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Died and Gone to Houston

City is ready for another honky-tonk close-up.

Years later, Nelson's appearance at a Pasadena honky-tonk had a profound impact on another young songwriter who had recently moved to Houston from San Antonio: Steve Earle.

Earle was only 14 when he ran away from home to pursue his musical dreams in Houston, and instantly fell in with Anderson Fair regulars like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Eric Taylor.

"We considered ourselves folkies and we smoked pot, so we didn't intersect much with the country music crowd," Earle recalls. "We wore pearl-snap shirts and cowboy boots, but we had long hair, so we pretty much steered clear."

In the early '70s, Steve Earle says, the honky-tonks and beer joints of Deer Park and Telephone Road were terrifying to his pot-smoking "folkie" crowd.
In the early '70s, Steve Earle says, the honky-tonks and beer joints of Deer Park and Telephone Road were terrifying to his pot-smoking "folkie" crowd.
"Died and Gone to Houston" author Mike Stinson — right, with guitarist Lance Smith and drummer Eric C. Hughes — has had no trouble finding steady work since moving here a year ago.
Faith Silva
"Died and Gone to Houston" author Mike Stinson — right, with guitarist Lance Smith and drummer Eric C. Hughes — has had no trouble finding steady work since moving here a year ago.

Earle, who says honky-tonks in areas like Deer Park and Telephone Road — where Magnolia Gardens native Rodney Crowell grew up playing drums in his dad's band — were "terrifying," thinks country music was such a huge force in Houston because of one thing: blue-collar jobs.

"If you wanted to work, you could get a job, so people just flooded into Houston for work," notes the musician.

"I always avoided getting any jobs in the oilfield or in the refineries because I just knew if I ever tapped into that kind of money, I might let music go entirely."

But back to that Willie Nelson show. Earle fondly recalls the evening as the moment when he saw some interaction between rednecks and hippies similar to what Nelson had started at Austin clubs like the Soap Creek Saloon and Armadillo World Headquarters.

"It was a weird scene, because it was the first time I saw hippies sitting up front on the floor at that redneck joint," Earle remembers. "And all the rednecks were dancing behind them. Some of those rednecks would kick some hippie in the back as they whirled past."

Earle calls what happened next a critical moment in history.

"Willie saw one of these kicks and he just stopped right in the middle of the song," he says. "And with all those rednecks just standing there looking at him, he said, 'There's room enough here for those that want to listen and those that want to dance.'"

Rodney Crowell, whose childhood memoir of East Houston hits bookstores in January, sees Urban Cowboy as a broad-stroke sociological parsing of Houston culture.

"Obviously in a script you have to take shortcuts, so they embodied all the bad traits in Scott Glenn's character," Crowell theorizes. "He's the tough, mean, somewhat cagey redneck capable of violence or petty theft. That was very much a part of the East Houston culture of my childhood, of Telephone Road honky-tonk culture.

"Then there's the rich girl, Pam; she's the embodiment of those West Side elites, exactly the girl that East Side guys like me hoped we'd hook up with," Crowell laughs. "It's a somewhat ham-fisted characterization, but in some ways it works almost perfectly for portraying that place and time."
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In the mid-'70s run-up to the Urban Cowboy explosion, at least a dozen artists broke out of the Houston market onto the national country charts.

Former KIKK program director, Country Music DJ and Radio Hall of Fame member and 2010 Texas Radio Hall of Fame inductee Joe Ladd programmed Randy Cornor, Kenny Dale, Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee and Gene Watson, who all went on to No. 1s and many other charting singles.

KIKK was the station that plucked Willie Nelson's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" from Red Headed Stranger and turned it into a monster national hit, and was also instrumental in breaking Dwight Yoakam about a decade later.

"As program director, I wasn't tied down to a list someone sent out from New York or limited to what the big labels told me was the single," recalls Ladd. "My job was to find music people would get excited about. No program director at a station today could dub a tape of 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain' and tell the jocks to play it."

Ladd thinks the corporate consolidation of radio and the ensuing narrow homogenization of play­lists have killed any chance of an artist being broken nationally by a local station.

"Nowadays, the only route is the one Miranda Lambert took: Get on a program like Nashville Star or American Idol or some other talent contest, and get signed by one of the big Nashville labels," says Ladd, who today manages country singer Mark Chesnutt.

"Back in the '70s, KIKK and KENR were in an intense but surprisingly friendly competition, and both stations were very supportive of the local country music scene," he adds. "It honestly seemed like any number of people had a chance to make the big time because they had a hit song in Houston. That doesn't happen at all anymore."

Johnny Bush, who grew up in Houston's Kashmere Gardens and is best known for writing Willie Nelson's signature opener "Whiskey River," agrees.

"Back then, there were a dozen major venues in Houston, and that market was red-hot. And the radio stations had an incentive to find good new stuff," he recalls. "If you played the Winchester or Dancetown USA or Gilley's, it was expected that you'd go by the station, call on the disc jockeys, do an interview. It was very open. That's all gone."

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