W's been out of town a lot lately, trolling for votes in places like New Hampshire and California instead of the old Lubbock and Luckenbach stumping grounds. But that doesn't mean the lights have gone out in Austin. Not hardly. While the governor cat's away, other cats are at play, for this hot city no longer depends upon its status as Lone Star State capital for its sense of self. No sir. These days, Austin is as much about computers (spelled D-E-L-L) and clubs (jazz, country, rock, hip-hop, you name it) as it is about politics.
If you want to find out what's up with the new Austin, you should go there, as I did last year, during the loud, lively South by Southwest Music and Media Conference and Festival (March 15 to 19 this year). By day, SXSW is a confab for the music biz, with record label bigwigs mingling at the convention center with hopeful young bands or attending seminars entitled "Overseas Licensing: The Inside Track," "Nuts and Bolts of Postmodern Rock Radio," and "The Politics of Soundtracks." By night, SXSW is much more entertaining. It's all over town in more than three dozen clubs, joints, and dives—not to mention outdoors in Waterloo Park. Every space in Austin is hopping from happy hour 'til way past midnight, with hour-long sets from several of the 800 acts that blow through town during the week.
I was in town as part of the daytime activities, sitting on a panel called, "Bored of the Chairman? Rethinking Frank Sinatra." I got that out of the way, then put on my Tony Lamas and my panelist's badge and hit the street.
That means I hit Sixth Street, Austin's version of Greenwich Village's Bleecker (circa 1963) or New Orleans's Bourbon (circa 4 a.m. last night). Not all of the city's hundred or so stages are on Sixth Street, but a bunch of them are. I ventured from Babe's to the Flamingo Cantina to Jazz on Sixth Street and I heard jazz, blues, country, alt country, alt rock, and Tex-Mex along the way. Artists in town that week included Leon Russell (hoping to gig alfresco with Willie Nelson at Liberty Lunch, but the show was rained out), Lucinda Williams (delivering the SXSW keynote address as well as three or four sets at various places), Tom Waits, Powderfinger, Patty Griffin, Waco Brothers, Robert Earl Keen, and Jim Lauderdale. The music was of wildly varied kind, meter, rhythm, rhyme, and volume, as well as quality. I dug some of it—not all—and after a terrific set by Freakwater at the Jazz Bon Temps Room, I decided to go out a winner and headed for bed.
Bed was in the historic Driskill Hotel, a grand old dame of a hotel, recently gussied up in a renovation. The Driskill calls itself a "Frontier Palace," and that's about right. A Victorian heap right in the middle of everything, it opened in 1886, and I'd bet a passel the first guests were packing six-shooters. When Lyndon Johnson was a local politician, he and his boys would hole up at the Driskill on election night to count ballots their way.
Next morning, I rolled out of my wrought iron bed and went for a jog. I was surprised to find that I was not the only human being awake in Austin after the night before. I headed down to the Colorado River, where scores of young techies were logging their miles before heading for work at Dell and other firms. It wasn't so long ago that Michael Dell was a student at the University of Texas, selling used computers out of his dorm room, and he stayed in town when he started his company. Dell Computer is now the centerpiece of a local industry, IBM and Motorola included, that is luring the young and frazzled away from Silicon Valley's traffic and pressure. More than two-thirds of Austin's 1.2 million citizens settled here during the last decade; it's a young person's city, vibrant and alive and up and running at dawn.
I jogged from the river to the statehouse, where the blue-suited crowd was already making its bureaucratic way up from the car park. Whereas down by the river I passed an immense bronze statue of the ill-starred, still-hot-even-though-he's-dead blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, up here I was reminded of the Texas heroes from statehood days. Austin feels like more than one city—two or three at least.
And these towns coexist proudly in what must be the most liberal-minded place in Texas. Austin is an open-arms town of opportunity. It is a town of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. It is the Driskill and LBJ and scotch and the long past, and also Willie and weed and the near past, and also the Internet and lattes and the future. Austin is a college town and a computer town and, increasingly, a commuter town.
For my money, Austin is best when it's Western. For me, a great day in Austin would—and did—start with that jog. Then it proceeded to a mess of eggs and good, rich coffee at Las Manitas Cafe, a diner on North Congress that serves cholesterol bombs laden with cheese. Then I went to Sheplers and bought my wife a belt with a buckle I figured she might hate, though I thought it was a very nice buckle. Then I took in a set at the Jazz Bon Temps Room, went to Threadgill's for some ribs, and attended a concert at Waterloo Park featuring local heroes Fastball and Joe Ely. Pretty tired, I hit the piano bar at the Driskill, then the elevator. Tom Waits got in, looking more tired than me. I had to say something, so I said, "Quite a town."
"That it is, my friend," Tom said.
Photos by Kelly-Mooney Photography/Corbis, Will Van Overbeek, and Gerald French/Corbis
This article was first published in March 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
If you're going... Contact SXSW at (512) 467-7979 or www.sxsw.com for information.