Cover of the April 2004 issue of Texas Monthly, featuring the "100 Best Texas Songs" list.
Courtesy 'Texas Monthly'
Detail of the Sir Douglas Quintet's Mendocino album, featuring the 1965 hit song "She's About a Mover." The song ranks no. 1 on the Texas Monthly list.
Willie Nelson, as pictured on the cover of the 2003 release Essential Willie Nelson. His "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" comes in at no. 4 on the list.
For this month's issue of Texas Monthly, writers Jeff McCord and John Morthland took on an ambitious assignment: coming up with a list of the 100 best Texas songs. The task required the two to make agonizing decisions, between "On the Road Again," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Crazy," "Always on My Mind" — and that's just music from Willie Nelson. McCord and Morthland discuss their choices with NPR's Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered. Below, the authors explain their methodology and the reasoning behind their top 10 choices.
Excerpted from the April 2004 Issue of Texas Monthly
Top 10 of the "100 Best Texas Songs"
by Jeff McCord and John Morthland
LET'S BACK UP FOR A SECOND. Before you pore over our picks for the best Texas songs, you'll probably want to know about the methodology behind the list, starting with how we define a Texas song. No easy task, that. If you consider that everything from blues to conjunto to jazz to R&B to rock and roll has been made here, the meaning of that phrase can be as expansive as the state itself. That's fine with us.
Rather than limiting ourselves to songs that are about Texas, we defined a Texas song as any song performed by a Texas artist. Who qualified? Anyone who was born here, even if he or she left the state while still in diapers. As for the non-natives, they needed to have spent a good part of their career inside the state lines, and their songs had to be a product of their time here or related in some way to the state. Okay, so what do we mean by "song"? The word is a bit misleading; in fact, we included the best recordings of songs, from 78's to singles to album tracks.
For the purposes of our list, we chose to rank only the top forty (don't forget that the radio format of the same name began in Texas). The remaining sixty are alphabetized, a decision that eliminated the prolonged—and fruitless—debate over whether, say, George Strait's "Amarillo by Morning" should be number 86 or number 87.
To generate the list, we contacted twenty outside experts—writers, editors, and deejays with an array of tastes—and asked them to send their thirty favorites per our guidelines. Their responses, combined with our own lists, brought us to some consensus, but we still had more than four hundred songs. So the two of us whittled them down by asking ourselves a few more questions: Was the song inherently Texan, either in style or in subject matter? Was it a big enough hit to become a part of the vernacular? Did it stand the test of time? But this was never about scientific method; it was about music. Choosing the best was a subjective process, and sometimes we went on gut feeling.
The result is a list that reflects everything great about Texas music, from turn-of-the-century pop to nineties rap. Some of our choices should surprise and delight you, and some of our inclusions and omissions will cause you to groan. That's also fine with us. Few countries can boast such an amazing and diverse legacy, and one reason is that Texans are passionate about music. So get riled up if you have to, and have fun. We sure did.
Sir Douglas Quintet
"She's About a Mover"
If anything, the song sounds more audacious now than it did when it first shot to number thirteen on the national charts in 1965, at the height of the British Invasion. First, you've got that two-step rhythm—always common in regional Tex-Mex, country, and Cajun-zydeco but not in rock and roll, not then or now. Then you've got those maniacal dit-dit-dit-dits from organ jockey Augie Meyers; he claims he owned the first Vox in the nation, which supposedly provided the English vibe, but the way he used it mainly served to make a direct connection with Tex-Mex accordion. Finally, there's Doug Sahm's great, and always underappreciated, rock vocals—hard and fast, with a Little Richard-like intensity, but also still melodic—and his delightfully cockeyed lyrics and title. Which make more sense, actually, if you know that the song was originally called "She's a Body Mover," an offhand comment Sahm had made about a girl dirty-dancing at one of his shows. But what's most amazing is that a giddier and less-worldly rock audience back then actually bought manager-producer Huey P. Meaux's hype that this racially mixed group (white and brown) was the newest sensation from England. That ruse lasted only until the heavily accented musicians first opened their mouths in public for any purpose except singing—yet the song endures. And the reason is that sound. You could say that it couldn't possibly have come from nowhar else but Texas, but even that's a little vague; "She's About a Mover" couldn't possibly have come from nowhar else but San Antone.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
"New San Antonio Rose"
The King of Western Swing's all-time best-seller is also a great example of his particular genius: If a more conventional big band had cut this, it would have been considered a pop record. When Waco's Playboys recorded "San Antonio Rose" as an instrumental, in 1938, country fiddle and steel took the leads. When Wills added lyrics and cut the new version nearly two years later, he kept nothing but the original, traditional melody; the song was all reeds and brass, like any other big-band swing record of the day. The music was upbeat and happy, while Tommy Duncan's vocals mourned a loss he just couldn't shake ("Moon in all your splendor/Known only to my heart/Call back my rose/Rose of San Antone"). And dancers knew exactly what this meant, because nobody made feeling bad feel better than these guys.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets
"That'll Be the Day"
Where all the bravado came from is anybody's guess. Even by 1957 standards, this Lubbock teen looked, well, like a geek. But there was no denying the song Holly and his band, the Crickets, rolled out from Norman Petty's Clovis, New Mexico, studio onto the national stage. "That'll Be the Day" borrowed its title from the catchphrase of John Wayne's character in The Searchers and boasted a swagger worthy of the Duke. "You say you're gonna leave," Holly taunts. "You know it's a lie 'cause/That'll be the day when I die." Musically, with pounding drums and precision studio guitar and vocal work, its innovations weren't confined to it being a rock and roll recording. "Day" kicked off what would prove to be an enduring body of work. Unfortunately, Holly had an all too short eighteen months left.
