A group of people in bent, curved cowboy hats stand out front of a bus
Billed as "America's Newest Western Swing Band" the Western Starlighters of Dallas kept the music alive in the space age. Somewhere, western music scholars must have speculated that their distinctive hats were designed to resemble little bitty UFOs. From Metro Music, courtesy of Deborah Petton Bell.
A group of men in colorful suit jacket perform in a dark setting
Bobby Butler, aka "El Charro Negro" (the Black Cowboy), seen here with Little Joe and the Latinaires performing at the Hi-Ho Ballroom in Grand Prairie. Butler was later the co-founder of the Grammy-nominated Tejano band Tortilla Factory with trumpeter Tony “Ham” Guerrero. From Metro Music, courtesy of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League.

Gene Fowler and William Williams spent more than a decade researching, collecting, and writing Metro Music: Celebrating a Century of the Trinity River Groove. By diving deep into a subject that may appear regional and arcane on the surface, the two music historians actually uncovered a story with universal resonance—one of humans and music.

The book’s roughly 500 photographs, accompanied by extended captions, focus on the music industry of the Dallas-Fort Worth area from the late 19th century through most of the 20th century. The book, released in March, introduces readers to people of all ages, genders, and styles but with a shared interest in music, that mysterious muse that brings out emotions like no other form of communication.

The people who make the music are no less ethereal.

A man stands next to an old car decorated with music insignia
ET Gold Chain Troubadour. In the two years that he spent in Fort Worth, from 1940 to 1942, Ernest Tubb helped create the modern honky-tonk sound. Seen here as a troubadour who toured North Texas for Gold Chain Flour, Tubb wrote one of his greatest hits, "Walking the Floor Over You," in Fort Worth and recorded it in Dallas. The session marked the first time the popular singer utilized an electric guitar on his recordings. Photo from Metro Music, courtesy of Johnny Case and Tracy Pitcox.
A woman sings into a microphone inside of a television studio
Clara Torres belts out a tune on the popular Dallas TV program, Mexican Jubilee, hosted by versatile violinist Alfredo Casares, who also fiddled with DFW Western swing bands. From Metro Music, courtesy of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League.
A black and white photo of a group of young men in western wear
At least two groups of young Dallas musicians were sent out on tour in the 1960s by unscrupulous promoters who claimed they had the rights to present the groups as British hitmakers The Zombies. This version of the faux Zombies includes, left to right, Seab Meador, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, and Mark Ramsey. Hill and Beard later became the drummer and bass player for ZZ Top. Though the boys may not have been the real Zombies, as the late Ramsey wrote, "There was nothing fake about the audiences' response to our music. What they felt was real." From Metro Music, courtesy of Mark Ramsey.
A group of men in blue gospel choir clothes hold a bible
Though the popular Dallas gospel group featuring brother pastors Gean West and Tommie West were surely not part of the drug culture, the Grammy winning producer Leo Sacks described their music as "Jesus on LSD." Photo from the book Metro Music, courtesy of Matt Wright-Steel.

There never was a North Texas sound, per se. But in their research, Fowler and Williams uncovered a multitude of different sounds being made by all kinds of people. The Masked Singers (on the radio, no less); The Werewolves; Big Bo Thomas; the Belew Twins and other kid acts; gospel singers; rock combos; orchestras and swing bands that played live on the radio; women playing accordions; orquestas and conjuntos… They all testify to the wide breadth of music in North Texas.

Some of the musicians pictured in the book are famous and familiar: Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Delbert McClinton, Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan, and Robert Ealey to name a few. The obscure, unknowns (to me), and never-weres depicted here are no less interesting: Cecil Luna’s Rhythm Kings; preacher man Darrell Jessup and his double neck steel guitar, steel legend Tommy Morrell; Charlie Mitchell and the Southern Stars;  Joe Wilson and the Sabers;  Rev. Fillmore & The Swingin’ Flames.

The cover of a book reading

The cover of Metro Music. Photographed in 1930 on Houston Street in Fort Worth, this image of fiddlers, guitarists, and other musicians includes a young Bob Wills (first row, second from right) months before joining the Light Crust Doughboys on his way to becoming the King of Western Swing. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Wills.

Metro Music, which was released by TCU Press in March, also includes the ancillary and too often uncredited elements of the music industry, such as radio technicians, producers, studios, disc jockeys, weekly stage reviews, clubs, and club owners. Jack Ruby even gets his own chapter. A mustachioed Angus Wynne III—a longtime DFW concert producer—working the walkie-talkie at Texas International Pop Fest in 1969 as promoter of the event says as much about the ’60s as most of the bands do.

But it’s the musicians in the group photos keep drawing me back, like a curious anthropologist, to ponder faces and poses, wonder and guess. What was their life like? What did their music sound like? Who was their audience? Did they have a day job? Did the family approve of music? Who was the cut up in the group? Who called the shots in the enterprise?

Their outfits speak of many versions of Texas music. Bands dressed like charros and Beatles, decked out in sparkling powder blue tuxes with bulldog ties, in business suits, matching bow ties, matching flyaway collars, matching cowboy hats. The Western Starlighters, with their matching sky-high brim Western hats, long neck kerchiefs, tight pants, and fancy boots, manage to out-Troubadour the Texas Troubadours.

Most musicians pictured in Metro Music did not achieve much fame or enjoy financial riches. But posing with a fiddle or guitar or bass or drumsticks in hand, accordion strapped on, or behind a microphone, each player projects the power of musical performance. Individually, they were musicians. When they got together, they became part of a band that created a sound. Every player had a role. They were somebody.

You don’t have to hear these bands to understand their allure. You can see it right here in the pages of Metro Music. These are people who would do anything for music. They did—and it shows.

A man in a suit jacket holds an acoustic guitar
Zuzu Bollin. Bluesman Zuzu Bollin grew up in Frisco, next door to a honky-tonk, where he listened intently to the jukebox sounds of Blind Lemon Jefferson and other artists. He acquired his distinctive first name through his fondness for a popular ginger snap cookie. Bollin is seen here in what appears to be the Longhorn Ballroom. Photo from Metro Music, courtesy of the Dallas Public Library.
A group of people in jackets stand outside of a club
Felicity, outside Ruby's Place in Deep Ellum, Dallas, late 1960s. Left to right, Mike Bowden, Don Henley, Jerry Surratt, Richard Bowden. From Metro Music, courtesy of Richard Bowden.
A group of men in hats holding guitars and standing at microphones
Bill Boyd and his Cowboy Ramblers, with Bill's brothers John Boyd and Jim Boyd, were among the many popular western swing bands in Dallas-Fort Worth. Photo from Metro Music, courtesy of George Gimarc.

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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