Is Lockhart the Live Music Suburb of the World?

A growing wave of musical expats heads south

Tele Novella's Natalie Ribbons and Jason Chronis at Loop & Lil's Pizza (Photo by Shelley Hiam)

Aaron Fox first stumbled across Lockhart in search of a jukebox. In 1990, the University of Texas graduate student and local guitar player was working on his thesis in the anthropology department and had been tipped to an off-the-grid bar 30 miles down Highway 183 south of Austin. Its jukebox was stocked from the owner's own collection.

"It was just a long, low shack with no sign, about five miles north of town. If you didn't know it was a bar, you wouldn't know," remembers Fox, now director of the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University in New York. "Lockhart was dirt poor when I was there, and it was a rough place."

Ann's Other Place had sprung up after Ann Roose, like many of her customers, had uprooted from South Austin as the capital's urbanization of the Eighties began forcing out lower-income families. Fox not only found his jukebox inside Ann's Other Place, the inspiration for his first book was born at the bar. Published in 2004, Real Country studied the role of music in Lockhart's working-class culture, providing fascinating insight to the small-town scene that existed just outside of Austin's orbit.

"Ann's used to have a Wednesday night jam session that started at 8pm and would go 'til four in the morning," recalls Fox. "She'd lock the bar up and serve coffee after midnight, but people would stick around, including lots of well-known musicians. Dale Watson would come by.

"Willie [Nelson] even came by every once in a while."

Austin's first economic boom brought music to the Lockhart that Fox uncovered in the Nineties, and now with the live music capital's population explosion of the last decade, a growing wave of expats have ventured south, including several notable artists and music industry veterans (see "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," May 27).

"We were living in Austin on the Eastside, and rent just kept going up," says Tele Novella frontwoman Natalie Ribbons, who recently moved to Lockhart with her partner and bandmate, Jason Chronis. "We got to a point where we were paying over $1,000 to share a room in a tiny house. We couldn't afford anything even as a lateral move. It sounds so dramatic to say it, but we really didn't have a choice."

Going Up the Country

Steven Collins (Photo by Shelley Hiam)

Lockhart's town square is still this Saturday night. Streetlights cast a soothing glow against the 1894 courthouse, imbuing the block with a surreal feel. Stars are visible even in the early-evening sky.

Around the corner on Main Street, neon burns late at Loop & Lil's, the pizza and craft beer joint opened just over a year ago by Chris Hoyt, who fronted former Austin bands like Comanche Club. Next door in the Desiderata Wine Bar, Austin balladeer Mark Ambrose keeps an attentive audience, and across the street at the Pearl, Mark Jungers sits on the tight corner stage playing to a much louder crowd.

"It's really turned around in the last few years," attests Randolph Flores, a Lockhart native and vice president of the Lockhart Area Music Association (LAMA). "We didn't really have bands playing here, where people could have a drink or go dancing in the square. Everything closed at 9:30pm.

"Now there's enough people that it's growing and starting to happen."

Earlier, sitting outside of Henry's Restaurant as tour buses unloaded for barbecue at Smitty's Market across the street, Flores and LAMA President Grady Keenan laid out the opportunities they see around them for live music. Their nonprofit sponsors artists for town events, promotes shows, and hosts monthly songwriter open mics and a biweekly blues jam.

"To have the support and mechanisms in place makes everything a lot easier," offers Keenan, who fronts the Keen Country Band. "It's like a cow trail: If you start driving down it, pretty soon you've got a road."

When Ribbons and Chronis first bought their vacant lot two years ago, there was still little explicit music culture in Lockhart. Several professional players, like jazz pianist Rich Harney, claimed residency, but the town had few marketable music milestones save for being the hometown of Grammy-winning Tejano singer Augustin Ramirez. Alongside bandmate Austin Burge and some friends, Shane Renfro, leader of the psych-tinged roots outfit RF Shannon, opened Chaparral Coffee on the main square in April, and already the small shop has become a locus for an emergent creative community.

"There's definitely an energy of people popping out of the woodwork here that have a kind of city sensibility," surmises Renfro, whose venue has begun hosting intimate shows with performers like Jess Williamson, Ryan Sambol, and the Lovely Sparrows.

The latter's frontman, Shawn Jones, recently relocated to Lockhart after 16 years in Austin.

"I've never thought of myself as really a community person, but moving down here, I really love the sense of community," he says. "I think the reason it works so well is that everyone that's come down here has similar values of wanting to be able to do what they want, which is just make lots of art."

Other Austin artists are taking note as well. Songwriter Dana Falconberry, freshly returned from her summer tour of national parks, is looking to settle in town, and Scott Butler of the Black & White Years has declared his intention to make Lockhart home. They follow producer Danny Reisch, who last month began recording in his new home studio a mile west of the town center (see "Pre-Eminent Local Producer Danny Reisch Moves South to Lockhart," Aug. 12).

"Moving to a place like this, for me personally, a lot of the excitement is just what could be possible here," says Ribbons. "I like the idea of building something very special and intimate, just developing a really strong sense of community and convincing our good friends to move down here. It seems like such a cool possibility."

