austin music history

A Brief History of Austin Music

Austin, Texas has developed a well-deserved reputation world-wide as a unique center for music. The background for this reputation began decades ago, but its origins are not singularly different from many other towns. What Austin has become, though, is different.

From the time of its first settlement in the mid-1880s, Austin has had an ongoing influx of several cultures contributing their musical heritage. With Anglo pioneers arriving, there was a background of country music performed individually and by bands at dances or other social gatherings. The African-American community had its traditions of work songs and gospel, and they played music at dancehalls and juke-joints, too. The Mexican influence added to the musical culture of Austin, also.

These influences were fairly low-key, and comparable to many other places, until around the mid-1960s. At that time, because of a large student community associated with The University of Texas, and due to the influx of young people from other Texas & U.S. towns, there arose a burgeoning audience for diverse types of music thus making Austin very attractive to creative types of people who were less-well received elsewhere. A conscious effort was made by many here to spotlight diverse music.

In the mid-1960s, an old filling station and beer joint run by Kenneth Threadgill became a gathering spot for many of the local “Folkies”. Included in that group was Janis Joplin who got her start performing at Threadgill’s. Joplin and other Austinites like Doug Sahm, Powell St. John, and Roky Erickson and The Thirteenth Floor Elevators were extremely influential in the creation of the “San Francisco scene” in the late `60s. Along with the Austin musicians that helped create much of what is identified with San Francisco, other Austinites like Chet Helms put on early Hippie concerts at The Avalon Ballroom, while artists from Austin such as Gilbert Shelton and Jack “Jaxon” Jackson began Rip Off Press at the forefront of the underground press.

In to the 1960s, traditionally Black venues like Charley’s Playhouse, the Victory Grill, and many others continued hosting touring Blues and R&B acts like Bobby “Blue” Bland, B. B. King, T-Bone Walker, etc. in Austin, and exposing local musicians like Pee Wee Crayton, Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst, et al. as they had since the early 1940s and before. Meanwhile, new venues arose such as The Vulcan Gas Company, and The One Knite, where young hippie-types could bring in Blues talent. Included were Big Joe Williams, Big Mama Thornton, and a young Johnny Winter among many others. These fueled an interest in, resurrection of, and promotion of Blues leading to the outgrowth of such 1970s home-grown Blues acts as The Fabulous Thunderbirds, W. C. Clark, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Lou Ann Barton and others who found a home at Antone’s Nightclub that hosted out-of-town greats like Clifton Chenier, Albert King, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Barbara Lynn, Fats Domino, and many, many more.

Simultaneous to the end of The Vulcan Gas Company in mid-Summer 1970, The Armadillo World Headquarters opened August 7, 1970 to give a venue for local acts like Doug Sahm with Augie Meyer, Willie Nelson, Asleep At The Wheel, Eric Johnson, etc. who might share the stage with divergent talent like Bill Monroe, a young Bruce Springsteen, Gram Parsons and an unknown Emmylou Harris, Freddie King, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Frank Zappa or The Grateful Dead. Even Australian rockers AC/DC played their first performance ever in the U.S. at the Armadillo!

The AWHQ was more than a performing hall, though, and it became the main South Austin community gathering place and arts collective. It spawned many wonderful artists including Jim Franklin (JFKLN), Ken Featherston, Bill Narum, Micael Priest, Guy Juke, and many others, and their works have graced record covers, posters, and other media around the World.

Catering to the growing diversity of tastes of the local audiences, venues then arose to meet those interests. Such places as Raul’s, Club Foot, Duke’s Royal Coach and others were a vibrant focus point for the late 1970s-early 1980s Punk scene, with local acts such as Jesse Sublett’s “Skunks”, Carla Olson, Kathy Valentine ( later of “The Go-Gos” ), Alejandro Escovedo’s “Rank & File”, Joe King Carrasco, “The Butthole Surfers” and many others often sharing the stage alongside touring national and international acts like “The Ramones”, Patty Smith, “The Psychedelic Furs”, “Siouxsie and The Banshees”, et. al that in turn spread the word about the exciting groups they found in Austin.

