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From Tejano Showcases to Jazz Nights, Dallas Is Redefining ‘Texas Music’ by Celebrating Diversity

Along with friendly rival Fort Worth, the "Big D" is challenging Austin as the "Live Music Capital of the World"
Vicious Velma/© Vicious Velma

C ody Jinks didn’t mention Austin by name in his 2010 song “Hippies and Cowboys,” but it’s easy to read one particular lyric as a subtle shot at the city and its evolution from outlaws and artists haven to a home for industry insiders and tech bros.

“I never been a part of any musical scenes,” Jinks, who is from just north of Fort Worth, sang. “I ain’t just talking Nashville/if you know what I mean.”

In the years since, as Austin’s cost of living has only increased, Jinks’ Dallas/Fort Worth backyard has in fact fostered its own musical scene. While there’s always been a friendly rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth, musicians across myriad genres are taking advantage of the venues, studios, record labels, DJs, and demand for live music in the neighboring cities.

The result is a prolific, accessible, and diverse artistic community in Dallas/Fort Worth that’s giving Austin and its nickname of the “Live Music Capital of the World” a run for its money.

A Bed of Creativity
You’d be hard-pressed to find two places in more direct cultural opposition than the Fort Worth Stockyards and Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood. Both are parts of their cities’ histories dating back to the 1800s: The Stockyards was an original livestock trading center, and Deep Ellum was one of Dallas’ first commercial districts for African Americans that, many iterations later, became a countercultural hub for punks and misfits in the Eighties and Nineties.

Artists like Leon Bridges and Charley Crockett spent the last decade proving that relentless gigging in the small bars and venues in Deep Ellum and around Dallas/Fort Worth can launch a musician into broader fame and national tours.

“I bet you could hear 10 or 20 styles of music in Deep Ellum, anytime,” says Crockett, who spent time busking in New Orleans and New York before returning to the Dallas/Fort Worth area and building a fanbase. “That makes it unique in the world, even now.”

Venues in Deep Ellum like Trees, Club Dada, and Adair’s Saloon are history-laced live-music spots that still feature local and touring acts, while the Stockyards’ White Elephant Saloon has been a spot for up-and-coming country artists like Jinks.

Money has gone into revitalizations of both Deep Ellum and the Stockyards, and musicians are now driving back and forth down I-30 to not only play in the crowded tourist areas but in new and old venues all over both cities.

“I feel like the music that comes out of Dallas and Fort Worth sounds like all the genres you like from Texas all mashed together,” says Joshua Ray Walker. Walker sees a future in the region where he and his peers can record and release music without having to leave for more crowded markets. “I’d really like to be at the forefront of making Dallas a music town,” he says.

“It’s a bed for creativity, and there’s not really competition per se like in Austin or Nashville or New York or L.A.,” echoes Paul Cauthen, a Texas crooner with a booming baritone and wry sense of humor. “It’s more about being inclusive and young songwriters helping each other out and opening doors for each other.”

Both Dallas and Fort Worth are home to established recording studios too. Niles City Sound in Fort Worth is where Leon Bridges recorded his debut album Coming Home, and Modern Electric Sound Recorders in Dallas, overseen by the producer Beau Bedford, has been used by out-of-towners and locals alike, nurturing homegrown acts like the Texas Gentlemen and Cauthen.

“It’s just good people trying to make good shit happen and nobody’s worried about money or anything like that,” Cauthen says. “We just want to make something that bangs, slaps, and fucks.”

The Badu Effect
Walk into the Deep Ellum club Three Links on a Wednesday night, and you’ll hear a jam session that challenges what you think of as jazz. The weekly event is hosted by RC Williams, a keyboardist and longtime musical director for Dallas resident Erykah Badu. Take a spot at the bar around 10:30 and a fresh-faced teenager might be waiting timidly next to you, his instrument still in its case. He’ll get his chance, but the first hour will feature some of the area’s best and more established players, like Mike Mitchell, a prodigiously talented 27-year-old drummer who moved back to Dallas from New York during the pandemic.

Williams came up with the idea for the jam night when, on the road with Badu years ago, he was invited to similar set-ups in cities like Philadelphia and New York. “It used to be the only jam session [in Dallas], now you can find one nearly every night of the week,” he says.

Two streets away from Three Links, the Free Man holds its own heralded jazz sessions. The Balcony Club in East Dallas is a decades-old jazz venue located above an historic theater. Reveler’s Hall in Oak Cliff, south of the Trinity River, features New Orleans-style jazz, and the Jazz Scat Lounge in Fort Worth is an upscale speakeasy with live jazz four nights a week.

The circle of artists impacted, supported, or influenced by Badu has only grown over the decades since she graduated from Booker T. Washington, Dallas’ performing-arts high school, which also produced Mitchell, Norah Jones, and Roy Hargrove. “She’s pretty much the heartbeat of the whole city,” Williams says of Badu, who at 51, still holds her birthday concert in Deep Ellum every year.

The Tejano Influence
Dallas is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. and its Latinx population shapes its many genres. For 15 years, Roc D has hosted the “Super Tejano Hour” from noon to 4 p.m. every Saturday on KNON, the community-run Dallas radio station. The program features local Tejano acts like Rey Reyna and Monica Saldivar and conjunto bands including Baraja De Oro and Grupo Pression. New West, Players Sports Bar, and Robbie’s Lounge all host live Tejano music in Dallas.

“The good thing about the Tejano scene is Tejanos don’t just like Tejano music,” Roc D says. “They like rock, country, old-school funk.”

That diversity of sound carries over into Latinx musicians working specifically in other genres. The Fort Worth-based Squeezebox Bandits, one of the best honky-tonk acts in Texas, is fronted by an accordion player, Abel Casillas, who played in Tejano bands in his twenties before applying his instrument to George Strait and Don Williams-flavored country songs.

The Bralettes, a garage-rock/pop trio and Luna Luna, a mellow indie-pop act whose lead vocalist and producer was born in Colombia but grew up in Dallas, perform in small but packed venues throughout Fort Worth and Dallas when they’re not on the road.

A Thriving Party Scene
Jessi Pereira isn’t expecting the people dancing at her “Paradise” parties to have come straight from Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, but she knows that Dallasites, regardless of financial status, aren’t afraid to lean into the stereotype.

“We’re a very flashy city,” Pereira, 26, says. “We like to be seen, and we like to sparkle and shine. It might not necessarily be, you know, authentic. It might be manufactured, but it’s the same idea.”

Paradise is a collaboration between DJ Sober, a nationally renowned DJ, and Pereira that occurs monthly in Oak Cliff, near predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods. The diverse parties are often complemented by low-rider competitions in the parking lot and food trucks, but music is the driving force of the events, which are promoted through social media.

“If you drop a Tejano joint or some Dallas Boogie [in the middle of a DJ set], that would definitely be a Dallas vibe,” says DJ Sober. “People would lose their shit.”