AUSTIN was a tiny community on the verdant banks of the (Texas) Colorado River when Mirabeau B. Lamar, president of the Republic of Texas, suggested in 1839 that it would make a better capital than swampy and disease-ridden Houston. Early building had to be done under armed guard, while angry Comanche watched from the surrounding hills. Despite this perilous location, Austin thrived.
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Today the city wears its state capital status lightly. Since the 1960s, the laidback and progressive city – an anomaly in Texas – has been a haven for artists, musicians and writers, and many visitors come specifically for the music. And while complacency has crept in – its “alternative” edge being packaged as just another marketing tool – artists hungry for recognition are still attracted to this creative hotbed.
Due to a tech-fuelled population leap, brand-new towering condo complexes have shot up to threaten Austin’s small-town vibe. Still, it remains the best city in the state for cycling, and the presence of the vast and pretty University of Texas campus adds to the pleasant atmosphere. Within the city limits a great park system offers numerous hiking and biking trails, plus a wonderful spring-fed swimming pool. In addition, Austin makes a fine base for exploring the green Hill Country that rolls away to the west.
The Austin sound
Although Austin’s folk revival in the 1960s attracted enough attention to propel Janis Joplin on her way from Port Arthur, Texas, to stardom in California, the city first achieved prominence in its own right as the centre of outlaw country music in the 1970s. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, disillusioned with Nashville, spearheaded a movement that reworked country and western with an incisive injection of rock’n’roll. Venues like the now-closed Armadillo World Headquarters, far removed from the more conservative honky-tonks of the Plains, provided an environment that encouraged and rewarded risk-taking, experimentation and lots of sonic cross-breeding. These days the predominant Austin sound is a melange of country, folk and the blues, with strong psychedelic and alternative influences – but the scene is entirely eclectic. The tradition of black Texas bluesmen like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson, as well as the rocking bar blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan, still lives on, with a top-notch blues club in the form of Antone’s.
Austin’s ten-day SXSW festival (South by Southwest; sxsw.com), held in mid-March, has become the pre-eminent music and film conference in the nation – and quite a bit more besides. In recent years it’s also morphed into one of the nation’s foremost stages for tech companies to display their latest creations, reflecting Austin’s surging stock in the industry.
Even if you can’t afford to attend, the city is an exciting place to be during SXSW and there are literally hundreds of unofficial gigs and events open to all. To most locals, in fact, what’s going on inside the conference is of secondary importance to the opportunity to catch some of the best acts on the planet in their favourite haunts.