Austin has also been an incubator for Jazz talent over the years, ranging from pioneers like electric guitar innovator Eddie Durham in the Swing era and bassist Gene Ramey, as well as Bop trumpeter Kenny Dorham in the 1950s. Most recently players like Elias Haslanger and Tony Campise have continued to create excellent Jazz they have taken around the World.

Without question, one of the most significant contributors to Austin’s widespread reputation as an important musical center is “Austin City Limits”. Originating from the campus of the University of Texas with its backdrop of the skyline of Austin, since 1976 the television show has continuously produced and shown via hundreds of Public Broadcasting Service TV stations more than 600 programs spotlighting Austin, Texas, national and international performances for United States and foreign audiences. Up-and-coming acts from this area such as “The Dixie Chicks”, “The LeRoi Brothers”, “Omar & The Howlers”, guit-steel master Junior Brown, Ben Kwellar, “Spoon”, “Fastball” and many others from here got their first widespread recognition appearing on the program. Many other performers, such as Pinetop Perkins, Flaco Jiménez, Danny Gatton, Elizabeth Cotton, and even Roy Orbison, that had all performed for years all too often with less recognition than they deserved, got boosts to their careers through “Austin City Limits”. Even veteran music business giants such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Robert Plant and David Byrne, to name a few, valued the work of “Austin City Limits” and chose to appear in its programming. All this further enhanced Austin’s reputation for being an extraordinarily vibrant center for music.

Most recently, beginning in 2002, an exceptionally popular live music festival emerged due to the attention generated for Austin’s music environment by the “Austin City Limits” television program. Now an annual 3-day event with over 130 acts performing before an audience totaling nearly 200,000 people, it is held each Fall in Austin blending local, national and international acts drawing audiences from around the world. The festival has hosted such well-known acts as Norah Jones, Beck, Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Levon Helm, Solomon Burke and Sheryl Crowe along with acts from, and associated with, Austin such as Los Lonely Boys, Roky Erickson, Patty Griffin, Charlie Sexton and brother Will Sexton, Ben Harper, Pat Green, and hundreds of other fine talents.

In the Spring of each year since 1987, a world-wide “convention” of music performers and patrons is held in Austin attracting thousands of people to share our musical community. The “South By Southwest Music Conference” (SXSW) hosts literally thousands of performing bands and band members from practically every country in the world, and with the thousands more of fans and friends that come to Austin every March, the city becomes a “Mecca” of sorts for all types of music performances. Invariably, people from elsewhere spread the word about what a joyous time they have in Austin, and what a truly unique event and city this is. Ultimately, many of those persons then choose to come here to reside, further enhancing our creative community and exponentially adding to Austin’s reputation as a great musical center.

This blend of influences, and exposure to different types of music, led to much of the homegrown “Austin Music” having a kind of “freshness” to it that was different enough it appealed to other audiences far beyond Austin. As Austin musicians toured Texas, the U.S., and around the world, a reputation developed of high quality, fun music created here. Whether Country, Blues, Rock, Tejano, Jazz, etc, audiences found enjoyable fresh music from Austin, and Austin’s musical reputation preceded itself.

As time progresses, there is a continued and accelerating cross-pollination of musical styles, and a built-in requirement of musicians from here to hone their skills to be competitive with their peers in delivering the high-quality diverse blend of music that has given Austin music its highly regarded international reputation.

Today, Austin is often called “The Live Music Capitol Of The World” because virtually no other place has as much good, live music available to be enjoyed at any given time. There are hundreds of live music venues catering to practically any musical taste. They range from the small, coffeehouse-type Folk singer-songwriter centers that have over the years nurtured the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Butch Hancock, and so many others, through medium sized-nightclubs like The Continental Club, Antone’s and others open every night for business, while large shows can find a showcase in facilities such as Stubbs’, The Austin Music Hall, or The Backyard.

Austinites continue to support creative home-grown blends of high quality music, and new venues like “Roadhouse Rags” on the city’s south side of town have emerged offering amazingly high-quality live music every weekend for audiences to enjoy.

For years Austin has been known as a center for music, and for years to come its reputation will continue to grow.

Jim Yanaway
November 27, 2009