What started out as a small music scene on 6th Street in Austin, Texas has blossomed into a city-wide scene earning Austin the moniker “Live Music Capital of the World.”
The music in Austin is nothing new. The city has boasted a proud music heritage since the 1800’s in the German Beer Garden district. The sounds of international music laced the streets then came jazz, country, blues and eventually rock & roll in all its incarnations. From the early days, much like the present day, Austin was known as a city where struggling musicians could come and try to make it with the help of its fans and organizations such as The Austin Music Foundation.
In 1974, Austin made another big stride when PBS launched the long-running television program Austin City Limits. The popularity of the television shows helped launch the Austin City Limits Music Festival, just one of many festivals in the city. The most popular is South by Southwest (SXSW). The annual music and film conferences continue exploring frontier events which helps the independent artist.
With a city this rich in music history the legendary acts which have come in and out of the “Live Music Capital of the World” are immeasurable but let’s give it a shot with my ten favorites.
Singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo came into the music scene as a member of the San Francisco punk band The Nuns. In 1979 he went on to co-found the groundbreaking cow-punk band Rank and File.
Two years later, Escovedo moved to Austin and has been one of their beloved sons ever since. After a short stint in the band True Believers with his brother, Escovedo went solo with his debut album (produced by Stephen Bruton) ‘Gravity’ in 1992. Since his debut, Escovedo has gigged around with other bands, and has continued releasing critically praised solo records through various different labels.
In April of 2003, Escovedo collapsed after a show in Phoenix and it was revealed that he had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C in the late ’90s but had never received treatment. The word spread fast in the music community and several benefit concerts and a 2-disc cd tribute, ‘Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo.’ Since the revelation of his health, Escovedo has continued to release fantastic solo records and tour.
Key Albums: With These Hands (1996); A Man Under the Influence (2001); the Boxing Mirror (2006); Real Animal (2008); Big Station (2012)
Since the late 1970’s, Rosie Flores has been a major fixture in both the Austin and Los Angeles music scene with her unique blend of rockabilly, blues and alternative country style of playing. With her fiery guitar solos and gritty vocals, Flores has been a respected musician since she came on the scene.
The hard-working pioneer for the all-female punk band the Screaming Sirens, and released their debut ‘Fiesta in’ 1984. After flirting with bands since her teens, Flores went solo with her self-titled debut album in 1987 at the age of 37. Since then, Flores has released ten studio albums while bouncing from label to label. She’s kept her hard-working independent spirit, not to mention her dedication to the music she grew up on.
Key Albums: Rosie Flores (1987); Once More with Feeling (1993); Rockabilly Filly (1995); Dance Hall Dreams (1999); Working Girl’s Guitar (2012)
Growing up on a healthy dose of The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Rickie Lee Jones, Patty Griffin has blossomed into one of music’s finest singer/songwriters.
With her poetic lyrics and bluesy vocals Griffin has a unique and stripped down sound which is praised by many. In addition to her own solo career, Griffin’s songs have been recorded by such legendary acts as Linda Ronstadt; the Dixie Chicks; Bette Midler; Melissa Ferrick; Beth Nielsen Chapman; Mary Chapin Carpenter; Emmylou Harris; and Joan Osborne. On her 2004 solo record ‘Impossible Dream’, she was joined by Lisa Germano, Emmylou Harris, and Buddy & Julie Miller. More recently, Robert Plant sang on three songs on her 2013 release ‘American Kid.’
Griffin, who grew up in Maine has been an important fixture in the Austin music scene for many years. The Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist has recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in music, in addition to her flawless solo releases, Patty Griffin certainly deserves all the accolades.
Key Albums: Living with Ghosts (1996); Flaming Red (1998); a Kiss in Time (2003); Impossible Dream (2004); American Kid (2013)
If there was one person to sum up the hippie movement of the late 1960s, it would be Janis Joplin. With her funky eye glasses, bell bottoms and feather boa, Janis was over the top. She loved he freedom, her music and her Southern Comfort.
The interesting thing about the Port Arthur, Texas native was she was technically in a few bands, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Kozmic Blues Band and Full Tilt Boogie, but everyone seems to just think it was Janis Joplin with backing musicians. It’s easy to understand why. That voice is unmistakably, full power and glorious. Though she only put out a handful of studio albums, it was Janis’ energetic live performances which made her known. She commanded that stage, held the audience in the palm of her hand and she rocked songs as “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Mercedes Benz”
Sadly, like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Janis’ music career and life was cut short. On October 4, 1970, she died at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood of an heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol. She was just 27.
Key Albums: Cheap Thrills (1968); I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues; Again Mama! (1969); Pearl (1971); In Concert (1972)
Growing up in the heartland of American my parents only new a little about music but what they did know was country music, more specially – Waylon Jennings, Don Williams, and Willie Nelson. I grew up loathing this music, family trips were just brutal listening to AM radio and all those country songs.
As I grew older and studied music more deeply, I have learned to not only love those country singers of my youth but respect them.
One in particular, Willie Nelson, makes this list. The red-headed Texan was as smooth of singer as Hank Williams while being as punk rock as The Clash. He loved his whiskey, women and, really loved the marijuana. As 80 years of age he could probably smoke Snoop Dogg under the table.
