In Praise of the Pompadour

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It’s an overcast Sunday afternoon and the staff at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon on North Burnet Road is preparing for their busiest night of the week. The chickens that live in a coop out back are fed, escape, and a brief parking lot chase ensues. A rustic, hand-painted bingo table is set up in the back. Fragrant barbecued brisket tacos are delivered and everyone gets hungry. In a few hours Dale Watson and His Lonestars will play to a packed house that will include old-timers, tattooed hipsters, and bus-loads of Dutch, Croatian, Australian, and French tourists.

Watson has been playing Ginny’s for more than 15 years. He immortalized the bar in the song “Honkiest Tonkiest Beer Joint,” with lyrics taken from a sign that hangs behind the place (“no fussin’ no cussin’; no hasslin’ no wrestlin’”). And then earlier this year, he bought it.

Watson’s bio reads like that of a country star in the making. He was born in Birmingham, raised in Pasadena, just outside of Houston, and has been writing songs since he received his first guitar when he was seven years old. His 1995 debut album, Cheatin’ Heart Attack, and its anti-industry “Nashville Rash” song spread his fame across the Atlantic. His latest album, El Rancho Azul, is a Valentine to his honky-tonk life (half of the songs are devoted to drinking, including “I Lie When I Drink” and “Thanks to Tequila”). We sat down with the legendary troubadour to ask how honky-tonk music melds with the new and growing Austin.

Last month you hosted the first annual Ameripolitan Music Awards in Austin. Tell us about that event.

I started the process about a year ago because I wanted to have an annual celebration devoted to a new genre of original music with a prominent roots influence. Americana music has roots in Woody Guthrie, and prominent folk and rock influences. Ameripolitan music traces back to artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.

What prompted you to create an entirely new category of awards?

It all started when CMA vocalist Blake Shelton accepted an award, and told the music industry how he felt about my style of music, describing it as “music for old farts and jackasses.” The statement let the proverbial cat out of the bag and really set the Internet abuzz. I’m trying to brand our style of music, which doesn’t fit into a preconceived notion of what it should be. The notion caught fire quickly. We raised $26K on gofundme.com, and the sold-out awards ceremony featured the likes of Johnny Knoxville and Mojo Nixon, among other great artists.

How do you describe your particular style?

My music is a blend of honky-tonk, western swing, outlaw, and rockabilly. Four genres that don’t necessarily fit into any existing categories the industry celebrates.

What else are you up to these days?

I just got back from Australia; it was summer there, so we got to go to the beach. Australia reminds me of Texas in the ’70s—all that wide-open space. Now I’m back in the studio recording Trucking Sessions 3, the last album of a trilogy that will be released this summer. In addition to playing ACL and touring, it’s been a busy year.

What has touring in Europe taught you about life?

How much I love America. Also, that mayonnaise on French fries ain’t too bad.

What inspired you to purchase Ginny’s Little Longhorn?

As with music, a place can grow and change, but it doesn’t have to leave its roots behind. In the same way that I’m trying to preserve the roots of Texas music, with Ginny’s I’m trying to keep the roots of Austin alive. That process doesn’t need to be stagnant or passive. We installed a new stage and a better sound system, started offering draft beer, and took out the pool table to accommodate more people. We’re bringing in the new, but exposing people to chicken poop bingo and roots music. For the same reasons, I also just purchased Big T’s Roadhouse, outside of San Antonio, so I’ve been spending more time there.

The infamous chicken shit bingo—how did that begin?

I think the biggest surprise of the whole thing is how long it has lasted! It started with a culmination of many things. I’d already been playing for Ginny and her late husband, Don, on Thursday nights for about 12 years. They asked me to play Sunday nights too, but I didn’t want it to be “just another night.” So I suggested playing in the afternoon, since people work the next day. When I spent time in California, I played a bar that offered free hot dogs, and another that ran a very illegal chicken poop bingo—that’s where I’d seen it for the first time. We decided to do both and make it legal; we don’t allow any betting. We only thought it would last a month or so, but from the get-go it packed the place out. I have no illusions of grandeur; I know the real star is the chicken.

How do you feel about growing Austin?

There’s good and bad to it. It’s good that more people want to come here and hear Texas music. The bad is, well, the traffic. A lot is changing in the neighborhood, with new condos going in across the street and a new traffic light about to be installed. But some of the new celebrates older Southern traditions, like our neighbor Lucy’s Fried Chicken. Our communal picnic table area features tables donated by several local businesses that support what we do.

What’s your happy place in Austin?

Honestly, it’s Sunday nights at the Longhorn. It’s truly amazing seeing so many people enjoy it so much. Everyone gets along; in all the years I’ve been doing it there’s never been a fight. People from nine to ninety come here and make friends right away. I think we’ve got a bit of the old Armadillo. This is old Austin and new Austin together.


Photography by Leann Mueller

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