only an innovator of musical melody, his band was once of the first using electric guitars (by the late 1930s) and his use of a drum set kept him from ever playing the Grand Old Opry but once in 1945.
There is another case of someone from the Llano Estacado that played a major role in developing another new musical genre. Along with Willie Nelson, Guy Clark (born in Monahans) Jerry Jeff Walker and others, Waylon Jennings played a major role in "redneck rock," or "progressive country," played by longhaired, bellbottomed cosmic cowboys. Waylon was born near Littlefield on a tenant farm, a bit northwest of Lubbock. Jennings played with Buddy Holly, starting out, and gave up his seat to the "Big Bopper," J.P. Richardson, on the plane "the night the music died." At first recording in the traditional Nashville country music industry, like Willie, he moved to Austin and the two began playing "Outlaw Country" music and helped make the Armadillo World Headquarters famous.
With a long stretch of imagination, a person can find a common thread from Wills, to Holly and Orbison, and on to Jennings. All three styles are synthesizations, the mixing of varied styles. And, since I am an outre Llanero chauvinist, I want to believe that our bioregional homeland, the plains of the Llano Estacado, played a subconscious role in the development of those styles. Think about it; when you live on a land that is almost flat, without hardly a tree to be seen, with the wind whirling up sandstorms, and you hear coyotes howling in the vast empty spaces, the products of imagination play a greater role in developing a personal identity. Every experience becomes distilled and refined, because the unconscious intuitively processes the lesson of the plains -- a person is but a dust mote, dwarfed by immensity. In some, the sensation breeds fear, but others are given confidence. "The Sky is the Limit," our old Chamber of Commerce saying proclaimed -- which is another way of saying -- "NO LIMITS! NO FEAR!" The Llano Estacado breeds visionaries and sparks visions.