Texas Living

Texas’ Most Important Musicians Ranked by Decade

By Peter Simek 2.1.18

Texas’ cultural musical heritage runs deep and is incredibly diverse. From cowboy songs to the blues, country to Tejano, and, of course, rock and roll, American musical culture would not be what it is today had it not been for the musicians of Texan history. And that proud tradition continues today.

They say “as Texas goes, so goes the nation.” Here’s the proof: the ultimate list of the famous, infamous, and obscure artists who shaped the history of music in the last century.

1900s: Scott Joplin

The “King of Ragtime,” who helped shape the history of jazz and American music, may be most associated with St. Louis. But the born-and-bred East Texan grew up, learned how to play multiple instruments, and began performing while still living and working near Texarkana and throughout the American South.

1910s: Lead Belly

Lead Belly could top the list of any decade of the first half of the 20th century — that’s how important he was to American folk and blues music and how long, and often difficult, his journey toward notoriety was. But in the 1910s, while Lead Belly was in prison in Huntsville and performing in the streets around Dallas, he began playing the folk, blues, and prison songs that would make him one of the foundational figures in American popular music.

1920s: Blind Lemon Jefferson

The blind guitar player who took up his spot on a street corner in the Deep Ellum district of Dallas played a distinctive style of blues guitar that would influence countless successors, most notably Lightnin’ Hopkins, and would go on to become a cornerstone upon which the blues — and eventually rock and roll — would be built.

1930s: Narciso Martínez

Nicknamed “El Huracán del Valle” (The Hurricane of the Valley), Martínez had a particular brand of accordion playing that blended Mexican melodies, Cajun rhythms, and Czech and Polish polka, fused together the diverse cultures of borderland Texas and helped give birth to conjunto and Tejano music.

Honorable mention: Bob Wills, the inventor of Western swing.

1940s: Hank Williams

What’s left to say about the high and lonesome sound of Hank Williams that hasn’t already been said, except that it made Williams the undisputed King of Country.

Honorable mentions: T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, whose blues music had an outsize influence on the development of rock and roll.

1950s: Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison

The 1950s witnessed an explosion of Texas music, with country, rockabilly, soul, R&B, and rock-and-roll artists making Texas a cradle to a new American sound. These two figures tower over the rest, offering one of the most iconic voices (Orbison) and one of the most formative sounds (Holly) in the history of rock and roll.

Honorable mention: George Jones, one of the most incomparable and beloved country musicians of all time.

1960s: Van Cliburn

During the decade after triumphant victory at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, the tall and debonair Fort Worth pianist’s popular and critically acclaimed recordings showed the world that Texas’ rich musical culture ascended to the highest echelons of the classical world.

Honorable mention: Janis Joplin, whose legendary voice never lost the grit and humidity of Port Arthur.

1970s: Willie Nelson

Renegade country, superstardom, one of music’s most memorable voices, a travel-worn guitar, and that headband: Willie Nelson is more than a Texan musician, he’s a state treasure, a symbol of the freedom, tradition, authenticity, grit, and charm that make this state what it is.

Honorable mention: Townes Van Zandt, the influential songwriter and folk antihero.

1980s: George Strait

One of the most influential country music artists of all time, Strait entered the country mainstream like a breath of fresh air, with a no-nonsense respect for country’s roots and impeccable songwriting.

Honorable mention: Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose unmatched talent and showmanship helped him become an ambassador of Texas blues to the world.

1990s: DJ Screw

Houston’s contributions to the world of hip-hop, the South’s slow ascendency to the heights of influence — so much of what Houston and the South mean to hip-hop today can be traced back to the 20-year-old DJ who began to slow down his mixes, spawning a slew of coveted mixtapes that influenced a generation of artists.

Honorable mention: Selena, the Queen of Tejano who helped bring Latin music into the mainstream.

2000s: Beyoncé

Queen B’s post-Destiny Child breakout established her as one of the giants of the recording industry, one of those rare performers who transcended her music to become an icon for a generation.

Honorable mention: Norah Jones, whose brand of palatably cool jazzy pop brought new respectability to easy-listening adult contemporary.

2010s: Leon Bridges

Perhaps it is too soon to know which artists in our current decade will have an outsized influence on the world of music, the young Crowley talent’s debut suggests the future of Texas music may lie in mining the past.

Think you know Texas like the back of your hand? See if you can tell the fact from the fiction.

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