Throughout history, Texans have always put their unique touch on just about everything under the big sky. The way we talk, the way we govern, and the way we cook are just a few examples. Our music, particularly country music, has been no exception. While the culture and people of the Deep South shaped what we know today as the modern Nashville sound, Texas honed its own flavor of country rooted in cowboy and folk traditions.
Following the Civil War and California Gold Rush, the late 1800s saw a large influx of new settlers to Texas who were drawn by large, unclaimed tracts of land ideal for ranching. These ranchers’ journeys to the Lone Star State came to be known as cattle drives, from which the iconic image of the American cowboy eventually emerged. To pass time along those grueling trips, cowboys often broke out banjos and sang around evening campfires, resonating a folk sound influenced by their rugged and dangerous professions. Musical historians believe the classic “Home on the Range” most likely originated as a cowboy tune, later adapted and made famous by Texas singer/ songwriter David Guion in the early 1900s.
As radio stations began to pop up in all corners of the country, and a national network of airwaves took shape, country music transitioned from a regional sound into a national phenomenon. Fueled by Hollywood’s romanticizing of the cowboy, the Texas sound perfected along desolate cattle drives was now being marketed to the masses through music, television, and film in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Influential artists with Texas ties during this time period included Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Jimmie Rodgers. Texan Woody Guthrie managed to harness the plight of millions of poor farmers and ranchers suffering during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression with his own unique folk and western sound. By the 1950s, cattle drive campfire tunes had been transformed into mainstream music that embodied the rugged and independent spirit of the American cowboy.
If the first half of the century introduced Americans to the Texas country sound, the second half of the century saw expansion and diversity within the genre. A new type of sound, called ‘honkytonk,’ emerged. It dealt with social issues like divorce and alcoholism - previously considered taboo - in an open and direct way. Some of the most popular honky-tonkers of this period hailed from the Lone Star State, including Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman, and Jimmy Dean. Also during this time Texas gave birth to yet another genre: “progressive country.” This new style sprang from a curious blending of traditional country music and the hippie subculture of the late 1960s. Mixing elements of blues, country, and rock-androll, ‘outlaw’ Texas singersongwriters Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson forged this new movement. In the following decades, several Texas artists like Tanya Tucker, Freddy Fender, Townes Van Zandt, and Jerry Jeff Walker embraced the ‘outlaw’ image, but also began to adopt the business approach of the establishment country music industry, now firmly rooted in Nashville.
It was only a matter of time before a talented and hungry student studying Agriculture at Southwest Texas State University finally succeeded in marrying the edgy Texas tones with the lyrical themes seen in the records coming out of Nashville. George Strait exploded onto the country music scene when he and his band, who cut their teeth playing the watering holes and fairgrounds of San Marcos and the Hill Country, signed a record deal with MCA Nashville in 1981. Since then “King George” has produced the most number one songs of any artist - in any genre of music. While he has since cemented his position among the Nashville elite, the Pearsall, Texas native symbolized the merger of the Texas ‘outlaw’ singer/songwriter with the popinfused, mainstream sound heard on country radio today.
Now more than ever Texas country musicians often enjoy the best of both these worlds. While maintaining the cavalier sound first heard on the cattle drives from the Midwest, many present-day Texas artists like the Eli Young Band, Randy Rogers, and Robert Earl Keen, Jr. are backed by big-name Nashville labels. Though these artists can pack clubs in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. to capacity, the heart of the Texas country music scene will always be in the live music venues across the state, like Gruene Hall in New Braunfels and Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth. As modern-day Texas country icon Pat Green unapologetically declares in his song “Southbound 35:” I’m staring at this ocean full of Yankees / And I’d rather be in Texas on my own.
Sources: Texas Historical Society; Texas Country Music Hall of Fame; Country Music Hall of Fame
Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Agriculture, and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.