Feature Stories

Willie, Waylon and Them: North Texas Songwriters Put the Story Back in Country

Meredith Lawrence
Joshua Ray Walker warms up at sound check for a show at the Granada Theater
Perched on a chair in front of red velvet stage curtains at the Granada Theater, Joshua Ray Walker plucks a simple, mellow tune: “We’ve been talkin’ for a while, and I think I like your smile …” The crowd sings along gently. Wryly, he laments at the end of the chorus, “I’m pretty sure you think my name is Paul ...” “Paul!” the crowd shouts back. Walker grins and keeps strumming the Martin D-15M guitar strapped across his chest.

Walker’s music is story-driven. His throaty tenor wends lyrical narratives around strummed acoustic melodies to tell tales of the places and characters he’s known. Some songs whine with classic country twang, while others ride along on hi-hat rhythms and sweetly meandering steel guitar.

He is one of a handful of young Dallas musicians whose music gets called Americana, country, outlaw country, maybe even folk. It’s hard to put the music in any one genre, but no doubt a number of them grew up steeped in the sounds of legendary Texas storytellers like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Billy Joe Shaver, whose influence bubbles up in the music they're making today.

“It's kind of getting its resurgence, it's coming back. And it's a new … generation that are looking to the past to make a future,” says Charlie J. Memphis, a Dallas-based songwriter and bass guitar player.

Today's country music is more often associated with polished pop beats, heartbreak and beer. Many Nashville country songs are written in sterile office buildings, and the music has become more about checking specific reference boxes than telling a story, Memphis says. But away from the neon signs, these Texan singer-songwriters are performing raw, largely acoustic country music, evoking a rich Texas storytelling tradition and sampling from steel guitar and banjo along the way.

“Their songs are more like poems with music instead of song songs." – Frankie Leonie

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“I think there's a desire within a generation to bring country back into its respectable form and what people loved it as,” says Memphis, who is now the bass player for Dallas-based country musician Vincent Neil Emerson.

Across the nation, country music with a more classic sound, often labeled “Americana,” is making a comeback. Americana has come to describe a rising class of country musicians with an unornamented western sound and a penchant for storytelling and character-driven lyrics.

In Dallas, that resurgence has many young faces: Walker, 28, and Frankie Leonie, 17, chronicle the foibles of larger-than-life characters. The acoustic melodies of Kirk Holloway, 22, and Parker Twomey, also in his early 20s, would fit right in onstage at storied Austin venue Armadillo World Headquarters. When he’s performing solo, Memphis’ deep voice and driving guitar strokes sit at the junction of old blues crooners and some of Johnny Cash’s best-known songs. Others like Emerson, the Vandoliers and Elaina Kay bring Shaver’s twang to more modern country tunes.

Right now, a concentration of country musicians in Dallas are not only dedicated to the craft but are making music that feels authentic and real, says Dallas-based producer John Pedigo.

“There is nothing phony about what's happening,” he says.

Walker and Emerson both put out debut albums in the last year, Emerson and the Vandoliers spent the summer touring North America, as did Twomey, who plays with Dallas-based Paul Cauthen. Walker just set off on his first European tour, and Leonie and Holloway enjoy steady gigs around Dallas.

“There’s something that we’re really lucky to be a part of right now, and it’s like being on a hit TV show,” Pedigo says.

Five years ago this wouldn’t have happened, but now the moment is just right. Maybe the proliferation and the appeal of this verdant Americana moment can’t last. Music trends come and go in cycles, Pedigo says, but it’s pretty damn good to be here now.

Don’t Call Them Outlaws

Texas country music is perhaps most famous for the 1970s outlaw country movement when Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and others rejected the Nashville corporate country machine and returned to their Texas roots to produce linchpins of classic country like “Luckenbach Texas” and “Fort Worth Blues.”

This new crop of musicians shares a musical spirit and sound with outlaw country, but they are not true outlaw country for the simple reason that they are functioning within an established system, says Pedigo, who has worked with most of them.

“I think people are trying to use a ye olde phrase to make sense,” he says.

