A car stereo, a great music mix, and a good long drive can put everything into perspective and nobody knows this truth better than West Texas musicians. Why? Well, let music writer John T. Davis explain through this ultimate West Texas driving mix inspired by the subject of his latest book, The Flatlanders: Now It’s Now Again.
A West Texas Driving Mix
By John T. Davis
Route 66…That hard-assed Amarillo Highway…the Loop…the Strip…the Lost Highway…the Eight’r From Decatur…
Roads aren’t just strips of asphalt in West Texas—they are lifelines and metaphors and escape routes and the promise that lies somewhere over yonder. In a dusty and isolated landscape where so much seems fixed in place, there’s healing power in movement. Terry Allen, the artist and musician who has spent his creative life in a love/hate relationship with the Texas Panhandle and the South Plains once said, “No one with access to a car and a good radio station should ever need a psychiatrist.”
The Flatlanders, whose personal and musical journey I’ve chronicled in a new book, The Flatlanders: Now It’s Now Again, grew up driving the highways, ranch roads and farm-to-market byways that surrounded their home in Lubbock, Texas. The “road,” both literal and metaphorical, has always informed the music made by the group and by its three central figures—Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Even today, says Joe Ely, when he needs musical inspiration, he’ll take off and drive the grid of tiny back roads that thread their way across the empty plains. It’s a big, blank reservoir of silence, begging to be filled with music.
In that spirit, I’ve put together a mix tape for driving across the plains of West Texas—it’s been a long day behind the wheel, the sun is finally beginning to set and the lights of a small town glimmer on a distant, ruler-straight horizon. The road, as Tom Russell likes to sing, it gives, and the road it takes away.
Access the playlist on your Spotify account here.
“Amarillo Highway”—Terry Allen (from Lubbock On Everything): “I’m a high straight in Plainview/Side bet in Idalou/And a fresh deck in New Deal,” sings Allen against a honky-tonk piano and steel guitar. “Some call me high hand/And some call me low hand/But I’m holding what I am—the wheel.” US Hwy. 87, about which Allen was singing, has been supplanted by modern Interstate 27, but the groove is still the same.
“Rave On”—Buddy Holly (from the album The Buddy Holly Collection): Because, duh. Lubbock native Holly set the template for the modern rock band, scored huge hits, inspired the Beatles (and the Flatlanders) and became the first rock ‘n’ roll martyr, all by age 22. Roll down the window, crank it up and let ‘er rip.
“All Just To Get To You”—Joe Ely (from Letter to Laredo): “I have run from St. Paul to Wichita Falls/Called you from sunny Baron Rouge/I hocked everything from my watch to my ring/All just to get to you.” Ely’s sunny rocker about making his way home to his baby is one of the great window-down, stomp-on-the-gas sing-alongs in modern Texas music. And oh yeah, that’s Bruce Springsteen singing along his ownself on the chorus.
“I’m A Long Gone Daddy”—Hank Williams (from The Ultimate Collection): The Flatlanders were inspired by myriad and diverse musical genres. Williams was every bit as influential as Bob Dylan and Elvis when it came to informing their music. And anyway, no driving mix is complete without the Drifting Cowboy singing about the lost highway.
“Moanin’ of the Midnight Train”—Butch Hancock (from Eats Away the Night): Hancock employs his Dylan-esque harmonica and best alliterative wordplay to put a fresh face on night train = lost love: “Sweetheart, your heart is loaded down with useless burdens and bones/I can tell by the tear-stains on your letter you wrote me from the twilight zone/You ask if I miss you, yes of course I miss you, I miss you every night or two/When I hear the moanin’ of the midnight train, it reminds me so much of you…”
“Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”—Waylon Jennings (from Lonesome, On’ry and Mean): Jennings’ music has somewhat fallen into eclipse since his death, and that’s a damn shame. This cover of a Steve Young song sums up what makes the onetime deejay (and Buddy Holly sideman) so great: That unmistakable guitar style and tone, Jennings’ gunslinger baritone and attitude to burn. If you only know him from the Dukes of Hazzard theme song, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this album or his classic Honky Tonk Heroes disc.
“Out In the Parking Lot”—Guy Clark (from Keepers): A marvelous, meticulous honky-tonk still life from a Texan who has taught master classes in songwriting for decades: “I’m sittin’ on the fender of someone else’s truck/Drinkin’ Old Crow whiskey and hot Seven-Up…You can hear the band playin’ right through the walls/Ain’t no cover charge, ain’t no last call/Out in the parking lot.”
