Houston, the Action Town

In a few months the world (at least, that part of the world which still listens to real music) will turn its ears toward Austin, Texas, for the annual mecca of indie/alt/punk/experimental/folk/whatever acts called South by Southwest.  We love Austin and all, but that’s not why we’re here today.

No, we want to talk a bit about our hometown – Houston.  Contrary to popular impression, Houston’s actually a rockin’ place. It’s a BIG rockin’ place. Yes, Houston is one of the biggest cities in the country and we do have all of the good and bad stuff that comes with being a huge metropolis. The one thing Houston doesn’t have, apparently, is a rock and roll identity like our neighbors to the west. (By the way, for those of you who’ve never been to Texas, Austin is a much smaller place than Houston. Houston could put Austin in its jeans pocket – just sayin’.)

So let’s take a little whirlwind tour of Houston, to share with you good folks some of the great stuff we have here.

A mural in Houston's House of Blues featuring, from left: Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins and Albert Collins.

Some really cool people are identified with Houston.  Yes, ZZ Top calls Houston its hometown.  So does Beyonce.  If you’re a regular reader here, you’ve seen me talk about Lightnin’ Hopkins, born and raised in Houston and lived here.  Johnny “Guitar” Watson was born here, too. But many rockin’ people at one point or another called Houston their headquarters – Big Mama Thornton, Albert Collins, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Gatemouth Brown, Clifton Chenier, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and many more. In fact, Houston is known as a “blues capital.” Down here we still celebrate Juneteenth with a festival; in the past it’s featured Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

It could also be a country-folk capital.  Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen are Houston natives, and great songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams and Johnny Bush have held residencies in Houston.  Hell, Willie Nelson was living in Houston when he wrote three of his greatest songs: “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Crazy.”

What used to be Gold Star Studio is located in Houston. The studio was the place where people like Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Sir Douglas Quintet, George Jones, the Big Bopper, Roy Head and Freddy Fender cut the big hits that made them stars. In the 1960s, the studio was the hub for Houston-based record label International Artists Record Company and served as the main studio for clients like the 13th Floor Elevators, the Red Krayola, Bubble Puppy, The Bad Seeds and the Moving Sidewalks (featuring young Billy Gibbons). Because of that, you can make a convincing argument that Houston is right up there with San Francisco as one of the birthplaces of psychedelic music. The studio name was changed to Sugar Hill Studios by producer Huey P. Meaux in the 1970s, and it’s still a happenin’ place for local bands as well as visiting superstars.

"The Beatles" by David Adickes - You got something like this in your city? Well, do ya?

We have this huge four-part statue, “The Beatles,” by local sculptor David Adickes.  Each Fab Four member is about four stories tall, and right now they reside in a storage area near downtown while they wait to be moved to a more prominent area.  We also have a House of Blues – nice music and OK restaurant.  You know that famous club in Austin, the Continental Club?  Well, we have one too.

For more than half a century, Houston has hosted one of the largest rodeo events in the world. And each year the event features country, soul, Tejano, pop and rock artists playing right after the Chuck Wagon Races.  (You ever been to a Chuck Wagon Race?  Awesome.) At the rodeo we’ve seen Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, the Texas Tornados and – way back in 1974 – Elvis Presley.  This year, we have tickets to see KISS – and they were only 18 bucks apiece.

For many years the rodeo took place in the cavernous Astrodome, home not only to the Astros baseball team and the Oilers football team but also a venue for demolition derbies (Evel Knievel jumped a bunch of cars there), basketball tournaments (UH vs. UCLA, 1968, featuring Elvin Hayes and Lew Alcindor), tennis (Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs, 1973), pro wrestling (Wrestlemania VII, 2001) and a veritable butt-load of rock and roll including the Rolling Stones, U2, Metallica & Guns n’ Roses on the same bill, the Texxas Jam, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Madonna.  We saw “The Biggest Party in History” in 1989 with the Who and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Bob Dylan’s “Night of the Hurricane” in 1976.  And in 2005 more than 25,000 refugees from New Orleans bunked in at the Dome after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their city.

Did you like the movie Friday Night Lights?  Part of that was filmed in the Astrodome.  Other cool movies filmed in Houston: Urban Cowboy, Terms of Endearment, Rushmore, Robocop II and Apollo 13, among many others.  Remember that scene in FM with Linda Ronstadt?  Yup, filmed in the old Summit.  And in the big Darkness On the Edge of Town box set, there’s a DVD with an epic 1978 show by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, also from the Summit.  The Summit’s now a church, but we also have the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, always one of the top-ranked outdoor performing arts venues in the country (usually right behind Bethel Woods in New York, where something happened way back in 1969).

OK, I could go on and on … we have some nice venues, nice musicians and nice people in Houston. We have great restaurants and if you eat too much, the biggest Medical Center in the world.  One thing we don’t have?  Snow! Ahem. Next time y’all are in Texas, come visit Houston too. It’s easy to find us – just go to Austin and turn left.

MP3: “Houston, the Action Town” by Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner

MP3: “Fannin Street” (live) by Tom Waits

MP3: “Houston” by Dean Martin

MP3: “Treat Her Right” by Roy Head & the Traits

MP3: “Houston” by the Deadstring Brothers

MP3: “Houston Chicks” by Doug Sahm

MP3: “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by the 13th Floor Elevators

MP3: “Houston, TX” by Deer Tick

MP3: “The Parish Of Space Dust” by Gorillaz

MP3: “Houston” by Bun B, Slim Thug, Mike Jones, Paul Wall &  Chamillionaire

MP3: “If You Ever Go To Houston” by Bob Dylan

MP3: “Mr. Ditta’s Grocery Store” by Lightnin’ Hopkins

MP3: “Telephone Road” by Steve Earle

MP3: “Heaven, Hell or Houston” by ZZ Top

4 Responses to “Houston, the Action Town”

  1. You left out a few – Kings X influenced many a prog rocker. Arcade Fire’s primary members are from the Woodlands. Don Henley is from here. Blue October, like them or not, is from H-Town. Also, guys like Daniel Johnston and other eclectic noise-folk artists birthed an entire underground genre here.

    Speaking of genres, Chopped and Screwed – the hip hop music style inspired by “Scrweston’s” codeine scene included 8Ball & MJG as well as the extremely successful Chamillionaire. Houston is often referred to as the Third Coast by rap and hip hop aficionados.

    Then there are the many country and Latin artists that got their start here. La Mafia may be tejano, but they are hugely popular in Latin music. There’s a reason they hosted the Latin Grammy’s here a couple years back.

    Houston has a deep, rich and incredibly diverse musical history. Much like the city, you can’t just look at the surface and see all of it. Like Houston, it takes some digging, but it’s worth it.

  2. Nearly forgot all the great jazz over the years. The New York Times did a story last week about a gathering of Houston jazz musicians in the city and how important Houston has been in nurturing great jazz artists.

  3. 30daysout Says:

    You are right, Jeff … there is so much to Houston that it can’t be covered in one silly short blog post. Thanks for filling in the gaps.

  4. A good story on Houston which is a city that is overlooked quite often. There is so much diversity here and many in the U.S. are unaware of it. As the title of this story is aptly named, I also must add one more Blues Artist from the infamous 5th ward. Juke Boy Bonner was yet another wonderful Blues Artist who had a song titled “The Actions Town” which was all about Houston. Give it a listen and you can appreciate the raw sound and bare bones stripped down feel to it. Concentrate on the lyrics and you get a sense of Houston during a different era.

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