What are the connections between Texas and Bob Dylan? Who and what from Texas influenced him, what traces did Dylan leave in the Texas music scene?
Many of the superstars in music have founded regional scenes. Entire cities and regions are connected with their artists and vice versa. Grunge and Seattle. Austin and the Texas songwriters. Nashville and Country. Springsteen and New Jersey. The Beatles with Liverpool. The rat pack with Las Vegas. Elvis and Memphis. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, has not created a stable connection to his homeland (Duluth, Minnesota) or other places. Never ending is his tour, placelessly he moves across the planet, immortality in view.
If you like this article you will love the book Martin Wimmer: A Haven For Songs. Connecting The Dots About Americana Music
The Coffee Table
Let’s start 1987. That year, an LP appeared in record stores, the cellophane covered with a sticker: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Steve Earle’s blurb advertised his mentor‘s album At My Window and became a much-quoted and much-debated question of faith to this day: Townes or Dylan? Hardly anyone outside the fan base of the Texas songwriters answered it with the name of the singer-songwriter with the Fort Worth blues, but of course with all the more intense passion.
The quote fell on fertile ground. Dylan had become obsolete with many in 1987. He struggled through his weakest phase, disappointing critics and fans alike. Dylan was an over-the-hill has-been at that time, a caricature of himself, the irritation had given way to irrelevance. The quote from the up-and-coming high flyer Earle therefore did not mark a turning point in the consistently positive relationship of the Lone Star State with Bob Dylan, but it paid tribute to both him and the godfather of the Texan school of songwriting.
Hardly any report on the musical socialization of the relevant musicians of the Austin scene can do without Elvis and Dylan. Elvis stimulated the Texan pelvises with his debut album in March 1956 just like Dylan the brains with his debut in March 1962. It is obvious that Dylan massively shaped the unfolding of the hippie culture in Texas with his early work.
The acoustic blueser and socio-critical folkie were followed by the rebellious rocker, the country musician, the relationship counselor, the reflective philosopher, the Christian. To this day, many fans around the world considered these reinventions to be incomprehensible wrong ways. From the perspective of a Texan, however, they are a logical, even compulsory combination. Dylan embodied early on the ethos of what became popular as Austin Sound, Outlaw Music, Progressive Country, Americana. Musically straightforward country rock with clever lyrics, performed by unruly guys.
What Earle’s quote summed up was therefore not so much an expression of an alienation with Dylan’s as of a new self-confidence of the 6th Street crowd, which still venerated its guru. While looking reverently at Dylan, they recognized their own strength and articulated it.
The Class of 86
The Class of 86 had just enrolled in the history of country music, with the debuts of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and the Texans Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle. Earle had raised his debut album “Guitar Town” to number 1 on the charts, was nominated for two Grammys and was considered the future of country rock. The newly formed Highwaymen with the Texans Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson showed how old warhorses could reinvent themselves. A classic songwriter album such as Lord Of The Highway by Flatlander Joe Ely was awarded Album of the year at the Austin Music Awards.
Meanwhile, just like the Beatles and the Stones before, The Smiths and U2 showed a viable way how to intelligently rejuvenate rock music from abroad. They were also heard in Austin and their modernism was transformed into the country-infected New Sincerity Sound by bands such as Alejandro Escovedos’s and Jon Dee Graham’s True Believers or The Reivers. Escovedo still has a rowdy version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” in his repertoire today. Here is a recording with Reverend Horton Heat live at the Continental Club. 1987 was also the first year in which SXSW took place in Austin. The third chapter of Texas music history was about to be written.
The first wave of Texas music that conquered the world in the 50s and early 60s originated from the early rock’n’rollers. Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Roy Head, Bobby Fuller and early George Jones. Dylan liked to tell the story that he experienced Holly live a few days before his fatal plane crash in his native city of Duluth. He has often covered him at concerts, especially “Not Fade Away”. There is a highly dynamic live recording of Dylan playing Head’s “Treat Her Right” from the rehearsals for a Letterman Late Night Show in 1984. One can imagine that it was a great honor for Dylan to form a supergroup with a legend like Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys following in the footsteps of the similarly formed Highwaymen.
From Jerry Jeff Walker to Cody Canada
The second departure happened a decade later. Leader of the scene was Jerry Jeff Walker. The Greenwich Village Folkie had moved from New York to the countryside like Dylan, but had chosen Luckenbach, Texas instead of Woodstock and the Lost Gonzo Band instead of The Band. His Basement Tapes were called Viva Terlingua, and the fact that he topped off the double album “A Must Carry On” with a Dylan cover – a wonderful “One Too Many Mornings” – at the zenith of his career in 1977 can be seen as a clear signal of the reverence Dylan was given from Texas at the time.
Doug Sahm, who brought together a wide variety of cultures with the Sir Douglas Quintet and later the Texas Tornadoes, was considered an important integration figure of the Austin scene in the 70s. Dylan played on an album by Doug Sahm, stood with him on stage, made strong use of his band, and they were generally quite close to each other, as you can read here.
Everything that can be told about the intensive musical exchange of Dylan and Willie Nelson has been chronicled here. In addition to the joint live cover of Townes’ “Pancho and Lefty”, the co-write “Heartland”, which they also published as a duet, must be emphasized.
Competently and comprehensively as always Thomas Waldherr informs about the references between Kris Kristofferson and Dylan on his blog, starting with their collaboration as actors in “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid”. John Prine tells a wonderful story of how Kris introduced Bob to him and Dylan sang one of his songs here.
