LUCKENBACH, Texas – From Laredo to El Paso, the geography of Texas has always provided a powerful lexicon for country and western lyrics.
However, when Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson rocketed the song Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love) to the top of the charts, the hit made this Texas ghost town more than just another signpost on the state’s musical highway.
The song’s success came as no big shock to fans of the genre. The surprise is just how this tiny piece of central Texas real estate has maintained fans’ fascination almost four decades after the 1970s hit.
The place is a magnet for tourists who travel to the Texas hill country every year just to wrap their hands around a Lone Star beer, listen to some good ol’ country songs and plug into the laid-back atmosphere.
Yes, Virginia, there really is a Luckenbach, except, to be truthful, it’s not exactly a place to write home about, even if there was still an active post office in this Texas outpost.
All that makes up the town is a dusty parking lot at the end of a meandering country road and a few ragtag wooden buildings, and that’s maybe an optimistic perspective of this shrine.
It’s not the rhinestone enclave you might have been hoping for, but this locale has become a destination of choice for music fans.
Even before the Jennings/Nelson hit, this spot, an hour’s drive west from Austin, another musical hotbed, was building a reputation as a country singing venue of repute. Jerry Jeff Walker, another Nashville “outlaw,” used this rural backdrop for one of his albums.
It has been a decade since Nelson last took part in the July 4 picnics he helped popularize in Luckenbach. Still, folks from as far away as Europe, Japan and Australia continue to build vacation itineraries around a road trip to Luckenbach, according to Miss Abbey, the events co-ordinator for the four hectares of brush, century-old live oaks, pasture and the famous outdoor stage.
“It’s sure not upscale, but what we have is more of a feeling than a showplace,” says Miss Abbey, who uses only her single name.
It’s no five-star resort, but there are more than enough real twinkling stars in the Texas night sky to make up for its modest, worldly appearance, Miss Abbey assures us.
So, here we are mid-week, sitting under those twinkling stars, with our bellies full of chopped barbecued beef, beans, potato salad and coleslaw. On stage, a guitar-strumming couple soulfully serenades the gathering crowd.
There’s no age discrimination here. In fact, Luckenbach is very much a family hangout. Kids run around until they tire and fall asleep in the arms of toe-tapping parents. An arrant hen will occasionally leap on stage and strut by expensive speaker systems as if she’s part of the act.
Social status is also a meaningless measurement of someone’s worth when the music plays around these parts. The ponytailed owners of the shiny Harleys, parked around the pickups and sedans, could easily be doctors, lawyers or songwriters. No one knows, and no one cares in Luckenbach, Miss Abbey says.
If you like beef jerky, a shot of firewater and some great fellowship, a visit here can give you that warm, fuzzy feeling that stays with you long after you’ve packed up and gone home.
“We’ve got good times in the here-and-now, but we’ve also got a whole lot of history to go along with it,” she says with a smile.
Luckenbach began life as a trading post in 1849 in the middle of dangerous Comanche country – about as wild as the West ever was. By 1886, the settlement and tiny population had survived long enough to develop a post office/general store and “beer joint.”
Named after Albert Luckenbach, the fiance of the post office owner’s daughter, the community thrived through the late 1800s, boasting a steam-driven cotton gin, a blacksmith shop and its own school.
Sadly, later years proved not to be kind. By the time the 1950s arrived, the hamlet was well on its way to coming apart at the seams. In 1970, the last resident put the place up for sale.
Fortunately, Luckenbach caught the imagination of a small group of Texas dreamers led a by a certain Hondo Crouch. These unlikely candidates breathed new life into the place, and Crouch, who had a bent for good country music, put his stamp of approval on the direction the community would follow.
He was an unusual man, but his love of country music and his eccentric grassroots lifestyle caught on with the locals and travelling musicians, who began delivering a steady line of impromptu concerts at the remote site.
More people connected with the generous spirit of Luckenbach, and so began what would become its immortal journey into musical mythology.
Not that the place lives in its past. Luckenbach’s outdoor stage is open every evening, and, on most weekdays, there’s no entry fee for the entertainment. T-shirts, souvenirs and beer sales generate enough income to keep the place humming year-round.
Friday and weekend hoedowns are often held in the aging dance hall, where you have to pay an entry fee to get in.
Most days, it’s hit-or-miss when it comes to who will be performing, but there are always singers and songwriters plying their vocal wares on the open stage. Beer is three or four bucks – the music is free.
The town of Fredericksburg, about 130 kilometres west of Austin, the state capital, is a good jumping off spot for visitors to Luckenbach.
Once a sleepy agricultural service centre, Fredericksburg has emerged as a premier tourist destination in the beautiful hill country of Texas.
The lovely pastoral setting now has some impressive attractions to lure visitors, including the Admiral Nimitz Museum, which chronicles U.S. involvement in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War (the musuem’s namesake was born in the town of 10,000 in 1885). Gastronomical delights abound, with excellent wineries, an award-winning brew pub and some outstanding dining spots catering to the influx of tourists.
Just north of town, you’ll find Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, its prominent pink granite dome visible from the distance, and roughly 25 kilometres southwest of town is former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s LBJ Ranch in Stonewall.
If you make the 15-kilometre trek from Fredericksburg to Luckenbach, ask the locals for directions. Highway signs to this isolated spot have a tendency to disappear, apparently victims of souvenir hunters. Even attempts to chain them down or weld them to stout posts have not deterred ambitious fans.
Although Fredericksburg sells replicas of the signs in its visitors’ centre, it seems some people won’t settle for substitutes.
But, then again, as Miss Abbey explains, that’s what a visit to Luckenbach is all about – experiencing the real thing.