Texas Music Fuels Renaissance for Legendary Luckenbach
San Antonio Express-News
LUCKENBACH — The bachelorette party appeared out of place.
There was no disco music, no flashing lights and not a Speedo-clad, gyrating hunk for miles. The only thing bare-naked, in fact, was the trampled soil under the towering canopy of live oaks.
Still, the young women's laughter echoed between the narrow banks of toe-deep South Grape Creek on one side and a jumble of weather-etched buildings on the other.
"We didn't want your typical girls' night out," said bride-to-be KylaLawrenceofNew Braunfels. They suredidn't get it, either, friend Courtney Norris said with another burst of laughter.
"I always thought Luckenbach was a real town," the Texas State University student said."Where's the McDonald's? There's nothing here!" That, as the revelers were discovering, is the point. Less is more in Luckenbach.
And a lot more less is on the way in the place Waylon Jennings yearned for in the 1977 hit "Luckenbach Texas," which launched the chunk of Hill Country cedar and charm into an international orbit.
Ironically, the song about escape from the rat race to the rustic, laid-back fairyland of musicand mirth almost smothered it in a swarm of popularity. Everyone wanted a piece of Luckenbach. Some stole souvenirs; others pillaged its magic. The music, while always present, declined.
Over the next decade, tourists from around the globe threatened to aid in its over-commercialization while Bandito motorcycle gang members made it a hangout.
The atmosphere, though still cool, drew more of a rough and rowdy crowd. It wasn't the perfect place to take the family on a Sunday afternoon.
Today Luckenbach is back to those basics in Jennings' hit, which was inspired by a cast of characters assembled by Hondo Crouch, a cloning of Will Rogers, Peter Pan and a white-haired country sage. The rancher/humorist bought Luckenbach, founded in 1849 as a trading post for Comanches and German settlers, in 1971 and created a make-believe town, proclaiming himself mayor, appointing ambassadors to foreign countries and unfolding a red carpet to frolic.
The town's 10 acres and five buildings revolve around the 1890s dance hall and the combination bar, general store and U.S. Post Office, which closed just before Crouch and two partners bought the property.
"In the 1970s, the relationship my grandfather had with Jerry Jeff Walker and Gary P. Nunn made Luckenbach the hub of the music scene outside of Austin," said Kit Patterson, 32, the president of the company that owns Luckenbach. He's also known as the "jefe."
"While there's this Texas Music scene happening all around, next door to us there's a Hill Country music scene going on in Fredericksburg and Marble Falls with that same grassroots, honest and true singer-songwriter approach," Patterson said. "We like to think that it's like it was in the '70s again."
To that end, formal music events featuring artists including Pat Green, Asleep at the Wheel and Gary P. Nunn are planned five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, along with singer-songwriter evenings, invitational jams and impromptu happenings. Stars such as folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliott or Cory Morrow might drop by and mix it up with regulars Chris Wall, Mike Blakely, John Arthur Martinez, Geronimo Treviño III, Freddie Krc, Ben Beckendorf and John Greenberg.
"It's a special place; you never know who'll you'll run into," said Treviño, who arrived unannounced at one of Nunn's Saturday night dances. "You can discover a talented guitar player or a bunch of songwriters besides the guys who were hired to play.
"Lots of Sundays I just show up and play, and there'll be a fiddle player and a guy with a standup bass and you just join them."
Informal stuff, such as a couple of singing bartenders and anyone with a guitar and a song, fills in on Mondays and Tuesdays — and just about any other time, for that matter.
"We want people to know that, whenever they drop in at Luckenbach, there'll be something going on," said Neal Brown, a music veteran dating back to the town's heyday who took over as "manager of oversight," running the day-to-day operations as well as the booking, going on three years ago.
"We're kicking it up a notch, part by design, part by divine intervention," Brown said. "(Singer/songwriter) Thomas Michael Riley refers to it as the Luckenbach Renaissance.
"Just as important as the well-known artist packing the dance hall is the kid from Iowa who always wanted to play one song in front of a crowd at Luckenbach. There's a lot of nurturing going on here among the musicians.
