From the sedulous to the surreal in cultural context

A Trip to ZZ Top’s Tejas

Stepping into an album cover can be a surreal experience.

One of my personal favorite ZZ Top albums is Tejas. Released November 1976, Tejas followed hit records Fandango! (1975) and Tres Hombres (1973), as well as earlier blues-rock offering Rio Grande Mud (1972) and the nearly eponymous ZZ Top’s First Album (1971). ZZ Top’s fifth long player—titled with an archaic spelling of the state’s name—reflected the band’s geographical roots. This was not unfamiliar turf for the band. Tres Hombres, for example, had celebrated that famous “shack outside La Grange” (you know what I’m talkin’ about) and pictured a sloppily generous platter of Houston Tex-Mex on the inner gatefold. The album invited listeners to consume the Lone Star State through a variety of senses, from the auditory to the gustatory (and beyond).

 

zztop_texmex

 

Tejas, likewise, sports a marvelous, wraparound cover image: a pastel-tinged painting of longhorns grazing under a starry Texas sky. On the back, bison graze in the hot sun. The mirage-like vision is punctuated by angular mesas and blooming yuccas. The viewer can practically smell the arid, West Texas atmosphere.

 

zztop_tejas

 

Many of the songs on Tejas are typical ZZ Top blues-rock-boogie fare: the first two tracks, “It’s Only Love” and “Driving While Blind,” are good examples. The band had been touring more or less non-stop since Tres Hombres. Even though Tejas is not as strong as earlier efforts, it still delivers. The record includes typically south-of-the-border-themed tunes like “El Diablo” and “Pan Am Highway Blues.” Among the album’s strongest tracks is the closer, “Asleep in the Desert.” A slow instrumental beautifully embroidered with a spiky, flamenco-style acoustic guitar solo courtesy of Billy Gibbons, it deftly captures the spirit of both the song and the album title. It is the cover’s sonic avatar.

The first time I drove through Palo Duro Canyon—the so-called “Grand Canyon of Texas” located along the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado—I listened to Tejas. Perhaps because of the cover, or maybe because of that last track, I began to identify the album with the ruggedly scenic West Texas landscape. Still, it was surprising to have that feeling amplified when recently visiting Caprock Canyons State Park, farther south and closer to the Oklahoma border. Not quite as deep as Palo Duro, Caprock is just as spectacular. It is also home of Texas’s official, free-ranging bison herd. Visitors are repeatedly warned not to get closer than fifty yards to the shaggy animals, which weigh roughly a ton and can run thirty miles per hour. Needless to say, this flatlander heeded the warnings.

 

buffalo

 

Out among the canyons and mesas of the Caprock, I felt immersed in the aura of Tejas. It was an overcast November day, but with the bison roaming among the mesquite and the gypsum-laced red Permian dust I could practically hear “Asleep in the Desert” playing. The cover art of Tejas is probably intended to evoke the Chihuahuan Desert out in Big Bend country, but this place wasn’t too far off. I was reminded of historian Dan Flores, who says in Caprock Canyonlands that a visit to the Llanos of West Texas provides “a good taste of what the nineteenth century Romantics used to call ‘sublime.’” Flores eloquently writes that such canyons “have been working various kinds of magic on the human psyche for centuries.”[1]

 

caprock_one

 

My visit to the land where the Llano Estacado comes back to earth also got me thinking about the historical context of Tejas. The album was released just a few months after the U.S. Bicentennial. As Americans celebrated their nation they also figured out how to connect local tales to the national story. In doing so, they rediscovered narratives of regional significance. It is no coincidence that the 1976 bicentennial celebration led to the founding of “public history,” a subdiscipline that encouraged practitioners to reach out to non-academics. Although not quite a local history museum, ZZ Top’s 1976 album celebrated the band’s home state (or nation, depending upon one’s level of Texas fervor) even more forthrightly than their earlier records.

Tejas also demonstrated a particular representation of Texas culture that has gained currency in the last century. Historians write that the Lone Star State reinvented itself as a western place in the early 1900s. Attempting to forget the ignominy of the Civil War, Texans reimagined their home state as a place of cactus and desert cattle drives. This trope proved durable. After all, Houston may be geographically closer to Biloxi or Mobile than to Alpine or Marfa, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it by fashion sense or historical consciousness.

In reality, Tejas owes as much to the South as to the West. Not only does the Houston band’s sound rest largely on the rhythms and guitar stylings of Delta bluesmen, but the album itself was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee—quite a far sight from El Paso.

Tejas, in other words, is not unlike a Houston oil executive wearing elaborately stitched leather boots and a ten-gallon Resistol to his thirty-sixth floor office. The album evokes an invented place—a mental topography—as much as it represents any actual place. A somewhat surreal record, it invites one to step into the mythical reaches of a place once called Tejas.

 

caprock_two

 

[1] Dan Flores, Caprock Canyonlands: Journeys into the Heart of the Southern Plains (1990; College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010), 116-117.

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