It’s 6pm on a Saturday evening in Lubbock, Texas. I stroll along the wide, empty streets, dotted with family-owned car dealerships, well-worn houses and the occasional convenience store. A light breeze throws dust into the air, a teenager sitting on a doorstep twangs the strings of a battered guitar, and a tumbleweed — yes an actual tumbleweed, the greatest Texan cliche — drifts lazily across the tarmac.
Chance are you’ve never heard of this small city, which sits in the flat, custard-coloured plains in northwest Texas. While travellers flood to Dallas for its shiny skyscrapers and shopping, and Austin for its rock bars and vegan food trucks, Lubbock remains an unlikely destination for those taking a big Texan tour.
And yet I’m here. Me, and a handful of others, with one thing — or rather, one person — in common: Buddy Holly. Because it’s here in this unassuming city that one of rock’s greatest icons — famous for hits including That’ll Be The Day and Peggy Sue — was born and where his fledgling music career took shape. It was in these very car dealerships where he played his first gigs; he later supported Elvis when the hip-thrusting superstar played the city’s clubs, and it was here proposed to Maria Elena Santiago on their first date. Two months later, the pair married here in Lubbock.
Sadly, their relationship didn’t last long. In February 1959, just six months after the wedding, 22-year-old Holly boarded a plane that crashed soon after take off. Today, his famous black, horn-rimmed glasses (plucked from the wreckage), Fender guitar, yearbooks, records and pipes are just some of the personal items on display at the Buddy Holly Center, a former train depot that’s become a site of pilgrimage for fans around the world.
A love of Buddy Holly may be what draws most visitors to Lubbock, but after an hour or two, it’s likely most will have fallen for the charms of the city too; its bars, its restaurants and its residents — many of whom grin happily when they learn that this Londoner has made the five-hour drive along Interstate 20 chiefly to guzzle beer, hear live music and scoff burgers in their small city. Some people will tell you that the state’s best brisket is at the end of a four-hour queue in Austin, but here in Lubbock I devour a barbecue feast so good that I still long for it today. Sticky, saucy pork ribs, tangy, chunky pickles and sweet but cheesy cornbread are piled onto silver trays at Evie Mae’s BBQ, a packed joint at the side of a freeway junction. “We have time on our hands in Lubbock,” one twentysomething customer tells me, wiping smears of sauce from his mouth. “So we drink. And when we drink, we eat.”
I’m happily on board. My next meal is at Triple J’s Chop House & Brew Pub, a craft brewery and live music bar that occupies a prime spot on Buddy Holly Avenue. Plate-sized portions of fried chicken come heaped with gravy, and the teenage waiter is excited to have a celeb in town. No, not Bernie Sanders, who’s dining in a booth nearby, but me — the Brit who’s swerved the other big sites of Texas in favour of low-key Lubbock.
It’s the same story at The Crafthouse Gastropub, an easy-going place where a waitress serves me one of the best burgers of my life. It’s brilliantly simple — a slick of ketchup, a duvet of cheese on an inch-thick patty and a jumble of pickles — and worth the drive in itself.
That night, in The Blue Light Live, a dingy bar with sticky floors, cheap beer and punters drunkenly two-stepping to rock, I watch a young and hopeful rock band from Dallas deliver their ‘hits’. I could’ve seen them play to a glam crowd in their hometown, or beneath a crane-littered skyline in Austin, but it feels right in Lubbock. Sure, it may not be the prettiest city in the States, but for a taste of true Texas, I couldn’t have done better.