The Hills Are Alive
There's Austin music in that thar Hill Country
On an overcast Friday at Poodie's Hilltop Bar & Grill in Spicewood, about nine miles past the junction of RR 620 and Highway 71, the regulars are ribbing one another. Below a pastiche of framed autographs, buzzing neon beer signs, and shiny posters of shows past and present, one of the men slides off a barstool and ambles over to the jukebox. James, he of the gimme cap and quick wit, issues a warning in an accent thicker than July in Houston.
"Don't you go playin' no Merle Haggard, 'less it's 4407, 1241, or 1162," calls out James.
James' buddy waves off the warning and plays Willie Nelson. Jim and George, sitting next to James, guffaw and take swigs from their beer bottles. A bespectacled blonde chuckles at their riposte as she wipes down the honey-colored wooden bar. She, like the men trading jokes, has seen it all here at Poodie's.
James, it turns out, once owned the no-frills honky-tonk west of Austin. A few years ago, Poodie Locke, better known as Willie's right-hand man, bought it. Its unassuming appearance hardly suggests the nights of hog-wild abandon onstage or the caliber of celebrities it attracts, but Poodie's is one of the premier places in the Hill Country for bands to play.
In fact, for a growing number of musicians, the Hill Country is the place to play. The clubs are friendly, the audiences welcoming, and business is good on both sides of the bar.
"And if you really wanna hear local music," confides a musician who's given up Austin's creature comforts for the easier lifestyle of the Hill Country, "tune in to KFAN and KNBT."
The traditional country-music circuit conjures up visions of dance halls bursting with two-step music all night long. The Hill Country is rife with those and their names bespeak Central Texas' German heritage and Lone Star images: Gruene Hall, Saengerhalle, Luckenbach Dance Hall, Blanco County Line, to name a few. Then there are the small town festivals, county fairs, rodeos, benefits, livestock expos, chili cook-offs, and constant celebrations that keep life in the country freewheeling and fun. And of course, there are the bars.
A Little More Laid Back
The Hill Country is dotted with live music venues that fan out west of Interstate 35, above San Antonio and stretching as far north as Lampasas while curving westward just past Fredericksburg. Like the dance halls, the names are colorful and sometimes carry a bucket load of attitude in them: the Too Damn Friendly Bar in Johnson City, the Wild Horse Grill in Marble Falls, the Buck 'n' Shoot Saloon in Center Point, the Auslander in Fredericksburg, the Cypress Creek Cafe in Wimberley, John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes, Armadillo on the Creek in Comfort, and a longtime favorite, Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos.
These venues and others (see sidebar) provide an alternative to the Dallas-Houston-Austin circuit and foster a relationship with their audience. Musically, the Hill Country is trend-free and MTV-proof, and that's just the way they like it. It is, as Toni Price pronounces it, a little more laid-back.
"People in the Hill Country like good music and enjoy life," states Price. "They don't take you or the music for granted. They show their appreciation by making sure you have food and drink and treat you like they're honored to have you there. It's their way of life.
"They work hard all week, and on the weekend they want to enjoy themselves. Lucky for us, music is always part of their plan."
Toni Price is one of the unofficial godmothers of the scene, as are Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Kelly Willis, and Marcia Ball, and though their forays into the Hill Country are few these days, theirs is always a warm welcome. The Hill Country supports an unusually large number of songwriters, and for many, having Toni Price sing your song is a sure sign of success.
Godfathers, meanwhile, are plentiful, Willie Nelson and George Strait chief among them. Billy Joe Shaver, Clay Blaker, and Jerry Jeff Walker are in the pantheon as is Ray Wylie Hubbard, Asleep at the Wheel, Rusty Wier, and anyone ear-tagged as a cosmic cowboy.
In the next tier, Pat Green is king, though Robert Earl Keen, Jack Ingram, and Charlie Robison are frequently cited. Cross Canadian Ragweed find their way to places like New Braunfels' River Road Icehouse, the South Austin Jug Band to Gruene Hall, and the Derailers to the Blanco County Line. The Big Four -- Kevin Fowler, Cory Morrow, Roger Creager, and Jason Boland -- and acts like Cooder Graw keep Hill Country dance halls two-stepping with rock-influenced country music.
