The ones who embraced the countryish side of the ’80s, they’re special. Beyond the synth-pop and college rock, the New Wave and New Romantics, even the Paisley Underground, there were the cowpunks. They were refreshingly less self-righteous than most of the pearl-snapped, No Depression-quoting blowhards the following decade. Centered in L.A., hilariously, all those crisp but gritty backbeat bands — Lone Justice (all hail), the Blasters, Blood on the Saddle, Screamin’ Sirens, the Long Ryders (didn’t they just regroup?), Tex & the Horseheads, Beat Farmers, Wall of Voodoo probably counts, as does Green on Red — in the center of which was X.
When I arrived in Tulsa, Okla., in the early ’90s, it was its own cowpunk (though by then alt-country-labeled) outpost — the twisted rootsabilly snarl (and, in concert, the chainsawed bologna) of Billy Joe Winghead, Brian Parton and his Rebels, the Boondogs (for a splendid brief time), the Red Dirt Rangers (in their rockin’ moments), Bob Collum (before his legendary hitchhike overseas), Mudville, Phil Zoellner’s bands, whoever was booked at the Deadtown Tavern and whoever drifted over from Stillwater (Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland, etc.) and … hell, anyone remember Ester Drang’s twangy offshoot, Lasso? — in the center of which was Tex.
Tex Montana, alone or with her Fireball Four, was a Crystal Pistol-packin’ mama. I missed the beer-heady days in that hole, but Tex ruled during my Tulsa time, and apparently continued doing so until her cancer diagnosis in December. Hearing news of her death this morning was a punch in the gut — typical of her to barrel outta here in some kind of damn hurry — but just one in a long series. I hardly saw a Tex show that didn’t knock the air outta me. “Whoo-boy!” she hollered after one scorcher. “That song alone separates me from all the waifs in the Lilith Fair lobby, don’t cha think?”
She was a helluva woman on those stages, and off. A hoot to have a beer with, I remember fondly more than a few bull sessions. Chrissie Hynde was cussed and discussed (my fault). When not rocking, she made rockin’ chairs. When not cookin’, she was cooking for two cool boys. One of them invited her to career day, where she totally frakked the competition, a petroleum geologist. Heck, being a mom strengthened her songwriting. “Me, America and apple pie, right?” Tex said to me in 2000. “It’s not like I’m writing my songs about my kids’ first day at school, though. I mean, ‘Love Turns to Hate,’ ‘Stupid Girl’, pretty much all these songs on the CD are about fucked-up relationships and bad decisions. … I feel like I’m a very sane person, you know? But I see people around me and have to say, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Maybe it’s part of being a mom — you want to run everyone’s life. That’s where the songs come from, and I think you have to grow up a little bit to write some good songs.”
X, of course, marked the spot. Those California cowpunk records had lasting effects in the heartland. In L.A., those bands were cityfolk playing at country. In Oklahoma, though, hearing the bloozy barroom blast of “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” or the skipping dance-band guitar of “Adult Books” for the first time was less revelatory than vindicating. Silly notions became viable projects. In my first interview with Tex Montana, in 1997, she remembered the epiphany: “A friend of mine, in Food Chain” — (that’s gotta be Sarah Wagner, yes?) — “brought over an X album one day and said, ‘You’ll probably like this.’ At that time, I was listening to Depeche Mode and New Order” — (that in itself is pretty amusing) — “I listened to the X album and thought it was super fantastic. I thought, ‘Nuts! If she’s in a band, I can do this.’”
She did it, all right, and thanks to her we had a goddamn blast.
If I coulda played in one of the recent Tex Montana benefit shows, I would’ve sung this ol’ favorite right at her. Tonight, in memory of one stupendous woman, I’m crankin’ it …
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.