During his years as a professional memorabilia collector for the Hard Rock Cafe chain, Thomas Kreason often noticed that many of Texas’ musical treasures — from rare phonograph records to celebrity guitars — were slipping out of the Lone Star State.
“It really alarmed me,” he recalls of the items that were often going into the hands of collectors in other states and countries. “I kept thinking someone would do something about it.”
Kreason and his wife, Marianne, responded by founding the Texas Musicians Museum, which operated in Hillsboro and Waxahachie before moving into a multimillion-dollar venue in Irving in 2015.
During its 13-year run, the museum has steadily amassed a wealth of Texas musical memorabilia, including an 1860s parlor guitar that once belonged to pioneer bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and the first recording made by a musician in Texas, Mary Carson of Houston, in 1912.
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More recently, Kreason has become a vocal opponent of a proposed State Music Museum in Austin backed by Gov. Greg Abbott, charging that big-footing by politicians in the state capital could undercut or even force the closure of his and other private regional museums, some of which operate on shoe-string budgets and struggle to survive.
Nevertheless, despite their differences, Kreason and supporters of the state museum project are aligned on one fundamental point: that Texas could do far better in preserving an eclectic, centuries-old musical heritage that has defined the state and its people from the arrival of its earliest settlers.
We’ve done a lousy job telling our history and, specifically, telling our story through music.
Author Joe Nick Patoski
“We’ve done a lousy job telling our history and, specifically, telling our story through music as far as recognizing how much that means to us as Texans,” said author Joe Nick Patoski of Austin, who has written books on Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Selena. “I’ve always felt music is the finest of all the fine arts in Texas because it tells our story so well.”
That story is one of the richest musical sagas of all the states, linked to Texas’ evolution from Mexicans and Native Americans who settled the land long before the arrival of Anglo colonists and black slaves in the early 1820s. The multicultural firmament expanded through the ensuing decades with Czechs, Germans, Poles, Irish and other Europeans, who brought accordions and other instruments from their home countries.
Out of that demographic mix came a progression of sound and performers from jazz and blues of the early 20th century, to country, zydeco, polka and conjunto, and on into modern-day urban sounds such as hip-hop.
Fort Worth has contributed a distinctive share of that heritage through generations of performers that have included saxophonist King Curtis, jazz great Ornette Coleman, rock performer Delbert McClinton and bandleader Bob Wills, who is widely acclaimed as the father of Western swing.
Texas has representatives in virtually every musical hall of fame, including 14 in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. A microscopic sampling of Texas talent, past and present, includes pioneer rock-’n’-rollers Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, pop star Beyonce, blues-rock artists Janis Joplin and Vaughan, and country entertainers George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
It’s almost impossible to define Texas music, but if you had to start with one word, that word would be diverse.
Gary Hartman, director of the Center of Texas Music History at Texas State University
“It’s almost impossible to define Texas music but if you had to start with one word, that word would be diverse,” said Gary Hartman, director of the Center of Texas Music History at Texas State University in San Marcos, who curated the state’s biggest exhibit on Texas music at the Bob Bullock Museum in 2012.
Hartman and others fear that much of Texas’ music lore could be evaporating piece by piece through internet sales to out-of-state collectors or by falling apart or being discarded.
“Some of this stuff is priceless,” Hartman said, “and once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Rare musical items have been known to show up in pawns shops or garage sales. Kreason recalls finding a 1940s-era recorder, encrusted in wasp nests, at an East Texas flea market and discovering after a cleaning that it belonged to recording pioneer Alan Lomax.
One historical musical landmark disappeared in late March when work crews razed the Bronze Peacock nightclub in Houston’s Fifth Ward, which was a must-play venue for black performers in the post-war 1940s. It later served as the home of the Duke-Peacock Record labels that featured blues artists such as Bobby Bland, Junior Parker and Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.
Proponents of the state museum, including musicians Joe Ely and Ray Benson of Western-swing band Asleep at the Wheel, say the facility would be instrumental in helping to rescue endangered items and would strengthen Texas’ ability to keep musical artifacts from going to competing venues and museums in other states.
Under the legislation, sponsored by Reps. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, the museum would occupy part of a new 14-story building proposed for an expanded state museum district near the state Capitol.
The district would also include the Bullock Texas State History Museum and the Jack S. Blanton Art Museum at the southern edge of the University of Texas at Austin.
‘Punch in the stomach’
Opponents to the project include the Irving museum and backers of a proposed Museum of American History to be located in downtown Houston. During committee hearings in the House and Senate, Kreason likened the planned Austin museum to a “punch in the stomach” but said he could support the project if designated regional museums are given official status and a share of money raised by the foundation overseeing the state facility.
I think it can enhance the other museums, it can help publicize them.
Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills
“What I think is interesting in those that are opposing the museum, they’re opposing it because the state doesn’t properly recognize Texas music,” said Hancock, who chairs the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. “Well, that’s essentially what we’re trying to do here. I think it can enhance the other museums, it can help publicize them.”
