I love Texas rivers. One of my prized books is B.L. “Bud” Priddy’s Fly-Fishing the Texas Hill Country that I bought from JT Van Zandt when he was working at The Austin Angler on Congress Avenue. It’s a spiral bound volume that explains where all of the most likely fly-fishing spots on our Central Texas rivers, as well as advice on legal car access and boating/floating and so forth. I’m not much of a fisherman, although I have had a few licenses through the years; however, the spots where the fly-obsessed fish gather appear to hold the same attraction for me and my kind. Coupling this volume with a Texas Gazetteer, you could pretty much guarantee a beautiful weekend spent amongst the finest natural beauty in our state. Siri, great as she is, isn’t going to open up that level of enchantment for you.
“Big River” by Johnny Cash has been on many of my recent playlists, and my post on the Pillars of Americana reminded me of the glory of the Delmore Brothers “Big River Blues.”
So naturally, my mind turned to river songs. Since John Hartford would dominate this list otherwise, I decided to further focus on some of my favorite Texas River tunes.
A Bucketful of Texas River Songs
“Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos”
If you and I have discussed history or books, or hell anything that got intense, it is possible that I tried to push one of my favorite books, From Can See to Can’t by Austin-based historian Thad Sitton as your next must-read assignment. This fascinating book focuses on the lives of cotton farmers in South-East Texas during the middle part of the last century, and, well you should find a copy and read it. Anyways, down along the Brazos river by the late 1800s Sugar Cane had become a very valuable – in fact, Imperial Sugar is still headquartered in Sugar Land, TX just off the Brazos. Around the turn of the century, a particularly harsh winter destroyed most of the crops, and we are left with this song. I enjoy the Dylan/Band basement tapes version, but Son Volt’s quite good, too.
John Lomax apparently collected an extensive set of lyrics for “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” at a prison in Brazoria County. Downstream just a bit in the actual (Imperial Sugar owned and run) Sugar Land prison is where they trace the genesis of “Midnight Special,” named for the train that rolled past the prison on its way to Houston. So that’s cool. I think.
“Red River Valley”
The provenance on this tune is a little messy, but I think we can agree that Marty Robbins isn’t singing about Iowa.
“Texas River Song” or “The Brazos River”
Another folk tune of unclear origin, but here is a beautiful Townes Van Zandt rendition. “The slow San Antonio courses the plains, but I never will walk by the Brazos again.” Nice.
I love the Jimmie Dale Gilmore record Spinning Around the Sun, and spent the best years of my life listening to either that or Junior Brown’s 12 Shades of Brown on every road trip. Like every other tune on the record, “Another Colorado” is incredibly catchy. Although it is a simple reminder of our fair Colorado vs. the Colorado of Grand Canyon fame, I still sing it to myself everytime I cross it as it snakes along Highway 71 heading to or from Houston. Jimmie Dale also wrote “Banks Of The Guadalupe.” which is great, but this is the one that I love.
A sweet little ditty from one of my bands, The Fence Sitters. Not to be confused with the Slim Whitman “Bandera Waltz” which is nothing about rivers…
“River Knows Your Name”
John Hiatt knows a thing or two about writing good songs. Not really about our Texas rivers, but he name-checks the Brazos, so good enough for me.
“A State Of Texas”
We pick up the pace a bit here with Old 97’s ode to the state. I had to replay this version a couple of times to make sure he still mentions the Guadalupe River – I kept getting distracted by Ken Bethea’s Gretsch!
“Texas on a Saturday Night Willie Nelson”
River Walking down in San Antone with Willie and Mel Tillis (and Buddy Emmons!)
“Banks Of The Old Bandera”
Also good at songwriting: Rodney Crowell.
Gary P. Nunn keeps the party rolling, as he is so good at doing, on the banks of the Guadalupe.
On September 1st, 2017 My Band The Fence Sitters are going to release our album, Mission to Mars, which includes another homage to a Texas river, “Pedernales Uber Alles.”
Did I miss your favorite Texas River Song? Lemme know!