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Houston's Very Best Songs Ever

...otherwise known as the H-Town 20

And what an unlikely hit it was. The Fats Domino-influenced swamp pop style had been all but dead and buried since its brief 1950s heyday, and silken-voiced Mexican-American guys from the Valley like Fender were never first and foremost among its stars. A record like this could only have come from Houston. — J.N.L.

19. "Just Dropped In (To See What ­Condition My Condition Was In)"

Kenny Rogers & the First Edition

First Edition

1967

Before he was the Gambler, and then the Roaster, then a freakish Botox casualty, Davis High School grad Kenny Rogers rediscovered Esther Phillips and played bass on one of Mickey Gilley's early singles (1960's "Is It Wrong"), and his brother Lelan owned seminal psych label International Artists. After singing with L.A. folk stars the New Christy Minstrels for a year, Rogers headed back to Houston and formed the First Edition, who hit No. 5 in spring 1968 with this slice of psychedelic weirdness brought on by author/Townes Van Zandt pal/fellow Houstonian Mickey Newbury's first (and only) acid trip. Try these on for size: "I tore my mind on a jagged sky...I got up so tight I couldn't unwind...I saw so much I broke my mind." If that's not enough, several of the guitar parts were recorded backwards. Duuuude. Nobody really takes acid anymore — do they? — but "Just Dropped In" is still hanging around. It was rumored to be Jimi Hendrix's favorite song, underscores The Big Lebowski's pivotal dream sequence and has been recorded or covered live by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Supergrass and Willie Nelson. The original version is still pretty groovy, too. — Chris Gray

18. "Midnight Special"

Leadbelly

The Library of Congress Recordings, Volume 1: The Midnight Special

1937

Decades before N.W.A., Too $hort or Tupac, Leadbelly was as gangsta as they came. Already an escapee from an East Texas chain gang, in 1918 the man born Huddie Ledbetter was convicted in the death of cousin-in-law Will Stafford and "assault to murder" another man, earning a total of 35 years on the infamous Sugar Land prison farm. Due in no small part to his musical gifts — he was an early master of the 12-string guitar — Leadbelly was pardoned just shy of his sentence's seven-year minimum, leaving with both his nickname (for both his given name and his toughness in fights with other inmates) and rough sketches for several of his best-known songs, chief among them "Midnight Special." Though salvation-promising locomotives — here Southern Pacific's Golden Gate Limited, bound for San Antonio, El Paso and the Golden State on tracks that remain alongside U.S. 90 — had been common subjects in American folk songs for decades, "Midnight Special" is as much about Leadbelly's local experiences as any train. "If you ever go to Houston, you know you better walk right," he sings in the first verse. "You know you better not stagger [drink], you know you better not fight." Going on to detail his experiences with "little Rosie" and "jumpin' Judy," "Midnight Special" rapidly became a 20th-century standard, kept alive over the years by artists including Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater Revival and ABBA. That's right, ABBA. — C.G.

17. "Killin' Time"

Clint Black

Killin' Time

1989

When "Killin' Time" appeared in early 1989, few people outside Oklahoma had heard of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson's "Here in the Real World" was still several months away. So Katy's Clint Black briefly became big-time country music's flagship "New Traditionalist." The first of four No. 1 singles from Black's RCA debut, it's still one of his best, up there with "Nothin' but the Taillights" and "A Bad Goodbye." Cowritten by Black and longtime collaborator Hayden Nicholas, taken as a whole it's a classic midtempo yarn of barroom denial with a great turn of phrase in the chorus — "drinkin' myself blind, thinkin' I won't see" — and a perfect jukebox-born companion to another lonely last call. Broken down line by line, though, it gets considerably darker, especially in the second verse: "If there's an end to all my sorrow, and this is the only price I'll pay, I'll be a happy man when I go, and I can't wait another day." Black ain't talking about going home, either, except maybe in the spiritual sense — this may be the last time a song about someone contemplating suicide topped the country charts. — C.G.

16. "White Freightliner Blues"

Townes Van Zandt

Live at the Old Quarter Houston, Texas

1977 release of a 1973 recording

"It's bad news from Houston, half my friends are dyin', White Freightliner won't you steal away my mind."

Is there a better line containing the word "Houston" in any song? And who among us has not felt that way at some point?

Others who evidently can relate include one-time Houstonians Billy Joe Shaver and Steve Earle, as well as Jimmie Dale Gilmore, New Grass Revival, Bobby Bare, J.D. Crowe and the New South and even the String Cheese Incident, all of whom have recorded the song.

For this list we selected the version Van Zandt recorded in 1973 at the late, great Old Quarter bar, which still stands down by the courthouse. (It's now a law office.) Though the studio version was recorded in 1974, it did not surface until 1993's The Nashville Sessions, and even when it came out it did nothing to diminish the definitiveness of the live recording. The enthusiasm of the crowd hand-clapping along and the way Van Zandt's falsetto almost careens out of control when he sings the "Bad news from Houston" lines see to that. — J.N.L.

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