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Gary Jones (seated) and some friends do a little picking outside at Hondo's. The Texas Hill Country continues to attract and influence musicians seeking their own voice and their own sound. Photo by Phil Houseal


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So, what is Hill Country Music?

by Phil Houseal
Aug 9, 2006

When I began writing this column last August, one of my goals was to try to define the "Hill Country" sound.

Along the way, I've written articles about country, classical, polka, and mariachi music. I've talked to folks who build and play drums, flutes, and keyboards. I've visited clubs that feature live music and karaoke. I've interviewed pickers, pluckers, singers, songwriters, and BOTH fiddlers and violinists.

(Lucky for you I decided not to write about the guy who plays the turkey baster - honest.)

One question I always asked: What is Hill Country music?

Here are some answers.

J.P., Manager of Hondo's:

“I believe there is a Hill Country type of music... but I have a hard time defining it. It is Hispanic, rock, electric, folk, and country... but not ‘cry in your beer country.’ The music is about living here, which is very different from living in Austin. There, they don’t sing about dirt roads and pickup trucks.

The point is performers like Almost Patsy Cline and Thomas Michael Riley are singing about their lives. Roger Moon sings about his dog, bluebonnets, and the Hill Country. Josh Dodds has a song about the Frio River. It’s geographically based, it’s not Nashville country. George Strait sings great songs, but they could be about anywhere in the United States."

Rob Roy Parnell, harmonica player and brother of country singer Lee Roy Parnell:

"I describe the music from the Texas Hill Country as real and true to its roots. The music makes you reminisce about things that have happened similarly in your life and usually are geared to making you smile."

Will Owen-Gage, 18-year-old guitar phenom:

"The Hill Country is bringing in good artists. The scene is genuine because musicians are not going there to be discovered, but to become better musicians."

Maggie Montgomery, singer, songwriter, and mother of Monte:

"I see more and more music venues opening up in the Hill Country. It’s all top notch, eclectic. I find music just as good here as it is in any city. You don’t have to go to Austin to find incredible entertainers. We have a local radio station that plays local people. That helps tremendously. It’s all good here."

Josh Hickerson, guitar player with Delta Sun:

"There is a Hill Country sound, but it's not the people you think. It's not modern western music. The center is Luckenbach and Hondo's, and it spirals out from there. It is music that is down home, a back porch sound in a quasi zone between country and rock. Hill Country music is not based on albums, it’s more based on the environment, playing live and unplugged."

Mike Tangman, owner of Alamo Springs Cafe:

"I call it Texas Americana. It’s a bluesy sound that runs to the traditional country sound to folk, pop, and rock and roll. There’s just a flavor to it. I can’t put my finger on it. There’s a sound that when you hear it, you know it’s Hill Country."

Rick Starr, KFAN DJ:

"It’s so diverse I can’t find one band to embody it - maybe Ben Beckendorf for the blues end, and Derek Spence for country. It’s a feeling of independence, an independent-back-to-roots-blue-collar sound. They sing with a love of where they are at, not about women or drugs. It’s our little secret part of the world."

Jay Nash, builder of flutes, who used their spirit to fight back from paralysis:

"If I learned nothing else from my experience, I learned that when you live in your heart space, that's a pretty nice place to stay. When I play the flute at Leakey, outside along the Frio River, I feel like the ancient spirits and elders are listening. It is a spiritual connection."

Bart Trotter, Champion Fiddler:

"We are influenced by our surroundings, and referenced by that. A lot of musicians still write songs that are pretty genuine... affected by geography and lifestyle. That definitely has an influence - this is a beautiful place."

So at one year and counting, it seems that when musicians and their fans think of Hill Country music, they think of... the Hill Country.

It's that simple.