The Scene Is Gone But Not Forgotten
The Evolution of Austin's White Blues
"Well, I used to go to Antone's every weekend but all the good bands are gone."
That sweeping statement came recently from a longtime Antone's patron. He wasn't being mean-spirited, but rather was reflecting an unspoken sentiment among a number of Antone's aficionados -- that the white blues scene that gave Austin its reputation as a blues town is gone.
That might not have been obvious during its 21st anniversary celebration last month, when Antone's stayed full nearly every night. One evening, Susan Antone hid out in her office with Derek O'Brien, Speedy Sparks, and Lou Ann Barton while Angela Strehli was onstage belting many of the same songs she'd sung 20 years before. The subject was the scene that had nurtured them all and what had changed. "I don't know if anything's different -- I'm still the same." Barton took a long drag off her cigarette. "But the audiences -- they don't come out like they used to, do they?" I asked her. Barton shook her head, resembling tragic Thirties actress Louise Brooks with her cap of short hair and dark, velvety eyes. "No," she exhaled, the smoke flowed from her cigarette and curled above her like a question mark. "They don't."
Austin is known worldwide as a blues town, but does it still deserve the title? Yes and no. The white blues scene of the Seventies that spawned that rep is gone. After playing more than a quarter of a century, lifestyle blues have set in for many of the players, singers, and musicians. Some of them have decided to pursue individual interests and careers, producing records and doing session work, downshifting away from performances and years of touring. In other cases, drugs and alcohol have taken their inevitable toll. It's a lot easier to play the blues all night when you're 22 and life is but a dream than when you're 47 and pay the mortgage by working a day job. What's taken the place of that scene is no less vital -- but it is, in every way imaginable, different.
White girls like me didn't grow up hanging out in juke joints. I learned the blues from the Rolling Stones, Cream, and Janis Joplin, from listening to odd Top 40 hits like Slim Harpo's "Scratch My Back" and seeing Otis Redding in Monterey Pop. Monterey Pop made it hip for rock festivals to include blues players and jazzmen of all ages and styles, so I got to see Albert King, Jimmy Witherspoon, War. I had also heard blues through a series of black maids my family had. Faye used to crank that radio up in our suburban Houston home and whoop and holler blues along with it. In New Orleans, Anna Mae didn't sing but she did keep the radio on a station that constantly played the local bands -- Bobby Marchand, the Dixie Cups, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino, Huey "Piano" Smith. I was raised in a privileged background that wasn't devoid of troubles, but it certainly wasn't the blues. When you're white, blues is almost always an acquired, if still instinctual, state of mind.
Mostly, I learned the blues during my late teens in Austin's dives of the early Seventies, from Jimmie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall in Storm, Paul Ray in the Cobras, W.C. Clark and Angela Strehli in Southern Feeling, and Stevie Vaughan and Keith Ferguson in the Nightcrawlers. I attended all the proper institutions of higher learning, all puns intended, thank you: the One Knite, Flight 505, the Black Queen, the Gig, the Lamplight, the Sit'n'Bull, the South Door, the Back Room, and the Buffalo Gap (which became Raul's and is currently Showdown). Often, I got to hear some of the famous ones at the Ritz and Soap Creek, who would bring in Son Seals, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the Meters, Jimmy "Fast Fingers" Dawkins, Koko Taylor, Bukka White, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and other bluesmen.
The young blues players, many of whom had migrated here from Dallas, also patronized some of Austin's black blues clubs like the old Victory Grill, a converted gas station called Alexander's in what was then rural Sunset Valley, and Ernie's Chicken Shack on Webberville Road. At La Cucaracha on the Eastside, where the newly constructed interstate had yet to culturally divide the city, a pre-PC nirvana was taking place: White boys were playing black music in a Mexican restaurant. On a national level, music was in stultifying limbo; no wonder the volcanic blues erupting from greasy dives locally seemed infinitely more exciting.
