Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas by Craig E. Clifford (Editor), Craig Hillis (Editor), Texas A&M University Press, 2016
Let’s start with an activity. Go over to your collection of LPs and/or CDs. Take every one by a Texan artist out and put it on the floor. Unless I am mistaken there should now be a big mess. Blind Lemon Jefferson, DRI, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Scott Joplin, T-Bone Walker, Guy Clark, Janis Joplin, Waylon Jennings, 13th Floor Elevators, a Tejano compilation, Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Wills, Pantera, Ornette Coleman, and, wait a minute, you own a Pantera record? Notice how many are on the floor. It’s remarkable. Now tidy them up and come back to hear about a new book, Pickers and Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas.
All over the world there are regions in other countries that were once independent nations. Mercia, Java, Burgundia, Venice, Sikkim, and Galicia are just some of the ghost states that linger in the wider federations to which they now belong. Texas is another such place. From 1836 until 1846, the Republic of Texas had its own president and was recognised by many other countries including its big neighbour to the north, the United States.
Is this why so many of your records come from Texas? Perhaps it is. When Willie Nelson grew weary of Nashville in the late 60s, he grew his hair, started smoking industrial amounts of weed, and, to really make his point, threw his battered guitar in the pickup and moved to Austin. He crossed a border; he emigrated. Yes, I know he was from Texas originally but the point is that Austin, though only a long day’s drive from Nashville, represented another place entirely, another country – with all the implications of that phrase.
Pickers and Poets is not a comprehensive history of Texas music – it is, rather, a series of short essays about the state’s song writing tradition as it has played out since the late sixties. The extensive blues tradition in the state is not part of this book, nor is Texas jazz – an amazing story – or the wondrous Tejano music. Most of the artists profiled here could be classified roughly under the ‘Americana’ banner. The book is set out more or less chronologically beginning with figures like Steven Fromholz, Michael Martin Murphey and on up to contemporary songsmiths like Hayes Carll. In between, we meet such familiar figures as Kinky Friedman, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and James McMurtry. Willie Nelson gets two pieces.
I was sold when Willis Alan Ramsay turned up in one of the first essays. In the chapters that follow, it becomes clear that many songwriters continue to hold him in very high esteem. He recorded exactly one album in 1972. It sold poorly and disappeared almost immediately. But what a record! You’ll recognise one song on it. Yes, Willis Alan Ramsay wrote Muskrat Love and, what’s more, it’s a great song. His version, that is. He also wrote Angel Eyes, a song that you will either play or wish you had played at your wedding.
But it’s Townes Van Zandt who haunts almost all of the essays. He never had anywhere near the success he deserved and his story is not a happy one. However, his influence is beyond question. He was never a Nashville identity but many of his songs are standards on the Opry stage. It’s arguable that the entire Americana scene is his creation. Big call? Okay, but flip through the pages of No Depression and try to imagine a world where Townes had never existed. It’s not easy. I would argue, as many have, that his influence is comparable to Bob Dylan’s.
Townes was a hard living character indeed and as Steve Earle has observed, a terrible role model. His friend and partner in crime, Blaze Foley is mentioned in many of the essays. Blaze was Townes’ Townes, the embodiment of Kris Kristoffersen’s Pilgrim character and the ultimate cosmic country gypsy. Willie, Waylon, Tompall Glaser and Billy Joe Shaver are famous for the ‘Outlaw’ brand of country. Blaze was the pure product. And then some. His casket was covered in duct tape before he was buried. Beat that Gram Parsons!
If you are curious about the Folk/Country/Americana scene that has developed in Texas over the past half century, the book does a good job of creating a viable chronology. The original generation – Jerry Jeff, Townes, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, and so on – were essentially folkies inspired by Bob Dylan but well versed in honky tonk, Western Swing, and sometimes bluegrass. Willie was a Nashville insider who brought a modern country sensibility with him, not to mention a whole pile of talent scouts who sniffed change in the air. The hippie/redneck/trucker/shitkicker scene around the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin wound down in the early eighties but songwriters continued to gravitate to the small city. The next generation, which included Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and many others regarded Nashville with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Successive waves have included talented Texans such as Ryan Bingham and Sam Baker.
The introduction includes a cringe-worthy explanation of why so few women are included but the chapter devoted exclusively to them is perhaps the best in the book. There are also chapters on newish singer songwriters like Kacey Musgraves and Terri Hendrix in the last section of the book. The whole thing, at times, seems edited by committee so perhaps they forgot. The chapter on Don Henley (yes, from Texas, shame about his anaemic music) was mercifully brief but still too long for this reader. The sections on figures like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams contained far too much general information that is already widely available. The chapter on Rodney Crowell, on the other hand, was fascinating. Guy Clark seemed underplayed throughout the book though the essay by Tamara Saviano bodes well for her recent biography of the man. But these are just quibbles about an engaging and informative book. Any book on music that I have to put down so that I can listen to an artist or album that I don’t know gets high marks from me. It took me weeks to get through this one! Discovering David Rodriguez alone was worth the cover price.
If for some reason, you didn’t end up with many records on the floor in the activity at the beginning of the review, this is required reading. For folks who are still tidying up, there might be, believe or not, still some gaps in your collection. Poets and Pickers might help to fill them.
Teasers: Both of the editors have written doctoral theses on Texas music. The analysis of lyrics and lyrical traditions in the book are truly insightful.
Willie Nelson on The Midnight Special, introduced by Captain and Tennille!