Austin, Texas, June 19, 2009: Two stories, one concert. Steve Earle is playing the Paramount Theatre solo and acoustic in support of his album of Townes Van Zandt covers, Townes. Earle plays a lot of Van Zandt songs and a lot of his own. Earle alone on stage isn't really alone; he's electric, intense, his sound filling the theater. Afterwards I tell him how one of the last times I hung out with Clifford Antone at his club before he died, some band was just cooking on stage. Clifford nudged me, saying "Look up there . . . ," and pointed to the rafters behind and over the stage.
"There's Doug up there just watching the show and grooving."
Townes and Doug Sahm didn't exactly groove in the same ways, but looking up high at the ceiling of the Paramount that night I knew that sure as anything Townes was up there listening. He’s digging the music, though if he had talked to Earle afterwards he would have made a few sly jokes at Earle's expense, ribbing him just a bit rather than complementing him because that was Townes' way.
Backstage, Earle tells a wonderful story about when he was on Letterman recently, performing Townes' "Colorado Girl." The host came up to him afterwards, as he always does, and as the credits rolled, leaned in asking, "Why didn't you do 'Snowing on Raton'?"
Music saturates the city of Austin, always has and likely always will. It's in the air, in the intense unending heat of the summer, in the brief cold of a short winter, and in the constant, sixty-eight-degree waters of Barton Springs. It may be just a slight breeze ruffling the leaves on the trees in the evening or the steam rising from the dry earth in the late afternoon of a too-brutal summer day. It's not that it's so very loud, but that in Austin, Texas, it's always and everywhere.
Cities have often been defined in finite ways. Pittsburgh was a steel town, Chicago the world's hog butcher, and Fort Worth once was the cattle processing capital of Texas. Austin is a city where the common daily background sounds are not just those of jackhammers and railroad cars, where the lifestyle and currency are not just about jobs, families, homes, and money. Awake the city is of music and asleep is dreaming of music.
Music is everywhere and of everyone, coming out of houses, schools, municipal buildings, cars, street corners, clubs, and parks. It's being made by so many people playing every kind of instrument as they perform all different kinds of music—a city of musicians busy practicing, learning, teaching, perfecting, recording, and performing.
Turn, turn, turn to the music everywhere, music being made in the present—but also in the future imagined and a past so honored and relevant it's not really past. The history can go back to traditional African-American toasting or Jayne Mansfield performing during the 1950s. It can include the evolution of contemporary gospel by telling the story of the Mighty Clouds of Joy or detail the birth of psychedelic music when the 13th Floor Elevators traveled to San Francisco.
The full history has to touch on yodeling and jamming at Threadgill's and the music that was played—as well as often gestated and matured—at Soap Creek Saloon and the Armadillo World Headquarters. The history spans the down-home rawness of the Split Rail and the literal army of songwriters that sharpened their edges at Castle Creek to the never-ending spawn of Emo's and the other Red River clubs. The story of the great Doug Sahm has to be included, as well as the mythic moment when Willie Nelson moved to Austin after leaving Nashville.
Necessary to the telling of the whole story are so many other stories, in fact far too many other stories. These range from the Big Boys mini-riot and Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan playing together at the Austin Music Awards through the continuing legends of Freda & the Firedogs and Paul Ray & the Cobras. There's the brilliant, brutal cultural counter punch of the Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid and the contemporary international success of Explosions in the Sky, White Denim, Okkervil River, and Spoon. Currently there is a dazzling number of gifted female singer-songwriters including Shawn Colvin, Eliza Gilkyson, Patty Griffin, and Carrie Rodriguez. Yet, they shine even more in the context of blues legends such as Angela Strehli, Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton, Sarah Brown, and Sue Foley. There's almost no way to tell the story without mentioning the Huns, True Believers, Roky Erickson, Townes Van Zandt, the Flatlanders, and Daniel Johnston. This list barely scratches the surface, but in the direction of trying to come close to any comprehensive listing lies madness and near guaranteed institutional commitment.
An introduction to Austin Music even limited to the past quarter-century and focused by the Austin Chronicle's coverage is necessarily truncated. The Austin scene has never been about only one kind of music or style but rather the full past of music honored with cross-breeding and constant reinvention into innovative explorations that combine music and the slight tastes of remembered music.
Those who end up as music writers and critics usually begin to develop a more intense, co-dependent relationship with music early on in their listening lives. Not just the soundtrack to the lives they are living, music is an integral part of them, expanding possibilities by inflaming dreams and desires. Once the music takes root, it affects and alters life and lifestyle, inspiring imagination and ambition. Music justifies, validates, and helps celebrate. It is for dreamers who imagine that their lives and future can and will be so much richer than the one they are living.
In the spring and summer of 1981, a number of us began to gravitate around Nick Barbaro and Joe Dishner, who had begun talking seriously of starting an alternative paper in Austin. Certainly we were the children of Marx and Coca-Cola but also of politics, film, television, and, most purely and directly, rock & roll. Just as importantly we were the offspring of the Village Voice, Austin Sun, the East Village Other, the San Francisco Oracle, and Boston After Dark, sired by Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone, Ramparts, I.F. Stone's Weekly, and Paul Krassner's the Realist.
