By now, just about everybody has heard Austin is the “Live Music Capital of the World.” And Houston’s “third coast” rap scene is a force to be reckoned with, the Fort Worth stockyards are a staple in Texas country, and Dallas has birthed nearly every kind of artist, from Demi Lovato and the Dixie Chicks to Drowning Pool and Damageplan.
It’s a big state with big talent — but a lot of people, both locals and tourists, don’t realize that some of the best music scenes are found outside the big cities. Here are some of the most underrated music towns in Texas.
Folks in the hill country may argue that because San Marcos (and its nearby cousin New Braunfels) is wedged between Austin and San Antonio, its music scene is only tangential to the bigger towns. But that’s simply not true. San Marcos has had a lively scene for decades, and the heritage associated with venues like Cheatham Street Warehouse is undeniable.
Cheatham Street, which opened up in 1974, is famous for being the place where the king of country, George Strait, played his first few hundred shows. Late owner Kent Finlay was a cornerstone in the careers of countless musicians and songwriters, like Todd Snider, Terri Hendrix and the Randy Rogers Band. You can catch live music almost every night of the week and a weekly songwriter’s round in his honor to this day.
Thanks to Texas State University (spoiler alert: colleges have a lot to do with good music scenes), San Marcos always has a cool performance going on. The world-class venue The Marc, formerly the Texas Music Theater, is a great place to catch a high-end show, while local favorites Cheatham Street and KIVA are just a few places you’re going to find some of the best the state has to offer.
It’s not just country, either — rock band Blue October traces its roots to San Marcos and still operates out of the town.
Denton is another town that sometimes gets swallowed up by its neighbors in Dallas and Fort Worth. With an area as massive as the DFW metroplex, it’s easy to dismiss all the suburbs as afterthoughts — but you could pluck Denton out and place it in any part of the country and its music scene would be just as notable.
No surprise, it has a lot to do with the University of North Texas, which hosts one of the premier music schools in the world. The One O’Clock Lab Band, which is comprised of Jazz Studies students, has been nominated for 6 Grammy’s. Don Henley and Roy Orbison both studied at UNT for periods of time. Eli Young Band all met at UNT. Grammy-winning fusion band Snarky Puppy formed while at UNT. Norah Jones is probably the school’s most currently-famous alum. It’s a good school.
That influence spills over into the rest of Denton, too. It just has that “something” that people look for in a creative town. PopMatters thinks Denton could be the next hot bed for indie rock bands, particularly that folk-rock sound that has been bubbling under for a while (Denton band Midlake was a big part of the sound from the beginning). The town has also gotten love from The New York Times and The Guardian, and in 2008, Paste Magazine named Denton’s music scene the best in the United States.
The town takes its role as a musical breeding ground seriously. The Denton Arts and Jazz Festival draws over 200,000 people every year and is actually put on by the city. In March, “35 Denton” features tons of acts that may also be making their way down to Austin for South by Southwest a week later. But you don’t have to wait for a festival to check out this underrated music town. There are several great spots all around the small town. Dan’s Silverleaf is as eclectic as it is popular and Rockin’ Rodeo is a must for Texas country fans.
Nacogdoches is, in many ways, the cultural seat of the entire East Texas region (sorry, Tyler). What it lacks in size it makes up for in history. And considering it’s the oldest town in Texas (300 years old this year), it only goes to say Nacogdoches has the oldest music scene in Texas, too. Hey, there’s a reason Willie Nelson named an album Nacogdoches, which he recorded in the studio of the local Encore Music shop.
Nacogdoches is a cultural melting pot, and the music scene reflects it. It’s no surprise that Stephen F. Austin University contributes greatly to the diversification of Nacogdoches culture (and yes, Don Henley spent some time there, too). Despite its small size, the town was home to two original Grand Ole Opry members in Paul Buskirk and Bob Luman (they named a highway after him, you know).
For the most part, East Texas is criminally underappreciated in terms of its talent pool. Two major country stars in Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves grew up not far from each other in the tiny East Texas towns of Lindale and Golden. Lee Ann Womack, Johnny Mathis, Tracy Lawrence — just a few of the incredible artists from the area.
Nacogdoches is doing its part to give East Texans a home and a scene (so they don’t have to drive to Dallas just to be heard). The newly formed Nacogdoches Music Festival is a four-day party that takes place all throughout the venues and performance spaces in the town featuring the best in Texas country, red dirt, alternative country, soul, and rock n’ roll.
Banita Creek Hall, The Liberty Bell Bar and the PineKnot Music Co-op are just a few of the cool establishments that make Nacogdoches one of the most underrated music towns in Texas. Oh, and the General Mercantile and Oldtime String Shop which has some of the coolest handmade instruments you’ll ever hear.
Lubbock is, hands down, the most underrated music town in Texas. Lubbock has been churning out legendary musicians steadily for over half a century, many of whom have changed the face of popular music as we know it. Buddy Holly, Lloyd and Natalie Maines, Richie McDonald (of Lonestar fame), Waylon Jennings, John Denver, Don Williams, Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and the Flatlanders — in fact, Lubbock is one of the few towns in Texas that actually has its own hall of fame, the “West Texas Walk of Fame” dedicated to the Lubbock-area artists.
Lubbock is basically Texas country ground zero. A forefather of the Texas country genre, Pat Green started his music career while studying at Texas Tech, and a host of other top-bill Texas acts found their musical callings while in Lubbock, like Cory Morrow, Wade Bowen, William Clark Green and the Josh Abbott Band. The Blue Light Live is a curator for future Texas talent, and a whole slew of venues sprinkled across the town host local and touring musicians nightly.
So why, exactly, is Lubbock so underrated and unmentioned when we talk about Texas music towns? In some ways, the city has itself to blame. It famously took the town decades to memorialize Buddy Holly after his untimely death because many disagreed with the nature of rock n’ roll music. When the Dixie Chicks took a stand in the early 2000s, many Lubbockites were quick to disavow Natalie Maines for speaking her mind (an ordeal she immortalized in the song “Lubbock or Leave It”).
Now the town is breaking ground on a world-class performing arts center called the Buddy Holly Hall, and Maines was just praised and inducted into the Walk of Fame. Small steps to right old wrongs, but telling signs of the way Lubbock has struggled with its status as a breeding ground for outspoken artists and cultural game-changers.
It took the city entirely too long to agree on creating an arts and entertainment district, and city development moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to capitalizing on the town’s history as a place people may actually want to visit. The city of Lubbock can be its own worst enemy when it comes to promoting its music scene.
At the same time, the actual scene is incredibly supportive. Radio stations and media have always championed local talent. Artists rise with each other, and more and more Texas acts are pointing to Lubbock and saying, “That’s how a music scene should operate itself.” With the city’s ramped-up support, who knows what could happen.
Even though it has an old history of turning away from outsiders, the truth is, Lubbock is an outsider’s town. Musicians who come from there are fiercely independent and fiercely vocal about what they do, and it won’t be long before the rest of the state recognizes Lubbock for its incredible musical heritage.