Note: this article originally appeared on October 24, 2014. Happy Thanksgiving!
Bobby Bare, "I Can Almost See Houston From Here" One of the great homesick songs, Bobby Bare infuses this one with downtrodden ennui as he pines for the warmness of his old hometown. Usually veteran Houstonians are forced to deal with some newbie from Portland telling us all the things that are wrong with the Bayou City, so this one is a refreshing twist; Bare pines to get back to his old hometown and leave the Denver cold behind. It also contains the drop-dead perfect honky-tonk realization: "Funny how much better I can see without my pride." WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Beyonce, "I Been On" Relatively early in her 2013-14 march to world domination, Queen Bey dropped "I Been On" to ensure that H-Town would forever have her back. True, we probably would have done so no matter what, but after she shouted out Frenchy's chicken and Willie D and channeled a little UGK ("I didn't do ya girl but your sister was all right"), it was a moot point. Now the city is practically naming streets after her. CHRIS GRAY
Weldon "Juke Boy" Bonner, "Houston, The Action Town" Juke Boy Bonner wasn't known as the Bard of Fifth Ward for no reason. He sang what he knew firsthand, and that was the doings of the Bloody Fifth. One of the most vivid and accurate snapshots of Fifth Ward shenanigans ever, this tune could easily be our city anthem if everything didn't have to be so lily-white and washed with bleach. This is straight-up truth. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Bonner, "Struggle Down In Houston" Along with "Stay Off Lyons Avenue," "Struggle Down In Houston" is like reading a police blotter about the goings-on in the Fifth Ward. Bonner paints the local scene as he sees it, full of hoods who would shoot you "just to hear their pistol bark." "It's a struggle here in Houston just to stay out of Ben Taub." Not as true as it once was, but those are still some pretty mean streets up along Quitman and Irvington east of I-45. [Note: this article has been edited after publication to correct the title.] WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Rodney Crowell, "Telephone Road" Crowell's vision of Telephone Road is wider than Steve Earle's (stay tuned), probably because Jacinto City native Crowell knew the street all of his young life. His tune is more a memoir, with references to Hurricane Carla, Prince's Drive-In, the Astrodome, Magnolia Gardens, mosquito trucks and "sawdust spread out on a dance hall floor, jukebox rippin' at an all-out roar, barmaid smilin' at a ten cent tip." Sounds about like I found it when I ventured there for the first time in 1968. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Steve Earle, "Home to Houston" Let's face it, Houston, we're a bunch of mercenaries. If the money is right, we will go almost anywhere and do almost anything. This spot-on tale about a truck driver who goes to Iraq to drive gasoline tankers for the big money is as true to our natures as anything ever written about this place.
And leave it to our former citizen Steve to write one of the most honest, nonjudgmental tunes about the Iraq War. "If I ever get home to Houston alive, I won't drive a truck anymore." WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Earle, "Telephone Road" Earle came to Houston as a teen runaway and fell in with some hard travelers. A decade later he wrote one the quintessential Houston songs about some Louisiana transplants who came to work in the oil business. The gist of the tune is that they made good money but they wasted most of it in the joints along the infamous southwest Houston boulevard. "Telephone Road is ten miles long/ 50 car lots and 100 honky tonks." H-Town, baby. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
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Joe Ely, "Imagine Houston" A love song as torrid as a July day, Joe Ely masterfully incorporated some smart elements into this swaggering rocker. He takes his gal out for a freeway cruise and tells her "you better watch your step if you're just standing around/ Because the buildings ain't constructed, they erupt from the ground." He nails it dead-center by closing with "You notice that the moon has been coated with chrome/ As it begins to rise beside the Astrodome." WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
E.S.G., "Swangin' & Bangin'" The unmistakable synths and funky-ass bass line that serve as the backbone to this H-Town rap classic embody the cool cruising culture of the South. This track, along with the rest of the Ocean of Funk album, cemented E.S.G. as Houston's freestyle king.