Even so, the hometown audiences didn't exactly get it. Austin was, after all, the center of the universe for progressive country, redneck rock, and cosmic cowboys. National attention was heaped upon Austin for this brave new sound and its accompanying lifestyle. At night, sawdust was kicked up on dancefloors from Soap Creek, the Alliance Wagonyard, the Broken Spoke, and the Split Rail all the way to Luckenbach. This outlaw music was potent because it reached into Texas's country music roots and a staid audience rarely phased by trends. If blues wanted to survive in this foreboding atmosphere, it needed all the strength it could get. But that was okay: Blues by nature is music about survival.
A huge quonset hut that had once been a National Guard Armory at the corner of Barton Springs Road and South First Street, the Armadillo World Headquarters was definitely cosmic cowboy central -- but it also booked blues. It brought in Texas legends like Mance Lipscomb and blues-rockers like Freddie King; the Armadillo also brought in gospel with the Mighty Clouds of Joy, jazz with Gil Scott-Heron, and soul with Al Green. But the sentiment among the blues musicians was that the Armadillo didn't support local blues; possibly the Armadillo felt there was no audience. Paul Ray remembers that, "sometimes the Armadillo would put Storm, Southern Feeling, and the Nightcrawlers on a bill but the only people to show up were the same group of friends and girlfriends."
The feeling of rejection remained long after the music hall shut its doors. "To tell you the truth, when the Armadillo finally closed [Dec. 31, 1980], we thought it was the best thing in the world. That's when we started getting the good gigs," Jimmie Vaughan confessed to me in 1995, 15 years after Austin's answer to the Fillmore shut its doors. Still, the Armadillo represented Austin's easy-goin', dope-smokin', beer-drinkin' lifestyle that was conducive to the pursuit of blues. At the very least, the Armadillo gave progressive country an address, a home base. Maybe it was time for the blues to get one as well.
If luck is defined as preparedness meeting opportunity, those two elements bumped head-on at the corner of Sixth and Brazos in 1975. After scrounging around in cramped dives for years, the opening of Antone's nightclub was a godsend to the local blues musicians, even if Angela Strehli was more likely seen there mopping floors than singing. A refugee from Port Arthur, owner Clifford Antone was simply interested in seeing all the blues he could, and he figured opening a club was the best way to do it. Because it was more economical for him to bring in out-of-town musicians and book them Tuesday through Saturday at the club, names like Sunnyland Slim, Albert King, and Jimmy Reed would hunker down in Austin for a week or so, usually playing to respectable weekend audiences and lighter crowds on weeknights.
The newly formed Fabulous Thunderbirds began playing there regularly. A holdover band from the days of the One Knite, Paul Ray & the Cobras -- now sporting Stevie on lead guitar -- could pack Soap Creek every Tuesday and still command a weekend crowd at Antone's. House players like Bill Campbell, Derek O'Brien, and Denny Freeman honed their chops behind Eddie Taylor and Albert Collins, and the scene soon became strong enough to begin evolving seriously. By 1976, Stevie had left the Cobras and formed Triple Threat Revue with Lou Ann Barton, W.C. Clark, Mike Kindred, and Freddie Walden -- which begat Double Trouble in mid-1978. The Cobras, the Thunderbirds, and Triple Threat/Double Trouble quickly emerged as the holy trinity of bands at the temple of the blues.
Band members and audiences even dressed as if they were going to church. A kind of "anti-hippie" style developed -- part Fifties soul, part Texas pachuco. Long hair was shorn and slicked back, beards were clipped into debonair mustaches and imperials, and jeans and T-shirts were shucked in favor of ostrich boots and vintage shirts. Lou Ann Barton set trends with her wardrobe of torchy cocktail dresses and dangerously high heels. On a good weekend night, Antone's long bar would be lined with cocaine cowboys holding turquoise-and-silver hands with crimson-mouthed young women in whispery taffeta.
