The recent blast of icy temperatures gave us time to think — mostly about Texas and its screwy weather. But also, as cabin fever set in, about the music that captures the essence of our beloved Lone Star State.
We Googled Glen Campbell’s Galveston, and as we listened to the lyrics about “seabirds flying in the sun,” we imagined a warm Gulf Coast breeze blowing across our faces — even though it was freezing outside.
And we just kept going from there.
A few days and a few hundred visits to YouTube later, we came up with a list of our 100 favorite Texas songs. Yes, it seems like a daunting task, considering how no other place, except for maybe California or New York City, inspires as much songcraft. But when you consider how many great musicians have come from within our broad borders — and how many others wish they had — it seems not so tough at all.
But we wanted this list to be populated by great, iconic songs that are about Texas and our lives lived here, not just songs on any topic by Texan performers, no matter how great they may be. So this becomes a different list than the top 100 Texas Monthly published in 2004, which was a roundup of the best songs by Texans.
The other considerations were genre and artist. We could have devoted the list to just country songs — or, heck, just country songs by George Strait — and it would have been a valid one. But we wanted this compilation to stretch across the musical landscape like Interstate 10 from Houston to El Paso, ranging from hip-hop to rock, blues to, yes, country.
While it would have made things easier to restrict it to the rock ’n’ roll era — roughly from the mid-’50s to the present — that doesn’t make much sense since so many of the best-loved Lone Star lyrics pre-date the rock revolution.
Lastly, there’s nothing scientific about our Top 100. It’s just the result of a few of us locked in a room with some barbecue and Shiner Bock. So tell us which songs we missed, which ones don’t belong here or climbed too high or sunk too low.
Most of all, happy listening — and stay warm.
Texas Top 100 songs (1-25)
1 That’s Right You’re Not From Texas, Lyle Lovett: It was a tough call but Lyle grabbed the top spot because this swingin’ anthem of Texas pride straddles musical eras and styles, showing off the diversity that is Texas music. It’s a little Western swing, a little rock ’n’ roll and all Lyle. Lyrically, it has a sense of humor about itself but still makes its point that it’s a Texas thing, and if you’re not from here, you wouldn’t understand … and Lyle can tell you’re not from here if you wear your hat or boots wrong. But Texas wants you anyway!
2 Deep in the Heart of Texas, Gene Autry: This song is so traditional, we were surprised to find that it only dates to 1941 — and that non-Texan Perry Como was the first to record it! (And that the folks at Warner Bros. Cartoons lampooned it in the 1943 Bugs Bunny episode, “Super-Rabbit,” in which our intrepid hero goes to Deepinaharta, Texas.) Cowboy actor/singer Gene Autry made the most famous version of the song in 1942 — at least till Pee-Wee Herman used it to prove to a friend that he was in Texas during a phone call in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. And of course, if you go to a Texas Rangers game, you’re going to have to sing along. “The stars at night are big and bright” — everybody clap!
3 Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love), Waylon Jennings: Another stone-cold country classic, this ode to the wild, woolly outlaw country movement (as well as breaking away from “high society”) is as relevant today as it was in the ’70s. Waylon’s friend Willie Nelson, as big a Texas musical icon as there is, does a guest spot on the vocals. It went to No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts in 1977, hit the Top 25 on the Hot 100, and helped cement Jennings’ place at the top of a new country-music scene based right here in Texas, not Nashville.
4 Texas Flood, Stevie Ray Vaughan: Rich with longing (“All the telephone lines are down/And I’ve been tryin’ to call my baby”) and a dazzling showcase for the late Dallas native’s fretboard fireworks, this Larry Davis cover from Vaughan’s 1983 debut LP deftly evokes a late spring gully washer. Others have taken their turns at the blues song, including Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy – but Vaughan’s is the definitive version. He titled his album Texas Flood as well and nearly doubled the song’s length with his trademark guitar runs. Rolling Stone listed it among the Greatest Guitar Songs in history, and thanks to SRV, who was born nearby in Oak Cliff, Texas’ wacky weather never sounded so good.
