New book ‘On the Porch’ examines the ‘Life and Music in Terlingua, Texas’

The Porch is a 100-year-old ruin dating back to the city’s mining era and “has since become a spot for informal music making — jamming.”

By Leah Scarpelli & Kristen CabreraOctober 7, 2021 8:34 am, , ,

When you imagine a town built around music, Austin and Nashville might come to mind. But in out in far West Texas, along the Rio Grande, Terlingua might make you rethink. Built as a mercury mining camp in the late 1890s, then abandoned when that market collapsed after World War II, Terlingua went nearly uninhabited for the next three decades — and was even listed as a Ghost Town in the National Register of Historic Places.

You might know it best these days for the area’s chili cookoff, but author W. Chase Peeler writes that music has breathed new life into Terlingua — in fact, it’s become something of an oasis for musicians big and small. Peeler’s new book is called “On the Porch: Life and Music in Terlingua, Texas.

He says the Porch is actually a 100-year-old ruin dating back to the city’s mining era and “has since become a spot for informal music making — jamming.”

Growing up in Midland, Peeler was unaware the town had people who lived there year-round, much less of its musical nature. He says that though amateur musicians are really the heart of the city, there are more musicians moving to Terlingua because they found it easier to make a living than in bigger-named music cities like Austin — but that’s making it harder on local Terlingua musicians.

Peeler writes in his book:

“Living in Terlingua, where music was more prevalent than anywhere I had ever been, gave me a vision of what might be possible if Americans were encouraged to rethink the role of music in their daily lives. Terlingua is an uncommonly musical town, but its residents are no more genetically predisposed toward music than are the residents of any other town. Terlingua is musical because Terlinguans have chosen music. That choice is what I wanted to understand most of all.”

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about the Porch and its significance.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What is this porch exactly?

W. Chase Peeler: So the porch is a ruin that’s about 100 years old. It is the location of the old Chisos Mining Company store and has since become a hotspot for informal music making, jamming.

Porch jams are spontaneous. They do not occur at any particular time or day. Sometimes you could go days without hearing one and other times you could have 12 musicians playing music from sunup to sundown.

How did you become interested in Terlingua’s musical history?

So I grew up in Midland, about four hours from the Big Bend, and I had no idea that Terlingua was a town where people actually lived full time until the spring of 2013, when I went back for a visit and sat on the porch. And, as luck would have it, started meeting musicians, started passing a guitar around and, before I knew it, a dozen people had contributed to this spontaneous jam. And from then on, I was just captivated.

Tell us a little bit about how music came to breathe new life into this town. Has music always been a part of life in Terlingua?

It has been a part of life in Terlingua since the first river guides moved there in the late 1970s, who saw an opportunity to offer commercial rafting trips on the Rio Grande and the Big Bend area. As one of them told me when they moved there, they increased the population of the ghost town by 200% from one to three. And there was nothing down there. You were lucky if you could get an AM radio station from Chihuahua City, there was really no other source of entertainment when the sun went down. And so what people did was gather around campfires and pass guitars around.

Are we talking about professional musicians? Are we talking about mostly amateur musicians — people who just love to pick up a guitar and strum?

Yeah, it’s mostly amateur musicians, and I would say that amateur musicians really are the heartbeat of music in the town. However, curiously, there have been some musicians moving to Terlingua because, and this sounds outrageous to say, because they found it easier to make a living from music in Terlingua than they did in Austin, which just flies in the faces of, you know, all conventional wisdom.

I guess the cost of living is considerably cheaper than Austin today.

And that is a big part of the equation for people.

Some people have started talking about the Austin effect. Could you say more?

So that was a term that was coined by a local musician named Trevor Reichman, who was one of those people who moved from Austin to Terlingua. It has become increasingly difficult for musicians in Austin to find good paying gigs, and we have seen in Terlingua over the last 10 years, especially an influx of Austin artists who have come to perform in Terlingua. And that, in turn, has made it more difficult for local artists in Terlingua to get those paying gigs because there’s more competition for them now. And so what Terlingua is experiencing is similar to what Austin has gone through over the last several decades, just on a much smaller scale.

Despite having a rich musical tradition, you note that the town might have farther to go in terms of gender and race. Could you say a little bit more about that?

Well, you know, as one of these musicians described to me, she she put it really eloquently. I’m paraphrasing here… Terlingua, while it’s often portrayed as kind of a desert paradise that somehow apart from American society, it still struggles with many of the societal ills that the rest of the country does. There are plenty of talented women musicians who are playing on the scene, but they’ve had to work a lot harder for their opportunities to perform. It wasn’t my goal to cast shade on Terlingua or say even that they had more work to do than anywhere else. It’s simply to point out that despite everything that it’s doing right from a musical perspective, that it is not perfect, that the experience of inclusion in the local music scene is not identical for every person.

Would you describe it as somewhat monocultural in terms of the musical sound and experience?

I would say so, yes. And I would say, based on my interviews with people who have lived there for a long time, it’s more monocultural now than it had been when the border was still open.

Do you think that people are open to new sounds, to new influences, to new voices?

I think they are. Of course it depends on who you ask, but I think, yeah, I think they are.

One side effect of putting out a book about Terlingua as a musical magnet is that you might wind up with a whole lot more people there in Terlingua. Is that going to be good for the scene, do you think?

You know, that’s something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. And, after speaking with a lot of musicians in Terlingua about this subject, I think the music scene and the population is going to continue to grow. And so what the book can do is provide Terlingua residents with an opportunity to speak about what matters in their town. And I would hope that if anyone does read this book and decide to to visit Terlingua, whether they’re a musician or someone who just wants to see the town or experience the Big Bend, I would hope that they would go there with an awareness of the elements of life in Terlingua that are cherished by the people who do live there.

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