This piece was originally performed during KUT’s ATXplained Live show at the Paramount Theatre in February 2023.
One night, about eight years ago, Tom Walsh was sitting in the Continental Club and he came up with this question: “What is the oldest music venue in Austin? You know, live music is such a core part of what Austin is. Where did it originate?”
That’s a great question, considering music venues mean so much to Austin. They’ve helped the city define itself. After all, Austin is known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
It seems like a simple question, with a simple answer. At least the first part does.
But when you think about it for a second, Tom’s question is more complex. Did he want to know what the oldest continuously operating music venue in Austin was? Did he just want to know what the first music venue was? Did the building still need to be standing?
And really, what is a music venue? Sure, a music venue is a business where the main focus is showcasing live music. But is a music venue defined by its building? If that’s the case, then the answer to Tom’s question is easy.
All you have to do is Google “oldest music venue in Austin” and you’ll find an article by music journalist Michael Corcoran, who’s writing a book about music venues here.
He says that the oldest music venue in Austin was a place called Buaas Garden, which was on the east 400 block of Pecan Street, or what we now call Sixth Street. But the building was torn down in 1874.
But what about the oldest venue that’s still standing?
Maybe your first guess is Scholz Beer Garden, which opened in 1866.
But Michael doesn’t consider that a music venue.
“Even though they had music occasionally,” he said, “that was more of a restaurant and a bar.”
Michael told KUT the oldest music venue where the building is still standing is Turner Hall.You may know it as the Scottish Rite Theater. Turner Hall was a German opera house built in 1871 that held concerts for German singing societies.
But it’s not a music venue anymore; it’s a children’s theater.
What about a music venue that’s been in the same building, operating as a music venue continuously?
Well, Michael thought the Continental Club was probably the oldest continuously operating music venue in the city.
But there was a period in the ‘70s when it was a neighborhood bar that didn’t have any live music.
The Broken Spoke is the oldest continuously operating music venue in Austin. It opened in 1964 and has operated as a country dancehall with live music ever since.
More than a building
So Tom’s question has been answered — if you’re thinking of music venues as buildings.
Except there was this part of his question that had nothing to do with buildings: “You know, live music is such a core part of what Austin is. Where did it originate?”
You can read that question as: What are the venues that paved the way for Austin to evolve into this music-centric place that it’s become?
And that’s about more than just buildings. That’s about history.
Before she died, legendary music writer Margaret Moser taught a course on the history of Austin music. In it, she traced the roots of Austin’s music scene back to the music of indigenous Texans, enslaved Africans, Mexican immigrants and European settlers. She also argued the rock clubs of today actually go back to the brothels of the 1800s and 1900s.
As far as venues go, there are so many that created the Austin music scene we know and love. The one that seems to loom largest in our collective imagination is the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Eddie Wilson turned an abandoned National Guard Armory at Barton Springs and South First into the music venue. It was a place where hippies and rednecks could come together around their shared love of music. And out of this was born cosmic cowboy music. You know — hippies getting super high and writing country music.
Everyone played there — from Willie to Zappa to Parliament Funkadelic. Austin started to gain national attention as a music town. Rolling Stone and Time Magazine wrote about the venue, and the cosmic cowboy scene that came out of the Armadillo inspired one of the most abiding musical institutions in the country: Austin City Limits.
But the Armadillo was just one venue in the story of Austin music.
In 1933, Kenneth Threadgill opened a venue in a small gas station. He called it Threadgills.
He eventually would welcome hippies to play his place, most notably Janis Joplin.
And let’s not forget about the East side of town.
During segregation, the Eastside was home to a vibrant local music scene. The Victory Grill opened in 1945. It’s still there on East 11th Street.
From the time it opened, major African American acts would play there. Even well into the ‘60s, Black musicians weren’t always welcome in white Austin (otherwise known as the West side of I-35). So they would play at places like the Victory Grill.
“If Joe Tex was coming through town, he likely played at the Victory Grill. B.B. King was coming through town. He played at the Victory Grill. Bobby Bland became a fixture at the Victory Grill,” Harold McMillan, a musician and historian, says. “I have read and I’ve heard people say that Billie Holiday played there. I have not been able to corroborate that with my research, but I’ve heard people say it.”
And it wasn’t just the Victory Grill. In the ’30s the Cotton Club hosted swing dances on East 11th Street. Charlie’s Playhouse opened down the street in 1955. The IL Club opened on East 11th a decade later.
These clubs hosted a lot of local talent, some of whom — like Blues Boy Hubbard and the Jets, James Polk and Hosea Hargrove — would go on to inspire some of the most famous musicians to ever come out of Austin: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Vaughan, Angela Strehli. These guys studied at the feet of Eastside musicians.
“Blues Boy Hubbard would usually tell you, ‘That lick that Stevie just did right there, he stole from me. That’s my lick,’” said McMillan, who played bass with Blues Boy Hubbard.
There’s no one music venue that birthed Austin’s love of music. Instead, all these and countless others like Antone’s, Emo’s on Red River, Flamingo Cantina — really, we could go on — have helped this city nurture its love for live music.
A place of communion
So what is a music venue? It’s a building — yes. It’s a cultural marker — sure.
But there’s more to it than that.
When Tom was asked what his favorite venues were, he brought in a list on an actual piece of paper. But it wasn’t just a list of venues; it was a list of specific shows he’d seen at those venues.
“I saw Buddy Guy at the Ivory Cats; Joe Valentine at 311 Club; Gary P. Nunn; Asleep at the Wheel at Broken Spoke,” he said, listing just a few.
So many of us have a list like this, right? A list of nights we never want to forget.
That’s because when a venue is really good, it becomes a place of communion.
So if someone asks you what the oldest music venue in town is, you have some answers. You can tell them that Buaas Garden was the first venue in town, but the building isn’t there anymore. Turner Hall is the oldest venue where the building is still standing, but it’s not a music venue anymore.
And the Broken Spoke is the longest continuously operating venue. But a venue is so much more than just a building. It’s where you can find your people and experience the magic of a great show, together.
A show that you may remember for the rest of your life.