Austin’s live music scene has been going strong since the German beer hall days of the 1870’s. In fact, the oldest continuously operated business west of the Mississippi is Sholtz Garten on San Jacinto Boulevard. General Custer used to hang out there when he was stationed here in the cavalry. It has a great outdoor stage with the German Alps painted on the back wall, and remains an awesome venue to this day. You can learn more here: http://www.scholzgarten.com
In the 30’s, the Chitlin Circuit was thriving with Eastside music halls bringing in the likes of the late great BB King, to Ray Charles, and everyone in between. This part of Austin’s musical legacy is strong and crucial to understanding the soul of the city. In the 50’s Rock and Roll came to town, and Austin was one of the stops for a young Elvis Presley when he started his career. Elvis later said he made around $250 a night playing here, and many of today’s local musicians will tell you little has changed! In the 60’s, a barefoot young girl walked into a place called Threadgill’s Tavern and asked to sing. The owner, Kenneth Threadgill, a Texas folk singer who performed with Hank Williams, is considered the “Father of Austin Country Music.” He heard her sing one song, recognized her talent and took her under his wing. Her name was Janis Joplin. You can read more about Threadgill’s here: http://www.threadgills.com
Back in the late 60’s Austin was a sleepy town of 200,000 people mainly made up of three groups: the white conservative cowboys, the long haired tie-dye liberal hippies, and the politicians. These groups didn’t get along. Then a guy by the name of Eddie Wilson had a vision of uniting Austin through music, and did so by opening the Armadillo World Headquarters, a giant hall holding 1,500. His buddy, a certain Willie Nelson, decided to lend a hand. Turns out the cowboys liked Willie’s music, and the hippies liked Willie’s music, and he made sure they liked each other. He was known for pausing a show to stop a fight between the factions, and encouraging everyone to see each other as the neighbors they were. Even if they were different, they shared the music. It wasn’t long before you saw long haired guys wearing cowboy hats and cowboys smoking stuff that wasn’t necessarily tobacco. Willie is credited with starting the “Cosmic Cowboy” movement, and launching Austin as the “Live Music Capitol of the World.”
The 70’s brought the Outlaw Cowboys. The 80’s brought Punk. The 90’s brought Garage Bands, and the millennium was the start of the Festival Age. From SXSW, to ACL, to Fun Fun Fun Fest, and all the rest – year round music lovers flock to Austin by the millions to get as close to the magic as they can.
The heart of the Austin music story is community. We are not competitive like Nashville, LA, and NYC. We produce songs as entertainment and then we share them. We are not the mainstream. We are the undercurrent. The biggest names in music frequently come to Austin to write, produce, and record their next platinum record, and then return to Nashville, NY, or LA to deal with the lawyers and the paparazzi. Austin plays the part of the muse for the music industry.
Musicians love Austin because it has a different measure of success that those other cities. Here it is not how many Grammy’s, or platinum albums you have, or what kind of car you drive or how big your house is, in Austin if you are putting your art out there, you are considered by your peers to be a success. You don’t have to be a household name or a millionaire, just being creative is enough. So lots of musicians who have banged their head against the walls for years in Nashville, LA and NYC move here to enjoy this noncompetitive creative vibe.
Music is not only big fun in Austin, it is also big money. The music scene generates 1.7 billion dollars each year for our local economy. It a win-win for all concerned.