It was on a trip to my mother’s native country of Greece that I realized there really is such a thing as Texas culture. My cousin had just introduced me to a teenage boy on a bicycle. He asked where I was from. As was my habit, I told him I was a Texan.
His face lit up with recognition.
“Texas? Ah, yes!” he said in broken, thickly accented English. “Cowboys! Kennedy! Bang bang!”
He hadn’t gotten it exactly right (or so I thought at the time; these days I’m not so sure), but at least he had an image in his mind.
Telling him I was from Iowa wouldn’t have sparked a visual in his head. New York, maybe, but only if I was talking about the city, not the state. California might have triggered some form of recognition. But any Californian would know which California to specify—northern or southern—from the git-go. The two regions are very different from one another, as any northern or southern Californian will tell you.
Texans, on the other hand, think of themselves as pretty much one and the same, no matter if they’re born-again rednecks or flaming secular humanist libs, city folks or country folks, if they live in downtown Houston or suburban Plano, or come from Dalhart on the treeless Great Plains or from the Rio Grande Valley, 700 miles south on the edge of the tropics. For all those people from all those disparate places to think of themselves as a whole, some kind of culture has to exist.
Texas culture has been the conceit that’s driven much of my writing career over the past four decades. I staked my point of view to the belief that Texas was a place unto itself, and that if I treated it as its own country, there was more than plenty to write about. New York or Los Angeles would no longer be necessary. Besides, “Texas writer” sounded a whole lot more respectable than “minor regional writer.” I found the subject matter I was looking for in music, the finest of all the fine arts in Texas, where regionalism flourished in the sounds of Texas country, Texas rock and roll, Texas blues, Tejano, conjunto, and Texas jazz. Two artists in particular, Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm, proved consistent fodder since they shared the belief that you could do your art in Texas, carve out a comfortable existence, and still Be Somebody on the national stage. It worked for them and it’s worked for thousands of others since. I took to heart the observation of the accordionist Ponty Bone: Texas was an isolated pocket of good taste.
Over time I came to discover Texas culture expressed in the literature of McMurtry and Graves, the films of Horton Foote and Robert Rodriguez, sports (Dallas Cowboys, Texas Longhorns, Texas Aggies), food (you name it), and couture (hats, buckles, etc.). Besides Texas music in its various forms, I championed the three basic Texas food groups (BBQ, chicken-fried steak, and Tex-Mex), indigenous folkways such as rodeo, the Hidy sign, Big Red, Dublin Dr Pepper, dancehalls, jeans, and handmade boots—the icons that make us stand out from everybody else.
Lately though, I’ve been asking if there really is a Texas culture left. Did Wal-Mart culture subsume it and I just missed it in the papers? Or has Texas always been an amusing caricature to distract us from the reality that Texas is always and forever the minor leagues, a cute, charming, somewhat blustery place to stop that will never be confused for the Big Show? Marketing people love talking about branding concepts, people, and material goods. Well, Texans may have invented the branding iron, but it is that very marketing mentality that threatens to dilute those characteristics that make us Texan and create the dynamic of Texas culture. To which I say: Don’t fence me in.
Geopolitics has a lot to do with this reassessment. Our president has jingofied Texas to the point that anyone else flaunting anything remotely smacking of Texan is subject to acts of overt revulsion as much as they’re likely to elicit a smile or a hug. When I travel out of the country, I don’t take my boots with me anymore.
It’s weird to admit that, since I bought into Texas culture from my very first taste of barbecue at the age of two. But it may be true. Twenty years ago, more blue jeans were manufactured in El Paso than any city in the world. Today, no one makes jeans in El Paso (or San Antonio, for that matter). Kids don’t wear ’em much either. Joe Peters, whose family has been selling cowboy hats to the rich and famous for more than 75 years in Fort Worth, complains hats are out of style. Where’s the next McMurtry or Graves? Just what are those tepid box office receipts for the second filming of The Alamo trying to tell us?
Or, Texas culture may have morphed into something else, judging from the month of programming the Trio cable television network dedicated to the state last summer. “Texas, America Supersized” month featured a nice concert in California starring Willie and his heavy friends and several airings of Slacker, which defines modern alt.Texas culture. Three documentaries focusing on Texans and guns, obesity, and the unique way we mix bidness and politics pretty much nailed the modern version of the culture. The bidness/politics doc was from Germany. The other two were British. In their eyes, we’re a little scary, somewhat reactionary, and a tad crazy from the heat. But no matter how harsh the point of view may be, we still manage to come off radiating just enough charm to win them over. Sound familiar?
