Toronto Star, Travel Section
LUCKENBACH, TEXAS–Grab a beer. Stretch out under a shady tree and take it easy. Grab another beer. Listen to the music and forget your cares.
Forget your cares ... people have been coming to this little hole in the wall about 80 kilometres outside of Austin to do just that for about 30 years now.
At first glance, there's not much here: a ramshackle old dance hall, a post office/general store/saloon, a stand of trees alongside a rutted dirt road. Oh, and an inexplicable sense of calm.
"Something happens to people when they come here," says Big Bo Kern, who grew up hanging around Luckenbach and now works in the store. "People find they can finally relax. In an age when we can text-message anybody on this planet, you're allowed to forget that for the short time that you're here and just enjoy the life under the oak trees."
The whole thing began with Hondo Crouch. A free-spirited idealist, he took what was a hundred-year-old German settlement, which by the late 1960s had become a neglected ghost town, and turned it into a place where people could relax and have a good time.
"The Luckenbach spirit begins and ends with Hondo Crouch," Kern says. "He had more imagination than any two people put together and he was one of the most `real' people this planet has ever seen." Crouch was an athlete, rancher, writer, philosopher and folklorist who bought the town in 1970 for $30,000 – local legend says he wanted it so he'd have a place to stop for a beer when driving between a couple of his properties.
Before you know it, he was organizing dances and other off-beat celebrations.
"We had the women's chili cookoff, which was a big thing because back then Texas chili cookoffs were only for men," recalls Kern. "We have the mud dauber (wasp) festival, which happens on the same day that the swallows return to Capistrano ... we have the Hug-In around Valentine's Day and that's a fabulous thing."
People started to take notice – some pretty famous people.
Country music legend Waylon Jennings wrote a song about coming here to escape the rat race of city life, and Texas hero Willie Nelson held a couple of his Fourth of July picnics here.
That transformed Luckenbach from a bundle of run-down shacks into a living metaphor for individual freedom and peace of mind.
Sunday afternoons are the best time to drop by. You never know who you might run across: grandmothers doing needlepoint under the trees; men pitching horseshoes; bikers pulling in for a cool one after riding through the Texas hill country; lots of folks in Western gear carrying guitars or fiddles; and, of course, an assortment of tourists trying to catch the spirit or just satisfy their curiosity.
"We heard about this place and decided to stop in," says Giuseppe Volpe.
He and his wife Miranda are from Rome and they're driving across America from New York to California.
"We were never into country music before, but now we are. And the best thing is, I get to wear the hat," he says, proudly flicking the brim of his brand-new country outlaw-style cowboy hat.
I grab a beer and wander over to a big oak tree behind the general store, scattering stray chickens as I go. People are lounging around, enjoying the cool respite from the Texas heat, as well as some big mounds of Texas barbecue, served up at the Luckenbach "feed lot."
Several men and women are sitting there, playing guitars and singing songs about loneliness, happiness and how to avoid one and find the other.
They call it the "pickin' circle" and anybody with a guitar and a song in their hearts is welcome to join in. Talent is appreciated, but not required.
"Some of the people when they first come here, they cannot play guitar," says Kern. "They just pick one up ... and the feeling takes over. It's just a treat."
It's pretty busy, and you can't help but wonder if Luckenbach has become a victim of its own success. Has Luckenbach the tourist haunt displaced Luckenbach the hideout?
Kern admits that Luckenbach has changed as its popularity has grown, but not in a negative way.
He sees it as a chance for people from all over the world to experience the same soul-soothing feeling that Texans have known about for so long.
And he's sure that its founder, who died in 1976, wouldn't have minded at all.
"Naw, Hondo would have loved this," says Kern. "Luckenbach still has a really free, easygoing spirit and you can feel it the moment you come here.
"We get people from L.A. and they're used to snapping their fingers and getting what they want. And when they get here, they go on Luckenbach time. They settle down, relax, have a cold beer and listen to some good country music. It's fabulous, this is heaven.
"And I believe the spirit will always overcome, as long as there are good people here to protect it."
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