Clifford is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Honors Programs at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas.
“So what kind of music do you play?” asks one of my students. That question is difficult to answer even if the person asking it is my age. But it’s even harder to translate into contemporary categories.
I usually say, well, it’s “Texas singer-songwriter music.” That expression resonates in some quarters, especially if you name a few of the giants of that tradition like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. But, strictly speaking, wouldn’t that moniker apply to everyone in Texas who writes and sings his or her own songs, no matter what the genre? Or, for that matter, to every Texan, whether living in Texas or not, who is a singer and songwriter? David Rodriguez, for example, grew up in Houston and made a name for himself as a songwriter and performer in Houston and Austin in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. But in 1994 he moved to the Netherlands, nevermore to return to the Lone Star State. And yet listen to the opening lines of “Gulf Coast Plain,” the first song on Racing Aimless, his new album released in January of 2012: “I was born on a Gulf Coast plain / You can smell the salt water in the rain.”
When I brought up this subject with one of my contemporaries, Craig Hillis, who played lead guitar for Michael Martin Murphey, Steve Fromholz, and Jerry Jeff Walker back in the seventies, he knew who I was referring to when I used the term “Texas singer-songwriters.” But the more we talked about the music we love, the more convinced we became that we might be able to give it greater definition. Now mind you, this is to some extent the scholar’s issue, not the musician’s. Musicians famously ignore labels—they generally say that they’re just trying to make good music. Nonetheless, there is a definite tradition in Texas music that can clearly be distinguished from other kinds of Texas music. Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark are clearly in this tradition, and 99.99 percent of the music played on mainstream Texas radio stations now is clearly not. So Hillis and I decided that we would put together a collection of essays about what I once termed “the ruthlessly poetic singer-songwriters of Texas.” We’re still in the process of assembling a team of writers, but in working on the project I think I’ve gained a bit of clarity.
So what does “ruthlessly poetic” mean? Poetry and poetic songs are akin, but still to be distinguished from one another. Without the music, the most poetic song is not a song. It’s interesting, though, that most of the songwriters that we’re talking about in this book read and studied great poetry. In numerous interviews Guy Clark talks about how he and Townes used to sit around talking about how great their lyrics were, but then they’d put on a tape of Dylan Thomas reading his poetry and get a quick lesson in humility. OK, they were judging themselves against an unfair standard, but that tells you something about what they were trying to accomplish. They were trying to accomplish in songs what great poets have accomplished in poems. Judged as songwriters, they are every bit as accomplished as Dylan Thomas was as a poet.
That means that, even though the music is an integral part of their songs, the lyrics are paramount—and there is definitely a poetic quality to those lyrics. In one sense, these songwriters were folk singers, in the same sense that Bob Dylan was a folk singer. It’s tempting to say that Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and company were doing in the coffee houses of Austin and Houston what Bob Dylan was doing in Greenwich Village. But there is one essential difference. Bob Dylan often sang about rooted people, and he idolized Woody Guthrie, but Dylan himself abandoned his own roots and became what Bill C. Malone in Country Music, U.S.A. calls an “urban folksinger.” The Texas singer-songwriters our book deals with are profoundly rooted in their home soil. And they chronicle the lives of the ordinary and not-so-ordinary people they grew up with and live with. In that sense, their music is more like traditional folk music. Take Guy Clark’s “Rita Ballou,” for example:
She could dance that slow Uvalde
Shuffle to some cowboy hustle
How she made them trophy buckles shine, shine, shine
Wild-eyed and Mexican silvered,
Trickin’ dumb ol’ cousin Willard
into thinkin’ that he’s got her this time
Clark takes the colloquial language and culture of the Texas he knows and raises it to the level of poetry. But Rita Ballou is one of his people, not the exotic subject of an anthropological study.
But why call this music “ruthlessly” poetic? I originally used that term in as essay called “Too Weird for Kerrville: The Darker Side of Texas Music,” an essay about Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen, and David Rodriguez. At the time I was thinking in terms of the singular focus that these three songwriters had. They have lived, and in one case died, with one purpose in mind—to write great songs. That kind of passion comes with a price, but a price they were willing to pay. Not too long before his death, an interviewer asked Townes if he still had ambitions as songwriter. Townes said, “I want to write songs that are so good no one understands them, including me.”
But the more Hillis and I have tossed this topic around, the more I’ve become convinced that what I really want to say is that it’s the music itself that is “ruthlessly poetic,” not just the songwriters. Many of these songwriters have been uncompromising in the pursuit of great songwriting, but, in the end, it’s the quality of the songs they write that really matters, not the purity of their artistic commitment. This is true in the arts in general. We sometimes associate great art with a complete rejection of commercialism—the only true artist is a starving artist. But the fact that the art on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was commissioned doesn’t mean it’s not great art. Kris Kristofferson flew a helicopter to Johnny Cash’s yard to get him to listen to “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and he made a ton of money off of that song. But I can’t think of a song with more poetic lyrics. So what makes art great is not that the artist created it for art’s sake and sacrificed money, family, and health in the process—what makes it great is a certain quality it has to touch something deep in our humanity.So, am I just another grumpy old man idolizing the music of his own generation and dismissing the music of later generations? You bet I am. But let me end with this observation. The two young Texas songwriters I would nominate to carry this tradition forward, Ryan Bingham and Hayes Carll, both list Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Bob Dylan as influences. Is Ryan Bingham or Hayes Carll the Townes Van Zandt of this generation? Maybe, maybe not. But they want to be, and it’s encouraging to know that this tradition is still alive.