A cool character with a mouth full of gold and hard-hitting lyrics, it gets no realer than when this OG spits on the mike. The sound of Houston is even more prominent on the screwed-up version of the track, which slushes around your eardrums like a styrofoam cup full of drank. Gotta do what I gotta do! Swang and bang! MARCO TORRES
Fat Pat, "Tops Drop" Undoubtedly the bounciest celebration of Houston car culture ever devised. Built around a sublimely funky sample of Yarbrough & Peoples' "Don't Stop the Music," this song from Pat's 1998 LP Ghetto Dreams casts the entirety of the city (but especially that Southside, y'all) as one big, rolling block party, crawling with flashy cars with our very own brand of rap music blasting out of their open trunks. It's a musical snapshot of Houston hip-hop in its purest, most innocent form -- and its most fun. Fat Pat may be gone, cut down on the cusp of real stardom, but his most ecstatic tune is the perfect reassurance that trunks will forever keep poppin' down in Houston. NATHAN SMITH
Ganksta NIP, "H Town" No song written about Houston has ever painted so hard and harrowing a portrait of the city as the South Park Psycho's "H Town." Far from the laid-back land of purple drank and slow-rollin' slabs that rap artists to come would champion, Ganksta NIP borrowed a sample from the G-rap classic "Eazy-Duz-It" to warn the planet that Houston was a bigger, meaner, blacker ghetto than a Republican's worst nightmare - with NIP himself as its psychotic king of the shadows.
Scarcely has the city been portrayed with such legitimate menace, before or since: "East Coast is dope, West Coast is dope/ Say Houston is weak, I'm cuttin' everybody's throat!" Twenty-two years later, it still sounds like he means it. NATHAN SMITH
Craig Kinsey, "Montrose Boulevard Blues" Set to a Dixieland arrangement as laid-back as an AvantGarden happy hour, "Montrose Boulevard Blues" immortalizes the Sideshow Tramps front man's beloved Neartown by name-dropping art cars, picnics at the Menil, and espressos at Agora (before the fire). Available on Kinsey's first solo album, 2011's The Burdener, his valentine to 77006 dates to the late '00s and still makes a priceless audio snapshot of Houston's hipster-bohemian enclave just before it started getting so damn trendy. CHRIS GRAY
Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), "Midnight Special" A traditional public domain folk song first published in 1905, the song took on a life of its own when recorded by Lead Belly, who had spent time on the prison farm at Sugarland. Ledbetter added several verses to his version, most notably this verse:
If you're ever in Houston, you better do right you better not gamble and you better not fight 'Cause the sheriff will grab you and the boys will bring you down Next thing you know, you're penitentiary bound
Some scholars attribute the Houston lyrics to a notorious 1923 jailbreak. Ledbetter served seven years, 1917-1925, at the Imperial Unit for killing a relative. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
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Lil Keke, "Southside" When a dance is created in honor of a certain track, you know that song is extraordinary. One of the unmistakable Houston anthems, Lil Keke's hypnotic classic has become a call to action to "raise your hands, so so high, rub your head, and do The Southside!"
As soon as those four piano keys ring out, you can feel the energy of the club shift into full pimp mode. A lyrical master, Keke provides a wide range of memorable lines, all delivered with confidence and conviction. "If you don't like it you can get up off The Southside dick!" MARCO TORRES
Dean Martin, "Houston" Sung by anyone else, "Houston" might be a sad song indeed, seeing how Dino has holes in his shoes, no friends, chases dollar bills in the wind, and hasn't eaten in a week. Yet his demeanor on this 1965 tune sounds more like Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. are holding a tee time at River Oaks Country Club. There's a girl and a warm bed with a feather waiting for him, see. (Allegedly.) Hopefully a car is too. CHRIS GRAY
Tift Merritt, "Stray Paper" This auburn-haired alt-country songbird was raised in the Tar Heel State but born in Houston, and in February 2013 told us she had nothing but happy memories of visiting family here with her dad as a girl. Things change, though. In this song from 2004's Tambourine, all Houston stands for is a postcard stained with painful memories: "Just to remind me that it all went wrong/ Just to beat me up, just to turn me on." CHRIS GRAY
Mickey Newbury, "If You Ever Get To Houston (Look Me Down)" "Cincinnati is a long, long way from here/ And it gets a little further with each beer." A graduate of Jeff Davis High, Little White Wolf knew the Northside's hardscrabble inhabitants and blood-bucket beer joints well. When he sings "I'll be dead a-sleepin' in the back of Richard's Northside Lounge," that's all the geography we need. Newbury's version sounds like it was written for Jerry Lee Lewis, but crooner Don Gibson had a minor hit with it. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Iggy Pop, "Houston Is Hot Tonight" Ahhh, the early '80s. All those petrodollars floating around. "I don't mind a bloodbath, with oil on my breath," the estimable Mr. Pop sings on this sexed-up post-punk blues with a snaky bass line and cushion of horns. He saw a moonman on his telephone, too -- must have made a nice change of scenery from Berlin or something. CHRIS GRAY
Really Red, "No Art in Houston" In 2014, you can still find plenty of dumb, young peckerwoods complaining that there's nothing to do in this town: no good shows, no good music, no good artists. Well, if they think it's bad now (it ain't), they'd have run screaming from the Houston of 1981, possibly with a cop hot on their heels. Really Red, the city's Reagan-era hardcore heroes, put screaming voice to the frustration with Houston's underdeveloped arts culture on their terrific Teaching You the Fear LP.
