Women belt out the blues to help preserve Austin history

Clifford Antone (1949-2006) slung sandwiches as his first Antone’s endeavor in Austin, but by 1975 the blues had taken over. He opened Antone’s downtown to showcase the best blues artists around. Susan Antone recalls her brother always wanted Antone’s to be a place where you could take your little baby or your grandmother.

The blues slingers came, and, in the early days, Susan would fill them up with a home-cooked meal before they went on stage. For posterity, she made sure to photograph them as well, creating a lasting story of the blues in Austin.

Susan Antone was the honored guest at a benefit Friday night presented by Songwriters across Texas for the Austin History Center Association – Women of Antone’s. The association is a nonprofit organization raising funds for the Austin History Center. Dedicated to preserving the history of Austin and Travis County, the center is a division of the Austin Public Library and is located in a 1933 building on Guadalupe Street that once housed the main library itself.

Antone’s always has been supportive of women blues singers and five of them made an incredible line-up of blues talent for the show that will be broadcast later by Songwriters across Texas. Emcee Zach Ernst, a musician and band-booker for Antone’s, briefly interviewed each of the women before they took the spotlight. All mentioned how much the lively community of artists in Austin aided their careers, with Antone’s at its hub. Here, musicians serve as kindred spirits nurturing one another, not as fierce competitors.

Marcia Ball said her early loves were Louisiana, then dogs and then Cajun blues. But Antone’s exposed her to a new love – Chicago-style blues. Singer Lou Ann Barton hit a fast track as she teamed up in Austin with W.C. Clark and Stevie Ray Vaughan as the Triple Threat Revue, and later with Vaughan and Double Trouble. Barton says she always prefers songs where the woman is tough. Some of my favorite music memories from the 1980s involve shows with Ball, Barton and Angela Strehli appearing separately or together. The Mister caught a reunion show of the three recently at Antone’s.

Clifford Antone heard Sue Foley at a Blues Music Awards show in Memphis, and she found herself in Austin recording for his label by age 21. On stage with Pinky, her paisley Fender Telecaster, in hand, Foley recalled how hearing Angela Strehli belting out the blues like Chicago bluesman Eddie Taylor Jr. empowered her. A schoolmate and close friend of Gary Clark, Eve Monsees said the pair managed to become regulars on the stage of Antone’s at age 15. She and her husband, Mike Buck, own Antone’s Record Shop now.

And powerful singer/songwriter Ruthie Foster said she would always remember that Clifford encouraged her to branch out and sing whatever she inspired her, whether it was blues or gospel.

Yeah, I’ve been in and out of soul
Even rock and roll.
But a little baby blue play
Never, never gets old and I realized
Boy, I gotta have me some blue blues.
Yeah.
You know?! I’m just passing on,
Singing the same old song.

Excerpt from “Singing the Blues” by Ruthie Foster

Promise I’m not trying to make you sad you missed this remarkable show in the Austin Club’s 1878 Millett Opera House because there’s a great opportunity Sunday night, March 26, to see some of these performers and more at Antone’s at a benefit for HOME – Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers. And watch for the taped version to show up on the website of Songwriters across Texas.

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