God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State (35 page)

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JOE
ELY,
a singer-songwriter friend of mine, marched me through an immense Walmart in Lubbock. We walked toward the rear of the store, past the appliances and ladies’ clothing, until we arrived at the diapers. Joe turned to the baby strollers and said, “Here, right here, was Buddy Holly’s house.”
Lubbock and the stretch north through the Texas Panhandle produced so many great musicians. Waylon Jennings came from Littlefield, Jimmy Dean from Plainview, the Gatlin Brothers and Tanya Tucker from Seminole. Lubbock itself produced Sonny Curtis, Mac Davis, Delbert McClinton, Gary P. Nunn, Lloyd Maines and his daughter, Natalie—there’s a long list of singers who continue to make music that comes out of the cotton fields and oil rigs and somehow spreads all over the world. Joe is part of that tradition. He reminds me of Bruce Springsteen, whom he’s toured with; he’s a roots rocker who sings about the people he grew up with, making anthems out of their lives. His songs blend country and honky-tonk and Mexican corridos into a distinctive regional sound. You often hear him playing with his fellow Lubbock musicians Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, in a group called the Flatlanders. He is also part of Los Super Seven, along with Freddy Fender, Lyle Lovett, Flaco Jimenez, and a changing cast of other, mostly Texas musicians. I sometimes sing one of Joe’s songs, “Fingernails,” with WhoDo.

Joe and I rode down Broadway, the redbrick main street, past the only skyscraper in Lubbock, the twenty-story Great Plains Life Building, which sat empty for years after being hit by a tornado in 1970. “You can see it’s still a little twisted,” Joe pointed out. There’s a vacant lot where his father’s Disabled American Veterans Thrift Store used to be, across the street from where several Mexican dance halls in the old warehouses once stood. “I was a young kid, but there was music on every corner,” Joe said, “with accordions and
bajo sextos
and even horn sections. There couldn’t be bars because Lubbock was dry.”

I asked Joe what made Lubbock such a musical town. “I don’t know about others, but I think all the emptiness made me want to fill it up,” he said.

We drove out to the cemetery and got a groundskeeper to show us Buddy Holly’s modest grave, a flat tombstone, the inscription spelled “Holley,” his actual family name. There were several guitar picks left there by visiting musicians. “I brought the Clash here when they played Lubbock,” Joe recalled. “We stayed all night in the graveyard, until the sun came up, sitting around, singing songs, drinking beer.” Joe and I marveled at the brief span of Buddy’s life, 1936 to 1959; he was twenty-two years old when he took that fateful airplane ride with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on a snowy night in Iowa. “All his recordings were done over a period of eighteen months,” Joe said. “His early stuff was bluegrass, and then rockabilly came along. It was Elvis and Carl Perkins that inspired him.”

We headed out Highway 84 to the Cotton Club, a roadhouse fifteen miles outside of town. The club has gone through many hands, and burned down several times. Joe himself owned it for a while. It’s a one-story clapboard building, an elongated shack, really, but at one time it was considered the most important venue between Dallas and Los Angeles. Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, Fats Domino, and Benny Goodman appeared there. Bob Wills performed every Friday night. Then in 1955, a cultural tornado arrived in the form of Elvis Presley.

The daughter of the club owner used to let young musicians, like Buddy Holly and Mac Davis, slip in through the kitchen to hear Elvis whenever he came to play. Waylon Jennings and Roy Orbison were transfixed by his performances. Elvis married country music to rhythm and blues—race music—and turned on a sexual faucet that drenched the Baptists and Church of Christers in unholy waters. After hearing Elvis, Buddy Holly went home and wrote his first rock-and-roll song, “Not Fade Away.” We still play it in our band.

“See, this is the back door,” Joe said as we approached the club from the grass parking lot. “Elvis’s Cadillac would’ve been right about here. Supposedly, he signed some girl’s panties and her boyfriend beat him up and stuck a rag in the gas tank and burned up his Cadillac.”

Joe recalled another Lubbock musician who went to high school with him, Norman Odam, a gawky kid who would stand on the stoop of the schoolhouse, at 7:00 a.m., before classes began, and sing at the top of his lungs. Kids would throw pennies at him, which Odam gathered for his lunch money. He began calling himself Legendary Stardust Cowboy. He actually recorded a few songs with Mercury Records, including “Paralyzed.” “It’s three minutes of screaming at the top of his lungs, played on a G7 chord,” said Joe. “It nails you to the wall. T Bone Burnett was on drums. They made some test pressings and sent them to the Dallas stations, and within a week it was getting more play than the Beatles.” Legendary Stardust sank as quickly as he rose, but his persona influenced David Bowie, who modeled his Ziggy Stardust character on him and actually covered a couple of his incoherent songs.

That evening, Joe played a solo acoustic set at the Cactus Theatre in downtown Lubbock. The place was filled with friends and fans, and Joe was in a ruminative frame of mind. “Growing up in Lubbock, you had to sorta make your own entertainment,” he said, and the audience laughed knowingly. “My parents had friends who owned the dry-cleaning store. We’d go out to the lake for a picnic after church, and then we’d go in the back door of the dry cleaners and they’d let us kids try on other people’s clothes. There was no greater thrill. I wish I had a song about that.”

