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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

All roads lead to Lubbock

James Hynes' essay on West Texas books is my favorite installment so far in Salon's Literary Guide to the World series. It's funny, and it has an idea (who are the outsiders in West Texas?) that ties it together other than, "here are some books set in this location." Having driven through the area almost every Christmas on the way to Austin or College Station when I was younger, I have an odd attachment to West Texas. I've already noted my love for Larry McMurtry's bookstores in Archer City (indeed, I've eaten at the very Dairy Queen of his memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen).

Or maybe I idealize it because it's so far away; the last time we drove through a couple of years ago, I'd grown tired of the long trip and grumbled about stopping at Lubbock Lake. "It's not like there's water or anything," I insisted. That's because it's a prehistoric lake!

In 2000, Texas Monthly's annual music issue featured a great story about the Lubbock music scene:
Yet when most outsiders use the words "beauty" and "Lubbock" in the same sentence, they aren't talking about the brown, blasted landscape. They're referring to something like Jimmie Dale Gilmore's high, lonesome voice, or Buddy Holly's deceptively simple rock and roll, or Terry Allen's elaborate story songs. They're talking about Lubbock music, and a beauty that, like the terrain's, is not typical. Indeed, the question Lubbockites get asked more than any other is. How could so much music come out of this windy wasteland? For two generations, Lubbock has produced an unsurpassed number of rock icons and country superstars, brilliant weirdos and working stiffs: Holly, Ely, Gilmore, and Allen, as well as Waylon Jennings, Natalie Maines, Butch Hancock, Tommy Hancock, Jo Carol Pierce, Norman Odam (a.k.a. the Legendary Stardust Cowboy), Delbert McClinton, Sonny Curtis, Mac Davis, John Denver (who went to Texas Tech) and Meat Loaf (who went to Lubbock Christian College). The common denominator connecting them all is "a reckless energy," says Don Caldwell, who owns Caldwell studios, a Lubbock recording complex. "Regardless of the style that's being played, there's an approach and an attack that comes with the players out here that's real identifiable."

How did such a gifted bunch happen to hail from the same place? One simple, unsatisfying reason is that all roads lead to Lubbock. Many musicians grew up on farms and in small towns in the Panhandle and moved to one of the biggest cities around. Long before, in the 1870's, millions of cows were driven through the area by thousands of cowboys, who wrote and sang songs that would become country music staples. As cotton emerged as a thriving industry in the thirties, Lubbock came to be known as the Hub City of the Plains, because of the four highways that intersect there.

Though the hub has its whimsical side -- Lubbock had a town band in the early twentieth century -- it is also a city with more churches per capita than any other in the country, one in which you couldn't buy alcohol until 1972 and still can't buy a beer in a grocery store. And so, for many musicians, all roads lead away from Lubbock too.

Musicians from the area speculated about the Lubbock mystique:
GUY JUKE: Alien implantation of fetuses from the Lubbock Lights is my theory. Aliens, in order to enter society, go through the pregnant woman. They send their mind through that. And then Butch Hancock is born.

DAVIS MCLARTY: My uncle Marvin actually saw the Lubbock Lights because he worked at the Circle Drive-In -- he guarded the exit to make sure no one was sneaking in. He said they weren't flying saucers; they were low-flying geese on one of those weird West Texas nights. . . you know the way the sky gets so weird and the light reflects funny?

DELBERT MCCLINTON: Hell, I don't know. I think maybe it was the DDT trucks that drove up and down the alleys we used to run behind. Maybe that's what caused it.

MCLARTY: The layout of Lubbock is kind of interesting. Everything either goes east and west or north and south. There's a fixed circle that goes around the whole city, and then on the inside, it's all squares. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but it's sort of like sheet music.

NORMAN ODAM: Well, there was nothing else to do there!

MCCLINTON: You either go crazy or play music in Lubbock. There's not a hell of a lot to do.

CHARLENE HANCOCK: The energy behind Lubbock music, whatever style it is, seems to have a lot of force. I know it's because of that darn wind.

ANGELA STREHLI: You had to have an imagination to fill in the blanks.

JOE ELY: Every time I go back, there's something about that whole area that seems to want to turn into a song. There's something musical about that emptiness. I can't ever drive up there without music coming into my head. It helps fill up the space.

TERRY ALLEN: The isolation and the geography and the weather and the starkness -- all of these things play big roles. To this day, I love to see a flat horizon; there's something that makes me take a deep breath. And then, in those days, I think it was just the fact that you were completely surrounded by this horizon, that any kind of thing could come over at any minute, like a tornado or a killer or whatever. But your eye always went to it, and your imagination always went to it, because that was kind of the secret door out.

JO HARVEY ALLEN: There was this thing about the horizon in that flat country. When you were out playing, you loved to look and say "Oh, yeah, the earth is round." And you would be right in the middle of it. I've always thought that being in that spot gave you this feeling that you were the center of the universe, that you were really special, and at the same time you were just a speck of absolute nothing.

CONNI HANCOCK: When I was a little kid, I would go to my grandmother's house, between Lubbock and Amarillo, and a lot of times we would be coming back at night. Those cotton fields were so black, and really, there weren't many lights in Lubbock. I can remember looking at a speck of light and thinking, "That could be my house; that speck could be my whole world." I would contemplate perspective a lot because everything was so flat, and there was so much sky. I remember when they built the loop around Lubbock, the overpasses. It was a big deal. And when my dad would take me downtown to run errands with him, we would go to the cafe on top of the Great Plains Life Insurance building. I could just stare out that window for hours and hours because, for once, I wasn't just on flat ground. It was like becoming a living figure.

I love those last two quotes especially. One of the songs on the new Dixie Chicks album, Taking the Long Way, is called "Lubbock or Leave It" (there's little love lost, apparently). I was interested in Frank Kagan's review of the album in the Village Voice, especially as it dovetails with Hynes' thoughts on West Texas reading and outsider culture:
Country music itself has a double view: first, that the world is right and that our values are four-square, even if as individuals we struggle and cheat and damage each other and screw up; and second, that our world is going under, taken down by those who buy us out and belittle us. And we secretly buy into our own inferiority. The Dixie Chicks rose above this by representing a blonde girl-power glamour while playing a country music that felt liberated and guilt-free. 'Cept underneath this was the sense that they were just playing country rather than being country, and this was part of their appeal, representing country's noncountry urges. Now, in the statement that set the rage fires burning, the Chicks weren't literally saying they were ashamed of Texas, but that's what it comes down to: Texas is responsible for nurturing Bush, and Bush is something to be ashamed of. And with Texas comes the whole South, and the country audience in general, who took it personally and went nutso. Of course, that audience was being chickenshit for then ostracizing, rather than engaging, the Chicks. But to engage would mean acknowledging the insecurity and shame.

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Blogger Anna on Wed Aug 02, 06:56:00 PM:
I once almost missed my plane to Lubbock because the stewardess kept announcing that they were boarding the plane to Amarillo, which I had never heard of.