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Lone Star Shoot-out: The Best of the Texas Bluesmen

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While the Mississippi Delta is usually looked at as the birthplace of the blues, and the Carolinas (and East Georgia) credited as home for the acoustic Piedmont blues style, there's no denying that the Lone Star State has had a major influence on the evolution and mainstream popularity of the blues. Even while Charley Patton, Son House, and other Delta bluesmen were busy creating America's greatest musical genre, a few hundred miles to the west in Texas, artists like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Texas Alexander were putting their own unique stamp on the music. These are our choices for the best of the Texas bluesmen.

Albert Collins

Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland & Robert Cray's Showdown!
Photo courtesy Alligator Records

A major influence on a generation of blues-rock guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins – known as "The Iceman" for the cold, crisp sound of his guitar – was born in 1932 in rural Texas. He moved with his family to Houston as a young man, where he originally started out playing the piano. By the age of 18, he had switched over to guitar, and he apprenticed in the rough 'n' tumble blues clubs of Houston with artists like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and his cousin, the great Lightnin' Hopkins. Collins' popularity grew during the late 1960s after moving to California, where he was embraced by a young rock audience. Sadly, Collins died in 1993 at the age of 61 while he was still at the top of his game. Recommended Albums: Ice Pickin' is the quintessential Albert Collins album, but 1985's Showdown!, with guitarists Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray, provides more bang for your buck.

Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson's The Best Of
Photo courtesy Price Grabber

One of the founding fathers of the Texas blues sound, guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most commercially-successful blues artists of the 1920s and was a major influence on younger players like Lightnin' Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. Born blind in 1893 or 1897, depending on your source, by 1912 Jefferson was performing in central Texas at parties and such. He moved to Dallas around 1917, where he would become a familiar figure busking on street corners. Jefferson played for a while with Leadbelly, and is said to have traveled as far as Mississippi, Memphis, and Chicago to perform. The guitarist's recording career spanned a brief few years during the late 1920s, but during that time, he recorded over 100 songs for Paramount Records. Recommended Albums: Many of Jefferson’s essential early recordings have been collected on the The Best Of Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Johnny Winter

Johnny Winter's Third Degree
Photo courtesy Alligator Records

Few Texas bluesmen enjoyed the longevity and popularity of guitarist Johnny Winter. As a youth, Winter learned the clarinet and ukulele but, by the age of 12, he was beginning his mastery of the guitar. Within a couple of years, he had formed his first band with his brother Edgar. Winter spent much of his teenage years haunting recording studios and performing live at local clubs but in 1963, he ventured to Chicago to try and break into the city's competitive blues music scene. He didn't have much success, and returned to Texas to form his first band, honing his sound on the Austin blues scene and touring the Southeast before his discovery in 1969. An appearance at the Woodstock Festival, his production of a handful of Muddy Waters' best albums, and a critically-acclaimed body of work are among Winter's achievements over a career that has now spanned six decades. Recommended Albums: Winter's self-titled 1969 debut features a mix of inspired blues covers and original blues-rock barn-burners but Third Degree, the guitarist's 1986 Alligator Records debut, is widely considered to be his best blues album.

Lightnin' Hopkins

Lightnin' Hopkins' The Complete Aladdin Recordings
Photo courtesy Price Grabber

One of the most influential blues guitarists to hail from the proud state of Texas, Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins was a talented country-style bluesman that developed a unique finger-picked guitar style. He was also a prolific and intelligent songwriter, and his extensive body of work and dynamic live performances would influence artists as diverse as Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and even country-folk singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Hopkins got hooked on the blues as a child after meeting Blind Lemon Jefferson when he was eight years old; Hopkins would later travel with Jefferson, serving as his guide and apprentice. The guitarist spent much of the 1940s and '50s performing and recording in Houston, but his "discovery" by a white audience during the 1960s opened doors for the then-elderly bluesman, at the height of his popularity, Hopkins played clubs and festivals with artists like Joan Baez and the Grateful Dead. Recommended Albums: Hopkins' extensive discography – close to 100 albums – makes it difficult for the collector to pursue. The budget-priced, two-disc compilation The Complete Aladdin Recordings offers 43 smokin' Hopkins sides from the 1940s while Rhino Records' Mojo Hand anthology features 41 songs on two CDs from Hopkins' work for labels like Aladdin, Gold Star, Herald and others from the 1940s through the '60s.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand The Weather
Photo courtesy Legacy Recordings

One simply cannot underestimate the impact that the emergence of guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan had on the slumbering blues scene of the 1980s. Fusing the blues-rock styles of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton with the electric blues sound of artists like Albert King and Albert Collins, Vaughan incorporated his influences into a unique and electrifying style that captured the public's imagination and jump-started a decade-long blues boom that opened the door for youngsters like Joe Bonamassa and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Stevie Ray continues to command love and respect from blues fans, better than 20 years after his tragic death in 1990. Recommended Albums: Beginners can't go wrong with any of Vaughan's first three studio albums, but I'd give the nod to his sophomore effort, Couldn't Stand The Weather, as most representative of his fiery blues-rock six-string style. In Session, which captures a young SRV playing in the studio alongside his idol Albert King, shows both men in fine form.

T-Bone Walker

T-Bone Walker's Blues Masters: The Very Best Of
Photo courtesy Rhino Records

Guitarist Aaron Thibeaux "T-Bone" Walker's influence extends far beyond the borders of the Lone Star State to influence players around the world. One of the first blues guitarists to wield an electric guitar, his ability to blend blues and jazz into a unique style of his own would inform followers like B.B. King and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown as well as contemporary guitarists like Dave Specter and Ronnie Earl. Walker learned to play the blues from Blind Lemon Jefferson, collecting his tips for him as he performed on street corners and in bars. Walker also learned from the great Charlie Christian, who he befriended while playing with various jazz bands around Texas. Walker began recording in 1929, cutting sides for a number of labels through the years, and when his jazz-flecked urbane blues style fell out of favor in the early 1960s, he found a new audience in Europe, where he toured frequently until his death in 1975. Recommended Albums: T-Bone Walker's discography is a landmine of dubious releases, shabby repackaging, and half-baked compilations. Rhino's single-disc Blues Masters: The Very Best of T-Bone Walker spans the guitarist's productive 1945-1957 period and includes some of Walker's essential recordings, making it a perfect introduction to the artist's talents.

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