Which Texas Musicians Would Get Page 1 New York Times Obits?

Like it or not, death is an inevitable part of the news cycle. A big part of the news cycle, most of the time. Look at Tony Scott, Phyllis Diller and... wait, what time is it now?

Rocks Off is not trying to be flippant at all here, because we had our own brush with the reaper less than a year ago: A heart attack at age 36. Yes, 36. Of anything that can go down on your permanent record, that's certainly not one we expected.

We did not see any kind of bright light, tunnel or angels, or gain any kind of insight into what happens on the other side, but we did gain an immediate and shocking appreciation of just how much we had been taking for granted, and how much of what happened was our own responsibility. All of that ended the second we woke up in the hospital.

One eye-opening byproduct of almost dying is that you get to be an eyewitness to the ripples your death would cause among your family and friends, in your workplace, in your community. It might be heartwarming if it weren't so damned uncomfortable. But then, in a way you simply couldn't before, you start to understand why death is such a big deal... to everyone.

But no one lives in a vacuum, and some deaths cause more ripples than others. In modern American culture, a front-page New York Times obituary is about the biggest status symbol there is, a signal that your life really mattered -- not just to your loved ones, but to the entire world. Even a bylined inside obituary in the national edition is more than most of us will even get.

In April, Arthur Brisbane, the Times' Public Editor, wrote a column that helped to shed some light on how the paper chooses who gets the lofty Times treatment and who doesn't. "Times obituaries go not to the conventionally virtuous but to the famous, the influential, the offbeat and to others whose lives, through writerly intervention, can be alchemized into newsprint literature," he wrote.

He went on to quote the paper's actual obituary editor, Bill McDonald, who said "death is just the news peg... it's the lives that make it interesting." (What a bizarre job "obituary editor" must be, by the way.)

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We don't know if it was this past weekend's Willie Nelson health scare that brought it on (we suspect so), but Sunday evening, Hair Balls editor Richard Connelly asked us which Texas musicians we thought would merit a front-page Times obit. We came up with a couple right off the bat; the rest were much harder.

By the Gray Lady's own benchmark, just about every Texas musician who ever drew breath deserves at least an inside obit. Rocks Off decided to rank which ones could get bumped up all the way to the top.


Willie Nelson: Apparently the RHS -- what those of us who type his nickname often enough really call the Red Headed Stranger -- was hospitalized in Colorado over the weekend and had to cancel a private gig after he had trouble breathing in the high altitude. (Who even knew he had emphysema?) We know the pale horseman comes to us all, just not yet, Willie. Even if you are 79 years old, the rest of us aren't ready.

Beyonce: Beyonce, 30, is one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, and at that age there is no such thing as "natural causes." Her untimely demise, however it happened, would be a major news event. Double major.


George Jones: As The Voice in country music for more than a quarter-century, "Why Baby Why" through "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the Ol' Possum became an icon. Even after his star faded, juicy details like the time he drove his lawn tractor to the local tavern after his then-wife took away his keys are still the kind of things Times types will pounce on.


Kinky Friedman: If there's one Texas musician of his generation who might have a back door onto Page 1, it might be the former leader of the Texas Jewboys and star-crossed gubernatorial candidate. Forgive the assumption, but the Times editors strike us as a bookish lot, and Friedman does have that best-selling series of award-winning mystery novels. He's also, lest we forget, a former New Yorker.

Billy Joe Shaver: From the multiple marriages (including to the same woman more than once) to the bizarre barroom shooting outside Waco and the legend that it inspired, Shaver's life story is both more salt-of-the-earth and more outrageous than one of his songs -- one even a Times obituary writer couldn't make up.

George Strait: Even after as many tens of millions of records as King George has sold, Page 1 is hardly a sure thing. We just don't know how often "Ocean Front Property" comes on the stereo at the Times offices, ever. But after 30 years as one of the top male country stars, Strait is not even really close to seeming past his prime, so we'd say he probably makes it. The fact that he has been almost as successful in the farming/ranching business as in country music doesn't hurt either.


ZZ Top: Again, not to be grisly, but sometimes that's our job. Dying individually, and quietly, no way does ZZ Top make Page 1. Sorry, facts is facts, and the name ZZ Top means something much different outside Texas. But if the band all goes out at once... er... not quietly, that's a pretty big story and an almost unfathomable loss for both the state of Texas and the culture of the blues.


Archie Bell Ray Benson Guy Clark Rodney Crowell Joe Ely Roky Erickson Alejandro Escovedo Jimmie Dale Gilmore Johnny Gimble Nanci Griffith Butch Hancock Gibby Haynes Ray Wylie Hubbard Flaco Jimenez Daniel Johnston Robert Earl Keen Lyle Lovett Delbert McClinton James McMurtry Johnny Nash Ray Price Tanya Tucker Jimmie Vaughan Jerry Jeff Walker

Now, calm down, calm down. Rocks Off is almost positive that we forgot someone who deserves to be on this list -- Texas is a big state, after all. We know you'll let us know if we did. And know that we already cut at least ten to 15 names from the list you see above; as much we as Texans love all of them, we also recognize that their national footprint is probably not big enough or odd enough to merit a full Times obituary. But what do we know? We're just guessing.

And we also did not include anyone younger than about their early forties (except Beyonce), because although Texas may have a current shortage of young superstars, we do have an abundance of promising young musicians who deserve plenty more years to earn that spot on Page 1.

We hope they do. A long, long, long time from now.

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