Country music and wind turbines power resurgence in tiny Roscoe

The Lumberyard draws country acts to West Texas town.

When the Josh Abbott Band takes the stage at the Lumberyard in tiny Roscoe, a roar rises from the crowd like dust from behind a plow.

“I want to dedicate this song to all the small-town people,” Abbott shouts, then leans into a song from his album “Small Town Family Dream.”

Abbott grew up in Idalou, outside of Lubbock, so he knows a thing or two about small-town life. It’s why he’s here, drawing a crowd that’s bigger than the entire population of Roscoe.

If you’ve never heard of Roscoe — home to 1,400 residents — you’re not alone. Historically a farming and ranching community an hour west of Abilene just off Interstate 20, it’s undergone something of a resurgence in recent years.

Towering wind turbines started sprouting among the cotton fields in 2005, and today more than 800 whirl silently overhead, composing one of the biggest wind farms in the country. The 400-foot tall structures, each one marking a $1 million investment, provide a steady new income for a community long reliant on the whims of the weather.

Tonight, the same wind that turns those turbines whips through the open-air Lumberyard, where clerks once peddled plywood and two-by-fours. The venue opened in 2009, after the city legalized alcohol sales at bars and restaurants.

“Roscoe was a typical West Texas town,” says Roscoe City Manager Cody Thompson, who also happens to own the Lumberyard. “You know the story: The highway and interstate bypass you, and you die. You have to find a new identity, and Roscoe has.”

That new identity includes a school district known for its STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program, and a senior high designated by the Texas Education Agency as an Early College High School. Downtown, shops like Vickie’s Gifts sell home decor and knickknacks; a restaurant called Blackland’s serves napkin-worthy barbecue; and a small hotel called the Plowboy Center Lodge puts up visitors for the night. The city’s even getting its first new subdivision in 40 years — a collection of 70 single-family lots called Young Family Estates.

Late last year, the hipster-friendly website Buzzfeed even included Roscoe on its list of “Tiny Texas Towns Totally Worth the Trip.”

It belongs there, too, especially if you couple a visit to Roscoe with a stop in nearby Sweetwater, home of the annual Rattlesnake Roundup, the National WASP WWII Museum and the amazing Allen’s Family Style Meals, where $10 gets you all the fried chicken you can eat, plus 16 side dishes (really), all served family-style and rung up on a register that dates to 1942.

The Lumberyard stands at the epicenter of this West Texas entertainment boom. Big-name country acts like Mel Tillis, Merle Haggard, Aaron Watson, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Reckless Kelly bring in crowds of 1,500 or more. Some fans scoot across an open-air pavilion, showing off their two-step. Others settle onto picnic tables with their kids or squeeze blue-jean-clad hip to blue-jean-clad hip in front of the stage.

“I just think little get-ups like this remind me of how the Texas scene got started,” country singer Abbott says backstage before he began his performance in late October. “There’s a line in ‘Flatland Farmer’ that talks about how people come in from miles around, and they sit on the ground eating chicken. It reminds me of that every time. When I play places like this, it’s more of a throwback to what life’s really like.”

People from nearby bigger cities — like Abilene, Midland and Odessa — come here for the same reason they flock to places like Gruene Hall, 45 minutes south of Austin, says Thompson, the bar owner. He touts the Lumberyard’s Hill Country atmosphere, with twinkling lights and a let’s-hang-out-in-someone’s-backyard vibe. It’s an anomaly in this part of the state.

“It’s like a little mecca,” Thompson says. “People come here to have a good time. No fights, all ages, under 12 free.”

Musicians have taken notice too, he says. Some play at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth one night — 200 miles east of Roscoe — and the Lumberyard the next, as they head west on I-20 toward the next tour date. “The first year or two we were continually hustling. Now, they’re calling us,” Thompson says.

The flicker of fun has spread beyond the bar, too. Roscoe hosts festivals and events to celebrate life in a region that some Texans call the Big Country.

There’s the Spring Fling, the Fourth of July Festival and the West Texas Wind Festival, when the whole city spills onto the streets to salute those wind turbines that helped turn this town around. They listen to music, watch fireworks and, in one sloppy competition, drive their cars as far as they can through a pit of mud before bogging down.

“It was like a ray of hope,” Thompson says of the windmills’ impact. “It gave farmers and ranchers a way to pay taxes. It’s almost like oil in the West. It gets a little of the agricultural unknown of the weather off, and yes, you celebrate that.”

It takes about four and a half hours to drive from Austin to Roscoe. You’ll pass cotton fields and pump jacks along the way. When you do, don’t forget to look up, and pay homage to the wind turbines that are bringing winds of change, too.

“I think people are taking pride in seeing a small West Texas town get back up,” Thompson says.

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