That being said, Willie has a long and illustrious career that spans more than 50 years, so how do you begin to justify him being on this list, do I really need to justify it? Doubtful. What do you say that hasn’t already been said in all those decades? You can’t. Willie is one of music’s greatest songwriters and one of music’s most overlooked guitar players. I am just thankful I wised up and listened to his music with an open mind and ears.
Key Albums (of my youth): Red Headed Stranger (1975); Waylon & Willie (1975); Stardust (1975); The Electric Horseman (1979); Honeysuckle Rose (1980)
Due to his wide scope of music genre’s being associated with blues, folk, rock and punk genres it’s hard to pin down singer/songwriter and guitarist Charlie Sexton.
He first tasted success back in 1995 with the hit single “Beat’s So Lonely,” but when his solo career stalled out, he found work as a sessions and touring musicians, most notably as Bob Dylan’s backing band from 1999 to 2002 and from 2009 to 2012.
Sexton, along with his musician brother Martin, learned to play the guitar from such Austin greats as W. C. Clark, Joe Ely, and Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan. By his late teens, Sexton was playing alongside and/or recording with legends such as David Bowie, Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards, Don Henley, Jimmy Barnes and Dylan.
In 1992, Sexton formed the popular side project Arc Angels, which featured Doyle Bramhall II (son of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s writing partner Doyle Bramhall), Tommy Shannon, and Chris “Whipper” Layton (both from Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s famed rhythm section). Their debut album was praised by critics and fans, but the band broke up within three years. More recently, Sexton has become a respected producer while maintaining his in-demand status as a sessions and touring musician.
Key Albums: (Solo) Pictures for Pleasure (1985); Under the Wishing Tree (1995); Cruel and Gentle Things (2005); w/ Arc Angels Self-Titled (1992)
With two full lengths and one EP, it could be argued that The Austin-TX powerhouse trio Ume (pronounced ooo-may) hasn’t earned their stripes to be on this list. Well, think again.
Lauren Larson (vocals/guitar), Rachel Fuhrer (drums), and Eric Larson (bass) are three of the hardest working people in indie music. Bucking the convention of signing to a big label, the explosive rock band has continued to tour and write albums while building up their fan base word of mouth. The hard work paid off recently when the band got a personal invite from Perry Farrell to play Lollapalooza and they’ve also toured with Helmet and the Toadies.
Mixing feedback-filled riffs, pop songwriting and a heavy low end, UME is led by the tornado that is Lauren Larson. Mixing rebellion with passion, Ume is doing it on their own terms and we are better off for it.
Key Albums: Sunshower (2009); Phantoms (2011)
The older and lesser known of the Vaughn brothers, Jimmie can hold his own when it comes to playing the blues on his guitar. Cutting his teeth as a founding member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In the 1980s, along with his brother Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimmie had a large part in bringing the blues back into the mainstream. With his dirty roadhouse playing style, Jimmie Vaughn was once the top guitarist in Texas. It wasn’t until 20-plus years into his career that he started releasing solo records and made a name for himself as a solo artist. He remains one of the most versatile blues players around.
Key Albums: Vaughan Brothers Family Style (1990); Strange Pleasure (1994); Do You Get the Blues? (2001); Plays Blues, Ballads & Favorites (2010)
With his smoking guitar playing, Stevie Ray Vaughan, with his backing band Double Trouble, lit the fire for the blues revival in the 1980s. Mixing his love for blues players Muddy Watters and Albert King with his obsession of Jimi Hendrix, Vaughn was head and shoulders above the rest of the blues rockers of that time period.
The Vaughn penned tracks “Pride and Joy,” “Texas Flood.” “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” along with a healthy dose of Hendrix and Willie Dixon covers put SRV on everyone’s radar even getting heavy doses of air play on MTV.
Early in 1990, SRV recorded ‘Family Style’ with his guitar-playing brother. However, it was to be released posthumously. While on tour in East Troy, WI on August 26, 1990, Stevie Ray was taking a helicopter to Chicago. Shortly after 12:30 a.m. the helicopter crashed, killing Vaughan and the other four passengers. Vaughn was 35-years-old.
Key Albums: Texas Flood (1983); Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984); Live Alive (1986); In Step (1989); Vaughn Brothers: Family Style (1990)
To be honest, I don’t know if singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams calls Austin home or not anymore, but she did spend quite a bit of time there when writing and recording in the early days and that’s good enough for me to add her to this best of list.
This nomadic powerhouse has been called “The Female Bob Dylan,” and rightly so. Williams is a songwriter’s songwriter. She is blunt in her lyrics, she can weave a story in her lyrics which keep the listener hanging on to her every word. She is a poet with a no frills delivery.
You have to love Williams for her take no bullshit demeanor and her no quit attitude. She knows what she wants and that’s that. It may have taken her longer than it should have to achieve national, even worldwide recognition, but she did it on her own terms and you have to love her for it. In addition, her drive has produced some of the best records of the last 20 years.
Key Albums: Ramblin’ (1979); Sweet Old World (1992); Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998); Essence (2001); World Without Tears (2003)