I DROVE SOUTH,
descending from the high plains into Post, the erstwhile utopian community established by the cereal maker C. W. Post at the turn of the twentieth century. He was defeated, like so many others, by the absence of rain, although he used to set off dynamite charges on the mesas every ten minutes for several hours a day with the goal of pulling moisture out of the sky. One can imagine the effect on the other utopians.
It feels ominous to drive through West Texas with a clean windshield. Road trips always used to be accompanied by the incessant splatter of death. We’d pass through clouds of lovebugs, those perpetually copulating critters, which coated the windshield in a greenish sheen; and then the grasshoppers would hit, in blobs of orange-yellow goo. Painted ladies and miller moths and June bugs contributed their own colorful innards. Wipers only made things worse. The whole front of the car would be peppered with insect carcasses, and the Texas sun baked them into a buggy frittata. They were hell to wash off; I remember scrubbing the grille and never getting it clean enough. Truckers, especially, would protect their radiators with mesh shields. Bugs were simply part of the Texas air.

Now, when I collide with a bug, I’m surprised. I can only speak for Texas, but the absence of insects seems to be a part of a general diminution of life. The fence lines along our roadsides used to be ornamented with scissor-tailed flycatchers, those elegant acrobats, so rare now that the insects have disappeared. Steve remembers the sound of turtles being scrunched as tires rolled over them; this was at a time when so many were crossing the road it was hard to thread a route through them. The inventory of life forms is being funneled down to a roster of hardy pests. We’re living in a world of mosquitos, roaches, fire ants, starlings, rattlesnakes, and feral hogs. In fairness to the animals, I suppose I should add humans to the top of the list.

Snyder is home to the
White Buffalo
statue in front of the courthouse. The white buffalo is a kind of totem for me. In 1955, the same year Elvis came to the Cotton Club, I was in the third grade in Ponca City, Oklahoma. There was a seminal episode of
The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,
in which Rusty, the orphan who was being raised by a troop of soldiers at Fort Apache, saves the life of an Indian. As every boy my age knew, if you save an Indian’s life, he’s obliged to follow you around until he can return the favor. The Indian in question happened to be on a spirit quest, searching for the white buffalo. I was deeply stirred. The next day in music class, before the bell rang, our teacher asked us each to stand up and say what we were going to be when we grew up. After the movie star, the private detective, and the hairdresser, I rose and said I was going to follow the white buffalo. The hoots I got from my classmates made me feel like Ted Cruz at the Republican convention.

There really are white buffalo—most are albinos—and one was shot by a famous buffalo hunter, J. Wright Mooar, on October 7, 1876, just outside Snyder. Tens of millions of buffalo were exterminated by hunters at the end of the nineteenth century, in equal parts for the hides and to deprive the Indians of their food source. A plaque in front of the
White Buffalo
statue says that Mooar personally killed 22,000 of them, “a record probably unsurpassed.” An exhibit in the museum quotes a settler in the region: “The bones were so thick in some places that one could walk upon them some distance without touching the ground.”

Although white buffalo are extremely rare—only fifty are said to exist in the world—they are mysteriously abundant on some of the exotic game ranches in Texas. At the Ox Ranch near Uvalde, you can shoot one of their fifteen white buffalo for $25,000 to $30,000, depending on the size of the animal. The ranch’s website notes: “According to the National Bison Association, it is estimated that only one of every 10 million births results in a White Buffalo!” You can also shoot an addax, an endangered antelope; or a dama gazelle (“the largest and rarest gazelle in the world”—only five hundred known to exist); or many of the magnificent animals whose heads grace trophy rooms around the state. “When hunting these rare animals at Ox Ranch, you may choose from these hunting methods: from a Blind, Spot and Stalk, Bow Hunting, Pistol Hunting, Rifle Hunting, or Safari Style!” The site cheerfully adds that the white buffalo is sacred to many Native American tribes. “Their presence is a sign of spiritual rebirth and better times ahead.”

I know this sounds grotesque to non-hunters, but these exotic game ranches serve as a repository for animals that may be extinct in the wild. “There are now more Arabian Oryx on Texas hunting ranches than in the rest of the world combined!” the website boasts. By the way, if you are there to shoot a white buffalo, the ranch will throw in a free hog hunt. You can stalk your prey with night-vision glasses, or you can choose to hunt from a blind, which sounds more congenial. “This Blind Has a TV That Receives Live Game Camera Footage, DirecTV, a Poker Table, Air Conditioning, and a Fully Stocked Bar.”

STEVE DROVE UP
from Austin and met me at the Dixie Pig in Abilene. We both lived in Abilene as kids, and although we didn’t know each other then, our lives were like rails of track running in the same direction. We wonder why we never met earlier. We could have been friends so long ago.

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