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Austin, Texas: America's City Of Musical Salvation

5th December 2015

That a city in Texas might sell itself as the global epicentre of any sort of cultural activity may seem like a bit of a stretch: this is, after all, the state that gave the world tycoons in cowboy boots and George W Bush.

So confident are the folks of Austin about their claim, however, that they have gone and had the city’s motto trademarked: 'The Live Music Capital of the World'.

The bravado may be breathtaking, but it raises the question: why here? Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville and Seattle are well known for their musical heritage – respectively, blues, jazz, country and grunge rock.

Rather than embrace a particular musical tradition, Austin has set itself up as a greenhouse in which musicians of every stripe can thrive.

Austin is embracing music and being "weird"

The city’s musical evolution can be traced back to 1966, when a blues-wailing banshee named Janis Joplin emerged from Austin’s hippie scene to take the rock’n’roll world by storm.

Then in the 70s, a succession of long-haired country singers (Willie Nelson among them), alienated by the conservative scene in Nashville, decamped to Austin. By the early 80s, when a guitar-toting gunslinger named Stevie Ray Vaughan came riding out of Austin, ready to save pop music from its slide into keyboard-poseur purgatory, this had become America’s city of musical salvation.

Standing in the middle of Austin’s Sixth Street bar-strip, I’m struck most of all by the sheer variety of music pouring from doorways and windows.

In one bar, a virtuoso teenage fiddle player has a Claptonesque hold on the audience, while next door two guys in skinny jeans and hoodies are trading rhymes and furiously working a pair of turntables. A few doors down, a poster advertises “duelling pianos”, and across the street are two places that offer only live Texas blues.

Duelling pianos are a common sight in Austin venues

Walking into one of these between sets, I ask a barman what I can expect. Recognising that I’m a visitor, he grins and says: “I guess you won’t have heard of these guys, a local trio, the Eric Tessmer Band. If you like blues-rock, stick around.”

The band takes to the stage and is soon launching into one incendiary version after another of songs by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s possible I’ve felt happier at a pub gig than I do right now, but I actually can’t remember when.

The phenomenon that is Austin’s South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) was all but inevitable too, given the city’s all-embracing musical culture and the creative energy of America’s most popular college for aspiring musicians, Texas State University.

The festival brings together emerging bands, artists, film-makers and technology innovators, along with the various industry people whose job it is to develop this raw talent. SXSW is less a showcase of big-name headline acts than a window on what the next few years of music might look like.

SXSW showcases a lot of free live music acts

Could it be? Is Austin America’s Coolest City?

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On something of a post-gig high, I borrow a bike from my hotel and pedal out to Zilker Park for a dunk in its spring-fed swimming pool.

Riding back along Congress Avenue, I see a chap striding purposefully along in a pair of black, shin-high Doc Marten boots. Unusually, he’s teamed them with a yellow-flowered sundress, full beard and topknot hipster hairdo, giving me an inkling of why the city’s bumper sticker and T-shirt motto is “Keep Austin Weird”.

Parking outside Jo’s Coffee, I fortify myself with a giant caffe latte and then take the requisite stroll along South Congress Avenue, where many of the city’s grooviest shops can be found.

Largely because of its arty student population, Austin has brilliant second-hand clothing stores, and I soon find myself fondling a smoking jacket and eyeing a pair of cowboy boots.

Thrift stores give Austin an extra hip feel

Continuing on to the south bank of Town Lake, I come to the life-size statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan draped in his signature poncho. In a quiet moment every guitar player on earth will appreciate, I recall exactly where I was (hitchhiking to Las Vegas) on August 27 1990, when the radio news reported his death in a helicopter crash.

Musically, Austin will mean something different to every visitor, whether Janis or Willie, or SXSW and the discovery of the next bright star in the musical firmament. I hope to get back for SXSW, but meanwhile I’ll take away live music memories that will be a long time fading, and the contentment of having paid respects to an incomparable Texas guitar hero.

Don’t Miss

Congress Avenue Bridge Bats

This is North America’s largest urban bat colony; more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats. Just after sunset, from late March to early November, they emerge in their thousands from beneath the bridge. Best viewing is from the Bat Observation Center or on the lake itself.

Barton Springs Pool

Austin’s 358-acre Zilker Park is hugely popular with picnickers, but the highlight here is Barton Springs, an enormous spring-fed, lifeguard-patrolled outdoor swimming pool.

Bats over Congress Avenue Bridge

Suggested Stops

Texas State Capitol

The largest of America’s 50 state houses, and taller even than the Capitol Building in Washington DC; free guided tours every 15 mins.

Waterloo Records

The BBC in 2012 nominated Waterloo Records among the world’s top five record stores; great vinyl browsing and the shop is a hub for the 'Keep Austin Weird' campaign.

Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds/Electric Ladyland

Second-hand clothes and shoes; in business since 1984 and not to be confused with the defunct London used fashion store of similar name.

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This article was written by Cameron Wilson from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.