Texas troubadours, guitar slingers and weirdos

by Jordan Green

If Texas politics is a strange, inscrutable animal ‘—’ who could predict the rise of George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson, after all? ‘— then Texas music is itself a wondrous and warped thing.

‘“Keep Austin weird’” is the motto of the state capital, a liberal oasis in the vast sea of red that is the Lone Star State.

This patch of ground the size of France includes the delta-like eastern stretches, the central hills, the vast tornado-struck plains of the north and the sun-parched west. The state has incubated its own country, blues and folk music in what amounts to a parallel universe both ahead of and behind the rest of the United States. Throw in the French Cajun influence seeping across the Louisiana state line, and the Spanish language corridos and accordions from the southwest and you have a wild, improbable hybrid.

A handful of progenitors tower over Texas music. There’s Blind Lemon Jefferson, author of ‘“Matchbox Blues,’” who emerged from east Texas and set the stage for T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins in the ’20s. Around the same time Bob Wills fused hillbilly music and jazz to create something called Texas swing, plowing ground that would later be bountifully harvested by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the outlaw country movement.

By the late ’60s, a troubadour named Townes Van Zandt was writing folk songs and playing occasionally with Lightnin’. Van Zandt was the role model for a band from Lubbock called the Flatlanders that included Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. Van Zandt was the standard bearer for the next generation of folkies ‘— a cohort that includes Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Lucinda Williams. Around the same time the now- late Van Zandt began hitting his stride, a chemically altered dude named Roky Erickson made Texas a centrifugal force in the world of psychedelic garage rock, setting the stage for the weird fun of ZZ Top, the Butthole Surfers and any number of punk bands.

One or more of these intertwining and unique musical traditions have left an indelible stamp on the handful of Texas acts that will grace the EMF Fringe Series here in Greensboro next month.

Most of them will be appearing at Triad Stage. The exception, bluesman Johnny Winter, starts the Texas music run at the Flying Anvil on July 7. Although undoubtedly influenced by Blind Lemon and his lineage, Winter got his start as a teenager sharing a stage with non-Texan BB King at the Raven Club in Beaumont. Winter’s bass player in the ’60s, Tommy Shannon, would later back the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, perhaps the most famous exponent of the Texas blues.

A week later Lee Roy Parnell will hit Triad Stage on July 14. A consummate hybridizer, Parnell managed to make country blues and soul music a seamless expression, and broke into the Nashville scene in the ’90s, but has struggled against the constraints of the Music City’s hit-making machinery in recent years. Parnell started playing the clubs in Austin in the early ’70s, tilling the same fertile soil as Ely, Vaughan and fellow country soul man Delbert McClinton. His new album, Back to the Well, features some scintillating slide guitar and a culminating track that mines the Duane Allman/T-Bone Walker vein of jazzy, effervescent blues.

The third week of July brings back-to-back performances from Alejandro Escovedo and Carrie Rodriguez.

Escovedo, who has just released his first album of new material in five years after recovering from Hepatitis C, draws equally from the Erickson and Van Zandt traditions, and is a true maverick. If he never did anything else, he has the bragging rights for opening up for the Sex Pistols during their legendary and disastrous final concert as a member of the punk band the Nuns. Since then he has also played in the trailblazing cow-punk band Rank and File, not to mention Buick MacKane and the True Believers. His new album, The Boxing Mirror, released on May 2, was produced by his hero, John Cale of the Velvet Underground. Escovedo plays July 21 at Triad Stage.

Singer and instrumentalist Carrie Rodriguez occupies the same stage the next night. A classically trained violinist from a renowned Austin music family, Rodriguez found critical acclaim after recording three records and coming out as a singer with Chip Taylor, the songwriter who penned ‘“Angel of the Morning.’” Having recorded with Patty Griffin and performed with Lyle Lovett, Rodriguez leaves little doubt that she can hold her own.

Kelly Willis, who performs at Triad Stage, ends the Texas run of the Fringe Series on July 27. Not quite a native Texan, Willis was born in Oklahoma and moved to Virginia as the child of a military family. Her band Kelly & the Fireballs started playing the clubs in the Washington, DC area in the late ’80s, but with a roots sound that drew from Patsy Cline to the Blasters, it only made sense to relocate to Austin. Nanci Griffith discovered the Fireballs playing at the Continental Club, and a recording contract with MCA soon followed, according to Willis’s publicity package.

Don’t mess with Texas, indeed.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at