Page Two: Having a Riot
The chaotic and beautiful birth of the Austin Music Awards
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow.
Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now."
– Bob Dylan, "My Back Pages"
What follows is the story of some of the early years of the Austin Music Awards. It is not a complete or annotated list. The very first Austin Chronicle Music Poll ballot ran in the Dec. 18, 1981, issue, which had a dead Santa Claus on the cover. The results were published in the March 5, 1982, issue with a group shot of a little more than two dozen musicians above the headline "Why Are These People on Our Cover?" There was no awards show accompanying the printed results, because we were stressed to the maximum just getting out an issue every other week at that time. The second poll ran at the end of that year. The editorial staff was probably even more strapped than it had been than the year before, but Bob Simmons, who was working with us at that point, spearheaded the first Music Awards show at Club Foot on March 3, 1983. The bill featured Concept, Extreme Heat, Angela Strehli, Van Wilks Band, and Chinanine, with special guests ranging from Stevie Ray Vaughan, Paul Ray, and Joe Ely to the "Mystery Critic."
For the second awards show, held at the Austin Opera House on March 8, 1984, the management team was Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro, Margaret Moser, and me. That setup, with some variations, additions, and subtractions, is still more or less in place. The show featured the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Angela Strehli Band, Leroi Brothers, and Big Boys. Stevie Ray Vaughan flew in Double Trouble and unleashed a healthy chunk of Couldn't Stand the Weather at the show. At least as far as I know, it was one of the first times in Austin that Vaughan brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie played together – musically and quite literally, both playing the same guitar. All evening, the Big Boys team and Opera House security had been eyeing each other skeptically. Early in the band's set, one of the band members opened a can of beans and dumped it on another band member's head. The infamous Big Boys riot ensued as Opera House security rushed the stage, dragging the band and its roadies off. In so many ways, a memorable year.
"When you're lost in the rain in Juarez
And it's Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don't pull you through
Don't put on any airs
When you're down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They got some hungry women there
And they really make a mess outta you"
– Bob Dylan, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"
The sharpest upward momentum of our learning curve came the next year, for the 1984-85 show on March 6 at the Austin Opera House. Some major acts verbally committed to play, but, Austin being Austin, each had a favored band that it also wanted on the bill. These acts were lesser draws, but we counted on the big names to draw folks to the show. Then all the bigger names dropped out, so it ended up a musically strong show – just one without enough firepower to attract a large audience.
It is important to understand here that during the first decade of the Chronicle's publication, Barbaro never seemed to really worry, while I was worried sick about everything all the time.
Advance sales had been sparse, and walk-up sales were very slow as the show kicked off that evening. In truly typical Nick Barbaro style, he would come up to me as I was fretting myself into an early grave to make one solemn announcement or another, kicking off with, "If we sell another 175 tickets, the Chronicle won't have to go out of business." This was followed by, "If we sell another 150 tickets, the Chronicle won't have to go out of business," and so on all evening. Usually this was done in increments of 25, but if my actually visible sweating lessened, Barbaro was willing to share with me where we stood after as few as five sales. There is no way to remember how many we actually sold, but whatever the number, the Chronicle survived.
"I cannot move
My fingers are all in a knot
I don't have the strength
To get up and take another shot
And my best friend, my doctor
Won't even say what it is I've got"
– Bob Dylan, "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues"
Brent Grulke has been head of the South by Southwest Music Festival for many, many years now. He wasn't at the time. As famous as Grulke was for his musical knowledge and charm, he was just as famous for his obtuse, unchangeable stubbornness during an argument. Later that evening, a number of us sat around just chatting. This was after whatever number of tickets that we needed to sell had been sold. Although I experienced some relief, most of my personality at the time was composed of worry, dread, despair, and profound, impenetrable pessimism. In typical Brent Grulke fashion, ignoring my hollow, sunken, bloodshot eyes and constant drooling, he engaged me in a discussion of why the Chronicle didn't print the number of votes each act had received in each category. Quickly pointing out that such a move would make ballot stuffing too easy, I felt the topic was behind us. Persistently, with increasing passion, Grulke pursued his argument as he was wont to do, much like a family dog with a slipper. My blood pressure was nil as most of my blood had spurted out my ears earlier that evening. Still, when Grulke wouldn't let it go, I managed to erupt – though only like a small, almost pathetic volcano, yet violently enough that he noticed and refrained.
