35 Years of the Austin Music Awards
Living in a dream
In retrospect, confrontation seemed almost inevitable. Everyone saw it coming, but no one recalls exactly what set it off.
Blame the Big Boys, whose scathing punk for a classed-up Austin Music Awards show audience visited the genre’s desired effect on the era. Blame the security at the Austin Opera House, bikers and ex-Navy SEALs from Willie Nelson’s road crew, who typical of the times tried to maintain control through intimidation. And blame The Austin Chronicle, which managed to stage one of the most notorious nights of Austin music without knowing what it was doing.
The second annual Austin Music Awards had it all.
From the outset, the event promised a memorable night. With the Austin Chronicle Music Poll now in its third year of open balloting in honor of the local scene, and the inaugural Awards Show having proved a success the previous year, 1984’s lineup under the guidance of Margaret Moser and Louis Black hoped to encompass the eclecticism of the homegrown musical landscape. The roster came stacked with some of the most distinct talent the Texas state capital boasted.
Fabulous Thunderbirds, LeRoi Brothers, and Angela Strehli guaranteed a fiery showcase for a genre taking up the gauntlet after Nelson’s outlaw country of the Seventies. Then Stevie Ray Vaughan called just prior to the date to ask if his band could play a surprise set. The booking, like the entire evening, transpired so casually that Moser had almost forgotten until Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan walked in with Double Trouble and proceeded to unleash a devastating preview of the former’s upcoming sophomore album, Couldn’t Stand the Weather.
Had proceedings ended there, success would’ve marked Music Awards No. 2 and its fledgling biweekly publication/sponsor.
Antithesis to major label blues-rock, the Big Boys came to the party as no small get for Moser and Black. Austin’s DIY scene, exploding out of Raul’s on the Drag, mirrored the upward trajectory of the town’s Delta-derived national uprising, one obviously more mainstream than the underground-by-definition punk proliferation spreading throughout the state, country, and world. The Big Boys arrived as two-time AMA winners for Best Punk Band – raw, raucous, physical.
“The whole incident was really the result of two separate generational countercultures clashing,” admits Moser with a mixture of pride and regret at the booking and subsequent melee. “What I remember of the night is that tensions started brewing from the outset between the staff of the Opera House, which was largely made up of older hippies of a Willie Nelson persuasion who didn’t take very kindly to the Big Boys, and the Big Boys themselves, who were just being the Big Boys.
“I really don’t remember what set it all off, but something happened.”
Thanks to video unearthed late last month by Tim Hamblin at the Austin History Center, there’s now historical documentation of the Big Boys’ 1984 AMA set devolving into a maelstrom of profanity and punches.
“We’re playing under relative protest,” announces bassist Chris Gates at the outset, “because they know what we do, and they asked us to play anyway.”
“They said nobody on the stage, and you know what that means,” sneers Tim Kerr, before drummer Rey Washam counts down to Randy “Biscuit” Turner’s demonic incantation on “The Seed.”
“Don’t be intimidated,” challenges Kerr to the crowd. “We’re not.”
The Big Boys broil through trademark confrontational catharsis, Biscuit spitting beer onto the crowd during “Movies” and ripping open a bag of trash to sling around the stage as the mosh pit gains momentum during “TV.”
About 10 minutes in, as the quartet sears into “Complete Control,” security charges from the stage wings at the first stage divers. By “Frat Cars,” Kerr cusses out the “hippie bouncers,” and more fans begin rushing the stage as the guitarist bites out “I Do Care.” When a bouncer makes another move amid flying beer cans, he goes into blockade mode and pushes him back offstage. Kerr then unstraps his guitar and slings it at security before storming out (see “Fun Fun Fun”).
The video goes black as bouncers and fans all crash onto the stage, Gates and Washam continuing to keep the rhythm even as the microphones bleed feedback.
“Isn’t rock & roll exciting?!” howls Biscuit.
For the Sake of the Song
Any history of Austin Music Awards shows is patchwork at best, a tapestry frayed by blurry, faded memories. The first decade-plus still eludes the internet, residing instead in an abandoned building in bound, yellowing volumes of the Chronicle.
The inaugural 1983 presentation was announced in the biweekly paper only two weeks beforehand, via a small blurb in Margaret Moser’s Feb. 18 “In One Ear” column. “PLUGOLO DEPT: As you probably know, the results of the Chronicle’s 2nd Annual Music Poll are in. We’ll announce winners next issue and at an Awards Night at Club Foot on Thursday, March 3. Bands featured will be past and present winners like Angela Strehli and Band, with special guest star Stevie Ray Vaughn [sic], Extreme Heat, the Van Wilks Band, Chinanine, and an all-star jazz group called Concept. So besides the usual celebs and musicians, you’ll be able to cheer and razz your favorite critics and writers, most of whom will be there en masse. Black tie and spike heels optional, please!”
