Lou Ann Barton: Austin Blues Queen Is Working Her Butt Off
It's 2 p.m. and Austin blues diva Lou Ann Barton is just downing her first cup of coffee of the day. Rocks Off admitted to her he was only on his second.
"We were recording last night, so I'm a little sluggish," says the Fort Worth native in her gravelly voice.
One of the masters of ceremony at the first Austin Music Awards, Barton isn't exactly in the headlines these days, but there was time when she was the absolute reigning monarch of the Austin blues scene. A woman not known for hiding her opinions or thinking before she spoke, she was frequently featured in Michael Corcoran's music gossip column in the Austin Chronicle, where he occasionally tagged her No-Show Lou Ann.
But longtime Austin music columnist and scenester Margaret Moser has written what is probably the definitive article on Austin's white blues hierarchy. In her 1999 Austin Chronicle piece, "The Scene Is Gone But Not Forgotten," she noted, "Lou Ann Barton doesn't have a record deal, and in recent years has been almost invisible in a scene she once ruled, though she's undisputably the Queen of Austin Blues."
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As part of the original Double Trouble lineup, Barton recorded an album with Stevie Ray Vaughan at "Cowboy" Jack Clement's home studio in Nashville in 1978 that has found its way to the public via bootlegs.
Once known as a wild child, Barton stopped drinking and virtually stopped performing in the '90s, but has been more active recently, having just returned from some festival dates in Scandinavia where reviews were highly positive. Barton comes to the Continental Club Saturday night with a band filled with Austin aces including longtime friend/guitarist Derek O'Brien, Bob Dylan alumnus Denny Freeman, played-with-everyone drummer George Rains (Doug Sahm, Jimmie Vaughan) and bassist Scott Nelson.
Rocks Off: Like so many in the Austin blues scene that began in the early '70s, you came up from Fort Worth and had worked the Jacksboro Highway when you were very young.
Lou Ann Barton: Yeah, I always had a pretty good voice and I really just wanted to be a rock and roll singer. I started out singing a little rock with blues, got a little band together. Pretty soon we moved down to Austin, but it was quickly apparent there was more money, more gigs in Fort Worth so we moved back up there for a while.
RO: What was the catalyst for moving back to Austin?
LAB: One night me and Mike Buck went over to Dallas to see Jimmie Vaughan's band the Storm at the Bluebird Club. Jimmie asked us to sit in and he just flippped. He told me he was going to move to Austin and start a new band and he wanted me to come down there and be the singer in it. He even asked me to marry him that night. Of course, he was drunk.
Lou Ann Barton at Fitzgerald's, 1986
RO: So what happened?
LAB: He called me a couple months later and I moved to Austin and we started the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
RO: But you never recorded with them.
LAB: Yeah, I didn't stay in very long. The problem was we had two singers, Kim Wilson and me. But it was really tough in the beginning and there was so little money that they had a better chance of making a living without me. We were a real good band, but it just wasn't going anywhere.
We'd never even been out of Texas. So I said to hell with this, and I went to Stevie [Ray Vaughan] and said let's start a band. I knew he was tired of playing in the Cobras. So we got with W.C. Clark and started Triple Threat Revue.
RO: That timeline is hard to keep straight. You were also in one of the early incarnations of Roomful of Blues.
LAB: Yeah, I moved to Providence, R.I., and worked with them. I wasn't there all that long, six or eight months. Then Jerry Wexler offered me a deal. And I married [Thunderbirds bassist] Keith Ferguson. Which of course did not work out. I thought he'd changed, but men don't change.
RO: Do women change?
LAB [laughs]: Well, I probably haven't. Much.
RO: Triple Threat was one of the earliest bands to start getting a bit of a following around Austin and some recognition beyond Austin as far as the white blues scene went.
LAB: It was a good band and we played a lot of gigs, but we still weren't making any money or getting anywhere. None of the Austin blues bands were. So when everyone else in the band quit, Stevie and I became Double Trouble.
RO: Right about that time you got your first break as a solo artist.
LAB: I'd recorded some songs and sent demo copies around to a bunch of labels and industry people. Jerry Wexler got really excited about it. He knew everybody, so he sent it around to people like Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt. Linda liked it and she's the one who suggested Glenn Frey [of the Eagles] to work on it. So he and Wexler co-produced Old Enough.
RO: Frey doesn't seem like a fit for you.
LAB: He was all right, a likable guy. We got along well.
RO: The record didn't do too well and you left Asylum. Looking back, what are your feelings about that first album?
LAB: It was my first album and I didn't know a lot. I did bring Jimmie in to play on it, but in the end it was a little clean-sounding to me.
Lou Ann Barton with Jimmie Vaughan in Germany
RO: To our ears, you didn't really make a Lou Ann Barton sort of Austin blues record until your third album, Read My Lips, on the Antone's label.
LAB: [laughs] Well, that one was basically cut live in Austin with all my usual Austin people, so that's what it should sound like.
RO: There's a YouTube video of you playing Fitzgerald's in Houston in 1986. The sound quality isn't the greatest, but you were doing "Finger Poppin'" and the band is killing it.
LAB: I've seen that. I think David Grissom was playing with me that night. Oh, god, that outfit I had on. What were we thinking with our clothes in the '80s?
RO: You were occasionally referred to as No-Show Lou Ann. What was that about?
LAB: I missed a few shows. I had a pretty serious drinking problem. But I got a handle on it. I haven't had a drink in 14 years.
RO: Margaret Moser pointed out the famous Rolling Stone photo of you sitting on Muddy Waters' knee at Antone's as an example of the high point of the Austin white blues scene.
LAB: I loved Muddy and the guys in his band. They were always so great to me. But by the '80s, the scene was really over.
RO: So much has changed, the business model, the business itself. How are you doing in this new environment of downloading and file sharing, etc.?
LAB: It's just getting tougher and tougher to keep playing and it's definitely tougher to keep touring. We've been lucky, but we've also just been working our butts off.
10 p.m. Saturday night at the Continental Club, 3700 Main.
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