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‘Live From Aggieland’ takes pioneering look at area’s live music history

Dave Thomas
A Bonfire benefit concert was held at Texas A&M University Sunday night with Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen both preforming to a full house at Reed Area. Statesman photo by Taylor Johnson

Released last week, “Live From Aggieland: Legendary Performances in the Brazos Valley” by author and journalist Rob Clark takes a pioneering journey through the history of live music at and around Texas A&M University.

While Austin and Houston and Dallas boast of legitimate links to history and greatness, and even comparable cities such as Lubbock and Denton have a celebrated scene, College Station and neighboring Bryan aren’t really known for live music.

Clark acknowledges this: “If some of the events depicted in these chapters were to happen one hundred miles down the road in Austin, they may be lost in the shuffle of the city’s expansive music scene.”

But that doesn’t make these stories any less interesting — or any less important to Aggies and Brazos Valley residents. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed on the history of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic for the chapter on the 1974 Picnic. And American-Stateman photographer Jay Janner was interviewed about a Ramones concert he attended while at A&M in 1988.)

At the heart of the book are A&M’s most distinguished musical ambassadors, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. The chapter featuring the two singer-songwriters is ostensibly about their joint performance to benefit victims of the 1999 Bonfire tragedy. But the chapter hits its stride immediately, detailing the songwriters’ early relationship with a clarity seldom seen elsewhere.

One of the standout chapters in “Live From Aggieland” details Garth Brooks’ tour-ending, three-night stop at the new Reed Arena in 1998. No love for Brooks is necessary to marvel at the scale and complexity of the shows — all carefully detailed here — and the effort put forth by Brooks to live up to expectations.

Among the other key events examined are Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic at the Texas World Speedway in 1974 (with a key examination of the aftereffects of the controversial show), Johnny Cash’s 1965 campus show that was canceled after his drug-related arrest, and a 1955 show by Elvis Presley that nearly ended in violence.

Fans of music writing will enjoy the diverse and easily digestible chapters. But for Aggies, this is required reading. Clark’s book made me homesick for places I had forgotten about, particularly the great tribute to Johnny Lyon, the owner of the beloved dancehall the Texas Hall of Fame.