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Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air: Legends of West Texas Music
by Christopher Oglesby
Published by the University of Texas Press:
"As a whole, the interviews create a portrait not only of Lubbock's musicians and artists, but also of the musical community that has sustained them, including venues such as the legendary Cotton Club and the original Stubb's Barbecue. This kaleidoscopic portrait of the West Texas music scene gets to the heart of what it takes to create art in an isolated, often inhospitable environment. As Oglesby says, "Necessity is the mother of creation. Lubbock needed beauty, poetry, humor, and it needed to get up and shake its communal ass a bit or go mad from loneliness and boredom; so Lubbock created the amazing likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and Joe Ely."

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"Indeed, Oglesby's introduction of more than two dozen musicians who called Lubbock home should be required reading not only for music fans, but for Lubbock residents and anyone thinking about moving here. On these pages, music becomes a part of Lubbock's living history."
- William Kerns, Lubbock Avalanche Journal

The Language of Lubbock
by Christopher Oglesby - 2004

John 1: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The Word was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

A puzzled child is starin'
from a red crushed velvet pew;
Out the window of the Sweet Street Church of Christ
was such a lovely view.
I guess it's me who's crazy
for I never understood
How hellfire and damnation
could be so doggone good
- Cary Swinney, Lubbock singer/songwriter
lyrics from "Good Ol' Sunday Morning"


I ain't gonna take the rap for Jesus on the cross.
He knew what he was doing. He knows who is the Boss.
He wants me to love my life.
He saved me. I was lost.
So I ain't gonna take the rap for Jesus on the cross…
This planet Earth is home sweet home.
I'm glad we're welcome here
The only thing to worry about is hate and guilt and fear.
- Tom X Hancock & the Supernatural Family Band
lyrics from "Gospel Clog"

I grew up like most other folks in Lubbock. I went to Sunday school and church every single Sunday until I graduated from high school and then moved out of my parents' house. Not so much a product of the community in which we lived, our family's regimental church attendance was almost genetic. My mother's mother came from a family of Scots-Presbyterian ministers named Llewellyn. Mom received her master's degree in English, and was working on her Ph.D. dissertation on James Joyce when I came along and she dedicated herself to being a full-time mother and Junior Leaguer. So the Presbyterian church my mother took me and my sister to was one of the more "academic" congregations in Lubbock, made up of mostly Texas Tech professors, attorneys, etc.

The congregation at Westminster Presbyterian lived up to its denominational name - "presbyterian" means a sect governed by a council of elders - mostly a bunch of old, responsible, contributing members of society with fairly-liberal minds and rather conservative, dull lifestyles. Church for me was simply reciting pre-written prayers of intercession, singing ancient hymns written by Martin Luthor & Bach, and sleeping through a very boring sermon on a topic such as "stewardship." Like a good Texan, if the Dallas Cowboys played at noon instead of three o'clock Rev. Laine released us from our nap early. There was very little inspiration at my church, mostly just bland psychological confirmation for these comfortable white-folk that the post-WWII American way of life seemed to be the pinnacle of civilization.
It is frequently stated that "Lubbock has a church on every street corner." Of course that is exaggeration and not the fact. However, Lubbock does have much more than its share of churches. At the turn of the millennium, there were 574(1) churches in Lubbock for a population of 199,564; compared to 102,775(2) churches nationwide for the total US population of 281,421,906. That is, there are almost 8 times as many churches per capita in Lubbock than in the United States as a whole. Of the total number of churches in Lubbock, 48 are Baptist, 30 are Church of Christ, and 26 are Methodist.(3) Broadway Avenue, the main street running through downtown Lubbock is dominated by no less than 6 major churches in a one-mile strip (about one church every two blocks, with each church being an entire block long). The three largest churches on this pious avenue - Broadway Church of Christ, First United Methodist, and First Baptist - are among the largest congregations in the world of their respective denominations. These three churches also happen to be among the more conservative fundamentalist churches in town. And the members of each, as a general rule, blissfully assume the members of the churches just across the street are all going to Hell.

