Dusty-white silos and radio towers line the landscape outside of Thurber, Texas. Once a bustling coal mining outcamp, ghost towns and a giant smokestack are all that remain.
A golden-yellow flame soars out from an oil pipeline, burning chemical waste into the dark gray fog. The drizzling rain hardly seems to make an impact.
Larry Hooper races a west-bound graffitied Union Pacific on Interstate 20, an iconic symbol of the frontier days that inspired generations of songwriters. The multi-colored locomotive fades into the rear view mirror, its aging-steel wheels and rickety boxcars creak off in the distance.
Chemical Waste Burning in Far West Texas. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
The vast landscapes and main-street towns are all too familiar to Hooper. The traveling singer-songwriter from Elkhart, a rural east Texas town with a population under two thousand, canvasses the state while spinning a jukebox of Scott Miller, Jamie Lin Wilson, Drew Kennedy, and Tyler Childers.
Hooper took the first step in College Station, performing at local clubs while attending Texas A&M University, and later moved to Austin to seek a career as a musician.
“I decided to really make a go at it in Austin, which I didn’t realize is nearly impossible to do,” Hooper said of the over saturated market.
While the monetary compensation for gigs dwindled, inspiration filled the void. Hooper attended live performances by Guy Clark at the legendary Cactus Cafe at the University of Texas, and networked with local musicians.
“I think one calendar year I saw Slaid (Cleaves) like twenty five times,” Hooper said. “Pretty much anywhere he played in Texas, I saw him.”
Currently residing in Granbury just outside of Fort Worth, Hooper takes comfort in collaborating with the pickers he’s met along the way, venturing out on weekends to the Hill Country and river towns south of Austin, the wetherd Dust Bowl region in the panhandle, rich bayous on the Gulf Coast, and cactus-covered terrain in Terlingua.
The air is perfectly silent as the sun fades into the distant mountains in Marathon. Purple and orange rays slip away as the temperature slowly drops. Swishing tails of resting horses and faint acknowledgements of grazing livestock are my only company as I stroll around the far west Texas town.
Marathon, Texas. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
One would wonder how to find an audience in such a remote location, but the White Buffalo Bar at the Gage Hotel uses that to its advantage. Designed by Henry Trost, the hotel opened in 1927 to host Alfred Gage and esteemed guests as he oversaw a vast ranching operation.
The namesake of the saloon comes from an unusual taxidermied buffalo that hangs above lounging patrons. Told by curators in Wyoming that the rare animal was not for sale, Owner JP Bryan purchased an entire museum to acquire the buffalo, whose fur turned white after contracting a rare disease.
Large parties trickle in from neighboring Fort Stockton and Alpine as Hooper prepares sound equipment at the Twelve Gage Restaurant. Oil men and insurance salesmen flock to the nicest accommodations in the region, a peaceful atmosphere that has given inspiration to artists, authors, and musicians alike.
Larry Hooper performing at the Gage Hotel. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
Grilled halibut and hissing propane heaters drift around cobblestone floors and stucco walls as Hooper pauses for applause, reminiscing about co-writing with troubador Matt Hillyer from Eleven Hundred Springs.
“When we talk about songs, we’re not afraid to sort of go outside the box with some of our ideas,” Hillyer said. “He’s definitely trying to stretch out more and it kind of pushes me in that direction.”
Hillyer laughs as he recalls creating a character that struggled to overcome strange tics caused by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder while falling in love, panicking while counting the steps to get to her door.
“I’ve pitched some ideas that haven’t worked, but I wouldn’t have pitched them probably to somebody else,” Hillyer said. “I know that he’s not opposed to any kind of whacked out, left field ideas. He’s also not opposed to just writing a straight up, straight ahead, good country song.”
Sharp antlers on trophy deer stretch towards the ceiling above diners while a selfie is aimed at the stage.
“Tell them it was Zac Brown,” Hooper jokes as he points to the camera.
It takes her a few angles to get it just right for Instagram, pausing to sip from a bright-pink prickly pear margarita.
A large party of diners moan as Hooper announces the final song, inspiring a man in formal western attire to click his boots across the tile and draw out a large stack of bills. Hooper takes requests from the group for several more hours as they toast and sing along.
Marathon, Texas. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
Clouds of steam erupt from my breath in the bright, clear morning as I shake my way towards the van, clutching my body as we drive northwest to Alpine. It’s cold enough for local vendors to bail out of the weekend farmers market.
It hardly feels like technology has made the world a smaller place as we drift along the Trans-Pecos region. Social media has become an invaluable resource for young writers, but it’s constantly presenting new challenges along the way.
“You have to make a more conscious effort to not be distracted by the little magic box in your hand,” Hooper said. “It takes you out of your present place and into the world you know? You have to be aware that it’s distracting you from making your art and step away from it, which I’m guilty of having a hard time doing.”
Gravel crunches underneath my feet as I swing open the back door at Come and Take It Barbecue. Pitmaster Brian Bourbon is dashing around the kitchen, preparing brisket for a private party later that evening.
“If you leave the brisket in the freezer I will suck the marrow of your life out as I roast your soul on the fires of eternity,” Bourbon warns on a sheet of butcher paper duct taped to the door.
A warning from Pitmaster Brian Bourbon. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
Bourbon, a former welder and cowboy from Terlingua, perfected his brisket recipe for guests at the Mountain Trails Lodge in Fort Davis. It wasn’t long before local residents lined up around the building, selling out on a daily basis.
“We were running out of meat while there were still people in line,” Owner Scott Turner said.
After having to turn away guests that traveled from neighboring towns, and a surprise visit from famed Texas Monthly barbecue aficionado Daniel Vaughn, Turner found a nearby location and built a large restaurant and event space.
“He had never seen pizzoli, so he didn’t like that,” Turner said. “Now he’s out there doing Grey Poupon and grapefruit juice over brisket.”
Come and Take It was left off of a recent roadmap of barbecue joints in Texas Monthly, possibly unaware that the new location was open.
“I’ll stand on the Governor’s table in my boots and tell him that we’re by God in the top ten anyway,” Turner proudly proclaims as we laugh and exchange Amens.
Larry Hooper performing at Come and Take It BBQ in Alpine, Texas. Photo by Andrew Blanton.
Hooper’s voice rings across the crinkled steel walls and cement floor as diners trickle in, picking through the lunch service for locals and tourists. A recently completed replica cannon and vintage flag sits beside a large Christmas tree and red poinsettias.
As rewarding as songwriting and performing can be, Hooper has a tough time as we ride back into Marathon for the final performance of the tour. Days earlier his daughter’s basketball schedule was released, causing him to be away for the first game of the season. Hooper’s wife sends videos of the children running back and forth across the hardwood floors as they compete.
“It’s probably made me softer,” Hooper said. “I probably haven’t written as many killing songs since my kids were born.”
Rural landscapes and crowded urban areas provide vastly different narratives, but the songwriting craft is all one in the same. A reflection on the important emotions that carry us through our daily lives.