Legendary Tejano accordionist Bruno Villarreal was sitting in a nursing home, blind, unable to walk and without his instrument. But when social work professor Clayton Shorkey gifted him a small accordion, he came to life.
Shorkey and fellow researcher Rudy Martinez compiled the stories of Tejano musicians like Villarreal the same way they set up the Texas Music Museum — slowly and with great attention to detail. The museum, which became incorporated in 1984, displays genres of music that have historically gone under-researched, creating what Shorkey’s longtime friend Jim Turbett described as the “Library of Congress” of Austin music.
It took Shorkey 30 years to conduct interviews of Tejano legends, many of whom have since passed away. He was able to persevere knowing that the project was time-sensitive and relevant to Tex-Mex culture.
“Tejano music is Texas,” Shorkey said. “As far as I know, Tejano music is the only pure Texas brand of music. We can’t claim blues or jazz or country or Western swing, only Tejano.”
While the minds and bodies of iconic Tejano musicians have grown old, their talent is immortalized in the museum. Oral histories, performances and artifacts, such as the record cutting machine from the first Tejano record label fill the museum’s space. Recording of local Tejano artists began in the 1940s, but Tejano’s roots trace back to the area’s earliest settlers from Mexico.
“I’m big on history,” Shorkey said. “So from my point of view, Texas history and culture can be taught from this music.”
According to Shorkey’s research, Conjunto music was for the lower class, while Orquesta was high-tone music for the wealthy. Tejano served as a versatile style of music that developed with a special kind of slant, combining elements of Mexican-Spanish vocal traditions with the Texan experience.
In order to get a comprehensive history for the museum, Shorkey and Martinez sought out those who had helped create the genre. Villarreal, the first-ever recorded Tejano accordionist, was just one example of the scene’s forgotten legends.
“We later came back with the local news stations, our recording equipment and a small accordion for him,” Shorkey said. “He went nuts. Then he played.”
Villarreal’s accordion sits in the museum alongside a sequined dress handmade by Lydia Mendoza, an iconic Tejano singer. Martinez and Shorkey met with Mendoza before her death and later incorporated some of her performance costumes into the Tejano collection.
“We visited her in a nursing home before her death,” Shorkey said. “She was sitting at a vanity and had done her hair and makeup for our visit. I just thought, ‘What a woman; what a performer.’”
At first, Martinez wasn’t familiar with Tejano music, but after driving across Texas to find musicians, he soon fell in love with the genre.
“When I started this journey, I didn’t know about this part of my Hispanic culture,” Martinez said. “But this was the music that helped make people’s nights better. It got them through rough times.”
In the future, Shorkey said he would love for UT to take over the museum since Tejano remains present in Austin music culture today. As a younger generation of Tejano acts reinvent the genre, the Texas Music Museum can serve to remind them of the past performers that have come before them.
“Those early home-brew bands that morphed into Conjuntos and Orquestas and some of these fabulous women and men vocalists spoke of a history that was truly beautiful,” Shorkey said.