God, Texas and Tom Waits

Tom Waits may not come from around here, but a good chunk of his favorite music does

Although he was raised in and around Los Angeles and San Diego, few musicians have as much love for the music of the Lone Star State as Tom Waits. It's in his blood; his father Jesse Frank Waits was from the northeast Texas town of Sulphur Springs.

This Tex-o-philia is apparent after even a cursory reading of the multitude of interviews anthologized online at the Tom Waits library,, especially in the "Childhood" and "Influences" categories. To paraphrase Lyle Lovett, he may not be from Texas but he loves Texas anyway.

Not blindly, however. This Houston show will be only his second in Texas since 1999, when the vicious beating of one of his friends by bouncers at Austin's La Zona Rosa caused Waits to declare a permanent boycott of the state. He seems to have amended that to a boycott of Austin only, as in addition to Sunday's sold-out Houston show, El Paso(!) and Dallas are also on the Glitter and Doom Tour. But not Austin. Hah.

Houston's long and crooked streets hold a lot of charm for Tom Waits.
Anton Corbijn
Houston's long and crooked streets hold a lot of charm for Tom Waits.

At any rate, here are a few of the things Tom Waits digs about the Lone Star State.

Sulphur Springs, Texas Hometown of Tom's father, Jesse Frank Waits. Named after the James brothers, the elder Waits moved to California and went by Frank because it did not have the rustic Dust Bowl connotation of Jesse. Frank Waits worked a series of jobs including orange picker and Spanish teacher and left his family when Tom was about ten, because, as Tom once explained, he wanted to hang out in dark bars sipping Glenlivet. The younger Waits said this abandonment left him with a void that caused him to hang out with many of his friends' fathers, through whom he picked up his enduring affection for older music. Before he left, however, Frank filled Waits with a love of Mexican music, which crops up from time to time, as on his Los Lobos collaboration "Kitate."

"Abilene" and "El Paso" Two Texas towns spawned tunes that were among Waits's favorite songs as a child. "When I heard 'Abilene' on the radio it really moved me. And then I heard, you know: 'Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I ever have seen. Women there don't treat you mean. [In] Abilene..." I just thought that was the greatest lyric you know 'Women there don't treat you mean.'"

Elsewhere, Waits has spoken of his affection for Marty Robbins's "El Paso," which he recalls learning first in Spanish, because of his Spanish teacher father's love of Mexican radio. (He has also said that his family lived in El Paso briefly, though whether he based his decision to play in El Paso on his former residence there or because of the song is anybody's guess.)

But in speaking of his admiration for and the formative effects of songs like "El Paso," "Abilene" and also "Detroit City," Waits once told Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air the following: "I liked songs with the names of towns in them, and I liked songs with weather in them and something to eat (laughs). So I feel like there's a certain anatomical aspect to a song that I respond to. I think: 'Oh yeah, I can go into that world. There's something to eat, there's the name of a street, there's a saloon, okay.' So probably that's why I put things like that in my songs."

You can hear that approach in action on "Fannin Street," Waits's hard-luck tale about a formerly seedy and colorful and now utterly sterile downtown Houston thoroughfare.

Lightnin' Hopkins Waits once said that seeing the Third Ward bluesman perform in California was a pivotal moment in his life. As he put it to Australian newspaper The Age six years ago: "I saw Lightning Hopkins when I was about 15, and he was doing, I don't know, 'Black Snake Moan' or something, and I just thought, 'Wow, this is something I could do.' I don't mean I could play guitar like him, I just mean that this could be a possible career opportunity for me. Perhaps I could train at home and keep my present job."

Larry McMurtry The Archer City-bred former Houstonian was often cited as a favorite in Waits's 1970s interviews, although over the course of a few years, Waits's praise went from unqualified to qualified.

Leadbelly Texas/Louisiana songster with whom Waits feels a mystical connection. Leadbelly died the day after Waits was born, and Waits likes to say that the two of them "passed in the hall."

In 2005, the London Observer asked Waits to list his top 20 recordings of all time. Waits over-obliged with 28, one of which was Leadbelly's Last Sessions. "Leadbelly was a river, was a tree. His 12-string guitar rang like a piano in a church basement. The Rosetta stone for much of what was to follow, he died in '49. Excellent to listen to when driving across Texas. Contains all that is necessary to sustain life, a true force of nature."

Waits has also recorded Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene."

John A. and Alan Lomax I wouldn't force this if it weren't a salient fact, but Waits is a huge fan of my Meridian-raised great-grandfather and my Austinite great-uncle.

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