White blues in Austin was getting as good as it would get during those years, partly because of the musicians and partly because of Antone's. When a Willie Dixon or Barbara Lynn or Bobby Blue Bland was onstage at Antone's, the smoky ambience of the blues was as real as it had ever been. If a bluesman was still alive and touring, Clifford Antone probably booked him. With its ready availability of blues masters, Antone's gave local blues an identity, a matrix, a home. And the players recognized the opportunities, never missing a chance to talk to, hang out around, or play with the bluesmen. Those Blue Mondays never sounded as good as they did immediately following a week's residency by one of the legends.
The house was a-rockin', but it wasn't getting much respect. Muddy Waters may have smiled approvingly upon the Antone's musicians, but Austin's reputation still had a big ol' cosmic cowboy hat on its head. When The Austin Sun's 1976 Music Poll recognized Angela Strehli in its cosmic cowgirl-dominated Top Ten Female Vocalists, it prompted Paul Ray to write in and note how remarkable it was that Sun readers acknowledged Strehli, a performer "without the Armadillo seal of approval."
If this seething little hotbed of activity was looking for peer reinforcement it didn't get from the Armadillo, it got it when Bob Dylan's all-star Rolling Thunder Revue came to town and parked itself across the street at the Driskill Hotel. For nearly a week in mid-May of 1976, you could walk into Antone's and while there might not be 40 people in the house, the head count probably included Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Bob Neuwirth, Kinky Friedman, Joan Baez, T-Bone Burnett, and Steve Miller. James Cotton was playing the weekend and the Thunderbirds were also booked as rock's royalty wandered on and offstage with various bands. Luck = preparedness + opportunity. Antone's became the place for touring stars to visit, as Maria Muldaur, the Pretty Things, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello and others trekked there in its early years. It didn't hurt that the national music press noticed, either.
At Antone's, something was
happening, and the image of the sassy Lou Ann Barton perched on the knee
of the mighty God of Blues said it all.
Visiting rock royalty was, however, expected to honor its blues forefathers properly. When Boz Scaggs and entourage swept through Antone's cramped backstage and demanded an audience with Bobby Blue Bland, Bland's bodyguards didn't know who Scaggs was. Scaggs was sort of the Stevie Ray Vaughan of his day, a suburban Dallas white boy playing blues who caught the popular ear. Scaggs was critically liked and achieving success at the time, and did not take kindly to the snub. When he tried to muscle his way past the door to see Bland, he was cold-cocked by a punch that sent him out the door onto his back on the sidewalk. The photo ended up in Rolling Stone.
Ultimately, it was the legends themselves who gave credibility to the white kids, as in Muddy Waters inviting Jimmie Vaughan, Kim Wilson and Angela Strehli up to play with him or Albert King stopped cold by a 23-year-old Stevie Vaughan. But the enduring image was captured when Lou Ann Barton sat on Waters' knee and posed for a photograph that also landed in Rolling Stone. Over at The Rome Inn, at 29th and Rio Grande, the Fabulous Thunderbirds' Blue Monday gigs were providing another outlet for the electrified scene. Those gigs especially picked up steam when Antone's was forced to move from its Sixth Street location to a forbidding location on Anderson Lane. Clubs like After Ours, Soap Creek, and often Steamboat also juggled the T-Birds with the Cobras and Double Trouble, and week after week it was still paying off in increasing crowds.
Suddenly, it seemed every night was New Year's Eve, and the most uneventful weeknight might turn magical, throbbing with raw, homegrown blues. On an otherwise uneventful Sixth Street, something was happening at Antone's, and the image of the sassy Fort Worth shouter who'd cut her teeth playing Jacksboro Highway juke joints perched on the knee of the mighty God of Blues seemed to say it all.
If the image of Lou Ann on Muddy's knee was a symbol of Austin's emergence as a player in the blues game, it still had no product to show for its blues talents by 1978. All the rock luminaries in the world could pay homage, but not one local band had a record, single, or even a tape available to back up the claims of stellar talent. While recording a CD seems effortless today, even recording for a cassette tape then was much more complicated. The Cobras had recorded a single, "Texas Clover," while Stevie was with them, but that was about it on the horizon. Still, the thumbs-up Muddy Waters and other blues legends had given the Thunderbirds paid off; the T-Birds were signed that year and recorded their first album for the Takoma label in May of 1979.
