Larry Joe Taylor photo

Texas country musician Larry Joe Taylor and his four-piece band play Friday at the Waco Hippodrome and while many in his audience may not know the significance of the date, he does: It’s Texas Independence Day.

It’s also the date when Taylor and his organization officially release the names of those bands performing at the long-running music festival that bears his name, Larry Joe Taylor’s Texas Music Festival, held annually at Melody Mountain Ranch near Stephenville.

While the 67-year-old Texas singer-songwriter may not have a string of charted hits over his four decades in music, his festival has become a touchstone in Texas country music, attracting both a Who’s Who in Texas music and up-and-coming stars.

“There’s a pretty good cross-section of young artists and established artists,” he said in a recent phone interview from his Stephenville home. “I’m proud of that. It’s not just one section we cater to.”

In fact, setting up each year’s lineup proves a puzzle to assemble. There are the A-listers and festival regulars like Ray Wylie Hubbard who call early to coordinate their availability during the festival’s six-day run. After those slots are filled, then festival organizers start looking for 50 to 60 others to fill out the schedule.

The result looks like a year’s worth of The Backyard headliners, compressed into a week. Even with that number of performers, more are left out.

“There’s probably another 40 or 50 (performers) who could be there,” he said. “It’s a bit of a problem, but a good problem to have.”

Friday’s formal announcement notwithstanding, this year’s lineup features Aaron Watson, Cody Johnson, Koe Wetzel, Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers, Roger Creager, Mike Ryan, Bri Bagwell, Reckless Kelly, the Casey Donahew Band, William Clark Green, Reckless Kelly, Josh Abbott and Hubbard, among others.

The festival marks its 30th anniversary this year and it’s grown a bit from its start in Mingus.

“I thought it’d be a one-time deal 30 years ago . . . I called up Ray Wylie Hubbard to see if he wanted to play, got some chili cooks from the Panhandle and we had probably 100 people,” he recalled. “Last year, our 29th, we had 52,000.”

This year’s festival takes place April 23-28 and, like the Bowen MusicFest in Waco, provides a fixed point on the calendar for Texas country and Red Dirt musicians to socialize and catch up with each other as well as perform. For fans, it’s a handy way to keep a finger on the pulse of Texas country.

Though the flavor of Texas country has shifted more toward a rock sound since Taylor began making music in the 1970s after a rodeo injury, it hasn’t lost its central focus on the songwriter, he said. “It’s still based on the song and the songwriter and it has evolved in the right direction.”

In addition to the festival that carries his name, Taylor also holds annual festivals in New Mexico and Mexico plus songwriting cruises.

Taylor likes that his festivals and songwriting events celebrate the independent Texas artist, in part because he is one. His own music doesn’t fit neatly into a major style or radio format. “It’s a country/calypso/beach thing,” he explained. “I like Caribbean beats and the water.”

Family visits to California when he was young introduced him to the Beach Boys and their music, and that vibe has stayed with him ever since. Taylor owns a ranch outside Stephenville where he raises cattle, but finds life on the beach and ocean just as alluring.

While other Texas songwriters draw inspiration from those who work the land, Taylor rubs elbows with shrimpers and crew boat captains, who face equal challenges in earning a living from a sometime fickle, sometime dangerous natural world.

As one might expect from a beach lover, Taylor leans toward the enjoyment of life in his music — Jerry Jeff Walker once labeled him “the Jimmy Buffett of Texas” — and Friday’s concert is no exception.

“I tell stories where the songs come from,” he said. “I keep it upbeat. I don’t have the blues, so I can’t sing the blues.”

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor