Our beloved Lone Star State is a whole ‘nuther country full of unique sights and sounds, and even its own style of music.
Superstars like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Strait, and David Allen Coe are always mentioned in conversations about the origins of Texas country music, as opposed to the traditional Nashville sound. Those luminaries were followed by such names as Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Gary P. Nunn, and later Pat Green, Robert Earl Keen, Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers, and Cory Morrow, to name just a few.
In central Texas, one of the mainstays of Texas country on the local scene is Belton’s own Lance Wade Thomas, who grew up in the tiny Bell County town of Holland and has been entertaining audiences throughout the region for 15 years.
A self-described “late bloomer” in music, Thomas first picked up a guitar at age 19 and like a lot of others, started out playing in country music cover bands. When he started hearing a new sound coming from artists like Steve Earle and Radney Foster, he fell in love and knew he had found something he could really sink his teeth into.
“People here in central Texas love raw, hardcore, Texas country music," Thomas said.
“One of the biggest differences between Texas country and country is usually the lyrics are a little rougher; a little edgier. You don’t see a lot of true love songs in Texas country. There are a few – Texas Angel, by Honeybrowne – but it’s a little bit more about fightin’, drinkin’, and being pissed off because you lost your girlfriend or your wife.
“That’s a generalization, but that’s one difference.
“Also, most of the time, Texas country is more guitar-driven. There’s definitely a rocking aspect to it. The vocals are rougher, raspier – something you might hear coming from the back of someone’s tailgate, versus a polished studio sound.
“Another big difference is that it used to be said that anybody who calls themselves a Texas artist better write every song themselves. That’s a big thing. If you don’t write your own songs, and you’re just up there doing someone else’s songs … it used to be that you kind of looked down on that, if you were looking for real Texas music.
“You’ve got to write your own stuff. It’s got to be edgy; it’s got to be guitar-driven. It’s got to be rhythmic; it’s got to be soulful.
“Something else is, we really don’t like a lot of – how can I say this? – the term now in Nashville would be bro-country. That’s not how we really view country (music) here. We don’t like a lot of generic, frilly stuff. That’s the main difference, I think.
“Then again, there are some exceptions to that. I know some guys who wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of Wranglers or even probably boots, but that make what I consider bad-ass Texas country music.”
His first big break on the local scene came many moons ago when Thomas and his band opened a concert for Kevin Fowler. That led to more warm-up gigs at places like Wild Country in Harker Heights, Club Rodeo, Denim and Diamonds in Temple, to name a few.
“Those were really my hot playing years – from late ’06 to 2010. At that time, because of the large acts coming through and a lot of people being exposed to Texas country for the first time here … you get a lot of attention warming up for those big acts.
“Back then, I used to get all the warm-up shows. In 2007, 2008, 2009, literally I did 90 percent of those. That helped me get a lot of recognition.
“At Wild Country, I probably warmed up for at least 20 acts – Tracy Lawrence, Jack Ingram, Kevin Fowler, Randy Rogers, Eli Young, Reckless Kelly. That really helped me out and got me a lot of other gigs. Anywhere you can name for live music in Bell County, I probably played there.”
One of his favorite spots to play these days is O’Briens Irish Pub in Temple, where he is headlining on Friday, June 11. He also is playing July 9 at the annual barbecue cookoff in Seaton, a few miles east of Temple.
Like a lot of other places, the local music scene has taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions and venue closures. Thomas says he has fared OK through it all, even writing, recording and producing a new album last year.
“Today, it’s all moving to large, outdoor venues,” he explained. “They can put on big shows; make lots of money. You rarely see bigger shows anymore at smaller clubs.
“There are a few exceptions. Probably the last live music indoor venue in Temple is O’Briens. Great club; great atmosphere.
“It (the local music scene) has probably died some, because of the professionalization of the big show here, the big outdoor venues … now because of the saturation of Texas music, they (headliners) just bring their own warm-up acts. They’re cheaper, and it’s like a package deal they sell to the clubs.
“It’s not the venue’s fault – it’s just a no-brainer when they’re selling you on an artist who probably already has a couple songs on the radio. Why wouldn’t you do that?
“The truth is, they really don’t sell live music. They sell alcohol – and that’s OK. That’s probably how it should be.
“That state of the scene is, it’s definitely less, but that’s to be expected. We’re not a major venue county. We don’t have a major college in Bell County. It’s not like Stephenville, you know, or College Station, San Marcos, New Braunfels … those areas produce a lot of artists.
“It’s not really positive or negative. We have good shows here, but the bottom line is, things have moved to the outdoor venues, bigger acts, they bring their warm-ups with them. So guys like me, if you want to stay local … you have to do a lot of acoustic shows.
“I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of full-band shows, but you can’t really make a living on full-band music in Bell County. (Playing) acoustic shows, you can. I can probably play acoustic guitar every weekend, somewhere.”
Recently, Thomas got some exciting news when he submitted a single titled “Old School” from the new album to Nashville and it reached no. 81 on the MusicRow CountryBreakout Radio Chart.
He is hoping exposure from that song will lead to more gigs and recognition throughout the southwest U.S.
“It debuted on the charts at 150, and last week it was at 81. It’s not Billboard but still … what that means is, they publish the top 80, so we’re one spin away from that.
“That single has only been promoted for about a month, and so we’re proud of that. It’s a big deal for us.
“We’re waiting to see what happens. We want to land a really good booking agency from this. That’s a real key to getting the really good gigs. There are two or three top booking agencies that really run the whole enterprise, as far as Texas music. If you’re with one of those, you get to do warm-ups for their big artists.
“My goal is to be at the best venues in what I would call the Texas music scene – Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico. The same ones that Whiskey Myers, Randy Rogers play.
“Hopefully, when we land what we land, our gig schedule will fill up. That’s really the main thing. My aspiration are beyond local, 100 percent.”
To check out Thomas’ music, including his new singles, “Old School” and “Weren’t We Close Enough,” go to Spotify, YouTube, Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/lance.thomas.75470), and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/lance_wade_thomas).
“I’ve been luckier than most,” said Thomas, a former professor in the political science department at Baylor University who also has a law degree but has never worked as a practicing attorney. “Like everyone else, COVID put a damper on us, but it allowed me to write a new record. In some ways, without the pandemic, I probably wouldn’t have reached down and really tried to put something out that people wanted to buy.
“What makes a good songwriter? Well, you know the old saying, ‘Write about what you know?’ That’s no. 1. And you’ve got to be clever – double entendre in country is everything.
“You’ve got to know your way around phrases, words, and life – and that’s what trips a lot of people up. I’m not a prolific writer, but I do what I call a lot of head work in the song. I’m thinking about the psychology of it, and also how to say something complicated in the simplest way possible.
“You’ve also got to give people a surprise in the song. Not every song is like that, but you’ve got to reveal something to them somewhere. Have them say, ‘Oh, OK, that’s what’s going on.’
“I guess you have to naturally be a poet. If I can say something that is not in the usual way, that is normally the best way to do it. Sometimes you’ve got to hit ‘em between the eyes, but most of the time, you’ve got to find a way that addresses a complicated issue in a simple way, and does so in a way that nobody expects.
“That is hard to do. You’ve got to be a wordsmith first. You really can’t be afraid to poke people; make them mad or piss them off. If you remove all that from it, nobody really feels anything. You want to push people out of their comfort zone just a little bit.
“That’s something Texas music is good at.”