Concluding a decade that reshaped the horizons of Austin music even as longtime pillars of the city’s legacy remained vital, 2019 might well be remembered as a pivotal year for the Live Music Capital.
Native son Gary Clark Jr. cemented his status as a major star with his most impressive record yet. Fast-rising band Black Pumas issued their first album and got a best new artist nomination from the Grammys. Genius songwriters Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston, who battled inner demons to make transcendent music, died within months of each other but left indelible marks. The Austin City Limits Music Festival helped launch former Houstonian Lizzo to the stratosphere. And through it all, Willie Nelson just kept on being Willie.
Clark’s ascendance was the least surprising but most prominent story in Austin music this year. "This Land," released in February, was his third studio album for Warner Bros. but the first to score him a coveted "Saturday Night Live" appearance. The title track, a powerful protest song, helped Clark draw four nominations for the upcoming Grammy Awards ceremony on Jan. 26 in Los Angeles. Clark’s breakout year, which included triumphant sunset performances on both weekends of ACL Fest, put an exclamation point on a decade that began with Clark’s 2010 invitation to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival, an appearance that kicked his long-promising career into high gear.
READ MORE: Gary Clark Jr. stakes his claim on ’This Land’
Black Pumas, the rock ’n’ soul project of producer/guitarist Adrian Quesada and singer/guitarist Eric Burton that burst from the ether in early 2018, caught fire this year. An early single, "Black Moon Rising," presaged their self-titled full-length debut in June. A potent collection of modern soul classics with cinematic production owing as much to golden-era hip-hop as it does to Motown or Stax, the album arrived as Black Pumas already had begun selling out large club venues nationally and internationally with an electrifying live show. They spent most of the year on the road but returned to Austin for three sold-out Mohawk shows and an "Austin City Limits" taping in August. The group’s final Austin appearance of the year was a Longhorn City Limits set after the Longhorns defeated Texas Tech on Thanksgiving weekend, just a few days after the duo’s Grammy nomination for best new artist.
READ MORE: With debut album, Black Pumas take flight
Bookending the summer months of 2019, the deaths of Roky Erickson at age 71 and Daniel Johnston at age 58 were hard losses for the city that first got "weird" partly because of the art they made decades ago. Erickson’s rise with the 13th Floor Elevators in the 1960s and his subsequent landmark solo albums helped forge the template for psychedelic rock. Johnston lived in Austin for a comparatively brief stretch in the 1980s, but his deeply personal no-fi recordings and instantly recognizable drawings attracted worldwide attention and earned him a legion of fans among fellow artists ranging from Beck to Kurt Cobain.
This year’s ACL Fest had a tough act to follow after Paul McCartney’s iconic 2018 turn, but youth was served with a lineup that included red-hot singer and rapper Lizzo’s sets both weekends in front of extraordinarily large crowds. Lizzo, who’d built buzz with previous Austin appearances including an NPR showcase at Stubb’s in March, drew more Grammy nominations than any other artist a few weeks after ACL Fest. Other acts with major buzz at the fest included teenage pop sensation Billie Eilish, Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard, and Donald Glover’s final appearances as Childish Gambino after injury had forced him to cancel in 2018.
READ MORE: ACL Fest highlights include Lizzo and lots more
As always, Austinites had several chances to catch No. 1 citizen Willie Nelson. Although he decided to forgo his year-end shows at ACL Live for the first time in eight years, Willie once again hosted the annual Luck Reunion at his ranch in Spicewood and brought his storied Fourth of July Picnic back to Circuit of the Americas for the fifth straight year. And the hits just kept on coming: A decade that featured a dozen Nelson albums wrapped up with the June release of "Ride Me Back Home," its title track earning Nelson his 52nd Grammy nomination. (He’s won nine.)
It was a banner year for Austin records across the board. Beyond Clark, Black Pumas and Nelson, Grammy voters also nominated new albums from singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, blues guitar great Jimmie Vaughan, choral group Conspirare and part-time Austinite Delbert McClinton. And while Lil Nas X isn’t from Austin, his multiple-Grammy-nominated "Old Town Road" ran through our city. The young rapper used BeatStars.com, an Austin-based online platform that connects songwriters and producers, to lease the beat for his megahit from Netherlands-based producer Little Kio for $30. After the country/rap crossover track became the ubiquitous anthem of summer 2019, the artists renegotiated their contract; both formerly unknown acts went on to sign high-dollar label deals.
