Texas Music Offers Template for Regional Revitalization
This last weekend, the eyes of the country music world were affixed on the 7th Annual Stagecoach Festival in Indio, CA. Combining mainstream acts like Toby Keith and Lady Antebellum, with classic country acts like Marty Stuart and up-and-coming talent like Justin Townes Earle, Stagecoach and its 50,000 attendees comprise the starting gun for the summer’s big, corporate-run country music festivals.
But relatively unnoticed, and certainly less-covered in the national country media, the 25th annual Larry Joe Taylor Festival transpired outside of Stephenville, TX, with an equally-impressive 50,000-head crowd and a beefy lineup of Texas Country / Red Dirt headliners like The Departed and Jack Ingram, legends like Ray Wylie Hubbard and Chris Knight, and up-and-comers like The Damn Quails. The price of a Stagecoach? $239.00 for a general admission pass. Larry Joe Taylor Festival? $105 for five days of music instead of three.
On the Sunday after the Larry Joe Taylor Festival, many of the same performers and patrons trekked down to the Texas Music Theater in San Marcos for the 5th annual Lone Star Music Awards. Big winners were the Turnpike Troubadours for Album of the Year (Goodby Normal Street) and Song of the Year (“Good Lord, Lorrie”), and Ray Wylie Hubbard for Songwriter of the Year, Singer/Songwriter Album of the Year (The Grifter’s Hymnal), and Producer of the Year with George Reiff (see list of winners).
Performers at the awards included Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Cody Canada & The Departed, Jason Eady, and Grammy-nominated John Fullbright among others, with each act playing four or five songs. The event was completely open-to-the-public, and the price of admission was $5.
Robert Earl Keen was arguably the biggest winner at this year’s Lone Star Music Awards, becoming the organization’s inaugural Hall of Fame inductee. In bestowing the honor to Keen, the owner of Lone Star Music said that Robert Earl was vital to the formation of Texas music’s own radio charts. That’s right, Texas music has its own radio charts. It also has its own radio stations and radio shows, and its own television programs like Ray Benson’s Texas Music Scene and others. It has its own hard print magazines, publications, and websites.
Of course the Lone Star Music Awards pale in the scope of mainstream country’s CMA’s or ACM’s. The Texas radio and TV infrastructure cannot compare to the CMA and CMT. And despite the recent success of headliner Texas artists like Jack Ingram, they’re still nowhere the draw of Music Row’s biggest acts. But what Texas/Red Dirt has that Music Row/Nashville doesn’t is a true sense of community and a handle on artistic quality that Texas/Red Dirt artists and fans would never swap for more exposure to the teeming masses.
Cody Canada of the Departed might be Red Dirt’s biggest star, and just looking a the guy with his outward rock star persona, you might mistake him for a man that could sell out stadiums. And if Cody had left Cross Canadian Ragweed years ago for a record deal on Music Row, he very well might have made it to that stature. The man just drips cool. But after the Lone Star Music Awards, Cody Canada didn’t retire to the back of his limousine or tour bus, he walked down the street with the rest of the average joe’s and was mingling with fans in a laid-back setting at a free admission afterparty at the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos. An up-and-coming Texas country band called The Hill Country Gentlemen were playing, and giving their CD’s away for free.
For artists and fans intimately involved in the Texas/Red Dirt movement, none of this is news. This is the reality they’ve been enjoying for many years now. What’s interesting about what is happening in the Texoma entertainment corridor is how little its sustainability and growth is being recognized by Nashville and the rest of the outside world. The scope and the depth of organization that Texas/Red Dirt boasts is nothing short of astounding when it is studied from the outside looking in.
Texas music is becoming hard wired and institutionalized, and this creates a few game-changing, long-term effects on the overall country music landscape. With it’s own infrastructure, the chances that the Texas music scene and the revenue it generates will ever re-integrate with mainstream country dwindles with each passing day. Though mainstream country is still very much alive in Texas and Oklahoma, and even overlaps when it comes to certain Texas/Red Dirt artists, the independent scene is able to thrive thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of some to create enterprise around the music, the undying loyalty of fans, and the willingness of the artists to not abandon the roots that led to their success.
But maybe most importantly, Texas/Red Dirt is also offering a template to the rest of the music world, and not just country music, of how to regionalize and organize a group of like-minded musicians and fans together to where they’re not dependent on corporate America’s traditional musical industrial complex for sustainability; where you can have artistic integrity and an independent spirit, and not sacrifice financial success. Even other music scenes that exist in Texas right now–some that may not want to associate with Red Dirt because the ease with which it mingles country and rock–could learn how to get organized by the Red Dirt/Texas Country’s road map.
It is not all rosy in Texas/Red Dirt. Though the scene offers tremendous support to its artists, it also acts as a ceiling. It has been hard for some of the biggest regional names to graduate to national recognition once they get pegged as a Red Dirt act. And despite being so big and boasting impressive infrastructure, Texas/Red Dirt finds itself mired with the same trappings that some small music “scenes” do. Political drama, and a culture that sometimes doesn’t want to be critical of artists can result in mediocre music. As the movement has grown, quality control has become an issue, with some acts appearing to be “selling out” for commercial viability no different than mainstream Music Row acts.
