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The Foo Fighters Invade Texas On This Week’s ‘Sonic Highways’

Jason Merritt, Getty Images

Austin, Texas, the “Live Music Capital of the World.” Was there any doubt that Dave Grohl‘s traveling road show, HBO’s ‘Sonic Highways,’ would end up here?

We start with Willie Nelson, the man credited with bringing Austin a music scene in the ’70s. The Redheaded Stranger returning to the Texas town from Nashville brought the hippies and the rednecks together, and then he took the party national by being the first artist to appear on ‘Austin City Limits.’ ZZ Top‘s Billy Gibbons rightfully points out what an exceptional lead guitarist Nelson is, a fact too many people overlook.

Grohl uses his awesome schmoozing powers to get the original ‘Austin City Limits’ stage for this week’s recording session. The show’s longtime producer, Terry Lickona, regales us with stories of great ‘Austin City Limits’ appearances: Roy Orbison hitting the highest of the high notes, Johnny Cash getting a case of nerves before appearing on a “real music television show,” Ray Charles jamming a 17-piece orchestra into the little studio.

“When you walk onto the stage you can feel the ghosts,” Grohl says.

But why Austin? Houston had the bigger music scene through the ’50s and ’60s, after all. The fact that it was (and is) a college town with 50,000 students was likely a huge factor. Steve Earle calls Austin, “a sister city to San Francisco or Berkeley.”

Billy Gibbons talks about the 13th Floor Elevators, Roky Erickson’s psychedelic band. Along with the arrival of psychedelic music in the ’60s came drugs, and with drugs came law enforcement, so the Elevators packed up and moved to San Francisco. Their impact on the psychedelic music scene in Northern California was tremendous.

Back to the studio. Grohl discovers that the original ‘Austin City Limits’ piano remains in the room. The list of musicians who have played it is astonishing: Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Tom Waits. The Foo Fighters pull the blankets off of the baby grand so that they can incorporate it in their recording session.

The blues scene at Antone’s gets some love as well. This is the club where the Fabulous Thunderbirds served as the house band. Jimmy Vaughan tells the story of his 17-year-old brother Stevie getting up and playing with Albert King.

Eventually we sit down with David Yow from the Jesus Lizard and talk about the city’s punk scene. Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes joins in, too, but the real treat here is hearing from the lesser known Tim Kerr of the Big Boys. Kerr connects funk, skateboarding, and punk with the DIY heart of the punk scene. He still signs his paintings, “Your Name Here,” as a prompt to the viewer to go make their own art.

And of course, can’t talk about Austin’s music scene without South by Southwest. The inaugural edition in 1987 hosted 800 people in 200 bands across 15 clubs. Compare that to the current 10,000 applications to play each year. “I don’t think it’s a music festival any more,” Kerr says. “It’s Spring Break.”

Gary Clark Jr. is an Austin native. He notes that he didn’t even know as a kid that Austin was a music city. Clark talks about later wearing his VHS tapes of ‘Austin City Limits’ thin, learning from the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Jimmy Vaughan vouches for Clark as heavy as any blues player. “He’s the real deal,” Vaughan says.

“I worry about cities like Austin, because it’s just a matter of time before that candle blows out,” Grohl notes. The conversation turns to rising prices and noise complaints pushing the artists out.

That’s the note we end on before hearing this week’s cut, inspired by the city and featuring Clark: ‘What Did I Do? / God As My Witness.’

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