New book explores 50 most influential Texans from over the past half century

Texas Monthly pored through hundreds of names for “Lone Stars Rising” – from Lyndon Johnson to Beyoncé, Selena Quintanilla to Karl Rove.

By Sean SaldanaJune 6, 2023 2:24 pm, , ,

From Sam Houston to Beyoncé, George Strait to Lyndon Johnson, Selena Quintanilla to Karl Rove, the Lone Star State has always been home to some of the biggest names in culture and politics in American history.

Texans have been so prolific, you’d think it’d be impossible to narrow the state’s most influential figures to a list of just five or ten. 

What about 50, though? 

That was a challenge the folks at Texas Monthly put upon themselves with a new book called Lone Stars Rising: The Fifty People Who Turned Texas Into the Fastest-Growing, Most Exciting, and, Sometimes, Most Exasperating State in the Country.

Jeff Salamon is a deputy editor at Texas Monthly and he came on the Texas Standard to talk about the book. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: This book starts in the 1970s and is a series of essays documenting the state’s most influential figures. I think some of these names are rather big in pop culture. What was the motivation for putting this together? Couldn’t have had anything to do with a certain anniversary of Texas Monthly.

Jeff Salamon: It in fact did have something to do with that anniversary. Texas Monthly turns 50 years old this year. Our very first issue was February 1973. And so we’re doing a whole bunch of things for the 50th anniversary. We had a big anniversary issue in February, and we already have an agreement with Harper Web, a division of Harper Collins, to put out a series of books. And this is the third one. And we were looking back at the past 50 years of Texas history during the whole time that Texas Monthly has been around. And we wanted to come up with a book that would really do something interesting about that half century. And at one point, we talked about maybe the 50 most important events of the past half century. And then we thought about maybe it would be like a mix of events and people and things. And then we really narrowed it down to “let’s just write about people.” People like reading about people. So why not?

And really, we didn’t think about this at the outset, but it sort of became apparent as the book was coming together. One thing that really wound up being fortuitous about writing about people was I realized as the stories started coming in that our writers really knew a lot of these people. These weren’t just people they were reading about or watching on TV. But, you know, for instance, Robert Draper, who’s a former staff writer for the magazine who’s now at The New York Times, he reported on George W. Bush from the time Bush was governor, through his presidency – has written a whole lot about him. And so when you read Rob’s piece on Bush, it’s a great piece. First of all, you know, he definitely tells you here’s what was good and bad about Bush as governor and here’s what was good and bad about Bush as president. But he also gives you a sense of what it was like being around the man. You know, he reported on him for so long that eventually they were familiar enough with each other that Bush would make fun of Robert’s tie or his scuffed shoes. And Robert can tell you, you know, “here’s how Bush treated the people around him. This is what he was like up close.”

Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

Jeff Salamon, deputy editor of Texas Monthly, says the book's publication is part of the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the magazine.

Did you have a big meeting? I would love to have been a fly on the wall in it, if so. But a big meeting, I imagine, where you’re all writing down nominees for the top 50 or was it all up to you, Jeff, or what? 

Oh, nothing is all up to me at that place. I mean, there was no big meeting where we were all in a room because like so many things these days, it was done over email and Slack and such. So basically, myself and the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Dan Goodgame, we put together our initial list and maybe there were 100 people on that list and then we sent a list out to the staff and said, “here are 100 we’ve come up with, help us come up with some more.” And then we did some outreach to people in Texas, outside of our own circle saying “who’ve we left off this list?”  And we probably had 250, 300 names, maybe more on the list. And then we started whittling it down. 

Any editorial disputes that you can share with us? Somebody perhaps who didn’t make the list or is that just too sensitive? 

No, that’s not too sensitive. You know, actually relatively late in the book’s process, Alex Jones was in this book and then we eventually decided we just didn’t want to have him in there. You know, there are other names. There are people who, you know, really thought Kris Kristofferson should be in here. People who thought Mike Judge should be in here – Nolan Ryan, Mark Cuban… And if this book had been the 75 people who shaped Texas over the past 50 years, any one of those people could have absolutely made it. None of those were bad ideas. There were just some people you loved, you wish were in the book, but there were just tough choices to make. 

I know with 50 years in business for Texas Monthly, you’ve got quite the archive there. Did you pretty much try to draw from archives or were you starting fresh with every essay or what? 

It was a mix. So I think it’s somewhere between a half and two thirds. The pieces are completely fresh pieces, but then even the archival pieces are, you know, in many in almost every case, radically changed and updated. So, you know, we drew on our former founding editor, William Broyles’ 1976 profile of Barbara Jordan, you know, the great Texas politician. So he wrote that in ’76 when we had no sense of where her career was going to go. And, you know, she had a career for a while after that, and then she died fairly young. So we really had to pretty radically recalibrate that piece while still maintaining the heart of what he was saying about her. That was the case for most of these pieces. They were often, you know, radically abridged, radically updated, radically reshaped. 

Yeah, I totally get that. You know, you think about some of these larger-than-life characters. Lyndon Johnson comes to mind. Certainly Willie Nelson. Everyone associates these figures with the Lone Star State. Were there any lesser-known figures in this book that you thought, you know, “these are important characters that we really want to highlight here. People ought to know about them.”

Right. You know, so I mean, I know a fair amount about Texas – have been working at Texas Monthly for 13 years. So I’ve learned a lot about the state during that time and the years before that. So, you know, of the 50 people here, I knew about 48 of them before I started the project. But two I did not know where the architect O’Neil Ford and the voting rights activist Willie Velasquez. 

Oh, interesting. And so they were included among this top 50?

That is correct. Yeah.

The closing section of the book is titled “The 2020s and Beyond.” How do you go about trying to think in the future, especially since, you know, journalism is the first draft and all that?

You know, we basically do a couple of things here. First, you know, we didn’t want to be entirely backward-looking. We wanted to look forward a bit. And there are people who, you know, you sense are rising in Texas right now, but it’s still too early in their career to really tell us whether or not they’re going to shape Texas. So, you know, we hedge a little bit. You know, we can’t tell you exactly what Elon Musk’s effect on Texas will be, but it seems like it’s going to be something. And the other reason we wanted to do that is, you know, like a lot of organizations these days, we are striving to be cognizant of diversity and paying attention to that. So you see that when you look at the other people we wrote about in Texas past and recent past.

You know, we try to make sure that the roster was fairly diverse, but you can’t really go back and rewrite history. You know, you can’t pretend that any of the governors we’ve had over the past 50 years have been people of color. To a certain extent, you know, there’s only so far you can go with that sort of thing. But looking to the future, that gave us an opportunity to write a bit about a bit more diverse crowd because, you know, Texas is now a majority-minority state. Hispanic Latinos are now a plurality in the state and will be a majority by around 2040. And, you know, the Asian-American population is rising tremendously in Texas. So I think the next book that we put out 50 years from now, our 100th anniversary, will look very different from this one because the population is so different. And so that last section gave us a chance to sort of take care of that.

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