"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"
With one spare, simple, acoustic ballad, Nelson established the mid-seventies "outlaw" movement and took country music back from the Nashville hacks. Successful as a songwriter but stymied as an artist, Willie fled Music City for his native Texas in 1971, intent on making his own music on Red Headed Stranger, which was so out of step with prevailing sounds that his label first dismissed it as a bunch of demos it didn't want to release. The bloody song cycle about murder, revenge, and redemption in the Old West was tempered by this sweetly sentimental single. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," like the rest of the album, was as full of wide-open space as West Texas itself. Those spaces proved to be the silence heard 'round the world.
Archie Bell and the Drells
Has there ever been a greater party record? With a snake of a bass line, syncopated guitar, and Bell's immortal intro, this 1968 gem begins. "Hi, everybody! I'm Archie Bell and the Drells, of Houston, Texas." (He did have a band.) "We just thought of a new dance called the Tighten Up." And then, just to be sure you got it, "This is the music we tighten up with." Bell yells entrance cues like a sideline coach. "Now make it mellow!" he shouts, as a horn coda takes everything down—for two bars. The band comes back full-bore, Bell now singing among the horns; there's clapping, shouting. On it goes, never deviating from the same cheesy riff, for two minutes and thirty seconds of joyous abandon.
Bobby Fuller Four
"I Fought the Law"
In which four tuff and tender guys from El Paso provide a bridge from path-breaking fifties rock and roll to mind-blowing sixties rock. Fuller yoked Buddy Holly's Tex-Mex grooves to a rockabilly attack, an eclectic guitar flash, and vocal harmonies that owed much to the Beatles and early folk rock; he wrapped it in contemporary production and engineering that was all presence. Since the punk-rock era, Fuller's only top ten hit, released in 1966, just before his untimely and mysterious death, has come to be seen as a rebel classic, and rightfully so. The rat-tat-tat of the rhythm section is as unnerving as the overdubbed gunshots at the beginning of the song; there's been very little else in white pop music with such propulsive thrust.
Blind Willie Johnson
"Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground"
Vamping for half a minute on slide guitar lines so expressive they sound like a language, Johnson breaks into a wordless moan that's as chilling as anything ever heard in music. For its intensity and stark sadness, his 1927 recording of the eighteenth-century crucifixion hymn stands like a beacon among the thirty recordings he left behind. But don't call it the blues. In Johnson's day, blues was the devil's music, and the Marlin singer was a man of God. He mastered his stunning bottleneck guitar technique (he used a pocket knife) on the streets, and his voluminous croak rang over the din of the crowd. But Johnson brings it down to a near whisper for "Dark." It's as though he can't bear to sing the words.
"Stormy Monday Blues"
What do Jethro Tull and Manfred Mann have in common with Albert, Freddie, and B. B. King? They are among the hundreds who have recorded the 1947 anthem of the world's most influential electric blues guitarist, Linden's T-Bone Walker. With his fluid and far-reaching single-note guitar lines, Walker recalls another major talent, Charlie Christian. Christian and Walker knew each other and even shared a guitar tutor. Both had a taste for speed, but it was Walker's relaxed, after-hours sides that best suited his smooth vocal style. As the most famous of these, "Stormy Monday Blues" settles into a resigned helplessness that's hard to let go of. Just as it's difficult to overstate Walker's importance, it's impossible to conceive of the modern blues without his unforgettable couplet: "They call it stormy Monday/But Tuesday's just as bad."
Little Joe y la Familia
Fronting various bands, Temple's Little Joe Hernandez had been riding near the top of the Tex-Mex circuit for close to two decades when he cut Para la Gente ("For the People") in 1972 , the album that best gave voice to the emerging Brown Pride movement. Its version of this Mexican standard ("The Clouds") is a hard-swinging, big-band ranchera; the lyrics tell of a drunken, despairing youth watching clouds drift by and hoping for rain, because rain brings new life. That attitude mirrored both current Chicano disillusionment and the faith to rise above it, and the song quickly spread through the Southwest to become the anthem of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers—and probably the first true great example in the modern style eventually dubbed tejano.
"Me and Bobby McGee"
In a neat bit of gender switching, Joplin turned Kris Kristofferson's wistful tale of two lives intersecting into one of powerful longing. It wasn't her choice of pronouns but her well-lived-in voice that transformed the song. Port Arthur-born, Joplin would become the finest white blues singer of her generation. Though she at first tended to elevate everything into a screech, by 1971, when she recorded "McGee" for her album Pearl, she had a newfound maturity on display, constantly lifting lines ("Windshield wipers slappin' time") and reigning them back in ("Holdin' Bobby's hand in mine"). It made moments of found emotion, like the bitterness that springs from ". . . nothin', that's all that Bobby left me" all the more powerful and authentic. "Me and Bobby McGee" would be Joplin's first number one single, but she would not live to see its release.
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