But in Texas/Red Dirt, they’ve graduated from simply complaining that Nashville sucks to doing something real, something substantive about it, and something that has proven to be sustainable now over a period of years. JUst like many other “buy local” movements, fans are now considering where the dollars they spend end up. Is this a big threat to Nashville? The biggest threat may be if other regional, like-minded music movements pattern themselves around the Texas model, and begin to institutionalize as well. Either way, independent-minded artists, fans, and scenes should be paying more attention to what is happening down in Texas. And so should Nashville.
May 3, 2013 @ 11:29 am
As a radio programmer and DJ for a station in Oklahoma that plays a mix of Nashville and Red Dirt/Texas artists, the loyalty of Red Dirt/Texas fans cannot be overstated. Requests for Red Dirt/Texas artists far outstrip those of Nashville artists. And among Nashville artists, a vast majority of requests are for those that are from the area (Strait, Lambert, Shelton, Eli Young Band).
And as you mentioned, that loyalty can bite an artist in the butt if they try to go big, but not always. Eli Young Band seems to have navigated that minefield successfully so far, but Randy Rogers Band has had some “sell out” rumbles recently (albeit I think undeserved, mainly because of using outside writers)
(Great article, Trig. I’m going to pass it along to some big market radio guys I know)
TX Music Jim
May 3, 2013 @ 12:51 pm
I’ve been around this seen since the 90’s first and foremost as a fan and then later for awhile, as a small promoter. I can tell you this scene has grown a lot over the last 20 years. The reason it is sustainable is absolutely because of the loyaity of the fanbase and the accesibility of the artists. The infrastructure that exists also plays a big role. Your also right that there are some quality problems with some of the music in the scene right now. However, there are some amazing songs being written and produced as well. Yes it seems at times there is a “glass celling” once you are indetified as a Texas/Red Dirt artist. I wonder if that is simply Nashville purposefully holding back artists it perceives it can’t control? The thing that excites me as a fan is in this scene we have rockabilly, rock and roll, texas swing, honky tonk, country, folk, blues etc it all co-exists and works together to create a sustainable industry that has lasted and thrived longer than anybody thought it would. Love live independent music.
El Reno Dave
May 3, 2013 @ 3:50 pm
Great article. Red Dirt is the best.
May 4, 2013 @ 9:04 am
As a huge fan of Texas/Red Dirt music, I thank you for this blog post. Other than perhaps overstating Jack Ingram’s current place in the genre, everything you wrote here is spot-on and encapsulates everything I love about it–the stellar songwriting and musicianship, the fans, and accessibility to the artists, not to mention that I can see five Texas/Red Dirt shows for what one arena show would cost, the music is great and afterward you can TELL them that!
I traveled from the Midwest to attend the Lone Star Music Awards, but I wouldn’t walk across the street to see either the CMA’s or the ACM’s.
May 4, 2013 @ 11:56 am
Good article. Clearly that region is a hotbed of talent right now. I don’t think anyone can understate the progress that has been made from the artists in that area both regionally and nationally with guys like you said, Eli Young, Jack Ingram and Pat Green. For me it’s a lot easier to get people turned on to some of these red dirt bands like The Departed, Reckless Kelly, Band of Heathens, or Stoney Larue than it is someone like Jason Eady or Sturgill Simpson, probably because artists like those two are so different than what people hear on country radio. But the sound of these red dirt bands resonates with a lot people for some reason, moreso than the classical country sound anyway.
May 4, 2013 @ 12:15 pm
I don’t see the likelihood of anything akin the the Texas/Oklahoma Regional/Red Dirt Music phenomenom occuring anywhere else in this country in the future. The only thing remotely comparable is the bluegrass scene on the East Coast which has been thriving for a few decades now.
Above all it is a cultural mindset and continuous historical precedent that can give rise to such a scene, and Texas and Oklahoma are unique in the US these days in that regard. Texans love Texas and tend to value those things they perceive as being created there and which represent their values, and especially independence and self-reliance. There is societal homogeneity among a good segment of the Texas population that is utterly lacking in most of the rest of the US these days.
The Texas music scene inspires artists to pursue their own creative goals and style unlike most other places in the US, including Nashville. Nashville native Amber Digby relocated to Texas to pursue a traditional country music career and western swing traditionalist like Miss Leslie wouldn’t be able to book enough gigs to survive financially outside of Texas and Oklahoma dance halls. I’m thankful that Texas fosters the careers of these types of artists so I can enjoy their music whether the scene expands its boundaries or not!
I live in Los Angeles and this area has become the ultimate multi-ethnic non-melting pot conglomeration of non-like minded groups you can imagine. The only cultural homogeneity remaing here is among the large and rapidly growing Hispanic population and mariachi and tejano music just don’t seem to be getting established among the myriad other ethnic groups who reside here.
