Texas is big in every sense, and its music is even bigger. Only Texas could siphon the bounce from the Louisiana bayou, dirt from the Mississippi Delta, dust from the deserts of Mexico, and pride from the plains and combine it all into something so singular, so elemental that people relate to it across time, language, and experience. Texas music is like smoke from a fire: thick and unmistakable. It lingers, and at its center is the hot guitar of these 12 performers who help keep it burning the whole night through.
Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys - “Steel Guitar Rag” (1936)
“Once you’re down in Texas, Bob Wills is still the king,” sang Texas’ own Waylon Jennings, but it’s Houston native and steel guitar pioneer Leon McAuliffe who penned and performed this instrumental, which established the steel guitar as a core instrument in country and western music.
Ernest Tubb & His Texas Troubadours - “Waltz Across Texas” (1965)
One of the most requested songs at Texas dancehalls since its release in 1965, Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas” is a bona fide classic, especially with Steve “Blondie” Chapman and Buddy “Big E” Emmons, one of steel guitar’s most important figures, trading solos. While Chapman is certainly no slouch, Tubb’s single-string leads were made a trademark by the band’s first guitarist, original Texas Troubadour Jimmy Short.
Willie Nelson - “Texas In My Soul” (1968)
You have to go away to come back, and that’s just what Willie Nelson did when he ignited the outlaw revolution in Austin, Texas, in the early 1970s. But before he left Nashville he cut this titular track from his ode to the Lone Star state, Texas In My Soul, featuring members of the Nashville A-team, the best session musicians in country music history, including Grady Martin and Chet Atkins.
Blind Lemon Jefferson - “Dry Southern Blues” (1926)
One of the very first solo blues performers on record, Blind Lemon Jefferson is often referred to as the “Father of the Texas Blues.” Known for his original style and powerful voice, Jefferson released the first two sides he recorded under his own name in 1926. “Booster Blues” and “Dry Southern Blues” were hits, and if you listen closely, you might notice some lyrical parallels to another famous bluesman, who traveled to San Antonio to make his first recordings some ten years later: Robert Johnson.
T-Bone Walker - “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad)” (1947)
Protege to Blind Lemon Jefferson, who taught him how to play guitar in exchange for his service as a guide, T-Bone Walker began as a Texas bluesman in much the same style. In 1940, he relocated to Los Angeles and used the amplified guitar of jazz and swing bands to create the unique sound that would influence countless musicians, like B.B. King, who credits Walker’s 1947 recording, “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just As Bad)," with inspiring him to pick up the electric guitar.
Mance Lipscomb - “Sugar Babe” (1960)
Mance Lipscomb is synonymous with Texas blues. Discovered during the folk revival of the 1960s, Lipscomb released his first album, Texas Sharecropper and Songster, at the age of 65. This collection of 14 songs includes “Sugar Babe,” the first Lipscomb ever wrote, which showcases his colorful voice and distinctive, “dead-thumb” style of fingerpicking.
Lightnin' Hopkins - “Tim Moore’s Farm” (1949)
You can’t talk about Texas blues without talking about Lightnin’ Hopkins. Possibly the best known Texas bluesman of them all, Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins was revered for his authenticity and masterful style, moving from country blues to boogie and back at the drop of a hat, fingerpicking lead lines, rhythm, bass, and percussion simultaneously, and cracking jokes through, what Tom Waits put it as, “an orchestra of gold teeth.” His prolific output remains unmatched, and his compositions, like “Tim Moore’s Farm,” an adaptation of a country blues written by Yank Thornton and shaped by Texas bluesman and neighbor Mance Lipscomb, recorded in Houston in 1949, are among the best of the genre.
Guy Clark - “Texas Cookin'” (1976)
A figurehead of the Americana movement in the 1970s, Guy Clark was a singer-songwriter par excellence whose finely tuned, blues-infused compositions inspired a generation of admirers such as Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, and Townes Van Zandt to search for the perfect song. A luthier as well, Clark’s clear, articulate tone and refined style set a new standard for efficiency in a genre where the performer’s whims often take precedence.
Townes Van Zandt - “T For Texas” (1971)
Troubled troubadour Townes Van Zandt left a legacy as large as the Rio Grande. Born to a prominent Fort Worth family, Van Zandt’s adult life was anything but charmed. He suffered through addiction, disease, and hardship that colored his prose in ways other writers could only barely comprehend. He penned songs that took the American folk tradition by the throat, infecting it with despair, wry humor, and the kind of understated gravitas you can only find at the bottom of a bottle. His take on the Jimmie Rodgers classic, “T For Texas,” demonstrates the singular perspective Van Zandt brought to country music.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble - “Texas Flood” (1983)
Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band Double Trouble breathe new life into this blues standard. Originally written and performed by Larry Davis in 1958, “Texas Flood” quickly became a signature part of the late star’s repertoire after he first recorded it in 1983, and for good reason. The improvised 12-bar solos and smokehouse vocals stand up against the best Vaughn ever recorded.
Kacey Musgraves - “Slow Burn” (2018)
Nothing is surprising about Kacey Musgraves’ rise to the top. The Texas-born country star has been performing professionally since she was as young as twelve years old. Her 2018 album, Golden Hour, won four Grammys, taking home honors for Best Country Song, Best Country Solo Performance, Best Country Album, and Album of the Year. Like Musgraves herself, the album’s opening track, “Slow Burn,” takes a while to get where it’s going, but it goes to show that ending up in the right place is all that matters.
Gary Clark, Jr. - “Please Come Home” (2012)
A bold new voice in Texas music, Gary Clark, Jr. continues to win over fans and music legends alike with his fiery guitar and fearless attitude. His major-label debut, Blak and Blu, showed the world just way Gary Clark, Jr. is too big for the Lone Star State, with sultry, soulful vocals and monster solos like this one, on the Grammy-winning “Please Come Home.”
HONORABLE MENTION: Texas Tornados – “(Hey Baby) Que Paso?” (1990)
Doug Sahm is one of the most underrated artists of the 20th century, with a career punctuated by incredible achievements, including spinning together a supergroup of stars from nearly every style of popular music Texas has into an intoxicating whirlwind known simply as the Texas Tornados.
BONUS: Waylon Jennings - “Luckenbach, Texas (Back To The Basics Of Love)” (1977)
We couldn’t just leave this out. Named for the infamous patch of unincorporated territory known as Luckenback, Waylon Jennings’ classic outlaw anthem is a love letter to the simple life, as well as all the things–and people–that make Texas and its music great.