Lost in Austin

It ain't the size of the crowd, it's what you make of it

I've just returned from a lovely trip to Austin. I don't much miss the heat or humidity, but while I was there I got to thinking. Y'see, Santa Fe, Austin is undoubtedly a wonderful town when it comes to music, and it's only natural for our fair city—in all its alt-country/regular country/Americana-ish country glory—to look to such an exciting bastion of music as a sort of beacon by which to guide ourselves. This is, however, problematic. Not only are we much, much smaller in terms of things like population, venue numbers, young people, opportunities and good old-fashioned H20, there's a certain level of professionalism among many Austin musicians that I'm just not sure we've reached here just yet. Yikes...now you hate me. More so.


Take, for example, this club The White Horse. As my colleagues in drinking and I stumbled into this fantastic country bar, we were all blown away by this five-piece band called Them Duqaines. Not only did these guys strike a perfect balance between Hank Williams and Dwight Yokam-style country, they knew how to work the crowd. Young, old and all parts in between, the audience danced (and I mean danced) their asses off. I'm not talking about a few people swaying outside the rhythm here, either. I'm talking 200 people who knew what they were doing and energetically appreciating stellar musicians in a tremendous display of two-stepping the likes of which I've never seen. Them Duqaines dressed the part as well, and looked so awesomely authentic that it was almost like taking a time machine back to the heyday of classic country.

Nearby, club after club stood with their doors opened wide and the sounds of any kind of music you can imagine blared out. Some venues contained audiences, others didn't, but even those bands who played solely for the sound guys and the bartenders were playing and working their hardest.

At another club called Hotel Vegas, a band that I was too drunk to catch the name of and featuring Austin favorite, Johnny Walker, played to a noticeably small handful of hipster hopefuls with the type of reckless abandon usually reserved for packed dance floors. Granted, this was a more contemporary and introspective Americana style, but the point remains the same—they brought their A-game regardless of who worshipped them or who was or wasn't paying attention. And this may just be what will keep Santa Fe from seriously approaching an Austin-caliber scene. In Austin, it seems like everyone and their brother has a band, and whether it's because of or in spite of this, it would appear that hardly anyone considers themself quote/unquote special. Really, these musicians can afford to behave this way. With the recent-ish influx of tech startup money, the music festival boom and about a gazillion musicians all operating within a finite universe, Austin seems to facilitate an unspoken understanding that, despite the city's famous love of music, nobody is owed an audience and certainly nobody is outright owed a living.

There's been a Waylon Jennings quote making the Facebook rounds lately that says something to the effect of, "Don't do it for money and don't do it for the attention," and it's this sentiment that must be learned before Santa Fe can even begin to look outward at what works for other cities. It's often been said that for a town our size, we have no right to complain about the music scene. On the one hand, this is true; we do have a lot of music. On the other hand, if bands that operate within the music capital of the Southwest manage to do their damnedest without attempting to impress anyone and without explicitly expecting anyone to care, it seems they might have unwittingly hit upon the reason so many claim to play music in the first place: because it's fun.

OK, so maybe you're not all millionaires and maybe y'all sometimes feel slighted by where you are professionally or what the local rag says about you. But maybe instead of focusing on these things or audience numbers or what whoever-the-hell thinks about your band, you can focus on how it's pretty damn lucky to work and make money in the music business at all. That apparently works for the musicians of Austin, and it's obvious everyone thinks they're really cool.

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