The maxim “everything’s bigger in Texas” most definitely applies when it comes to having an outsized per capita concentration of brilliant songwriters. So, it’s almost surprising to realize that it took until 2005 for a Texas Heritage Songwriters Association to be formed, for the purpose of finally founding a Hall of Fame.
One key figure in its origins was a beloved Texan not everyone realizes had a reputation as “a lover of the song, and a friend to songwriters”: University of Texas football coach Darrell K. Royal. But its start really dates back to a meeting in an Austin restaurant backroom between creator Terry Boothe and radio personality Bob Cole, at which ideas about who to induct first were jotted down on a napkin.
“I wish we saved that napkin,” laughs board member Joe Ables. “There’ve been a lot of songs written on napkins.”
17 years later, the Hall of Fame can claim about 50, including household-name singer-songwriters Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Buddy Holly, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson and Roy Orbison as well as non-performer tunesmiths such as Cindy Walker, Bob McDill, Allen Shamblin and Liz Rose. The waiting list to get in? It’s still a long one.
On Feb. 12, the list of perceived oversights will shorten by four. The Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame Awards Show at Paramount Theatre will see a quartet of obvious worthies join the previous inductees: blues god Lightnin’ Hopkins, Americana pioneer Nanci Griffith, classic country star Lefty Frizzell and hit tunesmith Mark James. Hopkins is long gone and James is still with us, but the other two passed while the annual ceremonies were having to take a COVID time-out, and their relative nearness may leave the ceremony having some especially poignant moments, amid the party.
Board member Joe Ables explains what big names and setlists already are confirmed for the Ronnie Dunn-hosted celebration. “Mark James is one of the biggest songwriters we’ll ever honor, and has written some of the most incredible songs in music history, covered by some of the biggest stars.,” says Ables. “We’ll have (Mavericks frontman) Raul Malo and Ronnie covering some of his hits. The part about the show that breaks my heart is that we were going to honor Mark two years ago, before COVID, and B.J, Thomas was going to perform the songs that Mark wrote for him, ‘Eyes of a New York Woman’ and ‘Hooked on a Feeling.’ But we were so fortunate to get an interview with him where he’s congratulating Mark before we lost B.J. a few months back. Mark has not seen this video, and it’s going to be very emotional.”
The audience will definitely make time for a tribute to Frizzell. “Lefty’s brothers, David and Allen Frizzell, will be there along with (Asleep at the Wheel’s) Ray Benson to start our show off with ‘If You Got the Money, I Got the Time’ — there’s going to be quite a bang-bang to start this thing,” Ables promises. “Ronnie is going to contribute one of Lefty’s songs that he covered on an album; Brennen Leigh is gonna do a song. And that segment will end with Lefty’s brothers doing a duet on ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’ that’s going to be a big part of the show.”
With Griffith, who died in 2021 after staying out of the spotlight for years, “we were really sad to hear that she passed away while we were getting these things together, but she got word that she was going to be honored and was excited to hear it.” Close friend Robert Earl Keen will offer her a musical salute.
Last but not least electrifying, Ables promises that the finale, saluting Hopkins, will be the longest set they’ve ever had at a Hall of Fame ceremony, with performances by ZZ Top’s Billy F Gibbons, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Rodney Crowell and Jimmy Vaughan — plus two of Hopkins’ granddaughters accepting the award.
With so much country inclusion, Texas’ interests have some overlap with Tennessee’s, but Ables says there’s no Austin/ Nashville rivalry here: “We’re very recognized in Nashville by our peers and the industry, and we appreciate their support so much.” There’s a common goal in boosting awareness, especially of the lesser-known names: “When people leave these ceremonies,” says Ables, “they really know who these songwriters are. George Strait didn’t write all those songs. We need to educate the world about the people that did.”