Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Review (book): Handbook of Texas Music

The Handbook of Texas Music. Edited by Roy Barkley, et al.
Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2004. 393 pages. $24.95

Review written by Tom Wilmeth
Published in The Shepherd Express; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
May 1, 2004

It’s an often asked question: How is it possible that so much great music has been created within the borders of a single state? Some reply that it’s simply the state’s vast size which gives Texas more than its share of important musicians and traditions. But if size were the major factor, note that it would take everything west of the Mississippi River to approach the scope of what Texas alone has contributed to American Music.

David Byrne recently questioned Lyle Lovett about this abundance of talent. Byrne was only have-joking when he asked, “Something in the water down there?” While the new Handbook of Texas Music does not try to answer Bryne’s questions concerning how and why, it does an outstanding job of describing the varied musical landscapes of Texas that make the subject worth pondering.

This Handbook will appeal to all devotees of American Music, and is set apart from other works on similar topics by two distinctions. One is its comprehensive goal – it addresses an unexpectedly wide variety of musical styles. While not a primary focus, the state’s place in the world of Classical Music is addressed, with particular attention to its San Antonio Symphony and to pianist Van Cliburn. Essays on trumpeter Harry James and saxophone great Arnett Cobb also demonstrate the book’s ability to look beyond the expected country genre, into other Texas musical strongholds. These entries discuss the state’s deep jazz heritage, with James a giant of the Big Band era and Cobb a worthy representative of Texas’ famous tenor saxophone tradition.

The other uniquely appealing element is the book’s well chosen photographs and documents. An ad from the early 1970s for Austin record shop The Inner Sanctum boasts artwork that rivals early Fillmore posters, as does a detailed poster for the final show at Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters. Historically noteworthy music publications and record advertisements are also reproduced, such as an impressive 1858 sheet music cover for “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” One such artifact will be of particular interest to Milwaukee readers – a mail order ad for Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 78 RPM record “Worried Blues,” available from “The Popular Race Record” company, Port Washington’s own Paramount label.

The book is not without its occasional surprising blind spots and odd editorial decisions. For example, neither Lyle Lovett nor George Strait is given an individual entry, although both are native Texans. The contributions of each are discussed and praised, but within the context of other sections. Many famous performers from a previous generation are well represented, including Ernest Tubb, Buddy Holly, and Bob Wills. But with the wealth of information already available on such noteworthy artists, these almost obligatory entries are not among the book’s highlights.

The Handbook of Texas Music is an extremely useful research tool. But this work should not be limited only to a reference section. In order to grasp an appreciation for the Texas tradition and influence, it should be read from beginning to end. The individual stories told here complement one another to form a single, unified narrative. They offer not just the outline of one state’s influence on American Music, but together these vignettes weave the tale of a major part of the very foundations of that music.

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