Little Big Town

Photo by Shelley Hiam

Steven Collins finished building out a new studio behind his house two months ago. The producer and sole band member constant of Deadman designed the renovated 1889 carriage house in the vein of an old New Orleans salon, with deep crimson curtains and furniture, and a main cutting room lit by skylights and a chandelier. He moved just blocks from the center of town a decade ago, and his recent projects include Will Courtney's new album and an upcoming disc for Dustin Welch.

"When I moved here, I was concerned because I didn't know the people," he admits. "I didn't know if they'd like musicians. But I've never had any problems, and everybody's been really supportive of me and the studio and our music – just having music around."

He's watched the town's cultural shift of the past year, encouraged by trendier new establishments like Chaparral and the Lockhart Bistro, not to mention a growing number of artists, but also wary of the extent to which the town might outgrow itself.

"We're seeing two things," he says. "One is an influx of people coming from Austin that don't want to go north and want to find something that has a vibe. And two, the people that live here have their dollar, and they now believe they can spend that and have just as good a time as going to Austin."

The Lovely Sparrows serenade Chaparral Coffee (Photo by Shelley Hiam)

Fletcher Clark likewise waxes ambivalent on the town's changes. The songwriter and veteran of the Armadillo World Head­quarters left Austin eight years ago and has since brought a number of artists to play in Lockhart through his monthly "Evenings With the Songwriter" series. The events at the historic Dr. Eugene Clark Library over the past six years have boasted Butch Hancock, Sara Hickman, and Adam Carroll.

"Every arts community is going to face that fork in the road where they realize that what they have is not sufficient for whatever reason, and so they invite external input to re-compost the soil, if you will," proffers Clark. "I remember Austin as a small town and remember thinking that it will be a good thing when we grow, but it's really turned out to be a cultural disaster in many respects, though of course in many other respects not at all."

Since the 2012 opening of the SH 130 toll road that runs just outside of town, Lockhart has thus far remained insulated from the development boom that many expected. Yet many still see the coming growth as inevitable, which means that Lockhart's cultural moment as an artistic outpost may be leapfrogged by development just as it begins.

"Usually, in the process of word getting out about a place like this with lots of opportunities, there's a wave of artists that will come," says Ribbons. "I'm worried that phase might already be getting bypassed a little bit. I'm worried that the property value will shoot up so quickly just as a lot of artistic-minded people start to dip their toe in the pool and consider moving out here and building something new.

"I hope that doesn't happen, but there's already people going around door-to-door looking to buy houses. All of the hawk investors and house flippers are already swooping in."

Lockhart Limbo

The Saw Sages at Desiderata Wine Bar (Photo by Shelley Hiam)

The Sunday afternoon blues jam sponsored by LAMA is pounding inside the Desiderata Wine Bar, overpowering the room and spilling out onto the normally quiet street. The bar's owner, Tony Bowen, winds hurriedly among the tables replacing drinks for the full house of about 40 as local guitar slinger Jamie Krueger rips impressively from the stage. The roar inside mocks the bar's namesake Max Ehrmann poem that's penned broadly across the wall: "Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence."

Bowen aims to have live music at Desi­derata every night of the week and enthuses that bookings are becoming easier as word spreads. According to LAMA Presi­dent Keenan, a new venue is slated to open next door, which will make the block on North Main Street a dense entertainment strip. Given all this, you wouldn't know Lockhart exists in a unique cultural limbo.

Younger artists moving into the area have created a palpable sense of excitement, but whether the town can expand its cultural vibrancy amid the expected economic and development growth will be a key question over the next few years. Moreover, musicians moving to Lockhart face other challenges, like losing access to services that Austin offers musicians, such as health care nonprofits HAAM and SIMS. And even with a budding sense of community, Lockhart remains a decidedly small town.

"I have not been that lonely for as long as I can remember," laughs Shawn Jones of his first few months in town. "When you get that lonely and that bored, and you've read and worked on everything as much as you can that day, it's like a forced reset button. The joke I've made over the past year is that I'm living my best Bill Callahan life."

"We don't want to go out there and change anything. We want to restore what's there," emphasizes Renfro of his coffee shop and other new businesses around the town square. "It's a race at this point. We don't want to see it fall into the hands of developers. There's already such a beautiful thing here."

For older Lockhart residents like Flores and Keenan, that inevitability of growth represents a long-awaited opportunity, both economically and culturally.

"It's something that needs to happen here," says Flores. "There's growth and there's a lot of potential here, and it's going to happen and it needs to happen sooner rather than later."

"They're not just coming from Austin; they're coming from Houston, they're coming from San Antonio," adds Keenan. "And they will be met with open arms. There's so much here to offer right now, and there's going to be more."

Lockhart's horizon echoes its past to ethnomusicologist Fox. Even in the Nineties, Austin encroachment from the highway hung over the music community he found in Lockhart. As Ann's Other Place shuttered, many of its patrons dispersed for even more remote locations.

"There was talk about it all the time back then," remembers Fox. "When's it going to happen? You could just look out of the bar at the trucks on 183 and know that something had to happen."

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Lockhart, Tele Novella, Natalie Ribbons, Jason Chronis, Mark Ambrose, Mark Jungers, Jess Williamson, Ryan Sambol, Lovely Sparrows, Shawn Jones, Dana Falconberry, Black & White Years, Danny Reisch

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