A large portion of Austin's early musical heritage began in the German Beer Gardens and Halls in the late 1800s, places such as Scholz's Garden and Hall (the hall later to become Saengurrunde Hall) and further up the road at Dessau Hall. Dessau Hall peaked in the 1940s and 1950s with acts as diverse as Glenn Miller, Hank Williams, and Elvis Presley. Other major venues for country music included Big Gil's on South Congress and The Skyline on North Lamar. Local singer/yodeler Kenneth Threadgill opened Threadgill's in 1933 on North Lamar, a venue that later hosted Folk/Country jams where Janis Joplin participated in her early days. On the African American East Side of town other music venues such as the Victory Grill, Charlie's Playhouse, Big Mary's, Ernie's Chicken Shack, and Doris Miller Auditorium featured local and touring acts. These destinations, which were part of the "chitlin circuit" featuring big bands, jazz and blues, became famous for later hosting musical legends including Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Ike Turner and Tina Turner.
In 1964, the Broken Spoke, opened featuring country acts such as Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and the young Willie Nelson. The late-1960s and 1970s saw the country music popularized by Willie Nelson and others being joined by a host of other music brought by the more liberal inhabitants, who migrated to Austin during these two decades. Specifically, Roky Erickson and his 13th Floor Elevators helped bring in this psychedelic era.
Austin was home to the Vulcan Gas Company that featured headliners such as the 13th Floor Elevators, (Johnny and Edgar) Winter brothers, and Shiva's Headband. The Vulcan morphed into the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1970 and for more than ten years featured music of all genres, from Bruce Springsteen toBette Midler, as well as local ballet, blues and jazz. The artwork from this establishment was a part of the Austin scene and the Armadillo became the Austin city animal. Songs such as Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues" (which includes in the chorus "I want to go home with the armadillo") made this a staple of Austin. The artist who began the Armadillo logo was Jim Franklin, who is still working today.
In the following years, Austin gained a reputation as a place where struggling musicians could launch their careers in front of receptive audiences, at informal live venues. A major influence during this time wasClifford Antone and the namesake blues club he founded in 1975, at the age of 25. Antone's located on Austin's 6th Street fostered the careers of a number of musicians, including Stevie Ray Vaughan. Liberty Lunch was a live-music venue in Austin and during its heyday in the late 1970s and 1980s featured all kinds of music, including reggae and ska, punk, indie, country and rock. The venue was forced to close to make way for Austin's downtown redevelopment rampage in the late 1990s. Since then, Liberty Lunch has attained a (partly deserved) legendary status in the history of Austin music. Now-defunct Armadillo World Headquarters has attained a similar status.
The punk/new wave era in Austin began in earnest in 1978. The Club Foot played an important role in hosting many of the local punk/new wave acts. The city's first two rock/new wave bands, the Skunks and the Violators, made their debut at a University-area club called Raul's in February. The explosive show by the Sex Pistols in San Antonio the previous month helped build toward an excited reception for local purveyors of the style. The Skunks' lineup consisted of Jesse Sublett on bass and vocals, Eddie Munoz on guitar and Bill Blackmon on drums. The Violators featured Kathy Valentine (later of the Go-Go's), Carla Olson (later of the Textones), Marilyn Dean and Sublett on bass. The Violators were short-lived, as all the members except for Sublett moved to LA the following year. Margaret Moser, of the Austin Chronicle, later wrote that "The Skunks put Austin on the rock n' roll map." Another influential band that led the punk scene in Austin was the Big Boys.
Austin became one of the important stops on every tour of important punk/new wave acts. Many of these bands, such as the Police, Joe Jackson, Blondie and Talking Heads, played at the Armadillo. A number of them, including the Clash, Elvis Costello and Blondie, would make appearances at gigs by the Skunks and take the opportunity to jam with the band.
The 1980s and 1990s also helped shape Austin's music scene.Waterloo Records, which has been voted the best independent record store in the country and hosts live in-store shows, first opened in 1982. Austinite Stevie Ray Vaughan won a Grammy in 1990 for best contemporary blues album. After tragically dying in a helicopter crash, he was memorialized with a statue on the shores of Austin's Lady Bird Lake. Additionally in 1991 , Austin city leaders named Austin, "The Live Music Capital of the World", because of the number of live music venues.
Visitors and Austinites alike may notice the 10-foot guitars standing on the sides of the city's streets. In 2006, Gibson Guitar brought Guitar Town to Austin, placing 35 of these giant guitars around the city.
The Austin Music Foundation is one of several Austin groups that help independent artists further their music careers. Assisting musicians with medical needs are the Simms Foundation and Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM). Helping to promote the $1 billion music industry in the city is the Austin Music Office. A department of the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Austin Music Office offers creative, personalized assistance in booking live music, discounted Austin Compilation CDs and mini-guides to the city's live music scene, assistance with utilization of live music venues for off-site events, and guidance with local music attractions and creation of music tours.
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