For my money, The Fabulous Thunderbirds' first album is the best white blues recording to ever come out of Austin. Often called Girls Go Wild but truly eponymous, it's raw and uneven and unself-conscious in its exuberant celebration of the music Jimmie Vaughan, Kim Wilson, Keith Ferguson, and Mike Buck seemed born to play. It was low-down and dirty, much more suggestive of a too-close slow dance than wild rock & roll abandon. In rapid succession, the Thunderbirds issued three equally good follow-up albums --What's The Word? in 1980; Butt Rockin' in 1981; and T-Bird Rhythm in 1982 -- that hit like a grand slam and brought it home every time.
Blues was still a hard sell elsewhere, however, even if the Thunderbirds were beginning to draw huge audiences at home and word of mouth was good on the road. As cool and distinct as the Thunderbirds were, they looked like old guys, an even tougher sell to kids. On the home front, though, the Thunderbirds' popularity could be tracked in the Chronicle music polls, where they were the first Band of the Year, a category they would dominate for several years. The Thunderbirds were bad-ass, but critical praise and hometown-hero status still weren't selling records for them.
By the time T-Bird Rhythm was released in 1982, Stevie had noisily begun his climb to stardom by turning down David Bowie's offer to tour as his guitarist in favor of sticking with Double Trouble, signing with Epic/CBS, and teaming with producer John Hammond with plans for a first album in hand. Texas Flood was an appropriate name for the first record from the guitarist now billed as Stevie Ray Vaughan, for when it washed across the airwaves, a new face of the blues was born.
That's all history now, how Stevie and Double Trouble leapfrogged up the ladder from Texas Flood to Couldn't Stand the Weather in 1984 and Soul to Soul in 1985. How the Thunderbirds finally scored big in 1986 with "Tuff Enuff," a hit so catchy it still gets tacked onto soundtracks ten years later. How Stevie was starting to hit the skids with drinking and drugs, and didn't put out another studio album until he cleaned up and released In Step in 1989. How the Thunderbirds began to falter as their killer hit had little in common with their blistering blues repertoire. The record sales didn't go through the roof for either Double Trouble or the Thunderbirds by the late Eighties, but one thing was absolutely for sure: If you asked the average musically astute person what Austin music sounded like, the answer would be "blues."
That seemed logical. Behind the relative success of the Stevie and the T-Birds, Antone's established its own blues label as CD technology made local releases much more feasible. One longtime project was realized when Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton, and Angela Strehli recorded Dreams Come True for the label, arguably one of its best efforts. Chronicle music polls continued to be dominated by Stevie, Double Trouble, and the Thunderbirds, while Lou Ann and Angela had played tug of war for Best Female Vocalist since year one. Toward the end of the Eighties, you could almost set the calendar by the Thunderbirds' traditional New Year's Eve show, Riverfest in May when they drew thousands, and a couple of local shows in between. Stevie's homecoming shows bordered on awe-inspiring displays of jingoism. For a few minutes, dreams really had come true.
If a time and place can be named when those dreams were shattered, it is surely August 27, 1990, when Stevie Ray Vaughan's helicopter slammed into a mountainside in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. Stevie had been Everyman with a Stratocaster, the not-so-pretty boy, the younger brother that tried harder. Stevie had given white blues individuality and personality. For many, he was the face of blues, the success story, even if his brother's band had charted more hits. Stevie was the perfect symbol of success after hard work, always acknowledging the bluesmen he'd learned from at Antone's: Muddy, Albert, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, B.B. King, etc. And in one blinding flash of human error, it was gone.