More than 30 local and regional museums are spread across Texas dedicated to preserving the memories of home-grown music legends or to promoting a particular brand of music.
Some, like the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock or the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage, are apparently flourishing while others operate far more modestly, in some cases opening the doors only when a visitor stops by and asks for an appointment.
The small Panhandle town of Turkey, where Wills grew up, is home to the Bob Wills Museum, housed in a former elementary school. The bandleader’s daughter, Carolyn Wills, who lives south of Burleson, calls the facility a “wonderful museum” that details her father’s life through huge graphics and artifacts.
“I’m real proud of it,” she said.
Turkey, which has a population of around 500, is also preparing to host thousands of visitors who will descend on the town on April 29 for the 46th annual Bob Wills Day celebration.
In Littlefield, another dusty Panhandle town, the Waylon Jennings Museum is located in a room attached to the Waymore Liquor Store. The proprietor is Jennings’ younger brother James, 71, who remembers the deceased outlaw country performer as a “good old boy” who loved music and began working as a local DJ when he was 12.
The liquor store bears Waylon’s nickname — Waymore — which stems from one of the performer’s songs, “Waymore’s Blues.” Despite its remote location, says the younger Jennings, the museum attracts a reliable stream of international visitors from as far away as Australia and Japan who browse among items that include Jenning’s black trench coach, clothes, a guitar and Buddy Holly memorabilia.
Jennings was on Holly’s final tour as one of the New Crickets but volunteered to take a bus instead of the ill-fated plane that crashed with Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper on “the night the music died” Feb. 3, 1959.
Other museums, according to the Texas Music Office, include the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame Museum in Alice, the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center in Pampa, the Freddy Fender Museum and the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum in San Benito, and the Texas Polka Museum in Schulenburg.
In an adjunct to the proposed Austin museum, Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, is sponsoring legislation designed to promote the regional music museums through the creation of a Texas Music History Trail to spotlight “locations or organizations that are historically significant to this state’s musical heritage.”
The bill calls for tourist aids such as icons and maps but does not include funding for the facilities.
‘Touchstone for musical history’
Patoski, who grew up in Fort Worth, said he believes state officials, in their push for a statewide museum, have done relatively little “in reaching out to these smaller museums and talking about what a state museum would aspire to do. Basically they need those smaller museums if it’s going to work at all.”
Fort Worth and other big cities with a robust musical heritage should also step up to pay tribute to their musical roots, he said.
“Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, as well as Austin, could all use a touchstone for their musical history, regardless of whether there’s a state museum,” he said. “None of these cities have taken that measure.”
A resurgent effort to create a Texas Blues Museum in the Dallas-Fort Worth area may be close to bearing fruit after earlier attempts collapsed in the economic downturn of 2008.
Bran Aitchison of Arlington, said negotiations for a multimillion-dollar facility in Arlington were on the verge of completion until the bottom fell out. He and partner Howard Scott, a musician, are working with another city in the same area, Aitchison said, but he said he could not identify the site while negotiations are underway.
“We hope it’s sooner rather than later,” he said. “It’s through no fault of our own that it’s lagged as much as it has.”
In Vernon, a town of about 10,000 in far North Texas, Mark Farr-Nash is battling long financial odds to erect a museum honoring a musical hero that many younger Vernon residents probably never heard of.
Jack Teagarden was born in Vernon in 1905 and went on to become one of the great jazz trombonists of the Roaring Twenties, recording with Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others.
Farr-Nash, who operates a 1950s-era theater, said he and fellow music and history lovers have been working about eight years to convert an old freestone building for a Teagarden collection but acknowledges that the project is “kind of held up” while the team tries to secure funding.
He describes the quest as “a labor of love” and believes the creation of a state museum might help “shake loose” money for the project.
Labor of love
In east Austin, just six blocks from the state Capitol, Dr. Clayton Shorkey also has been engaged in a labor of love as the board president and driving force of the Texas Music Museum. Since its opening in 1984, museum volunteers have combed the state, interviewing musicians and gathering thousands of exhibit items.
“We worked our hearts out for the last 33 years,” Shorkey said as he guided a visitor through current exhibits on Tejano music, African-American musicians from east Austin and the legends of rock, pop and soul.
Housed in a multiuse building just a short walk from Austin’s outrageously popular Franklin Barbecue, the small museum has limited display space, requiring it to keep many of its rotating collections in storage.
Nevertheless, the nonprofit venture has played an undisputed role in telling the story of Texas music, drawing an average of 4,500 visitors a month. During 2014-2015, visitors came from 28 U.S. states and 17 countries.
Shorkey initially hoped that that the museum would ultimately become a world-class music museum but funding demands made that a constantly elusive goal. Now, Shorkey is fatalistically prepared to turn that pursuit over to a brand-new facility just to the west.
“If the state can bankroll this and create a wonderful museum, then we’re kind of willing to go out of business and basically turn over all our archives and such for that big Texas state museum,” he said.
“Basically, we have done all this labor of love for all these years because hopefully, someday, it’s going to be in a big, beautiful museum.”