Having learned our lesson, the next year we stacked the bill. Joe Ely, Joe King Carrasco y los Coronas, Angela Strehli with Paul Ray, and the True Believers headlined the bill, along with special guests including Lou Ann Barton, Bobby Keys, Eric Johnson, and Roky Erickson. The 1985-86 Austin Music Awards took place at the Austin Opera House on March 13. One of my fondest memories of that show was Roky Erickson playing with the True Believers. The set was ending, with Roky singing "Two-Headed Dog." Every time the Believers began to wind the song down, Roky would run up to the mic to sing the chorus again to keep it going. Finally, the band members encircled Roky, trying to keep him away from the microphone by blocking him with their guitars. Still, he made it through a couple more times before they succeeded.
"My children were raised
You know they suddenly rise
They started slow long ago
Ended up healthy wealthy and wise
"I've been in this town so long
So long to the city
I'm fit with the stuff
To ride in the rough
And sunny down snuff I'm alright
By the heroes ..."
– Beach Boys, "Heroes and Villains"
The first three years, when we really were hands-on running the Austin Music Awards show, each required three weeks of nearly 24-hour days of planning the event and planning the issue. Since we weren't event producers, each year required not just an enormous amount of energy but a stiff upward learning curve. This was all about to change. Concurrent with the 1986-87 Austin Music Awards on March 13, 1987, at the Austin Opera House was the very first South by Southwest.
If we thought just producing the Music Awards was intensely difficult, everything amped up many notches with the advent of SXSW. It was successful the first year and just grew larger every following year.
Along the way, Barbaro became more involved with logistics, while Moser and I focused on booking the show and related activities. Moser got married somewhere in there, moving to Hawaii for a few years. Her main enforcer and long-time lieutenant, E.A. Srere, took over many of the responsibilities. After three years or so, Moser returned to Austin to take over, as a monarch might resume her throne. Over the last half-dozen years, Moser has ended up as the event's major force, booking and coordinating the show.
Over the years, the awards show has been on many different nights, including Friday and Saturday. Finally, the Austin Music Awards settled into being on Wednesday night. The Chronicle usually goes to press on Wednesday night and is distributed on Thursday, with a cover dated for that Friday. The Austin Chronicle Music Poll results issues would go to press on Tuesday evening, with a significant percentage of them distributed on Wednesday night at the awards show. The awards show has always occurred before or during the distribution of the Chronicle issue that contains the Music Poll results. For the past many years, this column was written before the show but distributed while it was happening and afterward.
This year, this issue containing the results will be distributed beginning Wednesday, March 17, but the show – which honors the winners in particular and Austin music in general – isn't until Saturday, March 20, at the Austin Music Hall. It should be an interesting experience. Thankfully, the Grand Moser has booked an amazing, outstanding musical bill.
Now, every year the awards show may move locations or change the day of the week that it occurs; certainly, winners and performers change every year. Still, as Robert Earl Keen observed, "The road goes on forever, and the party never ends." Please, one and all, join us for the 28th time at the Austin Music Awards show, presented by SXSW and the Chronicle Saturday, March 20, at the Austin Music Hall!
The SXSW Music Festival still kicks off on Wednesday evening, March 17, with an amazing lineup that is nearly impossible to highlight. The Film Festival, gathering absolute raves, runs through Saturday night.
Three nights of free music will be presented at Auditorium Shores on Lady Bird Lake. Acts playing include the Cool Kids, Bajofondo, and Ozomatli on Thursday, March 18; Cracker, BoDeans, and Cheap Trick on Friday, March 19; and a day show featuring music for the whole family, with Lucero, Justin Townes Earle, and She & Him among the acts coming on later that night, on Saturday, March 20.
Three major free and open-to-the-public SXSW 2010 exhibits will be at the Austin Convention Center Friday, March 19, and Saturday, March 20, 10am-6pm. The Austin Record Convention, the Texas Guitar Show, and Flatstock 24 will all be under one roof. All are bigger this year than they've been in the past, so it is going to be an exciting wonderland of every aspect of music – from posters to old vinyl 45s, with any number of fabulous classic instruments thrown into the mix.
In addition, the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center, in conjunction with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, will host a full schedule of free SXSW panels and films.
Name of subject: Austin Music Awards