When Dallas and Fort Worth Were the Music Capitals of Texas

Before Austin became the 'live music capital,' they were rocking & rolling in DFW

Delbert McClinton and Elvis Costello in <i>When Dallas Rocked</i>
Delbert McClinton and Elvis Costello in When Dallas Rocked

"Make no mistake about it, Los Angeles and New York were the kings of the music business in the Seventies," Kirby Warnock narrates in his documentary When Dallas Rocked. "They were where you went to sign a record deal and get discovered, but Dallas is where you went if you wanted to sell records."

Warnock's hourlong doc testifies that before Austin became known as the live music capital of the world, another Texas city, 182 miles to the north, was an epicenter for radio, records, and the blues.

Dallas' FM airwaves championed the sounds of underground rock & roll in the early Seventies with influential radio rebel KZEW – "The Zoo" – turning the impressionable Texas youth into "Zoo Freaks" with its free-form format and eccentric radio personalities, such as John Rody, who, in the documentary, characterizes KZEW as "evangelists of lifestyle" and recalls the time he ordered listeners to mail their marijuana to the station for testing. Along with hosting massive, free concerts, the countercultural station had a hand in breaking big artists, notably Peter Frampton, whose "Do You Feel Like We Do" had been made a regional hit by the ZEW-keepers long before Frampton Comes Alive was even released.

If prominent radio airplay wasn't enough to bring the big touring acts to Dallas in the Seventies, the insistence of record labels was. Warnock's film asserts that Dallas was the Southwest distribution hub for all the major record companies, and thus music retail was booming in the Big D, where artists like the Blackhearts and the Cars regularly made in-store appearances.

When Dallas and Fort Worth Were the Music Capitals of Texas

Warnock, a former editor at regional rock rag Buddy magazine, also points to the prominence of the Dallas blues scene, which had a godfather in legend Freddie King and future stars in natives Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, all playing at clubs like Mother Blues.

Actor Stephen Tobolowsky (who, to this day, remains best-recognized as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day), appears in When Dallas Rocked to recount the time his high school folk group, Cast of Thousands, enlisted the younger Vaughan to record guitar leads on their LP, entitled A New Hi. It was the teenage guitarist's first recording session.

"I felt a sense of urgency in making the film because two of the guys I wanted to interview were dead," Warnock told the Chronicle, referring to local blues legend Bugs Henderson and Buddy founder Stoney Burns. "I was afraid that the whole history of what happened there was going to die with all the people who were there if I didn't record it."

When Dallas Rocked premiered late last year to a sold-out crowd at Dallas' famous Texas Theatre. For its first Austin screening this Sunday, the film plays as part of a double feature with Giles McCrary's You Must Be Weird or You Wouldn't Be Here. McCrary's film documents the legendary Fort Worth club known as the Cellar.

"I'm excited to show the movie in Austin because everyone knows it's the center of music, but Dallas' history remains something most people aren't aware of," Warnock said. "I have to give credit to Austin. At least you claimed your music history. We never really claimed it in Dallas. We just let it go."

Antone's Records hosts a double feature of When Dallas Rocked and You Must Be Weird or You Wouldn't Be Here at Tom's Tabooley on Sunday, May 25, 6pm. Admission is free, but seating is limited.

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