That year’s poster (see gallery) also misspelled SRV’s surname.
The show itself, however, tapped into something unique for the local music community. Inspired by award handouts put on by the upstart publication’s precursor The Austin Sun in the Seventies, and initially propelled by Moser and Bob Simmons, the AMAs became the physical manifestation of the Austin Music Poll, a rare opportunity to celebrate a diverse music scene all in one.
“It’s always about the community,” attests Black. “It really is the one time of year the powers-that-be shut up, and it was always a peoples’ award. There was so much good music made, but even more I just liked the whole democratic sensibility.”
Even so, the awards ceremony and performances struggled to find their footing early on. Following the Big Boys fiasco, 1985’s show barely scraped by as promised headliners backed out. Guitar pioneer Lonnie Mack joined the Supernatural Family Band, and the show managed to survive (see “Having a Riot”).
“We were in way over our heads – way over our heads at the Chronicle, way over heads at the Music Awards,” admits Black. “But then the  lineup was every living musician we could find. We had some momentum, so it was loaded with special guests. After that, Margaret and I kind of knew what we were doing.”
Eric Johnson, Joe “King” Carrasco, and Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli teaming with emcee Paul Ray to extol Antone’s set the stage for all-star scene representation, but perennial AMA winner Joe Ely with Rolling Stones sideman saxophonist Bobby Keys in tow set the bar. The True Believers then turned said measuring stick into a javelin by backing native son Roky Erickson. The performance proved shambolic, but through the mash-up of Austin’s musical past, present, and even future, the AMAs hit on the winning template.
In 1987, a group from the Chronicle – Black, publisher Nick Barbaro, and the “unofficial ‘music business guy’ on the staff,” Roland Swenson – partnered with orbiting industry insider Louis Jay Meyers to stage a modest music conference and festival called South by Southwest. Centerpiece of the four-day event fell to the Austin Music Awards, by then a must-attend local gala where, as Moser once quipped in her music column, “the famous, nearly famous, and know-the-nearly-famous all mingle with only minor discomfort to the famous.”
“South by Southwest needed us back then,” remembers Moser. “They originally hung themselves on the Music Awards. After that first year, though, it was clear something was going to come of it. Given Austin’s status, I felt we really had to up our game.”
Small Faces/Faces great Ronnie Lane, newly moved to town, offered unprecedented star power to the show that year, though an unannounced set from Jerry Jeff Walker and David Bromberg garnered more attention. In 1988, Lane returned with the True Believers and Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. The results cast an early spotlight on SXSW’s budding national stature.
“The Music Awards were always the best party of the year, without a doubt,” says Michael Corcoran, who during his 1985-88 tenure as Chronicle music columnist won recognition for best critic and worst thing to happen to Austin music. “South by Southwest came along and all of a sudden everyone from all over the world is coming to Austin. There’s all these big names and big money, and all these labels. And right before the storm comes, we’re going to have our little hometown celebration.
“You could just walk down the line and meet everyone in the Austin music scene in one night. It was one of those parties with everyone you wanted to hang out with.”
1989’s show pivoted on collaborations, most notably Lucinda Williams joining Two Nice Girls, but 1990’s more acoustic turn rounded up Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, and James McMurtry. All that and Daniel Johnston stole the show regardless. Flown in on a private plane from West Virginia, the schizophrenic pop savant came aboard as the ultimate X factor.
“The highlight was Johnston’s brief but beautiful set,” wrote Luke Torn in the Chronicle review. “In his first Austin appearance in four years, Daniel beat on his dime store guitar, redrawing the line between artistry and vulnerability.”
On the return flight home, Johnston threw the airplane’s ignition key out the window mid-flight in a psychotic episode, leading his father to crash-land in Arkansas and Johnston to be committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Sent by Angels
In August 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan perished in a helicopter accident in Wisconsin.
Vaughan’s band, the powerhouse Double Trouble rhythm section of Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon, regrouped in the Austin Rehearsal Complex, where Doyle Bramhall II and another guitar prodigy, Charlie Sexton, were also working. The four began jamming together to work through their grief. By November, the Arc Angels debuted live.