The dour, Scottish Presbyterian church did not inculcate any awesome, overwhelming spiritual dogma upon me. In fact, the only piece of theology that I recall learning in my confirmation classes is that Presbyterians believe in pre-destination. Pre-destination was the ideal theology for my predisposition. I didn't suffer much of the psychological confusion, guilt, and fear that seemed to be imposed on my friends at the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Church & Church of Christ regarding sin and its consequences, where almost anything that stimulates the physical senses is anathema.
While I'm sure this isn't really the concept that my elders were trying to impart, I viewed the Presbyterian concept of Pre-destination as a license to declare, "Hell, anything I do is already pre-determined by God; I might as well follow my heart or else I'll be sinning." So that's pretty much the main theological concept I was working with as a young person. However, a spiritual consequence did arise from my mother's insistence on rigorous church attendance, and I believe this is one element of my upbringing that is in common with the church-going community of Lubbock in general: I became exposed on a weekly basis to thinking about the idea of God. It was obvious growing up in the religious community of Lubbock that issues of the Eternal Soul were equally as crucial as issues of physical survival. I believe that, in that atmosphere where having a "personal relationship" with God is of utmost social concern, it is only natural that the artistic community in Lubbock would be greatly influenced by issues of the Spirit.

Lubbock born & reared, playwright and songwriter Jo Carol Pierce made this observation regarding Lubbock's obsession with The Bible:

"The whole place was just over-shadowed by that one book, The Bible, and it's beautiful language…Whether we wanted to or not, whether we went to church or not, we were all influenced by this really beautiful, long and violent poem with beautiful language in it.
It was a little bit old-fashioned language. And I noticed that people from Lubbock talk like that: Words like "beholden." It seems that only around Lubbock do people still talk like that. It took me a long time to be out of Lubbock to realize that [other people, elsewhere] don't talk the way that I grew up talkin', or that we all did."

It is my contention that this language of the Spirit gives rise to much of the multifarious galaxy of original West Texas artists, musicians and writers that we can observe. The structure of one's language is the architecture of one's psychic environment. Our actions are shaped greatly in the internal world of language; our own reactions to ideas and concepts created by others far away in time and space and circumstance.

"All things came into being through The Word,
and without The Word not one thing came into being."

Alfred Korzybski, the 20th Century engineer and social scientist who developed the modern science of General Semantics as a means to study and explain human activity, observed that, due to the influence that our words and symbols have over our relation to our environments, "[W]e act as biased observers and project the structures of the language we use [into the phenomenal - or "real" - world] and so remain in our rut of old orientations, making keen, unbiased observations and creative work well-nigh impossible(4)." In other words, we assume the perceptions and definitions of reality which we carry in our heads are correct and accurate reflections of reality around us. Because we all have limited capacity for perception and understanding, this assumption is by definition always false and not very scientific. This is particularly true when dealing in the realm of metaphysics.
Korzybski even explains why the artists and the poets and the musicians in an culturally conservative community are frequently the ones who are able to make revolutionary new observations. Korzybski goes on to say, " In contrast, when we 'think' without words, or in pictures (which involve structure and therefore relations), we may discover new aspects and relations…and so may produce important theoretical results in the general search for a similarity of structure between the two levels"(5) [e.g. the 'real' world of phenomena versus the verbal world existing in our heads]. In other words: to think beyond the words programmed in one's head by parents and community - such ability is crucial to arriving at new and more accurate perceptions of reality.

Korzybski later explains: "There is nothing mystical about the fact that ideas and words are energies which powerfully affect the physicochemical base of our [human] activities…What is achieved in blaming a man for being selfish and greedy if he acts under the influence of a social environment and education which teach him that he is an animal and that selfishness and greediness are the essence of his nature?"

Korzybski goes on to explain the idea that human beings are manifestly different than animals - and therefore a higher order of being - due to our capacity, unique among all creatures, to communicate abstractions from generation to generation and in our ability to use that capacity in order to conceptualize and create new resources, tools, and abstractions. Korzybski points out that, "even though eminent philosophers tell us: 'a creature must live before it acts, therefore egoism must come before altruism,' this is not true of humans."

"Why not? Because humans [through the use of words, ideas, and other abstractions] are first of all creators and so our number is not controlled by the supply of unaided nature but only by men's artificial productivity," which is the product of that unique human use of abstractions… "Man, therefore, by the very intrinsic nature of his being, must act first (through the actions of parents or society) in order to be able to live, which is not the case with animals. The misunderstanding of this simple truth is largely accountable for the evil of our ethical systems or lack of systems. It is just because human beings are creators that they are able to live in such vast numbers."(6)
In other words, mankind's only unique quality in nature - and therefore our true function among creation - is our ability to be creators of new realities. That is humans, by our very nature, are artists. Our failure to consciously comprehend that fact has been our downfall.