For many years, the only way to succeed in country music was to go to Nashville. These days, some musicians would rather stay home in Texas. They're here not to rebel against the system, but to reject the overproduced, clean pop sound, says Diana Cox, director of operations for The Kessler Theater.

“I think it's … a little bit more of an expressive style that allows a little bit of edge to it." – Diana Cox

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“I think it's … a little bit more of an expressive style that allows a little bit of edge to it,” she says.

That expression comes through in Walker’s best-known song, “Canyon,” his soaring, brooding reflection on his relationship with his father. Written in about 15 minutes, the song came to Walker as he sat in his living room not long after his father’s cancer diagnosis, thinking about the legacies fathers leave to sons.

Walker first played the song for his father at the release party for his first single, “Working Girl.” Onstage, he realized he had neglected to tell his father about the song, but it was too late not to play it.

“It's easier to play in front of a room of strangers than it is to play in front of a group of friends,” he says. But sharing that moment with a group of strangers was definitely weird.

In the recording studio, everything Pedigo and Walker tried to add to the acoustic guitar seemed to overpower the lyrics. Instead, they kept it almost completely unembellished — just a touch of steel guitar forlornly reflects Walker’s voice. The edge comes in the depth of emotion in the song, not from fancy finger work.

“I’m a big big man / not just in size or in stature / in terms of space that can’t be filled / I’m a bottomless canyon / without a drop to spill,” the chorus goes, seeming to speak from the perspective of both Walker and his father.

That kind of unadorned, yet not simple melody, paired with lyrics that are neither trite nor overly ornate, is emblematic of this group of Americana musicians.

click to enlarge At 17, Frankie Leonie is already a professional musician. - CAL QUINN AND ALY FAYE
At 17, Frankie Leonie is already a professional musician.
Cal Quinn and Aly Faye

Musical Poetry

The smell of barbecue smoke floats on the hot breeze propelled by large fans across giant picnic tables at dusk on The Rustic’s backyard patio; onstage, half a dozen songs into her set, Frankie Leonie launches into “Pancho & Lefty,” Van Zandt’s mournful ballad of survival and betrayal. Lilting serenely through her rendition, 17-year-old Leonie sounds a good deal like Emmylou Harris, whose cover made the gritty tale into a soaring epic as sweet in sound as it is sad in story.

Leonie has two singles on Spotify and other streaming services. When Margo Price and Lukas Nelson came to town recently, Leonie opened for them at all three Rustic Texas locations. Soft-spoken Leonie usually slips onto the stage and begins to play with no introduction.

Musically, she gravitates toward songs written years ago, looking to Van Zandt, Clark and Loretta Lynn for inspiration while her friends listen to Billie Eilish and tell her she likes old people music.

“Their songs are more like poems with music instead of song songs. And I think I like that, because they're more storytelling,” she says.

Leonie’s first single is imagined as a sequel to a song by one of the best-known country storytellers: Johnny Cash. The eponymous song, co-written with Melissa Bollea Rowe, is a look into the lives of the characters in “Give My Love to Rose” 30 years later.

Personifying the grown-up child born from the union of Cash and Rose, Leonie imagines the fragments of memory the child has about the mysterious man in black.

“I guess one day I realized it didn't really resolve. And so I thought it would be cool to write a part two to a Johnny Cash song,” Leonie says.

Onstage at the Big Barn Dance Social, the song’s first line, “Been workin’ double shifts, can barely find the time to pray,” rises over the crowd. Leonie's backed by her band, and the rendition has more twang than the recorded version, but it’s still her voice and the narrative that pull the song along. A handful of cowboy-booted couples stomp and twirl on the hay-dusted dirt floor.

Beneath long, dark bangs, Leonie’s eyes are closed as she rocks gently. “She's probably sitting in his chair / wearin' his favorite dress / the one she bought at the stranger's request,” she croons, her thick alto filling the barn. She strums simple chords on her parlor-sized Breedlove Guitar, and the twang of background electric guitar are familiar to any country music listener. In conversation with her smoky voice, the sparse lyrics evoke the raw, quotidian struggles of a working-class family.

Like other young Dallas-based country musicians, Leonie’s style is grounded in classic country whose Texas roots extend back much further than outlaw’s 1970s heyday.

