The Big Picture
Are sisters in Austin still doing it for themselves?
When Marcia Ball moved to Austin in the early Seventies there were only a handful of female musicians performing regularly: Mary Hattersley of Greezy Wheels, Janet Lynn, Chris O'Connell with Asleep at the Wheel, Jerry Jo Jones of Plum Nelly, and Ernie Mae Miller and Margaret Wright, who performed at the Driskill Hotel. Forty years on, that list grows longer by the day. The women of today's scene not only support one another, they still encounter male chauvinist pushback.
Legendary local venues close regularly, but Hot Club of Cowtown fiddler Elana James and former Timbuk 3 breakout Barbara K gather a backyard full of people at the former's Central Austin home to perform original and traditional folk tunes without amplification. Take in an Erin Ivey gig and there's Elizabeth McQueen adding harmonies. Suzanna Choffel in the audience when Charlie Faye tries out new tunes at Strange Brew – commonplace.
"It's always been a hand up kind of a town," nods Ball. "I hope that continues. The other day someone mentioned to me another piano player in town and said, 'You better watch out. She's comin' up right behind you.' I said, 'She could stand on my shoulder and I would push her over.'
"I've got nothing to lose by someone else's success and everything to gain."
Lauren Larson, fireball guitarist of Ume, breathes a small chuckle when asked if she's ever run into problems being a female bandleader. The world of shredders she inhabits possesses a deep male bias and she's experienced it firsthand. There was the British Summer Time Festival in London's Hyde Park this past July, for instance, where she shared a bill with Black Sabbath, Motörhead, and Soundgarden.
"I was the only woman onstage that day," she recalls. "When I first picked up my guitar I thought, 'I want to be seen as a guitar player, not an anomaly because I'm a woman.' But even on the last tour I wasn't allowed backstage at one venue because they didn't believe I was in the band. I've had people ask me if I was the dancer in the band."
In a much less power-packed situation, Selena Rosenbaum of traditional country outfit Rosie & the Ramblers faces similar problems here in Texas.
"I do all the booking," she says, "but when we get to clubs sometimes they only want to deal with the male members of the band. I go, 'Hold on. You've been talking to me the whole time.' It's obnoxious, but it's pretty widespread. I'm just trying to remind people that a woman can front a country band."
A three-time 2014 Austin Music Award-winner in the categories of Best Female Vocalist, Best Latin Traditional, and Best Latin Rock, Gina Chavez says women aren't necessarily a minority in numbers, but in music, men rule.
"It's like Latino musicians," she winces. "Why do you have to point out that we're Latino? As a woman and as a bandleader, the obstacles are sometimes subtle. It's a vibe. I walk into a room and the atmosphere changes. I usually walk into the place with a guitar and introduce myself, so as not to give people a lot of room to assume."
For most, the blues feels stuck in the past, a creative dead end performed by guitar hero wannabes with a lack of self awareness wherein they can't recognize their own cliches. Not in Austin, however. Even with its Home of the Blues missing in action (Antone's), blues musicians thrive.
Carolyn Wonderland, Ruthie Foster, and Shelley King are no Janis Joplin wannabes even if they follow the path blazed by the Port Arthur belter more than 50 years ago. Wonderland's exceptional guitar style, Foster's immense vocal talent, and King's songwriting have garnered all three locals a large enough national audience that they perform here infrequently. They're successful, yet the journey's frequently been inward.
"The main thing for me is my own feeling of accomplishment," explains King, named Texas State Musician in 2008. "Like how I feel when I write a good song. When someone tells me one of my songs helped them through something, that's the ultimate success. It's not about how many albums I sell. Connecting with people is more important than dollar signs."
"I hope that people get where I'm at, depending on where I am at a particular time," offers Foster. "It means a lot to me that I have a varied audience, people from different backgrounds, folks who love all genres of music. I get people who don't know blues or gospel, but they love my stuff."
Foster's achieved that, judging by the demographics at a recent album release show at the Paramount Theatre for fifth album Promise of a Brand New Day. There, members of Mingo Fishtrap and Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars brought her blues/soul hybrid to new heights.
