Blood on the Tracks
The ballad of Griff Luneburg and the Cactus Cafe
Cactus Cafe is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. Griff Luneburg has run the intimate, Texas Union listening room for 28 of those years. He's the guy with a bad case of bedhead making sure it all runs as smoothly as an accomplished singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar and amplification. "Griff is the Cactus," agrees Lyle Lovett, who played his first headlining shows there.
"He's the equal to Clifford Antone in a way," Joe Ely chimes in. "He's the perfect match for the place. He has a complete understanding of the people that play there and what they need. It's the whole atmosphere. It's not easy to create a place where singer-songwriters can have a home and feel comfortable, and that's exactly what he's done."
While Antone (1949-2006) loved the spotlight, Luneburg is a humbler sort, claiming that he's only actually been onstage in front of an audience a couple of times, even though he often doubles as the venue's greeter at its familiar tavern door. The comparison between the two live-music mentors works along the lines of both men's lifelong commitment to performance and belief in its reverberation with people in general and Austinites specifically.
Luneburg was born in Chicago in 1957. His father worked for an oil company, so the family bounced around a lot – New York, San Francisco, Connecticut, and New Orleans – before settling into late-1960s Houston. In high school, he nursed a love for early Foghat but had an epiphany when he purchased an eight-track of Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks in the mid-1970s.
"It changed my life," remembers Luneburg. "I'd heard of Dylan and heard some of his stuff, but after I bought that album – I've never stopped listening to it. I went on to buy all of Dylan's records in chronological order."
Exploring Dylan, he discovered godfather folkies Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott as well as "new Dylans" John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III. Luneburg credits his sister with turning him onto cosmic cowboys like Michael Martin Murphey around the same time. Little did he know that he would soon be booking musical storytellers of such ilk for years to come.
He spent a semester at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, but the Armadillo World Headquarters and the Split Rail in Austin were his stomping grounds on weekends. He transferred to the University of Texas and got a degree in government, but his real education began in 1979 when the Texas Union reopened after several years of renovations. One of its new spaces was ultimately dubbed the Cactus Cafe and came to hold a liquor license.
"It was originally a coffeehouse," explains Luneburg. "It always had really good coffee – the same brand of coffee we serve today. I really liked the vibe. It was a laid-back atmosphere."
Music arrived not long after the joint opened, but only on weekends. There was no stage, no sound system. Luneburg was hired on as a bartender.
"Some of the acts were good, but it was primarily cover bands booked by the student activities office," he recalls. "Acoustic acts would do Loggins & Messina and Seals & Crofts. There was no cover charge, and I was the only one there running the place. I complained because I was trapped for five hours a night. I'm a big fan of music, and I would make my views known on the programming. So finally, they turned booking over in-house. The manager was Charla Ann Baker, but she worked days. She hired me. She's really the one who believed in me from the beginning."
It was Baker who pitched an original-music series Thursday nights.
"We wanted to have a cover charge, which was a big step at the time," says Luneburg. "There was a lot of hesitation on the administration's part over whether or not people would pay to see music. It was November 1982, and Nanci Griffith was the first act. We charged a dollar of students, 2 for nonstudents.
"The place was packed."
Baker left in 1983, and Luneburg took over as Cactus manager and booker and never looked back. "A lot of what went on was trial and error," he admits. "We built the stage and dragged in a little PA. I got to run sound, and I didn't know how to run sound. I just learned it. I was thrown to the wolves.
"But I knew who was good! You have to have an intuitive sense about who to book and what prices to charge. There's a little research involved, but I have a good talent gauge. Even if they don't draw a crowd the first few times they play, I know that they're talented and they will build a crowd. That's what it's all about: building an audience for those that deserve one."
Luneburg claims that Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin first appeared in Austin on the Cactus stage. Bruce Robison remembers he first played "Travelin' Soldier," the huge hit for the Dixie Chicks, at an open mic there. The club has featured an amazing array of talent over the decades, from Bill Monroe and Townes Van Zandt to J. Mascis and Mountain's Leslie West. Beyond the history, Luneburg has created a Shangri-la for both musicians and audiences alike.
"What happens onstage is the most important thing that happens here," he nods. "The bar is secondary. It's not like that in other clubs. For musicians, it's just a real nurturing environment. One thing I've learned is that it's all about building relationships with people. Loyalty is an important quality in the music business. If you stick with someone, most will remember that. We come from a place where we respect an artist, and they remember that. When Lyle Lovett outgrew the Cactus, we booked him in the Union Ballroom. Then the next time he played, he wanted to go to the Paramount. He called and told me that he wanted to play the Paramount, but he wanted the Cactus to promote the show. I told him I was flattered, but I couldn't do something like that. I'll never forget that."
