Texas music does not fit neatly inside a box. Just as our vast state’s landscape varies from arid deserts, to lonesome pines, to lush hills, so too does Texas music traverse a wide range of genres. It might best be described as a melting pot wherein artists have both honored their musical heritage and forged new sounds and styles. But what does all this sound like, look like, feel like? For a taste, here are 10 documentaries that showcase the unique and diverse flavor of Texas music:
Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove
Doug Sahm was always an anomaly. Even as a child musical prodigy, his trademark was the pedal steel guitar, “which is usually the last instrument anybody goes too,” laughs his brother in Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove. The documentary is unremarkable and workmanlike in its style, yet its subject is so compelling that any formal shortcomings hardly matter. While it’s full of amusing anecdotes and good music, the film is ultimately a moving portrait of perseverance: after his early success, Sahm faced obsolescence during the rise of outlaw country music, and finally, late in life, found the artistic fulfillment he’d always yearned for as the co-founder of the influential Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornadoes.
A Well Spent Life
Les Blank’s documentaries are often easygoing and nonjudging, a style perfectly suited for his subject in A Well Spent Life: the iconic blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb. The film is languid and thoughtful, just like Lipscomb himself. In the film, the legendary songster bemoans fast living, selfishness and inequality. He walks through his Texas farmland and waxes poetic about small, simple pleasures and the necessity of love. He tells stories, offers life philosophies and suggests we only need a few ingredients for a peaceful, contented life. Were the film not peppered with Lipscomb’s music, you would never guess you were spending time with one of the great blues guitarists of all time.
We From Dallas
We From Dallas is both a paean to and detailed chronicle of Dallas hip-hop culture. In its heyday in the '80s and '90s, the genre dominated the radio on KNON, the clubs in Deep Ellum, and even teen hot spots like Twilight Skating Rink. Local legends like Dr. Rock, The D.O.C, Vanilla Ice and Nippy Jones reminisce, dissect and sing praise to the world of Dallas hip-hop. At times there’s a sense of lamentation that the scene never got the national attention it deserved, but the overall tone is one of jubilation over what these great artists accomplished, and quiet anticipation that perhaps the best is yet to come.
In Echotone, filmmaker Nathan Christ offers a quietly observant and gently probing portrait of human beings inside the Austin music scene. As the Live Music Capital of the World, there are plenty of incentives for a musician to choose Austin as their home. Christ is less interested in those incentives than he is in what it’s actually like to be a musician in Austin, and hones in on their routines, day jobs and musical processes. Through minute details he is able to ask larger questions about the nature of success, art versus commerce and the instincts that push these musicians to create in the first place.
For those unfamiliar with Tex-Mex and norteño music, there’s sometimes an assumption that the songs are purely upbeat and optimistic, their festive rhythms designed for dancing and celebration. While Les Blank’s film Chulas Fronteras makes sure to emphasize the jovial spirit of these genres, it also stresses their political nature. We hear protest songs, with lyrics like “without anger or violence, organize right away, for if we sow the seed we deserve the harvest.” There are also sad laments, such as the ballad about Texas Rangers sent by a racist governor to beat and kill Mexican farmers. The film is arguably about the way music acts as a sponge, absorbing all of the pain and beauty within a specific culture. It accentuates the beauty, makes the pain more bearable and preserves both for posterity.
You’re Gonna Miss Me
Dallas-born Roky Erickson, the co-founder of the cult Texas psychedelic rock band 13th Floor Elevators, gets his due treatment in You’re Gonna Miss Me. The film charts Erickson’s rise in the 1960s and his rapid descent following a drug arrest and a sentence to a dangerous mental hospital. It feels like something out of a creepy B-horror movie, but beneath the eerie surfaces it’s a heartfelt ode to Erickson. It’s tragic and at times surreal in its depiction of the hellish consequences of musical genus, mental illness and bad therapy. But it’s ultimately deeply moving in its denouement: no one on earth is beyond help or redemption.
The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin’ Hopkins
Les Blank’s films lead by example. They’re more interested in capturing the essence of a subject than in facts and arguments. The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin’ Hopkins perfectly encapsulates this style. The film mostly depicts daily life in rural Texas, backed with Hopkins’ live guitar performances and musings about the purpose of the blues. The film often feels more like a poem than a documentary — an extended shot of an old woman holding her cane and gazing off her front porch expresses more about her than an interview likely could. Ultimately, Blank’s film serves as a humble reminder that before it became a commercial genre, the blues was an essential ingredient and life force for African American communities besieged by pain and injustice.
Janis: Little Girl Blue
As a global icon, it’s up for discussion to what extent Janis Joplin was a Texas musician. Janis: Little Girl Blue provides the requisite details of how she was stifled by her conservative hometown Port Arthur, and how she later found her voice in Austin. But beyond that, it seems there was a particular spirit Joplin found in Texas. As she says in the film, “This whole success thing, it hasn’t yet really compromised the position that I took a long time ago in Texas that was to be true to myself, not play games, not bullshit myself.” The film is a beautiful and sad portrait of this unwillingness to compromise. Joplin may not have stayed in Texas, but she seemed to infuse her life and music with the spirit of the land she came from.
Be Here to Love Me
“I’d like to write some songs so good nobody understands them — including me,” a worn-down Townes Van Zandt says in an interview from Be Here to Love Me. It’s the kind of puzzling language emblematic of his life as a whole. Directed by the great documentary filmmaker Margaret Brown, Be Here to Love Me chronicles Van Zandt’s tumultuous career as he abandoned a life of wealth to play music in old dive bars. It’s hard to tell if he was more set on writing brilliant songs or on ruining his life: He was brilliant at both in equal measure. If you’re unfamiliar with Van Zandt, I’d recommend first listening to a few of his albums, and then checking out the film. The movie helps us understand why he wrote such beautiful and heartbreaking music without attempting to explain any of its beguiling profundity.
The underground country scene that Townes Van Zandt was a part of gets a more comprehensive treatment in Heartworn Highways. While Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were breaking ground and getting national attention with outlaw country music, the likes of Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle were quietly establishing themselves as some of the finest songwriters of their generation. Heartworn Highways is a loose assembly of gorgeous and intimate moments of these musicians at work and play. Highlights include Van Zandt performing the sad and tender "Waitin’ Around to Die" and a Christmas party music jamboree that culminates in a joyous, drunken rendition of "Silent Night."