Photo: Bobby Cochran
I still have visions of Dallas. Plenty of places shaped me as a musician. New Orleans, Mendocino, New York, lonesome highways, street corners, subway platforms. But Dallas shaped me first.
We moved there from South Texas when I was still a boy. It was a big change from what I’d known. The Rio Grande Valley is beautifully rugged and desolate, and living there requires making peace with a unique kind of isolation.
Dallas was the big city. A fast city. The American version of it grew up around the Trinity River, way back when, as the southernmost trading post during the Buffalo Rush. Selling hides. Skinning hides. Storing hides. Shipping hides. Then came cotton, and the railroads, and the oil, and things only got faster. There was plenty of work to be had, so in came the labor. African-Americans, immigrants from Europe and Mexico, Indigenous peoples, and folks who left the poverty of rural Texas, like my Mama eventually did, in search of something better.
By the time we got there a rich music scene existed, courtesy of the descendants of those early laborers, and the subsequent mix of migrants and dreamers who came after them. It wasn’t glamorous. The music scene was never embraced by the city like what happened in New Orleans and Memphis. As a result, it produced blue collar musicians and a cauldron of different styles and traditions and attitudes.
I used to play Cajun-Creole seafood restaurants and Sons of Hermann, an old German social hall, waiting my turn to get onstage behind older men playing music you didn’t hear most anywhere else: really true country and blues, R&B, and Texas-style music that you’d hear out in the country, on somebody’s porch. I wish I had recordings of those men that used to play in Dallas back then. Guys like Chuck Loudin, who everyone called “Popcorn.”
Most of the places I played were situated on that darker side. You had to have thick skin and quick reflexes to make it on those stages.
I spent a lot of my time in the rooms that had Blues jams and open mic nights, some of which were in a part of Dallas known as Deep Ellum. Artists like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Bob Wills and so many greats called the neighborhood home.
Like any city, there’s more than one Dallas. The Dallas I encountered back then, sometimes by circumstance, other times by choice, was rough. On its best day, the line separating the city’s shiny glass buildings and civic virtue from its darker underbelly—populated by figures like Jack Ruby and Benny Binyon—is blurry.
Most of the places I played were situated on that darker side. You had to have thick skin and quick reflexes to make it on those stages. The Cottage Lounge. Velvet Elvis. Filled of good people, but they were some hard places, with some hard drunks, and dodging beer bottles was part of the experience.
Sometimes I’d play multiple shows in the same day. Usually one for lunch, somewhere in town, then a late afternoon or dinner gig, and then a four-hour late-night show. It was at the end of those shifts where you’d see the effects that alcohol and hard times can have on some people.
Dallas is where I met the man who gave me my last name. I guess I knew him when I was a baby, before he disappeared until I was 19. But he surprised me one night. He didn’t look like I thought he would. Pouring concrete in West Dallas all those years, under that Texas sun, will age a person. I wasn’t mad at him. I felt a mixture of love and compassion. And it seemed sort of fitting. Dallas gave me a lot of gifts that contained something hopeful and something sad.
Two decades have gone by since those days. Nowadays it seems I’m never in one place for too long, but not matter where I go, I always carry visions of Dallas with me.