An Oral History of the Dallas Music Scene

Some of Dallas' most successful musicians recount the rebirth of its most storied entertainment district: Deep Ellum.

An Oral History of the Dallas Music Scene
THOMAS PITILLI

For years, Deep Ellum sat vacant. By the late '70s, the neighborhood that had once served as the playground for blues icons of the early 20th century — Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, T-Bone Walker and even Robert Johnson — was a collection of vacant warehouses and storefronts.

The only thing that the neighborhood had retained, it seemed, was the element of danger made legend by the traditional folk song about the area. "Deep Ellum Blues" warned would-be visitors of the one-time red-light district's temptations, its political corruption and its inhabitants' pickpocketing ways; by the early '80s, these dangers had been replaced by groups of skinheads who trolled the streets. In the following years, however, the skinheads would be weeded out, and music again would lead the neighborhood's revival.

And quite the return it's been: By the late '80s, the small neighborhood just east of downtown had regained its status as North Texas' musical epicenter. With few exceptions — most notably a return of crime in the late '90s and early '00s, when the neighborhood once again fell into a lull — Deep Ellum has held that distinction since.

This week, we celebrate Deep Ellum. On Saturday, October 15, our fifth annual showcase of Dallas Observer Music Awards nominees will feature 54 performances on 10 stages located throughout the neighborhood. The event will be highlighted by outdoor performances from the Toadies, the Old 97's, Centro-matic and Sarah Jaffe. Three days later, our free-to-attend, 23rd annual Dallas Observer Music Awards Ceremony at the House of Blues will feature a headlining performance from Erykah Badu.

With such local music luminaries participating in this year's shows, we figured it fitting to look back at the recent history of the Dallas music scene. So here it is, the cultural backbone of our city, in the words of the people who helped create it.


The Early Years

In the late '80s and early '90s, after a decade of establishing itself as an arts and music mecca in Dallas, Deep Ellum started to take shape as an entertainment district dependent on the burgeoning Dallas music scene. In 1987, New York City-based Island Records released a compilation album called The Sound of Deep Ellum, highlighting bands that regularly played the neighborhood. Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians led the charge, followed closely behind by bands such as Course of Empire, Shallow Reign and Three on a Hill. The Toadies had just formed. Tripping Daisy and Funland were in their early stages. Their members played in other bands, but Centro-matic and the Old 97's were still a few years off. Erykah Badu was in college. Sarah Jaffe was a toddler.

Rhett Miller (Old 97's guitarist and vocalist): Those memories are fuzzy, some of them. I'll tell you what I remember, though: Oh my God, we were so poor back then. It was unbelievable. Just everybody, everybody I can think of. I know that I, for one, didn't crack 20K until the time I was 30. It was just ramen noodles every day.

Vaden Todd Lewis (Toadies guitarist and vocalist): The first Toadies show was at a place called The Axis in Fort Worth. It was kick-ass, this shitty little dive. It was tiny, holds like 50 people. It's a power or utilities office now. We had to think of a name and go do the gig. We worked on it a lot, but Toadies is what we thought of.

Will Johnson (Centro-matic guitarist and vocalist, Funland drummer): I was a small-town kid for all my life up until I moved to Dallas, and I remember feeling a little bit overwhelmed with all the traffic and all that stuff. The scenes were a little different at that point. I seem to remember some Denton friends raising their eyebrows, like, 'Oh, you're moving down to Dallas?' It wasn't a municipal stand-off, but the scenes were a little more separated. I think that goes with the cities being more separated at that point; now it's all more connected by sprawl and, because of that, the music scenes are a little more connected.

Lewis: Back in the day, Dallas people were real shitty to Fort Worth people. I mean, real shitty. Like, 'You're from Fort Worth? Fuck you.' That kind of shitty. Real bad, real dicks. We wanted to play anywhere and everywhere. But we just played Fort Worth and kept playing and playing. Eventually we got an afternoon show at, like, The Prophet Bar. It was a while before we got 'in' in Dallas. I remember, one night, we were playing in Florida, in Tampa-St. Pete, and played to, I dunno, 1,500 or 2,000 people or something like that, and we were just like, 'What the fuck? This is great!' And then we drove home overnight and two days later played Dallas to 60 people.

Miller: The very early days of Deep Ellum were Shallow Reign and Three on a Hill. My first real gig, I played on a bill between Three on a Hill and Murry [Hammond]'s band, The Peyote Cowboys, at 500 Café. Murry was my entrée into the scene. For some reason, it was no big deal to have this 16-year-old kid be in the Theatre Gallery. It was so wheels-off. It was so Wild West. Deep Ellum was nothing. It was a few warehouse and a couple of art galleries.

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30 comments
Joy Ella
Joy Ella

Being 30--ish and quite familiar with this period of deep ellum's past, I found the article fascinating and enjoyed the commentary. My love of the Toadies probably helps too. Good article. I like the conversational format.

MIKE VANCE
MIKE VANCE

I'm only 29 but when I went to Deep Ellum for the first time out of my Fry st. hole in Denton I fell in love and haven't stop going since! Lots of history to take in and a lot to be apart of! Great article!

Tex
Tex

Actually Dallas has a much earlier and vibrant music history with clubs like Lou Ann's, The Cellar, Mother Blues and the old Palladium. In the 70s, the record industry had one of its largest headquarters here in Big D, with every major label staffing an office with plenty of promo men. All of the biggest acts in the nation played Dallas, including the Police on their first-ever tour. Deep Ellum was a part of the Dallas music scene, but not the biggest nor most important. I still argue that Mother Blues was the biggest, hottest nightclub to be seen in this town, but you had to have been there.

llehmannz
llehmannz

@Tex And it was so wonderful to have been. Mother Blues was the best Dallas ever had.

phe_75034
phe_75034

Thanks for the article, Pete. I agree with some of the commentors that the title is a little misleading, but realy, that's a quibble.