“We all had a certain connection, but most of the energy we weren’t really even aware of,” says Sexton, who became music director for the AMAs in 2015. “Maybe it was because of the temperature emotionally and what everyone was going through, but it was bigger than us.”
Arc Angels feted their rallying point at the show, Jimmie Vaughan receiving a Hall of Fame induction that same year. 1991 also established another major precedent for the AMAs: an opportunity for the community to celebrate seminal figures of Austin music recently lost. At the ceremony a decade later in 2000, Doug Sahm, perhaps the soul of Austin music that died the previous November, and Sterling Morrison, founding member of the Velvet Underground who’d quietly made Austin home before passing in 1995, received AMA memorials that reside as pinnacle moments of the yearly pageant. Alejandro Escovedo and John Cale, backed by the Tosca String Quartet, honored Morrison in the night’s high-water mark (see “Waiting for the Man.”)
As SXSW grew in size and reputation, so did the guests for the Austin Music Awards. The backstage overflowed with music royalty. Quipped Corcoran’s successor in the Music column slot, Ken Lieck, after a 1996 set in memory of Townes Van Zandt: “Winner of the ‘What is he doing here?’ prize at the Austin Music Awards was Steven ‘Little Stevie’ Van Zandt, who, seen prowling around backstage, was just begging for someone to shout, ‘No, Steve, the Van Zandt tribute is for Townes!’”
Celebrities frequently found themselves onstage as well.
In 1993, speculation swirled around the debut of P, a band featuring Gibby Haynes, Bill Carter, and Donnie Brasco co-stars Johnny Depp and Sal Jenco. More novel than memorable, the results remain fixed in AMA lore as the first of only a handful of occasions the group performed live despite a self-titled Capitol Records album two years later.
“I think we got together the day before, maybe once or twice, and kind of made some shit up,” recalled Carter to the Chronicle in 1997. “We had all been here hanging out, so we thought it might be fun to try and play. … Just the fact that we actually did it was kind of amazing to me. We weren’t really [very] good, it was just fun.”
More noteworthy that night was the return of Roky Erickson, and an appearance by Jo Carol Pierce, who supported her Album of the Year win by delivering “Does God Have Us by the Twat or What?” from Bad Girls Upset by the Truth.
Even as SXSW and Austin hurtled toward the millennium, the Music Awards stayed true to its spirit of community, including not taking itself too seriously. In 1999, the Resentments countered the pomp of the unannounced Grammy presentation to Los Super Seven with a 15-minute jam on Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business.” The next year, poster artist and performer Kerry Awn declared, “Austin used to be ‘Groover’s Paradise,’ now it’s dot-com gigabytes.”
“The show really didn’t change in the face of South by Southwest,” attests Corcoran. “It stayed in the place where you piled up your hair and really was the Austin music prom. It didn’t change, which was great, because everything else did.”
The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock
New century off and running, the Awards often returned to its roots. 2001 recalled Austin’s Eighties, echoed two years later with a set dedicated to “The Hole in the Wall Gang.” 2003 also hearkened “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock” with Steven Fromholz, Rusty Wier, Ray Benson, and Billy Joe Shaver, inducted into the Hall of Fame by Willie Nelson.
The following March reunited the “Class of ’78” with members of the Next, Terminal Mind, Standing Waves, the Jitters, Skunks, and the return of the Big Boys’ Biscuit, this time without incident. 2005 and 2006 brought the resurrection of two Austin legends, Daniel Johnston and Roky Erickson both making triumphant returns to the local spotlight. They also reset the AMAs as a central occurrence during SXSW.
“There were probably more people from out of town than in town the year Roky played,” says Corcoran. “He hadn’t played in a long time, and people couldn’t believe they were seeing Roky Erickson, or that he was good again. The same thing happened with Daniel Johnston.”
Erickson became a fixture of the local spectacle over the next decade, returning to play with Okkervil River in 2008, the Black Angels in 2009, and Meat Puppets in 2011 (see “7 Roky Erickson Moments”).
2007 also marked a turning point in programming as expectations rose for the uniqueness of the affair. A tribute to the recently passed Clifford Antone provided an emotional core to the night as Jimmie Vaughan, Derek O’Brien, Gary Clark Jr., and James Cotton honored the foundation of Austin’s blues scene. Once again, a surprise guest nearly upstaged the native fireworks, when SXSW keynote speaker Pete Townshend joined locally ensconced Small Faces/Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan in celebration of bandmate Ronnie Lane’s legacy (see “Take That F***er Back: Ronnie Lane/Texas Tornados/Clifford Antone Tributes 2007”).
