“Though music fans know Lubbock, Texas as the home of Buddy Holly, Lubbock knows itself as ‘The City of Churches.’ It possesses more than two hundred of them, offering more choices of Christian worship per capita than any other city in America. Under ‘Baptist’ alone, there are eleven different categories in the Lubbock phone book, grouped under such headings as Southern Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Bible Fellowship Baptists, and Independent Baptists.
At Tabernacle Baptist Church, there are no official greeters at the foyer, no ushers to lead worshippers to their pews. Among this closely knit congregation, where some seventy parishioners fill perhaps a quarter of the sanctuary on a Sunday in January, everyone sits in his regular pew, everyone seems to know everyone else, and most turn to acknowledge the rare visitor in their midst. Many introduce themselves by name, and I respond in kind.
The morning is unseasonably warm, and on a shirtsleeves Sunday morning such as this the parishioners of Tabernacle Baptist embrace the January warmth as a reflection of God’s grace. The sunlight brightens the sanctuary, from the beige walls to the blond-wood pews. It softens the truth of this place: Lubbock is a town isolated in a land of extremes, separated by hundreds of windswept miles from the rest of civilization. It is a city imbued with a pioneer spirit, with generations toughened by the vagaries of life on the frontier, who for the most part believe devoutly in the absolutes of right and wrong, in principles that conservative Christians insist have disappeared almost everywhere else in the country.
In front of the pulpit stands the Reverend E.L. Bynum, a gaunt, grey-haired minister dressed in a drab-brown suit rather than vestments. This isn’t a man who puts on airs, nor one to whom smiles come naturally. He’s grandfatherly, but from a strain of stern grandfathers. His service is marked by an absolute faith in the literal truth of the bible and a certitude as to the eternal damnation that awaits its transgressors. His congregation, in turn, lives in a land of Absolutes. They know why they are here on this earth, what will happen to them after they die, and what their God expects of them.
As someone raised in one of the more secular-minded faiths of the suburban Midwest, amid churches that seemed more like country clubs, I wish I could be as sure about anything about these folks seem to be about everything. But my faith allowed, even encouraged, a certain amount of skepticism toward the bible. There was plenty of latitude as to which passages were divine, which were literary, and which were preposterous. Such leniency would likely strike the Reverend Bynum as blasphemous. Then again, Bynum considers a lot of what passes for Christianity these days to be blasphemous, with fellow Baptists among the worst offenders, since they should know better. He’s even gone so far as to publicly decry the blasphemies of Southern Baptist leaders, assailing their faith as one degraded by “rank modernism.”
But while Tabernacle Baptist is conservative even by conservative Christian standards, it’s faith was the faith in which Buddy Holly was raised. This was Buddy Holly’s church. And it is the essential mystery of Holly’s music that a sound so joyful could come from a faith so harsh, rigid, and unyielding.
If Buddy Holly were Lubbock’s sole contribution to American music, he might be considered an inexplicable anomaly, but generations of West Texas mavericks have followed his lead, making Lubbock the least likely of music meccas, a garden of creativity within a literal desert. From Buddy’s sidekick Waylon Jennings, and from Roy Orbison, a West Texas neighbor from Wink, though visual artist/songwriter/provocateur Terry Allen, through the legendary Flatlanders trio of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, through the Dixie Chicks’ homegrown, outspoken Natalie Maines — a Lubbock gal if there ever was one — there’s a streak of artistic rebellion that is as strong as the region’s conservative orhodoxy.
Yet the elemental joy of Buddy’s music remains a paradox to this part of Texas, which seems so unlikely to have nurtured such buoyant creativity. Beyond the city limits, the landscape stretches so flat that nothing impedes the wind from blowing scrawny trees and even small pedestrians sideways. (A tornado once ripped through a section of downtown, reducing many of the city’s churches to rubble, though not Tabernacle Baptist.) The pioneers who first explored these West Texas plains considered the region not only inhospitable, but uninhabitable. After surveying the land in 1849, Captain Randolph B. Marcy described it as a “vast-illimitable expanse of desert prairie … a treeless, desolate waste of uninhabited solitude, which always has been, and must continue, uninhabited forever…”
Texans who poke fun at Lubbock insist that the city remains barely habitable, and only borderline civilized. (You still can’t buy a six-pack of beer to take home within the city limits.) Yet Buddy steeped his sound in the essence of Lubbock — from his straightforward conviction to his West Texas twang and the wide-open spaces within the songs — and left an imprint on that helped shape the course of popular music.”
– Writer Don McLease about Buddy Holly.