Austin music venues continue to make local history

Chris Duncan

“Live Music Capital of the World” might seem like just a gimmick to attract music-loving tourists, but just as the saying goes, it’s not bragging if it’s true. 

From names such as Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughan to annual festivals such as South By Southwest and Austin City Limits, the city isn’t lacking in musical history. At the core of Austin’s adopted nickname is a plethora of venues standing the test of time and, more often than not, taking on multiple roles as a product of necessity.

The Continental Club opened in 1955 and is considered by many to be a staple of the Austin music scene. Diane Scott, publicist and head of social media for the club, said even though the venue originally didn’t focus on local artists, it began to feature them after it changed ownership and hit a dry spell. During that time, Scott said the club started to dabble in local music, experimenting with the cosmic cowboy scene and eventually found its stride in roots rock with current owner Steve Wertheimer.

Scott said the presence of the venue had a revitalizing effect on the South Congress scene. 

“(South Congress) was where the hookers and the drug dealers were,” Scott said. “As the musicians started moving in, it displaced all of those people. So the Continental Club being on Congress was an anchor and brought a different clientele to that area, making it a place worth seeing.”

Other locations such as the Historic Scoot Inn, celebrating its 146th anniversary this year, only recently adopted live music. Current owner Doug Guller said the Inn began when former slaves Sam and Nancy Wilson opened a small store near the Austin railroad. Guller said the store changed hands in 1955, when new ownership brought its current name and transformation into a full-blown bar. Only in the past decade, Guller said, has the venue begun to take on local and national touring acts.

“We aim to put on the best type of show for our audience every night.” Guller said. “I like to think that Scoot Inn is an all-genre type of venue.”

For the Inn’s 146th anniversary, an interior bar dubbed Ivy’s Room was built to embody the spirit of the venue when it first reopened in 1955, bringing old school vibes with its luxurious furniture, a spinet piano and wall-mounted taxidermy to clash with a music component.

Even venues started initially to serve the Austin music scene tend to evolve into a blend of several different revenue sources. UT alumnus Eddie Wilson said Threadgill’s spawned out of a Gulf-filling station and began serving patrons drinks after founder Kenneth Threadgill stood in line to receive the county’s first beer license. Wilson, the current owner, said the gas station-bar combo quickly evolved into a traveler’s music hot spot, with Wednesday nights showcasing up-and-comers in Austin, including Janis Joplin.

Wilson said whereas his previous and now legendary venture Armadillo World Headquarters involved bringing people together to present a wide variety of artists and speakers, the revival of Threadgill’s was about a hometown angle. Now, Threadgill’s acts as a Southern diner and music venue, honoring its original ownership while pursuing music and comfort food. 

Above all, and like many who were a part of Austin music in its early days, Wilson said he feels fortunate to have run into such fantastic opportunities.

“It was all astronomically fast,” Wilson said. “It was explosive. There was a lot of synchronicity I just bumped into. I’m honored to be a part of this, to be where I am today.”

Austin music is nothing if not scrappy, and that’s embodied in the deep history of its music venues. From diners to gas stations and grocery stores turning into full-blown concert halls, Austin music can come from the most unexpected of places.