A myriad of acts associated with the Cactus haven't forgotten Griff Luneburg, either. Here's a sampling of what a few of them had to say.
"Griff is one of the all-time great guys in the music business. For a long time, the Cactus Cafe was the only place I played in Austin. It was Griff who gave me the opportunity to play my own shows in Austin for the first time. Griff is the Cactus. I hope you give him the credit he deserves, because he would never ask for credit for himself. He's a humble, soft-spoken guy and an incredibly supportive character."
"I've known Griff a long time – 20 years this year. He's an enigma, that's for sure. I think of him as someone who lays it out straight, no qualms, tell it like it is. He's made me laugh; he's made me think; he's made me cry pretty hard. But I appreciate the deep love he has for music. I couldn't imagine Austin without him. He's an Austin institution to me, because he was the first club owner I worked with here, and he's always had, always got, that shock of bedhead hair. I got signed to Elektra Records off Griff's stage, so he'll always have a place in my heart, because he helped me shine and hone my craft in that weathered, cozy room."
"Ah, Griff. I've never met someone who so obviously excels at exactly one thing in his life – to the exclusion of all else. Griff is the Cactus Cafe. The two are unimaginable without the other.
"He was hard on me when I was coming up through the ranks. I begged and cajoled for opening slots my first several years in Austin. He feels badly about it now, like he should have supported me more. I was pretty frustrated with him, too, but now I'm glad he was rough on me. It made me work a lot harder on my craft, and that eventually paid off.
"I worked for Griff as soundman for a year or so, and I saw a seemingly obsessive attention to detail: the position of the velvet curtain, the lights dimmed certain amounts at different stages of the show, preshow and post-show music just the right volume and just the right compatible artist. If something was off, things could get tense for the staff real quick. It seemed wacky at first, but then I realized that's what it takes to get to the level of quality the Cactus is known for.
"He can be brutally honest, which sometimes seems like insensitivity. But I see him paying a price for the honesty that ends up making us stronger. Bottom line: He's dedicated his life to the Cactus Cafe. I believe he would sacrifice anything – his health, his personal life, his future – to the venue.
"You don't see that a lot."
Ray Wylie Hubbard
"As long as I've known Griff, he's been efficient and aboveboard. He runs a remarkable venue that I love to play. There's this legacy there. You go there and think of all the performers that have performed on that stage. As a performer, the bar is set very high, because the audience is so attentive. You get on that stage and think: 'I better have my act together. I can't phone this in.' The people who come there are knowledgeable about the craft of songwriting. For me, when I get there, it's why I'm doing this. It's a feeling that you get in very few venues."
"Griff has never tried to claim star status. He's always been humble about his place in the scheme of things in Austin, and for that reason, he's unsung. I think this town would be missing something if he wasn't here. If he stopped, we'd notice how he changed things around Austin. He's got a great ear. He takes chances on people. He took chances on me for years when I was coming down from New Mexico. Twenty people would come to the show, and he'd tell them that I was one of the best songwriters in the country. He'd say things like that when I didn't have anything going. He'd just listen to his own voice about music. He's a mess. He's got a lot of leaks in his bell jar, but that's what I love about him. He's a true character. I worry that we aren't creating new characters; we're getting so generic. He's got all the bumps and scars that make a real human being. He stands up for the artists and the art."
"Griff has been the keeper of the flame for acoustic music in Texas ever since I can remember. He likes to show me the spot in his office, behind the beer coolers, where he's worn a hole in the wall with his shoe from sitting there 30 years with his foot up, poring over the booking calendar. It's proof he's paid the dues. And Lord knows he has. He's survived things that would have slaughtered most men. I love Griff. He's a deeply honest cat."
"The first place I played my songs was at the open mics at the Cactus. Then [Griff] gave me some opening slots that were among the first gigs that I ever got, '89 to '90. The truth is, we had to threaten him bodily, me and my brother [Charlie]. We confronted him one night at the Hole in the Wall. He's got a lot of people bothering him for gigs, and he's been a real supporter, even though my stuff is miles on the country side, and it's really a folk club. I don't think he knew who we were at the time. We were both drunk, and we confronted him: 'Listen ya idiot, you need to book us at your place.' We've all laughed about it many times since. Griff's the real thing."
