A strip of angled parking spots lay vacant on South Congress Avenue, a rare sight for an often crowed jumble of pedestrians and electric scooters on one of Austin’s busiest thoroughfares.
The Texas State Capitol Dome illuminates my rearview mirror as I back in near a remodeled diner. Don’t let the quiet streets fool you, the bar is two-deep as locals and tourists clamor for a cocktail. James McMurtry is tuning up on the elevated indoor stage while the last remaining stools are claimed.
The South Congress district has seen many changes over the years. Orange-plastic roadblocks and chain link fences guard a massive expanse of hollowed-out ground being arranged for the newest mixed-use development.
“Thirty years ago it was dangerous down here,” McMurtry said. “The waitresses left en masse, you know. Everybody left at once at the end of the night.”
A Yeti cooler outlet occupies the former plot of the once glorious Nighthawk, Harry Akin’s ever expanding late night diner that opened in 1932. Chicken fried steak with gravy and the famous Frisco burger drifted away in 1989. Wasabi-topped sushi and half-shell oysters now cater to the modern corridor.
The Continental Club is a monument to former days, an easier time when the parking spaces were just a bit longer and girls with long skirts spun around the dance floor. Practicing couples still protect their turf in front of the stage, get too close and you’re sure to get elbowed as a harsh warning.
The line-up still pleases repeat customers willing to brave the congestion. Wayne “The Train” Hancock and Lou Ann Barton await their turn on the marquee underneath the flashing neon sign.
The Continental Club in Austin, Texas. Photo by Andrew Blanton
I set my beer near a pile of Asleep at the Wheel coasters. They always have room for Ray Benson’s country swing band, one of the few local acts still allowed to play the Austin City Limits Festival that now caters to auto-tuned electronica.
Coasters at the Continental Club. Photo by Andrew Blanton
McMurtry didn’t get an invitation, though he doesn’t seem to mind. Tattoo-faced Instagram rappers play to masses of plastic-dollar Wayfarer frat boys these days. The festival once boasted of Emmylou Harris and John Hammond gracing it’s stage.
McMurtry’s Panama hat rises above the stage to eager fans as he rings out a powerful chord from his electric guitar.
James McMurtry performs at the Continental Club. Photo by Andrew Blanton
“How you doin’?,” McMurtry quickly says before remote sounds morph into faced-paced driving blues. “Good to see you.”
McMurtry’s sound makes you feel like you’re passing an Indian reservation in New Mexico on your way to Marfa. It’s that spacey desert feel with lyrics that seem to be passed down from generation to generation.
He can play a twelve string Martin that fills the room and makes you weep, but his electric trio has that driving force that adds a little extra to the narrative. Each song is it’s own short story with often disenfranchised characters.
“Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun,” McMurtry sings. “I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done.”
His songs always seem to teeter on that edge, like a man who needs a cigarette and can’t find one. There’s an important thing to say that you better pay attention to, and he never seems to waste any time getting there.