On September 4, 1981, the first issue of the Austin Chronicle was published. Produced by our mongrel clan, it was a true hybrid. The conceit of the Chronicle from early on was to focus on Austin music. Important national releases were frequently covered, but the emphasis was on the local scene. The Chronicle staff decided even before the first issue was published that the paper's primary focus would be on local music, though certainly not to the complete exclusion of covering national and regional acts.
The first breakout content hit at the paper was Margaret Moser's "In One Ear" column. Though it covered road shows coming to Austin and releases by major national acts, its bread, butter, and groupie reporting was mostly focused on what was happening locally. The first major marketing/public relations score by the Chronicle was the first Chronicle Music Poll results published in 1982. This was followed in 1983 by the Austin Music Awards, honoring the poll winners.
The Chronicle covered theater, dance, food, art, politics, film, and comics, among many other things, though from the very beginning what drove the then bi-weekly paper and what brought readers and media attention to it was music. Moser's "In One Ear" column was followed by Michael Corcoran's "Don't You Start Me Talking," which became the bi-weekly must-read of the entire music community. The column was about music but also about Michael; the column was about Michael but also about music.
Around Thanksgiving 1986, Austin Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro and I, at the urging of Roland Swenson and Louis Meyers, decided to start an annual regional music business meeting in Austin. Swenson had worked many different music business related jobs but was then working for the Chronicle; club booker and band manager Meyers had offices in the same building as ours.
The first South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival took place March 1987. It was relatively successful from the start. In the decade-and-a-half after that first event, similar events were tried in literally hundreds of cities. None really worked. We were intimately aware of this as SXSW Inc. tried to launch a few other events of its own.
The secret ingredient that made it work, we discovered, was Austin—not only the culture of the city, as well as its respect and understanding of that culture, but the very music scene. No other city was as hospitable as Austin. Even more important, no other cities had as many well-known journeyman and/or cult, regional acts as Austin, acts with many loyal fans that were into them and followed their music but were not hordes in the millions.
All of it finally came together to create an alchemical transcendence, a multidimensional, completely unique world lacking in traditional restrictions, populated by great musicians, endless music enablers, passionate fans, all kinds of artists, and brilliant writers, passionate about music.
There have always been a lot of good music writers in Austin and not just at the Austin Chronicle. Other established publications' attention to music, however, ebbed and flowed. Other music publications came and went. Over its twenty-eight-year history (as of September 2009) the Chronicle has been dogged and steadfast in its devotion to all kinds of music coverage. Reviews of records, tapes, CDs, online music, and live shows are crucial to this coverage. These are coupled with show recommendations by both national and Austin acts and profiles of local talent. Included as well are thought pieces, overviews of the local music business, pieces following certain bands on tour, and detailed histories of bands, clubs, scenes and musicians—those still thriving and the ones now gone. On an ongoing basis the writing has been accompanied by some of the best available music photos and art, outstanding photo features on musicians, dozens of memorable covers, and over twenty-five years of memorable AMA posters.
There are those who will argue that this introduction should have provided an historical overview that included hundreds of names of acts, solo artists, clubs, and memorable shows—or at the very least offered some of the many stories that have passed into local legend. An attempt at such coverage by necessity would have been painfully incomplete, leaving out so much more than could be included in this space. Instead, this introduction is an eclectic overview, one I hope that is in tune with this extraordinary anthology that attempts to cover all the varied elements, stories, and sounds that have birthed Austin music and have continued to keep it vital, ambitious, and relevant.
This anthology offers years of immediate coverage of the music and the scene. There are the city, the music, musicians, clubs, and concerts. There are the history, the national renown, the festivals, and the amazing amassed collection of music released from here. There are also the expansive lifestyle and rich culture of a music city.
Finally there is the media coverage: the critiquing, celebrating, recommending, and criticizing of the music and those who make it, the story as told as it was happening, the contemporaneous shaping of the myth. The Chronicle, though by no means alone in that pursuit, has been the most steadfast. It seems unlikely that any of the other media covering the scene have enjoyed the ongoing adventures nor have had nearly the ridiculous amount of fun as have the contributors at the Chronicle. This not in spite of but because of all the hard work, intensity, last-minute reporting, all-night writing, passion, pain, and pleasure that comes with the job. At the end of the day, when an issue is out and the Chronicle building empty, there is only one thing of which you can be sure, only one thing that keeps the writing as fresh, impassioned, electric, and imaginative as the scene: whether at home, in the car, at the clubs, or in concerts much of the staff is listening to or playing music. It has always been that way and still is, as it is of Austin.
Music is of the Chronicle and the people who put it out.
This one is for Doug Sahm, as they all are, who until the day he died made more music than all those grooving Nashville cats did taken all together.
Louis Black, September, 2009