Dale Watson’s Move to Memphis Should Be Major Wake Up Call to Austin Music

When Dale Watson announced that he was moving his annual Ameripolitan Awards from Austin to Memphis in 2018, it wasn’t the cause for too much alarm in the Austin community. Held for the first four years in Austin—and for the last three years at the historic Paramount Theater in downtown—surely it would be back soon, along with all of its economic stimulus from the scores of people who flocked to Austin each year to attend the event. After all, the name “Dale Watson” is synonymous with Austin music.

Though to the rest of the world, Dale Watson may not be as high profile as other artists due to his doggedly independent approach to his music career, in Austin, TX, Dale Watson was the face of the music scene, and not just in country and roots. Whenever there was a charity function involving music, a car dealership opening, or just about anything having to do with the city, Dale Watson seemed to be there. He was Austin’s music’s mascot, starring in local commercials, and beloved by the city. Whether you liked his music or not, you identified him with Austin, and were happy to do so. And when tourists came to town specifically to take in Austin’s rich musical history, catching Dale at the Continental Club or the Broken Spoke, or the Little Longhorn for Chicken $hit Bingo was a big priority for people to get the full breadth of the Austin musical experience.

As the Austin City Council and various arts commissions continue to argue over a path forward on how to save the city’s iconic music scene, the move of Dale Watson from his long-time home in Austin to Memphis, TN has gone completely unreported locally. Granted, Watson still holds a residency in Austin in the Georgian Acres area, and it includes the Ameripolitan Studios out back. You might even still see him at the Continental Club or other Austin haunts if he happens to be in town, which he is still quite regularly. But Austin has ceased to be his primary residence. And with the loss of Dale Watson—who has been such a vital part of the Austin music community for some 25 years—it should come with some serious soul searching from the City of Austin about what to do about its musical future.

“Yep, I’m about a mile away from Graceland,” Watson says about his new home in the Whitehaven community of Memphis, where he’s been renovating a house and now says he wants to put down permanent roots. “It’s great … When I come home, like anybody, I need to get energized. Austin, which has been my home for over 25 years, has grown so much, and a lot of the personality of the town has changed. There are condos built over the old beer joints where I used to play.” 

Watson’s comments underscore that it isn’t just logistical, or even monetary concerns that are driving Austin’s musicians out of the city, and why symbolic, Band-Aid fixes won’t solve the problem. Austin’s music scene issues are inexorably tied to the rabid gentrification and growth of the city that is causing all kinds of compounding problems for residents, including cost-of-living issues, lack of affordable housing and creative spaces, the eradication of minority communities as more money moves in, and there seems to be little to no true motivation by the city or many of its residents to curb these trends to a more sustainable growth pattern. Add on top of that all of the traffic issues and lack of parking and resources, why would anyone choose Austin if they were given a choice?

“I thought maybe if I had a place here, I could come more often,” Watson explains about his new Memphis digs. “So I looked around for houses in the area, and I thought, ‘I want to move.’ Everything about Memphis was electrifying to me. I’ve always loved the city and its history. But having a place was never sustainable for me. Now I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’m at a point in my career where I can live anywhere I want to live. And once I came down here and looked at the houses and the scene, I said, ‘I’m going to put down roots here.'”

Meanwhile Memphis is the music city that has everything Austin is quickly eradicating, which is a good stock of affordable housing and creative spaces, a civic will to preserve historic venues and entertainment corridors like Beale St., a deep-rooted musical history that goes beyond the 70’s, and most importantly, lots of young people fueling a burgeoning nationally-impacting music scene like Austin had when if first put itself on the musical map. Affordable housing, and a community that doesn’t just pay lip service, but actually delivers on promises to the music scene is one of the reasons many are looking towards Memphis as one of the next great creative epicenters. And now they have what some other communities don’t—a well-known name to build around with a penchant for organizing artists and fans into communities that can sustain the music beyond the traditional trappings of the mainstream industry.

All great musical movements started with local communities that were able to sustain them. Whether it was the psychedelic scene in San Francisco in the 60’s where groups of young musicians could rent massive Victorian houses in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for cheap, or the Seattle scene for grunge, or Athens, GA that saw rise to R.E.M. and the B-52’s in the 80’s, or Austin in the 70’s with the Armadillo World Headquarters, all these musical movements started in specific locations, and for a reason. But Austin’s penchant for overthinking and overplanning has probably sealed its fate to lose its once proud musical identity. Many musicians would prefer to move to East Nashville instead of East Austin, even if it’s not much more affordable, because at least East Nashville affords a brighter future, and better opportunities for advancement in their careers, in a city that seems to care about music as opposed to just saying they do.

So Dale Watson—Mr. Lone Star Beer, Mr. Austin Music—is now just as much focused on trying to make Memphis work as a home and musical epicenter as Austin—if not more—and it is a massive hole in Austin’s music community that will never be properly filled. Dale Watson has also confirmed that he wants to hold the Ameripolitan Awards in Memphis for at least the next coming couple of seasons.

And as big of a loss as Dale Watson is, it’s really just symbolic to the loss of hundreds of musicians whose names you may not recognize, and who no longer feel welcome or at home in the Live Music Capital of the World. Maybe even more troubling to think about is the next generation of amazing musicians who will not make an impact on music locally, regionally, and nationally, because they will never come to Austin since they just can’t afford it, and there are greener pastures elsewhere.

Once again it all should stir some serious soul searching in the Austin community. But instead, they’ll probably just continue to approve construction bids, chart the most lucrative path forward for real estate investors and developers, and point to things such as ACL Fest—which imports 90% of its talent from other places—as an example of how Austin music is just fine.