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Texas Faces

Takin’ Texas to the People

Excerpt from book The Face of Texas shows how photographer Michael O’Brien portrays the state’s outsized characters

I don’t have a cowboy hat, my boots give me blisters, and I’ve never shot a gun. I’m nervous around horses, and I can’t lasso a steer. But I love big clouds, wide spaces, mythic characters, and the Western spirit. I’ve fallen in love with Texas. It’s my home.

I have loved the state from the start. In 1985, when I was still in New York, Life magazine sent me to photograph Willie Nelson. He was on his ranch in Spicewood, outside Austin, making the movie “Red Headed Stranger.” I knew right off I’d found an extraordinary place—though I guess anywhere around Willie is special. After hanging around Willie and the boys making the film about a preacher gone mad and his ultimate redemption, I knew I’d had enough of New York. I needed some redemption of my own. I felt like a tick embedded in the thick of Brooklyn. I needed to pry myself free and claim Texas soil.

But in the meantime, stuck up north, I worked in Texas as often as I could. Hasselblads, Swedish cameras that are built like anvils, were my cameras of choice. They were tough enough to take on Texas, devouring rolls of film. Armed with the “Blads,” a couple of Nikons, and a 4×5, I rolled across Texas, moving from assignment to assignment. Any job here was adventurous … rugged cowboys, wily politicians, big-haired beauty queens, crazy musicians, eccentric artists, city people, country folk. I got up early and stayed up late, driving across the state in a beat-up Chevy Suburban filled with fumes from a leaky gas generator that powered the strobes on remote locations. I blasted away, and I was on a roll.

It took me eight more years to escape New York. But I finally got here in 1993. I continued my work, now closer to home.

Now, it’s thirty years later and more than a decade since The Face of Texas was first published. You’ll love the characters just by their names: Ran, Obie, Sloan, Ruby, Darden, Troy, Roosevelt, Willie, Red, Ty. Bull riders, preachers, athletes, ranchers, churchgoers, ropers, farmers, singers … they all dance across the pages. Elizabeth [O’Brien, co-author] tells their stories, and they come to life. Yep, it’s Texas, and it’s larger than life.

ZZ Top: Humble, 1993

Most people know them only by their collective name, but ZZ Top consists of three very distinct individuals: bassist Dusty Hill, guitarist Billy F. Gibbons and drummer Frank Beard. The band keeps its business headquarters in Austin, although all three principals live in Houston.

ZZ Top became a household name after its “Worldwide Texas Tour” in 1976. The band’s Texas-shaped stage, adorned with a real live buffalo, a longhorn steer, buzzards, and rattlesnakes, made a vivid—and permanent—impression on those who attended the concerts. Since then, the band has continued its tradition of “Takin’ Texas to the People,” with mythic concerts across the United States and in international venues as far afield as Japan, Russia, Latvia, and South Africa. The band’s trademark hillbilly beards, sunglasses, Harleys, hot rods, key chains, and droll, synchronized stage antics—not to mention the shapely dancing girls on stage—cemented the band’s quirky, Delta-blues-based image. And ZZ Top’s famous songs “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’ ” imprinted the band’s persona on at least two generations.

“That little ol’ band from Texas,” as the band is affectionately called, has been honored as “Official Texas Heroes” by the Texas House of Representatives and been nominated by Saturday Night Live as a write-in candidate for president. ZZ Top even performed at President George W. Bush’s inaugural celebration, in a show billed as “The Best Little Ball in DC.”

The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. ZZ Top’s other claim to fame: it offered its services to NASA as the lounge band for the first passenger flight to the moon. Incidentally, neither Gibbons nor Hill has had a close encounter with scissors since 1979.

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Excerpted from The Face of Texas, University of Texas Press, 2014