Rodney Crowell, one of the most commercially successful and artistically respected Texans, also dealt intensively with Dylan. He covered “Shelter From The Storm” and mentions Dylan, the song “Mississippi” and the album “Love and Theft” in his song “Transient Global Amnesia Blues“.
Texan Jimmy LaFave established himself as one of the most authentic Dylan interpreters ever. If you don’t believe it: Here a fan has edited seven of his gifted covers from different sources in this YouTube video. LaFave is considered one of the central early links to the music scene in Oklahoma. In the early 2000s, Texas Music and Red Dirt Music from Oklahoma married and bore a wave of success that continues to this day. Stoney LaRue recorded a popular version of „Forever Young“. Cody Canada played a noisy “Rainy Day Woman” on Cross Canadian Ragweed’s second album. Sure, everyone must get stoned, even in the Lone Star State.
But Dylan also charmed the female icons of the Texas scene: Nanci Griffith (Boots of Spanish Leather), Shawn Colvin (You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome), Eliza Gilkyson (Love Minus Zero/No Limit), Norah Jones (Heart Of Mine), Rosie Flores (Tonight I’ll Be Stayin Here With You) covered him, Lucinda Williams even recorded an entire album with cover versions (Bob’s Back Pages).
Even more Dylan covers from Texas, from Waylon Jennings to Johnny Winter, can be found here.
Dylan, on the other hand, did everything possible to revive the myth of Texas. Dylan’s first self-written song on his first album was about New York, but the album ended with a cover of a Texan, Blind Lemon Jefferson. On the second album was a reference to the Lone Ranger from Texas in „Bob Dylan’s Blues“. After all, two producers from Texas were responsible for turning Robert Allen Zimmerman into a Columbia recording artist, Tom Wilson (Freewheelin, Times Are Changing, Another Side Of, Bringing It All Back Home) and Bob Johnston (Highway 61 to New Morning).
Dylan covered Kinky Friedman’s “Ride’em Jewboy” at concerts, in 1973 he recorded Jerry Jeff’s “Mr. Bojangles”. The legendary outlaw Billy Joe Shaver even made it to a name mention in the Dylan song “I Feel A Change Comin On“: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce”. Fun fact: Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Joyce and Shaver not, though all three should have been, of course.
In any case, Shaver hit it better than another Texan, Townes Van Zandt’s guitarist Mickey White. Dylan once experienced him live in concert as the companion of songwriter Mickey Clark. This resulted in a legendary, though a bit unflattering couplet. In 1974, Dylan told the Rolling Stone that he considers two musicians as becoming the first artists for his (actually never started) new own label: “A couple of guys in Chicago were good. Mickey Clark and another Mickey.” Another Mickey, this became the title of White’s brilliant autobiography about his years with Van Zandt, who covered Dylan a lot, most impressively „Man Gave Name To All The Animals“.
Dylan was often present on site with live performances. This page lists 18 concerts in Austin between 1965 and 2015, in Houston 15 concerts between 1974 and 2015, in Dallas 13 concerts from 1965 to 2008. 6 concerts in San Antonio, but also 1 performance in New Braunfels, 2 in Lubbock and 3 in Corpus Christi are documented. Noteworthy are his appearance at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2007 as well as the fact that he was never allowed to be a guest at the legendary Austin City Limits TV show.
Dylan liked to resort to musicians from Texas for his bands, Denny Freeman and prodigy Charlie Sexton in particular have left strong traces in his work. Texas blues icon Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie were also recruited by Dylan for guest appearances (Under The Red Sky).
However, the most impressive thing is the frequency with which Bob Dylan sings about Texas. Texas is mentioned in the songs:
Long time coming
When the night comes falling from the sky
Pretty Peggy O
Blind Willie McTell
Stuck inside of Mobile
Cities in Texas appear in the songs:
Murder Most Foul (Dallas)
If you ever go to Houston (Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio)
She’s Your Lover Now (El Paso)
Wanted Man (Abilene, Paso)
I’ve Made Up My Mind (San Antonio)
Brownsville Girl (Corpus Christi, Amarillo, San Antonio)
Patty’s Gone To Laredo
Brownsville Girl (San Antonio, Amarillo, Corpus Christi)
He also covered songs like “West Texas” and “T For Texas”. A list that is probably incomplete. In his Theme Time Radio Hour, he dedicated episode 44 to the state of Texas and uninhibitedly played the most blatant classics from “Deep in The Heart Of Texas” to “Waltz Across Texas”.
In addition to the musician, there is also the visual artist Bob Dylan. At this point, it will not come as a surprise that his print “Bandera, Texas “, limited to 295 copies, sold out quickly.
Finally, if you dig such erratic references between His Bobness and the state where everything is bigger, you will feel entertained by this article in the Houston Press.
To recap, Texas was just as important to Bob Dylan as Bob Dylan to Texas. You can try the same approach with other states, but it will be less productive. “Man returns Dylan album to library in Ohio after 48 years“. Oh, wow. And “Highway 22 Revisited”, the winner of the Wyoming Short Film Festival 2011, reveals in long seven minutes that Dylan probably did not play in the Stagecoach Bar in Wilson, WY. Really, this is tedious with other states. Texas and Dylan, that’s the real thing!
Original German version published in Key West – The Historical-Critical Bob Dylan Magazine (https://keywestmagazin.com/2021/08/13/bob-dylan-und-texas)
If you like this article you will love the book Martin Wimmer: A Haven For Songs. Connecting The Dots About Americana Music