“Cool Water”—Joni Mitchell (from Chalk Marks In A Rainstorm): An avant-gardé take on the old Sons of the Pioneers classic. There’s a spacy, ethereal quality to this track that invokes the vastness of the West Texas sky and linear, sometimes intimidating flat and minimalist landscape. Water, in the form of rain, or lack thereof, is the ubiquitous topic of conversation (along with football) in every social strata, so why not sing about it too? Big props to Mitchell for bringing in Willie Nelson for a guest vocal.
“Ramblin’ Man”—Jimmie Dale Gilmore (from One Endless Night): Gilmore’s bouncy honky-tonk cover of a Butch Hancock song may be the best highway song Hank Williams never cut: “I’m your ramblin’ man and I can go where I choose/And if you sing me a song, mama, make it a midnight blues”.
“Marfa”—Don Santiago Jimenez (from His First and Last Recordings): Tejano and Hispanic culture are as much a defining part of West Texas as they are in the rest of the Lone Star State. This peppery little tune, commemorating the Trans-Pecos town of the same name, by one of the founding masters of the conjunto accordion, is a three-minute road trip to the border.
“Oh Pretty Woman”—Roy Orbison (from Oh Pretty Woman): The big beat married to Orbison’s otherworldly, operatic voice makes this 1964 hit a force of nature. Orbison was by no means a teenage idol to look at, but when he growls “Mercy!” you can hear the girls’ hearts race across the room. This rocking classic is the ultimate West Texas riposte to the British Invasion.
“Tumbleweed”—Toni Price (from Hey): This lovely, bittersweet country-folk lament by the Austin-based chanteuse is all about picking up and leaving, something every youngster in West Texas has to confront sooner or later. Stay put in the familiar home country or light out for the territories? As Price sings: “When someone asked me where was I going/I tore the map up, I flipped a coin/And it landed somewhere a long, long way away”.
“(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”—Nat “King” Cole (from Stepping Out of A Dream): There’s a million versions of this road trip chestnut, but I like Cole’s urbane, jazzy take--with its tinkling piano, walking bass and jazzy guitar, coupled with Cole’s smoky vocals—because it’s such a stark contrast with the dusty expanse of cattle ranches and small towns that mark the one-time Mother Road’s traverse through the Texas Panhandle.
“Take Me Back To Tulsa”—Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (from Anthology 1935-1973): Turkey, Texas, native Bob Wills didn’t invent Western Swing, that feisty fusion of house party country fiddle music, blues licks, pop flourishes and hot jazz improvisation, but he took it to the world. Wills embodied the freewheeling synthesis of disparate musical styles that has always characterized the best of West Texas music.
“To Live Is To Fly”—Townes Van Zandt (from Rear View Mirror): “Days up and down they come/Like rain on a conga drum/Forget most, remember song/But don’t turn none away/Everything is not enough/Nothing is too much to bear/Where you been is good and gone/All you keep is the getting there.” The hard-living folk/blues Texas poet Townes Van Zandt was an enormous influence not only on the Flatlanders, but also on other Lone Star bards like Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark.
“Heard It On the X”—Los Super Seven (from Heard It On the X): When the Flatlanders were teenagers in Lubbock, they and their friends tuned in each night to the big clear-channel stations out of Mexico like XERF that beamed big city blues and rhythm and blues to captivated young listeners all over West Texas and far beyond. This grainy, greasy cover of the ZZ Top song by Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven conveys some of the allure and mystery of those magic nights.
“Amarillo By Morning”—George Strait (from Strait From the Heart): Country music’s greatest hitmaker (and native Texan, y’all) does what he does best—rendering a deceptively straightforward, fiddle-laced tale of a rodeo cowboy taking a broken heart on the road (“Everything that I’ve got/Is just what I’ve got on”) with effortless craft and conviction. He makes it sounds easy, but when Strait is on point, nobody can do it better.
“The Long Way Around”—Dixie Chicks (from Taking the Long Way): Chicks vocalist and Lubbock native Natalie Maines became a lightning rod for criticism after criticizing Pres. George W. Bush. But this song, written after the firestorm, is an rocking, enduring anthem to friendship, going the distance and staying true to oneself: It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself/Guess I could have made it easier on myself/But I, I could never follow…If you ever want to find me, I can still be found/Takin’ the long way around.”
“One Road More”—The Flatlanders (from The Odessa Tapes): From the Flatlanders’ earliest recording, at Butch Hancock song with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, singing what might as well be the band’s mission statement: “Lord, I ain’t got a lick of sense, I got a crazy mind/’Cause I don’t want to leave and I don’t want to stay behind/But at the end of this one last road they say there’s always an open door/So I guess my bare feet will have to carry me one road more.”