Those of us who are lucky to call Austin home know that live music isn’t something that just happens in this town during South by Southwest and ACL. You can truly catch great music, any day of the week. Whether it’s at a grocery store, like Central Market, walking down South Congress during First Thursday or even at the airport, musicians play a huge part in helping Keep Austin Weird.
The flip side of having so many musicians in one town is that we can take it for granted. For every packed night at the Mohawk, there is a band playing to a half dozen people at a coffee shop who never take their eyes off their devices or who are absorbed, catching up with a friend across the table throughout the entire set. While the touring indie band with that catchy single draws a crowd in one bar, next door a local musician might be playing only to friends and family.
For many musicians, making a career out of making music is tough. Many spend most of their time on the road, and the advent of streaming audio has meant that artists are making less and less from record sales. Thankfully, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), the SIMS Foundation, Austin Music People and Black Fret, among other organizations, are stepping in to help support our town’s creatives. Another institution in town nurturing our city’s singers and songwriters is the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church community, which sponsors the Soul of a Musician Series. Soul of a Musician is an opportunity to get up close and personal with local musicians and get a “behind the scenes” look at their creative process.
The Reverend Merrill Wade, the Rector at St. Matthew’s, had what you might call a musical epiphany in 2008 after listening to Yo La Tengo during South by Southwest. A parishioner from Mississippi had recommended he listen to My Morning Jacket’s set on KUT, and Yo La Tengo was part of the same showcase. As Merrill describes it, he was lying down on the couch, and the music caused him to shoot upright. “What have I been missing?”, he recalled asking himself.
Although Merrill had always enjoyed listening to music, since becoming a minister he had mostly immersed himself in hymns and the music of the church. During his musical re-awakening, he bumped into 104.9 The Horn sports talk radio host Erin Hogan at a Wilco concert with his son, Patrick. Merrill had gotten to know Erin, since, as a longtime Texas Longhorns fan, he was a frequent caller into the show. Soon afterwards, Merrill started spending his Fridays off as “Duke the Music Scout” on the air, recommending local and national musical acts to the sports fans. In this capacity, Merrill developed relationships with a number of these artists.
As a priest, Merrill felt a kinship with musicians, sympathizing with how they “put themselves out there.” He appreciated that, through their music, as through his work in the church, musicians can help “broken people heal”. In sharing their heartbreaks, their joy and their stories, the musicians share a bit of their souls with their audience during each performance. He grew to respect the creativity and passion behind music making, and set out to support this creative class in whatever way he could.
One summer when the St. Matthew’s choir was on break, Merrill hired local musicians to perform at services. This led to a partnership with an eatery across the street from the northwest Austin church: Spicewood Tavern. The Soul of a Musician Series started in February of 2013 and featured over a dozen performers, from Matt the Electrician to Patrice Pike to Kevin Russell of Shinyribs. We are now in the middle of the third installment of the Series, which has featured new artists, as well as several return performers. The current lineup began in February and will wrap up at the end of June.
Each Sunday (with a few breaks here and there), the music begins at 7:30pm after a short introduction by Merrill. Song lyrics are handed out to tables in the main dining area, and the musician has the chance to have a conversation with the audience about songwriting and the creative process in between each song. There is no cover, although Merrill encourages patrons to purchase music from the performer after the music wraps up. Although it may be on the late side for kids, it would be possible to bring your children along.
Unlike standing room only, ear-splitting, late night shows, the Soul of a Musician performances are acoustic, early evening gigs. You can choose to have dinner at your table or sit at the bar and have a beverage. The closest I can compare it to are shows which take place at the Cactus Cafe.
I finally made it to Spicewood Tavern at the end of March, when Elizabeth McQueen was the featured performer. I was excited to hear her live after knowing she played with Asleep at the Wheel and was now on her own as a solo performer. I also knew she was a fellow mom, which made me even more interested in learning more about her. She opened her set by singing “Let It Go” with her youngest daughter, Willow, age 3, which was super sweet. I really appreciated hearing Elizabeth talk during the set about the stages of her songwriting (she is prolific and has experimented with many musical styles) and having the chance to talk to her and Merrill after the show in such an informal, non-club-like atmosphere.
After the show, I had to ask her about her experience taking her family (including a newborn) on the road with Asleep at the Wheel in a converted van which became known as the Baby Bus. “Touring as a family was one of the best, most exciting and lovely and yet totally exhausting experiences,” Elizabeth admitted. “We were well aware the whole time that this was pretty rare — an epic family vacation situation where we got to bring our kids to work every day”. Instead of heading to the local park, Elizabeth and her husband Dave Sanger (Asleep at the Wheel drummer) had the opportunity to take their daughters to Yellowstone, hike the arch at Zion National Park, check out the bones at Dinosaur National Park and swim in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
In addition to all of the places Elizabeth and her family had the opportunity to visit, her children were raised by a village of family, friends and bandmates. She was quick to reiterate that the experience was overwhelming at times. “But that’s parenting in general, I’ve come to find out”, Elizabeth mused. “I guess my biggest aha moment was that parenting is wonderful and very hard, no matter if you’re traveling in a Baby Bus or staying at home”.
I asked Elizabeth what she liked about being a part of the Soul of a Musician Series. “What makes Soul of a Musician different is the conversation between the audience and the artists,” she said. “Most of the time shows are musicians, talking to the audience, and audience feedback is limited to clapping and applauding (or not!). But at Soul of a Musician the audience has a real interaction with the artist. That’s very rare, and actually something I look forward to when I’m playing there”.
Here are the remaining dates on the Soul of a Musician Series spring calendar:
April 27 – Raina Rose
May 4 – Lex Land
May 11 – Wendy Colonna
May 18 – Matt the Electrician
June 1 – Nathan Hamilton
June 8 – Shinyribs (Kevin Russell)
June 15 – Erin Ivey
June 22 – Nelo
It’s amazing that we not only live in such a musical town, but also that there are folks like Merrill and his congregation who are doing their part to create a dialogue on how we can nurture the souls of our city’s music makers.
Who’s your favorite local performer?
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.livemom.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Nicole-Basham-Sara-Marzani-Photography-livemom.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 8-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau’s words, her mission is to “suck out all the marrow of life”, or in her son’s words, to cultivate in him a love of “advenchers”.[/author_info] [/author]