Music and politics

Red, white and (sometimes) blues

A welcoming Willie Nelson

By Raoul Hernandez

Austin, Texas, the so-called Live Music Capital of the World boasts a second, less traveled title: Festival Texas. South by Southwest, Austin City Limits Music Festival, Austin Reggae Festival, Levitation (formerly Austin Psych Fest), Oblivion Access Festival, Old Settler’s Music Festival, UtopiaFest, Austin Celtic Festival, and more fall like dominoes in the Texas state capital March through October. That’s only music, too. Comedy, cars, food, film, television, books, bats, kites – we stage annual converges for any niche you can name.

No surprise, then, that the Lone Star seat of government boasts a political caucus as well: Texas Tribune Festival. Founded in 2009, the non-profit digital watchdog set a news template closely studied in all journalistic corners. “Government transparency” reads oxymoronish, but the Texas Tribune manages to strip away more city, state, and federal obfuscation than many of its print-oriented peers. Its yearly legislative immersion, Trib Fest, also put forth a media model attracting the biggest names in national policy for three days every September.

Being Austin, music naturally plays a role in Trib Fest, particularly on the final day of the gathering, which opens Congress Avenue in front of the state capital building to locals for free. Dubbed Open Congress, last month’s finale to the 12th annual meeting of the minds – welcome Hilary Clinton, Liz Cheney, Jann Wenner – arrived with a soundtrack. Look, they’re interviewing Lyle Lovett in a tent, the Houstonian cowboy grinningly awestruck about discovering Santana’s Abraxas in his parents’ record collection and the sudden leap forward in his guitar skills.

Open Congress, imagine that. Coming together for political discussion. Formal, but societal – unified. From the Latin con/gradi: walk together.

“Hey, welcome to the 2022 Texas Tribune Festival,” reads Willie Nelson in a 34-second promotional iPhone prompt third-partied through Matthew McConaughey. “We’re happy you’re here, [so] a reminder that good manners and good behavior makes for a good fest for all. These are polarized times, so please be respectful and civil. Even when you see someone or hear something you don’t like [shrugs], enjoy the show.”

Root herbalist who forever imprinted Austin with Fourth of July picnics commingling cowboys and hippies (now yuppies and footies, aka Austin FC soccer converts), the red-headed Head of the Republic since 1972 twisted up “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” three decades after playing chimney atop Jimmy Carter’s White House. And one day, Willie will legalize marijuana species wide. On this occasion, however, recall the shaman’s 2018 single, “Vote ’Em Out.”

If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ’em out.

That’s what Election Day is all about …

If it’s a bunch of clowns you voted in,

Election Day is comin’ ’round again …

Vote ’em out (vote ’em out).

Vote ’em out (vote ’em out).

And when they’re gone, we’ll sing and dance and shout!

Easier sung than done. Nevertheless, the highwayman makes a crucial and enduring point. In Austin and beyond, music IS politics. 

Sound and song breed action. 

No sooner did recent ATX property tax contributor Lovett finish the ‘guitarlos’ anecdote than bedrock art endowment Texas Cultural Trust cleared the street for a musical theater moment straight out of West Side Story. In fact, an Olympian-rehearsed DEI troupe of elementary and junior high students executed an honest-to-God DIY Broadway turn right there on the blacktop, delivering a number from Thoroughly Modern Millie to a stunned crowd of parents and wonks alike. As ever, these streets remain alive and thrive with the sound of music.

A few blocks down at festival HQ the Omni, gubernatorial prayer Beto O’Rourke fairly towered over endless constituents as my 8-year-old and I rode the glass elevators up and down the 19 stories of indoor temple. Said third grader waved giddily to his mother, festival producer Agnes Varnum and her Power the Press partner Tanya Erlach, the two women staging all but one of the extent Trib Fests between them. An acoustic guitarist serenaded one of the bars nearby.

