Austin, Texas: Live Music Capital of the World. At least that's what Austin's City Hall claims.
Fiddle player and singer Carrie Rodriguez—who grew up there and moved back a couple of years ago after a stint in Brooklyn—agrees; it's a special place.
"I think in Brooklyn it's virtually impossible to make a living out of just being a local musician," Rodriguez said in an interview with the Source. "It's really tough. I mean, rent is high in Austin, but in Brooklyn it's insane. In Austin there is still a group of musicians who play five nights a week and that's all they do. They aren't making gobs of money but they are surviving. To be able to do that in one city and not tour is really unique."
Though Rodriguez left Austin at 17 to pursue a classical violin education, eventually landing at Berklee School of Music to study fiddle, Austin remained a major influence. Her blend of country twang and Memphis blues reaches out like an old friend going in for a dusty handshake. Her voice is as refreshing as a crisp, cool watermelon on a hot Texas afternoon. The roots of which come from Rodriguez's childhood.
"My earliest music memory there is from a place called the Waterloo Ice House," Rodriguez recalled. "It's not fancy, just a hamburger joint with a small P.A. My mom took me to see Uncle Walt's Band. They were an amazing swing-y, country, jazzy band, and there was this fantastic fiddle player, Champ Hood, with them. I remember sitting on the ground in front of the stage getting my ears blown out looking up at this crazy-looking guy with curly, reddish, afro hair. It was amazing. I hadn't started violin lessons yet, but that had something to do with it."
Austin has a strong reputation as a music city, with random shows in venues happening all over the city and street corners teeming with busking musicians. Of course, Austin also hosts the massive music festival South by Southwest as well as the television concert series "Austin City Limits."
But it is often difficult for a city to promote such a reputation and retain the earnest music scene that made it so unique. In 2010, concerned that commercialization of the music industry and gentrification throughout Austin was squeezing out musicians, local filmmakers produced Echotone, a documentary that presented a modernized version of the city known for producing artists like Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughn. It is a solid film that spells out a cautionary tale for a hip, "it" town.
Rodriguez agrees that the city has changed over the past several years.
"I feel a little bit like an outsider in my hometown," she said. "I'm not really in the know. There are so many new venues, art galleries and restaurants popping up. There are a lot of people moving to town with money. I'm amazed at seeing a Ferrari dealership down the street. My mother lives in a dome house and is an artist. She has a spiral-shaped garden and chickens. That is the environment I was around as a kid. It's so much more cosmopolitan now."
During her time away from Texas (and while Austin was building high-rises and introducing high-end car dealerships), Rodriguez was busy herself, building quite a catalog of collaborative work with the likes of Chip Taylor (brother of the actor Jon Voight) and country singer/guitarist Ben Kyle, as well as releasing several solo albums, most recently, 2013's Give Me All You Got. Her sound, though, never has veered far from the music she was exposed to early on.
"I really think I heard so much great country music as a kid, I almost took it for granted," Rodriguez said. "I didn't realize you couldn't find that everywhere. I went to Oberlin [Conservatory of Music] that first year and I found myself homesick for the music as much as the people. I would listen to Lyle Lovett, sit in my dorm room and play along to the records. It was really that Texas music that made me realize I wasn't doing the right thing by heading into the classical area. It tugged at my heartstrings."
In January the mayor of Austin declared Jan. 17 Carrie Rodriguez Day—an extraordinary homecoming honoring her role in promoting the city as the live music capital of the world.
"It almost sounds better than the actual event at city hall," Rodriguez said.
"The coolest part was they read a proclamation; it was very official. We played them a song and they moved on. I went straight from City Hall to my grandma's condo and gave [the proclamation] to my grandmother. She was so thrilled!"
Austin may have changed a lot in Rodriguez's absence—grown and become more commercial—but it hasn't lost its drive to be a place for music to thrive. According to Rodriguez, whether it is a bar like the Cactus Café, where she just finished recording two live shows, or an old apartment, there are pockets in town where the city she grew up loving still exists.
"I live in this neighborhood called Hyde Park. It's one that hasn't changed," Rodriguez said. "I was lucky enough to find this garage apartment that is kind of rickety. It's almost like you can move the whole house if you stand in the middle and kind of sway. It feels like Austin that I remember."
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26
The Athletic Club of Bend
61615 Athletic Club Dr.
Tickets $38 at Newport Market or at the door