I’m passing a giant tan-and-red teepee as I wind through the rocky trails an hour northwest of Austin. Scattered tents and makeshift outposts bustle with attendees at Reveille Peak Ranch, the site of this year‘s Utopia Festival.
I can hear applause and laughter creep out through a secluded pathway on the northernmost trail. A staked in wooden sign proclaims the hideaway the Drunk Luck Motel, an after hours venue with vintage shop furniture underneath a giant white circus tent.
Dozens of people gather around for an intimate performance by traveling songwriter Shane Cooley. His deluxe-size Guild acoustic guitar barely fits in the corner of a patterned parlor chair. A yellow-and-white bouquet of flowers rest beside him atop an ornate side table underneath a threaded white lampshade.
Shane Cooley Performs at the Drunk Luck Motel. Photo By Andrew Blanton
It’s Cooley’s fourth year performing at Utopia Festival. Later that evening he closed out the event with an after hours show on the Good Times stage.
“I’ve seen some of my favorite shows of all time on that stage,” Cooley said. “It’s like MTV Unplugged, but for real.”
Cooley is one of the few musicians that volunteers on the work weekend, helping organize the sprawling campgrounds before attendees arrive.
“It’s a family here,” Cooley said. “I’m happy to be a part of it. It’s the type of festival that really means something.”
For the past four years Austin has been Cooley’s home base between touring. He first experienced the “Live Music Capital of the World” while performing during South by Southwest, and found it was one of the rare places where people took an active interest in listening to performers.
His songwriting style is incredibly honest, often focusing on snapshots of moments that almost went the right way.
“I just want to swim with you tonight, smell the river in your hair. I’m too tired to go home, too sad to fight, to old to hunt the bear,” Cooley sings on The Alamo, mixing tales of history with modern hardships. “Tonight I don’t want any trouble. Trouble called and I just ignored. Lately I’ve seen dark adventures, but now my greatest fear is getting bored.”
Cooley has seen the difficulty of working on the road firsthand, finding himself in a climate that’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate as a singer-songwriter.
“I think Austin, and the music industry itself, are both things that are in a state of transition, and transition is never easy,” Cooley said. “It’s really kind of a weird, tragically flawed system to be a musician in the twenty-first century.”
The ability to record, and release material with the technological ease we see today can be a beautiful thing. Instant outreach can connect you with a world-wide audience, but artists have seen album sales decrease on a dramatic scale, and bare-bones touring is a necessity.
“The culture surrounding it is less conducive to wanting to hear what someone has to say,” Cooley said. “People are glued to phone screens now, and selfies are their new favorite album cover, so I think it’s harder to reach people than it’s ever been, but I think it’s more necessary than it’s ever been. I’m going to keep doing it with all my heart.”
Find more on Cooley, here: http://www.shanecooleymusic.com/