Excerpted from The Flatlanders: Now It’s Now Again (Copyright © 2014 by John T. Davis) is used by permission of the University of Texas Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher. For more information visit University of Texas Press.com.
I would describe Lubbock as a great place to live. But I wouldn’t want to visit there.
— Tommy X. Hancock
In Lubbock,” Butch Hancock likes to say, “you can see fifty miles in any direction. And if you stand on a tuna fish can, you can see a hundred miles.”
Lubbock — home of the Texas Tech Red Raiders, white bread, and blue northers. The “Hub City” as boosters like to call it, alluding to the roads and railroad tracks that radiate out from the city like so many wagon wheel spokes.
It’s such an ordinary little sand-scrubbed city, in the midst of so many miles of inelegant country, to be at the heart of so much mystery and lore.
Like a lot of towns on the plains, Lubbock feels arbitrary. You get the feeling that some westward-faring settlers were making their way to California when a wheel abruptly fell off the wagon.
“To hell with it,” they seem to have said, and set up shop on the spot.
They weren’t the first. The Lubbock Lake Landmark archaeological site on the north side of town documents a unique and unbroken eleven-thousand-year history of human settlement.
There are no obvious natural advantages to the location except for the thin stream of a branch of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River. Atop the Caprock, on the edge of the Llano Estacado, exposed to the elements under a vast bowl of sky, Lubbock’s earliest pioneers must have felt like they were becalmed at sea.
Ranchers and farmers who at last felt safe to venture out with their families into the former Comancheria founded the city in 1890.
Within a year, a newspaper was publishing, and Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists vied for the souls of the pious (including, one presumes, Catholic Tejano vaqueros and farmers). In the fall of 1909 the Santa Fe Railway reached town, the same year Lubbock incorporated as a city. The census next year counted 1,938 hardy denizens.
In 1923, the state legislature established Texas Technological College — Texas Tech, in modern parlance — and the town began to take on the trappings of a city. Dryland farming of cotton and sorghum boosted the fortunes of the isolated metropolis — it was the only handy mercantile center for banking, marketing, and wholesaling for hundreds of miles.
By 1950, when Ely, Gilmore, and Hancock were young boys, the Lubbock population stood at 71,747. (It was 229,573 by 2010, substantially larger than its two nearest neighbors, Amarillo and Midland.)
By 1980, there were some 250 churches in the city, one for every seven hundred residents, give or take.
Butch Hancock has observed wryly on numerous occasions, “Life in Lubbock taught me two things: One is that God loves you and he’s gonna send you to Hell. The other is that sex is dirty and evil and nasty and filthy and sinful and bad and awful, and you should save it for the one you love.”
Folks in Lubbock know what sin is, and they’re agin’ it.
As a consequence, wrote the late, great Molly Ivins, “The advantage of being able to identify sin is that you can go out and do it, and enjoy it. Lubbock gives people a lot to rebel against.”
But, writing in Texas Monthly magazine, she also added, “In Lubbock, the world is about 88.3 percent sky. It takes a while to get used to, but after you do, Lubbock feels like freedom and everywhere else feels like jail.”
In a town where salvation is a preoccupation, sin, by necessity, must be lurking around every corner. “There were lots of churches with signs and little slogans like ‘LSD: Lust, Sin, Death,'” recalled Ely’s drummer Davis McLarty to Texas Monthly. “I thought, ‘Hmmmm, maybe I’ll try it.'”
Lubbock was the largest dry city in the country until 1972, when liquor-by-the-drink was voted in so that folks could have a civilized cocktail in a bar or a restaurant. Before that, you could BYOB to a club and buy setups, seek out an after-hours joint in some cotton patch and drink with the police characters, join a private club (for a one-dollar “lifetime” membership), or patronize an obliging local bootlegger who smuggled in booze from wet precincts.
Liquor stores per se were confined to the Strip, a sort of mini-Vegas out on the Tahoka Highway, where the neon blared temptation on a first-name basis (Bob’s, Cecil’s, Doc’s, Pinky’s, etc.) and the honky-tonks thrived.
“They were all open seven nights a week with live bands,” recalled steel guitarist and producer Lloyd Maines in the documentary film Lubbock Lights. “You could go across the city limits and get all the sin you wanted.”
Alas, the Strip’s heyday came to an end in 2009 when Lubbock voted to allow package stores in town.
There was a sort of unspoken social compact between people who might bump into each other on a beer joint dance floor on Saturday night and kneel side by side in the pew the next Sunday morning.
Writes Ivins, “Kent Hance, the former congressman from Lubbock, reports, ‘When I was in college we went to the Cotton Club to dance, to pick up girls and to drink beer out of Coca-Cola cups in case a minister came in, and it would embarrass him and you both. Outside they had soap and water so you could wash that [cover-charge] stamp off your hand when you left at the end of the night, so it wouldn’t show Sunday morning at church.'”