Sons and Daughters of the Pioneers

Writing in his intricate critical history of American popular music, Love for Sale, music journalist David Hajdu recounts an interview with the Highwaymen — the country super group made up of Jennings, Cash, Nelson and Kristofferson — in which he asked about their earliest musical influences: singing cowboy acts Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, it turns out. Autry’s accessibility and popularity coupled with the romantic image of the cowboy inspired many kids to pick up the guitar.

“We were all rebels that left other musical areas and came to Texas because we wanted to get back to our roots." – Michael Martin Murphey

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Autry and Rogers captured the imagination of a generation of youngsters and helped to solidify cowboys into the ultimate image of a rugged outlaw individualism. When the outlaws rejected Nashville, they fashioned themselves after the mythical lone cowboy first brought to mainstream viewing audiences by Rogers and Autry.

Speaking to this reporter in a previous interview, musician Michael Martin Murphey recalled the early days of outlaw country.

“We were all rebels that left other musical areas and came to Texas because we wanted to get back to our roots,” he said. “We’re a nation of outlaws. We’re a nation of rebels. ... If he (the cowboy) wants to ride off into the sunset with a bedroll ’cause he doesn’t like the job, he can do it.”

Right before the turn of the 20th century, cowboys made up songs and poems to pass the lonely time on the open range. Many of these were collected by folklorists, including John Lomax, who saw this vernacular music as an American art form that could rival the centuries of European folklore tradition.

The cowboy songs came from the smorgasbord of slave spirituals, Irish folk songs and Mexican polkas brought along on cattle drives by a much more diverse group of cowboys than seen in most western movies. Those sounds reverberated through country music history and still influence the music of young Dallas country musicians.

Walker's songs are often punctuated by the yodeling and yips most commonly associated with old cowboy songs. When he slides in and out of his high, clear falsetto range, he is calling back to a childhood listening to old cowboy songs with his grandfather but also to trail-drive cowboys and to much older musical traditions. Other songs of his sample conjunto rhythms, which he traces to listening to artists like Flaco Jiménez, the Texas Tornadoes and Vicente Fernández as a child. Even “Working Girl,” his most mainstream and radio-friendly single off his first album, doesn’t quite fit the pop country mold.

“On the bridge there’s this driving, this galloping fuzzy guitar and kind of disco, 16-beat disco hi-hat thing, and it totally takes you out of that pop country feel, which I did on purpose because I didn’t want to write a straight pop country song,” Walker says.

Six years ago, Nashville’s Americana Fest showcase welcomed 12,000 people; this year, 50,000 attended. Americana is such a broad category that it's tough to define, but it encompasses this crop of young Dallas musicians and the trend they are riding. Their music is pure and unpretentious but tells a deep story.

“Here’s Josh, and then here’s Kenny Chesney, and one’s got ‘Canyon’ and one’s got ‘[She Thinks] My Tractor’s Sexy.’ They’re not in the same world,” Pedigo says.

He distinguishes between the polished, poppy Nashville country sound, with its fancy guitar riffs and formulaic lyrics, and the eloquence of the country music Walker and others are producing right now. Chesney's song's trite lyrics are driven by overproduced twang while Walker's sparse words carry the weight for the song's gentle, melancholy melody.

“Americana in general, if it doesn’t stand on its own with a guy and a guitar, then it doesn’t matter,” Pedigo says.

That one person with a guitar can make a decent living in Texas if he/she is good enough. Low cost of living, a large surface area, a central location and lots of venues make Texas unique, he says.

Singing Storytellers

“Well, this Texas pride thing … fuels something,” says Pat Bywaters, executive director for Encore Park, a music history preservation and performance space. “How things get created around here, the legends. Well, there’s the storytelling, there it is — you grow up with stories.”

Bywaters says Dallas once had a chance to be a country music recording hub, one that could have rivaled Nashville. Jim Beck, a talent agent who is credited with discovering Lefty Frizzell and recorded songs by Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison and Marty Robbins in his two Dallas studios, was in the process of turning Dallas into a music industry fixture when he died suddenly in 1956. As reported by The Dallas Morning News in 2015, it's hard to know what would have happened if Beck kept living, but his investment in Dallas and creativity suggest that he would have grown Dallas' country music scene.

