The Original "Going Viral" In Music

Being from a pre-Internet generation, “going viral” has always been an interesting phenomenon to me. When I decided to hire on a talented millennial to help develop the business strategy for my country music company, The Next Waltz, I hadn’t realized just how much learning I had to do when it came to digital marketing. The more we discussed things the more I recognized some of these modern patterns as something that’s actually been around for a whole lot longer than even me (which may be shocking to some of our millennial readers, but I assure you it’s true). If you take a look back in history you’ll see it - The Beatles, Woodstock, even all the way back to Minstrel shows where many of the most famous American songs that every child seems to know come from. “Virality” is actually as old as time itself even though the form of communication has changed from word of mouth to the lightning speed of the Internet.

One time my sister-in-law, Emily from the Dixie Chicks, asked me what I was working on with The Next Waltz, and “low fi” and “cutting edge” were among the adjectives I used. She was suspicious of the two words being used to describe the same thing, and at the time I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Looking back on it now, I think the album Viva Terlingua by Jerry Jeff Walker was a huge reason behind my word choice.

It all goes back to my hometown of Bandera, Texas which I love.  When I was a kid, the legends of The Stompede were still circulated, a huge town wide party through the 40’s and 50’s that I’m sorry I missed when my family moved there in ‘70. It was discontinued when a clergyman went into the Purple Cow Bar and, after telling folks they were going to hell, they threw him through the plate glass window. But before drunk driving was taboo, it was the destination for nightlife.  All the touring bands played the Cabaret,  Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar was (and is) something to check off your Texas bucket list (trust me),  and Dude’s from all over the world came to ride half dead trail horses and wear western clothes for a week.  My mother worked at the Mayan Ranch through part of the 70’s, and in the ghost town bar while the beer was flowing, the one song I always remember them singing was “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.”  

Country music is low fi and rough and ragged and beautiful.

There is a certain kind of good time down here in the Texas Hill Country.  I think you have to look at the Germans and Latinos and how they liked to blow off steam after a hard week at work - dancehalls and beer.  Shorthand for that world, for a generation, was Jerry Jeff Walker,  Patron Saint of the Texas Good Time. Jerry Jeff is still a street singer at heart, and when you get him talking he lights up the room and it’s like his gravitational pull is multiplied as people gather round to hear his stories.

I make the case that you didn’t have to travel to Bandera, you didn’t have to be at the Vulcan Gas Company, Soap Creek Saloon, or Armadillo World Headquarters, to get that easy going vibe that I always associate with the best of Austin just like how nowadays the power of the Internet can transport you around the globe. You just have to put on Viva Terlingua and it is all there in the grooves. Over the years Jerry Jeff has had a lot of recording concepts - this place or that, dancehalls, beaches, etc. - but this one time it all came together. The sound, the songs, the vibe, the band and the artist. He had this one magical moment of ingenuity - a cutting edge idea paired with the perfect circumstances. There are so many variables to consider if you obsess over why The Rooftop Sessions, or Monterey Pop, or Woodstock, or Mad Dogs and Englishman, or Viva Terlingua sound so incredible, but I think it boils down to one thing. There was something in the air.

There’s no doubt that Jerry Jeff Walker, along with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, was instrumental in introducing the world to some of the greatest songwriters of the era. Through those three artists, I discovered Chuck Pyle, Willis Alan Ramsey, Neil Young, Jesse Winchester, Gram Parsons, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark (a short story writer disguised as a Texas songwriter spending his working life in Nashville fighting the good fight) to name a few. Many of them will always be connected by Texas, by their friendship, by their time, and by the music which inspires our Spotify playlist.

And that was the original "cutting edge," the original "going viral" - a recording made in a unique way that happened to capture not only the sounds but also the spirit, the energy, the something that was in the air that day paired with never ending sharing by whatever means available in a word-of-mouth tale, a radio show, a CD, and now the Internet.