In Remembrance of
Inimitable Texas Writer
John Nova Lomax
by Joe Nick Patoski
Texas Highways writer-at-large and chronicler of the curious dies at 53
John Nova Lomax was Houston from the get-go. I met him about 15 years ago at a book signing at Sig’s Lagoon, a cool midtown indie record shop. John introduced himself and said we needed to start a new magazine for writers to compete against Texas Monthly. We? The young man evidently fancied himself a writer, I thought. Then I started reading his work.
John was born in Houston on March 26, 1970, but as a child moved to Nashville, where his parents’ social circle sparked a lifelong appreciation for music. The family returned to Houston in 1985 so John could finish high school. John cut a dashing figure. His warm eyes, rosy cheeks, and winning smile, topped by a tousle of hair, conveyed handsomeness in an East Coast preppy kind of way. It was perhaps a reflection of his education at Houston’s Strake Jesuit College Preparatory school for boys. The confidence John oozed was accompanied by an irreverence and willingness to flirt with danger, suggesting he knew his way around dark corners a little too well.
Over the years, I kept an eye on the young man. He had chops. He enjoyed writing about crime and criminals, a skill passed along by his friend and Houston Press colleague Steve McVicker, who relished writing about people gone wrong. In 2014, John coauthored the book Murder & Mayhem in Houston with Mike Vance. John wasn’t always easy to find, bouncing from the Houston Press to Swamplot to Houstonia to Texas Monthly to Facebook to Substack. We finally became colleagues in 2020 at Texas Highways, where he carved a niche writing stories no one else could have ever thought of. [See sidebar.]
The Lomaxes are royalty to me. I’ve known John Nova’s dad, John Lomax III, who had managed Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, for more than 50 years. John Nova’s great-grandfather John Avery Lomax was the father of American music folklore. The field recordings made by him and John Nova’s great uncle Alan Lomax effectively created the roadmap to the roots of American music. John Nova’s grandfather John Avery Jr. managed blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins. All the Lomaxes wrote books. But no Lomax wrote like John Nova.
John Nova loved ephemera, oddities, and making random connections. He found beauty in sofas that were dumped on the street, pay phones, grackles, ghost malls, and bad renditions of the map of Texas as displayed at vehicle inspection stations. They were all details he gleaned from long walks across a city that was neither pedestrian-friendly nor easy to navigate. His Houston Press series Sole of Houston documented 10 hikes he and his wingman, David Beebe, took on major Houston streets including Westheimer and Telephone roads—over 200 miles altogether.
He relished skewering Austin, and Austin’s culture. His “Houston Is Superior” theory was likely influenced by the fact Nova attended the University of Texas at Austin for a semester before dropping out.
He had considerable skills as a music writer, advocating on behalf of obscure Houston jump blues guitarist Goree Carter and his song “Rock Awhile” as the first rock ’n’ roll record ever recorded. He dug up local hero Johnny Nash, who recorded the first hit record with a reggae sound before he retired from show business to become king of the Black rodeo circuit around Houston. He conveyed the excitement of hearing for the first time the Bobby “Blue” Bland album Here’s the Man!, in particular the dramatically salacious song “36-22-36.” The album was recorded in Houston, and John writes about asking his father about the record and learning Bland played his father’s Lamar High School prom in 1962. “That’s rankled me ever since,” John wrote. “When I graduated from Strake Jesuit 26 years later, we got some cover band.”
John’s mom provided the richest material over his 25-year writing career. It was also the hardest to read. Julia Plummer Taylor, known as Bidy, was a charming beauty who ran with music people. She was an alcoholic and drug addict who confided to a friend that she took LSD when she was pregnant with John Nova. She took her oldest son with her on shoplifting sprees for drug money, he wrote. A renegade and a force of nature, she was living on the street when she was killed by a car in Nashville at 49.
His essay “Of Unknown Origin,” in the July 2013 issue of Houstonia magazine, did not flinch.
Our mamas really are always with us, no matter how long they’ve been gone, though to what extent is a question I’m still trying to answer. The entirety of my career can be summed up by the legend on her one and only business card: I too am an investigator of claims of dubious veracity. In my appreciation of music and art, I feel her with me, just as I do in my inability to grasp higher math. She’s with me in my dark sense of humor, my turtle feet. And I’m grateful for all the ways she’s with me, just as I’m grateful for all the ways she isn’t.
John developed an affinity for disreputable establishments while eschewing anything he perceived to be consciously hip. In 2011, he was a guest speaker at Foodways Texas’ seafood conference in Galveston, a cutting-edge gathering of chefs, industry types, foodies, and academics. The topic he chose: the dive bars of San Leon, an unincorporated peninsula about 40 miles southeast of Houston known for its colorful residents. John brought a local barfly with him onstage to show the audience an authentic San Leon dive bar patron. In 2010, his Houston Press writings on dive bars were collected into the book Houston’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking & Diving in the Bayou City.
