When folk talk about Texas music, they are almost always referring to the work of artists who play lap steel gee-tars or fiddles or banjos and use words like "whiskey," "Amarillo," "jail time" or "I-45" in their songs. "Texas music," these talkers say, might also refer to the work of people born here. Simply that. And if an artist grew up with a banjo on his knee, then -- double whammy -- he naturally is considered a purveyor of the "Texas sound." Yet Amplified thinks true Texas music is a reflection of the state's soul: expansive, powerful and unpredictable. The music could be rap, could be rock, could be rap-rock. So long as it fits the criteria above, it counts. And for technicality's sake, the music must be rendered by someone who once resided or was born here.
Two artists from Texas -- Houston in particular -- bring this question to the discussion table with new live releases. One artist uses words like "the Travis County Jail" and "Austin" in his tunes, does Aggie calls when provoked and struts around in tight jeans and cowboy boots. The back cover of his twin-CD set even features signage from lodestar Lone Star music venues: Poor David's Pub, Stubb's, Shadow Canyon and H-town's pride and joy, Fitzgerald's. The other artist sings about "wild pagan love" and vacuous supermodels, sports shorn flannel shirts, plays an electric Dobro and wears his hair in a spiky pompadour. Guess which artist is quintessentially more Texan?
New Austinite Cory Morrow, the first guy, is the superficial Texan, the one who claims to have a vendetta against Nashville but arranges his songs in glossy Music City fashion (nothing shorter or longer than three and a half minutes). The other guy, Chris Whitley, now a New Yawker, is the real Texas artist. Rough around the edges, Whitley relies on only his cry of a voice and frenetic guitar playing to make his points.
If quality is a relative concept, then both are excellent at what they do. Surrounded by high-caliber talent, like pickers John Carroll and Glenn Shankle, and with legendary producer Lloyd Maines at the helm, Morrow on Double Exposure seems like a can't-fail C&W star-in-waiting. His abilities are evident. Lyrically, when he's not talking about doing or firing shots, he can hone in on an emotional circumstance and, with a little Nashvillean hocus-pocus, paint it without a trace of maudlin residue. Like on "Always and Forever," the first tune off the 22-song set, Morrow pays tribute to his parents: "I need you 'cause I love you always and forever / I love you 'cause I've known you always and forever." Gotta be one helluva mad bastard not to get a little choked up by those lines. Sonically, though, Morrow toes the Nashville-assembly-line line. While melodious and certainly Young Country catchy, most of the material is unadventurous and bereft of soul. "Confined" would be the appropriate word.
Whitley on Live at Martyrs' (a Chicago nightspot) just rambles -- but in a good way. He also pays tribute to Mom, longing to be reunited with her "on a bed of roses" in "Big Sky Country." Wearing his artsy-fartsy Bohemian tragedy like so many world-weary poets, Whitley lyrically stares himself down to discover himself. Sure, the supermodel in "The Model" is dumb as a box of rocks and plays men like casino chips, but Whitley's character knows he wants to see her again. Against his better sense, the man admits as much -- or listens to his penis, whichever. This honesty, and the honesty with which Whitley beats the living hell out of his guitar, which responds with what sound like animal groans, transcends folk. Or folk-rock. The tempos vary, from the upspeed "Home Is Where You Get Across" to the lumbering "WPL," and the dips into and out of minor keys create delicious drama. The listener doesn't know where a song has been until the chorus comes back around, seemingly out of the blue, and smacks him in the ear. Tension like this demands attentiveness.
What unites these two artists as Texans are their work ethics. Both Morrow and Whitley have a handful of albums under their belt (though you have to peer under Morrow's big brass buckle to see his clearly), and both perform seemingly nonstop. Adding up all the sweat shed by these two Houstonians on their divergent treks toward the big time, the casual observer and Texas music lover alike would have a hard time finding a picker and grinner with as much dirt under his nails.
Zydeco Band in Aisle Five...
Down Edgebrook, past stretching fields of what Houstonians might recall as grass, and past flattened mini-Usonian houses and a "Welcome to Pasadena" sign sticking up from the plush, broad median, a Wal-Mart pumps people in and out of its doors like a heart does blood. The rhythm of the flow is as natural as, ummm, the beat of a zydeco drum.
Inside, Lil' Brian and the Zydeco Travelers are performing.
Earlier this month, between Men's Casual Attire Denim and the Vision Center, near checkout aisles 25 and 26, Wal-Mart shoppers thronged, clutching their crinkly bags or lounging over their parked shopping carts, curious about this crazy accordion music. In front of racks of men's short-sleeve button-downs, Lil' Brian and his four-piece performed alongside a cardboard shelf full of copies of the artist's most recent work, Funky Nation. Kicking off his set with the title track, the Barrett Station homeboy's tribute to Houston and environs, Lil' Brian chugged along steadily for the next couple of hours. Parents, teens and children intermittently plucked CDs off the makeshift record rack. (Buying the CD anyplace else would've been next to impossible. Wal-Mart either wasn't carrying it or was sold out.)
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This particular seven-year-old store has hosted musical performances before, said one Wal-Mart helper, sporting the requisite smiley-face sticker on his vest. Lil' Brian, as far as he recalled, was the Pasadena Wal-Mart's first zydeco band. And Wal-Mart, according to Lil' Brian's publicist, Carey Baker, was the zydeco musician's first supermarket-retailer gig.
These types of outings are great for a few reasons: One, the musician gets to ply his trade to new ears and earn a buck or two in the process. Two, the musician -- though having to compete with cashiers' amplified cries for assistance and frantic shopaholics -- has a safe, clean venue in which to deliver his goods. And three, the listener (unlike at an in-store performance at Soundwaves) can stock up on toothpaste, diapers and Pokémon products in the meantime.
Wal-Mart might do well by supporting local music -- if not selling it just yet. It and its discounters-in-arms, like Best Buy and Kmart, have been getting the evil eye from the Big Five major labels, which claim the stores sell CDs at lower than suggested prices. Yet over the past few years, major labels have been making consumers overpay more than half a billion dollars for new CDs, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Major labels, the FTC says, also conspired to make it unattractive for places like Wal-Mart to sell CDs at slashed prices. The policy prohibited discounters from advertising CDs at prices lower than the "minimum advertised price," or MAP. Stores were threatened with losing big, big, big cooperative advertising monies if MAP was subverted. The technical term for this, at least in Sicily, is strong-arming. The FTC recently killed MAP. R.I.P.
Given all their recent hassles, Wal-Mart and other discount retailers might want to stop kowtowing to major labels and start concentrating on offering local music. Screw Virgin! The four rows that now constitute the Pasadena Wal-Mart's music section could conceivably be nothing but Lil' Brian and the Zydeco Travelers. Based on the way his CDs jumped from the rack during his performance, Wal-Mart might do well by lending the support.