I was driving to Austin from Lubbock after a holiday once. To pass the time and keep my mind agile, I was listening to the radio broadcast of a local West Texas Baptist preacher giving a sermon on the topic of "Holiness." Apparently, the week before he had talked on why we should seek holiness and how great it is to be holy. This week's lesson was how holiness was virtually impossible to experience if one was unfortunate enough to be born a human being. The lesson was in two parts: (1) Holiness is that which in the sight of the creator God is perfectly moral, completely right, free of sin and error; and (2) all human beings, by virtue of our very birth in the "state of sin," are completely separated from God because God cannot abide anything imperfect. Apparently, because of our own free will, which God gave to us in His infinite wisdom, we are doomed to total separation from God. According to the Baptist preacher, one can never approach God or experience holiness because God hates us all due to our sin; God can only deal with that which is "Holy."

However, Preacherman does offer a brief glimmer of salvation: because God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten son - Jesus.(7) And now what comes from Mr. Preacherman is the interesting thing - Now, Preacherman's here to tell ya' that he knows this fella' Jesus better than just about anyone does, and the only way for you to know Jesus is to keep listening to what Mr. Preacherman has to say. Mr. Preacherman will tell you all you need to know. So you best not be listening to any other voices telling you different, because those are the voices of the Devil. Don't read any books, don't listen to that "secular" music, don't allow any ideas into your head because they are surely of the Devil. Nothing good can come from your own sinful mind. Don't dance, don't drink, don't do anything fun. Don't look for goodness or expect goodness in the world, because the world is devoid of goodness. Wait around until you're dead and then God will take you into his mansion in the sky and keep you forever.

Although the term Manicheism is little known or discussed in the Lubbock community, that is the name of the philosophy predominantly practiced in Lubbock. Manicheism - which originated in the 3d century A.D. from the syncretistic teachings of the Persian philosopher Mani - teaches Dualism: that is, spirit (good) is in a constant battle with matter (evil); and that the release of the spirit from matter is obtained through physical asceticism, i.e. depriving oneself of physical pleasure and subverting all natural impulses.

Thus, it is Manicheism that is the framework for a worldview, the basic philosophy existing in much of the Lubbock and West Texas community. As renowned songwriter, poet, and photographer from Lubbock, Butch Hancock has said: "We all grew up with two things pounded into our brains from the day we were born. One is, 'God loves ya' and he's gonna send ya to hell.' The other is 'Sex is dirty and evil and nasty and filthy and sinful and bad and awful, and you should save it for the one you truly love'."

This Manichean philosophy, I believe, is adopted by many in agricultural West Texas because it eliminates fear of the elements through control of chaos. If we, as a community, choose to subvert our natural urges and live a life of asceticism and religious grey dourness, then God will bless our harvest and spare the dust storms, hail, and tornadoes. And, like everywhere and at all times, most people in a community don't actively seek a philosophy. The urge to belong to the group is overriding. Many are willing to adopt the philosophy of those around them, of their families, without much contemplation or deliberation. As Lubbock singer/songwriter Cary Swinney observed in the lyrics to his song:

Good ol' Sunday mornin'
We hopped inside a Ford
Off to our father's, father's church
to get ourselves some more
I guess it's bound to happen
ducks all in a row
Oh they dunk ya down, 'til ya think you've drowned
then they tell ya all ya need to know

I still have the "red-letter edition" Zondervan Bible that the elders of Westminster Church presented me when I turned twelve years old. I've toted my collection of books all over Texas and to both coasts in various moves, and the most beat up book I own is that Zondervan "red-letter edition." I really have read that book a lot.
Despite getting into quite a bit of trouble at school for harmless disruptions falling under the disciplinary category of "fails to exercise self-control," I really was a pretty good kid. I loved my mom and dad, believed in Santa Claus and Jesus and Uncle Sam. But the Jesus I came to believe in was not always the same Jesus that my community seemed to profess.

As I said, I like the idea of God and wanted to get to know His son Jesus better so I began, as many do, the task of reading the Bible from cover-to-cover. Being a teenager, I got really bored about the time I got into The Book of Numbers. I then decided that, if the goal of this Bible study was to get to know this magical person we call Jesus who in some way binds our carnality with the Kingdom of God, I would just read what Jesus had to say on the subject.

