According to The Handbook of Texas Music, a collaborative project from the state-run Texas Music Office (TMO) and the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University, “trying to define Texas music is like reviewing a dictionary.”
From accordion-led conjunto and Western swing to piano-based Southern blues and guitar-driven country and rock, at least a dozen distinct musical forms define not a “singular Texas sound” but “a shared Texas musical spirit.”
This essence is part of our national soundtrack. As the TMO’s official motto states, “You can’t hear American music without hearing Texas.”
For now, concerts and festivals must wait in the wings. When the time comes, here are some of the many venue options and inspirations for plugging back into the scene.
Bolstering the Texas Music Business
In 2017, the TMO launched its Music Friendly Communities program to foster music business and economic development in and among Texas cities and communities. Starting with a TMO-led workshop, the six-point certification includes establishing a music office within a division of city government, such as the CVB.
Fort Worth—cradle of native and associated stars including “The Father of Western Swing” Milton Brown, 1960s classical pianist Van Cliburn, songwriter Townes Van Zandt, and R&B star Leon Bridges—was first to certify. Group-capable venues include the Bass Performance Hall, Billy Bob’s Texas, Panther Island Pavilion, and the new 14,000-seat Dickies Arena.
Officially proclaiming itself the “Live Music Capital of the World” in 1991, Austin is among 10 other cities that have since achieved certification.
“There’s a freedom you begin to feel the closer you get to Austin, Texas,” once said Willie Nelson, the 87-year-old legendary renegade from nearby Abbott. As documented by Texas Almanac, Nelson’s 1972 “performance in front of a mixed crowd of hippies and rednecks” at the free-wheeling Armadillo World Headquarters club triggered the modern Austin music scene.
Hometown stars include late psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson, Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine and current Hendrix-esque phenom Gary Clark, Jr.
Austin is headquarters for film and music festival SXSW and venues include Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater and Texas Music Ranch. National landmarks include Antone’s, Broken Spoke and Continental Club.
Certified in 2018, San Antonio’s star roster includes pioneering Tejana singer Eva Garza, “The Sweetheart of the Americas,” and Christopher Cross (“Arthur’s Theme” and “Ride Like the Wind”). Alamo City venues span the decades. Classics include the 1926 Aztec Theater, 1929 Majestic Theatre, and 1914 Charline McCombs Empire Theatre.
[Related: Outdoor Venues in Austin and the Hill Country for Fresh-Air Events]
Incorporating the 1926 Municipal Auditorium, the contemporary Tobin Center for the Performing Arts features the 1,738-seat H-E-B Performance Hall with movable-floor technology and outdoor River Walk plaza with 30-foot video wall.
Music Venues in the Metroplex
Dallas, which hosted a virtual TMO workshop in July 2020, has produced stars including late guitar wizard Stevie Ray Vaughan, Meat Loaf, Usher, Erykah Badu, and Stephen Stills, first with Buffalo Springfield and then Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Dallas neighborhood Deep Ellum was a center of American blues and jazz where Texas titans including Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’ Hopkins held court. Today, this storied entertainment district features group-ready music venues Trees Dallas and The Bomb Factory.
Other venues include the 1946 Granada Theater, where “Art Deco meets Rock ‘n Roll”, while the 1931 Texas Theater, one of 50-plus theaters in the state named “Texas” or “Texan,” is where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Arlington venues range from historic Arlington Music Hall to the new Texas Live! entertainment district.
Irving’s rock star credentials start with the Irving Music Factory at Las Colinas. Anchored by the Live Nation-operated Pavilion, with flexible indoor/outdoor seating for up to 8,000 people, the entertainment destination includes a programmable 50,000-square-foot outdoor plaza and expanding restaurant and bar collection.
Photo: Toyota Music Factory aerial view, Irving; Credit: Derek Malone
Other venues include the Irving Arts Center, and hotspots The Ranch at Las Colinas and OUTLAW Taproom at group magnet Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas.
Reimagined as the Rail District, Frisco’s historic downtown features live music at the Frisco Rail Yard food truck park and Eight 11 Place wine and craft beer bar.
West Texas Music Venues
Music sweeps across West Texas like the powerful winds that make Texas a renewable energy leader alongside oil and gas.
Established to empower area musicians and music-affiliated interests, the El Paso International Music Foundation coordinates local concerts and support for the city’s Music Friendly Community application. Signature venues include the Abraham Chavez Theatre and Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Centre.
Photo: Plaza Theatre Exterior, El Paso; CREDIT: Destination El Paso
Backed by the Franklin Mountains, McKelligan Canyon Amphitheatre is a dramatic stage for live entertainment and corporate events.
Slated to open in 2020, the Buddy Holly Center for the Performing Arts & Sciences features a sculptural installation of Lubbock-born Holly playing a Stratocaster made from 9,000 aluminum-cast, bronze-brushed guitar picks.
Serving as the future home of Ballet Lubbock, Lubbock Symphony Orchestra and Lubbock ISD Visual and Performing Arts, the $154-million campus includes the 2,200-seat Helen DeVitt Jones Main Theater and 300-capacity programmable lobby.
Certified in 2019, Abilene’s venues include the Back Porch of Texas. Amid oak and pecan trees, the facility offers an 800-capacity event center and expansive grounds for outdoor events such as the annual Outlaws & Legends Music Festival. Willie Nelson headlines the event’s 10th anniversary outing, which was postponed to March 2021.
