Texas blues – Country or Electric? Depending which side of the fence you sittin on. Blind Lemon Jefferson gave it a style but Stevie Ray Vaughan took it into the electric stratosphere. Over the next three weeks, we take a look at what makes Texas blues larger than life and the flamboyant artists who have left their stamp.
Texas blues differs from other styles in the way it uses instruments and sounds, especially in the heavy use of the guitar. Musicians such as Stevie Ray Vaughan contributed by using various types of guitar sounds like southern slide guitar and different melodies of blues and jazz. Texas blues also relies on guitar solos or "licks" as bridges in songs. A large number of electric guitarists hailed from this state, including T-Bone Walker, Clarence ‘Gatemouth Brown’, Albert Collins and Freddie King. As Billy Gibbons of the Texas blues-rock band ZZ Top puts it: “The Texas sound can be described as heavier and bluesier than anything else.” The flamboyance was first exemplified by the legendary guitarist T-Bone Walker. He played his newly amplified Gibson electric guitar behind his head, with his teeth or under his leg – making him the Jimi Hendrix of his day.
His successor, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, hit the big time when he filled in for an ailing T-Bone in the mid-1940s, impressing the audience with his boogie-woogie and blistering finger-picked riffs. Hits like ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ and ‘My Time Is Expensive’ put him at the forefront of the Texas blues scene. Another prominent figure was Leadbelly, whose family had shifted from Louisiana to Bowie County, Texas. He specialised in the 12-string guitar, and he too began playing with Blind Lemon Jefferson. However, he was adept at other styles too, specially folk-blues, and didn’t restrict himself to the Texas style.
In the 1960s and 1970s, three other musicians best associated with Texas blues were Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King and Albert Collins. Hopkins, who hailed from Houston, favoured the acoustic guitar and had a distinct fingerpicking style. King, nicknamed ‘The Texas Cannonball’ for his dynamic stage presence and intense attack on his Gibson guitar, made a great impact on a generation of players with his electrified output in the 1960s and early 1970s. His signature tune, the 1961 instrumental hit ‘Hideaway’, remains a staple in the modern blues repertoire.
Collins, nicknamed ‘Master of the Telecaster’, emulated T-Bone’s patented licks and flamboyant stage presence. His first hit came in 1962 with the million-selling ‘Frosty’, and he created a huge impact by jumping off the stage and strolling through the venue with a 150-foot guitar chord. The list of Texas masters would be incomplete without mentioning Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and Johnny Copeland.
The 1980s, in fact, marked the beginning of a new phase for Texas blues. More next week...