Other locals making waves with 2019 releases included Grupo Fantasma, Robert Ellis, Midland, Jackie Venson, Fastball, Missio, Bill Callahan, Shinyribs, Hayes Carll, Melat, Bayonne, Los Coast, Little Mazarn, Charley Crockett, Quin NFN, Golden Dawn Arkestra, the Deer, Mike & the Moonpies, and Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis. Two of Austin’s best-known acts issued retrospective projects: Spoon’s "Everything Hits at Once" was a best-of collection, while Shawn Colvin marked the 30th anniversary of her Grammy-winning debut "Steady On" by recording solo acoustic versions of its songs.
Seeking solutions on Red River Street
Over the past several years, business owners in the Red River Cultural District have been working cooperatively to protect their scene, and they have begun to recognize their collective power as a political force. Their efforts became more urgent over the summer as the area was roiled by what Stubb’s general manager Ryan Garrett, who has worked at the venue since 2001, called "a very unprecedented and very dangerous stretch of violence."
After three shootings and a stabbing in two weeks in late July, Cody Cowan, executive director of the cultural district’s merchants association, called an emergency forum. With less than 12 hours notice, Mayor Steve Adler, Council Member Kathie Tovo (whose District 9 includes downtown), Police Chief Brian Manley, assistant chief Justin Newsom, and 75 business and community leaders from the Red River area convened at Stubb’s.
READ MORE: Can the Red River Cultural District save itself?
In the aftermath of the meeting, the police chief redrew patrol maps, allocating more forces to the downtown corridor. The city also moved forward with plans to close off an alley leading from Red River to Waller Creek that club owners said they believed was an epicenter of criminal activity. District club owners had already been planning to host Safer Venues Fest, a single-day event centered on preventing harassment inside the clubs and highlighting a new training program designed to help venue staff combat predatory behavior. They broadened the scope of the event to address safety issues inside and outside of the venues.
As changes to Austin ordinances led to large numbers of people experiencing homelessness camping in and around the district, bar owners worked to become closer partners with the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. During the height of the summer’s heat wave, Stubb’s employees walked the block handing out frozen water bottles.
City funding for Austin music
On a metro level, the biggest victory of 2019 for the Austin music scene was the creation of a dedicated Live Music Fund that will funnel tourism tax dollars into the local music community for the first time. The money, which comes from a recently approved increase in hotel taxes tied to an expansion of the Convention Center, will amount to roughly $3.6 million annually.
"I think this is a really special moment here," Mayor Steve Adler said after City Council voted unanimously to approve the measure at a September meeting. "I think this reflects who we are as a city. … We will not remain the Live Music Capital of the World if we do not support live music." The fund’s future was secured in November when Austin voters defeated Proposition B, which would have hampered plans to expand the Convention Center. Many music community advocates campaigned against the proposition.
The city began collecting money for the fund Sept. 30. In mid-December, the city music office hosted a forum that music and entertainment division manager Erica Shamaly described as "the very first step in a process" to set up guidelines and criteria so artists and businesses can apply to receive grants from the fund. A Live Music Fund Working Group that includes members of the Austin Music Commission and representatives of Austin’s music community will assist in the process. The city has released an online survey for all music industry stakeholders who would like to share opinions on how the money should be allocated.
In December, after a year of discussion and public forums, the Joint Music and Arts Commission Creative Space Bond Working Group released recommendations on how to spend a $12 million bond that was earmarked for creative spaces in the 2018 election. The group recommends the money be used to acquire, build, improve or repurpose a facility or facilities that could be used by a variety of creative arts groups. Recommended amenities for the facility include flexible rehearsal spaces, a performance venue with a capacity of at least 50 seats, an art gallery and educational spaces.
