Off and on for the past six months, we've been working on a list of the top 100 songs to ever come from Houston. (The top 20 appeared in last week's paper; numbers 21 through 100 are on our Houstoned Rocks blog.)
Originally, our purpose was to do it simply because, to our knowledge, such a list had never been put together before, by anybody. And if a city ever needed such a list, it's Houston. Local popular music history, since the advent of recording technology, extends more than 80 years into the past and is scattered hither and yon across a multitude of genres, a spectrum of skin tones and the Spanish/English divide.
It became clear that this city is not a place like Nashville, an industry hub that has birthed hundreds of great country songs but little else. Nor is Houston in the same class as Austin; from the standpoint of music history and talent produced, we're actually far better. As vibrant as Austin may be today, with its festivals, industry confabs and self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" status, it offers little in the way of heritage before the rise of the 13th Floor Elevators in 1966. Austin's music history is also virtually lily-white. As Dyke and the Blazers put it in 1969, we've got more soul.
Houston's musical heritage
Houston is far more like Memphis than Nashville or Austin, which is to say we have one of the richest musical traditions of any city in America. Thing is, few people either inside or outside the city seem to know this.
Sure, everyone is hip to Destiny's Child, ZZ Top and Urban Cowboy, and most music fans under 40 know a thing or two about our rap scene.
But how many people know that Houston country singers were the first to write trucker songs and explicit songs about cheating, or that zydeco was born here, or that a teenaged piano player from Fifth Ward by the name of Hersal Thomas was credited as the creator of boogie-woogie music?
How many people know that "Rock Awhile," a jumpin' little number by a Houston guitarist by the name of Goree Carter, is credited by several sources as the very first rock and roll record? Other authorities stump for "Flying Home" and "Chicken Shack Boogie" as the first rock record — and "Flying Home" was fired by the sax prowess of Houstonians Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb, while the latter was a huge hit for Houstonian Amos Milburn.
You might think a city with that kind of birthright would do something about it, and bands there would tap into that legacy from time to time. By and large, you'd be wrong on both counts.
As far as I know, there are no official monuments anywhere in Houston acknowledging that Houstonians make music. New Orleans named both a park and its airport after Louis Armstrong. A Chet Atkins Place intersects Nashville's Music Row. Memphis has Elvis Presley Boulevard and a veritable outdoor music museum on Beale Street. A statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan overlooks Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Lake. Dallas's Deep Ellum is festooned with banners and murals memorializing T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson and other Big D legends. Meanwhile, a statue of Lightnin' Hopkins does exist, but not in Houston, his home of 35 or so years. It's in Crockett, a sleepy East Texas town 125 miles away where Hopkins may or may not have spent the night once or twice.
Few people have done more to document Houston's musical history than Dr. Roger Wood, author of both Texas Zydeco and Down in Houston, a chronicle of Houston blues. I asked him if there were any civic memorials to any musicians here.
"The closest thing I can think of is a little bitty park in Third Ward near the SHAPE Community Center called Our Park," he says. "I am not positive that this is true, but I have heard it from several sources — the reason it has that weird name is there was once a proposal to name it after Lightnin' Hopkins. Somebody in City Hall killed the idea because Lightnin' was an ex-con, so the people turned around and said, 'Screw you, this is our park.'" (A similar proposal to rename a street after Hopkins met the same fate for the same reason, Wood adds.)
Wood thinks that Houston's sprawl is partially to blame. "Unlike Memphis or Dallas, so much of Houston's music history is decentralized," he says. "There's not a Beale Street here — things happened in Fifth Ward, Third Ward, downtown, Montrose, Fourth Ward."
Still, he believes the city's neglect of Houston's heritage is pretty lame, especially considering the people who do get honored here. "We won't name anything after Lightnin' because he was a criminal, but then we go and name our airport after Bush. At least it wasn't his son."
Then there's the matter of local bands. Few, if any, show much inclination to tap into homegrown music for inspiration, or even a cover or three.
Exceptions include the Ka-Nives and cover bands like the El Orbits and Allen Oldies Band, but most seem content to draw inspiration from their record collections and blogs. I talked to David Beebe of the El Orbits and Allen Hill, Houston's High Priest of the Oldies, about it.
Beebe believes that Houston's music legacy is hamstrung by the vagaries of the music business. "The legacy is kinda fractured," he says by phone from his new home in Marfa. "And a lot of the really successful music from here wasn't publicized as being from here in the first place. Or it came out on labels that are now defunct and are just distributed by conglomerates.
"Take Duke-Peacock," Beebe continues. "You can get the recordings, but MCA owns that stuff, and it's just another tiny part of their back catalog. The same with the Huey Meaux stuff; I want to get a copy of the early Ronnie Milsap stuff he did. I'm sure I can order it online, but I just haven't seen it. In a lot of cases, the labels are gone and a lot of the people are dead."
In Beebe's view, Houston's ephemeral, fickle nightlife scene shares some of the blame. "Even during the Super Bowl, there was no one club where you knew Beyoncé was gonna be hanging out," he says. "She would be at a private party or something like that. We don't have a Viper Room here or a CBGBs."
Hill thinks Houston is a prime example of nobody-is-a-hero-in-their-hometown syndrome. "Local is good in everything except talent," he says. "When you say, 'local talent,' people are like, 'Ah, whatever.'"
But does that notion hold true everywhere? What about in arrogant cities like San Francisco and New York? Hill thinks so, to a certain degree. "I know in Asbury Park they love 'em some Springsteen, but did they love him when he was just another Dylan knock-off? I doubt it. I think there is always a bias against local stuff, an idea of 'Well, they came all the way from Austin so they must be good.'"
Hill thinks sprawl also plays a part in bands not knowing their local history. "This is a hard town to get to know," he says. "You can do anything in the world here, but it's overwhelming. And as people feel more and more overwhelmed, they decide to quit looking for shit. It's easier to knock Houston than to get off your ass and go find something cool."
"People are kinda ignorant to their history," Hill continues. "Because of how history is taught, most people think of it as like flash cards of names and dates, not a story. They miss stuff like how kick-ass it was that the Mecca of Texas singer-songwriting in the '70s was in Montrose and not Austin."
Nevertheless, Austin has jacked that movement for its own — ask a typical music fan from somewhere like Chicago about the provenance of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, and they'll probably say Austin.
"Austin is pretty shameless about it," Hill says. "David Beebe has started pronouncing [Austin radio station] KGSR as K-Geezer, and we were making up promo spots for them the other day. Stuff like 'Austin's own Bob Dylan,' and 'Austin's own Yoko Ono.'"
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The opposite ethic prevails here, Hill believes. "We don't know how to toot our horns," he says. "We wear this badge of 'We're the third coolest,' and that means we might as well be in Waller County. There's a complex to Houston shit."
It's a shame. There's so much great music this city has come up with. The city should take note of some of it, and more bands should show our city's historic songs some love. This is not to say more bands should devote themselves to covers like the El Orbits and Allen Oldies, or even play retro styles like blues and old-school country. Our "Houston 100" can and should be adapted to contemporary styles. Imagine indie-rock covers of Houston rap classics like "Southside" and "Purple Stuff," a punk "Lookin' for Love," rappers sampling ZZ Top, country versions of Destiny's Child, metal covers of U.G.K. and so on.
There's been a lot of hoopla about saving the River Oaks Theatre and other local landmarks, and justifiably so. I would say that Houston's music is just as worthy of preservation. And if we don't do it, then who will?