Reunions also became a hallmark of the AMAs. Stones to the Big Boys’ Beatles, incendiary punks the Dicks regrouped in 2009, joined by Jesus Lizard howler David Yow, while Monte Warden restarted new country hopefuls the Wagoneers alongside Joe Ely. Moser even coaxed Christopher Cross back to the stage, pairing the yacht rock icon with young indie orchestra Mother Falcon for 2012’s show. That year’s performances were eclipsed by the AMA’s most famous 11th-hour addition.
The 30th anniversary convergence promised a headlining set from AMA fixture Alejandro Escovedo, billed with special guests, but even Moser didn’t know until the day of the show whether Bruce Springsteen would show up, let alone get onstage (see “Did I Know Bruce Springsteen Was Going to Play 2012?”).
“When news first broke that he would be the South by Southwest Music keynote, I had a crazy thought: What would it take to get the Boss to the AMAs the way Pete Townshend guested with Ian McLagan in 2007?” wrote Moser following the show. “Jump forward to the night of the AMAs this year, when Alejandro Escovedo began his last set of the evening. The operations manager for the show was on one side of the stage printing lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Beast of Burden’ by [Springsteen] management’s request.
“I texted [former Ken Lieck replacement] Chris Gray, who had to leave early and file for The Houston Press, tapping on my unhip Blackberry, ‘We’re printing lyrics for “Beast of Burden”!’
“Chris zinged back immediately: ‘Dammit! Don’t those two know the words yet?’”
Sooner or later, the best live music capital purveyors pass through the Austin Music Awards shows.
Recall Escovedo, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and Grupo Fantasma jamming with the Wild Seeds in memory of SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke. And Patty Griffin accepting her Hall of Fame plaque by acknowledging, “The last time I came to an AMA, they gave one of these to Pinetop Perkins, so I’m very humbled.” One year, Gary Clark Jr. jetted home from Finland specifically to accept his stack of awards and join Bill Carter onstage in pulling together all strata of Austin music aided by the latter’s SRV staple “Willie the Wimp.”
And don’t forget Shawn Sahm leading his father’s Texas Tornados with Jimmie Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, the Flatlanders, Marcia Ball, and a generational cavalcade of Austin musicians as they piled onstage to play “She’s About a Mover” in honor of Moser’s final year as director of the show in 2014.
“I had very big shoes to fill from Margaret, and knew I’d never be able to replace her tenured position in our community and the long legacy of work she’s done,” says Celeste Quesada, who took over producing the AMAs in 2015. “It is a complex cultural fabric we weave with an event like this. There’s a ceremony involved where it becomes a sacred space of reflecting and absorbing our history.”
Under the stewardship of Quesada and musical alchemy fostered by Sexton, the Awards Show has evolved into some of its grandest ambitions. The past two years have been headlined by star-studded salutes to two Austin icons recently lost, Ian McLagan and KUT/KUTX deejay and Twine Time host Paul Ray. Honoring the former, Steve Van Zandt joined Escovedo, Griffin, and the Bump Band onstage, while the tribute to Paul Ray brought onetime local Robert Plant back to Austin to jam on its celebrant’s cherished post-World War II R&B.
“Ian really did all the work, because everyone loved Ian, and even more so with Paul,” demurs Sexton. “Last year, I actually said that if we can’t honor Paul properly with something that’s really special, then we should just honor him quickly with a video and say thank you and we love you. Then we got a message to Robert, and there was no negotiation. He just said, ‘I will be there.’
“I was just the messenger. Paul’s the one that got him there. All the credit goes to the people we honor.”
This year, the Austin Music Awards show notches its 35th anniversary edition at Downtown’s premier concert venue, ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Once again, the stars – Terry Allen, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Kat Edmonson, Kelly Willis, the Trishas, Grupo Fantasma, Brownout, Jai Malano, Fab 5 Freddy, and many more – align for typically singular performances. More importantly, the local music community gathers to honor its talent, inspiration, and singularity.
“What was always really exciting was that you’re working with people in every area that really care about what they’re doing,” offers Black. “What always strikes me about Austin: It’s so much about quality. Austin has incredible audiences; their level of knowledge and passion. When you go to the Awards shows, they’re packed with people playing for their peers.
“So at the end of the day, it’s really just about the music. Loving music.”
The 2016/17 Austin Music Awards turns 35 on Sunday, March 12, in its new home, ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Tickets at: austinchronicle.com/ama
Read more at the Austin Music Awards website.