Honky-Tonk Heroes

Photos by John Carrico

Introduction

Here's a fun game to try: Call a like-minded friend in Anytown, USA. Talk about the wife and kids and job for a while, then casually mention something like, "Yeah, we went and saw Dale Watson at Ego's the other night -- right after a catching Merle Haggard and the Derailers at an Austin City Limits taping." Listen closely and you can hear your buddy gnashing his teeth on the other end of the line.

Okay, maybe that's not fair. Not everyone lives in Austin. Still, an afternoon at the Austin History Center recently, looking through microfilm of the local daily from the late Fifties through the mid-Sixties, was enlightening. Before the days when jaded hipsters stood 20 feet back from the stage and smoked, before the Beatles or hippies or punk or Stevie Ray, there was a music scene here that was at least above-average (hell, before the term "music scene" was even invented). It's not unusual to come across listings from those days with folks like George Jones, Faron Young, and Webb Pierce coming through town and playing at long-gone joints like the Skyline Club, back when Shiners were 35 cents and North Lamar was still called Old Dallas Highway.

Regardless of how much longtime Austinites bemoan changes to the city and pine for the good old days, there's little arguing that the one thing that continues to get better and better here in Austin is the live music scene. That's in terms of variety, volume, and talent -- all three -- and especially as it applies to roots music. Having great acts come through this town and play has become so routine that Austinites get spoiled and fall into the, "Ah, I'll catch 'em next time" syndrome. It's the kind of thing that we take for granted here, while a town with a storied musical past like Nashville or Memphis doesn't enjoy half the live music that we do here. No wonder your buddy in Chicago gets so chapped when you rub it in.

Some of the fellas pictured herein date back to those days, while some of them didn't come along until a lot later. Either way, this is a look at the cream of Austin's country crop, with a few ringers thrown in. Chronicle shutter-man John Carrico used his instinctive sense of subject and setting for this series of portraits and captured the essence of these men with every shot. Honky-tonk heroes.

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