Preparing a live set recorded at Antone's before it closed, Wonderland remains as straightforward as her music.
"What's success?" she repeats. "If I go out and don't suck. Every night's a new night to succeed or fail. I feel like I do both regularly. I feel like my playing's gotten better, but I don't really understand the business of it, and I've tried for 20 years.
"I just hope they like the records."
The Big Picture
Originally from Houston, Kat Edmonson began her music career in Austin. Nevertheless, it took moving to New York to catapult her to a national audience. September's The Big Picture generated acclaim for a genre-bending mix of mid-20th century jazz and pop.
"This was the best place to get my start," affirmed the petite singer in Austin last month. "What I was doing was a niche in the landscape of Americana music. I was offering a jazz flair with the old American songbook. There weren't many venues here for the type of music I was doing."
Austin's an acknowledged music mecca, but its industry infrastructure remains painfully lacking. In 2010, Edmonson hoped to split her time between Texas and New York, but found a booking agent, management team, and a major label there in Sony Masterworks. Not that those seeds hadn't been planted here.
"I was trying to attract booking agents all the time, inviting them to my shows," she recounts, "but apparently I didn't have enough of a package for them. The fact that I brought 1,000 people to the Paramount Theatre for my record release show was monumental. I signed with them that day during South by Southwest.
"Austin was the perfect place for that. It's an incubator."
On the second track from The Big Picture, "Avion," the 31-year-old singer wonders, "What is all this for if I don't feel free?" While not explicitly about leaving Texas, it's a sentiment that trails her career.
"The song expresses that I never want to feel limited by anything. By genre, by my potential reach for fans, where I fit in with the music industry, what I do as an artist," she explains. "With each record I make, I'm trying to share who I am more and more. I'm developing and learning about myself as I'm creating, and my fans are learning more about me.
"If you listen to my first record, I'm just a jazz chanteuse singing jazz covers and that's what I do best. Meanwhile, I've been writing since I was at least 9. I listen and identify with so many types of music that I never want to be limited to one thing. I want to be able to show all my interests and my passions."
On a Saturday afternoon in October, Suzanna Choffel, Elizabeth McQueen, BettySoo, Charlie Faye, and Erin Ivey gather in a deep South Austin living room to share some wine and talk about what it means to be an Austin musician. Individually, they represent some of the capital's best singer-songwriters, but they don't exist in a vacuum, so they entwine in a variety of ways. From recording to recommending backing musicians, they're lenders of shoulders to lean on.
"Why wouldn't we?" asks Soo. "We all like each other's music."
"Plus, we like each other as people," chimes in Choffel.
"It's one of the best things about living in Austin," states McQueen. "You're surrounded by wonderful and talented people who you can collaborate with in so many ways. That's not the case everywhere."
Choffel possesses a unique vantage point among the group as she currently splits time between Austin and New York. She claims to be an introvert when it comes to collaboration, but a bigger obstacle is the sheer size of the city.
"It's harder to support each other at shows in New York, because there's so much going on and just getting to a show is a pain in the ass," she reports. "In Austin, I'm much more likely to get in my car to see whoever is playing. Even friendships are harder there, but I wouldn't say it's less warm."
Originally from New York, Charlie Faye's lived all over the country, and while she's here for the long haul, there's one aspect of collaboration – cowriting songs – that just doesn't happen in this music-crazed town.
"Nashville is like the cowriting capital of the world and I have a couple of people there that I love to work with when I'm there," she says. "L.A. is the same way. In Austin, it would be easy for us to get together and write, but it's not really part of our culture."
"In Nashville, performers aren't always writers," points out Choffel. "There's a subculture there of writers."
"Other places are more work-oriented," agrees Faye. "In Austin, we're more socially oriented. We're all doing our work, but we have genuine social relationships with each other."
Like Edmonson, they all agree there's a need for more infrastructure here. Between that, the city's incredible growth, and the rising cost of living, making a living here as a full-time musician is harder than ever.
"I feel like every time I go to L.A. or Nashville, I can make more happen there with a few chance meetings than I can make happen here in years," admits Faye. "We don't have the kind of people here that can push a button and say, 'I'm going to get you on this show or on this tour.'"