Rock legend Rod Stewart inaugurated Midland’s visionary 1,800-seat Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center in 2011. Slated to open this year, the restored 1951 Ector Theatre is connected to the new Odessa Marriott Hotel & Conference Center.
Rich Music Experiences in Second-Tier Texas Destinations
Lone Star legends spring from every corner.
Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime” came from Texarkana. Romantic crooner Johnny Mathis, Eagles co-founder Don Henley and blues great Freddie King all hail from tiny Gilmer, west of currently certifying Waxahachie. Rockabilly pioneer Roy Orbison, of “Pretty Woman” fame, was born west of Wichita Falls in Vernon.
The certified DFW city of Denton produced Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone, while Gene Autry, the “Singing Cowboy,” arrived in nearby Tiago. The third best-selling artist of all time behind The Beatles and Elvis Presley, George Strait, the “King of Country Music,” is from Poteet, south of San Antonio.
Texas’s second-tier destinations are similar wellsprings for groups.
Surrounded by forest, the 16,000-seat Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion is the belle of The Woodlands master planned community north of Houston. Currently the world’s second-best selling outdoor amphitheater, this A-list stage is the summer home of the Houston Symphony, second home of the Houston Ballet and presenting venue for the Houston Grand Opera. Rentals include the 21,000-square-foot Pavilion Event Center and Woodforest Bank VIP Club.
Galveston’s glorious 1,000-seat Grand 1894 Opera House offers 11,000-plus square feet of rental space. Featuring a blend of musical styles, from country to zydeco, Beaumont’s venues include the historic Jefferson and Julia Rogers Theatres.
[Related: 4 Reasons Galveston Perfects Bleisure Travel]
South Texas venues include the 10,000-seat Laredo Energy Arena and 1,800-seat McAllen Performing Arts Center.
Wherever you meet in Texas, the shared spirit of music is there to pluck the heartstrings and strike deep emotional chords. Like this line from the popular 1941 song, “The stars at night, Are big and bright, Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
Texas Talents to Get Groups in the Groove
Everything in Texas is bigger, including musical talent. Sample these genre-spanning sounds to get into the groove ahead of your future Texas event.
On longevity alone, Houston’s ZZ Top, founded in 1969 by blues-loving teenagers Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, are rock royalty. Classic albums include 1973’s Tres Hombres with the hit “La Grange.” Their spectacular mid-70s Worldwide Texas Tour featured a Texas-shaped stage, live Texas animals and plants, and panoramic Texan backdrops.
Photo: ZZ Top; CREDIT: ZZ Top + Epic Rights, Inc.
Selling 100 million-plus records worldwide, including 112 gold and 41 platinum albums, Galveston-born Barry White ranks among music’s all-time champs. Backed by his 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra, White’s deep-voiced hits include “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” from 1974’s Can’t Get Enough.
Making their Texas debut at the 1964 San Antonio Teen Fair, the Rolling Stones were booed for their slovenly appearance. Duly impressed though was Lubbock-born saxophonist Bobby Keys, who later became a de facto Stone for some 45 years. Sharing a birthday with “best pal” Keith Richards, Keys rocks the sax on landmark albums including Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street.
Houston-born Billy Preston, who co-wrote “You Are So Beautiful” with Joe Cocker, was a sizzling songwriter and session keyboardist who toured with the Stones in the 1970s and was nicknamed “the fifth Beatle” for his work on Let It Be, The White Album and Abbey Road.
Then fronting psychedelic rockers Big Brother and the Holding Company, Port Arthur-born Janis Joplin electrified the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Also singing at Woodstock, she cemented her legend as a female rock pioneer with raw, soulful classics such as her cover of fellow Texan Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Narciso “Chico” Martínez
Born in Reynosa, Mexico across from McAllen, Narciso “Chicho” Martínez came to Texas as an infant. Inspired by the whistling of migrant farmworkers to his brother’s accordion, his fusion of Mexican melodies with Czech and Polish polka birthed conjunto, or “the people’s music.” Check out 2009’s The Father of Tex-Mex Conjunto: El Huracan Del Valle 2 for classic stylings from the “Hurricane of the Valley.”
Plus: These Historic Venues are Texas Treasures
For generations, dance halls have been the seat of Texas country, Western swing, Tejano and conjunto music. Ray Benson of Grammy-nominated Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel and Austin-based Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc. likens these hallowed heirlooms to “the Carnegie Hall of Western swing and Texas music.”
Although numbers are dwindling, a star landmark is Gruene Hall. Dating to 1878, this Hill Country shrine in historic New Braunfels is the oldest in continuous operation. Numerous star appearances include ZZ Top, which played here for their 2019 documentary, That Little Ol’ Band From Texas. Rentals for 75 to 500 people at the 6,000-square-foot venue include the bar and outdoor garden.
Photo: Gruene Hall exterior, New Braunfels; CREDIT: Jeff Heilman
Opened in 1974, Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, halfway between San Antonio and Austin, is where George Strait, the “King of Country Music,” got his start and late owner Kent Finlay helped launch stars including the Randy Rogers Band and Terri Hendrix. Rentals for 300-plus guests include production, staffing and booking services.
Celebrated in the 2010 documentary For the Sake of the Song, Houston’s Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant is a preeminent folk and acoustic music venue. Founded in 1969, “Afair” launched Texas stars including Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams.
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