"[Griff's] a great friend to me, is clearly a major part of the Austin songwriting community, and has been as long as I've been following it. My wife and I love to see Griff whenever we can, and it's an honor to us that one of my wife's paintings hangs in his house. Some of my best times in Austin have been hangin' around the Cactus after the show with Griff and company. The fact the Cactus is a songwriting institution is fairly undebated, I'd say, and everyone knows that Griff is the reason for that. From Townes to Hayes [Carll] and whoever after, we all are grateful to and indebted to our brother."
Matt the Electrician
"I was at the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest in Lyons, Colorado, playing in the song contest, and when I got offstage, this guy came up to me and said he was a big fan and then introduced himself as John Gorka. I asked him how he had even heard of me, and he said that the last time he had played the Cactus, he was in Griff's office, and he asked Griff to recommend some good, new singer-songwriters he should be aware of. Griff went to his huge stack of CDs on the windowsill and handed John one of mine. I thought that was so cool and in keeping with Griff's commitment to continuing the singer-songwriter/folk scene moving forward. I know many other songwriters in town who have told me similar stories."
"When I first decided I wanted to write and sing music, I didn't know much about doing it – except that I eventually wanted to play the Cactus. I had gone there plenty of times as a listener, so I knew the shows Griff put there were special. By the time I was releasing my first album, I had barely played out at all ... just a couple of months' worth of tiny gigs at restaurants and coffee shops.
"I contacted Griff about doing my CD release there, and he told me, 'Come play the open mic.' So I did. I didn't expect him to be there. I'd done it before, and he wasn't there. But I went, and he came. He heard me do two songs, and he booked me a show. It was amazing. In fact, just after that open mic, he booked me to open for the sold-out Jackopierce show!
"Besides giving shows, Griff has introduced me to other singer-songwriters in town he thought I should know – like Abi Tapia, who's a really good friend of mine now. ... I'm grateful to Griff for all he does at the Cactus, but I'm also grateful the Cactus is around so I could meet Griff. He's a straightforward advice-giver, a helper when he's able, and he's always been honest with me. He's a sensitive soul who cares a lot about music and the people who make it."
Tom Pittman (Austin Lounge Lizards)
"I think Griff likes it when you push back a little. If you just give in to what he says, he doesn't respect you. It can get nasty, but it doesn't have to. When we first started, we brought our own audience. We played regularly at Maggie Mae's, which was the folk club at the time, in the early 1980s. We were playing at the Cactus fairly regularly, but he took us for granted in the beginning. There was this spell of five gigs in a row that he canceled on us because a national act came along. We said, 'Well, we can't afford to play here.' So we went a couple or three years without playing there. I think at the time he was just learning the business. But there's one thing he's brilliant at. That room will hold, if it's very full, 120 or 130. He can take 30 people and make it look full. He can kind of predict what the audience will be, and he'll set the furniture up to what he expects, and his expectations are usually very accurate."
Celebrating 30 Cactus Cafe Years, Through March 7
Tom Russell (Feb. 6)
Joe Ely & Joel Guzman, Rosie Flores (Feb. 7)
Andy McKee (Feb. 9)
Graham Weber, Dana Falconberry, Southpaw Jones, Leatherbag, Betty Soo (Feb. 10)
Fred Eaglesmith (Feb. 11)
Alejandro Escovedo (Feb. 12 & 13)
Terri Hendrix (Feb. 14)
Ian Moore, Hilary York (Feb. 18)
Texas Troika, Cactus Song Swap: Slaid Cleaves & Eliza Gilkyson, Bruce Robison (Feb. 19)
Chris Smither (Feb. 20)
Austin Lounge Lizards (Feb. 21)
Peter Rowan (Feb. 22)
Mary Gauthier, Gurf Morlix (Feb. 24)
Guy Clark (Feb. 26 & 27)
Steve Forbert (Feb. 28)
Richard Thompson (March 1 & 2)
Ana Egge, Michael Kingcaid (March 3)
Battlefield Band (March 4)
Danny Schmidt, Carrie Elkin (March 6)
11th annual Townes Van Zandt Birthday Salute: Butch Hancock and compadres (March 7)
Cactus Cafe sampler
Townes Van Zandt
Harry Dean Stanton
Willis Alan Ramsey
Dave Van Ronk
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Two Nice Girls
Red House Painters
Robert Fripp & Projekt 3
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
Everything but the Girl
Leslie West & Mountain