5 Galveston, Glen Campbell: Released at the apex of Nashville’s countrypolitan craze, Campbell’s anthemic ode to the southern Texas city — written by Jimmy Webb — is a little bittersweet these days, given Campbell’s rapidly deteriorating condition (“I am so afraid of dying”), but an essential Lone Star tune nonetheless. The song about a guy a long way from his beloved who cleans his gun and dreams of Galveston was also celebrated by some as an anti-war song during the Vietnam era. But Webb told The Houston Chroniclein September that “it’s just about a guy caught up in war who’d rather be someplace else.” As expected, it is the official anthem of the city of Galveston. The song was a massive hit in 1969, hitting No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and No. 1 on the country and easy listening charts. Campbell, an Arkansas native, sang about Wichita and Phoenix during his career, but on Galveston his voice is pure Texas.
6 Miles and Miles of Texas, Asleep at the Wheel: This long-running Texas swing band has recorded enough songs about the Lone Star State to fill up the Rio Grande, but this one may be its most iconic. Written by Tommy Camfield and Diane Johnston, it was recorded as a demo around 1950, but not popularized until 1976 when Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson and producer Tommy Allsup came across it. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys have also recorded it, and you may also remember it from a mobile phone ad campaign in the mid-’90s. Lyrical and jaunty, just try not to sing along to this fiddle-heavy anthem as you drive across Miles and Miles of Texas.
7 Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?, George Strait: A classic country weeper, and a tune that helped launch the King of Country’s career, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind? paints a story of a Cowtown guy who’s upset because his lover has left him for someone else — in Dallas! Amon Carter, who reportedly would take a brown-bag lunch if he had to go to Dallas because he didn’t want to spend money there, would totally understand.
8 From West Texas, Explosions in the Sky: Not all iconic Texas tunes need fiddle or a cowboy hat. This atmospheric instrumental, along with such others as the exquisite Your Hand in Mine and To West Texas, were used as the score to one of the most beloved TV series of the last decade, the iconic high-school football drama Friday Night Lights. No surprise, although now the group is based in Austin, most of the guys in Explosions in the Sky hail from Midland and their ethereal post-rock sonic explorations often evoke wide open skies and stars as far as the eye can see.
9 San Antonio Rose, Bob Wills: This belongs in any Texas Top 10, thanks to Tommy Duncan’s clear, longing vocal; Wills’ “a-ha!” interjections; Wills and the Texas Playboys’ trademark blend of steel-guitar and almost-orchestral fiddles; and the lyrics about a mysterious lost love, which pack a lot of meaning into a song that’s less than three minutes long. It’s been covered over and over, including by Elvis, but Wills’ version remains definitive more than 70 years after its initial release.
10 El Paso, Marty Robbins: This is Robbins’ poetic epic about a cowboy who falls for the wrong woman, shoots another cowboy who wants her, and runs away but can’t stay away because his love is stronger than his fear of death. Robbins wasn’t from El Paso, but El Paso proved so good for him that he wrote two sequels, Feleena (from El Paso) and El Paso City, a 1976 song about an airline passenger who looks out the window at El Paso, thinks about the earlier song, and has a strange sense of deja vu, as if he were the reincarnation of the ill-fated cowboy.
11 Deep Elem Blues, various: This ode to one of Dallas’ most famous areas is perhaps the most popular song from North Texas’ blues tradition, first recorded in the ’30s by the likes of the Shelton Brothers and has since been recorded by the Grateful Dead, Les Paul, Jerry Lee Lewis and Levon Helm. It’s not easy to tell just how much this concert staple has to do with Deep Ellum in the Dead’s heads, but the song has its roots there.
12 Fort Worth Texas, Ray Price: Cowtown has long been an inspiration for country singers, and Ray Price makes the case that Fort Worth deserves to stand alongside the great American cities like Chicago and San Francisco (“It’s everything I want,” Price croons, “Fort Worth, Texas, that’s my town.”) This love letter to the city namechecks Van Cliburn, Amon Carter and TCU, among other icons of Cowtown.
13 Ohio (Come Back to Texas), Bowling for Soup: Leave it to this Denton quartet to come up with one of the funniest yet most winsome songs about our state. Pleading with a girlfriend who has moved to Cleveland to come home, they sing, “Troy Aikmen wants you back, Willie Nelson wants you back, NASA wants you back, and the Bush twins want you back, and Pantera wants you back, and Blue Bell wants you back.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
14 Amarillo By Morning, George Strait: Strait might deserve his own category in the Texas song list, but he’s rarely sang more wistfully than on his 1983 cover of this Terry Stafford/Paul Fraser song (written 10 years earlier) about a hard-luck but independent rodeo rider. You can practically feel the Texas sprawl and the big Panhandle sky in his voice.
