This morning I’m a little irritated because a number of people from my office have been dispatched to my favorite of all places, Austin, Texas, but no one from my team made the cut, so instead of perusing the Austin Chronicle, looking for musicians to check out, I sit sulking in my home/office, looking out the window at the snow that has covered the Kansas plains for two weeks now.
In just a few days, unlike the Kansas plains, the roadsides of central Texas will be flush with blooms of Indian paintbrush and bluebonnets. The memory of this unparalleled display of wildflowers takes me back to March of 2001, when I was working in Austin for a period of time. On a clear and sunny Sunday, I went into the Texas Hill Country with Cliff, my friend and fellow insurance company employee, and we spent the afternoon in Luckenbach.
We drove out of Austin, seventy miles to the west, and we found Luckenbach where it’s been for a century and a half, south of Ranch Road 1376, back in the trees. During the months when the weather is fair, Luckenbach is a favorite destination for beer-drinking music lovers, and on any given weekend the parking area is likely to be full with cars and motorcycles, and such was the case when we arrived.
The status of Luckenbach as a community has never been clear to me. I don’t know if it can rightly be called a town, or if it is more correctly a hamlet or a borough or a village. There are only two buildings of any substance. One is a dance hall that is used for special events. The other was built in the mid-1800’s as a trading post, at a time when its primary customers were the much-feared Comanche Indians. Today it is a gift shop and bar, enclosed by walls of weathered cedar and topped by a roof of rusting tin.
The bar is by far the most popular feature of this second structure. It’s a small room with an iron stove, a handful of barstools, a couple of well-worn tables and chairs, and hardly a square inch of wall or ceiling space not covered by a photograph or a hat or other memento of some kind.
Cliff and I entered by a side door and ordered two bottles of beer from a bartender named Marge, a dour old woman whose face had more creases than the road map in Willie Nelson’s tour bus. Her prickly personality was on full display that Sunday, and to say that she served us doesn’t really do justice to the transaction, because it felt more like she was giving us permission to spend our money on her beer. But the biggest mistake a thirsty man could make in Luckenbach was to find himself on the wrong side of Marge’s temperament, so we checked our pride, kept our comments to ourselves, and gladly gave up our cash.
I sipped on my beer while I tried to take in the overwhelming display of Texas music history and other memorabilia in the room, but it was too much to process. At a table near a window a young troubadour strummed his guitar and sang verses of songs I had never heard before. A fire was burning in the stove, which made the room very warm for March, but Marge liked it that way, so that’s how it was.
We were about to move outside when a middle-aged man stepped up to the bar next to Cliff. He wore a bandana over his sculptured haircut, and his riding leathers were so new and so stiff they hadn’t a wrinkle or a crease anywhere. Cliff looked at the man, then at me, then at the man again. In the end it was more than he could bear. In Cliff’s view of the world, everything that was wrong with the current state of motorcycling was represented in this gentleman, and he felt he had an obligation to call the man out as a dilettante. So he did.
Here it might be helpful to explain a couple of things about Cliff. First, he rides motorcycles himself, in fact he was a motorcycle policeman in his younger days. He is a veteran of many late summer pilgrimages to Sturgis, and he once rode from Kansas to south Texas in the dead of winter. He considers himself to be a genuine member of modern-day motorcycle culture. He is, in his mind, a biker; the real deal. And he has no respect for the thousands orthodontists, lawyers and other professional types who ride only on weekends. It is of no consequence to Cliff that these hobbyists are helpless against the marketing strategies of the Harley-Davidson Corporation
The second thing it is helpful to know about Cliff is that he is an asshole.
The man studied Cliff’s face for a moment, and I waited for him to come back with a stinging rebuke, but instead he turned and walked out the screen door, taking all the tension in the room with him. I quietly applauded him for choosing what I thought was the best of several possible outcomes.
“You’re a prick,” I said, after the man had left.
Cliff, typically economical with his words, said, “Fuck him.”
And that was the end of it. Luckily Marge wasn’t listening. She had a no-tolerance policy against cussing, and she would have banished us both to the outside had she heard us, with little hope of appeal.
As it turned out we were ready to go outside anyway, so we finished our beers and Marge permitted us two more, then we went out the door and walked over to where some musicians were playing. They sat on chairs and wooden crates under the spreading limbs of live oak trees, and they picked guitars and mandolins and sang, each one taking a turn while the others followed along, never missing a beat. I have heard it said that the people who manage Luckenbach these days secretly pay musicians to come play on weekends, hoping to preserve the image that it is still a spontaneous happening, like it was in the glory days when Willie and Waylon and the boys put the place on the map. I hope that’s not the case, but even if it is, it doesn’t diminish the experience.
Cliff and I drank our beers and watched the pickers play, and we watched the people come and go, and we drank more beers, and bye and bye it was time to start back for Austin. I caught one last glimpse of the man in the new motorcycle leathers, and a little part of me hoped he hadn’t let Cliff ruin his day.
In my travels for work I have seen America from coast to coast, and I have come to the sad conclusion there is not much that is unique any more. We have become a nation of chain restaurants and chain stores. But because of its history and the music it has come to be identified with, Luckenbach is a welcome exception, and it is one of the rare, special places on my list of lifelong favorites. On a Sunday in March, under the wide Texas sky, an afternoon in Luckenbach is one that has few equals. It certainly beats snow on the Kansas plains.