Looking back, Sig’s Lagoon was the perfect place to meet John Nova. The record shop was named for Sig Byrd, who chronicled Houston’s grand underbelly in the 1940s and ’50s in the original tabloid version of the Houston Press. Byrd’s stories about people who would have otherwise gone unnoticed revealed Houston’s soul, a quality most of its residents didn’t think existed.
John wrote about Houston like Sig Byrd once did. He enjoyed lifting the rug, observing, and writing about whatever was going on. He saw beauty in the gritty, dirty, misdirected, misplaced, messy attributes. John embraced the sprawl. He loved the Astros—Mattress Mack, not so much.
Like his mother, he suffered from alcoholism, which eventually chased him to a cabin on the San Bernard river and then the ICU. He began the road back to recovery and writing again—still full of piss and vinegar. Then came relapse, but this time he couldn’t bounce back. Surrounded by family and friends during the final days, his body gave out in the early hours of May 22. He made it four years longer than his mother.
His dad posted a final update on the Go Fund Me. The family plans to distribute any remaining funds after funeral expenses and medical bills to John’s children, John Henry and Harriet Rose.
“After a long hard fight in which he defied all doctor’s predictions, John Nova Lomax passed away peacefully early this morning with his former wife, Kelly Graml, at his side,” John Lomax III wrote. “He was in no pain at the end and slipped peacefully away to another realm.”
John Nova knew Texas like few others I’ve known. And he wrote about it exactly like he saw it.
The Tallest Texas Tales
John Nova Lomax’s first story for Texas Highways, on San Leon, was published in the June 2020 issue. I became acquainted with John’s work when I lived in Houston, and he was writing for the Houston Press. I was thrilled when he accepted our proposal to become a writer-at-large in 2021. From the beginning, he had a keen sense of the stories our readers wanted to hear. He once told me in an email that he believed Texas Highways was “the magazine I was truly born to write for.” That certainly came across in his stories, and our readers always connected with them. We’re incredibly grateful to have his words as part of the legacy of the magazine. His loss is a great one to our staff and to all of Texas letters.
Here, our editors share a few of our Lomax favorites.
-Emily Stone, editor in chief
We’re Still Here
This story on the “extinct” Karankawa tribe was one of our most-viewed and most-commented-on stories of 2022. Countering prevailing school textbook and journalistic narratives of the tribe as “voracious cannibals,” he tracked down Karankawa descendants and scholars who were working to dispel the stereotypes and myths about their ancestors. It’s a beautiful story about the power of community and the complexity of identity for Indigenous Texans. -E.S.
In the Belly of the Whale
It was a glorious day when John joined the staff. I had been reading him for years and was in awe of his prolific output and skewed taste. He had a stellar reputation and instantly made the magazine cooler. This essay is the first piece I worked on with him. I think it gets at the heart of the issues that plagued John. I know he confronted an army of demons to write it and considered it one of his favorite stories. —Mike Hoinski, deputy editor
Down in San Leon/ Land of the Free
I remember our art director saying something like, “We’re doing a story on San Leon?” Only John could take an unincorporated peninsula—“a small drinking community with a large fishing problem”—and turn it into a story that resonated with a wide audience. He had a gift for finding interesting characters, befriending them, and telling their stories in honest ways. When I asked him to write a feature on Galveston, he had a hard time narrowing his focus because he knew so many characters who could tell the story of the island. John always had contacts! He turned the story in thousands of words over the word count—but hey, it’s an epic tale. —M.H.
For the Best Enchiladas in Texas, Go Back to School in San Antonio
John once came across a post on a message board where a person described fond memories of “enchilada day” at a school in San Antonio. The poster mentioned that Northeast ISD had once published the recipe. “I think it would be fun to get at the lore of Enchilada Day in San Antonio and of course run that recipe,” John wrote in his pitch to us. “I will take one for the team and make a batch myself if that’s what it takes.” He dug into the subject matter by interviewing graduates from San Antonio school districts, the executive director of school nutrition, and a former superintendent of Northeast ISD. And, yes, he attempted to make the recipe for the team. How can you not appreciate that level of commitment? It became one of Texas Highways’ most-viewed stories of all time. —Sarah Thurmond, web editor
Beware the Ghost Fiddler of the San Bernard River
John could really set a mood or scene for the reader, and he created a particularly spooky vibe in this piece about a local ghost story in Brazoria County, where “the cicadas thrum their rhapsodies, and the barred owls caterwaul high in the bearded trees.” When he pitched the idea to me, he included in the email, “I know someone who claims to have heard this fiddler.” I started noticing a pattern with him: He always seemed to know someone who had a great story to tell. —S.T.
My Favorite Texas Trip
Lomax was truly a one-of-a-kind writer. He had an ability to balance humor while still being informative. He had a pulse on Texas—and with a variety of subjects. Music? You betcha. What about some obscure piece of history? Yep, he knew all about it. We could count on him for almost anything. I feel really lucky that I’ve been part of his tenure here and at Texas Monthly. —Natalie Moore, product and engagement manager
Where Does the Texas Hill Country Actually End?
I loved his story about the folks trying to cash in on being part of the Hill Country. Sometimes, it can be hard to write social copy for stories. It was never hard with a John Nova Lomax story. —N.M.