This week’s vinyl release of Texas Wild, an album celebrating the wild things and wild places of Texas through music, is a landmark for Austin producer Walker Lukens, who happily accepted this yearlong labor of love.
“Everyone else seemed pretty overwhelmed by the scope of this crazy grand project,” Walker says of the producers who declined, but the lifelong Texas musician and park lover was delighted and eager to take it on. “When I heard there was a project that merged these two things that I really love, I literally laughed, because I couldn't believe that it was a real thing.”
The idea generated from Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF) and partners who wanted to dream big for state parks’ 100th birthday. Why not create a soundtrack for road tripping to the parks, one that melded nostalgic tunes with modern masterpieces for an inter-generational, inter-regional, inter-genre playlist?
“From the beginning, Texas Wild presented a lot of challenges, but I sort of like biting off more than I can chew,” Walker says.
As it turns out, Texas provides the perfect fertile ground for both parks and songs.
“If you were doing a record of music from another state — maybe save California and New York, which have been entertainment hubs — the music would encompass far less diversity than Texas music,” he points out. “So many genres of music have started here or have been popularized by Texas musicians. That really what makes Texas music unique.”
That realization came as an adult. Younger Walker didn’t realize that some of the things that frustrated him or that he was unaware of as a kid in Houston make Texas a very cool state.
“McAllen is nine hours from Amarillo. Like, that's one state,” he says, marveling at not only the geographic size but the strong cultural and historical influences from Mexico and the United States’ immigrants. “I grew up listening to Texas country, Houston hip hop, blues artists — all this stuff that's from my state — without any intention or effort. It just was in front of me and all around me.”
Walker discovered he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t always appreciated what Texas has to offer. Restless during the pandemic years, he rediscovered a hunger for park time and the inspiration and serenity he found in nature. When TPWF’s Anne Brown explained their intent to bring younger and more diverse visitors to Texas state parks, this “younger” Texan was all in.
“I fall into the category of more than 10 park visits a year — I'm a total anomaly,” Walker says, laughing. “I think it’s really cool they're trying to do something that would appeal to young people. An album like this is such a big leap of faith, so much more than just targeting Instagram ads.”
Once he had committed to the project, Walker faced the daunting task of selecting songs and artists. He decided to let the artists map the course but offered a starting point — a playlist of around 50 selections — and guidance.
The artists seemed to genuinely hate that early list, Walker laughs, but it did spark the needed discussions.
“I think the playlist had the unintended effect of getting people to engage with their own ideas about Texas music,” Walker says of the stream of new ideas the list generated.
“Some people have very strong ideas about what's called Texas music,” he says. “I was on a bit of a mission to show that Texas music is all this other stuff, too. Like, how are you going to have a conversation about Texas music these days and not talk about the force of nature that is Beyonce? She's probably the most popular artist on the planet.”
Beyonce eventually made the cut, with a cover of “Say My Name” by the Black Pumas’ Adrian Quesada, backed up by the Soul Supporters. But the first pairing that came together was Houston’s Fat Tony doing “Hey Baby, Que Paso?” by Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet back in 1983. It wasn’t Tony’s first song choice.
“Tony really wanted to do a song by La Mafia, ‘Un Millón de Rosas,’ a classic song,” Walker says. “But then he decided to ask his fans on Twitter, ‘What should I cover for this album I'm working on?’” The fans demanded “Hey Baby” — Tony and Walker heard them loud and clear and changed course, featuring Texas rapper/DJ Paul Wall on the track.
“What's fun about the original is that it's pretty irreverent,” he says of the rollicking number. “It's supposed to be a little tongue-in-cheek.”
One down, off to a good start. Once you sign a big name to a project, others are more eager to join. Walker began to feel the strain of trying to represent so many sounds in so few tracks.
“Flip through the radio station in any major Texas city, you’re gonna hear a Tejano station, a country station, a modern pop station, a hip-hop station and probably an old school R&B station,” he says. “Every single city in Texas has those five genres represented — it's all part of us, even if some only associate one genre with Texas.”
What Walker never intended to do was rehash the traditional “Texas songs” we’ve heard all our lives, choosing instead lesser-known references and deeper cuts from more well-known artists like Willie Nelson.
“More than one person involved with this project asked me who would sing ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’ on the album,” Walker says, laughing. “That was the level of selection that they thought they were going to encounter.”
Walker let the list grow as organically as possible, while guiding it to a satisfying conclusion, despite a few unavoidable “wishes” on his list that didn’t make it.
“I really, really wanted to get a ZZ Top song, but I couldn't get anyone to do that,” he says. “I had kind of an aborted attempt to get another hip-hop artist on this album, doing a Houston hip-hop classic. I was adamant about trying to do that, but I couldn't really make it happen. There’s also no blues song, so that feels a little bit like an oversight.”
Walker notes Stevie Ray Vaughan’s impact on music, then riffs on the importance of Texas legends like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, who have spawned so many imitators, some very successful in their own right. Going back even further, he can find the roots of so many genres we enjoy today.
“Some of these songs are more than 60 years old; some of them are 10 years old,” Walker notes. “Some of the people who worked on this record are in their 60s and 70s; some are in their teens. The whole culture around Texas music is intergenerational and self-contained, and that’s a special and unique thing.”
Walker, who recently released his own new album, Accessible Beauty, has already received high praise for his efforts. Texas Monthly just named it “one of the best albums of the year” and called Walker a “mad Texas genius.”
For his part, Walker just wants listeners to have a good time and support the idea of state parks for all.
“I think that Texas Wild is a fun listen through and through, conjuring up all this Texas music beyond just what you think you know,” he says, dreaming of a second album while this first one racks up digital sales and hits state parks stores, beautifully wrapped in wildlife art created by Texas illustrator Mishka Westell.
“It's great that something like Texas Wild exists, and that Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation made it happen,” he says. “For the State of Texas, our parks, the Foundation — it's something to be proud of.”
Texas Wild is now available online, at State Park stores across Texas and in select record stores. The limited-edition vinyl album hits stores just in time for the holiday season, making the perfect gift for any music lover. Proceeds from the album sales will benefit Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.