“Punk shows in El Paso were always magical for me,” writes O’Rourke in the forward to “El Paso, A Punk Story,” an affecting and arresting 2015 Spanish docu-novel translated last year. “As an awkward and always out of place high school freshman, [I found it] liberating, truly, to be with people who didn’t feel they had to follow the conventions of fashion or music, people who had somehow escaped the pressure to conform or fit in.”

Famously alternative himself, the bassist’s gateway into the seminal Lone Star scene of his birthplace originated an ocean away. London Calling by the Clash empowered O’Rourke to activism and art equally. Politically charged nearly to the last note – granted, Top 40 hit and closing track “Train in Vain” takes up no cause as staunchly as loyalty – the 1979 double LP remains an extreme example of socio-economic wokeness. 

One everlasting triple album later, the Rolling Stones of Britain’s 1970s punk revolution – anarchists the Sex Pistols filling the role of the Fab Four by swapping mop tops for mohawks – released their penultimate studio statement on May 14, 1982: Combat Rock. Commercial blow out, it blew up the Clash, whose initial identity pivoted on “no Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones.” Becoming rock stars broke up the band.

And yet not before they filmed the MTV rotation staple clip for “Rock the Casbah” on Riverside Drive near where the Palmer Event Center now sits. The UK barnburners took a page out of the Joe Ely Band’s barnstorming Texas rock during the former’s tour of Lone Star border towns, so not only did Lubbock’s Buddy Holly-like comet contribute harmonies and Spanish to “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” he paved the way for the album’s other smash single to shoot its video here. Even so, for our purposes here, remember the bleating call to arms – (“this is a public service announcement … with guitars!”) – that opens Combat Rock, “Know Your Rights.”

Know your rights!

All three of them …

The first one reads like BLM summer 2020 despite releasing four decades ago:

Number one:

You have a right not to be killed.

Murder is a crime,

Unless it was done by a policeman.

Or an aristocrat.

Grim. Lone Star mythologist Joe Strummer never minced barking spittle. Skip to the last basic human right:

Number three:

You have the right to free speech …

As long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it!

T-Bone Walker to the Black Pumas, Texan musicians not only told it like it is, they stood for inviolate values – the Democratic ideal of individual freedom.

Bob Willis codified Western Swing, then Lefty Frizzell taught everyone listening to sing. Waylon Jennings gave up a seat on his friend Holly’s ill-fated plane and spent the rest of life proving the musical righteousness of that impulse. The (Dixie) Chicks took one for the team and ol’ Townes Van Zandt died for his art: soul-stripping lyricism.

Don Santiago “Flaco” Jiménez Sr. and his boys Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez and Santiago Jiménez Jr. pioneered conjunto. Selena Quintanilla Pérez spearheaded Tejano. Trini Lopez took Texican culture worldwide. Prince once flew in Grammy-winning Latin big band Grupo Fantasma to back him. 

Destiny’s Child then Beyoncé, especially pre-”Lemonade,” finished what Selena began as state reps worldwide. Barry White sired a whole generation of lovers. DJ Screw changed sound. The Geto Boys carjacked gangster rap. MC Overlord single-handedly introduced hip-hop to Austin. Khalid gifted millennials a contemporary iteration of … Barry White!

The 13th Floor Elevators preached the metaphysical. The Butthole Surfers stretched personal liberties like H.P. Lovecraft expanded horror. Daniel Johnston kept Austin weird. Spoon did for the local music scene what Richard Linklater’s landmark lark Slacker accomplished culturally, cinematically, and touristically. 

Not one of them failed to engage in the interpretive equivalent of Open Congress, because leaders seek followers and when performers ascend a stage or even dance in front of the Texas state capitol, they’ve participated in the public affairs of their community. Music is political. Walk together.

Raoul Hernandez, a 30-year veteran of music journalism, is a University of Texas at Austin professor in the School of Journalism and Media.

Beto O’Rourke gives punk its due in the docu-novel “El Paso, a Punk Story.”

Blog at