SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 17, 2017

The Cult of Tex

 

As much as possible I try to ignore Christmas. Just keep my head down and wait for it to pass, hoping I don’t get hurt as it does. I hate the decorations, the hamfisted mythology, the rampant consumerism and the fake cheer. More than any other aspect of the season, I absolutely despise Christmas music. Whether about Santa or Jeebus or snow or trees, from “The Little Drummer Boy” to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” it’s the most loathsome subgenre ever concocted by evil marketing departments. I go so far as to steer clear of stores that insist on playing Christmas music over the PA starting in October. Just fucking hate it. But I do make one annual exception.

            Back around 1961 or ’62 (and I’m guessing here, as there was no information at all on the label), a group of anonymous studio musicians performing under the collective moniker “Tex Johnson and His Six-Shooters” recorded what I’m sure seemed at the time nothing but a generic Country Western Christmas album for kids, which they released under the properly generic title, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” To cover their bets, whoever put it out also released the same album under the names “Cactus Jim and the Wranglers” and “Slim Boyd and the Rangehands.” But it will always and forever be a Tex Johnson album to me, as that’s the one my dad picked up at the Air Force base PX in Grand Forks shortly before I was born.

            The album had a blue and silver foil cover, and featured a cartoon of Rudolph and the other reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh through a starry night sky over a snow-covered town. The album was pressed in heavy gauge vinyl, and had a distinct smell to it that I still recall vividly to this day. On the surface, there was nothing about it (save for that strange lack of credits) that set it apart from the hundreds of other generic Christmas albums that came out every year.

            Still, when my sister and I were very young, that was the one album my dad made a point of pulling out and playing every December. Repeatedly. We had plenty of other Christmas albums around—Mitch Miller, Mantovani, Whoopee John, even Wayne Newton and Wolfman Jack—but somehow they never made it onto the turntable. In our house it was All Tex, All the Time. My sister and I came to hate that album, rolling our eyes every time my dad slid it out of the sleeve with a sly grin.

            As the years passed, however, we started playing along with what had become an annual holiday joke in our family. Maybe we just came to recognize how damnably strange the album was beneath all the generic trappings. Whatever it was, we choreographed elaborate mime routines for each song, in which we played the parts of the backup singers. Believe you me, there was plenty of material to work with. I even began looking forward to Tex’s reappearance every year.

            Okay, so the album contains a few straightforward Christmas standards with an added C&W twang, like “Rudolph,” “The Night Before Christmas,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and “Fum, Fum, Fum.” But it also contains a few old country oddballs which just happen to mention Christmas in passing, like “Wait for the Wagon” and “Pride of the Prairie Mary.” Then there are a few straight cowboy numbers, like “San Antonio”and “Cheyenne,” that have absolutely nothing at all to do with Christmas.

            The lead singer seems to change with every track, so it’s unclear which among them is supposed to be Tex, and the instrumentation is all over the board, the one constant being a cheap and wheezy electric keyboard. And what the hell does “Plunging with Faro Jack” mean? But it’s all so damned catchy it’s hard to pause and wonder why a song like “San Antonio” was included on a Christmas album, or why a lighthearted Christmas album clearly aimed at kids would include a song about two soldiers dying on the battlefield.

            There was simply something about it that wormed its way into our heads. Something insidious and insistent and inescapable. By the time my sister and I had entered our early teens, we were getting the jump on our dad, pulling out the Tex Johnson every year before he had a chance. Sometimes we’d even pull it out in March or June when the whim struck us. Later still, after we both moved away, fierce and ugly custody battles arose over who got to keep the Tex Johnson album, as it mysteriously appeared and disappeared from my record collection, or my sister’s, or my parents’.

            Another odd thing about the Tex Johnson album, perhaps only because it had come to be such a fundamental representation of the season in our house, was that I never ran into anyone anywhere who had the slightest inkling what the hell I was talking about when I mentioned Tex in passing. I just assumed every household in America had a copy, that it was as ubiquitous as goddamn Bing Crosby, but I was wrong. No one had ever heard of country sensation Tex Johnson. Over the years I started wondering if somehow my dad had picked up the one and only copy of that album ever released. Maybe it was a mishandled test pressing that somehow ended up at the store after the label decided to scrap it. That might explain the lack of credits.