1990 to Present:
The tragic event that left a pall over 1990 also cloaked 1991, the year that Seventies blues scene quietly expired.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was dead and Double Trouble was over. Angela Strehli had followed her heart to the Bay Area, and eventually married longtime love Bob Brown. Paul Ray had retired from singing in the Eighties before the Cobras broke up, but both were off the scene by the Nineties. Lou Ann Barton doesn't have a record deal, and in recent years has been almost invisible in a scene she once ruled, though she's undisputably the Queen of Austin Blues. The Fabulous Thunderbirds evolved into little more than Kim Wilson's back-up band after Jimmie Vaughan left (and should maybe be billed now as Kim Wilson & the Thunderbirds, since Wilson has taken up residence in Los Angeles). Jimmie Vaughan emerged from near-exile with a stunning solo record two years ago, but has reverted back into being a recluse. Most of the members of the classic Antone's House Band have gone their separate ways. Only W.C. Clark -- the one true link between Austin's black blues scene and its white step-sibling -- carries the torch that lit the halcyon days of the Seventies when Antone's pumped into the wee hours of the morning, always playing, always touring.
It may be the most famous name in Austin blues clubs, but Antone's had never been the only one. By the late Eighties and early Nineties, clubs like Pearl's, La Zona Rosa, Steamboat, and the Continental Club tapped into a lot of Antone's potential draw, not to mention Sixth Street clubs like 311, Jazz, Babe's, and other places supporting cover bands whose material probably included at least one T-Birds or Stevie tune. If you caught Lazy Lester one weekend at Antone's in 1991, Soulhat gigs probably paid for him to play.
Antone's had to evolve; the times and the competition demanded it. Visitors from Europe who come to Austin's blues mecca today may be baffled to wander in on the Scabs, but running a club remains a business. The world-famous home of the blues has monthly expenses to meet that don't go away and only grow, so it makes sense for them to book bands to attract a younger audience. If new clubgoers are attracted to Antone's by an Ugly Americans show, good. If it inspires them to come out for Miss Lavelle White, better.
This current crop of torchbearers plays blues for different, equally notable and remarkable reasons. The primary difference is that today's blues bands now are influenced as much by SRV and the T-Birds as they are by the old masters. Storyville bridges the old and new scenes with its ex-Double Trouble rhythm section and Malford Milligan's angelic vocals. Sue Foley doesn't pack the house the way she should, and eventually will, by fusing Strehli's cool grace with Barton's firecracker performances and a take-no-prisoners approach to blues guitar. One-time blues guitarslinger Ian Moore has shifted naturally into more rock & roll, and seems much more at home on the Steamboat stage than Antone's. Still, Guy Forsyth covers old-timey blues in the Asylum Street Spankers and lurks menacingly with style and panache into Kim Wilson's old harp-cat territory. Toni Price's country blues are staggeringly popular, and Gary Primich is not afraid to forego a bass player altogether on occasion in favor of what he called "that Hound Dog Taylor sound." Hound Dog Taylor. These are comforting words, coming from the new scenemakers.
So Austin's blues is most certainly not dead, even if the original white scene that created its reputation is gone. Maybe that scene was just finished with its mission: It had outgrown itself and was ready to metamorphose, to shed the skin that had so safely encased it. The hippie ethic included a noble and well-meaning notion, the idea that whatever is liberated should be given away to the most people possible -- power to the people. Austin's players who braved the blues frontier in the Cosmic Cowboy Seventies lived that notion, even if they felt alienated by the hippie mothership at the Armadillo World Headquarters. By the end of the Eighties, blues had eclipsed country as the sound of Austin, Texas, and Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble and the Fabulous Thunderbirds had become the standard for up-and-comers by giving Austin blues to a national audience.
Gone but not forgotten. In the Nineties, most of these newer bands are heirs to that Seventies legacy, as are the dozen or so clubs in town with blues-based bands. When the Victory Grill reopened on the Eastside last year, it seemed to indicate that the black community was ready to take back the blues; the current crop of talent and a revival of Eastside blues players is a healthy sign. If Antone's no longer has to uphold the standard for blues, that's not so bad: By its nature, blues has thrived in the shadows, much more so than the spotlight. And if it's harder than ever to get the gig because the competition's tough and the players good, well, ain't that the blues.