AUSTIN, Texas -- When I spent a week in Austin, Texas, in March, it had been about two years since I last visited, and more than a decade since I lived there. This time I planned a visit immediately after the frantic and gigantic South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival because I'm more of a laidback traveler. Give me coffee in the morning, sunshine during the day and live music at night. Throw in some barbecue, bats and boots and you've got an ideal Austin vacation.
My traveling companion was a first-timer so we started the trip in South Austin, and we ended up spending most of our time there. A cornerstone of South Congress Avenue, Allen's Boots boasts a staggering display of Western footwear, complemented by a wall of autographed photos of country stars-turned-satisfied customers. You can't miss the oversized boot dangling over the entrance. Not far away is a statue of the late blues guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of Austin's most famous native sons. It's situated on the shores of Lady Bird Lake by a popular trail for runners and cyclists. With 300 sunny days a year, Austin's athletic community thrives. We spent a few hours walking off a big Mexican lunch, then dipped our feet in Zilker Park's Edwards Aquifer, a massive spring-fed pool that remains 68 degrees year-round. Country fans may recognize it as the backdrop from Jack Ingram's "Barefoot and Crazy" music video.
To me, no trip to Austin is complete without a few short road trips. On a Friday night we drove 45 minutes south to Gruene, Texas, for a rowdy Reckless Kelly concert at Gruene Hall, the oldest operating dance hall in Texas. The Austin-based band is only the latest local talent to draw huge crowds to the venue. In fact, George Strait used to play for 50 cents at the door in the mid-1970s before he was discovered nationally. He shot the artwork for his first album there and featured it on the cover of his newest album, Twang.
Needless to say, Saturday morning was a little rough. Fueled by caffeine from a tiny shack in South Austin called Jo's, we pointed the rental car toward Lockhart, Texas, the state's unofficial barbecue capital. One of my local friends who joined us for lunch prefers Smitty's on the courthouse square. As soon as you walk in the door, it's almost like strolling right into the barbecue pit. We ordered three ribs, one sausage, a half-pound of prime rib and a half-pound of fatty brisket -- and left behind mere table scraps. They don't bother with sauce or silverware at Smitty's, so it's not for the fussy foodie, but if you are a curious carnivore, it's a can't-miss.
We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott downtown, which proved to be an ideal home base for nightlife. Sixth Street is geared toward the thousands of college kids in Austin while the more mature drinkers find solace in the Warehouse District on Fourth Street. Meanwhile, South Austin awaits on the other side of the river. On our third night in town, we hoofed it across the bridge just as a sizeable bat colony emerged for an evening meal of mosquitoes over Lady Bird Lake. The kids around us were especially fascinated.
Feeling animated after a few beers from nearby bars, we caught a ride farther south to the Broken Spoke. With its low ceiling and crowded dance floor, this time capsule of old Austin was enlivened that particular night by Heybale!, a throwback country-western combo. By this time of the night, I wasn't shy about trying a Texas shuffle, since the floor is so full that nobody's really paying much attention to the other dancers. The collection of owner James White's country music memorabilia is worth a look, too.
On Sunday, we rallied for a road trip to the Salt Lick BBQ restaurant in Driftwood, Texas, about a 45-minute drive. It took an hour to get a table so we cracked our coolers of Tecate and Modelo (since it's in a dry country) and listened to the band on the patio. Inside, we ordered family style, leading to unlimited brisket, ribs, sausage, potato salad, cole slaw, pickles, onions and bread. The magnificent feeding frenzy -- this time with forks and plates -- lasted about a half-hour and we spent the evening recovering.
If you are a longtime fan of Texas music, a hearty meal at the downtown location of Threadgill's is essential. The walls are decorated with colorful posters and album sleeves in homage to the old Armadillo World Headquarters, the long-gone venue formerly next to this site that famously gave Willie Nelson a reason to let his hair down after a few false starts in Nashville. For my Monday lunch there, I have to confess that I ordered a vegetable plate, but the chicken fried steak was awfully tempting. If you've got time, check out the original location in North Austin where a disheveled college student named Janis Joplin often performed in the early 1960s.
Austin is the 15th largest city in America, founded in 1839 and named for Texas colonist Stephen Austin. Culturally, it's perhaps most identified with the long-running series, Austin City Limits. Tapings are announced on their blog, but tickets can be scarce. However, free tours of the soundstage are given weekly on the UT campus. The only television show to win a National Medal of the Arts, the enduring music series has introduced PBS viewers nationwide to a broad spectrum of music from Texas and beyond since 1974, when Willie Nelson filmed the pilot episode. Now, Nelson is one of the investors in a stylish new theater currently under construction downtown with an audience capacity of around 3,000, depending on the set-up -- and far more than the limitation of a few hundred people now. With no seat farther than 60 feet from the stage and a much more open ticketing policy, the new venue will immediately reinforce the notion of Austin as the Live Music Capital of the World.