An Oral History of the Dallas Music Scene

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temptations, its political corruption and its inhabitants' pickpocketing ways; by the early '80s, these dangers had been replaced by groups of skinheads who trolled the streets.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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman