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Austin: The nonstop sound of music
Chances are, if you dig music, you've been to Austin.
This is, after all, the "Live Music Capital of the World," and it's an apt slogan: Austin has more live music venues per capita than anywhere in the U.S.
There's a ton of music here, and it's hardly limited to Texas two-step honky-tonk country.
There's rock 'n' roll, blues and Tejano, indie rock, gospel and rockabilly. There are mariachi bands, swing bands and cover bands. There's surf rock, there's punk rock. There's even a tiny bit of jazz.
Every week, hundreds of local musicians hold residencies here; every year, thousands of national and international acts make stops here. And every March, the entire music industry is celebrated here at one big convention (nee party) known as the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW). How big? One-thousand five-hundred and eighty bands big.
But Austin's music scene goes way beyond what's in town for five days in March.
"Austin embraces both the artist and the entrepreneur, and allows great opportunity for both to excel," says Jimmy Stewart, co-founder of Do512.com, an interactive event calendar that showcases Austin's vigorous music schedule. "It is an extremely laid-back place where an executive with a six-figure salary still goes to work in shorts and flip flops, and plays bass with his band on Wednesday nights at his neighborhood watering hole."
So .. . skip SXSW. Instead, visit in a few weeks, or a few months. Or any time, really. Here, music thrives year-round, every night of the week. Daytime, too.
It's on Sunday afternoons that legendary local guitarist Dale Watson provides the soundtrack to an unusual version of bingo at Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon in the North Burnet neighborhood on the city's north side. Watson and his band set up in the back; in the front, a plywood bingo board is set atop the pool table and covered by a pen made of chicken wire.
Come evening time, once the crowd is rowdy on $1.50 Lone Stars and has bought their spots on the bingo board, a chicken is brought into the bar and placed in the pen. The crowd roars, hoots and hollers, and men in cowboy hats sweet-talk the fowl as if it were a woman, coaxing and wooing it into loitering on their number. Sometimes the chicken's poop-waltz takes a few minutes; sometimes it takes 15. But once it plops, the game stops, and Watson dedicates a song to the sole winner.
It's in places like Ginny's that Austin's vintage music thrives in its natural habitat, with resident songwriters performing every night of the week. Ginny's is about as big as a one-room schoolhouse, and it often gets so crowded that there's barely room to move around the little dance floor in the back, its linoleum worn through by decades of two-stepping.
Across town at the Broken Spoke, which opened its doors to a crowd of 300 people in 1964, Sunday is the only night that there's not country-and-western music (and dancing) till near midnight. The glow of dozens of neon beer signs illuminates the big hall in back where Willie Nelson still drops in on occasion. In the front room, sagging Christmas lights glint against wood-paneled walls, Lone Star flows freely from the tiny bar, and chicken-fried steak can be had for $6.
Greasy food, cold beer and great music go hand-in-hand in this town, where peppery Mexican queso and salty margaritas are as common as red beans, Wonder Bread and barbecued brisket. In the heart of the lively Red River district downtown, Stubb's BBQ serves traditional migas and Southern-style grits during its Sunday Gospel Brunch (with a live band, natch), and spicy wings and fried green tomatoes are on the menu during rock shows at night.
In Austin, music goes with everything -- even morning coffee. The South Congress outpost of Jo's coffee shop even has its own band. There's no cover and, as best I could tell, no set list. I happened upon Tina Rose and the Jo's House Band playing in sunglasses on the patio facing this open-air cafe. For everyone at Jo's that morning, it seemed perfectly normal to be sitting in 80-degree weather on a Sunday in December, sipping a latte and reading the paper with a great rockabilly band on the adjacent patio.
Then again, this is central Texas and it's sunny almost year-round, so outdoor stages are commonplace. Up the street from Jo's, Guero's Taco Bar hosts bands in its garden Wednesday through Sunday, and in the restaurant proper the other nights of the week. On Red River, Emo's, which has hosted punk rock and indie rock shows since the '90s, has two stages. Even on the far east side at Scoot Inn, the oldest beer joint in central Texas (proudly serving since 1871), there's a dusty beer garden; scaffolding for an outdoor stage was in the works during my visit.
While downtown's 6th Street draws wild crowds to its lively pubs and piano bars, hard-core music fans know the best venues are the really old, really dark ones.
Across from Jo's on South Congress is the Continental Club, which opened as a supper club in 1957 and still hosts rockabilly and swing bands nightly. Even darker is Ego's, a cave of a bar lurking under an apartment complex just south of downtown.
Chris Maddock of Do512.com thinks there's a very basic reason for Austin's music vibe: "It's the thing that famously had hippies and hillbillies coming together to see Willie Nelson at the old Armadillo World Headquarters. It's the thing that has half the city at the parks just hangin' together the first sunny day of spring, which around here is in late January. It's the thing that makes college kids cry when they have to leave the town -- although by that time most of them are just 'getting it.' It's the reason why there are so many thousands of songs about the town. It's soul. It takes some people leaving to realize how much this place has more of it than just about anywhere on earth."
Soul and live music -- in Austin they're pretty hard to avoid. And not just in March. Or December. Here, it's every night.
Downtown is walkable, and cabs are common. However, a car comes in handy.
Where to stay:
Downtown Austin is home to the requisite chains, but the kitschy Austin Motel (512-441-1157; austinmotel.com; rooms from $86/night) in the hip South Congress 'hood is a 70-year-old establishment. Next door is the tastefully minimalist boutique-style Hotel San Jose (512-444-7322; sanjosehotel.com; doubles from $95 / night).
Where to eat:
Tex-Mex is the word here, but that's not all. Guero's Taco Bar (512-447-7688; guerostacobar.com) has great margaritas and traditional dishes. Around-the-clock Austin chain Kerbey Lane (kerbeylanecafe.com) serves killer queso, plus modern diner fare. The Salt Lick (512-858-4959; saltlickbbq.com) has been serving barbecue since 1969; there's even an outpost of it at the airport. For standard American food, South Congress Cafe (512-447-3905; southcongresscafe.comWoodland (512-441-6800; woodlandaustin.com), is worth visiting for the decor alone. For burgers, Hut's (512-472-0693) is a must. It opened as a drive-through in 1939 and serves 20 different kinds of burgers, and the best onion rings on earth.
Where to hear music:
Everywhere, really. Some suggestions:
In the Red River District: Stubb's Bar-B-Que (512-480-8341; stubbsaustin.com), Emo's (512-477-3667; emosaustin.com).
South Congress: Continental Club (512-441-2444;continentalclub.com), Ego's (512-474-7091), Guero's Taco Bar (info above), Jo's (512-444-3800; joscoffee.com).
South Austin: The Broken Spoke (512-442-6189; brokenspokeaustintx.com).
East Austin: Scoot Inn (512-478-6200; eastinns.com ).
North Burnet: Ginny's` Little Longhorn Saloon (512-458-1813; .musicroom.org/ginnys ).
Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-926-ACVB; austintexas.org . For an extensive list of which bands are playing when and where, check out .do512.com.