Throw a rock from anywhere you’re standing in Texas, and you’re bound to hit a songwriter. Like churches, there’s a singer-songwriter on every corner in every town of the Lone Star republic. Simply to list the names of recent artists would fill the pages of a book: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball, Lucinda Williams, Ruthie Foster, Steve Earle, Kelly Willis, Nanci Griffth, Bruce Robison, Kacey Musgraves; the list goes on and on.
In Pickers & Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas (Texas A&M), editors Craig Clifford and Craig D. Hillis gather 32 short essays celebrating the beauty, resilience, cragginess, and rootedness of Texas songwriters and musicians. As with most collections, this one is uneven; some essays lack depth and perspective, while others offer new insights into already familiar musicians. As the editors point out in the introduction, “the chief purpose of the book is to harken back to a great Texas tradition of poetic songwriting … which has informed popular American culture, and even international popular culture.” When it comes to defining what makes these songwriters “ruthlessly poetic” — a phrase repeated so often that it numbs the readers’ senses and makes them wish the book had been “ruthlessly edited” — the editors stretch to define it clearly enough to be useful. To be sure, Clifford and Hillis make the case over and over — in their introduction and in the selections of the essays themselves — that these writers composed poetry in their music and in their lyrics. “The melodies, chord sturctures, precise finger-picking styles, delicate passing notes, and related performance nuances are essential components of the larger work. The perfect marriage of music and lyrics is an essential component of these exceptional songs.”
Clifford and Hillis divide the book into three sections. Part one focuses on the “first generation: folksingers Texas style,” with essays and vignettes on artists ranging from Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark to Michael Martin Murphey, Billy Joe Shaver, and Willie Nelson. Part one also contains an omnibus overview essay on Texas women singer-songwriters, which, as insightful as it is, can’t make up for the lack of more essays devoted to individual women singer-songwriters. Part two focuses on the “second generation: garage bands, large bands, and other permutations,” with pieces on artists including Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, and Rodney Crowell. Part three covers “the passing of the torch” and contains essays focusing on artists like Hayes Carll, Terri Hendrix, Miranda Lambert, and Kacey Musgraves. In a brief conclusion, Clifford and Hillis contend that a number of non-Texas artists, notably John Moreland and Jason Isbell, have assumed the mantle of the ruthlessly poetic in contemporary roots music.
In the end, there’s enough variety here for every reader, but some essays move far beyond the already well-known lives and writings of this crew of troubadours, while other essays merely offer a superficial cheer and hurrah for a particular singer-songwriter. Peter Cooper’s essay, “Kris Kristofferson: The Silver-Tongued Rhodes Scholar,” draws us in with a poetry all its own: “Kris Kristofferson felt the cold Nashville concrete through the sad soles of his boots, and in that moment he began to doubt William Blake. Perhaps, Kristofferson thought, it was unwise to base the remainder of his existence on something a dead British poet said in some other world, across an ocean and a century … Music, he had been certain, was spiritual communion.” Cooper proceeds to tell the now-familiar story of Kristofferson’s rise from Music Row janitor to the poet and prophet who transformed country music: “Mostly it was the way that he fused poetry, melody, and reality in a way that no one before him had done. He was among a small group of writers that included Hall, Newbury, and John Hartford, men who transformed the language of country songwriting in the way that Bob Dylan transformed rock ‘n’ roll songcraft. Nashville-based country songs became literate, layered, and credible to people who had cared nothing for the stuff about honky-tonks and little darlin’s.” As Cooper so poetically puts it, Kristofferson was “born a lonely singer. Organized by divine providence for spiritual communion. Wrecked and bent and righteous as a boxer’s bloody nose.”
While the collection might have been stronger with individual essays devoted to Cindy Walker, Marcia Ball, Ruthie Foster (who’s mentioned only among a string of other women’s names), Kelly Willis (who’s mentioned only in passing), or Natalie Maines (mentioned only in passing), Kathryn Jones at least raises the voices of some of these women in her essay “Roots of Steel: The Poetic Grace of Women Texas Singer-Songwriters.” Jones also writes at length about Lucinda Williams in “Lucinda Williams: Poet of Places in the Heart,” but in the former essay, she asks why women have been so overlooked — even by the editors of this collection — in the Texas singer-songwriter pantheon. “Is it because women singer-songwriters haven’t been ‘known’ in influential musical circles that often resembled a good ol’ boys club and in a music industry dominated by men at the decision-making level? Were they considered more vocalists and musicians than songwriters? Or were they, like their male counterparts, bending music genres into an eclectic style that record executives couldn’t categorize? Too country for Los Angeles and too rock ‘n’ roll for Nashville, as music industry execs told … Lucinda Williams early in her career?” In her quest for an answer, Jones introduces us to a range of women — including Terri Hendrix, Nanci Griffith, Tish Hinojosa, Sara Hickman, Marcia Ball, and Kacey Musgraves — who continue to struggle with this issue. Susan Gibson, who wrote “Wide Open Spaces,” perhaps articulates the struggle the best: “We are preservers, recorders, communicators, storytellers. Being a woman makes you do all these things. It’s our nature, our clay. Texas music seemed like cowboys around the campfire for a while. That makes sense, too. But now I’m really seeing the contribution of women … I’m trying to incorporate the idea of a Greek goddess in a cowboy hat. There are so many archetypal roles that women play … ” In the end, Jones points out, women are “taking the wheel from the chauffeur and driving themselves to write the lyrics of their souls. This means staying true to their roots when it comes to their best songwriting and penning a personal poetry of place and time.”
Pickers & Poets: The Ruthlessly Poetic Singer-Songwriters of Texas doesn’t run very deep, sometimes rehearsing old stories, but it runs broad. On one hand, it introduces new readers and listeners to a group of musicians with whom they may not be familiar — yep, I’m sure there are folks out there who haven’t heard of Willie Nelson — and on the other hand drives readers and listeners to hear some of this music again as if for the first time to see whether the songwriting really is ruthlessly poetic.