You Can't Find a Place More Laid-Back without Being Unconscious

LUCKENBACH, Texas (AP) -- They like to say around here that you can't find a place more laid-back without being unconscious.

Drive down a single-lane road, turn a corner, and there it is: Downtown Luckenbach, in all its glory of three buildings -- a ramshackle tavern/general store, a blacksmith shop and an old-time dance hall.

Clustered under giant oaks, this aging Western trading post-turned-country music mecca is the stuff of myth. On any given night or weekend, musicians in cowboy hats and jeans sit around picking steel guitars, thumbing washtub basses and singing country classics. Step into the general store and floorboards creak.

"Welcome to Luckenbach!" hollers the clerk.

You're already feeling pretty darn laid back.

It's an eccentric town in the prickly pear-studded hills of the Texas Hill Country, some 75 miles west of Austin. And every inch of it drips with history.

"People have driven from Illinois down here to play their country song in Luckenbach," said Tim Steele, a singer-songwriter and Luckenbach regular.

The town's reputation among music fans started growing on a summer night in 1973, when Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band recorded an album live in Luckenbach, called "Viva Terlingua," that became a classic of the country/rock "outlaw" scene -- the antithesis of a Nashville production.

Later, in 1977, country outlaw idols Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson chiseled Luckenbach into music history with the song, "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)."

The twangy, slow-paced anthem to the simple life found in Luckenbach topped the national charts. The lyrics spoke of trading in diamond rings and ties for boots and jeans. The chorus, "Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys ..." was everywhere.

Luckenbach remains a coveted stage for musicians, and country bands like the McKay Brothers, the Cosmic Dust Devils, Mike Blakely and Jeronimo Trevino often come through.

Throughout the year, visitors -- from European curiosity-seekers to country music die-hards -- make pilgrimages here, and often leave a bit of themselves in the bar.

"People leave their IDs, their business cards; a nice couple from South Dakota brought me this the other day," said Mike Haley, the bar keep and town judge, holding up a South Dakota license plate tag reading "57 Chevy."

But for the most part Luckenbach is the same as it's always been: A tiny, quiet place by the creek.

Clown Prince of Luckenbach

Like a lot of places in the Hill Country, Luckenbach was built by German pioneers in the mid-19th century. A general store -- the same one standing today -- was opened in 1849 by Minna Engel, the daughter of an itinerant preacher. She named the place Luckenbach after her fiance, Carl Albert Luckenbach.

A couple kicks up their heels on a Saturday afternoon in the Luckenbach store.

A year later, in 1850, a community hall went up. Rebuilt in the 1930s, it's still around -- now serving as dance hall and stage. The old blacksmith shop still stands.

Luckenbach lost one of its original buildings in 2002, when floods destroyed a steam-operated cotton gin. Flood waters reached over the counter in the bar.

By the 1960s, Luckenbach was virtually a ghost town -- the old German families had all dispersed.

And its 10 acres near South Grape and Snail creeks went up for sale in the newspapers: "town -- pop. 3 -- for sale."

It was in for a ride.

A man named Hondo Crouch bought it with a few associates for $30,000 in 1970.

A celebrated Texas humorist and folklorist, Crouch turned Luckenbach into "a free state of mind" -- poking fun at the nearby "Texas White House," President Lyndon B. Johnson's ranch on the Pedernales River.

"Hondo Crouch -- the one right up there -- he's the one that got all this started," Haley said reverently, pointing to a portrait of a white-bearded man with smooth skin and friendly eyes on the barroom wall.

In the portrait, Crouch, whose given name was John Russell Crouch, wears a beaten-up cowboy hat and chews a strand of straw.

Crouch became the "mayor" and "Clown Prince of Luckenbach." The hamlet hosted a "Women's Only Chili Cook-off, a "World's Fair" and hug-ins.

Yet Luckenbach didn't grow. Crouch wanted it to stay like it had always been -- a teeny bitty place you pull into off the main road and get a hearty welcome

"People would show up and ask where Luckenbach is. He'd be there whittling. He'd say, take a left and another left. They'd take off, take a left, another left, and there he'd be. He'd say: 'Welcome to Luckenbach,"' said Haley.

The outdoor bar in Luckenbach serves drinks as a band plays in the dance hall across the street.

When Crouch died in 1976, his ashes were strewn over Luckenbach.

An ever-changing group of cowboy musicians hang out in the bar, strumming and nodding and kicking back while visitors take in the tavern's collection; even Lyle Lovett stopped in one day, at 8:30 a.m., to look around.

Cowboy boots dangle from the ceiling; longhorns and stuffed deer heads are mounted on the walls along with black-and-white photographs of country music greats like Bob Wills.

A chair attached to the ceiling has a sign on it saying: "Reserved for Benny." Benny, a regular, died years ago.

"This is probably one of the nicest, friendliest places to stop and have a beer," Haley said.

Then he picked up his own guitar from behind the bar counter, and chipped in a few ditties to pass the night.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.

If you go, Tips for Luckenbach Visitors...

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