West Texas is long on churches and short on curb appeal. It is mythmaking territory, a land where legends sprout more readily than trees. The names of its towns speak the truth about this arid swath of geography: Levelland. Plainview.
The fancifully-named “Sweetwater” breaks the trend, but then again the town did build its own lakes in the late 1800s in order to attract commerce. That’s what you have to do in West Texas if you want a lake: you have to build it yourself. The land is so flat that whichever of the six flags that flew over the state at any given time in the past few centuries would have been easily visible rippling in the dry western breeze for many, many miles.
About other regions, it might be a stretch of the truth to assert that the character of its residents reflects the land’s contours. About West Texas it would be a falsehood to argue otherwise. Whether the landscape draws certain types of folks, or whether it makes folks behave a certain way once they’re already out there, is not clear. What is clear is that you know what you get with these people. They speak directly, and let you know exactly where you stand, just like a quick glance around the dusty plains will tell you exactly where you stand relative to the nearest house, farm, town, low-hanging cloud.
You can hear everything, too, in a terrain unbarricaded by natural soundbreaks. In a 2007 interview with West Virginia Public Television, American composer George Crumb said that the mountains of his home had imprinted their soundscapes indelibly on him through their endless echoes. And it’s true; Crumb’s music is always resonant with echo, either vastly or intimately. The wide West Texas country also comes with its own soundtrack. The even, steady, predictable beat of the plains across which trains once howled is mapped onto the sparse and transparent music of Buddy Holly, one of its greatest sons. The rockabilly singer who hailed from Lubbock and streaked across the pop music firmament like a brief and bright comet wrote and sang in a level, straightforward way, like the earth under his feet. His lyrics and delivery functioned in a single layer: if he sang “oh boy,” it meant he was glad. He didn’t even take poetic license with Peggy Sue; there really was a Peggy Sue. Plain songs with plain words by a plain man from the High Plains. No point in singing the multifaceted and signifyin’ blues here. The land is the blues.
Maybe this kind of landscape heightens the moral sensibilities, makes people better somehow. After all, hiding iniquity is quite difficult when even on the rare un-clear day, you can see forever. There is no cover for evil deeds. Perhaps this is why fundamentalism flourishes here: you can see exactly what your neighbor is up to, facilitating both judgment and fear of judgment. Or maybe this kind of landscape just makes people brazen rather than ethical. Everyone will see anyway, the thinking might go, so what does it matter? The notion of such a wide open expanse is inextricably bound up with sight, literal and moral. You can especially see the fundamentalist evangelicalism that dots the plains: pious specks of tiny Assembly of God churches, get-right-or-get-left billboards, and Christian bookstores.
You can hear it, too; on a three-day visit I counted as many references to the Rapture in normal conversation. The end of time was spoken of as it were just around the corner; and indeed, in what can sometimes seem a post-apocalyptic wilderness, it is easy to believe it just might be. Upon concluding a conversation, one elderly gentleman left me with the cheerful promise, “See you here, there, or in the air!”
Second only to the fundamentalism in regional religious thought is a loose conglomeration of land-centered beliefs that coalesce around the thesis that until the Rapture, West Texas is the best place on earth to wait it out. Charles Reagan Wilson wrote a book called Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause. In it he argues that the mythology embodied in the “lost cause” worldview, which emerged among southern states following a humiliating loss in the Civil War, constitutes a religion, with high priests, sacred texts, and rituals. It is a convincing argument, and can be applied in some senses to the fervent regional loyalty of Texans. The only difference—and it is a big one—is that their pride, never having been mortally wounded by sociopolitical defeat and cultural irrelevance, doesn’t have to be bolstered by falsehood. Standing on the High Plains, surrounded by longhorn cattle and empty miles, one comes to share their unshakable belief that Texas would be just fine if the other forty-nine should fall.
Surely one of the highest liturgical rituals of Texanism must be the outdoor musical drama “Texas,” performed almost nightly near Amarillo since 1965. Big enough and epic enough to stand up to the canyon (!) in which it is performed, the musical is a cocktail of love stories, expansionism, and frontier dilemmas set in a vague period in the 1800s. The requisite Native Americans obligingly appear in headdress, and vigorous square-dancing is pounded out over a score reminiscent of Copland’s Billy the Kid. Given that even the terrifying thunderstorm depicted in the play coincides with a romantic stage kiss, “Texas” makes frontier life look pretty great. It is easy sport to poke fun at the bland patriotic finale tacked onto the production in recent months, until one realizes that throughout most of this number, the Texas flag is still foregrounded onstage, with the American flag in the background. No, Texas’s cause was never a lost one; and it is impossible not to feel a thrill as riders on horseback fly through the canyon bearing the flags that have flown over the state. The rite is enacted to an enthralled congregation seated on the floor of a rocky open-air cathedral, a reminder that West Texans have succeeded at living on the plains not by subduing them, but by acquiescing to them. Descending into the massive gash to watch the musical hammers home the strange sacrifice of mingled pride and humility that these flatlands demand from their dwellers.
Land and people are connected here as they are everywhere—always a truism but always different in its manifestation. In Wendell Berry’s What Are People For?, he speaks often and in many ways about the “practical harmony” between a land and its people. In West Texas, the harmony is sometimes discordant, with certain strains missing as raindrops pelt the earth less frequently and buffalo hooves have fallen silent. Yet it is still there, throbbing through the music of the plains, which sometimes sounds like a square dance in a canyon, and sometimes sounds like the moan of a lamenting cow, and sometimes sounds like two electric guitars and a dutifully-thumping bass for a Lubbock boy to sing against. The sounds and sights grind themselves into the souls of their inhabitants, whose much-lauded fierce independence is yet ever-dependent on the flat lands on which they stand.