Michael Corcoran takes Texas music ‘All Over the Map’

10:00 a.m. Friday, Aug. 18, 2017 Insight and Books
Of blues and roots rocker Calvin Russell, shown here in 2005, author Michael Corcoran says, “That guy would play for 4,000 people in France and come back here and play for 20.” American-Statesman 2005

It started with wanting to correct the record.

In 2005, the University of Texas Press published “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” by journalist Michael Corcoran as part of its Jack and Doris Smothers Series in Texas History, Life, and Culture.

And it’s not bad; it’s essentially a collection of newspaper pieces without a tremendous amount of background research, most of which Corcoran had written for the American-Statesman over the previous 10 or so years, a few before that.

It included pieces on some of the usual suspects (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings) and a few not so usual (Butthole Surfers). It also included a piece on Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, whose still-stunning “Tighten Up” was their one and only hit.

Years later, Corcoran was reading about the Drells and how the TSU Tornadoes played on “Tighten Up,” backing up Bell and the Drells and essentially writing the indelible riff and groove. Corcoran thought to himself, “Man, I really hope I mentioned the Tornadoes, because that song is all groove.” Turned out, he hadn’t.

Which got him thinking that the book was in need of a revision. He reacquired the book from UT Press and set about revising. Corcoran was long retired from the Statesman and dived into rethinking the collection from the bottom up. The result is, for all intents and purposes, a whole new book, deeply revised and expanded, that happens to share the title “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” with the former collection.

“If it had been done better by someone else, I tossed it,” Corcoran said from his home in Smithville. So he cut some big names — there was no need for the Willie Nelson chapter. Plenty of folks have written about the Red Headed Stranger, including Nelson himself.

“This really was about unsung heroes,” Corcoran says. “I justified Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena because I think they were underrated in their time, famous as they are.”

He added about 24 subjects and 18 new chapters, making for a whopping 42 Texas acts from, well, all over the state. Joplin and Gatemouth Brown rep for East Texas. The Geto Boys and DJ Screw hold Houston down. Vaughan, the Butthole Surfers and Calvin Russell represent Austin.

Corcoran says he had three criteria for building a case for the singularity of Texas music using artists he thought were underknown or underrated.

“First of all, were they innovative?” Corcoran says.

He points to Joplin, whom he still thinks is underrated. “I think she belongs with Iggy Pop and MC5 as a punk precursor,” he says. “My angle was that her view of the blues wasn’t about chops but about passion. When (Joplin’s band) Big Brother and the Holding Company were on a bill with B.B. King, they knew they couldn’t compete with that, so they gave their own spin on it, and I think it was more innovative than she is even now given credit for.”

“Second, how good is their story?” Corcoran says, noting the complicated life and career of the late blues and roots rocker Russell. “That guy would play for 4,000 people in France and come back here and play for 20.”

“Third,” Corcoran says, “was there overwhelming talent that was also underknown?” He points out Edgar Winter drummer Bobby Ramirez, who was killed in a fight in 1972. “The drumming on those records is just stunning.”

Being semi-retired meant Corcoran wasn’t on deadline. “Being in the newspaper business for 20 years meant that I was always rushing everything,” he says. “Revising this book reminded me that if you really want to own a topic, you have to spend lots of time on it. It’s a whole different mindset.”

He haunted the UT Fine Arts Library, reading up on T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian. He headed out to El Paso to examine the life and times of the doomed Bobby Fuller. (Man, there is a lot of grim death in this book.) There’s guitarist Floyd Tillman and record producer Tom Wilson, the increasingly legendary African-American producer who helmed early records by Bob Dylan, Sun Ra, the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa.

Through these profiles, Corcoran builds the case that Texas music really is as unique as it thinks it is, reflecting a melting pot of ethnic and musical influences that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. From the fact that Texas was the first state in the Union to have a massive number of African-Americans and Latinos at the same time to the Czech and German immigration that gave rise to dance halls that could accommodate, say, Bob Wills’ 12-piece band. From the honky-tonk blues and country that appeared with the advent of the electric guitar to the Surfers’ psychedelic sludge.

“It’s not really the South and it’s not really the West,” Corcoran says. “It really is something different.”

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