In the "red letter" edition of The Bible, all the phrases and statements that are attributed to Jesus are highlighted with red print, so it is readily apparent what the man we call "Christ-The Anointed One" has to say about our pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Upon review, it is obvious that the pursuit of God's Kingdom was Jesus' primary concern. So I skipped all the prophets and judges and kings, all those frightening books of the Bible like Nahum & Job where God seems really hateful and mean; that stuff is absolutely no fun for a kid. I leaped right into Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John, the only books in the Bible where the prophet Jesus, whom we in Lubbock were supposed to be so all-fired excited about, has anything to say. I committed myself to becoming familiar with only those "red-letter" statements of Jesus, ignoring the other prophets and apostles.

However, as I read the statements attributed to Jesus, at that time I discovered a very different Jesus than that whom the community of Lubbock seemed to be worshiping. In xenophobic Lubbock, it seemed that everyone who was somehow different - i.e. went to a different church, dressed oddly, wore longer hair than most, read strange books, advocated non-traditional forms of government, played sensually stimulating music - was somehow "evil" and therefore should be quelled.
However, I discovered that my red-letter edition clearly stated that Jesus himself taught:

"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite!"
- Matthew 7: 1-4

I believe that if Jesus the Nazarene were to come to Lubbock, his primary message to much of the Lubbock community would remain: "Get that log out of your own eye before you start worrying about the specks in others."

This character Jesus seems to be the root of much of the paradox in Lubbock. I began to realize that Jesus wasn't a preacher or a cop; he was a revolutionary and a rebel. Jesus spent much of his ministry challenging the established theological leaders in his community, the Pharisees and Sadducees. And because of his rebellion and non-conformity, Jesus would have certainly been crucified if he had ever come to Lubbock.(8)
As I got older and started paying attention to local music and art, I began discerning that this rebellious, revolutionary character of Jesus with which I became familiar seemed to be appearing in the art and music of many of the artists from my own hometown. One example, below:

Gimme a Ride to Heaven Boy, by Terry Allen (also recorded by Joe Ely)

Well I was caught up with myself
On the highway at night
Drivin like a bat outta hell
When I beheld an amazing sight
It was a lonely apparition
By the roadside standing there
With his thumb out in the wilderness
And a halo in his hair

He said "Gimme a ride to heaven boy
I'll Show you paradise
Yeah gimme a ride to heaven boy
My name is Jesus Christ"

So I come screeching to a halt
I said "Hop on in"
He said "thanks a lot for the lift
I forgive you of your sins
Yeah I just come from Jerusalem
Where things are going bad
Ahhh gimme a ride to heaven boy
I need to talk to my dad"


Well I didn't know what to do
So I jammed her down in gear
Kind a kicked my feet beneath the seat
I was trying to hide the beer
Ahhh but he just grinned and said "My friend,
I know you must think it's odd
But you got nothin to fear about drinkin a beer
If you share it with the son of God"


Well I saw good news in his baby blues
So I stomped it on the floor
I said you have to show me how to get there
I ain't been before
"Well it's a hard place to find" he said
"But I'll give you a little clue
It ain't somewhere up in the air
Its sittin right here inside with you"
Then right in the middle of that perfect smile
From his robes he pulled a gun
An stuck it up beside my head and said
"How's this for Kingdom Come?"
Well I pulled off scared but I heard him say
As he left me beneath the stars
"The Lord moves in mysterious ways
and tonight, my son ... He's gonna use your car"
Chorus repeats

Terry Allen -- painter, sculpture, singer-songwriter - has been called a "chicken-fried renaissance man." Terry really had no love for his hometown when he and his young wife Jo Harvey high-tailed it out of town for keeps after they graduated from Monterey High School. Terry has said, "All I basically wanted to do was get out...I desperately needed to get out of there."

Terry Allen's Lubbock of the 1950's had little tolerance for artists whose creative expression dabbled in sensuality. "I was kicked out high school twice: Once for doing porno drawings on people's notebooks, for a quarter; and then I got kicked out for playing a song I wrote which was called The Roman Orgy. I had tried out with this band I was playing with in high school. I tried out with a Bo Diddley song and got on this assembly and then sang my song, which got me in big trouble with the school and they basically kicked me out."

Fortunately, Terry was dedicated enough to his sense of creativity to later come to the following conclusion: " But also, it's interesting that the two things I got in trouble for --kinda' constantly-- was the two things that I really ended up doing [graphic art & musical composition]. I'm not still drawing porno drawings on notebooks but…I'm not above it."

