The Austin Music Scene: Through the Lens of Burton Wilson, 1965-1994
When The Austin Music Scene landed on my desk I called Burton Wilson and arranged to have breakfast. Soon, I was sharing coffee and biscuits with him at Threadgill’s, one of his favorite haunts. Burton is a quiet man in his eighties. His squared-off, dark, horn-rimmed glasses and plaid shirt give him the relaxed look of a successful architect. Burton is such a regular at Threadgill’s that he helps himself to coffee at the counter with little notice from the waiters. This reassuring, non-aggressive, non-invasive manner is his artistic secret. It is how he has been able to photograph the world’s best musicians in their intimate moments—he never gets in the way.
Burton photographed the blossoming Austin scene of the 1960s and early 1970s, a seminal period which might yet prove to be as historic as the birth of jazz in Storyville, or the appearance of the Follies at the Moulin Rouge. It was music made at the crest of a tidal wave of political and cultural revolution. Looking back at the famous Armadillo World Headquarters and the almost-famous Vulcan Gas Company, it’s easy to see now that something important was going on. Yet it’s remarkable how few photos of that period exist. At the time people were so busy doing it that they didn’t bother to record what they were doing. Burton Wilson’s new book of photographs and accompanying text is the defining document of the era.
These days everyone remembers the Armadillo, but when it was still around it had to struggle to stay in business. If the multitudes who now claim to have been there are to be believed, Austin’s population would have been the size of Tokyo. But that’s always the case: When something historical takes place, afterward almost everyone claims to have been part of the action, even if the phenomenon was considered extreme in its day. Ever notice how few people denigrate Martin Luther King, Jr. today? Yet during the Selma marches he was one of the least popular men in white Texas. In a strange way the Armadillo was equally radical. There, hippies grooved to the sounds of the great black bluesmen. But in that era, in a dozen country-and-western joints in Austin, those same black bluesman couldn’t get in the door. The Armadillo’s musical style was everything from acid rock to Willie’s progressive country. The only requirement? That it be good. And good for dancing. For several hundred years Anglo culture had done “steps” to music. On the Armadillo dance floor there were no steps. Just shake your booty in some free-form psychedelic improvisation. At the Armadillo the rigidity of Western culture was breaking down in a wave of marijuana smoke and new ideas.
Burton Wilson explains his decision to document the music this way: “I was a jazz buff. I thought it was America’s contribution to world culture. And I owned a big collection of old 78s with recording by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sleepy John Estes and many others. I was certain that rock was going to be important so I went down to the Armadillo and talked with Eddie Wilson. I promised not to get in the way and he said he was happy I was going to document the music.” (Eddie Wilson, formerly the impresario of the Armadillo, now displays many of Burton’s photographs at his two Threadgill’s restaurant locations.) Burton, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, had the intellectual vision to realize something important was taking place. He also attended the University of Texas, where he studied with famous Depression-era photographer Russell Lee. “I learned from Russell Lee how to stay out of people’s way and make them comfortable,” Burton says. “I learned not to be part of the scene. It worked for me, but I can tell you: The laid-back approach is not going to make you famous.” Burton also learned how to not make his subjects self-conscious. “Lee was a big guy with big hands. His camera wasn’t obvious. I rigged up a small tripod that I hooked in my belt. It was dark so I needed to keep the camera steady. Everyone got used to me. I didn’t shoot lots of pictures, my philosophy was to make each shot an articulate shot.” And then after a pause Burton added, “And most important is to respect the people you photograph.”
Throughout his book you can see that respect reflected in the ease the performers felt while Burton worked. There’s Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw lying on a cot, half-looped, saluting you with a cup of who-knows-what. There’s Big Joe Williams at the Victory Grill, a half-finished plate of barbecue sausage in front of him, smoke curling from his cigarette, and a large 7-UP nearby to quench the fire of the hot sauce. It’s a photograph worthy of hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. There’s Frank Zappa backstage admiring a strange armadillo-with-antlers helmet. Or a definitive portrait of Kenneth Threadgill, the man who fused hippies and cedar choppers in friendship through musical jams at his old service station. Threadgill hoists a Lone Star. A few pages later Doug Sahm proffers a Pearl, reminding us of the days when Texans hadn’t been brainwashed by croaking frogs and raspy throated lizards selling Bud, that almost-vanished era when Texans drank regional beers.
Perhaps the most arresting group of photographs are those of Mance Lipscomb, a bluesman who affected Burton deeply. In addition to playing authentic Texas Blues, Mance was as close to a Taoist sage as we’re ever likely to get in Texas. For a lifetime Mance worked the cotton fields around Navasota and played local juke joints on Saturday night. He had no expectation of ever being known outside a few wood-planked-floor dives in East Texas. Then one day the famous folklorist John Lomax searched out Mance and recorded him. He was a stringy, strong old cotton farmer when this bit of fame finally found him in his mid 60s. Mance never expected any recognition and was untouched by it. He would sit for hours after a gig playing music and telling stories to the young white kids who sat around, listening in rapt attention. These sessions would end when dawn streaked the sky. Mance’s music was the embodiment of doing something for love, not for recognition and money. It gave him a quiet power that young people recognized.
Tary Owens, who has done as much as anyone in Central Texas to preserve classic Texas Music, took Burton to Mance’s Navasota home in 1967. Burton writes simply and forcefully of that first meeting. Mance, who wrote more than 300 songs, could remember the story about each. Finally as the afternoon grew long, Burton asked, “Mance, how do you write a song?” Without hesitation Mance replied, “First you have to start.” In the 1970s, when Mance’s health began to fail, Eddie Wilson organized a benefit at the Armadillo. Taj Mahal, Bill Neely, and others played. It was a rousing success; about $4,000 was raised. Mance was amazed. He confided to Burton: “Four thousand dollars. That’s more than I’ve earned in any year in my whole life.”
This is Burton’s second book. His first, Burton’s Book of the Blues, has become a collectors’ item, selling as well in Scandinavia as it did in Chicago. For those fans of music or Austin history, The Austin Music Scene is full of gems. There’s a great shot of Bette Midler, curiously backed by Barry Manilow on piano. There’s a haunting 1967 portrait of a young Johnny Winter, who had just magnetized the crowd and stolen the show from Muddy Waters at the Vulcan Gas Company. Perhaps the picture that best sums up the cultural revolution of the period isn’t even of a musician. Wilson had the perceptiveness to record two side-by-side billboards near where Guadalupe now runs into Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. On one side is a photo of Preston Smith, the chrome-dome conservative Democrat running for Governor, with the slogan “Working for Texas.” On the other is an ad for the psychedelic band Shiva’s Headband, featuring a woolly headed hippie rising out of a moonscape with armadillos and third-eye Masonic pyramids. The artist might as well have added the slogan of head-shop icon Oat Willie, who also ran for Governor at that time—”Onward Through the Fog.”
Jeff Nightbyrd was national vice-president of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s and currently owns Acclaim, the biggest talent agency in Austin.