Friday, February 17, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 17, 2006

At 9:10 p.m. on Aug. 25, 1951 ... The night was clear and dark. Suddenly all three men saw a number of lights race noiselessly across the sky, from horizon to horizon, in a few seconds. They gave the impression of about 30 luminous beads, arranged in a crescent shape. A few moments later another similar formation flashed across the night. ... A check the next day with the Air Force showed that no planes had been over the area at the time.
— From

When you Google the phrase “Lubbock Lights,” the above passage is what you find on the first site listed.

This mysterious phenomenon is mentioned in Lubbock Lights, a documentary by Amy Maner showing this weekend at the Santa Fe Film Center. But that’s not really what the film is about. Lubbock Lights deals with the amazing musicians who came out of that unassuming little West Texas city, from Buddy Holly to the Flatlanders to The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s not some direct connection between the spook lights of ’51 and the talent that rose out of Lubbock in the years to follow. Joe Ely suggests it in the movie. Terry Allen was at a drive-in theater and saw the darn things fly over. Jimmie Dale Gilmore says he saw something similar about 10 years later.

Lubbock Lights starts out with images of West Texas highways, the Lubbock skyline, lightning storms, tornadoes, even a grainy, black-and-white local TV weather report. There are a few moments of what apparently was an old documentary about Lubbock history that starts out with square-dancing cowboys.

The movie is rich with musical footage. You can see Joe Ely’s band when they were in their late-’70s/early-’80s prime. There’s a young Allen ripping the hell out of his song “The Lubbock Tornado.” You’ll meet C.B. Stubblefield — aka Stubb, the tall barbecue cook, restaurateur, and mentor to musicians — and hear him sing “Summertime” and talk about feeding the world. You’ll marvel at a shirtless Stardust Cowboy going insane onstage.

There’s a fascinating segment on Tommy X. Hancock (no relation to the Flatlanders’ Butch Hancock), a Lubbockite who started out in the ’40s as a fiddler in a Western swing band. He later went to San Francisco, dropped acid, and started a group called the Supernatural Family Band with his wife and kids. His music took just a slight turn to the weird — there’s a video of the group playing a bluegrass rock stomp and dancing around the ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru.

One of my favorite parts was an old black-and-white clip of the Flatlanders — Ely, Gilmore, and Butch Hancock — playing “The Stars in My Life” in the early ’70s at the Kerrville Folk Festival. As was true on the band’s first record, the Plan 9 From Outer Space musical saw is too loud, but in a weird way it adds to their ragged charm.

Ex-Talking Head David Byrne pops up in a woolly Russian hat saying that the Flatlanders were to Texas what the Velvet Underground was to New York. “It was a group that didn’t sell many records, but ... anyone who heard them started a band — or started writing songs,” Byrne said.

I’ve heard the story of Lubbock music history a million times. But this movie only makes it more enjoyable. Everyone interviewed seemed so sincerely positive and warm toward each other — and not in a smarmy, show-biz kind of way. The laughs sound real, the love is obvious, and the music is soul-deep.

Lubbock Lights is showing at The Film Center, 1616 St. Michael’s Drive, at 5:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 17 and 18, and at 3 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19. Call 988-7414 for more details.

You won’t find this DVD at so look for it at

Also recommended:

Pedal Steal by Terry Allen. Unlike your typical “album,” this isn’t a collection of a bunch of songs. It’s a 35-minute stage piece commissioned by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in the ’80s. Sugar Hill Records reissued it this month.

Songs and instrumental pieces weave in and out of spoken-word pieces eulogizing a steel guitarist named Wayne Gailey, who toured around Texas and New Mexico — and who did studio work with Rose Maddox and undoubtedly others — and died of a drug overdose in the late ’70s. (“Death by misadventures” was on the autopsy report.) Here he’s called “Billy the Boy.” Sometimes his myth seems to overlap with that of Billy the Kid.

Pedal Steal also is an irreverent tribute to 20th-century Route 66 culture. It’s all there: the drive-in theaters, the motels, the trucks, the beer joints, the trailer parks, the graveyards. There’s a recurring Navajo chant, strains of mariachi, lots of piano boogie, and “Sentimental Journey” performed by sax men Bobby Keyes and Don Caldwell. It’s also got a great overlooked Allen song, a sad and lovely tune called “Loneliness.”

The true magic of the West is summed up in the monologue about motels:

"Out west they’re always raisin’ holy hell, kickin’ in walls, shootin’ guns, havin’ fights and wild parties. Somebody’s always screamin’ bloody murder or [sexual intercoursing] their brains out in the room next door. Back east motels are different. You never hear nothin’, not a peep ... course they can kill your ass in either place. It’s just a lot more fun out west.”
If you’re only interested in the music, Allen distilled most of the songs from Pedal Steal onto a nine-minute medley on his 1999 Salivation album. But there you won’t hear about the spooky man in the Moriarty bar who warns of “The Creature” or Billy’s batty mom or the other lonesome ghosts of Pedal Steal.

Hear music from the lights of Lubbock — including the complete Pedal Steal — tonight, Feb. 17, on The Santa Fe Opry, 10 p.m. to midnight on KSFR-FM 90.7


  1. Anonymous9:16 PM

    I always thought Lubbock Lights was from the old 70's song .. Mac Davis? .. '. Glad to see Lubbock Lights in my rear view mirror, or something like that. And, I was back there.

  2. Anonymous9:15 AM

    Thanks for remembering a true talent on the pedel steel. Wayne Gailey was truly not only the best pedal steel player that I had the opportunity to know but also a very great person. I happpened to work with him on a construction job at KAFB and he made the day seem brighter. Wayne and some of his band members played at my wedding recption at the Hilton in 1977. His picture still hangs on my wall and he still makes me smile. Too bad that another talent taken too early. It was an honor to have known you.
    Robert Burns
    Pezenas, South of France



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