The endless list of Austin acts playing the Hill Country underscores true gender parity. Bands like the Cosmic Dust Devils and players like Tommy Elskes, Mike Blakely, and Django Walker (see "Modern Day Bojangles") can be found in the Hill Country, but so can Shelley King, Terri Hendrix, Susan Gibson, LeeAnn Atherton, Pauline Reese, Floramay Holliday, Tracie Lynn, Brigitte London, Danni Leigh, and plenty of other female performers.
Most Austin acts that roam the Hill Country can be heard at local clubs such as Ginny's, Threadgill's, Jovita's, and Hill's Cafe, as well as the Continental Club, Antone's, the Saxon Pub, Stubb's, and the Broken Spoke. The competition for gigs at name venues is enormous, but given a choice between the headline slot out of town for a thoroughly appreciative audience that will buy CDs and being second on a bill of four in Austin, most choose the former.
Kim Naredo has owned Kerrville's Ol' Waterin' Hole for the last six years. She takes great pride in handpicking the music for her club, "listening to every CD I get in the mail," while keeping one ear to the radio and making regular trips to Austin to see new acts.
"The people who come to this bar, one might have just had a 21st birthday and another is 80 years old, all sitting at the same table," explains Naredo. "Other customers don't care what kind of music I have, they just wanna hear what's going on. That's why I have such a variety of music. Zydeco one night, Shelley King the next -- it brings in different crowds."
The music has variety as well, from the Cosmic Dust Devils' "farm to market rock & roll" to Shelley King's countrified songwriting. Even some of the traditional dance halls like Luckenbach and Gruene book non-two-step acts to please their customers. King, who plays the Hill Country regularly, agrees with Naredo.
"The audiences I draw at Gruene, for example, are a combination of New Braunfels' residents, Hill Country people, and tourists," says King. "There are many places in Austin where the audience is like, 'Go ahead, try to impress me.' Here, they want to be a part of the whole experience, the song, the venue, the history.
"You see kids dancing, couples holding babies and swaying, senior citizens waltzing. To me, that's one of the charms of Texas dance halls. It's like a peek into the past, when the Saturday night dance was the social event. They're tuned into having a good time."
What makes playing Hill Country venues different from the Panhandle or the Gulf Coast clubs? The musical and spiritual heart of the Hill Country lies in festivals.
Heart and Soul
For 18 days at the end of May and the beginning of June, the annual Kerrville Folk Festival is as much a staple for singer-songwriters as Montreux is for jazzmen. The additional presence of the Old Settler's Music Festival, the Americana Jam, the Gruene Music Festival, and Willie Nelson's picnics over the years has led to an unusual phenomenon. These events not only nurture the singer-songwriter tradition so dear to Texas, they've given Hill Country audiences a taste for something more sophisticated than Garth Brooks covers.
"Every place I play in the Hill Country has an appreciation for original music," states Shelley King. "They like the Americana sound, Texas-bred music, and the radio stations perpetuate that. KNBT plays Kelly Willis, Susan Gibson, Robert Earl Keen, me, Nathan Hamilton ... but a lot of us aren't played in Austin. When Hill Country people come to my shows, they know my songs from the radio."
"People appreciate the song," confirms Toni Price. "They listen, and it means something to them. They appreciate who wrote it and who interprets it and who plays it. And that's good for all of us."
Floramay Holliday reckons she plays about 30% of her gigs at Hill Country venues, and that's a low-ball figure compared to bands like the Cosmic Dust Devils, who play the majority of their gigs west of Austin. For her, the audience distinction is unique.
"A whole generation grew up with their parents taking them to Kerrville festivals, and now that generation is bringing their kids," posits Holliday. "Which is great, because it educates the audience to expect something better. Maybe even spoils them a little.
"They're used to hearing original music and have an ear for it. They recognize it and respond to it instead of the, 'Oh-I've-never-heard-that-song-before-I-think-I'll-talk-to-my-friend' attitude. Compared to playing other places where you're 'reading the audience,' playing to each individual member, it feels like the Hill Country crowd is really listening."
They're listening all right, says the Ol' Waterin' Hole's Kim Naredo. The audience's appetite for original music drives her booking policy.