Even though I personally don’t care for much of the music coming out of the Texas/Red Dirt scene, I’m glad it exists and hope it continues to thrive for a long time to come. Texas fosters support for traditional and honky tonk style country music and western swing better than any other place in the USA, to which I say God Bless Texas! (lol)
May 5, 2013 @ 9:13 pm
I find it really disappointing, though at this point inevitable, that the term “Red Dirt” is being associated with whatever this scene is turning into. I don’t think it was ever as much a genre of music as a state of mind and I think its values are somewhat antithetical to where this thing is headed. Then again, it might have no values and I’m just a jackass who isn’t from Stillwater.
I’m happy the scene as a whole is succeeding, though. I’m really glad you pointed out that there is a lack of criticism toward artists. I didn’t really understand this scene at first because the majority of it sounded like nothing but watered down country rock to me. You really have to dig a bit to get to the true gems. But this scene is in desperate need of some quality control. Be that as it may, I’d rather sit through ten mediocre bands on The Ranch to hear one great one than I would a Nashville station.
But I don’t really care for where this whole thing is headed. Bob Childers said it best. “It”™s just going to keep growin”™ I think until it gets to the point where it”™s the establishment, and then it”™ll collapse, and something new will come along.”
May 12, 2013 @ 6:15 pm
I was lucky enough to happen onto the Texas Music Scene by chance in the early 2000’s. Sick of Nashville radio, and looking for something other than my old Waylon and Merle CDs to listen to, I took a chance on a band called Randy Rogers Band. I bought a cd of there’s while I was enrolled in a cd club and never looked back. That cd opened my ears to this great new world of music I didn’t know existed. I’ve since fell in love with RRB, Reckless Kelly, Mickey and the Motorcars, Hayes Carll, the Turnpike Troubadours, and many other bands. All of the concerts amaze me. They all sound as they do on a record, they are great in fan interactions, and they still tirelessly tour all over our great nation. Which is great since I live in Southern IL, and Texas is a great drive away.
May 14, 2013 @ 12:54 am
I think it’s good to actually state the difference between Red Dirt and Texas Country. Even in Texas, the two have gotten very mixed up in the minds of many fans due to being played on the same radio stations. Well, first off it’s not black and white, definitely a continuum. Anyways, here we go… Red Dirt originated in oklahoma, and Texas Country out of Austin, but now that’s pretty irrelevant, so where the artist comes from doesn’t matter as much. Red Dirt is closer to Nashville music than Texas Country (I mean musically, not geographically..although that would be true too). It’s more of a blend of country, rock, and pop.. It’s the Casey Donahew Band, Randy Rogers Band, Cross Canadien Ragweed, Josh Abbot band(actually he’s between Red Dirt and Nashville style). Texas Country is more of a blend of folk, country, and rock with more emphasis on the song writing. So this is your Guy Clark, Robert earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Chris Knight, and Hayes Carll type. Also, almost all Texas Country could be considered Americana, but not all Americana could be considered Texas Country, so it’s not just what Texans are calling Americana. In between Red Dirt and Texas Country on our continuum is artists like Aaron Watson, Jason Boland, and Kevin Fowler. Those guys just don’t stick to one side…and we find nothing with it like we do with going to Nashville. Perfectly acceptable to switch from Texas Country to Red Dirt or from Red Dirt to Texas Country on a song-to-song basis.
Somebody here might be able to go more into depth than me, but that is a good simple, starter explanation.
May 14, 2013 @ 1:06 am
Ooh, before I make somebody mad, I better explain more about why I said Red Dirt is closer to being like Nashville..
I’m not saying Texas Country is better, I just mean Red Dirt seems to be popular to the casual fans. Also easier for the Red Dirt artists to go to Nashville if they wanted to (So props to them for not, shame on them that do though). They’re not focused on making music as country as possible, but still more country than Nashville. Red Dirt music is basically the “We want country we can party to, but still has soul and doesn’t suck as much as that other stuff.” Unfortunately, the occasional red dirt song will sound exactly like Nashville though…like Wade Bowen – Saturday Night.
TX Music Jim
May 16, 2013 @ 2:09 pm
Understand your overall point and to some extent agree with it. In a way it is almost a generational thing. Ian the begining going bact to the 70’s you had Willie, Waylon ,Jerry Jeff, Rusty Weir, RWH, and Gary P. then the bridge between the original wave of TExas country were Steve Earle and REK. Then you had your first wave of the modern era with Pat, Cory, Charlie etc. While at the same time you had this thing brewing in Stillwater at the Farm the pioneers being the Red dirt Rangers Bob Childers etc the Bridge between the 2 era’s being the Great Divide and then that led to Ragweed, Boland, Stoney and later the Troubadors etc. Now a days I see the term Texas/Red dirt as interchangeable. A term that incompases all types of musical generes and styles. Everything from the Rock of the departed to the Rockabilly of Two tons of Steel the modern Texas Scene weather it be from Oklahoma or Texas is a varied landscape iof all kinds of styles.