It is interesting that Terry Allen found his art - his "true calling" - through acts of rebellion from the mores of his community; how non-conformity equals creativity. Carl Jung, one of the primary founders of modern psychology, had just such an epiphany. At age 12, Jung had a dream that he feared would cause his soul to be damned, until he realized that it was God who gave it to him. The dream was of a giant turd falling from heaven to destroy the cathedral of his hometown, where his father was a pious ranking elder. Jung reported that he wept with happiness and gratitude for the 'grace of the vision.' This revelation became the seminal inspiration that led Jung to create an entirely new discipline with which to study the workings of the mind.

After leaving Lubbock as a teenager, Terry Allen hoped and believed he would never return to the hellfire he had fled. However, when he returned to Lubbock in 1977 - mostly upon the urging of fellow artist Paul Milosevich - to record his critically acclaimed album Lubbock: on everything with Lloyd Maines and the Panhandle Mystery Band, Terry began appreciating Lubbock a bit more. Terry has said:

"I've always thought one of the true anchors I have had for my life is my West Texas upbringing. Ultimately, it has been the bedrock of any personal values, faith, sense of fairness, loyalty and morality that I try to live by...all with a deep need for personal independence and belief in human freedom. This 'best part' of myself, I think was instilled by the people who raised me, my folks, and by the heart of the place I was raised, Lubbock, Texas, United States of America." And…

"There's something about Lubbock that's not neurotic. There's not a lot of self-pity floating around that town. People in Lubbock decide who they are and what they are, and it's like 'Fuck you if you don't like it.'…So it's that funny double-thing of believing those values, but at the same time wanting to do something on your own - And all of a sudden you're in collision with all these people and values that you respected. It's kinda' mind-boggling, you know? Especially when you're a kid."

That "mind-boggling experience," I contend, is one experience common to many of those creative artistic innovators from the greater Lubbock area. Lubbock does make you think, and it makes you commit to one side or the other. In Lubbock, you're either a "church-goer" or a "partier"; there's nothing in between. So once one comes to terms with the fact that the church has condemned him or her to Hell, then he can wholeheartedly throw himself into perfecting his or her heresy, be it rock-n-roll, abstract art, or questioning the military wisdom of a manichean President of the United States who also happens to be from West Texas.

Butch Hancock is familiar with the experience of having his mind boggled by growing up in the dualistic community of Lubbock. Butch agrees with the contention that this dualistic way of approaching the world does much to foster the determination of artists, iconoclasts and rebels.
" 'Counter-balance' is the word I'm looking for - a counter-balancing effect. When everybody else goes to that side of the ship, I'm gonna go back over here to this side because that's gonna be the side that is above the water."
Perhaps this counter-balance to the extreme religious conservatism of much of the West Texas community not only somewhat explains the number and originality of artists, writers, and musicians from the Lubbock area; it explains why many eventually had to leave Lubbock in order to have the cultural freedom and physical resources necessary to master their respective arts.

Do you like what you just read?
Buy the book by author Christopher Oglesby
Fire in the Water, Earth in the Air:
Legends of West Texas Music

"As a whole, the interviews create a portrait not only of Lubbock's musicians and artists, but also of the musical community that has sustained them, including venues such as the legendary Cotton Club and the original Stubb's Barbecue. This kaleidoscopic portrait of the West Texas music scene gets to the heart of what it takes to create art in an isolated, often inhospitable environment. As Oglesby says, "Necessity is the mother of creation. Lubbock needed beauty, poetry, humor, and it needed to get up and shake its communal ass a bit or go mad from loneliness and boredom; so Lubbock created the amazing likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, and Joe Ely." - University of Texas Press

buy the book

or Return to Stories
(1) Source: Lubbock Yellow Pages
(2) Source: National Council of Churches membership statistics
(3) It is interesting to note that 4th & 5th on the list are: Assembly of God - 13, & Mormons - 11.
(4) What I Believe, by Alfred Korzybski, Inst. Of General Semantics, Brooklyn, NY, 1948.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Manhood of Humanity, by Alfred Korzybski, Inst. Of General Semantics, Brooklyn, 2d ed., 1950, pp. 71-73.
(7) Although there have been plenty of other accounts of "virgin-births" throughout history - Krishna, Horus, Mithra, Buddha, Hercules, etc. - all supposedly due to the paternity of the Supreme Deity.
(8) As Mark Twain said, "If Jesus were to come to Earth again, the last thing he would be is a Christian."

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