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How Austin Became "Austin" is a Wild 'n Weird Tale

Chris Layton (left), Tommy Shannon, and Stevie Ray Vaughan—the band known as Double Trouble—dining at Sam’s BBQ.EXPAND
Chris Layton (left), Tommy Shannon, and Stevie Ray Vaughan—the band known as Double Trouble—dining at Sam’s BBQ.
Photo by Watt Casey/Courtesy of Texas A&M University Press

Austin to ATX: The Hippies, Pickers, Slackers & Geeks Who Transformed The Capital of Texas
By Joe Nick Patoski
376 pp.
$32
Texas A&M University Press

First things first: You are reading the identity of the publisher correctly above. That the literary cabal at College Station could (and would) put out a book that not only extols the virtues of the home of their hated rivals – and not a single “Saw ‘em Off!” epithet to be found – is indeed remarkable.

In this entertaining, wide-ranging, and densely-researched book, Patoski – a former 22-year resident of Austin and one of the greatest music/pop culture writers that Texas has ever produced – has indeed delivered on the promise of his title and more, especially on the attraction of the city back in the day. “Austin was loose, easy, and cheap. It was fun,” he opines. And how.

He starts by connecting Austin’s two “Big Bangs.” The first would be in 1838 when Mirabeau Lamar, vice president (and soon to be president) of the Republic of Texas was on a buffalo hunt near the intersection of today’s Congress Ave. and Eighth Street and declared “This should be the seat of the future empire!” (This was over the protests of a certain Sam Houston who preferred another city that was in Patoski’s words: “inhospitable…flat, swampy, and steamy”).

The next was in 1970 when Eddie Wilson, taking a piss outside a nightclub late one night, spotted a vacant building and proclaimed to friends: “This should be a hippie music hall!” Shortly thereafter, Wilson opened the Armadillo World Headquarters as ground zero for Austin’s counter culture and musical growth. And a concert by a guy named Willie Nelson would cement the common ground between the hippies and the rednecks, which would color the culture for decades to come.

Throughout, Patoski details the mavericks and visionaries who have shaped not only Austin for the past 50 years, but how the city is viewed by the rest of the world. They include Terry Lickona (“Austin City Limits”), Richard Linklater and Lee Daniel (Austin Film Society), Louis Black, Nick Barbaro, Roland Swenson, and Louis Jay Meyers (SXSW), Heather Schafer (SXSW Film), and John Mackey (Whole Foods).

With the last, readers will learn a lot about the grocery and organic farming business. And how the annual SXSW Festival grew from a way to spotlight local musicians and unknown bands to a huge, sprawling event with corporate sponsors (and could attract a sitting U.S. President as a keynote speaker!). And now many, many offshoot SXSW conferences and festivals, often based around technology.  

Crowds - many of them likely tourists - watch Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk.
Crowds - many of them likely tourists - watch Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk.
Photo by Will Van Overbeek/Courtesy of Texas A&M University Press

He also details the stories of Austinites who made their mark in film (Robert Rodriguez, Mike Judge), computers/tech (Michael Dell, Heather Brunner), cuisine (Aaron Franklin, C.B. Stubblefield, Cynthia & Lidia Perez, Paul Qui), and general “Keep Austin Weird”-ness (the cross-dressing Leslie, flower salesman Crazy Carl Hickerson, musician/artist Daniel Johnston).

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Patoski credits Texas music journalist and mover/shaker Andy Langer with pinpointing the year 1990 as “brief window where old Austin and new Austin intertwined before high tech, money, and hubris overwhelmed everything.” This reviewer lived in Austin during 1987-91 while attending the University of Texas, and if he knew then what he knew now, would have certainly taken more advantage of what the city had to offer then, and is forever gone or altered

The Houston Press even gets mentioned on page 293 with former music editor/reporter John Nova Lomax’s 2011 “Finding Austin” article (for which he interviewed Patoski). In it, Lomax opined that the city was “over” and hype had overtaken much of what was true and genuine and charming about Austin. And that it perhaps had not lived up to its heralded potential.

Austin may be trading on its storied, gloried past, but it also needs those tourist dollars. Still, how many players in the self-described “Live Music Capital of the World” can even make a living plying that trade? Fewer and fewer, it seems. And as Patoski writes, priced-out real estate, huge constructions projects, and massive traffic have also been byproducts of Austin’s explosion.

The book does have one fault in that Patoski crams in so much information and so many names, places, and businesses, that sometimes the text reads like a Wikipedia entry on the city. But overall, Austin to ATX is both a love letter and a wake-up call to the city that – in the words of one-time cartoon Texas gubernatorial candidate Oat Willie said – continues to evolve “onward through the fog.”

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