I would have liked to have heard from Mike Snider, Liles, some of the other bands of the day, etc but I realize you've got deadlines. Might make for an interesting book, perhaps? Maybe you could get Slavens or someone frrom the previous generation to go thru some of the earlier days, the 60s, 70s, early 80s. The Sex Pistols wound up here - someone must have had their eyes open in those days.

Diane Birdwell
Diane Birdwell

Shake Russell/Dana Cooper, Poor David's Pub, Lower Greenville, Arcadia, Granada, and as was mentioned already by someone else: ZZ Top, S R V, Fab T-Birds, and so on. Hell, not one mention of Blue Cat Blues....or Mother Blues from an earlier area. Bugs Henderson, Bill Tillman Band in Upper Greenville?

The age-ism of this article is so obvious. You jump from the 1920's and then drop in the mid-80's? Are you high, or just under 35? No mention, either, of some of the biggest summer arena tours, Texxas Jam, Cotton Bowl Jam--where local bands could warm up for major artists.

Oh, and hell, what about South Dallas Funk? Some wildl music came outta there.

This is not an oral history. This was a disappointment. HISTORY is more than a couple of people rehashing the exact same bands and places.

Robert Hernandez
Robert Hernandez

I have fond memories of Deep Ellum, remember when the only 2 clubs were Clearview and Video Bar....those were the days..

Vero1163
Vero1163

This show should be open to a broader audience. The opportunity for the younger generations to be able to endure the musical gift of these great performers.

Jason
Jason

That was a fun article! Bad title for the concept... It is far from a "History of the Dallas Music Scene". It's the history of popular Deep Ellum bands from the early- to mid-90s (Sponsored by Scion).

I guess my expectations were a little too high after reading the title.

duh laughter
duh laughter

what a load of old tripe! christ, these dolts are boring...

pkathleen
pkathleen

Um, hello? Aren’t you forgetting some people? Like maybe, Edie Brickell and the NEW BOHEMIANS? Or I dunno….LOCO GRINGOS? Or How about my PERSONAL favorite:

TEN HANDS?

pkathleen
pkathleen

And also, Erykah Badu was still at Arts Magnet in '87....I know because I was a senior in '86, and she was a freshman then. The people being left out in this history were some amazing musicians, many of whom still gig in this area. It makes me sad and angry that they've been completely ignored in this article. I would have loved to hear something from Jeffry Liles who has become the new champion of the Dallas music/arts scene as well.

duh laughter
duh laughter

thank you for speaking to truth. don't feel bad, the observer has NEVER EVER gotten it right, nor will they. they only push the acts within their (extremely) limited scope.

Russp
Russp

I've only been in Dallas since the late 80s and was wondering about all the Texas based acts that had long commercial careers but weren't mentioned in this article (such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, ZZ Top). Wasn't there much of a commercial music scene in Dallas in the 60s, 70s and 80s?

Derrick White
Derrick White

Pretty interesting look back. Deep Ellum in the mid 90's was fantastic. Being 15 or 16, just studying what was happening. What my life could look like. What music was supposed to sound like.

duh laughter
duh laughter

i suppose i could overlook your stunted growth. but i won't, because you're a fucking idiot..

Derrick White
Derrick White

Hmmm... My stunted growth... That's pretty interesting considering I'm 6' 7". I'm not sure what specifically you are taking exception with in my comment. Is it the fact that I actually paid attention to what was going on in Deep Ellum during my formative years, or the fact that the interviewees in this piece obviously had a slanted point of view - which led to a major revision of the scene history? Obviously, a lot of bands were left out (10 Hands, featuring the always entertaining Mr. Slavens for starters). Frankly some of the bands that were mentioned simply as a one note, were in my mind, a lot more interesting than the bands who the interviews focused on (UFOFU, Hagfish). It further overlooks the fact that the scene in the early and mid 90's was propped up by an extremely intelligent and ultimately very effective station manager at KDGE. I'm pretty sure though, that the point of this piece was simply to drum up publicity for the bands taking part in the upcoming music awards showcase.

Chuck G.
Chuck G.

All bad jokes aside, I thought this was a great piece. Interviews with many members of big local bands and how Ellum was before, during and after it's heyday were fantastic. But there is one other key to the decline of Ellum besides what was mentioned. And that is the demise of grunge and alternative music that was taking place in the late 90's-early 2000's. Look at all the big grunge bands and see what they were doing around this time. Basically nothing. And the local bands were out of the picture by this time as well. So the momentum that this genre brought back in the early and mid-90's began to fade and fizzle by the early 2000's, thus causing the effect of sparse crowds and ghost-town effect.

LingerGalthrope
LingerGalthrope

Another "Dallas used to be cool" article?

Nostalgia for a brief time and place twenty years ago is all fine and good, but this really doesn't add anything to the other Observer articles published over the years that ramble on like an old hippie talking about Woodstock.

How about digging a little deeper, or investigating some other genres that had their moments in Dallas?

Chuck G.
Chuck G.

What about an anal history of the Dallas music scene?

Josh
Josh

i really enjoyed that.

MattL1
MattL1

Interesting. Cool to hear from all of these people who lived through that period.

Wrecked
Wrecked

Shouldn't this be titled "An Oral History of Deep Ellum's Music Starting in the 1980s" ???

BadGuyZero
BadGuyZero

Clark Vogeler: "I remember them playing early on at this little bar over on Canton, I think? It had a woman's name. I can't remember what it was called. But it was one of those places where you've got to set up next to the pool table. They only sold beer in cans. You could only fit maybe 30 people in there."

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