"It's more about the scene than any one person."
On a recent Thursday, the McKay Brothers were scheduled for the evening. They were playing under the oaks outside the bar when up came country-fried songwriter Riley and Kevin Higgins and Barbara Maltese of the Cosmic Dust Devils, who proclaim their music as "farm-to-market rock." A song swap unfolded. Some they had been singing for years; others were making their public debut.
After dark, they moved into the tiny bar, where the McKays — Noel and Hollin — sang dramatic tales of life and love in English and Spanish, Maltese belted out vocals with the power of Janis Joplin, and Higgins presented humorous tales of drunks and miscreants.
When Riley sang his song "Perfectly Normal," covered by Gary P. Nunn and a current top 10 hit on the Texas Music Chart, a West Texas visitor was surprised to learn he was hearing one of his favorite radio tunes straight from the artist who wrote it.
"This place is devoid of egos, and nobody expects anything more than a good song from the guy next to him," Higgins said later. "Lots of musical energy just flows here."
It's easy to see why.
The five artists were playing and interacting with no more than 20 people in the intimate corner of a building from the early 1900s. White-tailed buck mounts, hung about the same time, flaunt tattered grins that barely contain a century of secrets.
Coating the rafters — as well as everything else above the height of a 10-gallon hat — are mud-dauber nests, ancient cobwebs and a layer of dust that begs for carbon dating. As for the walls, every spare inch hides beneath photos and playbills of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and scores of others, and objects d'weird that defy description.
By the bar, a sign reads, "If you need credit, you don't need a beer, you need a job."
Above the door to the general store is a battered length of antique-gray barn wood inscribed, "Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach."
Like most of the town's mystique, its motto was the creation of Hondo Crouch, who died at age 60 in 1976, before the Jennings song was released.
Although Crouch left the town much like it was when he bought it — a tiny hub for some 200 families in the Luckenbach community, with the general store stocked with Argo Gloss Starch, Boraxo, pickling spice and Diaper White Bleach — he added a self-deprecating, lighthearted air that bursts highfalutin bubbles.
That charisma exists to this day.
Hondo Crouch is still there, too.
"Hondo is part of this place, these walls," said Patterson, the son of Becky Crouch Patterson, Crouch's oldest daughter.
"He was the character on the front porch whittling, chewing tobacco and singing Mexican and cowboy songs," said Patterson, who likens his role to a caretaker of a public trust.
"Hondo used to say this store is like an antique rocker. Sit in it, enjoy it but don't molest it. It's a fragile place."
About the only things that have changed are inside the "egg house," the building where farmers used to sell hens' eggs for market, which was converted to an office. It houses five networked computers.
On one side of the building is a 20-foot cedar pole with a mailbox nailed to the top. Crouch always said it was for airmail.
On the other side is a new, 65-foot tower that serves the computers as a high-speed, wireless Internet connection.
A mailbox sits atop that tower, too.
"That's how we get our e-mails," said Brown, who quit a career as a telecommunications engineering consultant overseeing multimillion-dollar contracts around the world to work at Luckenbach, his favorite hangout since he first saw the place in the late 1980s.
Luckenbach's master plan revolves around its old tire swing.
"We're hoping this year to upgrade from the 1937 tire to a 1952 tire," said Patterson, a graduate of San Antonio's Churchill High School and the University of Texas at Austin who appraised oil and gas equipment before returning to his roots. "My goal is to keep intact what my grandfather left here for folks to enjoy.
"Our culture has become disconnected with reality, and people try to reconnect with what's real. What you find when you come to Luckenbach is real people, real friends and real music. What little there is here at Luckenbach is as real as it gets.
"Whether people can put their finger on it or not, Luckenbach is one of the few places where you can escape to reality."
"I've been here a lot of times over the years, and it's still got that magic," said Nunn, whose first visit to Luckenbach was with Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band in 1973, when Walker recorded the live album "Viva Terlingua."
The event helped launch the Outlaw Country music movement with an album of songs that included Walker's "Sangria Wine," Guy Clark's "Desperados Waiting for a Train," Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," and Nunn's "London Homesick Blues," which still is the unofficial anthem of Texas.
