Luckenbach’s musical roots run deep in Texas tradition

By TRACEY TEO Special Contributor
Published 09 June 2011 03:41 PM

LUCKENBACH, Texas — This is it?

According to Rob Davis, a.k.a. “Moondog,” bartender at the only bar in Luckenbach, that’s the reaction from many who visit this Hill Country hamlet-cum-music venue made famous by Waylon Jennings’ 1977 hit “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).”

Moondog, who claims to be a descendant of Alamo defender Davy Crockett, says they usually mean it in an “I’m so glad this place isn’t a touristy theme park” way, instead of an “I’m disappointed there isn’t more” way, but there will always be those who just don’t get Luckenbach.

The town consists of a general store/post office, a bar and a good old country dance hall, so it takes about seven minutes to fully explore the entire town — nine minutes if you stop to get acquainted with Mr. Dillon, a stray cat named after Marshal Dillon from the old TV series Gunsmoke.

It’s often said that Luckenbach is a state of mind. Country-music fans from around the globe come to this obscure corner of Gillespie County in search of that unpretentious, laid-back vibe Jennings yearns for in his song.

Luckenbach is famous for nonstop, live country music, but nobody expects Nashville-style glitz. In fact, Jennings, a Texas native, rebelled against the “Nashville sound,” becoming a pioneer in the country-outlaw movement that had its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s. Jennings wasn’t alone.

Country-music legend Willie Nelson, a fellow Texan, was also frustrated by the constraints of the Nashville recording industry at that time, and he sings a verse on Jennings’ recording. Nelson has been part of the Luckenbach mystique for decades. From 1995 to 1999, Luckenbach was the venue for Nelson’s famous Fourth of July Picnic. The country-music extravaganza continues in the town, drawing thousands of fans. But these jampacked, rowdy events are the exception rather than the rule in Luckenbach.
As for Moondog, he likes bartending in Luckenbach. The place never changes, but the visitors do — and he never knows who will be asking for a cold brew next.
Last fall a blonde pulled into Luckenbach on the back of a Harley. She climbed atop a picnic table and belted out the song “Delta Dawn” like a pro. It turned out that’s because she is a pro. The singer was country-music artist Tanya Tucker, who took the song to the top of the charts in 1972 when she was still a teen.

On weekends, the dance hall reverberates with the sound of hundreds of cowboy boots doing the Texas two-step. But you don’t have to wait for the weekend to kick back with a Texas-brewed Shiner Bock at a picnic table by the Picker Circle outdoors. If weather doesn’t allow, it’s in the bar.

When asked how a musician gets to play the Picker Circle, Moondog adjusts his gray cowboy hat and quips, “Walk up with your guitar and sit down.”

Which is what Moondog does from time to time when he isn’t tending bar. He’s perfecting a version of Steve Earle’s country-rock song “Copperhead Road,” and he’s eager to see how it will go over in the circle.

There’s a saying that everybody is somebody in Luckenbach, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Picker Circle. There are no Texas-size egos here, just musicians who are playing for themselves and anybody else who cares to listen.

Of course, “Luckenbach, Texas” is the most requested song, and Moondog says he never gets tired of playing it. It put Luckenbach on the map, after all, and it’s the town’s unofficial theme song.

Tonight a man in his 60s with a chest-length beard sits in the circle playing somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs and smoking a cigarette. When called upon to sing, he sticks the cigarette in the neck of the guitar and croons mournfully.

Occasionally, one of Luckenbach’s ubiquitous roosters raucously joins in the chorus. These cantankerous birds have been known to steal the show by crowing nonstop while perched on one of the centuries-old oak trees that arch over the audience, but they are as much a part of Luckenbach as the Picker Circle itself, so they are tolerated and even loved.

Luckenbach visitors will most likely learn a little about the town’s history whether they want to or not. Tributes to Hondo Crouch are everywhere, and his name is always popping up in conversation.

In 1971 Crouch and two partners bought the small community that was established as an Indian trading post by German immigrant Albert Luckenbach in 1849. By the early ’70s, Luckenbach was a virtual ghost town, but fun-loving Crouch breathed new life into it with quirky festivals such as the Luckenbach World’s Fair. Crouch was a colorful character by all accounts, and although he passed away in 1976, a year before “Luckenbach, Texas” was released, his legacy lives on.

As for those who just don’t get Luckenbach, well, happy trails.

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