Even before that, Dallas' location fostered musical storytelling. Coming across the prairie, early residents brought instruments and made their own entertainment on the trail. Since then, Dallas has been home to musical acts such as Bowling for Soup and the Dixie Chicks, seen a blues revival in Deep Ellum and now is part of a country music moment.

Musicians like Paul Cauthen and Charley Crockett have been making music with a classic bent to it in Dallas for several years, but the seed of the current Americana wave started much earlier, Pedigo says. American ears first tuned to today’s Americana sound with bands like Cross Canadian Ragweed, Uncle Tupelo and Old 97’s; others, including Iron and Wine and Fleet Foxes, brought back the sound of the acoustic guitar and banjo, Walker adds. Now, artists like Colter Wall and Sturgill Simpson are returning the grit and throaty twang of outlaw country music sound to national audiences.

“It doesn’t bother me when I’m called Americana. I’m not trying to be some outlaw country guy. I get stuck in that too, ’cause outlaw country now kinda means you’re country, it sounds country, but you write about real shit,” Walker says.

Regardless of the label — or if we really need one — something is special about this moment in Americana music, these artists agree. Some of that comes from the exponential growth of live music venues and establishments that welcome acts playing original work, not just covers.

Early mainstream country musicians like Hank Williams and the Carter Family built the foundation that established Nashville as the epicenter of country music. But poppy country music coming out of Nashville has little in common with early country music, or with what this group of young Dallas musicians is producing.

Some of the best Texas music is rooted in a storytelling tradition: Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” Nelson’s “Me 'N Paul” and, of course, “Pancho and Lefty.”

When those poems with music, as Leonie refers to them, are written and performed by the same person, they reach a different level from the songs performed by country musicians whose lyrics were written by a Nashville-based songwriter in a high-rise office.

“They're all very truthful. Now, if you listen to somebody that was lying through their teeth, you can tell with country, because you don't have all these tricks up your sleeve,” Memphis says, noting that there are no clever rock riffs in country music.

Right now there are a lot more of these singer-songwriters in Dallas than there were a few years ago, and their popularity has given others a platform to give it a go too, Pedigo says. They write music that sounds and feels real.

“When you're on TV, singing somebody else's song or whatever, you're not really creating identity for yourself. So much of country, western country music and alternative country is lyrics,” says Jeff Liles, artistic director for the Kessler, which was once owned by Gene Autry. “It's all about the song; can you write a song or not?”

click to enlarge Kirk Holloway plays a Martin guitar, just like many classic country musicians. - JESSICA WAFFLES
Kirk Holloway plays a Martin guitar, just like many classic country musicians.
Jessica Waffles

Good Song, Good Story

Growing up, one of the ways Kirk Holloway bonded with a grandfather he didn’t see often, was by playing music with him on a beautiful 1965 Gibson Hummingbird. The guitar's pick guard is decorated in delicate carvings of a hummingbird and flowers; his grandfather took the instrument with him to fight in the Korean War and on many other adventures.

“That's my connection with my grandfather. Like, that's pretty much it, is that guitar sitting there and playing it with him,” Holloway says.

When his grandfather had a stroke, his new girlfriend did not tell Holloway’s family; after finding out, they set out to bring him back home. Holloway wanted his grandfather back, but he also wanted that guitar. When it was all over and with the guitar safely tucked up in his closet, Holloway penned “Hummingbird,” an aggrandized first-person account of a bandit who sets his sights on a sweet-sounding Hummingbird guitar. High in the mountains he sets out to claim the guitar. “She echos what haunts in your soul / the sound of her cry, the sweet lullaby / is worth more than diamonds and gold,” Holloway sings. A solo electric guitar whines a mournful harmony as the narrator extols the guitar's powers and draws his .44 pistol to shoot the guitar's owner.

“I've always wanted to try to write a murder ballad, right? Because why not, it's country music. You gotta have one,” Holloway says.

