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Bullock exhibit takes visitors on a Texas road trip

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Deborah Cannon/American-Statesman Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar at the Texas Music Roadtrip exhibit at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum on Tuesday, March 27, 2012.

By John T. Davis

Special to the American-Statesman

Gas might be pushing four bucks a gallon, but the institution of the road trip remains ingrained in the Texas psyche. It's the God-given right of every Texan older than 16 to light out on the open road in search of adventure and new discoveries.

That is the guiding spirit behind "Texas Music Roadtrip," the massive new show at the Bullock Texas State History Museum that opened recently.

The idea, according to Gary Hartman, who curated the show, is to guide the visitor through five geographic regions of the state and show how each area's indigenous music arose, and how different inhabitants' styles and genres blended together and influenced one another. Hartman, who runs the Center for Texas Music History in San Marcos, calls the process "cultural cross-pollination."

"Every kind of music imaginable can be found here," Hartman said. "We're trying to have visitors get a bigger, broader, more complete sense of how diverse Texas music is.

"There's a preconception about Texas music being country music. And that's important, but there's so much more. All these other genres of music in Texas have mixed and mingled in a way that you don't see in the rest of the country."

By way of illustration, Hartman pointed to western swing, which is highlighted in the West Texas portion of the exhibit. "In the 1920s and '30s you had these young, rural, white kids like Bob Wills and Milton Brown who were raised on those Anglo-Saxon fiddle traditions, but they're also hearing mariachi and jazz and blues," he said. "They rolled it all together, and off they went."

Off they went, indeed. And as visitors to the show are swept along, they'll be treated to a daunting array of artifacts and interactive way stations.

From Buddy Holly's signature glasses to a trio of hand-sewn costumes for Destiny's Child to one of George Strait's first set lists to Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan's lovingly battered Stratocaster electric guitars (the first time they have been shown to the public, Hartman said), the 160 artifacts on display point to the genre-shattering sweep and breadth of the music of the Lone Star State.

"As the visitor walks through the exhibit," Hartman said, "they'll see these different regions of the state and within each region, they'll get a sense of how these various ethnic communities brought with them their own musical heritage, and how they've cross-pollinated with others. For example, with conjunto music, what you have is Mexican American musicians hearing the accordion and Czech and German polka music, and absorbing that. The process keeps going, from orquesta to Tejano to Latino hip-hop."

Hartman swept his hand across the 7,000-square-foot exhibition space as he explained how each geographic region's history and ethnic mix contributed to the Texas musical gumbo.

"As we take people to North Texas, they'll find a lot of blues, some of the early manifestations of Western Swing, jazz and gospel," he said.

"Move on to East Texas and there's even more blues, but there's also honky-tonk and Cajun and zydeco music that migrated in from Louisiana," he said.

"South Texas is where you'll find Mexican American music — conjunto and Tejano and orquesta. But you also find German and Czech settlements there, with polka and accordion music.

"In West Texas you've got everything from border radio to country music to some of the early Texas rock-and-rollers like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison.

"And in Central Texas, you've got a little bit of everything, including Austin as this epicenter of the live music scene that's flourished here."

Hartman said there will also be a series of live concerts during the course of the show's eight-month run, each highlighting a different aspect of the state's music (see box at left).

Considering the range of music embodied by the state's musicians — from ragtime jazz pianist Scott Joplin to South Texas songbird Lydia Mendoza to Pearl Beer polkameister Adolph Hofner to rockers like ZZ Top to rappers who hail from Houston's inner-city wards to country and western standard-bearers like George Strait and Willie Nelson — it's a lot to swallow. But the show aims to make it go down smooth.

"We want people to come away realizing how diverse Texas music is," Hartman said. "At the same time, we want them to realize how music in Texas has always been a means of interconnecting between our different ethnic groups. That's the idea behind the ‘roadtrip.' Even people who think they know about Texas music will come away learning something new."

And best of all, it won't cost gallons in gas.