On "No Art in Houston", lyrics by Perry Webb of Culturcide (now better known as artist Mark Flood) took well-deserved shots at institutions from the Houston Ballet to FM-KLOL, outlets purveying the kind of backward-looking "art that sells" that punk rock was designed to destroy. Musicians like Really Red may have been treated "just a cut above a dog" in those days, but they paved the way for the current-day Houston underground that you've been sort of meaning to seriously check out for years now. NATHAN SMITH
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Scarface, "My Block" Very few people have done as much as Mr. Scarface to make homegrown Houston hip-hop heads proud of their city. By the time he released his 7th album, The Fix, in 2002, he was already a legend who had long since outgrown any one area code. But "My Block," a simple, easygoing tune built around a soulful Roberta Flack piano line, provided a nostalgic look back at the small-town community feel that call still be enjoyed in select neighborhoods around the city.
"Ya had to hustle, 'cause that's how we was raised on my block/ And ya stayed on ya hop until ya made you a knot." Whether you were born and raised in Houston or just got here, chances are you can relate to that same hard-working ambition. And that's probably a big reason why Scarface is still here. NATHAN SMITH
Slim Thug feat. Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Mike Jones, Bun B, Lil Keke, Z-Ro, Trae, Rob G, Lil O, Big Pokey, Mike D, Yung Redd & Pimp C, "Welcome 2 Houston" "Ain't nobody better than the boss when I floss/ It's Slim Thugga motherfucker, Still breaking boys off!" Leave it to Slim Thug to assemble a Hall of Fame lineup of Houston's best representatives. Chamillionaire chimes in with the smooth hook, attesting to rep for both the North and the South sides of the city. Mike Jones and Bun B lay it down hard for the H, drawing a blueprint of the city's hood characteristics.
Paul Wall becomes a cartographer, listing his influence from and to South Park, Southwest, Tidwell, Carverdale, Greenspoint, Denver Harbor, West Airport and all the way to Channelview. No matter where you are, we all "steady bangin on that screw." Even after that long list, we still have none more great verses to go, culminating with the late, great Pimp C. MARCO TORRES
Bruce Springsteen, "Seeds" Most songs about Yankees giving up on the Rust Belt and its brutal winters and migrating south have a positive feel, but this one takes the other tack. Arriving in Houston, all this northern hopeful finds is inhospitable mean streets and meaner, desperate folks on them. "You ain't gonna find nothing down here, friend / Except seeds blowin' up the highway in the south wind / Movin' on, movin' on, it's gone, gone, all gone." And we thought you loved us, Bruce. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Mike Stinson, "Died and Gone to Houston" Mike Stinson must have got tired of people asking him why he moved to Houston, of all places, so he wrote 'em a song. Now a proud Houstonian for five years and change, he answers this song's opening line -- "over the hump or just over the hill?" -- a little more with every Boom Boom Room, Under the Volcano and Mucky Duck gig he does. Written while he was still relatively new in town, this tune was an harbinger of things to come; you may move to Houston now, but you don't "end up" here anymore. CHRIS GRAY
Tom Waits, "Fannin Street" A loser's lament, Waits memorializes the once dodgy street that, by the time he wrote and recorded this, had essentially vanished except for the seedy Metropole Hotel and its run-down dive bar. It's the kind of thing that fits Waits loser persona well, but it is pretty tepid and repetitive and doesn't go anywhere past the original thought of "don't go to Fannin Street, you'll be lost and never found, you can never turn around." Also, Waits' tune is not to be confused with Lead Belly's "Fannin Street," which pertains to The Bottoms in Shreveport. WILLIAM MICHAEL SMITH
Z-Ro, Trae Tha Truth & Lil Boss Hogg, "In My City" This pensive track with an old-school soul sample serves as an emotional soundtrack for the Assholes By Nature, H-Town rap legends Z-Ro and Trae. Life in Houston is not always as smooth as this beat, with haters and heartbreak around every corner.
"I blow dro, as the dirt covers the coffin up/ Life is so fucking hard, Jesus will it ever soften up?" raps the Mo City Don. From funerals to betrayals, this song presents the non-glamorous underbelly of the city's streets. No one is better at snapping you back to reality than ABN. MARCO TORRES
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