            As I aged through my thirties and forties, I never could shake that damn album. It was always lurking about, no matter what the season. Thank God I’m the one who eventually won custody, so it was right there on the shelf whenever I needed it. I may talk, and honestly so, about the deep and lasting impact The Residents or the Ramones or Richard Wagner had on me, but at the heart of it no other single album in any genre has made a more lasting impression om me than the Tex Johnson album, even if no one else has ever heard it. I even sprinkled one of my novels with not-so-veiled references to the record, knowing full well no one would get them.

            Then another strange thing started happening.

            At some point in the late Nineties. I mentioned Tex and his Six-Shooters in passing—just a single line—in a piece I did for the New York Press. A few weeks later, a note arrived from a man in Montana who more than simply knew the album, his memories surrounding it were eerily similar to my own. His dad played it every year when he was a kid, he and his brothers and sisters considered it a bad joke, but as he grew into adulthood, he couldn’t get it out of his head, and had spent years trying to track down a copy. He couldn’t say why, exactly—all he knew was that he had to have it around.

            More than anything, I was just relieved (sort of) to learn there was someone else out there who had even heard of Tex Johnson and His Six-Shooters.

             A few years later, after the Internet came into its own and that same story was republished on a website, all those obsessive and lonely Tex Johnson fans, all these people who’d spent a lifetime convinced they were the only one, began crawling out from under the baseboards.

            Suddenly I was besieged by dozens of notes from old Tex Johnson fans from across the country, all of whom had undertaken desperate Internet searches trying to find a copy. Although there were plenty of Tex Johnsons out there, from baseball players to Eric Clapton’s drummer, the only mention of the album that came up, it seemed, was the passing mention in that dumb story of mine. This, I guess, made me The World’s Foremost Authority, and the man to contact.

            For years afterward, every November, as people started pondering yuletide crap, and those isolated members of what I came to think of as the Cult of Tex went online in search of used copies, more notes would arrive. And they were all exactly the same. Most of these people, it seems, just wanted to share their memories and tell someone who might understand what Tex meant to them. Here’s an example:

I came upon your article about the Christmas album by “Tex Johnson and His Six-Shooters.” As a kid growing up in the Sixties ( born in ‘52 ), in Northern New Jersey, my Grandfather took my brother and I to a local department store one year to buy some Christmas things, and the Tex Johnson album was one of them. I got quite a kick out of your article, because I thought I was the only person in the world ( besides my brother ), who would have even known about this Christmas album. Through the years, the album itself either got lost or broken, however I still have the album jacket! I still remember a lot of the songs and I think “Cheyenne” was probably my favorite, even though it wasn't actually a Christmas song. Whenever I see the album cover, I start to sing a few of the songs to myself, just for the heck of it, and suddenly the years vanish and I'm a kid standing in my Grandfather's living-room once again, looking at his Christmas decorations and wondering what kind of gifts I was going to receive. Many thanks, Jim, for helping me to remember a very innocent and happy time in my life, especially in these days of turmoil and strife.

I also heard from a woman on Long Island who was even more obsessive about that album than I was. She had tracked down a copy on eBay, digitized it, and sent me a pristine CD. Since everyone who contacted me asked if I had a copy they could get their hands on (I did, but wasn’t sharing), I sent them to her, and she’d send them a CD free of charge, which I thought was very nice. She also did her research, uncovering the mystery of that above-mentioned “Plunging with Faro Jack” line, and even found evidence of a second Tex Johnson album, this one a straightforward collection of cowboy songs for kids.

            The emergence of the Tex Johnson cult got me thinking. What if aliens had surreptitiously dropped two dozen copies of that singular album into a random scattering of record stores around the country back in the early Sixties? And what if there was some subliminal message engineered into the recording? Some kind of implant that crawled into the brains of anyone who heard that record one too many times at an early age? Reading all these heartfelt notes, it was starting to feel a bit too much like Close encounters, in which seemingly random people from all over the place start having the same vision of Devil’s Tower for no known reason.

            How was it that all these people had almost exactly the same memories of experiencing an album early in life, and were unable to shake it later? Something that became such an obsession thirty or forty years down the line that they all knew they had to get their hands on a copy? And what was the real story with Violet, the woman on Long Island who was suddenly handing out pristine copies free of charge to anyone who asked? Were we all sleeper agents of some sort? Did we have some sort of undisclosed mission? Did the aliens want us all to get together and raise the universal consciousness by playing “San Antonio” at a certain frequency?

            I still haven’t learned the answer, but every year around this time I do wonder, at least for a little while. Then I put on the album again to torment Morgan and the cats.

 

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