My own sainted mother, who migrated from heathen Louisiana to marry a Lubbock native, soon learned the drill: “Everybody was in church on Wednesday night and Sunday morning and if you weren’t, everybody knew it.”
In a 2013 theater presentation called Is There Life after Lubbock? , Joe Ely noted, “religion was having a heyday in the newly created [postwar] prosperity. The amount of sin brought about by the good times was directly proportional to the sinner’s ability to tithe on a hungover Sunday morning.”
Churches take up entire city blocks on Broadway’s “Miracle Mile.” Parking lots are vast seas of asphalt to accommodate the faithful. The First United Methodist Church boasts a twenty-six-foot rose window, one of the five largest in the world. In yo’ face, Chartres Cathedral.
As socially and religiously conservative as Lubbock was and is, it was and is equally conservative when it comes to politics.
Conservatism in Lubbock didn’t much resemble the Bob Taft/Eisenhower–style genteel big-city Republican variety; it was more of a flinty type of orthodoxy that was socially conservative and viewed most government above the local school board with the same narrow-eyed suspicion with which a rancher views a coyote. It was Tea Party country before there was ever such a thing. In Lubbock, the go-it-alone, rugged-individualist-against-the-frontier spirit was threaded through the city’s DNA. And there is genuine merit in those pioneer values.
But the reality was more complex. Big Government played a large part in making life in the West possible.
The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, for instance, enabled the sale of public land for the creation of land grant colleges in each state (Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M are the two beneficiaries in the state).
The Homestead Act carved out 160-acre farm sites and made them available for settlement to anyone willing to withstand the privations of the Western longitudes, while cheap federal water and agricultural subsidies made (and still make) irrigation farming not only possible, but profitable. It worked; the area today is the largest contiguous cotton-growing region in the world.
Federal grants of public land to railroad companies starting in the 1850s were designed both to expand rail coverage and to encourage westward migration and immigration. Four out of five transcontinental railroads were built with help from the federal government, and millions of acres of arable farm- and ranchland were opened up for settlement.
The array of New Deal legislation and agencies — the Rural Electrification Act, the Emergency Farm Mortgage Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration — helped take at least some of the sting out of the Depression in Dust Bowl–stricken West Texas.
But all this inconvenient history was as nothing against the conservative mindset that prevailed in Lubbock and West Texas through both Democratic and Republican eras of governance. It was an inherent contradiction that most in Lubbock never considered, let alone resolved.
One thing everyone could agree on, though, was this: Music was ubiquitous. Even the Sacred Harp shaped-note religious singers had their a cappella hymns. Everyone else played, or knew someone who did. Old-time “house parties” lasted all night. Little towns around Lubbock had Saturday night jamborees at which amateurs from fifty miles around would hasten to perform. The county-line honky-tonks and gin mills catered to the grown-ups.
Even people passing through were swept up. Johnny Hughes, who would go on to manage Joe Ely early in his career, told Texas Monthly, “All these Mexican migrant workers would come in to pick the cotton, and they just filled downtown on Sundays. They’d all come in from miles around. You had the accordions and conjuntos, and all the different things they brought with them.”
Racial discrimination was a given in Lubbock, as it was in the rest of the state. Segregation was codified in law, and even after it wasn’t it took a while for the city to accommodate itself to that fact; Lubbock schools were effectively segregated until a court order took effect in 1970. Praising God’s universal compassion on the one hand while practicing Jim Crow racism on the other was not a hypocrisy unique to Lubbock, although given the civic emphasis on piety, the contrast looks especially glaring.
Politicians in West Texas in the 1950s talked as though the Red Menace was coming in on the next train. Sixty years later, in the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney received nearly 70 percent of the county’s votes versus Barack Obama’s 29 percent; fully 71 percent of the voters voted a straight Republican ticket. Three months before the polls opened, a Lubbock County judge warned of violent civil unrest in the streets should Obama be reelected (he later claimed he had been taken out of context).
All of the aforementioned notwithstanding, people in Lubbock were and are, on the whole, friendly, forthright, self-reliant, live-and-let-live, plainspoken, and hardworking. Politics and religion are only part of the picture.
In the Middle of Nowhere, Everywhere Else Is Somewhere
Texas Tech, especially its football program, is the glue that binds the town together. High-falutin’ Big 12 conference rivals like Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa State often get their asses handed to them when they come to the Red Raiders’ house. Nothing else this side of dove-hunting season so unites the population.
Weather is the other universal denominator. No social interaction at any level of Lubbock society is complete without a discourse on the latest drought / flood / hail storm / tornado / dust storm. If no fresh meteorological doom is threatening at the moment, old-timers will stand outside, hands in their hip pockets, look up at the pitiless sky, and mutter, “Wisht it’d go ahead and do somethin’.”