"Ultimately, Austin is a really great place to make a life," says Ivey. "It can always be better. Organizations like SIMS and HAAM make a difference. I think the more healthy you make the community for middle-class musicians, the more the entire city will thrive."
"Austin has changed, but it's still incredibly creative."
That's the view of Marcia Ball. At 65, she's now one of the elders of the music scene. The swamp boogie and blues pianist has witnessed a lot of it in four decades here. The escalating cost of living is new.
"But it doesn't seem to hurt the influx of musicians and young people who keep a town vibrant and alive," she acknowledges. "What's changed isn't so much about Austin and its growth. It's the difference between my generation and the younger generations in the way they hear music. They don't necessarily hear music the same way we do.
"We went out to dance and to hear music every night. I think this generation goes out to a festival or a big show, but not as much to a honky-tonk or to hear a band. We went to see our friends all the time."
Ginger Leigh hasn't been in town quite that long. Twenty-two years, she says proudly. The San Antonio native currently works on her 10th album of originals, a couple of which were performed by her first act, a still-popular duo with Sarah Dashew. Leigh focuses on the economy of local music from a different angle.
"We've been charging $10 at the door for two decades," she laments. "The economy changes, but we don't get to change with it. We charge $12 or $15 and people balk at it. We need a raise. Everything moves forward, but if you're going to call it the live music capital of the world, make sure you keep things alive.
"The city needs to step in and save some of the venues. The city should declare some of those places landmarks. Look at what's happened to the Broken Spoke. The same thing is about to happen with the Saxon Pub."
"There's destruction going on of all the amazing parts of what makes Austin, Austin," agrees Sara Hickman. "I'm really sad about all the mom-and-pop stores, the places that made Austin weird that are becoming Austin wired. Austin feels like a big family. All the new people that are coming in don't feel that."
A nationally renowned singer-songwriter, Hickman was Texas State Musician in 2010. She moved here from Dallas in 1997 because of the opportunities it afforded her beyond just making albums and performing live. Today, Hickman works on movie soundtracks, commercials, and jingles, but also teaches. Her local appearances are few for the reasons outlined by Leigh.
"I don't play much here because there's no money in it – except when I play parties or private events," she says. "I live in Austin because it's a great city, because it's a good family environment."
She laughs, then adds, "Although it's starting to look a lot like Miami."
Grace London, who will soon turn 15, won the Old Settler's Music Festival's Youth Talent competition in 2011. She seems grounded and much more reflective than a high school sophomore has any reason to be.
"I do think about the different paths I can take," she admits. "I've thought about the future maybe too much."
Chronicle writer, bandleader, and local music scion William Harries Graham hosted under-18 nights at Maria's Taco Xpress, which London took part in, but that's gone away and nothing has taken its place. She did a stint in recently signed rockers Residual Kid, but she bemoans the lack of venues – or just one venue – that caters to the U18 set.
"At 15 you can't get a gig, because your friends can't drink at the bar," she says.
Lili Hickman Waldon and Io Hickman also performed at Maria's, which gained them a great deal of exposure. They appear occasionally now with their mom Sara and her husband Lance Shriner. That helps with gigs.
"It's hard being a teenager and getting trust from places to play," says Io.
Lili is considering a move to Portland, Ore.
"I have a great support system," she says, "but I have to get out of Austin for a while just to grow as a person."
Fiddler Kelsey Wilson of Wild Child is older than London and the Hickman sisters, but she's part of the youth contingent of musicians from Wimberley that includes Sarah Jarosz and Sahara Smith. To her, Austin's fantastic growth remains a double-edged sword.
"This town is so warm and accepting," she enthuses. "I can play music almost every night of the week. Everyone I know plays music. That's all I want to do. I don't think that's possible anywhere else.
"I see the growth as more in the size of the audience and not necessarily the number of musicians. That's a big benefit. Sure it's changing from what it was, but we're still a lot better off than most places we've been to."
Seven From 2014
The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man (Alligator)
The Big Picture (Sony Masterworks)
Haematic (Western Medical)
Rosie & the Ramblers
Whatever You Need
Native State (Brutal Honest)