The documentaries viewed Texas as neither unique nor distinct but rather as the anti-California. The Texas wildcatter, the oil millionaire driving the big Cadillac, smoking the biggest cigars, and throwing around $100 bills is gone. He has been replaced by the fattest, least literate, dirtiest-dealing, back-slapping, Halliburton-whoring corporate citizen in these United States. Hell, we’re not even Mississippi with good roads anymore. Mississippi’s highways have been upgraded while we’re busy talking toll roads.
Which begs the question: Is Texas still Texas anymore? Or is it all hat, no cattle? Real cowboys are nigh impossible to find these days. As Alpine rancher Tom Beard told me a few years back, most so-called cowboys would prefer to admire themselves in the mirror than put in a hard day’s work. Then again, ranchers aren’t what they used to be either. Robert Halpern, the editor of the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, told me locals speak in code when they define people as either ranchers or ranch owners. It’s a nice way of acknowledging ranch owners aren’t real ranchers. (Note to the White House press corps: Before the Bushes bought land in Crawford in 1999, the “ranch” was referred to by locals as the Englebrecht hog farm.)
There’s a conspiracy at work here. Blame it on interstate highways that have linked the nation together and made everywhere look like everywhere else, immigrants from elsewhere who bring their ways with them—not so much the Nigerians, Nicaraguans, or Oaxacans, but the New Yorkers and Angelenos—clone restaurants, big box stores, and electronic media. Country music is no longer about music from the country or for country folks; it’s the pop music of the suburbs of America, lite rock in disguise. Valley Girl-speak is the lengua de preferencia in the Woodlands and Frisco, same as it is in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Wal-Mart is bigger than Texas even.
Worse, what little distinctive culture that’s left has been pimped and whored to the point it isn’t really Texan-ness that’s being projected. Note to all y’all: Some of us may still say warsh instead of wash even when we know better, but no one I know, even the last Bubba on earth, says noo-cu-lar like our President does.
Heck, even Texas music has been compromised. For all the good the Dixie Chicks and Lloyd Maines have wrought, I’m wary of Pat Green, who pulls in crowds bigger than Willie by serving up a watered-down version of what Texas music once sounded like. No fool, Green built his career on injecting the word “Texas” into as many songs as he could write when he was a young pup striving to become the next Robert Earl Keen. He has matured considerably and has uncanny business sense. But if you take his artistry at face value, say on his recent single “Wave On”—an exceptionally well-constructed song that calls up images of water and the beach and if nothing else, the lake—it has no sense of place, in a Texas kind of way. At least Charlie Robison has the good sense of name-dropping the Dallas Cowboy transvestite bar in Nuevo Laredo’s Boystown, where most of the pretty waitresses have Adam’s apples. A real Texan understands these things without having to make a big deal out of it.
A similar debate is stirring up a stew in culinary circles. Board members and supporters of the Hill Country Food and Wine Fair are questioning whether affiliation with Saveur magazine and national food celebs has been beneficial or deleterious to showing the best of Texas foods and wines. If they think New Yorkers’ embrace of barbecue is off the mark, they should’ve been around when Hollywood discovered Gilley’s back in the 1970s.
So just when I’m ready to kiss it all off and start buying jeans at the Gap, my neighbors tell me about the foreign exchange student from Germany who came to live with them this summer. Wolfgang stepped off the plane wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt. He got to suit up and practice with the local 3A high school football team. He bought a Seal of the State of Texas belt buckle. Before he left, he was fantasizing about buying his very own Dodge Ram pickup even though he admitted, “My countrymen would not understand.”
No, they wouldn’t. But while Wolfie’s vision may be as skewed as that Greek boy all those years ago, he gives me hope. I can relate to his fantasy vision of Texas because in isolated pockets of good taste, that vision is more than just a fantasy. Yewbet, Texas culture still exists. I’m betting the ranchette on it too.
Joe Nick Patoski lives, works, and plays near Wimberley, where he hardly ever wears his cowboy boots.