The group also recommends that the project should specifically address historic inequity in Austin’s creative communities. They envision a city-owned property managed by an outside partner, stipulating that at least 33% of the management’s leadership and staff should include people from underserved/marginalized groups or communities of color. They also believe the project should offer free or significantly reduced-rate creative space to underserved and marginalized individuals and groups. The recommendations were approved by the Arts Commission at their Dec. 9 meeting and will be taken up at the next Music Commission meeting Jan. 6.
As the club scene turns
The biggest shakeup in Austin’s indie scene this year came in late May, when club owner Richard Lynn abruptly sold garage-rock haven Beerland to an unnamed buyer. After news of the sale was made public, an anonymous Facebook post attributed to employees of the club stated that employees had been dealing with bounced paychecks since South by Southwest and working on "the vague promise that we’ll get paid for our labor." In the dust-up surrounding the club’s closure, the sale fell through.
In October, a new ownership team including Ryan Garrett from Stubb’s announced plans to reopen the club. The venue will still be called Beerland and will host live music on some nights, but early interior shots Garrett has posted to social media suggest the club will trade its dive-bar ambiance for a more upscale veneer.
In August, Stephen Sternschein’s Heard Entertainment group purchased Empire Control Room, helping to secure the venue’s long-term future on East Seventh Street. The club’s adjacent outdoor venue, Empire Garage, already was owned by a Heard Entertainment partner. Heard also owns Sixth Street venue the Parish, which the group bought on eBay in January 2018.
The Hard Luck Lounge, an East Austin watering hole that hosted live music a few nights a month, closed its doors in late November. Far South Austin, meanwhile, continues to expand its live music presence, with associates of longtime East Sixth Street hotbed Hotel Vegas bringing their booking expertise to the new Far Out Lounge & Stage on South Congress near Slaughter Lane.
The Oltorf location of rehearsal space Music Lab closed its doors in late May; its St. Elmo location remains open.
The rest of the fests
While ACL Fest continued to focus on some of pop music’s biggest names, South by Southwest once again traded the high-wattage star power that defined the festival five years ago for an emphasis on emerging artists. Beyond those two spring and fall behemoths, other niche festivals in the area had their ups and downs.
In January, Guadalupe County officials denied a permit for Float Fest to expand at the New Braunfels site where it began. Festival organizers then decided to move the summer event to a private ranch in Gonzales, a site that they said was three times larger than the old space and would give the event room to grow. The festival was canceled on June 21, with organizers citing "several recent roadblocks outside of our control" and "an effort to do right by our fans." In December, organizers announced plans to relaunch the festival at the new site in Gonzales in July 2020.
April brought the highest-profile bookings yet to Old Settler’s Music Festival, which had moved to a new site near Lockhart in 2018. Headliners Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell arrived fresh off multi-Grammy wins for their most recent records. In November, psychedelic music festival Levitation enjoyed another successful year with shows at Red River Cultural District clubs. And Margin Walker Presents hosted a jubilant celebration of Latinx music with Eso Es in August.
Hip-hop music festival Jmblya was canceled in May after severe weather the night before the event damaged the festival grounds. And after a sharp decrease in funding from the city, Riders Against the Storm decided to cancel their annual day of hip-hop and healing, RAS Day.
Erickson and Johnston were the most prominent Austin music figures who died in 2019, but the community endured other significant losses as well.
Steven Galindo, better-known to Austin hip-hop and R&B fans as DJ Southpaw, died in May at 47. The Austin hip-hop pioneer who coined the term ATX had been struggling with health issues for some time and was on the waitlist for a heart and kidney transplant.
Henry "Blues Boy" Hubbard, an influential figure in Austin blues music since the 1950s, died in November at age 85. Initially a fixture at East Austin spots such as Victory Grill and Charlie’s Playhouse, Hubbard was among the musicians who bridged the gap between East Austin and downtown venues with gigs at the original Antone’s in the 1970s.
Longtime Austin bassist Pat Whitefield died in August at age 72. An early member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Whitefield also had played in 1960s rock-pop outfit the Sweetarts and more recently was an anchor of the Little Elmore Reed Blues Band’s Monday night residency at the King Bee Lounge.
And Richard Mullen, a studio engineer and producer who worked with major local figures including Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson, died in September at age 66.