In 20 years, the Texas country music scene has grown from Willie-worshipping frat boys with acoustic guitars into a nationally viable industry made up of independent artists, record labels and radio stations.
In the midst of so much growth and opportunity, though, Texas country artists tended to stay close to Texas. Prior to 2012, Texas artists showing off their crafts in a vacation setting mainly did so in the form of one-off tropical cruises or trips to Mexico. The big outlier was MusicFest, the 33-year-old granddaddy of Texas country tourism that shows off our state's best talent every winter in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
With the help of some of country music's biggest, baddest names such as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, MusicFest became a primary way for the Texas sound to be heard in other parts of the country in its earliest years. It's the handiwork of veteran concert promoter John Dickson, owner of Dickson Productions. But we can't discount the sounds of the scrappy artists it has featured, too -- musicians who purposefully didn't play by the rules.
"I took Roger Creager and Dub Miller up there with me in '97," Dickson says in his folksy twang. "The people at the festival that year weren't really familiar with the new kind of country music being played in Texas then, and I hate to admit it now, but I told Roger to play covers of popular songs and to keep his original songs to a minimum since no one there would know his songs.
"Well, he did the exact opposite and played pretty much only his original stuff and the 300 people there absolutely loved it. I'd never seen that before."
Featuring more than 200 hours of music on 11 stages over four days, MusicFest is now a jewel on Texas and Oklahoma artists' touring schedules every January. With a cap of around 5,000 guests, not including staff and musicians, the festival sells out quickly and draws fans from all over the world. Performance environments range from a cavernous, 3,000-capacity tent to small, living-room-size listening rooms.
This year's artist lineup consists of about 60 artists, including the biggest names to hit the highways of the south such as Josh Abbott Band, Cody Canada, Reckless Kelly, Cody Johnson and Jason Boland. Creager, who is celebrating his 20th appearance, joins first-time acts such as the highly buzzed-about Koe Wetzel and Charley Crockett.
Dickson's successful MusicFest has no doubt inspired a fleet of Texas country fans outside the Lone Star State.
"The community that follows this style of music is really exceptional," he says. "Think about it, I mean, our guests take a week off from work and shut their business down only a week after the holidays are over. That's a major commitment, but it's one that, thankfully, fans in this scene are willing to make for a great experience." Jan. 4-9. Themusicfest.com
Besides MusicFest, here are four more places Texas musicians are performing at festivals across the country and world:
The event: Red Dirt Pub Crawl
The Texas talent: Dirty River Boys, Mark McKinney, Bart Crow, Walt Wilkins and more
After taking a year off in 2016, the Red Dirt Pub Crawl returns with a fine lineup in pubs around Dublin, Ireland. Attendees are encouraged to stay at the historic Temple Bar Hotel and make trips outside of the city to bucket list-worthy spots including the Cliffs of Mohr.
According to marketing director Lane Gregory, one excursion will offer a train trip from Dublin to Galway, complete with some of the musicians performing during the cross-isle jaunt. Just getting to possibly listen to Walt and Tina Wilkins perform her gorgeous tune "Ireland" on the Emerald Isle should be incentive to join them. Nov. 27 through Dec. 4. reddirtpubcrawl.com.
Red River, N.M.
The event: Red River Songwriters Festival
The Texas talent: Darrel Scott, Drew Kennedy, Walt Wilkins, Josh Grider, Susan Gibson and more
The coziest option on this list is also the pound-for-pound champ when it comes to pure storytelling power. For its inaugural edition in 2012, Texas-based Americana songwriter Drew Kennedy assembled the Red River Songwriters, a stellar collection of talent that has served as the festival's core each year since.
Performances will take place in the invitingly rustic Motherlode Saloon in Red River, located next-door to the famous Texas Red's Steakhouse. Attendance is capped at around 300 to keep events warm and personal. Kennedy says "mixing the music with the snow and the evergreen and the mountaintops and the slopes" makes Red River an ideal destination for an intimate festival. Jan. 25-27. redriversongs.com.
Key West, Fla.
The event: Mile 0 Fest Key West
The Texas talent: Cody Jinks, Turnpike Troubadours, Wade Bowen, Pat Green, The Old 97s and more
When Mile 0 Fest Key West organizer Kyle Carter heard that Key West, Fla., was completing construction on the Truman Waterfront Park Amphitheater, he felt as though he received "the green light from on high" to finally start the music festival of his dreams, he says. Although Hurricane Irma ravaged much of Florida in September, Key West remains ready to play host at this gleaming, 3,000-seat performance venue.
Patrons can purchase individual tickets or complete travel packages (airfare excluded), but hurry, as many tickets and packages went quickly after the festival was announced a few months ago. With artists who don't typically associate with the Texas country and red dirt scenes such as Cody Jinks, John Moreland and the Black Lillies, Mile 0 Fest is already setting itself apart. Feb. 7-10. mile0fest.com.
The event: Texas Music Takeover
The Texas talent: Pat Green, Casey Donahew, Wade Bowen, Austin Allsup and more (2017 lineup)
In 2017, its second year, the Texas Music Takeover hit the streets of London with what event organizer Steven Bethea of Rival Entertainment calls "a festival lineup." Heavy hitters such as Pat Green and Wade Bowen ensured it wasn't simply a string of concerts but rather an up-close fest at historic venues.
Consider this one a "vacation with music peppered in," Bethea says. Texas Music Takeover even featured a Hurricane Harvey benefit show in 2017 and live-streamed some of its performances on Facebook. Expect another London fest in 2018 and 2019, Bethea says, but he wasn't ready to share details yet. 2017 festival took place in October. For announcements on 2018 dates and further information, visit rivalent.com.