“The weather can be meaner than a fourteen-year-old girl who realizes she’ll never be homecoming queen,” cracks playwright Jaston Williams in Is There Life after Lubbock? , adding, “Spring is the time of year that comes in like a lamb and goes out like an ax murderer.”
In the late sixties and early seventies, when the Vietnam War — and opposition to it — were raging, Lubbock’s small community of bohemians, would-be hippies, freethinkers, artists, and antiwar activists naturally banded together, as much out of self-defense and safety in numbers as shared sensibilities. Joe Ely recalled one time walking into the local Toddle House with long hair, ordering something to eat, and getting punched off his stool for his trouble.
Despite that, a small counterculture of the like-minded began to flourish underneath Lubbock’s day-to-day radar.
“This whole community of friends spread out to be huge eventually,” recalled Debby Savage, who was part of the circle.
“At the time, not many people wore their hair long or had the ideas we had. We were real curious and read like maniacs. We’d stay up all night reading and playing music and playing chess.”
But that was later, after the seismic waves of the upheavals of the sixties made themselves felt even in far West Texas. In the early 1950s, Lubbock was a good place for returning World War II veterans like Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s father, Brian, to raise a family.
Even then, there were occasional bits of weirdness to ruffle the societal fabric, like the “Lubbock Lights,” the unexplained series of nighttime flyovers by mysterious circular lights for a couple of summer months in 1951 by … something. Speculation ran rampant: swamp gas, migrating birds (plovers were the popular suspect), some kind of Communist devilment, secret government experiments from White Sands gone awry. UFOs and Little Green Men. The local paper, the Avalanche-Journal, dubbed the phenomenon “Flying Whatsits.”
The ubiquitous horizon has always inspired contradictory feelings. “It makes you feel like both that you’re at the center of your own world and that you’re one little ant in the middle of vast nothingness,” said Joe Ely in Lubbock Lights. “You feel both insignificant, because there’s nothing else, and you feel kind of like it’s limitless.”
“It was the largest town for nearly three hundred miles in any direction,” echoed songwriter and visual artist Terry Allen in the film. “It was the center in that sense, but also like prison in that sense.”
“They call Lubbock ‘The Hub of the Plains.’ The ‘Plains’ as opposed to the ‘Fancies,'” said Jimmie Dale Gilmore playfully. “I think it may be a euphemism for the middle of nowhere. Lubbock is the fabled middle of nowhere. So to all of us, everywhere else was somewhere.”
–From the notes of the Laguna Gloria Museum show Honky-Tonk Visions, 1986
To a visitor, Lubbock can seem like a civic entity obsessed with lines, grids, and order: The horizon-spanning rows of cotton, the parallel tracks of the railroad lines that converge on the town, the fenced-off rectangular pens of the cattle feedlots, the white chalk lines of the football gridiron, the arrogant angularity of a grain elevator or a wind turbine thrusting out of the plains and into the sky. And there is, of course, that distant, undifferentiated horizon line, so very distinct in the high, dry air.
The red-brick streets in the older part of town are laid out with right-angle pragmatism — the east/west streets are numbered, the north/south avenues are lettered. The Flatlanders had their genesis at a rental house on the corner of 14th Street and Avenue W. There’s comfort in the uniformity.
On May 11, 1970, that uniformity was upset in a terrifying, arbitrary instant. That night a monster tornado, three-quarters of a mile wide, bearing winds of 250 mph, tore through the heart of town, killed twenty-six, and did $135 million in damage over a twenty-five-square-mile area, all in a matter of minutes.
With typical frontier spirit, the city picked itself up and dusted itself off. New housing and commercial enterprises, including a new civic center and airport, helped conceal the storm’s physical scars, but the Lubbock Tornado still lingers in the memories of survivors and their offspring. Tornado season, as much as football season and hunting season, has its place on the city’s psychic calendar.
Even when tornados don’t blow, there is the ceaseless wind. And the dust. Once, many years ago, the city’s Chamber of Commerce or some such boosters launched a campaign of bumper stickers and magazine advertisements: “Welcome to … Lubbock … For All Reasons.” A photographer behind the wheel of his car, who must have been laughing to keep from crying, caught a snapshot of a roadside billboard bearing the slogan, all but obscured by a curtain of blowing dust and tumbleweeds.
“Everything comes out of the air — the good and the bad,” said Terry Allen. “Just the wind is enough really to drive you to music. You hear it whining through the weather stripping twenty-four hours a day for about six months and painting a picture is not gonna help. But I could sit down at an upright piano and make it stop. Just playing against the wind.”
