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Last words ... Perhaps it was inevitable that Houston and I would part ways -- eventually. But I never thought it would happen this abruptly. Three weeks ago, my wife and I were scoping out houses in the Heights, intent on hanging around a while. Today, we're in the harried process of packing up and saying goodbye, turning our worries from air conditioning, commuting times and soaring rents to parking fees, icy weather and pedestrian crime. Come November 9, I'll be back where I started: in Philadelphia, the place of my birth, the city that, try as I may, I can't seem to shake. To loosely quote Michael Corleone: "As soon as I think I'm out, they keep pulling me back in." Blame it on the greasy lure of the cheese steak, I guess.

Old, cramped and gruffly urban, Philadelphia must seem like a planet away to most native Texans, a curious dot on the map somewhere northeast of Dallas where y'alls are at a premium and yo's are more than some lame Rocky cliche. Similarly, I had no idea what to expect when I moved to Texas in the summer of 1995. And to some extent, I haven't any more of a clue now. Three years down the line, I've still been accused, on occasion, of writing from the perspective of some condescending alien beamed down from a far-flung galaxy. For a little while there, I actually had the temerity to think that I could absorb the gamut of Houston music -- from the entire singer/songwriter oeuvre to blues to Tejano to rap to indie rock and beyond -- in only a few years. Not for long, though: One late-fall afternoon of cruising the Houston ghetto with the Fifth Ward Boyz, and I knew I was in for an education.

Indeed, for a city with an alleged self-esteem problem, Houston sure has a lot to be cocky about. Granted, the music scene may have continuing problems finding its center. But let's see you try and achieve any sort of unity in a town where the best live music venues don't even fall within the same zip code, let alone within walking distance. That in mind, I'd say Houston's done pretty well for itself under the circumstances -- which, by the way, are bound to improve as the downtown area continues to right itself.

The very fact that Houston isn't all that worried about its place in the music industry is what makes it such an attractive training ground for a Northeasterner like myself. I was the guy who once thought C&W tradition began and ended in Nashville. Hollisters bassist Denny Dale set me straight on that count right quick. I hadn't been in town but an hour when I ran into him at the local storage company where he was clerking. A week later, he and his band had this diehard country skeptic sold on the merits of twang. "True" country was something I'd learn a lot about in the years to come, and that new regional awareness is something I'll take with me -- along with my beat-up Ropers.

As any Lone Star newbie will confess, it isn't easy mastering the musical makeup of a region that prides itself on being a country all its own. But Houston has been a gracious host. Many times, I've thanked God I didn't wind up in Dallas, where outsiders are looked upon with about as much empathy as they are in Philly. As one longtime Houstonite once told me with obvious pride, "In Dallas, everyone is from somewhere else in Texas; in Houston, everybody is from somewhere else in the world." It was that international flavor that caught me the most off-guard -- and in the best way. Who would have thought a great Japanese meal could be had so easily in Houston? (Fish tacos, maybe, but quality sushi?)

But it goes beyond great restaurants and bars. In the end, it was the unexpected in every aspect of my life here that made my stay in Houston more satisfying than ever imagined. Still, I don't envy my successor -- especially any out-of-stater who might arrive fully expecting a run-down oil town devoid of culture, and a backwards music scene to match. I know now that nothing could be further from reality. Consider the following checklist as something of a beginner's primer -- a hypothetical heads-up, if you will, for whoever comes along next.

Artists to love: Sonnier Brothers Band, I-45, Free Radicals, the Hollisters, Horseshoe, Linoleum Experiment, Harry Sheppard, Paul English, Sherman Robertson, Pete Mayes, Mark May, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Milton Hopkins, Li'l Brian Terry, Texas Johnny Brown, Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, Jesse Dayton, Middlefinger, D.R.U.M., El Orbits, Allen Oldies Band, Los Skarnales, Moscas, Beans Barton and the Bi-Peds; turntablists Chris Anderson, DJ Bizz, Andre Morant, Lord Vishnu and DJ Cee.

Artists to loathe: Sunset Heights, Fondue Monks, Miss Molly, anything endorsed by Dennis Lange, Ezra Charles and the Works, any musician who shares a stage with Ezra Charles and the Works.

Industry folks to coddle: Susan Criner, owner, Fabulous Satellite Lounge; Rusty Andrews, owner, McGonigel's Mucky Duck; Robbie Cool, booking agent, Fitzgerald's; Richard Cagle, president, Artist Management Group; Nicole Ross, Rap-A-Lot publicity; "Crazy" Tony Avitia, CEO, Broken Note Records; Darrell Clingman, CEO, Copper Records; anyone willing to talk at the Suave House label; Robert Scorpio, program director, the Box; Rick Heysquierdo, DJ/host, KPFT's Lone Star Jukebox; the entire Pace Concerts marketing department.

Industry folks best kept at arm's length: Randall Jamail, president/founder, Justice Records; Dennis Lange, Richmond Strip cover band magnate; Sean Carnahan, DJ/aspiring entrepreneur; anyone from the Buzz.

Venues to frequent: Aerial Theater, Fabulous Satellite Lounge, McGonigel's Mucky Duck, Instant Karma, Fitzgerald's, Big Easy, Billy Blues, Blanco's, Cezanne, Orchid Lounge, Rudz!.

Venues to forget: International Ballroom, Jamaica Jamaica, the Outback Pub.

Required listening: The Land of Rhythm and Pleasure, the Hollisters; King of the World, Horseshoe; The Rising Tide Sinks All Ships, Free Radicals; Telephone Road, Mark May; For Pete's Sake, Pete Mayes; Going Back Home, Sherman Robertson; Nothing Is Cool and Songs From the Icehouse compilations; Z-Funk, Li'l Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers; Everest, Jinkies; anything with Harry Sheppard on vibes.

Definitive realization: Austin ain't all that.

Over and out.

-- Hobart Rowland

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