Instead of taking a measured balance and declaring that '98 was maybe the best of years, yet the worst of years, let's cut to the chase -- this year in Texas music was pretty much a stinker. That's not to say it didn't have its high points. But for all the literal floods that hit the Lone Star State in '98, there's not one musical watershed, and it's hard to spot many significant breakthroughs, burgeoning trends, artistic triumphs or heartening moments. It wasn't exactly a waste-land, but fecundity was sadly lacking.
So it's only appropriate to descend straight to the nadir: the early 1998 publication of Texas Music by Rick Koster (St. Martin's Press), the first stab at a definitive overview of this state's undeniably influential and frequently brilliant musical heritage, and a book so irredeemably bad in every possible way that its publisher should take a cue from Detroit and issue a recall. It's frequently wrong, wrong-headed and written with the giddy, inane, trite tone of an eighth-grade term paper. Much of the musical year that followed seems infected by the dark juju of the book's sheer badness.
Filled with lunkheaded factual errors -- Lucinda Williams "grew up in Austin" (not!), Wayne "the Train" Hancock is the younger brother of Butch Hancock (not!), Commander Cody And His Lost Planet Airmen are a Texas act (not!) -- Texas Music produces giggles at its sheer stupidity. After a few chapters, one is tempted to toss it into the fireplace. It's such a sloppy work that Nanci Griffith is also referred to as "Nancy," depending on the page.
Worse yet is Koster's thorough lack of perspective. Disposable acts like King Diamond and Deep Blue Something get paragraph after paragraph, yet he all but dismisses seminal artists like Bobby Fuller (two sentences) and Roy Head (half a sentence) and completely ignores a longtime leading light of the Tejano scene, Little Joe y La Familia. Did Koster, in his research, ever drive I-35 between his native Dallas and Austin and see the billboards for the Little Joe Museum?
But the final blow is Koster's gooey, dimwitted hyperbole. He singles out "criminally overlooked" acts throughout the book and declares at one point that "If the music industry is indeed a battlefield, then the major label executives who have passed on [Dallas guitarist] Bugs Henderson in favor of far less talented guitarists are guilty of war crimes." Huh? Henderson's professional fate and genocide aren't even in the same universe. And Koster all but glosses over perhaps the most "criminally overlooked" artist in Texas music, psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson.
We can at least be heartened that 1998 did provide a musical ameliorative, Lyle Lovett's salute to his Texas singer-songwriter roots, Step Inside This House (MCA). With covers of local legends like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Fromholz and Walter Hyatt, as well as deserving semiobscurities like David Rodriguez and Vince Bell, this two-CD set may be Lovett's best release to date, and that's no knock on his own formidable writing abilities. Like Willie Sutton's saying he robbed banks "because that's where the money is," Lovett reveals where he gleaned the seeds of his own aesthetic. This noble, warm, spare, richly musical work avoids sounding like a history lesson, but it sings with the spirit that makes Texas music so special.
The year's commercial breakthrough was obviously the Dallas-hatched Dixie Chicks, whose Wide Open Spaces (Monument) has moved a hearty two million platters to date through the Nashville machine. The record's slick sound is a shock to anyone who recalls the down-home Chicks prior to their Music City makeover, but its song selection is hipper than just about anything else coming down the commercial country pipeline. It's a hopeful sign of artistic justice that the album's title track, which spent four weeks at No. One on the country charts, has directed a bit of the spotlight onto its writer, Susan Gibson of the Panhandle-based band the Groobees. This little-known but charming band embodies the unpretentious joy of music, while delivering the goods in songs and human soul.
Houston-reared Sara Hickman delivered her most cohesive album to date, Two Kinds of Laughter (Shanachie), while some of the Janis Joplin legacy was redeemed by an album, Live at Winterland '68 (Columbia/Legacy), that disproved the accepted wisdom that her San Francisco psychedelic band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, sucked in concert. Austin got to claim relocated postfolk wailer Patty Griffin as one of its own, and on-and-off-Texan Lucinda Williams finally delivered a new album, the masterful Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury), that's landing on many national year-end best-of lists and selling better than any of her previous releases. Meanwhile, out on the horizon, Hill Country heroine Terri Hendrix has been selling thousands of her self-released CD, Wilory Farm (Tycoon Cowgirl), and winning over a legion of fans with her true talent, heart, charm and versatility.
The other big hit by a Texas act was "The Way" by Austin's Fastball. It's a smart, insidiously catchy song, and it helped the alt-pop trio sell a million copies of its album All The Pain Money Can Buy (Hollywood). Fastball's big score has been heartening for the music scene in the Capital City with the big rep, haughty attitude and nearly zilch sales power, but it's still unclear if Fastball can make a lasting career out of its single success.
Otherwise, it's mostly been a blah year for Texas music. Joe Ely made yet another record, Twisting in the Wind (MCA), whose title seemed prophetic when he got dropped by his label yet again. Willie Nelson made another very good and intriguing record, Teatro (Island), and very few people seemed to care. Jimmie Vaughan made another record, Out There (Epic), and nobody seemed to care. Country veteran Johnny Bush fueled his comeback with a solid CD, Talk to My Heart (Watermelon). On a decidedly down note, C&W vet Johnny Rodriguez shot a neighbor and was charged with murder. In December, the Texas Tornados reunited, but La Mafia broke up.
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The Austin-based Arista Texas label, which had appeared to be blossoming as it mutated into Arista Austin and Arista Latin, was moved to Nashville and then dissolved by year's end. Luckily, the shifts didn't deter Arista act Robert Earl Keen from mounting his Texas Uprising shows around the state on Memorial Day weekend and in Luckenbach on Labor Day (replacing Jerry Jeff Walker's annual gathering there, which moved to Colorado). Keen also delivered Walking Distance, his most artistically satisfying album since 1993's A Bigger Piece of Sky, Walking Distance may serve his music well by redirecting the beer-swilling galoots in his audience to rising rowdy country-rock ringmasters like the stunningly mediocre Pat Green.
Houston-based singer, songwriter and guitar-ist Mary Cutrufello's major-label debut, When the Night Is Through (Mercury), unfortunately sounds like a near-fatal miscalculation, even if it does fulfill some of its obviously grand musical ambitions. Cutrufello has long looked like a potential star, but she seems to have bought into her own hype. To make the odds worse, her record label, Mercury, was by year's end being gobbled up by MCA Records. And after forsaking the Texas honky-tonk Ranch Roads for the urban blacktop of E Street, will Cutrufello be welcomed back to the roadhouses where she's made a living?
Some of the most satisfying Texas records this year were commercially marginal at best, such as the Gourds' rugged but right Stadium Blitzer (Watermelon), Michael Fracasso's warm, atmospheric World in a Drop of Water (Bohemia Beat) and Billy Joe Shaver's acoustic prayer meeting Victory (New West). Houston singer-songwriter Eric Taylor kicked his return to action into high gear with Resurrect (Koch), while venerable Gulf Coast bluesman Pete Mayes got some well-deserved exposure with For Pete's Sake (Antone's/Sire).
But come midnight on New Year's Eve, I'm going to start partying like it's 1999, if only because 1998 is over. It was a year in Texas music so fraught with insignificance that it almost seems like it never happened.