"The vibe was just magic," said Nunn, who recently celebrated the release of his latest album, "Something for the Trail," in the dance hall.
"It was like entering a Texas fairyland, with the rustic atmosphere and, of course, Hondo," he said.
Nunn was so impressed he named his first son, Lukin, now 27, after Luckenbach.
"I wanted to call him Luckenbach, but since we had a friend, attorney Lukin Gilliland Jr. of San Antonio, we decided to spell it like that," Nunn said. "But Hondo always said we'd named him Luckenbach."
While playing there through the 1980s and 1990s, Nunn experienced the changes brought by Crouch's death and the town's fame.
Its image as a music mecca started returning in the 1990s when Crouch's family began running the business and brought in notable events such as a series of Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnics.
"It's come around full circle," Nunn said. "They've worked real hard on it the past several years to make it what it was — and what it is."
Marge B. Mueller, 70, can attest to that.
Her lineage dates back to a circuit preacher who came from Germany in the mid 1800s. She's related to Albert Luckenbach, the town's namesake, as well as the Engels, who sold the place to Crouch.
She's worked there as a bartender since 1972, except for a total of about seven years, and says the atmosphere today — as well as the music — is better than ever.
"Sheriff Marge," as she was dubbed by Crouch, wears earrings made of rattlesnake rattles and never met a stranger. She's the oma, or grandmother, of the college crowd and, because she speaks German, the instant best friend of many visitors from Europe.
"I've never arrested anyone, but I've reprimanded quite a few, especially for bad language," Mueller said. "I'm not a legal sheriff, but I get a lot of respect just for the title."
She's the only one still there from the Crouch period. She almost lost her fingers to frostbite in the 1970s during the Luckenbach World's Fair, when 23,000 people showed up over two days and she dug out iced beer for 22 hours.
"The doctor said another hour or two and I would have lost my fingertips," she said.
Judge Mike Haley is another of Luckenbach's "appointed officials."
While the singing bartender is not a real judge, he became an ordained minister because of all the requests for weddings in Luckenbach. He performed about a dozen in the last year, including an impromptu one a few weeks back where the bride held a bouquet of straw from a hay bale and the best man and the bridesmaid were strangers who volunteered.
"My pulpit is the bar, and I hold court and everything — just like Roy Bean," Haley said.
"I had a woman come by the other day and she said, 'Are you Judge Mike Haley? I'd like you to marry my daughter.'
"I told her, well, I haven't met her yet, but I'm sure she'll be all right. Bring her by and let me see her, and maybe I will."
The spirit of Crouch lives on in all of those who work there, as if they're all part of a big family, and every visitor is a long-lost friend, Haley said. He even hates to charge people for the beer.
"It's not like anything we do is rehearsed, like at a dude ranch or Joe's Crab Shack, where the waiters sing rehearsed birthday songs or something," Haley said.
"Here it just naturally comes out. People sense that, and it makes them want to stay. It's not so commercialized that people feel uncomfortable."
Pat Green recalls many great moments at Luckenbach, such as the first big shows he played there as part of Willie Nelson's Picnic and a Jerry Jeff Walker festival in the 1990s.
But the best was his wedding at Luckenbach to Kori Kellison, inspired by the marriage of their friends, Walker and his wife, Susan, who were married in the bar in the 1970s with Crouch as best man.
Rain forced Green's wedding to move into the dance hall. The sun broke through the clouds just as the minister completed the vows. Rays of sunshine burst through the cracks in the walls and streaked through the dust in the air like a blessing from heaven.
"It was really surreal," Green said. "It was like this ta-dah feeling, and the gasp in the crowd was audible. It was off the chart. I'll always remember that incredible moment."
The couple has returned many times, including their first anniversary, when bricks with their names on them were placed in the sidewalk.
Like the young women at the bachelorette party and many others who discover Luckenbach, Green and his wife instantly developed a special kinship.
"I just feel we're a part of it and it's a part of us," he said. "It's a bigger-than-life thing."