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What Happened to Honky Tonk in Houston

Turn out the lights, the party's over

"They are locked into 'the legends,' and it's the hitmakers at that," she says.
_____________________

Bear with me as I foray into the culture at large for a moment. I'll steer this back toward music in a minute, I swear.

A few months back, I was talking to a couple of friends about the cultural nature of Houston. Is Houston a Southern city, a Western city, a Texas city or an international city?

My view of it was this: Up until about 1925, Houston was as Southern a city as Mobile or Charleston, a cotton port oft-stricken with malaria and yellow fever, ruled by a Protestant Anglo-Celtic overclass with a black underclass doing the dirty work. Sure, Houston was a touch more exotic than other Dixie cities, as there was already a small but significant Mexican minority here, but the fact remains that Houston was as Southern as pecan pie.

But as the Texas centennial rolled around in 1936, a concerted de-Dixie-­fication effort was put in place by state leaders, starting at the Texas board of education. Through the use of the once-ubiquitous school history primer Texas History Movies, a new pantheon was constructed. As cultural bellwethers, tales of Travis's mad gallantry at the Alamo and Sam Houston's berserk attack at San Jacinto superseded Pickett's charge and Lee's chivalry.

After all, who wants to hitch their wagon to a bunch of slavery-fanatic losers, which in the end, was all the Confederacy amounted to. Down here we won our war.

This Texas identity held proud sway until the late '60s, when it started falling apart as historians took a harder look at the Texas Revolution and the treatment of minorities here. The process was hastened as blacks grew in political power and Mexican-­Americans grew in both clout and number.

White urban Texans also grew more sensitive about how they were portrayed by the national media. I know firsthand that growing up in Houston in the mid-'70s and early '80s, there was tremendous pressure not to be seen as "hick-y." In a generation, the twangy local accent sported by Marvin Zindler and my parents became a thing of the past. To hear them talk, today's Houston teens could as easily be from Tampa or Sacramento as Houston.

The Urban Cowboy/Luv Ya Blue phenomenon was something like the final flare of a supernova. For a couple of years, Houston embraced its rustic identity. Sure, the film wasn't loved here, but we liked being in the national eye, and it didn't hurt that Bum Phillips — who looked like an extra from the movie, and whose team played a smash-mouth brand of football — and his bruising, country music-­loving tailback Earl Campbell were enjoying successes on the ­gridiron.

Houston had an identity — a broad-­shouldered, shot-and-a-beer honky-tonk town, a sort of Chicago south — and country music was the sound track. For a couple of years, as long as the Oilers were near the top of their game, we reveled in who we were. The city's fashions, such as they were, were chic across the country, as Boston bankers and Seattle dockworkers alike aped Pasa-get-down-dena styles and danced the ­Cotton-Eyed Joe.

It all seemed to fall apart with the downfall of the Luv Ya Blue Oilers, which coincided with the onset of the oil bust. By 1984, it was no longer cool to be country.

And then along came NAFTA in the 1990s, bringing with it a tide of new immigrants. One of the great unwritten stories of the 1990s was the disappearance from inner Houston of virtually the entire Anglo working class. H-Town's Collective Bubba migrated en masse to Channelview, San Leon, Santa Fe, Tomball, Humble, Waller, Katy and Conroe.

With the Collective Bubba went Houston's honky-tonk soul. Honky-tonk was blue-collar working people's music, and today, the Houston worker is more likely to be a fan of Ramon Ayala or Juan Gabriel than Johnny Paycheck or even a slick contemporary Nashville star like Tim McGraw.

For English speakers (and some ­Spanish speakers, too), rap filled Houston's signature sound void through the '90s and much of this decade, but that seems to be imploding amid the national hip-hop meltdown of 2007. After all, there were only so many ways to rephrase the facts that you gripped grain, rode foreign and were stackin' bank while sippin' drank and blowin' dank before even the most gifted practitioners grew tiresome.

So, English-speaking Houston...With hip-hop in the doldrums and our rustic past a fading memory, what is the sound of Houston now?

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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