My family and I went to Luckenbach, TX for a day trip last Sunday. Though I hadn't been in years, I remembered it right away. Well not right away. We passed the turnoff at first, realized our mistake, circled back and parked.
I don’t know the whole history of Luckenbach. I need to research this. All I know is the Willie and Waylon song about going to Luckenbach to “get back to the basics of love” and that it is a place where, as the song goes, “ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain.” I’ve loved that song for a long time, and I saw Willie play there on the 4th of July when I was still in college, so in my head, this was a magical Texas place. It is a magical Texas place.
But it’s also a sort of Disneyland. It’s a tourist trap, as they call it. There’s a gift shop. There’s a stand selling kind of okay but not delicious overpriced food. There’s a small house with a front porch with a sign that says “HOWDY” with a surly old cowboy selling cowboy hats. There’s a sign where people take the iconic Luckenbach photo with the oval blue logo and the TXBOB vanity plate.
But it’s no less genuine, no less real of a music venue or a place for musicians and music lovers to feel at home, to get lost in an afternoon. This duality: actual magical musical place + tourist trap made me think of other music venues I've loved.
The Backyard in Bee Caves, TX has been dead to me since I went to a Shins concert there in 2007 and realized that this once beloved venue now had a great view of the Best Buy parking lot. And now I think it's actually dead (not just to me) and is being repurposed as a luxury multi-purpose facility? But in 2003 I saw two great concerts back to back there: Willie Nelson in March, and Bob Dylan in April. Both were transcendent with great set lists and even better crowd energy.
This brings to mind another venue, one that's been on my list for a while and that I finally got to visit last month: the Fillmore in San Francisco.
The first thing you need to know about the Fillmore is that it’s easy to pass up on the street. Only the fact that there are door guys obviously ready to paw through your bag to make sure you’re not carrying a firearm tips you off that you may be just about to pass a concert venue.
Then you walk in and it’s all red carpet and red velvet and dim lighting. As you walk up the stairs with brass railings to the level where the stage is, immediately you notice that every square inch of space is covered in concert posters designed by artists for every show that's ever gone down at the Fillmore. The posters, in and of themselves, are art. They’re beautiful. You've entered a concert venue + music museum.
That’s what the best live music venues have in common, I guess—the ephemera and the energy. The history. Musicians who play in these venues know this.
What I remember about seeing the Dustbowl Revival at the Fillmore last month, even before the actual concert, was the lead up to the event. The band was just so giddy about playing that venue. There was a lot of social media build-up. It’s a moment for musicians, playing at the Fillmore at last.
As we were leaving Luckenbach on Sunday, I asked my husband, “Is Luckenbach even an actual place? Like is it a legit tiny town with music? Or is it just land someone bought and turned into a Texas music theme park?” I still don’t know the answer. I could Google it, I know. I do know there is a guitar pickers' circle there on Sunday afternoons at 5:00, and it's a place where people find their musical community. They jam. They collaborate.
I guess we try to draw a spectrum with opposite ends too often, to categorize everything a bit too much. Like on one end there is a label that says “authentic” and on the opposite end there is a label that says “for tourists.”
But the real truth of it is, there is no chicken or egg to identify here. Luckenbach is a tourist attraction because Willie and Waylon sang about it, but also the reason Willie and Waylon sang about it is that it’ s a magical place.
And when you take that Hill Country drive to get there, when you ride up and down those rolling hills that reward you with panoramic views, you do feel like you’re getting back to the basics in a way, that there is a stripping down, that you’re getting a vacation from all the noise for the day.