Texas claims to be the best at a lot of things, and quite frankly, it annoys nearly every other state in the Union. One thing that’s hard to argue with, though, is the stunning amount of songwriting talent the state produces. Maybe it’s the flipside of Minnesota, where a thriving artistic community stems from the fact that, in the winters, there’s little you can do besides sit in the basement and create. The wide open spaces of Texas and its border-influenced culture must do something similar to the heart and mind. Only Nashville rivals Texas for songwriting prowess, but only because everyone moves there from somewhere else.
Lyle Lovett’s from Texas. So are Joe Ely, Willie Nelson, Radney Foster, and Freddy Fender. Nanci Griffith and Tish Hinojosa? Texas. Doug Sahm, Buddy Holly, and Waylon Jennings? Drinking Shiner Bock and raising a Texas flag in the hereafter. Roll the dice on any significant form of American songwriting, and Texas is likely to show its face.
The Sugar Hill label does a good job of documenting some of the depth and breadth of the Lone Star State’s musical terrain. Offering up cuts from legends like Townes Van Zandt, obscure-but-seminal acts like Bad Livers, and up-and-coming artists like The Gourds, From Hell to Breakfast is a satisfying listen. At first, the song choices might seem a little strange — with few exceptions, these are hardly each artist’s best-known songs — but they make sense after a while. “For the Sake of a Song” began Townes Van Zandt’s career and “Snowin’ on Raton” perfectly evokes a Texas winter. Terry Allen’s “Gone to Texas” and The Gourds’ “El Paso” have obvious Texas links, and Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever” (overplayed though it is) closes the disc in grand storytelling style.
In fact, storytelling is probably the disc’s greatest theme. Folks like Guy Clark, James McMurtry (novelist Larry McMurtry’s son but an accomplished artist in his own right), and Rodney Crowell definitely know how to inject the feel of the open road, the open plains, or an open seat at the bar with considerable skill. The artists on From Hell to Breakfast created a sub-genre all their own, so completely that imitators have left a bucket full of cliches in their wake. Perhaps that’s why the Austin Lounge Lizards’ “Old Blevins” works so well. Starting off like a poignant story-song about a wizened old man, the song quickly takes a different tack, summing up Blevins’ wisdom as “blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah”.
The stories on From Hell to Breakfast run the gamut from quiet meditations that are so private you feel like an intruder for hearing them, to honky tonk rave-ups that skewer their subjects with such gleeful precision that you can’t help but laugh along. Van Zandt’s “For the Sake of a Song” is so layered and subtle that only the passing of years and the accumulation of experiences help you get inside it, while no explanation is needed for Terry Allen’s full-throttle Lone Star celebration “Amarillo Highway”.
From Hell to Breakfast delivers exactly what it promises: a taste of some of the finest songwriting in Texas. Van Zandt, Allen, Keen, Clark, McMurtry, The Gourds, the Austin Lounge Lizards, and others have all found unique niches reflecting their home’s reputation for individuality and self-reliance. If you’re not familiar with many of these artists, expect From Hell to Breakfast to whet your appetite for the rest that they have to offer.