TEXAS COUNTRY SINGERS. By Phil Fry and Jim Lee. A Texas Small Book. 88 pp. TCU Press, Fort Worth. $8.95.
Texas is famously hung up on everything big, so TCU Press is taking a contrarian path in starting a new series of small books (4 1/2 by 6 1/2 inches).
Before the reader has a chance to question the 25 singers selected for this book, the authors mount their defense: they know a lot of great Texas singers are omitted, but they have their reasons.
All 25 singers were born in Texas, and their chapters are arranged alphabetically, from Gene Autrey to Don Walser. This last singer-songwriter is famous far beyond Texas; he recorded 10 albums, played at the Grand Ole Opry and has been called “the Pavarotti of the Plains.” Not having frequented his favorite venue, Austin’s famous Broken Spoke, I didn’t know about him.
Also less familiar, to this reader, were Tommy Duncan, lead vocalist of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, and Adolph Hofner, San Antonio based, who blended Western swing, central European polkas and folk tunes with country sung in his native language, Czech. (Bob Wills didn’t make the list because he wasn’t a singer, the writers explain.)
MOST OF the others are household names, if your household listens to country music.
I turned first to make sure Perryville’s Ray Price got proper treatment, and he did. His chapter calls the roll of famous former members of his band, the Cherokee Cowboys: Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush, among others. Those four each rate a chapter of their own, quite logically.
Johnny Bush joined the Cherokee Cowboys as a drummer in 1963 when Willie Nelson was the band’s bass player. Bush is most famous today as the composer of Nelson’s theme song, Whiskey River, according to Fry and Lee.
Ray Price has been a star for more than 50 years, “an endurance record rare in country music circles,” the writers note. They tell of how he spent part of the 1990s singing in his Branson, Mo., theater but in 2007 he toured the country with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, backed up by Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel.
Benson, whose own Texas fans are legion, was not born in the state, alas, so he’s not one of those profiled.
In addition to his other touring, Price has perfomed at the Gilmer Civic Center twice in recent years and, if we’re lucky, may return one day soon. Neither this book’s writers nor anyone else can explain how Price still sounds so great at age 82.
THE OTHER singers featured in this small book are a mix of the living and the dead, all worthy. In the latter category: Lefty Frizzell, Waylon Jennings, Jim Reeves, Tex Ritter, Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb and Buck Owens.
Still with us are George Jones, Kris Kristofferson and George Strait. Unliike some, Strait embodies the look and the sound of a real cowboy because he is one, having been raised on a ranch near Pearsall in South Texas. He continues to sell more records than almost any country singer, the writers point out.
Texas country singers are mostly male, so it’s not surprising that the only two women in this book are Barbara Mandrell, born in Houston on Christmas day in 1948, and Tanya Tucker, 49, who was born in Seminole but mostly grew up in Arizona.
Co-author Jim Lee is better known as Dr. James Ward Lee, professor emeritus of English at the University of North Texas (formerly North Texas State University) and author of several much thicker books. This time he’s using a shorter name for your shorter bookshelf.