W. Chase Peeler, a researcher who studies music cultures, headed to the farthest corner of West Texas in 2013 to find a remote region where music was in full bloom. He drove through Big Bend, stopped in Terlingua Ghost Town, and discovered a community so musically inclined that it’s said “there’s a musician hiding under every rock.” Case in point: The town of roughly 100 people had a fully equipped recording studio 25 years before it had a school, a water utility company, or a decent grocery store. Peeler, a multi-instrumentalist, fell in love. He stayed more than two years, conducting doctoral research in ethnomusicology, trying to suss out what made Terlingua such a musical oasis. The culmination of his work is On the Porch: Life and Music in Terlingua, Texas.
Located in canyon country, with Big Bend National Park to the east and Big Bend Ranch State Park to the west, Terlingua is so remote that the nearest stoplight is in Mexico, 65 miles away. Some residents live so far off the grid their homes are visible only by plane. (Rumor has it that one man has lived in a cave for more than 25 years.)
It was certainly a strange place to discover a hotbed of local music. In the 1930s, Terlingua was a boomtown for mining quicksilver. The mines went bust after World War II and workers abandoned their homes. For 30 years, the desolate town was an assemblage of sun-baked ruins, a cemetery with unmarked graves, and a long, lonely highway.
Then, in the late ’70s, two young river guides set up shop in the abandoned Chisos Company Store. Visitors waited on a long wooden bench for their turn to float down the Rio Grande. That bench became the spot where Terlinguan musicians gathered together to play. The Porch, as it is known, sits next to the Trading Company’s swinging doors under a metal roof that leaks when it rains. A few steps away is the Starlight Theatre, a thriving music venue and restaurant. A former movie theater built in 1936, Starlight earned its name because it was once a roofless adobe ruin open to the sky.
The Porch is what drew Peeler to Terlingua—to him, it represented the true spirit of communal music-making. There’s a guitar pick wedged in a crack next to “the porch guitar” available for anyone who wants to join in on the fun. Songs get passed around like a bottle of hooch. Porch jams welcome spontaneity: There’s plenty of ad-libbing, improvisation, and opportunities to share original songs. Budding musicians play alongside established ones, which Peeler believes is essential for musical growth and a strong sense of community.
Porch etiquette is largely unspoken. No one steals the show because there is no stage. Self-promoters are quickly shunned. Musicians come and go, dogs weave in and out, bikers rev their engines in the dusty parking lot. Amid this liveliness, jam sessions can last 10 hours with as many as 20 participants. Tourists will sometimes drop money in an open guitar case, but the musicians who play on the Porch don’t play for money—that’s what gigs are for. They play because “music is a way of life.”
Peeler grew up in Midland. The saxophonist harbors a deep love of the outdoors, and he moved to southwestern Colorado, where he continued to play music while earning a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado Boulder. He still lives in the Rockies, and on occasion, he moonlights as an “overeducated fly-fishing guide.”
I found the book to be interesting and compelling, but at times On the Porch felt like the dissertation it originated as. Not that the tone is academic but the book feels as though it’s being tugged into book form: Ideas get repeated, a focus feels buried, and Peeler gets a little too starry-eyed about the Porch, perhaps losing some critical distance. He often becomes a sounding board for residents who compete with “I remember when…” stories and air frustrations with newcomers. While Peeler felt welcomed by the musicians on the Porch, he learns later that it hasn’t been so welcoming for others. Women, who gravitated toward slower ballads, feel excluded; Mexican musicians are notably absent from the Porch, and there’s a somewhat comical dissonance between needing tourists for the town to thrive and not wanting them to have luxuries like “a flush toilet.”
That said, Peeler’s sentences soar most when he’s describing the landscape of Terlingua, so much so that it’s impossible not to daydream about seeking out this incredible town, where at night “the Milky Way appears, its entire length clearly visible like a streak of powdered sugar flung across the sky.” When describing Big Bend, he writes: “The air is often so clear, the humidity so low, that on the very best days a person can read the contours of the mountains a hundred miles away like the pages of a book.”
Peeler writes that the Apache, whose homeland includes West Texas, believed that the lower portion of Big Bend was where the Creator dumped all the remaining rubble after forming the earth. The region has a jagged feel, “hoodoos and other ghostly outcroppings jut skyward … walls of rock thousands of feet high tower above the desert lowlands.” It’s perhaps this hallucinatory aura that brings out some of the weirder characteristics of Terlingua. The first thing visitors see when entering Ghost Town is a life-size pirate ship and a partially submerged submarine. Out of old car parts, someone has welded a giant mosquito. The quirky Wild West feel has attracted thousands to Terlingua’s annual chili cook-off competition, supposedly the world’s largest.
Being on “Terlingua time” takes patience and grit. Some residents still live without electricity or running water, staying year-round despite the triple-digit heat. Musicians fare well because many are used to living lean. One local touring musician made his home from a mixed material of water collected from large cisterns, sifted dirt, and local grass. Because it can take a year to collect enough water, it took him eight years to complete. This is not an uncommon timeline: Locals spend years living in RVs, trucks, caravans while building their homes off the grid, installing solar panels, water catchment systems, and planting gardens both by choice and often by necessity.
Peeler writes that music in Terlingua thrives because of its remoteness. In the epilogue, Peeler recounts how a woman asked if readers of his book would flock to Terlingua. Sensing how lovingly he’s described the town, he writes, “I believe On the Porch can play a role in helping to articulate the elements of Terlinguan life that residents cherish most.” If you go, just bear in mind the popular bumper sticker: “Don’t Marfa My Terlingua.”