If you are a music lover, you owe it to yourself to take a trip to Austin, Texas, “The Live Music Capital of America.”
This is where you’ll find live original music from any genre you fancy seven nights a week.
And who better to guide you through the neon glow of 6th Street, the side streets off South Congress, the historic dancehalls of Central Texas — and one “fowl” Sunday afternoon tradition — than your Proud American Traveler editor who’s knocked back longnecks in them all?
The Redheaded Stranger who is “Still Not Dead”
Willie Nelson deserves as much credit as anyone for putting the “Live Music Capital” crown atop the head of Texas’ capital city of Austin.
You know you are in rare company when you have a statue erected in your honor while you’re still alive.
Sure enough, you can find Willie in bronze in downtown Austin, even though as he says in his latest song, “I woke up still not dead again today.”
As the story goes, Willie got tired of the corporate country music rat race in Nashville and writing hit songs like Crazy for Patsy Cline. He craved independence, freedom, and the room to create a name for himself and not the manufactured stars out of Nashville.
So in 1972, Willie tossed his suit and tie in the nearest dumpster, grew out that red hair, tied on a red bandana and headed back to his home state of Texas. From there he found a thriving community of musicians in Austin making music and art on their own terms rather than the dictates of the executives on Music Row.
Willie discovered Austin had a musical genre all its own, free-thinking open expression accompanied by a fiddle and that Texas twang that uniquely appealed to both cowboys and hippies alike.
That same universal appeal mixed with a college town vibe has attracted literally millions of people to move to Texas’ fastest growing city – creating a musical diversity unmatched anywhere else in America.
And while its roots remain firmly planted in the fiddle, guitar, and Willie’s whiskey-drenched country lyricism, modern Austin will appeal to lovers of virtually any genre.
So here’s my guide to the best and most iconic places for live music in the “Live Music Capital of America.”
3201 South Lamar Blvd.
For the most authentic Texas dancehall experience in Austin, you have to go to the Broken Spoke when hometown legend Dale Watson takes the stage.
When I went 11 years ago, I was the only one in the packed old hall NOT wearing cowboy boots and a hat — and the only one not on the dance floor two-steppin.
Don’t worry, two-step lessons are provided before every show.
Or you can do what I did and sit on the side rail, downing Lone Stars and simply take in the experience.
Yep. This is the real deal.
305 E. 5th St.
If Texas country isn’t your thing, check out Antone’s, the home of Texas blues, one block off of Austin’s famous 6th Street music row. This is where Texas legends such as Stevie Ray Vaughn, Gary Clark Jr. and the Fabulous Thunderbirds have graced the stage.
Last month I caught a band named Indigenous, a Native American blues band out of the Dakotas that played a loud, searing Sunday night set for a small, but enthusiastic crowd.
713 Congress Ave.
Since 1915, the Paramount Theater’s stage has entertained generations of Texans with movies, vaudeville, live theater, and most recently, it’s one of the best places in Austin to hear live music from the biggest stars.
I had the privilege of catching Texas husband and wife duo Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis perform their annual Christmas Show on the Paramount stage in front of their hometown family and friends.
There’s nothing like witnessing an artist connect with their audience in an intimate setting surrounded by a century of beautiful architecture and history.
310 W. Willie Nelson Blvd.
This is downtown Austin’s newest and most spectacular live music venue, home to the famous Public Television concert series, Austin City Limits, the longest running TV music show in history.
Tickets to tapings of Austin City Limits were notoriously difficult to score at the show’s old home in the Communications Building on the campus of the University of Texas.
The modern ACL Live, built in 2011, allows many more music lovers to crowd into its two levels of seating.
When I saw Texas songwriter extraordinaire Hayes Carll take the stage recently, I had the option of standing room in front of the stage down below or reserved seats in the balcony up above. Either way, there isn’t a bad seat in the place.
