Dusty Hill and ZZ Top Put Texas Music on the Map

photo: Ralph Arvesen

As you may have heard, the longtime bassist and founding member of ZZ Top Dusty Hill died in his sleep at his home in Houston, Texas on Wednesday, July 28th, according to fellow bandmates Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard. His death comes as the band continued to remain active and relevant, touring regularly and bringing their blues-based power trio sound to a new generation of fans, while also enjoying their status as rock & roll gods and Hall of Fame inductees. Dusty Hill was 72-years-old.

Despite some characterizations, Dusty was not just the “other guy” with a beard in ZZ Top along with guitarist Billy Gibbons. Dusty was the backbone of a band, and also was credited as a co-writer on most all of their songs. On their 1973 breakout album Tres Hombres, Dusty Hill co-wrote all but two of the songs. On their monster album Eliminator from 1983, he was credited on all of them. Dusty Hill also was the other singer of ZZ Top, spelling Billy Gibbons on a track or two each record, and often singing harmonies.

ZZ Top is given credit for a host of influences on American music, and rock & roll in general. But what’s often overlooked is how in the mid 70’s, ZZ Top was really the first band outside of country to make the State of Texas cool.

One of their first big opportunities came as their song “La Grange” was making a little racket on the charts. At some point, Mick Jagger heard the guys, and fell in love with them. Randomly and on somewhat short notice, he offered the band the opening slot on three shows the Rolling Stones were playing in Hawaii. Good ol’ Texas boys, ZZ Top had barely been out of the Lone Star State. But they accepted, and flew into Honolulu.

“We had cowboy hats on, and boots and jeans, and you could hear a pin drop,” Dusty Hill recalled in the 2019 documentary, ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band from Texas that currently streams on Netflix.

“When the curtains opened and they looked at Billy and Dusty, and the had the cowboy hats on, it was just a vale of horror fell over this entire arena,” says drummer Frank Beard. “They thought ‘Aw fuck, a country band.'”

But of course, ZZ Top brought the house down. Mick Jagger put on a hat, some coveralls, and held a broom on the side of the stage, trying to appear to be a janitor so nobody in the crowd would notice, and watched ZZ Top perform, getting his face rocked off.

At the time in rock music, the thought was you’ had to go to California or New York to make it. Or if you were country, you had to point your nose to Nashville. Rockers from Texas like Janis Joplin claimed to be from San Francisco if prompted. Texas was considered too square. Furthermore, ZZ Top wasn’t straightforward blues, or pure rock & roll, or country. They were a band without a home, aside from Texas.

“They lumped us up with all of the Southern rock bands,” Dusty Hill says. “They didn’t know what to call us. See, that “Little ‘ol Band from Texas,’ I don’t think was meant as much as a compliment when it first was said. We grabbed a hold of it. We thought it was a cool line. But I think it was really actually supposed to be kind of a cut.”

But instead of trying to hide their Texas roots and being deemed uncool, ZZ Top embraced them. Famous publicist Howard Bloom, and ZZ Top’s manager Bill Ham figured out that Texas is what made ZZ Top unique in the rock & roll landscape, and that it was time for a movement of Texas pride. “They grew up in a foreign country,” Howard Bloom says about ZZ Top. “They grew up in a country with its own founding fathers, and they were not George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Their founding father was Sam Houston.”

Dusty Hill concurs, saying in the ZZ Top documentary, “When I was a kid, you took Texas history before you took American history. That right there tells you something. I’m told I had an ancestor in the Alamo. The pride in Texas is a real thing, and I take it with me everywhere I go.”

So ZZ Top put together what came to be known as the “Worldwide Texas Tour.” It included a 75-foot wide stage in the shape of Texas, seven total semi-trucks worth of stage production, including four semi-trucks painted with a continuous diorama of Texas landscapes that drove in unison down the road. The production also included a live buffalo, a longhorn steer, rattlesnakes, and live buzzards perched on stage behind the drum set. The tour lasted for several years, culminating in the band’s album from 1977 Tejas.

At the same time Willie Nelson and others in Austin were making a second home for country music in the Lone Star State, ZZ Top was out there on the road bringing a little taste of Texas to the rest of the world. Where before being from Texas was a burden and made many of the state’s musical types flock to either of the coasts, now it was a skin on the wall—a bit of street cred—and it was all thanks to Dusty Hill and ZZ Top wearing their Texas pride on their sleeve, and showing the rest of the world that Texas was, in fact, cool.

RIP Dusty Hill.

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