an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Anyone who’s met me has heard me say it; I was born 40 years too late. Film, music, literature, you name it; it seems whatever I am interested in hit its apex years before I even existed. So, it goes without saying that I missed ‘my’ Austin. The Austin of Storm, of the Cobras, of Soap Creek, the Rome Inn, Antone’s on 6th, and on Guadalupe; I can tell you more stories of shows and places I missed than most people in town at that time can remember going to!
At the time I discovered all this, I was also living 1000 miles away, going to school in Boulder, Colorado. At first it was harmless enough, just late night Internet searches, Googling first one player’s name, then another’s. And before I knew it, I found myself trapped in the web of who played with whom in which band at what venue, during which years. It was inexplicably enthralling! The stories, the places, the glimpse of this all but forgotten, real life fantasy world were infectious on their own, but when I somehow got my hands on the music, it was all over. I had to go there for myself.
Being at the age where a 16 hour drive was viewed as ‘fun,’ rather than ‘insane,’ I showed up one December night and immediately knew I was home. But, unlike the hordes of newcomers that show up every day, I wasn’t in search of what is happening, I was looking for what had happened. I wanted to find the footprints of the past, hunt down the artifacts of dead clubs and defunct bands. I wanted to know if the whispers of blues scene could still be heard on the wind, its presence still felt on the sidewalks, even if the Split Rail is now a Jack in the Box and a dry cleaner fills the space where Antone’s once was.
Like many people, my first show in Austin was Paul Ray and the Cobras. And, like many, I was an underage teenager. Unlike everyone else, however, that was 2008.
And so, that became my extracurricular life throughout college. I’d drive down for the weekend in a clown car sized Toyota, with no cruise control and no relief driver, two or three times a month, for three years, eschewing hotels for the cramped confines of the back seat to save money to do it all again in 2 weeks. I missed one class on a Monday, once, because of a traffic jam in Denver.
It was worth it. I tracked down and caught everyone still alive and performing in the area. Certainly, many had died or moved on, and some had slowed down or plateau’d, but for the most part I managed to find all the still smoldering embers in the bed of ashes. I never thought I would ever see most of the names I started out googling, let alone meet them, yet I found I made friends with many of them. I became a regular in clubs I (ahem, may or may not) have been too young to be in, while not living in the same time zone.
When the time came to make the final, thesis film for my degree (you know, that thing that took up my time in between Austin trips), there was really only one I wanted to attempt. It had to do with a name I had stumbled upon years previous in one of those aforementioned Goggle wormholes, probably back in the depths of results page 8 or 9 for who knows what search term: The One Knite.
While information on the fledgling white blues scene of the early 1970s was scarce in general, overlooked in writings both then and now in favor of the larger Cosmic Cowboy/Progressive Country happenings, looking for information on the One Knite was like looking for scientific evidence of Bigfoot; a fleeting reference here or there, an underbar reel to reel tape turned Flatlander release, a supporting role in a 10 year old Chronicle cover story.
And again, ineffably, it grabbed me. Certainly the physicality played a huge part. From the spelling of the name and the use of a coffin for a door, to everything including the kitchen sink nailed to the ceiling, it had the kind of mysterious, dangerous air about it; the folkloric creature the villagers were still too wary of to mention by name. Never romanticized or sugar coated, every recollection emphasized that it just this side of a health hazard; a quintessential dive bar, to be sure.
But more exciting than the appearance was the list of bands and musicians that had come through it. A veritable who’s who of the white blues scene in Austin, the scene that I’d been chasing 20 years after its heyday: Denny Freeman. Doyle Bramhall. Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan. Angela Strehli. Paul Ray. My idols, my musical heroes, they all played there, weekly! Bands like Storm, Paul Ray and the Cobras, Southern Feeling, (the aptly named) Hard Times, Angela and the Rockets, the Nightcrawlers, bands that were too small to play such famous places as the Armadillo or be featured in Rolling Stone, but nonetheless were elevated to mythic status in my mind. The One Knite’s weekday residency lineup was impeccable, as far as I could see. It seemed, for lack of a better term, perfect. Had I been alive then, I’d probably have lived there (as I would find out later, one of the owners actually did, in a room built off the women’s restroom); I could see no reason to ever go anywhere else!
As I hung out more and more around the folks who went to and played the One Knite, I would hear the most incredible stories, stories that not only fit, but reinforced my mental image of this ragged, chaotic, grungy, forsaken utopia. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but again, no one tried to exaggerate the nice qualities or make it something it wasn’t; they were just telling the stories, it was I who was enamored with the place.
And still, I was always searching, always in vain, to find mention of the One Knite in print form. Soon it began to dawn on me that, for all intents and purposes, the One Knite now existed solely as a piece of oral history, and, as any piece of culture that exists only in the spoken word, it was in very real danger of disappearing; once the people who went to the One Knite disappear, the One Knite disappears, permanently. Here was a club that incubated quite possibly the biggest and most successful white blues scene in America, a scene that reintroduced the blues to untold numbers of music fans in the 80s, a scene that gave the world bands like The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble. In the pre-Antone’s Austin, the One Knite gave the blues players a place they could hone their skills and gain a following. And yet today, even here in Austin, almost no one has ever heard of it.