"I don't want a bunch of cover musicians here," states Naredo emphatically. "I want original singer-songwriters -- Texas music. They need to be heard and to be able to sell their CDs and be promoted. That's what we're here for."
"There's you a real musician!" James cracks as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" rises from the jukebox at Poodie's.
Sitting across from George, Jim, and James at the bar is Lost John Casner. Casner did time as a singer-songwriter in Austin's clubs throughout the Eighties until he too headed for the hills, staking a claim "somewhere near Driftwood." This Friday afternoon finds him driving around to different radio stations promoting his recent CD, Don't Make Me Laugh (While I'm Drinkin'). Casner has no problem with homegrown publicity seeking.
"The people who hear the music on the radio come to the shows," he avers, shrugging off the teasing and hooting from the three at the bar.
That's an effort the Cosmic Dust Devils' Barbara Malteze likens to Coal Miner's Daughter, where Loretta Lynn visits one radio station after another, music in hand.
"The radio stations encourage us to stop in," insists Malteze. "The deejays come to the shows. They don't care about playlists and demographics. It's an ongoing love affair."
Kim Naredo depends on radio to introduce her to potential acts for her Kerrville club.
"KFAN and I work together very well," she enthuses. "Sometimes I'll hear a song on the radio and call the deejay and say, 'I like that band. Can I get their phone number so I can bring them here?'"
As you might expect, many stations are country, Christian, or have Christian programming in their country format (see "It All Started ..."). New Braunfels' KNBT and Fredericksburg's KFAN are kings of the Hill Country.
"Radio New Braunfels," KNBT-FM, is a nationally recognized Americana station cited by numerous musicians for its support of local artists. Its awards include the Texas Bound Radio Station of the Year and being named by the Gavin Report as the No. 1 Americana radio station in America in 1999.
"KNBT not only plays Texas artists, they play more Texas women artists than any other station I know," claims Shelley King.
KFAN-FM, simulcasting with Bandera's KEEP-FM as "Texas Rebel Radio," is closer to the heart of the Hill Country, based in Fredericksburg. Almost half of the music played on their Americana format has Texas roots, and programs like Texas Six-Pack and Texas Coffee Break bear that out. Local Licks at Six, which airs weekdays in the evening, highlights unsigned local Texas performers. No wonder the players love the stations.
"KFAN doesn't get mentioned nearly enough for all they do," states Toni Price. "They play local music a lot more than some stations are allowed to. KGSR plays good music, but they don't play Shelley King, they don't play LeeAnn Atherton -- except maybe on Lone Star State of Mind. The average people in the Hill Country love those artists and don't take them for granted. Rebel radio!"
Kevin Higgins and Barbara Malteze of the Cosmic Dust Devils once lived in Austin and actively sought the brass ring while riding Austin's merry-go-round of bands. Disillusioned by low-paying gigs, rising rents, increasing traffic, and club owners who didn't return phone calls, they traded their South Austin digs for country living and haven't looked back.
"We're in the heart of the Hill Country, so it's easy to get to gigs," Malteze effuses. "We're 50 miles from Austin, so it's not like running down to 7-Eleven at 3am, but it feels like the center of everything."
Country life has also given Kevin Higgins a taste of how the Dust Devils' audience lives.
"People don't mind driving a little ways to have a good time," he shrugs. "In the dance hall days, that's what it was. Pack up the kids and let 'em play under the trees."
In the largely working-class Hill Country, "a good time" is paramount. Live music is usually a weekend event, and the pickings can be slim, in contrast to Austin's market saturation.
"In Austin, live music is everywhere," points out Hill Country singer-songwriter Tim Steele, a former deejay at KFAN. "The airport. The grocery stores. People are so conditioned to live music, they just ignore it. Out here, there's live music two nights a week, and it's a big deal. It's not unusual to get people from towns 60 miles away. There's always an excuse to party when the weather is beautiful and the river is clear."
What about MTV, arena tours, million-dollar contracts, and platinum records? Well, what about them? Certainly, the limousine and caviar lifestyle is a dream for most performers, but when it comes to stars, the Hill Country is its own piece of heaven. You might even say it's the best of both worlds.
As Shelley King declares, "I want to go where the people who like my music are. And they're in the Hill Country."