Toro! Toro! Toro!
One might best adapt a famous line from Dickens to describe this year in Texas music: It was neither the best nor the worst of times, and sometimes it was both. But while it was both a banner year and a bummer, compared with the general downturn in the music business that began well before September 11, one could still say that in this neck of the woods, the bulls have scared off the bears.
The Houston-bred women of Destiny's Child all but locked in their status as the Queens of Pop in 2001 with the success of their latest CD, Survivor, taking the trio toward sales of 20 million on their three releases. They are a genuine pop phenomenon, and it began right here in Swamp City. It also proves false the all-too-common misconception that Texas music is primarily rootsy and rural. This is hardly anything new: Texas has always been a place where variety is the spice if not the rule of musical life. Diverse chanteuses from Dallas-Fort Worth (hippie earth mama Erykah Badu) and Houston (gospel-tinged good girl Yolanda Adams) also flew high on the charts in 2001.
This is not to say that Texas has abandoned its roots. The movement that falls under the "Texas music" rubric -- loosely defined as country-styled Lone Star acts operating outside the Nashville system -- had a watershed year. (Odd, then, that the movement's spiritual godfather, Willie Nelson, was singing the Milk Cow Blues last year.) Houston's Southwest Wholesale Records & Tapes, which distributes many of these acts, posted growth of over 300 percent in sales of independent country acts, from around 900,000 units in 2000 to 3.2 million even before the end of 2001. Frank Jackson, the senior project manager at Southwest who has been instrumental in cultivating this market, expects sales to double next year. And this explosive growth comes at a time when Nashville country sales have been sliding into the dumper. Perhaps there's a little cause-n-effect going on here that Music Row would like to investigate
Due credit for all this must go to folks like Pat Green (especially), Cory Morrow, Kevin Fowler and the many other young acts they've helped spawn. Say what you will about their music -- and I've said some of the worst -- they've brought immeasurable benefit to the entire Texas roots community. Even if the music and song sentiments are sometimes reductive, banal and pandering, Green still outclasses many current Music City acts in sheer energy and sincere commitment to his ethos. He could even be this state's Garth Brooks, and that's not the slam it might seem. Yet the day is eagerly awaited when Green and his ilk go beyond citing Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark as interview buzzwords and finally grasp that which makes the work of such masters beat with the pumping blood of genuine art: It ain't just about waving the Lone Star flag.
Sans a Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic this year, there was no official gathering of the tribes. But George Strait's Country Music Festival and Robert Earl Keen's Texas Uprising drew record numbers.
Charlie Robison and the Derailers proved with their 2001 Sony Music/Lucky Dog releases that Texans can play the Nashville game and not compromise their integrity. Time will tell if they can also make the promotion and marketing machines work in their favor. But after years of being ignored by Music City, the continually burgeoning Texas young country revival started by the Wagoneers in the 1980s is making inroads that look likely to continue. And independent albums by Jesse Dayton, Roger Wallace, Wayne Hancock, Karen Poston, Libbi Bosworth, Davin James and others, as well as veterans like Johnny Bush, are keeping the torch of honky-tonk as high populist art. Old warhorse Delbert McClinton also checked in with one of the year's top-selling independent albums showing off his four-barrel carb'd blend of Texas roadhouse rock, blues, country and soul.
And let's hope Hollisters front man Mike Barfield's McClintonian inclination to explore the kinship between country and Southern soul inspires imitators. If Texas can restore some of the glory and integrity to C&W and revive the real Nashville spirit, why shouldn't we also renew the soulful legacies of Memphis and Muscle Shoals?
In the realm of harder rock, the Toadies broke up following a long-awaited new album. The Butthole Surfers re-emerged from terrorist cave hibernation to deliver a new album, Weird Revolution, that caught the tenor of the times with a crackling intensity if not prescience, followed by a rare tour. And DFW's Flickerstick won VH1's Bands On The Run to score a deal with Epic/Sony.
A year ago, Houston's rap scene was poised to regain a prominence unknown since the heyday of the Geto Boys in the early '90s, but 2001 saw a process of retrenchment. DJ Screw passed away in November 2000, and with him went the scene's brightest light. "Lil's" Keke, O, Flip and Troy all released albums in 2001, but none save Keke's critical breakthrough was well received by either hip-hop critics or record buyers. Houston's other recent national success story -- South Park Mexican -- had a roller-coaster 2001. After picking up three Houston Press music awards, including Local Musician of the Year, the rapper born Carlos Coy was issued with two more citations. Unfortunately, these came from the Houston Police Department. Coy is charged with two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. If convicted, he faces 99 to life.
Sadly, we are left with only the legacies of too many Texans who passed away last year. New Year's Day 2001 dawned with the news of Eddy Shaver's senseless death from a heroin overdose, and father Billy Joe's health problems have been worrisome. Stalwart percussionist "Mambo" John Treanor succumbed to throat cancer after a valiant battle that saw him out playing in the clubs just days before he passed. Cancer also claimed beloved Texas Music Hall of Fame fiddler, guitarist and singer Champ Hood. And fugitive from injustice Dan Del Santo passed away in Mexican exile (which certainly beats dying in the stir for marijuana crimes).
Tragic as well was the closing of Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams, a premier showcase venue rivaling New York's Bottom Line, L.A.'s Roxy and Chicago's Park West. Houston institutions C. Davis Bar-B-Q, Billy Blues, Emo's and The Ale House also collided with the wrecking ball of "progress."
By now I hope you are wondering if not asking this: What about the music? Creatively, 2001 was anything but a definitive and inspiring year. There were, however, a few exceptions. Former Houstonian Lucinda Williams delivered subdued yet intense emotionality on Essence. Bruce Robison found an immensely satisfying creative sweet spot on distinctive Country Sunshine. And Rodney Crowell's The Houston Kid found this Bayou City boy painting his personal legacy with the native genius of a Van Gogh on his finest album in far too many years -- if not ever.
But we come out of this turbulent year with many hopeful signs for Texas music. Maybe the state's new music economy will help fuel the art in 2002. Nothing would make me happier than to say at this time next year, "Hey, you know what? This new Pat Green album ain't half bad. In fact, it's pretty good."
Hey, a guy can dream.
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