1281 Gruene Rd.
Even though it isn’t actually in Austin, no list of Texas music venues would be complete without the oldest dancehall in Texas, Gruene Hall, an hour down I-35 in the bucolic little hamlet of Gruene, Texas.
Nestled under old oak trees on the banks of the Guadalupe River, Gruene Hall is an essential Texas experience for any music lover.
When the dance floor is packed with cowboys and their denim-clad ladies and the doors are flung open to greet the summer evening air, the sounds of honky tonk fiddles and guitars reverberate throughout the town welcoming regulars and travelers alike.
Whether it was a “Two Tons Tuesday” live CD recording of Two Tons of Steel, an intimate acoustic evening in the atrium with Owen Temple, or Texas legend Jerry Jeff Walker rocking a packed house, I’ve always considered an evening at Gruene Hall to be the signature Texas musical and cultural experience.
412 Luckenbach Town Loop
Luckenbach is even further out in the Hill Country than Gruene Hall, but how could I exclude the star venue of one of the greatest hits in the history of Texas country music?
When Willie & Waylon sang about “ain’t nobody feeling no pain” in Luckenbach Texas in 1977, the place was just a run-down general store with a tiny post office and stage for local troubadours.
I’m happy to say…nothing has changed.
Well, maybe a little. There seems to be more tour busses pulling up under the live oak trees than I remember a decade ago.
But the sounds of strumming guitars and the chill of an iced down longneck keep the rustic, laid back charms of Luckenbach alive and well 43 years after an iconic song put this “Population: 3” dot on every music lover’s map.
Maverick’s Dance Hall
1700 Grand Avenue Pkwy.
While the booming suburbs of Austin surge with one new housing development after another, newcomers and natives alike want to keep the Texas dancehall tradition alive.
Maverick’s Dance Hall just off I-35 in Pflugerville is where you can find traditional Texas country out in the suburbs.
I recently crossed off an item on my musical bucket list by catching Oklahoma legend Jason Boland and the Stragglers blast though a late night set that included Red Dirt classics like Tulsa Time and Dark & Dirty Mile.
Austin is one of the few cities where even the suburbs can be cool.
2247 Guadalupe St.
One of the most historic venues in Austin is actually located on the University of Texas campus in the Student Union Building.
A cozy intimate room next to the student caf, the Cactus Café has hosted every Texas legend you can think of since it opened in the 1970s, including Townes Van Zant, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to see such diverse acts as Justin Townes Earle, Carrie Rodriguez and, most recently, Kentucky up-and-comer Kelsey Waldon, just a few feet from the stage.
Chicken S*!t Bingo
C’Boys Heart & Soul
2008 S. Congress Ave.
No list of Austin music venues would be complete without a mention of that only-in-Austin Sunday afternoon tradition of Chicken S*!t Bingo.
Yes, actual gambling; yes, an actual chicken; and yes, actual chicken poop is involved.
Oh and don’t forget to throw in cold beer and great traditional Texas country music.
Texas legendary troubadour Dale Watson started this day drinking ritual with Miss Ginny, proprietor of North Austin dive bar Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon, 25 years ago.
Recently — and somewhat controversially — Dale and Miss Ginny and her chickens have moved to the hipster strip of South Congress, at C’Boys Heart & Soul, where on a recent Sunday afternoon I got to experience my first taste of Chicken S*!t Bingo.
Miss Ginny sits in the back of the room with her chicken-wire encased bingo board while Dale Watson pounds out one traditional Texas standard after another.
Upon an official announcement from Dale Watson, every patron in the packed bar rushes to get in line to place a bet on the bingo board.
Once all the squares sell out, Miss Ginny scatters some chicken feed onto the board and inserts the true star of the show.
…the chicken does what chickens do, scrounging up the chicken feed until nature calls.
Once that momentous event occurs, Dale announces the lucky square and calls the winner on stage to collect the jackpot and endure some good-natured interrogation.
I’m pretty sure only in Austin can cold beer, good music, and the bowel movements of poultry combine for such a good time.