And yet, for a land and a city so relentlessly linear, much of the Lubbock landscape is defined by circles — some overt, some secret. There is the circle of the seasons, of course (sometimes it’s cold and windy, sometimes hot and windy). There is Loop 289, which rings the city and is sliced into pie-shaped wedges by I-27 (“that hard-assed Amarillo highway,” as Terry Allen sings), and U.S. 82 and U.S. 84.
There are the few ancient oval playa lakes that still endure, once oases for Indians and buffalo. From the air, the vast green circles of irrigated crops stand out like emerald bull’s-eyes. Dancers in the honky-tonks still two-step in counterclockwise orbit (one school of thought holds that those Little Green Men in the Lubbock Lights were intrigued by the heat signatures from the revolving couples in the dancehalls). Cars full of teenagers circled the Hi-D-Ho Drive-In like Indians around a wagon train.
Ely, Allen, and others remember the liberation that came with the automobile and how sometimes kids would park their cars in a circle, pointed inwards, out in the middle of a dark cotton field, all the car radios tuned to the same station (often the big clear-channel stations out of Mexico like XERF), and everyone would dance to the same song in the circle of crisscrossing headlights. A secret circle.
Circles — revolutions, evolutions, re-creations, and rediscoveries — are at the heart of the Flatlanders’ story. Draw a straight line long enough and far enough and you encircle the earth. Although the West Texas horizon is a line, if you stand in the center of the landscape and turn 360 degrees, it’s also a circle. Completion out of paradox.
Or, as Butch Hancock is fond of singing, “A circle in the sand is a work of art.”
It is hard-bark country. “It has something to do with the violent emptiness,” said musician Jon Dee Graham in Lubbock Lights. “It’s not just flat and empty — it’s the flattest, and it’s the emptiest. “
The boredom engendered by the flatness, the emptiness, the dust, and the wind could be eye-glazing. You had to make your own fun, and some of it was potentially mortal; friends of mine would jump between moving boxcars just to feel alive.
One guy of Ely’s acquaintance rigged up a car so he could drive it from the backseat to freak out the cops. One kid’s daddy owned a dry cleaner, and the boy would open up the back after hours so his buddies could try on everyone’s clothes. It was all about making your own fun, or going crazy. Or both.
“At night the city was ours because it all closed down,” recalled songwriter Jo Carol Pierce, who was Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s high-school sweetheart (and first wife). “We lived in alleys during the night.”
Terry Allen used to show up at the doorstep of his own sweetheart’s house, ostensibly for a date, and announce, with no preamble, “Run for your life!” The pair would scramble through the deserted nighttime streets and back alleys and parking lots all night long. Pursued or pursuing? It hardly mattered. They’d arrive back before dawn, huffing and puffing and grinning like fools. “Whew! We made it!”
As a girl, Sharon Thompson (later Sharon Ely) practiced what she called Disaster Gypsy Fashion, laying out her nicest dresses during tornado season just in case she met a cute boy in a storm shelter. Once, she created a series of life-sized dolls to keep her company during a period when all her friends had moved away. That sounds like it ought to be a maudlin story, but it’s more endearing than anything else when she tells it.
The title of a 1984 Texas Tech museum show commemorating seventy-five years of musical history in West Texas summed up the prevailing gestalt precisely: the show was called Nothin’ Else to Do. The phrase would go on to become something of a Flatlanders leitmotif.
But that was then. The city has moved on and changed and mellowed in the six decades since the Flatlanders grew up there. There is actually a respectable urban canopy, for one thing: Trees! Mixed-race couples no longer turn heads on the sidewalks. Texas Tech, thanks in part to a robust research program, is one of the top schools in the Southwest. The Internet and satellite TV have obliterated the cultural isolation that was once so confining. There are kosher sections in the groceries, and one can pray at a local mosque, if so inclined. And, as writer (and Lubbock resident) Michael Ventura noted, the once-ubiquitous Texas twang has moderated itself into “San Fernando Valley with a lilt.”
Though Ely, Hancock, and Gilmore are long gone, gifted musicians like Amanda Shires, Cary Swinney, and Charlie Shafter continue to emerge from the Hub City.
But back in the 1950s if you ran a cotton gin or were an elder in the Church of Christ or a home-ec teacher at Monterey High, or held down the loan desk at the locally owned bank or ran the Kiwanis Club, or were, in short, one of the solid, respectable, conservative, middle-class Anglo bricks in Lubbock’s wall of complacency, you might be forgiven for thinking that God was in his Heaven and all was right (barring the occasional tornado) in West Texas.
In the mid-1950s, when the Flatlanders were boys, Lubbock seemed far removed from the societal rumblings, race riots, and recessions of distant big-city headlines. The city and its citizens seemed destined to spend the Eisenhower years in placid, measured isolation.
Well … as John Wayne’s character famously remarked in 1956’s The Searchers — “That’ll be the day.”