15 Texas (When I Die), Tanya Tucker: “When I die, I may not go to heaven,” goes the chorus of this rowdy country tune. “If they don’t, just let me go to Texas/Texas is as close as I’ve been.” The song was written by Ed Bruce in 1977 and covered by Tucker, a native Texan, on her 1978 TNT album. Her gritty vocals on this song will have you, too, clamoring for a final resting place in Lone Star soil.
16 Dallas, Jimmie Dale Gilmore: This tip of the hat to Big D sounds like a straight-up salute at first (“Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?”) but ends up being darker (“Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye”). It’s been covered numerous times and was an even inspiration for Aussie songwriter Paul Kelly’s Sydney From a 727.
17 A State of Texas, The Old 97’s: Dallas’ favorite alt-country sons have written a lot about their stomping grounds but perhaps no song is more Texas-y than this one in which Rhett Miller shouts about Greenville Avenue, I-35, bluebonnets and “living in a state of Texas and Texas lives in me.”
18 All My Exes Live in Texas, George Strait: A lot of songs on this list are about guys who want to get back to Texas because of a woman. But George is hanging his hat in Tennessee, where he doesn’t have to deal with the old flames in Texarkana, Galveston and elsewhere. Great music; funny lyrics.
19 Fort Worth Blues, Steve Earle: Written as a tribute to the late, great Fort Worth singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, this acoustic ballad portrays Cowtown with the mixed emotions of someone who just lost a friend.
20 I Like Texas, Pat Green: For one of the most popular Texas country acts, Pat Green almost can’t avoid not having such a tune in his repertoire. “I was born a native Texican/And I’m proud to say I am,” he boasts, before proceeding to name check every thing he digs about his home turf, like Luckenbach and Shiner Bock.
21 Lubbock or Leave It, Dixie Chicks: The Lubbock chamber of commerce is not going to be using this tune from the Texas trio in any ads: “Dust bowl, Bible belt, got more churches than trees, raise me, praise me, couldn’t save me,” sings native daughter Natalie Maines on the bouncy rant from the Chicks’ 2007 Taking the Long Way album. This was the Chicks’ first CD after the backlash from Maines’ anti-George Bush comments, and this song in particular strikes a defiant tone, using plenty of fiddle, banjo and back beat to drive home their message to all the haters.
22 Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone, Charley Pride: One of country music’s best voices takes a rainy hitchhiking journey after leaving his wife. Sure, the song, recorded in 1970, also asks if anyone is going to Phoenix, Arizona but it’s the Alamo City in the title that helped put this song on the map. Nancy Sinatra recorded a version of the song, which we weren’t so wild about, but so did Texan Doug Sahm.
23 Streets of Laredo, various: This song about the last wishes of a dying cowboy is practically a musicology lesson all by itself: According to the book Cowboy’s Lament: A Life on the Open Range, a biography of cowboy Frank Maynard, Maynard claimed to have heard an old Irish ballad in 1876 and reworked it as A Cowboy’s Lament, which we know as Streets of Laredo. It has been covered by people you’d expect (Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash), some you might not expect (Sammy Davis Jr., British alt-rockers Prefab Sprout, Canadian art-rocker Jane Siberry).
24 The Yellow Rose of Texas, Gene Autry: One of the most famous tunes about Texas, Yellow Rose was first written as a folk song in 1836 about an indentured servant who, according to legend, helped distract Gen. Santa Anna during the battle of San Jacinto. The woman, Emily Morgan West, was of mixed race so she was referred to as the Yellow Rose. Cringe. But the song, which evolved and changed over the years, became a military marching song during subsequent wars. When Autry, the singing cowboy, recorded it in the 1930s, it was already a Texas anthem.
25 Lone Star Blues, Delbert McClinton: This hard-luck tale is about a guy who can’t catch a break anywhere in the state. He ends up in Fort Worth, which is Delbert grew up, and things start looking up. He gets a job at Billy Bob’s but then he gets hit on the head with a Harley chain -- and he’s back where he started.
There’s more! For songs 26-50, click here .
Preston Jones, Cary Darling, Rick Press, Robert Philpot and Heather Svokos contributed to this report.