Austin, Texas: Where Musicians Go to Thrive

Capital city of the Lone Star State boasts a bustling music scene that is far different from anywhere else

by Dave Taylor | Updated 21 Apr 2017 at 1:30 PM

Austin, Texas, has been a musical powerhouse for decades. Not because it has huge venues and is littered with stadiums and amphitheaters — but because it’s not focused on big-ticket shows. Austin is still the home of the up-and-coming indie band, of performers who are growing from good to great one gig at a time — something that is harder and harder to find in a world in which young musicians increasingly cut their teeth on YouTube instead of on stage.

The capital city of the Lone Star State bills itself as the live music capital of the world, and it might be onto something. It all started with the Armadillo — a place, not a random animal — and Willie Nelson. Just a few years after the so-called Summer of Love, Austin was overflowing with hippies and free spirits, a group of whom got together and transformed the local National Guard Armory into a concert hall. Called the Armadillo World Headquarters, it was “all about music, a shared tolerance for marijuana, psychedelic drugs, and cold beer,” according to its website.

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In those first two years, the Armadillo hosted some of the biggest talents of the day, including Frank Zappa, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Dr. John, Taj Mahal, and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. But everything changed on August 12, 1972, when Willie Nelson stepped onto the stage and invented the Austin music scene by combining hippies and rednecks.

The musical scene kept growing, and now the list of artists and bands from Austin reads like a who’s who of music: Wille Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Janis Joplin, Townes Van Zandt, Jimmie Vaughan, Patty Griffin, the Meat Puppets, Spoon, the controversial Dixie Chicks, Christopher Cross, and Asleep at the Wheel.

More impressive is the wide range of musical types grown in Austin, bands ranging from folk music and country to jazz blues, pop music, neo-psychedelia, ska, new age, Western swing , proto-punk, and even doom metal — Viking metal. Yes, Viking metal is a type of music.

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What's amazing is also how music venues in Austin can revitalize corners of the city, too, and no venue has a better story than the Continental Club. Opened in 1955, the club took its time focusing on local musicians, but once it came around to being part of the then-thriving Austin scene, it had a significant impact on revitalizing its neighborhood.

Club publicist Diane Scott was candid when telling The Daily Texan that the club's neighborhood was originally "where the hookers and drug dealers were" but, she continued, "as the musicians started moving in, it displaced all of those people."

Other clubs are slower to the live music scene in Austin. The Historic Scoot Inn is in its 146th year, yet it only very recently started to host actual live musicians.

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Unsure whom to watch? The Austin Music Awards are a great place to start an exploration of this thriving musical city. If you're lucky, you can find Musician of the Year Hayes Carll performing at one of the dozens of venues, or Best Band Calliope Musicals onstage. Prefer musicians who are still early in their careers? Check out Best New Band Jane Ellen Bryant, Best Blues/Funk Band Shinyribs, or try something really offbeat with the best avant-garde/experimental band, Golden Dawn Arkestra.

With today's digital advances, musicians now mostly cut their teeth online.

It all amounts to a town that is a sort-of utopia for the music industry. Rock bands and individual musicians once toured bars and clubs, playing all kinds of covers, different genres of music, and testing their own material. It was how young musicians earned their stripes on their way to success. With the digital advances of today, musicians now mostly cut their teeth online, posting videos to YouTube and music to outlets like SoundCloud. After all, top singers like Justin Bieber are found online now by producers — rather than onstage.

Austin, Texas, acts as a shining beacon of what once was, which partly explains why so many musicians and music fans have been flocking to it.

Whether you're heading to Austin to join the throngs at the popular South by Southwest music, film and tech conference; wanting to check out Austin City Limits (the longest running music series on American television); or just dreaming of catching great performers before they play only in massive venues for lots and lots of money — there's a lot to love for any music fan.

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