Growing up, Holloway’s welder father took him to jobs; on the way, they listened to Charlie Robison, Robert Earl Keen, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams. It’s them Holloway wants to emulate with his own music. With the Hummingbird guitar safely protected from the wildly fluctuating Texas weather, Holloway prefers the Martin D-28 he plays, just like his heroes.

Charlie Memphis is relatively new to Texas, and to country music, although not to music itself. At age 10, he discovered a love for bass guitar. First he studied punk music, and when his family moved to Texas, he started exploring country music, which is more similar to punk than one might think, he says.

“I've always wanted to try to write a murder ballad, right? Because why not, it's country music. You gotta have one." – Kirk Holloway

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“Country and punk actually had these very similar roots, or at least similar rules. One has to be very truthful on both sides. And then you only really need three chords for both the genres,” Memphis says.

These days he plays a 1984 Fender Esquire with custom TV Jones wiring and harness, first owned by his dad’s best friend.

Last year, Memphis released a single titled “Move Along,” produced by Jaret Reddick of Bowling for Soup. Reddick heard Memphis play at a competition and insisted on recording and producing the song.

Lyrically, the song is about getting over a breakup, but sonically it’s reminiscent of the driving guitar of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” a comparison that’s hard to avoid because of Memphis’ rich, deep baritone.

A fast, chugging guitar rhythm and drum beat push the song forward. As the song enters its final third, Memphis' fast, breathy harmonica picks up the steady chug and brings in a wailing train whistle. In the music video for the song, Memphis' honeyed, somber baritone is utterly surprising coming from a skinny young man, long hair poking out of a revolving selection of hats.

The song is an ode to his love for music history — one that puts Django Reinhardt and Cash alongside the Byrds and the Ramones and reflects his reverence for the pedal steel guitar and the way Carol Kaye plucks her bass.

click to enlarge Charlie J. Memphis, who gravitated toward bass guitar at an early age, plays with Vincent Neil Emerson - CAL QUINN & ALY FAE
Charlie J. Memphis, who gravitated toward bass guitar at an early age, plays with Vincent Neil Emerson
Cal Quinn & Aly Fae

North Texas Sound

North Texas country music has distinctive characteristics, Walker says.

“We use less words than other writers, I feel like. Our delivery is a little slower. I feel like there’s a little more tongue-in-cheek comedy,” he says.

In a four-minute song, Walker says he can use as few as 60 words. “Lot Lizard,” one of his first album’s more verbose songs, clocks in at 150. For reference, Taylor Swift's “Tear Drops on my Guitar” is 288 words.

The Kessler’s Diana Cox says one of the things that distinguishes Dallas’ current crop of country singer-songwriters is a purity of imagination, which allows them to write lyrically and narratively complex songs without the usual requisite life experience. But some songs, like Walker's “Lot Lizard,” are based in reality; the song grew out of a conversation he watched between a trucker and a prostitute at a truck stop. It’s a song about two people whose lives are too different to be compatible; for Walker, it does double duty as a reminder to love yourself.

The song’s opening verse — just 16 words — cues up a lyrical dance between two characters, neither of whom is capable of expressing love properly: “You mark me with a cigarette / burn on my chest/ just to say / I love you.”

Slow accordion notes unfold between steady, strumming guitar, and Walker slides in and out of his falsetto, yipping high before dropping down into almost gravely meditative lines. Walker imagines the duo on the cusp of parting, broken, but in love. It’s a snapshot of a relationship that goes beyond country music tropes.

“I feel like Texas writers mix a lot of rural words with intellectual words at the same time,” Walker says.

These writers, to whom Walker lovingly refers as “well-read hicks,” are doing something special right now, Pedigo says. They’ve managed to reach back into Texas history to create something brand new but which is thick with the dust of Texas prairie and musical folklore. Whatever that special mix is, it’s working: Walker, Leonie, Vincent Neil Emerson, the Vandoliers and Elaina Kay are all up for Dallas Observer Music Awards' best country act, and Holloway was nominated for the best new artist category; Walker is also nominated in the best album, best song and best songwriter categories.

Walker hopes this success signals a new trend in country music: “I hope that we can reclaim the genre a bit. Everyone calls Nashville country pop country. I wish that that title would stick and that country could just be country.”