So I decided this final film project would be a perfect way to coalesce and organize all these tales of the One Knite into a single source of information on the club; something that would be available long after the last One Knite patron had gone. I set out to work to make a documentary that would cement the One Knite’s place in the history of the town, and ensure that it was not swallowed by history.
If nothing else, it was a great excuse to bug my friends and heroes for more One Knite stories! (Indeed, it gave me the chance to meet and talk with Margaret Moser, an Austin legend of whom I’d previously been far too intimidated by to approach.)
My weekend ventures to Austin now took on a new purpose, as I arranged to interview people from all facets of the club; patrons Emma Little, Margaret Moser and Danny Garrett, musicians Denny Freeman, Paul Ray, Rodney Craig and Jimmie Vaughan, and co-owner Roger Collins, now residing in San Angelo. There were many others I wanted to talk to and couldn’t; some because of time constraints, while others passed away before I could reach them. I was a film crew of one, since no one else wanted to give up weekends of binge drinking and sleeping, but I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. Clearly, this was a labor of love for me.
Unfortunately, 3 weeks before the film was due, three weeks before the end of the semester, and the end of my sentence in Boulder, the professor changed the assignment, proclaiming that she would “not accept any film longer than 10 minutes.” My rough cut at this time came in around 40 minutes.
As one can probably tell by now, the story of the One Knite simply cannot be told in 10 minutes. It would be like attempting to tell the story of Woodstock in 10 minutes. All that can be conveyed is that people played music in a field for three days. The context, the reason that it was so unique, so groundbreaking, the reason that it was important, is totally lost if you have to attempt to tell the story in 10 minutes. That is as true for the One Knite as it is for Woodstock.
But while most Americans have a degree of familiarity with Woodstock, the gravity and the statement of what it was like to be a man with long hair in Texas at that time, especially to young people my age, is essentially lost today. The notion that Austin was not always considered a music mecca is just as foreign a concept. The things that made the One Knite what it was, that set it apart from simply being another old dive bar in just some town somewhere, cannot be explored in 10 minutes.
To be completely honest, I was absolutely crushed by this new ruling. Having no other options, I pulled together something to fulfill the new requirements of the assignment, simply to get a grade and get out. But I cared so much about the subject, the people, the music, the place, I had invested so much time, energy, money and spirit into the project, that I absolutely could not just throw up my hands and say, ‘oh well, so what.’ I had to make something I could be happy with, something I would be proud to show the participants, something that would do justice to the importance of the club.
So, when I got in my car and headed to Austin permanently, I took my 40 minute cut with me, intending to make it that. For the past two years, when I had time enough to devote to it, I continued to edit and fine tune the film, for my own sake and piece of mind more than anything else. Early this spring, it finally became something I could finally set aside and wash my hands of; it was finally finished.
The premiere is scheduled for May 13th, at Stubbs, which occupies the same building that housed the One Knite. That will be in the past when you read this, but as I write this, it is still in the future, so I don’t know what the audience reaction will be.
On one hand, this project could be seen as negatively supporting the whole notion of the town being better ‘back then’ (though the film does posit the idea that the One Knite could not exist in today’s Austin, it, nor those featured, do not claim that Austin was ever ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than it is today). It is, after all, yet another works to come out celebrating a piece of the town that no longer exists, yet another example of Austin looking backwards and worshiping its past. ‘Why not shed light on a part of Austin that is current, that is happening now?’ a critic may ask.
And while they may have a point, there is one difference; I wasn’t there. This is not a self-celebratory, look-what-we-did sort of venture. As far as that is concerned, I will forever be an outsider looking in. Try as I might, I cannot recreate it and I cannot experience it for myself. (Of course, that also means I cannot have any negative experiences; no bikers will ever hit on my sister. I won’t be punched in the face nor have anyone vomit on my shirt at the One Knite.) However, that it still resonates with me, that I can still relate to the music, thoughts and actions of that time means that it is still relevant today. If this slice of history excites me, it can excite and inspire others as well.
What this film proves to me, both in the saga of its making, and the story of the club itself, is that Austin is a place that allows artists a space to create with little more than true passion and drive. Blues was certainly not the happening music in the 70s; here and nationally, it was already in the past, but the passion of the players and their disregard for that fact created a space where they could at least exist and play. They made their own way and they made their own rules, and, while success is a tricky thing to try to define, many, if not most, were able to make a living doing what they loved. Austin allowed them to play the kind of music they wanted to play, not what was necessarily happening at the moment.
Yes, Austin might constantly look to the past, but keeping the past alive feeds the present. Drawing inspiration from what happened before you got to town ensures that the creative flow is rejuvenated generation after generation. Though it may sound cheesy, Austin is one of the few, if only, creative centers where, if you have the heart, you can do it. It may not get you anywhere (if it’s fame you’re after, you’d probably better look elsewhere), but if you have something you have to do, Austin will allow you to get it done.
Stu Gilbert is a writer and filmmaker based in Austin.