Texas may be the "Lone Star State" in other respects, but in country music, it has produced a galaxy of stars both past and present. The state is so big that it no longer feels a need to share its stars with the rest of the nation.
There are a number of artists who are huge in Texas without being heard of elsewhere. The Dixie Chicks were Dallas' favorite country act for five years before becoming world-renowned, and Pat Green currently sells more records than many major label Nashville acts. It's enough to make you wonder why Texas doesn't just secede.
They probably figure that as long as the rest of us are willing to let Texans lead the nation on a regular basis, it's worth their while to stay with the union despite its taste in music.
In the midst of this self-contained Texas music uprising sits Clay Blaker. He is a singer, bandleader, songwriter and producer who's had a successful career while remaining unknown to the average non-Texan.
He's had a number of his songs recorded by old pal George Strait and other major artists like Mark Chesnutt and Clay Walker as well. He has just released his fifth album, "Welcome To The Wasteland," although it's only his second with national distribution.
"Whenever mainstream country goes down the tubes, some new scene springs up in Texas." is Blaker's assessment of the current situation.
Blaker isn't as geographically insulated as many Texans, having also lived in Hawaii and California.
"My dad had a surfboard manufacturing company in Texas," says Blaker, who assures that there really is surfing in Texas, and pretty good at that - especially a few days before a hurricane hits. "He had to come (to Hawaii) a lot on business, and he fell in love with the place. They finally moved out here when I was about 20." That was in the early '70's.
After a few years in Hawaii, Blaker moved to California and started a band there.
"When I first got there, it was the tail end of the big country-rock scene. There was a cool little scene. All of a sudden, disco fever came along. They started tearing the stages out of these cool venues. That's when I said 'Boys, it's time to go back to Texas'."
Blaker landed in Houston, where he was based for years before moving to his current home near San Antonio.
As Blaker puts it, "Texas has always been a foothold to live music and not just country. A lot of old venues and dance halls have been in operation for 80-100 years. We were real fortunate. It was the start of the progressive country scene here. For about eight years, you could work 300 days a year just in Texas for good money. Then that scene wore down. The copycats came out. People burn out after a while."
"I just kept doing what I'd been doing all along. I wasn't working as much, but I was ready to not work as much. 300 dates a year is pretty much a burnout. I started working better dates, trying to concentrate my audience into better venues. I still do about 100 dates a year, mostly in Texas."
One of the people Blaker worked with in those early days was George Strait. "We toured together a lot. We liked each other's music. I helped him get some gigs around Houston. He helped me get work in central Texas. When he got his deal, he didn't forget about me."
Strait recorded one of Blaker's songs ("The Only Thing I Have Left," also later done by Tim McGraw) on his second album, and has recorded at least five others since.
"I thought (Strait) definitely had the potential (to be a star). I thought he had what it took. It's hard to imagine someone you know making it real big."
One of those songs Strait recorded, "We Must Be Lovin' Right," later gave Blaker his biggest thrill as a songwriter when the song was recorded by Barbra Streisand.
"The way I heard the story," Blaker relates "(Streisand's husband) James Brolin was playing Strait's album. She heard the song and liked it enough to put it on her next album. That album was all love songs, so it fit right in."
The song was a co-write with Roger Brown. "Roger writes a real jazzy kind of melody. It really fit her." Brown, who put out an EP on Decca shortly before the label folded, is a frequent collaborator.
Another frequent writing partner is Jim Lauderdale. Blaker has worked with Lauderdale enough that Lauderdale's distinctive rhythms crop up even on some of Blaker's own tunes.
"His publisher introduced us at a showcase in Nashville. We'd keep running into each other in strange places - on an airplane, at a festival in Switzerland - and at some point after a couple of years we decided to write together. The first couple of things we wrote together got cut. He's such an incredible talent. He's such a different style of writer. He always takes you to a place you've never been before as a songwriter. When we work together, I contribute more of the lyrics and him more of the melody. When I write with other people, sometimes it's just the opposite. His melodies are so distinct. I was a big fan of his music before I even met him. His melodies are almost unmistakable."
Blaker says, "I've been writing songs since I was a teenager. I just grew up with music. I went out to see people like Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills and Floyd Tillman when I was real young. My parents weren't musicians, but they were into music. They liked to get out and hear bands."
As a teenager, Blaker was into The Beatles and surf music, which he feels is showing more in his new albums.
"I started letting these (rock) influences come out. It's not really a conscious thing. It wants to come out. I let it."
Blaker has also gotten into production. He does mostly regional Texas artists, with his highest profile production probably being Ed Burleson's honky-tonk gem, "My Perfect World."
"The guy who played pedal steel guitar with me for 11 or 12 years decided he wanted to build a little home studio so we could do my song demos in Texas instead of having to go to Nashville. We found we could get a really cool sound. We thought we could do albums if we upgraded."
The last Doug Sahm album was also done at this studio.
Meanwhile, Blaker says "Burleson called me a few weeks ago. He's got a bunch of new songs and wants me to produce another album."
Blaker actually got into production when he met Jennifer Weatherly at a festival in Europe. She's an American who lives over there and has a sizable following.
"She approached me after a gig in Switzerland. She said my music was the sound she wanted, and she wanted me to produce an album. I said 'I only produce myself,' but then I thought about it more and decided to do it. She was the first artist I produced other than myself."
Lisa Morales is another artist Blaker met at a festival. "I met her in Europe in 1979 and talked her into moving to Texas (from Tucson)." Lisa and her sister Roberta relocated to Houston where Sisters Morales remains a highly popular act. Blaker's new album includes a duet with Lisa on the old Bobby Bare-Rosanne Cash hit "No Memories Hangin' Round." "We used to do that live in the early '80's. I thought of it for this album and called her up."
While Blaker has watched old friends like George Strait make it big, as well as people like Mark Chesnutt and Tracy Byrd who used to come see his band when they were in high school, he says, "(Stardom) was never really a goal of mine. I just wanted to have a good band. It feels so good to be on stage hearing that music come out behind you. I want to write good songs. I never really thought of being famous. I wanted a career in music. To me, this has been great."